Posted by Joshua on Sunday, March 25th, 2007
Salim Abraham, a Syria journalist from Qamishli who worked for Associated Press in Damascus for years before winning a grant to attend the master's program at Columbia University's School of Journalism in 2005 and 2006, wrote this essay on Farid Ghadry. It is taken from his master's thesis, completed in the spring of 2006. Salim Abraham has recently moved to London with his new bride, who is also originally from Qamishli. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Power Struggle from Washington to Damascus: Syria's Ahmad Chalabi
By Salim Abraham
Published by Syria Comment
The road from Washington, D.C., to Potomac, Maryland, snakes alongside the river that gave the suburban town its name. On this sunny Wednesday in December, the roads are covered with snow, as is the backyard of the red-brick Gothic-style home of the man I am visiting.
Farid Ghadry, 52, a Sunni Muslim from Syria, emerges from his back door, which leads directly into the guest hall. A large painting of three nude women hangs on the left wall in the sitting room. The windows overlook the front yard, where tables and chairs painted in white are set around a small, snow-covered pool.
Ghadry’s Lebanese-born wife, Ahlam, emerges from the kitchen where pans and pots hang down from the ceiling over island counter in its midst. Two red-and-white striped Lebanese flags sit on a table in a "V "shape, emerging from a vase full of red flowers embraced by green leaves. The house is empty of anything indicating Syria, the country which Ghadry left when he was 10.
“I don’t put the Syrian flag in my house because we need to change it,” Ghadry, a businessman turned politician, explained. “I will display the flag of the new, democratic Syria one day.”
Ghadry was the first Syrian to openly invite external forces to rid Syria of the Arab Socialist Baath Party. For 43 years the country has been ruled by the Baath and Syria's 18 million people still lacked basic freedoms. Its socialist-style economy is stagnant.
Soon after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq, Ghadry founded the Reform Party of Syria. He wants to mobilize the support of Syrian dissidents who will push for democratic change back home. He shocked Syrians by calling for American intervention to oust Syria’s Baath Party from power. “We hinted to the US administration that we want regime change by any means,” said Ghadry. Ghadry seemed to have the perfect opportunity. He has the connections. He has the favor of the Bush administration. So why is Ghadry, a political maverick, failing?
Born in the northern city of Aleppo, Ghadry is the eldest son of a well-known Syrian journalist, Nihad Ghadry, who still owns and edits the Beirut-based, Arabic-language newspaper al-Muharer al-Arabi – (or The Arab Liberator). Farid Ghadry learned the Quran, Islam’s holy book, early in his childhood before leaving Syria for Beirut. In Lebanon, he was educated at the Christian Maristes Brothers School. At 13, his father took him to Munich, where he learned about the Nazi concentration camps and the Jewish Holocaust. Ghadry’s father was on a journalistic mission to check the truthfulness of media reports that have said the Gamal Abdul Nasser’s government had laid a wreath of flowers on Dachau concentration camp – a step that signaled that Egypt officially recognized the Holocaust shortly after Israel occupied Arab lands in the 1967 Middle East War. Just a few years before, Nasser vowed to “throw Israel into the sea.”
Ghadry immigrated to the United States with his family when the civil war in Lebanon erupted in 1975. His father returned to live in the Lebanese capital only a year later to run his newspaper. Ghadry once held Saudi citizenship through his father.
Five years after graduating from American University with a degree in finance and marketing in 1979, Ghadry started an Arabic-language software company, International Techgroup, Inc., which he has since sold. Ghadry reached an agreement with Saudi government to digitize its Civil Register through his company, but the Saudis backed off after Ghadry spent more than a year working on creating the software. Today, Ghadry invests money in and analyzes the international real estate market.
Sources close to Ghadry explained that Ghadry's father, Nihad, took a 12-million dollar bribe from Saudi officials in France in exchange for retracting a book he wrote in 1987, the year the Ghadry's' Saudi nationality was revoked. The book, published in Paris, was highly critical of the Saudi government and royal family. The sources, who prefer to remain anonymous, add that Farid Ghadry's share was half the amount in exchange for the software business deal the Saudis backed off from.
Starting in the late 1980s, Ghadry began to discuss informally with Arab friends how to topple authoritarian regimes back home. In 1987, the Saudi Arabian government turned against Ghadry. The Saudis revoked his Saudi citizenship and passport because, he claimed, of his stance on democratic reforms there. “I have had communications and talks with Saudi reformists, Egyptian groups and Lebanese activists about Arab reform and enlightenment,” Ghadry said of his early political activism. “But we have always reached a deadlock.”
