The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

ICG on Syria under Bashar

The International Crisis Group, which until recently only covered Algeria out of the entire Middle East, has been rapidly expanding recently with reports on Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. It's now Syria's turn to receive the ICG treatment, with not one but two reports -- one on domestic policy and the other on foreign policy.

From the executive summary of the domestic policy report:

Bashar al-Assad’s presidency has failed to live up to the hopes for far-reaching domestic reform that greeted it in 2000. After a brief opening, Syria clamped down on dissent, and economic change remains painfully slow. Many who once viewed Bashar as a potential partner, open-minded, and Western-oriented, now perceive him as, if anything, more ideological than and just as tied to the Baathist regime as his father. Both assessments are overly simplistic and poor guides to dealing with a Syria that is at a crossroads. Syrian officials hint at significant steps in mid-2004, including possible changes in the Baath Party hierarchy and doctrine and moves toward a more open and inclusive political system. Scepticism is in order, as such pledges have repeatedly been made in the past only to be ignored. But with reform now a strategic imperative, Syria should turn hints into reality and the international community should find ways to encourage and to assist it.

The foreign policy report, interestingly, seems to focus mostly on the US-Syria relationship.

Since the end of the Iraq war, Washington and Damascus have been locked in a dialogue of the deaf. U.S. policy has been reduced to a series of demands and threats. Syrian policy, with President Bashar still struggling to formulate and implement a coherent strategy, has been mainly wait-and-see – offering a few concessions and hoping to weather the storm while refusing to relinquish what it sees as trump cards (support for Hizbollah and radical Palestinian groups) so long as the conflict with Israel continues.

In the meantime, Bashar has unexpectedly released some 130 political prisoners:

Syria has still not explained to the nation this act of unexpected clemency toward a handful of perhaps 3,000 such prisoners — or even acknowledged publicly that it happened. But some human rights officials say it is a sign, if a small and ambiguous one, of the larger pressures Syria is under these days, with more than 100,000 American soldiers next door in Iraq and increasing impatience for change at home.

There were also releases in the first few years of Basha's rule, which did not mean anything despite all the talk of a "spring of Damascus." The way of dictators is mysterious indeed...