Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath
by Farid N. Ghadry
Middle East Quarterly
Winter 2005, pp. 61-70
It has been almost five years since Bashar al-Assad came to power. At the time, many Western analysts and pundits suggested that the accession of a 34-year-old Western-educated ophthalmologist to the Syrian presidency would usher in a new era of reforms. Rashid Khalidi, then a University of Chicago professor, for example, told USA Today that Bashar al-Assad represented "a very big change in outlook." But rather than reintegrate Syria into the international community, Assad has reinforced Syria's role as an international pariah. With missiles, chemical weapons, and a number of terrorist training camps, Syria remains a significant threat to regional security. According to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Syrian government actively aids the insurgency in Iraq. U.S. government officials speculate that Syrian agents may have facilitated the transfer of military contraband into Iraq in the days prior to the start of U.S. military action. Most recently, the Syrian government defied the United Nations Security Council, which, on September 2, 2004, voted unanimously (with six abstentions) to demand Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.
There is, nevertheless, hope for change in Syria, but it may not come from the direction diplomats are looking. Assad experimented with reforms when he succeeded his father, but his flirtation with easing civil liberties did not last long. While the "Damascus Spring" may have passed, it did, nonetheless, provide a window into an array of reform movements slowly organizing beneath the surface. Still, significant impediments remain. While most Syrians, at home or abroad, do not seek foreign military assistance, better-crafted U.S. and European diplomacy could significantly advance the cause of reform and democratic change in Syria.
Tools of Dictatorship
First and foremost, foreign policymakers must recognize the nature of Syria's autocracy. Not every dictatorship is identical. In each country, rulers use different tools to ensure their absolute power. Identifying and removing these tools are keys to weakening despots and reducing the threats they pose to their own people and their neighbors.
The nature and strength of Syria's dictatorship have evolved over time. Beginning in late 1949, a series of military rulers, none lasting more than a few years, dominated Syria. Successive Syrian governments, encouraged in part by their Soviet sponsors, embraced Arab nationalism. Between 1958 and 1961, Syria even joined Egypt in the United Arab Republic (UAR).
While the union with Egypt was short-lived, the embrace of Arab nationalism was not. The Arab Socialist Baath Party came to power in a March 8, 1963 military coup. Founded in 1947 and modeled after Italian fascism, the Baath party embraced a philosophy of Arab ethnic chauvinism. From the 30-year dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad to the reign of his son, a set of emergency laws made available the tools for dictatorship. The first emergency law was enacted just prior to the Baathist coup. On December 22, 1962, the Council of Ministers approved a decree that declared a state of emergency and gave the military a free hand to lift protections of individual freedoms. Spurred by Assad, the Syrian government issued another seven laws and amendments designed to suspend personal liberties and consolidate the president's power. These emergency laws permitted arbitrary arrest and detention. Syrians do not enjoy due process protection. The accused often have no access to a defense attorney before a judge passes sentence.
The State Security Department, whose branches permeate every city, town, and rural district, enforces the emergency laws.
Their offices can issue arrest orders verbally, by telex, telephone, or letter, all without judicial review. Security offices can operate independently of the center, and so there are no bureaucratic hurdles to mass arrests and security sweeps. When a Syrian is detained in the middle of the night, his or her relatives usually do not know which department ordered his or her detention, the reasons for imprisonment, or even where he or she is jailed.
The emergency laws comprise the canon by which the Assad regime quashes individual human rights. But, they also have contributed to an atmosphere in which Baath Party luminaries can remain above the law. Transparency and accountability are nonexistent, and corruption is rampant. On September 6, 2001, for example, Syrian authorities arrested Riad Sa'if, a parliamentarian and businessman, after he had threatened to expose corruption surrounding a cellular telephone license granted to Rami Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad's cousin. Syrian officials privately estimate that 85 percent of Syrian oil revenues go into the bank accounts of the Assad family and its cronies. Most Syrian oil is found in northern Syria, and a large gas deposit was discovered lately in the southwest corner of Syria on the Lebanese border. At $55 a barrel, the 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) that Syrian fields produce gross $12 billion. Much of the money apparently disappears. In 2003, Syria's budget was just $8.4 billion, a figure that includes income generated from non-oil trade and taxation.
Crisis and Backlash
Generations of Syrian intellectuals have resisted the emergency laws, seeing their undoing as the key to reform. While the Assad government seeks to portray itself as the only alternative to militant Islam in Syria, there is in fact a much broader spectrum of Syrian political thought. Not all Syrians passively accepted the imposition of emergency laws. Much of the present opposition developed out of the backlash spurred by the emergency laws' imposition.