When the September 11, 2001 terror attacks struck New York and Washington, the landscape changed and paved the way for “a real political activity,” said Ghadry. Since then, Ghadry has reached out to other Syrian exiles and networked with the Bush administration officials. “When the September 11 attacks took place, we found them as a window for changes in the [Middle East] region at a time the atmosphere in America was changing,” Ghadry said.
Ghadry did what he could to win the US administration’s favor by linking up with political activists, such as Ziad Abdelnour, a New York-based Lebanese-born tycoon. In an interview in January, Abdelnour said he had introduced Ghadry to lobbyists, including Daniel Pipes, who runs the Middle East Forum, a neo-conservative think tank. Abdelnour claimed that he also introduced Ghadry to the administration’s influential politicians. “I introduced him to many guys in Washington,” Abdelnour said. He did not specify who. However, Ghadry strongly denied the claim. Abdelnour and Pipes produced a report to encourage the U.S. government to press Syria to leave Lebanon in 2000.
Nina Shea, a member of Freedom House and the director of the Center for Religious Freedom, said she facilitated American media coverage for Ghadry. “Ghadry is a very good guy,” Shea said in an interview at her office in Washington in December. “He is secular and advocates minority rights.” By late 2003, Ghadry had become a media celebrity: he has written columns for several American newspapers, including the Washington Times and has been invited to speak at the various universities, think tanks and European parliaments.
Ghadry said he is working for a post-Assad Syria, where freedom of expression and human and minority rights are respected. He also looks forward to rebuilding Syria’s economy based on a free market system. He is confident that his party “is going to win” the support of Syrians after toppling the Baath regime, he said, because non-liberal ideological parties, whether Islamic, communist or Arabist, are “all tested and defunct.” “The Reform Party is going to win because we are a more economic than a political party.”
To that end, Ghadry has adopted the model of the Iraqi politician, Ahmad Chalabi, to overthrow the regime in Damascus. Like Chalabi, he has saught the favor of the Bush administration’s neoconservatives. Chalabi allied himself with administration hawks, such as former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, chairman of Defense Policy Board, and helped convince the president to wage the regime-change war in Iraq in March 2003.
Like Ghadry, Chalabi left Iraq for Lebanon as a boy at the age of 12. In 1992, he founded the Iraqi National Congress to lobby for ousting Saddam Hussein. Chalabi helped galvanize an Iraqi uprising of Kurds and other Iraqis in the Kurdish north. The uprising in North Iraq was quashed, and hundreds of his supporters were killed by Saddam’s troops. But Chalabi backed regime change earlier: he lobbied for the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in February 1998. To this end, the State Department awarded Iraqi opposition groups in the north and south $97 million. His support mainly came from Pentagon and parts of the CIA. In the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Chalabi provided the U.S. government with information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and Saddam’s ties to the al-Qaeda terror network. When Saddam Hussein was toppled, Chalabi returned to Iraq and was appointed as a member of Iraq’s Interim Governing Council by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. He served as the council’s president for one month in Sept. 2003.
But weapons of mass destruction were not found, and charges that Iraq had links to the al-Qaida turned out to be unfounded. "We are heroes in error,” Chalabi told London's Daily Telegraph in February 2004 in response to allegations that he provided false information. “As far as we're concerned, we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important." Today, Chalabi is one of the players in Iraqi politics as the present government’s deputy prime minister. But he did not even win a seat from Iraqi parliamentary election in December 2005.
“He is someone I like and respect because what he has done for his homeland nobody could do,” the soft-spoken Ghadry said. “His goal was to rid his people of despotism. Actually, my American friends call me ‘Syria’s Chalabi.’”
Both men still maintain close contacts. Early in 2005, Ghadry made a trip to Baghdad where he met with Chalabi and other Iraqi officials “to build a relationship for the future, when Syria is democratic,” as he later explained. In November 2005, Ghadry joined Chalabi in a meeting with Perle in Washington, where Iraq and “the next steps in Syria” regime change were discussed, he said.
Ghadry rose to public attention in Syria when he showed up on al-Jazeera in Jan. 2004. The Arabic-language cable network aired footage of a meeting he held with other exiled Syrian opposition groups in Brussels, Belgium. Soon afterwards, news about his activism and interviews with American and Israeli newspapers attacking Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime spread throughout the country. Syria’s government-run Tishrin newspaper translated one of Ghadry’s interviews with the Jerusalem Post last year to discredit him as “a collaborator” with Syria’s staunchest foe, Israel.
