Ending a four-day congress focusing on reform on Thursday, the party eased its grip on government, ordering a review of the electoral law, allowing more political parties and reorganising a media that is now little more than its mouthpiece. 

Key party leadership posts were expected to be announced  with several posts including the vice-presidents' and defence and parliament speaker posts up for change.

In foreign affairs, the congress agreed to better relations with the United States and to examine relations with neighbouring Iraq, Aljazeera reported.

Political reform

The reforms, if implemented, may herald a significant change in direction for Syria, which has long faced international calls to democratise a system that allows only 10 allied parties under the auspices of the ruling Baath.

"The changes will mean it is no longer necessary for party leaders to get top government roles nor for government leaders to be senior party officials"

Ahmad al-Haj Ali,
Baath Party member

But while Syrian rights activists have welcomed these widely expected moves, they say real change can come only with full democracy and an immediate end to the emergency law that allows arbitrary arrests and trials at a state security court.

"We (want) an immediate end to the state of emergency and the establishment of a pluralist, democratic ... society," the Syrian Human Rights Organisation, said in a statement.

Syria's state-run television said the congress kept the law but limited its scope to national security violations.

Article 8

The Baath Party ordered some parts of the constitution to be reviewed. The television gave no details, but party members have talked about diluting Article 8 of the constitution, which describes the Baath as the "leading party in society and state".

"The changes will mean it is no longer necessary for party leaders to get top government roles nor for government leaders to be senior party officials," prominent party member Ahmad al-Haj Ali said.

The congress scaled back the size of the Regional Command, electing several new faces to the top party body in Syria, including the first woman. It voted unanimously to renew President Bashar al-Assad's term as party leader.

Aljazeera's correspondent in Damascus also reported that al-Assad promised to look into the issue of 200,000 stateless Kurds in Syria.

Kurdish activists say many of their people were left off a 1962 census in the northeastern Hasaka province, home to many of Syria's estimated 2 million Kurds and ended up stateless.

The congress ordered a review of that census.

International pressure

The congress re-elected al-Assad
as party secretary-general

Syria, forced this year to bow to a United Nations demand and withdraw its troops from Lebanon, has been under US and European pressure to introduce economic and political reform.

Western diplomats and analysts say the congress did not go far enough.

"A lot of Syrians will be disappointed if they were expecting anything. The regime has been saying recently that change takes time, downplaying expectations raised by Assad's 'leap forward' remark," said Rime Allaf, Syria analyst at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Great leap

When he announced his country's withdrawal from Lebanon in March, al-Assad promised that congress would bring a "great leap".

Baath members point to plans for a new media law, which they say aims to allow independent media outlets in Syria. Almost all local press, television and radio is now state-run.

But a plan to allow parties draws the line at those based on ethnic or religious interests, effectively keeping Kurdish and Islamist parties out of the new system.

"We (want) an immediate end to the state of emergency and the establishment of a pluralist, democratic ... society"

Syrian Human Rights Organisation

Baathists say it is unrealistic to expect change overnight.

"The decisions of the congress are binding and will be discussed in parliament," Haj Ali said before the congress ended.

"It will take time for people to get used to the idea that you no longer join the Baath because you want a job. This is the problem in the link between the party and power. The birth of new parties takes time."