Syria’s silent purge

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 31/05/06):

Almost a year after Syria completed a humiliating military withdrawal from Lebanon amid predictions of imminent regime change in Damascus, President Bashar Assad is clawing back lost ground. Dozens of dissidents have been arrested in recent weeks. Among those detained were Michel Kilo, a prominent democracy activist, and Anwar al-Bunni, a top human rights lawyer. US and EU diplomatic protests have been brusquely rejected.A silent purge of other signatories to this month’s so-called Damascus-Beirut Declaration is also under way, sources said yesterday. Backed by about 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, it urged normalisation of bilateral relations. It coincided with a UN security council resolution demanding an end to Syrian interference in Lebanon. But Mr Assad, encouraged by Russia and China and backed by Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, ignored that, too. The Syrian leader has cracked down on travel abroad for political purposes and renewed pressure on national media to toe the official line. And in a bid to neutralise the rise of political Islam, the secular ruling Ba’ath party has made a series of conciliatory gestures to the Sunni majority. Mr Assad has even taken to praying for the cameras. That contrasts with his late father’s brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, symbolised by the 1982 Hama massacre.

«There’s a big effort to try to get everybody on side. The strong message is that no criticism will be tolerated from whatever quarter,» said Rime Allaf, a Syria analyst and Chatham House fellow.

Explanations of the regime’s new bullishness lie largely beyond its embattled borders and, paradoxically, owe much to US policy choices. Washington’s enthusiasm for regional democracy was tempered by Hamas’ election victory in Palestine. The ensuing crisis there has in any case distracted attention from Syria, as has nascent civil war in Iraq. And then there is Iran, America’s next big thing.

Isolating Tehran means inducing Syria, one of its few Arab allies, to stand back. Though it would not admit it, Washington needs Mr Assad. At the same time, the Syrian leader’s recent muscle-flexing is also motivated by fear, fixated on two looming events.

One is next month’s UN report into the killing last year of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Whether or not Mr Assad is accused of wrongdoing, senior officials have already been implicated. But the extent of the regime’s embarrassment is likely to be directly proportionate to American determination to pursue it.

Potentially more problematic for Mr Assad in the longer term is the National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition alliance that will hold its first conference in London next month. The NSF brings together two formidable figures: Syria’s former vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who defected last year; and Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, the exiled leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Such collaboration by secular and religious opposition leaders was unusual, Ms Allaf said, and was an echo of Mr Assad’s own recent efforts at cohabitation. «This is the first time in four decades that we’ve seen significant organised opposition to the regime. They’ve gone out on a limb to draw in other exiles and groups from around the world.» If the NSF proved a serious proposition, she said, all Mr Assad’s machinations could count for nought.