12 Opposition Leaders Sentenced

The Fulbright Scholar in Damascus, Fred Deknatel writes in an email:
What’s going on with the New York Times ridiculous report on the protest? See the article: “As if on cue…”?. … Things seem to be cooling down in Cham now, after yesterday’s protest.

Frederick Deknatel is right about Graham Bowley’s NYTimes coverage of the Syrian protests. Browley, who must be in New York, dismisses the demonstration as “stage-managed.” I suppose he is trying to suggest that Syrians are not upset by the US incursion and extra-judicial assassination on their territory. Bowley who watched the demo on BBC TV and came to that conclusion. Of course demonstrations in Syria are organized by the government, but to suggest that people are not upset when one has not interviewed anyone there to see if they are angry is well….. not good journalism. Where was the NYTime’s Robert Worth who is based in Lebanon? He is always excellent and does his homework.

Syria Comment’s own Alex gets a shout out in Haaretz, even if Yoav Stern incorrectly associates him with the Syrian government. Alex runs a computer company in Montreal. He has no links to the government in Syria.

Olmert intends to resume indirect talks with Syria
By Barak Ravid and Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondents

…. Meanwhile, a Syrian commentator living in the West, Camille Alexandre Otrakji, said he believed the proposal raised by President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to negotiate based on the Arab peace initiative could be dangerous. In a blog on a public affairs Web site focusing on Syria, Otrakji wrote that the initiative could “…probably be another cycle of chaos, violence, war threats followed by a sequence of flipping peace tracks.” Otrakji does not represent the official Syrian position, but his comments are apparently close to that position.

[Landis Analysis] when Syria’s democratic opposition activists need the world’s sympathy and attention, as word of their sentencing comes out, the Bush administration has diverted attention with its attack on Syria. The treatment of democracy activists over the last two years has been lamentable. Most depressingly, the US attack allows the Syrian government to cast its persecution of the opposition as necessary in the face of foreign aggression and national crisis. It reminds Syrians that they could become Iraqis, which the government exploits to round up its opponents and accuse them of “weakening national sentiment”. US military tactics and the terrible conditions in Iraq undermine America’s traditional and worthy call for democratic rights.

RIGHTS: Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” Stumbles in Syria
By Ali Gharib and Zainab Mineeia

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (IPS) – With media and diplomatic attention focused on the international incident ignited by a U.S. cross-border raid from Iraq into Syrian territory last weekend, the Syrian government quietly handed down 30-month prison terms to a group of democracy activists on Wednesday.
Few took notice, although Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to immediately overturn the convictions and order the release of prisoners arrested during a crackdown on the Damascus Declaration movement in late 2007 and early 2008.
Forty activists who participated in a Damascus Declaration forum had been detained, although most were later released. In a 20-minute sentencing session, the 12 who were prosecuted and convicted were given stiff prison terms for allegedly attempting to promote gradual political change in the country.
“In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. “The trial was a mere cover to legitimise the government’s repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics.”

But the best cover for the Syrian regime may have come from the U.S., Syria expert and Oklahoma University professor Joshua Landis told IPS.

“The world is not concentrating on this; the world is concentrating on America’s violation of Syrian territory,” Landis told IPS, noting that even some of the U.S.’s allies have condemned the raid.

“America would normally be putting out a statement,” he said, “but no one cares about these guys because the world is focused on [the recent raid]. Everyone is focused on this international issue that America created.”

“These 12 democracy promoters are going to disappear into jail because there is chaos at the border. It punctuates the failure of the Freedom Agenda,” Landis added. …

Every Middle Eastern society is so fearful of the chaos and insecurity that could be visited upon them with the collapse of their government that they cling to their dictatorial regimes,” Landis told IPS. “It’s relegitimised dictatorship.”



I discuss this same problem in this show on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman:

If anyone needs reminding of the sad state of President Bush’s democracy agenda, watch this horrifying video: Iraqi Prostitutes – Syria – YouTube: It is a shame that there are not special forces to protect these women. 

Farrah Hassen writes an excellent backgrounder to US – Syrian relations since 2000. “A bumpy ride for the US over Syria,” in Asia Times. 

Paul Rogers at Open Democracy  has a good overview: America and Syria: a political raid.
The United States’s strike on Syria reflects both military concern and political calculation over the progress of the “war on terror”, says Paul Rogers

Sybella Wilkes, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Syria writes this note:

Dear Joshua,

I’m just back from the Iraqi borders where the poor Palestinians are recovering from heavy rainfall and flooding.  Life is agony on these border camps. They can’t go forwards, they can’t go back. My story should be out later today.

