Friday, July 16, 2004

US Foreign Aid to Syria

Last night the House passed the foreign aid bill. It included $1.5 million for grants to NGOs and human rights groups in Syria and Iran. This same provision was in last year's budget, but only for Iran. I believe it was used to support websites. 
At this point, there is no companion legislation in the Senate, and one can’t expect to see a bill signed by the President until late in the year. There will most likely be an omnibus spending bill, which will incorporate foreign aid.
That means that the $1.5 Mil., which would be distributed in all likelihood through the National Endowment for Democracy for use in Syria won't be available for a while. The Middle East Partnership Initiative Office at State would theoretically allocate the money to NED.  Syria and Iran are on the State Sponsors of terrorism list, which means that aid to them is prohibited; however, congress can use a "not-withstanding" clause to get around this.  
It is hard to speculate on which groups could accept it. All Syria’s human and civil rights organizations need support badly, but taking US government money might be pushing their luck in the present climate. It could end up buying them a very expensive express ticket to the clink.
It does raise the question, however, of how the US can support reform in Syria. Analysts are always carping that the government should not waste their time supporting foreign opposition groups such as Ghadry’s Reform Party of Syria, which are happy for foreign funding. Rather, they argue it is smarter to concentrate on the “civil society” movements now active in Syria. Now that the government is actually moving in this direction, however, the implementation will not be easy. Will they give it to the now outlawed Kurdish parties? Will it go to the Committees For the Defense Of Democratic Liberties And Human Rights In Syria? The head of the organization, Aksam Noaisse, was arrested a year ago. Other Civil Society leaders, such as Riad al-Turk, have spoken out against reform groups working with the United States. He was attacked for this position by Nazir Nayouf, one of the founders of the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Liberties, who spent a decade in prison before being pardoned by Bashar. He now lives in France and has been a vocal critic of the Syria government. (It was Nayouf who originally made the claim that Syria had taken in WMD from Iraq. He has been working with Ghadry.) He recently called Riad al-Turk an aging toady of the system. The accusations between the inside and outside groups have grown uncivil and nasty.
There are, of course, a whole other category of reform supporters and innovators in Syria, who run websites promoting a freer brand of journalism, minority rights, women’s issues, etc. Though not engaged in the direct political action, they are doing the hard and also risky work in the trenches by opening up public debate and pushing new ideas. Three are listed at an earlier post on “Syria Comment.” The Tharwa Project is doing very interesting things. Its director, Ammar Abdulhamid, is now supporting eight employees on $40,000 he was granted by Pax Christi Nederland, which is part of an international peace movement, headquartered in Brussels, the current president of which is H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem. Most of these sites are run on a shoestring and can use all the support they can get. Abdulhamid is now a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute, so clearly he is not afraid to be associated with the US, though how far he can take that association is unclear. He has already been quite courageous by Syrian standards in asking Yitzhak Nakash, who is an Israeli-American expert on Shi`a Islam, to serve on his board. Whether he could take NED money is another question.


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