The Magazine

Next Year in Damascus

Syrian democracy is thriving--in exile.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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I ATTENDED A MEETING OF about 40 Syrian exile oppositionists in Paris last week. It was a bit surreal. There was the Syrian-Kurd who lives in Germany, for instance, a sweet, grandfatherly fellow with a big white mustache. The guy introduced himself to me, I glanced at his name tag to make sure I got the name, and he responded with a broad smile: "That's not my real name."

You have to assume the regime has an agent here, he told me at breakfast the next morning. There were two younger Syrians from Germany, both from central casting. He: tough looking, five o'clock shadow, long hair, black leather jacket, thirtysomething. She: twentysomething, long black hair, dark haunting eyes, figure like a model. I mentioned over an after-dinner drink (well, I had a beer, she had a juice, he had nothing) what a pity that we were holed up over the weekend outside the city in an airport hotel. She had never been to Paris. No reaction. The next morning a colleague told me that she is off a 28-day hunger strike; he, the same. They were trying to get political prisoners released. Two days at the Charles de Gaulle Hyatt can be sobering.

Farid Ghadry, the convener of the conference, was not kidding when he told me, "We're not playing anymore." Mind you, everyone I met was warm and welcoming. There were Kurds and Sunni (they make up three quarters of the Syrian population) as well as members of the Alawite minority that runs the country. There were pacifists, hawks, and self-described "liberals," whatever that means in this context. There was a lighthearted gentleman from Los Angeles, a Christian Syrian who runs a nail and hair salon. A dual patriot, he joked over dinner that the group ought to FedEx the American Constitution to the people of the Middle East. The European Syrians at our table rolled their eyes. There was a very articulate fellow from the Muslim Brotherhood and at least two important representatives from Syria who had traveled to Paris for the meeting.

Discussions were lively, disagreements sometimes sharp. I listened like a fly on the wall with a kind Syrian colleague translating from the Arabic. The group may have been diverse, but everyone seemed united on one thing: These folks all seem to believe that after 42 years in power, the Baathist order in Damascus is ready for meltdown. You do not have to be a wishful-thinking Syrian to follow the logic of the last couple of years: municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, women now free to vote in Kuwait, opposition candidates for the first time in Egypt, elections and a constitution in Iraq, a revolution in Lebanon. Did anyone really think Syria could stay immune from the trend?

My favorite guide on the matter is Volker Perthes, a Syria expert and head of the largest government-funded think tank in Germany, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. Perthes argued recently in the International Herald Tribune that "Bashar Assad's regime in Syria has reached its end phase. . . . Assad's regime has lost the confidence and support of many of Syria's people and elites." Perthes is an enemy of the Bush doctrine and a sympathizer of the Middle East status quo, so I figure when he raises the white flag there must be something to it. I heard more than one participant in Paris say that the Syrian population has reached the boiling point.

Syrians like Farid Ghadry want to seize the moment. Ghadry is a 51-year-old Syrian American who has helped create something called the Reform Party of Syria. He comes from an influential Syrian family that moved to Lebanon in 1964 and then emigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s. Ghadry studied finance at American University and ran his own business for a time. He also once carried a Saudi passport, until Saudi Arabia revoked his privileges in retaliation for his support for democratic reform. Now Ghadry's passion is to set up a Syrian parliament in exile.

In Paris, I heard participants challenge Ghadry. Some asked whether such a thing should be called instead an assembly or association. After all, a parliament should be elected by the people, they argued. Some participants asked how they, as exiles, can avoid legitimacy problems with countrymen back home. There were discussions about how to garner U.S. and E.U. support. At the same time, one participant told me how acutely aware everyone was that many people inside Syria distrust exiles, especially those thought to be linked to foreign governments, in particular the United States. I asked the young woman from Germany whether she believed there was broad popular support for democracy inside Syria. She paused. Terrible arguments with her brother, a regime supporter who serves in the military, had helped to precipitate her exodus a couple years ago. She told me a strong minority would support democracy right away and that a majority was waiting to be educated and ready to be convinced.