Are President Assad’s reforms too little too late?

Turkish protestors demonstrate in Beyazit Square, Istanbul against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and the Baath Party. (File photo)

Turkish protestors demonstrate in Beyazit Square, Istanbul against Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and the Baath Party. (File photo)
If the speech on April 16 by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria promising more transparency and consultation in government proves anything, it is that reform is likely to occur primarily if anti-government protesters have the stamina and wherewithal to keep up the pressure until reforms are enacted.

Mr. Assad’s pledge in a televised speech to his newly appointed cabinet came a day after Syria witnessed its largest protests yet. The appointment of his 30-member Cabinet on Thursday, and the speech, was designed to call a halt to what is turning out to be the most serious challenge to date to his 11-year old rule.

In his speech, Mr. Assad promised that the state of emergency that has been in place in Syria for the last 48 years would be lifted in the coming week. Mr. Assad failed however to address protesters’ calls for the dismantling of the country’s omnipotent security services or the dismantling of its authoritarian government structures.

Further, Mr. Assad was vague on the question whether his call for replacing the state of emergency with an anti-terrorism law would remove far-reaching—and draconian—restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to assemble. “When the lifting of the emergency law package is issued, it should be firmly enforced. The Syrian people are civilized. They love order and they do not accept chaos and mob rule,” Mr. Assad said, suggesting that reforms may be less far-reaching than meets the eye.

Similarly, Mr. Assad acknowledged that corruption was a problem in Syria, but his promise to set up a commission that would look into the issue offered no indication of how it would be tackled or that the solution would involve reducing his family’s grip on the Syrian economy. Protesters have repeatedly singled out Mr. Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, whose expanding business they see as a symbol of widespread corruption.

Mr. Assad’s omissions would probably have encountered less scepticism had he initiated the reforms on his own initiative prior to the protests rather than in response to mounting public pressure on his regime. Instead, protesters see his concessions as the result of their sustained demonstrations. That is likely to persuade them that only continued protests will ensure that change is real rather than merely a repackaging of the old regime in a more palatable dress-up.

Doubts about Mr. Assad’s real intentions were reinforced by the president’s declared timetable. While protesters are likely to welcome the speedy abolishment of the state of emergency, it is unlikely that the government will be able to draft within a matter of days legislation that carefully balances the need for security with the preservation, or in Syria’s case, the introduction, of democratic rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Just how difficult is to strike that balance is evident in the problems that established Western democracies have in the decade since al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr. Assad acknowledged as much by saying that granting freedom of assembly would pose “a challenge to the police because they are not prepared for such things.” Mr. Assad said security forces would have to be trained to properly implement the new laws.

Equally troublesome is Mr. Assad’s acknowledgement of the need for reform while at the same time repeating assertions that sabotage inspired by foreign forces was at the root of the anti-government protests. With more than 200 people killed by security forces in the protests in recent weeks, the Assad government appears has so far treated the protesters as saboteurs rather than as a mushrooming movement that is calling for change. “There are clear differences between the demands for reform and the intentions of creating chaos and sabotage,” Mr. Assad said without defining the differences.

Of course, blaming foreign sources—real or imagined—is a typical feint expected of besieged autocrats. Such blame resonates well with the leader’s traditional constituents. One Arab leader famously accused the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of conspiring to deny much-needed rainfall in his region. If the CIA had indeed been so smart and powerful, what explains the continuing series of monumental errors of judgment it made in the post World War II period?

Mr. Assad, in contrast to other Arab leaders facing widespread protests, appears to have chosen to buy time by setting out a series of goals that address protesters’ grievances but cannot be achieved overnight. In doing so, he is effectively hoping to take the wind out of the protesters’ sails by giving them a sense that they are achieving their objectives with no guarantee that he will hold up his end of the bargain. Mr. Assad effectively laid out his strategy by saying that there would no longer be “an excuse” for protests once emergency rule had been lifted and laws promulgated that would allow the formation of political parties.

“After that, we will not tolerate any attempt at sabotage,” Mr. Assad said.

Mr. Assad’s proposition is one that is likely to be rejected by the opposition in the realization—in part based on the problems Egypt is experiencing in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy—that the government will only act if it is continuously pressured to do. Egypt’s military rulers have in recent days restricted rather than liberalized freedom of expression. An Egyptian blogger was last week sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing the country’s military rulers.

In a clear indication of scepticism, Syria’s leading pro-democracy group, the Damascus Declaration, urged Syrians to stage peaceful protests to “bolster Syria’s popular uprising and ensure its continuity.” In a statement on its Website, the group said the Assad regime was responsible for killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians who have been calling for their legitimate rights.

“The regime alone stands fully responsible for the blood of martyrs and all that will happen next in the country,” the statement said in a reflection of the protesters’ lack of confidence in President Assad’s pledges.


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