- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2004

DAMASCUS, Syria — When Imad Shiha went to prison 29 years ago, Syria was a dour Soviet client state, deeply suspicious of Western influence. Salt, bread and toilet paper were hard to find. Restaurants had to have Arabic names, party cadres called each other “comrade,” and schoolchildren wore military khaki.

Upon his release in early August, at age 51, Mr. Shiha found stores bursting with consumer goods, restaurants with French names like Opaline and La Noisette, elementary school students in bright pink and blue shirts, and “comrade” officially banished from official parlance.

He also discovered satellite TV, cell phones and something called the Internet.

Imprisoned for his part in the bombing of an American company’s office in which a vegetable vendor was killed, Mr. Shiha is still trying to absorb the changes, and he says the question he keeps asking himself is: “How deep and serious are they? And what kind of effect have they had on the population?”

His wariness is shared by many Syrians. Four years after President Bashar Assad came to power promising sweeping reforms, the signals the regime is giving on civil liberties are mixed. Government officials talk about the need for change, but protest gatherings end with arrests, while rights activists are summoned to hear warnings about pushing too hard for reform and threats to harm them professionally.

The consequences of dissident behavior are far less dire than they were under Mr. Assad’s father, the late Hafez Assad, but Syria is hardly about to plunge headfirst into democracy. The younger Mr. Assad, Syria watchers say, is seeking the economic fruits of globalization without relaxing his grip on power lest he lose it completely.

The future of this North Dakota-sized country of 18 million people matters greatly to the Middle East. Wedged between Iraq and Israel, its position on the global war on terrorism and in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be critical.

But even as it takes small steps toward liberalizing its ways, Syria’s relationship with Washington remains rocky.

Syria is one of seven countries branded supporters of terror by the U.S. State Department. In December, President Bush signed off on new sanctions over Syria’s support for Palestinian militant factions and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, its suspected pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its military presence in neighboring Lebanon.

Its place in the Arab-Israeli conflict was highlighted late last month when a car bomb in Damascus killed a leader of Hamas, the militant anti-Israeli group. Israel stopped short of claiming responsibility, but Israeli security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged Israel had a hand in the attack. Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim described Syria as a “central intersection” of terrorism and Mr. Assad as its “traffic officer.”

Meanwhile, Syria’s grip on Lebanon was underscored last month when the Lebanese Parliament, under Syrian pressure, amended the constitution to add three years to the expiring term of Damascus’ chief ally, President Emile Lahoud.

The president, addressing a conference of expatriate Syrians Saturday, suggested that pulling Syria’s troops out of Lebanon would lead to chaos.

Mr. Assad flatly rejected accusations his country seeks to dominate its smaller neighbor. He described a U.N. resolution calling for Syrian troops to withdraw as “blatant interference” in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

On Sept. 2, the U.N. Security Council narrowly adopted a U.S.-French resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the election of a new Lebanese president in accordance with the constitution.

The Lebanese Parliament voted to extend Mr. Lahoud’s tenure the very next day.

Critics say Mr. Assad’s action, opposed by some of Syria’s closest Lebanese political allies, is a sign that true political reform is not in the cards in Damascus.

Syria “is an authoritarian regime that exhibits only the forms of democratic system,” according to a recent State Department report. “The president and his senior aides, particularly those in the military and security services, ultimately make the most basic decisions in political and economic life, with a very limited degree of public accountability.”

Government officials rejected such views. “Human rights, in our view, are provided for,” said Fayez Sayegh, editor-in-chief of the state-run Al-Thawra daily.

Mr. Sayegh said the long-ruling Ba’ath Party brought stability to the country after years of unrest and coups after independence in 1946.

He said, “Syria is very keen to have a rational dialogue” with the United States, but that Washington is trying to foist “Israel’s dreams and ambitions” on Syrians.

Anwar al-Buni, a lawyer and member of the Human Rights Association in Syria, said the Syrian government’s approach “is a modification of the way society is controlled and not an attempt to free it.”

“They’re just drawing windows on walls and saying they are real windows,” he said.

Mr. al-Buni, an energetic man with black hair and a mustache, smiled when asked what it’s like to be a human rights activist in Syria these days.

“I’ve gotten used to coming and going to security branches. It’s part of life,” he said.

When summoned, the 46-year-old father of three reports to a security office, where he is interrogated and lectured. He goes home at night and returns for more interrogation if so ordered — a change from the disappearances and brutality with which dissidents were dealt years ago.

Now intimidation takes other forms. Mr. al-Buni was censured six times by Syria’s bar association, which he said takes its cues from Ba’ath Party officials. The association is trying to have him barred from practice.

That threat, and the occasional detention of activists, are a reminder that the prisons are still open and hold several hundred political prisoners.

Activists like Mr. al-Buni want a free press, an impartial judiciary and independent political parties — changes which, he said, “can be made in one day.”

“But they know that if they open one tiny window for real reform, a current will come through it which they will be unable to control. They know that real reform means an end to their regime,” he added.

Still, Mr. Assad himself makes a sharp change from his father.

The senior Mr. Assad was a lifelong military man, famous for solving problems and crushing dissent with brute force. His 39-year-old son is a British-educated eye doctor who surfs the Internet and impresses Syrians with such humble gestures as occasionally doing his own driving and shopping alone. The more relaxed atmosphere has emboldened even officials to speak their mind.

Ahmed Haj Ali, a former adviser to the information minister, said the Syrian press “lacks glitter and vibrancy … and is almost mechanical in its reporting of official stands, which results in repetition in the newspapers, TV and radio.”

Haj Ali, a senior Ba’ath member, said the government is burdened with senior officials whose only qualification is their party membership. The Ba’ath Party should be reformed into “an effective party without a monopoly on power,” he argued.

Burhan Bukhari, writing in Al-Thawra, said Syrians must acknowledge that they have “no effective parties, unions or institutions and … no real opposition … that could track government performance.” He urged the press to provide space “for opinions that might disagree with the government’s.”

Equally telling, perhaps, is the simple fact that Mr. Shiha, until recently Syria’s longest-serving political prisoner, is free to receive a foreign reporter and talk about the need for change, or that Yassin Haj Saleh, jailed for 16 years for belonging to a communist party, now writes a column for a Lebanese newspaper that is critical of Syrian policy.

Simple demographics are also at work. Sixty percent of the population is under 20, too young to remember a time when there was a Soviet Union, and when Syria, though never a communist state, embraced socialist ideals and depended on Soviet tanks and warplanes to confront Israel.

On the streets of Damascus, more international newspapers are sold and ads for the country’s two competing cell phone companies are everywhere. That’s quite a change from a few years ago, when cell phones were confiscated at the border.

Some of the new freedoms come with strings attached: Syria makes satellite dishes and many homes have them, but they have not been legalized. Internet access is available, but the government blocks sites it doesn’t like.

One problem is that the opposition — largely inactive in the decades — cannot cope with real change and will need time to organize itself, said Mr. Haj Saleh, the columnist.

“If we get an atmosphere of total freedom today, we’re not ready for it,” he said.

Mr. Shiha does not yet have a solid opinion about where Syria is going or what kind of role he wants to play in public life. He still has to absorb the transformation of Damascus into a metropolis of 5 million people — five times more populous than when he entered prison.

Mr. al-Buni, the human rights activists, had no doubts. Despite the risks, he wants to soldier on.

“I want to do something for my children,” he said. “I’d rather they said [their] dad tried but failed, instead of saying he did not even bother to try.”

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