- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

Fresh from the bruising it received for aiding senior Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria in the early parts of the war, the Ba’ath Party is launching a public relations campaign to persuade the U.S. public that Syria’s Ba’athists are not the same as Saddam’s Ba’athists.

Reports from Syria confirm that the leadership believes that the bad-cop-good-cop policy instituted by the United States has but one aim only — to weaken Syria from within. The good cop is represented by the State Department and affiliated efforts to regain the trust of the Syrians, including efforts to post a positive note on the bilateral relations between both countries. The bad cop is represented by the Pentagon and some of the high-ranking military personnel very much aware of intelligence that has caught the Ba’athists with their hands in the cookie jar.

Syria’s Ba’athists have been struggling to recuperate from the stench of vulnerability that has weakened them from within without the firing of one bullet. So much so that no amount of good-cop policy will ever place Syria back on the pedestal that the Ba’athists built for themselves during the era of Hafez Assad.

The Ba’ath party is torn from within. There are those who are demanding a violent answer to the situation they find themselves in by supporting Saddam’s resurgence, betting that the United States does not have the latitude or the will to wage another military campaign on the heels of one that, in the minds of many Syrians, has not been won yet. There are also those who are trying to hide as much as possible, hoping that the storm will simply blow over and Syria will return to the normalcy of yesterday. That struggle is ongoing as this article is written, with the violent side mostly supported by the likes of Assef Shawkat, President Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, and some high-ranking generals in the air force and army.

But Mr. Assad is not listening to Mr. Shawkat for once and instead has ordered, at a high cost, the implementation of a two-pronged public relations campaign. One is being coordinated regionally with Iran and Lebanon for the purpose of creating a counteroffensive to Washington’s own campaign in the region, and the other is yet to start, but will be directed at the epicenter of power in Washington D.C.; its aim is to soften the image of Syria in the American public eye and to reverse the almost imminent vote in Congress in favor of the Syria Accountability Act, a piece of legislation that will paralyze Syria economically and punish the government for its 27-year occupation of Lebanon. Both campaigns’ intentions are to turn the tables against Syria’s accusers on subjects such as weapons of mass destruction, and to show a noble image of Syria, hoping it will resonate with the kind-hearted Americans. It is too early to tell whether this effort will succeed, but the Europeans are more prone to that Napsterite music. That should be a source of worry for any democracy in the world.

In the United States, Syria has been shopping for a public relations firm to handle the rebuilding of its image. Damascus is finding it hard to contract with any reputable firm, because most of the companies who have turned them down have done so out of concern that their more stable customers will find it offensive to be part of that club. Syria is still shopping but may end up building its own firm from hired guns. Although many believe it will be an uphill battle, and the Ba’athists will confirm this, their purpose is to resonate well with the voters most likely to vote for presidential candidate Howard Dean in order to soften the punch if things ever get to that point.

It is our belief that this concerted effort by the Ba’athists will backfire, since they still do not understand the effect of September 11 on the American psyche. They do not realize that no dose of public relations will ever convince the United States to drop its guard and go back to sleep, trusting that extremism in the Arab world is a harmless phenomena that will blow over one day if Washington persists in its foreign policy of yesteryear.

Farid N. Ghadry is co-founder of the Reform Party of Syria.

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