Is the Syrian Reform Party still in Business?
The Syrian Reform Party
The following Article, published in the Harvard Political Review, gives the best description of the activities of the Syria Reform Party, the Washington based Syrian opposition party. (Because access to the article requires registration, I have copied the whole thing here.)
The author claims that the Syrian Reform Party rejects violence, but it must be remembered that it also supports regime-change as the only viable path forward for Syria, which is a polite way of saying it advocates violent change. A number of key administration figures, led by Rumsfeld, gave it a lot of attention following the invasion of Iraq and during the run up to the imposition of the Syrian Accountability Act this spring, but as Bosco writes in his article, key CIA and State Department people are very skeptical of its intelligence claims, seeing in Ghadry another Chalabi. Many view the notion of regime-change in Syria as highly unrealistic or just a bad idea. In the wake of the Iraq fiasco, Washington interest in the SRP has plummeted. Nevertheless, with rising tensions between Washington and Damascus, the SRP may make a come back, especially if Bashar stumbles, hence it is wise to keep an eye on SRP activities. SRP's big claim for the future seems to rest on its efforts to get "Radio Free Syria" up and running, but from exploring its website, which has many broken links, pages "under construction," and no streaming sound for the radio broadcasts, The SRP it appears moribund.
The Syrian Domino?
By Stephen Bosco
Exiles' efforts to increase global pressure on Damascus have yet to meet with success. Published on Tuesday, May 4, 2004
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and President Bush's explicit call for political reform in the Middle East last fall, few issues have as much currency as the progress of democratization in the Islamic world. In his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy last November, Bush outlined a bold "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East, committing the United States to a long-term effort to promote democracy in the region.
Directly repudiating decades of U.S. policy in the region, Bush argued that "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe-because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of freedom." Democracy promotion, Bush's address suggested, is no longer simply a goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East, it is the goal.One organization that appears singularly well-placed to benefit from this new American emphasis on Middle Eastern political liberalization is the relatively new Reform Party of Syria. Founded by a group of Syrian and Lebanese expatriates in October 2001, the RPS has one overriding goal: bringing democracy and human rights to Syria.
Grass-Roots for the Desert
RPS members, as described on the group's website (reformsyria.com), are "secular, peace-committed American-Syrians, Euro-Syrians, and native Syrians who are determined to see that a 'New Syria' is reborn that embraces real democratic and economic reforms." The party's founders saw a direct connection between authoritarian regimes like Bashar Al-Asad's Ba'athist dictatorship, and the strength of the terror networks behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Anticipating many of the points in Bush's speech by two years, the RPS founders were and are convinced that political liberalization in places such as Syria would be an irreplaceable element of any campaign to end Islamic terrorism.
From modest origins, the party has expanded steadily in its two-and-one half years on the Beltway scene. The RPS president, Washington-area businessman Farid Ghadry, has appeared on an increasing number of radio and television programs to make the case for increased American pressure upon the Syrian government. What's more, in November 2003, the RPS helped organize the first conference of the Syria Democratic Coalition, a group of organizations devoted to ending the Ba'athist autocracy in Syria. This past January, the Coalition held a second conference in Brussels whose 17 participating organizations included eight that refused to release their names for fear of reprisal by the Syrian government.
The participation of these clandestine groups indicates that at least some semblance of pro-democracy opposition has begun to form within Syria itself; indeed, the RPS' own membership, according to an HPR interview with RPS official Oubai Shahbandar, includes several hundred people currently living in Syria. Shahbandar also noted that the RPS supported and had prior knowledge of a Damascus pro-democracy demonstration on March 8, 2004. The demonstration involved just 25 individuals, and its participants were swiftly arrested; it was significant, nonetheless, because such public displays of opposition toward the government have been virtually unheard of within Syria.
