Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, February 6th, 2008
ANALYSIS-Exuding confidence, Syria's Assad targets opposition
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
6 February 2008 Reuters News
DAMASCUS, Feb 6 (Reuters) – Syria is stepping up a campaign against dissidents in a sign of President Bashar al-Assad's increasing confidence that U.S.-led efforts to isolate his country have faltered.
In the last few weeks, 12 prominent dissidents have been rounded up in one of the biggest crackdowns since Bashar succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
They face long jail sentences after leading a meeting two months ago of the Damascus Declaration umbrella grouping of democracy activists to galvanise opposition against Assad and the four-decade monopoly of the ruling Baath Party on power.
The meeting, which included Islamists and liberals, elected Fida al-Horani as head of its leadership council. Fida, daughter of late Baath Party leader Akram al-Horani, is now in jail.
Former parliament member Riad Seif, who hosted the meeting, was also arrested. Seif has cancer and spent almost five years in jail after leading what became known as the Damascus Spring, a brief period of free expression that was crushed in 2001.
U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has long tried to isolate Syria diplomatically because of its role in Lebanon and its support for Hezbollah guerrillas and militant Palestinian groups.
The Western isolation increased after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri. France said late last year it was suspending diplomatic ties with Damascus until it did more to help resolve a stalemate in Lebanon's stalled presidential election.
But three weeks later Germany's foreign minister met his Syrian counterpart in Berlin, saying containment and isolation would not work. The Dutch foreign minister visited Syria last week and Austria's minister was due in Damascus on Wednesday.
Diplomats in Damascus expect most Western countries to continue to deal with Syria as a secular government with an important regional role and a shared agenda to curb Islamists.
Germany has described the recent detentions of dissidents as intolerable and Britain's junior Foreign Office minister Kim Howells last month criticised the "deterioration in the human rights situation in Syria".
But their comments have had little impact.
A painter close to 78-year opposition leader Riad al-Turk was arrested a few days ago, raising fears that Turk, who spent 17 years in an underground solitary cell, could be next.
"The regime has shown again that it is very good at internal control and survival. It feels quite confident now," said one diplomat in the Syrian capital.
He said suppression was "not a long-term solution", but added that for the time being, global attention had been diverted from Syria.
"America is in an election year and allegations that Syria is helping rebels in Iraq have subsided. There is international fatigue with Lebanon and any possible convictions by the Rafik al-Hariri tribunal are years away," the diplomat said.
Preparations are underway for an international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination.
Preliminary findings of a U.N. investigation had implicated high-level Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the killing. Damascus denied involvement and said any Syrian suspects would be only tried in Syrian courts.
Billboards have gone up on the highway from Damascus to Beirut with slogans asserting Syrian sovereignty, implicitly rejecting any outside role in the investigation.
Syria fears the court could be used by foes abroad to put it under pressure and officials say that political reform is not a priority while Damascus is braced for possible confrontation with the United Nations over the role of the court.
Dissidents, however, argue that public freedoms are Syria's best defence against external dangers, including any politicisation of the Hariri tribunal.
"External pressures are waiting around the corner. The way out of our predicament is dialogue, not more repression and arrests. These prisoners of conscience must be set free," human rights lawyer Haitham Maleh, who spent seven years in jail, said in a letter to Assad last week.
Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said the fact that several opposition figures operate from exile in Lebanon has contributed to Syria's hard line against all dissidents. But Damascus was also confident that Western criticism would be limited, he said.
"Syria realises that the West, in particular the United States, bases its dealings with Damascus ultimately on interests, not human rights," Salem said. (Editing by Dominic Evans)