Beginning in the 1970s, two trends of opposition developed within Syria. Some sought a secular, socialist democratic state while the Muslim Brotherhood pushed for Islamist rule. In the first camp was Birhan Ghalioun, a leftist intellectual who now teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris. He began penning pamphlets and, in 1979, clandestinely published a manifesto entitled "Argument for Democracy," which his supporters distributed throughout Syria via stencil copies.
The Islamists, on the other hand, turned to violence. The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was formed in the late 1950s, spawned by the original Egyptian-based organization. For years it was relatively quiet, but this ended on June 16, 1979, when the Vanguard Combatants (At-Tali'a al-Muqatila), an Islamist cell,
massacred a number of military cadets near Aleppo. Most of the murdered cadets were 'Alawites, the minority religious sect from which the Assad family comes. The Baath-dominated Syrian People's Council passed an additional emergency law soon thereafter, which declared membership in the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death.
After a group of 200 Islamists staged an insurrection in Hama, Syria's fifth largest city, Hafez al-Assad called on his brother Rifaat to put down the revolt. Using the paramilitary Saraya ad-Difa'a
(Defense Platoons), with air force and infantry support, the Syrian government retook the city, indiscriminately killing between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly. Since then, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence, but it remains true to its goal of transforming Syria into a religious state.
As Assad ratcheted up oppression, he spurred an opposition reaction. On December 10, 1989, several intellectuals in Damascus surreptitiously formed a human rights organization called the Committees for the Defense of Democracy, Freedom, and Human Rights (CDDFHR). In the same year, they inaugurated the Sawt ad-Dimuqratiya (Voice of Democracy), an underground newsletter. While they long avoided the limelight, in recent years they have changed their tactics. In 2003, they held their first public meeting in Cairo and elected as their chairman Aktham Naisse, who remains to this day in Syria. CDDFHR has since opened nine offices across the Middle East and Europe.
The Damascus Spring Turns to Winter
After his father's June 2000 death, Bashar announced that he would reform Syria and build a better society for the impoverished residents of his country. Intellectuals, writers, journalists, and the curious took advantage of what has since become known as the Damascus Spring and began to assemble in public halls and private homes to discuss reform and civil society. In retrospect, this may have been a mistake. Many Syrian intellectuals argue today that the Damascus Spring was a trap set up by the new Assad regime to identify those who might not be fully loyal to the next generation of the Assad clan. Nevertheless, these forums catapulted a new generation of Syrian leadership to prominence and provided the latest windows into currents of Syrian reformist thought.
Among the best-known discussion circles is the Al-Kawakibi Forum, named after Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849-1902), an intellectual who advocated an Arab renaissance modeled after the eighteenth century European enlightenment. Led by Majid Manjouneh, an intellectual from Aleppo, the Kawakibi Forum gained an immediate following. Each week, growing numbers of Syrians attended and spoke freely about the system of government, justice, and oppression.
Another forum that simultaneously rose to prominence was founded by Habib Issa, but named after Jamal Atassi, a Nasserite intellectual who died in 2000. The Atassi Forum supported 1950s-style Arab nationalism and was both vocal in its support of Palestinian statehood and its rejection of Israel. Notwithstanding the ideological baggage they carried, their debates on other issues were of high caliber.
Other movements also arose. The Syrian parliamentarian Riad Sa'if, since jailed for his anti-corruption activities, formed the National Dialogue Forum (Muntada al-Hiwar al-Watani), which, as a result of its discussions, issued the Manifesto of Social Peace (Wathiqat as-Sulm al-Ijtima'i), which called for transparency and accountability in the government. Separately, Ma'amoun al-Homsi, another member of parliament, issued his famous August 7, 2001 declaration in which he asked Assad to respect human rights and begin lifting the emergency laws.
While political philosophies may have differed, there were common concerns among the various discussion circles. Many intellectuals complained about the omnipresent role of the Syrian security apparatus in daily lives. Across the political spectrum, dissenters and dissidents complained about the false façade that Assad sought to construct. The Syrian government promotes Syria to the outside world as the birthplace of civilization, inventor of the alphabet, and a heritage interwoven in the early history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Most Syrians object to this pretense of tolerance and consider their reality far less civilized. To Syrians, their society is symbolized not by the glories of the past but by the Sednaya prison and Baath party corruption. Unless State Department diplomats and their European colleagues recognize the reality of Syria when debating the Greater Middle East Initiative, their diplomatic efforts will fall flat.
