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Syria's voices of change

Emboldened by U.S. pressure, government tolerance that alternates with crackdowns, and a sense of national crisis as deep as any in a generation, dissidents and reformers have begun debating Syria's destiny on the Web, in public forums and through frank conversation.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Ayman Abdel Nour's contest with censorship began with a term not uncommon in Syria: "forbidden."

Last spring, the word appeared on the screen of his Compaq computer, barring him entry to his Web site, His computer was the problem, he thought at first. Perhaps the server was down. Then he realized the government had blocked his site -- a forum for unprecedented dialogue among groups, parties and thinkers in Syria -- nearly a year after he had inaugurated it.

Abdel Nour, a 40-year-old reformer from within the ruling Baath Party, lost little time.

The same day, he collected the e-mail addresses he had -- 1,700 in all -- and dispatched his daily update. Two days later, the government blocked e-mails from that address from entering the Syrian network. The next day, he changed the address and transmitted another bulletin. Then that address was shut down. Changed again, and blocked. And so it went for nearly a month and a half -- Abdel Nour devising new addresses, the government barring them -- until the censors finally gave up.

"I was always ahead of them," said Abdel Nour, a kinetic multi-tasker fond of reading e-mail, holding a conversation and answering a cell phone at the same time. "They couldn't read my mind. They couldn't ban the addresses in advance."

Since then, Abdel Nour's e-mail list has grown to 15,200 subscribers, including secular and religious dissidents, intellectuals, businessmen, party leaders, ministers and Syrian embassies. Both through its content and as a symbol, the bulletin has emerged as a crucial interlocutor in the tentative, precarious space permitted to dissent in a country where nearly everyone suspects that change is ahead, even if they clash over the shape and direction it might take.

The opposition in Syria today remains weak, riven by personality and principle and groping for a voice in a country of 18 million ruled for 42 years by the same party and more than three decades by a family that belongs to a powerful minority.

But emboldened by mounting U.S. pressure, a measure of government tolerance that alternates with capricious crackdowns, and a sense of national crisis as deep as any in a generation, dissidents and reformers have begun debating Syria's destiny on the Internet, in public forums and through frank conversation. The opinions are as diverse as the country itself -- a society no less complicated than those of neighboring Iraq or Lebanon. At issue are the role of the United States, the tactics needed to bring about change and the very nature of legitimacy.

On one side of the conversation is a generation of dissidents hardened by prison. At the core of their beliefs is a sense that a system driven less by ideology than by patronage and self-interest has begun to crumble. The sooner it does, they say, the better, even if they fear the aftermath.

Abdel Nour is on the other side. He is seeking to propel reform from within the Baath Party by creating dialogue in hopes of a national reconciliation -- what many view as the only alternative to chaos.

"No one single party, association or man can bring solution to all these challenges," Abdel Nour said in his home office, strewn with paper, pamphlets, books and compact discs piled on the floor, sofas and chairs. "We have to gather all Syrians together."

'You have to be inside'
Abdel Nour's bulletin has made him something of a celebrity among Syria's intelligentsia. Even if some dissidents are uneasy about his Baath Party credentials -- the charge of working as an informant is often made within opposition circles -- they almost universally praise the role of his bulletin in airing debate and exchanging ideas that would have had no forum just a few years ago.

Each day, he and his staff of four receive submissions, scour Syrian, Lebanese, pan-Arab and other foreign newspapers, cover news conferences and browse Web sites. (Abdel Nour purchased software for $1 that allows him to circumvent government controls and reach Web sites banned in Syria.) Spending six to seven hours a day, he whittles nearly 200 pages of material to less than half. In all, he uses about two dozen articles in Arabic, with an occasional contribution in French or English.

In two years, he said, he has never taken a day off.

"We didn't even have a holiday on Christmas," said Abdel Nour, who is from an Orthodox Christian family.

The topics run the gamut from corruption and globalization to the government's ability to introduce sincere change and the prospect of cooperation between Islamic and secular opposition groups. One writer asked bluntly: "Is it possible for Syria to reform?" Another entry quoted U.S. congressional testimony this year that decried Syria "as an oppressor state in every sense."

"You can know everything going on in Syria better than the ministers themselves," he said.

Many in opposition circles believe Abdel Nour is protected by President Bashar Assad, whose own reformist impulses are a subject of considerable debate. Abdel Nour remains loyal to the party and doesn't doubt a desire for reform on the part of some within the government. But he said he worries over what they face: a sclerotic establishment and an oblivious old guard.

"They are out of date. The last book they read was in the 1970s. All of them are educated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and they don't know what the Internet means," he said. He shook his head, his arms flailing. "Is this believable?"

Frustration often marks Abdel Nour's words, as if he is preaching to the inconvertible. Like many, he is sober, even pessimistic about the future. But as he often does, he offers an answer in the form of a question: What's the alternative?

"You have to be inside. You have to persuade the people of reform. You have to lobby them and have them join you. This is the best way to facilitate transition, to not have chaos like you have in Iraq," he said. "The smoothest way is to change from inside."

An eclectic opposition
"Let this regime go to hell," answers Riad Turk, an anti-government opposition leader.

The most adamant dissidents in Syria remain an eclectic lot: the Muslim Brotherhood, groups representing Syria's Kurdish minority, and a generation of leftists and nationalists in and out of jail. The leadership of the Brotherhood, whose battle with the government in the late 1970s and '80s bordered on civil war, largely fled into exile. The Kurdish parties are still mainly dedicated to fighting for ethnic rights. Anti-government leftists are searching for a vision and a leadership to pronounce it.

Turk, 75, a communist leader, is perhaps the most iconic of the dissidents, respected by many for his conviction and trials.

Since 1952, Turk has been jailed four times. The longest was for nearly 18 years under President Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad's father, who died in 2000. Turk was confined to an underground cell, six feet by six feet, in an intelligence headquarters in Damascus. For 10 years, he says, he didn't see the sun, was allowed "not even a cigarette or cup of tea." After 13 years, his wife was allowed to visit. Books finally followed, and he read 130 in his last five years of internment. (Charles Dickens was one of his favorites.) To pass the time, he collected discolored pieces of rice. Each morning, on a white blanket, he would painstakingly arrange the rice into landscapes or still lifes.

"This regime is too old, and we have to bury it," he said, slowly dragging on a cigarette as though it were his last. "Can we do it now? No. But I'm very optimistic this regime is marching to its demise, and we have to work to make it reach this end."

Turk is the most outspoken among the opposition leaders, but across an increasingly dynamic Damascus, conversation among them is as forthright as at any time in recent memory. Cell phones, the Internet and satellite television have made for a far more aware public, and the extent of repression here pales in comparison with that in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Assad himself seems determined to rule through acceptance rather than fear, and the cult of leadership that was pervasive under his father has receded.

A popular Syrian nationalist party was legalized in May, and the government is debating whether to repeal a 25-year-old law that decrees the death penalty for membership in the still-powerful Muslim Brotherhood. Five leftist and nationalist parties, meanwhile, have come together in a group called the National Democratic Gathering. Others have begun meeting and organizing -- very tentatively.

Room to maneuver, though, remains uncertain, and the red lines are dangerously blurred.

In an episode shrouded in suspicion, Mashouq Khaznawi, a Kurdish Islamic leader, was abducted in broad daylight this month in Damascus, his colleagues said, sending a chill through opposition circles. The government has denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. Several days later, a prominent activist, Ali Abdullah, was arrested for reading a Brotherhood statement in public.

In the most severe crackdown yet, eight leaders of the Forum of Jamal Atassi, named for a late leftist leader, were arrested in their homes at dawn Tuesday, said Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer. Meeting on the first Saturday of every month, the forum had brought together activists in what resembled a debating club, coordinated by Atassi's 35-year-old daughter. She was among those detained in the crackdown, which the State Department criticized as a "negative development."

"We have a weak opposition, even if it is growing now," said Yassin Hajj Saleh, 44, an activist who joined the Communist Party at age 16 and was imprisoned in 1980 for 16 years. "It still cannot exert credible pressure on the regime."

Saleh, a handsome man with gray hair, fears sudden change, as do many of the dissidents. In his view, it is a prescription for chaos in a country deeply fragmented between Kurds and Arabs, Sunni Muslims and religious minorities. He hails Abdel Nour, whose efforts he deems crucial in navigating the kind of tumult that haunted Syria's early years of independence after World War II.

