October 31, 2006 | The Mideast Monitor

Divided They Stand: The Syrian Opposition

 His son and successor, Bashar, has failed to manage these divisions. Unfavorable international conditions, colossal foreign policy failures, and a precarious economy have left the regime with little bargaining leverage other than its control over the instruments of repression. This asset remains effective in silencing and intimidating dissidents individually, but ineffective in obstructing their collective gravitation around the demand for regime change.

Nevertheless, the Syrian opposition remains weak and (apart from Kurdish groups) isolated from the population at large. In the face of a state that penetrates the daily lives of its citizens at will, this is a serious shortcoming. The fact that Syrian intellectuals have gravitated toward the demand for regime change, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, does not herald the end of the struggle for democracy in Syria, or even the beginning of the end. At most, it is the end of the beginning.

Islah and Taghyeer

Historically, opposition to Baathist rule in Syria has been divided between those advocating islah (reform) of the regime and those advocating taghyeer (change) of the regime. The government succeeded for many years in completely silencing and isolating the latter through heavy repression and censorship, while introducing doses of economic and political liberalization as needed to maintain a cautious sense of optimism among a critical mass of the educated public that the future will be better than the past (and the present better than the alternatives).

The Damascus Spring was simply the latest in a series of initiatives, beginning with Assad's “corrective movement” in the early 1970s, aimed at persuading educated Syrians that islah would lead to real changes. It began evolving in the 1990s, when secular liberal businessmen were allowed to win election to parliament and publicly criticize the slow pace of economic liberalization.[1] Bashar's image as a reformer was cultivated long before his ascension as part and parcel of this sales pitch. It was only because of his influence that MP Riad Seif could denounce Syria's state-run banking system as a “means of giving rewards to those that do not merit them” from the floor of the Syrian parliament in January 2000 and see his remarks quoted the next day in the state-controlled press.[2]

Although Assad's succession after the death of his father in June 2000 went smoothly, there was inherent contradiction in his slogan of “change through continuity.” The various factions of Syria's regime consented to a hereditary succession because they expected Bashar to preserve the division of spoils in Syria, while the Syrian people accepted it because they expected him to change the system. Bashar pursued a third strategy – changing the division of spoils while preserving the system.

During the first six months of his tenure, Assad relaxed restrictions on freedom of expression and tacitly sanctioned early petitions by secular reformers outside of government. However, as one analyst put it, the Damascus Spring “was a temporary, carefully managed political opening engineered by Assad to outmaneuver his rivals and consolidate his grip on power by drawing support from outside the regime.”[3] Once the new president established firm control over the security apparatus, he curtailed the activities of the reformers. Though he eroded the privileges and power of the “old guard,” this was only to concentrate both even more narrowly among his close relatives, most notably his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, and brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat (the husband of his sister, Bushra, now head of military intelligence). Assad's process of narrowing the regime's power base eventually led to the defection of former Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam (and the late Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan's apparent contemplation of similar disloyalty prior to his alleged “suicide”) in the fall of 2005.

Many prominent liberal reformers refused to accept this state of affairs, prompting Assad to terminate the Damascus Spring, culminating in the arrest of Seif (after he publicly threatened to expose corruption surrounding the grant of a lucrative cellular telephone license to Makhlouf) and nine other leading liberal voices in Syria in late 2001.

This might have sufficed if Assad hadn't blundered in Iraq and Lebanon, setting off a firestorm of Western diplomatic retaliation and culminating in the collapse of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon (and the loss of billions of dollars in annual revenue derived from it).[4]. In a country accustomed to the masterful statecraft of Hafez Assad, these failures did more than enflame resentment of the regime – they branded it as incompetent and prone to falter under pressure. In addition, Western (and, to a degree, Saudi) hostility put the regime under much closer international scrutiny, further emboldening the opposition.

If this were not enough to discredit islah, the regime's failure to introduce any major political reforms at the much anticipated June 2005 Baath Party conference settled all remaining doubts. The October 2005 Damascus Declaration by Syrian dissidents marked a turning point, as it called for change, not reform, of the regime.

Shortly afterwards, a number of leftist and Arab nationalist intellectuals tried to organize an alternative petition, the Homs Declaration, which endorsed islah and warned about “foreign dangers” facing Syria, echoing Assad's call in a speech that same month for a “nationalist opposition” that plays by the rules of the regime.[5] The Homs Declaration failed to gain any momentum and was soon forgotten, heralding the death of islah as a credible reform strategy.

The Secular-Islamist Divide

Opponents of Syria's Baathist regime have been polarized into secular and Islamist camps since the Muslim Brotherhood's campaign of violence against the regime a quarter century ago, which cultivated a deep fear of Sunni Islamist militancy among secular Syrians. Without question, the most powerful reservation liberal dissidents have about toppling the regime is concern that its collapse will lead to a Sunni Islamist bid for power, followed by civil war and chaos.

Consequently, the regime has long been obsessed with extinguishing any form of dialogue between secular and Islamist opposition groups that might bridge this gap. Radical leftist dissidents who advocated dialogue with the Brotherhood in the early 1980s (most notably Riad al-Turk) were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

In the late 1990s, exiled Brotherhood leader Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni abandoned the movement's call for an Islamic state and entered into secret (and mostly indirect) negotiations with the government in hopes of winning freedom for several thousand of its members rotting in jail and permission for thousands of others to return from abroad. While the regime released many Brotherhood prisoners in periodic increments, it was unwilling to issue a general amnesty or repeal Law 49 (1980), which banned the Brotherhood.

