There was a tinge of Hanoi Jane quality to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s exuberance in declaring during her visit with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad that the “road to peace” in the region apparently went through Damascus. Seemingly enjoying the media frenzy that ensued from leading the highest-level delegation of U.S. officials to Syria since the nominal cessation of relations between Washington and the Ba’athist regime, Mrs. Pelosi wandered the historic streets of Damascus ever ignorant of the regime minders closely in tow; as her smiling profile was plastered throughout all the major state-controlled media outlets where Bashar Assad’s “success” was heralded by both local media and international Arab satellite stations. Whether for self-interested political reasons, or simple criminal inattentiveness to the pernicious impact of her visit, Mrs. Pelosi met with Mr. Assad, despite strenuous objections from U.S. government corners and pleas from a Syrian opposition still reeling from the latest round of mass arrests.
Mrs. Pelosi’s misguided attempt at shuttle diplomacy did more than present a convenient contradiction in U.S. policy for Assad and Ba’athist propaganda to adroitly exploit; her presence further abetted efforts by the regime to demonstrate to a weary Syrian populace that Mr. Assad still maintained significant clout and leverage against the United States and the West. That is, for those Syrians hoping for a sign that the Western world was finally matching its rhetoric of pressuring and squeezing an increasingly belligerent Assad regime, Mrs. Pelosi’s amateurish road show thoroughly dampened any confidence by the Syrian people that they could count on the West and the United States in particular, to stand in good-faith by their word.
This devaluation of trust by the people in the region will have serious negative repercussions for U.S. interests down the line — already rampant rumors exist in the country that Mr. Assad is secretly supported by the United States, despite appearances that would indicate otherwise. Mrs. Pelosi’s visit merely served to reinforce such perceptions and deepen the despair in a magnitude akin to a hostage receiving word that no one was coming to their rescue.
Admittedly, members of Mrs. Pelosi’s congressional delegation, such as Rep. Tom Lantos, have a proven track record in taking the Assad regime to task for its well-documented intransigence, but this time around even Mr. Lantos’ usual stern message of warning was not delivered to Bashar and his family-run machine of state terror. The regime was able to frame Mrs. Pelosi’s visit in the most beneficial and helpful manner possible. By projecting the image of the West “needing” Mr. Assad, his hand in the region was strengthened regardless of the international momentum that had been steadily built up against him since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
In fact, the results of the last congressional delegation — led by Sen. John Kerry — which visited Assad last December should have been telling; then, as now, despite grand bombast on the importance of “dialogue,” the regime merely scored a public-relations victory — while there was no visible evidence that the Syrian regime was relaxing its repressive domestic and offensive foreign policies.
Indeed, as Mrs. Pelosi was wrapping up her tete-a-tete, the Ba’athist regime sought to add extra mileage to its PR coup de grace when it released a statement claiming it had played an important role as an interlocutor with Iran as the British hostages were released.
Simply put, if Damascus is indeed integral for the “road to peace,” as Mrs. Pelosi claimed, then Mr. Assad had long made a U-turn. But her words were more than an embarrassment and potential setback for U.S. interests. As brave resistors to Ba’athist rule like Kamal Labwani and Michel Kilo still languish in solitary confinement at the hands of the cruel Political Security Directorate, such prattle has the very real consequence of costing lives. Words kill, and Mrs. Pelosi’s ill-timing undercuts substantive efforts by the opposition within and outside Syria to develop a meaningful democratic alternative to a hateful regime that in the end neither benefits U.S. interests nor those of the Syrian people.
It is a matter of knowing who the enemy is and what they stand for; and as Mrs. Pelosi’s colleagues in Congress announced their intention to ban the term “global war on terror,” it may come as little surprise that such myopic disdain for this regime’s serious ill will against stability and democracy in the region seems to dominate certain policy quarters within the U.S. government.
Our suggestion to U.S. officials and policy makers of all political persuasion is to heed the advice of Natan Sharansky, survivor of the Soviet Union’s gulag — who suggested that U.S. policy-makers link any positive rapprochement with the Soviet Union with changes in the latter’s domestic policy, especially pertaining to mistreatment of the refuseniks. That policy eventually came to successful fruition due to steadfastness showed by U.S. leadership; and it is a policy that can equally prove fruitful today in places like Syria. Linking a demand for justice for the Syrian people with normalized relations can go a long ways in solving the numerous problems that Assad’s regime is causing for U.S. security interests. Vacuous open-ended dialogue is simply a one-way street, going the wrong way.
Farid Ghadry is president of the Reform Party of Syria.