Syria’s uncertain future
An exclusive WSN interview with Farid Ghadry, the current president of the Reform Party of Syria, a US-based Syrian opposition party.
WSN - When President Bush announced the "Axis of Evil," Syria was not on the list. However, many in Washington DC know that Damascus hosts and supports several Palestinian terrorist groups, not to mention its ties to the Lebanese Hezbollah. Why at that point was Syria not considered a key threat? Would you say that the US did not see the wood for the trees?
FARID GHADRY - Historically, Syria has played a role of balance between two ideologies: One that supports terrorism and another that conforms to the will of the international community. What Syria provided in intelligence and calculated support of US interests outweighed its sporadic support for terrorism. We tolerated Syria's behavior because there was a price to pay to get real information on terror.
This changed dramatically after the Iraq war, when Syria decided to quietly wage a war of insurgency against the United States. US interests were in direct conflict with Syria's narrow Ba'ath interests because Syria does not want a democracy to flourish next door. The crescendo of events that followed forced Syria out of Lebanon and the restoration of Lebanon's democracy, but Syria's Assad continues to play the role of a violent spoiler. The Assad regime seems lost in the Soviet era with outmoded vision. Luckily for the dissident community, this has helped a nascent democratic activism to be born that is helping Syria on the road to democracy.
WSN - When France and the US pressured the UN Security Council to adopt Resolution 1559, Syria withdrew from Lebanon. Did Syria withdraw out of fear of the Lebanese demonstrations, or rather out of fear of being possibly subjected to a similar fate as Iraq under Saddam?
FG - The Syrian Assad regime has always behaved openly with friendliness. Behind the scene and internally, it is a different story. The exit from Lebanon was an open act that the Syrian regime could not afford to defy for fear that it might have to rethink its whole foreign policy and also face the wrath of the international community. Assad knows that Syrian military and intelligence personnel can always cross into Lebanon for acts of violence and that its real strong card is the security services that went underground immediately following Syria's troop withdrawal. These services to this day still use violence to control the politics of Lebanon. Since February 14 when Hariri was killed, 14 bombs exploded in Lebanon, killing many famed figures. Syria's exit was dictated by the international community's resolve; it left so easily because Assad knew he could still control Lebanon from Damascus through a campaign of fear and intimidation.
WSN - Damascus's inner circle expressed confidence a long time before Hariri's assassination that the US would be trapped in Iraq and has no interest in entering into an armed conflict with Syria. This is why President Assad extended Lahoud's term and continued to sow instability in Iraq, or at the very least assist those determined to do so. What is Syria's joker card, if any? How did it manage to get off the hook for so long?
FG - The Syrian regime calculations are based upon historical perspectives (the killing of US marines in Lebanon in 1983 did not bring any violent reaction by the US against Syria such as the one we saw later in 1986 against Libya) and calculations based on analysis of the administration's appetite for armed conflict provided by planted agents of the Syrian regime in Washington DC. Syria relied on history, the fact that the US was overextended in Iraq and the US abiding by international law to ultimately scheme to kill American GIs in Iraq. It is estimated that up to 1,000 US armed forces were killed in Iraq as a result of Syria's Ba'ath logistic support for a potent insurgency including providing open training facilities in Syria and preparing cars for suicide missions.
With that in mind, the Syrian regime finds it has a free hand in using violence, as it always had in the past, to oppress Iraq's democracy the way it oppresses the people of Syria. Syria does not fear retributions because in the past, the US did not protect its interests when attacked in Beirut in 1983. Ultimately, the international pressure the Syrian regime is facing, in their own minds, can be eliminated if it continues to use violence to pressure the United States to "negotiate" a settlement. However, the US, unlike its predisposed, pre-9/11 foreign policy guidelines, will not "negotiate" with a Syria that aims to destabilize the region. Today, this brings us to the almost absolute knowledge that the United States will not deal with the Assad regime any further and that it is looking seriously at regime change. However, unlike the execution of the Iraq War, the US this time around is seeking allies to back it in its quest for stability through democracy. All indications are that such allies are nowhere to be found. When US patience runs out, the US will go it alone in Syria because its interests are on the line and because the killing of US personnel in Iraq will not be allowed to go unpunished.
WSN - What about Syrian - US relations - how do you describe them at this point?
FG - There are no relations with Syria today. Whatever remains of those relations is discussed in the media in the form of whether or not the US wants to bring down the Assad regime. The international community has realized the destabilizing role played by Syria in encouraging violent Palestinians, supporting the insurgency in Iraq and creating havoc in Lebanon. Given how important the "war on terror" is to the world at large, we believe the trust factor has been totally wiped out and it is simply a question of time before this regime falls.
