Swaths of plain-clothed security forces and hopeful journalists were the only people gathered at the parliament building in Damascus on Friday and Saturday as protesters failed to respond to calls for demonstrations in the Syrian capital.
Outside opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned since an uprising in the 1980s, had tried to rally Syrians to protest against President Bashar al-Assad, who has ruled the country with a firm hand since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
But Syria appears to have dodged the "winds of change" in the Arab world that have led to mass popular protests in several countries. The extensive security apparatus effectively nipped any possibility of protests. But geopolitical factors as well as local support for Assad also make any imminent challenge to his ruling Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963, unlikely.
Related: Six countries in the Arab world where 'winds of change' are blowing
“The security forces have effectively suppressed civil society and scared people into submission,” says Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian activist who ran the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression until it was closed by the authorities in 2009.
Secret police, known locally as mukhabarat, asserted their presence in the week running up to planned protests, breaking up small gatherings in support of Egyptian demonstrators and warning local activists against protesting. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group, said that on Thursday night Ghassan al-Najjar, the 75-year-old leader of a small Islamic group based in the northern city of Aleppo, was arrested. Najjar, one of the few active domestic figures, had been among those calling for peaceful protests.
Fears of sectarian fallout and the violence perpetrated by pro-Mubarak thugs in Egypt put off the remaining few who were considering turning out. And local activists decided not to back protests, pointing to a lack of organization.
There has been no organized opposition in Syria since the quashing of secular, religious, and Kurdish figures who came together in 2005 to sign the Damascus Declaration asking for reform. Furthermore, most of the 15,000 who by Friday morning had joined the Facebook page calling for revolution were believed to live outside the country.
Geopolitics aid the Syrian government, which is technically still at war with Israel and seeking to get back the occupied Golan Heights. The government's foreign policy, including a hostile stance toward Israel and support for militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, is popular.
“Syrians, repeatedly told of threats and conspiracy from outsiders, are more passionate about what is going on in Gaza than in Aleppo,” said Abdel Ayman Nour, a journalist who runs the critical website All4Syria. In the runup to protests, some media alleged that those calling for protests were Israeli saboteurs.
Relatively youthful, Assad, who has led Syria for a decade, is set apart from the region's older autocratic rulers such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. He is popular for modernizations, including introducing the Internet in 2001 and economic reforms that have seen shops and cafes flourish.
“I see progress being made, and want to give that a chance to see where it goes,” said one man in his thirties who described himself as anti-regime and asked not to be named.
The wave of unrest in the Arab world is being felt in Syria in other ways, however. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Assad said the region's protests signaled “a new era” in the Middle East and promised to push through reforms to strengthen civil society and introduce local elections.
Mr. Darwish, the activist, says he expected to see announcements on these issues during the next Baath Party congress, which is to take place in the next few months.
Joshua Landis, the author of the Syria Comment blog, said the pace of reform could affect future stability. “Syria has a growing population and life is getting harder,” he says. “This is not a situation that is endlessly sustainable.”
Damascus Jews Restore Synagogues as Syria Seeks Secular Image
By Massoud A. Derhally,
Feb 7, 2011
Albert Cameo, leader of what remains of the Jewish community in Syria, says he’s trying to fulfill an obligation to his religious heritage.
The 70-year-old is organizing the restoration of a synagogue called Al-Raqi in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus, the Syrian capital, built during the Ottoman Empire some 400 years ago. The project, which began in December, will be completed this month as part of a plan to restore 10 synagogues with the backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding from Syrian Jews.
“Assad sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “This is an effort by the regime to show its seriousness and an olive branch to the Jewish community in America, which they have been wooing.”
While Syria is still officially at war with Israel, the country is trying to portray itself as a more tolerant state to help burnish its image internationally. Syria’s 200 Jews are mirroring the actions of their co-religionists in Lebanon, where restoration work began on Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue in July 2009.
Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, broke down in December 2008 when Israel began a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping Islamic militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. The previous round had collapsed in 2000, when the two nations failed to agree on the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.
Community in U.S.
The largest Syrian-Jewish community, estimated at 75,000, is centered in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. Emigration dates back to the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, “when Jews feared their sons would be drafted into the Ottoman Turkish army,” according to Sara Reguer, author of “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times.”
Joey Allaham, 35, a Syrian Jew living in New York, still considers Syria his homeland.
In December, he helped set up a meeting between Assad and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups in an effort to foster ties between Syria and the American Jewish community.
During their visit, Allaham and Hoenlein toured the Franji synagogue across from the Talisman Hotel in Bab Touma, in the old city of the Syrian capital. The synagogue, also known as Ilfrange, gets its name from the Jews who came from Spain and dates back 400 years, according to Cameo.
"President Assad was kind enough to support us," Allaham said in an interview. "We are going to bring support financially."
Syrian Jews, a group dating back to the Roman Empire, numbered as many as 30,000 in 1947 and were indigenous Arabs or Sephardim who fled to Syria after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, according to Reguer.
The community resided in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Qamishli, dwindling in size because of emigration to the U.S., western Europe and South America from the early 1900s.
