Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Dynamics of change

pv vivekanand

With the last of the Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents crossing the border on Tuesday, the way has been cleared for parliamentary elections in Lebanon on May 29.

It is widely accepted that a fair and free election in Lebanon would produce a political system where Syria or pro-Syrian parties would no longer be calling all the shots.

Obviously, the US is hoping to eventually nudge the to-be elected Lebanese government into signing a peace agreement with Israel without linking it with the Syrian channel of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whether Washington would be successful in scoring that goal depends on many factors, not the least of which will be the stiff resistance put up by the Shiite majority's representative, Hizbollah.

In Damascus, President Bashar Al Assad is not waiting for the next American/Israeli move for a "regime change." He has launched his own moves, which will open the door for political parties.

One of Assad's main objectives is to challenge a US legislation calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria."

The draft legislation authorises the US to finance dissident political groups and thus implicitly nurture opposition to the regime from within the country.

It reads: "The president is authorised to provide assistance and other support for individuals and independent non-governmental organisations to support transition to a freely elected, internationally recognised democratic government in Syria."

No doubt, Assad had the US draft bill in mind when he went on record while meeting Spanish journalists in March -- around the time the bill was sent to the House of Representatives in the US -- that "the coming period will be one of freedom for political parties" in Syria.

Under Bashar's plans, which he has already put into motion, a new law on political parties it is expected to be announced at a June conference of the Baathist party.

The law will eliminate the "socialist-only" approach adopted by the late Hafez Al Assad open up the political system for new players, but with confinements on their options to grab power.

The new law will replace a 1974 bill which created the dominant National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition headed by the Baath Party and including other socialist parties such as the Arab Unionist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Unity Socialist Party. But the real power rested with the Baathists.

The expected legislation will recognise parties not affiliated with the NPF with the only condition that they should not be based on religion (an insurance against the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its arms) or on minority orientations (since the country has ethnic Kurdish, Armenian and Circassian groups).

According to analysts, the first party expected to receive a license is the Syrian Socialist National Party, which they say is expected to secure the widest popularity in Syria.

Assad has also signalled political reconciliation by lifting a ban on issuing or renewing passports of dissident Syrians living in exile and promising not to persecute them for their political beliefs.

Under this gesture, General Jasem Alwan, who believed in the pan-Arab ideologies of Abdul Gamal Nasser of Egypt and a vociferous critic of Baathists, Yusuf Abdelki, a popular artist who professed communist views, have already returned home to Syria.

Others are on their way back.

Obviously, Assad is confident that the Baathists will remain the dominant party and others could not come nowhere near it even if the system was thrown open.

The US and critics of Syria might feel otherwise, but in reality the Baathist Party is very strong in Syria and its supporters would not be easily swayed to switch parties since they have been for long indoctrinated with Baathist views.

Simply put, Bashar has no worry that Baathist power would face no change even if a multi-party system emerges in Syria. Dissidents will welcome it and even try to gain the upper hand, but it would not be possible for them to succeed: Assad in a constitutional amendment provides the Baath Party the sole leadership status in the country.

Therefore, for Assad, the best option is to let other parties exist and thus pre-empt charges of a closed political system, which is being cited by the anti-Syrian strategists in Washington who drew up and presented the "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria" to the House of Representatives in March.

Without doubt, Assad could indeed do with getting rid of part of the legacy of hislate father, who ruled the country withan iron-fist since 1970 until his death in 2000 and tolerated no dissent. Under Hafez Al Assad, hundreds of political prisoners were locked up for decades and gross violations ofhuman rights were reported.

Hafez Al Assad and Saddam Hussein of Iraq were from the same mold and followed the same thinking and practices when it comes to protecting theirregimes and power. Indeed, Bashar Al Assad's crash reform programme is a dangerousgame for himself since the old guard of the Baathist Party are said to be warning him against the proposed reforms. He faces resistance to his moves from such powerful figures as Baathist Party acting Secretary-General Abdullah Al Ahmed and the three vice presidents -- Zuheir Masharqa, Abdul Khalim Haddam and Mohammed Jaber Jabjush.

They have warned Assad that if he goes through with his plan he risks the end of his regime once and for all. But Bashar has no choice but to shore up his regime and political support from the people in a way thatwould get international approval and for that he needsto get rid of the Baathist baggage. "I don't want to see foreign troops in Syria forcing us to accept the sort of reforms imposed on Iraq,"Bashar is said to have told a close adviser. "We can carry out those reforms on our own."Effectively, these reform will mean turning the Baath Party from a Marxist-socialistideological movement to a pragmaticruling party which plays the game by democratic rules but within the confines of a system that does not lead to the collapse of his regime or the party's grip on power. At the June convention, a new name for the party will beannounced along with updated goals and a fresh motto that will replace the current motto of "Arab Unity, Liberty and Socialism" in party literature. The new name proposed is the National Ruling Party of Syria.

Assad wants to be ready with the overhauled political system at the June convention, the second to be held afterthe death of his father.His reform will cut off the strong links between the military and the Baathist party. At present, every army appointment has to be approved bythe party, meaning that if one is not a party memberhe will not be employed by the army (as the case wasin Saddam Hussein's Iraq).He is dismantling the Pan-Arab Commission of the Baath Party, close its Damascus offices and dismissits staff.

