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Syrian Ba'th Regime Concentrates On Its Strategic Priorities; National Implications.

*** The Secular Identity Of The Assad Regime Makes It A Target For The Islamist Militants, Most Notably Including The Muslim Brotherhood Of Syria Which Is Not Only Banned But Its Members Are Liable To Punishment By Death; The MB Is Now Part Of A Coalition Led By Khaddam - A Former Partner Of The Ba'thist Establishment

*** One Of Sarkozy's First Statements After His May 6 Election Victory Contained A Vow To Work On The Disarmament Of Hizbullah In Lebanon - His Pro-US Policies Worry The Members Of The Iran-Led Axis Of Influence In The Middle East

DAMASCUS - The strategic priorities of the ruling Ba'th Arab Socialist Party in Syria are the survival of its regime in Damascus, preservation of the regime's secular identity as well as its pan-Arab character, and rejection of all Arab-Israeli peace plans not in line with the Ba'thist "regional (local) and national (pan-Arab) orientations". With these in mind, Syria on April 22-23 held its second parliamentarian elections under President Bashar al-Assad. The elections were boycotted by the Syrian opposition and were denounced by most of the West as undemocratic. The US, the most critical, dismissed them as a missed opportunity for meaningful democratic reform.

For the first time in 45 years, however, the average Syrian citizen had found how important his participation was for legitimising the whole electoral process. But the lack of interest on the part of the Syrians was a significant - though passive - statement. The turnout was the main interest in the exercise. According to unofficial estimates, turnout was as low as 10% in some places.

At a briefing in Washington a few days before the elections, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs J. Scott Carpenter told journalists: "[T]he Syrian government and its ruling Ba'th Party periodically go through this motion of holding what they call elections, but the regime continues to use authoritarian rule as established by its emergency law, its all-powerful security forces, and its monopoly control over the legal process and framework to ensure that the election - the so-called election - doesn't in any way reflect a democratic process".

The young President Bashar had in mid-2000 inherited a regime which was basically an Alawite/Ba'thist dictatorship from his father Gen. Hafez al-Assad, who died suddenly of a heart attack on June 10 of that year. But since then, Bashar has been trying to reform the regime against all kinds of odds. Since 9/11, however, he has found Syria to be isolated from the Arab region and internationally. That he has managed to survive so far is in itself a remarkable achievement.

The result of the parliamentary election was not in doubt, as only one third of the 250 parliamentary seats was actually up for grabs. The other two thirds (167 seats) were automatically allocated to the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of the Ba'th and nine other satellite parties which has ruled Syria since 1972 - when Assad established the front - two years after his military coup d'etat which he called a "corrective movement" against the civilian wing of the Ba'th.

NPF candidates are selected for their unquestionable loyalty to the regime. The only real competition was among thousands of independent candidates for the remaining 83 seats. But three key developments made the elections of particular importance and may signify a major shift in Syria's political mood.

The first was massive coverage of the elections by the Syrian media. Since the opening of the campaigns, the media, both the private and the state-owned, were extremely critical of the candidates and their programmes and tactics to win votes. Given the lack of freedom of expression under Ba'thist rule, the critical media coverage was a major development in Syria's political life. The second was the extent to which the elections contributed to enhancing people empowerment. Given the fact that people in Syria never had the right even not to vote, this was a significant development.

The third was the lesson learnt by candidates. After the elections, candidates have learnt not to take voters' acquiescence for granted. They needed to lobby, visit villagers, present real programmes for change and do more than display their pictures and far-fetched slogans in the street. Given the fact that votes in Syria were collected at will and without much interest in people's concerns, that was a major development. It was also significant that, despite instructions from the authorities not to vote for certain candidates, several businessmen won seats in the new parliament.

These businessmen cannot be described as critics of the regime; yet, their election meant that the days when people in Syria would act by the regime's book were gone. Dr Marwan Kabalan, a lecturer in media and international relations at Damascus University, wrote in Arab News that no matter how passive and limited in scope, people "empowerment exhibited itself in a very obvious way in a country where people are not allowed to judge for themselves or make free and independent decisions on public life", adding: "This was also a major development that should neither be misread nor pass unnoticed".

Dr Wa'el Mirza, a professor of information at the University of Sharjah, wrote in Gulf News of May 1: "The outcome of the Syrian...elections may not bring about any change to the structure... This is simply because the new parliament cannot make big achievements due to the prevailing old laws and rules that restrict its role, powers and way of work. The elections...were just a chance for the new Syrian media to throw a stone into the still waters of the traditional media..."

For the first time in decades, Syrians have been able to see a vital and multi-voiced movement in their media, through the All For Syria daily newsletter issued in Syria and distributed to over 20,000 subscribers around the world, according to Ayman Abdul-Noor, editor of the newsletter. The newsletter carried articles, studies and analyses on the elections, which all called for a free and fair polling. "Free and fair elections" was the newsletter's main slogan and what it called for.

In an article titled Parliamentary Member, Voter and Nation, Dr Muhammad Habash, an independent Syrian Islamic reformist, wrote that the Syrian parliamentary institution suffered from its poor role just like other Arab parliaments, with the exception of Lebanon, Kuwait and Morocco. Habash said the parliamentary role was still weak in most Arab states and Syria was no exception.

Under the title, "Blank Paper - Is the Vote of the Third Current", Dr Maher Yassin, said: "In response to the president's call, we will go to ballot boxes on the elections day just to exercise our constitutional right despite our criticism against the elections. We will not vote for anyone and our papers in the ballot boxes will be blank to express our protest regarding the election and parties laws which are incapable of taking the Syrian elite to the parliament. Instead, those who make it to the parliament are an embarrassing group of people, whom I do not wish to describe further. It is time for Syria to say no to the men of darkness, whether they were in the government or opposition".

In the same newsletter, Dr Elias Heliani wrote: "It is time for the Syrian citizen to say a firm no to all those merchants, to all those imposed on him and to the confiscation of his opinion. If the Syrian national is oppressed today, that is because he does not have the right understanding of freedom and looks for it in all the wrong places. But, deep inside, are we free? Do we have the courage and determination to be free?" Heliani's article was titled: "The Assembly of Ostriches and Sleepers".

Heliani's bulletin asked opponents inside and outside Syria a set of questions regarding the elections, such as the benefit and whether they were going to vote. The answers received were published regardless of how strong they were and were mostly negative. Those who were asked said the regime's structure did not allow free elections, everything was predetermined, an honest person would never make it to the parliament and that it was impossible to carry out free elections under martial law.

It was a professional practice to publish people's honest opinions about such sensitive issues. Abdul-Noor said there were two targets behind the election's coverage. The first was professional: recovering and stressing the role of the Syrian media and its credibility. The second was related to national reconciliation. Abdul-Nour said: "Some people may not know this fact, while others may ignore it for their own interest, but only the truth stands at the end, and we have to wait for history to say its word".
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:May 14, 2007
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