Syria's Reforms Too Much or Not Enough?

President Bashar Assad's job of holding Syria together is an almost impossible balancing act. Although his reforms are too limited for the younger generation, who are calling for both political and economic freedom, as far as the old established families are concerned, he has already gone too far.

How long can a person who is beautiful, talented and 30-years old wait for the future to come? TV presenter Intisar Junis is not the waiting sort. Today, she is in a hurry and does three things at once. She is sitting in her tiny, windowless office on the third floor of the state television station in Damascus. In a few minutes, her live show will be going on air. Today's guests? The minister for health and the minister for higher education, two old men in grey suits. The pale blue and red backdrop of the studio décor -- which looks a bit like a beach towel from the 1950s -- far from fits them.

Junis adjusts her red, rather tight-fitting blouse and scribbles a down few questions on a notepad. Then, next to the questions, she begins jotting down a column of figures: her estimates of how much a Hyundai SUV could cost her.

Junis is a good patriot. She is loyal both to the state and to the president. If she weren't, she wouldn't be sitting here today, working at the state-run TV station. But, she also has dreams. Dreams that she desperately wants to come true. In particular, she'd like that SUV. And, she'd like more money. Right now, she earns $200 per month, not more than an average worker, despite the fact that she is almost as well known in Syria as Sandra Maischberger is in Germany or Oprah Winfrey in America.

She wants something else, too. She wants Syria's young president, Bashar Assad, who has never given a TV interview in Syria, to appear on her Thursday night political show "25." "I'm young," she says in that deep, unmistakable voice, which has already helped her come a pretty long way. "I have questions, lots of questions."

Recently Junis also started working as a correspondent for Dubai TV. The state-of-the-art TV studio is a two-hour flight from Damascus, but the pay is better and there are no "red lines" -- that is issues that are not to be reported or discussed, such as corruption scandals involving powerful politicians, nepotism and a host of other topics. How long will Junis hold out in Damascus?

Don't Leave Me this Way

Assad's government wants to prevent popular, inoffensive personalities, like Junis, from leaving the country to work elsewhere. More emigrants could be fatal for the already troubled nation, which is politically isolated and lagging behind economically. In the past decade -- largely during the reign of Assad's father -- hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled both the regime and the Baath Party socialist market rules, which strangle Syrian entrepreneurs and bleed the nation dry economically. They left a nation that not only uses its secret service to carefully monitor foreign powers, but also to spy on its own people and keep them in line. Today, Syria's intelligentsia is strewn across the world. Germany alone is home to 8,000 academics, 6,000 of them medical doctors.

Some have returned for a trial run, to see how things are now that the younger Assad is in power, rather than his father. Marwan al-Kabalan, is among them. A professor for politics and media studies who receieved his degree in Manchester, he had his pick of numerous places to work as a Middle East expert. But a year ago, he chose to return to Damascus, where he could have what he so missed elsewhere: the silence that at night suddenly blankets the city, and the powerful shadow of Mount Kassioun -- the much loved backdrop to the city -- which he can see from the terrace of his apartment.

The smell of fresh kebabs and Muhallebi -- a sort of milk pudding with rosewater and pistachios -- drifts through the streets of the old town. The smell of home.

At first glance there is nothing conspicuous about 35-year-old Kabalan; a man in dark pleated trousers and a white shirt, carrying a briefcase, determinedly making his way from the university, through the chaos of the traffic, to the other side of the street. However, the professor differs from other Syrians, who speak about politics and reform only very cautiously. He is angry, and he says as much.

The Painful Path to Progress

For Kabalan, changes here have come about "painfully slowly." He is annoyed by the everyday petty corruption -- if he has to pay backhanders for a telephone connection or for the electricity or for the water supply. Even five years after Assad's assumption of office there is no credible legal system, not even the first signs of one, and still no transparency, with regards to who is doing business with whom. Who would want to invest in a country like that?

President Assad had promised that the state would largely keep itself out of the private lives of the people -- and it is true that opponents of the regime are no longer dragged off in the middle of the night and never seen again. But when Kabalab gives an interview to an international newspaper, one of the five secret service organisations questions him as to whether he had really said what he said, and if it wasn't at all 'unpatriotic': "I love my country, but the people here make you feel like you are a traitor."

