Syria's Opposition Dilemma
Syria's Opposition Dilemma
by Joshua Landis
February 4, 2006
The opposition meeting in Washington DC last weekend was a success by all reports. Even though only 55 people gathered at the hotel conference center on Saturday and 65 on Sunday, several observers insisted that it wasn't the number of participants that made it important but the fact that for the first time the secular Syrian opposition met openly with the religious opposition. Perhaps more importantly, the internal Syrian opposition embraced the opposition in exile.
The door was opened last year for this combination by Riad al-Turk, the honorary leader of the internal secularists, when he left Syria to meet the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in London. Although the meeting, as televised on al-Mustaqilla channel, was a bit awkward, both called for a united front and democratic Syria. The long estrangement and bitter feud between secular and religious opponents of the regime seemed to be at an end.
Following this breakthrough, the "Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change" was issued by the internal and secular opposition in Syria on Oct. 16, 2005. It called for an end to Syria's emergency laws and other forms of political repression, and for a national conference on democratic change. Most importantly, the declaration was endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, based in London. As Anwar al-Bunni, the leading human rights lawyer in Damascus, said at the time:
"The declaration demonstrates that there is a democratic alternative to the Baathists that have ruled Syria for 40 years. The regime wants the world to believe that if they go, it is only Islamists and radicals who will come to replace them. It is high time to publish this statement. Syria really needs all the world to know that there is a replacement for Assad that is democratic and liberal."The most controversial line of the declaration was one meant to cement the alliance with the MB. It read:
Islam -- which is the religion and ideology of the majority, with its lofty intentions, higher values, and tolerant canon law -- is the more prominent cultural component in the life of the nation and the people. Our Arab civilization has been formed within the framework of its ideas, values, and ethics and in interaction with the other national historic cultures in our society, through moderation, tolerance, and mutual interaction, free of fanaticism, violence, and exclusion, while having great concern for the respect of the beliefs, culture, and special characteristics of others, whatever their religious, confessional, and intellectual affiliations, and openness to new and contemporary cultures.This statement privileging Islam, the religion and ideology of the majority, as the "most prominent cultural component in the life of the nation and the people" rankled with some, in particular Christians and the Islamic minorities in Syria, such as the Alawites, Ismailis and Druze, who together make up some 25% of the population of Syria.
Although the official Islamic curriculum taught in Syrian schools states that Christians will go to heaven -- unique in the Arab World -- this is a minority view among Muslim clerics in Syria, let alone the broader Islamic world. Likewise, although Alawites, Ismailis and Druze are officially named Muslims and treated as such by Syrian law and the Baath Party, Muslim clerics, both Shiite and Sunni, have not embraced the notion that they are Muslims. A minority tradition among clerics from both schools of Islam has developed during the past century suggesting that they are indeed Muslims, but it remains a distinctly minority tradition. Bayanouni and the new leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have never specifically stated that Syria's Muslim minority sects are full-fledged Muslims, nor have they stated that Christians will go to heaven. Most members of Syria's minority communities still remember the exclusionary and bigoted statements of the Muslim Brother leadership of the 1980s, which referred to them as kufar, or unbelievers. Although Bayanouni renounces the excesses and mistakes of the Muslim Brothers in the 1980s, he has not completely reassured minorities that they will be treated as equals. The religious question remains a major stumbling block in the way of true unity among the opposition, and, indeed, within Syrian society more generally.
Secularism and the separation of church and state form the obvious route around this theological impasse. The Muslim Brotherhood has gone a long way toward embracing secularism in its endorsement of political pluralism and democracy. The paragraph directly following the "Islam" statement in the Damascus Declaration reads:
No party or trend has the right to claim an exceptional role. No one has the right to shun the other, persecute him, and usurp his right to existence, free expression, and participation in the homeland. Democracy as a modern system that has universal values, is based on the principles of liberty and the sovereignty of the people and state institutions, enables the people through free and periodic elections to hold those in power accountable and to change them.The gap between Islamists and secularists has finally been narrowed enough to permit a political alliance between the two. This is a real triumph. It is what made the Damascus Declaration such a groundbreaking document. Likewise, the gap between the internal opposition and the exile opposition has been overcome. This is the significance of the Washington conference held last week. At the heart of this second division was the role of the United States. Much of the exile community has sought to ally itself with Washington and with foreign capitals more generally, in order to strengthen its hand against the Baath Party. Syrian based opponents of the regime have resisted this strategy for decades. Their stated platform was that although the Syrian people stood against the Baath regime, they would close rank with it on nationalist grounds to oppose external threats to the fatherland, in particular those coming from Israel and the West.
