Old Ways Die Hard in Syria


The Syrian regime continues to arrest opposition figures, the latest round occurring after a number of them signed onto the so-called Damascus-Beirut Declaration (text in Arabic). The text takes note of deteriorating Lebanese-Syrian relations in recent months, following the reluctant Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon last year, and while it calls for both Lebanese and Syrian interests to be advanced jointly, in several of its demands it takes positions deeply distasteful to Bashar Assad's regime.

For example, the declaration insists on "the need for Syria to recognize Lebanese independence once and for all [and] the removal of any reservation and equivocation on this issue." It calls for democracy in both countries, but the obvious sense is that it is despotic Syria that must open up. The signatories (both Syrian and Lebanese) support an investigation into the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, almost certainly ordered by the Syrian regime. And they demand the release of Lebanese in Syrian prisons and clarifications on the fate of those who have disappeared.

Among the signatories arrested soon after the declaration was released is Michel Kilo, a writer who had previously been imprisoned in the days of Hafiz Assad on the grounds that he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. When he told his captors that he was a Christian, they responded that the Muslim Brothers were ecumenical. Kilo's arrest is intriguing, because he has published a number of articles critical of the Syrian government in the Lebanese press. The Syrian regime was no doubt sending a domestic message that that link between the Syrian opposition and their comrades across the border must cease. In recent years, the Lebanese media have become an outlet for disgruntled Syrian liberals. I am particularly worried for another Syrian opposition figure who frequently writes in the Lebanese press, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who also signed the Damascus-Beirut Declaration.

Among the other signatories, and this will have been perhaps even more alarming to the regime, was the head of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadruddine al-Bayanouni, who lives in exile in Brussels. While the Assads are apparently in firm control at home, they are not happy with a blossoming network of opposition stretching from Damascus to Beirut to Paris and Brussels. Later this week, the so-called National Salvation Front, an alliance between the former Syrian vice president, Abdul-Halim Khaddam, and the Muslim Brothers, plans to hold a meeting in Brussels. Many of the Damascus-based opposition figures reject an alliance with Khaddam, a former regime stalwart, but the Assads are not taking any chances (even if the continuing arrests might, paradoxically, help forge a more unified opposition front down the road).

For a fuller roundup of the latest arrests, Syria Monitor, a blog that focuses on the Syrian opposition and hosted by Tony Badran of Across the Bay on behalf of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, has excellent updates.

Perhaps the most disturbing arrest is that of Ali Abdullah and his two sons. Ali was arrested last year for reading a statement from Bayanouni to an intellectual gathering known as the Atasi forum. I twice published him in the Daily Star, and talked to one of his sons on a few occasions. The last time we spoke, his father was a few months away from being released, and the son was in Beirut to, among other things, pick up his father's article payment. He sounded upbeat. That was then. Now the Abdullahs have been arrested or rearrested, at the least denying the household the revenues of three valuable breadwinners.