Bashar Al-Assad's Balancing Act

Article excerpt

A country suffering under a backward dictatorship with dangerous regional ambitions, a haven for terrorists, a friend of al-Qaeda, and out of step with the awakening democratic yearnings sweeping the Middle East-so have senior Bush administration officials described Syria.

The litany of American complaints includes allegations that Syria is giving refuge to Saddam loyalists, allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq during and since the U.S. invasion, turning a blind eye to money flowing to Iraqi insurgents and terrorists, and continuing to play a destabilizing role in neighboring Lebanon. The Bush administration also charges that Damascus harbors and supports Palestinian terrorist organizations.

Syrians see things differently. Officials in Damascus insist their country does not support terrorism, but actually has been a partner in the U.S. war on terror. "We were one of the few Arab countries that had no diplomatic relations with Saddam's Iraq," pointed out Information Minister Mehdi Dahklallah. "Why would we want to help supporters of his regime?"

According to Dahklallah, Syria cooperated with the United States in the war against terror following the Sept. 11 attacks and, he insisted, provided good information-but which U.S. officials downplay as "minimal" and "sporadic."

The minister readily admitted that his government gives political support to Palestinian militant groups-because, in its view, their demands for an end to Israeli occupation are justifiable, as are their methods. "We don't consider them terrorists," he explained.

Moreover, noted Dakhlallah, Syria has complied with U.N. demands that it withdraw its troops from Lebanon, supports American peace efforts in the Middle East, and has repeatedly offered to re-open talks with Israel. "What else do they want?" he wondered. "Next they will accuse us of having caused the Asian tsunami."

Relations between Damascus and Washington never have been particularly cozy. Since 1979 Syria has regularly appeared on the U.S. State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. An exception was the warming trend in the early 1990s, when Syria joined the U.S.-led coalition to drive Saddam Hussain's forces from Kuwait, and then participated in U.S.-led peace talks with Israel. Relations soured again more recently, however, when Syria's opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq angered the Bush administration.

Pressure from Washington is not the only problem for Syria's young president, Bashar Al-Assad and the ruling Ba'ath party elite. The demands for change and greater democracy heard in much of the Middle East have not passed Syria by. "Reform is difficult anywhere in the world," noted Marwan Kabalan, political science professor at Damascus University. Even if Assad wants to implement reforms, the professor said, his situation is problematic: "On the one hand you are very much committed to reform, but on the other hand you feel this reform might undermine the very pillars of your regime."

At the top of nearly every Syrian's list of reforms is scrapping the draconian emergency laws, which can be imposed at will and which severely restrict personal and political freedom. Syrians also want to see an end to the Ba'ath party's monopoly on power. They want political parties, open elections and, perhaps even more importantly, they want greater opportunities for better education, better jobs and a feeling they are not being left behind in an ever more interconnected world.

Yet even the most ardent advocates of reform admit getting there will not be easy. More than 40 years of autocratic rule have left Syria without the political infrastructure necessary for real democracy.

Officials maintain change must come gradually-a position echoed during the Ba'ath party congress in early June. …