So how long should it take to achieve progress? At least from an economic point of view, that is an easy question to answer: the country has until the oil runs out. Thanks to current high prices, the 500,000 barrels of Syrian crude oil pumped out every day account for 50 percent of the state budget. From 2008 the amount produced will drop dramatically. The country will then be reduced to importing oil, which is expensive. The Assad regime has until then to come up with a way of ensuring that people can survive.

"Just give me time," was Bashar Assad's plea when he inherited the presidency from his father five years ago. The young ruler, who trained in London as an eye doctor, is also someone who has returned to Syria. Great hopes have been pinned on this reserved and lanky man. But he is also the subject of big questions: Is he a modernizer? Is he different from the others? Does he want political renewal - or after all just the Chinese model of economic openness without political freedom?

Out with the Old ...

Assad's father steered the country's fate for almost 30 years. He was authoritarian, but also pragmatic. In 1991, during the Gulf War, he stood on the side of the Americans against Saddam Hussein, his arch enemy.

Hafis Assad was a man of power. His son is being forced to be one, rather against his will. The father was feared, the son is loved. The older man judged his subjects severely and ordered them around. The younger one listens to advice and weighs the pros and cons.

...And In with the New

Bashar Assad, 39, even has a different style compared to his father. From time to time he will suddenly turn up, with his elegant wife, at the national museum or the opera. His wife, Asma al-Achras, is ten years younger than him, is a banker and was born in England. The power couple act as if there are no differences in their social station. She never wears a headscarf and gives intimate interviews, in which she talks about her husband. They share an office together in their villa in the west of Damascus. The charming Asma al-Achras, who the Syrians call their Princess Diana, is no doubt an influential advisor.

The talk in recent years has constantly been that Assad isn't the real ruler of Syria - only a puppet of the secret services and military. But since the Baath Party Congress in June it has become clear that this tall, somewhat wooden, head of state really does control power in the country.

He has freed himself from the Baath party's old guard and already got rid of much of the military. Insiders speak of a purge of 450 officers. Assad has loaded the secret services with those he trusted, leaving the most important posts for his brother-in-law Assaf Schaukat.

Next Page: But can Assad Live Up to his Promises?

But the honeymoon period is over for Bashar Assad. He'd have to make good on the things he promised when he assumed office: reform and change. And the quicker, the better.

"It is a long way to democracy, but we are going in the right direction," says the president, then dampening expectations by adding: "You want us to jump. But the danger is that by jumping you just end up on your head."

So what are the limits to this new freedom? Those who push the boundaries, quickly feel the strong hand of the regime. When the charismatic entrepreneur and parliamentary representative, Riad Seif, 58, openly criticized the corruption of the ruling clans, a state security court sentenced him to five-years imprisonment. Despite sickness, and contrary to the country's usual rules, he is still serving the sentence. A few weeks ago, Assad shut down one of the last independent discussion groups, the Atassi Forum. Before doing so, he had the leaders temporarily arrested.

The TV presenter Intisar Junis still has not met the president personally, even though she comes from the coastal area near Latakia, nearby his family's village. All of the people who live there are part of the Alawite sect, a minority which has become more powerful -- above all in military circles -- along with the rising fortunes of the Assad family. In Damascus, rumor has it that the Alawites pull the strings. And, of course, Junis herself also has influential relatives in the security services.

Not far from the television station, the TV presenter is sitting with girlfriends in her favorite café, "L'Odeon." She is talking to someone from Dubai TV on the telephone, while she sips her tea and takes a drag on a cigarette. She says that she doesn't want to rely on family and religious contacts to get ahead in her career, as if to say that nepotism is a relic from the past. "I'd rather depend on myself," she says, before quickly changing the subject. Power structures of religious groups -- such as Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze -- is one of the subjects of conversation which is taboo, one of the "red lines".

Care to Dance?

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, tonight's party is kicking off late. Syria's nouveau riche gather at the Platinum night club while large limousines wait outside. Cooled Lebanese white wine is being served and seven types of whiskey are on offer at the bar.

The presidential family's official portrait painter is there, along with the female director of Syrian television, a couple of corporate bosses and a top-level secret service agent. A close friend of the president, a general, is also expected to turn up later.

The women dance in rustling silk dresses to the sound of oriental pop songs. The men have their sleeves rolled up and try to keep up. The night is going just as it should be.

During the last decade, one group has become extremely rich in Damascus -- the sons and daughters of Syria's sultan. They've travelled the world, speak an array of languages and because they belong to the ruling class, they don't have any reason to leave the country. Nowadays they control the country's mobile telephone monopoly, its restaurant chains and its media organizations. Their influential fathers helped set them up.

It's like dancing on a volcano. Since Syria popped up on the US radar, charged with aiding resistance fighters in Iraq, the security of the Syrian regime has begun to falter. And as a result of the murder of former Libyan Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri, alliances, which were once the lifeblood of Damascus' ruling elite, have fractured.

The fellow Arabic states Saudi Arabia and Egypt have labelled Syria at least partly responsible for the murder, which occurred under the watchful eyes of Syrian security services. Even France, the country's former colonial masters, have pulled back. Syria is isolated, a situation which the elder Assad knew he had to avoid.

But who wants to talk about the whole thing on a night out. A top business man chats about his latest charity project while eating dessert. The country has been good to him. Now he wants to give something back, namely the 150 kilometer beach between Lebanon and Turkey. It is dirty and run down and he wants to have it cleaned up, he says. Then he is dragged onto the dance floor.

Everyone here is hoping the party somehow never ends. Or that, if it does ever draw to close, the hangover isn't too painful.

On some of the streets of Damascus it actually sometimes looks like the future has already arrived: Internet cafes are open late into the night while private banks and chic branches of Benneton and Armani line the boulevards. Even ATMs arrived in the capital not long ago, creating a small sensation.

The government is hoping people's hunger for a consumerist society outweighs their desire for democracy and freedom. In fact, this desire is something which the regime, since it has started focusing on the free market, would like to see disappear altogether.

Ten thousand visitors crowd every day into the "Motor Show," an exhibition of cars for sale near the airport. Some of the women wear the veil, some are completely covered from head to toe, while others are decked out in cropped tops. They gaze at the latest models of exotic brands, such as the Malaysian Perodua or the Chinese Chery - owning your own car is the dream of every Syrian. The state has even sunk import duties for cars from over 200 percent to one third.

Major investors in the Gulf States are showing interest in building streets, pipelines, luxury apartments and exclusive tourist resorts along the coast, naturally under the precondition that the government is serious about the new capitalism friendly laws. Even a new Syrian stock market is planned to open soon.

Your Country Needs You!

The man behind the ambitious economic plan has also returned to Syria. Abdullah al-Dardari, 42, studied in Frankfurt and Britain and worked for the United Nations. He is a slick professional, non-ideological and focused. Al-Dardari is Assad's go-to man for economic miracles, a one-man show because he still lacks competent staff. For a long time now those surrounding the president have been telling ex-patriate Syrians around the world: "Your country needs you!"

Those benefiting from the present system -- the old families that have so far supported the young president's regime -- have been unsettled by the new ideas. These influential clans fear the loss of their monopolies, and see nothing to take their place. The ignominious withdrawal from Lebanon is considered to be their greatest loss, one they hold Assad personally responsible for.

The small but economically fruitful neighbor was virtually a lung for Syria, through which the poor and politically narrow country was able to breathe: sinful amusement park and free-trade zone rolled into one.

Syrian businesses plundered the "Casino of Lebanon" and used it for money-laundering; tolls collected at Beirut ports found their way into the pockets of Syrian secret service agents; Syrian straw-men embezzled the money of international investors. A system of mutual corruption flourished.

But above all by losing Lebanon, Syria lost its last pawn in the war of negotiations over the Golan Heights. Syria sees peace with Israel as a precondition for a true new beginning, a bid for international investment and prosperity. Syria is no longer a little superpower in the Middle East, and the legacy of the old Assad is dying out. According to the clans, young Assad's regime may soon be over as well. This is also how the Bush administration in Washington sees the situation -- and not without a certain degree of satisfaction.

But what comes after Assad? The world's leaders warn of chaos and Islamic extremism -- and they're probably not far wrong. In Syria, as in Iraq, there are too few political parties and civil institutions in place for an orderly transfer of power. Instead the coercive regime of one minority forces the country into unity.

Meanwhile, Professor Kabalan walks up and down his three-room apartment and steps out onto the terrace. The evening sun falls on the slopes of Mount Kassioun, and soon it will grow quiet in the city, which is how he loves it. He's just received a letter from Columbia University in New York. He wants to leave again, for a year. By then things will be better in Syria, he believes -- or the situation will at least be in some way different.

Round the corner, in Masa Villas, the TV presenter Intisar Junis is packing her suitcase. She's going to Dubai, though only for a week. The station there pays her $4,000, 20 times as much as Syrian state television. Her plane leaves in the morning.

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