Reform, Syrian Style


The Syrian regime has freed 130 political prisoners, some held for as long as 30 years. The New York Times story announcing the move noted ?some human rights officials say it is a sign, if a small and ambiguous one, of the larger pressures Syria is under these days, with more than 100,000 American soldiers next door in Iraq and increasing impatience for change at home.?

However, this passage seemed closer to the truth:

Many experts on Syria say they believe the prisoner release was partly a gesture to the European Union, in anticipation of the coming signing of [an EU-Syrian] trade pact, and partly to show some movement on reforms to Syrians themselves. And since most of the released prisoners were Islamists, some speculate that the release was a way to create good will with the growing number of observant Muslims in Syria? In all, human rights activists, diplomats and other experts say the prisoner release seems consistent with what they see as other recent steps to ease pressure on several fronts: give a little but make no major changes that could loosen the government?s hold on power.

One passage, however, was more revealing: ?Reiterating Syria?s often-stated view [one former Syrian official] said internal reforms were difficult to carry out in the absence of peace with Israel.?

Precisely why Syria should hold domestic reform and democratization hostage to the conflict with Israel is unclear, especially as the Syrian army has studiously avoided initiating war with the Israelis since October 1973. But this is the problem: Syria has spent decades building up parallel domestic security services that need the conflict with Israel to justify their own existence.

What the former official didn?t address was the reverse of the coin: How eager would the security services be to accept a peace settlement if it leads to less power for them? Under the late Hafiz al-Assad the threshold was lower, because of the old man?s influence. But under his inexperienced son, Bashar, it is surely much higher. He can only deliver a peace with Israel that he can sell to his own political elite and security services; but he?s in no position to get one because Syria is far too weak vis-?-vis Israel.