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Syrians Still Waiting for Promised Political Reforms


In the Middle East, political reformers are watching developments in Damascus, Syria, where the Baath Party has held power for more than 40 years. Syria has dominated its neighbor Lebanon, it's fought wars with Israel, and is today an open route for Arab fighters sneaking into Iraq to attack the government there and American troops. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad inherited the post after his father died five years ago. He's promised political reforms. If he's going to make them, the forum under way in Damascus now is the place. It's the Baath Party Congress, a political convention that takes place only every five or six years. Nicholas Blanford is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Damascus.

Nicholas, I guess there's been a resignation so far, a vice president, Mr. Al-Assad's vice president. He's gone. Is that going to make a difference?

Mr. NICHOLAS BLANFORD (The Christian Science Monitor): In itself, it probably won't make much difference, but it's an indication perhaps that the Baath Party is cleaning house. There's a stronger level of skepticism in Syria amongst ordinary Syrians about how intensive that housecleaning will be. They are expected to remove many of the older figures in the Baath Party during this congress and replace them with younger people, though critics will point out that those younger people might have been in the Baath Party for 20 years instead of 40 years. But that doesn't really make much difference in terms of the direction the Baath Party could be headed in.

CHADWICK: Well, Bashar Al-Assad a couple of months ago had said, `Look, change is coming; we're going to be doing things differently.' But I gather he's made an opening speech there, and he's not talking about big changes.

Mr. BLANFORD: Well, in fairness to him, the speech that he gave, it was a very short speech, but it wasn't really intended to be a major policy statement. He's leaving it very much to the delegates at the Baath Party conference, all 1,250 or so. And these are the guys who are going to be discussing over these days exactly what changes they want to bring in. There were a number of leaks in the run-up to this congress, and we have a fairly clear idea of some of the changes that they are going to bring in. But, you know, to a foreign audience, these may seem rather arcane and uninteresting or unimportant. But the changes that they are bringing in really is to try and reform the Baath Party initially. The Baath Party, according to the Syrian Constitution, is the leader of state and society.

Now it seems that Bashar Al-Assad, President Assad, is looking to weaken somewhat the role of the Baath Party, to separate it slightly from the state, to allow a greater diversity of civil servants and politicians to award positions on merit rather than by virtue of the fact that they're in the Baath Party. So it's a bit of a case of undermining slightly the grip that the Baath Party has on the state. And this is seen as an important initial step for perhaps more wider-ranging reforms in the coming months and years.

CHADWICK: Are there American diplomats observing what's going on there? And if so, what are they saying to you?

Mr. BLANFORD: Well, they're keeping a fairly low profile at the moment. The ambassador, Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador to Syria, has been away for several months on extended leave. And basically, she's been recalled. So there is no real dialogue going on between the Syrians and the Americans at all at the moment. The Americans will be keeping a very close eye on developments here. Syria really these days is at the heart of much of the problems in the Middle East, not necessarily a cause of those problems, but it is directly linked, of course, to developments in Lebanon, to developments with radical anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah of Lebanon. It is directly connected with developments in Iraq, of course, which is one of the United States' most pressing concerns. So, yes, the Americans are certainly keeping a very close eye on developments here.

CHADWICK: Nicholas Blanford, correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Damascus.

Nicholas, thank you.

Mr. BLANFORD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.