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Lasensky: Syrian Regime Cracks Down on Opposition

Interviewee: Scott Lasensky, Senior Research Associate, United States Institute of Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 22, 2006

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Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate specializing in Syria and other Middle Eastern areas for the United States Institute of Peace, says there is a major crackdown under way in Syria trying to silence the growing number of intellectuals and political activists calling for change.

Just back from a working visit to Damascus, Lasensky says despite the intensifying crackdown, "What is remarkable is the number of independent analysts and activists, reformers, and oppositionists who are operating."

You have been watching Syria fairly closely. And, in fact, you only recently returned from a trip there. What is the political situation given that the Syrians are under pressure from the Americans and the French to improve relations with Lebanon and to stop insurgents from infiltrating Iraq.

When you are in the country, what is remarkable is the number of independent analysts and activists, reformers, and oppositionists who are operating despite a political crackdown, which has been heavy over the past few months. Syrian authorities have arrested a whole range of people, including some signatories of a so-called Damascus-Beirut declaration which was issued about a month ago [that calls] on Syria to establish normal ties with Lebanon. Prominent Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals and political figures signed on to this declaration, which the regime treated as a serious red line.

They arrested people like Michel Kilo, a long-time political activist, and Anwar al-Bunni, a leading human rights lawyer, and a range of others who are being held in solitary confinement. For some, no charges are even being brought. The crackdown also includes travel bans. Riad Seif, for instance, a former parliamentarian who was released after five years in prison, cannot travel outside the country or have interviews with journalists. At one end of the spectrum, the crackdown includes arrests with people literally dragged from their homes and thrown in prison. At the other end, there is more subtle intimidation, with police outside your house, banning interviews with journalists, and not allowing you to travel outside the country.

What was the Damascus-Beirut declaration supposed to achieve?

It is an attempt to try and repair the fallout in Lebanese-Syrian relations. The Syrian withdrawal last year came in the wake of a resurgence in Lebanese nationalism, and it got whipped up into such a frenzy where it actually turned into anti-Syrian—some would even say racist—attitudes. Relations not just between the governments but actually between the publics began to get polluted. The Damascus-Beirut declaration is an attempt by some prominent individuals from Lebanon and from Syria to try and put a relationship between the two nations back on the right track.

The Syrian government took it as a challenge because the Syrian government is still trying to play certain games in Lebanon and has resisted calls, for example, to demarcate the border. Even though Syria has withdrawn its military, it appears Syria is still trying to maintain a range of indirect levers of influence in Lebanon. The Damascus-Beirut declaration was an interesting phenomenon because it is part of a trend in which Syrian political activists have taken the lead. There was another declaration in the fall of 2005 which was focused solely around reform in Syria called the Damascus Declaration. Quite a broad range of people signed on to it: former communists, Islamists, secularists. One problem with the opposition in Syria is there really is no organization and follow through. How do you turn a declaration into a political program that mobilizes large numbers of people? That is the real quandary for the Syrian opposition today.

What is this National Salvation Front?

The National Salvation Front (NSF) is really just two actors: it seems to be built around former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who defected from the country last year and was a regime stalwart for close to thirty years, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is led by [London-based] Sadruddin al-Bayanouni. [The group] was organized in exile after the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the early 1980s.

They are the two critical figures. The front itself is a coalition of some nine Syrian opposition parties. It is an attempt to try and broaden the opposition. I think it is trying to reach out in indirect ways to those in Syria who want a change in the regime. The National Salvation Front represents people who have given up on any idea that the regime itself might be able to reform. The National Salvation Front had a public meeting in London a couple of weeks ago at the Dorchester Hotel, and it issued a statement that has been circulated widely in the country.

The statement reaches out to the [Muslim] Alawi minority, the core of the regime, and tries to reassure them that they will have a role to play in the future of post-[Bashar] al-Assad [the Syrian President] Syria. They reach out to the Kurdish minority that has been radicalized in recent years, largely because it has been treated so poorly. I think a million Kurds have no citizenship because their citizenship was stripped. They also reach out to the military and the security establishments, asking them or pleading with them to stand back should things heat up.

At the end of the day, it is very difficult to get a sense of how the NSF's work and efforts resonate back home. Clearly the regime itself is put a little bit off balance by these efforts, particularly by the defection of Khaddam, who comes from within the regime. The initial indications are that it is not resonating very well.