Having identified voices of opposition during the Damascus Spring, Bashar al-Assad delegated the crackdown to his hard-line backers, men like Vice President Abdul Halim al-Khaddam, Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, former defense minister Mustapha Tlas, Tlas's successor, Hassan Turkemani, and Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara'a, as well as prominent intelligence officers such as Ali Douba, Hikmat ash-Shihabi, Hassan Khalil, Bahjat Suleiman, and Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law. According to a number of Syrian reformers, the backbone of the effort to crush the Damascus Spring was Hassan Khalil, head of Syrian military intelligence. While the West knows Khalil for his role as a Syrian delegate to the 1996 Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations and the 2000 Shepherdstown talks,
he is better known within Syria for overseeing the Assad regime's relations with various Damascus-based Iraqi opposition and insurgent groups.
Beginning in August 2002, Syrian authorities began closing the discussion forums. A Syrian court sentenced Habib Issa to five years in prison for having expressed anti-regime opinions at the forum.
Nevertheless, some Atassi members still meet secretly to continue their debates. Beginning in September 2003, not long after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell bolstered the Syrian government, perhaps the unintended consequence of his visit there, the Assad regime moved against the Kawakibi Forum, beginning a campaign of systematic harassment against Manjouneh and the forum's board of directors.
Having sent agents to report on the open forum discussions, Khalil ordered his men to break down doors in the middle of the night and arrest almost all the reformers. Syrian security imprisoned many and tortured others; they murdered several dissidents. Sa'if and Homsi languish today in jail as a result of their bold initiatives to uncover corruption but more importantly, to correct the past mistakes of Baathism.
Robert Rabil, an expert on Syrian politics, explained in a 2003 National Interest
article, "the regime sent a clear message to the public that it would not tolerate any reform it could not control."
Fear returned to Syria.
Today, Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners, many of whom have languished for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence.
According to the 2004 report of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, a London-based human rights organization run by Salim al-Hasan, there are over 17,000 prisoners unaccounted for, 
suggesting that Syria may have hidden mass graves similar to those uncovered in 2003 by the U.S. army in Iraq. The Syrian authorities have a long record of releasing some prisoners but quickly refilling the jails with new arrests. This revolving door policy assuages some international human rights organizations while still intimidating Syrians.
Assad's actions may backfire, however. His crackdown may re-ignite those problems faced by his father whose stifling of dissent spurred Islamist insurgency. In June 2004, Ghalioun, who remains an active observer of the Syrian opposition from his exile in Paris, wrote, "Lack of reform is driving the renaissance of religion in an era of secularism."
Internal versus External Opposition
The U.S.-led occupation of Iraq has been a watershed within the Middle East. Reformists inside Syria are encouraged by the events that transpired in Iraq, even if some are loathe to admit it. While they do not want foreign troops to occupy Syria, they do welcome the Bush administration's willingness to consider reform, even if the State Department has been less than consistent in its approach to democracy and reform.
In a meeting in Europe, one such leader, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety, admitted that a nascent democratic movement in Syria is getting stronger, encouraged by President Bush's public statements on freedom in the Middle East. He could not emphasize enough the importance of any statement made by any U.S. official on democracy in Syria and how it provides democracy advocates oxygen to continue with their work.
Nevertheless, more than four decades of oppression have taken their toll. The internal reformists today are simply not in a position to seriously threaten the Assad regime. When I communicate with those inside Syria—usually through intermediaries able to travel outside the police state—they express support for the external democracy activists but remain fearful of any public disclosure of their relations with any group based in the United States or Europe since they do not want to be tainted with accusations of foreign support. However, as was the case in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, while dissidents exist within Syria, they lack the tools, resources, and freedom to mobilize the masses. Most proponents of democracy are empowered only to sign and circulate petitions. But recent events have shown that even this can be too much for the Syrian government.
On March 8, 2004, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, Freedom, and Human Rights organized a petition drive to protest the forty-first anniversary of the rise of the Baath in Syria. Aktham Naisse circulated a petition urging the lifting of the emergency laws. Perhaps indicative of the optimism that resulted from the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, more than 7,000 individuals signed the petition.
One hundred intellectuals accompanied Naisse to the Syrian parliament to deliver the petition. Syrian security intercepted them and briefly detained Naisse and about thirty others.
Still, the petition shook the regime. When anyone in Syria outside the government can mobilize 7,000 individuals, he becomes a major security threat and is treated as such. On April 13, 2004, police again arrested Naisse. On June 8, 2004, several U.S. congressmen, led by Eliot Engel (Democrat, N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Fla.), sent a letter calling on Secretary of State Colin Powell to call for Naisse's release. The State Department's response, that it tried and failed, is disappointing. According to Paul V. Kelly, assistant secretary for legislative affairs,
The U.S government has repeatedly raised at the highest levels of the Syrian government our concern regarding Syria's mistreatment of political prisoners. Along with representatives of other foreign governments, officials from our embassy in Damascus have protested, verbally and in writing, the detention of Naisse and others, and urged the Syrian government to abide by its commitments under the U.N. Charter's Declaration of Human Rights to respect basic freedoms and the rule of law.