The Washington conference promised to close this second gap. The telephone hook-up between members of the Damascus-based Atassi Forum and the participants of the Washington conference seemed to solidify a growing alliance between American based opponents of the Asad regime and those within Syria. On top of this, Riad al-Saif, the recently freed leader of the Damascus Spring Movement, gave his benediction to the formation of this united opposition front.
The opening of a new opposition rift
But just as unity seemed to be all but locked up, another split among opposition members has opened up, this time over the role of Israel. There are other reasons to do with clashing personalities, religion, and opposition strategy, which have opened up old wounds, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is at its heart.
Only days before the convening of the Washington conference, its organizers stated that they would exclude Farid Ghadry, the President of the Reform Party of Syria, as well as a secondary personality, Mohammed al-Jbaili, a friend of Ghadry's who has recently started a new party called Rally for Syria. Jbaili was a founding member of the Syrian National Council, which organized the Washington conference. Ghadry and Jbaili hailed the convening of the Washington conference as a watershed event only days before it was convened, writing:
As far as we are concerned, several steps are being planned one of which is an important strategy session in February that will bring back the opposition most likely to be part of the architecture groups of Syria's future (there will be many participants from a wide spectrum of the Syrian opposition). This group, in general, believes that Syria does not belong to the Ba`athists or their subordinate offshoot ideological political parties but rather to a new vision that embraces the market economy as the centerpiece of that vision. The meeting will host mostly young and determined Syrians who see eye-to-eye with today's generation of Syrians. RPS is sending several young people to this meeting.When they heard about their exclusion, Ghadry and Jbaili lashed out against the organizers in an interview covered by the "New York Sun." Jbaili insisted that he was excluded because he had spoken out against an opposition alliance with Islamists, such as the Muslim Brothers, or Baathists. Ghadry explained that he had been excluded because "Baathism and Islamism are antithetical to the spirit of Syrian reform. We don't want to replace one dictatorship with another."
Although Ghadry claims he is for sharing power with all Syrian opponents of the regime, his criticism of Islamists, ex-Marxists, and Arab nationalists belies his commitment to them. This is the way Ghadry's party describes its pioneering efforts:
The RPS was the first dissident group that asked for regime change, and when we met in Washington DC in November of 2003 with other opposition organizations such as Jean Antar of the Assyrian Movement and Dr. Hussein Saado, a Kurdish nuclear scientist representing the Kurdish community in Germany, and Taufiq Hamdosch of the Kurdish Democratic Party, we issued the first anti-government communiqué. It was strongly worded in favor of regime change for Syria. We were the first to raise this flag and appropriately enough almost all the other opposition groups have followed suit since.Moreover, Ghadry arranged meetings between the Washington officials whose confidence he gained and other opposition members. He is in part responsible for the meeting between Mr. al-Dairi, a leader of last week's conference, and the vice president's daughter and a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Elizabeth Cheney, last year.
The problem with Ghadry's approach is that by calling for a violent overthrow of the government with US assistance, shunning Islamists, socialists and ex-Baathist, as well as by allying himself with Syria's enemies, he has alienated himself from the mainstream of Syrian society. When organizing last week’s opposition meeting in Washington, the Syrian Nation Council was forced to choose between Ghadry's group and the Islamists. It chose to ally with the Islamists.
