[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 7 January 2005, 14:33 GMT
Syria stagnates amidst fading reforms
Shattered portrait of Bashar Al-Assad
Some Syrians believe President Assad has broken his promise of reform
When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad took over from his late father amidst a wave of optimism, he promised major political and economic reform. Four years on, BBC World Service's Assignment programme visited Syria to assess the extent things have changed.

Mr Assad promised much when he came to power in 2000 - but there are accusations he has failed to deliver.

The government continues to arrest opponents, and the economy, still largely state-controlled, is stagnant.

The young Mr Assad was popular when he succeeded his father - promising a more open political and economic system. Hundreds of political prisoners were released.

But the pace of change alarmed the three pillars of the Syrian establishment - the army, the Baath Party and the Alawite minority - and the authorities began clamping down on debate. Now those who speak up risk jail.

"About 20 security police surrounded us as we walked out of the university restaurant," one student, arrested at Damascus University for protesting, told BBC World Service's Assignment programme.

"Then we were bundled into a van and handcuffed."

Communist accusations

The student did not want to be identified. He said he had been protesting because colleagues at the university had been expelled after speaking out against the government's abandonment of its policy of guaranteeing jobs for graduates.

He said that subsequently he was taken to the Department of Political Security.

"No-one talked to me for four days - I was in solitary confinement," he said.

"Whenever they took me outside my cell I was blindfolded. During the interrogation they yelled and swore at me - they wanted to know whether I was a member of a Communist group."

Other protestors include Samir Nasha, a businessman and civil society activist.

He is currently facing a three month jail sentence after he arranged a lecture in his office about abolishing the 40-year-old emergency law that allows civilians to be tried by military courts in Syria.

Mr Nasha said that he had believed there would not be the same oppression under Bashar - and was disappointed.

"I believed him when he promised reform - when he said that democracy meant the right to disagree," he said.

"But a few months after he took office, most of the civil society activists were either detained or returned to detention. It was a return to the bad old days."

Iraq insurgents

Syria's economic reforms are also proving slow to take effect. Nearly half of Syria's 18 million people are under 19, and they are restless - unemployment is high, and the economy can no longer create jobs to keep up.

The public sector is plagued by problems of inefficiency and low productivity, and a widespread complaint is that only a select number of businessmen - with links to the inner circle of power - are thriving under the system.

We do not compromise on our national unity
Emigrants Minister Dr Buthaina Shaaban
"We were doing quite well until the government came up with the idea of having a joint venture with a Korean company," said the boss of one telecoms firm.

"If any government firm or any ministry would like to buy any system, they have to go to this company. Why don't they allow us to have some kind of competition?"

The man added that he is fed up with the current situation, and feels change is vital for Syria.

"We are not talking about the Western model of business, where businesses sometimes control political decisions - it's the other way round in Syria," he said.

Syria has also suffered because it has lost the Iraqi market across the border, and access to cheap oil. Further, the US has threatened more economic sanctions against Syria, accusing it of supporting terrorism and not doing enough to prevent insurgents going into Iraq and attacking coalition troops.

"People were so angry," said Hassan Abi, whose son was killed in Iraq fighting the Americans.

"Preachers at the mosque were encouraging people to go for jihad, because if Iraq is bombed today, Syria will be next."

Rebutting accusations

Mr Abi's son received a passport to go to Iraq within two hours - which his father considered unusual, at it would normally take a week.

But Syria's Emigrants Minister Dr Buthaina Shaaban told Assignment that allegations over Syria helping insurgents were "absolutely unfounded".

"Even if there are Syrians crossing the border, they are not crossing the border with the permission of the Syrian government," she said.

Syrian youths
Syria's young population are desperate for jobs
But she highlighted that many Syrians crossed the border anyway, without the government's permission.

"I think you have to be an Arab and a Muslim to understand the feelings of people when the United States started entering into Iraq," she said.

"You get young men who will go just because they are feeling enthusiastic - they are not trained, they have no guns, no armaments. It was such a shame for these young men - sometimes they are killed just after they have crossed the border."

Ms Shaaban also rebutted accusations that Syria arrested peaceful demonstrators.

"There are other reasons [for the arrests] than meet the eye," she said.

"But we do not compromise on our national unity.

"Syria is made of many ethnicities, many religions - it's a melting pot of people.

"So any party that tries to promote a division of our national unity - of which we are very proud, and which is vital for our survival as a country - that is not allowed."

She also admitted that providing people with jobs was a "difficult issue to address", as the government in the past had given the impression its role was to provide people with jobs.

"We can't keep pace with this increasing population," she said.

"Therefore we have to do something serious."

US sees Syrian 'progress' on Iraq
02 Jan 05 |  Middle East
Syria frees political detainees
07 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Syria attacks US Mid-East actions
08 Nov 03 |  Middle East
Syria feels pressure to reform
28 Sep 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Syria
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Syria
08 Dec 04 |  Country profiles


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific