Cablegate: Democratic Reform Strategy Syria - 2007
PP RUEHAG RUEHROV
DE RUEHDM #1193/01 3571352
ZNY SSSSS ZZH
P 231352Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 4480
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD 0636
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUMICEA/USCENTCOM INTEL CEN MACDILL AFB FL
RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHDC
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 0321
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 DAMASCUS 001193
PARIS FOR JORDAN; LONDON FOR TSOU
E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/22/2017
TAGS: PGOV PHUM PREL SY IS
SUBJECT: DEMOCRATIC REFORM STRATEGY SYRIA - 2007
Classified By: CDA Todd Holmstrom for reasons 1.4 b and d
1. (C) Summary: Since the development of Post,s 2005
democratic reform strategy there has been a substantial and
on-going government crackdown on what little democratic
reform had been taking place. Many of the democratic
reformers and human rights advocates who were key Embassy
contacts in 2005 are now in prison. Many who are or were
involved in political opposition, human rights, and/or civil
society development have been banned from leaving the
country, thereby making external training problematic for
many of the most promising reformers. In addition, the
Syrian Arab Republic government (SARG) makes it all but
impossible for local NGOs, opposition parties and individual
reformers to receive funding from non-Syrian sources.
Finally, international NGOs that aim to engage in any
political activity are forbidden from operating in the
2. (C) Given Syria,s restrictive political environment, Post
advocates: 1) supporting political prisoners and dissidents
and helping their families; 2) helping political opposition
and civil society to spread their message and develop
internally; and 3) providing assistance to Syrian opposition
contacts outside the country who have the trust of opposition
leaders inside the country. Post believes it can effectively
support Washington,s objectives by serving as a platform of
communication and as a resource of information about
activities and direction of the internal opposition. End
PRIORITY ONE: SUPPORT FOR POLITICAL PRISONERS, OTHER
DISSIDENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES
3. (C) Since 2005, a number of high profile political
reformers, human rights defenders and civil society activists
were arrested, tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms:
Kamal Labwani for 12 years; Anwar al-Bunni for five years;
and Michel Kilo for three years. In addition, the government
prevented many connected to the political reform movement,
human rights organizations or civil society from traveling
abroad: Riad Seif who requires medical attention not
available in Syria or Haithem al-Maleh whose wife is ill in
4. (C) Both the White House and the State Department have
issued numerous public statements condemning both the
politically based trials and the harsh sentences for regime
critics. Post has worked closely with like-minded embassies
in Damascus to coordinate public statements and share
information. Some visiting CODELS broached the subject of
political detainees in the meetings with President Asad and
other SARG officials.
5. (C) Yet, a consistent refrain of Post,s opposition
contacts is that the Embassy and USG should do more to
support the opposition. Of particular concern are the
families of prisoners of conscience who have no other means
to support themselves. Unofficially, there are approximately
100 to 150 individuals who need some sort of assistance. In
many cases, when the primary bread winner is sent to prison,
the spouses are also forced out of jobs by the security
services, who also work to isolate them from society at large
so far as ensuring the children are shunned from school.
6. (C) Strategies for Post support for prisoners of
conscience, their families and their movements:
-- Department adopts a more public posture calling for SARG
release of political prisoners.
-- Closely monitor/report on political repression cases, and
suggest press guidance highlighting the abuses.
-- Use the U.S. annual human rights report on Syria as a
point of discussion for programming with civil society
activists, journalists, and academics.
-- Use high-level visits, including CODELS, to urge SARG to
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release political prisoners as a demonstration of the
government,s desire to improve bilateral relations and as a
way to enhance its image.
-- Post is developing a detailed list of the family members
of prisoners of conscience that lists the types of assistance
-- Use of DRL,s Human Rights Defenders Fund and MEPI funds
to support, through international NGOs (possibly Freedom
House), the families of prisoners of conscience.
