The United States has rejected appeals to groom a
opposition to serve as an alternative to the regime of President Bashar
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
"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 ø
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
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
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
"The cynical view ø that Syrian democratic forces are simply trying to
ride into power with Washington's help ø 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."