Saturday, November 05, 2005
Syrian activist in Washington
has met with US Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch. Labwani was a member of Riad Seif's civil society forum, which formed during the famous, but short lived, Damascus Spring (2000-2001). Both were arrested at the outset of the Damascus winter in 2001. He was released from prison last summer after completing his three year sentence and tried to start a new political party this summer, the Liberal Democratic Union (LDU) (al-tajammu'a al-librali al-dimuqrati).Al-Labwani gave an interview to al-Hurra that I was able to catch Friday. Here is a brief summary that I typed in haste:
Al-Labwani said the Syrian regime has two options to get Syria out of its rut and avoid war. The first is to share power with the opposition and allow political pluralism in the country. The second is to resign.
He said that Syria's main problem is not so much the Baath party's ideology as it is the one-party rule. Breaking the one-party monopoly over power and organizing multi-party elections would bring democracy to Syria, he argued. He envisioned a scenario where the current regime would open up the system by giving key portfolios in the cabinet to the opposition and begin a 2-year transition to a democratic system. Bashar could keep the control of the army, al-Labwani argued.
A signatory to the Damascus declaration, al-Labwani believes that the regime's other option is resignation if it wants to avert a military confrontation with the United States and spare Syrian lives.
Al-Labwani's rather idealistic scenario of power-sharing in Syria clashed with his own pessimistic assessment of the regime's ability and willingness to reform the political system. He ruled out any chances of the regime implementing reform now or in the future.
So how can the regime be convinced to give up its monopoly and bring the weakened political opposition out of its division, exile and jail into the decision making fold?
"We want the United States to put political and diplomatic pressure on the regime," he said.
He did not elaborate, at least not convincingly, on what kind of political and diplomatic pressure can build a Syrian democracy in two years. His interviewer asked him tough questions about the opposition itself, and whether it can be up to the task he described, and whether the Alawites, the Islamists and the Kurds can join the coalition to basically change the political order in Damascus (when asked whether the opposition wanted regime change or a change in the regime, he repeated his two options scenario).
He said the regime has tried for years to weaken the opposition by sowing division and conflict among its ranks. But the "real opposition," he argued, will come from "the Syrian people… what we need to do is not rely on tired symbols, we have to open up the society and bring a new generation of opposition."
He seems to have faith in the Syrian people to turn the country around if they are allowed to participate in democratic elections that would bring new faces and powers to the political process. He said Syria would remain a secular state for all. When asked about the Muslim Brotherhood, and whether they would be willing to build a secular state with the rest of the Sunnis, he acknowledged that they (his group) were engaged in long and difficult negotiations with them. There is also the issue of the Alawites, whom he argued should not feel threatened if the Assad family ceded some power.
Al-Labwani said he told the US administration about all this, and warned them against heeding the calls of those who are seeking to topple the regime by force.
He strongly criticized certain unnamed members of the Syrian opposition for "whispering in the US administration's ear" that the current opposition is too weak to be the alternative to Bashar's autocratic rule. He said there is a current in the US administration that is advocating war on Syria to bring about regime change a la Iraq. When asked who in the US administration wants to go to war, he said it wasn't State Department, but others that he did not name.
Of course much of al-Labwani's solution hinges on the regime's willingness to cede some of its power to the opposition and create in a short period of time a multi-party political culture. Recognizing that, al-Labwani said the regime has no other choice if it wants to spare the lives of the Syrian.
He said the regime should stop begging for a deal—there will be no deal, he stressed. To avoid a "Milosovic scenario," or a "violent end" (like Iraq) and to spare Syrian lives, they should either share government with the opposition, or resign.
Al-Labwani seems to believe that a democratic change is possible, if the US exerts "diplomatic and political" pressure. Yet he doesn't, at least not convincingly, explain how that will force a regime that he described as unable to implement any serious reform, to allow for multi-party elections where" everybody will cooperate" for a "calm transition to democracy."
Al-Labwani returns to Syria this Tuesday (8 November.) According to Landis, he wants to get the word out that he met with US officials. This visit is a clear sign that some of the opposition in Syria, as Tony pointed out, does not mind using the US in its struggle against the regime and that taboos are falling in Syria. I think they are facing an uphill battle. My guess is the regime will manipulate the fear of foreign intervention to consolidate its power further.
UPDATE. Al-Jazeera is reporting (Tuesday, 8 November) that al-Labwani was arrested upon arrival at the airport.
If you think long enough about this, it's beyond hilarious.
From Baghdad to Damascus, Aleppo and Buenos Aires, it’s just the same sad story: the President and his Neocon friends have no one to reason them...
In the early 1960’s a young Columbian journalist named G. Garcia Marquez wrote “The Colonel Has No One to Write Him” the poetic tale of a failed leader who goes each Friday to the same post office to see if a long-awaited letter bringing some good news has finally arrived.
This novel was to become a great classic amongst Latin America’s famed “poetic magic” literary school…and a highly prescient metaphor for Dubya’s pathetic presidency!
The man they call “El Jorge” south of the Rio Grande (who once said “Mi Casa Blanca es tu Casa Blanca” in an outlandish bid to gratify Hispanic voters) was in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on Friday to attend the opening session of the “hemispheric” Summit of the Americas: he was greeted by tens of thousands of angry Argentines who chanted "Get out, Bush!" and "You are the terrorist!" among other niceties…
By evening, massive riots were reported in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, where students and workers set fire to several McDonald's restaurants.
"It is not easy to host all these countries at the same time" said Bush as he appeared before reporters after their morning meeting. "It's particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me!" [sic/sick]
Assuming that by "Islamists" you mean Sunnis who profess to same, to what extent to the MB and other such groups influence the Sunni agenda? What are the issues that drive their interests - is it all about Iraq and such, or are there more home-grown issues that can be used as catalysts for negotiations? How much power DO they want?
Ghadry wants direct US support, although, even he balks at military intervention. He doesn't like the old socialist left at all and prefers a free market approach. Most of the other US-based Syrians reject Labwani's plee for open US backing because they are trying to work with the opposition based in Syria, which understands that the Syria public is still ferociously anti-American and pro Arab nationalism.
Best, and thanks again. Joshua