The Paris Opposition Meeting is a Bust
The Syrian opposition in the West called a monster meeting of all opponents to the Syrian regime in Paris this October. Unfortunately, the meeting turned out to be a bust. Some 40 people attended; there was no agenda, but evidently lively discussion. The pro-Republican Party "Weekly Standard" published an article by Jeffrey Gedmin, who attended the meeting. He did his best to put a positive spin on things. (The story is copied below.)
First a little history about the Syrian opposition based in America. Farid Ghadry, who heads the Syrian Reform Party, launched an umbrella organization called "The Syrian Democratic Coalition" at the end on 2003 in Washington DC. It had its first meeting between November 12 and 18 of 2003 in an attempt "to coalesce the democratic parties and organizations working to free Syria from the rule of the Ba'ath party and the Assad family." The open part of the conference was held at the "Washington Institute for Near East Policy," which is America's most influential pro-Israeli think tank. The rest was held behind closed doors at a local hotel. Richard Perle has been one of the SRP's most loyal advocates.
Ghadry's early attempt to win access and recognition in Washington by linking up with the Jewish lobby and by wooing powerful supporters among pro-Israeli think-thanks has been a partial success. He gained influential backers in DC and got meetings with members of congress, but this strategy cost him dearly among Syrian Arabs. He has had a hard time attracting Syrian support outside the small Kurdish and Assyria communities. Likewise, Syrian Islamist groups have kept him at arm's length.
Thus the chances that Ghadry would attract a broad coalition of Syrian opposition forces to meet in Paris this month were not auspicious. This summer the various Syrian exile groups in the United States broke into emulous factions over questions of religion, Israel, and leadership. Farid Ghadry, of the Syrian Reform Party, who hoped the Paris meeting would lay the foundations for a "transitional parliament in exile," announced after a meeting with members of the US National Security Council, that he was establishing a government in exile and would work to unite Syrian opposition groups along the lines of the Iraqi National Front, which brought together the bickering elements of the Iraqi opposition before the US invasion. Here is the press release Farid Ghadry put out after his August meeting with the NSC member:
August 31, 2005/RPS/ -- Farid Ghadry, President of the Reform Party of Syria, met with the Director of Policy Mr. Michael Doran at NSC yesterday....But even before Ghadry's meeting with NSC's Michael Doran, the US based Syrian groups had been squabbling. In June 2005, a number of Syrian Americans tried to start a Syrian National Council that did not include Ghadry in its executive committee. Ghadry felt snubbed and refused to attend. Here is a quote from an article written about it on July 7, entitled, Syrian Dissidents Launch National Council
RPS also discussed the anticipated Syrian National Conference to take place soon in Europe that would unite all the opposition political parties and figures. The Syrian Democratic Coalition, made of nine political parties and organizations, also intends to develop a Transitional Parliament (in exile) that would be instrumental in transitioning Syria peacefully from a dictatorship to a democracy after the fall of the regime. Syrians will rely on this body to help move away from a Bremer-type situation as well to conduct business in accordance with Syrian customs. The purpose is to cushion for the fall of Assad by uniting all the influential organizations be it political. economic, or social to avoid the mistakes taking place in Iraq today.
Five Syrian dissidents residing in the United States have announced the formation of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group dedicated to regime change and the establishment of a democratic government in Damascus. “We are not looking for reform in Syria. We want a complete change in the regime in Syria,” Mohammed al-Jbaili said at a press conference June 6. He described the Syrian regime under President Bashar Assad as “one of the most totalitarian rules in the world.”But almost as soon as it formed, the Syrian National Council began to fall apart over sectarian issues and whether to espouse an Islamist ideology or not. On September 3, Farid Ghadry reported that "The Syrian National Council is Splitting."
The Washington-based council will coordinate with opposition groups inside and outside Syria to promote democratic change in the country, according to a statement issued by the council's executive committee. In addition to al-Jbaili, the other members of the executive committee are Najib Al-Ghadban, Hussam Al-Dairi, Mohammed Al-Khawam and Abd Al-Muhaymen Al-Sibai....
