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Cablegate: Syrian Dissident Takes Dim View of Organized

VZCZCXRO9390
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHKUK RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #0842/01 3301501
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 251501Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5620
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK PRIORITY 0478
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 000842

SIPDIS

LONDON FOR WALLER, PARIS FOR TSOU

E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/25/2018
TAGS: PREL PHUM PGOV KPAO KDEM SY
SUBJECT: SYRIAN DISSIDENT TAKES DIM VIEW OF ORGANIZED
POLITICAL ACTIVISM

REF: A. DAMASCUS 00176
B. DAMASCUS 00224
C. DAMASCUS 00373
D. DAMASCUS 00757
E. DAMASCUS 00010
F. 07 DAMASCUS 00389

Classified By: CDA Maura Connelly for reasons 1.4 b and d.

1. (C) SUMMARY: Civil society activist and economist XXXXXXXXXXXX, released from prison on XXXXXXXXXXXX, met
with us recently to share his bleak assessment of
pro-democracy and human rights movements in Syria. His
appraisals differ from other civil society leaders (refs
A-C), especially regarding the Damascus Declaration (DD)
movement, in that he sees little cohesion among activists.
XXXXXXXXXXXX’s lawyer, XXXXXXXXXXXX (protect), and former
detainee XXXXXXXXXXXX attended the meeting. XXXXXXXXXXXX's
associates offered insight and sometimes dissenting opinions
on the current status of civil society activism. END SUMMARY.

----------
BACKGROUND
----------

2. (U) SARG security forces arrested XXXXXXXXXXXX in 2001
during the Damascus Spring, a fertile period of open
political debate in the months following Bashar al-Asad's
brief flirtation with a more liberal approach to governance.
During this period, XXXXXXXXXXXX was an outspoken critic against
SARG corruption and political oppression; he wrote for the
banned journal XXXXXXXXXXXX, and actively participated in
lectures and discussions with other reform-minded activists.
His arrest reportedly resulted from a lecture he gave in
XXXXXXXXXXXX in which he called for democracy and
transparency. In XXXXXXXXXXXX, the Supreme State Security Court
sentenced XXXXXXXXXXXX to 10 years in prison. After enduring more
than six years of incarceration, most of it in solitary
confinement, XXXXXXXXXXXX was released on XXXXXXXXXXXX, in part due to
his health, which had deteriorated precipitously while he was
in jail.

-------------
XXXXXXXXXXXX's VIEW
-------------

3. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX met with us on November 19 to discuss the
SARG crackdown on political activism that began with the
Damascus Spring and crescendoed with the sentencing of 12
members of the Damascus Declaration National Council (DDNC)
(ref D). XXXXXXXXXXXX stressed that activism at an individual level
would continue despite the current climate, but attempts at
coordination would meet little success. "The Damascus
Declaration," XXXXXXXXXXXX said, "is finished as a movement. The
people will continue working, but won't be able to
gather...it is significant that they cannot organize." When
asked whether these individuals could, acting alone, effect
reform at any level, XXXXXXXXXXXX replied cautiously: "I don't see
an open door, but I don't think it is impossible."

4. (C) Recent VIP visits by European leaders to Damascus only
reinforce the SARG's belief that human rights have no real
significance to the West, XXXXXXXXXXXX lamented. "We are afraid
the authorities can use the new situation to oppress the
opposition. I heard that when Miliband was here, they
sentenced (Mustafa) al-Dalati," he said. "Asad (now) thinks
the West depends on him, needs him, and will close their eyes
to these (civil society reform) problems." For the West,
XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted, the "human rights" issue was merely "one of
many goods for trade at the table of international relations."

5. (C) Like many Syrians we have met, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXXXXXXXX, and
XXXXXXXXXXXXi decried the U.S. sanctions against Syria as hurting
the Syrian people more than anyone else. XXXXXXXXXXXX argued the
sanctions had become a tool for controlling popular opinion
in the SARG's hands. The Asad regime held up the sanctions as
an example of how the West opposed the people of Syria,
thereby reinforcing the idea that Asad and the Ba'ath Party
alone had the Syrian people's interests at heart, XXXXXXXXXXXX said.