There is a lot of skepticism that this National Salvation Front can really deliver. Give it some time. What is obvious and needs to be noticed—I have seen this in my meetings and interviews with Syrian figures over the last year, and I saw it on my visit there two weeks ago—is the resurgence of political life and political activity in Syria, a place where political development was essentially suffocated for twenty-five to thirty years.

The American interests have been fueled by the Security Council resolution introduced by France and the United States in late 2004, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops who had been in Lebanon for some dozen years and also an end to armed militias in Lebanon. This was followed by the assignation of the very pro-Western former Prime Minister Hariri in Lebanon and subsequent U.N. investigations. The U.N. investigations are ongoing and led by Serge Brammertz. He just issued a report a week ago, right?

The UN investigation remains a wild card in terms of the problems the Syrian regime faces in the international community. They were shocked by the first report, which came out in fall 2005 by the first investigator, Detlev Mehlis. His first report, which reads like a crime novel, put the Syrian regime off balance. The follow-up reports have been much more low-key. They have not unambiguously implicated senior officials in Syria [like the Mehlis report], and the regime has tried to spin that they are off the hook.

It is very hard to read where the investigation is going. For obvious reasons it is being kept under wraps. The Syrian government is not going to breathe easy until the investigation is fully completed. The Security Council just gave the investigation a [one] year extension. There is still a lot to be uncovered, and the Security Council fully backs the investigation.

What about the question of corruption? What kind of regime is President Bashar al-Assad running?

In terms of the U.S. agenda vis-ŗ-vis Syria—i.e., Iran, Iraq, and Palestinian terrorists—you do not hear much about internal issues such as governance and how a country is run. When you are in the country, what you hear about a lot is corruption within the ruling elite. There are stories that are widely reported about a well-known cell phone monopoly, which brought enormous windfalls of money to one particular figure in the ruling elite.

There are many other stories that are not as well advertised. There are foreign land sales. A lot of people in the Gulf are investing in real estate in Syria. There are reports that senior regime officials are getting big cuts of these real estate deals. It goes all the way down. It is widely known that policemen have a certain neighborhood, let's say in Damascus, where [they] get to patrol and write tickets; these are regularly auctioned off by senior police officials. Syrians are very frustrated. In many ways it gives an opening to those in the West who are trying to promote change. If the West could somehow see this issue of corruption and governance and take the regime to task, that would build up the opposition within the country and not taint them. Syrian reformers and those that press for change, whether it is incremental or radical, are torn when it comes to the United States and the West. Obviously they do not want a very tight embrace in the West because it undermines their legitimacy and credibility at home. At the same time, they do want some pressure from the outside because they know the regime will respond to pressure more if we can take the regime to task on issues that build up the credibility of the opposition rather than call it into question.

What is U.S. policy towards Syria like? Do we have an ambassador there?

The United States has pursued a policy of isolating the Syrian regime. We withdrew our ambassador some time ago. We have no senior-level contact with the Syrian government. The Bush administration has discouraged prominent Americans from traveling to Syria and meeting with the Syrian government. The United States has been encouraging, rather successfully, others not to engage at high levels with the Syrian government. The United States and France are much closer on their Syrian agenda than on most other issues in the region. Some questions are being asked about the U.S. approach now.

How can we get the Syrians to enact the behavior changes we are demanding by not talking to them? There is a debate going on now about what is the most appropriate posture. Should we engage them? Continue to isolate them? Should we ratchet up the pressure even more? The administration was given the authority by Congress to elect from a menu of different sanctions against the Syrian government, including investments as well as things like the ability of Syrian diplomats in New York and Washington to travel.

The president has picked some of those sanctions and left a few on the table. Right now there is not much going on. When you are in Damascus, you do not run into Americans. Our embassy there and our staff, which is still fully functioning without the ambassador, is not meeting with Syrians at the high or the medium level. The posture of the Bush administration is the Syrian government knows what to do in terms of keeping jihadis from running across the border into Iraq. They know what to do in terms of Iran and what to do in terms of Hezbollah and support for Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. We are going to wait for them to take some action.

Do you think this is good or bad?

One thing we can do is try and engage those in Syria who are pushing for change in a way that does not compromise their legitimacy. I think first and foremost, Syria will probably try to engage with us. But given their track record, it is hard to make a case for engagement. I agree with the Bush administration's concern that one has to be careful of engagement, even conditional engagement with the Syrians as validation or endorsement of [their] actions. We will ask them to do ten things, and they may do two or three and ask for credit for all ten. We have to be careful. It is a regime we have had a lot of difficulty in engaging even under previous administrations which had a different approach on diplomacy in the Middle East.

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