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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is every bit as dangerous and thuggish as his autocratic counterparts across the Middle East, yet for some reason Washington continues to embrace him

Lee Smith
April 06, 2011
Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, visiting Paris in December.(Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)
Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, visiting Paris in December.(Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

What a strange season this has been. As Washington encouraged the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and continues to press allies in Bahrain and Yemen to accommodate demands for democratic change, one Arab dictator has gotten a free pass to murder his political opponents: Bashar al-Assad of Syria. To date, Assad’s government has killed 75 peaceful protesters in the streets of Damascus, Deraa, Lattakia, Homs, and Douma, among others, with some estimates running higher than 200 dead. Why no criticism for the Syrian regime?

Official silence over the killings in Syria is the fruit of America’s very weird love affair with one of the world’s leading state sponsors of terror. This emotional attachment, shared by U.S. policymakers, diplomats, and our intelligentsia, has been going on for decades, but it has reached a kind of apotheosis during the Obama Administration, during which officials have rushed to podiums across Washington to apologize for a regime that is picking off its own people with sniper fire.

“Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week. Caught by critics in that absurdity, Clinton tried to ameliorate her comments by explaining that she was merely relaying the opinions of others. But even then, she went back to the well of fantasy one more time. “We’re also going to continue to urge that the promise of reform will actually be turned into reality,” Clinton said.

Maybe it’s because Sen. John Kerry is a likely replacement for Clinton as secretary of State that he veered in the other direction and criticized Assad last week. Or maybe it’s just because he’s finally come to realize that he’s been made to look like a fool over the last few years by hawking a pro-Syria line. Even as recently as March 16, Kerry praised the Syrian president for the generosity he personally extended to the former Democratic presidential candidate during his half-dozen visits to Damascus over the last half-decade. And at the State Department, there’s Syria hand Fred Hof who, according to former Washington policymakers, doesn’t like hearing ill spoken of this murderous regime lest it shatter his dreams for an Israeli-Syrian peace deal—and his pet project, a “peace park” in the Golan Heights.

Still, self-delusion regarding Syria has been going on for years in Washington—regardless of which party is in office. The George W. Bush Administration spent several years trying to offer inducements to get the Syrian regime to alter its behavior, before it finally withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Damascus over Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. When Bush’s rivals wanted to take him on, Syria was one of their favorite venues. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for example, made a memorable shopping tour through the charmed arcades of Damascus’ markets while the Syrians were killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Even in the 1980s and ’90s, Syria occupied a privileged position in Washington—immune to rational calculations or moral revulsion about the behavior of its leaders. President Bill Clinton’s secretaries of State, Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, wore themselves out with shuttle diplomacy trying to placate then-president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. And George H.W. Bush’s secretary of State, James Baker, turned a blind eye to Syrian-backed terror to kick-start the Arab-Israeli peace process.

That self-abasement of U.S. diplomats in Damascus is a longstanding habit of American Middle East policy doesn’t explain why they keep behaving this way. Our government does lots of bad things in the Middle East on behalf of what it says are U.S. interests. Some of them are done intentionally, like backing the ruling regime in Bahrain even as it brutally represses a peaceful Shia majority. Some are done absent-mindedly, like when George H.W. Bush’s administration encouraged Iraqi Shia and Kurds to rebel against Saddam Hussein and then did nothing to protect them from his retaliation.

But just because Washington’s willingness to give a free pass to the Syrians can be well-documented doesn’t make it any less weird; in fact, none of the oft-cited reasons for U.S. support of the Syrian dictatorship make any sense at all. If the Assad regime is key to the Arab-Israeli peace process, then it’s not clear why the White House helped usher out Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who abided by the Camp David accords for 30 years at some personal risk. Assad, on the other hand, uses the peace process as leverage to enhance his regional position while he sponsors Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel. In fact, before the protests started in Syria, Assad claimed that it was his lack of relations with Israel that made his regime safer than the former Egyptian president’s. Syria is stable, said Assad, because its policies are “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” In other words, if the Syrian people prefer resistance to peace, there’s no way he’s ever going to sign a deal.

Maybe Washington is protective of Syria because, as U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh is fond of claiming, Assad was once very helpful in rounding up terrorists. But, then again, the Obama Administration is looking to remove Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has waged a campaign against al-Qaida on our behalf; Damascus, in contrast, has served as a transit point for al-Qaida fighters to go into Iraq to kill American soldiers.

Maybe Washington supports Syria because it believes Assad’s admonitions that getting rid of his regime will create a vacuum that will be filled by al-Qaida or other Sunni extremists. But if that’s the case, why is the administration committing U.S. resources in Libya in order to back those rebels fighting Qaddafi, aka al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb? Washington has long feared that Assad will be replaced by a Muslim Brotherhood government, but that alibi is no longer serviceable since the Obama Administration’s trashing of Mubarak gave the Brotherhood political clout in Egypt that it never had under the tenure of our long-time ally.

Maybe it’s because under President Barack Obama’s new multilateral dispensation his administration is following the lead of our European allies on Syria, just as we are on Libya. The Europeans are scared of bringing down Assad, said one European diplomat, because in Syria “you have some extremist networks, connections with Iran, Hezbollah.” Yet those networks exist in Syria because of the regime already in place, the stated policy of which is to ally itself with Iran and Hezbollah.

When the Syrian protesters first took to the streets, they chanted, “No to Iran, No to Hezbollah,” which suggests they share an interest with the Obama Administration, which believes that separating Syria from its ally Iran will weaken Tehran. But if that’s the case, the White House ought to do all in its power to enable anti-regime forces to do their work, for if the ruling Alawite clique falls, it will be replaced by a Sunni regime that will separate itself from Iran as a matter of course.

It’s just plain illogical that Washington won’t come out against Damascus. And in the Middle East, when things are most illogical, folks point to Israel as the prime mover. Lots of Arabs think the United States won’t do anything about Syria because the Israelis are calling the shots and they’re happy with a relatively weak regime that for 40 years has kept the border on the Golan Heights one of the quietest in all of the Middle East. And yet the truth is that over the last few years the Israelis have done just about anything they could to damage the Syrian regime’s prestige. They killed hundreds of Syria’s praetorian guard in Lebanon in the 2006 war against Hezbollah. They assassinated Hezbollah legend Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus; and an Israeli sniper brought down Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, who handled many of Syria’s most sensitive portfolios, while he was vacationing in the Alawite stronghold of Lattakia. Perhaps most important, the Israelis destroyed Syria’s secret nuclear facility in Deir al-Zour in 2007—against the wishes of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Maybe in the end the U.S. soft spot for Syria is just a matter of aesthetic preference. As Robert Kaplan documents in The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, starting almost a century ago the State Department’s Middle East specialists swooned over Damascus’ oriental refinements, the tiled courtyards and fountains secreted behind monuments of Mamluk and Ottoman design. Perhaps our diplomatic aesthetes share a sensibility with the fashion and travel writers who venture into what the Assad regime likes to call the capital of Arab resistance. Most recently, Joan Juliet Buck traveled to Damascus to grovel at the feet of the Assads in a profile of the first lady, Asma, (photographed by James Nachtwey) for Vogue magazine. It’s not surprising a fashionista would be swept away by a woman with good taste in handbags, but that U.S. policymakers and diplomats are blind to this dark regime’s murderous style is something else again.

Because of Passover, Lee Smith will be off for the next two weeks. His next column publishes April 27.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.