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5 June 2006

Fear of something worse

By Yassin el-Hajj Saleh

Last November the Damascus Declaration, a statement issued by a broad coalition of political groups and organisations – secular and religious, Arab and Kurdish – demanded “the adoption of democracy based on liberty and free and regular elections”: a clear call for regime change.

More bad news for the Ba’athist government came in March this year, when exiled Syrian leaders, including the former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, announced that they were forming a coalition-in-exile – the National Salvation Front – to bring about regime change. The new party claimed to complement the Damascus Declaration, but there are enough differences between the two to show the opposition is far from united, something the regime will exploit.

The opposition also faces external pressures. Events in Iraq, instability in Lebanon, tensions between Iran and the west and Hamas’s rise in the Palestinian territories all contribute to regional uncertainty and increase fears that Syria could slide into sectarian chaos. The Syrian government is supported by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two authoritarian regimes perennially anxious about the possibility of violent Islamist uprisings. These anxieties are shared by much of the democratic opposition, who are cautious about putting pressure on the regime. They know that, if threatened, the Ba’athists would not hesitate to make civil war the only alternative to their own rule.

The regime has taken advantage of the uncertain climate to tighten its grip – President Bashar al-Assad emphasised in a recent CBS interview that internal security was his priority. According to the dissident Riyad al-Turk, “Syria – the opposition as much as the regime itself – is now submerged in crisis.” He thinks that “uniting the opposition with the sole aim of boycotting the regime and achieving democratic change is the only hope for Syria”.

This may be impossible without foreign assistance, but most opposition figures are instinctively mistrustful of western – and particularly American – democratisation initiatives. No Syrian dissident ignores the importance of what is known as the “foreign factor”, but this will help to create a stable, democratic state only if the opposition can manage to unify and strengthen itself.

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As Iraq has shown, the more divided the opposition, the worse the effect of the “foreign factor” will be.