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April 9, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 427

Syrian Regime Clamps Down On Opposition

April 9, 2008 | By Ofir Winter*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 427

Introduction

On December 1, 2007, the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, [1] the umbrella organization of Syrian opposition forces and parties, held its first assembly in Damascus. It was the largest conference of the Syrian opposition since mid-2005. Syrian authorities responded with a wave of arrests, beginning December 9, 2007, detaining dozens of Damascus Declaration activists. In addition, an incitement campaign was launched against the organization and its leaders.

While Syrian officials made little reference to the arrests, a Syrian opposition site reported that when asked about them during a meeting with UNESCO Secretary-General Koichiro Matsuura, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad replied that the detainees "had conspired with foreign embassies and received funds in order to undermine [Syria's] internal stability and ignite civil strife, so as to propel Syria towards the same fate that has befallen Iraq." He added, "Their case will be decided by the court." [2]

The Syrian government press also ignored the arrests, except to deny statements by U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Patrick Kennedy who, following a visit to Syria in late December 2007, said that Assad had promised them that the prisoners would be released. The press's denial cited a "senior media source" as stating that "a foreign official is permitted, at most, to ask about the general situation [in Syria], and to listen to the reply. But nobody may interfere in Syria's domestic affairs." [3]

The Damascus Declaration Assembly

The first assembly of the Damascus Declaration National Council, held December 1, 2007, was attended by 163 council members, representing the various regions in Syria and the different forces and parties that make up the organization. A December 2 communiqué stated that the assembly had been the largest gathering of opposition forces in Syria since mid-2005, at which time the Syrian security apparatuses had banned opposition rallies and imposed new constraints on freedom of speech. [4] The assembly was convened to elect the National Council leadership: Dr. Fidaa Al-Hourani was elected council chairman, 'Abd Al-Hamid Darwish and 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Khayr were elected vice-chairmen, and Ahmad Tou'ma and Akram Al-Bouni were elected secretaries.

The assembly's concluding statement stressed the following principles: Democratic change in Syria must be implemented gradually and by non-violent means; change will come about through the rebuilding of Syria as a modern civil state, with a new constitution that will form the basis for a parliamentary regime; the ultimate goal is the establishment of a national democratic regime committed to preserving Syria's national sovereignty, to defending the country, and to liberating the Golan from Israeli occupation; the new democratic regime will be based on the principles of free elections, government turnover, freedom of expression and assembly, pluralism, civil rights, human rights, social justice, separation of powers, and the rule of law; democracy is essential for development; Syria is part of the Arab world; the process of change aims to guarantee the dignity and rights of all sectors of Syrian society, granting them full equality in the eyes of the law, ensuring a democratic and just solution for the Kurdish problem, and guaranteeing the rights of the Assyrians. [5]

Regime Crackdown on Opposition

After the conference, the Syrian authorities made sweeping arrests, detaining over 40 Damascus Declaration activists. Most were released after several days, but 13 of the organization's leaders are still in custody: National Council chairman Dr. Fidaa Al-Hourani; secretariat head and former Syrian MP Riyadh Seif; National Council secretaries Dr. Ahmad Tou'ma and Akram Al-Bouni; secretariat members author 'Ali 'Abdallah, Jaber Al-Shawqi and Dr. Yasser Al-'Aiti, as well as National Council members Tallal Abu Dan, Dr. Walid Al-Bouni, Muhammad Hajji Darwish, Marwan Al-'Ash, journalist Faiz Sara, Dr. Kamal Al-Muwail, and Kurdish author Pierre Rustum. [6]

On January 27, 2008, most of the detainees were brought before an investigating judge, and then remanded pending their trial at the criminal court in Damascus. [7] The charges against them include "membership in a secret subversive organization," "spreading false information," "weakening national sentiment," "inciting to racist and sectarian extremism" and "harming the state's prestige." All the detainees have denied the allegations against them, saying that they were forced to sign statements without being informed of their content. Some also report that they have been subjected to physical and psychological torture while in the custody of Syrian intelligence. [8]

The arrests were condemned by numerous human rights organizations in Syria and abroad, which called for the release of the prisoners - in particular Riyadh Saif, who has cancer, [9] and Dr. Fidaa Al-Hourani, who was transferred to hospital after experiencing severe heart problems in detention. [10] Following the arrests, some Damascus Declaration members decided to go underground, at least temporarily, so as to ensure that the organization's activity would continue, and to keep as many of its leaders as possible out of jail until the crisis ends. [11]

