x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Syria's dissidents test the boundaries

After decades of tight control by the ruling Baath party of Bashar Al Assad in which criticism was out of bounds, four months of protests have given the Syrian opposition a newfound confidence.

The barren landscape of mainstream Syrian politics is showing signs of life.

For decades, the ruling Baath party has tightly controlled internal politics. Independent political organisations were simply banned and forced underground, their members jailed and harassed by security forces. The boundaries of acceptable public debate were strictly delineated, a series of red lines that protected the ruling elite from any public critique.

Now, after four months of street demonstrations, groups outside the Baath party's strict control are beginning to assert themselves and openly engage in the contest for public support.

On June 27, 200 dissidents and opposition intellectuals met in the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus, where they demanded the end of a fierce security crackdown and called for sweeping democratic reforms.

Activists said it was the first large public gathering of opposition figures in Syria since the Baath party seized power in the 1960s.

Three days later, veteran opposition parties launched a new coalition grouping, the National Board of Coordination, which outlined a political platform for the transition from tyranny to democracy.

On July 3 former MPs and government officials offering a "third way" for reforms held a meeting hoping to appeal to those in the middle between hard-line supporters of the president, Bashar Al Assad, and the protesters seeking his overthrow.

More public gatherings and other new opposition political alliances are planned, the next, a National Salvation Council due to be launched tomorrow, involving the civil-liberties activist Haitham Al Maleh and the political dissident Meshaal Tamo.

Some activists and analysts have dismissed the flurry of political activity as an illusion, manipulated by a regime intent on defusing public and international pressure by holding talks, while retaining an iron grip on power.

This week's government-organised National Dialogue talks were boycotted by the opposition for just that reason, with dissidents refusing to negotiate with the authorities while a deadly security crackdown continues.

Other dissidents and commentators see a new politics beginning to emerge in Syria - in defiance of the regime - challenging the authorities' once uncontested dominance of public discourse.

Mazen Darwich, a civil-rights activist who helped organise the Semiramis Hotel gathering, said: "Until now independent politics has meant secret meetings and people whispering between themselves inside their homes.

"We wanted to push it into the public realm. We wanted to show that politics means discussion, and different opinions, not just the state telling people what they are allowed to think and say. It sounds simple but in Syria that is an amazing idea."

The June 27 Semiramis meeting took place despite not having formal permission from the authorities. Organisers, led by tye dissident writer Luay Hussein, sent a note to the government saying the gathering would happen but did not ask for approval.

"The regime did not want the meeting to happen but realised it would backfire if they forcibly tried to stop it," said one independent analyst.

"That shows the ability to control the agenda is slipping out of the regime's hands. The old ways of control are failing and they are struggling to find a new way that works."

While tens of thousands of demonstrators have been defying the authorities since the uprising began in March, with increasingly well-organised and coordinated street-level political activism, the authorities have had some success in portraying them as dangerous radicals.

That narrative was weakened, the analyst said, after middle-class professionals presented similar demands to the protesters at the Semiramis meeting.

"Ideas of democracy and elected leadership used to be for radicals on the edge of society, now those ideas are becoming part of everyday life, the ground is shifting," the analyst said.

The meeting on July 3, which involved strongly pro-regime figures - and which was government-sanctioned, receiving permission to go ahead from senior officials - suggested a more vibrant political landscape might be forming.

Delegates publicly disagreed about their vision for the future of Syria, with moderates calling for security services to be reined in and democratic legislation, while regime loyalists distanced themselves from such demands and, instead, avowed their support for army operations against protest hot spots.

"In a normal country these things wouldn't be noticed but here they are something incredible," said one influential dissident. "I don't necessarily agree with the conclusions of these meetings or the groups holding them but I'm happy they are happening. It's good. It's politics."

More recently, even at the National Dialogue meeting, dissent surfaced to a degree that analysts say would have surprised the authorities.

The former MP Mohammad Habbash, one of the few independent delegates, said during the conference that "confronting protests with bullets is not acceptable".

He demanded that the security apparatus be brought under civilian control, comments that outraged regime loyalists and led to a backlash against him from government supporters.

Some opposition figures - and protest groups - have said the various political meetings play into the regime's hands, allowing it to claim democratisation is truly under way while making no actual reforms.

Yet many insist Syria's secretive, autocratic system of governance simply cannot survive the ideas produced by sustained, open political dialogue.

The challenge, they acknowledge, is to keep that debate alive and ensure it delivers concrete results, in the face of suppression by powerful security agencies and an entrenched elite that has shown little appetite for surrendering their privileges.

"The protesters have opened the door and we all have to make sure we go through and together keep it open," said one dissident. "In the end we all know there will have to be a political settlement in Syria, and for that we need this kind of politics to be happening."