In response, Bayanouni moderated the Brotherhood's political program to call for liberal democratic reforms and made concerted efforts to work with secular opposition forces. The regime cracked down harshly on those who responded to his initiatives. In May 2005, security forces arrested writer Ali Abdullah and eight other members of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum (an Arab nationalist political salon) after he read a statement by the Brotherhood pledging commitment to nonviolence and democracy at one of its meetings. All but Abdullah were released after promising to have no further communication with the Brotherhood, but the forum was shut down permanently.

In spite of the crackdown, opposition leaders persisted in seeking to establish a common reform agenda with the Brotherhood. Veteran Communist leader Riad al-Turk – the most internationally known and respected member of the secular opposition (and hence the only one the regime dare not arrest) – met with Bayanouni in London in July 2005. Since any form of joint activity with the Brotherhood would have invited harsh repressions, the October 2005 Damascus Declaration was issued by secular opposition groups as a declaration of principles that anyone could endorse (which the Brotherhood did the following day).

The liberal opposition won the Brotherhood's acceptance of the Damascus Declaration by including clauses declaring Islam to be the “religion and ideology of the majority” and the “most powerful cultural component” in the life of the nation. This formulation was criticized by many secular and non-Muslim opposition activists, some of whom tried to form a more secular gathering, dubbed “the Aleppo Declaration” (though not by its organizers).[6] Like the Homs Declaration, it failed to garner the same breadth of support as the Damascus Declaration.

The Arab-Kurd Divide

An older and deeper split within the Syrian opposition is that between Arabs and Kurds, who comprise around 10% of the population. While the political and cultural hegemony of the Arabic-speaking majority predates the Baathist seizure of power (it is enshrined in the official name of the country, the Syrian Arab Republic), the Baathist regime's Arabization and resettlement policies introduced an unprecedented level of repression.[7] An estimated 250,000-300,000 Syrian Kurds are even denied citizenship (owing to the results of a blatantly discriminatory 1962 census, duly ratified by the incoming Baathist regime).

Until very recently, Syrian Kurds were quiescent. Dispersed across three non-contiguous areas along the northern border and in the urban interior, they lack the demographic strength and cohesion of their brethren in Iraq and Turkey, and they have no impenetrable mountains to provide shelter from the state oppression.

In the late 1990s, roughly a dozen distinct Kurdish political factions began organizing publicly, inspired by the establishment of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq. Most agreed on a list of cultural demands (recognition of Kurdish as an official language, freedom to celebrate Kurdish holidays, etc.) with some, such as the Yakiti party, calling for strong federal autonomy for Kurdish areas.

After entering office in 2000, Bashar Assad permitted Kurdish activists to operate more freely and eased enforcement of restrictions on Kurdish linguistic and cultural expression (though without formally lifting the restrictions). In August 2002, after it became clear that the United States was intent on ousting Saddam Hussein, Assad made the first visit by a Syrian president to the Kurdish province in over 40 years. No concessions were forthcoming, however, leading Kurdish activists to organize unprecedented public demonstrations calling for cultural and linguistic rights, including a sit-in outside parliament in December 2002.[8]

The authorities responded harshly, arresting (and allegedly torturing) dozens of Kurdish activists over the year. The regime also stepped up its efforts to arm poor Arabs in the northern border region and incite them to violence against Kurdish demonstrators.[9]

The slowly escalating Kurdish clash with the regime took place independently of the Arab opposition's struggle for reform, and over issues that were of Kurdish interest only. This was effective in mobilizing the Kurdish street, but it left the community isolated from the rest of Syrian society. “The Kurds did not play a political role in Syrian politics,” human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni later explained. “Their role was limited to demands placed upon the authority – they didn't engage in dialogue with the rest of Syrian political society.”[10]

This was evident in March 2004, when security forces opened fire on an unarmed Kurdish crowd that was chanting pro-Bush slogans at a soccer match and scuffling with Arab fans (mukhabarat plants, according to some eye witnesses) in the northeastern city of Qamishli. This sparked eight days of Kurdish rioting that ended with 40 people (33 Kurds and seven Arabs) dead, hundreds injured, over 2,000 arrested, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. Many in the Arab opposition publicly condemned the rioting.[11]

The aftermath of the riots presented an ideal opportunity for the regime to make concessions to the Kurds and split them off from the predominantly Arab opposition front. In the spring of 2005, government census takers methodically interviewed stateless Kurds in the northern province of Hasake,[12] but nothing came of it. The June 2005 Baath Party conference not only failed to grant citizenship to stateless Kurds, but reiterated the ban on ethnic political parties, giving the fractious Kurdish parties common cause to join the secular Arab opposition's demand for regime change.

The disappearance and murder of Sheikh Muhammad Mashouq al-Khaznawi, a moderate Kurdish cleric, a few weeks before the congress was widely believed to be a warning to Kurdish activists by the mukhabarat. Khaznawi had been playing a major role in bridging the divide between Kurdish groups and both the secular opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood.[13] He had met with Bayanouni during a trip to Brussels three months earlier, after which the Brotherhood issued a first-ever statement recognizing Kurdish rights. Riad Darar, an Arab pro-Kurdish rights activist, was arrested in June after delivering a eulogy at Khaznawi's funeral, charged with “inciting ethnic strife,”[14] and later sentenced to five years in jail.

