Syria – A Reason to Engage

Leaders from 40 countries are heading to Washington today to attend a nuclear security summit that will likely dominate the headlines in the coming days. North Korea and Iran, two states with disputed nuclear ambitions, will not be there. It appears , according to  Associated Press, that Syria was left off the invitation list as well since the US believes Damascus also has nuclear ambitions. This is one American view on Syria. But another could be heard following Senator John Kerry’s recent meeting with President Bashar al Assad in Damascus where they spoke of “mutual interests” and a constructive role for Syria in the region. In the midst of this, a new American Ambassador is about to assume office in Damascus to carry out a new policy of engagement with Syria. My recent post attempts to outline a few agenda items with the hope that engagement will become constructive.

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A Reason to engage

Iranian Times International

In the midst of another round of violence in Iraq and following a summit with the Iranian and Hezbollah leaders hosted in Damascus, Senator John Kerry met President Bashar al Assad last Thursday in Damascus talking about “a mutual interest” and a “very frank exchange.”  The Senate, on its part, concluded the first confirmation hearing on the nomination of Robert Ford as its   ambassador there.  Manning the post, which has been vacant since 2005, might serve as another indication that the United States is moving to re-engage with Syria as  president  Obama seeks to  resuscitate Middle East peace talks.  Some are already criticizing the move perceived as one that will give the Syrian president an added legitimacy without a tangible return. Others argue that engagement, if used correctly, is a powerful policy tool that could promote American interests.  But on the side of this debate – and away from the political corridors of Washington – there are those who have long been waiting for American intervention. Their lives depend on it.

Ahmed (23) and Arsalan Shaghuti (25) are two of them. Born in Ahwaz, a City with sizable Iranians of Arab descent who have been discriminated against by the Islamic government, they became political refugees in Syria, recognized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They just received the papers that were about to send them to Sweden for resettlement. But the Syrians, it seems, had a different hospitality in mind.  Like with other cases, the Syrian government refused to issue exit permits and did not allow them to depart its borders . The two were arrested as they attempted to cross the Lebanese border to reach UNHCR office in Beirut. They were jailed for the past 10 months and now a Syrian court has decided to extradite them to Iran where they will face imprisonment and possible execution.  Ahmed and Arsalan are not the only Ahwazis who have endured such Syrian treatment. UNHCR has documented dozens of other cases of Ahwazi Refugees who were extradited back to Iran where they faced imprisonment at best. And this hospitality is not given just to Ahwazis:

Abed al-Hafith ‘Abed al-Rahman, a 44-year-old Syrian Kurdish human rights activist, has been  held incommunicado for over two weeks since he was detained by members of Military Intelligence on March 2, 2010.  According to Amnesty, he is at risk for torture or other ill-treatment. Military Intelligence officials detained Abed al-Rahman at his home in the city of Aleppo, north Syria, in the presence of his family, reports Amnesty. They also seized some of his personal belongings, including a book he had written on teaching the Kurdish language and unpublished statements of the Human Rights Organization in Syria (MAF), an unauthorized non-governmental organization formed by members of the Syrian Kurdish minority.

Syria, it seems, is not a friendly place to its prisoners. Amnesty International has documented a range of serious human rights violations including the arbitrary detention of political opponents, the long-term detention of prisoners of conscience, torture and ill-treatment, and political killings for over two decades. “When death stares you in the face and is only avoided by sheer chance… wouldn’t you welcome the merciful release of a bullet?” writes one prisoner, quoted in an Amnesty report about the notorious Tadmur prison in Palmira.

But not everyone lives to tell such stories. Such, for example, was the fate of Mohammed Musto Rashid who died as a result of torture in Aleppo Central prison, reports the Syrian Committee for Human Rights. The reason for his arrest and detention are yet to be known.  A similar fate might await  Zahr al-Din Khorshid Ibish and his brother Rashid, from the town of Afrin,  who were arrested on January 1, 2010 after a raid on their house by security forces. The two are known Kurdish activists.

And while this unfolded, last week,  at Georgetown University Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration presented  a keynote speech to celebrate  the 30th anniversary of the Refugee Act of 1980. “Renewing U.S. Commitment to Refugee Protection: The 30th Anniversary of the Refugee Act” was the title of Assistant Secretary Schwartz’s speech who shared the podium with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Well, it’s good to have “commitment” and it is also good to have “engagement.”   However, Abed al-Rahman, Ahmed and Arsalan Shaghuti need more than two hollow words. There might be one urgent item that should be put on the table of Ambassador Ford in Damascus. Perhaps we could finally see some engagement at work.

Nir Boms is a co-founder and  board member of CyberDissidents.org

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