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Thursday, December 21, 2006

US financing political opposition to Assad?

Time Magazine is reporting in this week's issue that the United States is sponsoring a political opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The Bush Administration has been quietly nurturing individuals and parties opposed to the Syrian government in an effort to undermine the regime of President Bashar Assad. Parts of the scheme are outlined in a classified, two-page document that says that the U.S. already is "supporting regular meetings of internal and diaspora Syrian activists" in Europe. The document bluntly expresses the hope that "these meetings will facilitate a more coherent strategy and plan of actions for all anti-Assad activists."

The document says that Syria's legislative elections, scheduled for March 2007, "provide a potentially galvanizing issue for... critics of the Assad regime." To capitalize on that opportunity, the document proposes a secret "election monitoring" scheme, in which "internet accessible materials will be available for printing and dissemination by activists inside the country [Syria] and neighboring countries." The proposal also calls for surreptitiously giving money to at least one Syrian politician who, according to the document, intends to run in the election. The effort would also include "voter education campaigns" and public opinion polling, with the first poll "tentatively scheduled in early 2007."

American officials say the U.S. government has had extensive contacts with a range of anti-Assad groups in Washington, Europe and inside Syria. To give momemtum to that opposition, the U.S. is giving serious consideration to the election-monitoring scheme proposed in the document, according to several officials. The proposal has not yet been approved, in part because of questions over whether the Syrian elections will be delayed or even cancelled. But one U.S. official familiar with the proposal said: "You are forced to wonder whether we are now trying to destabilize the Syrian government."
Here's the good part: A major part of the effort is supposedly going through a blogger!
The proposal says part of the effort would be run through a foundation operated by Amar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based member of a Syrian umbrella opposition group known as the National Salvation Front (NSF). The Front includes the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that for decades supported the violent overthrow of the Syrian government, but now says it seeks peaceful, democratic reform. (In Syria, however, membership in the Brotherhood is still punishable by death.) Another member of the NSF is Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former high-ranking Syrian official and Assad family loyalist who recently went into exile after a political clash with the regime. Representatives of the National Salvation Front, including Abdulhamid, were accorded at least two meetings earlier this year at the White House, which described the sessions as exploratory. Since then, the National Salvation Front has said it intends to open an office in Washington in the near future.
But Ammar, who spells his name with two m's, denies having any part in this:
A recent article in the Time paints me as the central figure of some cockamamie covert plot to overthrow the Syrian regime. But, and while I'd really like to see our illustrious regime overthrown and reconciled to the dustbin of history (to borrow a term that is so dear to the hearts of regime spokesmen), news of my involvement in such “sinister” plot come as news to me as well. I was never aware of that fact that I was that creative. I think I should take up writing again, soon.
This story has been headlined in Israel since last night, and one of the things I wondered is why Assad wouldn't just throw out the Parliament if he lost the election. It's not like Syria is a democracy or someone else controls the army. Ammar agrees with me:
Besides, parliamentary elections in Syria are too farcical and tightly controlled to become the center of any meaningful opposition work or action. For them to be put at the center of a plot to overthrow the Syrian regime is ludicrous. If there is someone who thinks along these lines in the administration, then heaven help us.
Ammar dismisses the Time story:
The Time story, therefore, is definitely not well-researched and tends to read too much into too little and stitches together disconnected pieces of a nonexistent puzzle. The current administration has not yet formed a coherent policy vis-à-vis Syria, albeit they are opening up more and more to the Syrian opposition, the NSF in particular. But that only means that we have been talking more often, nothing concrete has so far come out of the talks except for a general agreement that the NSF is an important and credible opposition movement whose views and basic expectations warrant to be factored in whatever policy that the Administration ends up adopting with regard to Syria. NSF members in Europe are conducting similar activities there as well with their local governments. Indeed, the NSF recently opened an office in London.

Still, I don't really mind in principle being the central figure of a rumored covert operation, provided it is substantive and real. This one is just too bloody farcical, and I would like to believe that I am smarter than to be involved in something like this. I was exiled from Syria less than 15 months ago – not enough time in this day and age for one to lose his grip on the realities he left behind.

Everybody in Syria knows of the staged nature of the parliamentary elections there, exposing this fact to an external audience is important, of course, and it should be done, and it will be done I know, with or without overt or covert US support, but the results of this activity will not have a major impact, if any, on the standing of the Assad regime vis-à-vis the Syrian population, who have long grown accustomed to this periodic song-and-dance.

Nevertheless, should the Time story cause someone in Syria to worry, for whatever reason, then, it is good. But if it made them laugh it is even better. For I noticed that the Assads are at their worst when they are confident and joyful, so they might as well dance naked around the campfire, as far as I am concerned (I wouldn't mind doing that myself actually. It's been a while).
Finally, for those of you who saw "Muslim brotherhood" and thought that Ammar is not the kind of guy you would want to meet, here's what he's really involved in:
Meanwhile, I am, at this stage, a member of the board of the Tharwa Foundation USA, which was recently incorporated in Washington to conduct human rights and democracy activities along lines similar to our Tharwa Project in Syria with its focus on diversity issues. Tharwa Foundation USA will be the recipient of funds from a variety of donor organizations in the US, but nothing that directly comes from the US government (where our donors get their money, however, is their problem). Moreover, the Tharwa Foundation will not be carrying out any partisan activities, such as supporting any particular political candidate, party, or movement inside or outside Syria, or anywhere in the region (we have representatives in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco and the Gulf).


My affiliation with the National Salvation Front has nothing to do with Tharwa, especially the branch in Syria, where the Tharwa team has always been critical of this recent aspect of my activism, albeit they accept my freedom to make my choices in these matters just as I accept theirs.

Indeed, Tharwa came to light in Syria in early 2003, following 2 years of preparation. The NSF, on the other hand, was established in Europe in March 2006. Tharwa emerged as a regional civic project that support dissident views, and is often run by dissidents. Still, it has no partisan affiliation with any existing political group inside or outside the country, and does not represent itself as a political operation anywhere. In fact, its members come from a variety of political backgrounds, not to mention ethnic and religious affiliations.
Lest you think Tharwa isn't what Ammar says it is, each time I visit Ammar's blog (which I do regularly - I subscribe to his RSS feed), he has a link to a Tharwa topic of the week. This week's link is the following:
Tharwa Topic of the Week: Why do Arabs pay more attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict than they do to the more bloody and equally long-standing conflicts in the Sudan and Somalia?
I think that's a question we would all like to see answered from an Arab perspective.

Read the whole thing, and bookmark Ammar's blog. It's worth visiting regularly.

Update 2:25 PM

The US State Department is now confirming that
"We are working to assist civil groups interested in promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Furthermore, we are helping anyone who wants to promote freedom of expression in Syria, just like anywhere else in the world."
Update 5:00 PM

Soccer Dad has some interesting comments about this report.


At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. I like how you took your time to explain what you think, adding everything together and working the pieces.


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