Damascus — When Syrians head to the polls this week to elect a new parliament, Iraq will be on their minds — but not in the way that the Bush administration envisioned four years ago, when it held high hopes that toppling Saddam Hussein would set off a democratic domino effect that would unseat the region’s authoritarian rulers.
Instead, the American invasion of Iraq has produced a cauldron of sectarian violence, driving more than 1 million refugees into Syria. According to Syrian opposition figures, the chaos in Iraq has boosted the internal appeal of the stable, if dictatorial, Ba’athist regime in Damascus and dealt a heavy blow to the country’s already fragile and divided opposition by granting President Bashar al-Assad a ready-made campaign slogan: us or an Iraqi-style meltdown. Moreover, the open talk in Washington of bringing about regime change in Damascus after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 has provided the authorities with a nationalist rallying cry against foreign powers and a golden opportunity to depict its opponents as Western stooges.
“The regime tells the people: ‘You want democracy? Look at the chaos in Iraq. Look at Hamas, prevented from ruling despite winning democratic elections. Look at the tension in Lebanon!’” said Riad Seif, a leading opposition figure who recently spent four-and-a-half years in jail because of his pro-democracy activism. “The image of the U.S. is so bad that if you’re against the regime, you’re an American spy.”
The main opposition groups have decided to boycott the elections in protest of the Ba’ath Party’s monopoly on power. But their leaders readily acknowledge that rather than a sign of strength, the move is a symbolic step with little impact.
So instead of casting ballots to express their democratic rights, Syrians will once again participate in a series of staged elections where the cards are stacked in favor of the regime. After the legislative elections this week, a presidential referendum will be held in August, when Assad’s re-election is guaranteed. Municipal elections will take place in the fall.
In addition to the restrictions on political activity under 1963 emergency laws, the regime has failed to enact a proposed measure authorizing the creation of new political parties that was agreed upon by the Ba’ath Party two years ago. As a result, 167 of the 250 seats are by law reserved for the nominees of the Ba’ath Party and for its allies from the so-called National Progressive Front. The remainder is divided among independents, most of whom receive the tacit support of the ruling party.
Basil Dahdouh, an independent Syrian parliament member since 1990 who is running again this week, opposes the plan to boycott the elections. “I have my doubts over the democratic functioning of the system, but running allows the people I represent to be heard,” he said, noting that even some critics of the regime can be elected. “What is happening in the region is so dangerous that there is fear and hesitation to change. It’s not merely an excuse.”
Seif was once an independent parliament member in the mid-1990s. He quickly found himself at odds with the regime and felt he could not change it from inside. “Bashar understands that if he really opens, it is the end for the regime,” Seif said.
Over the past year, several leading opponents of Assad’s regime have been arrested, while others like Seif are constantly harassed by the ever-present security forces.
The National Organization for Human Rights, a local NGO, released a report earlier this month urging the government to halt what it claims to be the most severe campaign to stamp out dissent since Assad took power seven years ago after the death of his father, longtime Syrian strongman and president Hafez al-Assad. The group claims that 190 political activists, including bloggers, Islamists and members of the Kurdish minority, were arrested last year.
Ammar Qurabi, director of the Syrian human rights organization, acknowledged that repression in Syria these days is not nearly as brutal as under the senior Assad, noting that the number of political prisoners had decreased sharply, their treatment in jail had improved and prisoners of opinion were now facing civil tribunals instead of security courts.
When the younger Assad, a Western-educated opthalmologist, succeeded his father in mid-2000, he ignited hopes of a gradual democratization of the regime.
The “Damascus spring” of 2001 saw a burst of political freedom. Opposition figures were freed from prison, and people were allowed to speak their minds in public for the first time in decades through a series of public forums. But the regime eventually grew concerned and decided to shut down the forums. It also jailed its most prominent participants, including Seif.
In 2005, After Syria was accused by Western countries of ordering the killing of former Lebanese premier Rafik al-Hariri and forced to pull out of Lebanon, a wide spectrum of opposition leaders published the “Damascus Declaration,” which called for immediate democratic change in Syria. This was followed in May 2006 by a “Damascus-Beirut Declaration” signed by about 500 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals asking Syria to normalize relations with Lebanon and promote democracy.
The 2006 declaration was denounced by the regime as an effort to undermine it, and the authors were vilified for failing to stand by their country while it was under international pressure. Opposition figures, including lawyer Anwar al-Bunni and writer Michel Kilo, were arrested in May 2006 and are still in jail for “violating the constitution,” a charge often used against the regime’s critics.
Some observers believe that Assad’s initial, tentative efforts at political reform were purely cosmetic, but others claim he has been hampered by powerful political, economic and military circles, especially in the wake of the pullout from Lebanon. The regime is now vowing to follow the Chinese model of promoting market reforms while maintaining political control.
Georges Jabbour, a Ba’ath member of parliament, said that while he disagreed with the arrests, “obstacles such as the international isolation following the Hariri murder make you more cautious.” Still, he argued that the democratic climate in Syria is improving, pointing to his advocacy for an end to the emergency regime and to efforts to set up a parliamentary committee on public liberties.
In addition to the negative fallout from the Iraqi mayhem and the Lebanese crisis, the most damaging blow to the opposition was the alliance concluded in 2005 between former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, who fled the country two years ago, and the exiled leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Given Khaddam’s past association with the regime, and his reputation for corruption even among the opposition, such a pact has proved to be a godsend for Assad, especially because it discredited the potent Islamist current embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that is banned in Syria. As a result, the opposition decided to block the brotherhood from participating in the Damascus declaration movement.
The decision to freeze out the brotherhood was criticized by Haytham al-Maleh, a veteran human rights lawyer in Syria who is currently barred by the regime from traveling abroad. He said that while he disagreed with the brotherhood’s alliance with Khaddam, the opposition needs to work with the Islamists in order to connect with the wider Syrian population.
“I think we need to try to bring them in,” said Maleh, who chairs the Syrian Human Rights Association. “All secularist opposition groups are weak, and they have no relationship with Syrian society.”
The problem, said Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus correspondent of the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat, is that opposition groups fail to understand the main desires of their fellow countrymen. “The opposition,” Hamidi said, “has failed to understand that the majority of Syrians don’t care for democracy and human rights but about their daily struggles.”