Sunday, May 27, 2007
Syrian President’s Fortunes Revive in Time for Election
Syrian President’s Fortunes Revive in Time for Election
By HASSAN M. FATTAH
DAMASCUS, Syria — Inside the tent, the trappings of a modern election campaign were on display: jingles playing, flags waving, confetti coating the floor, and posters of President Bashar al-Assad hanging near the stage.
Outside, however, Syria’s realities were evident. Government security officers manhandled anyone trying to come in and blocked reporters from covering the rally, which was financed by one of Syria’s most powerful oligarchs. The sparseness of the crowd at the start of the campaign on May 11 hinted at growing fear of the future and apathy about Syrian politics.
Only a year ago, Mr. Assad faced so many troubles that some Syrians began questioning his political survival. His troops had been forced out of Lebanon, his government faced accusations of collusion in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and the Bush administration had imposed sanctions that affected everything from the fleet of Boeings in Syria’s national airline to medical equipment. Waning oil reserves hinted at economic collapse, and the European Union delayed signing a much-needed trade agreement.
But as he prepares for a so-called national referendum in which he is certain to be overwhelmingly re-elected for a second seven-year term, Mr. Assad seems very much in control, with his rivals isolated, his critics increasingly in prison or fearing retribution, and international pressure eased. He has consolidated power around his immediate family and rewarded loyalists. And he has continued to reap the benefits of Washington’s troubles in the region. In Lebanon, the anti-Syrian March 14 movement, which helped force Syria out, has seen its political fortunes plummet, mired in unrest.
“Syria has a great deal of confidence now,” said Abdel Fattah al-Awad, editor in chief of the government-run newspaper Al Thawra. “The country is convinced that the major pressures that once faced us have disappeared. We want to offer security — that’s what we offer. The Americans, they offer Iraq, which is chaos.”
Mr. Assad came to power on a wave of optimism, promising to bring change and to rule differently from his iron-fisted father, Hafez. But as he prepares for another term, Mr. Assad has increasingly begun to emulate his father.
Political campaigners openly called for change several years ago; today many have landed in prison in a government crackdown on dissent. Others shrink from public life.
Few Syrians would even speak on the record for this article, fearing government reprisal.
Mr. Assad once focused his speeches on reform and economic development; now he speaks of security and stability. And though the economy appears to be picking up on the streets of Damascus and other cities, a small group of businessmen close to him have proved to be the main beneficiaries of the improvement. Some foreign investors from the Persian Gulf, encouraged to invest in Syria, have found themselves mired in webs of corruption.
“The Bashar of 2000 was a young, new leader who embodied the promise of change,” said Emile el-Hokayem, a research fellow at The Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. “As he prepares for a new term, there is more repression in Syria, a hardening of the regime’s stands and little movement on economic reform. Syria’s ills are as acute as they were seven years ago.”
Most of all, Mr. Assad has sought to prove to Syrians that he is a survivor, like his father, who brought stability to Syria under the Baath Party but dominated almost every part of society through a network of informers and the dreaded secret police, the Mukhabarat. The elder Mr. Assad held the country in his grip for 32 years; his authoritarian government helped end Lebanon’s bloody civil war but also put its politics and economy under Syrian control.
“We used to say he was not as clever as his father, but now things are different,” one respected doctor in Damascus said of the younger Mr. Assad. “I wasn’t so confident of him before, but he has gained good experience.”
Mr. Assad made three critical bets that proved successful, analysts here say. He bet that the American occupation of Iraq would falter, hampered in part by Syria’s funneling of militants to Iraq, and that Syria would become a critical part of any effort to stabilize the country.
He maintained support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which, when it survived a war with Israel last year, became a powerful force that could spoil American ambitions in Lebanon and further thrust Syria as a force that must be dealt with.
And just as important, he maintained support for Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, ensuring a Syrian role in any future Israeli-Arab peace effort.
