- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

NICOSIA, Cyprus Diplomatic reports from Damascus are portraying Syrian President Bashar Assad as a man trying to create an unprecedented atmosphere of economic and possibly political freedom.

A Western ambassador quoted the young Syrian president telling him during a recent audience, "We need change, and we need it today more than at any other time."

Speculation about the extent of planned changes have intensified since last week's promised release of 600 Syrian and Lebanese political prisoners.

Human rights organizations estimate the number of "prisoners of conscience" in Syrian jails at 1,500.

Mr. Assad also has ordered that one political prison be turned into a hospital, drawing praise yesterday from a former inmate as a sign of a new political relaxation, the Associated Press reported from Damascus.

"The country is heading toward political flexibility," Munzir Mousli, who was imprisoned at Mezze prison from 1970 until 1975, told the AP. Mr. Mousli is now a member of parliament.

Some area specialists believe that Mr. Assad, in power for nearly six months since the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in June, has been under increasing pressure from intellectual and business circles to relax the oppressive system embedded since 1970.

"The economy dominated by the state sector is a mess, hampered by a vast under-motivated and underpaid bureaucracy," said one diplomatic report.

Another report speculated that by creating a more liberal atmosphere and easing state control over banks, Mr. Assad hopes to lure back to Syria an estimated $50 billion in funds held by wealthy Syrians abroad.

At the same time, Syrians familiar with their 35-year-old leader claim he is unlikely to rush with reforms, being more inclined toward gradual step-by-step moves.

"He feels that sudden changes could be too risky and destabilizing," said one Syrian.

Diplomats and area specialists agree that no major changes in Syria's foreign policy are in the offing. The prevailing view is that young Mr. Assad will continue his father's categorical opposition to any form of reconciliation with Israel as long as the Jewish state controls Syria's Golan Heights.

The continuing clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip apparently have intensified the Syrian president's "policy of continuation" as far as Israel is concerned.

In addition, there are no indications of plans to reduce the Syrian military force in Lebanon, estimated at some 40,000 troops. However, the Syrian government did not interfere in Lebanon's parliamentary elections in September, during which voters disavowed the Syrian-appointed government.

Diplomats generally give Mr. Assad high marks for his handling of the transition from his father's "rule of fear." The favorite watchwords of the ophthalmologist turned politician are "modernization and technology."

Mr. Assad consolidated his succession carefully, installing his friends and men he could count on in some sensitive posts. His brother, Maher, was promoted to colonel in the elite Republican Guards and Manaf Tlas, son of the defense minister, was put in charge of a Guards division.

Bajhat Suleiman, another of Mr. Assad's friends, became head of the General Intelligence Directorate.

While pursuing a campaign against corruption and encouraging some criticism in the press, Mr. Assad also has improved Syria's relations with neighboring Jordan, a nation systematically boycotted by his father. In this, he has found an eager partner in King Abdullah of Jordan, who last year succeeded his father, the late King Hussein.

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