This commission has strong relations withBaathist groups in other Arab countries, particularlyJordan and Lebanon. Bashar Al Assad also wants to rewrite the national constitution and introduce an open market economy. The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon also meant the loss of billions of dollars in revenue for Damascus, and Assad cannot afford to have international economic sanctions imposed on his country as warned by the UN.

Bashar has established an economic committee to restructure the Syrian economy and oversee itstransition to a market economy.

There are many variables and constants that would influence the way ahead for Syria in its quest to squirm out of the American-written script which includes regime change in Damascus.

These include:

-- The outcome of the May 29 elections in Lebanon.

The US is seeking an American-friendly regime in power in Beirut, and the emerging alliance grouping the Maronite Christians, the Druze and the Sunni camp loyal to the assassinated prime minister, Rafiq Al Hariri, fit the bill, but only to an extent. None of the leaders of these groups could overlook or sidestep the links between the peoples of Lebanon and Syria through marriage and other family relationships as well as business tie-ups. Therefore, they are unlikely to allow themselves to be persuaded to cut off Syria and go their own way to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel.

Furthermore, the pro-Syrian political forces in Lebanon are far from being written off, and these include the powerful and committed Hizbollah. They would continue to assert a decisive role in Lebanese affairs, and no government in power in Beirut would be able to defy their wishes, particularly in issues such as ties with Israel.

-- Allegations of a Syrian role in the Hariri assassination.

No one with any insight into the intricacies of the region believes that the Syrians were so naive to have orchestrated the killing. It is difficult to perceive the Syrian strategists to plot and carry out the murder since the first party to be accused of staging the assassination would have been themselves.

There is a sizeable school of thought which believes that the Israelis were behind the killing since they stood to benefit most from its repercussions. However, if indeed Israel had a direct or indirect role in the murder, then it is also a safe bet that all tracks were carefully covered and smoothened over.

Despite a few blunders in recent years, Israel's notorious Mossad is very much capable of carrying out such deceptive operations and leaving red herrings pointing to Israel's adversaries as the culprits.

Therefore, it is widely perceived that any investigation into the killing is unlikely to come up with a definite conclusion as to who was behind that massive bomb blast on Feb.14.

However, an inconclusive investigation would still leave Syria as the prime suspect and this would definitely be used by the US and Israel to tighten the screws of pressure on Damascus on their own.

The deceptive "weapons of mass destruction" justification that the Bush administration used to implement its plans to invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein and occupy the country is the best example of the extent to which Washington would go to achieve its strategic goals.

-- Fears of a new civil war in Lebanon pitting anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian forces.

It is a highly unlikely course of events. The Lebanese have learnt their lessons from the 17-year civil strife they lived through. They are perfectly aware that a renewed civil war would benefit no one. Indeed, a civil war in Lebanon is the last thing that the Syrians want, given the reform plans that Damascus is implementing. Nor does Israel want a civil war in Lebanon. Strife across the border in Lebanon would pose serious threats to Israel, which would be a logical target for disgruntled Lebanese and Palestinian forces in Lebanon. That is to say the least.

Some people suggest that Hizbollah would refuse to take orders from an "American-friendly" government in Beirut and this could lead to an armed conflict. However, Hizbollah's track record proves that it is a pragmatic and realistic organisation and it would never be a party to igniting a civil war where its survival as the dominant group in Lebanon would be threatened.

Again, it is improbable that any government in Beirut would seek to disarm Hizbollah under American pressure based on UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Trying to disarm Hizbollah will be nothing but playing with fire, as its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah recently warned with an open challenge to the US to send in its military to Lebanon to take away the group's weapons.

A Beirut government using own security forces in a bid to disarm Hizbollah could indeed be problematic with untold dangers because of the sectarian divide. The government should and would know it better than most that deploying Lebanese security forces to challenge Hizbollah would lead to in nothing less than the end of the government itself.

Hizbollah knows well that if it is deprived of its armed power then it is not only its own end as an armed force but also the end of the Islamist resurgence that it believes it represents and of any hope to assert Islamist power in the Middle East. Everyone knows it, and even the US would think thrice before even entertaining any thought of using force to disarm Hizbollah.

Today, Hizbollah is looking forward to the May 29 elections. It is confident that it would be able to significantly strengthen its parliamentary presence through the ballot box. An armed conflict is the last thing it wants, but, if challenged with a life-and-death situation, then the group is capable of wreaking havoc throughout the region.

On the Syrian front, the reforms planned by the regime is seen crucial to warding off the American quest for "regime change" in Damascus. Bashar Al Assad would not flinch from it and thus deprive the US of credibility in its calls for action against Syria. However, that would not necessarily dissuade Washington from pursuing its plans, since "regime change" in Syria is crucial not only to American strategies in the region but also to Israel's quest for regional domination without making any territorial compromise with the Syrians over the occupied Golan Heights.

In any event, no matter how the cookie crumbles, the political equations in the Middle East are poised for a massive reshaping. It is only a matter of time before something gives.