U.S. concludes Al Qaida groups only credible opposition in Syria

Monday, January 5, 2004

The United States has rejected appeals to groom a Syrian opposition to serve as an alternative to the regime of President Bashar Assad.

U.S. officials and analysts said the Bush administration would not finance a Syrian opposition the way Washington groomed a movement against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. They said that unlike Saddam, Assad could be prodded toward limited democratic reforms and that the only credible opposition to Damascus stems from Sunni fundamentalists linked to Al Qaida.

The issue of an alternative to the Assad regime was raised during the debate over U.S. sanctions on Syria. Last month, President George Bush signed the Syrian Accountability Act, which would impose a virtual U.S. trade embargo on Syria unless Damascus ended its occupation of Lebanon, weapons of mass destruction programs and support for groups deemed terrorist.

"The Syrian expatriate opposition movement is an inadequate base for changing the political environment in Syria itself," Flynt Leverett, a former senior official at the U.S. National Security Council, said.

"Moreover, the most plausible alternative to the current regime would not be a democracy, but rather an Islamic state run by the Muslim Brotherhood ironically, the same group that former president Hafez Assad brutally suppressed 20 years ago."

Officials said the State Department has opposed appeals that the United States groom a democratic opposition to Assad. They said the department has argued that democratic reformers would be powerless in a country with a Sunni majority.

Instead, the department has urged that the United States seek to support non-governmental organizations in Syria that would promote human and minority rights. Officials said this could be done through the administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative.

In 2000, Assad entered the presidency on the pledge to institute democratic reforms in Syria. After two years of minor steps, the new president resumed a crackdown on dissidents, including a reformist member of parliament.

Still, U.S. officials said Syria appears intent on improving relations with Washington by resuming an effort for peace negotiations with Israel.

They said the threat of harsh U.S. sanctions on Damascus has encouraged Assad to cooperate with the administration on a number of issues. On Tuesday, Assad plans his first visit to Turkey, a NATO ally and longtime adversary of Damascus.

Syrian exiles have appealed to the adminstration to help establish a credible democratic opposition. In 2001, the exiles established the Reform Party of Syria, dedicated to bringing democracy to the country. The movement has tried to form a coalition of opposition parties to bring about peaceful regime change. So far, the RPS has convened Arab and Kurdish tribal leaders for a session on strategy that took place in Bulgaria.

"The cynical view that Syrian democratic forces are simply trying to ride into power with Washington's help betrays a lack of faith in democracy as a goal cherished in Syria as elsewhere," Farid Ghadry, the co-founder of the RSP, said. "People throughout Syria and the Arab world have repeatedly expressed their eagerness for democracy."

Ghadry, born in Aleppo, told the Washington Institute in a recent conference that the U.S. policy of providing incentives to Syria has failed. He cited Syria's policy for the Saddam regime, Hizbullah and Al Qaida.

"The United States should also rescind the immunity it grants to authoritarian regimes and offer its support to grassroots democratic opposition movements like that in Syria," Ghadry said. "Working for a democratic Syria is the only way to achieve peace, security, and stability in the Middle East."

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