DAMASCUS, SYRIA—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Syria last month, and the related question of whether or not the U.S. should formally re-engage this Baathist republic, remains as controversial a topic on the streets of Damascus as it was in the days afterwards among Beltway bloggers. And, perverse as it may seem to some American liberals, it is the Syrians who are most sympathetic to their progressive values who have been most critical of Ms. Pelosi’s attempts to begin a dialogue with Syria’s government.
Many Syrian dissidents and pro-democracy activists have privately expressed dismay at Ms. Pelosi’s message of friendship to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They say that Ms. Pelosi’s visit, no matter how well-intentioned, has effectively pulled the rug out from under them, critically damaging their efforts to create momentum for reform from within.
“Pelosi’s visit made the regime feel that Americans were divided on how to deal with Syria,” said a Damascus-based women’s-rights activist who, like five other activists interviewed for this article, asked that his name be withheld because he feared punishment. “This sends a message to the regime that the pressure is off, that it can do what it likes.”
It has certainly seemed that way in the weeks since Ms. Pelosi’s departure, during which time the government has imprisoned Kurdish opposition figures while maintaining travel and work bans on political activists.
In the eastern Syrian town of Raqqa, hundreds of people were arrested for protesting rigged parliamentary elections. And over the last month, the Syrian courts have embarked on a veritable spree of sentencing, handing down harsh prison sentences to some of Syria’s most prominent pro-democracy activists.
Last week, the physician and dissident Kamal Labwani was sentenced to 12 years in prison for having met with American officials during a 2005 trip to Washington. This past weekend, the activists Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa were sentenced to three years each for having signed the so-called Damascus Declaration, a document petitioning Syria’s government to normalize relations with neighboring Lebanon.
The few Syrian activists who are not presently behind bars say they have all but ceased working.
“Most of us are just sitting and waiting,” said the women’s-rights activist. “It’s too dangerous to try any political activities right now. The regime is making a point, and there’s no telling when the current crackdown will end.”
Even Syrians outside the inner circle of activists seem shaken by the conviction, shortly after Ms. Pelosi’s return to Washington, of Syria’s best-known human-rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni. Mr. al-Bunni was convicted of “spreading information that could weaken national morale” and “joining an international organization without proper authorization,” for which he was given a five-year prison sentence.
Mr. al-Bunni is a slight, nervous-looking man, a tireless polymath who, aside from his work defending scores of political prisoners, has helped to found a center offering training in human rights, and has drafted a new constitution for Syria. Last year, he invited a handful of foreign reporters to his home to show them his proposed new constitution, and waved his hands excitedly as he outlined his ideas about what a democratic transition in Syria might look like, how potential power-sharing arguments among Syria’s many ethnic and religious groups could be anticipated and solved.
But Syria’s would-be Thomas Jefferson is in the infamous Adra prison now, and he is known to have been tortured.
“Pelosi’s visit was well-meant, but it’s been bad for everyone, and especially devastating for some of our closest friends in Syria,” an American researcher on Syria said. “The Syrian regime wants to be invited back to the diplomatic table, but at the same time it wants to make the point that none of the concessions that it may make with regard to regional security are connected to the Bush administration’s democracy agenda.”
In an interview last week, Mr. al-Bunni’s brother, Akram, said that he was saddened by Anwar’s sentencing. But even as he offered an explanation of why Syrian dissidents were upset by Ms. Pelosi’s visit, he said that he and his brother hoped at least that such international contacts could prove to have a positive effect in the long run.
“So much of Syria’s opposition was against Pelosi’s visit, against the E.U.’s talks with the regime,” Mr. al-Bunni explained. “They believe that these offers of friendship strengthen the regime and increase its totalitarian tendencies, and they’re angry.
“But perhaps, if the West continues to talk to the regime, our government will wish to improve its image on its own,” he continued. “People who favor this approach point to Turkey. This is a much slower process, but we’ve seen that it can work. The regime would like the world to believe that it doesn’t care about what the world thinks, but we know that’s not true. It will take time, but Syria can be encouraged to cooperate. Now that I’ve seen what happened in Iraq, I fear this is the only way.”
An earlier version of this story included an assertion that Ayman Abdel Nour is in exile. Mr. Abdel Nour is presently in Syria.