In his inaugural speech in July of 2000, President Bashar al-Assad, then 34 years old, announced social and economic reforms. Indeed, in his first 18 months in office, he granted amnesty to some 800 political prisoners and initiated civic forums, known as cultural salons, where social and political activists could meet and formulate their ideas.
Robert Rabil, a fellow at the World Lebanese Cultural Union in Washington, says the Syrians have quickly responded to President Assad's invitation to speak up. By September of 2000, 99 Syrian intellectuals signed a letter to the president calling for the end of the state of emergency in Syria, the release of political prisoners and a guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Mr. Rabil notes that soon after, 1000 Syrians from all walks of life signed a more detailed and more demanding statement:
"First they wanted democratic elections at all levels in Syria, second to reconsider the principle of the party rule and the principle that alienates the government from the people. That was a direct reference to the Baath Party. The boldness of that statement and the swiftness with which the civic forums spread in Syria took the regime off guard and the regime struck back."
The civic forums could no longer take place without the government license, some of the most outspoken dissidents were imprisoned and the reform movement came to a standstill.
Some analysts say President Assad, as expected, followed in the footsteps of his authoritarian late-father Hafez al-Assad, with no intention of effecting changes that would diminish his power.
Marius Deeb, professor of Middle East Politics and History at Johns Hopkins University says Syria's reforms are merely maneuvers to keep the ruling coalition in power:
"The Baath Party is his form of legitimacy. It's the way he legitimizes his power over the majority of the country -- by playing the pan-Arab ideology of the Baath Party. So I don't see any separation - the regime separating itself from the Baath - because it's like a communist regime saying: I am not communist any more."
Professor Deeb also notes the new cabinet is selected from among the Baath Party members. In his opinion, the new reality in the Middle East, especially the United States presence across the border in Iraq and the demise of Iraq's Baath Party, has forced President Assad to act in the hope of gaining more support from his people. But, professor Deeb says, Syria has no chance of becoming a democracy under the current government:
"On the whole, it cannot move forward economically and politically and it cannot move forward in terms of foreign policy because of the nature of the regime. A small minority of Alawis, 11%, control the army and intelligence services and he (President Assad) cannot possibly open the system up because then, they (the ruling party) will lose power."
But some analysts believe the president, who was trained in the West to become an eye-doctor, may be cut from a different cloth than his father. They note Bashar al-Assad was not his father's first choice to inherit power and was hastily groomed to become Hafez al-Assad's heir apparent only after the accidental death of his older brother Rifaat.
Jean Abi Nadir, the managing director of the Arab-American Institute in Washington, says the Syrian president is genuinely interested in reform: "I think that his primary interest actually is the economic development of Syria, trying to open it up to, as we know already, to the Internet, to private banking, to other areas that will allow young people in Syria and others to have more opportunities to build growth for the country and create jobs."
Syria's unemployment hovers around 20 %, its per capita gross national product is among the lowest in the world and the economic growth is slow. The Arab-American Institute's Jean Abi Nadir says President Assad wants to change that, but he lacks a clear vision for a new Syria. So he wavers between the status quo and reforms; and some of his actions appear to be in reaction to developments, rather than part of a coherent policy.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia says Mr. Assad is too weak to either continue his father's policy or to lead his country on a new path: "Maintaining Hafez al-Assad's perverse masterpiece of a Syria, where a leader dominates every aspect of his country's life, occupies neighboring Lebanon, and plays a game of brinkmanship with Israel, is probably beyond Bashar's cunning or ruthlessness. Likewise, making a real break with the old system by opening Syria to normal economic and political life, withdrawing from Lebanon and ending the conflict with Israel also demands more skill and initiative than he has shown so far."
During the three decades of his rule, Hafez al-Assad led an anti-Zionist, pan-Arab nationalist policy. Mr. Pipes says in his struggle to gain strategic parity with Israel, he sent his troops to Lebanon and made alliances with rogue states and terrorist organizations. Syria has given shelter to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, whose camps have served as training grounds for groups on the U.S. State Department's terrorist list such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and, as some suspect, Al-Qaida as well.
"In fact, we know that the Baath Party has struck a strategic alliance with extreme Islamists in recent months and is training some violent elements from their ranks to fight the U.S. forces in Iraq,” says Farid Ghadry, co-founder of the Reform Party of Syria, a U.S. based opposition party of Syrians in diaspora. "Of 248 terrorists captured in Iraq, 123 are Syrians. This is not an accident. Syria's Baath Party intends using these extreme elements as buffer-arm political organizations that will protect Syria's Baath Party and create a political leverage as they did with Hezbollah in Lebanon."
Some American officials have also accused Syria of developing weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. government has warned Syria repeatedly to stop supporting and harboring terrorists. Mr. Ghadry does not expect Syria to comply. He (Mr. Ghadry) warns the world should be prepared for at least two more decades of guerilla-style war in the Middle East, if the current government stays in power in Syria.
But some analysts give more credit to the president, who is not yet 40 years old.
The Arab-American Institute's Jean Abi Nadir says Bashar al-Assad has inherited some deeply entrenched problems and has to move cautiously to avoid upsetting the old guard: "It's true that he is a president-in-training, but I think that we have to recognize that there are a lot of competing power centers in Syria of which the president and his young friends and associates are only one power center. I think that the Sunnis, the Christians the Alawites, the Druze in Syria would all benefit from a more open relationship with Lebanon and a more open environment in Syria, but it has to be done in such a way that people don't feel they are losing their opportunities, but in fact more opportunities are created and open to other people."
Mr. Nadir says similarly, there is a struggle in Syria between those who support terrorism and those who see it as an obstacle to Syria's development.
Israel's bombing of targets near Damascus may strengthen the old guard's position. But some analysts also see it as a warning to Syria to implement some real political and economic reforms.