I realize you have other pressing issues on Syria at the moment(!), but I am doing my best to keep the Palestinians on everyone’s radars.

Best wishes,  Sybella

Here is her story:

Flood ordeal for Palestinians stuck on Iraq-Syria border

Palestinians stuck at border

Palestinians stuck at border

AL TANF, Iraq-Syria Border, October 30 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency has rushed assistance to hundreds of Palestinian refugees stuck in camps on the Iraq-Syria border after heavy rain and flooding caused chaos and misery.

Rainstorms on Tuesday night left tents inundated with water and sewage, possessions soaked and electricity supplies cut at Al Tanf, a settlement housing almost 800 people in the narrow no man’s land between Iraq and Syria. The small mosque was damaged by fire, but there were no human casualties

“This is the closest to hell I can imagine,” said Mutassem Hayatla, a UNHCR field officer who stayed in the camp during the downpour. “With no electricity, the camp was full of the sound of crying, terrified children. We did our best, but it was a blessing when the night was over.”

Nine-year-old Aya said she was terrified. “The lights were all off, there was water everywhere. My mother was crying. She is pregnant and the baby will come soon. Please get us out before my brother is born. I am scared he will die if we have to live here after she delivers.”

The situation was even worse in Al Waleed, a nearby camp hosting more than 1,400 refugees just inside Iraq, where more than 100 families were left homeless after their tents were destroyed in the storm. UNHCR was rushing supplies on Wednesday to both sites, but it was taking longer to get to Al Waleed due to security considerations.

The UNHCR office in Damascus sent new tents, plastic sheeting, blankets and mattresses to Al Tanf on Wednesday, while refugee agency staff on the ground in Al Waleed were waiting for supplies to arrive in Iraq. The worst affected families and elderly Palestinians were moved to the camp school and a clinic.

When the UNHCR aid convoy arrived in Al Tanf on Wednesday morning, residents were recovering their soaked belongings amid the incessant downpour. Trucks thundered past on the Baghdad-Damascus highway which runs beside the camp, throwing up waves of water onto the nearest tents.

Many of the worst affected had moved in with families whose tents had been spared the worst of the damage and pollution caused by the floodwaters. The storm could hardly have come at a worse time, with winter approaching. “We sleep with seven blankets,” said Nadia, a mother of three children, including a severely handicapped child. “Now that everything is wet, I don’t know how we are going to stay warm.”

UNHCR staff in Al Waleed said it had become a muddy quagmire, while flash floods had swept away scores of tents. The sewage system had also overflown in the camp and people were falling ill. “We are already inundated with refugee patients complaining about cold and flu,” said a Palestinian refugee doctor.

The flooding is just one more chapter in the ordeal suffered by the Palestinians in Al Tanf and Al Waleed since fleeing their homes in Baghdad to escape threats, kidnapping and violence. They have endured sandstorms, snow in the winter and soaring temperatures in the summer. In Al Tanf, two children have been killed by passing trucks and there have been a couple of major fires.

Some of the refugees have lived at Al Tanf for three years, barred from entering any of the countries neighbouring Iraq. “We cannot go forwards, nor back. We have a road on one side that threatens our children’s lives daily, a high wall on the other; in front and behind we have two impenetrable borders,” explained Abu Ziyad, a member of the Al Tanf refugee committee.

“Our only hope is resettlement. For the sake of our children, our wives, our elderly, we beg you, please get us out of here,” he pleaded.

UNHCR on Thursday reiterated its appeal to the international community to provide resettlement places for Palestinians from Iraq, with no other option currently available for the refugees. “We urge more countries to open their doors to resettle the Palestinian refugees and bring their precarious situation to an end,” said Daniel Endres, UNHCR’s representative in Iraq.

