Syria Advances Cautiously Into the Online Age

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday , April 27, 2000 ; A01

DAMASCUS, April 26 – In a liberalization effort that is remarkable by Syria's cautious standards, President Hafez Assad's government has begun embracing the information age, moving to modernize the economy and expand incentives for foreign investment.

Salesmen seeking to take advantage of the new atmosphere have started peddling cell phones, a novelty in a country that historically has been off-line and technologically lagging, and use of the Internet is spreading – a significant new concept for a government that long has treated information with care. At the same time, possession of U.S. dollars or other foreign currency no longer raises the threat of a court appearance, easing foreign trade.

But the pace of change remains tepid; the measures have not been in place long enough to anticipate results, and how far they ultimately reach could be determined by the outcome of the Syrian-Israeli peace process, which is now stalled. But diplomats, businessmen and others here say the official attitude is changing, and they attribute the movement in large measure to the president's eldest surviving son and potential successor, Bashar, a 35-year-old ophthalmologist who studied in London and has become known here as an advocate for economic and technological modernization.

Bashar Assad, the most prominent member of Syria's rising generation, said in an interview that if change has been slow to come to Syria, that is in the nature of things here. Stability in the family, the culture and the society is paramount, and no innovation – no matter how logical or urgent it may seem by Western standards – is sanctioned without exhaustive discussion about the risks as well as the benefits, the losers as well as the winners, he declared.

But that, he added, does not mean things will always be the same in Syria. Marking what may be his claim to legitimacy and leadership in a notoriously tough political environment, he said he foresees a not too distant time when "the Internet is going to enter every house," breaking barriers to information flow through a country that still tightly scripts its state-run daily newspapers and radio and television broadcasts. It is a day he looks forward to, although he acknowledged also that local traditions may require "guidelines" for deciding whether there should be some controls on access to technologies like the World Wide Web, an issue he said is being debated.

"As a point of principle, I would like everybody to be able to see everything. The more you see, the more you improve. . . . Knowledge is limitless," he said. "Personally, I try to look for self-discipline, self-regulation. Some other people have their doubts."

The younger Assad's role, influence and intentions have been the subject of wide speculation in diplomatic circles and in the Arab and Western press, with the assumption that he would like to move to the top and that his father is preparing the way. Bashar Assad's older brother, Basil, had been the presumptive successor until he was killed in an auto accident in January 1994. The president has two other sons, Maher and Majd, but so far neither has assumed political prominence.

In a two-hour conversation today, Bashar Assad acknowledged, "I am ambitious." But, in contrast to monarchical states where blood succession is the rule, he said he will have to prove himself in a system that is politically complex and heavy on tradition but that has encountered demands from its younger generation for change and better economic prospects.

His father, 69 and slowing down after 30 years' rule, gained and kept power through military alliances that saw him through several coup attempts, wars with Israel and multiple regional convulsions. An autocrat at least by necessity, he has held power for his minority Alawite Muslim sect in a nation dominated numerically by Sunni Muslims.

Bashar Assad – soft-spoken and congenial, a fan of Faith Hill and Phil Collins tunes downloaded to a Walkman-like digital music player – is mapping his own path by trying to address the social and economic demands of the next generation.

Change is watched closely by Syria's traditional power centers, from Assad's own Alawite community to the ruling Baath Party to a military and intelligence apparatus that is loyal to his father but not necessarily to him. So the younger Assad's steps in new directions are a balancing act familiar to other younger leaders in the Arab world, such as King Abdullah in neighboring Jordan, who have taken over from fathers who were bred on war and suspicion.

"The international situation is changing. The regional situation is changing. The domestic situation is changing," Assad said. "The new generation wants new ideas. New hope. . . . The difference between my father and grandfather was a small difference, from all points of view. Life used to change very slowly. The difference between me and my father is greater. . . . The difference between me and a generation 10 years younger is big."

Although he has no official position in the government other than his rank as an army colonel, he said that as a member of the president's family he has a "social position" that is acknowledged in Arab society as one of importance and deference. He tried to counter the commonly held notion, though, that his father is trying to arrange his succession.

"You might find it strange, but we have never discussed this issue in our family," he said. "Playing a public role is different from being prepared" to take over.

He said, however, that he does use his "elusive authority" as the president's son to lobby for issues he believes are important, notably economic reform. And after years of discussion and hints of a new direction here, things have started to move, enough for one usually skeptical diplomatic official to conclude that the Syrian government had at least "left the static zone" – even if such fundamental issues as outdated banking and import-export laws remain unaddressed.

This week, in a flurry of presidential decrees and parliamentary action, Syria liberalized its previously strict rules against possession of foreign currency and narrowed the purview of its "economic security courts" – changes that will let businesses operate with more freedom and less concern about breaking the law. Regulations on foreign investment also were changed, allowing larger tax and investment advantages for longer periods.

Two cellular phone consortiums, including Egyptian and Lebanese investors, along with the Ericcson and Siemens telecommunications companies, are risking an estimated $31 million on a pilot project. At present, the cost of the phones is prohibitive for most Syrians – about $1,200 each. But company representatives said prices will drop once a final construction franchise is awarded over the next year, opening up a fresh market of 16 million people.

"These are foreign investors . . . and they can see the change is coming," said Hassan Kabbani, chief executive officer of Syriatel, a partnership of Cairo-based Orascom, which owns one of Egypt's cellular services, and Siemens. "Syria will follow what needs to be done."

The Internet remains under government control and is limited now to a few thousand government and commercial users. But the Syrian Computer Society – an organization, chaired by Bashar Assad, that seeks to promote technology – has laid plans for rapid Internet expansion using private funds. The idea is to make sure the country has enough data lines for "anyone wishing to subscribe," Hasna Askhita, head of information services at the Assad National Library, wrote in a paper delivered this week to the society's annual information technology conference.

The public prominence accorded the conference and an accompanying trade show reflected both the growing interest in technology here and the growing interest in the younger Assad. There was wide attendance by the diplomatic and political elite of Damascus, and it got the full attention of state-run media.

After cutting a ribbon to open the event, Bashar Assad spent nearly two hours wandering from vendor to vendor, discussing the niceties of satellite phones and high-speed servers with a horde of television cameras and Syrian officials and citizens in tow. He may only be an army colonel, but when he entered a conference room to open the proceedings, the audience was quickly on its feet.

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