BEIRUT: Deciphering the implications of the political machinations in Damascus is never an easy task. And the latest reshuffling of key ministerial portfolios in the Syrian government has aroused the usual fervent speculation - and conflicting interpretations - about what it all means.
Some Syria analysts believe that the sacking of key ministers signals a determination by President Bashar Assad to pursue the "China model" of tightening internal security in order to reform economic and cultural life.
Others are more inclined to view the reshuffle as a symptom of internal maneuverings and a realignment of power structures within the regime in the wake of unprecedented international scrutiny following the decision to extend Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office.
The Cabinet reshuffle, in which eight ministries changed hands, was not altogether unexpected. A year ago during the first Cabinet meeting of Prime Minister Naji Otari government, Assad said that the performance of the ministers would be reviewed after 12 months.
Still, Ibrahim Hamidi, Syrian correspondent for the pan-Arab Al-Hayat daily said that the "timing was beneficial" in light of the many pressures facing Damascus, including United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, unrelenting demands from Washington, the crisis in relations with a previously sympathetic France, the outcry in Lebanon at Lahoud's presidential extension and continued Israeli belligerence.
Much speculation has centered on the appointment of Ghazi Kenaan, the former top Syrian intelligence official in Lebanon, as interior minister, replacing General Ali Hammoud.
Some see the 62-year-old major general as a "capable and reliable" pair of hands to helm the Interior Ministry after several security scares in the past year. They include unrest in March among Syria's Kurdish population, a gunbattle with suspected Islamist militants in the affluent Damascus suburb of Mezze in April and the assassination of a leading Hamas militant in Damascus last month, an act pinned on Israel. A year ago, Israel bombed an abandoned Palestinian training camp near Damascus, launching a new gloves-off policy toward the Syrian government.
"All these incidents put the security issue as a major priority," Hamidi said.
Kenaan apparently was one of the few people who predicted the Kurdish riots, which left 40 people dead and another 400 wounded.
Critics, however, fear that his appointment could signal a new crackdown on an increasingly outspoken civil society movement, citing the recent arrest of Syrian intellectual Nabil Fayyad and the harassment of artist Issa Touma in Aleppo.
"Managing this new architecture of opposition will take real dexterity and a new class of educated and worldly men at the top," said Joshua Landis, assistant professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of the http://syriacomment.com weblog. "Kenaan may fit into this picture. Having been responsible for Lebanon for so many years, one can expect him to be much more sophisticated than the traditional mukhabarat men of the 1980s, who were quite brutal and focused on the Muslim Brotherhood."
Other analysts say that Kenaan's appointment has more to do with internal maneuverings within the regime. Promoting Kenaan to the Interior Ministry could be a means of cutting him off from his "traditional powerbase" in the military and intelligence community.
"You have to look at the balance of power in general," said one analyst.
Many analysts see in the reshuffle evidence of an intention to revive the near stagnant economic and administrative reform process.
In particular, Damascus was dismayed at the loss of France as a useful counterpoint to U.S. pressure. France co-sponsored with the U.S. Resolution 1559 which calls on Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon. Although Damascus hopes the resolution will lose momentum, France has shown no sign of tempering its position on 1559.
Landis said that the move by Paris had "shaken" Assad and spurred him to re-energize the reform process.
"He knows he must deliver on reform if he wants to avoid getting squeezed even harder," Landis said.
Some of the Cabinet changes appear to reflect that sentiment. For example, Amer Hosni Lotfi, head of the state's cotton marketing board who replaced former World Bank economist Ghassan Rifai as economy minister, has a reputation as an open-minded reformist who supports the fulfillment of a long-pending trade treaty with the European Union.
Mahdi Dakhlallah, editor of the Al-Baath, the ruling party's daily newspaper, was appointed information minister, replacing Ahmad al-Hassan who was regarded as a traditional Baathist. Dakhlallah is a reformist and used his editorship to call for the Baath party to play a smaller role in government and promote greater democracy and social justice.
The new faces at the interior and justice ministries come as France is working with the two ministries on a legal reform project.
"These changes are highly significant," Hamidi said. "The president wants to give another push for the reform process."