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Viewing cable 06DAMASCUS1848, SARG CONTINUES TO PLAY WITH ISLAMIC FIRE

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
06DAMASCUS1848 2006-04-24 10:10 2010-12-27 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
VZCZCXRO2270
OO RUEHAG
DE RUEHDM #1848/01 1141021
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 241021Z APR 06
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 8496
INFO RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RUEHGB/AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD 0020
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 0089
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 DAMASCUS 001848

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

PARIS FOR ZEYA; LONDON FOR TSOU

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/12/2015
TAGS: PGOV KISL SY
SUBJECT: SARG CONTINUES TO PLAY WITH ISLAMIC FIRE

REF: A. DAMASCUS 1157

B. DAMASCUS 0531
C. 05 DAMASCUS 1231
D. 05 DAMASCUS 1377

Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Stephen A. Seche, per 1.4 b,d.

1. (C) Summary: The SARG continues to play with the issue
of Islam -- in the wake of its February use of mob violence
against several European embassies -- in ways designed to
shore up support for the regime. In the past month there
have been numerous reports about regime outreach to the
Islamic community, including presidential approval of a
Sharia law faculty at Aleppo University, the licensing of
three Islamic banks, and allowing for the first time a
prominent Islamic figure to lecture at the Higher Military
Academy in Damascus. While there were also SARG efforts
during this period that pointed towards stepped-up measures
to counter rising Islamist influence, including restrictions
on activities permitted at mosques (announced and then
quickly walked back) , the basic thrust of the policy was to
manipulate Islamic elements to shore up the regime, as well
as prevent former VP Abdul Halim Khaddam and Muslim
Brotherhood leader Sadreddine Bayanouni from developing any
traction in the Sunni community. Although some contacts
believe the regime is playing with fire, they assess that it
sees itself under threat and is willing to take serious
risks. While alarmist scenarios about the rising tide of
Islamism may be true, the SARG seems for the time being to be
successfully manipulating this Islam issue. End Summary.

2. (C) After an initial appeal to Syrian nationalism in the
period between the release of the two Mehlis reports, the
SARG gradually shifted to Islamic themes to mobilize support
for the regime and counter the pressure created by the UNIIIC
investigation. The SARG's February decision to manipulate
the Danish cartoons controversy by permitting large
demonstrations in front of European embassies led to rioting
crowds that heavily damaged four embassies. That result
offered Syria the opportunity to portray itself, internally
and regionally, as the leading defender of Islam's dignity.

3. (C) RECENT SARG ISLAMIC OUTREACH: In the past month
there has been a spate of reports about regime activity that
seems designed to follow up in a quieter manner on this
effort. Asad in mid-April signed a decree permitting the
establishment of a Sharia (Islamic law) faculty at Aleppo
University, a step the SARG reportedly avoided in the past
over fears about powerful (Sunni) Islamist influence in
Aleppo. The government also announced a decision, the first
of its kind, to license three private Islamic banks (ref A).

4. (C) Also in early April, in an unprecedented move, the
regime allowed a sheikh, moderate Islamist MP Mohammed
Habash, to address the officers at the Higher Military
Academy in Damascus, with the attendance of the Minister of
Defense, as well as the Grand Mufti and other religious
figures. In Habash's widely publicized remarks, he stated
that (secular) Arab nationalism and Islam are consistent and
should be used to form a common front to face the challenges
of defending the country and the Arab homeland. He also
called for a new political parties law that would permit the
formation of Islamic parties. In the run-up to the mid-April
celebration of the Prophet's birthday, the SARG and its
proxies re-decorated the city of Damascus with a new set of
official-looking banners accentuating religious themes, the
first time in recent memory that such an organized display
has taken place on this holiday. According to contacts, SARG
officials pressured businessman and shopkeepers to put up the
banners, which were also displayed at mosques and government
buildings. (Note: Two weeks later, the banners remain
prominently on display in the city's central market.)

5. (C) ALSO SOME SARG REPRESSION: It should be noted that
there were also SARG efforts during this period that pointed,
at least to some degree, in the opposite direction, towards
stepped-up SARG efforts to counter rising Islamist influence.
In March, for example, the head of the Damascus section of
the Ministry of the Islamic Endowments (Awqaaf) issued a list
of ten restrictions on activities at mosques, limiting the
hours of operation to times of prayer, preventing any
unauthorized speakers or activities, including the collection
of donations, and requiring the lowering of the volume of
loudspeakers used in the calls to prayer at dawn and in the
afternoon. Most of this list was reportedly cobbled together

DAMASCUS 00001848 002 OF 003


from previous restrictions the SARG had issued over the
years, through the Awqaaf Ministry, that had not been
uniformly enforced.

6. (C) ISLAMIC LEADERS PROTEST: In reaction to this
measure, the regime-tolerant Sunni Islamic establishment
protested angrily to their friends inside the regime --
including senior officials in the security services -- at
what they viewed as an unnecessary, clumsy effort to rein
them in. Sheikh Salah Kuftaro, head of the influential Abu
Noor Institute, told Polchief that he had protested against
the newly issued restrictions, which he dubbed the "Ten
Commandments," to the Damascus chief of Syrian Military
Intelligence after the Minister of the Awqaaf indicated
reluctance to rescind the directive. Kuftaro told Polchief
he had received a commitment from his contacts in the
intelligence services that the directive "had been frozen,"
but not rescinded. (Comment: Some conspiratorial-minded
observers insist the regime deliberately had the Awqaaf put
out the list of restrictions so that it could then show its
good will towards the Islamic community by agreeing to
disregard its own rules. The evidence, however, points to
the somewhat messier process detailed above.)