The “big flight” of Syrian Jews came after the creation of Israel in 1948 when riots erupted in Aleppo, resulting in Syria prohibiting Jews from leaving the country because they were going to Israel, said Landis.
The remaining Jews were allowed to leave Syria in 1990 as relations with the U.S. thawed because Washington sought the country’s support to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Landis said.
“Syrian Jews living in Israel, Turkey, Western Europe, and the United States feel a positive affinity toward their homeland,” said Tom Dine, who used to head the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said by e-mail. “Reconciliation is long overdue.”
Unlike his three brothers who live in Mexico, Cameo says he has no desire to leave Syria.
“Morally I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo said from his home in Damascus. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”
HOME PAGE How Hosni Mubarak lost his soul… and all of Egypt
BY Judith Miller
Daily News (American newspaper),
Sunday, February 6th 2011,
It was painful to watch. A thinner, graver Hosni Mubarak, his shoe-polish-black dyed hair still cropped short and slicked back in military fashion, took to the podium for the second time in four days to make yet another concession to the million people who had taken to the streets in Egypt that day demanding his immediate resignation.
He would leave, he said, but only in the fall and after assuring a "peaceful transition" to a new, freer political system.
Even as he acknowledged defeat and subtly pleaded for a dignified departure from the job he had held for almost 30 years, he could not resist the temptation to lecture Egyptians on the need for "security and stability" - his regime's twin gods, before which he had sacrificed civility and all serious political dissent.
How Mubarak had changed since I first met him in 1981, just after Anwar Sadat, his boss, an earlier self-styled pharaoh, had been assassinated in 1981 by Islamic radicals for having made peace with Israel. I could not forget the photograph that my newspaper's office manager had taken immediately after the murder. In the grainy black-and-white photo, a blood-spattered Mubarak, the dull, loyal vice president who had been at Sadat's side when the reviewing stand was riddled with bullets, was hunched over in the back of a covered military jeep, a look of utter bewilderment and terror on his large, square face.
He had once been a humble president, a man I had described in my dispatches as "timid," "unsure" and "modest." He had initially liberalized the country and increased political participation. He had vowed to end the corruption and nepotism that had flourished under Sadat. I liked him and considered him a patriot, a man who wanted what was best for Egypt.
But that soon changed. By the mid ‘80s, he had become determined and supremely confident in his judgment, overly so. No one would tell him how to rule, he would lecture, stabbing his index finger at me. Syria's Hafez el-Assad had told him to be tougher on the Islamists who challenged his rule. Assad had told him that he was "too soft," Mubarak complained. After Assad had killed tens of thousands of Islamist challengers in 1982 in the Syrian city of Hama, the Muslim Brotherhood had never troubled him again, Assad had boasted.
The Americans, too, were quick to give him advice about how he should govern and handle the Islamist radicals, he complained. President Bill Clinton wanted him to open up the political system.
But democracy as the cure-all for his country's political plight could not come instantly in a country like Egypt. "If you have a dam and keep the water in until it begins to overflow and then suddenly you open the gates," he told me, using a metaphor that came naturally to custodians of the Nile, "you will drown many people."
Syrian Security Forces Crack Down on Rallies
Wall Street Journal,
7 Feb. 2011,
DAMASCUS—Syria, despite Facebook calls for protest and speculation by analysts that it could be ripe for Egypt or Tunisia-style unrest, has remained free of almost any trace of popular demonstrations like those countries have experienced.
A major reason for that was apparent Friday and Saturday when a gauntlet of plainclothes security service agents deployed around the Parliament building, where social-media sites had called for demonstrators to gather. In the days running up to the would-be gatherings, several members of Damascus's small circle of civil rights activists were warned against participating.
No protestors were visible on Friday or Saturday.
On the eve of Friday's protest, called for on a number of online pages devoted to an Egypt-style "Day of Rage," security services in the northern city of Aleppo arrested Ghassan al-Najjar, a 70-year-old opposition figure who heads a small Islamist group, according to human-rights groups and Mr. Al Najjar's group. Mr. al Najjar had called for peaceful protests in Syria in the wake of Egypt's uprising.
Smaller gatherings held earlier in the week in support of Egyptian demonstrators were broken up by authorities.
A week earlier, a vigil at the Egyptian embassy in Damascus was met by a heavy security force which later dispersed the protestors.
Human Rights Watch said 15 demonstrators who had gathered in Damascus's Old City on Wednesday were beaten before being told to leave. A spokesman for the Syrian government couldn't be reached for comment.
On Thursday, several demonstrators were briefly questioned by authorities after a small gathering outside the parliament to complain about corruption and high cellphone costs of the two companies operating in Syria, according to civil-society activists who participated.
The quiet in Syria contrasts sharply not only with Egypt's uprising but also with those in Yemen and Jordan. Those countries have seen thousands of citizens take to the streets to demand leadership changes and make their governments more responsive. Those demonstrations have been largely peaceful and have achieved some concessions from Jordanian and Yemeni governments.
