- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

While Washington remains preoccupied with Tehran’s nuclear quest, Damascus has been quietly raising the ante as Syrian officials talk about examining “other options” to regain the Golan Heights. At the same time, ignoring pressures from Washington for reforms, the government is cracking down on those pushing for political change.

“Yes, there has been a crackdown on opposition leaders in Syria,” Imad Moustapha, Syrian Ambassador to the United States, told United Press International in a recent interview. “But,” he added, “it is not the long-term policy of Syria.”

Reports from Israel say its intelligence service is trying to assess the significance of recent Syrian statements regarding “other options” to repossess the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the June 1967 war. Military intelligence research chief Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser said: “In recent days we hear the Syrians say… ‘We’ve exhausted the attempts to get the Golan Heights by peaceful means… we’re close to exhausting this direction. We’ve got to examine other options.”

Ambassador Moustapha affirmed Syria’s strategic goal is to regain the Golan Heights through peaceful negotiations with Israel. “Of course sometimes, somebody would say we are looking for other options,” he said, “but these are exploratory statements…. I don’t think we are considering military actions right now.”

As this question looms, Damascus is not giving many options to Syrians who would like to see a Syria with greater freedoms, arresting and jailing those who dare speak out, such as Kamal al-Labwani.

Mr. al-Labwani was one of the Damascus Spring members first arrested in 2001. Last year he flew to Washington to meet with U.S. officials and was arrested upon his return to Syria. Mr. al-Labwani gained particular notoriety because President Bush mentioned his arrest in a speech and asked for his release by name. “This was the first time the United States had given particular attention to a member of the Syrian opposition,” said Joshua Landis, a scholar on Syrian affairs and publisher of Syriacomment.com.

“Labwani was an odd choice for such attention,” said Mr. Landis. “He was not well-known in Syria and had not made a prominent name for himself among members of the Syrian opposition. His arrest went unnoticed by most Syrians, as did President Bush’s remarks.”

But more important, Mr. Landis points out “how little Washington understands about Syria’s internal affairs and how much it must learn before it can effectively exploit the Syrian opposition to pressure President Bashar Assad. Unfortunately, Kamal al-Labwani is paying for the terrible state of affairs between the two countries,” he said.

Mr. al-Labwani, meanwhile, has been formally charged with “inciting a foreign nation to occupy Syria” and faces life imprisonment or execution in the event of any attack on Syria.

Maureen Thomas, a friend of Mr. al-Labwani, said it is bitterly ironic because throughout his stay in Europe and the United States he told everyone who would listen that any attack or sanctions against Syria would be totally wrong because ordinary people would be the ones to suffer and they had endured enough hardship.

On May 10, Miss Thomas received a message from Mr. al-Labwani’s family saying: “I have very bad news to tell you about. The trial will start tomorrow [May 11] and it will be the first session. It is not public. It is like an investigation: The judge will ask him about the things he talked about [while he was in Europe and the United States last year].

“This time is the hardest time, and he needs now support and pressures to release him more than any other time.”

Another note arrived May 14: “The date for the next session of our father’s trial is on the 22nd of this month [May]. We hope that members from the European Commission in Damascus and members from European embassies in Damascus will attend the hearing.”

Mr. al-Labwani is not alone. In March Syrian military intelligence arrested 51-year-old Internet journalist and human-rights activist Mohammed Ghanem. Speculations are it was because of his association with the surion.org Web site.

According to the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, headed by Ammar Qurabi, Syrian authorities on Sunday arrested Michel Kilo, a dissident instrumental in exposing human-rights abuses in Syria.

A report from the Democratic Party of Syria says: “The arrest was prompted, it is believed, because Kilo signed the Damascus-Beirut Declaration as one amongst 500 other Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who tried to weigh in on the multiple disputes emanating from politicians between both countries. The DBD is a balanced view of how Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals view the relationship on the heels of a failed diplomacy that has not been able to deliver, so far, any meaningful results to the satisfaction of both Syria and Lebanon.”

Mr. Kilo, the report adds, “is just another voice amongst many Syrian dissidents and humanists who have been detained, arrested and persecuted by the Assad regime.”

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International. Joshua Brilliant in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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