"Perhaps the future depends on an alliance between the opposition and some reformers within the Baath Party and the government," Saleh said. "Both have the same opponent" -- an ossified leadership and old guard that remain Abdel Nour's bane.

"I think we need time," Saleh added. "The longer the period of regime weakness, the better for the opposition and the better for the Syrian people. Everyone is afraid of the Iraqi example, even if they hate the regime and want it thrown in the deepest sea."

The U.S. role
More than anything else, the Iraqi example colors how reformers and dissidents perceive U.S. pressure on Syria.

The United States has effectively ended engagement with the Syrian government, in part over what Washington contends are halfhearted Syrian efforts to prevent would-be insurgents from crossing its border with Iraq. Those charges have mounted during the past week, with a U.S. military official suggesting that Iraq's most-wanted militant met lieutenants inside Syria. Whether the United States aims to see Assad's government toppled remains the axis around which analysts say Syrian officials are debating both foreign and domestic policy.

For many in Syria, the fear of what might follow lends the government de facto support among its people: It's either us or an Islamic government, us or civil war. The most pessimistic in Syria call Iraq the country's crystal ball.

"Chaos is most probably waiting for us," said Michel Kilo, another prominent activist in Damascus.

As in Iraq, the view of the United States is often nuanced, tied up in history, mistrust and grievances accumulated across four wars in five decades. Almost no one views the United States as working toward democracy in Syria. Rather, people see it securing its own interests -- more pliable Arab governments in a region dominated by Israel.

Dissidents mention President Bush's pledges for democratic change less frequently than U.S. reconciliation with authoritarian Libya after it dismantled its weapons of mass destruction programs. Few of the opposition leaders rule out a U.S. reconciliation with the Syrian government if it goes far enough to meet the Bush administration's demands.

The deep wariness aside, though, almost all opposition leaders say they still see U.S. pressure short of intervention as beneficial in itself, creating unprecedented space for them. The question they ask: Can it keep exerting pressure without going too far?

"Objectively speaking, Syrian democrats benefited from this pressure. This has no relation at all with American intentions," Saleh said. "We have a suppressive regime. When it suffers from heavy outside pressure, its hand will be shorter."

"The problem is that the Americans are in a hurry," he added. "Outside pressure is not good in itself. It's good when it encourages more and more people to participate in public affairs. You can't do this in two months."

Finding a new path
There are slogans on a road in Damascus. Few are converted by them anymore.

"The Syrian armed forces are a school of martyrdom," says one. "We possess the will and determination to fight and win victory," says another. "Unity is our path to liberation," reads the last.

Abdel Nour's father, 75-year-old Ibrahim, came of age with slogans. A Christian born in Damascus's Old City, he joined the Baath Party as a 14-year-old idealist. Like many Christians, he saw in its Arab nationalism a unity between religious faiths. Like many Syrians, he saw in the Baathist slogan -- "Unity, freedom and socialism" -- a way to undo a colonial legacy of subjugation and whimsical borders. Like many Arabs, he saw in its promise a unified Arab state that would reclaim the glories of its medieval civilization.

"The terms have changed. They don't mean what they meant before," lamented Ibrahim, a gentle retired doctor. "The entire world is moving forward. We can't stop where we are. If we stop, the world will collapse over our heads."

"There's no problem with the principles if you modernize them and adapt them," said his son, Ayman, the party reformer.

To him, "unity" becomes a framework for an ever more integrated Arab world on a path toward a European-like system. "Freedom" ensures individual rights and liberties, he said, and "socialism" pledges the government to a policy of social justice.

"The problem is with the leaders, not the ideology," Abdel Nour said. "The problem is with the implementation."

Others see a bigger crisis unfolding, a government whose ideology can no longer justify its rule and whose prestige has withered. Does a new legitimacy come through the exercise of force, an elusive notion of citizenship, a consensus gathered through reform and reconciliation? In essence, both dissidents and reformers say the transition underway must answer that question.

"You have to come up with a new formula," said Nabil Sukkar, an influential businessman and former World Bank economist. "The party can no longer claim to be the guardian of state and society. It has to share power."