Compare and Contrast: Why Farid Ghadry Is Not the Ahmad Chalabi of Syria
Pity the Arab exile who dares to preach democracy in Ahmed Chalabi's wake. Syrian-born businessman Farid Ghadry has formed a political movement that aims to topple the regime of Bashar Assad--and he is taking flak from journalists and pundits across the political spectrum. In Slate, Elisabeth Eaves wrote flippantly of Ghadry: "Remember that name: He could soon be cashing millions in U.S. government checks. ... The road to Damascus may be closed for now, but if Ghadry can just sit tight--and save a few million for PR--collective amnesia ought to have us ready for another Middle East invasion by the early 2010s." A Washington Post story on Ghadry's high-level meeting at the State Department last week noted that his Syria Reform Party is "often compared to the Iraqi National Congress led by former exile Ahmed Chalabi." Lest the meaning of that comparison be misunderstood, the article quoted a professor at Georgetown observing: "Its membership is extremely thin and is not taken seriously. It's almost unheard-of in Syria." (Missing from the Post story, incidentally, was the disclosure that the Georgetown professor, Murhaf Jouejati, isn't exactly a disinterested party. His father served as Syrian Ambassador to the United States under Hafez al Assad. As to the veracity of his claim that Syria doesn't take Ghadry seriously, it's worth noting that Ghadry was taken seriously enough to merit an attack in the official Syrian daily Tishreen two days earlier.) TNR, too, has cast doubt on Ghadry: Two years ago Eli Lake quoted a former American ambassador to Syria saying that it would be "ridiculous" to expect Syrian liberals to generate "any meaningful political opposition."
What explains this widespread antipathy? We all agree (or should) that the world would be better off without the Syrian regime--after all, it once mowed down 25,000 men, women, and children over a long weekend--which makes the knee-jerk hostility of pundits toward Ghadry a bit of a mystery. Having surveyed coverage of Ghadry, listened to the Reform Party of Syria's Arabic-language broadcasts, read the group's literature, watched Ghadry debate on Al Jazeera, and reached him by phone in Paris, this is my best-guess explanation for why pundits are so skeptical: America's questionable experiences with Chalabi have left many commentators with an allergy to liberal Arab exiles. And that's too bad, because Syria is not Iraq. And Farid Ghadry is not Ahmed Chalabi.
The major difference between the two men is the circumstances under which they have sought change in their respective countries. Chalabi spent much of the 1990s trying to provoke the international community into action against Saddam. In many ways, he had no choice, because much of the international community would have been happy to forget about Saddam altogether. The same cannot be said of Syria today. U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which calls on "foreign forces" (meaning Syria) to withdraw troops and spooks from Lebanon, enjoys the staunch backing of the United States and France--not to mention the backing of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese protestors. The assassination of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, allegedly on instructions from Damascus, has only served to galvanize that movement and further isolate Syria in its region. President Assad was rebuffed by both Saudi Arabia and Egypt over the past month when he appealed to those governments for help.
According to The Washington Post, Jacques Chirac believes that the Syrian government probably wouldn't survive a withdrawal from Lebanon. He may be right: A withdrawal would badly hurt Syria's economy. Remittances from Syrians working in Lebanon are an economic lifeline to thousands of Syrian families, and Damascus's private sector has profited from its ability to put the squeeze to merchants in Beirut. Unlike Saddam's Iraq, Syria lacks oil wealth with which to tempt foreign powers in exchange for political support. Should Syrian Kurds stage an uprising in the country's northeast, or a few hundred protestors lie down in traffic in Damascus, they will find a world of solidarity--and the regime will have to face that solidarity virtually alone. Assad doesn't have Washington lobbyists, think tanks, or Islamist groups to rally to his cause as the Saudis do. Nor does he have the support of Israel's backers in the West, as the Egyptian and Jordanian regimes sometimes do.
