With Syrian army defections reportedly on the rise following the ouster of Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the democratic opposition and international community are seeking to ramp up the pressure on Damascus and maintain the Arab Spring’s momentum.
Washington today took the exceptional step of announcing sanctions against Syria’s most senior diplomat, Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem. The announcement followed the news that the brother of a prominent US-based Syrian dissident was arrested and came a day after video footage broadcast on YouTube (above) showed Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Damascus being harassed by pro-Assad demonstrators.
The State Department dismissed the footage, which purports to show US connivance in the anti-Assad protests, as a “feeble attempt to divert the world’s attention from what’s really happening to the Syrian people.”
Pro-democracy activist Radwan Ziadeh (right), a Syrian scholar based at George Washington University, confirmed today that his brother was arrested by Syrian Air Force security operatives.
“Yes, the [Syrian] Air Force security arrested him today morning and we don’t have info about him where he is exactly right now,” Ziadeh said in an email to the Digest. “I have a concern [he] may be under torture.”
A former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, Ziadeh was one of several exiled Syrian democracy advocates who met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month.
Several observers have noted that Syrian diplomats have been facilitating the domestic repression of dissent by identifying exiled democracy advocates and threatening to harm relatives back in Syria.
“You have the Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, under investigation by the FBI for orchestrating this pattern of intimidation and violence,” says David Schenker, director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is happening every day in Syria,” says Schenker. “How many family members of opposition figures have been rounded up, tortured, killed?”
Syria’s opposition appears to be following the good example set by Libya’s diverse opposition, motivated by the need to prepare for a post-Assad transition and to assuage misplaced concerns over Islamist influence.
“From Dr Radwan Ziadeh’s National Initiative for Change, a umbrella movement founded in late April and built around a manifesto of the same name, to the Local Coordination Committees, which released their statement of principles after the Good Friday massacre, the demands of most opposition groups within and without Syria have been remarkably consistent,” he notes.
A consortium of Syrian political parties has formed a Libyan-style Transitional National Council, to develop a democratic alternative to Ba’athist dynastic rule which will likely be headed by Sorbonne professor Dr Burhan Ghalioun, seen here telling Al-Jazeera that the Arab world’s two biggest problems are dictatorship and religious control of the media:
These clerics have no true knowledge of society or politics. Whoever turns on Al-Jazeera or any other channel sees that the clerics control everything. It is not true that they are a minority. Today, the intellectuals and politicians have no role. Arab societies are held hostage by two authorities: The authority of political dictatorship — arrogant dictators, who are inhuman in their oppression of liberties, and in their crushing and humiliation of the individual. The other authority is that of the clerics — even those opposing these regimes — who tyrannize Arab public opinion nowadays. Arab public opinion is held hostage by the clerics of all types. Muslim clerics and Islamists from all groups. There is a kind of undeclared, practical alliance between the political dictatorship and the dictatorship of religious authority from all groups, who do the impossible in order to remove all the people who hold different views — politicians, thinkers, and intellectuals — whether by accusing them of secularism, which means heresy, or by accusing them of modernism, of having ties with the West, or of collaborating with colonialism. In their conduct, they do not really differ from the Arab dictatorial regimes. The leaders of the Islamic movements are, without a doubt, the ones winning the war. Whoever watches Arab media realizes that they have won the war of culture. The slogan “Islam is the solution” — in my opinion, 90% of Arab public opinion believes nothing else.
The international community can help Syria’s opposition to facilitate a democratic alternative to both secular and religious authoritarianism by pressing for answers to a range of practical issues, writes Peter Harling, the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon project director with the International Crisis Group:
How to ensure that the collapse of the regime not provoke or lead to the simultaneous collapse of the weak state? How to deal with a military that has not stepped up to its task as a national army? How to maintain security with an inept and corrupt police force? How to ensure the well-being of the Allawite community, without which Syria cannot be soundly rebuilt? What will be needed to kick-start economic recovery?
Forget about crafting a power-sharing arrangement, he says.
“The focus should be on thinking through how to manage the transition’s early stages, sustaining basic governance, and reviving the economy,” Harling suggests. “By raising and answering such questions — which the protest movement has little time, space, energy and experience to contemplate — dissident intellectuals could gain relevance on the ground, reassuring both demonstrators who resent their perceived claim to leadership and citizens who currently back the regime for lack of trust in the alternative.”