Syria Backs Iraqi Vote As Key Step to Stability - Expatriates Encouraged to Participate (WASHINGTON POST) By Scott Wilson DAMASCUS, Syria 01/29/05 Page A18)
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DAMASCUS, Syria -- Billboards urging Iraqis here to vote in their
national elections Sunday loom over major intersections. Schools have
become registration centers, their rows of tiny desks filled with
Iraqis who have sought refuge here from war. Radio and television ads
urge the exiles to vote.
Syria´s support for the elections next door may seem odd, given the
government´s opposition to the U.S. involvement in Iraq. But
President Bashar Assad has a growing stake in the elections´ success,
Western diplomats and Syrian officials say, as the violence and
political ferment in Iraq bleed across the border.
"We consider these elections a key step toward establishing stability
there," said Syria´s information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah. "The
instability in the region causes instability elsewhere, including
Syria. It is like a communicative disease."
Autocratic governments in Cairo, Riyadh and many other Middle Eastern
capitals are watching events leading to Sunday´s elections, marked by
insurgent attacks, with a mix of trepidation, hope and satisfaction.
But few of them have as large a stake in the outcome as Syria, a
prime target of President Bush´s plan to foster democratic change in
Assad, who took office 4 1/2 years ago after the death of his father,
is trying to balance the potential boost that the Iraqi elections
could give to his country´s fledgling democratic movement with the
possibility that a successful vote would stem the flow of Iraqis
seeking refuge in Syria.
"If the Shiite majority wins in Iraq and yet does not become a
tyranny, that will be decisive here," said Sadiq Azm, a Syrian writer
and reformer. "If the Americans come out with some results and Iraq
becomes a stable democratic republic, it could give Syrian civil
society new arguments for change."
Since 1970, when Hafez Assad took power in a coup, Syria has been
ruled by the Arab nationalist Baath Party, backed by the military.
Under the younger Assad, the administration, controlled by an Alawite
Muslim minority, is adopting modest economic reforms that some
democracy advocates say could serve as precursors to political change.
Though other political parties are officially illegal, the government
allows them to operate within strict guidelines. Many of them draw
from professional associations and form an opposition bloc in Syria´s
250-seat parliament, a majority of which is reserved for the Baath
Azm said Syria´s reform movement -- which comprises independent
groups of human-rights advocates, Sunni business leaders and even
some Baath Party radicals -- had drawn more lessons from Turkey than
from the U.S. experiment in Iraq. In the weeks before the war,
Turkey´s parliament voted against allowing U.S. forces to enter
northern Iraq from Turkish territory. Azm said Syria´s reform
advocates were amazed by the muted U.S. response to what was
considered a major strategic setback.
"They saw that Turkey was bulletproof because it had an elected
government," Azm said. "This made quite a mark."
Since becoming president, Bashar Assad has been trying to reduce the
Baath Party´s influence over some social-service ministries and the
mostly state-run economy. But allies say he is facing stiff
resistance from holdovers from his father´s government, despite
mounting domestic pressure to change.
A majority of Syria´s population is under 20 years old, and 300,000
people enter the labor force each year -- far more than its economy
can absorb. Assad has been taking small steps to expand the private
sector, but that has given more clout to reformers among Syria´s
Sunni Muslim majority, the key players in the private sector.
"The rule of the game has changed. If you want to succeed, you no
longer need a role in or support from the government," said Rateb
Shallah, the president of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and of the
Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce. "Credit must go to our
leadership for starting this process, even though we feel the present
rate of change is still very slow."
Shallah, 67, is a wealthy, Oxford-educated Sunni whose family owns
businesses ranging from canned-food factories to car dealerships. His
father founded the federation of chambers 40 years ago.
Last year, faced with complaints from younger chamber members that
his post appeared to be hereditary, Shallah agreed to hold elections.
He won. But he says Iraq´s elections, while vital for establishing
stability in that country, should not dictate the pace of political
change in Syria.
"If we were to introduce a purely democratic government, you would
see problems because of the divergent views of the people," Shallah
said. "I believe reform would move much slower if the democracy the
U.S. wants were put in place tomorrow."
Several members of parliament and lawyers involved in Syrian politics
said the government was moving to eliminate the Baath Party´s
guaranteed majority in the legislature by the end of the year. The
change would allow the broader participation many Syrians have called
for, they said, while stopping short of elections.
"I´m afraid that in open elections now, the Islamic movement would
win not only in Syria but across the region," said Adib Dahdouh, a
Christian lawyer who works with the opposition bloc in parliament.
The Syrian government has long refused to condemn the Iraqi
insurgency now working to thwart the vote. Despite that, and the
uncertainty over what Iraq´s elections might bring, the Syrian
government has been helping arrange voting procedures for Iraqis in
The Foreign Ministry agreed Jan. 2 to allow the International
Organization for Migration, a nongovernmental agency overseeing
voting by the estimated 2 million eligible Iraqis outside the
country, to establish a mission here. It was the last of 14 countries
with sizable Iraqi populations to do so. Western diplomats say the
ministry may have agreed to the arrangement because of the problems
Iraq´s instability is causing here, as a growing number of Iraqis
settle at least temporarily in Syria.
"They are waiting now for elections," said Bishop Antoine Audo of the
Chaldean Catholic Church in Aleppo, 185 miles north of Damascus,
where some 15,000 Iraqi Christians have fled since the war
started. "If there is some stability, the arrivals will stop. If not,
they will continue."
The office has set up 10 voter-registration centers in Damascus
capable of handling 200,000 Iraqis. But only 14,245 Iraqis signed up
during the eight-day registration period, and agency officials said
many more were not aware it was even an option.
"We reject all of this," an Iraqi man shouted during a recent news
conference at a registration center in the Damascus neighborhood of
Sayeda Zeinab, where thousands of Iraqis have settled. "Elections
should never be held under the U.S. flag."
Nearby, however, a school teacher from the southern Iraqi city of
Basra eagerly signed up to vote. Amira, 49, who spoke on condition
she not give her last name, said she fled Iraq 18 months ago and had
not seen her son since. On this chilly day, though, she beamed from
inside her black cloak at the prospect of casting a ballot.
"One stone out of many will build a wall," she said. (© 2005 The
Washington Post Company 01/29/05)
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