Something to Hide

former MP Riad Seif, imprisoned again

Sunday, 30 November 2008 02:09 Nir Boms&David Keyes , Intrest

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

On the one hand, Syria appears to be taking its time. Last September 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, denied these “western” reports but they also refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a follow up visit, this despite the recently published report confirming the presence of uranium at the site.  It took Syria another whole week to admit the assassination of General Mohammed Suleiman, a top Assad adviser and a key player in the Lebanese arena. The regime stayed mum regarding the abduction of Kurdish leader Meshaal Tammo too.  Lastly, Syria has yet to officially comment on the mysterious assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashall’s top aid, Hisham el-Badni, who was taken out of his car and shot in the city of Homs earlier this month.

In contrast to this foot-dragging, Syria has been all too quick at repressing dissent.  Twelve more names were recently added to Syria’s already long list of political prisoners.  Journalists Jabr al-Shoufiand and Fayez Sarah, Democratic Party member Muhammed Haji Darwish and  former independent member of parliament Riad Seif  were among those sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “spreading false information and belonging to a secret organization promoting sectarian strife.” These convictions follow a wave of arrests against figures such as Ghazi Omar Qaddour, member of the Syrian Council of Freedom and Human Rights Committees and Habib Saleh, author and opposition figure.   Many of those targeted by the regime are associated with the 2005 Damacus Decleration, which calls for “democratic and radical change” in Syria.

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 ally.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with these champions of liberty is both a moral and security imperative and one that should be taken seriously by the new US president elect.

Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Centre for Middle East Freedom.  David Keyes is the Coordinator for Democracy Programs under Natan Sharansky at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies.

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