But Assad still has a few chips left: the support of Vladimir Putin and Iran's mullahs, some vestiges of pan-Arab solidarity in Middle Eastern societies, and the stage fright of Syrian opposition activists. It's these last two chips that Farid Ghadry and the Reform Party are trying to take away.
On the matter of pan-Arab solidarity, the difference between Chalabi and Ghadry is plain to any Arabic-speaking couch potato. Chalabi had a legendary distaste for pan-Arab media. He rarely appeared on satellite networks prior to the Iraq invasion, and when he did, he often spoke English. This was indicative of his belief in Iraqi exceptionalism--that his country's suffering was unique and incomparable to that of its neighbors, who didn't truly care for the Iraqi people and therefore did not deserve to hear from him. Most Iraqis weren't watching, because Saddam had clamped down on satellite technology; the punishment for owning a dish was five years in prison. And so Chalabi focused on reaching Americans and Brits, in order to persuade them that Saddam posed an imminent threat. Nor was he particularly charming on Arabic TV when he occasionally did appear. I'd venture to say his popularity in Arab countries other than Iraq descended with his public appearances.
Ghadry, by contrast, appears on Al Jazeera and other networks fairly frequently. He can't claim Syrian exceptionalism, because he calls for democratic change in a Sunni majority country--and Sunni majorities in other countries are watching. So he emphasizes not the differences but rather the commonality of suffering between Syrians under Assad and Arabs elsewhere. His arguments advocate democracy and reform while repudiating the anti-American tropes that Arab police states typically use to stay in power. Witness the following exchange from Al Jazeera this past Tuesday between Ghadry and George J. Hajjar, a gray-haired supporter of the Syrian regime, senior lecturer at Notre Dame University-Lebanon, and author of a book called America in the Era of the Fourth Reich. The subject of the debate was whether "the American invasion of Iraq had been necessary to push the Arab world toward reform and change." Hajjar had this to say:
Though Bush is calling for democracy, America now is in the era of a Fourth Reich--a new Nazism. ... America, in light of the American political and economic system, is a kleptocratic state--a state of thieves and killers--and the proof of this is that those who rule it are WorldCom, Enron, Martin Lockheed [sic], and others of this sort. ... The last person who can talk about democracy is George Bush. ... He and his Zionists form a grave danger to all humanity, and to civilization, not to mention America itself. I say with all pride, I hope that hundreds of thousands of Arabs would go to Iraq and fight this invading imperialism--and that would not be a fault, but rather an honor for us--to defend Iraq and fight the occupation in Iraq. It's not a crime...
Nothing unusual about Hajjar's rhetoric; these tropes are repeated every day in much of the region. The difference is, there's usually no rebuttal. Enter Ghadry:
First of all there is a violent attack on America by Professor George. ... I had thought that this program was to talk about freedom and democracy and the impact of Iraq on these freedoms and democracy. ... I want to ask Professor George, is he for these freedoms and democracies or against them? This is a question that he must answer, because it is the crux of this discussion. ... I am certain that there are many people who hate America, but as someone who has lived in America 30 years, I know that country well, and never did a moment come that I felt that America was racist toward me, and I'm a Sunni Muslim. But let's leave that aside. We consider and believe that the freedom and democracy that came by way of the Iraq war is what is helping the Arab peoples toward freedom and democracy today, and we have seen proofs in Lebanon, and the pressures and demonstrations that happened in Egypt, and we have seen it in Saudi Arabia, and we will see it in other countries and in Syria soon.
In response, Hajjar lost his cool. He became, remarkably, more irate. He hurled personal invective at Ghadry and accused America of assassinating Lebanon's Hariri. Ghadry hit back, demanding he furnish proof of this accusation. At which point Hajjar took to flailing his arms and yelling at the top of his lungs. The clip-on mike eventually fell off Hajjar's lapel--affording Ghadry an opportunity to riff a while longer without interruption. The debate was stunning television. It lay bare the authoritarian mindset and the vexation that a mindset experiences when challenged. Based on the running poll of Al Jazeera viewers, moreover, Ghadry appears to have influenced Arab audiences. Before the debate began, only 13 percent of viewers polled agreed "that the American invasion of Iraq had been necessary to push the Arab world toward reform and change." By the program's midpoint, with over a thousand more votes emailed in, the proportion had swelled nearly three-fold, to 34.9 percent.
