The arrests follow a similar crackdown last spring, following a high-profile visit by a US Congressional Delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on members of the Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut Declaration - a Syrian-Lebanese opposition manifesto formed after the Damascus Declaration.
Both waves of arrests following high-profile US engagement accompany a trend of wide-spread restrictions on cultural and education cooperation with Americans in Syria.
Challenged, Syria Extends Crackdown on Dissent
Syrian authorities this week arrested more than 30 people who had been working for political change, escalating a crackdown on dissent just a week after critics elected a leadership committee in an unusually direct and public challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s authority.
A majority of those arrested were questioned and released, dissidents and human rights advocates said. But three of the most outspoken opposition leaders remained in custody on Thursday, and others had been summoned for questioning.
Last month, government security forces shut Facebook, the online host to a vibrant if virtual debate on the president. On Sunday, security agents began rounding up dozens of dissidents who had been meeting to create a joint opposition front, acting like a political party despite emergency laws that ban any group not connected with the government and ruling Baath Party.
The arrests followed Syria’s participation in the Middle East peace forum at Annapolis, Md., which was seen in the region as a coup for Syria and a sign of a thaw in relations between Mr. Assad and the White House.
Emboldened by a sense that Syria’s tough anti-American policies have paid dividends, human rights advocates say, the authorities have turned to closing the last channels of public debate.
“This goes back to what we’ve always seen as a problem, that the opening with the West has never been contingent on Syria improving its human rights records,” Nadim Houry, who tracks Syria for Human Rights Watch, said. “It’s contingent on Syria cooperating on Lebanon, Iraq and the peace process.”
Dissidents and human rights advocates contend that the fact that intellectuals with no political organization, and with many leaders who are frail or in jail, still pose a threat is a sign that the government is weak.
Akram Bunni, a newspaper columnist and brother of an imprisoned human rights lawyer, was detained Tuesday; he still writes in Arab papers of the “moral bankruptcy” of Mr. Assad’s rule.
“They’re concerned about public opinion,” he said. “They don’t want anyone, internationally or internally, to see that there are public figures who might be an alternative to the regime.”
Dissidents say the crackdown is, paradoxically, a sign of strength and of weakness — the government has consolidated enough internal power to re-establish “red lines” limiting public criticism of its absolute leader.
Mr. Assad briefly allowed free expression and civil society activity when he assumed the presidency after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. But he has gradually tightened control over the small political class, with arrests and new rules. In the past year, security services have arrested not only seasoned political advocates but also people who posted comments deemed subversive on Web sites.
Still, dissidents challenge the government, disobeying a ban on public meetings.
On Dec. 1, Riad Seif, a former businessman and member of Parliament and now an opposition spokesman, held a meeting with more than 160 advocates who had signed the Damascus declaration in 2005, calling on the state to lift emergency laws and allow free speech and political organization, Syrian rights advocates said.
In a challenge to the government, which prohibits independent political parties, the dissidents formed the National Council, electing a president and leadership committee. The group includes Communists, Islamists, former Baathists and Kurds. Younger dissidents schooled on the Internet have also spoken out, mostly on opposition Web sites and on Facebook groups. Some have ended up in prison, and others, like Ahed al-Hendi and Muhammad al-Abdallah, have fled to Beirut. “They are afraid because people online meet together, share ideas, criticize the regime,” said Mr. Hendi, 23, who was held for a month after posting critical reports. “They are strong on one hand, but on another they are so weak they are afraid of an Internet cafe.”
Despite contentions that the crackdown stems from insecurity, some Syrian analysts and diplomats say the Assad rule has staved off several crises and now feels strong enough to restore limits that once cowed critics.
“States around us are collapsing and there’s a high perception of danger, but Syria is deterring the dangers,” an analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of government harassment, said. “The opposition doesn’t pose a threat.”