Saturday, April 11, 2009

Damascus Spring Redux?

Joshua Landis says there's a new tone in Damascus:
"The winds of change coming out of Washington have rekindled talk of liberalization and reform in Damascus. The Obama administration’s abandonment of a regime change approach to Syria has emboldened officials in Damascus to speak out about economic vulnerabilities—and the impact of U.S. sanctions—with refreshing candor. Long delayed economic reforms, particularly the launching of Damascus’s stock exchange, have been pushed through. President Assad has also promised to put political liberalization back on his agenda because he no longer believes Western powers seek to destabilize Syria.

"Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, who coordinates economic planning in Syria, broke with the government’s party line on the economy in a recent interview with Reuters. Rather than repeating bromides about how Syria’s economy would not be affected by the world downturn, he warned Syrians that they would indeed face tough times. He explained that 'Syria’s foreign trade makes up 70 per cent of GDP and this means that the country’s dependence on external factors is very large.' Mohammed al-Hussein, Syria’s finance minister, took Dardari’s warnings one step further, saying that 2009 would be a 'difficult' year. The country’s banks were secure, but the industrial, transport and tourism sectors would suffer, he predicted...

"President Bashar al-Assad assured Syrians in March that the pace of reform would pick up now that Syria is 'less affected by difficult international circumstances.' What is more, he suggested that reforms would not only be economic, but also political. When asked to elaborate, Assad responded: 'For example by expanding political participation, creating another chamber in addition to the parliament, such as a freely elected senate with a legislative role to give more space to the opposition, by further liberalizing the political media and the Internet to promote dialogue, and finally by enacting a law regulating political parties. But all that will come about gradually, at our own pace.' Most Syrians may not hold their breath for political change, but they are gratified by the new climate of engagement with the United States, hoping that it will have important economic repercussions and perhaps bring some relaxation of the political atmosphere."



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