Politics & Policy

America and Syria

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

If Pres. Barack Obama prefers not to intervene on behalf of the protesters being slaughtered in Syria, the least his administration could do is refrain from endorsing their tyrant. In Obama’s speech Monday night about America’s interest in defending Libyans and standing alongside other freedom-seekers of the Arab world, Syria didn’t even rate a mention. That discussion was handled Sunday in remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation. Not only did Clinton nix any thoughts of action on Syria, she ran interference for Syria’s murderous president, Bashar Assad, saying: “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

Such deference to U.S. lawmakers was absent from Obama’s decision to go to war in Libya; the president sought a resolution from the United Nations, but not from Congress. But if Congress is now back in the loop, with some members singing the praises of Assad, clearly the State Department needs to do a much better job of briefing them on the realities.

Clinton could start by highlighting the findings of her own department’s annual reports on human rights in Syria. These reports go far to explain why, after 40 years of the Assad family’s totalitarian rule, Syrians are so unhappy with this regime that tens of thousands of them have been risking prison, torture, and death in order to burn offices of the ruling Baath party, topple a statue of the late Hafez Assad, and march through the streets of cities across Syria, demanding freedom from the current Assad. The most recent State Department report, dated 2009, does not include the current season of shooting protesters. But it covers more than enough to convey the general idea.

The report begins with the observation that during 2009, the government and members of its security forces “committed numerous serious human rights abuses, and the human rights situation worsened.” Then come accounts of “arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life” and “enforced disappearances” that go back to the vanishing of “an estimated 17,000 persons in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” Those numbers, which look like a conservative estimate, presumably include the regime’s 1982 massacre in the city of Hama, which was how the elder Assad dispatched an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hillary Clinton, in her remarks Sunday, dismissed that mass murder with the comment, “There is a different leader in Syria now.”

Yes, but since the younger Assad took over in 2000, the reign of terror, reinforced by the echoes of Hama, has carried on. The State Department report lists a slew of “suspicious” deaths, disappearances, and arrests in 2009 alone, for offenses such as “degrading speech” or “insulting the president and the judicial system.” The Syrian government, with its long record of allegedly “disappearing” individuals, offered no legal redress and “did not investigate or punish any security force members for their role in disappearances.”

There is a description of the methods of torture and abuse inflicted on the inmates of Syria’s filthy and crowded prisons. Among these are: “electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; burning genitalia; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim was suspended from the ceiling; other times on the soles of the feet.” (I heard a first-person account of this technique some years ago from a survivor of Syria’s prisons, who showed me the horrible scars.) In a 21st-century reprise of the medieval rack and wheel, other methods include “hyperextending the spine; bending the detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; . . . [and] using a backward-bending chair to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim’s spine.”

This report goes on to enumerate other forms of agony, insult, theft, and repression inflicted by the Assad regime on the 21 million people of Syria. Corruption is rampant. Assad’s Baath Party keeps its monopoly on power by prohibiting criticism of the government and violating its own constitution in order to severely restrict such rights as freedom of assembly. A permit can be required for a gathering of more than three people. There is brutal censorship. Among the cases cited in this report is that of a blogger who was sentenced to three years in prison for “publishing information aimed at weakening national morale.”

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. 

Claudia RosettClaudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. She joined the Wall Street Journal in 1984 and become the editorial-page editor at the ...


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