WASHINGTON—The Bush administration has launched a campaign to isolate and embarrass Syrian President Bashar Assad, using parliamentary elections in late April as a lever, according to State Department officials and Syrian exiles.
The campaign, which some officials fear is aimed at destabilizing Syria, has been in the works for months.
It involves escalating attacks on Syria's human rights record, which is generally regarded as abysmal, as well as White House-approved support for Syrian bloggers and election monitors inside and outside the country to highlight the nation's lack of freedom, the officials and others said.
The State Department in recent weeks has issued a series of rhetorical broadsides against Syria, using language harsher than that usually reserved for U.S. adversaries. On Friday, the administration criticized a planned visit there by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif..
"It's the new Cuba—no language is too tough," said one of the officials, who like others insisted on anonymity to discuss internal government planning.
The campaign appears to fly in the face of the recommendations last December of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which urged President Bush to engage diplomatically with Syria to stabilize Iraq and address the Arab-Israeli conflict. The White House largely ignored that recommendation, agreeing only to talk with Syria about Iraqi refugees and to attend a Baghdad conference where envoys from Iran and Syria were present.
Some officials who are aware of the campaign say they fear its real aim is to weaken or even overthrow Assad and to ensure that he can't thwart the creation of an international tribunal to investigate the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A U.N. report has implicated Syrian and Lebanese officials in the murder.
The officials say the campaign bears the imprint of Elliott Abrams, a conservative White House aide in charge of pushing Bush's global democracy agenda.
The plan's defenders say the effort to support democracy and speak out against repression in Syria is no different from similar U.S. efforts aimed at governments in Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
The parliamentary elections scheduled for April 22 appear certain to be rigged, according to experts on Syria and critics of Assad's authoritarian regime.
Almost three-quarters of the seats in parliament are set aside for members of the Ba'ath Party, which has ruled Syria since a 1963 coup, and its allies. New campaign spending rules appear designed to undercut the few truly independent candidates.
"Our objective is to have real elections in Syria. . . . It's important to get that kind of message across and, number two, to expose what's happening in Syria," said Najib Ghadbian, who's affiliated with the National Salvation Front, a loose coalition of mostly exiled Syrian government opponents. The group gets no U.S. funding, he said.
Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma assistant professor who studies Syria, agreed that the election outcome isn't in doubt, but said U.S. pressure will have little impact. "The problem is, America's such a discredited bully pulpit for this kind of thing," he said.
Indeed, U.S. efforts to isolate Syria received a setback at this week's Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi leadership, which has ostracized Assad since the Hariri assassination, appeared to welcome him back into the fold.
Ahmed Salkini, a Syrian embassy spokesman, said, "There is nothing not free" about the upcoming elections, and he called U.S. criticisms hypocritical in light of alleged U.S. rights abuses at the Guantanamo prison.
McClatchy Newspapers is withholding some details about Syrian groups and individuals involved in monitoring the April elections because their followers could face arrest in Syria.
But a classified government document that surfaced in December proposed a covert election-monitoring effort that would be funded by a State Department-run democracy promotion program known as the Middle East Partnership Initiative. MEPI has set aside $5 million for activities aimed at Syria.
U.S. officials confirmed the existence of the document, which was first reported by Time magazine.
The document identified the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute as a potential partner in the effort. An IRI spokeswoman declined comment this week.
At least some elements of the plan appear to have gone forward.
Several Internet sites have been created to monitor and discuss the April elections, which are to be followed in May by a referendum on Assad's rule. One, largely in Arabic, is www.transparentsyria.com.
As McClatchy Newspapers first reported last year, the Bush administration also has orchestrated meetings of Syrian opposition figures under the auspices of the Aspen Institute's Berlin offices. White House officials have met with representatives of the National Salvation Front, a broad umbrella group that includes Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.
In Washington, meanwhile, the State Department's verbal attacks on Syria have gotten harsher.
On March 8, in what several officials said was an opening volley, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a statement urging Assad to allow full media coverage of the elections and permit independent monitors. "The United States is deeply concerned that the Syrian regime will again fail its people by not holding free and fair elections," he said.
On Thursday, McCormack issued another statement, expressing concern over two imprisoned human rights activists in Syria, Anwar al-Bunni and Kamal al-Labwani. Al-Labwani was arrested in November 2005 after returning from a trip that included a meeting with a top White House adviser.