“Syria: The Opposition and its Troubled Relationship with Washington,” by Joe Macaron

Syria: The Opposition and its Troubled Relationship with Washington
By  Joe Macaron
The Syrian opposition faces challenges on all fronts, including how to handle relations with the United States.
Carnegie’s Arab Reform Bulletin
February 2008, Vol. 6, Issue 1

The January 28 detention of Riad Seif is the latest development in a campaign of arrests against members of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration launched by Syrian authorities only a week after U.S. President George Bush met with Ma'moun al-Hamsi, Jenkiskhan Hasou, and Ammar Abdul Hamid at the White House in December 2007. The White House has condemned the arrests, but so far the U.S. Chargé d'Affairs in Syria reportedly has not broached the topic with the sole Syrian official with whom he meets, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Faisal al-Mikdad. Although Washington at one point wished for a united Syrian opposition, it has decided to treat the opposition more as a human rights concern than a potential force for political change. Washington's meetings with representatives of the National Salvation Front, the Syrian National Council, Kurdish parties, and the Reform Party, have been confined to general discussions regarding the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative and the $5 million allocated to Syria.

Sources within the U.S. administration admit that Washington's ability to influence events in Syria is limited due to the lack of strong economic ties. In addition, U.S. officials have misgivings about engaging with some parts of the opposition, for example former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, given his history in power. The White House has not yet authorized meetings with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, in order to avoid lending legitimacy to the organization's alternative project. For its part, the Brotherhood does not seem ready for such a dialogue, at least publicly.

The Syrian opposition, especially the National Salvation Front, has miscalculated in its dealings with Washington. It assumed incorrectly that the U.S. administration's contacts with the Syrian opposition marked the beginning of a path toward regime change in Damascus, and that calling for an international tribunal for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri would pave the way toward this goal. Thus the opposition linked its political fortunes to those of Lebanon. In addition, it is open to question whether opposition figures showed good judgment in meeting with a troubled U.S. president nearing the end of his term.    

Relations with the United States are only a small part of the problems faced by the opposition. Unity remains a major challenge. The cohesiveness of the National Salvation Front, for example, lies in the Muslim Brotherhood's need for the support of Khaddam, who has Arab and international contacts—a need the Brotherhood may already be outgrowing.

Inside Syria, the opposition is undergoing a difficult phase not only because of the recent arrests, but also because of the problems posed by the forthcoming elections and the statement of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration. The elections offer an opportunity for independents, leftists, civil society activists, and opponents of dialogue with the regime to buttress their position at the expense of traditional parties—thus maintaining the Declaration's intellectual vigor at the expense of its organizational capacity. As a result, the Damascus Declaration remains an elite-dominated opposition movement that lacks the popular base necessary to push for serious political reforms. It operates within a small arena devoid of self-criticism, without financial or media support and isolated within the Arab world.

The Syrian opposition is also undergoing a transition, moving toward a new set of political concepts and tools championed by a younger generation that has gained momentum through its cultural interaction with Lebanon. This generation seeks to define its identity and its approach to democratic change, relations with the West, and liberalism.

Another set of problems for the opposition relate to Syrian state security. State security's tight restrictions on the opposition's activities make it difficult for observers to determine the effectiveness of its leadership and organizational capacities and its ability to present a national project that goes beyond traditional narratives of the chaotic civil space. Worst of all, members of the Syrian domestic opposition and their family members face continuous threats to their safety and freedom from the state security service, as seen in the recent arrests. Opposition members face severe punishments when they communicate with the Muslim Brotherhood or foreign entities, or when they engage in political activities, especially with Syrian youth. The opposition is also likely to pay the price of the international and the Arab diplomatic standoff with Damascus in the upcoming period. 

Despite these problems, the space for expression of dissent in Syria is gradually broadening due to the opposition's efforts, a fact the authorities find difficult to accept. The Syrian regime deals with every issue, be it regional or domestic, as an existential issue and seeks to monopolize all public spaces and even private ones. Thus, while the Syrian Embassy flirts with Democratic candidates for the U.S. presidency, it accuses the opposition of committing treason by merely showing the world that there exists an alternative Syrian voice, albeit a weak and troubled one.

Joe Macaron is a journalist residing in Washington D.C.  Dina Bishara translated this article from Arabic.

Also see:

Human rights in Syria: How is it to live paralysed by fear?
by Nicolien den Boer*

Being afraid for your own safety is one thing, worrying about the safety of your family can paralyse you with fear. This is why some human rights activists in Syria decide to throw in the towel. However, most activists continue to fight for what they believe even if both they and their families face threats, imprisonment and torture.
Syria map One evening Husam left a Damascus bar after having had one too many drinks. He took a taxi home and started to chat with the driver, who began criticising Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Husam enthusiastically joined the driver in criticising the president. It was a lot of fun to secretly poke fun at the regime in the taxi, with the windows closed.

