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.”
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