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Smokescreen in Syria

10:28 AM, Jul 25, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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After cracking down on protesters and killing 1,500 of its own citizens, Syria seems to be changing its tactics: 

Syria's cabinet has endorsed a draft law allowing political parties, apparently reversing a decades-old ban on organized political opposition to the ruling Baath party of President Bashar al-Assad.

The bill, passed in a cabinet meeting on Sunday after more than four months of antigovernment protests, sets strict criteria for the formation of new parties. These include commitment to the constitution and a ban on links or affiliation to any non-Syrian political groupings. Applications for a license are to be considered by a committee that will give an explanation for any rejection, the official Syrian news agency Sana reported.

Assad is clearly spooked--his thuggish tactics aren't working, for once. But while Syria wants the world (and its citizens) to think it's reforming, the changes are basically cosmetic, meant to signal change without changing: 

But the move has largely been met with skepticism by activists, who point to the constitutional dominance of the ruling Baath party and a con tinuing crackdown that human rights groups say more than 1,500 civilians have died.

There have been reports that Mr. Assad would repeal Article 8 of the country's constitution, which provides for the leading role of the Baath party in "state and society." But the article remains in place, despite Mr. Assad saying in a speech on June 20 that alterations to the constitution are possible...

Syria isn't formally a single party state, but since 1972 only political parties that are part of the National Progressive Front—which is dominated by the ruling Baath party—have been permitted. In reality the non-Baath parties have little power in a largely rubber-stamped parliament in which the Front is guaranteed the majority of the seats. Mr. Assad lifted emergency law, in place since 1963, on April 20, but authorities have continued to rely primarily on force in their efforts to quell protests.

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