Damascus is most striking in its slow pace and dignity. Despite
its population of nearly 2 million, there is none of the chaos of
Cairo or the sprawl of Amman. Unlike other Arab capitals, this city
conveys a sense of permanence and pride.
That atmosphere is crucial in understanding the forces at work
in Syria today. When 35-year-old Bashar Assad assumed the presidency
this summer after his father's death in June, Syrians held their
collective breath. After taking power in a quiet 1970 coup, Hafez
Assad had led Syria through 30 years of stability--sometimes ruthlessly,
always with slow calculation.
Now his little-known son, trained as an eye doctor in London, must
fill those shoes. In spirit,
Bashar Assad has been a more modest leader, not encouraging as many
of the billboard-sized portraits and fawning children's songs that
were a trademark of his father's administration. Practically, his
reforms have touched everything from the economy to freedom of expression
to Syria's relationship with the outside world.
On the streets of Damascus.
Arguably the greatest challenge facing Syria today is the alleviation
of poverty and the state's introduction to the world economy. Syrians
say they support the slow moves toward economic privatization and
government deregulation, but point to the dire straits of the ex
Soviet bloc as reason to go slowly. The country's per capita annual
income is currently less that $1,000, as compared with Israel's
$17,500. An estimated unemployment rate of 25 percent remains cloaked
in government overhiring. The public sector, including 400,000 soldiers
and 200,000 in internal security, is the largest employer, with
40 percent of the national budget going to those two sectors alone.
For the average Syrian, the lack of economic growth stalls the
normal flow of Arab life. Even middle-class employees who take home
$100 a month cannot afford to rent an apartment in Damascus. Land
is expensive and scarce, and as such, young people put off getting
married in hopes that windfall will bring them the means to provide
a comfortable life.
Under Bashar Assad, however, moves to free up the economy, as well
as rein in government corruption, seem to have begun in earnest.
A new law allows Syrians who have studied abroad and then stayed
outside the country to avoid mandatory conscription to return home
by paying a fee of several thousand dollars. The move is intended
to bring Syrian professionals home to invest the wealth they have
Other legislation has opened the door to auto imports that have
been restricted since the '60s--provided, of course, that buyers
pay a steep import tax. And the government is also loosening its
hold on information capital. Satellite hook-ups have been available
for five years, making state television obsolete. Assad has made
an early commitment to adding nearly 200,000 Internet lines. In
September, home lines became available to those with the proper
government contacts, and while some e-mail portals are blocked by
the state, Internet cafˇs provide complete access to those who Yahoo!
These economic reforms have come hand in hand with a shifting political
climate. Not only were 99 intellectuals able to issue a statement
in Damascus earlier this year calling on the government to release
its estimated 1,500 political prisoners, but in mid-November Assad
actually freed 600 of those jailed. Additional amnesty was given
on November 22 to thousands of convicted deserters and smugglers.
While these bold strokes may appear to be those of a son eclipsing
his father, it is clear that Bashar is still growing into his pivotal
role. Surrounded by his father's longtime advisers, the younger
Assad continues to move cautiously and with their council. He knows
that the greatest challenges are yet to come--from outside and perhaps