The “pursuit of peace and stability in the Middle East” – a stated American foreign policy objective in the region – appears more remote these days after another wave of terrorist attacks in Iraq, continuing terror threats in Europe, and the recent launch of an Al-Qaida cell in the Gaza strip. It is clear that this war is far from over and much of the threat remains hidden from view. Terrorists themselves cannot operate without institutional support and without state sponsored funds. This is one more reason why Syria has been the focal point of attention: according to Major General David Rodriguez, commander of U.S. forces in northwestern Iraq, the U.S. forces have killed or captured 170 foreign fighters in his area in the past three months alone, most of whom are believed to have infiltrated the country from Syria.
In a recent interview, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad attempted to project himself as a responsible leader who deliberately acts slowly in an “un-reckless” fashion. Assad rejected the criticism of his actions (or lack there of) in Syria as he argued that caution is of the essence and that in an unstable environment, progress will need to happen in “due time and course.” Meanwhile, the influx of experienced terrorists continues to enter Iraq via Syria.
Also, as clear signs of political weakness appear in Damascus, Assad delivered another message aimed at Congress and the White House: the Ba’ath party represents the only reasonable option in Syria – with the Islamic Brotherhood, by default, being the only alternative.
The Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist party and a long time rival of the Ba’athist minority regime, has increased its activity in Syria, partially responding to signs of weakness coming from the Syrian capital. In an attempt to reclaim authority and to appease American pressures regarding the situation in Iraq, Damascus responded with a new wave of crackdowns, claiming to have recently killed Arab extremists near the Lebanese border and arrested 34 other foreign extremists.
Indeed, Syria, a country with a 70 percent Sunni majority, appears to have become more “Islamic” in recent years. Young women are now more likely to wear headscarves (although some will do so mainly as an act of protest against the government) and Muslim clerics are demanding an increased role in the political process. A recent statement by Abdul Halim Khaddam, Syria’s vice president and a Sunni Muslim, urged citizens to “act more in accordance with Muslim laws and traditions.”
If that interpretation is correct, the common policy wisdom may lead us to a classic “Catch 22” conclusion: America needs to push Syria, but it must be careful not to “push too much.” After all, the devil we know may be more “manageable” than the devil that may follow. Hence, the safest route might be simply to do nothing.
But perhaps there is a third alternative. Aside from Ba’athists and members of the Islamic brotherhood, Syria has incubated some other voices within its midst. To begin with, the Islamic Brotherhood itself represents a less than monolithic organ, with factions in and outside Syria. Last April, the outlawed Islamist organization issued a statement calling for free and fair elections and an end to the state of emergency and the martial law that has been in effect since 1963.
Take, for example, Ali Bayanuni, a leader of an important Islamic Brotherhood branch in Syria. Bayanuni is a vocal critic of the secular Ba’athist regime – but also renounces violence and extremism as a political vehicle. Repeatedly calling for national reconciliation and the healing of wounds, he has even won the support of Syria’s “Mandela,” the veteran Communist Riad Turk, who spent 20 years in jail. Turk, whose new party is called the People’s Democratic Party of Syria, advocates cooperation with a range of political groups, including Ba’athists and reformed Muslim Brothers.
Or take the Al-Atassi Forum for National Dialogue, the only political forum that survived the crackdown that followed the brief “Damascus Spring” of 2001. Despite continued harassment and arrests by the Syrian authorities – including a recent banning of another meeting – the forum, led by the energetic 32-year-old Suhair al-Atassi, continues to meet and develop ideas about political reforms. Along with a number of other groups inside Syria, the forum is campaigning for national dialogue involving Ba’athists, communists, Kurds, Muslim Brothers and civil rights activists that together will hash out a political reform program.
There is also Kamal Labwani, a 48-year-old physician and a political activist that was released from jail just last year. Labwani, a political prisoner and alumni of the short lived “Damascus Spring,” refused to learn his lesson. Following his release he announced the formation of the Campaign of Releasing Political Prisoners. The opposition, he says, is fighting on two fronts, and “the fight against the government has … priority” over the fight “against the fundamentalists.”
The Syrian opposition has become increasingly active outside the borders of Syria with centers of activity in Iraq, London, Germany and the U.S., among others. The Syrian Reform Party, a well organized U.S./Germany based group, has succeeded in upsetting the Syrian government enough that the last Ba’ath party conference decided to add its name to the banned Islamist Brotherhood, meaning anyone who dares to announce affiliation in Syria risks an immediate jail sentence. Looking at the number of editorial attacks in Tishrin, Syria’s official paper, or at a rare statement by Syria’s ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha, that his people are following the Washington based founder of RPS, Farid Ghadry – and you may conclude that at least someone in Syria is taking them seriously. Expatriate Syrian opposition – a term that hardly existed two years ago – has now over 15 official constituency groups and three coalitions that already had a chance to split in a common Middle Eastern fashion. Last month, RPS, who had recently announced the opening of its chapter in Aleppo, was able to organize a student rally, the first one to take place in Syria while being sponsored by an ex-pat group.
The Syrian Democratic Coalition – a group of ten Syrian opposition leaders have just announced the largest ever Syrian opposition conference that will take place in October in Europe. In a location yet to be announced, representatives of over 20 Syrian groups will convene in order to unveil a draft of a new constitution for Syria and a registry for Syrians who are interested to vote. A smaller European based opposition group announced the upcoming establishment of the Syrian National Congress, with the “task of working in direction for a democratic change of the system in Syria.”
Consensus will not come easy between members of a group that represents a wide array of agendas, religious affiliations, minorities and visions for the future. But it seems that one thing does bring them together – and it is the notion that Syria must change in a way that will enable its many voices to be heard.
Syria’s future, although still unclear, is forming these very weeks with the increasing activities of powers within Syria that are seriously contemplating a third Syrian alternative. This change will take time. It should come from within and it should not be prematurely imposed. But it can still be helped by the will of the West to believe that Syrian discourse is not limited to just the Ba’ath party or the brotherhood.
“Today, it is no longer enough for us to interpret the world-we need to change it,” wrote the Syrian poet and Nobel literature prize nominee Ali Ahmad Said (Adonis) some 40 years ago, before the Ba’ath or the brotherhood could be conceived as alternatives to anything. Those who care to observe the Syrian past should think about that line as they envision a Syrian future. All they ask is to be given a chance.