The Region: Bipartisan betrayal

How Democrats and Republicans abandon Arab moderates to their fate.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
In politics it's not just what you do; it's also how others react to it. That does not mean one should not act because of how it will be perceived elsewhere, only that that factor should certainly be taken into consideration. Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other Democrats visited Syria. They spoke respectfully of that country's government but made not one public statement condemning Syria's sponsorship of terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel; nor did they take any strong position - as far as is known, either publicly or privately - in defense of Syrian dissidents. The visit stirred a great deal of attention, but the TV cameras turned off once the visitors departed and did not notice what happened next. My new book, The Truth About Syria, explains how the regime's nature makes its radicalism, intransigence and support for terrorism inevitable. Basically, since the regime cannot offer either freedom or material betterment in order to survive, it must provide demagoguery and extremism. To give its people, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims suspicious of their Alawite, non-Muslim rulers, some reason to support its regime Syria needs to portray itself as Islamist, and as the great champion against the West and Israel. Without these pillars it would crumble. The country's rulers understand this fact very well. The Iran-Syria alliance is not some mistake on the part of either party, from which they can be won away, but a profound expression of their strategy and interests. AT THE SAME time as Syria is a terrific case study of how Arab dictatorships work - and why they stay in power - it is also a wonderful example of how the West usually lets them get away with behavior which would not be tolerated elsewhere in the world. After all, fighting terrorism is a central pillar of Western policy. Yet Syria is world champion in the terrorism league and the main emphasis heard today in Western debate is how Damascus must be engaged, trusted and offered concessions. Indeed, the Pelosi visit convinced the Syrian regime and people that President Bashar Assad is on the right track and need make no concessions regarding his adventurous policy. Many Syrians agree with what one Damascus resident told an American reporter: Visits and calls for rapprochement with Syria prove that Bashar "was right not to make concessions." Muhammad Mamoun Homsi, a leading Syrian democratic dissident, was sentenced to five years imprisonment in 2001. Released on condition that he shut up, Homsi left the country. He urged Pelosi not to go to Syria. By the way, while Pelosi was in Damascus, the Syrian government froze Homsi's personal assets. And once the delegation left, the regime began a wave of arrests. Anwar al-Bunni was quickly given five years in jail. Bunni and five other imprisoned dissidents - including the well-known journalist Michel Kilo, and Kamal Labwani, arrested on returning to Syria from a White House visit - smuggled out a letter urging, "The detainees should feel that they are not alone... and that there is hope for a peaceful resolution of the crisis of freedoms and human rights in Syria." But they, and the authorities roughing them up, know they are alone. YET THIS is no partisan issue. The idea of engaging Syria was launched by a Republican, James Baker, in the Iraq study group report. Now it is being taken up by his protege Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met recently with the Syrian foreign minister at a conference on Iraq. She similarly undermined the US-initiated boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority by meeting that government's (non-Hamas) finance minister who is trying to raise funds to finance the Hamas regime. In practical terms, these meetings don't amount to much. But in impact they are a disaster. How can the US expect Europeans to hold the line when it does not do so? What is the message sent to the brave Lebanese government and those who risk their lives by opposing Hizbullah's efforts to dominate the country and by maintaining Lebanon's independence from Syria and Iran? Answer: Give up. You can expect no Western help. Or, in William Shakespeare's phrase, "Despair and die." THIS DOES NOT mean that the old strategy of democracy promotion was right. Realpolitik is necessary. The West needs to engage less radical Arab states as allies in the battle against the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas alliance. Still, that does not mean it is right to abandon the liberal dissidents to appease the less extremist regimes and, at the same time, undermine these governments in order to suck up to the radicals. The saddest story stemming from selling out the Arab democrats is an interview with the Atlas Shrugs blog by the remarkable Egyptian blogger who calls himself "Sandmonkey," where he announced that he will no longer write because the police are closing in on him. The US government, he explains, has dropped pressure on Egypt "because the American public is not interested in reforming the Middle East because of what's going on in Iraq." So now the Egyptian government is expanding repression. "People that were vocal before are censoring themselves big time." The regime is arresting non-violent dissidents as terrorists and suing other critics for "defaming Egypt's reputation." No wonder a reader of the Beirut to Beltway blog wrote, in reacting to the Winograd report that harshly criticized Israeli leaders over their conduct of the 2005 war against Hizbullah, "God is smiling on the Israelis when he gives them discernment to get rid of their buffoons, while we are saddled with ours forever." The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya.