Mr. Assad, take down our wall

Special to The Daily Star

On May 24, at around 6:00 am, the Syrian authorities arrested all eight members of the board of directors of the Jamal Atasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Syria. The forum was the only tolerated independent political forum left in the country, and the only one to survive the earlier crackdown on political dissent that the regime organized in 2001, putting an end to the so-called “Damascus spring.” 

The arrests came as the Syrian leadership prepares for a Baath Party congress scheduled to start on June 6. They were apparently intended as a way for President Bashar Assad and other top officials to strengthen their positions vis-a-vis their hard-line critics within the regime.

The move also reflected the current split within the regime with regard to how to deal with the country’s revived Islamist currents. Although the Atasi Forum is primarily a secular grouping, at a recent session participants were read a letter from the exiled head of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddin Bayanuni. The Brotherhood has been outlawed since the 1980s. Earlier, the security services had arrested Ali Abdullah, the dissident who read Bayanuni’s letter, as well as Mohammad Raadoun, a Syrian lawyer and human rights activist. Raadoun had warned Syrian exiles to receive clear guarantees for their safety before accepting the government’s recent call to return home. His warning came against a backdrop of recent arrests by the security forces of Islamist exiles who returned thinking they would be safe.

The arrests reflect decisions taken at the highest levels of power in Syria and cannot be ignored. Baath leaders, it is now clear, will brook no challenge to their leading position in the country and are willing to revert to old hard-line tactics to prevent this. Indeed, the recent arrests were all made under the authority of Law 49, which makes membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offense, as it does entering into contact with the organization. The arrests, therefore, were far from being symbolic or benign. They merit serious reflection on the part of Syrian dissidents, opposition figures and interested international observers and parties.

If the arrests are ignored, even if only for the few days now separating us from the Baath Party congress, the Syrian regime will feel emboldened to crack down further on its adversaries in the near future. It will also more readily attempt to impose on the rest of the country whatever half-baked “reform package” it intends to agree to at the congress.

For this reason, the arrests should not be ignored or dismissed as something episodic. Rather they are symptomatic of what is wrong in general with Syria and its present regime. The idea of seriously expanding the sphere of participation in the country’s decision-making process is not something the current leaders are willing to deliver. Their hold on power is not something they are willing to see weakened or seriously readjusted. The “reforms” they are willing to engage in are merely designed to reaffirm their authoritarian hold on power. The “freedoms” Syrians enjoy will invariably depend on the whims of the regime and on its own particular interpretation of what is “suitable” for the flock.

Such a situation is intolerable. Over the years, the regime has become increasingly cut off from reality. Members of the political and military elite do not have what it takes to run a modern state, deal with the modern world, and introduce genuine political, economic and social reforms that the country needs in order to meet its increasing developmental challenges. Indeed, the regime has insisted on monopolizing the decision-making process, exiling Syrians to participatory oblivion.

Considering the current scheme of things, Syria’s leaders are more likely to transform the country, so rich yet in natural and demographic resources, into another failed state – not unlike Sudan, or even Somalia. As such, for the sake of Syria’s future and that of its 17 million people, Syrians must take a bold and united stand in the face of the increasingly authoritarian predilections of the Assad regime.

Rather than attempt to appease the leadership in Damascus, the international community should seek to isolate it even further, while maintaining contacts and cooperation with Syrian dissidents and opposition groups. It should be made clear to the Syrian regime that if it seeks a way out of its current predicament, the only way to do so is by satisfying the basic demands of the opposition for justice and the right to participate actively in all aspects of public life.

The month of June, largely because of the Baath congress, should be a make-or-break month for the Assad regime. If it seeks to survive, now is the moment for it to demonstrate its viability by loosening its grip on society.