Syrian Ammar Abdulhamid has just inaugurated (in Syria) a project known as Al-Tharwa, which he describes as ?an activity that seeks to shed some light on the living conditions of religious and ethnic minority groups in the Middle East in an attempt to foster more open dialogue between minority and majority groups over the real aspirations and concerns of minority groups.?
For those who know Syria, and who know in particular that minority issues were considered taboo in a country led by a relatively small circle from the minority Alawite community, this is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, there is change in Syria, albeit modest change that is not designed to lead to a fundamental transformation in the regime.
But can the regime resist? If there is one country where outside pressure, particularly from the U.S. in Iraq, has been shown to work, it?s in Syria. In recent months the Syrian regime has shown considerable flexibility against its domestic critics (opposition figures have even been named to a commission to reform the Baath Party); the regime did not crush the Kurdish uprising of two weeks ago with the same violence that would have been expected only a decade ago; it has agreed (after much resistance earlier) to move forward on a partnership agreement with the European Union (which has provisions for political reform); and it has abolished emergency Economic Courts (which, as the New York Times recently noted, were used by the regime to stifle opposition businessmen).
Syria has also allowed more leeway for the Lebanese to demand publicly that the Syrians pull their forces out of Lebanon, though that process in truth began after the death of Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000. As an example of what can be said (and the Syrians generally say what?s on their mind in the Lebanese press), here?s a piece by Abdulhamid in last Saturday's Daily Star.