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Middle East

Assad says Baathists made mistakes, slams Egypt brotherhood

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Damascus, June 17, 2013. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

DAMASCUS: Ruling party leaders removed in a reshuffle this week had made mistakes while in office, Syria's President Bashar Assad told the Baath party's mouthpiece in an interview published Thursday.

In remarks published Thursday, Assad also lauded the recent fall from power of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, saying Arab identity is back on the right track.

The interview was published two days after the Baath party announced the names of 16 new leaders, which included none of the party's former chiefs with the exception of Assad, who will remain secretary general.

"When a leader does not solve a series of errors, this leader must be held accountable," Assad told Al-Baath newspaper, without elaborating.

"This is the real role of the (Baath party's) central committee, which is supposed to hold accountable the leaders on a regular basis. This did not happen in recent years," he added.

The central committee should "monitor the leadership's work, evaluate it and hold the leaders accountable", said Assad.

The Baath party has been in power since March 8, 1963.

Until February 2012, the Syrian constitution described the Baath as the ruling party of Syrian society.

Almost a year into an uprising demanding regime change, the constitution was modified, and a new article introduced enshrining the principles of pluralism and democracy.

The party's reshuffle was the first since 2005.

Among those removed from the party's leadership was Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, the only top Syrian official to advocate a political compromise to the country's bloody civil war.

Sharaa will retain his position as vice president.

Commenting a week after Egypt's military ousted the first freely elected president, Islamist President Mohammed Mursi, Assad, who is facing an insurgency he calls an international conspiracy carried out by Islamic extremists, said the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had used religion for its own political gain.

"The Muslim Brotherhood and those who are like them take advantage of religion and use it as a mask," Assad said. "They consider that when you don't stand with them politically, then you are not standing with God."

It was the second time in a week that he has gloated publically about Mursi's fall. In an interview with another state-run daily last Thursday, he praised the massive protests by Egyptians against their Islamist leader and said Mursi's overthrow meant the end of "political Islam."

Last month Mursi enraged Syrian officials by announcing he was severing ties with Damascus and closing its embassy in the Syrian capital.

Assad's father, the late President Hafez Assad, cracked down on a Muslim Brotherhood-led rebellion in the northern city of Hama in 1982. The Syrian forces, led by the then-president's brother and special forces from their minority Alawite sect, razed much of the city in a three-week air and ground attack, killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people.

"Arab identity is back in the right track," Assad said in the interview.

"It is returning after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and after these political trends that use religions for their narrow interests have been revealed."

Earlier this week, Egypt restricted the ability of Syrians to enter the country, with officials citing reports that a large number of Syrians were backing the Muslim Brotherhood in the bloody standoff with the military over Mursi's ouster.

Also Thursday, the Syrian government started buying up local currency and raising penalties for black-market deals to try to stop the fall of the pound, which has tumbled to record lows against the U.S. dollar, the state-run news agency SANA said.

Syria's move Wednesday came as the currency hit a record low, reaching 310 pounds to the dollar compared with 47 pounds to the dollar when the country's crisis began 28 months ago.

The record drop of the pound happened on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Many Syrians are struggling with soaring prices because of the tumbling currency.

SANA said the government approved a bill Wednesday that criminalizes business deals in currencies other than the pound, with penalties ranging from three to 10 years in prison.

The bill also seeks to prevent manipulation of prices in the market and "curb exploitation of citizens' needs," SANA said.

SANA also quoted Central Bank Gov. Adib Mayaleh as saying that the monetary regulator sold $50 million to foreign exchange companies Wednesday at the rate of 247.5 pounds to the dollar. The official rate still stands at 104 pounds to the dollar, though it is widely ignored even by the state, and on Thursday it was trading at 260 to the dollar.

The currency began a sharp descent last month after the U.S. decision to arm Syrian rebels. A recent report by the International Crisis Group suggested that although the Syrian pound faces increasing pressure, it "has not entirely collapsed."

"Authorities still distribute salaries to public servants and fund the military-security apparatus," the report said.

Syria is believed to have relied heavily on Iran to support its economy. Private media in the region have reported Iran supplied Assad's regime with billions of dollars since the crisis began in March 2011, and Syria's SANA recently acknowledged $1 billion in aid.

The Syrian civil war has killed more than 93,000 people, according to the United Nations, and displaced millions more. The northern city of Aleppo, once Syria's commercial center, has witnessed deadly fighting, shelling and air raids since July last year.

When the conflict began, the government had some $17 billion in foreign currency reserves. But that figure has dropped from blows to two main pillars of the economy: oil exports, which used to bring in up to $8 million per day, and tourism, which accounted for $8 billion in 2010. The U.S. and the European Union bans on oil imports are estimated to cost Syria about $400 million a month.

Syrian officials haven't said how much cash is left in the nation's reserves. -- The Daily Star, Agencies

 

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