Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Protecting Civil Society in Syria" by Joe Pace

A Better Way to Protect Civil Society in Syria
By Joe Pace
February 22 2006

While the international media busies itself (if at all) with the politicking and statements of prominent septuagenarians within the Syrian opposition, the future of Syrian civil society is being blotted out. The Syrian Committee for Human rights revealed yesterday that the secret police arrested two college students (Ali Nadir Ali and Husam Mulhem) on 24 December 2005 and another (Tariq Ghurani) last Sunday. Others are being summoned to security branches for daily interrogations and the security agencies have reportedly launched a manhunt to arrest their colleagues.

Their crime, a human rights activist within Syria informed me today, was trying to establish a political movement. Named "the son," it was apparently intended to be a liberal, secular trend.

One of the biggest problems afflicting the Syrian opposition is its inability to attract the youth. With the bulk of activists, party leaders, and association heads somewhere in the 60-80 range, a forty year old activist is considered a youth. While in Syria, I frequently saw students and young professionals scout out demonstrations in search of some movement to latch onto—rarely did I witness one see a demonstration to its conclusion. All of them would leave after trading a few words with the demonstrators. Some said that they were disappointed by the piddling size of the demonstration; others said that they left because they didn't encounter a platform that resonated with them. A recurring complaint was that the existing political parties were stuck in the 1960s, bogged down in the mire of petty ideological debates over the fine points of Leninism, socialism, or Nasserism.

As a result, many students have chosen to bypass the established parties all together and form their own groups. Frequently, these are not parties or hierarchically organized committees; they have no charter or official platform. They are more often discussion groups attended by clusters of oppositional-minded friends who have been disheartened by the existing options. The dialogue that happens in these groups has a vitality that is absent from many of the typical meetings held between opposition leaders. They are not battlegrounds for unwieldy egos, nor are they cluttered by the recycling of platitudes about free elections, annulling the emergency law, and releasing political prisoners—everyone agrees with these demands, yet these three alone are not enough to get anyone onto the streets. People will not risk beatings and imprisonment for free elections when there is no contender to demonstrate for; few Syrians support the emergency law, but to most it is an abstraction; most political prisoners are, unfortunately, a faceless bunch who enjoy virtually no name recognition among regular Syrians (as one college student who I dragged to a protest in front of the High Security Court remarked from the periphery, "Why should I take a beating for a writer who might be an agent of Israel or the US?")

The discussion groups are invaluable because they focus on the problems that afflict regular Syrians on a daily basis—in other words, the afflictions that can bring Syrians onto the streets. They are forums whose vibrancy makes gatherings by oppositional leaders appear stale and barren by comparison.

In the past few months, the US administration has finally begun making meaningful gestures toward reform in Syria. Its repeated calls for the release of Kamal al-Labwani and the Damascus Springs prisoners as well as the recent decision to earmark $5 million for the opposition are commendable. But the utility of these moves will be limited as long as the West confines its material and moral protection to the symbols of the opposition. Opposition leaders are aware that their status protects them against the most heinous abuses—the same cannot be said for less known activists, including students. Riad Seif and Haythem al-Maleh know that if they are imprisoned tomorrow an international uproar will ensue. Student activists can expect a few toothless press releases from Syrian human rights organizations—most of which will never be translated or read outside of the Syria's tiny human rights community—or at best a passing mention by Amnesty or Human Rights Watch.

Most of the opposition leaders today have faced imprisonment; they have built up social and financial support systems that sustain them through the harassment by the security agencies; they have files with the secret police that aren't going to get thinner. The foot soldiers of the opposition—the students, the young professionals, and those who have not been paid countless visits by foreign media correspondents—often have none of the above. They are the most vulnerable parts of the opposition: a student who runs afoul of the secret police is usually expelled from university or denied the opportunity to specialize, destroying his or her career prospects. These are the ones who are most often subject to capricious arrests and torture simply because they are easy targets for the regime and it sends the message that while the international community will protest the detention of a symbol, no one is going to utter a word of concern for the fate of the lesser activist.

Obviously, it's not reasonable to expect that State Department officials somberly recite a list of all the newly detained and demand their release in its daily press conference. Battles must be picked—political capital must be spent efficiently. But surely it is within the administration's capacity to broaden its condemnation of human rights violations in Syria beyond the harassment and imprisonment of icons. And there is more at stake than the wellbeing of these activists—it's also a matter of US credibility. A prominent opposition figure remarked to me that he would rather stay in prison than have Bush utter his name and be freed. That's because when the administration suddenly decides to come to the defense of a particular Syrian dissident after years of silence, that dissident becomes sullied and suspect. If the US were to more vocally condemn a greater proportion of human rights violations, its diplomatic interventions would appear less arbitrary and self-serving. The more uniformly human rights violations are publicly condemned, the less the individualized such attention from the US will appear. In other words, if it’s standard operating protocol for the US to denounce human rights violations, no activist's credibility will be tarnished when the US intervenes on his or her behalf.


At 2/24/2006 11:50:00 AM, Blogger Joseph ALi Mohammed said...

Joe, you are much fairer than your teacher. Not only that, but you are much more of a human being.

Thank you.


At 2/25/2006 02:10:00 PM, Blogger ActiveListener said...


I have been away and am now absorbed catching up with the excellent economic debate on this site. But I found your article also very thought-provoking and it raised some significant issues that I hope SyriaComment will return to.

Some very quick comments:

On the issue of attracting and involving young people in political movements – that was certainly the face of the Cedar Revolution in Beirut. It would be interesting to know how this was organised and what has been happening since with all the young people who made such a showing then.

On the question of spotlighting individuals in international attention instead of presenting the wider and deeper issue of the fear, repression and trashing of human rights inflicted by the Syrian regime – I believe the two need to be presented together. There is a very weak awareness and acknowledgement outside Syria of what is happening there. I strongly agree with you that the US would do better if it focussed more clearly on this issue (and the lack of economic opportunities), showing that it really championed the human needs of Syrians instead of generalised statements about “democracy”.

Thanks for a very interesting piece.

At 3/01/2006 05:11:00 AM, Blogger maxos said...

What teacher you're criticising Mr. JAM? I am Hussein Maxos Joe's teacher in Arabic. Joe was praised for his excellent Arabic everywhere!! And it was Joe's powerful tool to conduct his further studies. In addition, I faced a lot problems with the security here because of Joe's activities. Please be specific about Joe's teacher...thank you.

At 3/03/2006 10:10:00 AM, Blogger Joseph ALi Mohammed said...


Sorry for not having specified Mr. Landis by name.


At 3/13/2007 03:09:00 PM, Blogger bwall said...


Just came across your Washington Quarterly article by random chance yesterday. Congradualations on that. I've got my interview with Alex for a CSIS internship next week and I guess I have that random anditote to talk about now. I wasn't that suprized to see him publish your work considering your Harvard and debate background. Have read several of your articles and interviews available online since and have found them all well written and interesting. Its quite admirable what you've decided to devote your career towards.

All the best,


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