Pressure on Syrian leaders emboldens opposition

Dissidents say Assad is embattled but that they lack the cohesion and resources to force democratic changes, improve human rights


DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria's prison system must wonder where it went wrong with Yassin Haj Saleh. After serving a 16-year sentence for criticizing Syria's authoritarian government, Saleh walked out of his cell, only to renew his calls for the Syrian government to embrace democratic reforms.

His bruising critiques of Syria's President Bashar Assad have grown louder since a U.N. investigation named top Syrian officials as suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"The regime is in a difficult situation. It is confused ... and it doesn't know what to do," said Saleh, 44, sipping tea in a window seat at downtown Damascus' Cham Palace coffee shop on a recent afternoon.

Assad, he said, "is not a man made of tough material. He is not a leader."

Emboldened by the growing international pressure on their country, Syrian opposition figures such as Saleh are eager to bring democracy to their country and end human rights abuses. But they lack the political strength to deliver those changes, they say.

"The opposition is still weak, even though it is putting pressure on the regime here," said Haitham Al Maleh, a human rights lawyer who was a political prisoner from 1980 to 1986.

This month, Syria's usually divisive and fractious opposition groups joined forces to renew their calls for more democracy in Assad's government. They signed a document known as the Damascus Declaration, calling for an end to Syria's repressive emergency laws and for a national conference on democratic change.

The statement drew on the support of Communists, nationalists, liberals, Kurds and other groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that is outlawed but is nevertheless thought to have considerable support. But the declaration's authors don't expect Assad to listen.

It would not be the first time that Assad has disappointed them. Five years ago, when Assad succeeded his father, they hoped he would usher in radical political and economic reforms.

At first, Assad released hundreds of political prisoners and relaxed many restrictions - a period that became known as the Damascus spring - before his government cracked down on them again in 2001.

So the leaders of Syria's tiny democracy movement - many of them huddled in smoky Damascus coffeehouses where old men nurse cups of tea and play endless games of backgammon - gather to talk about what the future holds, though they are largely powerless to affect it.

They say they are disorganized and lack resources. And in the face of Syria's repressive laws, most find it impossible to drum up much street support because most Syrians are terrified of the government's security and secret service forces.

"People in America know who I am more than people in Syria," said Saleh, a newspaper columnist and political activist.

Even if the government is weakened by the U.N. investigations, the opposition is much weaker.

Walk down any street, drive down any road, step inside any business in Syria and you will be given a reminder of who is in charge. Larger-than-life images of Assad and his father, Hafez el Assad, who died in 2000, adorn buildings, roadsides and nearly every business.

The country's 2 million members of the ruling Baath Party are the only ones with regular access to state-run television, radio and newspapers.

Since the U.N. investigation implicated top Syrian officials in the plot against Hariri, the state's media machine has been producing nonstop commentary and news stories questioning the U.N. report's findings, claiming that it is part of an elaborate plot by the United States and Israel to topple the government.

"If you want to act and succeed, you must enter the party and be a member," said Omar Amiralay, 61, a Syrian filmmaker and political activist. "The only crucial institution practicing politics, culture, social activities is the party."

Amiralay's most recent movie, A Flood in Baath Country, is an indictment of the devastating effects of 35 years of Baath rule.

Amiralay said the country's Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are the only force in Syria strong enough to counter the Baath Party.

The possibility of such a challenge has so worried the Syrian government that it has moved quickly to crush Islamic groups. When the conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the government in 1982, the secular Assad government responded by leveling their base in the city of Hama with artillery fire, killing thousands and driving Islamic groups underground.

Syria is 74 percent Sunni Muslim, 10 percent Christian, 3 percent Druze and a few small Muslim sects and Jews. The remaining 12 percent are Alawis, a minority sect including the Assad family, who have run the country with an iron fist.

True democracy in Syria, many analysts here fear, might lead to sectarian violence similar to the chaos in Iraq.

If U.N. investigators ask Assad to hand over any of the top suspects in Hariri's assassination - including his brother, Maher Assad, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the chief of military intelligence - he would be faced with turning against his family.

"If he cooperates, he would sacrifice his image. If he doesn't, he faces sanctions," said Ayman Abdel Nour, an energetic reformer within the Baath Party.

Faced with such a dilemma, Assad is likely to try to weather the international outcries instead of turning on his family or admitting that he was wrong, Nour said.

Still, Nour is optimistic that reforms will come, but slowly.

"Within the government, the inertia is huge," he said.

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