The interest of the neo-conservatives in Ghadry also picked up when the US government announced its “Greater Middle East” initiative to promote “democracy and good governance” in that region in June 2004 at the Group 8 summit. Scott Carpenter, the deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of the Near East Affairs, said, “I think Farid was somebody who – for a very long time – has been talking about the need for democracy in Syria. And he was – for a long time – a kind of a voice crying in the wilderness frankly in the administration’s point of view.” Carpenter, who oversees the Middle East Partnership Initiative, continued: “But Farid now is a voice – and an important voice – among many other voices that we are interacting with and supporting.”
Indeed, Ghadry’s call to bring down the Syrian government came amid rising tensions between Washington and Damascus, which staunchly opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
But tensions between the U.S. and Syria boiled over when former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut. That, in turn, transformed the political landscape for Syria’s political opposition.
On Feb. 14, 2005, Hariri and 22 other bystanders and bodyguards were killed in a car bombing. The United Nations assembled an investigative team, led by the German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis.
The preliminary U.N. report, released last October, implicated six Syrian senior officials, including Asef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and powerful chief military intelligence, in the killing. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador, Margaret Scobey, from Damascus two days after the assassination of Hariri without directly accusing Syria of plotting the car bombing. The ambassador has not returned since.
In mid-December, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1636, calling on Syria to “unconditionally” cooperate with the team investigating the killing of Hariri or face unspecified punitive action.
The Syrian government denied any involvement in Hariri’s assassination and said it would fully cooperate with the U.N. investigative team. But international and U.S. pressure on Assad’s regime started building up even before that.
In the summer of 2004, Damascus’s decision to extend Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term by three years angered Washington and France and drew world criticism of Syria’s meddling in Lebanon’s internal politics.
The U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by France and the U.S., called on Syria to pull its troops from Lebanon and disarm Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group. It was passed in September 2004.
Mounting international pressure on Damascus – especially after the Hariri killing – eventually forced Assad to withdraw the remaining 14,000-strong troops stationed in Lebanon since 1976. A Sunni Muslim, Hariri was a self-made business tycoon who rebuilt Lebanon from the wrecks of its civil war. He returned to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia in 1992 and served as prime minister until 1998. He returned to his office again in 2000 and resigned in 2004 upon his dispute with Syrian leadership over extending Lahoud’s term by three years.
Hariri’s assassination, and the investigation that followed, would send greater political tremors than Damascus might have expected.
The threat of international sanctions on Syria caused the Syrian pound go down to record low against the U.S. dollar. The price of the U.S. dollar stood for days at 67 pounds immediately after the U.N. resolution 1636 was passed in October before it returned to its regular value of about 54 pounds.
Such sanctions would weaken the already frail economy of Syria, where the unemployment rate stands officially at 12.3 percent. Many Syrians recall the days when the U.S. and the European nations imposed crippling 12-year-long economic sanctions on the country in 1986 after a British court accused Syrian officials of being involved in an attempt to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli El AI civilian jet. Syrians crowded the government-run retail stores to get their daily needs, and stood in long queues to buy bread, napkins, vegetables and fruits.
People in Syria’s northeastern town of Qamishli still recall a woman in her 60s who thrust herself into a throng of people buying tomatoes in front of one of the retail stores run by the government. She made her way to the salesclerk, bought a kilo of tomatoes and made her way out of the crowd only to find her tomatoes squashed. She tossed the tomatoes down on the sidewalk and began trampling them underfoot and shouted, “We sacrifice our blood and soul for you, Hafez.” In a matter of minutes, a security patrol hauled the woman away only to return her with her hair shorn off.
Along with the U.N. measures, the U.S. imposed “targeted sanctions” on Syrian officials implicated in Hariri’s assassination; the Bush administration froze the assets of Asef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, in January. It has also recently offered $5 million for Syrian opposition to the regime to finance their pro-democracy activism. But the internal opposition groups rejected the offer, claiming that change should be brought about by Syrians themselves and not outside forces.
U.S. pressure on Syria began even before the extension of Lahoud’s term. In December 2003, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, imposing economic sanctions on Syria. For years, Syria had been on a list of countries accused by the State Department of sponsoring terrorism.
The bill bans all American exports to Syria except food and medicine. It accuses Damascus of not doing enough to prevent militants from slipping across its 360-mile-long borders into Iraq. The bill also accused Damascus of developing programs of weapons of mass destruction. Syria denies the allegations. Finally, the bill called for ending Syria’s 30-year military presence in its smaller neighbor, Lebanon.
Ghadry, like other regime’s opponents, started counting Assad’s days in power. Reflecting on Assad’s situation, Ghadry said he has “a historic moment” to seize as the American military is stationed next door to Syria, the neo-conservatives are in control of the Oval Office, the U.S. war on Islamic terrorism is still ongoing, and the Assad regime is under international and American pressure after being implicated in the killing of Hariri.
