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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 June, 2005, 18:47 GMT 19:47 UK
Syria fails reforms challenge
By Jon Leyne
BBC News

The President of Syria marched into the hall to the obligatory tumultuous applause. But with Bashar al-Assad, the show really is not quite as convincing as it was under his father, Hafez al-Assad.

This was the first congress of the ruling Baath Party for five years - a meeting held at a time of major crisis for the country.

Bashar Assad at the Baath Congress
Assad the son lacks much of the bite of Assad the father
Syria has been forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon. American pressure continues. At home the rusty old economy fails dismally to deliver the goods.

In response, Bashar al-Assad had promised some months ago to announce a giant leap of domestic reform. But from the opening, it was clear this congress was going to be a huge disappointment.

"We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for you Bashar," the loyal Baathists chanted.

For his part, the young president just wanted to talk about the minutiae of economic reform and fighting corruption.

It was not a speech that had them leaping from their seats ready to charge, re-energised, from the hall.

Dated ideology

For decades Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party, whose "leading role" is enshrined in the constitution.

But the ideology of militant pan-Arab nationalism sounds as dated as Soviet communism. So the party is now just a vehicle for corrupt one-party rule, in which some people amass fortunes of billions of dollars.

Most analysts believe Mr Assad himself is a reformer.

But he's surprisingly powerless, more an arbiter between competing interests than the authoritarian his father was.

And so far he has felt unable to challenge those shadowy figures behind the scenes who really run the country.

Mysterious deaths

So at this congress, and during the preceding weeks, Mr Assad has legalised some more political parties, but maintained the monopoly on power of the Baath Party.

Emergency laws that allow arbitrary arrest and detention are to be amended but not lifted.

Syrians putting out flags for Baath party congress
Syrians face a future of more isolation and economic stagnation

There have been some changes of personnel. The veteran vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam has left the government.

But all the changes are the very least that were anticipated.

And for all the talk of "liberty" and "justice" (yes - even Mr Assad peppers his speech with the terms these days) opponents of the Syrian regime have died in mysterious circumstances.

Last week there was the car bomb that killed the Lebanese journalist Samir Qasir. Syria denied responsibility, but the people of Beirut were sceptical.

A Syrian Kurdish leader was killed as well, after calling for "regime change". Two alleged members of criminal gang were wheeled out on Syrian TV to provide a convenient confession, but few people in Syria will have believed them.

And a few days before the congress, Syria launched a test of some of its Scud missiles.


Washington, of course, is determined to keep up the pressure on Syria. It is keen that Israel should reject Mr Assad's offer of peace talks.

And the US would also like the European Union to hold off on signing a long-awaited economic deal with Syria.

But the Americans are running out of sticks with which to beat Syria. Few believe there is a credible threat of military action.

And with Syrian troops out of Lebanon, there is little prospect of multilateral action through the UN. France would block any suggestion of UN sanctions.

So we could be entering a period of stalemate - Syria isolated from the West and the Arab world, its economy going nowhere, but with no immediate threats to the rule of the Baath Party and Mr Assad.

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