It comes as no surprise that Syrians, whether at home or in exile, have found no cause to celebrate the fourth anniversary of president Bashar al-Asad's succeeding his late father, Lt-Gen Hafez Asad, to power in July 2000. Since then his regime has brought about no significant changes in Syrian life: not only are the repressive and corrupt political, judicial and security systems he has inherited still in place, but the jails are all either already full to capacity or filling up rapidly, especially with political prisoners. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian exiles do not feel that it is safe to return to their homeland; add to this the facts that the economy is in a dire state, that Syria is very isolated and has lost most of its influence, and that Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights (which are Syrian territory), and the picture is grim indeed.
It is true that Bashar has ordered the release of more than 800 political prisoners since November 2000. For this anniversary he issued an amnesty on July 16 and, according to newspaper reports quoting "highly placed sources", about 260 political prisoners will be released gradually as a result. The releases have not been accompanied by any political reforms that might prevent future repression, and have failed to raise much hope or excitement. The state of emergency in force for the last 41 years remains in place, and the political and other organisations (such as the Muslim Brothers) that were banned under Hafez are still in limbo. The government is a simulacrum of Hafez's government; many of its senior members also held high posts in the previous one: vice-president Khaddam, for instance, was also vice-president under Hafez. So it is not surprising that the security laws and constitutional provisions that are believed to be essential for the protection of the ruling elite have not been amended, and are not likely to be.
The Israeli media frequently argue that Bashar is not in full control, and that the Syrian Ba'athist Party is the effective ruler of the country. Whatever the truth may be (and in any case Israeli opinion cannot be accepted as a reliable guide), Bashar's government argues that Syria is still at war and continues to be targeted by states, such as the US, that support Israel. In such circumstances, emergency laws and extraordinary powers are essential for the country's security, but will not prevent the introduction of necessary political reforms that senior officials claim are seriously under way.
The Syrian government is not only reluctant to introduce the constitutional amendments that are necessary to reassure the hundreds of thousands of exiles who are keen to return and serve their country, but it also refuses to end its war on Islamic activists, whom it classifies as ‘terrorists'. In fact it cooperate closely with the US ‘war on terrorism', and exchanges intelligence information with Washington, as it does with other Arab regimes, such as Egypt's, that are allied to the US. No one can accuse Damascus of being a close ally of the US, whose government is accusing it of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and maintaining economic sanctions against it as a result. The US also accuses Syria of backing the ‘terrorists' entering Iraq over their common border. But Syria's cooperation with Washington, for any reason, is not only dividing its own people but also playing into Israel's hands.
According to Arab and western analysts, Syria is cooperating with the US government to avoid a fate like Iraq's. Israeli analysts, on the other hand, argue that Bashar is trying to please the Americans in order to persuade them to exert pressure on Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to hand back the Golan Heights, following a peace agreement between the two neighbours. Israeli reports assert that Bashar has repeatedly asked the US to arrange secret peace talks between him and Sharon, but Sharon always refuses. The reason, they say, is that Bashar has no cards to play; Sharon will only oblige him when it suits Sharon to do so. Only then will a peace deal be possible between the two neighbours. Significantly, Husni Mubarak said recently that he had contacted Bashar in an attempt to persuade him to agree to peace talks with his Israeli counterpart. Egypt, the first Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, will find it helpful if Syria follows suit.
But Israeli press reports on July 9 suggested that Syria relies more on non-official mediators to persuade Tel Aviv to begin negotiations, which, according to the reports, will take place in August. Taking part in the scheduled talks are former government officials on the Israeli side and both former and present officials on the Syrian side, the reports said. Some of the concessions Tel Aviv and Washington want Damascus to make are the termination of close links with Hizbullah and of its influence on and alliance with Lebanon: concessions which, if made, will probably usher Bashar out of office and may destabilise his country. Hizbullah, which drove Israel out of southern Lebanon, is very popular in both Lebanon and Syria and will not, in any case, accept such capitulation to Israel without a fight. And giving up the only influence on Arab affairs left to Syria will divide Syrians and may lead to the establishment of an anti-Syria (perhaps Christian-dominated) regime in Beirut.
It is true that Bashar will not have strong cards to play at such talks, given the divisions among Syrians and among Arab regimes, some of which are close allies of the US. And if he believes that the concessions he will be forced to make at the ‘secret' talks will remain confidential he is gravely mistaken. His best course of action would be to unite his own people before he engages in any talks, secret or otherwise, by dropping the dictatorial powers he inherited, opening up the political system, and allowing Islamic movements (the country's real strength) to play the role they are entitled to and capable of. But this is a course of action that other Arab leaders under similar pressures (Egypt and Sudan, for instance) refuse to take, and there is little reason to suppose that Bashar will (or can) become the pioneer his country needs.