Syria Imposing Stronger Curbs on Opposition

Just months ago, under intense international pressure to ease its stranglehold on neighboring Lebanon, the Syrian government was talking about ending the ruling Baath Party’s grip on Syrian power and paving the way for a multiparty system.

But things have moved in the opposite direction. Syrian officials are aggressively silencing domestic political opposition while accommodating religious conservatives to shore up support across the country.

Security forces have detained human rights workers and political leaders, and in some cases their family members as well. They have barred travel abroad for political conferences and shut down a human rights center financed by the European Union. And the government has delivered a stern message to the national news media demanding that they promote — not challenge — the official agenda.

The leadership’s actions were described in interviews with top officials as well as dissidents and human rights activists. They reflect at least in part a growing sense of confidence because of shifts in the Middle East in recent months, especially the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, political paralysis in Lebanon and the intense difficulties facing the United States in trying to stabilize Iraq and stymie Iran’s drive toward nuclear power.

The detentions, the press crackdown, the restrictions on travel and the overall effort to crush dissent are also a response to a fragile domestic political climate and concern over a growing opposition movement abroad.

“I may not be keen on early morning arrests, but this regime was being threatened,” Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, a Londoneducated technocrat charged with steering Syria’s economic overhaul, said in an interview. “The survival of this regime and the stability of this country was threatened out loud and openly. There were invitations for foreign armies to come and invade Syria. So you could expect sometimes an overreaction, or a reaction, to something that is really happening.”

On Tuesday, Amnesty International condemned the Syrian crackdown and called on Damascus to release “all of those arrested due to their beliefs.” Human Rights Watch said it was sending a letter to the government protesting the arrests.

The government has also sought to fortify its position with a nod to a reality sweeping not just Syria, but the region: a surge in religious identification and a growing desire to empower religious political movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter group recently won 88 seats in the Egyptian Parliament in spite of government efforts to block its supporters from voting.

The Syrian government has gone further to accommodate religious conservatives than in the past, officials and religious scholars said.

It has appointed a sheik, as opposed to a secular Baathist, to head the Religious Affairs Ministry; allowed, for the first time, religious activities in the stadium at Damascus University; and permitted a speech emphasizing religious practices and identity to be given to a military audience. President Bashar al-Assad has increasingly inserted references to religious identity and culture into his speeches.

Most striking was the government’s recent decision to reverse itself one month after trying to limit activities taking place in mosques. The Religious Affairs Ministry effectively ordered mosques closed for all activities but prayers, but a few weeks later the decision was deemed a greater threat to a government controlled by the Alawites, a minority religious sect, than the potential for political organizing among the majority Sunni Muslims.

“Before, religion for the regime was like a ball of fire, ” said Abdul Qader al-Kittani, a professor of Islamic studies at Fattah Islamic University here. “Now they deal with it like it could be a ball of light.”

He added: “Two factors pushed the regime toward this direction. The first is the beat of the street. The second is external pressures on the regime.”

Damascus has a very different feel from that of a few months ago, when investigators for the United Nations Security Council issued a report suggesting that the Syrian state — not just individuals — was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005 and that the authorities here had defied the United Nations Security Council by refusing to cooperate with its investigation.

The new investigator heading the inquiry, Serge Brammertz of Belgium, has kept a far lower profile and taken a less confrontational approach than his predecessor, Detlev Mehlis of Germany. Syrian officials have responded by agreeing to allow President Assad to be interviewed.

With the pressure off, the arrests have been stacking up since January, according to local human rights groups and individuals who say they were picked up by the authorities.

In Damascus, Ammar Qurabi, the former spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria, was held for four days after returning from political conferences in Washington and Paris. In Aleppo, Samir Nashar, a businessman and opposition leader, was detained for three days after returning from attending political conferences abroad.

The goal was to deliver a message, some of those arrested said: the government will not tolerate any contact between internal opposition figures and a growing opposition movement abroad that is being encouraged by former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who recently forged an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed here.

“This time they wanted to relay a message or a warning: the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaddam and street protests are prohibited,” said Hussein al-Odat, an opposition leader in Damascus who said he was detained last week by security forces for two hours. “They said, ’It is clear, and we will not be merciful.’ “

Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, and the first to report on the new prohibitions, said the government was operating this way because of the changing regional situation. “Now they believe they can get away with it,” he said.

Ayman Abdel Nour, a Baath Party member who promoted the idea of reforming the party from inside, said he had grown so disillusioned that he planned to move his business — a Web site that gives voice to calls for reform — from Damascus to the United Arab Emirates.

He said he had been told that the party planned to purge all those with reform agendas from its ranks. “They say they have a fixed time period to crack down and finish off the opposition,” Mr. Abdel Nour said.

Human Rights Watch and several Syrian-based human rights organizations say that at least 30 people involved in politics or human rights work have been detained since January, and that several have not been heard from since. Human rights leaders in Damascus say the numbers are likely to be higher because most families are too afraid to report the arrests to their organizations.

Sami al-Abbas, a novelist, and Farouk Hamad, a poet, were arrested Monday for meeting with opposition leaders, said Razan Zaytouneh of the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, a local organization.

Muhammad al-Habash, a member of Parliament and general manager of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, says that in spite of the restrictions, Syria is far more relaxed than it was five years ago when, he said, he would not have been allowed to meet with a foreign reporter.

He also praised the government’s recent accommodations to religion, saying, “They realize we need Islamic power, especially at this time,” and he endorsed the ban on allowing travel to attend political conferences abroad.

“It is not a suitable time to allow people to travel abroad to participate in opposition conferences,” he said. “We have to be real.”