Campaign of Incitement

In addition to the arrests, the authorities launched an organized campaign of incitement against the Syrian opposition. As part of this campaign, workers' unions, party committees, and mosque preachers were recruited to issue statements accusing the opposition of treason against the homeland. [12] Three Damascus Declaration members also reported that their property was damaged. [13] In addition, websites affiliated with the authorities posted virulent articles against the organization and its leaders, many of them focusing on statements by Riyadh Al-Turk, a former political prisoner and member of the Damascus Declaration secretariat. In a December 23, 2007 interview, Al-Turk thanked U.S. President George W. Bush for calling for the immediate release of the Damascus Declaration prisoners." [14]

Following are excerpts from the interview with Al-Turk, from anti-opposition statements and articles, and from the opposition's responses to the campaign against it.

Riyadh Al-Turk: Bush's Statement - A Noble Human Gesture

In his December 23, 2007 interview for Quds Press, Riyadh Al-Turk praised Bush for intervening on behalf of the Damascus Declaration prisoners, saying: "We should welcome any expression of solidarity which encourages the [Syrian oppositionists] in exile and in prison, regardless of its source... for [any such expression] is a noble human gesture. From this perspective, I welcome Bush's statements, and hope they will be mirrored in his policy towards our people and the [other] Arab peoples...

"This is not to say that we support the U.S.'s Middle East policy, for it has not benefited the [Arab] peoples... We are strictly opposed to [the possibility that] Bush's armed forces will come to liberate us. We are opposed to military intervention, and to the increasing pressures on our country, including the diplomatic pressures. However, we believe that the tragic [situation] of Syria and of the other Arab countries stems mostly from the policies of our own regimes, which has weakened our peoples and has prompted foreign [forces] to interfere in our affairs... We believe that the principle agents of change are internal forces, but expressions of solidarity from the forces of good [around the world] can help us successfully [implement] our plans...

"In the present circumstances, our country's interest is to preserve its unity, so that it can ensure its independence, eliminate tyranny, and establish a democratic regime in which everybody will [be free to] express his opinions. This is the fundamental principle [underpinning] the policy of the DamascusDeclaration... We want our leaders to... reconnect with their peoples. [At present] they deny us even the freedom to assemble. We were arrested only because a few dozen of us held a conference. We did not jeopardize [state] security or harm anyone in any way, but only discussed [the issues] I am discussing now. How can I not welcome a declaration by a man who is calling for my freedom?... The regime is accusing us of treason because it wants us to live in isolation [from the rest of the world]." [15]

Communiqué by Syria's Gas Distribution Company: Al-Turk Called on U.S. to Occupy Syria

Several workers' unions affiliated with the regime issued communiqués denouncing Al-Turk's statements. The following is from a communiqué issued by the workers' union of Syria's Gas Distribution Company:

"Oppositionist Riyadh Al-Turk told several foreign news agencies that he welcomed America's praise of the Syrian opposition, and that he called upon the U.S. president to occupy Syria. Brothers, we have seen what has befallen our neighbors in Iraq; it is the greatest lesson of the present age. [Their] honor has been violated - and is there anything more precious than honor? The streets ran with the blood of children, women, men, and the elderly. To date, almost a million [Iraqi] citizens - men and women - have been killed. Iraq's infrastructures have been destroyed and its wealth has been plundered, with the aim of leaving it destitute and humiliated.

"Do the words of this traitor [Al-Turk] make any sense? He only wants to sanction [an attack] on this powerful country, as was done to Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. We say to him and to other scum of his sort: "No, you shall find that Syria is an unassailable fortress, and that its sons oppose everything you are saying, and everything you are planning with your Zionist and American brothers." [16]

Syrian MP: "Their Ship - And Everyone In It - Will Sink And Be Destroyed"

