A Dangerous June Brings Relief to Damascus
June is turning out to be a good month for the Syrian regime. I spelled out the stakes in the Arab Reform Bulletin published this month by the Carnegie Foundation for Peace and edited by Michele Dunne. The two challenges have now passed - the National Salvation Front meeting and the Brammertz Report into Hariri's killing, which gives us a chance to recap. Here is the article; recap follows.
Syria: Conflict with West Spurs Economic, not Political, ReformThe National Salvation Front meeting did not light the world on fire. Although it gave the opposition a chance to present itself to the world, ex-Vice President Khaddam grabbed all the headlines. His rather authoritarian was of dealing with the meeting won him few converts. Two members of the front have since withdrawn their parties, complaining that Khaddam rigged the election. The two members are Mr. Marwan Hammoud who is the leader of the Syrian National Democratic Gathering, a political organization based in Vienna, Austria; and Mr. Abdul Hamid Haj-Khodr, the leader of the Freedom Association for National Unity and also a member of the NSF's Steering Committee.
By Joshua Landis
June 2006, Volume 4, Issue 5
Political reform in Syria is not on. Last year's promises of a “great leap forward” —a rewritten emergency law, citizenship for stateless Kurds, and a new political party law before local elections in 2007 — have been shelved. President Bashar Al Assad stated in a recent television interview that, given the situation in Iraq and Syria's mounting battle with the West, security would come first. That warning was the opening shot in a sweeping crackdown on opposition and human rights leaders, the most intense since the Damascus Spring leaders were imprisoned in 2001.
The Syrian regime insists it must clear the decks of potential fifth columnists as it prepares for a showdown with the Bush administration over Lebanon and the war on terrorism. June is a pivotal month. The new UN investigation into Rafiq Al Hariri's murder is expected to indict Syrian leaders; the question is whether the investigators have amassed enough evidence to move the Security Council to impose sanctions or initiate an international trial.
In addition to the threat from the West, the growing unity and tactical dexterity of the Syrian opposition worries the regime. Over the last year, not only has the internal opposition united and joined ranks with expatriates—read Muslim Brothers—in the promulgation of the “Damascus Declaration,” but former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (a Sunni Baathist) has come on board in an effort to split regime loyalists. The intended message to Syrians is: “this is not Iraq ; we will not hunt Baathists. We are pluralistic, moderate, and non-sectarian; the regime is Alawite, extremist, and sectarian.” The newly formed National Salvation Front met in London June 4-5 to agree on “an executive plan for the liberation and democratization of Syria.”
Among the challenges identified at the London meeting is accelerating opposition efforts to build bridges to the Lebanese Cedar Revolution. Syrian oppositionists recently signed a joint declaration with Lebanese activists in support of UN resolution 1680 (calling on Damascus to resolve border controversies with Beirut, establish a permanent diplomatic relationship, and control the movement of arms into Lebanon), an initiative that became the pretext for the recent regime crackdown. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblat has met with Khaddam on several occasions and hosted a Muslim Brother delegation at his palace in Mukhtara in May. The next step would be for Future Movement leader Saad Hariri to champion the Syria opposition cause in Paris, Riyadh, and Washington, which would up the ante significantly.
If Syria's battle with the West has justified postponing political liberalization, it has hastened an economic opening. Washington's efforts to crash the Syrian economy and choke off its access to foreign finance have concentrated the mind of the regime. Last fall, when the Syrian currency lost 20 percent of its value overnight due to Western pressure, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari insisted to a number of associates that he would “[expletive] the black-market profiteers.” It is this lusty spirit of combat that has enabled regime reformers to drive forward the overhaul of Syria's financial sector, which is now considered a matter of survival.
Private banks have proliferated, and are growing rapidly although they have yet to capture a majority share of the market. Central Bank Director Adib Mayaleh said recently that the foreign ownership ceiling on private banks would be raised from 49 to 60-70 percent soon. Private currency trading has been legalized to eliminate the black market, and the Syrian lira has regained the value it lost last year. The finance ministry is also on its way to introducing treasury bills and issuing public debt, which will transform the government's ability to increase investment and plan budgets, a major step in modernizing the economy. So far, efforts by the United States and France to press private banks to cease underwriting lines of credit to Syria have had uneven results and failed to trump Syria's economic liberalization.
Still, economic liberalization has its limits, as Al Assad has not found the wherewithal to cut through the corruption, layers of socialist legislation, and cronyism needed to carry out real structural reform. Also, Al Assad's initial hope that rapid trade growth would lead Syria out of its economic doldrums has been disappointed. The U.S. closure of the Iraq market in 2003, followed by the expulsion of Syria from Lebanon in 2005, dealt Al Assad's plans a heavy blow, from which Syria has only partially recovered by reorienting its trade east to Russia, India, and China and sucking in some of the petrodollars washing through the Gulf.
Whether the Syrian regime can liberalize its economy, outmaneuver western sanctions, and preserve its power base is an open question. In the face of increasing Western and opposition pressure, high GDP growth and banner figures for foreign investment have become critical weapons for regime survival.
Mr. Haj-Khodr explained his resignation, claiming that he did not see either democracy or transparency in the NSF meeting.
Marwan Hammoud announced:
We have withdrawn because we did not see democracy being practiced nor do we think that the [NSF] was a vehicle that will lead Syria to true democracy in the future.... We refuse to be a tool in the hands of Khaddam because he is not competent enough to be the president of Syria. The way he approached the meeting, especially the last day, proved to us that this man cannot be democratic.He explained that the 10-person leadership committee was "chosen" when
Khaddam and Bayanouni disappeared with about 20 other of the attendees most of whom were Muslim Brotherhood and old Ba'athists friends of Khaddam; when they appeared again, they simply announced the list of the Steering Committee made-up of 25 people and asked to vote for or against it. Since there were only 43 participants in the meeting, they already planned their win behind closed doors by convening the majority.The purpose of the NSF is to bring democracy to Syria. The Dorchester meeting was not a particularly promising start for this project.
