Yasin Haj Salih, "Sn Appeal for Salvation"
Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian journalist who writes for, among other publications, Al-Mulhaq, the literary supplement of Lebanon's Al-Nahar, and Al-Hayat. He is also one of the most articulate spokesmen of the Syrian opposition and lays out in this article the challenge faced by the Syrian opposition as it tries to present itself as a viable actor in mapping out Syria's future. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
From Damascus, an appeal for salvation
By Yassin Al-Haj Saleh
Friday, October 28, 2005
On October 16, four days after the violent death of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan and five days before Detlev Mehlis released his report to the United Nations on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, several Syrian parties and individuals signed a historic document titled the Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change. The timing was one reason why the document is important; two others were its contents and those who signed it.
The Damascus Declaration spoke about the necessity for radical change in Syria, which has been ruled by a military-Baath Party complex for more than four decades. The signatories held the regime responsible for the terrible situation inside the country as well as Syria's appalling regional status. They called on all Syrian parties aspiring for democracy - "people of the regime" not excluded - to engage in "a salvation task of change that takes the country from being a security state to a civil state." They also called for democracy, and though the signatories refused "change coming from the outside" and expressed an aspiration for the independence and unity of the country, they also refused, and in a way that was unusual for the Syrian opposition, "isolation, political adventurism and irresponsible attitudes."
The signatories also promised to "work together to put an end to despotism, and [declared] their readiness to make the required sacrifices to achieve this aim and to do whatever is necessary to launch a process of democratic change in the country."
However, the main importance of the declaration derived from the identity of the parties that signed it. The original document was signed by five parties and gatherings, namely the Democratic National Gathering (composed of five parties with leftist and nationalist roots), the Committees for Civil Society Revival, the Democratic Kurdish Alliance in Syria, the Democratic Kurdish Front in Syria, and the Future (Al-Mustaqbal) Party. Also, nine prominent figures co-signed the document, of whom Riad Seif, a jailed parliamentarian, was the most prominent.
No sooner had the declaration been issued than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also joined in and called on others to sign it. The Brotherhood described it as a starting point for a new national consensus. Soon other smaller groups and individuals, both within Syria and outside, joined - the most problematic of them being the Reform Party of Syria headed by Farid Ghadry, which is based in the United States.
The Damascus Declaration was a historic initiative. For the first time since the Baath Party seized power in 1963, a broad understanding was reached between the main body of the Syrian opposition and a majority of Kurdish parties, between secular parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. Groups and individuals from across Syria's social spectrum, whether religious, ethnic or sectarian, agreed to join their efforts in a struggle for democratic change at a critical moment of Syrian history. How coherent this "alliance" will prove to be is unclear, but it is a strong expression of large sections of society.
The Damascus Declaration could be seen as an early Syrian reaction to the Mehlis report. The intention of the signatories was to propose an option different than what the Syrian regime has been offering: either the regime on the one hand or chaos or extremist Islamism on the other. The signatories sought to say that there would not be a vacuum of power should the doors of the country be opened to the unknown, and should the regime collapse under international pressure.
As George Sabra, a speaker from the Syrian People Democratic Party, put it, the document was intended to show that "Syria is not politically an empty shell." He underlined that there do exist popular forces in the country, with a long history of democratic struggle - trustworthy groups that can be dealt with. These forces are united in their support for democratic and national change, and have a program that dovetails with the spirit of modernity in this era of world history.
So far the Assad regime has shown tolerance for the declaration and those who signed it. However, it used some of its proxies to wage a campaign accusing those behind the declaration of betrayal and sectarianism. One cannot be sure that the nervous regime will not soon use other weapons against Syrian democrats who are building up their courage and experience.
Now that the Mehlis report is out, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for both Syria and its regime to be saved together. The Damascus Declaration, in calling for change, has the aim of separating the fate of Syria from that of its regime. This is the great challenge that the Syrian opposition will have to face up to in the coming months. The stronger and more united and active the democratic opposition is, the less grim the future of the country will be.
The gathering storm
by Massoud Derhally
30 October 2005
When it finally came, the findings of Detlev Mehlis's report unleashed all the pent-up frustration the Lebanese people developed in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The reaction on the streets in Beirut was foreseeable — as were the demonstrations in the streets of Damascus. Syrian officials stuck to their guns and lambasted the Mehlis Report as being politicised — coincidentally, they directed similar criticism at the first UN probe into Hariri's killing.
Though from a legal perspective the findings of the Mehlis report may not be conclusive and are circumstantial, they nonetheless have had a political impact as far as Syria is concerned.
"Building on the findings of the Commission and Lebanese investigations to date, and on the basis of the material and documentary evidence collected, and the leads pursued until now, there is converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act," said Mehlis in his report. "It is a well-known fact that Syrian Military Intelligence had a pervasive presence in Lebanon at the least until the withdrawal of the Syrian forces pursuant to resolution 1559. The former senior security officials of Lebanon were their appointees. Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."
The fact that Syria has not fully cooperated with the investigative team puts Damascus in a precarious position. According to the Mehlis report, Syria had refused to have some witnesses questioned beyond Syrian borders, nor allowed taped conversations and testimony from witnesses that implicates Syria or its apparatus in the killing of Hariri outside the country.
The death of Ghazi Kanaan — Syria's interior minister, who ruled Lebanon for decades — just days before the Mehlis report was released was also indicative of uneasiness within the Assad regime.
Kanaan's death "points to very serious tensions at the very top of the regime", Patrick Seale, an eminent writer on the Middle East and the only biographer of former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad, told Arabian Business. "It would be surprising if under such intense pressure there was not a very fierce debate going on about what to do, who was responsible, and how they reached this stage."
