Syria: The reforms of Bashar al-Assad – beyond expectations or the beginning of the end?

Last week President Bashar al-Assads political and media adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban unveiled reform pledges to be undertaken as a response to the protests in Daraa. Among the reforms was the promise to study the possibility of lifting the emergency law (and enact new laws for the protection of the state and its citizens…), a new media law and law abolishing the de facto political monopoly of the Baath-party. This was not enough to stop the unrest.

In the past the regime has unveiled plans for political reforms that turned out to be stillborn. Two telling examples are the so called Damascus spring in 2000 – 2001 which saw the closing of the feared al-Mezze al-prison, the release of scores of political prisoners and the opening if political salons such as the Atassi-forum. Then as sudden as it began the spring turned into winter; the closing of the salons and jailing of dissidents. And in June 2005 the Baath party endorsed political reforms that would allow some independent political parties, relax the emergency law and granting more press freedom. But these proposals was never enacted and should also be seen in the context of the political pressure put on Syria after the killing of Rafik Hariri and the withdrawal of troops for Lebanon.

So it is not so strange that Syrians view these latest pledged concessions from Bouthina Shaaban skeptically.

So what will Bashar al-Assad have to do? In his speech before parliament, that is scheduled to take place today, he must get ahead of the curve – present credible and far reaching reforms that is beyond expectations of both critics and supporters. Also he must explain what happened in Daraa and Latakia, and not blame the protests on foreigners – either take full responsibility for the killing of protesters or promptly see to it that those responsible are brought to justice, even if it means taking on people close to him.

An immediate end of the emergency laws based on decree 15 from 1962 is but another necessary step to take. But that is not enough. There is a need to repeal of law 49 of 1980
and article 16 of decree 14 from 1969 if the security apparatus is to be brought in line and start to respect the rights of Syrian citizens.

Assad should also follow through on the promise of political reform and present the new law (adopted by Parliament) allowing any and all political parties to run in open and fair elections; to be followed by dissolving the parliament and announcement of elections. Concerning the position of president the constitution should be amended limiting the number of terms to be served, and if he is really bold Assad should confound his critics by calling for a snap election to the position of president.

To prove the bona fide of the new Syria he should invite independent election monitors for above mentioned elections.

This would be beyond expectations.

I hope this or something close to it emerges but I must say I am not optimistic.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad has been invisible since the crisis began and that the promised speech has been postponed again and again is not a good sign. The question I have posed before is who is in charge in Syria. How much political will for reform has Bashar al-Assad? How much has he to take into account the will and views of his sister Bushra, brother Maher and brother-in-law Assef Shawqat as well as cousin, the business tycoon Rami Makhluf and other members of the clan and close associates?

If true reforms that go beyond expectation of critics and supporters of Bashar al-Assad are not presented I think it is safe to say that the people in Syria who genuinely like and admire him and his wife will have their hopes and dreams crushed. This will be followed by continuing protests, the strengthening of the hardliners, brutal crack-downs and instability in Syria and in the region.

The support for the regime which in large is based on the popularity of the president and his wife – who gives legitimacy to an otherwise authoritarian hereditary regime from a religious minority – will dissipate. In the long run this will spell the downfall of the house of al-Assad.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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