Syria crisis: Can reforms appease protesters?

Amateur video of protest in Deraa Clashes in Deraa are reported to have left some protesters dead, although numbers are disputed

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Under pressure from events in the southern city of Deraa that are threatening to spiral out of control, President Bashar al-Assad and his Baathist government have come up with a wide range of conciliatory decisions and promises that look good on paper.

The question is how solid they turn out to be, and whether they are in time to head off the kind of uprising that has already unseated two of the region's long-standing regimes - in Egypt and Tunisia - and that is knocking loudly on the doors of many others.

The first test of the credibility and effectiveness of the new measures will come after noon prayers on Friday, when activists have called for a day of "dignity" to carry the Deraa protests on to the national stage.

As the measures were being announced, government security forces were swamping the streets of Deraa, where by most accounts dozens of people have been shot dead in the past few days.

Scores of other political dissidents, including writers and democracy and internet activists, were also reported to have been arrested by the secret police in Damascus and other Syrian cities and towns.

But Syrian television announced late on Thursday that on President Assad's orders, all those detained during the recent events had been released.

Behind-the-scenes talks

Opposition circles were initially sceptical about the official decisions, announced by spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban after meetings of the ruling Baath Party's national command, headed by President Assad.

They ended a 36-hour period of near-silence from officials and the state media over the Deraa affair and its fallout, reflecting the fact that much discussion was going on behind the scenes over how to handle the crisis.

The measures announced fell into three categories - steps to placate the people of Deraa; measures aimed at addressing general economic conditions and grievances, and others designed to meet demands for greater political and press freedoms and put an end to corruption.

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It was in the realms of political freedoms that Ms Shaaban announced decisions that would have brought gasps of disbelief just a few weeks ago”

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On Deraa, Ms Shaaban announced the formation of a senior leadership committee to work with the people of the city to find out what happened, and bring to account officials responsible for the crisis or those who fell short in handling it.

She spoke of "dealing with the outcome in line with the legitimate demands of the citizens".

Earlier, it was announced that President Assad had issued a decree ordering the dismissal of the deeply unpopular Deraa governor, Feisal Kalthoum - one of the protesters' key demands.

Another decree was issued modifying laws relating to property ownership in border areas, apparently to meet complaints by Deraa people that land could not be bought or sold without going through the local secret police.

Whether these steps succeed in defusing the situation in Deraa will clearly depend on how seriously they are followed up - if it is not already too late.

At the same time as referring to local demands as "legitimate", Ms Shaaban and the state media have continued to blame "armed gangs" and Israeli intelligence for stirring up the trouble.

But she insisted that President Assad had issued orders for live ammunition not to be used against protesters, and implied that forces on the ground may have flouted instructions.

Bouthaina Shaaban Spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban's statement took many opposition activists by surprise

Clearly aware of the broad range of grievances that have fuelled uprisings throughout the Arab world, the measures included a detailed decree issued by President Assad ordering wage rises of 20-30% for public sector workers and other benefits, including health cover.

But it was in the realms of political freedoms that Ms Shaaban announced decisions that would have brought gasps of disbelief just a few weeks ago.

These included:

  • Laws and mechanisms to combat corruption
  • Discussion of an end to draconian emergency laws in place for nearly 50 years
  • Drafting a new law to end the monopoly of the Baath party
  • A new press law to meet "aspirations for freedom and transparency"
  • An end to arbitrary arrests and strengthening personal freedoms

Ms Shaaban indicated that all these issues would be tackled urgently.

Much will clearly depend not just on the speed, but also on the seriousness with which they are pursued, and the inclusiveness of the process.

'Damascus Spring'

Syrians have for years heard official lip service being paid to reform and progress, and even talk of tackling corruption, with little to show for it.

A brief "Damascus Spring" raised hopes of political liberalisation under the Western-educated new president shortly after he took over when his father Hafez al-Asad died in 2000.

But Baath Party diehards reinforced the hard line and reform efforts died away, political dialogue collapsed and dissidents began to be arrested again.

At the same time, economic privatisation was manipulated to the enrichment of those in power, leading to widespread public resentment and complaints of corruption.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file image) President Bashar al-Assad has awarded wage rises and other benefits

Some analysts are sceptical about the regime's ability to reform itself, especially on that issue, since its roots run deep into the president's close family.

But it may be a sink-or-swim situation where unless major compromises are made, the whole system could find itself engulfed by popular discontent.

After the previously unimaginable events in Egypt and Tunisia, nothing can now be ruled out, as Syrian leaders are clearly well aware.

They have evidently been watching closely how other regimes have handled the Arab revolutions.

The leaderships in Egypt and Tunisia began by confronting, then trying to appease, and finally being unseated by popular fury, with their military deciding not to fight the people on behalf of the rulers.

Libya's Col Gaddafi has opted for military confrontation that has precipitated an armed civil war and international intervention, while Yemen and Bahrain adopted an uneasy mix of tactics that have brought unresolved situations riven with bitter grievances.

The Syrian leadership seems for the moment to have drawn back from the kind of draconian repression that it meted out to crush a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982.

It seems to be following the Egyptian and Tunisian examples rather than the Libyan model, though clearly with the hope that placatory measures may be in time to head off a national upheaval.

In theory, the political reforms promised would - if implemented swiftly and seriously - meet most of the demands of reformists and activists.

Vested interests

The Baath party would no longer enjoy an official monopoly of power, the press would be free, citizens' rights would be respected, and the corrupt would be punished.

It is hard to imagine.

For it to happen, powerful vested interests would have to be overridden.

Some diehards within the regime may not admit the necessity for radical self-reform until it is too late - if it is not already.

But the scope of the measures announced show clearly that the leadership is aware that the revolution is out there and waiting to happen if changes are not made soon.

No two Arab countries are the same, though they suffer from similar malaises.

But if President Assad's Syria does manage to foster enough peaceful internal change and reform to defuse a popular uprising, it will be a first.

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