Inevitably, the onus now is on Syria to prove beyond reasonable doubt, that it did not have a hand in the killing of Hariri, as most Lebanese suspect and as the Mehlis report alludes it did. This largely is a result of a history of complicity of the Lebanese security apparatus with the Syrian intelligence services that ruled Lebanon for 30 years. Syria will also have to comply and hand over or try anyone culpable in the killing of Hariri. This may mean turning over or trying Maher Al Assad, the brother of the Syrian president, Assef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of Assad, Hassan Khalil a former Syrian interior minister and Bahjat Suleyman, the Syrian Internal Security Forces chief in the General Intelligence Department.
"There are question marks over several important elements of the Mehlis Report. But, nevertheless, one has to say that the massive evidence is fairly convincing, even if it wouldn't necessarily in its present state, stand up in a court of law," says Seale.
But the report is not over yet and the German investigator will now have until December 15 to continue his investigation, with the full backing of the United Nations Security Council. It is currently engaged in the drafting of a resolution, likely to be tabled for October 31.
Syria must cooperate with Mehlis and his team of 30 investigators from 17 countries, allowing access to officials and other personalities or else risk isolation, and, as the text of a draft resolution indicates, the onset of "further measures".
Ostensibly, this means the possibility of sanctions or worse, a military option — something that US president George W. Bush continues to say is on the table.
"We can safely say that the Assad regime is in a very unenviable situation," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist and social analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington, who was recently in Damascus.
Still, for their part, the Syrians have largely been quite nonchalant and, to an extent, in denial. In the run up to the release of the Mehlis Report, there was an air of ambivalence in Syria. By the same token, there was a systematic message repeated by Syrian officials that the investigation has largely been orchestrated as part of a political agenda to increase pressure on Damascus because it was standing up for Arab rights.
"It's a tactic, I think," says Seale of Syria's indifference to the Mehlis report. "They don't want to recognise that the situation is very grave. On the other hand, an important issue is that a lot of Syrians feel that they are facing an injustice. There is a sort of patriotic fervour there and when they feel under attack they respond in this way."
Though it was not on the scale of the demonstrations of the Lebanese Cedar Revolution, the protests in Damascus in the wake of the Mehlis report certainly illuminated the sense that Syrians were being victimised. Protesters carried signs that read "No to the Mehlis Report" and others that read "Yes to Bashar Al Assad."
There was also a reaction in some corners of the Arab world that the report was an instrument that was part and parcel of a Western-Zionist agenda to carve up the Arab world.
In Beirut, Lebanese took to the streets and Martyrs' Square, bearing T-shirts and placards that said, "I love you Mehlis". Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora visited the grave of Hariri flanked by several ministers in his government and waved the victory sign, but was very measured in his words and urged Syria to cooperate with the UN investigation committee. Saad Hariri, the son of the slain premier hailed the report's findings in a speech televised from Jeddah and called for an international tribunal to try those involved in the assassination of his father.
"Without justice we don't have hope," Hariri said after meeting Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw. "This would be a strong message in the Middle East to bring those (killers) to justice ... because if you commit a crime and you get away with it, it will be like a jungle tomorrow in the Middle East.
"The crime was not committed against a family, it was committed against a system, a government in Lebanon."
"Undoubtedly there are mistakes in the handling of relations with Lebanon of course," Seale says, when describing the frame of mind of the Syrian regime. "But on the other hand, Syrians feel that the pressure on them is not really about the Hariri assassination. It's about their regional role," he adds.
To the Americans, that role comes down to the thousands who continue to infiltrate Iraq from Syria, who have strengthened the insurgency that has unleashed an unabated stream of bloodshed there. This, coupled with the presence of some of its intelligence services in Lebanon, the continued support of Hezbollah, and its alliance with Iran has angered Washington as well as France and Britain a great deal.
"The whole Tehran-Damascus-South Lebanon axis, after all, is the only opposition to American and Israeli hegemony. Syrians feel that they are being targeted for that reason. It is important to separate the two issues; the Hariri murder on the one hand and the geopolitical struggle on the other in the region," explains Seale.
The path before Syria is clearly a prickly one. The Assad regime will have to make some difficult choices, but as Seale says it is still very dangerous to make predictions. Changes of some form or another will have to take place in Syria. However, "this doesn't necessarily mean a change of regime," says Seale, adding that it does certainly mean, "some purges of bad apples will need to take place".
Ammar Abdul Hamid of Brookings believes it is the beginning of the end for Damascus. "This is a regime that has almost intentionally moved to weaken its own hand over the last few years, paving the way to this current predicament. As such, it is highly likely that we are witnessing the impending collapse of the regime," he says.
Likely scenarios, according to Abdul Hamid, include the Syrian people led by opposition figures orchestrating a velvet revolution, forcing the Baathist regime which has ruled Syria since 1963 to resign.
Another possible outcome, he says, is the abdication of Bashar Al Assad, which could result in an internal power struggle among the periphery of the present regime. In such an event, Abdul Hamid says "whoever wins will have to present a reform agenda and a few scapegoats to legitimise their position with the international community and the Syrian people". There is then the unlikely event that Assad could turn against his own family, and try to appeal to the Syrian people for support as he tries to launch a "new corrective movement", says Abdul Hamid.
"Assad could be deposed in a coup and accused of plotting the act himself in cooperation with others. The names involved will depend on the identity of those leading the coup, but they [would] most likely include Rustom Ghazali."
In all likelihood though, Assad will remain in power with Syria being isolated internationally and suffering from sanctions. In such an eventuality, according to Abdul Hamid, the regime is likely to strengthen its grip on power initially, but the move will essentially "take a drastic toll not only on the Syrian people, but on the regime itself, due to the lack of resources".
Also see this commentary by Tony Badran:
Syria: Après Assad Le Deluge?