Analysis: Syria’s Assad stifles dissent after decade in power

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT (BestGrowthStock) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has started liberalizing his country’s stilted economy, but not its politics. His first decade in power, a milestone he will pass on July 17, is ending more repressively than it began.

That has not deterred the West from gradually rehabilitating Syria from years of isolation imposed for its role in Lebanon, its backing of opponents of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its support for Islamist groups fighting Israel.

Syria is still locking up dissidents, drawing only verbal condemnation from the United States and its European allies — and silence from an Arab world where similar practices abound.

A military court gave 79-year-old lawyer Haitham al-Maleh a three-year jail term last week for “weakening national morale.” He was arrested last year after renewing calls to dismantle the 1963 emergency law that bans all opposition to the Baath Party.

In June another lawyer was jailed on the same charges and a writer was re-arrested a day after completing 2-1/2 years in prison. Five opposition figures were freed after serving similar sentences. Former parliamentarian Riad Seif remains behind bars.

“Assad is sending a message that he doesn’t care about human rights and political reforms in Syria, and that he doesn’t think the international community cares or will sanction him on that,” said Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch director in Beirut.

Damascus has acquired an outward gloss in the past 10 years, with a sprinkling of boutique hotels, chic cafes and shopping malls, along with private banks and construction projects.

But critics say the liberalization has mainly benefited a narrow class of well-connected businessmen, while corruption remains pervasive. They ask whether Syria’s economic reforms can succeed without broader political and judicial reforms.

RELIANCE ON SECURITY SERVICES

While some public criticism of economic policy is tolerated, much remains unchanged, including the security system Assad inherited from his formidable father, the late Hafez al-Assad.

“The government undoubtedly assumes that by keeping a tight rein on the people and maintaining clear red lines, it will face less trouble in the long run and fewer people will go to jail,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University.

“Syria is surrounded by countries that have been plagued by long civil wars and tough insurgencies,” he said, citing Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Syrian security has concluded that it cannot risk relaxing controls.”

After taking over in July 2000, Assad freed some political detainees and allowed debate on democracy and reform to flower, only to crush the “Damascus spring” a few months later.

Another crackdown scooped up opposition intellectuals who tried to revive the movement after an international outcry over the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri forced Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon in 2005. Damascus denied any role in his killing, which a U.N. tribunal is investigating.

Assad, who survived intense U.S. pressure under ex-President George W. Bush, has emerged unbowed and feeling vindicated.

“The international pressure on Syria was never about human rights,” Houry said. “In the Bush years there was clearly more criticism of its human rights record, but it was often part of a campaign that had broader interests and the Syrians knew that.”

UPSWING IN ASSAD’S FORTUNES

In the last two years Assad has forged closer ties with Iran, Turkey and Qatar, mended fences with Saudi Arabia and revived much of Syria’s influence in Lebanon, keeping links with Hezbollah there and with the Palestinian Hamas movement.

U.S. President Barack Obama has sought to engage Syria and enlist its help in stabilizing Iraq and in regional peace moves, although Congress has yet to confirm an ambassador to Damascus.

Regardless of which American president is in power, Assad seems in no hurry to ease up on his domestic critics, who pose no credible challenge to his now well-entrenched authority.

“In reality, Syria’s touch regarding human rights is not a function of administrations in Washington,” Murhaf Jouejati, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in the U.S. capital, said.

“Rather, Syria’s organizing principle seems to be: it’s better to be feared than to be loved. More economic space will not necessarily translate into improved human rights.”

Some room may open up for private social organizations — Assad’s wife Asma presided over Syria’s first international conference of such “civil society” groups in January.

But a human rights defender in Damascus, who asked not to be identified, said only apolitical groups could operate for now.

Syria, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, is among the world’s most repressive countries for Internet users. Skype, Facebook and YouTube are banned. Many bloggers and journalists are detained. Syria ranked 165th out of 175 countries on the group’s Press Freedom Index in 2009.

“The Syrian regime argues that it provides precious security and stability, and that it has protected its minorities and secular freedoms better then other Arab states,” Landis said.

“It is hard to know whether these arguments are real and based on a judicious assessment of local realities, or simply self-serving justifications for clinging to power.”

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Analysis: Syria’s Assad stifles dissent after decade in power