Damascus Fears Dissidents Out Of Reflex, Not Reality

22 July 2010

By Mohamad Bazzi

Last week, a Syrian military court sentenced Haitham al Maleh, a 79-year-old lawyer and human rights monitor, to three years in prison. His crime? He told a TV interviewer that Syrian authorities “hide behind laws which have no logical or legal or just basis”.

In June, a Syrian court sentenced another lawyer, Muhannad al Hassani, to a three-year prison term on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “conveying false news within Syria that could debilitate the morale of the nation”.

Syrian officials also brought new charges against Ali al Abdullah, a writer, who recently completed a 30-month sentence for attending a meeting in 2007 where political reforms were urged. He is facing a new trial for an article he wrote from his prison cell criticising the theocratic system in Iran, a Syrian ally.

What does the government of the Syrian president Bashar Assad have to fear from these lawyers and pro-democracy activists? Not much.

Unfortunately, Mr Assad’s regime has recently shown very little tolerance for internal criticism. After years of isolation imposed by the Bush administration and its Arab allies, the Syrian regime is stronger than ever. In the past year, Syria has launched a diplomatic charm offensive, holding high-level meetings with European diplomats and officials of the Obama administration. Barely a week goes by without a foreign leader or envoy visiting Mr Assad in Damascus.

In February, Mr Obama nominated Robert Ford, a career diplomat who has served in Algeria and Iraq, as the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. (Washington withdrew its last ambassador after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which the Bush administration blamed on Syria.) In May, Republicans in the US Senate blocked Mr Ford’s appointment, which threatens to derail Mr Obama’s efforts to reach out to Syria.

Despite these setbacks, Mr Assad’s regime appears emboldened by the diplomatic thaw, seeing it as an opportunity to crack down harder instead of improving its human rights record. The latest prosecutions are meant to send a message to pro-democracy activists in Syria: keep quiet and don’t deal with the West.

As a presidential candidate, Mr Obama vowed to engage what the Bush administration had called “rogue” regimes such as Syria and Iran. While that outreach is essential, it must not come at the expense of human rights.

Mr Maleh’s case is especially troubling because he is old and frail, and because he has been a critic of the Syrian regime for decades (he was imprisoned for seven years in the 1980s). His supporters fear that he may not survive another three years in prison.

Syria has a long history of jailing dissidents, starting under Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, who seized power in a military coup in 1970. When Assad died in June 2000, his son succeeded him. While many dismissed Bashar as incapable of balancing his regional cards as masterfully as his father, he has grown into the role of strongman.

After the younger Assad became president, he promised change. There was a short period of openness, known as the “Damascus Spring”. The freedoms gained were small: modest gatherings in people’s homes to discuss democracy and reform; writings and speeches critical of corruption and government failures (although never directly critical of Mr Assad or his family); gatherings of small civil-society groups. Most of these meagre freedoms have been rolled back, however.

By 2005, the crackdown in Syria accelerated to include activists, lawyers and writers who had thought they were safe due to their high profiles or connections to the West. But the US and Europe did not or could not protect them.

In November 2005, Kamal Labwani, a physician and leader of a pro-democracy group, was arrested at Damascus Airport after returning from Washington, where he had met with Bush administration officials. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria”. His sentence, handed down in May 2007, is the harshest imposed on a dissident since Mr Assad came to power. Mr Labwani’s case was a warning signal to other political activists.

Mr Maleh did not heed it. I visited him several times during the crackdown and he was always eager to discuss the regime’s transgressions. He worked out of an office in a rundown Ottoman-era building in downtown Damascus. His greeting room was lined with flower-print couches, fluorescent lights and a noisy ceiling fan. On one wall hung a certificate presented to him in 2006 by the Dutch foreign minister: the Geuzen Medal, named after the 16th-century Dutch dissidents who fought against Spanish domination. The Syrian regime would not allow Mr Maleh to travel to the Netherlands to receive the award in person. But he was so proud of the prize that he handed out reproductions of the certificate on a postcard bearing his motto: “Together for Freedom and Legitimacy”.

Mr Maleh was understandably dejected, but that did not keep him from speaking his mind. “I don’t think we are ready for a change. The opposition is weak, the regime is strong and the regional situation is working in its favour,” he told me in May 2007. “Any democratic reform or progress that was made in the last few years has been taken away. We’re now back at zero. Maybe even less than zero.”

Today, Mr Maleh and other dissidents sit in a Damascus prison. Their only hope for freedom is international pressure on the Syrian regime.

-- Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City and a journalism professor at New York University




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