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Frosty forecast for Syria's democratic 'Arab spring'
Toronto Globe and Mail


October 25, 2005

DAMASCUS - The man seen as the de facto leader of Syria's opposition took a few rapid puffs on a cigarette as he considered the question: Are the country's democrats ready to challenge President Bashar Assad's hold on power if international pressure succeeds in weakening it?

"No," came the one-word confession from Riad al-Turk, the 75-year-old former political prisoner who is Syria's most broadly respected opposition politician.

He acknowledged that the country's democrats, persecuted by the regime and divided until recently into myriad factions, are in no position to stage the sort of mass demonstrations that took place in Lebanon earlier this year, which sparked talk of an "Arab Spring" that optimists hoped might eventually reach Damascus.

But al-Turk was quick to add that if the United Nations Security Council decides to put even more heat on the Syrian government at its meeting Tuesday, the pendulum could rapidly swing in the opposition's favor for the first time since Assad's father, Hafez, seized power in 1970.

The United States and Britain are ratcheting up pressure on Syria, saying a U.N. report that implicates Syria in the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was "very serious," and the world must act. They, along with France, are said to be considering sanctions or other measures aimed at further isolating Assad's regime.

In the first arrest since the report was released, a suspect accused of calling pro-Syrian Lebanese President Imile Lahoud minutes before the killing was detained over the weekend. (Lahoud has denied any involvement in Hariri's death.)

"The internal opposition is against the regime, and the international community is against the regime, so our interests should meet," al-Turk said. "Right now, the system appears very strong, but if you analyze it carefully, it is really very weak. A small kick could cause it to fall."

That blow, al-Turk hopes, will spring from the report, which was released last week. The evidence compiled by U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis is damning in its suggestion that the killing was organized at the highest levels in Damascus.

Although the Syrian government repeated its denial that it had anything to do with Hariri's death, one or more resolutions condemning Syria are expected to be proposed at tomorrow's Security Council meeting.

Hariri's death sparked street protests in Beirut last spring and eventually forced an end to Syria's 29-year military occupation of its smaller neighbor.

But Syrian politics, unlike the politics of fractured Lebanon, have been dominated for three decades by one party and one family. Strict state control of the media during that time has meant that most ordinary Syrians know little about the opposition or its platforms.

There's no single figure who could be named as a serious rival to Assad. Al-Turk is revered in opposition circles as a symbol of resistance to the regime, having spent some 17 years in prison for membership in the banned Communist Party. But he said he would refuse the mantle of leadership even if others tried to thrust it upon him. Stooped and frail, he said the country needs hundreds of new leaders to emerge, not just one man.

The chances of that happening, he said, were advanced last week by the signing of the Damascus Declaration, a two-page document in which a hodgepodge of Communists, Islamists and liberal democrats came together to demand peaceful regime change in Syria. It was the first time the disparate parties were able to put aside their quarrels about what should follow the Baathist regime in Syria, and agree to work first on their common goal of ending Assad's rule.

"There's a window of opportunity right now," said Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based pro-democracy group. "With the Damascus Declaration and the Mehlis report, it feels like it's all coming together and that real change could happen. When it's going to happen, or how, we don't know."

Ghadry, like al-Turk, said he hoped the U.N. would be careful to impose only targeted sanctions on the Syrian leadership. Broader economic sanctions, he said, would do unnecessary harm to the Syrian people, an estimated 30 percent of whom already live in poverty.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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