No Results in Damascus

Friday, April 27, 2007

THE CONGRESSIONAL leaders who visited Damascus this month to meet Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad gave a practical test to the oft-stated theory that "engaging" his regime is more likely to produce results than the Bush administration's policy of isolating it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was particularly unstinting in her goodwill, declaring that she had come to see Mr. Assad "in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace." In a statement, her delegation reported that it had talked to Mr. Assad about stopping the flow of foreign terrorists to Iraq and about obtaining the release of kidnapped Israeli soldiers. It also said it had "conveyed our strong interest in the cases of [Syrian] democracy activists," such as imprisoned human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.

Three weeks have passed, so it's fair to ask: Has there been any positive change in Syrian behavior -- any return gesture of goodwill, however slight?

Mr. al-Bunni might offer the best answer -- if he could. On Tuesday, one of Mr. Assad's judges sentenced him to five years in prison. His "crimes" were to speak out about the torture and persecution of regime opponents, to found the Syrian Human Rights Association and to sign the "Damascus Declaration," a pro-democracy manifesto.

By condemning Mr. al-Bunni to prison, Mr. Assad was delivering a distinct message to Syria's would-be liberal reformers and those who support them: There will be no change on his watch. The same message came in the parliamentary "elections" that the regime staged on Sunday and Monday. No independent candidates were permitted; a predetermined number of winners from the official party ensured that the parliament will remain a rubber stamp.

What of the other items on the U.S. congressional agenda? Well, there has been a major surge in suicide bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq this month, in what U.S. commanders describe as an attempt by al-Qaeda to defeat the new security operation in the capital. According to U.S. and Iraqi officials, almost all suicide bombers in Iraq are foreigners, and some 80 percent of them pass through Syria. The border remains as porous as ever.

Meanwhile the military wing of Hamas, whose headquarters is in Damascus, launched a barrage of rockets and mortar rounds at Israel from Gaza on Tuesday. Israeli officials said the attack appeared aimed at creating a diversion that would allow Hamas to capture more Israeli soldiers. If so, the operation failed -- but none of the hostages Ms. Pelosi said she spoke to Mr. Assad about have been released.

To recount this dismal record is not to endorse President Bush's refusal to engage in high-level bilateral contacts with Mr. Assad's regime. In certain contexts it may be worth trying to talk to Syria -- for example, when negotiations are directed at particular ends, such as securing Iraq's borders, and coupled with forceful diplomatic and economic steps to raise the pressure on the dictatorship. The danger of offering "friendship" and "hope" to a ruler such as Mr. Assad is that it will be interpreted as acquiescence by the United States to the policies of dictatorship. Ms. Pelosi's courting of Mr. Assad didn't cause Mr. al-Bunni's prison sentence this week -- but it certainly did not discourage it.

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