Ghadry insists an American plan for regime change is already in place. “There is a plan to change the regime,” he said. “But it’s prohibited to change the regime without something that fills the vacuum.”
So he accelerated his efforts to convince other dissidents to escalate their opposition to the Baath regime and to convince the American administration that he could bring people into his fold. By late December 2005, Ghadry’s cell-phone was burning up with calls from fellow Syrian-American activists inquiring about a conference he called to bring together all Syrian factions, including those inside the country. The meeting, which never took place, was to have concentrated on a “practical plan to destabilize Bashar Assad’s rule.”
“We are calling all Syrian opposition groups together for a national conference to create a parliament in exile and draft a new, secular constitution for Syria,” said Ghadry. “Then, take people to streets. Some people get killed. The international community gets further angry at the regime. Then, have NATO forces protect a safe zone in northern Syria,” on the border with NATO member Turkey. He grinned and concluded, “This way we will move right away into Syria.”
The constitution, written by the Baathists under Hafez Assad in 1973, provided for the Arab Socialist Baath Party, in power since March 1963, to be the "leader of state and society" in Syria. It doesn’t recognize Syria’s ethnic or religious minorities. An earlier interim constitution, enacted in 1953, had stipulated that Syria's president must be a Sunni Muslim. But the 1973 constitution eliminated the requirement that the president be "Sunni." This allowed Hafiz Assad, a member of teh Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam, to rule Syria for thirty years until his death in June 2000. The constitution was kept intact until 10 days after Hafez died, when the People’s Assembly, the Syrian parliament, swiftly voted to amending a clause stipulating that the president be 40 or older in order to allow Bashar Assad, who was then 35 to assume the presidency.
Syrians are divided along ethnic and religious lines. Official statistics conducted over the last six months of 2005 say that the Sunnis, including ethnic Kurds, account for 70 percent of the population. The Alawites represent 20 percent – or 3.6 million people. The Christians, including Assyrians, are about 2.1 million people. The Druz, another Muslim sect, make up three percent of the population. Other smaller religious groups, including Shiites, Yazidis and Turkmen, represent about five percent of the population.
The next step in Ghadry’s plan is to create change on the model of Iraq, where a safe zone for Kurds was carved out of the mainly Kurdish north following the 1991 Gulf War. Meanwhile, the opposition factions inside Syria are first working for a peaceful change or “a Jasmine revolution” against the Baath regime on the model of the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” and the Czech “Velvet Revolution.” But both Ghadry and the internal dissidents lack a solid vision for a post-Assad Syria to avoid the fate of Iraq, which is still mired in factional fighting and is suffering from nonstop attacks by Islamic extremists and Hussein loyalists.
But Assad’s opponents inside the country, including human rights groups, Arab nationalists, leftists and ethnic Kurdish and Assyrian factions, started a first step toward a peaceful democratic transformation. They formed a coalition and in mid-October 2005, signing a statement they named the “Damascus Declaration.” Thanks to external pressures imposed on Syria, including by France, a one-time friendly country, the declaration came into being after much deliberation and negotiation. An interim committee representing all factions was created to run the coalition.
This debate over Syria’s future, however, was unimaginable before the ascension to power of Bashar Assad in July 2000. Until then, voices for change in Syria were rarely heard. Since the secular Baath Party took power in Syria in 1963, the Syrian authorities have tried to subdue secular dissent and Islamic factions, including the Muslim Brotherhoods, which waged a bloody rebellion against Hafez Assad’s rule in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The darkest days of Syria’s opposition parties came when Hafez Assad harshly hit back at the brotherhoods’ rebellion, killing 10,000 people and destroying parts of the western city of Hama, then a stronghold for the rebels. All opposition political parties went underground. And prison was the fate of whoever opposed the regime.
After the death of Hafez Assad, a new era in Syria’s political life started emerging. Since he assumed office a month after his father’s death, the younger Assad has shown his willingness to change at least the image of Baath rule. He has presented himself as an open-minded Baathist who might recognize his political rivals and tolerate dissent. As a sign of openness, Assad has ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners and has issued hundreds of laws aimed at liberalizing the country’s socialist-style economic system.
Syrians’ hopes were high that the younger Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, would bring an end to years of repression under his father and that he would build – even if at a slow pace – a country that embraces democracy and human rights.
Because of these hopes when he first became president, political discussion salons spread throughout the country. Syrian intellectuals freely discussed issues ranging from corruption of the Baath rule to minority issues.
But a year into his presidency, Assad ordered a crackdown on the salons and arrested the country's leading political and human rights activists, including lawmakers Riad Seif and Maamoun Homsi. The so-called “Damascus Spring” was as quickly halted as it was started. Following the U.S.-led war that toppled the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, however, voices of change in Syria once again grew louder.
