It's not a good time to be an outspoken writer, lawyer, or democracy advocate in Damascus. Bashar al-Assad's government has arrested dozens of such activists in the last few months in what experts call the harshest crackdown on dissenters since the end of the short-lived "Damascus Spring." Mona Yacoubian of the United States Institute of Peace tells CFR.org in this podcast that Assad's regime is particularly taking aim at Syrians who have signed the Damascus-Beirut Declaration (CSMonitor), which calls for more political freedoms and a full investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many suspected was carried out by Syrian security forces. Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace tells CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman that, despite the crackdown, many dissidents are still challenging the government.
The opposition website Syria Monitor lists some of the writers and human rights activists who have been arrested recently. A March posting to the site detailed some of the new rules applied to dissidents: no contact with the opposition abroad, no street demonstrations, and no writing about the army or security forces without official approval.
Six months ago many observers thought Assad would be in no place to impose such strict rules. In the fall of 2005 a damning report from previous UN investigator Detlev Mehlis directly implicated senior administration officials in Hariri's death. At that point, with international pressure building, the very survival of Assad's regime seemed in doubt.
But now, with world attention focused on more pressing threats from Iran and North Korea, Assad may feel like he's gained some breathing space. The most recent UN report (PDF) from investigator Serge Brammertz praises Syrian cooperation with the investigation and says Hariri's assassination could have been carried out by a rogue team operating alone. The report was seen as a huge boost for Syria, since it moves away from the forthright accusations in the previous Mehlis report, some of which came from witnesses who were later discredited (Syriacomment.org). Indeed, many sources say Syria's confidence is rising. Some Syrian military leaders have even quietly been talking about using non-diplomatic means to take back the Golan Heights (UPI).
The Syrian security forces and intelligence agency are feared in the region, and have their own motives for resisting calls for democracy. Carnegie Senior Associate Amr Hamzawy writes in the Daily Star that this is not unusual: repressive Arab security services are critical players in the region's oppressive regimes, he writes, and actively work to stifle calls for increased openness or democratic reforms. "Those [in] the security apparatus fear nothing on this earth more than the call for change," he writes.
In the meantime, political reform in Lebanon has stalled. The Daily Star says general and former prime minister Michel Aoun, who returned to Lebanon from exile last year and was hailed as a conquering hero, is too focused on winning the presidency to give proper attention to the many problems the country faces. Lebanese political science professor Karim Makdisi, who teaches at the American University in Beirut, tells CFR.org's Esther Pan in an interview that Lebanese political leaders are interested only in preserving their own power, and cannot improve the situation or lead Lebanon into the future.