Something to Hide

Executive Summary:

–          Syria has been slow to recognize democratic freedoms.  It has also refused to acknowledge the assassinations of numerous prominent individuals in the Middle East.

–          Syria has, however, been quick to stifle dissent.  Key members of opposition groups have been found dead or been imprisoned for many years.  Despite this, Syrians continue to insist that their nation is serious about peace.

–          Syria cannot be trusted with this promise because of its history of repression and intolerance.  Any nation that harms its own citizens cannot be trusted with matters of international peace.

–          The West must, therefore, side with Middle Eastern dissidents in a bid to bring real change to the region.  Only by promoting peace and democracy in Syria itself can the country be brought into a framework of international peace.

A British Ambassador in Teheran once explained the logic of the Middle EastSyria and the apparent gap between the regime’s words and deeds.  Despite softening rhetoric and occasional signs of rapprochement with the West, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still has a lot to hide—and fear.    as follows: “What I say does not definitely reflect what I think. What I do does not necessarily reflect what I say.  Therefore, not everything that I do necessarily contradicts everything that I think.”  This twisted logic may help explain the latest sequence of events in

Syria appears to be taking its time. In September 2007 it took the government over a week to admit that its “air defense systems confronted Israeli aircraft.”  This announcement followed a flurry of reports about an Israeli strike that destroyed a suspected nuclear site.  The Syrians, naturally, deny these “western” reports but they also refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a follow up visit to thoroughly inspect the site.  It took Syria another week to acknowledge the assassination of General Mohammed Suleiman, a top Assad advisor and a key player in the Lebanese arena. According to opposition sources, senior Kurdish leader Meshaal Tammo was abducted earlier this month by Syrian security forces; for weeks the regime has stayed silent on this case too. Syria has also yet to officially comment on the mysterious assassination of Hisham el-Badni, a top aid to Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal who was taken out of his car and shot in the city of Homs.

In contrast to this foot-dragging, Syria has been all too quick to repress dissent.  On August 7 2008, following significant international pressure, Syrian authorities released Aref Delilah, an economist who pointed out that corruption was wrecking his country from within.  Delilah’s freedom after nearly seven years in prison is cause for celebration, but as the former British Ambassador warned, it may hide a more complex reality.  Indeed, mere days after Delilah’s release, Syrian security forces arrested Ghazi Omar Qaddour, a member of the Syrian Council of Freedom and Human Rights Committees.  His crime was partaking in the Damascus Declaration meetings in Aleppo.

Qaddour joins twelve other dissidents who signed the pro-democracy document and are now charged with “spreading false information which weakens the morale of the nation.” The twelve are being tried jointly, perhaps the biggest case of its kind in nearly a decade.  Among those on trial are President of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, Fidaa Horani, Council Secretary Akram Bunni, writers Ali Abdallah and Dr. Walid Bunni, and former Member of Syrian Parliament Riad Seif.  A wide spectrum of groups, from secular opposition parties to the London-based Muslim Brotherhood signed the “Declaration of Damascus” in 2005, calling for “democratic and radical change” in Syria.  To sustain that effort, a national council was formed in December 2007 but so far fifteen of its members have been arrested by Syrian security forces.

Even as these arrests occur, Assad has dispatched “unofficial” emissaries to Washington to help convince the Americans that Syria is serious about peace.  Such lobbying is to be expected, but is this a genuine move toward reconciliation or is it part of a more nefarious plot?  Talking peace while banning basic liberties is an old Middle Eastern game with all too familiar consequences.  Indeed, nations cannot be trusted to treat their neighbors with respect when they treat their own citizens with such contempt.  Regional peace without domestic peace is ephemeral at best.  In the words of famed dissident Vaclav Havel, “Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.”  The Middle East is no exception to this sound principle.

In 2006, Assad said “worry does not mean fear, but readiness for confrontation.”  Assad may or may not be ready for confrontation, but he is worried.  From the assassination of his top military aid to prison riots in Sidnaya that reportedly killed dozens, Syria is beset with internal strife.  The recent crackdown on dissidents is yet another sign of Syrian insecurity.

Syria remains draconian in its repression of dissent and wholehearted in its commitment to authoritarianism. The regime seeks engagement and respect from the West, but economic aid and political rapprochement must be linked to an improvement in human rights.  Just as the Jackson-Vanik amendment applied critical pressure to the decrepit Soviet state, so too must we mobilize today against the repressive Syrian regime.  Brave Middle Eastern dissidents are the free world’s greatest allies.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with these champions of liberty is both a moral and security imperative.

Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Centre for Middle East Freedom.  David Keyes is the Coordinator for Democracy Programs at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. Published for the Henry Jackson Society

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