Several Syrian Kurdish groups joined the signatories of the Damascus Declaration, which called for the “complete equality of Syrian Kurdish citizens with the other citizens . . . on the basis of the unity of the Syrian land and people.” However, three leading Kurdish groups (Yakiti, Azadi, and the Kurdish Future Current) declined to join (and, at one point, were involved in discussions with the Aleppo Declaration organizers) because it implicitly rejected federalism and did not recognize Kurdish national identity and rights. The National Salvation Front and other opposition groupings in exile have been only slightly more flexible on these points.[15] As Anwar Bunni explains,

    [T]he fundamental point of contention is whether the Kurds are a separate nation or just normal Syrian individuals deprived of some of their rights . . . It's not a problem if the Syrian Arabs say “we are Syrian Arabs who are part of the Arab nation.” But it's not permitted for the Syrian Kurds to say “we are Syrian Kurds who are part of the Kurdish nation.”[16]

Arab-Kurdish coordination nevertheless continued to deepen. In March 2006, several leading secular Arab opposition figures attended demonstrations organized by Kurdish groups in Damascus and other cities to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Qamishli riots. According to one report, security forces ordered the Arab participants in the rallies to leave the scene.[17] Many who participated were detained during the rally or in the days that followed, including Seif, writer Muhammad Ghanem,[18] human rights activist Najati Tayyara, and Ali Abdullah.[19]

During the summer of 2006, Assad dispatched the recently appointed, non-Baathist vice-president for cultural affairs, Najah Attar, to meet with “independent” Kurds, supposedly to discuss Kurdish rights. Aside from temporarily raising tensions between Kurdish parties, nothing has come of this move.[20] The regime apparently wants Kurdish parties to reject the Damascus Declaration en masse,[21] but appears unwilling to make a remotely attractive offer.

Granting the kind of concessions that might appease the Kurdish opposition would be problematic for the regime for several reasons. Making Kurdish an official language of Syria or granting the Kurds influence over government administration in the remote northeast would contradict the Baathist vision of seamless Arab unity and outrage staunch Arab nationalists. Giving in to the Kurds would also likely embolden the broader opposition movement (and perhaps also open the flood gates for more Kurdish demands). Financially, the regime simply cannot afford to return lands confiscated from Kurds in the 1960s and 1970s (and compensate the Arabs it gave them to) and even if it could, there is no way to handle the avalanche of claims without drawing public attention to terrible abuses of Baathist rule.

The Internal-External Divide

One important legacy of the bloody revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s is the regime's obsession with eradicating all links between dissidents inside Syria and both the exile community and foreign governments (the former, according to Baathist propaganda, being mere pawns of the latter). Kurdish ties to their brethren in Turkey and Iraq have also fueled concerns about foreign infiltration of dissident movements.

While the mukhabarat largely eradicated Islamist networks affiliated with the exiled leadership of the Brotherhood, the communications revolution has made it impossible to silence Syrians living overseas. The Internet has played an important role in the dissemination of news on human rights violations by the regime, the grievances of the Kurds,[22] and political discussion by activists and intellectuals. The satellite television revolution has broken down the regime's monopoly on broadcast news and rendered the once unfamiliar faces of leading dissidents recognizable to most educated Syrians.

Consequently, the regime has had to rely more heavily on coercion to prevent contact between internal dissidents and the outside world.[23] In addition to the ban on contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime has drawn a “red line” against contact with Western governments. After meeting with American officials during a trip to Washington in November 2005, prominent dissident Kamal al-Labwani was arrested and charged with inciting a foreign state to attack Syria.

After several internal opposition figures took part in a January 2006 conference organized by the Syrian National Council in Washington DC,[24] the regime essentially imposed a ban on any anti-government activity abroad. Samir Nashar, the founder of an Aleppo-based liberal party who attended the DC conference, was detained for a week after returning to Syria and banned from future foreign travel. Dozens of other dissidents have been banned from leaving the country.[25] Communist activist Fateh Jamous was arrested on charges of undermining the state abroad following his return from a March 2006 trip to Europe, where he spoke at an Amnesty International conference, met with the Swedish Parliamentary Human Rights Group, promoted Arab-Kurdish dialogue and peaceful reform in radio and television appearances,[26] and reportedly met with opposition leaders in exile.[27]

The defection of Khaddam in early 2006 added a powerful new player to the external opposition. The former vice-president met with Bayanouni in Brussels, where the two established a new opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF). Khaddam and Bayanouni are both Arab Sunnis, but they persuaded several Kurdish and non-Sunni activists in exile to join. Another external opposition group, the Reform Party of Syria led by the US-based Farid Ghadry, presents itself as a secular liberal alternative to the NSF, and maintains an antagonistic position against it.

While the formation of the NSF appeared to reinforce the divide between internal and external opposition by establishing a completely separate institutional framework, Bayanouni and Khaddam insist that their efforts parallel those of the internal opposition, which is not free to campaign vigorously against the regime or meet with foreign government officials (the NSF, by contrast, has met with members of the US National Security Council and even announced plans to open an office in Washington DC, while Khaddam was recently received by Saudi King Abdullah). The NSF also insists that it adheres to the Damascus Declaration's principles and claims to be coordinating continuously with the internal opposition.

After the establishment of the NSF, the regime put enormous pressure on the Damascus Declaration signatories to condemn both Khaddam and the Brotherhood. Getting some to prove their “patriotism” by denouncing Khaddam was easy enough. Jamous and many others expressed discomfort with Khaddam's past and reluctance to work with him. Turk called the NSF “punishment” for the internal opposition's slow and hesitant performance,[28] but declared that he would not do the regime's work for it by denouncing it. While some dissidents criticized the Brotherhood for allying with Khaddam and privately advocated expelling it from the Damascus Declaration, most opposition leaders flatly refused.[29] “The Damascus Declaration has no value without the Muslim Brotherhood,” Nashar told IRIN News.[30]

The Brotherhood's alliance with Khaddam opened the way for diplomatic breakthroughs, most notably in Lebanon, where Bayanouni's emissaries were warmly received by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and (more discretely) other undisclosed members of the ruling March 14 coalition.[31] They also visited Turkey (this time receiving substantial media coverage).

