How Bush's war bolstered Syria

The chaos in Iraq has emboldened Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime and given Syria new power to meddle in the Middle East.

Published May 31, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Thousands of torches rise and fall in unison as a chorus of voices roars, "We are with you, Bashar." The throng of young people heaves toward Umayyad Square in downtown Damascus, in a strictly choreographed ritual meant to show the world how much they love Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Behind them, a water fountain flashes with the green, red and white of the Syrian flag, while a sultry female voice sings from a loud speaker: "We love you. We want you." The scene is intended to look like Ukraine's Orange Revolution, or neighboring Lebanon's Cedar Revolution. But with the eerily synchronized torches, martial music and coordinated rows of young people -- all sporting identical white T-shirts bearing a smiling portrait of Assad -- it seems more like North Korea.

This should not be a good time for Assad, who has just overwhelmingly "won" reelection. The soft-spoken, 42-year-old ophthalmologist -- who has ruled Syria since his father's death in 2000 -- has been rebuked by a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, which implicated top members of the Syrian regime. And Syria remains under sanctions and largely isolated by the West, its economy in trouble.

But Assad's power has been growing for an ever more apparent reason: Iraq. A few years ago, his regime was reluctantly talking about economic and political reforms. Today, its dominant message is about security and stability, which resonates powerfully with a population that has witnessed bloody chaos to the east and watched more than a million Iraqi refugees flee across Syria's borders. Syrians who might once have wanted regime change themselves now fear ending up like Iraq; the promise of democracy isn't worth the cost. The Baathist dictatorship offers security -- even as it cracks down on democracy activists and stifles the few small freedoms Syrians gained since Assad rose to power. By getting rid of one dictator, Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has strengthened another one right next door.

"What happened in Iraq makes the entire region afraid," says Haitham Maleh, 75, a prominent dissident lawyer, former judge and former president of the Committee for Human Rights in Syria. "People don't want to risk foreign occupation, chaos and sectarian bloodshed. And the Syrian regime is playing on those fears. It was natural for the regime to be strengthened by the catastrophe in Iraq."

And what better way for a dictator to prove his strength than by organizing two weeks of mass rallies that culminate in an uncontested election? The May 27 referendum to grant Assad another seven years as president, in Baathist style, featured only his name on the ballot, with the choices yes or no. He garnered 97 percent of the vote. In the weeks prior to the referendum, the regime sentenced six dissident lawyers, writers and human rights activists to multiyear prison terms for speaking out against the government.

One young human rights activist, whom I've met frequently during my visits to Syria over the past three years, was the most dejected and depressed I've ever seen him. His civil society group has been suspended, he has been interrogated a half dozen times, he's barred from leaving Syria, and, like many others, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of more persecution. "You can no longer engage average people about democracy and human rights. They see what's happening in Iraq and they panic," he says, sipping an espresso at a Damascus cafe where he spends a lot of his time these days. "They don't want to hear about democracy."

Since Saddam Hussein's ouster, the Bush administration has accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to slip into Iraq to fight U.S. forces. But despite its harsh rhetoric, by now the administration understands that it needs Assad's help to stabilize Iraq. On May 3, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a regional conference on Iraq in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, the highest-level meeting between the U.S. and Syria in two years. Even though nothing substantive was accomplished, Assad's regime is using the half-hour meeting as proof that it can force Washington to negotiate. "The Americans are calling now, begging Syria to help in Iraq. This is how the regime sees it," says Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University. The meeting "has been used in Syria as a sign of huge success," says another political writer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It points to a change in Bush administration policy toward Syria."

But after being ostracized by Washington and shunned by some European nations, Assad's regime renewed its partnership with Iran, which helped prop up the Syrian economy with cheap oil. Syria also strengthened its ties with militants like Hezbollah, Hamas and the renegade Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Syrian regime has allowed Hamas political leaders to operate out of Damascus for years, and the group's election victory last year in the Palestinian territories bolstered Assad in his confrontation with the United States. The Syrians were also emboldened after last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah: The Shiite militia's strong military performance against Israel reflected some of the glory back in Assad's direction, as Syria has long been a conduit for weapons from Iran to Hezbollah.

Assad is increasingly confident he can influence events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon -- and Iraq. "Assad plans to sit tight and wait until the Bush administration is out of office," says one Syrian political analyst with ties to the regime. "He knows that the U.S. can't achieve stability in Iraq without his help. But just to be safe, he is holding other cards."

Because of the Iraq war, Assad today has another powerful card he can play: Iraqi refugees. Syria is now home to the largest population of them, with an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million. Assad can claim to the wider Arab world that he hasn't shut the doors on Iraqis (as Jordan and Egypt mostly have) and thereby keep up the pretense that Syria is the "beating heart of Arab nationalism" that doesn't turn its back on fellow Arabs.

