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Opposition leaders despair democratic change has passed Syria by

DAMASCUS, Syria—Syrian opposition leaders are watching with a mixture of jealousy and despair as voters in other Arab countries cast ballots in elections hailed as the slow march of democracy throughout the Middle East.

Initially hopeful that reforms in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian territories would lead to an opening in their own country, opposition figures say it now appears change will again pass them by.

The Baath Party regime led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is adapting just enough to survive under intense international scrutiny, Syrian dissidents said in recent interviews. The change is not nearly enough to make a real difference in the lives of a population now in its fourth decade under authoritarian rule.

"The whole region is changing, and we're being left behind," lamented Bisan Bouni, a human rights advocate whose father, a member of the Communist Party, was imprisoned for most of her life. "We were optimistic at first, but not anymore. It's clear we're just going to be even more isolated."

Syria is deemed the last rogue Arab state, the refuge of anti-American militant groups and the recipient of mounting threats from the United States and Israel.

Under pressure, Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon after nearly three decades of making decisions for Beirut from Damascus, and Assad's Baath Party this month held its first national congress since 2000. Many Syrians thrilled at the prospect that the government might end the country's perpetual state of emergency and offer citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds, the largest minority.

Instead, the regime made a vague promise to allow rival political parties, as long as they weren't based on ethnicity or religion. That effectively ruled out a voice for Kurdish and Islamist groups, key components of the opposition.

"The problem in this country is the same problem that Iraq had: It's Article 8 of the constitution, which says the Baath Party must be the ruling party in Syria," said Mohammed Shahrour, a Syrian author and outspoken critic of the regime. "Touching that article is impossible. It's just a dream. The regime will survive until the end of this century. They're not afraid of the internal opposition."

Haitham Mullah, a vocal opposition figure who spent seven years in prison after calling for change, described the regime as performing a "striptease for the Americans," shedding just enough authoritarian rules to stave off a U.S.-led attack.

"We think the Americans are weakening despotic regimes, but we're not sure they're strengthening the opposition," said Michel Kilo, a Syrian dissident writer. "When we were asking for democracy, America was supporting a despot. Now that they're asking for democracy, they want it their way."

Riad al-Daoudi, a university dean and adviser to the Syrian foreign ministry, said he met with U.S. diplomats in London last year to hear their demands: close all offices of Palestinian militant groups, end relations with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, improve security along the Iraqi border and take steps toward political reform.

But talks broke down, al-Daoudi said, because the American officials weren't offering anything in return.

"We are trying to avoid any face-to-face clashes with the United States, but to a certain extent," al-Daoudi said. "They've asked for reforms and we've introduced reforms. But we're talking about a structure that's been in place for 40 years. You can't just shake it up and expect change. You can't ask a government to dissolve itself."

Ahmed al Hajj Ali, a member of a government committee formed to introduce reforms to the Baath Party, said dismantling the party would only erode the secular net keeping Islamist extremists at bay. As proof, he pointed to a bullet wound on his cheek that he said came from a 1978 attack by members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Such opposition groups, he said, don't offer a better plan for Syria: "If they ruled, there would be catastrophe."

While there have been no major political reforms, Syrians say, the oppressive social climate has eased since the death in 2000 of the former President Hafez al-Assad, the current leader's father.

Syrian officials bristle at comparisons to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After all, they argue, Syrians can surf the Internet, watch satellite television and criticize the regime in moderation.

Shoppers crowd marketplaces until midnight, foreign tourists stroll in ancient quarters and bottles of real Coca Cola can now be found stashed behind shelves of government-approved alternatives, such as Mandarin Cola.

There are no American fast-food joints, but Syrians munch chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers at restaurants in the capital. At one downtown cafe popular with Damascus teenagers, girls in headscarves puffed on hookah pipes as they watched NASCAR races on a big-screen TV. Outside, women in skintight jeans strutted past a billboard for a popular new play called "Excuse me, America."

"People think that Syria has tanks in the streets and intelligence agents lurking on every corner," said Fayez al-Sayegh, editor of the state-rum Al Thawra newspaper. "I wish they could see how it really is. We've never in our lives practiced terrorism."

The opposition views the easing of social restrictions as a poor substitute for democracy, an appeasement to keep Syrians distracted from the country's sluggish socialist economy, unemployment and crowded prisons.

"They're not really changing. They're just adding makeup to the same faces and silk gloves to the same old hands," said Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights attorney. "They're ready to give America whatever it wants to stay in power. They're just trying to buy time, to let the bad times pass in order to survive."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SYRIA-OPPOSITION

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