By now it’s clear to most observers that Syria’s ruling Assad family are violent, congenitally anti-democratic stooges of Iran who deserve severe international sanctions. Pres. George W. Bush was at the vanguard of this realization, and was consequently committed to diplomatic isolation of the regime — specifically as punishment for their support of Hezbollah and Hamas and their meddling in Lebanon, but more broadly, as a former Middle East policy adviser to W. puts it, for their history of anti-democratic violence. In other words, Bush worried that something like the current situation in Syria — Bashar al-Assad’s months-long, thousands-killed crackdown on democratic protests — was coming, and wanted to make sure that the United States’ hostility to such a regime was clearly and strongly expressed.
He did his best. But despite Bush’s objections, expressed in no uncertain terms, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania visited Syria throughout W.’s presidency and beyond, continuing after his switch to the Democratic party in 2009, and even on through July 2010, when he was on his way out after being defeated in the Democratic primary.
A brief history: Specter spent three decades in the U.S. Senate and was noted
as a proponent of the use of economic sanctions
against illiberal regimes, particularly those lacking religious freedom. He even singled out Syria in several such sanctions. Specter was aggressive enough in these pursuits that he got blowback
from the free-trade promoters of the 1990s.
But he simultaneously stood out for making controversial and sometimes expressly forbidden visits to Syria, totaling at least 30 throughout his Senate career, according to some accounts. He met with Hafez al-Assad — dictator-president of Syria from 1971 through 2000 and father of the current incumbent, Bashar — for the first time in 1988: six years after the infamous Hama massacre of 10,000 to 20,000 Syrian civilians. The two parties to this meeting had different goals. Assad was seeking new allies as Syria’s relationship with the Soviet Union, on which he had long relied, was beginning to crumble. And Specter was initially interested in Israel, as he later explained:
I have tried to find a rapport with Assad as part of activating him in the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process. He was very negative about the peace process when I first raised the subject with him in 1988. I had a long meeting with him then, lasting more than four and a half hours. Since then, his attitude has changed tremendously, in terms of his willingness to hold discussions with the Israelis.
While never friendly with the United States government, Hafez al-Assad, as American Diplomacy reported at the time, “retained a strong curiosity about the United States. He cultivated an unusual range of contacts, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Senator Arlen Specter.” Though Specter’s trips raised eyebrows, challenges, and criticism through the 1990s, neither the George H. W. Bush nor the Clinton administration actively discouraged such visits.
When power transferred from Clinton to George W. Bush, on the one hand, and from Hafez to Bashar al-Assad on the other, Specter maintained close contact with the Syrian regime. This didn’t stem from a total naïveté about the Assads — Senator Specter was not a thorough apologist for the regime. In his own words (from an opinion piece after a trip early in the George W. Bush presidency):
The situation was . . . bleak when I traveled on to Beirut and Damascus. Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, had continued to attack Israeli border settlements from Southern Lebanon, leading Israel to bomb Syrian radar. Beirut, once touted as the Paris of the Middle East, has not recovered from Lebanon’s civil war because of factional quarrels and Syria’s continuing dominance of the country.
In Damascus, Syria’s foreign minister Farouk Shara agreed with Sharon that Israeli-Syrian peace talks on the Golan Heights would be pointless at this time. Before President Hafez al-Assad’s death, the parties had come very close to a settlement but were now back to square one.
Notwithstanding the bleak prospects, the Bush administration, aided by Congress, must push the parties back to the bargaining table. There is no doubt that the countries involved listen to Uncle Sam.