U.N. Inquiry Emboldens Syria Opposition

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The Syrian government is facing unprecedented international pressure over a U.N. probe into its alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri. The inquiry may implicate the Syrian president's inner circle. In Damascus, it is an opportunity for Syria's political opposition.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The government of Syria is facing unprecedented international pressure over its alleged involvement in the assassination earlier this year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Arab leaders and Western envoys are calling on Damascus to cooperate in a UN probe of the killing, even though the investigation may implicate the Syrian president's inner circle. In Damascus, the situation raises an opportunity for Syria's political opposition, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In the capital's cafes where Syrians spend evenings over bitter coffee and sweet fruit scented tobacco, the UN investigation is endlessly discussed, often condemned, but surprisingly, Syrians are more open than ever before in criticizing the regime. University student Yassim Mohammed(ph) said Syria is innocent until proven guilty. Even so, he says, President Bashar Al-Assad should eventually step down.

Mr. YASSIM MOHAMMED: It's time for him. Yeah. It's time for change of president. We don't have king. We have a president. And we are not going to have the same one like his brother, all the time have the same, all the time every four years. It's not good. It's not right.

AMOS: In a country of phone taps and secret police, public expressions of dissatisfaction are unusual. Political activists have taken an even bolder step. They issued a call for democratic change in a document called the Damascus Declaration.

Mr. HAITHAM MALEK(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: More than a dozen Syrian political and human rights organizations signed on.

Mr. MALEK: My name is Haitham Malek. I work in law since 50 years.

AMOS: Did you sign the declaration?

Mr. MALEK: Yeah, I sign it. Yeah.

AMOS: Malek, a human rights activist who's been jailed for his politics, says the UN resolution is an opportunity.

Mr. MALEK: We want to change the regime because it's enough to continue under dictatorship regime since 1958.

AMOS: For the first time, the Damascus declaration signaled unity between Syria's internal political opposition and exile groups in Europe and the US, including the London-based Muslim Brotherhood, but even Haitham Malek acknowledges this doesn't mean the opposition is ready to govern or even force change. Ayman Abed al-Noor(ph), a reformer within the ruling Baath Party, says the internal political groups are still weak and don't have grassroots support.

Mr. AYMAN ABED AL-NOOR: It's not weak because it's a bunch of idiots or they doesn't have the experience. They are weak because they cannot meet--they cannot held conferences. Most of them are over 65 or 70 years old. We cannot expect to have a change of regime from inside.

AMOS: Syrian reformers close to the president say they have warned he is losing domestic support because he's seen as defending criminals, family members within a small ruling circle, including those linked to the Hariri assassination in the UN report. These reformers say they've urge Assad to move against those named. His brother, Maher Al-Assad, head of the presidential guard, his brother-in-law, General Assef Shawkat, the powerful chief of military intelligence. Josh Landis, an American professor living in Damascus, says the diplomatic community is backing this option, too.

Professor JOSH LANDIS: The latest theory amongst the diplomats here is that Assef Shawkat is the dark prince who really runs the show here and that his brother-in-law, Bashar, is just doing a little dance at the top to try to hold it all together. Now can there be some division? You know, I'm sure Washington is trying to think of how they're going to separate Bashar from Assef Shawkat and get him to deliver them his head on a platter. That's the million-dollar question right now.

AMOS: This question is the talk of Damascus among the ruling elite and reformers both inside and outside the government.

(Soundbite of traffic)

AMOS: In an empty art gallery in the capital, filmmaker Omar Alahi(ph) considers those choices. A regime critic, he welcomes outside pressure if it brings internal change.

Mr. OMAR ALAHI (Filmmaker): They are acting political and diplomatically, etc. I support that the pressure continue to make the regime weaker and it's good.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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