When you are sitting in a bar after midnight, sipping arrack and listening to a violin and synthesizer duo, and the bar is built into a 500-year-old stone home in the walled city of Damascus, and the duo takes a break and the speakers blast the Scorpions ballad—I'm not kidding—"Winds of Change," it would be easy, in spite of oneself, to get sentimental about a Syrian glasnost. Especially after discovering that the night life in Damascus is rather good, and not just good in the debauched way of a tomorrow-we-may-die sort of crowd, or the aggressive way of behind-closed-doors elites, but actually relaxing and fun. Outside on Thursday nights, droves of young men and women, Christian and Muslim, stroll the streets late into the night, moving from shwarma stand to art gallery to DVD store on al-Qaimariyya Street, or bar-hopping near Bab Touma, the Gate of Thomas.
Even when not under the influence of arrack and the Scorpions, it was tempting to be optimistic when the thing I kept hearing from Syrians was that things would change for the better because they simply had to. Mounzer Alkubeh, who is a guitarist, composer, and nightclub owner, told me simply: "It will happen. There is no other choice." This had an alluring logic. But then Alkubeh was about as apolitical as a Syrian can be, with concerns ranging from intellectual property rights to the schlocky music on Arab satellite TV.
The city's many Internet cafes also lent to an illusion of openness. At the Aural Internet Service in gritty central Damascus, I accessed the most recent report on Syria from Human Rights Watch, opening it in both English and Arabic. I brought up Syria Comment, the English-language blog of American professor Joshua Landis, who lives in Damascus and speaks freely about the regime. I opened a handful of critical news stories about Syria and printed a story supporting an expatriate dissident, which the manager handed over to me without batting an eyelid.
But the experience of those criticizing the regime tells a different story. All4Syria, an electronic newsletter run by Ayman Abdalnour, sends out daily independent commentary in Arabic and has become highly influential. It reaches, by Abdalnour's estimate, some 75,000 readers once the 15,200 subscribers pass it on, and, according to Landis, it "is a leading venue for reformers to complain, air grievances, and spin." Specific proposals it has published have come about more than once since it was founded in 2003. For instance, it had urged the release of 312 Kurds detained in April 2004; on March 30 of this year the president pardoned them. All4Syria has also called for the granting of citizenship to the country's so-called stateless Kurds. Damascus tea-leaf readers now believe this will happen when the Regional Baath Party Congress convenes later this spring.
In other words, All4Syria makes too much of an impact. The government began to block it in April of last year, shortly after it criticized the Baath Party directly. This points to the element missing from the apparent openness: legal protections. In 2000, Bashar Assad inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez Assad, an admirer of the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Bashar initiated a thaw, releasing political prisoners from jail, allowing independent newspapers to publish, and letting reformists hold public meetings. This "spring" lasted one year, after which the meetings were called off and government critics thrown in jail. Of 10 high-level arrests made in 2001—among them two members of parliament, an economics professor at Aleppo University, and a human rights lawyer—all remain jailed, said human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni.
What is going on now is a lot of testing of "red lines," as everyone in Damascus seems to call them. People are saying things and publishing things. But many of them, like al-Bounni and Ammar Abdulhamid, who heads the minority-rights Tharwa Project, are engaged in a harrowing pas de deux with the government. Al-Bounni and Abdulhamid are both barred from leaving the country. Intelligence officials have interrogated Abdulhamid three times since January. Al-Bounni has seen his siblings and friends thrown in jail for peaceful political speech. No one testing the limits knows when the next crackdown might come or what will provoke it.
I met al-Bounni in a low-ceilinged office crowded with boxes. Demanding human rights is not very lucrative, and he is not a popular lawyer in ordinary court cases because he refuses to pay off judges, so he was giving up the space to save money. Over thick Arabic coffee, he laid out a few of the things he is fighting for: an end to political arrests (Human Rights Watch estimates that thousands of Syrian prisoners of conscience remain in jail); an end to torture in jail; an end to the law that says security officials may not be prosecuted. And he wants Syria to have an independent judiciary and free elections.
He has little patience with the debate over whether the president has enough control to make changes. "Legally, technically, he has the power to change. Militarily, he could do it. If he wants to, he could do it in 24 hours," al-Bounni said. He still holds out hope that the Assad regime will see that change is the only option and undertake it peacefully. "We hope it understands that what has happened in the world means it must change. It's not just the United States saying so, it's the whole world," he said. "But up until now, they have given no signs that they understand."
International pressure on Syria has increased dramatically in recent months, for example with France and the United States teaming up to pass U.N. Resolution 1559, calling for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and with the European Union threatening economic sanctions.
Asked how he and others like him survive their tango, al-Bounni was quick to credit international attention. "The regime is waiting for the world to close its eyes, and then it might put us in jail." Right now he said, "We can speak illegally. We are safe because of the international community."
Abdulhamid, who often despairs of the government on his eloquent English-language blog, is not entirely sure how he stays out of jail, though extensive media coverage of him outside Syria has certainly helped. Also, his mother is a Syrian movie star. Recently, though, she too was interrogated about his activities. "It may be the fact that we are focusing on a regional issue [minority rights] rather than a specifically Syrian one," he speculated. "It may be the fact that we have European funding or that we're blatantly breaking the law."
He is not entirely without hope. "We're seeing the makings of a velvet revolution," he said. But not in a Gorky Park sort of way. "The end is not going to be as grand and eye-catching as in Eastern Europe. We have too much baggage. We have Islamicism as a complicating factor." Nevertheless, he said, "This is the beginning of the end. The Internet and satellite TV have launched it."