Syria cracks down on dissent

Anoushka Marashlian
18 June 2006

The June 2006 arrest in Damascus of prominent civil-society activists Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni was the latest blow to hopes that Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime would permit a gradual movement towards democracy and freedom. The two figures were signatories of the "Beirut-Damascus declaration", a document calling on the Syrian leader to create normal, bilateral ties with its neighbour and former virtual protectorate. The arrests underline the extent to which the 14 February 2005 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and the unfinished United Nations investigation into his killing, continues to overshadow political life in Syria.

While the Syrian regime monitors its liberal critics with renewed vigour, an exiled opposition force calling itself the National Salvation Front (NSF) was gathering in London to unveil its action plan for regime change in Syria. The NSF is an umbrella alliance of Syrian opposition groups which includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish representatives; it is the brainchild of Syria's former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam (who resigned his post in June 2005 and soon after went into exile).

The event was billed as the reawakening of organised opposition to the regime. Britain's Syrian community, however, was sceptical and stayed away en masse. Some of its members understandably may have feared retribution from a regime on the offensive, but others were sceptical of Khaddam's rebirth as a Syrian democrat. Their response suggests that the NSF will find it difficult to find influence and support in Syria under current conditions.

Damascus's withered spring

The death of the long-term Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 and the accession to the presidency of his apparently mild-mannered ophthalmologist son, Bashar al-Assad, was accompanied by a flurry of discussion about the possibility of political reform.

The hopes were fuelled by early encouraging signs, including the release of jailed activists (members of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood among them) and Bashar's cautious advocacy of the need to "modernise" Syria; some observers even anticipated what they described as a political "Damascus spring". Six years on, it is clear that the spring failed to bloom into something more meaningful, and that its swift fading was significantly tied to wider regional developments.

Syria has long been one of the main sponsors (in terms of funding, provision of bases, and logistical support) of Palestinian groups which the United States views as "terrorist": prominent among them are Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP-GC. Damascus also had a tense long-term relationship with the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad (despite their shared Ba'athist origins).

Both these tensions were compounded by the United States's dual commitment after 11 September 2001 to pursuing its global "war on terror" and spreading democratic practices and ideas in the Arab world. The war in Iraq aggravated them further, as senior Bush administration officials accused Syria of seeking to obstruct the US's regional political and security agenda by supporting the Iraqi insurgency. The Syrian regime, meanwhile, became far more fearful of the imposing American military presence assembled on its eastern border than it had been of a defensive Iraq in the 1990s.

Also on Syria and Lebanon in openDemocracy:

Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria? " (February 2005)

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria" (March 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon's pre-election hangover" (May 2005)

Alex Klaushofer, "After Syria" (October 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family"
(December 2005)

The Hariri lightning-bolt

The Iraq war had helped make Syria's regional conduct a topic of international concern. The assassination of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 shone an even more remorseless light on Damascus. The widespread suspicions of Syrian involvement forced Syria's hasty military withdrawal from Lebanon in the ensuing months, and had domestic side-effects too. These became apparent with the resignation of Abdel Halim Khaddam in June during the Ba'ath party's tenth annual conference; they were reinforced following the apparent suicide in October of Ghazi Kenaan, a former viceroy in Lebanon and a member of the Syria's Alawi ruling minority.

Kenaan's death came days before a UN committee tasked with probing the Hariri murder published its interim report. The incident fuelled rumours that Kenaan was planning an internal "palace coup"; some described Kenaan's death as "assisted suicide".

The potential for an internal challenge to Bashar al-Assad in the immediate aftermath of the Hariri killing was magnified when Khaddam told the al-Arabiya news channel that the Syrian president had verbally and directly threatened the Lebanese premier in a Damascus meeting. Khaddam – one of the few non-Alawi members of Syria's ruling circle – subsequently sought to position himself as a credible, non-sectarian alternative to Damascus governing elite. Kenaan's death and Khaddam's defection forced al-Assad into a cabinet purge which saw the appointment of hardliners to key security ministries.

The appointment as interior minister of General Bassem Abdel Majid, who had previously headed Syria's military police, set the stage for the crackdown against government critics in early June 2006. Majid's promotion underlined the security preoccupation of the Syrian leader as he grapples with what appears to be an opposition that is more restive internally and more organised abroad. This was evident in the ostensible merger of the Islamist and secular challengers of the regime into the National Salvation Front.

A new opposition?

In the opulent grandeur of London's Dorchester Hotel, Khaddam sitting alongside the Muslim Brotherhood's Sadruddin al-Bayanouni, called for regime change in Syria at the NSF's inaugural conference held on 4-5 June 2006. The alliance between Khaddam, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish groups is a tactical triumph of sorts for Khaddam, who was at the pinnacle of his political influence when the Syrian regime administered a brutal crackdown against its Islamist critics in the early 1980s – most notably, the shelling of the city of Hama in 1982 after a Muslim Brotherhood uprising there, where deaths were numbered in the thousands.

Khaddam remains dismissive of accusations that he was involved in liquidating Syria's Islamic opposition, saying that the first contact he made after leaving Syria was with the MB. For his part, al-Bayanouni seemed willing to overlook any personal involvement the former vice-president may have had in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Khaddam dismissed the apparent ideological differences between himself and al-Bayanouni by insisting that in a future Syria, no one ideology or sectarian group would be allowed to prevail at the expense of another. Khaddam said: "The favouritism of the sect creates discord in Syria. We believe that Alawi and Muslims are part of the same general society and (we)know that Alawi, like all other Syrians, are the victims of the corrupt family ruling Syria; they will be major partners in efforts to rebuild Syria."

Khaddam went on to say that current security conditions prevented any members of the Alawi sect from publicly supporting the NSF; here, he drew on the recent spate of arrests of democracy activists and internal critics to suggest that the penalty for any Alawi critics would be doubly harsh.

A darkening prospect

Such confident assessments may reflect a greater maturity and coordination among opposition forces outside Syria, but there is little sign that the NSF is emerging as a cohesive counterweight to the Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, the degree of latitude available to critics of the regime inside Syria has diminished significantly as they face the wrath of a regime reenergised by the apparent relaxation of international pressure. The enforced closure in March of a European Union-funded legal-rights centre in Damascus sent a message of defiance to Syria's international critics, while also warning domestic activists that democratic forces outside the country would not be allowed to determine the pace of political change.

Anwar Bunni, one of the detained Syrian activists – currently on hunger-strike – was the most outspoken critic of the decision to close shut down the EU-supported centre. But the EU itself seems preoccupied with managing the crisis over Iran's nuclear-energy plans, and it has been notably subdued in its reaction to the arrest of Bunni, Michel Kilo and other campaigners.

The prospects for democracy in Syria are also not helped by the status quo in Iraq, whose rampant sectarian violence and criminality acts as a powerful deterrent against any sort of major political upheaval in Syria. Syrian Christians are among those most fearful of the potential loss of their social and cultural freedoms, and prefer to continue under politically restrictive conditions than risk exposure to the internal tensions and fractures that currently bedevil Iraq.

The Damascus regime has been granted a further modest reprieve by the United Nations security council's decision on 15 June to extend the inquiry into Rafiq Haririr's assassination by a year. The chief UN investigator Serge Brammertz has been more discreet than his outspoken predecessor Detlev Mehlis, but the postponement indicates that he is unlikely to have found incriminating evidence against the higher reaches of the Syrian state, thus increasing its room for manoeuvre.

The domestic environment and the international arena both seem unfavourably disposed to democratic change in Syria. This is unlikely to shift any time soon.

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