Syria’s salvation is through reform

Special to The Daily Star

Despite the current mood of optimism prevailing in Syria due to the success of President Bashar Assad’s recent visit to Moscow, the country continues to face a very serious situation because of its poor relations with the United States and the international community. The Bush administration still denounces Damascus for what it says is Syrian meddling in Iraq; and the international community as a whole continues to deride Syria’s overt and well-documented interference in Lebanese affairs.

For this reason, the U.S. is unlikely to relax its pressures on the Syrian regime anytime soon. Instead of throwing carrots in its direction, the Americans seem more interested in putting the Assad regime on hold, letting it simmer in its own juices in preparation for a new round of international pressures.

The association agreement that Syria and the European Union are expected to sign in May will not be enough to get the regime off the hook. Many European countries, especially France, have been pushing Damascus for months to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. President Jacques Chirac reiterated this demand earlier this week in Paris, in the company of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

So what options does the Syrian regime have? How can the regime normalize its strained relations with the U.S., the EU and the international community?

Contrary to what many members of the political class think, the only answer is domestic political reform. During the past few months of international criticism and pressure, the regime has attempted to address the situation purely as a foreign policy matter. Damascus has avoided meeting American demands, and when it saw that these demands deprived it of potential pressure cards to use against Israel, it issued statements indicating a desire to jumpstart Syrian-Israeli negotiations – to no avail. The road to Washington does not pass through Israel, as the Syrian regime had hoped. It is the other way around: Syria’s road to salvation goes through Washington.

However, appeasing an unrelenting Bush administration now requires more innovation and boldness. It also requires introspection, something that has been missing from the Syrian scene for the past four years, after Assad took office amid rising expectations for change. There are still quite a few members of the political elite who continue to have problems accepting that political reform represents a preferable way out of the present imbroglio and can pave the way for international legitimacy – over and above the good it would do for the regime’s domestic credibility. The inability to grasp this simple fact is disheartening, but, worse, it also poses an existential threat today to both regime and country.

Syria’s only real card now is a credible process of political reform. This means not only introducing new reformists into the higher ranks of the Baath Party (as the party seems poised to do soon), it should also involve such “radical” steps as establishing a dialogue with opposition parties and dissidents inside and outside the country, freeing all political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency, and adopting a national reconciliation pact that can accommodate Syria’s diverse ethnic, religious and political groups. A new Constitution and a new modus vivendi are in order here.

Only such a process would enable the Syrian regime to break out of its isolation, regain international legitimacy and become an active participant in the emerging order in the Middle East. The Europeans will most assuredly support such a process if it is authentic enough.

Holding talks with a Syria that is democratizing could be too tempting to ignore for the Israelis. It would also give the Syrian government a critical push, buttressing its call for a full return of the occupied Golan Heights. This would also go a long way toward reversing the current trend observed in recent opinion polls in Israel showing a lack of popular support there for the idea.

Even the Bush administration, no matter how eager it is to find scapegoats for its current mess in Iraq, would find it hard to oppose a Syrian regime that has embraced Washington’s rhetoric of reform and democratization. In fact, the U.S. might be tempted to use such a transformation to its advantage, highlighting it as a byproduct of its Middle Eastern policies. The administration could then point to Syria, not Iraq, as the model for the kind of “velvet transformation” it wants to see in the region.

Internal political reform may do more than help the Syrian regime extract itself from its internal and external predicaments and pull the rug out from under those interfering in domestic Syrian affairs. It would also help transform Syria, again, into a major regional player and, once comprehensive economic reforms are adopted, into a magnet for foreign investment. This would create a win-win solution for all those inside Syria and those outside observing its behavior. But do Syria’s current leaders have enough foresight and wisdom to grasp this?

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus, and is coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a program that seeks to bring greater awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Arab world. He is currently facing a travel ban imposed by Syria’s political security directorate. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.