One must assume that this is part of the Syrian regime’s preparations for planned peace talks in Geneva: at about 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 20, opposition leader Raja al-Nasser was walking through the Baramkeh neighborhood in central Damascus when government agents suddenly snatched him from the street.
Nasser is a leading member of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, a leftist-nationalist opposition party originally founded in 1964 in support of then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. It has long defended the Baath Party’s foreign policy and is a stalwart opponent of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, but it also opposes the autocratic rule of Syria’s long-ruling Assad family. Since the beginning of protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, the party has positioned itself on the most moderate flank of the Syrian opposition, consistently rejecting violence, foreign intervention, or any form of sectarian rhetoric. Its chairman, former parliamentarian and longtime opposition figure Hassan Abdul Azim, is also the head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups in which Nasser serves at Abdul Azim’s side as one of the top leaders.
Not even the most fervent Assad supporter could mistake these elderly leftist intellectuals and café-table politicos for bomb-throwing terrorists. While the National Coordination Body demands regime change, the group is firmly pacifist and so moderate that regime spokespeople have referred to it as part of the “patriotic” or “internal” opposition with which they would be willing to negotiate. And Iran, Russia, and other pro-Assad states have promoted the National Coordination Body as a voice of reason and potential compromise.
Many opposition activists, by contrast, accuse the National Coordination Body and its leaders of being “fake opposition” and “traitors” that serve Assad’s interests by condemning the armed resistance. In November 2011, Abdul Azim, Nasser, and several other National Coordination Body leaders were even physically assaulted by an angry mob of supporters of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups in exile, in Cairo. And in 2012, the Democratic Arab Socialist Union split because of the party leadership’s cautious line. A faction led by Mohamed el-Flaytani left the coalition with the National Coordination Body in support of the radical opposition in exile, but Abdul Azim and Nasser stayed in the anti-violence, anti-intervention camp.
No Meeting for Mikhail?
A spokesman for the National Coordination Body, Haytham Manna, has explained that he was on the phone with Raja al-Nasser half an hour before Nasser’s arrest. The two politicians were discussing the planned peace talks in Geneva and had been trying to set up a meeting with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister of Russia.
Manna concluded that Nasser’s arrest must have been designed to thwart such a meeting and said that it “shows the level of sincerity of the Syrian authorities in preparing the Geneva conference.”
The arrest of Nasser provides a helpful reminder of the fundamentally intolerant and authoritarian nature of the Assad regime. But it is even more interesting that the government would seek to prevent a conversation between the National Coordination Body and its own ally, the Russian government.
Perhaps this arrest was not primarily intended as a signal to the dissidents in Syria but rather as a signal to the Kremlin itself?