The spokesperson of the Damascus Declaration, Hasan Abdel Azim, also distanced his organization from the NSF, explaining that "no coordination, talks, or relation exist between the two." This sort of a remark is necessary in the face of the ongoing crackdown on opposition members inside Syria in order not to provoke further arrests. Nevertheless, there was widespread unhappiness within the ranks of the Damascus Declaration coalition when Bayanouni accepted Khaddam as his partner and first announced the formation of the SNF.
For the time being the Syrian opposition has demonstrated how divided it remains over goals, means, and personalities. The Syrian regime has little to fear from it in the short run. What is more, Khaddam's efforts to win the open backing of Lebanon's Future Movement leaders had to be shelved. It was widely expected that Jumblat or perhaps even Hariri might show up for the close of the NSF meeting in London for a laying on of hands, but there wasn't a word from the Lebanese. When Khaddam was asked after the conference if he would team up with the Cedar crowd, he had to deny any intention of doing so. Asad's crackdown on the internal opposition members who had signed a petition with their Lebanese counterparts proved successful in so far as it made linking up with Beirut a no-go for the external opposition as well.
The second major test this month was the Brammertz report. Syrian authorities have professed their satisfaction with it. If Brammertz has amassed any important new evidence, he is not showing his hand. The Lebanese have tried to put the best face on what was a very disappointing report from their point of view. Saad Hariri made sure that everyone understood that he would not be prepared to let the issue die and make peace with Damascus by declaring, "Assad is to blame. Or let me put it like this: 'Based on everything I know, I hold him at least partly responsible."
Jumblat, true to his renowned for mellifluous and stirring sound bites, proclaimed: "There will be no settlement, no pact of honor, and no peace with the tyrants of Damascus, with those who have violated Lebanon's independence and killed its free men."
Khaddam chimed in with his own bit of spin, saying in an Elaph interview: "I possess all the documents that incriminate the criminal policy of the Syrian regime." Of course in a contemporaneous interview, he admitted he had "no hard evidence to back his claim." The Lebanese paper, The Daily Star, which should be at least indulgent of Khaddam now that he is anti-Syrian, wrote in its editorial that Khaddam lacks even a "modicum of credibility."
Attempts by the anti-Syria crowd to gin up a bit of excitement and anti-Syrian fervor over the Brammertz report fell flat.
By contrast, the pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon were positively energized. Suleiman Franjieh re-launched al Marada, the Christian militia founded by his grandfather, as a new political movement at a ceremony attended by thousands in his northern hometown of Zgharta. Other parties allied with Damascus attended the ceremony Sunday including Hizbullah, Amal, and General Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.
This is one more sign that the fleeting national unity Lebanon demonstrated a year ago is in rapid retreat. The reemergence of armed militias and extremist gangs is a direct consequence of the central government's failure to make headway on any issues of consequence. The power vacuum at the heart of the Lebanese state has encouraged every faction to arm itself in the belief that real politics will be carried out not in the corridors of parliament, but on the streets. The stand off between Washington and Damascus is tearing Lebanon apart.
Anthony Shadid, drives this point home in his brilliant article in the Washington Post in which he interviews a bunch of Lebanese fighters who have returned to Tripoli from Iraq, "Smoke of Iraq War 'Drifting Over Lebanon': In Political and Social Life, Returned Fighters Inspire Climate of Militancy." It is a chilling article and reminds us that the aftershock of the US occupation of Iraq will have enduring repercussions.
Pro-Syrian parties in Lebanon were given a serendipitous boost by the roundup of a major terror network with ties to Israel by Lebanese security forces this last week. Seven members of a terror cell led by Mahmoud Abu Rafeh, an ex-security forces officer from the Druze community, were apprehended. Cell members, some of whom had been trained in Israel, are responsible for killing a number of leading Palestinian and Shiite enemies of Israel.
Hizbullah leaders have spun the breakup of this Mossad ring in order to revive speculation that Israel was behind Hariri's murder and not Syria. Hizbullah politburo member Ghalib Abu Zaynab said:
"It is a reminder that Israel [continues to pose a] threat, continues to breach Lebanon's security and should never be dismissed as a suspect in assassinations and explosions that have occurred in Lebanon,"In conclusion, Syria is in a stronger position today than it has been since the US invasion of Iraq. Syria's Defense Minister Hasan Turkamani is in Iran for four days to build on their mutual defense relations. The Palestinian foreign minister has just arrived in Damascus for talks. Nabih Berri is in Egypt trying to get mediation for better relations between Lebanon and Syria. Gulf real estate investors have just announced another $500,000,000 development project in Syria. In short, Syria is back in the thick of Arab politics after having been seriously isolated following the Hariri murder. US attempts to keep it bottled up are losing their steam and effectiveness, as a recent congressional hearing made clear. June could have been a terrible month for Syria, but it has turned out to be a good one. Khaddam has warned Asad that he should take no joy in the good news, for it would be like the rejoicing of the cancer patient who is given two more months to live. Khaddam promises that he and the Muslim Brothers will be ruling in Damascus before the close of the year. It is hard to know what modicum of credibility to give such warnings. Syrian officials are trying to play it cool, but they are undoubtedly feeling more confident than they have for some time.