Thursday, March 1, 2007

Days of Decision

Few Syria observers ventured a guess at New Year as to what the coming 365 days may hold for the country. It is election year in Syria, however, and some events pencilled into the country’s agenda for 2007 are noteworthy. Sometime before July 10, President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win a (still officially unscheduled) referendum on a second seven-year term in office. Parliamentary elections are also scheduled for April and the ruling Ba’ath Party, which leads the National Progressive Front (a compilation of nine parties), is all but certain to re-capture its two-thirds majority in the Peoples’ Assembly.

But a different set of results look likely to overshadow these important elections: in the spring we expect the final two UN reports by Belgian investigator Serge Brammertz into the murder of the late Lebanese Prime Minster Rafik Hariri. While recent announcements note Syria’s compliance with the probe, the investigation also cites “converging evidence” pointing toward Damascus. Whatever Brammertz has up his sleeve remains to be seen and the world waits with bated breath.

During the last parliamentary elections in 2003, big Syrian businessmen running for office spent millions of Syrian pounds (now capped at SYP 3m) on massive advertising campaigns. The electioneering raised eyebrows at the time not because of its scale, but because candidates bothered to campaign at all. The days where candidates were pre-selected in Syria has given way to a sort of popularity contest where businessmen from powerful families vie to enter the political realm.

Once in office, representatives are expected to work with the government of Prime Minister Naji al-Otri to draft legislation to overhaul the country’s ailing economy. After passing laws in 2006 to approve the Five Year Plan, the plans for a Syrian stock market, private insurance companies, Islamic banks and private foreign exchange houses parliament is expected to issue laws this year on mortgage finance, leasing, public sector reform and the issuance of treasury bills.

Although these issues do not seem affected by outside pressure bearing down on Syria, a December report in Time Magazine - citing leaked Bush administration documents - claimed that Washington has something in store for the assembly poll. According to the magazine America will launch ‘an election monitoring’ programme in Syria ahead of the elections together with elements of the exiled opposition National Salvation Front involving ‘Internet accessible materials’ that can be printed and distributed, as well as a ‘voter education’ campaign. The article even claimed Washington plans to fund at least one candidate for parliament. Those accused of involvement in the scheme have denied the report’s authenticity.

Then there is the presidential referendum that constitutionally must take place sometime before Assad’s first term ends in July. Once the new parliament approves Assad as a candidate, Syrians are presented with a simple ‘na’am’ or ‘la’ choice. 97.29% voted the former seven years ago.

A mere three weeks before Assad’s term ends, Brammertz is scheduled to publish his final conclusions before handing the Hariri case over to an international tribunal. Will Assad use the referendum to rally the Syrian people around the flag and against what Syrians often call the American ‘conspiracy’ behind the investigation? Or will the regime’s opponents use the announcement for political benefit? If last month’s report in the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat is to be believed the Syrian leadership is not taking a chances and has decided to schedule the referendum on his leadership for late May. Another report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz leaking a ‘track two’ peace plan with Israel, reportedly initiated by Assad himself, shows the president may have bigger things on his mind.

In the meantime we must wait and see how events unfold.

Syria Today Editorial February 2007 (

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