February 14, 2008


Silencing the Opposition (David Schenker, 2/14/08, The Weekly Standard)

With the onset of the brief period of glasnost known as "Damascus Spring," which commenced upon Bashar Assad's anointment as president in 2000, Seif's pro-democracy political reform activities increased: there were more meetings and forums, and even talk of establishing a political party called the Social Peace Movement Party. Then he stepped up his attacks on the government from his perch in parliament. A February 2000 speech to the prime minister and cabinet, which Seif wrote about in 2007, provides a good sense of how far he was pushing the envelope:

"breaking the [Baath party] political monopoly is a necessary condition to implement the principle of transparency . . . any monopoly cannot help but breed sterility and stop development and growth. It is not possible to separate economics from politics . . . the political monopoly necessarily results in other economic, cultural, and educational monopolies . . . "

The Baathist majority struck Seif's statement from the parliamentary record, but his comments were not forgotten. When "Damascus Spring" ended in February 2001, the regime moved precipitously to strip Seif of his parliamentary immunity. Arrests of reformers commenced that summer.

But even from jail, Seif continued to push for reform in Syria. Perhaps his crowning achievement in this regard came in 2005, when he co-authored from Adra prison the "Damascus Declaration," which among other things demanded an end to the Assad regime and Baath party monopoly of power, a suspension of the Emergency Law, and the drafting of a new Syrian constitution.

When he was arrested last week, Seif was participating in a meeting of the Damascus Declaration National Council, an umbrella organization dedicated to the implementation of these reforms.

Not content with merely preventing Seif from seeking treatment abroad, the Assad regime has now seemingly condemned Syria's leading reformer to death behind bars. His incarceration is a strong message to would-be Syrian democrats. But it's also a clear message for Washington: the Assad regime is not interested in political liberalization. As the ongoing Syrian obstruction of Lebanese presidential elections would also suggest, the Assad regime's interventionist and destabilizing foreign policies are not up for discussion, either.

The Assad regime is unrepentant about Seif's unusually harsh treatment. Last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem had the temerity to blame the human rights community for the arrest. "The importance given to the case of Riad Seif," he told the Austrian Foreign Minister, "encouraged him to break the law."

For the Bush administration, Seif's death sentence should be a defining moment. Given the circumstances, last week's perfunctory condemnation calling on Syria to "modify its behavior . . . and provide its citizens with the rights they deserve," is not sufficient. Seif is far and away the most credible Syrian oppositionist. He is not particularly close to Washington--which has enhanced his local appeal--but administration concerns about undermining his position in Syria via a Western embrace ignore the urgency of the situation.

...how hard can Baby Assad be?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 14, 2008 12:39 PM
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