Syrian MP Muhammad Saleh Al-Mallah accused Al-Turk of joining the ranks of Syria's enemies: "Syria is currently braving a barrage of pressures and brutal assaults led by the forces of evil and tyranny and by their treasonous agents - [assaults] aimed at harming its national principles and changing its position on its just causes. [Precisely] at this time, we see signs that Al-Turk is joining the [ranks] of our homeland's enemies, and placing himself at the service of their failing conspiracies... What reward did they promise him for putting a beautiful [mask] on the face of the occupier, and for convincing [people] of his good intentions and noble cause?... Does Riyadh Al-Turk mean to declare that he has joined the American-Zionist project, whose main goal is to harm Syria and to keep it from [carrying out] its national role of opposing the imperialist and Zionist conspiracies aimed at taking control of the Arab region, oppressing its peoples, and plundering its wealth? We shall make sure that his groveling before the enemies of this nation will not avail him or his friends... We will not let them [serve as] the ship that carries the enemies to our homeland. Their ship - and everyone in it - will sink and be destroyed." [17]

Syrian Columnist: The Americans Are Behind the Damascus Declaration Organization

An important part in the anti-opposition campaign was that of Syrian columnist Nidhal Na'isa, who in a series of articles attacked the Damascus Declaration and justified the arrest of its leaders.

In one article, he stated that the U.S. was behind the Damascus Declaration. Na'isa wrote: "It must be pointed out that the wave of arrests was not arbitrary or random, because nearly 10 days passed between the assembly [on December 1] and the first [arrests on December 9]. This assures us that the security apparatuses had collected evidence. We cannot say for certain what this evidence was - but it is quite clear that some American force was working behind the scenes in the Damascus Declaration [organization], and perhaps it was [the Americans] who ordered the assembly in the first place...

"The arrest of the Damascus Declaration leadership was a distinct act of defiance towards the American administration, which continues to be troubled by Syria's policy in various [parts of the world], and which welcomes the new declaration [i.e. the assembly's concluding statement] - a fact that puts this [declaration] in a very questionable light." [18]

The Damascus Declaration Works in Coordination with the Muslim Brotherhood

In another article, Na'isa questioned the Damascus Declaration's patriotism, writing: "The [original Damascus] Declaration was issued in coordination with [the Muslim Brotherhood], an international - not national - organization, whose agenda transcends national boundaries... Paradoxically, and strangely enough, [this organization] has been banned in nearly all Muslim countries due to the genuine danger it poses to their citizens' wellbeing and security, and because it is a permanent [catalyst] of internal strife, [as is evident from] the events in Syria in the late 1970s... [As a matter of fact,] this organization should not be referred to as 'the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,' but rather as 'the Syrian branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood.' If this party comes to power here [in Syria], Syrian nationalism... will not occupy even second place in terms of its importance, but will be in fourth or fifth place - and this will strip the Damascus Declaration of every last vestige of national character." [19]

The Opposition Will Cause a Complete Social Upheaval

Naisa claimed, in another article, that the Damascus Declaration would lead Syria to civil war: "Do we not have the right to wonder... what secret caused [so many different forces] - Syrians and the Westerners, Marxists and Salafis, liberals and nationalists, party [members] and independents, [Muslim] Brotherhood members and Bolsheviks - to join together [in the Damascus Declaration]? What peculiar common denominator [can possibly] unite these groups, which have such distinct goals and interests? It is nothing but puffed up personal malice towards the regime... To date, this unadulterated hatred towards the regime - which is sometimes purely personal in nature - has failed to achieve even a single political objective, to advance the cause of the Syrian opposition in any significant way, or to create any consensus around it... [The opposition] has become a tool of destruction designed to create rift and schism, to sow strife among the different sectors of [Syrian] society, and to inflame ethnic sensitivities - which will undoubtedly culminate in complete social upheaval, the extent and consequences of which cannot be foreseen." [20]

The Syrian Opposition Should Begin by Reforming Itself

In two other articles, Na'isa stated that Syria needs no reforms but those initiated by the top echelons of the regime: "Reform is [a change] demanded by the Syrian people, which often issues from official [sources] in response to the needs and sentiment of broad strata in Syrian [society]. [Reform is a crucial] factor in the continued [existence] of any regime that wishes to survive, rather than the invention or contribution of any particular [sector]... The Syrian opposition must first of all reform itself, by eliminating its own defects, deformities, and incurable illnesses, before joining a call for reform anywhere else, including [reform of] the regime." [21]

"We understand that there may be opposition to a regime that is legitimate and national [in character], and which ultimately serves the general national interest... However, we do not accept that any sector should claim a monopoly over fairness, and should usurp [the values of] honor and morality, disregarding the rest of humanity. [No sector may] appropriate values and laws and disseminate them among the people, claiming absolute legitimacy and perpetual immunity, just because it objects to a particular regime... We recognize the urgent need for change, reform, and development, [but these] must not contravene the demands, appeals, and sincere intentions emanating from the top echelons of the [Syrian] regime. " [22]