The council’s executive committee members were asked whether they are working with Farid Ghadry, whose Syrian Reform Party calls for the overthrow of Bashar Assad and advocates democratic government. Al-Jbaili said the council had been in contact with Ghadry and had invited him to their June conference but that he had decided not to be involved with the council. The State Department confirmed that Ghadry met with officials there in March.
The council also said it does not have any official contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, though Al-Ghadban said, “we extend our willingness to work with all groups” that promote democracy.
The Syrian National Council leaders said they expect the council to be incorporated in Washington by mid-July.
News from Washington is that the Syrian National Council formed as an opposition group is splitting. We are told that those who are leaving are doing so because they sensed a direction in the Council that did not please them. In fact, the main reasons, we are told, are:
1. The Executive Committee was stacked with Islamists loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. Those individuals took control and used the Council as a form of dictatorship. It is not who you are but how you behave. The Syrian opposition still does not get that one unfortunately.
2. Inter-manipulations by some members created an atmosphere of mistrust amongst the different people involved. Some of the stories are too horrifying to even mention. Dr. Mohammad Al-Jbeili is one of the most patient democratic Syrians I have met.
One of the most harmful acts the Council did was to vote to forbid the Council Members to “speak” to another opposition figure [Here I presume Ghadry means the Council forbid its members to speak to Ghadry]. Officials in this administration interested in cultivating the Syrian dissident movement got wind of this and one can imagine the reaction. Forbidding people to speak to other people is the ultimate test of tolerance and co-existence. This Ba’athist mentality still prevails at the Executive Committee level. Wiser minds prevailed later and froze that decision but the damage was done.
The group that is splitting is discussing with us, the Syrian Democratic Coalition, ways to cooperate together in the future. We welcome dialogue with all the opposition groups.
Originally the big opposition meeting was to take place in mid September, but it was delayed to October, because things began to go wrong from the start, although there was a moment this summer when it looked like the Syrian and foreign-based opposition might actually unite. The main Syrian-based opposition groups pulled out this summer, claiming the "time was not right." Then the Muslim Brothers in London pulled out as well. Then several Kurdish parties announced they would not attend. Rifaat al-Asad declared that he wanted to go, but Bayanouni of the M.B. explained that no one considered him a member of the opposition. (Rifaat has been trying to get America's attention as an alternative to his nephew Bashar for many years.)
Why didn't anyone go? First, the Syrian government has been cracking down on the Syrian based opposition since the June Baath Party Conference in a major way. Second, the Syrian based opposition does not like or trust the American exile groups. Third, efforts by the Syrian secular opposition (read Riad al-Turk) and the Muslim Brotherhood to form a united front this summer failed. Forth, the American exile groups don't get along. It seems the Executive Committee of the Syrian National Council that formed in June did not attend the Paris meeting - -in all likelihood, because Farid Ghadry was using it as a showcase for his managerial skills and would-be leadership.
With that intro, I leave you with Gedmin's article in the "Weekly Standard," the title of which has a familiar ring, although I cannot figure out where I've heard it before.
Next Year in Damascus
Syrian democracy is thriving--in exile.
by Jeffrey Gedmin
10/24/2005, Volume 011, Issue 06
I ATTENDED A MEETING OF about 40 Syrian exile oppositionists in Paris last week. It was a bit surreal. There was the Syrian-Kurd who lives in Germany, for instance, a sweet, grandfatherly fellow with a big white mustache. The guy introduced himself to me, I glanced at his name tag to make sure I got the name, and he responded with a broad smile: "That's not my real name."
You have to assume the regime has an agent here, he told me at breakfast the next morning. There were two younger Syrians from Germany, both from central casting. He: tough looking, five o'clock shadow, long hair, black leather jacket, thirtysomething. She: twentysomething, long black hair, dark haunting eyes, figure like a model. I mentioned over an after-dinner drink (well, I had a beer, she had a juice, he had nothing) what a pity that we were holed up over the weekend outside the city in an airport hotel. She had never been to Paris. No reaction. The next morning a colleague told me that she is off a 28-day hunger strike; he, the same. They were trying to get political prisoners released. Two days at the Charles de Gaulle Hyatt can be sobering.
