Business as usual in Assad's 'revived' Baathist cabinet

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The Independent Online

The man who once handled Syria's affairs in Lebanon, the ex-foreign minister Abdul Halim Khaddam, 72, was reported to have resigned his vice-presidency last night at the ruling Baath party's annual congress in Damascus. But his departure will do nothing to obscure the fact that, rather than open Syria to new political freedoms, President Bashar al-Assad is intent on "reviving" the Baath to turn round the economy and stamp out "corruption".

The man who once handled Syria's affairs in Lebanon, the ex-foreign minister Abdul Halim Khaddam, 72, was reported to have resigned his vice-presidency last night at the ruling Baath party's annual congress in Damascus. But his departure will do nothing to obscure the fact that, rather than open Syria to new political freedoms, President Bashar al-Assad is intent on "reviving" the Baath to turn round the economy and stamp out "corruption".

Most Syrians lost track of the number of times that Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, called upon the party to "root out", "liquidate" and eliminate the nepotism and high-level corruption that is the cancer of the Arab world. A few officials would feel the lash of the state's anger, and one of Hafez's prime ministers actually committed suicide by shooting himself - twice - in the head. Hafez was always being urged to "reform" the economy, which is exactly what his son said he was going to do yesterday.

Mr Khaddam's departure, if it is confirmed - the congress spokeswoman, Bouthaina Shaaban, has denied it - will be another symbol that the leadership wishes to "make way for the younger generation", another aspiration of most Arab one-party states; President Mubarak of Egypt likes to use the phrase, although he is the one man who never seems to be ready to step aside for a younger generation.

The real story in Damascus, however, is a simple one: despite all the pressures on Syria, despite all the advice from the country's liberals and human rights groups, Bashar appears to have retreated back into the arms of the party founded by Michel Aflaq in the 1940s and stubbornly defended by his intelligent and ruthless father. His speech to the 1,200 congress delegates was a cocktail of admission and conservatism. He was, his critics said, adopting the Chinese model of reform: freeing the economy while keeping politics in a straitjacket.

The only way to social improvement, he said, was to "address the negative practices which hamper our progress and constrain our reform project". While agreeing that the current "political atmosphere" - presumably the US's growing impatience with Syria - had "put tremendous pressure on Arab citizens and forced them to an unprecedented re-examination of their convictions and ideas", he said that the information technology revolution - which he himself supports as head of the Syrian computer society - had produced theories and lifestyles which had "overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity".

There was another reference to US policy towards Syria: "International conditions and successive events in our region have had a negative effect on investment and development opportunities where we had hoped for better." And that, it seems, was all he had to say about the US and Israel, the insurgency in Iraq and the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon.

All very well and true, perhaps. But there was no message to the human rights groups who want an open, democratic, civil society in Syria. There was no hint as to how Bashar intends to confront the growing animosity of a pro-Israeli US administration.

Mr Khaddam, who was interim president after the death of Hafez, was a close personal friend of the murdered former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, whose assassination was blamed on the Syrians but whose funeral Mr Khaddam was the only Syrian official to attend.

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