Rather than shy away from coordination with this emerging Saudi-Lebanese-Brotherhood axis, internal opposition leaders pushed the envelope further by joining anti-Syrian Lebanese public figures (and Bayanouni) in co-signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration (BDD). The declaration, initially signed by 274 Syrians and Lebanese, essentially endorsed key demands of the ruling March 14 coalition in Lebanon – including border demarcation, full cooperation with the Hariri investigation, cessation of arms smuggling, exchange of embassies, and respect of Lebanese sovereignty and independence

The BDD not only crossed the red line of collaborating with external enemies of the regime, but also entailed a second intolerable transgression. Coinciding with the introduction of UN Security Council resolution 1680, which called on Syria to normalize relations and demarcate its border with Lebanon, the BDD was an attempt to pressure the Syrian government into changing its foreign policy.[32] In view of the regime's long-standing paranoia (and propaganda) about Lebanon being used as a launch pad against Baathist rule in Syria (and more recent paranoia about Saudi plots against the regime) the declaration could not go unanswered.

In the weeks that followed, Syrian signatories came under enormous pressure to disavow the petition. Seventeen public sector employees who signed or supported the BDD were fired from their jobs,[33] and over a dozen signatories were arrested. “They had one demand, which is for me to pull my name from the declaration,” dissident Hazem Nahar told Elaph, describing his interrogation after being summoned by the mukhabarat.[34]

All the detainees were eventually released on bail to await trial (though some have since been re-arrested), except for Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni (whose EU-funded human rights center was shut down in March). A regime hired pen, Maria Maalouf, accused Kilo of meeting and receiving money from Jumblatt's right hand man, Marwan Hamade.[35] In a recent interview, Assad answered a question about the BDD dissidents by saying that they “collaborated with the enemies of Syria.”[36]

As with every other round of repression meted out to the opposition, the regime had some success in intimidating activists individually (four who were released on bail in July were quick to denounce foreign plots against Syria in an open letter),[37] but remained unable to dissuade them from acting collectively (with more safety in numbers) to coordinate with the outside world. At the height of the crackdown, a petition was circulated in the Suwayda district and signed by 91 intellectuals, denouncing the “arrest campaigns against democratic activists” and calling for support from “the forces of freedom and democracy in the world.[38]

The Sectarian Divide

The one fissure in the opposition that remains more or less intact is that between Alawites,[39] an offshoot Islamic sect comprising roughly 12% of the Syrian population, and non-Alawites. The Alawites once lived a marginal and impoverished existence in about four dozen villages in the hinterland of northwestern Syria. Under Baathist rule, they came to dominate the upper echelon of the security-intelligence apparatus.

Alawites benefited from Baathist rule in two respects. First, Baathist socio-economic policies favored rural peasants of all sectarian persuasions over the urban notability (since the Alawite community was almost entirely rural, it benefited en masse). Second, many Alawites benefited from the largesse of senior Alawite officers, who vied for local influence by establishing patronage networks in their ancestral villages. Hafez Assad privileged members of his own al-Kalbiyya tribe and extended family,[40] but he was careful to maintain a division of spoils with other Alawite tribes.[41]

Ironically, while the Assad regime depended on Alawite solidarity to maintain power, it waged a relentless campaign to stamp out public manifestations of the Alawites' idiosyncratic religious identity and force them to act like “proper” Sunni Muslims.[42] Its refusal to permit any unified Alawite religious authority or institutions to emerge mirrors the Ottoman Empire's denial of millet status to the Alawite community.[43]

Nevertheless, there has been a steady erosion of Alawite confidence in the regime since Bashar took power. The “great leap forward” in Alawite living conditions during the first three decades has long tapered off and begun to recede. Moreover, the majority of Alawites have been cut off from the narrowing circle of patronage centered around Bashar Assad and his allies. Powerful Alawite strongmen who once flooded their home villages with money, such as Ali Douba, Muhammad Khouli, and Ghazi Kanaan, are gone. New generation Alawite power barons, such as Rami Makhlouf and Assef Shawkat, have very little connection to the Alawite hinterland and are seen as being interested only in furthering their own wealth and power.[44]

Nevertheless, the Alawite community is still united by fear of Sunni domination following the regime's collapse. The Damascus Declaration's designation of Islam as the “religion and ideology of the majority” (and predominantly Sunni list of signatories) sparked concern among most Alawite intellectuals, even those who had thus far played prominent roles in the secular opposition. Aktham Naisse, a principal organizer of the Aleppo Declaration, accused the Brotherhood of seeking to establish a sectarian state.[45] Another Alawite writer, Nidal Naisse, referred to the Damascus Declaration as the “Qandahar Declaration.”[46]

The regime has sought to highlight and exploit the predominance of Sunnis in the Damascus Declaration. The state-run daily Tishrin republished an article by Nabil Fayyad (a liberal Sunni dissident who underwent a conversion of sorts after a month in prison in 2004 and, according to some dissidents, became a regime informant) warning that the Brotherhood had “programmed through remote control most of the Sunni forces in Syria” and calling the Damascus Declaration “an obituary that clearly smells of the end of Syria.”[47]

Some analysts believe that periodic terror attacks in the Syrian capital, ostensibly by radical Sunni Islamists, have been staged by the mukhabarat to spread fears of what may befall the Alawites should the regime collapse. Syrian efforts to foment violence in Iraq and Lebanon also enflame fears that the regime's collapse will lead to civil war.

