The truth about Syria

As long as Syrians made most rudimentary gestures toward peace, consecutive US administrations, with European encouragement, overlooked its many vices.

Assad 311 (B) (photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
Assad 311 (B)
(photo credit: Michael Luongo/Bloomberg)
The precise number of protesters killed to date in Syria in unknown. Amnesty International has estimated 55 dead in the past week in and around the southern town of Deraa alone.
Syrian activists have posted graphic videos on YouTube documenting brutal murders at the hands of Bashar al- Assad’s security forces in additional cities, such as Sanamayn.
One eyewitness told Al-Jazeera that more than 20 protesters had been shot dead there. One or more fatalities have also been reported in the coastal city of Latakia.
The sketchiness of the reports debunk the assumption that we all now live in a global village. A regime with the requisite wherewithal can, evidently, keep a fairly serious stranglehold on news, at least temporarily. American and European news anchors, so prominent in Libya these days, will not be heading to Damascus anytime soon. So long as Assad runs Syria, they simply won’t be allowed in.
Not only has Damascus managed to keep tight control over the goings on within its borders, and to maintain a “fear regime” that had deterred even the bravest malcontents from taking to the streets until very recently, it has even managed to win positive PR. USA Today featured a somewhat bizarre Syria supplement last month. But that was nothing compared to the puff piece carried by the fashion magazine Vogue, profiling Assad’s wife, entitled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert.”
The “breezy, conspiratorial and fun” wife of the autocrat admits to readers that “it’s a tough neighborhood” she lives in. But not to worry. We are informed that the 35-year-old first lady’s “central mission” is to change the “mind-set” of six million Syrians under eighteen and encourage them to engage in “active citizenship.”
Demonstrations denigrating hubby as a “traitor who kills his people” seem active enough, though probably not the sort of thing the “glamorous, young, and very chic” Asma had in mind.
YET WHAT one French journalist has called the Vogue article’s “surrealism” is, unfortunately, a symptom of the kind of misguided mind-set that has led the US and Europeans to pursue what has become euphemistically known as “constructive engagement” with Damascus. This meant that as long as the Syrians made the most rudimentary ostensible gestures toward peace, consecutive US administrations, with strong European encouragement, were willing to overlook its many vices.
In the summer of 2005, just over a month after Syria was forced out of Lebanon by the Cedar Revolution following 29 years of occupation, Damascus renewed its campaign against Lebanese democracy, launching a series of assassinations that targeted civil society activists, government ministers, parliamentarians and journalists. Washington issued various condemnations but did nothing.
In the winter of 2007, former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a strong advocate of “engagement,” was in Damascus to meet with Assad while, on the other side of town, Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander responsible for the killings of some 250 American soldiers in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, was killed.
That Mughniyeh had traveled freely to Damascus made it obvious that Syria was providing shelter to various terrorists – from insurgents making their way to Iraq to fight US troops, to Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, to members of Al Qaida and global jihad. And this “hosting” was being done under the nose of a visiting American dignitary.
In recent weeks, while the West has taken military action against Muammar Gaddafi, Syria has reportedly been helping the embattled despot. Libyan rebels last week brought down two Syrian fighter pilots; the Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith quoted sources stating that Syria had sent two dozen fighter jets to aid Gaddafi. Meanwhile, in the coming weeks, the special UN tribunal looking into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is slated to present findings which are expected to implicate both Hezbollah and Syria in the killing. Yet, inexplicably, as Damascus continues to strengthen its ties with terrorists, including Iran, the US recently reinstated its ambassador, who had been removed in 2005 after Hariri’s assassination. And on Sunday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that presently America has no intention of intervening militarily in Syria.
WHILE THERE is reason to be acutely concerned that whoever or whatever replaces the Assad regime is liable to be still more hostile to the West and to Israel, it is surely long overdue to scrap the decades-old policy of “constructive engagement” with a leadership that showed a particular ruthlessness in mowing down tens of thousands of its own people on the last occasion that they dared mount a challenge to the Assad dynasty, in 1982.
The only thing “constructive engagement” seems to have achieved is to encourage a brutal regime to believe that it can continue to rule through murder and intimidation, while giving that regime the leeway to gain positive international PR. The effort to depict Assad’s Syria as some kind of enlightened, humane, reform-minded regime has rarely looked as imbecilic as it does today, with the president’s security forces doing his bidding and gunning down his people, just as they did in his father’s time.