Defiance in Damascus

Article published Sep 27, 2007
Defiance in Damascus

By Nir Boms –

The streets of Damascus have seen most things. They saw military marches with strutting generals leading their people to war. They have seen the images of presidential figures, such as the late Hafez Assad and his son, the current president, Bashar Assad, displayed on every corner. They have seen those of other allies like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah or Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But they had never seen a Syrian American calling for reform.

In a rare and daring sign of defiance, the Reform Party of Syria (RPS) posted hundreds of large placards of exiled Syrian leader Farid Ghadry and the executive committee of his party on streets of major cities in Syria, including Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib. Dressed in a suit and standing against the background of a large Syrian flag, Mr. Ghadry 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 President Hafez Assad ordered the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama.

Mr. 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-year-olds who approached RPS independently and offered their allegiance. This group, according to RPS sources, supported the recent activities of the party, including a controversial visit to Israel made in June by Mr. Ghadry and Husein Saado of RPS. The visit, which included a speech given at the Israeli Parliament, presentations at key academic and policy institutions and a visit to the Syrian-claimed Golan Heights, caused a stir in both Israel and Syria. It was the first visit of a Syrian opposition leader to a country considered the archenemy of Syria and as such it attracted significant media attention in Syria, the Arab world and the West.

Particularly interesting were the responses coming from Syria itself:

Like other dictatorships, Syria would rather ignore opposition figures like Farid Ghadry. Attention means recognition, whereas a lack of media attention creates the internal perception that the efforts of the opposition are marginal at best. However, the number of recent reports in the Syrian media indicates that the government is beginning to pay much closer attention to the work of Mr. Ghadry and his colleagues and those considered 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 dissidents, adopting a similar strategy to that of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who ordered the liquidation of Libyan dissidents during the 1980s and 1990s.

Still in London, it was interesting to note that a week following Mr. Ghadry’s announcement of his willingness to consider a settlement in the Golan that would leave the Jewish population in place while paying taxes to Syria, the Syrian ambassador to London, Sami Khiyami, seemed to suggest a very similar policy. Speaking at a London University’s 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 Mr. Ghadry’s family (who are well connected to the establishment in Syria) have publicly distanced themselves, demanding that “his citizenship be revoked.” This last statement coincidentally appeared following Mr. Ghadry’s high-profile Israel trip. Such a statement is considered to be another indication of Syrian attempts to discredit Mr. Ghadry.

In spite of Damascus’ attempts to discredit him, however, RPS reported an increase in membership following his trip to Israel and claimed that three more party “cells” were created inside Syria. Dialogue with additional opposition groups has also intensified and new alliances were formed. A petition supporting Mr. Ghadry’s efforts and his recent trip to Israel is now circulating inside and outside Syria. The recent poster campaign can be considered as a follow up initiated by one of the new cells that joined RPS following his trip to Israel.

True, these events do not yet change the balance of power in Syria; nor do they indicate a massive opposition movement capable of overturning the government from within. However, these events may teach us that there is both room and support for an alternative discourse in the Middle East and an alternative to conventional wisdom. The next generation in Syria and the Middle East – most of whom are under the age of 30 – is ready for a change. The streets of Damascus may yet be surprised again.

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