In Syria, Iraq's Fate Silences Rights Activists

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 26, 2006

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Horror at the bloodshed accompanying the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Iraq has accomplished what human rights activists, analysts and others say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been unable to do by himself: silence public demands for democratic reforms here.

The idea of the government as a bulwark of stability and security has long been the watchword of Syrian bureaucrats and village elders. But since Iraq's descent into sectarian and ethnic war -- and after Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the other side of Syria -- even Syrian activists concede that the country's feeble rights movement is moribund.

Advocates of democracy are equated now with supporters of America, even "traitors," said Maan Abdul Salam, 36, a Damascus publisher who has coordinated conferences on women's rights and similar topics.

"Now, talking about democracy and freedom has become very difficult and sensitive," Salam said. "The people are not believing these thoughts anymore. When the U.S. came to Iraq, it came in the name of democracy and freedom. But all we see are bodies, bodies, bodies."

Ordinary people in Syria are hunkering down, and probably rightly so, said Omar Amiralay, a well-known Syrian filmmaker whose documentaries are quietly critical of Assad's one-family rule.

"If democracy brings such chaos in the region, and especially the destruction of society, as it did in Iraq and in Lebanon, it's absolutely normal, and I think it's absolutely a wise position from the people to be afraid to imagine how it would be in Syria," Amiralay said. "I think that people at the end said, 'Well, it is better to keep this government. We know them, and we don't want to go to this civil war, and to live this apocalyptic image of change, with civil war and sectarianism and blood.' "

In 2003, a few people in Damascus were bold enough to raise their glasses in cafes to toast the American tanks then rolling into Baghdad to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They were dreaming of the changes that might happen next here, in the only remaining government led by the Baath Party, a prominent writer in the capital said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being jailed a second time.

"The Americans came to Iraq to make it an example to the other countries to ask for change," the writer said. "But what happened was the opposite. Now everyone is saying we do not want to be like Iraq."

Yet while Assad's government has fulfilled its pledge of stability, it has put off acting on any of its promises on democratic reform. In fact, as the U.S. effort in Iraq goes increasingly awry, Syria has cracked down even harder, activists said.

In May, the government jailed at least 12 people for signing a petition calling for better relations with Lebanon, according to Human Rights Watch. In July, Syrian courts sentenced three bloggers to up to four years in prison for writing too freely. The jail terms led Reporters Without Borders to declare Syria "the Middle East's biggest jail for cyber-dissidents."

Also in July, security and intelligence services imposed a foreign travel ban on scores of Syrian artists, rights workers and others. Activists learned of the ban one by one, when they showed up at the border or the airport with passport and suitcase, only to be refused permission to leave the country. Some democracy groups and forums have been shut down since last year.

Amiralay, 62, was stopped at the Syrian border in September as he headed to Jordan for a workshop on filmmaking. Middle East satellite television networks had recently broadcast his latest work, an understated documentary showing Baath Party rule across the generations in a Syrian village.

Syrian officials clapped the noted filmmaker in handcuffs and brought him back to Damascus. Security officers screened his latest work frame by frame, demanding his explanation of any shot that suggested untoward symbolism, he said. Reports of his detention on Arabic-language television helped win his quick release.

Amiralay's prominence has helped him cope. Another critic, the once-outspoken writer, said he has opted to watch his words more carefully. And Salam, the publisher and conference organizer, voted with his feet, moving to Canada just after his interview in Damascus.

Before he left, Salam spoke darkly of the prospects for the Middle East. Iraq was in ruins, he said. Lebanon was in peril of civil war. In Syria, Assad would either stay in power or destroy the country first if he was forced out.

In Egypt, Yemen and Libya, strongmen were preparing their sons to succeed them, while the United States and other avowed promoters of democracy in the Middle East looked the other way. "I don't see the situation getting better," Salam said. "Young people are trying to leave Syria -- to Canada, to Europe, to any place."

Internationally, as well, the erosion of U.S. stature over Iraq and Lebanon has put Syria in position to try to improve its regional and world standing without giving in to the reform demands of the United States, diplomats and analysts said.

The United States and the European Union have officially isolated Syria since the February 2005 bombing that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. The United States and others suspected Syrian involvement.

But Spain, Italy and Germany have renewed contacts since the war in Lebanon this summer, calling Syria's help vital to averting further conflict there. Britain, a staunch U.S. ally, continues to observe diplomatic silence with regard to Syria, but even its ambassador, Peter Ford, said in an interview here that the bid to shut out Syria had not accomplished its aims and may no longer be the best move. Former U.S. secretary of state James A. Baker III, co-chairman of a bipartisan panel seeking alternative strategies for Iraq, has suggested he may recommend U.S. talks with both Syria and Iran.

In Damascus, Baath Party legislator Georges Jabbour laughed when asked about the success of the U.S. policy toward Syria. Interviewed by telephone, he pointed to the two-day state visit to Damascus then being undertaken by Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos. A year ago, Spain was still bowing to U.S. pressure to isolate Syria, and the Spanish foreign minister limited a Damascus visit to an unnecessary refueling stop for furtive meetings with Syrian officials, Jabbour said.

Meanwhile, Syria's people remain spectators of their government's maneuvering, free to watch it but not to speak.

They enjoy the small freedoms that their neighbors in dangerous Iraq no longer do -- such as the ability to go out after dark. This month, after breaking the daily Ramadan fast, families chugged in their cars up the steep roads of Mount Cassion to stroll, sip colas and fruit drinks and take in the view of Damascus spread out below.

Seated on a plastic chair on the road with a friend, real estate salesman Mohammed Yousif gestured toward the city. Green lights of mosques glowed among the white lights of a capital fully powered and at peace. Speaking to a foreign journalist, the 42-year-old salesman measured his words carefully, answering questions with the blandness often seen in Iraq before Hussein was toppled.

"We are talking and enjoying ourselves," Yousif said, waving the nozzle of the traditional water pipe he and his friend were using to smoke flavored tobacco. "This is our democracy. This is our freedom."

Special correspondent Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.

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