Monday, February 9, 2004

There’s no question that an urgent dose of democratic reform would prove to be an effective inoculation to the despotism and terror proliferation of Bashar Assad’s Syria. With the sister Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein toppled and Iranian students clamoring for freedom in the streets of Tehran, Syria’s dictator is shrewd enough to read the writing on the wall: There can be no holding back the deluge of liberalization now sweeping the Middle East. However, instead of accepting the fact that an open and free society would best benefit the Syrian people, Mr. Assad and his Ba’athist cronies — in typical fashion — are attempting to present a false veneer of openness and reform to America and its allies.

Bashar, much like his father and former dictator Hafez Al-Assad, has proved quite adept at presenting one face ostensibly for Western consumption, and a completely contradictory one when it comes to sponsoring terror proxies like Hezbullah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Indeed, the same two-faced game is in play when it comes to Mr. Assad providing cover for Saddam’s former minions, sanctuary for smuggled Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and financial and logistical aid to pro-Saddam Iraqi terrorists.

Mr. Assad’s latest weapon of mass deception is his ambassadortotheUnited States, Imad Moustapha. Billed by some in the diplomatic community as a “reformer” and “fresh face,” tech savvy and culturally refined Mr. Moustapha is seen as the great Ba’athist hope for some sort of normalized relations with our country. Mr. Moustapha, hand picked by Mr. Assad himself, is a self-described reformer; he touts himself as the open-minded, softer, gentler face of the last Ba’athist stronghold on earth. In reality, this facade is nothing but a cynical attempt to lure our country into a false sense of comfort with the status quo of Syria’s dictatorship.

Mr. Moustapha has diligently promoted cultural exchanges, deftly engaged the media community and even reached out to Syrian expatriates and the Jewish community here at home. Such efforts clearly diverge from the traditional insularity and dearth of public relations acumen of your typical Ba’athist foreign representative. In truth,however,Mr. Moustapha is merelyattemptingto repackage the old, tired Ba’athist agenda of despotism, corruption and terror. In fact, Syria’s new PR blitz somewhat mirrors that of attempts made by the Wahhabi monarchy of Saudi Arabia to make palpable their version of Islamist extremism to the American public.

In an interview with the New York City weekly Forward, Mr. Moustapha said that he believed Syria is “witnessing a very serious, deeply penetrating reform agenda, and I was part of this movement before I came here. When I meet my president I understand his thinking, and I know he is a committed reformist.”

But the formula for reform in Syria is a simple one: End Ba’athist autocratic rule. Mr. Moustapha seems to think that by pimping his Ba’athist regime’s “new face” he will be successful in seducing the American populace, if not policy-makers, that Syria under the heavy-handed rule of Bashar Assad, is a Syria that can coexist on friendly terms with our nation. Unfortunately, just as Bashar Assad is unwilling to end his direct involvement in international terror (of which hundreds of Americans have fallen victim to) and just as he is unwilling to curb the tide of Syrian support to Iraqi terrorists killing American soldiers and innocent Iraqis in the newly liberated Iraq, it is unlikely that a Syria ruled over by Mr. Assad’s Ba’ath machine will turn over a new leaf anytime soon. A despot with a smile is a despot, nonetheless.

Mr. Moustapha seems like a decent man, but if he possesses any hint of intellectual and moral honesty he would do well to denounce the atrocities committed by his political benefactors and join all Syrians of goodwill in taking back their country from the iron fist of Ba’athist rule — that is the true measure of a real reformer. For in the end, it is evident that no amount of Madison Avenue window dressing will ever be sufficient to white-wash the long, sad, brutish history of the stain upon humanity and decency that has been the Ba’athist movement.

Oubai Shahbandar is an activist with the Reform Party of Syria.

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