As Mr. Ghadbian, a professor of the University of Arkansas and founder of the National Council, explained, "he prefers for Baathists, Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood to be included in a post-Assad Syria." He also said that he felt it was important for a democratic Syria to preserve its Muslim identity and stressed the importance of the conference's goals of "seeing a pluralistic, liberal Syria replace the unacceptable tyranny of the Assad dictatorship." He explained the reason for Mr. Ghadry's not being invited was that he was perceived by dissidents who would be leaving Syria to attend the conference as "too close to the Bush administration," describing Mr. Ghadry as "the Chalabi of Syria."
Although Muslim Brothers and other Syrian opposition members were willing to reverse their longstanding opposition to the US, they were not willing to go so far as to embrace those they saw as neoconservatives or members who have gotten too close to the Lebanese and Israeli lobbies. Such a strategy would kill them at home, where anti-Israeli and anti-Lebanese sentiment runs high, and anyone seen to be in cahoots with the government of either country is quickly labeled a traitor.
So what is to be done? The squabble between Syria's many opposition groups and Ghadry threatens to return them to square one, just when it looked as if the Syrian opposition had discovered a foreign policy. Many opposition members have argued that Ghadry is unimportant, but that is not true. It is only true if the opposition does not expect Western aid. Ghadry has now begun to attack the entire Syria opposition as either witting or unwitting "acolytes, useful idiots, or minstrels" of the Asad regime, because they won't join him and his allies in Washington in calling for Asad's downfall. Ghadry has a point when he argues that without US aid, the opposition will have a long a difficult road ahead of it. But the Syrian opposition also has a point when they claim that Ghadry is out of touch with Syria. Here is how one anonymous commentator put it on the blog site of the Reform Party of Syria, curiously named, "Syriacommentplus:"
To be fare to Ghadry, here is his response on supporting neocons:
Dear Mr. Ghadry,
First, Let me clarify that despite my disagreement with how you are going about it, I greatly respect you commitment to something I am assuming you deeply believe in. I also want to clarify that I am a Syrian Citizen writing you from the US. I have no political affiliations with anyone in or out of Syria. I am very much a Democrat and a liberal.
When it comes to Syria, my position is governed by my love for that wonderful country and its people, care for the well-being of the people, hope for its future, and a deep understanding of the current status of its society, especially in regards to its ability to change without drifting into Iraqi style chaos.
Does there exist a Syrian who does not want to see change? The answer is NO. The key however is to think of this change and approach it with a deep understanding of what the situation on the ground is and the ability of the so called opposition, inside and outside, to handle the next step. Also whether it has any popular support to do that.
What I find interesting in your article is that you raise issues that ironically weaken your own argument and credibility. Let us think of the opposition groups for a moment; you listed the Assyrian Movement and various Kurdish groups, one being a very small fringe group and the other a group representing those who want to annex part of Syria to an independent Kurdistan. All are non-mainstream, minority ethnic groups, the last thing the country needs. You on the other hand made peace with Israel your priority. You made the neo-conservatives in the US your friends even though there is nothing they would love to do more than fly some cruise missiles to Damascus. With all due respect to all those people, there is no patriotic, clean, and credible opposition group in or out of Syria today that the main stream Syrians can trust.
We have serious problems in Syria today, the lack of education is a serious problem, and corruption is terrible. People, as much as they want to see change, they want to see it take place slowly and without the loss of security that represents really all they have. As stated in you article, in the footnote, there is no leadership in the country. It is all old, dead, or in jails. You answer is to cooperate with the Lebanese groups in the US, who have ignorantly offended your average “Abu Ahmad” in every thing he is proud of as a Syrian in their quest to accomplish something they can’t even agree on, to get some act passed through congress to put more pressure on a country where the same “Abu Ahmed” is already suffocating.
As I have stated in the past, true change in Syria has to happen through positive pressure on the country that include economic investments combined with political pressures to prevent it from going to the same officials who presently control the country. This will enhance people's lives and move them up in their needs pyramid so they can become more politically active and bring change from the inside, under the umbrella of the interest of the country and not that of one ethnic group or another.
