Call Assad's bluff

The irony is Olmert, even with an approval rating of 3 percent, is more legitimate than "99 percent" Assad.

Assad nice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Assad nice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Did you miss the Syrian election on Sunday? Unlike the American presidential election campaign, which is already in high gear for November, 2008, or even the hotly contested Labor party primaries yesterday, one might be excused for not having noticed the election for the leadership in Damascus. To relieve the suspense, however, we must report that President Bashar Assad was "reelected" to another seven year term. Unopposed. The results are not in, but we can hazard a guess: around 99 percent of the Syrians who voted endorsed their beloved leader. Though it difficult to take such an exercise seriously, it is striking that even the most oppressive dictatorships feel a need to pretend to reflect the popular will. Such single candidate elections show that even dictators feel the need to genuflect toward the fundamental premise of democracy: that the people hold the right to choose their leader. Elections, however, are transformed into a grotesque power play in the hands of dictators. They become extensions of the cult of personality that all tyrants cultivate, the central element of which is ruthless suppression of all forms of dissent. Syria's Assad is no exception. Billboards proclaiming "We love you" to Assad preceded the elections, along with the roundup and sentencing of dissidents such Michel Kilo. When Kilo, a prominent journalist, was sentenced to three years in prison along with three other democracy activists earlier this month, he shouted to the courtroom, "We are not criminals, we are patriotic people!" Indeed, it is the Syrian regime that is criminal, whether with respect to the rampant violation of human rights, or its support for terrorism in Iraq, its backing of Hizbullah and Hamas, and lately, its fomenting of war in northern Lebanon. As Lebanese Druse leader Walid Jumblatt explained, Damascus wants "to distract the [Lebanese] army from watching the arms smuggled [from Syria] and to obstruct the tribunal," referring to UN plans to try suspects in the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri. The idea that this regime is interested in making peace with Israel strains credulity. It is not clear why Assad's supposed peace overtures are taken seriously when he continues to be a main sponsor of terrorism against Israel, and the idea of him making a Sadat-like trip to Jerusalem is risible. It also makes little sense, however, for Israel to be seen as the party that is refusing to negotiate with a belligerent Arab state. Assad is bluffing, and bluffs should be called. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should say that he is willing to meet with Assad anywhere, including Jerusalem or Damascus. At the same time, Olmert should say that he does not believe that Syria is serious about peace, and therefore it is important for international sanctions to be tightened against the regime to force it to end its rampant support for aggression and terrorism. Ronald Reagan, when faced with the dilemma of whether to negotiate with a belligerent Soviet Union, coined the motto, "trust but verify." Olmert's watchwords with Syria should be "talk but sanction." Olmert should be clear that sanctions, not talks, are the key to changing Syria's behavior. Similarly, it is not talks that will produce peace, but the Syrian realization that its war against Israel, along with other forms of aggression, are too costly to continue. Our bet is that Assad will not meet with Olmert, though he may try to launch lower level talks. Olmert should insist that the talks, except perhaps for strictly limited preparatory meetings, be at the outset slated at the highest level, and use Assad's ultimate refusal to meet as leverage to tighten the international sanctions campaign. If Assad does surprise, and does meet Olmert, this would be a victory for Israel. This is not because Israel needs to be legitimized by such a regime, but because it would be a significant "concession" by the most stalwart member of the rejectionist Arab camp. But Assad won't surprise. The irony is Olmert, even with an approval rating of 3 percent, is more legitimate than "99 percent" Assad. This dictator, as strong as he may wish to seem, is too weak to make peace.