Syrian Opposition harmed by Iraq: MB Opens office in DC

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.

Schenker concludes:

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?

Comments (13)

Nur al-Cubicle said:

My guess is that the 1 million Iraqi Sunni refugees now in Syria are very pro-regime. With this counterweight, Assad can afford to complete ignore the opposition.

April 21st, 2007, 1:30 am


G said:

You don’t say! That’s your guess, huh?!

April 21st, 2007, 1:51 am


Enlightened said:

Nur I would hazard a guess that the refugees are predominantly christian!

The crisis in Iraq has given the regime a high degree of legitimacy, however the US administration has a schizophrenic policy towrads the Syrian regime. Not pressing for international monitors and not even a slighly raised voice or voices within the administration about the elections. All this leads me to believe that the administration is pinning its hopes on the Harriri tribunal and Chapter 7, to partly modify regime behaviour ( pseudo speak for change ) Alex what and why do you think the Bush administration has been so muted here?

The muslim brotherhood article by stacher and shehata are referring to the Egyptian mulim brotherhood, not the Syrian brotherhood, i was not aware the organisations are linked , can anyone shed light on this matter?

MOST REGIME ADVOCATES HERE, will definitely get their wish of seven more years of the Baath dictatorship, I only see it as the wasted years, more misery for the populace in their daily struggles.

April 21st, 2007, 3:45 am


Alex said:


Insurance has a price. The Syrian people realize they live in a very bad neighborhood. They know the price of that insurance (the regime’s corruption) and they will tolerate it for as long as the neighborhood is scary… the Syrian regime has delivered on security.

Why has the Bush administration been so muted? … because the Bush administration lost its ability to speak to others from a moral perspective. If they do speak about “Democracy in Syria” … they will sounds either comic, or scary… but surely not appealing to the Syrian people.

Next administration hopefully.

April 21st, 2007, 5:42 am


MSK said:

Nur & “Enlightened”,

Iraq had little over 1 Mio Christian inhabitants to begin wit and NO, they didn’t all emigrate to Syria. Nor are the 1+ Mio Iraqis in Syria all Sunni Arabs.

The majority of them are Shi’ites (hence their congregation around Sitt Zeinab), the rest mainly Sunnis and – to a much lesser extent – Christians. The latter has to do with the fact that Christian Iraqis have it (somewhat) easier to emigrate to “Western” countries – and do so.

In ANY case, Iraqis in Syria do not play a role in Syrian domestic politics just as the Palestinian refugees living in Syria (since ’48) don’t play a role in domestic politics. Even if they tried, they wouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Thus, Nur’s argument that Assad can use the 1 Mio pro-regime Iraqi refugees doesn’t hold. In any case, Syrian domestic politics isn’t some election-based number game. The two main pillars on which the regime rests are that it provides for the citizens and projects an image that it is (at the very least) the best of all possible choices, i.e. if they don’t rule then life would be muchmuch worse. For that they can (& do) point at the situation in post-dictatorship Iraq and it works. But they certainly won’t use Iraqi refugees to prop up their rule.

Nur, you read so many newspapers – it’s quite surprising to see you make such a silly mistake.


April 21st, 2007, 9:49 am


Ford Prefect said:

I agree with your last analysis ad I agree with Alex’s notion about the colossal failures of the West’s exports to the region and the people’s desire for security over other choices. I might that the third pillar of the Syrian authoritarian legitimacy is the coalition it maintains with the elites in Syria particularly those that hold monopoly of coercive power, such as the military and the intelligence services and those that hold the economic interests of the country such as the old and new mercantile class.

April 21st, 2007, 10:35 am


ausamaa said:

Diplomacy on the Horizon
By Aluf Benn and S. Rosner
Haaretz, 20/4/2007

April 21st, 2007, 11:29 am


trustquest said:

When Riad Seif says: “The image of the U.S. is so bad that if you’re against the regime, you’re an American spy.” He is for sure right about the first part of U.S. image; the second part is very telling how the regime still has a hegemony on public perception even he had lost the air waves to satellites. I think the simple ordinary citizen would like to listen all parties of his society and hear is the struggle of the regime to keep him shut up which undoubtedly going to be a lost one on the long run. The parliamentary election candidates could not dare to have a program because of the level of control. Those candidates are not representative of population they are extension of the regime. The regime turning point began in 2000 when he got 3 years gap to make peace and widen his base by empowering people and gradually give back some of their rights but he failed and continue to fail on all fronts.

Alex with all respect to your statement regarding the regime delivery on stability insurance, which is true, still the opposition is a healthy phenomenon which people hope by time will correct the terrible path which the country is on. I would not expect any change will come out voluntary from “the same old same” and this quandary situation.

I would add that the comments on SC to the previous post from some of the pro regime were so awful and showed how dangerous they are to themselves to keep saying either us or the hill, at least we are here on this form are not in a battle field and we are just observers who will never change the country destiny.

April 21st, 2007, 2:03 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

First you remember that Jordan has a lot of Iraqi refugee too, one million is a big number,it is a strong card in Syria and Jordan hands, what will happen if Syria tell those people they must go back to Iraq within a month?, it will have strong effect on a weak iraqi goverment, and have serious effect on syrian economy, the refugee is a UN problem too, and UN must do something about them.
Also if 1% of them became militant that means 10,000 militant,they sure can cause a lot of damage.Nur is not silly, Nur is very smart.

April 21st, 2007, 3:53 pm


MSK said:


Nur was talking about 1 Mio Iraqis in regard to DOMESTIC SYRIAN POLITICS, ya’nii “things INSIDE SYRIA”. Get it? NOT IN IRAQ.

Nur implied that Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t need to listen to the SYRIAN opposition because he has an “extra” 1 Mio supporters in the Iraqi refugees currently in Syria.

Re: “silly” – for anyone like Nur, who has been reading/commenting a plethora of international newspapers on Iraq for years, to claim that all the Iraqi refugees in Syria are Sunnis IS a very silly mistake to make.

Majed, why don’t you actually read what people write before you let your emotions take over? Or … you can just revert to posting your usual rumors.


April 21st, 2007, 5:24 pm


ausamaa said:


So people have to be either “anti regime” or “pro regime” with no middle ground. Like Bush: who is not with us is against us!
In this case I for one would rather be in the “pro regime” catagory. The anti regime catagory seems a bit confusing right now as it stretches from Israel to 14 Feb to the MBs to God knows who.

April 21st, 2007, 5:25 pm


trustquest said:

Absolutely Not. That is exactly what I tried to convey, that the regime should have different approach towards the opposing and citizens of Syrian. They have to know how to make friends and let them start with their citizens. At least they should have made friends with civil society not put them in prison. And the regime is passing one opportunity after another. People and oppositions were begging them to make correction to the economy, rule of government institutions, judicial system, election, parliament, emergency decree, and keep counting, they kept ignoring these calls and even in the last five years they are ignoring their own base, their own party. The rule of their party is shadowy to say the least and the parliamentary election is a joke. The regime is responsible for empowerment of the opposition because they never learned to make friends only they know how to make enemies.

April 21st, 2007, 6:23 pm


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