Careful With Syria

By David Ignatius
Friday, November 18, 2005

DAMASCUS -- In the United Nations' looming confrontation with Syria, it's hard to define the best strategy but easy to identify the worst one: the imposition of general economic sanctions that would hurt the Syrian people while allowing the ruling clique to grow even richer.

That's my strongest impression from a visit to Damascus. Broad-brush sanctions would disrupt Syria's contact with the West at the very time it's most needed and would alienate ordinary Syrians who need reassurance. They would undermine a process of political and economic change here that, if it continues, will gradually create a new Syria. "If you want to save the Syrian regime, then use economic sanctions as in Iraq," a European diplomat told me. A Syrian intellectual confided that in his view, "The regime is dying for sanctions."

You can feel the tension building here after President Bashar Assad's defiant speech last week about the U.N. investigation of Syria's alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The Syrian leader said he would cooperate with the U.N. probe led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, but his tone was so strident that several Syrians said he was almost daring the United Nations to impose sanctions.

Until Assad's speech, there had been hope that he would break with an inner clique, including his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, whom Mehlis suspects was involved in Hariri's killing. French diplomats here spoke of a "Juan Carlos option" -- in which Assad would assume a benign role as head of state, in the model of the Spanish king, while a new government reformed Syrian political and economic life. Those hopes were never very realistic. Assad is in effect the chief executive of a family business, and he's hardly likely to throw his relatives overboard.

It's hard to find a Syrian who doesn't want Assad to remain at least as a figurehead. He's a symbol of stability for a country nervously watching the carnage in Iraq. Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst, is probably right when he tells me that "the president would win in a landslide if there was an election." But I doubt that Syrians will permanently ransom their political futures to an Assad clan that doesn't deliver economic and social change.

I talked with one of Assad's friends, Col. Manaf Talas, a senior officer in the Republican Guard and son of the former defense minister. He agrees that Syria wants reform but insists: "You need time. You need years. There's a generation you have to push forward." He argues that Assad is still the reformers' best bet, but many Syrians have given up on Assad as a change agent.

Syria is a country in ferment. People talk politics here with a passion I haven't heard since the 1980s in Eastern Europe. They're writing manifestos, dreaming of new political parties, trying to rehabilitate old ones from the 1950s. Internet cafes are scattered through Damascus, allowing people to constantly share news and gossip. The security forces have been arresting dissidents, but that doesn't stop people from talking. Indeed, the only thing that could really put a lid on this society would be the strangulating effect of sanctions.

You never quite know what's behind someone's front door in Syria. That's part of the mystery of this country. Take the tiny eight-room hotel where I stayed in the Old City. There's not even a name on the door to mark the entrance to the Beit al Mamlouka, as the hotel is called. But inside is a 16th-century Oriental jewel box -- frescoed-ceiling rooms gathered around a courtyard of marble fountains, fishponds and flowering trees. And the place has wireless Internet service, to boot.

The right policy for this ripening nation is one of engagement -- not of the regime but of the Syrian people. The United States should send its ambassador back to Damascus, despite the government-organized demonstrations taking place almost every day near the U.S. Embassy. America and France should broaden their outreach to Syrian dissidents, human rights groups, artists, professors -- indeed, almost anyone who's willing to talk with outsiders. They should convey the message that the West is standing with the Syrian people as they move into the future. When Syria is truly ripe for change, these helping hands can ensure a safe passage.

More pressure on Syria will be necessary if the Assad regime openly defies the United Nations, but it should focus on individuals targeted by Mehlis -- so that they can't travel abroad, can't draw on their foreign bank accounts, can't strut on the global stage. This time, sanctions should punish the criminals, not the victims.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company