The Democrat Congress and the Syrian opposition

Given the Democrats' takeover of both houses of Congress, things are going to change in DC, even with respect to America's foreign policy, but I have no reason to believe that the Syrian opposition will benefit from these forthcoming changes. They have not demonstrated to me that they possess the political skill to evaluate and seize potential opportunities before they arise.

Dominating the scene in DC up until now, we have had the Reform Party of Syria, which is sure to dazzle Syrian citizens with its website full of Arabic grammatical errors. Led by Syrian-Lebanese-Saudi-American "Frank" Ghadry (by the way, those are only the 4 citizenships he possesses that we know of, there may yet be more), this motley crew hitched its wagon to the once-rising-now-plummeting star of Dick Cheney and the neocons. They even invited very special guest and cheerleader Richard Perle to one of their early meetings. Let me be clear: this group is a bunch of self-aggrandizing nobodies. They have no following inside Syria save a handful of opportunists from the politically isolated eastern part of the country, as they give simultaneous lip service to both the Assyrians and their nemesis, the Kurds. Nobody in Syria knows who Ghadry is, and nobody cares either.

However, Ghadry, who has lived in the DC area for years, did demonstrate some political savvy on the American side. He rode the coattails of anti-Arab sentiment following the September 11 attacks five years ago and sought to convince policymakers and elected officials to listen to his slick pitch. If only he could, through the magic of US-imposed democracy, become President of Syria (a country in which he has not lived for over 40 years), all the problems of the Middle East would be solved. The Ahmad Chalabi comparisons abounded, and for good reason.

Ghadry opened up his checkbook and made good friends with well-placed members of Congress – especially Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Elliot Engel of the House International Relations Subcommittee for the Middle East. By an amazing coincidence, Ghadry was then called to testify as an "expert" on hearings pertaining to Syria. And what a splendid job he did defending the Caledonians. (continued...)

It is worthy to note that we are not talking about very large sums of money donated. According to the FEC, Ghadry has doled out less than $15,000 total for federal campaigns. When you're the only game in town and you’re singing a popular song, access is cheap.

But Ghadry's world became a lot more complex when ousted VP Abdel Halim Khaddam, a Baathist, hooked up with exiled Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, an Islamist, and formed the National Salvation Front. It was somehow reminiscent of an 80s Supergroup, without the big hair. These are two prominent names, but thus far they've proved to be all sizzle, no steak. That didn't stop Ghadry, however, from blasting them repeatedly and making every effort to discredit them in Washington (the NSF's base is in Europe, where both Khaddam and Bayanouni live). Ghadry's tact was simple: the words "Baathist" and "Islamist" do not generally provoke warm and fuzzy feelings in Washington.

Whatever clout the NSF's 2 key leaders possess, they seem to lack in political know-how. Despite all the millions of dollars that Khaddam has "earned" (he has been a licensed attorney in Syria since 1958, don’t forget!) he has not had the good sense to even hire a decent PR firm. Case and point, the NSF's kick-off conference at the oh-so-predictable Dorchester Hotel in London was largely a flop and their website is a joke. As I have mentioned before, I don't think this group or its two main leaders are ready for prime-time. Khaddam in particular has been sloppy in interviews and does not have consistent answers to predictable questions. I get the feeling that he has done one too many softball interviews with Tishreen, although sources in the know tell me that Khaddam is smarter than he looks and "quite willing to learn new tricks". The NSF, too, is struggling with trying to be all things to all Syrians, which leads to some tension especially concerning the Kurdish issue.

But they have been chugging along and are now ready to open up an office in Washington. The key point man here will be Ammar Abdulhamid, an ultra-liberal dissident who writes books about lesbians and whose only meaningful common trait with Khaddam and Bayanouni is the vitriolic negative attitude they all feel toward the current Syrian regime. He joined the NSF according to the tried and true formula: enemy * enemy = friend. Yes, that does send up lots of red flags for Abdulhamid, but he's got to play the cards he's been dealt, I suppose.

Unfortunately for him, he's already received the kiss of death: when Ghadry attacked Abdulhamid by name, out came David Schenker to defend his honor (former Middle East advisor to Donald Rumsfeld and now on staff at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, better known as WINEP). Suffice it to say that WINEP's agenda is not one that many Syrians share.

So as the NSF encroaches on Ghadry's turf, and the tit-for-tat continues, which side will win the ears of policymakers? Well, with the Republicans in shambles, the White House may be leaning toward a more practical approach suggested by former Secretary of State James Baker, who has encouraged the US to engage Syria in helping stabilize Iraq. On the other hand, rhetoric linking Syria and Iran, and blaming them both for Lebanon's woes, continues. Bush has his hands full and is probably not going to pick more fights with Syria, despite reported fondness for Ghadry in Cheney's office. But he's not likely to warm up to Syria either.

But what about Congress? We know that the Democrats will be hungry for revenge and are going to schedule all sorts of hearings to try to embarrass the Bush Administration. Will that allow any room for the Syrian opposition to get some air time?

It depends how clever they are at gaining access. Neither Ghadry's group nor the NSF seems to have had a contingency plan for what might happen in Congress. If they did, they would have been sure to hold fundraising events for every member of the Middle East subcommittees in both the House and Senate. I'm wildly guessing that this didn't happen. At a minimum, every one of these officials should have received a press kit, and a flurry of follow-up phone calls.

A good place to start would be the ranking minority members of the subcommittees in either chamber, since those individuals have a likely shot at gaining the Chairmanships come January. In the House, this would be Gary Ackerman, and in the Senate, Barbara Boxer. It's worth noting that the loss of Rhode Island's Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee is a boost for the Syrian opposition. Chafee was the Middle East subcommittee chair in the Senate, and he was fiercely independent – the only GOP Senator to vote against the Iraq War, and the only GOP Senator to vote against the Syria Accountability Act. It's a likely bet that Boxer will be more amenable to embarrassing the Syrian regime than Chafee.

So, in this context, let's see how Ghadry and Abdulhamid square off in the coming months, bearing in mind that none of this is going to help the opposition gain traction in Syria – in fact fighting amongst dissidents only strengthens the regime. Nevertheless, Ghadry has a natural advantage as long as he keeps reminding people that a Baathist/Islamist couple is not an ally. However, the existence of political competition in the form of the NSF is going to expose to everyone who matters in DC just how insignificant and phony Ghadry really is. Plus, Abdulhamid is far more knowledgeable, more articulate, and more Syrian – having left the country just a couple of years ago under juicy circumstances. As I told him recently (we are friendly): better thicken up your skin, because Ghadry has devoted the last 5 years to being the neocons' Syrian pet and is not likely to go down without a fight. Things are going to get very nasty.