Suddenly the taxi took a wrong turn. Husam was taken to a police station, arrested and sentenced to several months in prison for insulting the president.

Human rights lawyer and activist Razan Zeitouneh tells the story in her Damascus home. Many Syrian human rights activists can tell similar anecdotes. Taxi drivers have a reputation for working for the Mukhabarat (the secret police), but your neighbour or fellow student can also turn out to be a secret agent. It is not easy to recognise them, which is why there is so much paranoia in Syria.
Like mushrooms

Syrian human rights activists are used to living in fear. During the regime of former president and dictator Hafez al-Assad many human rights activists were jailed for decades and often tortured. It seemed that things would change when his son Bashar succeeded him in 2000.

Bashar al-Assad 
President Bashar al-Assad started out in office by promising more freedom
The new president promised more freedom and democracy. Human rights activists started to collect petitions calling for more freedoms. They also held demonstrations, and new groups have sprouted like mushrooms. However, the Human Rights Watch organisation reports that in recent years activists have been rounded up in one wave of arrests after another. In 2006, seven young human rights activists were sentenced to up to seven years in jail.
Fear and concern
Razan Zeitouneh, who was arrested last year, says the human rights movement has been paralysed by fear. Her organisation, the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies conducts research into the situation in Syria. Ms Zeitouneh interviewed other human rights activists. She concluded that there were two dominant feelings: fear and concern about those close to you: "The fear returns every time you're arrested or someone close to you is arrested or tortured. But the fear also gradually fades away. However, concern about your family stays and can paralyse you completely."
It's a tried and tested method of keeping someone under one's thumb. Threatening a member of someone's family is like having the person in the hands of the police. 
"You've got to learn to live with the concern, because you never get rid of it. Your first step is to recognise it. You must let it become part of you. And you must understand that there are other emotions. This gives you the perseverance you will need to continue your work.
Practical protection
Human rights activist Ammar Qurabi, former member of an outlawed Syrian opposition party, says he has been arrested six times. On the telephone he proposes to meet in the busy lobby of a hotel in Damascus. Wouldn't he prefer a quieter place? "Why? I'm not afraid!"

In the lobby, Qurabi tells he is no longer allowed to leave the country. He knows no fear, he says with a smile, "Because the secret services are becoming bored with reading all of my e-mails and reports." His organisation reports on issues such as women's rights and the Kurdish minority in Syria. Incidentally, Qurabi enjoys a certain measure of protection because of his contacts with Amnesty International, among other organisations. He is known as a good international networker, creating a bit of security for himself. Yet another prison term for Qurabi would be guaranteed to make international headlines….. (continue)

Here is the latest from Human Rights Watch

Syria: Opposition Activists Tell of Beatings in Interrogation
Authorities Should Release All 12, and Investigate Allegations of Physical Abuse

Comments (52)

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51. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

In any Arab country Vanunu would be dead by now. The guy worked in a classified location and signed agreements not to divulge secrets. Do you know any government that does not try to stop people giving out its state secrets?
So, what are you trying to prove? The only Israel cannot have secrets? Or is this a failed attempt at the two wrongs make a right argument?

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February 7th, 2008, 7:32 pm


52. Shai said:


I hope you’re right about next year. I hope we have the time to wait. There are still some “trigger happy” rulers running around you know… One thing I’m sure about, which is that CBM’s must still be sought and created continuously either formally or informally, between Israel and Syria. God-forbid we should find ourselves in a regional war which starts out of a “localized” operation (Gaza), with Hezbollah joining, etc. and thing gets out of control. In such a case, I would want Damascus and Jerusalem to be communicating through ANY channel, ensuring one another of their peaceful intentions (towards each other at least). Otherwise, we really can find ourselves at a very nasty and costly war. I’m trying not to be pessimistic, only realistic enough to remember that the TNT-barrel that is called the Middle East is still very much there, almost waiting to explode…


Sorry, but there are better arguments for why Israel is not a “true” democracy (multi-party system, no regional representation, no direct voting for PM, etc.) Vanunu would be considered a traitor in any nation on this planet, and in fact would likely never see the light of day. Remember Pollard in the U.S., do you think Vanunu would prefer to change places with that “other” democracy, and the way it treats Pollard? Personally, I’m rather surprised that Vanunu was even allowed out. He can still cause a lot of damage, I imagine.

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February 7th, 2008, 8:04 pm


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