In his recent letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Senator Kerry took to task Professor Fuad Ajami for his assertions in an earlier WSJ essay. Ajami summarized four decades of the Assad regime’s tyranny, oppression and mass murder of its own people, and criticized America’s failed policy toward Syria: a policy consisting of nothing more than a “waiting for Godot” stance, while quietly urging young Bashar to mend his ways as he, his father’s true son, slaughters his own people and sends terrorists into Iraq to murder Americans. David Brooks aptly describes these actions as depraved, yet Obama has been “keen to engage” Syria, and Senator Kerry has argued that Bashar Assad was “at heart a reformer” eager to align with the West.
Professor Ajami concluded that now, with Syria’s “Arab Spring” drowning in the blood of thousands of unarmed Syrians, our administration can no longer pretend that the Syrian savage is a “moderate,” and “at heart a reformer,” who will, someday soon, distance himself from Iran and from nuclear aspirations, reform his political system, free jailed dissidents, seek rapprochement with the west, and make peace with Israel.
In his rejoinder, Kerry denies ever having stated that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer or eager for political relations with the West. But in this assertion, Senator Kerry shows himself to be somewhat less than honest. Kerry was a strong supporter of the Obama decision to re-engage Assad and send an ambassador to Damascus, more than five years after President G. W. Bush severed US relations with Syria due to Assad’s implication in the murder of Rafik Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon.
Kerry was a regular visitor to Damascus, and in an interview he voiced the glowingly optimistic assessment that he has
“[…] been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship […] President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had […] So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”
This sounds very much like Kerry did indeed feel that young Bashar was willing to reform, and eager for relations with the West. Perhaps Senator Kerry has a short memory, or hopes that we do.
Kerry was not alone in his misguided belief in Assad’s essential goodness. In addition to Secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger and Senator Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in the same glowing terms about Assad and the Syrian regime.
But Kerry tells us now that he knew all along that Assad was a brutal oppressive dictator, ruling with an iron hand, heir to a family tradition of savage slaughter, and closely linked to the equally repressive Iranian Mullahs. Yet Kerry figured that if he made nice, spoke in a kindly and optimistic manner, and glad-handed the dictator a few times, the young tyrant would come around and see that aligning with the West would improve his chances of survival. So what Kerry has told us, perhaps without meaning to, is that either he was a dupe who thought that the Syrian savage was really a nice guy at heart, and is now lying about his folly, or he knew Bashar for what he was but thought that a few kind words and shiny coins would peel him away from Iran and turn him into a gentler kinder ruler.
Either way, Kerry looks foolish. But Kerry is not alone in this folly. Unmentioned in Kerry’s letter are two other examples of similar catastrophic ersatz diplomacy toward Syria. In April of 2007 then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made an unofficial state visit to Syria. Bedecked in a winning smile and modest Muslim headgear, Ms. Pelosi’s glowing approval of the young dictator, and her refusal to mention even once the issue of Syria’s abysmal record of human rights abuses, set back by decades the cause of freedom in Syria. Syrians most sympathetic to western progressive values were the most critical of Ms. Pelosi’s attempts to begin a dialogue with Syria’s government. Many Syrian dissidents and pro-democracy activists expressed dismay at Ms. Pelosi’s message of friendship to Assad, and asserted that her visit effectively pulled the rug out from under them, critically damaging their efforts to create momentum for reform from within Syria. “Pelosi’s visit made the regime feel that Americans were divided on how to deal with Syria… This sends a message to the regime that the pressure is off, that it can do what it likes.”
In fact, one opposition leader who succeeded in fleeing Syria after imprisonment and torture, Muhammad Ma’moun Homsi, wrote Pelosi begging her to cancel her trip because of the signals it would send to Assad. And indeed, within days after Pelosi’s departure, Assad started a new wave of terror against human rights activists, rounding up scores, imprisoning and torturing them, and sentencing the leaders among them to long prison terms, including Anwar al-Bunni, Syria’s version of Natan Sharansky.
President Obama seems to be engaged in a similar kind of misguided faux diplomacy toward Syria. His patient insistence on “engagement,” and his inaction regarding the current massacres, even as Assad responds to the “Arab Spring” with all the depravity of his father’s response to the Muslim Brotherhood insurgence in 1982, are seen incredulously by our allies in Europe and the Arab world as our President’s tacit nod of approval to Syria, and by extension to Iran.
The first problem with this kind of “glad-hand the butcher” diplomacy is that the expectation is akin to suggesting that a few friendly pats on the back would have turned George Manson into a model citizen.
The second problem is that even if Bashar were amenable to a turn to the West, he still could not do it and survive.
The Assad regime is Alawite. The Alawites are an unusual religious group, putatively Muslim but regarded by many Muslims as heretical. They are a small minority and thoroughly despised by most Syrian Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Since Hafez el-Assad’s rise to power in 1970, the Assad family cemented its control over the majority Sunni of Syria by infiltrating Alawite kinsmen into leadership positions in every institution of power and influence in Syria, thereby assuring the Assad regime’s rule over the much larger majority Sunni Arabs of Syria.
Ab origine, it has been a political necessity for the Assad Alawite regime to be more Arab than the Arabs, more Muslim than the Muslims. This means that any abatement in Syrian commitment to the destruction of Israel, which would be looked upon as treason by all too many Sunni Arab leaders and rank-and-file in Syria and elsewhere, could never be countenanced. Both Assads have used the dynamics of a so-called “peace process” to distract their citizenry from the regime’s crimes and failures, and to dissuade western leaders from pursuing sanctions against the regime. “The whole Syrian ‘peace initiative’ is a smokescreen,” say some Syrian human rights activists. “The regime wants to be insulated from the (UN’s Hariri) tribunal.” Thus, Bashar may not want to start a war, but he cannot make peace. Hence a sham “peace process” protracted for decades has been the ideal solution for both Assads.
Bashar, since his unexpected rise to power in 2000, has found Shiite Iran to be his most reliable ally; both because the ideological gap between the Alawi faith and Shi’a Islam is less formidable than between Alawi and Sunni, and because his linkage with Iran, one of Israel’s and America’s most outspoken and formidable enemies, burnishes Assad’s credentials in the Muslim world as a bulwark against the “Great Satan,” as a stalwart defender of the so-called sacred Islamic waqf of “Palestine” and as the would-be liberator of the Palestinians.
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