Political action along these lines is central to the RPS' short-term planning. The RPS hopes that larger, more frequent demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience will attract world attention and convince Syrians that they have the strength to challenge their own government. The RPS is also poised to launch "Radio Free Syria," an independent, privately financed radio station broadcast out of Cyprus that will provide Syrians with a non-state-controlled source of information. According to an RPS press release, Radio Free Syria will argue for democracy while "mak[ing] it clear to Syrians that the Ba'athist policies have no hope of improving [Syrian] economic, political, and social stagnation" and emphasizing "the need for a true and lasting peace with all of our neighbors based on equal rights and respect." The RPS sees its radio station as a vital tool in its effort to build viable domestic opposition to the current Syrian regime.
A Legitimacy Gap?
The relative strength and future potential of this in-country opposition heavily influences perceptions of the RPS in policy-making and scholarly communities in Europe and the United States. The notion that regime change in a nation like Syria would lead to democratic governance is frequently regarded with suspicion. As one U.S. Defense Department official told the HPR, "prevailing wisdom in the USG [United States government] has been that Islamists would stand a good chance of stepping into a void left by the [removal of the Al-Asad regime]." Many in U.S. foreign policy circles, moreover, particularly within the State Department and intelligence communities, are currently quite wary of "exile-led" advocacy groups. These skeptics attribute the Iraq Survey Group's failure to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq, as well as the allegedly inadequate coalition preparation for post-war violence and instability, to an over-reliance on information provided by Iraqi exile organizations. The members of exile groups have often been absent from their home countries for so long, the argument goes, that they have neither the legitimacy in these countries nor the up-to-date knowledge of their social and political situations requisite for effecting real change. The United States, skeptics contend, has little to gain by publicly identifying itself with such groups and much to lose in terms of compromised relationships and cooperation with the governments in question.
The RPS leadership counters that the repressive nature of Syria's vast police apparatus makes foreign-based organizations "essential to any serious attempt at political reform within Syria," in Mr. Shahbandar's words. The RPS also strongly takes issue with the notion that U.S. security, ideals, and interests are better served by working with the current government in Syria. Such arguments, Shahandar suggested, ignore the reality that in the Middle East, "terrorism and despotism are two heads of the same body." He pointed out the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Asad continues to occupy Lebanon in clear violation of U.N. resolutions, provides funding and weapons for the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, and has maintained its support-despite strong American pressure-for Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The RPS highlights Syria's seemingly willful failure to act against the large numbers of militants who have crossed into Iraq in order fight American troops and commit acts of terrorism. Such militants died in large numbers during the initial phases of the Iraq conflict, but remaining foreign terrorists are thought to be behind many recents attacks against American troops and Iraqi civilians. A "policy of half-measures" against such clear malevolence to the United States, Shahbandar argued, will strengthen and legitimize Ba'athist rule and undermine American security.
Looking Long Term
As compatible as RPS goals appear to be with President Bush's stated objective of promoting democracy in the Middle East, it is by no means clear-in the short term, at least-that the Bush administration will exert the type of pressure on Al-Asad that the RPS seeks. Though the recent passing of the Syria Accountability Act makes some sanctions on Damascus appear imminent, there are also signs that the United States is backing away from some of the more ambitious elements of its vision for a democratic Middle East. The New York Times, for example, reported on March 12 that the Bush administration, "yielding to pressure from European and Arab leaders, has set aside its plan to issue a sweeping call for economic, political, and cultural reform in the Middle East." As described in the article, diplomats from European and Middle Eastern nations believe that aggressive American democracy promotion will only alienate the many Arabs who bristle at external, paternalistic efforts at altering their political systems. The pressures of an election year, moreover, play a role in limiting direct American engagement with democracy promotion groups such as the RPS.
The administration's current emphasis is very much on resolving unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan, while managing ongoing diplomatic confrontations with North Korea and Iran. Any significant escalation of Bush administration pressure on Syria, then, will most likely come in a second term, if at all. Whatever the similarities between Bush and Ghadry in their rhetoric and stated objectives, for the time being at least, the possibility of real cooperation between the United States and the Reform Party of Syria seems remote.