Mr. Gharry, I encourage you to listen to those in the country, hear what they have to say and leave Washington out of it. You will then understand why your message or that of similar opposition groups is rejected.
On the issue of neo-conservatives, the best answer I can give you is the following: Who do you want us to get help from to pressure the US government against the Assad regime? The State Department that still is more likely to protect Assad than hurt him? Or the intelligence community that has turned a blind eye to the Arab dictators? Or the Europeans that most, until the Hariri killing, protected Assad and some to a certain extent still do? In politics, you choose your partners based on goals and not on ideology. My goals are to see Syria become democratic peacefully.Ghadry has no faith that the Syrian opposition will be able to rid Syria of dictatorship, so he has allied with the neocons who he believes will overturn Asad, whether peacefully or not. Most of the Syrian opposition does not want the assistance of the neocons, having been frightened by the Iraq, and earlier, Palestinian examples. They prefer to do it on their own, even if it takes a long time. They are happy to have America squeeze Syria and pressure it on human rights issues, but on the whole, they don't want America to break the state as it did in Iraq.
The US dilemma
The US administration also faces a dilemma: should it cut connections with the newly united Syrian opposition because it opposes peace with Israel and supports Islamists, or should it support the Syrian opposition and court the ire of the Lebanese and Israeli lobbies, which are integral to American society and its own foreign policy planning?
Farid Ghadry has explained that the antagonists in this American struggle are the Defense Department, the President’s office, and “appointed politicians,” who are for regime change in Syria, on the one hand, and the State Department on the other. State, or as Ghadry puts it, the “cocktail party diplomats at Foggy Bottom,” are not interested in regime-change. They are soft on the Syrian opposition and only want to “weaken Bashar.” Their hope is to build up the opposition to encourage evolutionary change rather than to force a quick overthrow or sudden collapse of the regime, which they believe would most likely lead to political chaos. As Edward Walker, a former Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs and presently director of the Middle East Institute, said in 2003, "The only opposition I know of in Syria is the Muslim Brotherhood."
Following elections in which Islamists or anti-Americans have swept the poles in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and now Palestine, it is very hard to believe that either side in the US administration will be successful. Those who want the US to get behind the newly unified Syrian opposition, despite its strong Islamist wing, will be dissuaded from doing so by those who refuse to support further Islamist gains in the name of democracy. And those who want more forceful regime-change, such as the neocons, will also be dissuaded by the same fear. Despite claims by Ghadry, that people like him -- free traders and pro-American liberals -- are the real majority in Syria, and not Islamists or those who would follow the Muslim Brothers, few are likely to believe him. My hunch is that the Hamas victory has thrown the US for a loop. The recent riots in Damascus and burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies over the cartoon affaire will only deepen the confusion in the halls of Western capitals and once again arouse worries of the "Muslim mob," whether it was encouraged by the government or not.
Three years ago, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld "did not advocate seeking out Syrian exiles and dissidents for an opposition movement" because his department "decided that none of the options were more attractive than the incumbents." All that changed after the invasion of Iraq, when Asad made the decision to support the fundamentalists who wanted to kill US soldiers rather than support the US soldiers who wanted to kill fundamentalists. In a "with us or against us world," Asad was against us. Farid Ghadry was with us.
But if the US government was quick to support exile groups, such as Ghadry's, they were slow to support opponents of the regime living within Syria. Only in the Fall of 2005, when Labwani flew to Washington, did Washington come alive to the notion that supporting Syrians inside Syria could be fruitful. Days after the Labwani affaire, the embassy officials in Damascus began reaching out to Riad al-Turk and other Syrian opposition figures for the first time. The meeting in Washington last week was a product of this effort. What will happen to it now is anyone's guess. To stop supporting the liberals out of fear of the Muslim Brothers would be a mistake. State Department officials insist they will continue to reach out to as broad a coalition as they can. This kind of grass-roots work will take years to come to fruition. But there is no short cut to transforming Syria. It will take the hard work of many. Ultimately, it can only be done by Syrians for Syrians. But if Washington is smart, it will continue to build good relations with as many Syrians who support reform as possible.