If Assad were to change course, expelling refugees en masse, or denying more of them entry, it could create further problems for the U.S. and the Iraqi governments. "Everyone is begging Syria not to close its border to the Iraqis," says a European diplomat in Damascus. "If Syria closes the border, we will have people setting up tents and living in refugee camps near the border. We would have an enormous humanitarian and security crisis."

Syria's role as a regional spoiler goes back to the 1970s, when Hafez Assad took power in a military coup. The elder Assad perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles, as he did with Israel during its occupation of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. When the younger Assad first rose to power, many dismissed him as incapable of playing the regional game as well as his father. But over the past seven years Bashar Assad has honed his skills -- and withstood international pressure and isolation.

"He showed that he could outlast all the leaders who were trying to bring him down: Blair, Chirac, Bush," says a Syrian analyst and writer who spent more than 10 years in prison during the elder Assad's rule. "They did their best to bring him down, but they failed. So he grew more confident and authoritarian."

When Assad became president in 2000, he promised change. There was a short period of openness, known as the "Damascus Spring." The freedoms gained were small: modest gatherings in people's homes to discuss democracy and reform; writings and speeches critical of corruption and government failures (although never directly critical of Assad or his family); gatherings of small civil society groups, not licensed by the government, that focused on human rights and women's issues. But most of these meager freedoms have been rolled back since 2001.

The crackdown continues, and has included activists, lawyers and writers who once thought that they were safe on account of their high profiles or connections to the West. But the United States and Europe couldn't -- or wouldn't -- protect them. A week after the Rice-Moallem meeting, a Syrian court sentenced Kamal Labwani, a physician and leader of a pro-democracy group, to 12 years in prison for "contacting a foreign country" and "encouraging attacks against Syria." In November 2005, Labwani was arrested at Damascus Airport after returning from Washington, where he had met with Bush officials. His sentence, handed down on May 10, is the harshest imposed on a dissident since Assad came to power. Labwani's case was meant to send a message to opposition members: Don't deal with the United States or Europe.

In recent weeks, five other activists have been convicted and sentenced. On April 24, Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer who had criticized torture in Syrian prisons, was slapped with a five-year prison sentence on charges of contacting a foreign country and "spreading false news" that could "weaken national morale." Al-Bunni was among 500 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who signed the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which urged Syria to improve its relations with Lebanon. On May 14, Michel Kilo, another signatory and one of Syria's most prominent writers and democracy campaigners, was sentenced to three years in prison for "spreading false news" and "inciting sectarian sentiments." Three other activists who had also signed the declaration were sentenced to prison.

The U.S. and several European governments have called on Assad to stop persecuting dissidents and to release political prisoners. But to many in the Syrian opposition, the West's protestations ring hollow. "Assad's regime knows the Bush administration doesn't really care about democracy and civil society in Syria. They are using it as a pressure tactic to further U.S. policy interests," says the dissident writer imprisoned for more than a decade. "We know this, and the regime knows it."

Despite the danger, a few Syrians are still willing to speak out openly against the regime. Haitham Maleh, the septuagenarian dissident lawyer, works out of an office in a rundown Ottoman building in downtown Damascus. Despite being lined with flower-print couches, the greeting room is depressing, with fluorescent lights and a ceiling fan that makes a whirring sound like an engine. On one wall hangs a certificate presented to Maleh last year by the Dutch foreign minister: the Geuzen Medal, named after the 16th-century Dutch dissidents who fought against Spanish domination. Maleh couldn't attend the ceremony -- the regime has banned him from traveling -- but he hands out reproductions of the certificate on a postcard bearing his motto, "Together for Freedom and Legitimacy."

When I visited, he was hosting two Egyptian human rights activists who had come to Damascus to monitor the trials of Syrian dissidents. At the end of the meeting, they asked to have a picture taken with Maleh, who obliged happily.

"In our meetings with Syrian colleagues, everyone introduces themselves with their name, where they're from, and how many years they spent in prison," joked one of the Egyptian visitors. "We're beginning to wonder if any of you have not been to prison." Maleh smiled behind his thick glasses and shook his head: He spent seven years in prison during Hafez Assad's reign.

"It is not possible for a dictatorship to reform itself. This is a dream," Maleh told me after the Egyptians left, his hands fluttering as he talked. He knew that his words could be crossing one of the constantly shifting "red lines" of the regime, so he added mischievously, "The worst thing about me is my mouth. I can't shut up!"

Maleh doesn't have much hope for the future. "I don't think we are ready for a change. The opposition is weak, the regime is strong and the regional situation is working in its favor. Most of the potential opposition leaders have been killed or forced into exile," he said. And along with them, so has hope for democratic reform or progress.

By Mohamad Bazzi

Mohamad Bazzi has been the Middle East bureau chief for Newsday since 2003.

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George W. Bush Iran Iraq Middle East Syria United Nations