Syria Faces Pressures to Democratize

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Syria is under intense international pressure. It was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April; Washington accuses it of supporting insurgents in Iraq. In the second story of a series on the prospects for democratic change in the Middle East, a look at whether the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad can survive.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For all the talk of a democratic spring in the Middle East, Syria may be facing an earthquake rather than a seasonal change. Whether the regime of President Bashar al-Assad can survive is the question that's being raised in Washington and elsewhere. Under local and international pressure, Syria was forced to withdraw 14,000 troops from neighboring Lebanon in April.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Bush administration is maintaining the pressure, accusing the Syrian government of supporting the insurgents in Iraq. President Bush renewed economic sanctions against Damascus last month and declared Syria a threat to the United States. From Syria, NPR's Deborah Amos has the second part in our series on the prospects for democratic change in the Middle East.

(Soundbite of the hum of voices)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In a coffee house where men spend evenings playing backgammon, a large picture of Syria's 39-year-old president hangs over the cash register. When he first assumed power five years ago after his father Hafez al-Assad died, Bashar al-Assad said he didn't want photographs in every home and shop. He didn't want to continue the cult of personality, but Syrians did it anyway, some out of habit, more out of hope that the young London-trained ophthalmologist could change Syria, open the door for democracy and reform the stagnant economy. So far, he's not delivered much. But Jihandush Nau(ph), a carpenter intent on his game here, has no complaints he's willing to share with a visitor.

Mr. JIHANDUSH NAU (Syrian Carpenter): (Through Translator) What matters is that we are living in stability and security, and Assad is doing his best for reforms.

AMOS: By most accounts, Bashar al-Assad is popular. Many in the country have known no other rulers except his much feared father and now this Western-educated son. But there is also growing frustration. Surrounded by a changing Middle East, Syria must change, too, says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian journalist.

Mr. SAMI MOUBAYED (Syrian Journalist): Many people have lost faith, yes. But the majority still have faith in reforms simply because they are so far below there is nowhere to go but up.

AMOS: Expectations are building for a crucial political congress in June. Syria's ruling Baath Party is meeting for the first time in five years. Syrian officials have promised to unveil sweeping reforms in June. But what exactly? There have been hints--an opening for independent opposition parties, a release of political prisoners, curbs on corruption. Syria is still a country where wealth comes from connections to the ruling family. Journalist Sami Moubayed says the Baath Party Congress in June is a defining moment.

Mr. MOUBAYED: And everybody's betting on June, so June is not the last way out. It's the major way out. They should invest in it. The time to change things is June.

AMOS: But many in political opposition groups are not convinced President Assad can deliver. Ammar Abdulhamid is a human rights activist.

Mr. AMMAR ABDULHAMID (Syrian Human Rights Activist): I think we're dealing with a person who simply doesn't have what it takes to carry out serious, far-reaching reforms. It's not that he doesn't have the legitimacy or the popular backing. He does have that. He lacks the vision, he lacks the will, he lacks the gumption and he lacks the skills.

AMOS: But for Youssef Abdelki, change is already here. For the first time, the government has allowed some political exiles to come home. This is a family reunion. Abdelki has been out of the country for 25 years. The policy was not announced publicly but was confirmed by Syria's human rights activists who say more than a dozen political exiles have returned. As a young man, Abdelki joined the banned Communist Labor Party. He spent two years in jail before fleeing the country. Other party members, jailed for much longer, came to his homecoming.

Mr. YOUSSEF ABDELKI (Former Syrian Political Exile): (Through Translator) I'm really happy and so optimistic now after I saw my friends who spent more than 10 to 18 years in prison and they appear to me in their spirit very strong still.

AMOS: Abdelki's brother-in-law, George Adiba(ph), celebrated the return and was surprised by the government's change of policy.

Mr. GEORGE ADIBA (Abdelki's Brother-in-Law): A little bit astonished because it's a long time we are waiting for this moment.

AMOS: Syrians have been pleased by other recent changes; the most popular move, a large reduction in the price of imported cars. Last month, the government slashed import taxes from more than 200 to 60 percent on small- to medium-sized ones. There have been even bigger surprises. This month, an Arab satellite channel aired a three-part series on Syria with opposition members challenging government ministers in feisty debates.

However, Syria remains an authoritarian regime with power and wealth controlled by a small circle. President Assad is under pressure to do much more, says Nadim Shehadi, head of the Middle East Programme at Chatham House, a London-based research center.

Mr. NADIM SHEHADI (Chatham House): Well, it's not so much whether he can deliver. It's if this is going to be acceptable to the United States to which all this is basically directed.

AMOS: The Bush administration has a long list of complaints. The US State Department labels Syria a regime that supports terrorism. President Assad publicly backed Saddam Hussein as the US Army prepared to invade neighboring Iraq. US officials say Syria supports the insurgency there and harbors some of Iraq's militant leaders, allowing them to cross the border into Iraq. The Bush administration warned Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon even after Syrian troops withdrew. Washington has shown no sign of easing the pressure, says Nadim Shehadi.

Mr. SHEHADI: The policy has been described as all sticks and no carrots, but I would say that the policy is also that of completely isolating Syria and refusing any compromise or dialogue with it, and this may ultimately lead to regime collapse.

AMOS: Ammar Abdulhamid agrees. One of the most outspoken in the political opposition, he says publicly what others say behind closed doors.

Mr. ABDULHAMID: I think collapse will happen within months, to be honest with you. I don't think it's a question of years. When June comes and the reforms imposed by the president prove to be insignificant, the schisms will grow even more and more and I don't think we're going to have years after that. It's going to be just a matter of months.

AMOS: But what would the fall of the Assad government bring? It may not be that much-talked-about democratic spring, says Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

Professor AUGUSTUS RICHARD NORTON (Boston University): It's not at all clear that if the regime of Bashar al-Assad were to suddenly disappear that we would see a peaceful democratic system emerging. To the contrary, I think we'd likely see a fractious system, perhaps in many ways a less attractive system than the one we see there today.

AMOS: And that concern is echoed on the streets and in the shops of Damascus. Rapid change could mean a country in chaos, says businessman Mofak Sonha(ph).

Mr. MOFAK SONHA (Syrian Businessman): We are hoping, yes, that reforms are coming. It shouldn't be abrupt. Otherwise, there'll be some collapse and we don't want that.

AMOS: Syrians know all too well what happens when a government collapses. Iraq is on their eastern border.

(Soundbite of coffee house noises)

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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