Assad Under Siege

By Nir Boms/ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Published May 15, 2006

“Iran and Syria are in the same boat,” said former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani during a visit to Damascus on April 12. In likening the two countries’ predicaments, Mr. Rafsanjani continued, “The enemies of Syria are trying to increase the pressure, but the resistance of the Syrian people will continue.” He is right: The Syrian people are resisting more than ever before. But the new wave of resistance isn’t what Mr. Rafsanjani had in mind. 

Two weeks before Mr. Rafsanjani’s visit, Syrian military intelligence arrested 51-year-old Internet journalist and human-rights activist Mohammed Ghanem, most likely because of his work at Mr. Ghanem bills the Web site as a “national, democratic, independent and free site.” There, he wrote a recent series of articles detailing Syria’s political realities and the plight of its Kurdish community. 

After his March 31 arrest, Mr. Ghanem was reportedly transferred to the notorious Branch 235, known as the “Palestine Branch” of Syrian military intelligence. He thus joined the ranks of close to 1,500 political prisoners being held without trial. 

Two additional political prisoners are journalist Ali Abdallah and his son, Mohammad, who were arrested late last month in Ktene, south of Damascus. Ali Abdallah is a member of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a civil- and political-rights group. He had already been arrested last year after publicly reading a statement on behalf of Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni. This was not done out of sympathy with the Islamist group. Rather, the Atassi Forum had organized a debate about democratic change. All perspectives were represented, and those who could not attend — such as the Muslim Brotherhood — had their statements read aloud. 

Then there is Massoud Hamid, a 29-year-old journalism student and “cyberdissident.” Last year, Mr. Hamid became one of the few journalists who managed to take photographs of a Kurdish demonstration in Syria, which he posted on a German Web site. Mr. Hamid was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for “belonging to a secret organization” and “trying to annex part of Syria to another country.” In the past three months, Human Rights Watch has documented the arrests of 26 activists that appear to be tied solely to their attempts to speak freely about political conditions in Syria. While political arrests aren’t new there, this growing wave suggests that the Syrian opposition — a group that was invisible only three years ago — is beginning to show some real resistance to the regime. 

And for good reason. President Bashar Assad has showered the Syrian people with promises, yet has failed to deliver on them. His weakness and ineptitude combined with an increased international focus on Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and Iraq have helped reinvigorate the opposition. While that opposition can’t yet offer a solid political alternative, Mr. Assad’s growing efforts to silence it show that it is gaining strength. 

Indeed, it is becoming difficult to keep track of the large number of Syrian groups and activists who are working on the cause of political reform inside and outside Syria. A number of conferences, such as those organized by the Syrian Democratic Coalition (SDC), claim to have brought representatives of over 30 such groups together. The SDC, which is led by Farid Ghadry, can be credited with raising international awareness of the existence of a vibrant Syrian opposition. The SDC is now working to establish a parliament in exile that will seek to coordinate the various opposition groups. 

That coalition was recently challenged by former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam. Mr. Khaddam has joined with exiled Muslim Brotherhood leader Bayanouni to establish what they dub the “National Salvation Front.” He is attempting to establish a government in exile with Ba’ath-like functions such as a minister of information. This effort probably won’t be well-received in Syria, where Mr. Khaddam is seen as a major player in the corrupt Syrian Ba’athist apparatus. 

Another exiled figure unlikely to find much support inside Syria is Rifaat al-Assad, the younger brother of former President Hafez Assad. Rifaat went into exile after leading an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1983. He has made noise since then about returning to Syria to assume the mantle of leadership, but appears to be more of an aspiring military dictator than a democratic reformer. 

This new proliferation of Syrian groups claiming to speak for the true voice of democracy and reform means that the United States needs to be selective in how it engages the players. Its recent flirtation with Mr. Khaddam — who has displayed few democratic tendencies — can be counterproductive when there are other groups and activists with impressive track records and a legitimate following. 

It may be a long time before the idea of democracy takes hold in Syria. The United States should exercise patience. And in the meantime, it should pay closer attention to people like Mr. Ghanem, and Ali and Mohammad Abdallah — those who have shown a commitment to democracy and can be real agents of change. 
Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a counterterrorism consultant and lawyer.

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