Last month at the Free University of Brussels, just 200 meters from the Syrian Embassy, a group of Syrians gathered to discuss something spoken of only in whispers in their native land-freedom.
The scene was the second conference of the Syrian Democratic Coalition (SDC), a growing union of pro-democracy groups comprised of both resident Syrians and Syrians living abroad. Under the hospices of the Belgian government, representatives of 19 Syrian political parties, civil rights and student organizations gathered from January 17-19 to discuss replacing the world's last remaining Ba'ath Party dictatorship with a secular democracy. In addition to proposing the establishment of a new Syrian constitution and free markets, the conference's participants advanced a bold plan that, if successful, would put enormous pressure on Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad's already shaky Ba'athist regime. SDC's next conference, announced Farid Ghadry, the organization's president, would take place not in the comfortable confines of Europe or the United States, but in the Baa'th Party's own backyard-Damascus.
"In freeing a country, you have to always be on the offensive," explains Ghadry, an entrepreneur and Syrian native who has lived in the Washington, DC area since 1975. "Even if Assad doesn't let [the Damascus conference] happen, it draws attention to our movement. And if he does let it happen, we rally the opposition groups inside Syria. Assad loses either way."
Spearheaded by the success of its initial conference, held in Washington, DC in November, SDC has grown considerably over the past few months. While Syria is currently ruled by Bashar Al-Assad's Alawites-who make up only five percent of the Syrian population-SDC's members include Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Assyrian Christians and Kurds, all representative of the full spectrum of Syrian society. Formed in the aftermath of 9/11, SDC has benefited from intensive outreach efforts in the U.S. and abroad.
"We have learned many lessons from the INC (Iraqi National Congress), and have already begun to implement them" says Ghadry. "We have reached out to the European Union. We have also opened a channel between Jacques Chirac's party in France and our party, and we have a channel open into Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq as well."
Ghadry was particularly encouraged to see members of the Belgian government at the Brussels conference, including Senator Roelants Du Vivier. While it is no surprise that the pro-democracy message of SDC resonates deeply in the U.S., the EU, as evidenced by the vociferous opposition of some of its member countries to the Iraq War, has thus far been difficult to sell on matters of regime change in the Middle East. But Gianfranco Dell'Alba, a European Union parliament member who met with Ghadry in Brussels, believes the EU can play a vital role in securing democracy in a region long synonymous with tyranny.
"The official opinion of the EU on regime change in Syria is currently one of realpolitik," says Dell'Alba. "But I hope-and we hope-that Europe can play a role in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East."
He adds: "The Arab countries themselves recognize that change is compulsory if they don't want to fail."
The Brussels conference showcased the growing influence of SDC amongst Syrians of various religious, ethnic and political stripes, as 35 delegates from 19 different Syrian pro-democracy groups were in attendance. From Assyrian Christians, Shiites, Alawites and Sunnis, to women's rights advocates, students, secularists and Kurds, representatives of Syria's various ethnic, religious and political factions-free from the threats of imprisonment and torture commonly employed by the Assad regime-all made their voices heard in Brussels.
"I have been waiting for an opposition movement like this for 20 years," says Mohammed Saleh Gaida, who came to Brussels representing 325,000 Arabs and Kurds from three different tribes in northern Syria. "I receive dozens of calls from Syrians every day asking when [SDC] is going to come to Damascus. The Syrian people are hungry for information about the coalition."
The Syrian government's recent declaration that it plans to ignore Libya's example and continue developing weapons of mass destruction underscores the growing problem presented by Assad's regime. In the past month alone, David Kay (formerly of the CIA-sponsored Iraq Survey Group) and SDC's Nizar Nayouf have both accused Syria of harboring components of Saddam Hussein's WMD arsenal. Nayouf, a journalist and former Syrian prisoner, even provided a map showing three sites in which the materials are allegedly located. In addition, evidence persists that the Syrian government-despite repeated denials-continues to provide support to Hamas, Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists and aid the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. These and other transgressions have left the Ba'ath Party on a collision course with the United States for several months (witness the Syrian Accountability Act, signed into law by President Bush in December).
"Assad's regime has survived by dividing the country, because they are a minority rule," says Ghadry. "We are doing the opposite-we are bringing people together who want democracy, regardless of their race or religion."
As for SDC's plans to hold its third conference in the lion's den itself, Damascus, Ghadry is tight-lipped except to say that EU Parliament members have already agreed to accompany SDC into Syria. Considering the current Syrian law that requires anyone seeking regime change to be hanged, this is a risky proposition indeed. Ghadry, however, remains unfazed. "I want to keep Assad in suspense," he says. "And I want to be on the offensive."
Damascus it is.
Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington, DC-based counterterrorism research institute.