Ghadry, who denies receiving funds from any government, makes a more effective case in Arabic for replacing pan-Arabism with democracy than any American diplomat I've ever watched. So if the "millions in U.S. government checks" the Slate writer joked about are being spent on somebody else, they're being wasted.
The other chip Assad holds--the stage fright of his domestic opponents--stems from a classic authoritarian move he made when first he took the helm after his father's death in 2000. The young president announced his intention to introduce sweeping reforms in Syria--encouraging some intellectuals to openly criticize government corruption, the pervasive security apparatus, and the country's enduring "emergency laws." This period of openness, known as the "Damascus spring," ended with a sweeping crackdown on the dissidents who had reared their heads; several hundred of them remain in prison today. Still, that brief period of liberalization can be taken as evidence that debate and dissent exist in Syria, even though it is now confined to people's homes owing to a climate of fear. Recent developments since the Iraq war suggest that opponents of the regime are at last regaining some of that old gumption--and might be profoundly emboldened by the belief that a new Syrian opposition party enjoys the support of the United States. Witness the March 2004 riots in the Syrian Kurdish towns of Qamishli and Hasake, in which 14 Kurds died, or the thousands of signatures on an online petition calling for a lifting of the emergency laws collected by a new group called Restoration of Civil Society in Syria. These cracks in the wall of Assad's regime have no analogue in the late years of Saddam's Iraq.
Unlike Chalabi, who would have had difficulty using mass media to communicate with his followers inside Iraq, Ghadry can reach Syrians--and does. Satellite penetration in Syria is relatively high, so there is reason to believe that some of Ghadry's countrymen saw his appearance on Al Jazeera this week--some may even have been among the voters backing him in the Internet poll. (The Georgetown professor's claim that Ghadry is "almost unheard-of in Syria" did not seem to take his TV ubiquity into account.) In addition, the Reform Party's radio broadcasts parse news for the Syrian interior in ways designed to encourage dissent. One 60-minute segment, archived on the Radio Free Syria website, is a panel discussion on the Qamishli riot called, "Uprising or Fracas?" The host tries to engage Syrian callers in a debate on the political significance of the violence--and whether a bigger uprising might lie in the future. Another program features the voice of Syrian poet Marwan Uthman, who was arrested and deported by Bashar in 2003 for sticking it to the regime in verse. Reached by phone on a visit to Paris this week, Ghadry explained to me how he views the purpose of these broadcasts, and media outreach to Syria in general:
We're trying to pull the rug from under the Baathists. They have a strong identity, so we want to dissolve that identity so that we can psychologically hurt them. ... The Iraqi National Congress, there was no consultation with the inside. But you have to remember that for the INC, there were limited tools--Internet was just starting to happen, in '98, '99, Al Jazeera was still young. We're looking and saying, okay, we can take advantage of that.
The fact that Chalabi's audience was primarily Western and Ghadry's is primarily Arab goes to the heart of their respective strategies. While Chalabi sought to foment a foreign invasion of Iraq, Ghadry seems to believe that, with the help of strong diplomatic pressure from overseas, he can actually bring about change from within Syria.
Dream on, you may say. Ghadry, 50, a father of four who likes to drive his kids to soccer practice in Bethesda, Maryland, is hardly the picture of a revolutionary. Yet this soccer dad may well be undermining Assad's regime among Arabs more successfully than Chalabi ever undermined Saddam's. American pundits may sneer. But then again, American pundits aren't the people Farid Ghadry needs to win over.
Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on April 1, 2005.