Assad's launch of 'radical reform agenda' falls far short of demands, say Syrian protesters

Military crackdown on escalating anti-government demonstrators continues, as officials say President Bashar al Assad is leading a 'comprehensive' programme of political liberalisation.
Bashar al Assad's National Dialogue Committee met in Damascus last week but protesers question the worth of the president's concessions.
Bashar al Assad's National Dialogue Committee met in Damascus last week but protesers question the worth of the president's concessions.

DAMASCUS //Syrian authorities claimed this week to have launched a radical reform agenda in response to mounting domestic and international pressure to meet protesters' cries for change.

Although a military crackdown on anti-government demonstrators continues, officials here said president Bashar al Assad is leading a "comprehensive" programme of political liberalisation, which will satisfy popular demands and end the violent crisis.

Since the start of the uprising, more than two months ago, a flurry of announcements, decrees and assurances have been given by the government to convince critics that change is under way. In its most recent move, on Sunday the government ordered a committee be established to draw up proposals for new laws governing political parties. Prime minister Adel Safar gave it a month to complete its work.

But anti-government activists and independent analysts in Syria have said that the measures have fallen far short of their demands. They have claimed that any remaining goodwill between the pro-reform camp and the government is being undermined by the use of violence against protesters.

Nonetheless, a National Dialogue Committee has been set up to lay out a framework for talks between officials and anti-government groups. Committees meant to discuss issues such as a new media law, corruption and economic reforms are also in place.

There has been a raft of decrees, covering everything from ending 48 years of martial law to reducing the price of fuel by 10 cents (Dh0.37) per litre. The proposed fuel-price cut has topped a series of economic measures designed to lift the basic living standards of Syria's working class. State employees have been given pay rises and civil servants on temporary contracts have been told that they will be given permanent jobs.

In addition, subsidies on wheat have been raised and the government has promised that investments in drought-hit eastern Syria will be increased.

University students were told that 10,000 jobs would be reserved for each year's graduating class.

Three major political gestures have been also been made: ending the state of emergency, giving Kurds the right to citizenship, and issuing an amnesty for prisoners of conscience, including jailed members of the banned Muslim brotherhood.

Any one of these steps would have been seen as a remarkable breakthrough had it been made before the protests started, according to Syrian analysts and dissidents.

China and Russia, two strong allies for Damascus, appear to believe Syria is on the right track. Beijing and Moscow have said that Mr Assad deserves time to enact reforms. Both countries have also indicted they would block any international condemnation of Damascus at the United Nations' security council.

Yet with demonstrators in the streets and more than 1,000 dissidents killed, according to civil rights groups, the government's strategy has failed to stop the uprising from escalating.

"If you're killing and arresting the people asking for reform, why would anyone believe you if you say you are also a reformer?" said one civil rights lawyer in Damascus. "Reforms do not happen with tanks and soldiers. By its actions this regime has proved it has no intention of reforming."

An independent Syrian analyst described the official announcements about reform as "strange". He said authorities apparently do not realise how much their credibility had been eroded.

"The government is still setting up committees to look at draft laws and talking about the price of vegetables in the market," he said on condition of anonymity. "They don't seem to realise how serious this crisis actually is and that it requires immediate action and real changes to the way this country is run."

Last week authorities published a draft election law, posting it online and inviting public feedback. Hopes that it might propose a genuinely independent and democratic parliament were dashed by a clause that guarantees at least 50 per cent of seats for "workers and peasants".

In practice, legal experts say, that phrase refers to the Baath party, meaning at least half of all MPs will be government loyalists.

In turn, that would make it impossible for opposition groups to get the 75 per cent of parliamentary votes needed to change the constitution.

That means Article 8, the clause guaranteeing the Baath party is the only organisation legally allowed to rule the country, cannot be changed unless the Baathists agree to end their monopoly on power.

"If you look closely at any of the so-called reforms, you will see they are an illusion," said a civil rights campaigner in Damascus.

"They end the emergency laws but keep on arresting and shooting protesters. They give a general amnesty for political prisoners but keep political prisoners in jail. They have a new election law but the results of elections will still be known in advance."

While Beijing and Russia continue to back Syria's reforms as meaningful, Turkey, another major ally, has bemoaned the lack of urgency shown by Syria. Turkish leaders have been criticising Syria for failing to push through "shock" reforms. The European Union and United States have similarly said that reforms require deeds, not words.

"They [the government] keep announcing reforms and some of them, like cheaper fuel or better salaries, are welcomed," said one working-class dissident living in a Damascus suburb.

But, he added, officials had failed to reach "the heart of the issue".

"We don't want less repressive media laws. We demand a free media," he said. "We don't just want cheaper fuel. We want an economy that is fairly run not just for the benefit of the corrupt elite. We don't want a new political law unless it means democracy."

Published: June 7, 2011 04:00 AM


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