WASHINGTON — A Syrian opposition coalition that includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood will open a Washington office in the coming months to lobby Congress, the press, and the Bush administration to help bring democracy to Damascus.
The umbrella group, known as the National Salvation Front, already has the tacit approval of the National Security Council, whose officials met with some of the organization's unaffiliated and liberal representatives in August.
On November 7, Election Day for Americans, the Front will work out funding details for the new Washington office at a meeting in Brussels, Belgium. One member of its 11-member general secretariat, Husam al-Dairi, said yesterday that the Front is soliciting bids from public relations and lobbying firms. The decision to set up new digs in America's capital is significant for both the White House and the National Salvation Front.
While America has worked with both Baathists and Islamists in Iraq to quell the sectarian violence, as a general rule the Bush administration has backed away from working with Islamist groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Indeed, after Hamas won parliamentary elections in Gaza and the West Bank in January, the Treasury Department began pressuring Arab banks to cut ties with the Palestinian Authority, creating financial turmoil.
The National Salvation Front also has been wary of working with the Americans. But in the past two months, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, has taken a series of steps aimed at casting himself in a more moderate light. In August, Mr. Bayanouni told Al-Jazeera that he would be open to negotiations with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights. Mr. Dairi said yesterday that Mr. Bayanouni would even be open to meeting with American officials.
"Mr. Bayanouni would not have a problem meeting with Americans. If he is invited, he will not refuse the invitation. He has told this to me personally, and I believe him," Mr. Dairi said.
Over the last six months, the Bush administration has expressed cautious interest in a coalition that includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, in part because of its frustration with the Assad regime, which the Brotherhood opposes. In March, for example, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, David Welch, noted that the State Department was interested in what the Front had to say. Those remarks came a few weeks after a summit between a former Syrian vice president who defected in 2005, Abdul Halim Khaddam, and Mr. Bayanouni, who agreed to work together toward the ouster of the Assad regime.
On August 24, a delegation from the National Salvation Front met with officials from the National Security Council for what one participant described as an exchange of issues, one of which was a future office in the capital.
"We did discuss a Washington office," a founder of the Front and scholar at the Brookings Institution, Ammar Abdulhamid, told The New York Sun. "There was no problem. We not detect any hostility to this idea."
Mr. Dairi gave a similar assessment of the meeting."There will be a Washington office. This has been decided," he added.
Another Syrian opposition organization, the Reform Party of Syria, has criticized the Front's plans to open an office in Washington. In a statement released this week, the party said the new space would effectively be an office of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. (The Brotherhood was responsible for a wave of terrorist attacks in Syria in the early 1980s that led President Hafez al-Assad to send his brother to the city of Hama and level it, killing at least 20,000 people.)
Yesterday, Mr. Abdulhamid refuted this characterization of his organization. He pointed out that the Front also includes several Kurdish and liberal dissidents. A fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and an authority on the Levant, Tony Badran, told the Sun that it is significant that the Front is opening a Washington office. "Americans have not said they have met with members of the Front openly, but at the same time they have not said they would not meet with them," he said. "It would be a significant move if indeed if the Front got over its problems with having anything to do with America and are now reaching out to America."