Syria’s alliance with Iran, too, brought needed economic and political support and made Syria a major go-between to Iran. When British marines in southern Iraq were taken hostage by the Iranians, the Syrians played an important part in securing their release.
Soon, European officials and later American Democratic and Congressional delegations, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, began visiting Damascus, chipping away at the Bush administration’s policy of isolation.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, on the sidelines of an Iraq conference in Egypt on May 3, the Syrians quickly painted the 30-minute meeting as a strategic victory. Though little was discussed, the meeting’s symbolism was critical.
“Whoever wants to isolate Syria is in fact isolating himself from the region’s issues, because Syria has a rightful role,” Mr. Assad said in a speech before Parliament on May 10. He said the Bush administration’s effort to isolate Syria “has seen nothing but failure.”
Critics fear that an emboldened government will become even more repressive and reliant on its security apparatus. After years of tolerating the fractious opposition movement, the government cracked down on opposition figures last year, hoping to turn several into examples, opposition campaigners said.
On May 13, a court sentenced four, including Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian writer and columnist, to three years in prison for “spreading false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments.” Mr. Kilo was arrested after signing the so-called “Beirut-Damascus Declaration” calling on Syria to respect Lebanon’s territorial integrity.
Two other opposition figures, Suleiman Shummar and Khalil Hussein, were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison on similar charges.
Just a few days earlier a court sentenced Kamal Labawani, a Syrian physician and opposition leader, to 15 years for “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” after he met with Bush officials in Washington. And in April, a court sentenced human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to five years, also for “spreading false news” about Syria.
Six prominent government critics and human rights campaigners have been convicted and given heavy sentences over the past month in open criminal proceedings attended by foreign diplomats; numerous low-profile ones have been convicted as well. They all languish together with hundreds of other political prisoners still in Syrian prisons.
The government still has much to fear. Despite Syrian efforts to stymie the establishment of a United Nations-backed tribunal in Lebanon to try suspects connected to the assassination of Mr. Hariri, deliberations about the court continue. The Syrians fear the tribunal could call on senior government figures to testify or worse, indict them.
Lebanon’s prime minister, Fouad Siniora, has requested that the United Nations Security Council proceed to create the tribunal despite objections from Lebanon’s opposition, which has refused to hold a session of Parliament to vote on a Lebanese plan to establish the court.
[The United Nations has continued deliberations on a resolution forming the tribunal. In a visit to Beirut on May 22, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France was “determined” to establish the tribunal, squelching hopes that the new government of President Nicolas Sarkozy would be more lenient on Syria than that of Jacques Chirac.]
Saudi Arabia, which has sought to broker a deal over the tribunal, has increasingly grown impatient with the Syrians for refusing to cooperate. A rapprochement between Mr. Assad and King Abdullah during the Arab League summit meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in March has so far produced few tangible results, Saudi analysts say.
In a recent speech, Mr. Assad vowed not to cooperate with the tribunal if it violated Syria’s sovereignty. “The abandonment of sovereignty means that Syrian law no longer protects Syrian citizens,” he said.
But the government has also been under pressure to show some form of change domestically. A successful boycott of last month’s parliamentary elections, fueled by political apathy, resulted in low turnout that both embarrassed the government and put the legitimacy of the body in question, analysts say. Mr. Assad’s allies intend to make sure that is not repeated in the national referendum.
Meanwhile, a continuing flood of Iraqi refugees into the country has also placed strains on Syria’s economy, costing up to $2 billion per year in subsidies and expenses.
Many expect the referendum to be a turning point, but they differ on its direction. Some hope that Mr. Assad will begin changes and pardon the imprisoned advocates of change; others fear the referendum will further embolden the government to take an even tougher line domestically and cement its position.
“The regime has total power in the country,” said Riad Seif, a former member of Parliament and an opposition figure. “It controls the economy, the Ministry of Information, and it has hundreds of thousands of secret police. They can use all these tools to achieve their goals.”
Hugh Naylor contributed reporting.
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