Are Assad’s Reforms Legitimate?

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The last five days have been full of concessions and promises from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The question now is whether the reforms are legitimate (vote on the side bar). Here is a look at three significant regime announcements in reverse chronological order:

Today from Aljazeera: Assad orders new Syrian amnesty

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has ordered a new general amnesty for all crimes committed in the country up until June 20, in another apparent attempt to calm months of protests against his rule.

The state news agency, SANA, announced the move on Tuesday, nearly a month after Assad issued a similar amnesty for all political crimes.

“President Assad has issued a decree granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before the date of June 20, 2011,” SANA reported, without giving details.

The president ordered a reprieve on May 31 for all political prisoners in the country, including members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of detainees were released, according to rights groups.

But the amnesty decrees are believed to be a part of the overtures by the Syrian government to its opposition, largely seen as symbolic. Rights groups have criticized the amnesty measures, calling them insufficient.

Full Text of Assad’s Speech on Monday June 20, in which he called for a national dialogue. Here is the transcript of a follow-up interview that NPR did with advisor Bouthaina Shaaban. If you have the time, it is worth listening to:

Bouthaina Shaaban is a political and media advisor to Syria’s embattled president, and she joins us now from Damascus. Welcome to the program, Ms. Shaaban.

Ms. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN (Political and Media Advisor to President Bashar al-Assad): Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, reaction to President Assad’s speech today from the State Department said – the U.S. said that President Bashar al-Assad has been making promises to his people for years. What’s important now is action not words. Why, at this late date, are there not actions toward political reform?

Ms. SHAABAN: I think there were many actions taken since the president started. But I think today was a big day for Syria because the vision that was laid out today is a new vision, and it is coming out of the experience with the crisis.

So for the first time, the president called for a national dialogue to discuss political party law, to discuss electoral law, media law, to review and, if needed, rewrite the constitution. These are major decisions and major steps.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you about two facts of political life in Syria today and whether they’re going to be part of the dialogue or whether they’re off the table. Baathist Party rule and President Assad’s rule, do you assume that those are not up for discussion or is that part of the dialogue?

Ms. SHAABAN: No, no. That is – when you say the constitution is at the table to be reviewed or to be rewritten, it means you are calling for political participation and for democracy. It means we are changing the political system in Syria. And the president gave a timeframe for all these to be achieved by the end of the year as maximum deadline.

SIEGEL: Are you saying that President Bashar al-Assad is prepared to move to a system in which the Baathist Party is guaranteed no particular number of seats in parliament and anybody, regardless of what the security services thinks of them, can run a slate of candidates and anybody could be elected president of Syria and that system could be in place by the end of this year?

Ms. SHAABAN: Well, this is exactly what the multi-party system means and this is exactly what the electoral laws mean. And this is exactly why President Assad is calling for a national dialogue both with the opposition and with all the social strata in Syria. This will be the product of the dialogue.

SIEGEL: Who will get to take part in the national dialogue? Will you admit the leaders of the protests out in the streets to sit down and take part in the national dialogue?

Ms. SHAABAN: We are inviting all leaders of the opposition, all leaders of social groups to come and participate in the national dialogue.

SIEGEL: Would the Muslim Brotherhood be welcome to sit at that – in those talks, in that dialogue or not.

Ms. SHAABAN: Well, we don’t have religious parties in Syria because Syria is a mosaic and is a secular society. We are talking about a political system. We are not talking about a religious dynasty.

SIEGEL: And once again, broader political participation you say means at least putting on the table the Baathist Party’s guaranteed majority. Is President Assad’s leadership necessary for Syria or is that something for the Syrian people to settle by democratic means?

Ms. SHAABAN: One, it is for the Syrian people. I believe that President Assad’s leadership is very important at this stage, because he is leading Syria to a more – a multiple political system, to a more democratic system. And I believe the laws that will be issued from now until we finish all the laws advocating, will leave it up to the Syrian people to decide their future also.

SIEGEL: That the Syrian people, you’re saying, should and will be able to decide by their vote whether Bashar al-Assad remains in power as president of Syria?

Ms. SHAABAN: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Bouthaina Shaaban, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. SHAABAN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Bouthaina Shaaban spoke to us from Damascus, where she is a spokesperson and political and media advisor to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The third major “concession” came last week when Rami Makhlouf said he planned to become a philanthropist. This is from the Global Post:

Syria’s top businessman and most notorious member of the country’s leadership, Rami Makhlouf, announced Thursday he will be quitting business and moving to charity.

“I announce that I will not allow myself to be a burden on Syria, its people and president from now on,” he said in Damascus, as reported by Bloomberg.

He said he will donate his profits from investments to charity and offer shares of his company, Syriatel, to the poor.

Tik Root of Mideast Reports writes about why this last move might not be as charitable as it first looks. This is an excerpt from his recent Huffington Post blog entry:

The big news out of Syria last week was Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf ‘s announcement that he is quitting his business deals and becoming a philanthropist. Although Makhlouf is President al-Assad’s cousin, he claims that no one in the regime forced him to step aside.

Makhlouf owns the country’s leading telecom provider (SyriaTel), banks, an airline and is generally considered to “hold unrivaled economic clout.” For the average Syrian he is a symbol of the regime’s corruption, arrogance, and cronyism. His departure is undoubtedly a win for the protestors, but it might also be a well-calculated move by the regime.

If Makhlouf’s claims can be taken at face value, they could benefit thousands of Syrians, but I’m skeptical. The other “concessions” that the regime made have been far from legitimate. In April, Assad lifted the 48-year old emergency law, but replaced it with a new terrorism law and continued to brutally suppress dissent. At the end of May the President granted amnesty to all political prisoners, only to continue arresting citizens at rate of around 300 people per day in the north alone. It is yet to be seen whether Assad’s recent call for national dialogue or a second round of amnesty will bear fruit.

So what might be other reasons for Rami Makhlouf stepping down? Joshua Landis, who runs the blogSyria Comment, explored the idea that the regime is “sacrificing” Makhlouf in order to placate protestors. I am even more cynical.

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One Response to Are Assad’s Reforms Legitimate?

  1. Pingback: Obama Under Pressure to Act on Syria | Mideast Reports

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