Online Symposium: Syria’s Glasnost?

By Jamie Glazov | | March 25, 2005

Syria has announced that it will withdraw its troops from Lebanon. The Syrian-leaning government of Lebanon dissolved itself and preparations are being made for multi-party elections. Syria has handed over to the Iraqi government Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan, a most-wanted leader in the Sunni insurgency who was operating out of Syria. Syria has also announced that it is shutting down the Damascus office of Islamic Jihad. 

Are these developments an indication that the terror state is experiencing a thaw? Is it turning away from its links to terror? If partly the case, is all of this happening only because of successful U.S. pressure on Syria and other dictatorships in the region? 

What can we expect next and in what direction should U.S. policy head to push these developments further?

To discuss these issues with us today, Frontpage has assembled a distinguished panel. Our guests today:

Farid Ghadry, the duly elected President of the Reform Party of Syria (RPS). The RPS is a US-based opposition party that has emerged as a result of 9/11. It is governed by secular, peace-committed American-Syrians, Euro-Syrians, and native Syrians who are determined to see that a “New Syria” is reborn that embraces real democratic and economic reforms;

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist and political analyst based in Damascus. He is also the coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a program that seeks to bring greater awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Arab world;

Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.


Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, Director of American Center for Democracy (, and author of 4 books, the most recent: Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It.

FP: Farid Ghadry, Ammar Abdulhamid, Ilan Berman and Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Mr. Ghadry, let me begin with you. The Syrians are clearly buckling under U.S. and international pressure. The Lebanese have also been inspired by the courage of Iraqis and they now refuse to take it anymore. Indeed, mass protests in Lebanon, marked by some hundreds of thousands of people, have given the Syrians no choice. It reminds us of the Eastern Europeans coming together in mass numbers in the late 1980s to drive out their communist puppet governments.

Now, yes, the term “Glasnost” obviously does not technically apply to the Syrian situation. But could one say that a process of this kind, in one way or another, is underway in that country? To be sure, a group of thugs and scoundrels is still running Syria, but a “thaw” can often be engendered not by sincere intrinsic desires, but by the necessity caused by internal and external pressures.

Defining exactly how the supposed Syrian “thaw” may or may not be a form of Glasnost will help crystallize for us the profound dynamics occurring in the Syrian and Lebanese situation right now – and in the rest of the region in particular.

So Mr. Ghadry, tell us what is happening in Syria. Is it close to a Glasnost, or not close at all? 

Ghadry: There is no doubt that the US pressure, in addition to France and the United Nations, are having an effect on Syria today. The resistance to change by the government is visible in all its forms while the Syrians are watching with awe and anticipation what is happening next door in Lebanon. 

Although the majority of Lebanese represented by the majority of Sunnis, Druze, and Christians want Syria out of Lebanon, Syrian Ba’athists will never totally leave Lebanon. When it comes to supporting Iraqi terrorism by giving refuge to the people who have oppressed the Iraqis, Syria is sending a clear signal that it does not want to see a vibrant democracy next door. 

Delivering one al-Sabhawi when el-Douri, el-Ahmad, and many, many others are still helping create havoc in Iraq shows the extent to which the Syrian Ba’athists will go to sow the seeds of terror. As far as closing the office of Islamic Jihad, I will believe it when Islamic Jihad terrorizes the Ba’athists the same way they continue to terrorize other people. Nothing just walks away in the Middle East without a price being paid by someone. I would view all this as a recoil by the Syrian Ba’athists but still not a Glasnost.

FP: Mr. Abdulhamid?

Abdulhamid: Glasnost is simply not the right concept here. What we are seeing are the frantic efforts of a regime that has made too many miscalculations over the preceding five years and has consequently found itself in a very untenable situation, facing potential international isolation and sanctions. 

This regime is indeed trying to climb out of the very hole it unwittingly dug for itself. For this reason, it is willing to provide many concessions. Still, and because of the lateness of its response, these concessions are no longer sufficient. But it doubtful that the regime can do more at this stage. For this is not the highly centralized regime it used t be under Hafiz al-Assad, there are too many factions here, and too many power centers, which only complicate the decision-making process. Too much change in the tactics and policies of the regime could simply lead to an implosion at this stage, which is why the Syrian President has avoided making any such changes. 

But now that a pull-out from Lebanon seems immanent, the President has no choice but to attempt to consolidate his power by putting more and more of “his people” in position of power. It is in this light that we should see the recent promotion of his brother-in-law to become the man responsible for controlling the military intelligence apparatus. It is also in this light that we should take the President’s hint at major changes emanating from the upcoming conference of the Baath Party. 

This move, however, is not really about reform; it does not represent a glasnost. It is about consolidation of power; it is about averting a potential putsch from disaffected members of the regime. Glasnost requires a clearly announced policies, including: freeing of all political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency, granting of political freedoms, allowing for the return of exiled figures, holding of a referendum on a new more liberal national constitution, and calling for open and free elections. 

Such visionary steps will enable the President and his immediate supporters and advisors to appear as national heroes and will assure them a stake in the new emerging order. 

Unfortunately though, this regime has not show the kind or proactivity and leadership sense required for the adoption of such a platform. This does not augur well for the immediate future of the country.

Berman: The term is indeed misleading. During the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” policies were a concerted effort to promote open discussion within the USSR of regime shortcomings. They were intended to preserve the relevance of – and reinvigorate support for – the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev and his cronies learned the hard way that cracks in a totalitarian regime’s armor, once exposed, tend to embolden internal forces seeking change. 

The Assad government has learned this lesson well. The internal personnel reshuffles and political olive branches now emanating from the regime in Damascus have very little to do with true systemic reform. Rather, they are the desperate attempts of a crumbling regime to preserve the old order. 

As these signs suggest, Syria is at a crossroads. If the Assad regime has its way, there can be little doubt that Syria will revert to the status quo ante – an “outpost of tyranny” in the Middle East. But growing signs suggest that the Bush administration and its allies in the War on Terror have a real opportunity to promote a post-totalitarian transition in Damascus. It is up to them to seize the moment.

FP: And so what does the U.S. do to seize this moment?

Ehrenfeld: The US must keep up the pressure that Syria removes all its military forces, including intelligence personnel from Lebanon, and that it expels ALL terrorist organizations it currently hosts, including the Iraqi insurgency, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah and their affiliates from Damascus. 

But Assad, backed by Iran, is unlikely to concede. Using Lebanon as a surrogate is vital to keep the Assad regime in place. Syria’s hold on Lebanon is important for Assad’s hold on Syria. And the huge profits Assad and his cronies are reaping from many ongoing rackets including a lucrative illegal drug business run together with Hezbollah from the Baqa Valley, is an important element that keeps them in power.

By demanding a free Lebanon, the US can keep the momentum it gained in the Middle East with the Iraqi election. Insisting that Syria leaves Lebanon will also weaken the Iranian backed Hezbollah’s hold in Lebanon and diminish al-Qaeda’s growing influence in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. U.S. persistence is crucial to strengthen US influence in this region.

FP: Ladies and gentlemen, two questions then:

[1] The members of this panel have shrewdly pointed out how there is no “Glasnost” per se occurring in Syria, primarily for the fact that any of the changes occurring are simply being done out of pressure etc. But we must remember that Glasnost also came around in the Soviet Union not because the Soviets really wanted to change, but because they were under pressure to do so – or face the prospect of extinction (which ended up happening anyway). In other words, Glasnost doesn’t necessarily mean there are these good-hearted democrats who want to bring democracy. Gorbachev was a communist who initiated certain reforms because he wanted to save the system. It was a response, in part, to the intense pressure the U.S., under Reagan, had been putting on the Soviets. Gorbachev just let the genie out of the bottle. So there is a certain legitimate analogy here, no?

[2] It appears that everything we are saying here shows that all of the events are a powerful vindication of U.S. policy in Iraq, correct? Thanks to American military intervention in Iraq and the liberation of that country, we now see a domino effect transpiring for freedom and liberty in the region. The Syrians have no choice but to allow the Lebanese autonomy, Mubarak in the Egypt is starting to talk about elections, Saudi women are gonna be voting soon, etc. As Charles Krauthammer recently noted, the Berlin Wall has fallen in the Arab world. And we can thank President Bush for this, right?

Ghadry: One gets the sense, and certainly from talking to people inside Syria, that there is a whiff of change in the air. The same people that expressed themselves in short bursts in the past are enjoying today long conversation that belittles the power the Mukhabarat has on them. 

Syrians are starting to feel that this call for freedom for Lebanon coming thousands of miles across oceans is for real. Civic leaders are meeting and the general public is talking, which inevitably makes one think that Glasnost is on the door steps of Damascus. What people do not understand about the regime of Assad, Shawkat, Suleiman, and all the other behind the scenes thugs in the Syrian regime is the extent to which they will go to further their control in times of peace and kill in times of war. 

What I fear the most today is the reaction of these violent people against their own public. As we have seen with the killing of Hariri (US and France have irrefutable proof of his killing by Syrian military intelligence), they are stupid enough, if threatened, to kill as many innocent Syrians as needed. I believe the Syrians on the street response has been one of hope but also one of timidity because George W. Bush has yet to call for freedom in Syria and because they know the ruthlessness and savagery of the Ba’athists in control in Damascus. .

The Iraq war, which our party stood by and supported, brought liberty to all Arabs. Every reaction we have seen on Arab streets, whether visual in the form of demonstrations in Lebanon, or behind the scenes pressures that forced Mubarak to concede to allowing other political parties to participate in the elections came as a result of the Iraq war. The Iraq war was the dynamite that weakened the structure of autocracy in the Middle East. Beyond that, the inaugural speech in addition to the speech made by Bush at the National Defense University on March 8 are providing the credibility so many Syrians are demanding that instils in them the kind of courage necessary to carry through with parallels of Glasnost. 

I meet with Syrians from around the world in chat rooms and one of the things I struggle in explaining is how real this freedom is. The United States helped the Assads for many years because of ill-advised policies that supported dictatorships. The same US is now trying to destroy them. Syrians find this hard to believe. But the more people believe it is true, the more courageous they become. 

FP: If I am not mistaken, the Syrian dictatorship lives off of its exploitation of Lebanon. If the Syrian despots lose Lebanon, they lose power. If Syria goes the way of Iraq and Afghanistan, then the whole terror-tyranny axis in the Arab Middle East might come crumbling down, because, again if I am not mistaken, Syria’s dictatorship holds the region’s tyranny-terror links together. Am I stating anything credible or realistic here?

Abdulhamid: The loss of Lebanon comes as a major blow to the Syrian regime, and greatly undermines the position of the Syrian President. The only real reason for the recent orchestrated demonstrations in Syria is to attempt to shore up the image of the President in the face of any potential challengers. 

However, the Syrian civil society scene is a pretty desolate place due to so many years of authoritarian Baath rule. For this, the possibility of witnessing a popular protest against the government is unlikely at this stage, no matter how desperate the situation is or gets. The President does not have anything to fear on this account then. Rather, his main source of immediate concern is his own regime, where many are growing increasingly dissatisfied with his style of leadership, which is anything but transparent, even from their point of view, and despite the President’s own call for transparency in his inaugural speech five years ago. 

Moreover, despite the rumors regarding his weakness, the President has actually worked studiously to concentrate the powers in his own family, favoring his family members with important appointments and positions. The increasingly visible fragmentation of the regime does not emanate from the President’s alleged weakness, but from his lack of a guiding vision and inadequate leadership skills, which only serve to exacerbate the situation. This said, the President seemed poised to undertake some drastic changes in the make up of the regime using the upcoming conference of the Baath Party as the main vehicle in this regard. 

But, and despite the fact that reform will be the operative word that will be used to consummate this affair, the real motive is to concentrate even more power in his hand and avert a possible putsch. Reform, we finally have to concede after five years of expectations and hoping against hope itself, has always been a distant second to power retention for this President. 

On a related note, and in response to your two questions, let me note that I am not against reform that comes under pressure. Indeed, Glasnost was arguably the product or increasing external pressures on the former USSR. My argument here is that the pressures that are being piled-up on the regime came mostly as a response to its foreign policy screw-ups and miscalculations, not lack of internal political and economic reforms. 

The intimate link between lack of reforms and the increasing miscalculations that the regime was making in foreign policy, seems to have been discovered only recently. Only now we are witnessing pressures on the regime to reform internally. But the President seems poised to do in a manner that would make him more of an autocrat, rather than open up the political system. 

It is time to fine tune the pressures now and deliver a very clear message regarding the changes that need to take place in order for this President and this regime to normalize their relations with the international community once again. One of President Bush’s recent statements with regard to Syria, decried the inability of the regime to jump on the democratization wagon going through the region. This is a start, but it is not enough. He needs to articulate what is it exactly that he is hinting at, what is it exactly that he wants to see taking place in Syria, and when. It is time to be clear and blunt.

FP: Mr. Berman?

Berman: I would argue that it is Lebanon, not Syria, that constitutes a — perhaps THE — key regional pivot in the Levant. Because of its geographic location, and its strategic importance as a potential building block of pro-Western regional alliances, Lebanon has been a geopolitical hostage for decades. Democratic empowerment there will constitute a major victory for the forces of transformation in the region, and open up as-yet unimagined political opportunities for the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Syria’s leaders understand this, which is why they continue to invest vast resources in perpetuating Lebanon’s turmoil. The massive pro-Syria rally staged in Beirut on March 8th is a case in point. 