Public pressure has yielded some positive results, however, perhaps indicating that the U.S. government should be more active in its identification and verbal support for dissidents. On August 16, Syrian authorities released Naisse on bail. His trial will begin in January 2005 with the prosecution demanding a 15-year sentence. The attention generated by Naisse's arrest has lent him a higher profile. On October 8, 2004, the Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize Committee in Brussels bestowed its human rights prize upon Naisse. The Syrian government granted Naisse permission to travel to Brussels for the award ceremony fearing a public relations nightmare if he missed the ceremony due to imprisonment.
Naisse is fortunate that his newfound profile has moderated the Syrian government's actions toward him. It is not uncommon for Syrian authorities to murder dissidents in prison. In March 2004, riots erupted in northern Syria where much of Syria's ethnic Kurdish minority resides.
In early August, two Kurdish prisoners died from torture. 
Authorities insisted their families bury the bodies without ceremony. Such dehumanizing acts take their toll on the society. People swap stories behind closed doors, spreading the fear.
Impediments to the Reform Movement
Naisse's struggle and the sacrifice made by thousands of prisoners and the 17,000 disappeared indicate the Syrian people's real desire for reform. But, serious handicaps remain for change from within. Many Syrians—and especially those politically suspect to the regime—lack the freedom to travel, not only outside Syria, but inside as well. Inside the country, active reformers are shadowed by internal security agents. Their phones, e-mails,
and other forms of communications are spied on around the clock.
Holding a Syrian passport is a double-edged sword. Not only is it difficult to obtain visas to Western countries, but the Syrian secret service prevents Syrians from even approaching foreign embassies. Even if they do obtain a foreign visa, the Syrian authorities require Syrians to get exit visas from the Ministry of Interior. The ministry must get clearance from military intelligence (Al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariya)
, general intelligence (Idarat al-Mukhabarat al- 'Amma
), and the political security force (Al-Amn as-Siyasi
) before approval. 
Many who do travel—including those who participate in exchanges sponsored by Western governments or universities—are associated with the regime and play a role in containment rather than encouragement of dissidence.
Many Syrian reformers, also, are provincial in their outlook. They do not understand how international relations affect local politics. Some believe that they can free a country without building consensus with neighboring countries whose interests are tied to the political landscape of Syria. Reformists act in a vacuum; many adhere to ideologies long since abandoned by the international community. This has resulted in a small cast of professional dissidents, such as Riad al-Turk. Hafez al-Assad imprisoned the now 74-year-old political activist for nineteen years. A staunch communist and energetic dissident, he remains dedicated to bringing reform to Syria and is quite popular. Turk has tried to modernize his political party by changing the name to Syrian Social Democratic Party and promoting a younger generation of leadership, but by failing to understand that the age of communism has past, he has undercut the efficacy of his efforts. The Syrian government is happy to exhibit Turk as a sign that it tolerates dissent, knowing very well that his efforts are doomed to failure.
Other dissidents and reformers shy away from cooperation with the United States. Some, especially the communists, avoid the United States for ideological reasons. But much more serious is the growing disillusionment with the United States. These cynical reformists cite the first Bush administration's abandonment of the Iraqi Shi'ite in 1991. Saddam Hussein massacred tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children while the U.S. government walked away. Many Syrians look at Washington's treatment of Ahmad Chalabi as a reason why neither the State Department nor the CIA can be trusted.
The George W. Bush administration not only abandoned the man who helped bring freedom and hope to millions of Arabs, both inside and outside Iraq, but in a campaign headed by former Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Blackwill, sought to gratuitously humiliate him as well.
Those who are willing to cooperate with the United States are often hampered by a lack of funding. No one can free a country with a $50,000 National Endowment for Democracy grant. Syrian businessmen will not fund reform. Many have been co-opted by Assad patronage without which serious business is not possible.
Nevertheless, internal Syrian reformists remain in close contact with those outside the country. In most European countries including France, England, Germany, and others, cells of opposition groups flourish representing the eighty-four different minorities found in Syria from rebellious Kurds to peaceful Assyrians to secretive Yezidis. Many of these attend to their various constituencies but actively cooperate with each other for the greater good. The regime in Syria has always felt threatened by such demonstrations of unity. Syrian embassies around the world are staffed with experts who seek to wreak havoc among the dissident community.
