Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Syria - move on, nothing to see here 

Ignoring international pressure and rising domestic frustration, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, failed yesterday to announce broad and imminent reforms as he opened an eagerly awaited conference of the ruling Baath party.

In an address lasting barely ten minutes, Mr Assad told the 1,250 delegates: "We are convinced the ideas and precepts of the Baath party are still of relevance and respond to the interests of the people and the nation in its desire for unity, freedom, justice and development."
Oh, that's alright then.

The Baath party, with its unpleasant mixture of nationalism and socialism (sounds familiar?) is a sad relic of the "“bloody twentieth century", a dinosaur at odds with the recent climatic change throughout the world and throughout the region. Its emphasis on a closed political system, combined with a closed economic system, and seasoned with a fair sprinkling of paranoia, chauvinism and "blame others"” mentality is a recipe for continuing stagnation and misery. But I'’m preaching to the converted.

It'’s not a good sign that Assad Jr, after hints of a thaw, has decided to bury his head in the sand, a natural resource of which there is plenty in Syria. Perhaps to get the reform process going right now would have looked too much like a humiliating and face-losing backdown to American demands, but by opting for the status quo, Bashar has merely postponed some sort of an inevitable, keeping his country in a North Koreanesque state of suspended animation, without any aces, however, that Kim still holds, such as nuclear weapons and one of the world'’s largest armies.

Indeed, judging by his speech at the congress ("Flanked by grim-faced party officials, Syria'’s youthful President looked out of place as the ageing delegates made their speeches. The delegates greeted each new speech with polite applause."”), Assad does indeed want to follow the Asian model - not so much North as South Korean:
"“Our citizens aspire to improvements in their living conditions and in public services... This cannot happen without higher growth rates."
The problem is the Syrian economy is growing, but not fast enough to catch up on all the lost time. Many Asian countries have managed to delay political reform for decades by giving their citizens prosperity instead (in the end, the rising living standard led to inevitable demands for political rights, but by that stage the reforms were able to unfold peacefully and no one got shot). Syrians are getting edgy without either.


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