Cables describe suspicions of Syrian government involvement in 2006 anti-Western cartoon protests

Cable 06DAMASCUS404 from the fifth of February 2006 describes how the Syrian regime seemed to have benefited from the rioting with enhanced legitimacy in several ways.

Civil society contacts noted that SMS text messages were sent to cellphones two days before, announcing a demonstration on February 4, in front of the Danish Embassy. These contacts also insisted, and an imam confirmed to Poloff, that the SARG (probably through its security services) had issued a “suggested” sermon for all imams to use in the mosques for the Friday prayers that preceded the Saturday rioting. Some contacts reported buses being sighted bringing in demonstrators from some of the rougher areas of Damascus, including the Palestinian camps at Yarmouk, although this could not be confirmed. One opposition contact said it was ludicrous to think that the SARG could not have prevented this rioting — at least earlier on — if it chose to, noting that when Riyad Seif and several other recently released Damascus Spring detainees attempted late last week to hold a press conference, the government deployed “three hundred security officers” to prevent it. Islamist-oriented human rights activist Haithem Maleh insisted that it was SARG provocateurs affiliated with the security services, rather than Islamists, who had stormed the embassies and egged on the crowds. 

ΒΆ13. (C) COMMENT: We concur with contacts that the SARG allowed these demonstrations to occur and almost certainly helped to facilitate them at the beginning. Somewhere along the way, the SARG, true to form, seems to have miscalculated and lost control. The end result left a deeply embarassed SARG to pick up the pieces and trying to explain its incredible security lapses to the disbelieving Europeans and Chileans. Despite any miscalculation, loss of control, or embarrassment, the minority Alawite regime seems to have benefited from the rioting, enhancing its legitimacy in several ways. It offered its religious Sunni population an opportunity to vent on an issue of visceral populist concern and it put itself in the vanguard regionally, demonstrating to the Arab street that Syria can be counted on to defend Islamic dignity. The rioting also helped the SARG in its recurring attempts to convey to the international community  that “we are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes.” Some argue that the riots also serve as useful distraction from recent price hikes and general hard times.

One day later cable 06DAMASCUS427 reports that an “influential Sunni sheikh” provided  details February 6 that seem to confirm the Syrian government’s (SARG) involvement in  escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in  Damascus two days earlier, including communications between  the PM’s office and the Grand Mufti. He also noted that SARG  authorities now seem intent on identifying a few scapegoats  to be blamed for the incidents.

Two months later an interesting cable puts the actions of the Syrian government in perspective.

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.

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.

A cable from September 2006  reveals that the US wanted to influence the decision from “Jyllands-Posten” on how to commemorate the cartoons’ first anniversary September 30 2006. The paper was contemplating to re-publish the original cartoons or running new ones on the subject.

The Ambassador called Prime Minister Rasmussen’s national security advisor, Bo Lidegaard, to ask if this was true and to find out how the government was going to handle the issue. Lidegaard indicated that the government did not want to get directly involved in the matter. So sensitive was the issue, Lidegaard told the Ambassador confidentially, that the prime minister’s office had made a conscious decision not to alert the foreign ministry or the intelligence services. Furthermore, Lidegaard explicitly warned against any attempt by us to openly influence the paper’s decision, which, if made public, the prime minister would have to condemn, he said. Lidegaard agreed, however, that no harm would come from a straightforward query from us to “Jyllands-Posten” about their plans.

With that, the Ambassador telephoned “Jyllands-Posten” editor-in-chief Carsten Juste, and asked straight out about his paper’s intentions for commemorating the anniversary. Juste told the Ambassador that he and his team had been considering re-publication, but concluded that such a move would be unwise, especially so soon after the controversy caused by the Pope’s Regensburg remarks. The Ambassador welcomed this news, noting that none of us wanted a repeat of the crisis earlier this year. Lidegaard was demonstrably relieved when the Ambassador reported this exchange a short time later.

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