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Will U.S. give Syrian opposition the time it needs to ripen?


DAMASCUS, Syria - Anwar al-Bunni works in a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled apartment office in a middle-class district of the Syrian capital, trying to free political prisoners. His closest relatives have served a total of 60 years in prison for opposing the Baath Party regime.

For most of that time, the rest of the world ignored him. But since President Bush's democracy campaign, Damascus' small, brave group of human rights advocates and lawyers, former political prisoners and opposition intellectuals have become hot media items.

They deserve the attention, but they don't add up to any kind of an organized opposition. They are small in number, their open supporters are few and demonstrations are extremely rare. Organized Islamist opposition groups are banned.

"For decades, we have had no political life," Mr. Bunni says. "All civil society and political movements have been killed." He is describing a country where the Assad family has ruled for 35 years.

If the Baath Party regime of President Bashar Assad collapsed, there would be nothing to replace it. Every single opposition intellectual I spoke with predicted chaos.

Many feared the biggest beneficiaries would be the adherents of hard-line Islam. This is the Syrian reality. But it's not clear this reality is fully grasped by the Bush administration. Official U.S. policy is to isolate Syria and press it to change its behavior toward Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, but it's clear that some senior U.S. officials would like to squeeze the regime until it collapses.

There seems to be little interest in Washington in the survival of Mr. Assad, even for a few years, during which the weak opposition might gain experience and traction. After Mr. Assad, the deluge; let the Syrians pick up the pieces. Sound familiar?

The new catchphrase in Washington for Mideast chaos is "constructive instability" - out of which democracy will supposedly bloom. But does the administration know any more about Syria's religious and ethnic complexities than it did about Iraq's?

Power in Syria is held by the minority Alawites - offshoots of Shiite Islam - who are despised by the majority Sunnis. Officially, the country is the most secular Arab nation. Young women go to Damascus nightclubs in midriff-baring blouses and tight pants.

But strict Islamic practice is on the rise. In poor Damascus neighborhoods, every woman wears a long, enveloping coat, called a manteau, and a head scarf. In the ancient city of Aleppo, women drift through markets and alleys in full black robes, their faces fully or partly covered by black veils.

Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi says people have turned in growing numbers to the mosque because of the lack of freedom. Communism and Arab nationalism have failed, so Islam seems the only answer. Many Syrians take jobs in Saudi Arabia for better pay and come home converted to the hard-line Wahhabi stream of Islam.

"In my home village," Mr. Hamidi says, "at least 20 teachers taught in Saudi Arabia, and you can see the difference in their thinking."

So even though Syria is a tolerant society, and even though the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, a sudden regime collapse could produce a surge of Islamic groups trying to take power. Many worry about a Sunni burst of vengeance against the Alawite minority if Mr. Assad falls. Members of Syria's many Christian churches worry that fundamentalists will threaten them. And all Syrian Arabs, even the handful of liberals, worry the Syrian Kurds will try to emulate their Iraqi cousins and secede in all but name.

A sudden collapse of the Assad regime could tear Syria's complex social fabric apart, unless it occurs after a transition that allows Syria's tiny opposition to develop. The regime will collapse soon enough, unless it reforms. But does Washington want to push Syria toward reform, or toward the chaotic Iraqi model?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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