Posted by Joshua on Saturday, April 21st, 2007
Marc Perelman of the Forward, who has just returned from Damascus, has written another excellent article: "Syrian Dissidents See Prospects Killed by Bloodbath in Iraq." Here are highlights:
When Syrians head to the polls this week to elect a new parliament, Iraq will be on their minds — but not in the way that the Bush administration envisioned four years ago, when it held high hopes that toppling Saddam Hussein would set off a democratic domino effect that would unseat the region’s authoritarian rulers.
Instead, the American invasion of Iraq has produced a cauldron of sectarian violence, driving more than 1 million refugees into Syria. According to Syrian opposition figures, the chaos in Iraq has boosted the internal appeal of the stable, if dictatorial, Ba’athist regime in Damascus and dealt a heavy blow to the country’s already fragile and divided opposition by granting President Bashar al-Assad a ready-made campaign slogan: us or an Iraqi-style meltdown. Moreover, the open talk in Washington of bringing about regime change in Damascus after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 has provided the authorities with a nationalist rallying cry against foreign powers and a golden opportunity to depict its opponents as Western stooges…..
Riad Seif says: “The image of the U.S. is so bad that if you’re against the regime, you’re an American spy.”…
The National Organization for Human Rights claims that 190 political activists, including bloggers, Islamists and members of the Kurdish minority, were arrested last year.
Ammar Qurabi, director of the Syrian human rights organization, acknowledged that repression in Syria these days is not nearly as brutal as under the senior Assad, noting that the number of political prisoners had decreased sharply, their treatment in jail had improved and prisoners of opinion were now facing civil tribunals instead of security courts.
Georges Jabbour, a Ba’ath member of parliament, said that while he disagreed with the arrests, “obstacles such as the international isolation following the Hariri murder make you more cautious.” Still, he argued that the democratic climate in Syria is improving, pointing to his advocacy for an end to the emergency regime and to efforts to set up a parliamentary committee on public liberties.
The problem, said Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus correspondent of the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat, is that opposition groups fail to understand the main desires of their fellow countrymen. “The opposition,” Hamidi said, “has failed to understand that the majority of Syrians don’t care for democracy and human rights but about their daily struggles.”
David Schenker of WINEP explains how Washington is missing an opportunity to gain "leverage vis-à-vis Damascus" and sharpen another "arrow in the U.S. policy quiver" by pressing the democracy agenda more aggressively and getting MEPI money to Syrian opposition groups. He does confess that US policy must take some of the blame for this because most Syrian opposition members refused to accept US money for fear of "undermining the credibility of their pro-democracy efforts at home." He explains that almost none of the
$5 million in funding the Bush administration pledged in 2006 to support Syrian reformers… has been disbursed. The Syrian civil society organizations such as the National Democratic Gathering — a coalition of five pro-democracy Syrian civil society groups — have been loath to consider accepting outside funding, fearing persecution and undermining the credibility of their pro-democracy efforts at home.
I wonder why Syria's opposition find America money obnoxious when David Schenker talks about it as an arrow in America's quiver designed to gain leverage in Syria? Just a thought.
Washington, it appears, has decided to stay clear of the Syrian elections, neither funding its reformer allies nor condemning the entire charade. No doubt, the administration debated the merit of wading into Syrian electoral politics — pressing for international election monitors, for example — but in the end, decided against it. Perhaps the decision against weighing in reflects the administration's new, more circumscribed view of the priority of democracy promotion. Given the increasingly long — and growing — list of U.S. grievances against Syria, however, the administration's disinclination to tangle with Damascus on the democracy issue is troubling.
Syria remains a problem for U.S. policymakers. This week's elections are yet another reminder, both to the administration and Congress, that Washington should harbor no illusions as to the true nature of the Assad regime. At the same time, good U.S. policy options on Syria are limited. For decades, Washington has been in search of elusive leverage vis-à-vis Damascus. And while democracy hasn't always been a winning issue, it does resonate with some of our European allies who are currently weighing a rapprochement with Syria. At the very least, democracy would be another arrow in the U.S. policy quiver. In this regard the U.S. tact on the elections represents a missed opportunity.
The Syrian "Muslim Brotherhood is opening an office in Washington, DC" according to the blog "friday-lunch-club." I cannot confirm this, but the National Salvation Front, which includes the Brotherhood, has been planing to establishing an office in Washington ever since their meetings with the NSC last fall. Here is what the blogger (unnamed) writes:
From sources close to the Syrian branch of the "MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD", I just learned that the "Bros" are opening an office in Washington, DC and their "counsel" will be former US Ambassador to Qatar Elizabeth McKune. The "Bros" have apparently studied all four corners of their strategy with "officials in Foggy Bottom, the NSC and on Capitol Hill, including deputy assistant Secretary of State, Scott Carpenter… Reminder: The "Bros" are the back bone of the "Syrian Salvation Front" with dissident former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam as "front president."
Washington may not see an opportunity to help the internal Syrian opposition, but it is continuing to work on exile groups.
I think it is a good idea for Washington to open a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. I agree with colleagues Joshua Stacher and Samer Shehata, who wrote this op-ed recently: Hear out Muslim Brotherhood
The willingness of the Brotherhood to work with the US, however, has caused a number of Syrians to criticize it and caused some consternation.
The "Third Alliance", a group of liberal Syrian dissidents, who criticize opposition groups that advocate the destabilization of Syria, believe the Muslim brotherhood is undermining its credibility by partnering with Khaddam and brokering an agreement with the US. Here are two articles by members: one by Mohammad Jubeili.(in Arabic) and another by Abdol Mounaier, "Six Months in the Grip of the Salvation Front of Syria"
Also, do not miss the excellent article by Patrick Seale, Can Syria and Israel Make Peace?