Syria, a country slightly larger than North Dakota, relies on a Soviet-era economic system that leaves more than 30 percent of its 18 million people in poverty. Syrians hoped the Baath Party Conference, held June 2005, would advance genuine political reforms. But few changes emerged from the conference and even the Emergency Law, which clamped down on political dissent and has been in effect since 1963, remained intact.
In January 2006, seven activists representing the Damascus Declaration and human rights groups came from Damascus to the U.S. to join about 60 Syrian exiles, including Islamic activists, from the U.S., Canada, France, Germany and Switzerland for a Jan. 28-29 conference held in suburban Washington. The Syrian National Council (SNC), another Washington-based group that competes with Ghadry for the U.S. administration’s favor, organized the conference. Also, five dissidents inside Syria spoke on the phone from Damascus to the conferees to directly call for Washington’s help in that effort, stepping over one of the most feared “red lines” in Syria, namely, collaborating with external forces to bring about regime change in the country.
To the rapturous applause of the conferees, Seif, who was released from prison on Jan. 18, 2006 along with four other activists, including Homsi, declared on the phone through loudspeakers, “We are in urgent need of the external opposition’s help.” Sief, Homsi and eight others, leaders of the “Damascus Spring,” had been arrested in the 2001 crackdown. The Supreme State Security Court charged them with attempting to change the constitution by force and convicted them to five years in the infamous Adra prison on the outskirts of Damascus. Their release was seen as an effort to gain Syrians’ support for a government weakened by heavy international pressures.
But Suhair Atassi, the leader of the Atassi salon, was even more blatant: “We must sever all contacts with the regime and step forward to build a friendly relationship with the West,” she said, her voice tearing through stormy applause of the attendees. She was also speaking on the phone from her Damascene house, which used to host dissidents and intellectuals from various parts of Syria every first Tuesday of each month since Assad came to power. It was the only forum that remained operating after the government’s crackdown on democracy forums. Atassi was released in May 2005 along with seven other members of her forum after months in prison for allowing a statement from Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, the spiritual leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods, to be read in one of her forums. “The regime lacks legitimacy,” she daringly told the audience in the Marriott Crystal City hotel, the site of the conference.
Seif and Atassi and three other dissidents from Damascus ratcheted up opposition rhetoric. In Syria, multiple intelligence agencies, known as Mukhabarat, use hundreds of thousands of collaborators and informers to monitor every detail of political, religious and social movements. Allan George’s book, Syria neither Bread nor Freedom, states that those agencies employ about 65,000 full-time officers.
The alliance among Assad’s opponents from within and outside Syria took shape in force after Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khadam stunned Syrians by declaring his break from Assad on the al-Arabiya satellite TV channel on Dec. 30, 2005. Khaddam was a longtime member of the Baath’s Regional Command, the party’s most powerful body, for 30 years.
Khaddam was also Syria's nominal leader for a few days after Hafez Assad death, and helped transfer power to Bashar. He was Syria’s top official in Lebanon for years. He left his post in the Syrian government in June and now is leading an anti-Assad movement from his residence in Paris.
To the shock of the Baath Party, Khaddam joined the opposition’s calls for “peaceful regime change” in Syria. Since then, Khaddam has waged direct attacks against the Syrian regime and has accused President Assad of ordering Hariri’s assassination. Last February, Khaddam met with Al-Bayanouni and other opposition leaders to discuss plans for ousting Assad from power.
Ghadry was denied a place in the emerging alliances of Syrian opposition groups, even though he helped found the Syrian National Council early last year. Shortly afterwards, he withdrew from the council, which included exiled opposition groups from the U.S. and Canada, because, he said, it was “controlled by Islamists.” But the council officials said their group is diverse and it is not dominated by Islamic elements. Also, his call to hold his own national conference and form a parliament in exile was met by deaf ears inside Syria, where opposition leaders are reluctant to establish any contacts with “Syria’s Chalabi.” Ghadry said they are wary of him seizing power since he’s seen as an outsider. “Those dissidents say Chalabi came from the diaspora and he is now in power; [Afghani President Hamid] Karzai came from the diaspora and now rules Afghanistan; and Hariri came from outside to ruled Lebanon,” Ghadry said, laughing. “The opposition inside is afraid.”
Indeed, that fear among dissidents is well-established. It has its roots in a history of coups, reprisals, and ethnic violence.
