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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 20:58 GMT
Analysis: Bashar's slow, steady start
Voters support presidency of Bashar al-Assad
Syria's population remains under strict control
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

It is 30 years since the coup which put Syria's Hafez al-Assad in undisputed power but the most intriguing questions revolve around the last five months, under the tutelage of his son Bashar al-Assad.

"Doctor Bashar" promised wide-ranging political, economic and administrative reforms, and many Syrians hoped he would be a breath of fresh air after the decades of stifling authoritarian rule.

Mr Assad's grip on power has been strengthened by the people's gratitude that Syria has not been plunged into chaos since the old man's demise - there were fears the untested 34-year-old opthamologist was ill equipped to face the challenges from his father's corrupt and secretive old guard.

Syrian woman with Bashar banner
Expectations could not have been higher when Bashar took power
But, if the succession - a dynastic first among the dictatorial Arab republics - has been smooth and a new mood of openness is beginning to emerge, there has little been discernable change in the government's intrusive control of people's lives and its ultra-cautious approach to policy making and strategy.

Tiny changes

While there has been much talk of plans for economic modernisation and establishing a stock exchange, visitors to the country remain disappointed by the stagnation and lack of economic activity.

Bashar has earned a reputation as a hard worker and good listener, and has taken steps to address Syria's image as a violator of its citizens' human rights.

We must break the economic monopoly and stop government handing out benefits and making decisions to suits its cronies

Riad Seif MP
But, notwithstanding a sizeable amnesty to celebrate his father's anniversary - the second batch of prisoner releases since July, Syria's jails remain packed with political prisoners - more than 1,000 of them from the Muslim Brotherhood alone.

But there have been public calls for more democracy - something that would have received short shrift in the days of Hafez.

In September, a group of 99 Syrian intellectuals and artists dared to petition the president to introduce political pluralism and end Syria's remarkably enduring "emergency" rule.

Bashar al-Assad at Ba'th Party congress
The new president's transition has been surprisingly smooth
More recently, there was damning condemnation of government mistakes and corruption in a speech at - of all places - Syria's rubber-stamp parliament, a body which earned international derision when it hastily amended the constitution in June to allow someone of Bashar's tender age to become president.

"We must break the economic monopoly and stop government handing out benefits and making decisions to suits its cronies," MP Riad Seif told his astonished colleagues.

These moves hardly amount to the promised sea-change in the way Syria is run, but they are a reflection of frustration and impatience for reform - and of the government's willingness to allow criticism to be voiced in public.

Receding threats

Bashar's key partner has been Muhammad Mustafa Miro, the prime minister appointed a few months before June, the pioneer of anti-corruption and moderniser of Syria's antediluvian banking sector.

The strongmen of the last decades, Messrs Khaddam, Tlass, Aslan, Suleiman - though not Bashar's Uncle Rif'at - are waiting in the wings and some of them could still have their own ambitions to rule Syria.

So what the new ruler still has to do is win policy arguments over such issues as the economy, Iraq and Israel, and the future of Syria's massive military presence in Lebanon.

Lebanon is thought to be one of Bashar's strong suits, but he has yet to come up with a solution to the growing anger of those Lebanese who want to see the back of the 35,000 Syrian troops stationed there.

At least the Palestinian uprising has relieved some of the pressure from Israel. As the intifada rages, no-one is talking about Syria's desire for a peace deal being sidelined by success on the Palestinian track.

But, on the other hand, with peace in abeyance, the diplomatic and economic salvation that a treaty with Israel would have brought is out of the question as well.

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See also:

26 Jul 00 | Middle East
Bashar frees political prisoners
11 Jun 00 | Middle East
Bashar al-Assad: Eyeing the future
13 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Bashar's challenges
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
19 Jul 00 | Middle East
Syria timeline
16 Nov 00 | Middle East
Political amnesty in Syria
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