Syria, where president Bashar al Assad inherited the reins of his father's longstanding regime in 2000, has some of the same problems that served as kindling for the explosions in Tunisia and Egypt. The economy hasn't generated nearly enough jobs to dent unemployment that is officially in the mid-teens but in reality is even higher.
The country also continues to struggle with the burden of hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and waves of Syrians that have moved to the cities from areas in the north of the country devastated by years of drought. The influx of Iraqis, especially, has pushed up rents and forced Syrian schools to absorb some 25,000 new students.
Aside from Syria's long-proven willingness to crack down on dissent—some activists who signed a statement calling for political opening in 2005 were jailed for years—there are additional reasons why Syrians seem largely content to stay out of politics and protest.
Social media such as Facebook is growing in popularity, but remains illegal and underdeveloped even by Middle East standards. "There's not a blogging culture. They're still young and trying to figure out the Internet," said one civil-society activist.
The Syrian government makes much of its high-profile opposition to many U.S. and Israeli interests in the region—positions Syrian officials point out are closely aligned with Arab popular opinion. Syrian state media barely noted the uprising in Tunisia, a peripheral country in the orbit of U.S. influence that has no diplomatic ties to Israel.
The protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with whom the President Assad has had a rancorous relationship, have been splashed across state-controlled media every day, along with commentary pointing out Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and its pro-American stances.
For all of Syria's economic challenges, stifled civil society and relative international isolation, President Assad remains an appealing figure for many Syrians, as well. In contrast to the aging leaders of most Middle Eastern countries, Mr. Assad and his energetic wife make an attractive young couple that puts a modern veneer on the regime for many Syrians.
Mr. Assad took over from his father, a military man who ruled Syria with an iron grip for decades, to widespread hopes he would be a reformer. Those hopes were dashed with crackdowns on dissenters and civil-society activists in the early 2000s, and a go-slow approach to economic reform.
Mr. Assad blames the slow pace of reform on the turmoil created in the region when the U.S. attacked neighboring Iraq and worked to push Syria out of Lebanon after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which some in Lebanon and the international community initially blamed on Syria. Syria has denied any involvement in the killing.
Assad has said reform will move forward this year, although slowly, with a new law governing civil society groups, which are largely banned now, and moves to open local government positions to popular elections.
Even many civil society leaders who have been critical of the government seem willing to work with slow reform. They argue that incremental change is better than upheaval. They said allowing more civil-society groups and popular elections at the municipal level could start to make a difference.
"I think they've started to make changes," said one, who said he had been warned by the government to avoid speaking publicly about politics.
Israeli source: Syria, Israel were on brink of direct talks in 2008
Official from Olmert's government says sides were near agreement on number of contentious issues, but talks were derailed due to war in Gaza; official also indicates Damascus would have been willing to ease demands for land withdrawal.
7 Feb. 2011,
Syria and Israel were close to resuming direct peace negotiations in 2008, a high-ranking official who served under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday, adding that Damascus had already signaled reading to ease past demands for a full Israeli withdrawal from captured lands.
Turkish-mediated talks between the two sides were to have progressed to direct talks in December 2008, but were derailed when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip, said the former official.
"Had we started direct negotiations, I believe that we would have concluded them within a month or two," he said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political and diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the talks.
Ankara mediated several rounds of indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel in 2008. Neither side provided any sign of significant headway until Syrian President Bashar Assad indicated in an interview to the Wall Street Journal last week that significant progress had been made toward setting an agenda for direct talks.
The Israeli official confirmed Assad's assessment.
"The fact that a meeting was to be scheduled for direct talks I think proves that it [the negotiating agenda] was accepted by them and by us," he said.
As its price for peace, Syria wants Israel to return land captured from it in the 1967 Six-Day War. This includes the Golan Heights - a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel - and small areas of land that adjoin the Sea of Galilee, Israel's main water source.
Direct negotiations in 2000 under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak broke down over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal. Israel insisted on keeping disputed land around the Sea of Galilee.
The border the Syrians proposed in the Ankara-mediated talks offered Israel more land between the water and the frontier, the Olmert government official said, while refusing to give details.
"There was more space, enough to have an Israeli road between the water and the border line," he said. He said Israel would have accepted this border.
In return for the pullout, the former official said, Israel wanted full peace, open borders, diplomatic and commercial relations with Syria. It also wanted Syria to halt military ties with Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel did not, however, insist that Syria sever its ties with Iran, he said.
These and other points were accepted by both sides as subjects for negotiation, the official said.
In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Assad said the two sides were very close to defining the reference that would be given to the U.S. and tell them 'this is your means to manage the next negotiation,' the direct negotiations I mean. But it all went in a different way.
Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not known to be conducting official contacts with Syria.
Netanyahu does not consider Turkey, now a strident critic of Israel, to be an honest broker, and recent Israeli legislation makes it tougher to withdraw from the Golan. Syria has denounced the law as proof the Israeli government doesn't want peace.
Many Israelis are reluctant to return the Golan for fear the Syrians could use the strategic plateau to attack Israel. The area has also become a vibrant tourism area.
Without Mubarak, U.S. power in Mideast will diminish