The Syrians are not the only interested party here, however. Lebanon’s emerging “Cedar Revolution” is also a moment of crisis for the clerical regime in Iran, which has long been a co-conspirator in Syria’s regional troublemaking. Most directly, Tehran and Damascus both fear that Lebanon’s liberation will neutralize one of the principal mechanisms by which they can influence Middle Eastern — and American — strategic calculations: the Hezbollah terrorist organization. 

The reaction has been predictable. We are already witnessing the beginnings of an expanded role by Hezbollah as a guarantor of Syrian and Iranian interests in Lebanon. All of this suggests that if the pro-independence stirrings now underway in Beirut fail to diminish Hezbollah’s influence, Syria — and Iran — will continue to have a critical tool by which to manipulate Lebanon’s political future.

Ehrenfeld: I agree with Ilan Berman. If Lebanon is unable to shake off Hezbollah, Syria and Iran will continue to dictate terror in the Middle East and elsewhere with Lebanon as their base. Listening to some European leaning US political commentators who follow the lead of their Euro friends, referring to Hezbollah as “legitimate political party,” truly boggles the mind. Hezbollah is an Iranian creation and it was and continues to be a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel and the US. Unless it is destroyed, both Iran – which funds Hezbollah, and Syria which supports it will be able to terrorize the rest of the world.

FP: Ok then, let’s destroy Hezbollah. What are the next three steps we take to do so?

Ghadry: Hezbollah’s behavior, in light of steps that have been taken by Israel to evacuate south Lebanon and in light of the UN statements on the ownership of the Shabaa farms, is inexcusable today. Hezbollah’s raison d’être casts doubt on their mission in today’s environment. Their message of struggle has been diluted but with Syrian presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s message has also coalesced with the Syrian message, which inevitably is tied to the Golan Heights. This never ending cycle of justifying violence is a source of instability in the whole region and the answer is not within reach given the perspective upon which Hezbollah has built a base amongst the Shia’a community in Lebanon. However…

If you want to minimize Hezbollah’s influence, you need to understand their source of strength. 

Hezbollah’s Robin Hood image amongst the poorest of the poor in the region has institutionalized its bullet-proof image. Iran pays for Hezbollah’s generosity but the return on investment has been spectacular. Hezbollah’s payroll is a substitute for a Lebanese government unable to provide for its own people because of corrupt practices so well developed by the Syrian Ba’athists. Rogue regimes and violent groups, such as Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, seem to understand very well how to attract the disfranchised. While it would take Iran a week to decide to help those who supports their idealism, flourishing democracies around the world have yet to figure out a similar mechanism to help build a potent Public Diplomacy. 

We are very equipped to provide billions to dictatorships but we still do not know how to build, with our money, mainstream support to help our ideology of democracy and peaceful co-existence. For the United States to succeed, it must figure out a way to promote democracy outside the heavy burden of its bureaucracy. I suggest a special tax break for Americans willing to donate “Democracy Dollars” to help democratic organizations like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which can funnel the funds much more effectively. Or channel the funds directly to international organizations designated by US Congress but outside departmental controls. If US income is 100% not taxed or credited against future income, we would in effect create a counterbalance to Iranian ease with which it funds unwelcome organizations. 

Hezbollah’s strength emanates, as well, from providing its followers with a sense of pride and nationalist fervor built, unfortunately, on a policy of hate of others (i.e the United States, Israel, Imperialism, etc..). The United States cannot absorb that much hate without affecting its diplomacy. Our Public Diplomacy program needs overhauling and I believe Karen Hughes is the right person for that job. Small jabs at Hezbollah’s standing in the community can be achieved with very little effort. As an example, the killing of Rafik Hariri has polarized Lebanon. When one million people march in the streets of Beirut to seek justice, we are missing the opportunity of earning the hearts and minds of one million Lebanese in addition to millions of other Arabs if the President does not call publicly, in addition to Syrian troops withdrawal, for justice in The Hague for the killers of Hariri when found. Because Hariri was a Sunni Muslim leader, the impact of such a call would be considerable. Many Arabs would see in Hezbollah’s lack of support for the same issue as defining of its narrow policy and one would start chipping away at Hezbollah’s hate message. 