By Sybella Wilkes in Al Tanf, Iraq-Syria border

Comments (17)

ToddGMoney said:

Dr. Landis,

You are absolutely right about the protest being sponsored but not “stage-managed” by the US. I wrote this on an ABC News Forum in response to a comment that the Syrian government forced its citizens into the streets on the pain of punishment…

“Trust me, although the Syrian government sponsored the protest, it in no way needed to encourage its citizens to take to the streets. I lived in Syria from 2007 to 2008 and still keep in contact with many friends there, and let me tell you, the anger is palpable after this raid (not to mention beforehand). Even somewhat pro-American friends were appalled. Just imagine a similar situation in which Russia invaded Canada and had its sights on the US. Would we try 110% to stop people from crossing the border to fight the Russians, and how would we feel if the Russians bombed a small farm in Montana, whether or not it was a haven for anti-Russian militants? Even so, the Syrians have definitely made attempts to cut the flow of militants across the border, as attested to by Petraeus. They don’t want Al-Qaeda blowback. They might be doing 70% of what they could do, and if we put an ambassador back in our embassy there and tried to reestablish workable relations, they might do a lot more. If one was conspiratorially minded one might think that the Bush administration was trying to bolster our least favorite dictators in the Middle East, because if at one point people grumbled about Bashar, they now support him more than ever. They don’t want to be like Iraq, and they certainly don’t want to see their country prostrated before Bush at the point of a gun.”

October 31st, 2008, 4:29 pm


Alia said:


Thank you for bringing attention to the matter and for your analysis. I purposefully kept quiet on the subject out of respect for you and for Alex.

By punishing those people so harshly, their crime is made to appear great.


I do not agree that we owe the regime anything regardless of our background. Had Syria continued in a democratic path after Independance, people would have had more than adequate public education and health care as our parents did. Both my parents studied at Damascus University for free already in the 50’s.

I do not think that every person who asks for improvement of conditions needs to have offered the same thing I am offering. And whatever I am offering, I am offering voluntarily and on my own terms to the people of my country; I do not need to justify it nor do I need to justify when I stop doing it.

October 31st, 2008, 6:35 pm


Alia said:


Best wishes to your family. This is a great blessing. May God protect Dahlia.

October 31st, 2008, 6:38 pm


Welcome | Project on Middle East Democracy said:

[…] Landis at Syria Comment argues that the U.S. raid in Syria has undermined the very cause the White House now purports to champion. […]

October 31st, 2008, 6:46 pm


atassi said:

First let me commend the truly patriots Syrians for staying the course while facing an extreme exploitations and harassment.. triumph for the truly patriot Syrians is a MUST…
The Assad regime has done more harm to itself by the act of repressing and persecution of the opposition figures when they really should have untied the country by freeing them as a good faith gesture .. But knowing how foolish, irrational and absurd the regime security apparatuses can be, We shouldn’t expect anything significant !!

Please don’t blame the Bush administration for being the reason for the jailing of democratic opposition activists… It’s unrespectable and defaming for them the honorable patriotic Syrians ….

October 31st, 2008, 7:28 pm


trustqest said:

Thank you Joshua for your coverage of the civil society (Damascus Spring), your honest feelings and for your analysis on Amy Goodman.

Thanks Alia for your nice words, the wonderful people of civil society deserve it and more.

For those people who are bedfellows with the regime and who slammed their country fellows for the soul reason of defending those wonderful men and woman in voicing their opinions and speaking their minds, please do not bother to answer and attack, have respect and do not tell me how I should feel.

Here is a link showing how they put those wonderful people behind bars like they are animal or such. please read what they are saying after they sentenced to 30 months in prison:


October 31st, 2008, 9:06 pm


alloushi said:

don’t you know that in syria any demonstartion is always and ever staged from the first minute to the last….and still you ahve people trying to add some make up to a state where fear is the weapon. did you foreget Iraq? the zillions demo which evaporated after a few minutes of the invasion…FEAR…even otri fears for his head at some point…this is the reality…

October 31st, 2008, 10:51 pm


AIG said:

What is this strange thing with the cages? Do all prisoners in Syria during trial get put in cages or is this something special for the dissidents?

October 31st, 2008, 11:11 pm


norman said:

Dear Alia,

Some of us do not help,but do not complain,

Some of us do not complain but do not help because they can not or do not want.

Some of of do not complain but go out of their way to help and that is you and for that you are the best of us that we should all try to emulate.

God bless you. I hope one day i will be able to do what you do , now i have a lot of obligations.

Ask Alex for my Email , Please tell me what you do exactly in Syria , Let me see if i can help .

October 31st, 2008, 11:28 pm


AIG said:

Please think twice before revealing your identity to Norman. I am pretty sure he works for the regime and you have already shown yourself not to be a regime supporter and even perhaps a dissident. I have been following Norman’s posts for a long time and just wanted to make sure you had all the information in order to make an informed decision that will not endanger you personally or the beneficial activities you support in Syria.