The Human Rights Organizations' Only Mission is to Attack Syrian Society

Na'isa also criticized the Syrian human rights organizations, some of which are members of the Damascus Declaration: "The [Syrian] associations and committees [promoting human rights] have become [nothing more than] a source of prestige and income [for their members], who [stand like] beggars on the doorstep of the European Union and of international human rights organizations that thrive on the pain, suffering, and tribulations of the Syrian citizen. [These organizations] also offer [opportunities] for travel, for 'human rights tourism,' and for participation in conferences in the capitals of [countries] that wage 'preventive' wars in our region, perpetrate massacres, and deny the people [of the region] not only their rights but even their basic right to live... These organizations have moved from defending human rights to attacking [societies], sanctioning the killing of [their members], and causing real and deliberate harm to the homelands [in the region] - all this in order to open [these homelands] to exploitation by outside forces, which see these organizations as a spearhead [of their activity], indispensable to the completion of their aggressive mission and criminal plots.

"These human rights organizations whine, wail, and make a mountain of every molehill, [raising a ruckus] whenever a ditch is dug in the road for the benefit of the public, or whenever a traffic cop gives a ticket to one of their members. At the same time, we see them shutting their eyes and their ears to significant violations, such as murders and massacres perpetrated by local and international forces in the Middle East... The only mission of these associations and committees is to attack Syrian society." [23]

Syrian Columnist: The Damascus Declaration Rejects All Dialogue Among Syrians

In an article posted on several websites, columnist Nabil Haddad contended that the Damascus Declaration was not the democratic enterprise it purported to be. He wrote: "The Damascus Declaration has had no political, organizational, or ideological impact whatsoever on the institutions of Syrian society. It is nothing but a media phenomenon, which begs in vain to be admitted into Arab and international circles... On close examination, the results of the so-called elections to the National Council [of the Damascus Declaration] prove to be nothing more than a pre-arranged agreement made by hotheads who reject all dialogue with their fellow [Syrians], and hide behind foreign agendas, both overt and covert. They have managed to impose their undemocratic rule over [the National Council] assemblies, eliminating anyone who disagrees with their opinions. Is this the democracy in which they take so much pride?!" [24]

Opposition Reactions to the Incitement Campaign

The Syrian opposition responded to the incitement campaign in communiqués, interviews, and articles, stating that the allegations against it were intended to justify the arrests. They also said that the allegations revealed how pressured the Syrian regime was feeling.

The National Democratic Union in Syria: The Regime Is Concerned for Its Basic Interests

The National Democratic Union in Syria, a Damascus Declaration member organization, published the following statement: "The extensive and official campaign of incitement [against the opposition] is being waged through the security apparatuses and the state institutions under their authority, and also by the [representatives of the security] apparatuses in the mosques. [The latter] are using religion to incite the citizenry against the symbol of liberty [Riyadh Al-Turk], against their homeland, and against the national democratic opposition... We believe that this course of action reflects the regime's distress and its concern for its basic interests. [This policy also] serves as a powerful tool against anyone who tries to demand a better life for the Syrian people. It is a corrupt propaganda campaign in which the freedom fighter, Riyadh Al-Turk, is accused of being an agent of foreign powers...

"We hold the Syrian regime as a whole responsible for any action [taken] against the noble opposition members... and demand the release of all the political prisoners and all those who have been arrested for expressing their opinions..." [25]

Former Syrian MP: The Incitement Will Not Make Us Relinquish Our Principles

Syrian dissident and former MP Muhammad Mamoun Al-Humsi, who resides abroad, issued a communiqué stating: [26] "This cheap incitement will not cause us to renounce our message and give up our principles. We will continue our efforts, our appeals, and our meetings with all the leaders and peoples of the free world, led by the U.S., aimed at prompting the world to fulfill its obligation regarding the barbaric and tyrannical [Syrian] regime. This regime fuels hatred, establishes terrorist cells, and spreads them throughout the region in order to take control of it... We are not afraid of being killed or persecuted by the regime. We are committed to the reputation and honor of the Syrian people, and are not begging anyone for favors or for sympathy. If this position entails accusations by the regime, we are honored to stand alongside the victim rather than alongside the murderer." [27]

Kurdish Oppositionist: Meetings with [Representatives of] Foreign Embassies Are Sanctioned by International Law

Zardasht Muhammad, a senior leader of the Kurdish Yakiti party, a Damascus Declaration member organization, said in an interview with the reformist website Elaph.com: "All the talk about the Damascus Declaration having contacts with foreign elements is aimed at intimidating the opposition and justifying the arrest of its leaders - especially considering that the Damascus Declaration has always been a transparent and nonviolent movement acting in the open... The arrests mean that the regime has no intention whatsoever of becoming more open... Each time the [external] pressure on the regime increases, it steps up the pressure [on the opposition]."

