Syria's secular and Islamist opposition unite against Baathists

The country's ruling Baath Party Congress concluded Thursday without the reforms many Syrians anticipated.

It's often said here that the secular activists represent the head of the opposition movement and the Islamists the heart. So long as the two stayed apart, they were little threat to the Syrian government.

But recent outcries for democracy have encouraged the weak and fractious secular opposition to reach out to their religious counterparts, potentially signalling trouble for President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"The secularists and Islamists are talking to each other," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian analyst. "The whole discourse is about organizing ourselves and putting on more pressure."

Syria's ruling Baath Party concluded a four-day congress Thursday, which, analysts say, was used by President Assad to stiffen domestic resolve against international pressure and demonstrate that the regime isn't about to collapse.

The congress, the first since 2000 when Assad became president, was heralded as an opportunity for the regime to usher in a long-awaited reform package. The congress adopted some recommendations to loosen the Baath Party's paralyzing grip on society, including amending an emergency law that permits arbitrary arrests, and allowing some new political parties.

"The regime is trying to create a united front," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "It's trying to restore confidence and ward off pressure."

Such a tactic involves the stick as well the carrot, however. Not only do the reforms fall short of what many Syrians had hoped, a wave of arrests of opposition activists prior to the congress suggests that the government intends to deal harshly with any challenges.

Syria's secular opposition is composed of an eclectic mix of aging leftists, Arab nationalists, human rights activists, and intellectuals, some of whom criticize US policy in the Middle East almost as much as they criticize their own government.

Then there is a generation of young reformists, often Western educated and with a more tolerant view of US goals in the region. On the periphery are the foreign-based groups such as the US-based Reform Party of Syria led by Farid Ghadry, a businessman who has little support here and is dubbed the "Syrian Ahmad Chalabi," a reference to the Iraqi politician who lobbied Washington to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Battered by 40 years of authoritarian rule, the secular opposition here has little popular standing or ability to effectively confront the regime and is riven by infighting and squabbles.

"They don't have strategies," says Maan Abdulsalem, an activist. "All they know is how to talk and write. They don't know how to organize effectively. They don't know how to reach out to the people."

In April, the outlawed Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement calling for free and fair elections and an end to the state of emergency, effectively martial law, in place since 1963. The Brotherhood warned the government that it would bear "sole responsibility" for the deterioration of the country if it ignored its call.

The declaration from the Brotherhood encouraged two Syrian secular opposition groups to set aside their misgivings about the Islamists and issue statements of support, setting in motion a potential alliance.

"Any reform process, to be successful, must have all forces, without exception, including the Muslim Brotherhood," says Mohammed Sawan, secretary-general of the Gathering for Democracy and Unity.

The Islamists potentially represent a powerful opposition to Baathist rule, which is why, more than two decades after its campaign of bombings and assassinations against the state, the Muslim Brotherhood remains banned in Syria and membership is punishable by death.

Having watched the rapprochement with growing unease, the Syrian authorities cracked down on May 24 by arresting all eight members of the Attasi forum, the last of the political salons that flourished during a period of tolerance in 2001 known as the Damascus Spring. Their detention stemmed from the public reading of a statement written by Ali Sadreddin Bayanuni, the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of them were freed several days later.

"The Islamists are not involved in politics but they have the street," says Ibrahim Hamidi, a political analyst and writer for the Arabic Al Hayat newspaper. "The [secular] opposition is very weak; [it] has no legitimacy and no popular support. The threat [to the government] comes when the opposition works with the Islamists. The Attasi arrests made it very clear that dealing with Islamists is a red line."

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is moderating its political stance to broaden its appeal to Syrians, Islamic sentiment runs deep here.

"The regime needs to acknowledge the Islamists," Mr Moubayed says. "Unless they are given an outlet to voice their frustrations they will move underground and present a challenge in Syria. This is a very strong danger."

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