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Syria's Political Elite Meet to Talk Reform


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Syria's ruling Baath Party opened a four-day congress today in Damascus. It's the first such meeting in five years, and it comes at a time when many Syrians are calling for economic and political reforms and when Damascus is under intense pressure from Washington. In his opening statement, Syria's president stressed the need to make changes on the domestic front. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Damascus.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Months ago, President Bashar Al-Assad promised that this week's Congress would mark a great leap forward for Syria, but today looked more like a tentative step. No major initiatives were announced at the inaugural session. Assad opened the congress with a short speech to the audience of more than 1,100 Baath Party delegates.

President BASHAR AL-ASSAD (Syria): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: He said the Baath Party had to adapt to face new challenges that threaten Syria and the Arab world. The party's first priority, he said, was the Syrian economy. Assad acknowledged that some reform efforts had been hampered by inept government bureaucrats and rampant corruption.

(Soundbite of applause)

WATSON: And then, one by one, aging, gray-haired delegates stepped up to the podium and repeated much of the same rhetoric that Syrians have grown accustomed to hearing during the Baath Party's 43 years in power.

Unidentified Speaker #1: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Delegates automatically applauded at every mention of the president's name. Assad, a 39-year-old eye doctor who inherited the presidency from his father, stood out in the crowd as one of the youngest men in the Assembly room.

Unidentified Speaker #2: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Across town at a tea shop in central Damascus, about a dozen Syrians smoked water pipes as they watched the speeches on TV. A man named Awaz Gazall(ph) said he hoped his leaders would now focus on the country's domestic needs.

Mr. AWAZ GAZALL: Now it's high time to now look forward to the issue of investment, for example, to make the country wide open for newcomers worldwide.

WATSON: Another man declined to comment, muttering that the tea shop was swarming with undercover Syrian intelligence agents. In private conversations across Damascus, though, many Syrians repeat the same complaints. They say a bloated government bureaucracy is extorting money from the population. Many describe the political families of the ruling elite as a powerful mafia that controls the economy. And people like this businessman named George Adsam(ph) said they desperately hoped their young president would follow through on his promise to change the system.

Mr. GEORGE ADSAM: I hope so. I hope so. And everybody is expecting and waiting this. And they are--everybody happy ...(unintelligible).

WATSON: As the congress began, the Syrian regime is facing intense American diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. Washington accuses Damascus of supporting insurgents in neighboring Iraq and militants in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. Syrian political analyst Sami Moubayed says today's congress did not address the American criticisms.

Mr. SAMI MOUBAYED (Political Analyst): There's also a message, a domestic message and a message to the international community, that the Baath are here and they're here to stay.

WATSON: Moubayed predicts many of the Baath Party's Old Guard will soon be replaced by younger party members. That process appears to have begun already with the announcement late today that longtime Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam is stepping down. But a few new faces will be unlikely to satisfy many Syrians. As one skeptic here put it, `How can you expect the people who created this system and profited from it to then go out and reform it?' Ivan Watson, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.
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