Damascus // As the United States and Syria continue their cautious re-engagement after years of bitter division, there are indications that Damascus may be loosening - ever so slightly - its iron grip on political dissent.
Jeffery Feltman, the assistant secretary of state, and Dan Shapiro, of the National Security Council, were in the Syrian capital yesterday for talks with Walid Muallim, the foreign minister, the first official US government delegation here since 2004. Ostensibly little has changed since then on the domestic political scene, despite the Americans insisting Syria's human rights record should be addressed: key opposition figures remain in prison, human rights groups are still illegal and draconian emergency laws are in force.
But in a country where the always-opaque business of politics is particularly murky and where reformers and conservatives often contest for influence in clouded, unfathomable ways, the hardline atmosphere could be starting to lighten. "There have been minor changes, small signs of improvements in certain areas," Ammar Qurabi, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (NOHRS), said in an interview. "They are subtle things and they may mean that a new approach is coming. Or they may mean nothing." Last week there was a demonstration by Kurds in Syria's northern border region. Whereas in the past such events have resulted in rioting, shootings and widespread arrests, this one apparently ended in a peaceful and unusual way.
"About 50 people were rounded up and taken to see the area security chief," said Mr Qurabi, who has contacts with opposition and pro-democracy groups across the country. "He was respectful and told them, 'None of you are under arrest, I am meeting you as a delegation, tell me what you want and I will move your statement up to the president'. "All of the demonstrators were released after two hours. This is something new. Previously they would have just been arrested and put in jail or, if they were lucky, sent to court."
The incident seems to support claims that Syria's security services are working under new orders. Political arrests now, according to some observers, require authorisation from a select group of senior officials. Before any one of more than a dozen security agencies could detain activists, who often did not know which branch was holding them. Another indicator of possible change is a long-running campaign by Mr Qurabi to get permission for his human rights group to operate. It is currently unlicensed and therefore technically illegal, existing in a strange limbo. Other members of the weak and divided opposition movement accuse NOHRS of doing a nefarious deal with the authorities but Mr Qurabi, who has been in and out of jail as a political prisoner, is always frank in his criticisms of Syria's human rights record.
Since last year he has had a licensing application in court, with a final decision on the case due first in December, then in February. Another postponement means the judgment is now due next month. "The lawyers say this is a positive sign," said Mr Qurabi. "The file has been sent to the national security office and that means the government is reviewing its position. It doesn't mean it will be licensed and I wouldn't be surprised if they refuse the licence. But it at least means the issue is being discussed. This is something new, it's a sign there might be a new approach.
"During the last court session the United Nations even sent a monitor and the government said it was OK for them to go in." During the Bush administration, with the White House making no secret of its desire for regime change in Damascus, the Syrian authorities initiated actions against domestic political opponents. Major pro-democracy campaigners were jailed - and remain in prison - accused of working in concert with foreign powers to undermine the government. The arrests were always justified as necessary given the threat from Washington and neighbouring Israel, which remains at war with Syria and still illegally occupies the Golan Heights.
President Barack Obama has struck a more conciliatory tone. Although the main issues his envoys have discussed are Syria's alliance with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, the Americans have also said human rights are an issue. There is a debate within the Syrian opposition about whether human rights and political freedoms will improve after relations with the US and Europe soften, or whether the West should make such matters a precondition for improved relations. The rapprochement between Syria and Europe and the US means that, for now at least, the former logic prevails.
"Some of the opposition didn't want the EU to sign agreements with Syria until activists were released from prison," Mr Qurabi said. "My opinion is that good ties with the US and Europe will positively affect Syrian domestic life. "After 2005, when relations were bad, Syria was dealing with the political opposition and domestic issues in a hard way. The regime thinks, 'We are already on the blacklist so we have nothing to lose if we crack down.'
"When there are better ties, the regime is more comfortable and doesn't feel under threat it will be softer, even if only as a decoration. They won't make the improvements I want, but it will maybe be something. They will count to 10 before arresting dissidents, they will put people through the courts, rather than just into prison." Despite such cautious optimism, Mr Qurabi said no concrete changes for the better had taken place and that ambiguous shifts in domestic political currents quickly ran into rock-hard realities.
"Small signals, changes in atmosphere are something but they don't mean too much," he said. "We need clear signals, we need new laws allowing and safeguarding political opposition parties. Everything else can just be given in one moment and taken away in the next, which is what happened before." He also said the Syrian domestic opposition - distinct from exiled dissidents - were highly sceptical of the US and EU as champions of human rights and democracy.
"The American government is not sincere about human rights here, it's not their priority. Their goals politically are about Iran, Lebanon, Hizbollah, Hamas and Israel. "Where we can benefit is from civil society movements. If US-Syrian relations improve, human rights groups and non-governmental organisations in the US and in the EU can put pressure on their own governments and make them seek improvements in Syria.
"If the talks with the Americans go well, maybe eventually we will see something of an improvement here. Maybe." In advance of talks last month with US congressional delegations, Bashar Assad, the president, was blunt in rejecting criticism of Syria's domestic freedoms and imprisonment of dissidents, such as Michel Kilo and Riyad Seif. "Our laws are tough and strict and whether they are right or wrong that is an issue for Syria," he said in a newspaper interview.
"We don't allow anyone to make or internal issues a matter for relations. Europeans and Americans supported the occupation of Iraq. Talking about values has no credibility any more. And after what happened in Gaza they have no right [to criticise us] at all." firstname.lastname@example.org