Because any breakdown in Alawite solidarity could be lethal to the regime, the relatively small number of Alawite intellectuals who joined the broader opposition movement have been subjected to much harsher repression than their colleagues. The lone Alawite among the ten opposition leaders arrested in the fall of 2001, economist Aref Dalilah, was sentenced to 10 years in prison (the others received sentences of 3 and 5 years) and spent long periods in solitary confinement and without proper medical treatment. Another leading Alawite activist, Fateh Jamous, has been terribly mistreated since his arrest earlier this year (denied a bed and mattress, beaten by prison thugs and informants with the warden tuning a blind eye, etc.). The charges against Jamous, as his lawyer told Elaph, “are the most serious yet against an opposition activist outside of the Muslim Brotherhood.” [48]

The fact that the NSF could not find any exiled Alawite political dissidents to sit on its executive council (it claims to have Alawite members whose identities are kept secret) is not surprising, as their families could be subjected to severe reprisals. The US-based Reform Party of Syria (RPS) did not help matters when its September 8 email newsletter proclaimed that the United States government was determined to topple the Assad regime soon and was willing to safeguard the lives and property of Alawite officials and military officers on the condition that they abandon their posts “and leave major Syrian cities and return to their villages before the deadline of November 8.”

Other exile groups quickly denounced the RPS threat of violent reprisals against Alawites. The NSF said that the RPS statement harms “the higher national interest,” adding that “Syrian citizens, regardless of their sect, . . . have the right to live anywhere they please.” It also took that opportunity to ask members of the Baath to join the “purely national project” of democratic change.[49] Khaddam and Bayanouni took to the media and repeated the same line, citing examples in Syrian history of minorities holding high office through free elections.[50]

The regime has also lashed out harshly at anyone who even discusses the sectarian question in Syrian politics. Michel Kilo (a Christian) crossed this line by writing an article in May 2006, entitled “Syrian Obituaries,” which made the seemingly innocuous observation that death notices posted in the town of Latakia frequently have stamps signifying military service when the deceased is “from the countryside of Latakia,” while the death notices of townsmen rarely do.[51] He did not need to mention that the former are predominantly Alawite and the latter predominantly Sunni – any Syrian reading the article understood exactly what he was saying. Kilo was arrested the day after the article appeared. In August, he was not allowed to attend his mother's funeral, a right normally granted for political prisoners in Syria.[52]

Privately, many Alawites express concern that Assad will gravely endanger the community's future. Rather than using the Alawites' most powerful asset – control of the security forces – to negotiate guarantees against Sunni domination, Assad is seen as using it to prevent any transition at all, which some fear will only increase the appeal of radical Sunni Islamism. Few in the Syrian opposition have articulated a position on what should happen to the predominantly Alawite upper echelon of the security-intelligence apparatus during the transition to democracy.


There was a time when the right combination of concessions by Assad might have been able to prevent the opposition from coalescing. A few years ago, most secular dissidents would have been willing to accept a transition to a quasi-democratic authoritarian system akin to Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. Many businessmen would have accepted even less if he had at least been willing to end his allies' rapacious domination of the economy. Until 2004, most Kurdish activists would have been inclined to accept a deal involving cultural freedoms and full citizenship rights. The Brotherhood was once willing to accomodate the regime in exchange for a general amnesty and the repeal of Law 49.

Time and time again, however, Assad has failed to offer attractive side deals. He has made many unfulfilled promises and some informal measures (e.g. not enforcing laws restricting Kurdish cultural expression) that were easily reversible, but he has drawn the line at modifying the institutional edifice of the regime. His efforts to intimidate dissidents into quietly accepting what little he feels he can offer has steadily born less and less fruit. At the individual level, dissidents meet regularly with their assigned mukhabarat officers and avoid drawing attention to themselves. Collectively, however, they have abandoned regime-driven islah.

The opposition has been greatly encouraged by regional and international developments. The regime's implication in the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri by a UN investigation commission, humiliating loss of control over Lebanon, and deterioration of relations with both the West and leading Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan) have all communicated to the opposition that now is the time to act – when the regime's international and Arab cover is at its weakest.

Many in the opposition express fear that the international community will cut a deal with the regime that would relax outside pressure and give it a new lease on life. For better or for worse, however, Assad has thrown in his lot with an ascendant Iran, which he thinks will emerge as the top regional power in the twenty-first century. This alliance and his policy of brinkmanship, he believes, will force the international community to deal with him on his terms, without any serious concessions on his part.

Now that islah is dead, as one prominent Syrian political analyst notes, the regime's goal is to “recreate legitimacy based on something other than reform.”[53] Having once marketed himself as a pro-Western reformer, Assad has now repackaged himself as a defender of Arab-Islamic interests and values, coalescing his radical anti-Western foreign policy with an Islamification campaign at home. The iconography in Syria today depicts the trinity of Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah as embodying “the culture of resistance.” He has carefully manipulated popular animosities toward Lebanon, America and Israel to sell this image.

All in all, his transition from “reformer” to “resister” has drawn some support from the Syrian masses, particularly the youth (roughly 60% of the population is under 20). This has served to isolate aging opposition leaders and will suffice to maintain his grip on power for the time being. At the end of the day, however, it is unlikely to alleviate the country's stifling isolation, solve its crippling economic problems, or persuade the educated elite of Syria to reunite behind the regime.


