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Syria's Ruling Party Debates Reform Proposals

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Syria's ruling Baath Party opened a congress today. It's the first country-wide meeting in five years, and it's met to discuss planned reforms, what the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, has labeled `the great leap.' More than 1,100 Baath Party members are attending this congress in Damascus, and that's where NPR's Ivan Watson is this morning.

And, Ivan, one reason we're interested in this meeting is because of the timing. It comes after Syria has faced intense international criticism, been forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. So given all that, what's expected of this meeting?

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Well, Steve, President Bashar Al-Assad, he opened up this meeting and he said that the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria for 43 years, does face new challenges and new changes and it has to adapt. It has to make a great leap forward to meet the hopes of the Syrian people. But then one by one, I've been watching septuagenarian delegates stepping up to the podium here and repeating much of the same rhetoric that Syrians have grown accustomed to hearing during the past 43 years of Baath Party rule. In fact, every time they even mention President Bashar Al-Assad's name the audience automatically applauds, and some Syrians I've spoken with say they're not hearing or seeing anything that signifies a great leap forward.

INSKEEP: Hm. Well, this is a president who took over from his father five years ago, was supposed to be a young and more modern leader. What is his record at home?

WATSON: Well, he does seem to be quite popular with the people. They do think he wants to bring about reform, and he has introduced some freedoms, such as liberalizing a bit this centrally planned economy here; introducing private banks, ATM machines, credit cards and cell phones. And there's a bit more political freedom. But according to the constitution, the Baath Party is still enshrined as the leader of this society, and in the month before this congress, we've seen an apparent show of force from the authorities. They rounded up members of the country's only public political and cultural discussion group, they test-fired several scud missiles in the past week, and yesterday, clashes with the Kurdish minority in a Kurdish town of Qameshli on the border here where protesters were calling for an independent investigation into the mysterious death of a Kurdish cleric. So getting mixed messages here.

INSKEEP: Is the government under any internal pressure to reform?

WATSON: I'm hearing from every Syrian that I talk to that they do want change. First of all, economic change. There's 20 percent unemployment here. University students I've spoken with all talk about going--leaving the country to find work after they graduate. There's also a lot of complaint about huge corruption, bloated government agencies that squeeze Syria's middle class for bribes and, again, loosening up the economy. And that's not even talking about political freedoms. For instance, the Kurdish minority here, hundreds of thousands of Kurds, don't have citizenship, don't even have the right to jobs or education.

INSKEEP: Ivan, we mentioned that international pressure forced the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon. Do other nations have any leverage to force the Syrians to reform at home?

WATSON: Well, Europe has held up a trade deal with Syria, and Syria's also under huge pressure from the US. It's a big concern among Syrians I'm talking to. They are afraid of the looming threat of a confrontation with the US. The US has been accusing Syria of allowing insurgents to cross the border into Iraq and also continues to denounce what they say is Syria's support of armed militants in Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territories.

INSKEEP: Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ivan Watson. He is in Damascus where Syria has begun a congress today.

This is NPR News. 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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