WSN - What is the human rights situation in Syria? Your party has warned many times about the prisoners of conscience kept in Syrian jails, but I was wondering if you have done something more pragmatic to change the current status?
FG - Today, the human rights conditions in Syria are appalling. Every day, we hear of Syrians from all walks of life being jailed including Kurds, human rights activists, their lawyers etc. Recently, the Syrian regime framed Anwar al-Bounni, a human rights lawyer who defends many prisoners of conscience. This abuse is indicative of a weak regime that has lost all legitimacy. RPS follows with great interest what happens to the activists inside the country, but we cannot do much because we may hurt their chances of being released should the security apparatus know that we support them. If you recall, RPS and the Muslim Brotherhood are the two political organizations that are forbidden in Syria through an official decree of the Ba'ath Party. What we want is for President Bush to call for the release of all prisoners of conscience from Syrian prisons.
WSN - What are the main issues Syria is confronted with on both the domestic and external fronts?
FG - On the external front, the Syrian regime today finds itself to be a pariah - isolated from the world, gasping for air. It must face the fact that the Mehlis report is damning of its policies, which increases the pressure still further. It also faces an increasingly more sophisticated opposition that is finding it much easier to work while the Syrian regime remains isolated. Syria is the weakest link in the US war on pariah states such as Iran. Europe and the US understand that bringing down the Assad dynasty will also weaken Iran and Hezbollah. That, in itself, is indicative of where we are heading when it comes to regime change in Syria.
On the internal front, the Syrian opposition just announced the "Damascus Declaration," which calls for democratic change in Syria. Although imperfect in its present shape and form, the Damascus Declaration is the beginning of a tug of war between the secular opposition groups and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is important because it represents a departure from the reforms the dissident community inside the country has been seeking in the past. Now, they are calling for regime change, which shows that fear is dissipating. RPS was the first political organization to call for regime change in 2003.
As for the Syrian people, they are hopeful that combined with the international campaign to limit the Syrian regime power in the region as a supporter of terrorism and violence, the Syrian opposition will eventually bring the regime down. The Syrian people want to see a peaceful end to this regime and so does RPS.
WSN - I know that your party is working on a project for the time "after Assad." Are you indeed confident that President Assad's time is over? What is the status of the project?
FG - We are working diligently on this subject. We feel that analyzing the total picture of what, how, when, where, and with whom can only lead to a true democratic change thus avoiding the chaos that we have seen in Iraq. We shall be ready to unveil the program in January 2006 during a large conference of Syrian dissidents. We see the prospect of our market-driven vision and liberal views prevailing in Syria in the near future because of the overall young age of the Syrian population and because Syrians have "tried" all the other political ideologies, which failed them miserably.
WSN - Will there be democracy in Syria anytime soon? What type of democracy should we expect to see?
FG - We will have democracy in Syria. It won't be easy or quick. We believe that the Syrian people and the international community fully understand the difficulties ahead for a nation that has been living in a shell for 42 years. Imagine that the majority of our population (Estimated at 85%) has never known anything but the Ba'ath Party and the Assad oppressive rule. There is no such thing as a microwave democracy. One has only to look at US history closely to see that the Continental Congress in 1774 and the ensuing freedom from England up to the Civil War were just bumps on the road to a strong democracy. We hope it will be much easier for Syria, but we have to be realistic.
RPS supports a parliamentary system of government with a semi-autonomous, free election system in the 14 provinces - something that exists today except that the parliamentarians in the provinces are appointed by the Ba'ath Party. We also support a strong decentralized government in Damascus to sustain the provinces and ultimately be able to only provide security to the nation. 90% of the decisions dealing with the people of Syria such as health and education should be the responsibility of the provinces.
WSN - What do you think of US and EU foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East and the Muslim world? Should there be a change of direction?
FG - I believe that there is a gap between the Western world and the Middle East that is best expressed in how the people of the Middle East view justice and dignity and how the Western world views pragmatism, interests and the law. As an example, the Palestinian issue, for Arabs, is solely based on justice and dignity while it is a question of interests and pragmatism for the West. Also, when the West respects international law, some Arab dictators view this as a weakness.
Unless we fully address these gaps, no foreign policy - no matter how intuitively pragmatic and peaceful - can survive long-term stability between the West and the Middle East. The only hope is democracy where freedom of expression can lead to better understanding.
WSN - Thank you, Sir for your time and comments.