Little by little, the world is getting a glimpse of the mechanisms of the Iraqi Baath party. The latest discovery of Iraqi files buried deep in government buildings exposes many of the atrocious measures taken by Saddam and his henchmen to subdue the Iraqi population.
One of the most revealing findings was a system of rewards and punishments based on the quality of a “catch” by the secret police. Informants were punished for producing an inadequate number of offenders by denial of pay. Conversely, they were rewarded generously for the delivery of information that led to more prisoners, more tortured citizens, and, ultimately, more coffins–a trickle-down economic system of fear and terror.
In Iraq, thanks to the U.S-led Coalition, this kind of oppression has finally been halted. But another Baathist state still utilizes such tactics against its people. Syrians have been living in hell for 35 years. The Baathist party there, under the patronage of the Assad family, seized power in a military coup in March of 1969. Hafez Assad ascended to power on the false premise that he would enact reforms. Reality struck quickly, however, as the Assad clan turned the country into one of the most regressive and brutal states in the world.
To its everlasting shame, most of the world stood in silence while Saddam oppressed millions–and slaughtered hundreds of thousands–of Arabs and Kurds. Today, the world is again silent. In Syria, stories abound about parents who are afraid to speak in front of their children for fear that they too have been recruited as informants. The Assad regime, like Hussein’s, has taken a devastating toll on Arab society. The question now is: Will the Syrian Baathists meet the same fate as their Iraqi counterparts to the East?
On November 6, President Bush suggested they might. In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, he called for democracy “from Damascus to Tehran.” This bold new “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” forecasts the end of despotism in the region. The landmark commitment by the United States has been viewed by many in the Middle East as an encouraging sign that democracy may one day be nurtured in nations that have lived in darkness for too long.
But the president’s worthy words ultimately will ring hollow if a new set of substantial and lucid policies to bring about this democracy are not enacted. If the United States does not translate the president’s ideas into deeds, the Middle East will be lost forever to authoritarians who utilize terrorism as their tool of diplomacy and extreme Islamists bent on using any weapons available to return the region to medieval times.
Syria continues with the policies of yesterday by arming and funding terrorism in all its forms. On Friday, the New York Times revealed that Assad has resumed sending weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists based in Lebanon. This is just one more piece of evidence that Syria, under Assad’s rule, cannot or will not change–no matter how great the pressure. With that in mind, democracy is the only solution for a new and free Syria.
In the Middle East, action does have consequences as the sudden willingness of dictator Muammar Khaddafi to dismantle Libya’s weapons of mass destruction and to halt development of his nuclear program has clearly demonstrated. But Syrian intellectuals, at least, interpret what’s happening in Libya as the fruit of a U.S. policy only intended to separate terrorists and their state sponsors from weapons–not as part of a more ambitious democratization effort. While disarming tyrants is both admirable and necessary, it is less than President Bush has pledged to do.
Once Libya dismantles all its WMDs, we will certainly open business channels with the rogue nation (already Conoco and Marathon Oil have publicly showed interest in that nation’s oil resources). This will cement Khaddafi’s power–and pave the way for his son and grandson to rule a few years later. If that happens, Syrians will see it as confirmation that the president’s call to facilitate democratization in the Middle East is more rhetorical than real. There is nothing tangible on the horizon to indicate that U.S. foreign policy, when it comes to countries other than Iraq, has shifted from the pre-9/11 status quo.
As disturbing as that may sound, there is an endless flow of optimism among Syrians in the Diaspora. They continue to believe that President Bush will move forcefully to support those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who hope to live in freedom.
–Farid N. Ghadry is president of the Reform Party of Syria.