America and Syria
U.S. leaders should not excuse the brutality of Syria’s dictator.


For a source other than the State Department, consult the Washington-based Freedom House. The organization puts out a handy report on “The World’s Most Repressive Societies”; in 2010, Syria ranked, as usual, among these “Worst of the Worst.” Freedom House also puts out a country report on Syria. The 2010 version includes an illuminating note about the regime’s practice of rewarding or coercing Syrians into informing on their own relatives, friends, and associates.

This is the regime that Syrians, with incredible courage, are now daring to defy. Assad is shuffling his cabinet and promising concessions he says will “please all the Syrian people.” But it’s a sure bet his security forces will be standing by, just in case the people aren’t pleased enough to stop protesting. One can see what Assad means by “please all the Syrian people” by looking at Syria’s 2007 elections, in which Assad officially produced a voter turnout of 96 percent and won 98 percent of the vote.

Along with all this, Assad’s Syria is a threat to the U.S. and its democratic allies — notably Israel. Its officials welcome terrorists and sanctions-busting weapons traffic, and Syria has amassed its own considerable arsenal of missiles and chemical weapons. It is one of four countries currently on the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring states, a list it has helped populate since 1979. Under Assad, Syria hosts an array of terrorist groups, including leaders of Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Syria’s regime is a bedfellow of the terror-sponsoring, nuclear-bomb-seeking mullocracy in neighboring Iran. The country supports and abets the flow of weapons to the terrorists of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group that now controls the government of neighboring Lebanon — which Syria occupied from 1976 to 2005. Not only is Syria a longtime missile client of North Korea’s, but under Bashar Assad, Syria became an enterprising nuclear client as well, building a secret reactor with North Korean help (it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in 2007) and displaying a continuing and alarming interest in nuclear development to this day.

Calling Bashar Assad a “reformer” might satisfy the likes of the United Nations Human Rights Council, where — with Libya only recently suspended — Syria has now brazenly entered the running for a seat. For the U.S. State Department, which, along with those giddy congressional delegations, has been trying to “engage” Assad, it may look like reform when Assad grants them an audience, or Assad’s wife trots out her French designer handbag for an interview with Vogue. Or perhaps Obama and Clinton consider it simplest to try to dismiss Syria’s protests in whatever way might most seem to favor continuing attempts at “engagement” with the Damascus regime.

If it was right for America to intervene in Libya to protect people trying to rid themselves of a bloody tyrant, there can be no excuse for American officials’ doing anything that might help or encourage Assad in his efforts to hold on to power. The long and ugly record of Assad’s regime suggests that he will try to crush this uprising by jailing, torturing, and killing as many protesters as he needs to. Obama may be chiefly concerned with trying to avoid another military intervention in the Middle East. But with his administration praising Assad and signaling that Syria’s regime is exempt from the kind of punishment now descending on Qaddafi, Obama risks ending up with a lot of blood on his hands.

— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.