At regular intervals we hear of reformist impulses in Syria. President Bashar Assad intends to appoint a new reform-minded government; the Baath party has been barred from interfering in the executive branch; the banking sector is opening up to privatization; Syria's sole privately owned newspaper, Al-Domari, has been closed down. Everywhere, it seems, reform is in the air.
Couldn't slip the Al-Domari line by you, could I? Indeed, even as Damascus was abuzz with talk of a new government to replace that of the forlorn Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa Miro, even as Syria's civil society revival committees cautiously welcomed the decision to reduce the Baath's control over the government apparatus, the country's two-year-old satirical weekly, founded by cartoonist Ali Firzat, saw its license revoked because it stopped publishing in May. Syrian press law mandates license revocations after three months of non-publication.
According to Al-Domari's staff, however, the newspaper wasn't able to publish these past months because of harassment by the regime. When the paper sought to print last week and dodge the three-month condition, the state and security services intervened to ensure it would not be distributed. Firzat has said he would appeal the decision, telling the Associated Press: "The newspaper's closure is a result of a struggle between the reformists and those who stand to lose from reform."
Al-Domari's lawyer, Anwar Buni, a member of Syria's Human Rights Association, was more to the point: "This decision was outrageous and contrary to the law and the constitution. It also runs counter to all that which has been said about media freedom, democracy and slogans of reform and development."
Buni's statement summarized what is really at stake in Syria, namely reducing the wide gap between the regime's often-vacant rhetoric on reform, and the real thing. In his phrase were echoes of Eastern Europe two decades and more ago, where independent-minded voices cut through the falsehoods propping up their autocratic systems to unchain what Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz called the "captive mind."
Firzat and Buni have displayed much courage, affirming that authentic reformers in Syria will not sing to an empty audience. A visit to Damascus will prove that, just as it will show a leadership that has still not resolved the dilemma of how much change is acceptable before the regime itself is threatened. Indeed, the real question Assad must answer is whether he and his fellow modernizers can fine-tune their system into convalescence, or whether the only option is to completely overhaul it.
Assad remembers that the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to renovate his political system from within, only to be swept away by those wondering: "Why the communists if we want improvement?" Assad has been more cautious, ruminating about the so-called Chinese model, which blends dominant state power with economic development. The only problem is that the Chinese model has depended on prosperous capitalism and its restriction to specific geographical areas, prerequisites Syria shows no signs of approximating.
For there to be genuine reform in Syria, the regime must do much more than what it is doing now. A tardy change of government or the modest opening up of the banking sector is hardly enough. Even the decision to bar the Baath from executive power is merely a reheated idea first thought up by the late president, Hafez Assad. Despite his tremendous authority, he was unable to implement it.
True reform must also address an issue the Syrian opposition has ignored: the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. It would be outlandish for a reform-minded Syrian regime to advocate more openness at home while sanctioning continued domination next door. In seeking to transform the Soviet system, Gorbachev rightly felt a need to dismantle the USSR's network of protectorates in Eastern Europe. Assad, if he is sincere, will have to do the same in Lebanon.
Few would welcome Syrian reform more than the Lebanese, who must have a role in helping bring it about. Lebanon, with all its shortcomings, is Syria's primary gateway to a more liberal and tolerant order. Well, that's not quite true if Iraqi democracy takes shape. But Lebanon is manageable, Iraq is not. Both neighboring states demand change from Syria, one that goes beyond ornamental efforts to amend a bankrupt system merely to preserve it.
We'll be certain Syria is changing when Al-Domari returns to Damascus' kiosks, but also when it becomes one of many independent publications that can say what they please about those in power, without paying the ultimate price.