Sen. Arlen Specter has fallen into a trap that makes him look silly and damages U.S. interests as well as the cause of peace and democracy in the Middle East.
Mr. Specter may have been fooled by real professionals, but given the example of so many others who went before – including his own experience – he should have known better.
After all, this was his 17th visit to Syria since 1984, none of which has produced anything. By this time how could he retain such an innocent attitude toward that country’s dictatorship?
The beneficiary here has been Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Before discussing what happened to Mr. Specter, let me point out a few publicly available facts:
* Mr. Assad’s regime is a repressive one that has thrown many democracy and human rights’ activists into prison and tortured them.
* Syria is the main sponsor of the insurgents in Iraq who have killed many American soldiers and murdered thousands of Iraqi civilians. Given that Mr. Assad’s ally in this endeavor is al-Qaida, Syria is the closest thing to a sponsor of Osama bin Laden’s group today.
* Damascus is the main backer of anti-Israel terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, directly involved in fomenting terror attacks and sabotaging Arab-Israeli peace. It provided arms to Hezbollah that were used in the 2006 summer war to kill Israelis.
* Trying to reimpose its control over Lebanon, Syria’s regime has murdered more than a dozen Lebanese politicians and journalists, most notably former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Syria has been blocking the election of a new president in Lebanon, demanding that the job be given to one of its clients. Visits like those by Mr. Specter demoralize the Lebanese. Why should they go on risking their lives if they think the Americans are selling them out?
* Syria is a close ally with Islamist Iran. The ties between them and their common interests are so powerful they are not going to be split apart.
Does this sound like the kind of regime that should be courted by a U.S. senator?
Of course, Mr. Specter could say that this is precisely why he had to go to Damascus: in order to defuse such a dangerous enemy.
Yet there are three problems here that led to Mr. Specter instead to unintentionally give aid and comfort to Syria’s regime.
First, there is no serious reason to believe that such an endeavor could succeed. A number of senators – including Mr. Specter himself – and leaders from other countries have visited Damascus and gotten nothing. Former French President Jacques Chirac said that experience in dealing with Syria taught him that talks were a waste of time and his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as President George W. Bush said the same thing about the time Mr. Specter was arriving in Damascus.
Second, the Western effort for some years has been to isolate and pressure Syria in order to try to scare Damascus into becoming more cautious. By going to Syria, Mr. Specter made the Syrians feel as if the effort was failing and that they merely need hold out in order to intimidate the West into surrender. Such responses are clear in the statements made by Syrian leaders and media. For example, al-Ba’th newspaper asked in an editorial why the U.S. government still pressured Syria while members of Congress were visiting Damascus and “confirming the importance of its role in solving the region’s problems.”
Third, the way Mr. Specter went about his self-styled mission was disastrous. He praised Mr. Assad and vouched for his good intentions. Why should a U.S. senator provide alibis for one of the world’s leading terrorists? As the Associated Press summarized Mr. Specter’s message, “Syrian President Bashar Assad is ready for peace with Israel, an influential U.S. senator said Sunday after talks with the Syrian leader.” How does Mr. Specter know what Bashar really thinks? He only knows what Bashar told him in order to get a public relations’ victory.
“There is a sense that [Mr. Assad] is ready and the Syrian public opinion is ready (for peace).” What does Mr. Specter possibly know about Syrian public opinion? If one was to judge by what the government tells its people on a daily basis, no such conclusion is possible. Mr. Specter could at least limit himself to saying that Mr. Assad claimed he was ready for peace rather than endorsing that view personally.
To make matters worse, Mr. Specter basically took Mr. Assad’s side against the U.S. government. If the United States wanted to do so, he insisted, it could broker an Israel-Syria peace. Without going into all the reasons why this is wrong, one could simply point out that this means the U.S. government is responsible for the lack of peace.
On two specific points, the Syrians literally and obviously fooled Mr. Specter.
According to Mr. Specter and his colleague, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Mr. Assad promised to release seven dissidents jailed after attending a meeting endorsing fair treatment of Lebanon by Syria. After the two Americans announced the pledge – as proof of Mr. Assad’s wonderful intentions – Syria officially denied that any such promise had been made.
A better indication of the regime’s nature is that the day after Mr. Specter’s talk with Mr. Assad, a Syrian dissident, Faeq al-Mir, was sentenced to three years in jail. What was Mr. Mir’s crime? He sent condolences to a Lebanese parliamentarian regarding a Lebanese politician murdered by Syria. Will Mr. Specter learn anything from this experience?
But there’s more. Mr. Specter and Mr. Kennedy bragged that Syrian officials showed them an alleged agreement with France that was going to make possible a successful election of a president in Lebanon. As the two Americans were talking about this “success,” the French and Lebanese government announced that no such agreement existed. Indeed, as a result of Syria’s breaking its promises, Mr. Sarkozy announced he would hold no further talks with Assad.
If not so tragic, the follies of Mr. Specter in Syria would be amusing. But too many Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis and Israelis are paying with their lives or freedoms because of the Syrian regime’s policies to make his performance tragic.
Will Mr. Specter at last learn that the Assads and their regime are not to be trusted?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
©The Evening Bulletin 2008