Assad's Reforms Rejected

Protesters are further enraged.

The Syrian cabinet has passed a draft law that would allow the formation of political parties to work alongside the ruling Baath party. The measure would still have to be approved by Syria's rubber stamp parliament, which is totally under the thumb of President Assad.

However, since the Syrian constitution makes the Baath party the leader of the "state and society," there is no chance that any opposition party, or coalition of parties, could unseat them. The Baathists have ruled Syria since 1963, and have been under the control of the Assad family since 1970.

Opposition groups immediately dismissed the move, claiming it was without significance. As if to prove the futility of Assad's efforts to placate the massive protests that have erupted over the last four months, government security forces killed at least 11 demonstrators over the weekend, with 8 dead in the city of Homs. More than 50 protesters have died over the past 10 days in Homs alone, the country's third largest city.

Those numbers have not been independently confirmed because Assad has kicked foreign journalists out of the country. But a group of activists and human rights workers have set up local "coordination committees" in many major cities and towns and have taken it upon themselves to document the protests, as well as the atrocities being committed by the Assad regime.

Made up largely of young protesters, the New York Times reports that "their success has stemmed from an ability to stay decentralized, work in secret and fashion their message in the most nationalist of terms." Their committees span the entire breadth of Syrian society, encompassing all sects, classes, and religions. They constitute one of the only non-governmental news sources in the country, and are responsible for posting YouTube videos of protests as well as trying to keep track of the military's crackdowns in various cities. The committees estimate that up to 15,000 protesters have been arrested and are still under detention. They also say that hundreds of released prisoners have said they were tortured, which raises fears that the thousands still under detention may be suffering the same fate.

Another Syrian monitoring group based in London reports that there were more than 1.2 million protesters who turned out on Friday after mosque services. Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told AFP, "[I]n Deir Ezzor there were more than 550,000, and in Hama more than 650,000." A general strike was observed in some cities.

President Assad's efforts at "reform" have been pitifully inadequate. In addition to the transparently hypocritical party reform measure, his record of "concessions" to the protesters since the uprising began have been shown to be little more than window dressing. He has issued several pardons, lifted the decades-old emergency rule, and granted thousands of Kurds Syrian nationality. As if to underscore the paucity of these reforms, the emergency decree that Assad supposedly lifted last April has been used to arrest thousands of protesters and hold them indefinitely and without charges.

But it is in this new draft law regarding political parties that Assad's hypocrisy has reached its zenith. Not only is there no chance that any opposition will ever challenge the Baath party to govern the country, the rules for these new parties to be certified are designed to make sure that Assad maintains a firm grip on the political life of the country. First, there is a prohibition of parties based on religion, tribe, denomination or profession. While this will keep Islamist parties from forming, it will also make it difficult for Syrian citizens to create natural political allegiances. Secondly, there is a threshold of members that must be crossed before a party can be legalized. Anwar Al Bounni, who is head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research in Damascus, told CNN, "The law stipulates that any political party needs to have at least 2,000 members representing at least seven Syrian provinces before being active."

The third roadblock that Assad has placed in the way of any real political opposition is the manner in which a party must be certified. Bounni pointed out that a party cannot be legalized unless a committee made up of the interior minister, a judge, and three other members appointed by the president give their assent. This, for all practical purposes, means that few, if any, parties will be allowed to function.

Elliot Abrams, whose experience in government goes back to the Reagan administration, was contemptuous of Assad's reform efforts. He referred to the "unrivaled standard of hypocrisy" by Assad in this instance being "prizewinning." He quotes a Reuters dispatch on the government's stipulation that the new parties must have "a commitment to the constitution, democratic principles, the rule of law and a respect for freedom and basic rights.” Abrams writes, "Of course, were parties in Syria actually required to be committed to democracy and human rights, much less the rule of law, the Baath Party itself would be viewed–accurately–as a criminal organization."

Reaction inside Syria was even more dismissive. Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure, made it clear that the situation had gone far beyond any feeble attempt by Assad to placate protesters. “Our struggle with the authorities is not over laws. It is a struggle over freedoms,” said Hussein. He added, “A new law is not going to stop the government from violating our personal and political freedoms. So that law does not really have any significance.” Another activist said that the law was a "non-starter" despite the fact that he and his cohorts wouldn't have dreamed of such a reform before the uprising began. It is one more indication that Assad's cruelty, rather than tamping down the protests by putting fear in the hearts of ordinary people, has upped the ante for regime opponents, who now see the only solution as Assad stepping down.

With Ramadan approaching next month -- a time when mosque attendance is at yearly high on a daily basis -- the protests appear ready to enter a new phase. Assad is hampered by having only two truly reliable military units: his Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division commanded by his brother. But the protests are taking place in dozens of cities and towns at once, stretching his loyalist forces while forcing him to use his far less reliable conscript army in most protest venues. The local coordination committees report regular defections from these units, despite brutal discipline enforced by Assad's black-shirted Alawite militia, the shabbiha, which has been known to shoot soldiers who refuse to carry out orders to fire into the crowds of demonstrators.

While these defections and widespread opposition show erosion in Assad's support since the protests began in April, the opposition has yet to find a soft spot that would really pressure Assad to either grant real reforms that would transform Syria or force him from power. There are signs that Assad may be trying to foment sectarian strife by raising the specter of a Sunni takeover if he were to step down. But the majority of Syrians appear to be unconvinced and refuse to be manipulated.

Western sanctions on Assad and individuals in his regime have done little to curb the dictator's bloodlust. But the UN may be ready to take significant action against the dictator. Edward Luck and Joseph Deng, UN special advisers on the prevention of genocide and the responsibility to protect, believe there is a "serious possibility" that Assad has committed crimes against humanity. In a statement released on Monday, the officials report that there is the likelihood that the security forces are deliberately targeting civilian protesters, "killing them and arbitrarily arresting residents, often from their homes." If they were to recommend the formal process of considering war crimes against the regime by the Security Council, it would make Assad even more of a pariah than he is now, and probably spur additional sanctions against him and individuals in his government.