Critics: Syrian leader may be squandering goodwill

AP News
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Posted: Mar 31, 2011 2:47 PM
Critics: Syrian leader may be squandering goodwill

Young and soft-spoken with a glamorous wife by his side, Syrian President Bashar Assad doesn't fit the mold of an Arab dictator.

Many Syrians at home and abroad insist he is a reformer led astray by those around him _ but Assad's response to the protest movement boiling up around him may cost him the goodwill of those who still see him as an instrument of change.

"The Syrian people do not necessarily hate Bashar," said Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert from the University of Maryland at College Park who regularly briefs U.S. officials on Syria. "In fact, most Syrian youth love him. But he is the head of the unpopular and corrupt Syrian regime, so the Syrian population is caught in a paradox."

A wave of protests has presented Syria's 45-year-old leader with the gravest challenge since he inherited power 11 years ago from his father, taking the helm of one of the Middle East's most authoritarian regimes. On Thursday, Assad set up committees to look into the deaths of civilians during the unrest and replacing decades-old emergency laws.

Despite those overtures, many activists have called for a new round of demonstrations across Syria on Friday in what could be a turning point in the country's future.

More than 70 people have been killed since March 18 as security forces cracked down on the protests, which erupted in the impoverished and drought-stricken south and spread quickly to other areas.

Assad dashed expectations that he would announce sweeping reforms this week, instead blaming two weeks of popular fury on a foreign conspiracy and fabrications in the media. His reaction has disappointed many who hoped to see serious concessions after the extraordinary protests in a country where any rumblings of dissent are crushed. One of the protesters' main demands was an immediate end to decades-old state of emergency laws that allow the regime to arrest people without charge.

Assad appears to be following a strategy that has failed leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, who were swept out of power by popular uprisings after blaming outsiders and offering minor concessions.

Some critics said setting up committees to look into reforms was just a stalling technique.

When the unrest roiling the Middle East hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who said in January that his country was immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people's needs.

Assad does maintain a level of popular support, in no small part because of his anti-Israel policies, which resonate with his countrymen. And unlike leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan, Assad is not allied with the United States, so he has been spared the accusation that he caters to American demands.

Few in Syria have publicly called on Assad to step down. Most are calling for reforms, annulling emergency laws and other stringent security measures and an end to corruption.

Many protesters have directed their anger against Assad's brother, Maher, who heads the Republican Guard, and the president's cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who controls the mobile phone network, SyriaTel, as well as other lucrative enterprises.

But Aktham Nuaisse, a prominent pro-democracy activist, said Assad may be starting to squander his support.

"There are for sure other strong forces who are restraining him, people within the regime who have an interest in the continuation of corruption, the state of emergency and oppression," he said. "But he is the president of Syria, this cannot be an excuse for him not to push forward with reforms."

Assad took power at the age of 34 after the death of his father, Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades. He was elected _ although he was the only candidate _ in a vote that was hastily arranged by ruling Baath party stalwarts.

Before his father's death, Bashar Assad held no formal political office, no senior party post and no significant military position _ the usual requirements for leadership in authoritarian Syria.

His elder brother Basil, widely believed to have been his father's first choice as heir, died in a 1994 car crash, setting up Bashar for the presidency. In his previous life, he had an ophthalmology practice in London.

The early years of his rule were generally optimistic. He moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, throwing the doors open to imports and empowering the private sector.

His baby steps toward reform gave rise to the "Damascus Spring" _ a time of open political and social debate that was impossible during his father's regime. Salons for intellectuals began to emerge where Syrians could discuss art, culture and politics.

His youth and quiet demeanor worked to his advantage. The tall, lanky leader with a mild disposition is said to detest being surrounded by bodyguards. Unlike other Arab leaders, Assad drives his own car without a convoy.

He is often seen around town with his glamorous wife, Asma _ the subject of a glowing profile in a recent edition of Vogue magazine _ and their three young children. They live in an apartment in the upscale Abu Rummaneh district of Damascus, as opposed to a palatial mansion like other Arab leaders.

But the "Damascus Spring" turned out to be short-lived. In 2001, the feared secret police began raiding the salons, jailing scores of activists. In the years that followed, Assad has slipped back into the autocratic ways of his father.

Internal challengers and regional upheaval certainly have slowed down reforms, including an old guard that fears reforms would mean an end to privileges. Syrians have seemed generally sympathetic to the problem of the old guard clinging to power _ but now, it seems, many are starting to tire of the excuse.

The bloodshed in Syria has shocked the country _ human rights groups say more than 60 people were killed in the southern city of Daraa, and the government says another 12 died in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.

Assad's announcement Thursday that he was setting up committees to look into the deaths of civilians and replacing the emergency laws appeared to be a carefully designed attempt to head off massive protests planned for Friday while showing he will not be pressured to implement reform _ instead, he will make changes at his own pace.

Instability here would likely have ripple effects outside the country's borders.

Syria has long been viewed by the West as a potentially destabilizing force in the Middle East. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

In recent years, however, the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.