- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

Changes are slowly under way in Syria. A group of about 700 Syrian intellectuals — writers and lawyers — is calling on President Bashar Assad’s government for political reform. This is rare in a country where dissidents tend to remain unheard and out of the spotlight.

But a report issued Wednesday urges the government to lift the state of emergency, which its signatories say is leading to “paralysis within Syrian society.”

The report — the first of its kind in Syria — will be presented to the government next month, on the anniversary of the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s rise to power.

The Syrian Organization of Human Rights also urges the government to exert more control over prisons and treatment of prisoners, which the report says are at times subjected to torture, beatings and other human-rights abuses. The report cites former prisoners by name and describes some of the maltreatment to which they were subjected.

This unexpected development comes on the heels of recent peace overtures by the Syrian president toward Israel.

Indeed, change may be slowly creeping into Syria since Bashar Assad took over leadership after the death of his father, Hafez, in June 2000. Last month, Mr. Assad ordered release of more than 100 political prisoners and freed more than 700 others.

While these steps might not appear to be much to those unfamiliar with how progress inches along in the Middle East, it is, nevertheless, seen as an important improvement by analysts more familiar with developments in the area.

They cite the example of Kuwait:

“After the Iraqi army was driven from Kuwait in 1991, Kuwait’s monarch promised women rights. Consequently, in May 1999 — the time gap tells something about the pace of change in the region — he issued a decree giving women the right to vote and run for office in the next Kuwaiti elections,” says Barry Rubin, director of Global Research in International Affairs and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.

After four major wars in five decades, Syria, it appears, now is trying to move forward through peaceful means in its stagnating quarrel with Israel.

“We are not going to war anymore,” said Imad Mustapha, Syria’s top envoy to Washington at a recent meeting at the Middle East Institute. “We want to regain the Golan through negotiations,” he said, referring to the Israeli-occupied heights.

The reasons behind the sudden change of policies — both foreign and domestic — could be partially explained by a number of developments in the area, not least the presence of several tens of thousands of U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq. That is made all the more real by repeated warnings of regime changes hurled at Syria by neoconservatives in the Bush administration. They would like the Baghdad scenario repeated in Damascus, at least as far as removing the Ba’ath Party from power. They call it “de-Ba’athification.”

Congressional passage of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act late last year authorizes increased Washington political and economic pressures on Damascus.

Another reason could simply be Mr. Assad realizes he has no other option but to create change before it is imposed. “Syria has come to realize it is time to open up to the world,” Bouthaina Shaaban, a minister in Mr. Assad’s Cabinet, admitted to United Press International last December.

In some ways, Mr. Assad finds himself in a situation reminiscent of that Mikhail Gorbachev at the time Mr. Gorbachev introduced Perestroika and Glasnost in the Soviet Union. The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union forced the Soviets to spend money they simply did not have just to keep pace with NATO and Western military technologies and spending. The result, as we know, bankrupted the Soviet Union, forced the collapse of communism and led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, Syria today finds its economy cannot keep pace and that change is badly needed. The demise of the Soviet Union, once Syria’s chief supporter and its main arms supplier, has slowed Syria’s ability to acquire modern military equipment. “Nevertheless, its military remains one of the largest and most capable in the region,” says the U.S. State Department.

But maintaining Syria’s current military status is heavily burdening the predominantly statist economy, which has been growing, on average, more slowly than its 2.4 percent annual population growth, causing a persistent decline in per capita GDP. Recent legislation legalized private banking, and in 2003 the government licensed three private banks to operate in Syria, although U.S. officials believe a private banking sector will take years and further government cooperation to develop.

At Washington’s behest, both Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel, leaving Syria the sole Arab country still in a state of war with Israel, a difficult and taxing reality.

Washington should now encourage Damascus to move forward on the road to openness and democratic change, even if these changes occur at their own pace.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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