  [1] “Syrians call for change in law to attract private investment,” Agence France Presse, 5 April 1997.
  [2] “Syrian MP slams banking system, calls for modernisation of economy,” Agence France Presse, 29 January 2000.
  [3] See Gary C. Gambill, The Myth of Syria's Old Guard, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 2/3, February-March 2004. “The Damascus Spring was a temporary, carefully managed political opening engineered by Assad to outmaneuver his rivals and consolidate his grip on power by drawing support from outside the regime. Once he had fully asserted his authority, the activities of the reformers became a liability for the Syrian president and were quickly curtailed.”
  [4] See Gary C. Gambill, Hooked on Lebanon, Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005.
  [5] “Syrian Intellectuals, activists issue 'Homs Declaration',” Cham Press, 14 November 2005.
  [6] Elaph, 9 November 2005. The so-called Aleppo Declaration was also supposed to deal more progressively with the Kurdish and Assyrian questions, and initially held discussions with the three Kurdish parties that were not satisfied with the the Damascus Declaration's handling of the Kurdish issue (Yakiti, Azadi, the Future Current) and the Assyrian Democratic Organization.
  [7] “Although Syrian President Hafez Assad officially ended the so-called “Arab Belt” (al-hizam al-arabi) project in 1976, he allowed Arab settlers to remain on confiscated land and provided them with top-notch clinics, schools, and other facilities, fueling resentment among their Kurdish neighbors.” Gary C. Gambill, The Kurdish Reawakening in Syria, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 6, No. 4, April 2004.
  [8] “Kurds protest outside Syrian parliament against discrimination,” Agence France Presse, 10 December 2002.
  [9] The kind of abuse the Arab settlers, backed by the regime, inflict on the Kurds was detailed in a recent press release by a Kurdish human rights group. It talked about land, property, and livestock theft from Kurdish farmers despite their owning the deeds to them. It mentions practices such as collapsing cisterns, displacing families and uprooting fruit trees without offering any compensation, deforestation and bulldozing hectares of land owned by Kurds, with deeds. This is often done with the help of the local authorities. Human Rights Association in Syria, Press release, 31 August 2006.
  [10] Joe Pace, Anwar al-Bunni: Interview with Syria's leading Human Right Lawyer, Syria Comment, 7 August 2005.
  [11] Several groups that later issued the Damascus Declaration issued a statement “condemning the acts of riots and attacks on the public and private interests and insulting the flag of the country, one of our main symbols for national unity, and asking the help of foreign sides and threatening national unity.” The statement called on the government to “form a fact finding commission” to investigate the disturbances. Gul: Riots are not in the service of Turkey; Damascus reacts judiciously, clashes renewed, Arabic news.com, 17 March 2004. Others, like human rights activist Ammar Qurabi, said that they are supportive of Kurdish rights but they were let down by the riots and felt “deceived.” Syrian Arabs fear Iraqi Kurd scenario, aljazeera.net, 20 March 2004.
  [12] “After Decades as Nonpersons, Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized,” The New York Times, 28 April 2005.
  [13] “He was able to play a moderating role and create dialogue between Kurds and Arabs,” said Ammar Abdelhamid, a Syrian political analyst. “They saw him setting up a real opposition to the regime.” “Kurds, Emboldened by Lebanon, Rise Up in Tense Syria,” The New York Times, 2 July 2005.
  [14] “Two activists jailed in Syria,” Gulf Times, 4 April 2006.
  [15] The NSF conference's concluding statement made reference to “the glaring injustice that has befallen the Kurdish citizens,” but said that it should be addressed “within the framework of national unity.” NSF Conference concluding statement (Arabic), 5 June 2006. See also Excerpts from the NSF Press Conference, Syria Monitor, 6 June 2006.
  [16] Joe Pace, Anwar al-Bunni: Interview with Syria's leading Human Right Lawyer, 6 August 2005. Some in the opposition, like Bunni and Kamal Labwani, have expressed some openness to the idea of federalism.
  [17] Levant News (online), 12 March 2006. See also, Regime Intensifies Crackdown on Dissidents, Syria Monitor, March 17, 2006.
  [18] Free Syria (online), 2 April 2006. See also, Ali Abdallah's Fate Still Unknown, Syria Monitor, 18 April 2006. “This is the second time Ghanem has been arrested. His first arrest was in 2004, after publishing articles criticizing the regime's brutal treatment of Kurds.”
  [19] Ahrar Syria (online) 23 March 2006. The Syrian Human Rights Committee, 23 March 2006. See also, More Regime Crackdowns, Syria Monitor, 24 March 2006.
  [20] The three parties that most vocally opposed the Attar initiative (Yakiti, Azadi, Future Current), called for a sit-in in front of the Council of Ministers building on October 5, which is the day of the 1962 census that stripped over 120,000 Kurds of citizenship. Their statement noted the regime's numerous promises, including the latest one with Attar, but said that nothing has come of any of them. Adnkronos International (Arabic), 28 September 2006. Soon after the Kurdish parties called for it, the NSF issued a statement of solidarity and called for Syrians to join in the sit-in with their Kurdish compatriots. http://www.free-syria.com/loadarticle.php?articleid=10556
  [21] Adnkronos International (Arabic), 28 June 2006. See also, Regime Seeking to Dismantle the Damascus Declaration, Syria Monitor, 28 June 2006. “According to activists, the Syrian regime promised the leaders of certain Kurdish parties to look into the citizenship problem in return for their mass withdrawal from the Damascus Declaration, which would lead in their view to the dismantling of the Declaration. Citing reliable information it received, the AKI report says that all the Kurdish parties under the Damascus Declaration have rejected the compromise, and have asserted their position in the last general meeting of the Declaration groups [which took place in Seif's house on June 26], which was kept low key, and stated that they would not abandon their support for the Declaration for any reason whatsoever and that they would remain within the ranks of the united opposition.”
