Syria's regime writes its future in the sand
Since the release of the Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut declaration in the Lebanese media last May 12, the Syrian regime has intensified its campaign to arrest civil society's reformers who signed the petition. This latest wave of arrests is roughly similar to one that took place in the context of the escalating struggle between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the Brotherhood, opposing what it considered to be the Assad regime's sectarian Alawite politics, launched a bloody rebellion and killed senior Alawite officers. The regime responded with a brutal campaign of suppression. Thousands were killed or imprisoned on the mere suspicion of affiliation with the Brotherhood. Most members of the secular opposition were also harassed and imprisoned, though they had protested peacefully and merely called for greater respect for the rule of law.
The brutality of the regime's actions reflected a growing siege mentality. As part of a campaign to blot out its sectarian image, the leadership tried to enhance its credentials by reasserting its Arab nationalist character in an attempt to transcend sectarianism and social class. The Assad regime has long prided itself on molding Syria's Arab nationalist character.
Though President Bashar Assad today faces no rebellion, he is confronting a growing campaign led by reformers and dissidents who are apprehensive with the regime's domestic and foreign policies. The Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut declaration went beyond previous such statements. Coming amid a growing international campaign to pressure the Syrian regime, the declaration coincided with the United Nations Security Council's approval of Resolution 1680, calling on Syria to delineate its border with Lebanon, establish full diplomatic relations with Beirut, and cooperate with the UN investigation of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's murder.
What disturbed the regime was that among the prominent Syrian signatories were the exiled superintendent of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadruddine al-Bayanouni, and his deputy, and the prominent communist dissident Riyad al-Turk - the latest sign of a joining of efforts between the Brotherhood and those from the Syrian secular and nationalist left. The declaration legitimized the UN resolution in the eyes of many Syrians and Lebanese by supporting its stipulations and implying that the Assad regime sought once more to turn Lebanon into Syria's satellite. The declaration echoed the resolution's call for a demarcation of the Lebanon-Syria border and the beginning of formal diplomatic relations. It also appealed for public and private freedoms and human rights to be respected; the anchoring of Lebanese-Syrian economic relations in equity and transparency, so as to free both countries from organized theft; and it deplored political assassinations as a means of dealing with dissidents to resolve political conflicts.
It was no wonder that the regime arrested several of the declaration's Syrian signatories, including writers Michel Kilo, Nidal Darwish, and Khaled Khalifeh; political activist Khalil Hussein; a doctor, Safwan Tayfour; and lawyers Anwar al-Bunni and Mahmoud Merhi. What the regime fears is that the declaration could become a touchstone for regional reform demands, potentially sparking a movement of solidarity with Syrian reformers. A sign of this cross-border cooperation was the fact that the declaration was coordinated with Lebanese activists and civil society figures, and was signed by both Syrians and Lebanese. This may further embolden Syrian reformers and dissidents and force Arab leaders to isolate the Syrian regime.
More ominously, the regime has leveled serious charges against other activists, which could lead to sentences of capital punishment. For example, Fateh Jamus, who has promoted Arab-Kurdish dialogue, was reportedly charged with "aggression aiming to incite civil war," and Kamal al-Labwani, who several months ago met with US officials in Washington and with human rights organizations, was reportedly charged with "conspiring with a hostile nation to attack Syria."
The more Assad finds himself under duress, the more his regime is abandoning its traditional restraint. The scope and breadth of the arrests at a time of deep change in the Middle East show the regime is still gripped by a criminal mindset that will apply only the language of force. Syrians are not only disillusioned with the regime's vacuous rhetoric and approach to issues, they are risking their personal safety to protest this.
Shortly before his arrest, Michel Kilo wrote an article for Al-Quds newspaper titled "Syrian Obituaries." He examined obituaries both in the countryside and the cities, discovering that while obituaries from the countryside were marked by a certain "military stamp" showing that almost all of the deceased and their relatives were affiliated with the government, obituaries from the cities were marked by an "urban stamp," reflecting the chasm between the city and the government. He argued that the obituaries were not only about people who had passed away. They revealed a social, political, and cultural national condition exposing the sad and dangerous reality of Syria, brought about by a government that falsely heralded freedom, brotherhood, and equality between urban and rural areas. He concluded, however, that this situation had started to change in recent years as Syrians from across the political, social, ethnic, professional, and religious spectrum had joined groups dedicated to advancing democracy.
Kilo implicitly underscored how many Syrians had concluded that democracy and respect for political and civil rights were the basis of equality, freedom and patriotism. The recent arrests paradoxically confirmed the trend toward greater democracy in Syria and highlighted the need for the international community to support Syrian reformers. It also showed that the regime has effectively molded the Syrian-Arab character in the sand, and is writing its own obituary.
Robert Rabil is assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the political science department at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of "Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon" (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003) and of "Syria, the United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East" (Praeger, 2006). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.