7. (C) Resource Needs: Initially, Post plans to depend
largely on DRL,s Human Rights Defenders Fund. Eventually,
Post envisions working with MEPI to develop specifically
tailored programs as Post develops a more sophisticated
understanding of how best to assist family members of
PRIORITY TWO: ENCOURAGE SYRIA-BASED HUMAN RIGHTS NGOS,
OPPOSITION MOVEMENTS AND YOUNG JOURNALISTS TO USE MASS
COMMUNICATIONS MORE EFFECTIVELY
8. (C) The Syrian government tightly controls all media and
maintains ownership of most news outlets in Syria. The
government has allowed the founding of some semi-independent
publications, which are privately owned by regime allies.
Journalists are harassed by the security services and
sometimes jailed for publication of news or opinion offensive
to the regime. Satellite television is available almost
everywhere in the country and is relatively unregulated.
However, locally-based correspondents for Arab media
(al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Hayat, al-Jazeera, al-Arabiya) refrain
from running stories critical of the Syrian regime.
Self-censorship and knowing where the government's red-lines
are job survival skills for all journalists operating in
Syria. The internet is rapidly growing as a source of
information for Syrians, although websites are monitored and
some are periodically blocked.
9. (C) In 2006, the Ministry of Information completed
drafting a new Publications Law. Early hopes that the draft
law would be quickly ratified and adopted have now evaporated
as the Ministry has yet to pass the draft law to the
People,s Assembly for debate. Local observers do not expect
the draft law to be passed anytime soon.
10. (C) The Embassy,s priority is to encourage and support
local human rights NGOs and opposition movements (such as the
recently formed National Council) to circulate their message
both inside the country and out. Internal and external
pressure on the regime will increase as more people know the
truth about the methods it employs to stay in power.
11. (C) It is equally important that Syrian journalists and
those interested in journalism receive the requisite skills
to produce high quality media products that will allow them
to disseminate their viewpoints as effectively as possible.
As such, journalist trainings and exchanges remain vitally
12. (C) Strategies for Support:
-- Encourage reputable Syrian reporters by allowing them
access to embassy staff in PAS-monitored backgrounders and
including them in representational events.
-- Continue to send journalists to the US through IVPs and
other Embassy sponsored exchanges to better understand the
roles and responsibilities of journalists in a free media.
-- Support journalist training and capacity building
workshops, especially in the area of &new8, i.e.
-- Identify and facilitate budding sites of a free press
here, such as websites and periodicals with investigative
news, and develop creative strategies, with input from NDI,
IRI, NED, Freedom House, Internews and others, to identify
ways to fund these future pillars of a free press.
-- Provide training for journalists in human rights reporting.
DAMASCUS 00001193 003 OF 004
-- Assist local NGOs with translating and printing their
publications, statements, websites and pamphlets.
-- Support the proposed European office of the Damascus
Declaration,s National Council, which will be used as a
platform to spread their message.
-- Assist the Damascus Declaration,s National Council to
broadcast a news show on Syria once or twice a week on
-- Encourage al-Hurra to focus on the human rights situation
in the Middle East with one or two hours of programming per
week ) some of which could include the situation in Syria.
-- Provide technical advice on and/or directly host
opposition/human rights websites.
-- PD section to increase scope and depth of its contacts
among local journalists with an eye to send more for
-- Encourage NSC/Commerce to apply greater flexibility to the
review of export licenses under U.S. sanctions to allow,
where possible and where it serves U.S. interests, for the
more rapid spread of the internet in Syria.
13. (C) Resource Needs: PD is already undertaking some
journalist training; additional training could build on these
programs. MEPI funds are already supporting websites and
could be expanded. We should also give consideration to the
National Council's request for funding for satellite
broadcasts. Washington could explore supporting the use of
American satellite TV programs that provide truthful,
accurate information about the regime. Other strategies
proposed can be undertaken at post with existing staffing and
assets. MEPI small grants funds could be used to assist
local NGOs with translating and printing.
