The Post’s opinion page editor received the following missive from the Syrian embassy yesterday:
Responding to allegations regarding harassment of dissidents
Whereas the Syrian Embassy in Washington remains committed to engage with the Syrian-American community in a serious, respectful and constructive dialogue, there have been concerted efforts recently by individuals and the media to spread lies and distortions regarding the Embassy of Syria.
These preposterous allegations claim that the Embassy is involved in targeting or intimidating Syrian expatriates in the US, which is absolutely untrue.
This is an outrageous travesty of truth. Promoted and proclaimed by vicious circles. It comes within the framework of an extensive campaign to instigate hatred and incite animosity. The purpose is simply to undermine any engagement process aiming to solve the crisis in Syria.
One particularly disgraceful example is that of the heinous report of Amnesty International. This report brazenly claims that Syrian embassies were involved in these totally fabricated stories without the slightest effort from its side to verify the veracity of these wild stories. We call upon Amnesty International not to become a party to this campaign of lies against Syria.
The Embassy of Syria utterly denounces these false allegations, and reaffirms that the only viable path is to conduct an honest, candid and productive dialogue with all components of the Syrian community regardless of their political affiliations. This is how a common ground can be established and bridges extended. After all, despite all divisions, what unites us is far more than what drives us apart. We are all Syrians.
However, this massive campaign of lies and disinformation is a déjà vu. We have had witnessed this happening time and again, and we expect to see more of it in the future.
If you detect the whiff of totalitarian desperation, you are not alone. Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser and a frequent critic of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad (and his father), told me : “The Syrian Embassy’s statement clearly comes from some drafter well trained in Soviet-style polemics. It is laughable, but the underlying facts are not: here and in France as well there seem to be real efforts at intimidation. Nothing is beyond this regime, and the faster it falls the better off Syrians and Americans will be.”
Zhudi Jasser, an American of Syrian descent who co-founded Save Syria Now! to press for the democratization of Syria, is well aware of this routine. He told me last night, “Does the Syrian embassy take us Americans for fools? Their fictional press releases and denials do not change the facts on the ground in Syria and wherever Syrian expatriates live. Our communities have been living in a very real and deeply intimidating culture of fear and reprisals against any human being who even whispers a word against the evil that is perpetrated by the regime of Bashar Assad and his mukhabarat (Intelligence services) around the world.” He explains, “The truth is that the Assad regime has insidious tentacles of intimidation into almost every Syrian community, neighborhood, family, organization, and activists inside and outside Syria. As an American of Syrian descent, it remains unfathomable to me how suffocating to our community this intense culture of fear is that is systematically sown by the Assad regime. Every Syrian with even remote family living inside the ‘prison’ which is the nation of Syria knows that their relatives will likely pay a high price for any criticism waged against the barbarism of Assad’s thugs. Amnesty International has now finally weighed in on what every honest Syrian has known to be the realities of the regime’s intimidation techniques of reprisals for almost a half a century against our families.”
While this behavior has gone on for decades, Jasser tells me, “With the recent demonstrations for freedom, the chatter among Syrians about the activities of embassy agents has risen to a level I have never personally seen or experienced in my lifetime.” It is not surprising, then, that the regime would lash out.
The report that the Assad regime presumably is miffed about can be found on Amnesty International’s Web site. While reports of harassment and intimidation by Syrian “diplomats” have been widely reported, perhaps the size and extent of of Amnesty International’s report struck a chord in Damascus. The group’s Web site explains:
Syrian protesters in Europe and the Americas have been systematically monitored and harassed by embassy officials and others believed to be acting on behalf of the Syrian regime, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing paper.
The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat includes cases of more than 30 activists in eight countries — Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA — who say that they have faced intimidation from embassy officials and others and that their relatives in Syria have as a result, in some cases, apparently been exposed to harassment, detention and even torture.
“Expatriate Syrians have been trying, through peaceful protest, to highlight abuses that we consider amount to crimes against humanity — and that presents a threat to the Syrian regime,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher. “In response the regime appears to have waged a systematic — sometimes violent — campaign to intimidate Syrians overseas into silence.”
“This is yet more evidence that the Syrian government will not tolerate legitimate dissent and is prepared to go to great lengths to muzzle those who challenge it publicly.”
The embassy’s clumsy, almost cartoonish, effort to intimidate its critics only serves to highlight the nature of the regime. Ammar Abdulhamid of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies had this take on the embassy’s cloddish attempt to silence dissidents: “The only element of déjà vu involved in this situation is the willingness of Syrian officials and diplomats to lie and distort facts with impunity. Embassies run by Assad officials have served for decades as centers of intimidation of exiled dissidents and their families and friends. Their increased activities in this connection at this stage comes as a cynical and desperate act to stem the tide of change. To no avail. Soon, the justice system of a free Syria will have its say in the matter, and this impunity will come to an end.”
But that, of course, requires the removal of Assad. With the failure of the U.N. Security Council to enact sanctions and the reluctance of the Obama administration to act unilaterally, it is not clear how long he will hang on.