The tenth anniversary this weekend of President Bashar al-Asad’s accession to power is a timely opportunity to reflect on the nature of the Syrian regime, according to Human Rights Watch, who have just published a 35-page report on the country.
The death of former President Hafiz al-Asad in June 2000 symbolized an opportunity for Syrian democratization and a relaxation of the repressive Ba’athist regime. Bashar al-Asad, who himself lived in the West for a few years, promised democracy in speeches and interviews alike, referring to it as “part of the political development” as well as “a tool to a better life.” Ultimately, however, he affirmed that “its going to be democracy, but according to our standards.”
A decade later, it is clear that any notion of a ‘Syrian democracy’ is an oxymoron, as the same standards of authoritarianism thrive today in Damascus. The Human Rights Watch report details five key areas of humanitarian concern: the repression of political and human rights activists, restrictions on freedom of expression, torture, the treatment of the Kurds, and Syria’s legacy of enforced disappearances. In terms of foreign affairs, the country fares no better: though it has ended its three-decade military occupation of Lebanon, it remains the worlds second largest state sponsor of terrorism after Iran and it facilitates the movement of insurgents into Iraq. Moreover, the regime in Damascus refuses to cooperate with the IAEA inspections into its illicit nuclear activities, while it cozies up to Iran and North Korea.
And yet, President Obama considers Syria a strategically important entity. He sees the country as an essential element of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as the broader crisis with Iran. But in appeasing the Syrians, he counters the heavy-handed diplomacy that is necessary to deal with the Iranians, while only rewarding Asad’s superiority complex. Obama’s perception that Syria will cater to American interests ignores the supremacy of the solid strategic alliance between Asad and Ahmedinejad – a relationship that is not a simple marriage of convenience.
Most importantly, America’s engagements with democratization in Iraq and Afghanistan are severely undermined when Obama chooses to pander to despotic regimes while turning a blind eye to their appalling human rights records. Looking back on the past decade, Syria squandered all opportunities to reorient itself away from Iran and towards the West. Unless the regime is presented with tough choices, more of the same can be expected for decades to come.