Asked whether the arrests spelled the end of the Damascus Declaration, Zardasht said: "The Damascus Declaration will not end as long as the activists on the ground [continue to] believe in the struggle for democracy... The arrests do not threaten the standing of the Damascus Declaration."

Regarding the alleged meetings between the movement's leaders and representatives of foreign embassies, Zardasht said that such meetings "were sanctioned by international law, since the function of embassies is to know the domestic situation [in the host country] and to take an interest in its citizens." He added, "The Damascus Declaration is [funded] by its members only, and receives no funding from external [sources]." [28]

Oppositionist Syrian Website: Journalists Who Pander to the Regime Are Betraying Their Mission

On an oppositionist website, Syrian columnist Muhammad 'Issa criticized the Syrian press's attitude to the arrests, writing: "I wish to pose a few questions to [certain individuals] who have undertaken the serious responsibility of working as journalists: As those entrusted with this important and noble task, why do you not reveal the true reason behind the arrests? Why do you not demand the liberation of journalism - and of society as a whole - from the yoke of this gang [i.e. the Syrian regime] that has never heard of freedom or pluralism? The leader of this gang [Bashar Al- Assad] studied in Britain, but the only thing he brought back from there was mad cow disease, with which to infect some of his bootlicking [journalists]." [29]

*O. Winter is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnote:

[1] The Damascus Declaration is an umbrella organization of oppositionist Syrian parties and forces that signed the October 2005 Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change. The document stressed the need for democratic change in Syria and for the end of the military regime that has controlled the Syrian people for over 30 years. It called, inter alia, for the establishment of a democratic government in Syria, for the abolition of the emergency law, for the release of all political prisoners, and for a solution to the Kurdish problem. Among the signatories were the Committees for Reviving Civil Society and the Kurdish Democratic Front.

[2] http://syriatruth.org/Al-Hakikah, January 14, 2008. Assad's media advisor, Saber Falhout, made similar comments, saying, "The Damascus Declaration [activists] are traitors who stand far outside the national camp. Therefore, their arrest, investigation and trial are a natural and obvious [move]." www.syria-news.com, January 11, 2008.

[3] Al-Thawra (Syria), January 2, 2008.

[4] www.damdec.org, December 2, 2007.

[5] www.damdec.org, December 3, 2007.

[6] www.syriahr.com, February 25, 2008.

[7] www.thisissyria.net, January 27, 2008.

[8] www.thisissyria.net, January 28, 2008.

[9] www.thisissyria.net, January 3, 2008.

[10] www.syriahr.com, February 25, 2008.

[11] http://syriatruth.org/Al-Hakikah, January 19, 2008.

[12] www.arraee.com, January 9, 2008.

[13] http://syriatruth.org/Al-Hakikah, January 19, 2008.

[14] www.alarabiya.net, December 15, 2008.

[15] Quds Press (London), December 23, 2007.

[16] www.arraee.com, January 9, 2008.

[17] www.champress.net, January 9, 2008.

[18] www.champress.net, December 26, 2007.

[19] www.champress.net, January 2, 2008.

[20] www.champress.net, January 20, 2008.

[21] www.champress.net, February 6, 2008.

[22] www.champress.net, January 8, 2008.

[23] www.champress.net, February 7, 2008.

[24] www.syria-news.com, February 4, 2008.

[25] www.damdec.org, January 13, 2008.

[26] It should be noted that as part of the incitement campaign, a Syrian website claimed that the U.S. Embassy in Beirut had invited Al-Humsi to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in Tel Aviv, during the latter's upcoming visit to the region. During the meeting, Al-Humsi will allegedly be required to express support for peace with Israel. www.champress.net, January 8, 2008.

[27] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), January 11, 2008.

[28] www.elaph.com, January 29, 2008.

[29] http://syrianelector.com, January 13, 2008.

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