x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Syria silences the voices of dissent

Damascus has arrested dozens for criticising the regime, leaving opponents isolated.

After two years in jail, Ali Abdullah was rearrested for criticising the Iranian elections.
After two years in jail, Ali Abdullah was rearrested for criticising the Iranian elections.

DAMASCUS // On the first day of December in 2007, more than 150 opposition political activists gathered in the Syrian capital to revive the faltering Damascus Declaration reform movement. They did not get far. The authorities acted decisively after that Saturday meeting, identifying and arresting the 12 key leaders of the group that constituted the movement's core, the Damascus Declaration National Council. They were convicted on charges of "weakening the state's morale" and each sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

As of August 1, those sentences have been served and, with one exception, the so-called Damascus Declaration 12 have been freed. Ali Abdullah, a dissident writer, was immediately rearrested after his release and is now facing another stint in prison for publishing an article that criticised the legitimacy of elections in Iran, Syria's ally. The arrests of the dozen dissidents fit into a pattern of highly effective repression by the government that has prevented any real political opposition from taking root in Syria, activists say.

"The authorities have had a very successful strategy for controlling dissidents," said one civil-society campaigner who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They realise that they can break the opposition movement if you arrest 10 or 15 key people. If you take those main figures out, there is nothing left. It's gone." While Syria, like Egypt and Iran, has an authoritarian government that is facing internal calls for reform, it is different, the campaigner said. Opposition movements in Egypt and Iran appear to enjoy wider bases of support, he said:

"In other places, in Tehran and Cairo, there are protests, there are arrests, and then there are more protests. Other people come in to take the place of those who are in jail. It makes them more powerful - they have numbers. In Syria, there are no numbers." Syrian opposition groups were swept up in the atmosphere and issued the Damascus Declaration, in which they heavily criticized the authorities and demanded democratic reforms. Change appeared imminent, at least to reformists.

The last concerted attempt by the opposition movement to bring about wide-reaching political change in Syria was the original Damascus Declaration of 2005, which followed the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut. Syrian authorities were widely accused of orchestrating the murder - a charge they vigorously denied - and came under intense international pressure led by the Bush administration and the French president Jacques Chirac.

Within two months, Syrian troops were pulled out of Lebanon, ending a three-decade presence that had assured Damascus's primacy in Lebanese affairs. There was speculation that the withdrawal signalled a fatal blow to the Syrian government, and that it was on the brink of collapse. Syrian opposition groups were swept up in the atmosphere and issued the Damascus Declaration, in which they heavily criticised the authorities and demanded democratic reforms. Change appeared imminent, at least to reformists.

"From the middle of May 2005, opposition figures were talking about the end of the regime and were comparing the situation to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Europe and the end of communist control of East Berlin," said a Syrian journalist who was working in Damascus at the time. Only partly in jest, opposition figures began to mull over who would take charge of what ministry and formed something of a shadow cabinet, the journalist recalled. By 2006 the fever had reached its peak, as more damaging claims emerged about alleged Syrian involvement in the Hariri murder. Opposition political activists began predicting the regime would fall within days.

A number of dissidents were arrested, but according to another campaigner, some of those facing jail were lighthearted about the prospect, confident they would be quickly freed once a new government was installed. It never happened. "Various people had bet everything on American policy," said the campaigner. "They'd seen the invasion of Iraq and expected this to change everything in the region. They gambled on regime change in Syria, and they lost."

In reality, the government's grip on power was far more robust than many in the opposition believed, and the US project to reshape the Middle East far more flawed. Since the initial arrests of the Damascus Declaration 12 more than two years ago, conditions have tilted further in the government's favour. Syria has weathered the storm caused by the US invasion of Iraq and is no longer being accused over the Hariri killing.

Damascus continues to enjoy a diplomatic rapprochement with the West and relations with Lebanon have largely been working out as it wants. However, a campaign of arrests has been expanded, with political dissidents, human-rights activists and lawyers jailed under extra-constitutional emergency laws passed in 1963. Opposition parties remain illegal. "Now it's 2010 and the fact is that the regime is stronger than ever before," said a leading civil society campaigner. "Talk of regime change has stopped now and if you look at it, you have to say that the authorities have won.

"The Damascus Declaration leaders are out of prison, but the question is not: 'Are they important figures?' The question is: 'Is the Damascus Declaration itself important anymore?' "In truth, there is no political opposition movement in Syria now." @Email:psands@thenational.ae