7. (C) A COMPLICATED DYNAMIC: This push-pull dynamic, with
the regime encouraging "moderate" Islamists on the one hand,
while repressing what it perceives to be a threatening
Islamist minority (and threatening Islamic aspects in
general) on the other, is not new (refs B, C, and D). The
Asad regime has practiced some version of it since the early
1980's -- after it violently suppressed the Muslim
Brotherhood -- as a way to woo back the Sunni community,
while preventing the development of any Islamist political
competition. This dynamic has always been reflected in a
messy process on the ground, with sometimes overzealous SARG
officials repressing too much or in the wrong places,
followed by push-back from the Islamic establishment, and an
adjustment by the regime. According to astute regime
observer Ayman Abdul Noor, a Ba'athist reformer, this has
occurred at key junctures like the present moment, when
senior regime figures "who are in the picture," know and
understand the policy of manipulating and using the Islamists
to shore up the regime, while the mass of lower-level
officials continue with enforcing the standard policy of
"reining in the Islamic crowd."

8. (C) REGIME PLAYING WITH FIRE: Overall, despite some
contradictions, it seems evident that the regime is reaching
out once again to the Sunni Islamic community with various
initiatives and adopting some elements of an Islamic populism
to shore up support. According to gadfly economist and
former deputy minister of planning Riad Abrash, the regime
has calculated now that Arab nationalist interests "are
identical" with the Islamic population's desire, both in
Syria and the region, to oppose the U.S. In his view, the
regime "is getting closer to the view of people on the
street" in order to retain its popularity. The regime
recognizes the powerful hold that Islam has on the masses,
said Abrash. He acknowledged that the regime "is playing
with fire," but noted "they want to survive. They feel
threatened, so it makes sense to take dangerous steps."

9. (C) ONLY WEAK FELLOW PLAYERS ALLOWED: Despite the
willingness to take risks with Islam now, the regime wants to
ensure that it controls the game and manipulates all the
players, for its own interests. For that reason, the Asad
regime is not willing to make any deal with the Muslim
Brothers even if it might bring more Sunni support for the
regime. "They want to play with the religious issue
themselves. They don't want to cede it to potential
competitors," explained Abrash.

10. (C) REGIME MOTIVATIONS: Other observers agree that
international pressure on the regime over the past year has
put it on the defensive. According to dissident Yassin Haj
Saleh, the regime is "relatively relaxed" in the short term
(prior to the June release of Brammertz's second report), but
in the longer term, "sees itself in a life-threatening
struggle with the U.S.," which makes it willing to ally
itself closely with Iran, for example, and to curry favor
with Islamists in Syria. The regime has made sure to
champion the Palestinian cause (through its support of
Hamas), as well as that of Hizballah, and has been
sufficiently supportive of the insurgency in Iraq over the
past few years, all to ensure, according to Abdul Noor, that

DAMASCUS 00001848 003 OF 003


Islamists "have no political case to take to the street and
attack the regime." The SARG also seems motivated by the
desire to prevent former VP Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood
leader Bayanouni, with their National Salvation Front, from
developing any traction in the Sunni community. Finally,
unidentified Ba'ath Party officials, echoing Habash's
moderate Islamist view, have noted in the press recently that
there is room for dialogue between secular Ba'athists and
moderate Islamists, while such dialogue with Islamic radicals
is impossible.

11. (C) WEAKNESSES OF THE APPROACH: Saleh and others
identify several weaknesses in the SARG approach. According
to Saleh, Syria needs a moderate Islamic political party,
which would force the Islamists to deal responsibly with
political issues. "It can't be avoided, but the regime wants
to jump over this step." The regime prefers an Islamic
establishment dependent on it for favors and subservient to
its politics, rather than "a free-thinking, independent
group." Consequently the SARG is willing to accept -- its
policies in fact actually end up encouraging -- close-minded,
very conservative Islamic institutions, as long as they are
subservient to the regime. This phenomenon, however, causes
some Islamic elements to become more radical and extreme in
the longer term, as a way to attack the co-optation, insisted
Saleh.

12. (C) In addition, the overall "street power" of Islam is
increasing by the day in Syria, according to Damascus-based
al-Hayat correspondent Ibrahim Hamidi. In his view, the
regime's tactics already betray a nervousness and
defensiveness in the way it addresses Islamic issues.
According to Hamidi, the rising tide of Islamism in Syria is
likely eventually to overwhelm the regime and its secular
orientation. As an example of the rising tide of Islamic
religious fervor which the regime is nervously observing and
trying to control, he pointed to relatively new women's
Islamic movement in Syria, the Qubasyat, with thousands of
adherents (see septel).

13. (C) COMMENT: While alarmist scenarios about the future
rising tide of Islamism may be true, the SARG seems for the
time being to be successfully manipulating this Islam issue,
occasionally blending in some populist aspects. The regime
is well-positioned politically because of its championing of
Islamic political causes such as those of Hamas, Hizballah,
and Iran, and has adopted a sufficiently nuanced policy on
Iraq to immunize it against criticism that it is helping
suppress an Islamic insurgency. Nevertheless, some Sunni
leaders tell us that the regime's attempts to manipulate the
Islam issue are not credible and that people are not taken in
by it. Where the SARG has been effective is in keeping
Islamic leaders in Syria under its wing, supported and
politically muzzled. The more populist touches seem designed
to drown out the unwelcome noise coming from the Brammertz
investigation and -- in tandem with appeals to Syrian
nationalism -- to persuade Syrians that it is not the regime
(and Asad family) under attack but the country and the
Islamic nation.
SECHE