Farid Ghadry, the convener of the conference, was not kidding when he told me, "We're not playing anymore." Mind you, everyone I met was warm and welcoming. There were Kurds and Sunni (they make up three quarters of the Syrian population) as well as members of the Alawite minority that runs the country. There were pacifists, hawks, and self-described "liberals," whatever that means in this context. There was a lighthearted gentleman from Los Angeles, a Christian Syrian who runs a nail and hair salon. A dual patriot, he joked over dinner that the group ought to FedEx the American Constitution to the people of the Middle East. The European Syrians at our table rolled their eyes. There was a very articulate fellow from the Muslim Brotherhood and at least two important representatives from Syria who had traveled to Paris for the meeting.
Discussions were lively, disagreements sometimes sharp. I listened like a fly on the wall with a kind Syrian colleague translating from the Arabic. The group may have been diverse, but everyone seemed united on one thing: These folks all seem to believe that after 42 years in power, the Baathist order in Damascus is ready for meltdown. You do not have to be a wishful-thinking Syrian to follow the logic of the last couple of years: municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, women now free to vote in Kuwait, opposition candidates for the first time in Egypt, elections and a constitution in Iraq, a revolution in Lebanon. Did anyone really think Syria could stay immune from the trend?
My favorite guide on the matter is Volker Perthes, a Syria expert and head of the largest government-funded think tank in Germany, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. Perthes argued recently in the International Herald Tribune that "Bashar Assad's regime in Syria has reached its end phase. . . . Assad's regime has lost the confidence and support of many of Syria's people and elites." Perthes is an enemy of the Bush doctrine and a sympathizer of the Middle East status quo, so I figure when he raises the white flag there must be something to it. I heard more than one participant in Paris say that the Syrian population has reached the boiling point.
Syrians like Farid Ghadry want to seize the moment. Ghadry is a 51-year-old Syrian American who has helped create something called the Reform Party of Syria. He comes from an influential Syrian family that moved to Lebanon in 1964 and then emigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s. Ghadry studied finance at American University and ran his own business for a time. He also once carried a Saudi passport, until Saudi Arabia revoked his privileges in retaliation for his support for democratic reform. Now Ghadry's passion is to set up a Syrian parliament in exile.
In Paris, I heard participants challenge Ghadry. Some asked whether such a thing should be called instead an assembly or association. After all, a parliament should be elected by the people, they argued. Some participants asked how they, as exiles, can avoid legitimacy problems with countrymen back home. There were discussions about how to garner U.S. and E.U. support. At the same time, one participant told me how acutely aware everyone was that many people inside Syria distrust exiles, especially those thought to be linked to foreign governments, in particular the United States. I asked the young woman from Germany whether she believed there was broad popular support for democracy inside Syria. She paused. Terrible arguments with her brother, a regime supporter who serves in the military, had helped to precipitate her exodus a couple years ago. She told me a strong minority would support democracy right away and that a majority was waiting to be educated and ready to be convinced.
I was struck by the openness of the atmosphere, the sophistication of the discussion. If Ghadry wants to create a democratic forum for oppositionists, it looks good to me at first glance. I was struck by the pragmatism of the Californian, who kept pushing with a sense of humor for the group to stick to its agenda (no agenda was published, by the way).
It is hard to say exactly where Syria's tipping point may be. It could be the Mehlis report--the inquiry by U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The hard-nosed investigator from Germany will publish a report, which many believe will implicate Damascus in the murder. The suicide (some claim liquidation) of Syria's interior minister Ghazi Kanaan on October 12 piques one's curiosity. Kanaan was responsible for security in Lebanon through 2003 and had just been interviewed by Mehlis. The Mehlis report is due any day, which makes me think that if Ghadry and his colleagues want a parliament in exile, maybe they had better hurry.
Jeffrey Gedmin is director of the Aspen Institute Berlin.