Promoting Democracy in Syria: Options for U.S. Policy

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On November 14, 2003, Flynt Leverett and Farid Ghadry addressed The Washington Institute’s Special Policy Forum. Mr. Leverett is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where he focuses on U.S. policy toward Syria. Previously, he served as senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, after service on the State Department Policy Planning Staff and at the CIA. Mr. Ghadry is the Aleppo-born cofounder of the Reform Party of Syria (RPS), a two-year-old movement dedicated to bringing democratic reform to the country. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.



Every dictatorship has an Achilles heel; in Syria, it is the public itself. The fact that 5 percent of the Syrian population controls the rest of the country is both a mathematical anomaly and a political tragedy. The Reform Party of Syria has asked all Syrian opposition parties to join a democratic coalition and create a cohesive plan to return to Syria and peacefully bring about regime change. RPS is holding a conference with numerous Syrian groups, with two aims in mind: developing a democratic government for all Syrians (men and women alike) and pursuing peaceful means of change. Although this coalition has used an external podium to express its hopes for Syria, it is not an external force. RPS is entirely different from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in that it seeks to encourage peaceful change from within Syrian society. It has also learned from the INC experience the importance of a broad-based leadership that cannot be accused of promoting the interests of any one person. 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. People throughout Syria and the Arab world have repeatedly expressed their eagerness for democracy.

Unfortunately, the present-day Middle East is completely different from the Eastern Europe of the 1980s. For example, the communist regimes in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and other Soviet bloc countries did not incite Germans to commit suicide bombings. Asking authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to willingly move toward democracy is unrealistic. The ideology of the Ba’ath Party is focused on pan-Arabism and the promotion of a greater Syria, which are inherently aggressive aims.

The events of September 11, 2001, have caused a shift in U.S. foreign policy. Previously, a policy of sticks and carrots toward problem states like Syria seemed appropriate. Now, however, the situation looks different. The issue of security has become even more crucial, and the regimes that sponsor terrorists and breed suicide bombings have become a serious threat. If Syria were a democracy, it would not have sent fighters into Iraq, supported Hizballah in Lebanon, or worked with al-Qaeda, as numerous reports have alleged.

No one is denying the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood or the rise of Islamism in Syria. Yet, to deny the possibility of a third democratic alternative is to adopt the Ba’athist mindset. In recent meetings with Arab and Kurdish tribal leaders in Bulgaria, RPS found that democracy was a priority. Thousands of their tribesmen have been stripped of their Syrian nationality because of the Asad regime and its hostility towards minorities.

The United States is taking major steps to promote democracy in the Middle East, as the Iraq example shows. If Washington’s rhetoric regarding democratization is to be taken more seriously, however, it will need to come from every level of the government, including politicians, career diplomats, and intelligence officers. 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. Working for a democratic Syria is the only way to achieve peace, security, and stability in the Middle East.


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