PRIORITY THREE: AID THE DEVELOPMENT OF A ROBUST CIVIL
14. (C) The SARG allows a very few licensed, non-political
civil society organizations to operate. The SARG carefully
funds and controls these organizations. Independent NGO's are
not authorized to operate in the country and have been
increasingly policed and shut down since 2005 including the
2006 closing of AMIDEAST, which had successfully operated in
Syria for 27 years. Additionally, The SARG has completely
closed a number of civil society organizations that focused
on reform and human rights. Security services routinely
disrupt the meetings of human rights organizations, harass
their leaders and prevent their members from leaving the
15. (C) Post,s priority is to provide opportunities for
civil society organizations to develop themselves internally
and cultivate their relations with other civil society
organizations both within Syria and abroad. One possible
area of focus is the legal sector where the ABA is already
actively exploring some programs.
16. (C) Strategies for Assistance:
-- Using MEPI to enhance existing English programs,
increasing, for example, the micro-scholarship program to two
years for each participant for up to 20 at the American
Language Center, subject to availability of additional
funding. Other English language schools could also be used
to provide language instruction.
-- MEPI funding for additional training (including English)
at private schools in Damascus.
-- Expand the number of IV's available to Syrians who can
travel in the field of democratization and related fields.
-- Identify and approach non-traditional partners (i.e.
churches) who may be able to provide cover for civil society
development projects, such as NGO training.
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-- Develop on associations of western-trained lawyers,
possibly through the ABA.
-- Through the ABA, create training programs for Syrian
lawyers focusing on legal advocacy and legal drafting.
-- Create a forum for people-to-people discussion of the
issue with legal scholars speaking on respect for human
rights in different legal systems.
-- Embassy hosts monthly DVCs where some local human rights
activists could communicate with U.S. or regional
-- Develop medium and long term relationships with NGOs
working in areas that are not sensitive to the regime such as
the environment or health.
-- Help local NGOs and other civil society organizations
improve computer literacy among their members.
17. (C) Resource Needs: MEPI and/or DRL funds will provide
an ideal source for enhanced funding for civil society/NGO
activity. There will be a critical need for flexibility and
creativity in identifying funding programs, sources of
funding and ways to deliver these resources to groups. One
option, for both civil society and human rights activists, is
to identify recipients for cash "prizes," awarded by
recognized foundations and private organizations in the U.S.
18. (C) EVALUATING THE CONSEQUENCES AND PROSPECTS FOR
SUCCESS: In the wake of the ongoing crackdown, and the
current tense regional environment, the SARG remains wary of
USG intentions toward the regime. The SARG is unlikely to
allow many of these suggested programming initiatives to go
forward, and can be expected to block the more ambitious
ones, either directly or by threatening potential
participants. Conversely, the lack of USG programming and
financial support to political dissidents, human rights
activists, and civil society organizers has led some in the
opposition to question whether the U.S. is truly committed to
democracy in Syria.
19. (S) One way to increase the pressure for democratization
in Syria is to strongly encourage any official visitors to
Syria to reiterate the U.S. commitment to democracy and human
rights. This assumes the SARG would grant the officials visas
-- which is by no means guaranteed. Visiting CODELs could be
persuaded to raise internal reform, as they often receive
much higher access to the regime than Executive Branch
officials. In addition, a visit by the Assistant Secretary
for Democracy Rights and Labor, for example, could help us
advance our democratization agenda by focusing public
attention on our support for human rights and civil society.
20. (C) In Syrian, however, ratcheting up U.S. and
international attention to Syria's human rights record will
likely result in a negative response by the SARG against
those we support. Post might also experience increased SARG
interference in its programming, and efforts to further
restrict contacts with organizations and individuals.
Indeed, the SARG,s closure of AMIDEAST in 2006 serves as a
reminder of how far the regime can and will go to curtail
Post,s operations. Finally, existing PD programs are
vulnerable to SARG disruption. Future PD programs will be
vulnerable to government disruption especially as the profile
of Post,s support of political reform rises.
21. (S) It remains imperative to focus on the &doable.8 In
that regard, we must seek to identify how to respond
positively to the requests of Syrian advocates of reform for
political and material support by partnering with other
countries and international organizations. At some point,
the USG needs to decide how to overcome SARG barriers to USG
funding of Syrian groups, activists and their families. The
issue of providing direct support remains the most difficult
obstacle and is a constant refrain of civil society contacts
who complain the U.S. is not doing enough.