There has also been progress within the Syrian dissident community in the United States. On June 20, 2004, the Reform Party of Syria and the Syrian Democratic Coalition, a united front of thirteen civic and democratic organizations, launched Radio Free Syria.
Radio Free Syria (RFS) seeks to educate those in Syria about democracy (since the understanding of democracy within Syria is limited); to maintain pressure on the Syrian regime by reporting on corruption and abuse; to capture the loyalty of the Syrian army; to promote understanding of U.S. foreign policy in the region; and to harness the power of liberal democrats as a counterbalance to Islamists and Baathists.
Damascus has reacted harshly to the new radio broadcasts. It has tried to jam the signals, so far without success. The Iranian-manufactured jamming systems used by the Syrians are prohibitively expensive; a $300,000 machine covers just the center of a city while jamming the countryside is nearly impossible. RFS transmission is powerful enough that amateur radio operators in Japan, New Zealand, and North America also report hearing the signal.
Is U.S. Policy Changing?
Syrian democrats and dissidents have welcomed changes within U.S. policy since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, even if many remain concerned by the apparent discrepancy between White House rhetoric and State Department action. On May 12, 2004, Bush signed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which identified a menu of possible sanctions to impose upon the Assad regime. While the Syria Accountability Act shows promise, it comes from the Congress and not the State Department, which many Syrians believe pursues its own policies. In April 2003, Powell traveled to Damascus to demand that the Syrian government cease hosting terrorist groups and facilitating Iraq's insurgency.
Assad's actions belied his promises. In the aftermath of Powell's trip, Assad furthered his support for the insurgency, gave refuge to Iraqi Baathists, and seized Iraqi funds.
Rather than learn from its mistakes, the State Department appears determined to repeat them. In September 2004, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns traveled to Damascus where, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, he struck a deal with Assad. In return for a cessation of terrorist infiltration across the Syrian border into Iraq, as well as some cooperation on other financial and military issues, the U.S. government would relieve pressure on the Assad regime and no longer emphasize democratization.
Foggy Bottom's carrot and stick policy has backfired, however. Many Syrians do not understand why the Arabists in the State Department's Near East Affairs Bureau pursue policies that may please ruling elites but express nothing but antipathy for ordinary Syrians. While Washington's agenda may be shaped by a desire for calm in Iraq, ordinary Syrians are baffled by the quick turnaround. The longer the Western world waits, the more dangerous the situation in Syria becomes. Each year, the Syrian economy provides about 100,000 new jobs, but three times that number seek to enter the market. Some frustrated, unemployed, and unmarried students will inevitably turn to extremism. The Syrian regime may not be sincere at stamping out this extremism, so that it can claim that it is steadfast in the face of Islamism even if it is in fact the source.
How can the U.S. government promote change in Syria? Funding of dissident groups is essential to pressure the Syrian regime. If Hezbollah gets ample supplies of money from Iran, why are democratic countries so stingy about funding democratic movements? Behind the Bush administration's democratic advocacy are few programs and even fewer organizations. Only 3.2 percent of Middle East Partnership Initiative funds have been provided to indigenous nongovernmental organizations.
The U.S. government should create a fund to empower democracy advocates across the Middle East. This money should not be distributed to any groups or trade unions affiliated with oppressive regimes. Both Assad's regime in Damascus and other dictators throughout the Middle East are savvy enough to set up front groups to channel funds away from legitimate civil society. Already, the Syrian Baath party has embraced reforms to co-opt the movement and ensure that reforms never threaten Assad's autocratic rule. In June 2004, an anonymous Syrian opposition leader claimed that the Baath party has infiltrated all internal opposition groups.
The war against Saddam Hussein breathed new life into reform movements in the Middle East. Three years ago, the words reform, democracy, and freedom of expression were relegated to the lexicon of a very small group of Arab intellectuals. In September 2000, an Arabic-language Google search of the word "reform" (islah) yielded less than 2,000 mentions; in October 2004 these increased to 25,000. There still is a long way to go, though; the word jihad gets almost 90,000 mentions.
While the Western democracies may ignore the nascent reform movements, dictatorial regimes across the Middle East are increasingly worried about their own growing democracy movements. Nowhere is this truer than in my homeland, Syria. Short of sending troops into Syria, however—an outcome neither Americans nor Syrians want—democracy will be an elusive dream unless the U.S. government is willing to support reformists publicly and fund them properly. A meeting in the White House with a Syrian democratic leader will send clear signals to Syria and beyond that change is on its way, thereby encouraging faster reforms.
Farid Ghadry is president of the Reform Party of Syria.
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