For Syrians, Ghadry’s plan to force regime change conjures up nightmares of military coups, as well as Iraq’s anarchy and violence that followed the ouster of Hussein’s regime by military force. Ghadry said he doesn’t mind a short period of turmoil in Syria after overthrowing Assad. “There will be some revenge killings, unfortunately. There will be a fight among opposition groups,” he said. “But the U.S. and France will be like traffic cops, who would organize and ensure” a peaceful transformation.
But the instability and violence seething in Iraq, where the U.S.-led coalition forces face a growing insurgency, show the dangers of regime change. Similar religious and ethnic fighting could emerge in Syria after violent instability and a power vacuum.
A trail of military coups began to destabilize Syria in 1949, three years after Syria’s independence from France. Husni al-Zaim seized power in April of that year in a bloodless coup. The first Syrian president, Shukri al-Kuwatli, was imprisoned and later sent to exile in Egypt. Al-Zaim’s takeover, the first military coup in Syria’s history, had deep effects on the fledgling parliamentary democracy, the first in the region. It set off a series of violent military coups, one of which would unseat al-Zaim after only four and half months in power.
Four military coups followed until the first presidential elections were held in 1955 under the auspices of president Hashim al-Atassi. Kuwatli, having returned from Egypt, won the elections and stayed in power until Syria and Egypt merged in 1958 to form the United Arab Republic with the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser president. The union collapsed in 1961 and another round of military coups began until Hafez Assad, then Syria’s defense minister, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970 against Nuredeen al-Atassi, Suhair’s father. Assad often boasted that he could stabilize the country because he prevented regional and international powers from meddling in Syria’s internal affairs.
American interference in Syria is anything but new. William Blum says in his book, Killing Hope: U.S. Military Interventions since World War II, that the U.S. interest in Syrian politics goes back to 1956. Wary of the then-rising power of the Syrian Communists and leftist-leaning Baath party, President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to help Adib al-Shishakli, who ruled Syria from 1951 till 1954, to return to power after being ousted two years earlier. The attempt failed.
Iraq’s religious and ethnic violence is another harbinger of potential sectarian unrest in Syria.
In mid-March of 2004, the government had to deal harshly with Kurdish riots that were sparked by the death of five Kurds in a stampede in Qamishli when fighting erupted at a soccer match. The riots swiftly spread to nearby towns as well as to Aleppo and Damascus suburbs. Twenty-five people were killed and a hundred others were injured during clashes between authorities and Kurdish rioters.
Seven months later, for the first time in Syria’s modern history, about 2,000 Assyrians took to the streets in the northeastern city of Hasaka in October 2004 to protest the killing of two fellow Assyrians at the hands of two Arab brothers, who insulted their victims as “Christian dogs.” The demonstrators demanded that justice and law prevail. As a result, sixteen protesters were rounded up, then released a few months later. These Kurdish riots and the Assyrian demonstration marked the growing impatience with the totalitarian regime, but they also were harbingers of ethnic and religious turbulence.
Joshua Landis, a historian at Oklahoma University who spent a year in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar, expressed such fears. “Syrians want democracy,” said Landis. “But they don’t want Syria to fall apart.”
But Landis explains that Ghadry has play a role in the political struggle in Syria. “His party played an important role, because he has good links inside the [Bush] administration and forced Washington to begin looking at the Syrian opposition as a potential tool in its anti-Syrian diplomacy. Ghadry also convinced other opposition parties to begin looking to Washington as a potential ally," he said. "Whether one agrees or not with Ghadry's methods or objectives, there is no denying that he was the first Syrian to convince the Bush administration to begin developing a Syria politicy that included the opposition."
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, also stressed that the best Ghadry “can do, in my opinion, the best fortune he can have, is to play the role as a communicator between the internal Syrian opposition and external Syrian opposition.”
“He is trying to do that but to no avail so far, I believe,” Abdulhamid added.
In order for him to play that role, Carpenter said, “Farid knows that he needs to influence people.” Indeed, Ghadry said he had many channels within the administration but he complains that leaders of opposition groups inside Syria marred his efforts. “I have contacts with the Pentagon, the State Department and even with the White House,” Ghadry said. “I opened the doors for the opposition inside to use my connections. The opposition inside has no power and they can’t move because they are besieged and restricted by the regime.”
However, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhoods showed interest in Ghadry’s efforts, seeing him as a vehicle to open up for them the already closed doors of Washington. “We have contacts with Ghadry although we have differences with him,” al-Bayanouni said.
But despite this relationship between the staunchly secular Ghadry and an Islamic party, Landis said, “The Muslim Brotherhoods keep a distance.” He went on: “The Muslim Brotherhoods are wooing America and trying to overcome the administrations ban on talking to moderate Islamist parties; to this end, they must preserve a modicum of civility with Ghadry. They are not going to get in bed with him, however, which would destroy their credibility at home.”