October 31st, 2008, 11:40 pm


jad said:

let’s see, putting 12 man in a cage in a law court is a must asked question and AIG want to sound surprised (I love it when he pretend to be smart, it must be hard though)…..On the other hand, putting millions of Palestinians in the biggest cage of occupation and make them go through a lovely and pleasant checkpoint every day of their miserable life is something that doesn’t surprise him at all……Mind your own country business HYPOCRIT…
here are few sample of your own better human treatment you are bragging about:
I guess you already finished your meaningless comments limit for today..Thank God..

November 1st, 2008, 2:45 am


Alia said:


Thank you for your kind words. I will take you up on your offer when I am able to. Don’t worry 🙂

You call demands for civic rights, for a constitution that is based on moral and ethical standards that are universally acknowledged and would guarantee the personal freedom and safetey of every individual etc…: you call that complaining. I understand that to be activism for the sake of a just society. The late Reverend Martin Luther King is revered for his stand on very similar issues for his people.
In our country, such calls are criminalized, although the people calling for them do not throw bombs and do not assassinate individuals nor usurp anyone’s rights…They are not menacing society, they are menacing a regime that does not want to give up its privileges and its self-serving authority.

The regime is not protecting anybody. I am not sure who wrote here that they feel safer for their parents from criminality having such a regime in power. May be today, but do you know about tomorrow?…The matter is not your hands nor in the hands of your parents. If the regime decided to crack down on every person whose family name starts with S and yours happens to be one, what recourse do you have? I remember that in the 1980s my father was riding the bus between 2 cities, when some sort of patrol stopped the bus and checked individual identity papers. It turned out that his name was the same as someone else’s (a young man who was wanted), the patrol pulled my- then elderly- father to stand in the sun of August, on the road, for several hours, until they cleared up the mistake. Then he had to wait for several hours more for someone to come and get him – If they had taken him to jail what could we have done?…Run around, beg and pay Bakhsheesh to get him out?..and may be be successful. Does that sound familiar?

On a recent visit, a friend whose huband is French, and who had been visiting her family in Damascus with her kids every summer without problem, debarked from the plane to be told that her oldest son (14) could not enter the country and must be returned to France. He needed a special permission from the Interior Ministry in order to enter the country!!; there were 4-5 low grade officers who disagreed on the matter for several hours, while she was becoming increasingly hysterical with 2 other younger children in tow, until they all wisely agreed that since he is not 16 yet, he could be let in. Not one of her relatives could find a justification for this breach …nor could she do anything about the whole episode.

I don’t see how protecting the country from all the evil forces that everyone is talking about necessicates this humiliation and helplessness. It is a matter of course, that our country’s government should have at its disposal legal measure to arrest, prosecute and prevent criminals of all sorts including criminal organizations such as Al-Qaeda…There are fully democratic ways to do that…We do not need a “regime” and a security apparatus for that. They are the ones benefiting form the state of affairs, we all are not, this is a firmly fixed illusion that has been planted in people’s minds over more than 40 years of brainwashing.

We need to move forward on civil liberties and a democratic constitution that is the only way anyone’s parents can be safe.

November 1st, 2008, 11:25 am


norman said:


I am sorry about what happened to your father , I was in one of these buses in the late seventies and we were taken off the buss and checked , but we let back , we have to remember these days when Syria was under attack by the MB and people like DR Fayed and DR Sayegh were killed with others for their religious believes ,

I am sorry about what happened to your friend but as you can see there was no consciences about what to do because they have no clear algorithm on doing things , that is part of the problem , they do not do that because they are mean and want to give her a hard time it is just because they are stupid and do not know any better,

The opposition can do better by showing the people what they want to do for Syria instead of attacking the government without clear alternative.

Alia ,
I want democratic reform in Syria but i want it built on the System in the US as a republic with districts and elections on local levels like in the US not a parliamentary system where people vote for a religion or an ethnic group then leave to the party leader to assign seats . i want the people to vote for individuals they know and from their district like in the US , and yes I want that to take place as soon as possible but the country has to be safe and immune from forign interference .

November 2nd, 2008, 12:04 am


Akbar Palace said:

…he US attack allows the Syrian government to cast its persecution of the opposition as necessary in the face of foreign aggression and national crisis.

Gee Professor Landis,

I wish you were as kind to the Israeli government as you are to the Syrian government.

Proof once again that Israel is held to a much higher standard.

“…necessary in the face of foreign aggression” my eye!

November 2nd, 2008, 1:11 am


norman said:

The law is caching up with Syria’s members of parliments that abuse their power.

