by Sune Haugbolle.
What to think about the recent spout of European state visits to Damascus, and the Western attempt to engage Syria? First, let’s be realistic about the engagement: the many debates about what it would mean are moot, because it has in fact already happened, and there is little reason to believe that it won’t continue on the all important American front once Obama takes office early next year. David Miliband’s visit this week completes an extended “summer of love” for Bashar al-Asad, who can now look back at the time in 2005 and 2006 when his regime seemed under real pressure, from the Hariri tribunal and the general international sidelining of Syria, and smile. He has been vindicated in his policy of steadfastness, and he knows it. Ordinary Syrians may still be struggling with dire economic problems outside the Damascus circle of prospering cronies, and the UN tribunal may still throw up surprises that could incriminate the regime when it comes into action in the coming years. But unlike in 2005, these are now hurdles Bashar will feel he can handle from a position of strength.
That strength partly derives from the changing regional and international conjectures: a weakened US in the Middle East and the defeat of Bushism generally, Hizbollah’s steadfast resistance to Israel’s attempt to wipe it out in 2006, Lebanon’s inability to present a united front, and new leaders in France and now the US who appear to have “rediscovered” Syria’s potential as a central arbiter in the Middle Eastern jigsaw. Bashar is exactly where he wants to be, because Western diplomats increasingly see him as he wants to be seen: as a man in control of a country that would be chaotic without him, and with fingers in every regional pie of any importance, from Iran to Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. To near-quote The Streets, he is good to know, and he knows it.
What we also know is that there is a dark side to Asad’s Syria. Western diplomats have not found this the right moment to confront Bashar with his country’s human rights record, which is arguably no less appalling than Saudi Arabia’s or Egypt’s, but still unacceptable. The “regrettable” aspects of Syria’s policies for Europe and the US have always been Damascus’ self-styled role as “capital of Arab resistance,” ie. its links with Tehran, Hizbollah, and Palestinian and Iraqi groups. It is only right that Miliband and others should cease to view Syria’s foreign policy as a stumbling block for negotiations. After all, Bashar al-Asad has shown that he can be moved, and that there is room for negotiation on almost all of the abovementioned fronts. Syrian-Israeli peace may even be within reach, to the benefit of all people in the region.
But it is not right that Miliband and other visitors to the Qasiyoun palace leave the complete lack of democratic reforms in Syria out of their policy of engagement. In fact, it is a slap in the face for the people who have struggled for years for political and human rights reform, and who continue to be imprisoned for asking for the most basic rights. Allowing Syria back in the fold without asking tough questions about these well-documented facts is nothing short of an endorsement of Bashar on all fronts. And although he may not be as bad as some have portrayed him, Bashar al-Asad’s legacy of stalled reforms is not one we should endorse, however badly we wish for normalisation in the Middle East. One can only hope that the US engagement, when it starts to take shape early next year, will do what the Europeans seem incapable of doing, and raise all the issue that are not part of Bashar’s self-image but that are very much part of daily life in Syria.