Encouraged by Khaddam’s break from the regime, al-Bayanouni turned his back to Ghadry. He announced on March 17 with Khaddam and other expatriate dissidents the formation of “the National Salvation Front.” At the end of the two-day meeting in the Belgian capital, which included other representatives of exiled, liberal and pro-democracy groups, the Front called on Syrians to stage anti-government demonstrations inside the tightly government-controlled country. The burgeoning front called for forming a six-month transitional government to “take up the reins of power at the appropriate moment” in order to avoid chaos and prepare for elections after toppling the Syrian regime.
The move was made to reassure Syrians that their country will not slip into violence the way Iraq did should they rebel against their government.
Of late, the Muslim Brotherhoods’ alliance with secular parties inside and outside Syria has been widely debated. Washington and secular Syrians’ fears run high that a democracy in Syria would bring Islamist to power. This fear was heightened after Egyptian parliamentary elections brought 88 members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhoods to the parliament and after Palestinian elections swept Hamas to power.
Nevertheless, Carpenter said Washington will continue to exert pressure on Syria to democratize. After those elections, Carpenter said, “some people said: ‘Ah now the United States will ease up its pressure.’ We won’t, because our lesson from that election is that unless there is more political space, the only opposition to the regime are Islamists.”
Although its membership is punishable by death in Syria, the brotherhood is believed to be able to mobilize the already high religious sentiment in the country. In order to assuage those fears and pave the way to join the Syrian mainstream opposition, the brotherhood has renounced its unpopular violent rebellion in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s against Assad’s father, Hafez.
Mohammad al-Habash, a legislator and the head of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, said 80 percent of Syria’s Sunni Muslims are religiously conservative, while moderate Muslims represent only 20 percent. “If democracy were to come, the Islamic presence will be more effective in political life.”
But Habash, who promotes a moderate version of Islam, played down the brotherhoods’ influence on Syria’s politics. “Their history doesn’t help to have people sympathize with them,” Habash said, referring to brotherhoods’ rebellion.
Michel Kilo, a prominent writer and opponent of Assad’s regime, said before his arrest in May 2006 in a telephone interview from his home in Damascus that the brotherhood has “accepted democracy as a basis for their political activity.” Kilo, a Christian, continued, “There is no problem to have a temporary understanding with the Muslim Brotherhoods,” whose agenda includes establishing an Islamic state in Syria after Assad’s ouster.
But policymakers in Washington are divided on how to respond to religious groups, according to William Rugh, a retired U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
“There are people in the [U.S.] administration who say Islamists should be allowed,” said Rugh. “And there are people saying watch out before pushing for democracy.”
Landis said the Pentagon supports the secular Ghadry, while the State Department supports both Ghadry and the SNC, which also joined the Damascus Declaration.
Weighing the brotherhoods’ growing importance in Syria, Ghadry said the constitution he is trying to promote “must be secular but approved by the Muslim Brotherhoods.”
Ghadry hopes that “American support” for him will “ensure their approval of the constitution” that might run against their religious beliefs which restrict women's freedoms and stipulate an Islamic life style. Ghadry was playing on the brotherhoods’ willingness to open a dialogue with Washington for a possible regime change in Syria. But Carpenter said the Muslim Brotherhoods constitute a “problem” for U.S.’s Syria policy. “It’s a false choice,” he said.
But the head of the brotherhood since 1996, al-Bayanouni, emphasized his group’s commitment to a pluralist Syria. “We have stressed our commitment to establish a civil state, not religious,” he said. Al-Bayanouni, born in 1938 in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, recalled that the Muslim Brotherhood participated in election during the 1950’s and formed coalitions with other Syrian parties, including the Baath, which was established by the Greek Orthodox Michel Aflak and conservative Sunni Salah Bitar in 1947.
After Khaddam openly accused Assad of ordering the killing of Hariri, the U.N. investigation team demanded early in January that Assad and his top Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa be interviewed. Serge Brammertz, who was appointed in January 2006 to take over the U.N. team investigating the Hariri killing, reported on March 14 to the U.N. that President Assad and then foreign minister Sharaa agreed for the first time to meet with him in April. Brammertz, a Belgian prosecutor, submited his most report detailing his findings in Hariri’s killing in March 2007.
“I think we are waiting to see what the conclusion is of the U.N. investigation,” said Carpenter. “But I think it will certainly set the tone and stage for all that happens next in Syria.”
With Iraq’s post-Saddam violence in mind, Carpenter denied that the U.S. is seeking regime change by force. “The [Syrian] government knows what we are seeking. What the international community has asked for is a dramatic change in behavior,” Carpenter said. “We want to see change in the political system. We want to see change in Syria's foreign policy. We want to see change and openness.”
