Deceptive Damascus

By Elliot Chodoff and Nir Boms
June 15, 2007

The Syrian regime, which brooks no opposition at home, supports terrorists of all varieties abroad and eliminates foreign political leaders who have the temerity to oppose the subjugation of their country, continues to attempt to paint the face of democracy on its strongman dictatorial system. 

Three events over the past two weeks provided a clear view of the nature of the Syrian regime: the publication of official election results, the response to the U.N. decision to establish a tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the assassination of Walid Eido, an anti-Syrian Lebanese lawmaker and prominent supporter of the tribunal.

Following its first round of parliamentary elections in April, Syria held its presidential elections in which President Bashar Assad ran for another seven-year term as the sole candidate. Not surprisingly, the Syrian dictator won another unopposed landslide victory, receiving some 97.6 percent of the vote, with a reported 95 percent voter turnout. The results were actually announced a day later than expected due to the “massive participation,” reported the Syrian News Agency (SANA).

Less official sources, however, took a somewhat different view of the Syrian democratic folderol.

Dissident former MP Ma’moun Homsi, who fled Syria earlier this year, issued a call to boycott the elections, which he dubbed illegitimate. “The security services are leading the elections, fielding whichever candidates they want, and excluding those they do not want using various means,” Mr. Homsi said in a statement. He was jailed for five years for seeking to “illegally change the constitution” and was eventually released in January of this year along with four other dissidents.

Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni, the exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, dubbed the elections “yet another farce.” “Those elected represent no other than the system of power which gave them victory,” he told the London-based Adnkronos International (AKI). Echoing the words of many Syrian dissidents, Mr. al-Bayanuni slammed Article 8 of the Syrian constitution that enshrines the ruling Ba’ath Party’s as the “guide” of political life in Syria and guarantees its hold on power.

As if playing footloose with democracy in Syria was insufficient, the Damascus regime decided to try its hand once again at extending Syrian-style “democratic” practices to Lebanon. Accordingly, the Syrian government news agency declared the establishment of a U.N. tribunal to investigate the Hariri assassination “a degradation of Lebanon’s sovereignty that might lead to more deterioration” of the Lebanese situation. According to Syrian official logic, an international investigation into the assassination will weaken Lebanon’s government and will predictably instigate further violence on the part of opposition groups like Hezbollah, which not coincidentally enthusiastically echoed the Syrian position. As anticipated, fighting soon broke out in Nahr el Bared refugee camp near Tripoli between Lebanese troops and a Syrian sponsored terrorist organization, Fatah el Islam, later spreading southward to Ain el Hilwe near Sidon.

In the meantime, Lebanese supporters of the tribunal process — like lawmaker Gibran Tueni, journalist and activist Samir Kassir, Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel and now Walid Eido — were all silenced in a manner that may be referred to as “The Hariri Treatment.” Mr. Kassir, a university professor and prominent left-wing activist — and a strong advocate of freedom for the Palestinians and for democracy in Lebanon — was assassinated in a car bombing in June 2005. 

Mr. Tueni, a third-generation Lebanese journalist and the former editor of An-Nahar (established by his grandfather), was a relentless critic of Syria and consequently spent months in France fearing assassination. He was likewise killed in a car bombing — only a day after returning to his homeland from Paris on Dec. 12, 2005.

Mr. Gemayel, a son of a prominent Lebanese family that included former President Amine Gemayel and a nephew of former president-elect Bashir Gemayel (who was murdered by Syrian intelligence agents) was a rising star in the Kataeb Party that likewise adopted anti-Syrian positions. On Nov. 21, 2006, he was gunned down in a suburb of Beirut. His brazen killers even issued a communique saying that Mr. Gemayel was killed because he was “one of those who unceasingly spouted their venom against Syria and against [Hezbollah], shamelessly and without any trepidation.” Hezbollah, armed and backed by Syria, has opposed any investigation into the assassination, and for good reason: the evidence will likely lead investigators to the doorstep of the newly re-elected Syrian president and his Lebanese supporters.

Other activists — such as Michel Kilo, Mahmoud Issa, Suleiman Shummar, Khalil Hussein, Kamal Labwani and Anwar al-Bunni, who dared to criticize Syrian government policy while remaining inside Syria — have found themselves incarcerated for their efforts.

The United States accuses the government of Syria of sponsoring terrorism, hosting over a dozen militant groups and being a perpetual violator of human and minority rights. If Syria wishes to show a more democratic face, it would do well to cease its spin campaign and initiate substantive changes in its political behavior. 
Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Elliot Chodoff is a military and politicalanalystfor MidEast-On Target. 

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