Monday, January 19, 2004

BRUSSELS — An international alliance of Syrian exile groups, buoyed by events in Iraq, announced yesterday that it plans to confront Syria’s authoritarian regime by chartering a plane to fly dissidents to Damascus later this year.

The recently formed Syrian Democratic Coalition also criticized the European Union for its ties with Syria.

The coalition advised France and Germany, in particular, not to buck a trend away from authoritarianism toward democracy in the Middle East.

After a three-day meeting in Brussels, the coalition of 19 associations and parties declared that it would hold a congress in the Syrian capital and that its members were willing to face jail — or worse — for their defiance.

“We expect the worst,” said coalition President Farid N. Ghadry, a naturalized American citizen, whose Reform Party of Syria is based in Potomac, Md.

“But we are determined to go back. We cannot liberate our country without taking risks.”

Some were skeptical that Syria would allow a planeload of dissidents to enter its airspace, let alone hold a conference.

In an interview with The Washington Times later, Mr. Ghadry said the move was not a publicity stunt but a means of exerting pressure and encouraging internal change.

The participants in yesterday’s conference included Nizar Nayouf, who this week made public a letter, which bears what appears to be the official stamp of Syria army intelligence, saying that Syrian banks hold at least $2 billion in cash that was smuggled out of Iraq.

The letter, first reported by The Washington Times yesterday, says the cash, plus an undetermined amount of gold and platinum, is being held by the Syrian Central Bank and the Syrian-linked Medina Bank in Lebanon.

Attempts yesterday to reach the Syrian Embassy in Washington and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for comment were unsuccessful, apparently because of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

Plans at the conference in Brussels to fly dissidents to Damascus would test the Syrian government’s claims that it wishes to move toward reform.

“We need to break the wall of fear,” Mr. Ghadry said repeatedly at a press conference yesterday that was attended by international and Arab news agencies and by the Al Arabiya satellite television network.

“A mere 5 percent of the country cannot rule over 95 percent for much longer,” he said.

He was referring to President Bashar Assad and fellow members of his Alawite sect, which have dominated Syria for decades even though most of the country is Sunni Muslim or Kurdish, with some Assyrian Christians.

Mr. Ghadry said opposition activity within Syria was significant and that dissidents needed signs of encouragement.

The opposition coalition plans to rent an international hotel as the venue for a Damascus conference.

Mr. Ghadry said the war in Iraq had opened opportunities to force regime change or reform in the Arab world. “We have learned a good lesson from Iraq, and I think the war in Iraq has created alternative possibilities for Arab peoples,” he told reporters.

Mr. Ghadry, who wore an elegant suit and spoke perfect English, said a recent association agreement between the European Union and Syria to boost trade and other links was ill-advised.

“The world is moving toward democracy, not authoritarianism,” he said, adding that the EU was “backing an authoritarian regime, which is ultimately doomed.”

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