- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

NICOSIA, Cyprus Syrian President Bashar Assad yesterday announced his first major government reshuffle, a much-anticipated move that comes against a backdrop of economic stagnation and increasing internal criticism.

Mr. Assad assigned the task of forming a Cabinet to outgoing Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro, who was initially appointed by Mr. Assad's father, Hafez Assad, the longtime Syrian strongman who died in June 2000.

The planned reshuffle coincides with a government publicity campaign that defends the slow pace of internal reforms and explains its criticism of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

The 36-year-old Mr. Assad has been attempting to project a new image of the country, under martial law since the military coup of 1963, and to improve Syria's international reputation of having a weak economy dominated by the state sector and a 20 percent unemployment rate.

But with the task of forming a Cabinet in the hands of Mr. Miro a figure closely associated with the repressive regime of Mr. Assad's father some skeptics do not expect the government changes will have immediate effect or go far enough in the long term.

Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa and Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass were expected to keep their posts, which they have held for 15 and 30 years, respectively.

The main stumbling block to comprehensive reform, Western diplomats say, has come from Mr. Assad's immediate entourage, consisting of hard-liners from the long-ruling Ba'ath Party who also served the president's late father. Some of them are said to have acquired lucrative business interests that would be endangered by a more open economy.

In interviews with the foreign media and in messages to several capitals, the Syrian government has disputed such reports, claiming the reforms promised by the younger Mr. Assad are on track.

On a tour of several European countries, Syrian Information Minister Adnan Umran said "achievements in all fields" will be reflected in "the restructuring of government departments and new guidelines for modernization and development."

Many observers will be looking for movement on two of Mr. Assad major proposals new laws allowing private banks and a stock market before they are convinced that he is serious about economic reform.

The government already has begun to ease such laws and recently authorized private banks to organize, provided they have capital assets of $30 million and are owned by at least 51 percent Syrian investors.

The measure was seen, in part, as an effort to induce European banks to return Syrian funds estimated at between $80 billion and $100 billion.

Early in his administration, Mr. Assad did deliver on promised political reform, ordering the release of about 600 political prisoners and allowing political debating forums to flourish.

But facing pressure from Syria's political old guard, Mr. Assad banned the forums in March, and two members of parliament who took part in them have been charged with seeking to undermine the constitution.

The good will that followed early political reform has evaporated since authorities have begun to make more arrests of political dissidents and human-rights activists. Those arrested, according to an official statement, "confuse legitimate activity and activity that violates the constitution and the law."

Still, the government has considerably relaxed its control of the press and granted publishing licenses to 16 private weeklies.

Political dissidents who were once heartened by the government's reform-minded attitude view such moves with skepticism.

A truer reflection of the government's attitude might have been found in the official daily newspaper Tishreen: "To those who want to participate in the development and modernization process, the door is open. But those who want to block the process will be prevented."

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