  [22] See Interview with Mesud Akko, Middle East Transparent, 22 April 2006.
  [23] Al-Hayat, 10 June 2005. The final draft of the Baath Party conference noted “the existence of a non-nationalist opposition cooperating with the outside [foreign powers], which concentrates its efforts on talking about the negative aspects of the regime to use them in negative propaganda abroad and which resorts to starting internal strife (fitna) and spreading rumors.” It added that the most significant representatives of this opposition were “the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian Democratic Coalition headed by the president of the Reform Party, Farid al-Ghadry, and extremists parties which have no popular credibility in society.” It also recommended, “exposing” it and its “ties,” and stated that efforts would be made to “strip bare” (i.e. expose) the Muslim Brotherhood and “the rest of the non-nationalist opposition that has ties to the outside.”
  [24] Those who participated in person include Samir Nashar, George Katan, Jihad Masuti (Atassi forum), Bahia Mardini (Elaph) and her husband Ammar Qurabi (head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria). Those who phoned in include Seif, Fawwaz Tillo, Suheir Atassi, Walid al-Bunni, Samar Labwani (wife of Kamal Labwani), Mamoun Homsi, and Habib Issa. See Joe Pace, The Syrian Opposition Gather in the US, Syria Comment, 30 January 2006.
  [25] Human rights activist Ammar Qurabi was detained and banned from foreign travel after returning in March from visits to the US and Europe, where he participated in a conference organized by the Aspen Institute. [See “Human rights activist released after brief detention,” IRIN News, 16 March 2006] Seif, Suheir Atassi, Walid al-Bunni, Fawwaz Tillo, and Samar Labwani were banned from foreign travel in connection with their participation via telephone in the January 2006 opposition conference in Washington DC. [See Elaph, 8 July 2006 and 29 January 2006] Haitham al-Maleh, whose speech was read at the DC conference, was later forbidden from traveling to the Netherlands. Dr. Radwan Ziadeh was not allowed to go to Jordan, and Lu'ay Hussein was prohibited from crossing into Lebanon to tape an interview with al-Hurra TV. See Elaph, 26 June 2006, and Travel Bans on Activists and Homsi Leaves Jordan, Syria Monitor, 26 June 2006. Most recently, Elaph reported (12 August 2006) that human rights lawyers Khalil Maatouq and Mahmoud Mer'i were placed under a travel ban. Also, the authorities banned documentary film director Omar Amiralay from going to Jordan (his repeated trips there to work on his new film were deemed suspicious. [“Syrian film director banned from visiting Jordan,” Agence France Presse, 19 September 2006]
  [26] Fear of torture/incommunicado detention/prisoner of conscience – Fateh Jamus, Amnesty International, 3 May 2006.
  [27] “Opposition activist arrested,” IRIN News, 2 May 2006. See also Ali Alive! Amarji-A Heretic's Blog (Ammar Abdulhamid), 1 May 2006.
  [28] “Had the [Damascus] Declaration proceeded according to its plan and general political direction, and formed a flexible and dynamic structure, the Brussels meeting [establishing the NSF] would not have succeeded,” he added. Al-Hayat (London), 20 March 2006. See also his remarks to Elaph: “While we are not forced to support Khaddam, nor should we fight him on behalf of the regime.” He added, “it is normal right now to see defectors among Syrian officials and we are open to all, including Baathists.” Elaph, 16 April 2006. Similarly, Bashir al-Saadi of the Assyrian Democratic Organization admitted the slowness of the Damascus Declaration, but explained to Elaph that the Damascus Declaration's slow performance is due to intense pressure from the regime. Elaph, 20 April 2006. For its part, the Brotherhood made a statement through Obaida Nahas regarding its position on the Damascus Declaration: “the DD's committee has rejected the regime's security pressures, which included the arrest of various members of the committee, and the regime's demands that the committee adopt a [negative] stand vis à vis the MB, and they refused and reaffirmed that the MB was a member of the DD. That in itself is the greatest proof that the Declaration is not a tool in the hands of the regime.” He added, “we in the opposition understand the slow pace of the DD's temporary committee because of these pressures, as the authorities have repeatedly prevented them from meeting and from holding public activities. But the Declaration has so far managed to remain an umbrella for all the opposition groups.” See Levant News (online), 20 April 2006. See also, Brotherhood Comments on their Relationship with DD, Syria Monitor, 26 April 2006.
  [29] Individual claims about group action against the Muslim Brotherhood were quickly denied and suppressed by the temporary committee of the Damascus Declaration. For a detailed collection of the statements on the issue, see More on Friday's Damascus Declaration Meeting, Syria Monitor, 10 April 2006; and Continued Mixed Signals from DD on Khaddam Alliance, Syria Monitor, 18 April 2006.
  [30] “Domestic opposition gaining strength, but still facing pressures,” IRIN News, 22 March 2006.
  [31] MB Delegation Meets with Jumblat (4/30), Syria Monitor, 6 May 2006.
  [32] Hazem Nahar, a member of the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society in Syria told Elaph that when he was summoned for interrogation for his signing of the BDD, the authorities focused also on the timing of the Declaration (coinciding with UN resolution 1680) and whether the anti-Assad “March 14” coalition and Lebanese MPs Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblat were behind it. According to Nahar, the security forces believed that the timing of the Declaration was planned to be in harmony with UNSCR 1680 against Syria. Elaph, 28 May 2006.
