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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Syrian reform à la Bashar Al Assad: Too little, too late

A Syrian boy, with writing on his forehead that reads "Syria is protected by God," stands in front of a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut. (File photo)
A Syrian boy, with writing on his forehead that reads "Syria is protected by God," stands in front of a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut. (File photo)
The Syrian government’s endorsement of a draft law that would allow new political parties to operate demonstrates Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s determination to maintain control of his country and will likely fail to persuade anti-government demonstrators that he is serious about political and economic reform.

In fact, it’s hard to see what the government is referring to when it describes the draft law, which still has to be endorsed by Syria’s rubber stamp parliament, as modern and the basis for the introduction of pluralism in Syria. 
The drafters of the law appear to have taken similar laws in autocratically ruled Arab states that allow strictly government-controlled political parties as their model rather than party laws of functioning democracies.

For starters, the draft law requires new parties to adhere to the Syrian constitution, a document the protesters reject and that even Mr. Assad concedes needs to be amended. New political parties are certain to refuse the constitution’s stipulation that Syria’s “leading party in the society and the state is (Mr. Assad’s ruling) Socialist Arab Baath Party.”

The draft law’s imposition on new parties of an obligation to “bolster society’s national unity” is a recipe for disaster. There is little reason to assume that the government would not use this stipulation to ban opposition parties on charges of damaging national unity.

Similarly, protesters will see the draft law’s ban on parties having links or affiliations to non-Syrian political groups or being based on religion, tribe, denomination or profession as a bid to ban Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Kurds from launching political movements.

The draft law’s provision that party founders are “not convicted of an offence or felony” obviously applies to common criminals but could just as well be applicable to former political prisoners. And there are many of those in Syria. In the past five months alone since the protests erupted, thousands have been arrested for their participation in anti-government manifestations and in reprisal operations.

In many ways, all of this is academic. Without Mr. Assad halting the crackdown, releasing detainees and demonstrating that he is committed to genuine political and economic reform, few, if any, are likely to take Mr. Assad by his word and seek to operate within the confines of a repressive system to effect change.

As a result, if Mr. Assad was hoping that the law would persuade the protesters and the opposition to join his national dialogue launched earlier this month, he is almost certain to be disappointed. Protesters and demonstrators have already vowed to keep up their protests that have been growing in numbers and spreading throughout the country despite the president’s brutal crackdown.

If anything, the protests are likely to escalate during the holy month of Ramadan that starts this weekend.

The arrest by Syrian security forces of hundreds of anti-government protesters as the cabinet approved the draft law serves as a further indication that nothing has really changed. Women, children and two well-known boxers were among those detained as people took to the streets for evening rallies in parts of the central city of Homs and the Damascus suburbs of Ammar Qurabi and Rukneddine.

All in all, it’s too little too late. Mr. Assad’s regime began talking about a new political parties law six years ago, long before Syrians had taken to the streets to register their discontent and anger. At the time the law would have been welcomed as a significant step forward.

Today, too much blood has been shed with some 2,000 people killed since the protests erupted. Protesters have demonstrated remarkable resilience and perseverance despite the crackdown. They are past the point at which crumbs will satisfy them.

Ramadan potentially could turn every day of the week into Fridays after prayers. Last Friday produced the largest protests yet. Granted, they have yet to spread to most of the capital Damascus but are already increasing in the suburbs.

As a result, Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown has in effect already failed. The draft political parties law and other measures that constitute reform only in name will not change that. The protesters and the regime are locked into a war of attrition, one that the protesters because of their sheer resilience appear so far to be winning.

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