The Region: America talks, Syria imprisons

The dire results for human rights activists when US policy goes soft.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Last month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress visited Damascus, flattered their hosts, and called for talks with the Syrian dictatorship. Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice broke the administration's boycott by meeting with her Syrian counterpart. What has happened since then shows this approach to be totally wrong. As demonstrated in the state-controlled Syrian media, the regime took all the calls in America for US concessions as a victory proving that it could continue its policies. There is nothing subtle about it. Mamoun Homsi is a courageous pro-democracy activist who had been one of the few independent members of Syria's puppet parliament. In March 2002 he was thrown out of the legislature and sentenced to five years in prison. As he was dragged off to jail, Homsi shouted, "This is a badge of honor to me and others like me. Long live the people!" Released after four years in 2006, Homsi immediately left the country, saying there was no possibility of changing the regime by reform, and that any criticism would bring more imprisonment. Homsi wrote Pelosi a letter urging her not to visit Syria as such a step would only strengthen the regime. Last week, the government seized all of his assets in the country, leaving his family destitute. KAMAL LABWANI, head of the Liberal Democratic Gathering, visited the US in 2005, including meetings with human rights‚ groups and a trip to the White House. He told the Americans he saw that he would be arrested once he got back home. Sure enough, the Syrian police grabbed him at Damascus airport in November 2005. But he was not tried. After all, the regime reasoned, perhaps the US might get even tougher with Syria if they repressed a man who had just been a White House guest. Last week, confident that the current administration and its presumed Democratic successors were caving in, the government sentenced Labwani to life imprisonment, which was "kindly" commuted to 12 years with hard labor. The charge? "Inciting a foreign state to attack Syria." That's not all. Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer and another brave dissident, knew what held Syria back from crushing any dissent. Back in 2003 he explained: "The government's fear that it will be next on America's 'regime change' list may make it wary of committing gross violations of human rights... Some of us say that it is only because of what America did in Iraq, the fright it gave our rulers, that we reformers stand a chance here." Bunni was proven right. Once Syria no longer had any fear, the regime sentenced him to five years' imprisonment. On Sunday, three democracy activists were sentenced to three to 10 years in prison, including Michel Kilo. An articulate journalist who most clearly expressed the hope of peaceful change in Syria, Kilo was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of "spreading false news" and "weakening national feeling." THE WHITE HOUSE condemned the sentencing of Labwani and Bunni, including credible information that they were tortured in prison, in a short press release. No doubt, Syria is not intimidated. Damascus knows that it can continue helping insurgents next door kill Americans and murder Iraqis. The regime understands it can continue to sponsor terrorism against Israel and Lebanon. It has a good hope of escaping indictment in the international investigation of Syrian involvement in the murder of popular former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Those who call for engaging Syria and giving it concessions are contributing, however unintentionally, to helping the worst dictatorship in the Arab world and the leading Arab sponsor of terrorism in a post-September 11 world. And, by the way, Syria is the main partner of radical Islamist Iran. Least publicized of all is the apparent holding of former FBI agent Robert Levinson as a hostage in Iran, where he was visiting in March. Last week Iran also arrested, on trumped-up spying charges, Haleh Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs for the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC and an American citizen. Her boss is former Congressman Lee Hamilton, co-sponsor of the Iraq Study Group report calling for engagement with Syria and Iran. The lessons about these regimes' extremist behavior should be clear by now: When someone extends his hand and offers friendship, they interpret it as hands raised in surrender. The writer's latest book is The Truth About Syria. He is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya.