Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Opposition Looks Forward to End of Syrian Isolation

Members of the opposition have expressed hope that attempts to break Syria’s international isolation could give them an opportunity to push for reforms to government policy.

Damascus has recently engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity that many see as a concerted effort to improve relations with the international community.

President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait earlier this month, and reportedly received praise from France for helping resolve the political crisis in Lebanon. In addition, Syria’s agreement to indirect peace talks with Israel, and to allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit an alleged nuclear site.

Observers say these developments suggest the government is rethinking its foreign policy.

The new diplomatic tactics have raised hopes that the government might also become less hostile to the idea of political reform at homes.

Conjecture that the authorities might be about to reconsider some hard-line policies was fuelled by media statements from Assad during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, UAE, at the beginning of June, in which he said he was unsatisfied with domestic political reforms.

"We’ve heard that political prisoners are to be released. Others are saying that the extraordinary court [security court used to try political cases] is going to be abolished. We hear lot of rumours every day," said a 63-year-old man from the outskirts of Damascus whose son has served seven years for supporting the radical Salafi strand of Sunni Islam.

These hints at possible political change come after two years in which controls over the opposition and civil society groups have steadily tightened.

Riad al-Turk, a prominent opposition figure and a leader of the Syrian Democratic People’s Party, said a thaw in Syria’s international relations could foster a “healthy environment” at home, favourable to the opposition. He added that it was imperative for the opposition to use exclusively peaceful tactics.

While not united on all issues, most Syrian opposition parties and groups advocate the release of political prisoners and the abolition of longstanding emergency legislation which human rights groups say has been used to persecute dissidents.

Assad indicated to the UAE newspaper Emirates Today that he would be willing to work with the opposition, describing it as positive and patriotic, except groups that had connections abroad.

Some figures in the opposition fear that if the government breaks free of international isolation, it may use this strengthened position to suppress critical voices at home. Supporters of this view recall the crackdown in 2001 against those who called for reforms following former president Hafez al-Assad’s death the previous year.

At that time, Syria “did not face pressure or problems from the international community, yet it continued to be as repressive as ever”, said an opposition activist from the outskirts of Damascus.

Even those who would prefer the regime to remain isolated do not support military intervention, although they are less clear about how international pressure could lead to democratic reforms.

"The isolation might not improve anything, but why should the regime be rewarded by the international community while it continues to repress its people?" said a political activist from Damascus.

Radwan Ziyadeh, a Syrian scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, said that if western countries do not use the improved relationship to require Syria to respect human rights, “the openness won’t mean anything".

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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