Shortly before President Bashar al Assad's re-election, several prominent critics of his regime were given long prison sentences. With this move, argues Kristin Helberg, the regime in Damascus threw away the chance of involving the country's moderate opposition in a long overdue process of political reform
If one wants to understand why four critics of the regime – Anwar Al Bunni, Kamal Labwani, Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa – are currently in prison, one only needs to look at the indictment issued by the Supreme Criminal Court in Damascus. While the document may not show what they actually did, it does show what those in power in Syria are afraid of.
The accusations go from "spreading false information," via "weakening national feeling" and "incitement to separatist unrest," to "calling on a foreign state to commit an aggressive act against Syria."
So are the human rights lawyer Al Bunni, the doctor and painter Labwani, the writer Kilo and the translator Issa all traitors? By no means. They are committed Syrians, they believe in their country and its people, and that is exactly why they want more freedom and more rights for their countrymen.
But critical voices such as theirs run counter to the nationalist frenzy in which Syria finds itself since the crisis in Lebanon two years ago. Threats, sanctions and attempts by the West to isolate Syria have brought the Syrians together – whoever does not join in the frenzy is regarded as a collaborator with the foreigners.
So what have the four done to be treated as if they were enemies of the state? Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, who have both been sentenced to three years in prison, were among the several hundred signatories of the "Damascus-Beirut declaration", in which intellectuals from both countries are calling for a normalisation of relations between Syria and Lebanon.
There is nothing in the manifesto which Damascus has not already accepted. The problem is not in its content but in those who initiated it.
The Syrian regime believes that the same political forces are behind the declaration as were behind the events of the 14th March: Lebanese politicians whose demonstrations in spring 2005 led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and who are now openly calling for the overthrow of those in power in Damascus.
The Syrian government in turn now feels as if it is surrounded by enemies: American troops in Iraq, an anti-Syrian government in Beirut and the militarily superior Israel still on the Golan Heights after forty years. Any move by the domestic opposition towards the country's foreign opponents rings the alarm bells.
It is a thoroughly understandable reaction, in the light of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, where opponents of the regimes smoothed the way to Baghdad and Kabul for the American troops. But the Syrian equivalents of Ahmed Chalabi and Hamid Karzai are not to be found in Damascus. If at all, they are to be found in Washington or Paris.
President Assad's government has had luck with its domestic opposition, even if it does not recognise the fact and does not know how to use it. Secular left-wingers, social democrats, liberals, even Kurds and supporters of political Islam – they all call for peaceful, gradual change from within and they all reject any idea of foreign intervention.
What more could an authoritarian regime possibly want than such a moderate opposition? The opposition sees the need for two fundamental decisions if there is to be a step-by-step democratisation: there has to be a new law on political parties which would permit independent parties, revive debate in society after four decades of Baath Party socialism and create a new political consciousness among the people.
And the state of emergency, which, for the last 44 years, has mothballed Syria's constitutional protections and permitted the courts to do what they like, must be repealed or at least substantially restricted.
That was what the lawyer Al Bunni, who has been sentenced to five years in prison, was fighting for. He reported on torture in Syrian prisons and opened a training centre, financed by the European Union, without official permission. Al Bunni did not have a political agenda; for him it was all about justice. He would say things like, "If tomorrow the Baath party started to respect human rights and give the Syrian people its freedom, I'd have no problem with it."
For a long time, this approach protected him from imprisonment, but finally his tireless commitment and his contacts to Western diplomats and politicians were too much for the secret services. As they saw it, Al Bunni offered foreign opponents too much ammunition for attacks on the Syrian government.
Against this background, it is no surprise that Kamal Labwani, the fourth of those convicted, should have been given a life sentence for his information tour through Europe and the USA. Labwani met representatives of the US government in Washington and was arrested on his return to Damascus airport. The court has reduced his life sentence to twelve years.
Since the sentences, the mood in Syria's opposition has reached a new low point. For months families, friends and supporters of the defendants had met at the court and given each other mutual encouragement. Now they know for sure that Syria does not welcome diversity of opinions or constructive criticism.
The case throws up the question whether the Baath government is at all prepared to reform the political system it created. The government rejects any advice on democratisation from the West, pointing to human rights abuses in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
It is clear that corruption, despotism, bureaucracy and a lack of a sense of responsibility have to be fought from within if they are not to serve as excuses for others to take action, and they may be less concerned with Syria's interests than their own. That is exactly what Kilo, Al Bunni and the others were arguing, and that is exactly why they should not locked up but listened to.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton