I spent a few days in Damascus at the end of February, and was able to get a ground reality view of the effects of the Bush administration’s (former) campaign for the forced ‘democratization’ of Middle Eastern societies on the work of Syrian citizens with long experience struggling for human rights and democracy in their country.

Bottom line: “Very bad indeed.”

That was the verdict rendered on the Bushites’ ‘democratization’ campaign by Danial Saoud, the President of the venerable Committee for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms in Syria (CDF).

Saoud was himself a political prisoner from 1987 through 1999, and has been President of the CDF since August 2006. He was adamant that what Syria’s rights activists need most of all right now is a resolution of their country’s state of war with Israel.

Speaking of Condoleezza Rice he said,

    Her pressure on the regime had a very bad effect for us. Now, for 18-24 months the Americans and Europeans have put a lot of pressure on the regime– but the regime then just pushes harder on us.

Mazen Darwish, who is Saoud’s colleague in the CDF’s three-person Presidential Council, told me,

    Before the US invasion of Iraq, people here in Syria liked us, the human rights activists, and we had significant popular sympathy. But since what happened in Iraq, people here say ‘Look at the results of that!’

Saoud stressed that for Syrians, the question of Israel’s continued occupation of Syria’s Golan region itself constitutes a significant denial of the rights of all the Syrian citizens affected– both those who remain in Golan, living under Israeli military occupation rule there, and those who had fled when Israel occupied Golan in 1967 and have had to live displaced from their homes and farms for the 40 years since then. “Golan is Syrian land, and we have all the rights to get it back,” he said.

In addition, he and the other rights activists I talked with pointed to the fact that the continuing state of war between Syria and Israel has allowed the Syrian regime to keep in place the State of Emergency that was first imposed in the country in 1963. “All these regimes in this area say they are postponing the issue of democracy until after they have solved the issues of Golan and Palestine,” he said.

    So let’s get them solved! Everything should start from this. The people in both Syria and Israel need peace. We need to build a culture of peace in the whole area.

    … The CDF is working hard to build this culture.

Both men pointed out the numerous contradictions and ambiguities in the policy the US has pursued regarding democratization in Syria. Darwish noted that, “When the US had a good relationship with Syria, in 1991, Danial was in prison– and the US didn’t say anything about that.” These two men, and other rights activists I talked with also noted that more recently, even during the Bushites’ big push for ‘democratization’ in Syria in 2004-2005, the Bushites were still happy to benefit from Syria’s torture chambers by sending some suspected Al-Qaeda people there to be tortured. (Canadian-Syrian dual citizen Maher Arar was only the most famous of these victims. In September 2005, Amnesty International published this additional list.)

Over the past year, two processes have been underway in Syria that seem to confirm these activists’ argument that US pressure on the Damascus regime has been detrimental to their cause. Firstly, the rapid deterioration in the US’s power in the region has considerably diminished Washington’s ability to pressure the Syria regime on any issues, and Damascus has become notably stronger and self-confident than it was a year ago. For some evidence of this, see my latest interview with Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, serialized here, here, and here.

Secondly, over the same period, the situation of human rights activists within the country seems to have improved some.

Saoud told me that the number of (secular) political prisoners in the country is now less than 20. Indeed, the day we talked, about 16 Kurdish and student activists who had been held for less than a month had just been released. He said “No-one knows how many Islamist activists are in detention… We don’t hear about them until they come to court.” He said, “They don’t torture people like Anwar al-Bunni or Michel Kilo, or the others who were detained last year for having signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration.” He indicated, however, that it was very likely that many of the Islamist detainees had been tortured. (Human Rights Watch’s recently released report for 2006 states that in Syria, “Thousands of political prisoners, many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party, remain in detention.)

… Meanwhile, the main factor dominating political developments in Syria as in the rest of the Middle East, is the continued and extremely painful collapse of conditions inside Iraq. Syrians have watched that collapse in horror. Their country has received and given a temporary refuge to more than a million Iraqis (a considerable burden on their nation, equivalent to the US taking in some 17 million refugees within just a couple of years.) And since Iraq’s collapse has occurred under a Washington-advertised rubric of “democratization”, the whole tragedy in Iraq has tended to give the concept a very bad name, and has caused Arabs and Muslims throughout the Middle East to value political stability much, much more than hitherto.

Under those circumstances, it is very moving to still hear people living in Arab countries talking about the need for democracy. But when they do so, they are very eager to distance themselves from the coerciveness inherent in Washington’s recent ‘democratization’ project. And they all– regime supporters and oppositionists, alike–stress the need for moves toward democratization to grow out the local people’s needs and priorities, rather than the geostrategies pursued by distant Washington.