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5/18/03 - REFORM NEEDED IN SYRIA - 2003-05-20

Corruption is one of the biggest obstacles to progress in Arab countries. In Syria, when Bashar Assad became president three years ago, he promised to fight corruption. But reforms were never carried out and little changed.

Syria and other Arab countries now face an unprecedented opportunity. As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “There is a new strategic situation in the region.” The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq has made several things clear. One is that the time for Arabs to embrace political and economic reform is now.

Could real changes be underway? In the past several weeks, Syrian officials have licensed the country’s first three private banks, an essential step in modernizing a stifling state-dominated economy. The Assad government has also approved plans for two new private universities and four private radio stations. Syrian officials are said to be considering removing military training from the curriculum of schools and universities, and eliminating a requirement that all students join youth groups affiliated with Syria’s ruling Baath party.

On the foreign policy front, Syria has taken steps to seal its border with Iraq. But much more needs to be done. Secretary of State Powell told President Assad that it is critical for the Syrian government to cease its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad:

“Support of terrorist activities, the presence in Damascus of organizations that continue to cause terrorist activity to take place, which makes it hard to move forward on the Middle East peace process, these things have to come to an end.”

Now is the time for the Syrian government to carry through on its domestic reforms and become a force for peace in the region.