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SYRIA - Jun 6 - Political Reform Inored As Assad Lays Out Goals.

Pres Bashar Assad urges leaders of the Baath Party to revive the Syrian economy and fight corruption but makes no mention of political reform in a speech opening a governing party conference. He said: We have faced numerous difficulties because of the weakness of the administrative structure, the lack of qualified people and because of the chronic accumulation of these problems", in a rare admission of government failure. "On top of this, international conditions and successive events in our region have had a negative effect on investment and development opportunities where we had hoped for better", he added, a reference to tensions with the US and Israel, the insurgency in neighbouring Iraq and Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon. The 10th Baath Party congress convened while Syria is under increasing international scrutiny. The country, already under US sanctions for its alleged role in fueling the Iraqi insurgency, is still reeling from its April withdrawal from Lebanon, ending a 29-year military presence in its neighbour. The only way to improve living conditions and public services "is to overcome failure in our performance and address the negative practices which hamper our progress and constrain our reform project", Assad told the 1,221 Baath members. Without giving examples of graft, he said: We need more effective and decisive mechanisms" to combat corruption". He faces a long list of demands from the international community and at home, where pro-democracy activists have become increasingly vocal in their demands for more freedoms. Analysts say Assad is likely to seek a middle way, easing some of the pressure by seeming flexible while maintaining a firm grip on the country. Opposition figures have said the congress is unlikely to produce more than cosmetic change. Michel Kilo, a prominent writer and campaigner for democracy, said Assad's focus on the economy and corruption, as opposed to politics, showed that he follows the "Chinese model" of reform - liberalising the economy but not the political system. The speech also showed Assad has "a cautious yet clear desire for reform", he said. In his speech, Assad lamented what he called a political atmosphere "that has put tremendous pressure on Arab citizens and forced them to an unprecedented re-examination of their convictions and ideas". He cited a "huge influx of information and ideas made possible by the communications and information technology revolution, which has made room for theories and projects, as well as lifestyles which have overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity". Assad accused unidentified "enemies" of seeking to destroy Arab identity. "They simply aim at transforming us into a negative reactive mass which absorbs everything that is thrown at it without the will or even the possibility of thinking of rejecting or accepting it", he said. The conference is expected to open the way for the participation of other parties - as long as they are secular - endorse free-market reforms to the state-run economy, loosen central control and perhaps amend the emergency law in force since 1963. The party also may introduce structural changes by decreasing the number of members of the National Command - the party's highest authority - from 21 to 17 and naming new members.
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Title Annotation:Bashar Assad
Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jun 11, 2005
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