Middle East

Assad changes tack - but will it work?

Bashar al-Assad delivers address 16 April 2011
Image caption Assad's reforms may be too little, too late

This was a different speech from one President Bashar al-Assad delivered before an admiring parliament on 30 March, two weeks after the outbreak of by far the most serious internal trouble his regime has faced.

Now, giving his new government its marching orders, Mr Assad told ministers their mission was to deliver a raft of reforms, structural changes and a new partnership with the public that would make Syria an example for democracy in the region.

His words will no doubt be greeted with scepticism by protesters who have lived through the past month of violent repression and the decades of ruthless control which preceded it.

But Mr Assad came up with a tangible promise to meet one of their most strident demands - the lifting of the hated emergency laws which have been in place since 1963 and under which security agents have detained and tortured people with impunity.

He said new legislation would be put through at the latest next week, allowing the emergency laws to be lifted.

Human rights

His critics will be watching closely to see whether the new anti-terrorism laws which replace the emergency measures will provide equally indulgent cover for human rights violations, as they fear.

The same will go for the whole of his sober and businesslike address, in which he held out a vision of a new relationship and interaction between state and people.

He said he had talked to many delegations from the provinces over the past few weeks, and listened to their demands.

It was clear that a gap was widening between the people and the state, he said - a gap that could only be closed by trust, and complete transparency on the part of the state.

No government could rule without popular support, he said.

In addition to lifting emergency laws, Mr Assad also said there would be timetables for new legislation on:

  • a law that would dilute the monopoly of his ruling Baath party
  • a new, modern press and media law
  • a law which would regulate demonstrations, whereby protesters would be protected by police but so would public and private property

There should be a broad process of consultation and participation on these issues, the president said.

He also promised action to meet people's economic needs and stimulate investment and job creation.

'Corrosive corruption'

But the important thing, he stressed, was for transparency, dialogue and communication between the government and the public, so that even if it wasn't possible to meet all their needs, they would understand why.

He talked at length also about the corrosive effect of corruption at all levels.

It should be combated not just with vague declarations, he said, but by putting in place mechanisms and structures, such as a register of declared interests for top officials, transparent bidding for contracts, an authority to investigate accusations and suspicious situations, and cutting down the kind of routine formalities for which petty bribery was commonplace.

It was all very different from his earlier speech, in which he repeatedly blamed the troubles on an unspecified foreign conspiracy, which he said was bent on sowing fitna - discord - between the Syrians and undermining the country's stability and unity.

This time, he made only a passing reference to the "conspiracy", and the word fitna did not appear at all.

While recognising the right to demonstrate, Mr Assad stressed that accepting protest and demands for reform did not confer a right to sabotage (takhrib). The destruction of public and private property would not be tolerated, he warned.

In contrast to his March speech, he now expressed his sadness at the blood that had been spilt, saying that all those who lost their lives (estimated at more than 200 so far) were considered martyrs.

Investigations into the violence were under way, he said, and those responsible would be held to account.

Unrest spreading

His address came amid clear signs that, a month on, the dissent is spreading.

Friday saw security forces having to use tear gas and baton charges to prevent large numbers of demonstrators congregating in one of the central squares in the capital Damascus.

Protests were also reported in the second city, Aleppo, and many others.

The past week has seen the port of Baniyas, north-west of Damascus, join Deraa in the south as the icons of the revolt.

The unrest started in Deraa in mid-March and all the authorities' efforts to pacify it there have apparently only fanned the flames.

In Deraa and elsewhere, anger seems to have gone beyond a call for reform, to a demand for the regime to go.

Protesters chant the ominous slogan "The people want the fall of the regime!" which accompanied exactly that fate for Presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt.

The question now is whether Mr Assad can deliver swiftly and credibly on the reforms he has proposed - and even if he can, which many doubt, whether they are too little and too late.