The New York Times, 4 June 2005

On Monday, Syria’s Baath Party will begin its 10th party congress, the second since President Bashar al-Assad took power in June 2000 and the first since the only other Baathist regime, that one in Iraq, was overthrown by American forces. In many respects the outcome of the gathering will determine whether Syria’s leadership can ever reform itself.

Constitutionally, the Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963, is considered ”the leader party of state and society.” Yet this leadership is unsettled. Under international pressure, the Syrian Army and intelligence services have been forced to pull out of Lebanon. This was a severe blow to the regime, which lost a key strategic asset, a profitable satellite and much prestige — all vital commodities to an authoritarian government that must constantly prove its power to its subjects.

However, since it completed its Lebanon withdrawal, the Assad government has partly regained its composure. And the stronger it feels, the fewer concessions it will make to its own people and the less willing it will be to engage in much needed political and economic reform.

In March, the ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, promised there would be no political prisoners left in Syrian jails by this July. I suspect he would hesitate to make that claim now. On May 15, the political security directorate arrested Ali al-Abdullah, a human rights activist, for having read in public an e-mail message written by the exiled head of the Islamic dissident group the Muslim Brotherhood. This was followed by the arrest, on May 22, of Mohammad Radun, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria. Human rights groups estimate that about 1,500 political prisoners remain in Syria’s jails, and at least 40 people have been arrested since the end of March. As someone who spent 16 years in prison for political reasons, including a year in the infamous and brutal Palmyra prison, I am skeptical about the regime’s intentions.

So what will next week’s congress decide? Some have suggested the Baathists will finally announce that they will allow other political parties to operate freely. Perhaps, but even so, the nation’s Constitution ensures the supremacy of the Baath — any changes the congress makes will be cosmetic, simply modernizing the regime’s authoritarianism. Of course no one expects the ”emergency laws,” in place since the Baathists took power, to be lifted. And the murder on Thursday of the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, a prominent critic of the Syrian regime, will make things harder for reformers, though official sources vehemently denied any Syrian involvement in that act of terrorism. News of violence is always good for the hard-liners.

Paradoxically, outside pressure has weakened the government as a whole but strengthened President Assad and his ”young guard” in its internal clash with the older followers of his father, the former strongman Hafez al-Assad. The president will probably use this congress to remove many of his father’s associates, but he cannot do so without entering into a Faustian bargain — namely committing himself to Syria’s archaic one-party system, to the omnipotent and omnipresent security services, to a continued state monopoly over all media and, most important, to a ruling political elite that continues to hoard Syria’s national wealth. These interests, not the members of the ”old guard,” are the most unyielding obstacles to reform.

As for average Syrians, many want to see real change, but the events in Iraq over the last two years have convinced them that direct outside intervention would be a disaster. The approach that the United States adopted in Iraq — first dissolving the Iraqi state and then engaging in a ”nation-building” social engineering program — is the one thing that all Syrians wish to avoid.

Rather, when it comes to international pressure, an alternative approach is preferable: one based on multilateral efforts by the global powers and international organizations; financial penalties directed specifically against the businesses and foreign assets of the Syrian elites who have helped themselves to public money; constant moral demands from the international community for domestic political and economic change; and, most important, progress in negotiations with Israel. Until the occupied Golan Heights are returned to Syria, there will be a strong tendency toward the militarization of politics here. And America has an unrivaled role in speeding that transfer.

As we have seen in Iraq, ”regime change” is easy but ensuring stability afterwards is very difficult. Despite the authoritarian nature of the Syrian leadership, gradual change is preferable to abrupt change. A slower pace would not only provide a better chance at avoiding bloodshed, but would give a larger number of Syrians a chance to gain some experience in public affairs, as many have started doing recently by more openly criticizing the regime. True democracy requires a maturation process with respect to participation.

For how long will the Baathist regime survive? This depends to a great degree on the solutions and compromises it offers. There is certainly a role to be played by the global powers. But in the end, the regime will have to answer to 18 million Syrians, most of whom want to see freedom, justice and the rule of law in their country.