Following Bashar al-Asad's assumption of the office of president of the Syrian Arab Republic in July 2000, there were some promising signs of improvement of the country's human rights record. About 600 political prisoners were released, and the first privately owned newspaper since 1963 was licensed. Independent civic forums emerged and began to function freely. These increasingly popular groups circulated petitions, conducted open meetings, and presented agendas for political reform, while pro-democracy advocates began preparations to launch independent political parties. The civic forums invigorated a political scene that had remained one-dimensional for over thirty years, with the exception of unauthorized political groups that were forced to operate clandestinely and met with harsh repression.
This welcome opening of political