6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX added that the West demanded reform, but it
actually prefered an Asad regime to an alternative
government, primarily because the West feared any alternative
would be Islamist and/or violent, or simply would not
willingly follow the policies of the West. He argued the West
was afraid of a fully democratic country anywhere in the
Middle East. Both XXXXXXXXXXXX, who spent five years in prison for

DAMASCUS 00000842 002 OF 002


his role in the Damascus Spring and is now involved with the
Damascus Declaration, and XXXXXXXXXXXX, who is XXXXXXXXXXXX's lawyer
and the president of the XXXXXXXXXXXX, echoed XXXXXXXXXXXX's sentiments in their own comments.
XXXXXXXXXXXX argued the "regime always uses this relationship with
the West to project an image of importance...It allows him
(Asad) to tell people: 'see, I'm needed and the West isn't
interested in these (human rights) issues.'"

--------------------------
MINOR DISSENT IN THE RANKS
--------------------------

7. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX disagreed with XXXXXXXXXXXX on the DD's future
effectiveness during the meeting, while XXXXXXXXXXXX withheld
comment until afterwards when he could speak to us in
private. XXXXXXXXXXXX said "The regime will not stop the
movement through acts of dictatorship." The SARG crackdown,
he argued, had not prevented the DD from continuing work and
extending their organization. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us after the
meeting XXXXXXXXXXXX was "a little out of touch" with the political
reform movement as a whole, and the DD movement in
particular, as a result of his imprisonment. He pointed out
that XXXXXXXXXXXX had been put in jail before the DD was signed and
was not fully informed of the organization's current status.

8. (C) When asked what concrete steps the DD would take in
the future, XXXXXXXXXXXX said people were still very afraid of SARG
reprisals and were currently focused on providing assistance
to the families of political prisoners. He and XXXXXXXXXXXX
requested U.S. monetary assistance in these efforts.

----------
NEXT STEPS
----------

9. (C) Both XXXXXXXXXXXX and XXXXXXXXXXXX insisted the U.S. should work
through the U.N. to pressure Syria instead of pursuing
sanctions. They also said Western democracies could only
foster civil society reform in Syria if they made human
rights and civil society reform pre-conditions to engagement.
XXXXXXXXXXXX pointed to CODELs Pelosi and Specter as examples of
incidences where Western leaders came without any guarantees
on human rights cases, received promises from the SARG for
the release of specific individuals (refs E & F), only to
have the SARG deny promises were made. Regarding CODEL
Pelosi, XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that had Pelosi requested the release of
Kamal Labwani prior to her arrival, the SARG might have done
it. "To come and then ask for promises will get nothing;
promises will be made, but will be worthless," XXXXXXXXXXXX said.

10. (C) When asked whether the National Salvation Front
(NSF), a political opposition group in exile headed by former
Syrian Vice President Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood general
supervisor Ali Sadr al'Din al-Bayanouni, represented a
potential ally in political action, XXXXXXXXXXXX clearly stated
they were not: "They are outside the country; what can they
do without people inside the country?"

11. (C) COMMENT: Meeting activists of any stripe in Syria has
always been fraught with difficulties. Since the SARG
crackdown on the DD, however, activists have been
particularly gun-shy; and after the alleged U.S. attack on
Abu Kamal, direct contact with Syrians all but ceased.
Therefore, Post considers the XXXXXXXXXXXX meeting to be a positive
sign. While the "lenient" sentence of the DDNC might have
played an encouraging role (ref D), fears that European
engagement with SARG may go forward without human rights
issues being front and center could also be a motivating
factor. As the SARG steps from the wings onto the main
international stage, activists may seek increased exposure as
well. Post encourages the Department continue finding ways to
provide direct financial assistance to the families of
political prisoners through the Human Rights Defenders Fund.
END COMMENT.
CONNELLY

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