  [33] Elaph, 19 June 2006. Middle East Transparent, 18 June 2006, published the names of the sacked employees and pointed out that 5 of them are signatories to the BDD while the other 12 are signatories of the Suwayda Declaration, which came out in support of the BDD. . One of the fired employees was Suleiman al-Shammar, who is one of the 10 activists in detention for signing the BDD.
  [34] Elaph, 28 May 2006. Nahar was under a travel ban and had emailed his signature to the BDD.
  [35] Kilo denied the charges and tried to sue Maalouf for libel. His suit was rejected after Maher Assad's office reportedly directly intervened with the court.
  [36] El Pais, 1 October 2006.
  [37] Open letter, Middle East Transparent, 19 July 2006.
  [38] The petition was published by Middle East Transparent, 25 May 2006.
  [39] For good overviews of the Alawite community, see Eyal Zisser, “The 'Alawis, Lords of Syria: From Ethnic Minority to Ruling Sect,” in Minorities and the state in the Arab world, eds. Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor, (New York: Lynne Rienner, 1998) pp. 129-145; Martin Kramer, “Syria's Alawis and Shi'ism,” in Shi'ism, Resistance, and Revolution, ed. Martin Kramer (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 237-54 (text can be viewed online here); Daniel Pipes, The Alawi Capture of Power in Syria, Middle Eastern Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1989), pp. 429-450. On sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism in Syrian politics, see Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba'th Party, (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996). For recent brief looks at the Alawites and the sectarian question in Syria by Syrian opposition writers, see Ghassan Al-Muflih's articles in al-Quds al-Arabi, 2 February 2006, 15 May 2006, and 24 May 2006. See also, Ammar Abdulhamid, Few New Thoughts on an Old Divide! Amarji-A Heretic's Blog, 20 May 2006.
  [40] Hanna Batatu, Syria's Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Rural Notables, and Their Politics (Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 217. Of 31 officers appointed to the highest-ranking military and intelligence positions between 1970 and 1997, nineteen (61%) were Alawite. Of these nineteen, eight were from al-Kalbiyya and four from his wife's tribe, al-Haddadin. Of these twelve, seven were closely related to Assad by blood and marriage.
  [41] Factional rivalries within the regime have often corresponded with Alawite tribal divisions. Assad's main political rival in the late 1960s, Gen. Salah al-Jadid of the al-Haddadin tribe, was imprisoned from 1970 until his death in 1993. Muhammad Umran of the Khayatin tribe, was killed in Lebanon in 1972. During the mid-1980s, fighting broke out between various Alawite-led military units in the capital. In the 1990s, there were periodic clashes between followers of Rifaat Assad and other Alawite barons over smuggling revenue.
  [42] For a bitter take by an anonymous Syrian blogger on the erasure of Alawite identity and culture, see Myth No. 7: Alawie is still a Religious Sect, Syria Exposed, 28 March 2005. For a study on religious education in Syria and the Alawites, see Joshua Landis, Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism, paper prepared for a conference held at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, November 2003.
  [43] Itamar Rabinovich, “The Compact Minorities and the Syrian State, 1918-45,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 14, No. 4 (October 1979), p. 694.
  [44] After speaking to the inhabitants of Gen. Ghazi Kenaan's home village following his “suicide” last year, Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid reported a widespread sentiment “that the very state they are tied to has abandoned them.” “Death of Syrian Minister Leaves a Sect Adrift in Time of Strife,” The Washington Post, 31 October 2005.
  [45] “When I came back from London I said that the Muslim Brothers may be a democratic force in Syria. I had reached that opinion after lengthy dialogue with al-Bayanouni and the leadership of the Brothers, and based on the project that they put forward. But my opinion has changed now after the lies and political hypocrisy that emerged from them. I am scared of them and their program, and I have realized that they intend on establishing a sectarian religious state in Syria. Their other positions have created fears among other sects and even the open Sunni street. They are now required to present a clarification based on documents and proof that would restore their credibility with people.” Alarabiya.net, 23 May 2006.
  [46] See his article, “Michel Kilo: The Paths of the Forbidden,” (Arabic) Al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin, No. 1553, 17 May 2006.
  [47] Tishrin, 30 October 2005. Dissident Yassin al-Hajj Saleh commented on Fayyad's remarks (and the fact that Tishrin published them) and asked, “Is 'Sunni forces' the new name of the opposition in Syria according to Tishrin?” Al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin, No. 1376, 12 November 2005. Ammar Abdulhamid wondered if the regime was “adopting a public stand hostile to a sect.” Zandaqa, 16 November 2005.
  [48] Elaph, 13 May 2006. For other Alawite activists arrested by the regime, see Syrian Human Rights Committee, 22 June 2006.
  [49] Elaph, 10 September 2006. The statement can be read in full here.
  [50] This included an appearance by Khaddam on al-Hurra TV on 17 September. For a précis, see Al-Mustaqbal, 18 September 2006. The NSF then made sure to issue a statement outlining its vision and adherence to universal civic and human rights.
  [51] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 13 May 2006.
  [52] Adnkronos International (Arabic), 29 August 2006.
  [53] Marwan Al Kabalan, “The US is deaf to Syria's peace calls,” Gulf News, 8 September 2006.


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