The faint smell of jasmine
Next month's Baath Party Conference will introduce less radical changes than rumoured but changes nonetheless, reports Sami Moubayed from Damascus
The Baath Party Conference, scheduled for 6-9 June, has been the subject of growing speculation in recent weeks, much of it centred on the issue of reform. But rumours on the street, supported by reports in the Arab press, that President Bashar Al-Assad is about to launch a "jasmine revolution" in Syria, are exaggerated. With the conference now two weeks away it has become clear that such a radical redrawing of the political landscape is not on the cards, though the conference is still expected to usher in a political atmosphere markedly more relaxed than anything Syria has known since the Baath Party came to power in 1963. Over the past few days preparations for the conference have taken off. Ghassan Tayara, minister of industry, and Munib Saaem Al-Daher, minister of electricity, who both stood as delegates to the conference, were voted down. Ghassan Lahham, former governor of Damascus and current minister of presidential affairs, known to be close to President Al-Assad, barely scraped a seat at the conference.
Yet more startling is the fact that many reformers within the Baath Party -- Walid Al-Moualim, deputy minister of foreign affairs, Diala Haj Aref, minister of social affairs and labour, Hilal Al-Atrash, minister of local administration, Makram Obeid, minister of transportation, Amer Lutfi, minister of economy and Mehdi Dakhlallah, minister of information -- did not put themselves forward as delegates. The speaker of the People's Assembly, Mahmoud Al-Abrash, submitted his nomination "with reservations".
That so many officials have declined to run for party office suggests that they are seeking to establish a more independent profile for themselves now that membership of the ruling party is no longer a must for senior officials. Rumours of a general amnesty involving the release of political prisoners, including Riyad Seif and Maamoun Al-Homsi, the two parliamentarians arrested in 2001, to coincide with the conference, now look baseless. That, believe many commentators, is a PR coup the regime is saving for later.
Petitions by Seif and Al-Homsi's lawyers for their release have already been turned down though technically, now that they have served three-quarters of their five-year jail terms, there is no legal impediment to early release. Observers now believe the two will be released on 16 November, the anniversary of the "correction movement" that brought the late president Hafez Al-Assad to power in 1970.
Rumours that Syria was about to grant citizenship to 300,000 Kurds, deprived of Syrian nationality in 1962, also now seem exaggerated. Despite the rumour being confirmed by some officials, and the release of 312 Kurdish dissidents jailed in March 2004, it now looks as if the number of Kurds receiving Syrian citizenship will be less than 100,000. Widely trailed changes in the Baath Party's nomenclature, whereby the trio of "unity, freedom and socialism" would be replaced by "unity, democracy and social justice" have also been abandoned, though there will be changes in the party structure.
The Regional Command is to be replaced by a Party Command, members of which will be drawn from the party's younger ranks. While the 90-member central committee of the Baath Party will remain, who is staying on and who is leaving is the subject of intense speculation. Among current members are ex-vice- presidents Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Zuhayr Masharka, ex-defence minister Mustafa Tlas, ex-prime minister Mustafa Miro, ex-parliament speaker Abdel- Qadir Qaddura, ex-chief of staff Ali Aslan, ex- information minister Adnan Umran and ex-higher education minister Hassan Risheh. Few of these former officials are expected to survive. The current committee also includes Prime Minister Naji Al-Otari, Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shara, Defence Minister Hassan Turkomani, Expatriate Minister Buthaina Shaaban, and Chief-of-Staff Ali Habib, in addition to Al-Assad's brother Maher, and his contemporary Manaf Tlas. Many in Syria also expected some constitutional amendments, expectations raised when, in March, Mehdi Dakhlallah, minister of information, announced that "constitutions are not holy and can be amended". These hopes, too, seem likely to de dashed unless, according to Ibrahim Hamidi, Al-Hayat 's well-informed Damascus correspondent, "a surprising change takes place".
Martial law, in force since 1963, will also remain though it has been the focus of protests since 2000. The conference will, however, advise the Baath leadership to issue a new party law allowing political parties not affiliated with the Baath to operate. Moves towards this end began when in May 2005 Al-Assad allowed the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a party banned since 1955, to join the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary organisation of leftist parties under the umbrella of the Baath. Many other parties are expected to be licensed in the two years preceding the 2007 parliamentary elections, though the majority of pre-allocated seats will remain in Baath hands.
The Ministry of Information has also proposed amending the 2001 press law that imposes a maximum three-year custodial sentence for publishing crimes with the press law of 1949, which has a maximum provision of one year. As the Baath Party Conference draws closer there are clear signs that political discourse is heating up throughout Syria. Several groups are already working on formulating the by- laws that will be included in their applications for a party licence once the conference is over.
Many Syrians, exiled for political reasons since the 1960s, are thinking of following Colonel Jassem Alwan, who tried and failed to seize power in 1963, and who has now returned to Syria. They include Rifaat Al-Assad, the uncle of the current president and brother of the late president Hafez Al-Assad, who tried and failed to seize power in 1984. He is unlikely to be welcomed back, though many others will be. Not quite the "jasmine revolution" rumoured, but positive movement towards change.