By Nir Boms, 19th November 2007
1. In the aftermath of exiled Syrian opposition leader Farid Ghadry’s visit to Israel, support within Syria has noticeably increased for his Syrian Reform Party (RPS).
2. In order to prevent further promotion of Ghadry, rather than in their usual fashion ignoring his increase in popularity as a result of his visit to Israel, the Syrian regime has emulated policy stances that Ghadry has articulated.
3. RPS has also recently reported an increase in its membership and three more party ‘cells&rsquo have been created inside Syria. Dialogue with additional opposition groups has also intensified and new alliances formed. As a result of this trip, the stirrings of opposition may yet indicate that there is both room and support for an alternative discourse in Syria and a challenge to the conventional wisdom that assumes the regime there is unshakeable.
After exiled Syrian leader Farid Ghadry courageously visited Israel a few months ago, the Syrian Reform Party (RPS), in a rare and daring sign of defiance, posted hundreds of large placards of him and the Executive Committee of his Party in major city streets in Syria including Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib. Ghadry, pictured dressed in a suit and standing against the background of a large Syrian flag, was introduced as the ‘benevolent son of Syria.’
The last time Syrians showed open support for a party that opposed the country’s dictator, 20,000 people were killed when Hafez al Assad ordered the crushing of the Moslem Brotherhood in the city of Hama.
Ghadry’s posters were quickly removed by the Syrian police, but not before they began circulating on the internet, attracting further attention. Those responsible for hanging the posters are a group of 30-somethings who approached RPS independently and offered their allegiance. This group, according to RPS sources, supported the recent activities of RPS including the controversial visit to Israel made in June by Farid Ghadry and Dr. Husein Saado. The visit included a speech given at the Israeli parliament, presentations at key academic and policy institutions and a visit to the Syrian claimed Golan Heights, causing a huge stir in both Israel and Syria. It was the first visit of a Syrian opposition leader to a country considered the arch enemy of Syria and as such it attracted significant media attention in Syria, the Arab world and the west.
Particularly interesting was the response emanaying from Syria itself.
Like other dictatorships, Syria would rather ignore opposition figures like Farid Ghadry. Attention means recognition, whereas a lack of media coverage creates the internal perception that the efforts of the opposition are marginal at best. However, a number of recent reports in the Syrian media indicate that the government of Syria is beginning to pay much closer attention to the work of Gahdry and his colleagues and those they consider to be a threat.
In an opinion published by the London based Al-Hayat, Jihad al-Khazen, a Palestinian journalist with close contacts in Syria, raised the possibility that Syria will begin liquidating Syrian dissidents. In so doing the Syrians would be adopting a similar strategy to that of Libyan leader Qaddafi, who ordered the neutralisation of Libyan dissidents during the 1980s and 1990s.
Still in London, it was interesting to note that a week following Ghadry’s announcement of his willingness to consider a settlement in the Golan Heights that would leave the Jewish population in place whilst paying taxes to Syria, the Syrian Ambassador to London, Sami Khiyami, seemed to suggest a very similar policy. Speaking at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies, the Ambassador said that ‘Israeli residents of the Golan Heights might prefer to remain under Syrian sovereignty if the area were returned to Syria.’ This is the first time that such a position has been suggested by a Syrian official.
Meanwhile in Syria, state controlled ‘al-Watan’ reported that Ghadry’s family (who are well connected to the establishment in Syria) have publicly asked to be distanced from the opposition leader, demanding that his citizenship be revoked. This last statement coincidentally appeared following Ghadry’s high profile Israel trip a few months ago. Such a statement is considered to be another indication of Syrian attempts to discredit Ghadry.
In spite of Syria’s attempts to discredit Ghadry however, RPS has reported an increase in membership of Syria’s Reform Party following his trip to Israel and has claimed that three more party ‘cells&rsquo have been created inside Syria. Dialogue with additional opposition groups has also intensified and new alliances formed. A petition supporting Ghadry’s efforts and his recent trip to Israel is now circulating inside and outside Syria. The recent poster campaign can be considered a follow-up initiated by one of the new cells that joined RPS following Ghadry’s trip to Israel.
It is true that these events do not yet change the balance of power in Syria. Nor do they indicate a massive opposition movement capable of over-turning the government from within. However, the stirrings of opposition may yet indicate that there is both room and support for an alternative discourse in Syria and a challenge to the conventional wisdom that assumes the regime there is unshakeable.