Wednesday, March 2, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — Demonstrations that brought down the government of neighboring Lebanon on Monday inspired Syria’s intellectuals and activists to issue new calls yesterday for greater political participation in their own country — a nation known for its strict limits on dissent.

“What happened [in Lebanon] was a huge victory not only for the Lebanese people, but for the people of this region,” said Wael Sawah, a Syrian political analyst and activist. “This is the first time a Cabinet resigns under popular pressure.”

Michel Kilo, another prominent Syrian opposition figure, said that the Lebanese protests could have a ripple effect in Syria.

“The people here will want a bigger role and will start demanding their rights more,” Mr. Kilo said.

Outside of the region, calls for Syria’s troop withdrawal from Lebanon continued to echo yesterday as they have since last month’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In London, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Syria must pull its 14,000 troops out of Lebanon.

“The pressure of the international community is quite palpable on Syria,” she told reporters after a conference on Palestinian security. “They really should get about living up to their international obligations.”

Miss Rice also accused the Islamic Jihad terrorist group of planning last week’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv from its offices in Syria.

“There is firm evidence that Palestinian Islamic Jihad, sitting in Damascus, not only knew about the attacks, but was involved in the planning,” Miss Rice told ABC News.

Meanwhile, Syria yesterday gave its clearest indication yet that it is willing to move its troops out of Lebanon.

President Bashar Assad said in an interview published yesterday that a troop pullout could come in a matter of months.

“It [the withdrawal] should be very soon and maybe in the next few months. Not after that. I can’t give you a technical answer. The point is the next few months,” he told Time magazine.

Mr. Sawah and Mr. Kilo, both outspoken critics of Syrian policy, were among 60 intellectuals, activists and writers who signed a letter last week to voice support for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and for Lebanese independence.

Syria has an official opposition made up of five registered political parties that generally fall in line with the reigning government of Mr. Assad.

The more outspoken opposition remains unorganized, relatively small, and comes together under the name of a civil society group that works on individual initiatives in a piecemeal fashion. Without a political party or clear organization, they have been left to act on shared opinions.

“These people think that regardless of the role that the Syrian troops played in Lebanon between 1976 and 2000, the pretext for Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon expired after Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon,” Mr. Sawah said.

Syrian troops have been based in Lebanon since the outbreak of civil war in the mid-1970s. Israel, which invaded Southern Lebanon in 1982 to expel the Palestine Liberation Organization, withdrew five years ago.

Another Syrian opposition letter with 140 signatures also calls on Mr. Assad to withdraw.

Mr. Kilo, who signed both letters, said yesterday that most Syrians welcomed Monday’s protests in Lebanon and the dissolution of the government.

“The Syrian people were scared that the U.S. and the Europeans will turn against their country because of the situation in Lebanon,” Mr. Kilo said.

“They are happier that Lebanon will be a freer country and that it will be able to make its own decisions.”

Even before Mr. Hariri’s assassination, which is widely blamed on Syria, Damascus had been under international pressure to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

U.N. Resolution 1559, which was backed by the United States and France and passed in September, calls for the immediate and complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon.

Mr. Sawah said yesterday that calls for greater inclusion in government decisions do not mean that Syria’s opposition is looking to topple the government.

“But we want to participate in the decision-making process,” Mr. Sawah said. “We have to find a way to convince or make the government understand that there has to be shared decisions between the government and civil society.”

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