Another of Hezbollah’s strength lies in its capacity to define its role within the context of Lebanon’s sovereignty from foreign interference. Hezbollah’s supporters, backers, and funders all have built a base of common values when it comes to foreign influence. That influence does not include Syria or Iran, which are not considered foreign. Why they are not is directly related to our failure to impress upon their supporters that nationalist pride does not mean “borderless pride” in all shape or form. The fact that Hezbollah is able to dissect the word “foreign” to mean the US but not Syria or Iran is testimony to their propaganda machine that we have not been able to effectively counterbalance. Figuring out how to do so is a function of many variants whose pieces are not working in tandem today. Our assets are available but each work within their sphere of influence and the message gets diluted. 

If you want to minimize Hezbollah’s influence, capsize their source of strength: Money — by creating a “Democracy Dollar” fund. Pride by standing up to just local causes such as human rights. Propaganda by monogramming their weakness.

Abdulhamid: Focusing on Hezbollah in this stage is not a problem in itself. Contemplating a military option against when diplomacy has been given any chance whatever to work is. Diplomacy has been tried with Syria, but Hezbollah has never been seriously engaged in this manner except with regard to specific issues such as prisoner exchanges. I think there is a strong possibility here that Hassan Nasrallah might indeed have the necessary pragmatic spirit to allow for a new arrangement to be made for Lebanon along political lines. 

As Hezbollah develops more of a stake in the emerging political system in Lebanon, it will, I believe, begin to review its ties with Syria and Lebanon. This might sound a bit, or a lot, naïve or simplistic. But the main point here is this: let us exhaust the diplomatic action against Hezbollah. For such action is bound to undermine the stability, if not the very viability, of Lebanon itself, which will afford the Syrian and Iranian regimes a new opportunity to dabble in Lebanese affairs. Now that US war-ships seem to be headed to the Mediterranean, let’s give gunboat diplomacy a try first, before we go all gun-ho.

FP: Sorry, this kind of confuses me. What exactly is there to negotiate with Hezbollah? Is there one member of that organization that dreams of a society that allows individual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc? Is there one member that hopes for a future where Arabs and Jews can sit down as brothers and sisters? We tried that whole diplomacy thing with a scoundrel like Arafat, and the record is clear on the pain, suffering and death that that attempt brought the Jewish people. Or am I just a pessimistic hawk? Mr. Berman, go ahead. 

Berman: I tend to agree. It’s important to recognize Hezbollah for what it is: Iran and Syria’s striking arm. The prospect of rehabilitation, or even international political acceptance, is certainly appetizing to the organization’s leadership — as well as to some politicians in Europe. But Hezbollah’s ideology is not likely to change, even if its public persona does. Since it was first articulated publicly in 1985, Hezbollah’s ideological platform has been guided by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision of radical expansionist Islam. Whatever the group’s public rhetoric today, this is still its operating principle. 

All this is profoundly significant for the Lebanese people. The Shi’ite militia already holds 12 seats in Lebanon’s 128-seat parliament – making it a serious political force. But now, amid Syria’s hasty retreat, the group has announced plans for a more active role in national politics. Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, recently told reporters that “Lebanon today is at a crossroad, and this requires that we be more active internally.” There can be little doubt what that means: a continuation of destabilizing activities along Israel’s “northern” front, stepped up coordination and strategic collusion with Iran and Syria, and a more assertive profile internationally.

Still, Lebanon’s political changes do not have to mean gains for Hezbollah. In some corners of Europe, for example, there is a growing awareness that support of the Lebanese people can no longer be reconciled with toleration of Hezbollah’s terrorism. This means that — unlike on the issue of Iran — European capitals and Washington could very well come up with a common diplomatic, economic and political strategy to squeeze Hezbollah. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but it is certainly encouraging that the view of Hezbollah as a corrosive force in Lebanese politics, and a symbol of continued Syrian and Iranian interference, is gaining ground, both within Lebanon and abroad.

FP: Rachel Ehrenfeld, last word goes to you.

Ehrenfeld: Alas, our officials at Foggy Bottom are again in wishful thinking mode: unnamed official quoted yesterday at the LA Times: “the reality is that the reasons for their [Hezbollah] existence are being stripped away.” In addition, the Administration claim that “Rather than provoke a potentially bloody confrontation to disarm Hezbollah,” the new, more open political environment in Lebanon “could generate its own disarmament pressures.” Left alone, Lebanon’s new political reality will resemble the old, despite the public show of the Syrian departure. In this “new” environment Syria and Iran will increase their support to Hezbollah, and that will certainly turn the dream of peace in the region to yet another nightmare. This is no time to fool ourselves; the terrorist organization Hezbollah must be eradicated so that freedom and democracy can prevail in Lebanon. Only then peace may have a better chance in the region.

FP: Farid Ghadry, Ammar Abdulhamid, Ilan Berman and Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium. We’ll see you again soon.