"The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country."With this statement, made in his November 6, 2003, speech calling for the establishment of democracy in the Middle East, President Bush galvanized an increasingly active contingent of Syrian democracy advocates. The Reform Party of Syria (RPS) — a fledgling, U.S.-based political movement comprised of resident Syrians and Syrians living abroad — was formed shortly after 9/11 to express a voice that has been virtually nonexistent in Syria during 40 years of oppressive Baath-party rule: a voice of freedom. For members of RPS, Bush's castigation of "dictators in Iraq and Syria" who "promised the restoration of national honor [and] left instead a legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin" provided a source of hope for a new Syria, one free from extremism, terror, and iron-fisted rule.
While talk of Middle East reform usually centers on Iraqi de-Baathification or Iranian student protesters, RPS has become increasingly visible during the last few months, spearheading a pro-democracy message framed in the context of a new Syrian constitution. For members of RPS, the post-9/11 reality presented both a challenge and an opportunity. The time had come to speak out against the perpetual police state their homeland had become. Farid Ghadry, cofounder of RPS, describes the current Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad as a small cabal of thugs who do not represent the will of the Syrian people. With despotic regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq (Syria's next-door neighbor) recently reduced to the ash heap of history, and with Iran experiencing increasing internal unrest, Ghadry feels that the time is ripe for change in Syria.
"Five percent of the population cannot rule ninety-five percent of the country forever," he says. "And it is time to change this reality." Ghadry, an entrepreneur and Syrian native who has lived in the U.S. for the past 28 years, is joined in his struggle for reform by an eclectic mix of Arab and Kurdish Syrians — including writers, artists, professors, doctors, engineers, and businessmen — who have been working within Washington for over two years in an attempt to garner American support for the growing Syrian opposition movement.
Their accounts of Baathist brutality are difficult to ignore. Firas Kassas, head of the Party of Modernization and Democracy for Syria, recounts, through an interpreter, how a young Syrian man who dared speak out against the Assad regime "was sent home to his family in a coffin, chopped up into pieces." Another reformer, Taufic Hamdosch, a representative of the Syrian Democratic Party of Kurdistan, speaks mournfully about the plight of Syria's Kurdish minority: "The Kurdish culture and Kurdish language are not allowed," says Hamdosch. "Since 1962, there have been 250, 000 Kurds excluded from (Syrian) citizenship."
Hamdosch and his fellow activists stress that the new generation of Syrians, unlike their forefathers, are not resigned to the country's corrupt political status quo and, in fact, sense an opportunity for real change. Seventy percent of the Syrian population is under the age of 30, and, like the long-suffering citizens of Iran, they too are hungry for the kind of freedom currently being cultivated in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Syria, thanks to years of stifling repression, it is rare to find anyone who dares speak of democracy or criticize the government. "The Baath party cannot accept the opinion of the other side," says Hamdosch. "Even if the opinion comes from within the Baath party." He calls Bashar Assad's regime "Stalinist."
Hamdosch's comments illustrate why the conference of Syrian opposition leaders, held in Washington, D.C., on November 15 and 16, was so crucial. Representatives from ten political parties and an array of organizations defending human and women's rights in Syria attended the first ever multi-racial, multi-religious, and pro-democratic gathering of Syrian policy leaders. At a National Press Club event in Washington on Monday, Ghadry, Hamdosch, and Kassas — speaking for the silenced majority of Syrians — made clear that their diverse coalition is committed to a common goal: secular democracy for Syria. The sooner that all democratic opposition parties inside and outside of Syria are consolidated, the sooner this goal will be achieved.
"I truly believe that the (Syrian) regime today is extremely nervous about what is going on," says Ghadry. "Not only because of movements like ours, but because they are also concerned about (democracy in) Iraq. They're concerned about, I believe, Israel's stand against terrorism. They are concerned about remnants of discontent in Lebanon. A lot of people in Lebanon are starting to voice, slowly but surely, their discontent for Syrian occupation. The Syrian regime...is really on shaky ground."
Following two days of intensive discussions in Washington, the opposition groups produced a charter and a statement of principles calling for free elections, free press, freedom of religion, and economic reforms (including a NAFTA-like trade agreement among Middle Eastern countries). They also called for an overhaul of the educational system and the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. In short, they called for a complete repudiation of 40 years of Baathist menace. With the recent passage of the Syrian Accountability Act in both the House and Senate, the U.S. seems to be taking a similar stance, and with good reason.
From sponsoring and hosting Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists, to aiding the flow of Islamic militants into Iraq, Bashar Al-Assad's government has proven to be a brazen foe of U.S. interests and a perennial threat to peace in the Middle East. As democratic forces like RPS rise up in hopes of bringing about a new order in the region, the Bush administration should help and encourage them as a peaceful means of establishing what the U.S. would like to avoid accomplishing militarily: the expansion of democracy in the Middle East.
Coincidentally, on the same day that the Syrian Opposition Coalition published its blunt call for a "New Syria," a surprising announcement came out of Damascus. Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam, acknowledging that regional and international developments required the government to adapt, told members of the Baath-party conference that "the party is studying the issue of developing its political thinking."
At this point, it is difficult to assess whether these two events are related. But one thing appears certain: The ground in Damascus is surely shaking.
— Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism research institute.