Rugh attributed the U.S.’s subordinate role to France in dealing with Syria to its problems in Iraq, where more than 2,100 American troops have been killed as of early January. He also expressed his belief that U.S. leverage inside Syria is not sufficient to force Damascus to respond to Washington’s demands. For example, “the American policy was not enough to force Syria out,” Rugh said. He was referring to France’s backing of U.S. efforts to have Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon.
Ghadry said he even dropped his call for a U.S. military invasion of Syria to topple Assad. “Our success relies on Bashar Assad’s mistakes. He is our friend,” Ghadry said.
“Farid wants to rule,” Hussam al-Deiri, a member of the executive committee of the SNC who worked with Ghadry on founding the council, said in an interview at his house in Georgetown, Washington. “We do not accept Farid ruling us.” However, he said the legitimacy of Ghadry’s activism is unquestionable despite Ghadry’s absence from Syria for more than 30 years. “At least, his hands are not soaked in Syrians’ blood like the Assad regime,” al-Deiri said.
Although they agree that without the superpower’s intervention, the regime in Syria may survive years longer, both al-Deiri and Ghadry differ on methods. “All we are asking of the American administration is to lift its protection off the Syrian regime,” said al-Deiri. “We do not want a military attack or a military coup. We want to move step by step in line with the opposition inside.”
But Ghadry bluntly said he hasn’t considered working with the dissidents inside the country since he founded his party. He slammed the Damascus Declaration as “a piece of paper, no more, no less.” Taking a sip of coffee, Ghadry continued, “Our goal was to strengthen ourselves through our relations with the international community, the American administration and certain people.”
U.S. officials, however, deny that Washington has a favorite politician for Syria. “We have selected nobody to be our guy,” Carpenter said in an interview at his office at the State Department late in February 2006. “There is no Ahmad Chalabi scenario for Syria.” He said of Ghadry, “It’s not for us to demand that he be included in anything. We are not going to lend the United States’ name to any specific individual to advance his or her objectives.” Carpenter added: “American policy is designed and devoted to building a network of contacts within the opposition.”
Ghadry drives his luxurious computer-equipped BMW to Washington, D.C. almost daily to meet with media people and U.S. officials, including Richard Perle, “to discuss steps to topple the [Syrian] regime.”
But Ghadry, who aspires to rule Syria, knows that the path from the Potomac back to Damascus will not be easy.
And for Ghadry to join the mainstream opposition in Syria, he has to “prove he is not part of an external design to weaken the country,” said Kilo. “The internal opposition agreed that we would not invite external [forces] to solve our problems and we would not give a hand to those who might shed the blood of Syrians,” Kilo stressed, referring to Ghadry’s call for American military intervention.
Al-Bayanouni, who lives in London, echoed the same sentiments. “Syrian people do not accept the American agenda,” He called on Ghadry to “distance himself from the external agenda” designed for his country.
But Ghadry sharply answered his critics. “When we leave things for the [opposition] inside, they can not do anything,” he said. Ghadry pointed to the slow pace of political movement inside Syria, saying, “They have been working for 42 years to no avail. This shows political immaturity.”
“We are using this historic moment and our connections with the Bush administration to oust the regime,” Ghadry said.
“Mom, I want food,” said the 24-year-old Omar, Ghadry’s oldest son, who studied economics in college and works for a marketing firm in Washington, D.C. In many respects, Ghadry leads a typical American, suburban life in Washington.
Dalia, 18, Ghadry’s youngest, pops out of her room. The high schooler asks her father about her Christmas gift. Christopher, Ghadry’s third child, appears with his blonde, American girlfriend, Alex. The whole family was waiting for the long-haired, bearded Samer, Ghadry’s fourth child, to come home from college for Christmas holidays.
Ghadry often switches between English and Arabic, but his children only speak flawless American English. For Ghadry’s four children, America offers them opportunities he could not enjoy during his childhood; Syria is foreign to them—a land without promise or even family.
But Ghadry is eagerly hoping to return to Syria and to create a niche in its politics for himself—though not “until it is liberated from Baath regime.”
Ahlam, Ghadry’s wife, agrees. She still speaks Lebanese-accented Arabic, and pines for her homeland. Like her husband, she hopes for better days in the Middle East. “Our region has to change,” she said. “I fully support Farid because someone must work for change.”
Ghadry assures her change in Syria is nearing.
“I think it’s in the summer of 2006,” Ghadry explained to me in January of that year. “Everything indicates that the change is coming soon.”
He looked at the vase where the two Lebanese flags were set and pointed his finger between them.
“I will place the flag of new Syria here.”
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