Dangers in Damascus

For a Syrian, Samir Nashar is close to being a dream democrat. He's liberal, secular, rich--and brazenly outspoken. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has "lost his credibility," Nashar boldly told a NEWSWEEK reporter who visited him recently at his home in Aleppo. Three months ago, Nashar and six friends decided to form a political group called the Alliance of Free Nationalists. Yet even Nashar says that his tiny democracy movement can barely muster support. The group is "still waiting for a legitimate party law," he says, and most Syrians are too scared of the secret police to push for it.

But if Syrian democrats like Nashar were empowered, more radical elements might be too, and that could be a nightmare for Washington. "You might get what you wish for. But not quite what you wish for," said one diplomat in Damascus who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. The prospect of regime change in Syria worries even Israel, Syria's longtime enemy. If al-Assad's rigidly secular regime were toppled, the nation's mosaic of competing sects and ethnicities could explode into conflict. Islamist radicals--including a group called Soldiers of the Levant--are already gaining influence in Syria, where they were once ruthlessly crushed. This comes as Qaeda-linked groups are trying to spread the jihadist contagion regionally, according to an alleged letter from Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri last week.

Critics say that the Bush administration isn't encouraging Syria's democrats just now--but neither is it willing to work with Syria's dictator. And in the absence of any cooperation between governments, jihadists are moving across Syria's 310-mile border with Iraq to join the insurgency. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, told NEWSWEEK that Damascus ended all security and intelligence cooperation with America several months ago, and it has not resumed.

Why? The ambassador says that while Damascus is still detaining jihadists on its own, it got "fed up" with the Bush administration's public al-Assad bashing, even after Washington had privately lauded Syria for handing over Saddam's half brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan, earlier in the year. Moustapha also confirmed an account from a U.S. intel official who said Damascus was angered when Washington exposed one of its operatives. "We are willing to re-engage the moment you want--but on one condition," Moustapha says. "You have to acknowledge that we are helping."

That's not likely to happen. While U.S. officials stop short of accusing al-Assad of actively aiding the insurgency, they say he has permitted jihadist transit and training camps to exist in the open. After the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned last month that "time is running out on Damascus," U.S. officials even debated launching military strikes inside the Syrian border against the insurgency. But at an Oct. 1 "principals" meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice successfully opposed such a move, according to two U.S. government sources who are not authorized to speak on the record. Rice argued that diplomatic isolation is working against al-Assad, especially on the eve of a U.N. report that may blame Syria for the murder of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri.

The goal seems to be to "get [the regime] by the throat, and then really squeeze," says Josh Landis, a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who runs an influential blog called syriacomment.com. Maybe it's working: diplomats in Damascus say they've seen signs in recent months that al-Assad is trying to police Syria's southern border better.

But Moustapha says Syria could do much more if intelligence was shared as it once was. Some U.S. intel officials agree. They say that valuable cooperation is being sacrificed at a critical moment when Iraqis are to vote on a new government and insurgents seek to undermine that effort. "We won't take yes for an answer from Damascus," says one intel official who declined to be identified because his work is classified. In the last few years before contacts were cut off, he says, Syrian intelligence helped avert two major attacks on U.S. targets, including a Navy base in Bahrain. U.S. pressure, he adds, may be "radicalizing the country." That is one risk, perhaps, of engaging with no one in Syria--neither dictators nor democrats.