اعتداء عضو مجلس الشعب على موظف الحوالات يتفاعل …طلب رفع الحصانة في الطريق ..وعضو مجلس الشعب يصرخ في قسم الشرطة أنا اكبر من الله

شام برس – اللاذقية …اثارت حادثة اعتداء عضو مجلس الشعب سامر هبل على موظف الحوالات في احدى شركات القطاع الخاص موجة من الاستياء في اوساط المواطنين من هذه النماذج التي تسيء باسم القانون وتفتح هذه الحادثة الباب على مصراعيه لمناقشة هذه المماسات البذيئة والمرفوضة في الدوائر المختصة وعطفا على مانشرناه في “شام برس”حول اعتداء عضو مجلس الشعب “سامر هبل”على موظف الحوالات في اللاذقية ,ومتابعة للموضوع ولتبيان الحقائق حصلت شام برس على شريط فيديو يظهر فيه ……..

November 2nd, 2008, 2:55 am


Alia said:


Some thoughts on what you wrote:

The old Latin proverb states: “Inter arma silent leges”: In time of war, the laws are silent. Except that the law has been silent for many decades now in Syria, whether there is a war or not, the state of defense against Israel has been interpreted by some, when pressed, as perpetual war…, which has justified everything.

The problem that is created and compounded, during years of lack of civil rights, is that people no longer know how to practice them on both sides. Those functionaries/low-grade militaries who paw your passports ten times before giving them to you, when you enter and when you leave the country, are not just ignorant, they are dangerously so. They need to know their duties and the limitation of their duties, ignorance is malice and danger, and it cannot be simply excused.

The longer a dictatorship continues, the more difficult the recovery process for the population. As Syrians, we have wasted the past 4-5 decades during which we should have developed gradually towards a democratic society following the disasters of Ottoman rule, French rule, post French rule; another missed opportunity that has, in addition, created a stratum of society that will be an added huge burden towards a just and democratic state of things. What are we going to do with the million or so illiterate, in every sense of the word, who have been born and bred to shadow others, who have been given a little power here and there, who have tasted corruption? How will they come to be involved in a process where they have absolutely nothing to offer, and the only thing they know is of no use to anyone?

This is by no means a systematic description of a plan of action, however the more pressure there is the more people will turn towards their religion, their sect, their village, their tribe, for solutions; nobody else is offering anything. Presently, as I have travelled in the country, I heard distinct resentment about the economic improvements that are focused in Damascus and the coastal areas, while the rest of the country is as pathetically miserable as it has ever been. Of course the explanations, told in confidence, have everything to do with sectarianism and nepotism, you cannot prevent people from coming to their own conclusion.

In brief, the longer this state continues the more difficult the recovery is going to be.

I agree with you that the U.S. political-judicial system, when it functions at its best, is the best thing on this earth. However, “can we get there from here”? There may be other examples of transition that we need to look at…that is why a careful study of the history of nations may be illuminating. Contrary to what we want to think, our situation in its broad strokes, is not historically unique.

Both internally and externally, I think that Syria should continue to work on establishing cooperative relationships with its Arab and non-Arab neighbors and actually spearheading the efforts at reconciliation, despite the belligerence of some of those countries, I am thinking of the KSA, for example. It is a great achievement that the relationship with Turkey has improved to this degree, and I see the relationship with Iran in the same spirit [although the closeness and cooperation are based on different agendas]

Another step will be to identify the leaders of the various factions and sects within the country, leaders who are truly representative of their people, and involve them in a dialogue to establish a truly representational power base. This was a missed opportunity- paid for dearly by the first governments following Independence- just as an example, the sidelining of the brave and patriotic Druze…

I do not think that this all can happen without a leader on the helm, a leader with qualified advisors…Even the American democracy was established by an elite. Moreover, historically, there are leaders that have transformed their countries towards democracy even as they were fighting severe external conflict (sorry Jad I have to bring up Germany again, since European history is something that I have studied :)). It would not be bad to look at the process of formation of unified Germany under Otto von Bismarck for possible inspiration; his own transformation in the process is also very instructive,

Anyway, as others have nicely said, it is helpful to write and think with others on these matters, in order to sharpen one’s own thinking; the most useful responses are the disagreements built on strong knowledge.

November 2nd, 2008, 10:49 am


Syrian Demonstration Against U.S. Raid | The Making of the Middle East said:

[…] another article, Landis critiques the New York Times coverage of the demonstration. Landis points out that Browley, the journalist who wrote the NY […]

November 7th, 2008, 2:36 am


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