Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria: the Background

by Elliott Abrams
July 1, 2012


Much scorn has been directed at fashion magazines that lionized Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator. This is fair enough, but we don’t really expect careful judgments about world politics from the likes of Vogue. We do expect them from statesmen, government officials, diplomats, and journalists who claim expertise in world politics. In the case of Bashar al-Assad, careful judgments were long absent–until he became a pariah in the last few months. For years, indeed for a decade, he was seen as a potential peacemaker and possible liberal force by people who willfully ignored the facts about his murderous regime.

The journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has just supplied a superb example of this phenomenon. In a column in the Globe & Mail of Toronto, he relates this:

Last year, I was part of a group of Israelis who met in Jerusalem with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Mr. Kerry had just come from Damascus with excellent news: Bashar al-Assad was ready for peace with Israel. When one of the participants mentioned that demonstrations had begun to challenge Mr. Assad’s legitimacy, Mr. Kerry’s response was: All the more reason to negotiate while he’s still in power. In other words: Israel had the golden opportunity to give up the strategic Golan Heights to a dictator who might be deposed by a popular revolution, which might or might not recognize whatever peace agreement he signed. That kind of wishful thinking has resulted in Western policy toward the Middle East that is strategically incoherent.

Kerry was certainly not alone. The notion that Assad, leader of a viciously repressive mafia in Syria and murderer of a long series of Lebanese political leaders and journalists, could bring peace or democracy to his country or to the region was blind and foolish. Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry were only a few of those who engaged in what Halevi calls “wishful thinking” but can as justly be called willful blindness to the nature of the Assad government. The price for that blindness is still being paid, all over Syria, for it has taken far too many leaders far too long to admit that his regime is a criminal enterprise that must be brought to an end.

The Kerry anecdote is a reminder that it is apparently very difficult for many Western politicians to come to grips with this kind of regime, especially when it presents an attractive and Westernized face like that of Mrs. Assad. Leaders who speak about evil, as Ronald Reagan and George Bush did, are often branded as unsophisticated or simple-minded. But in the Syrian case as in so many others, exactly what is needed is the courage to see evil for what it is and call it by its proper name.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Cal Rogers

    Barry Rubin, in his book “The Truth About Syria,” pointed out that the Assad’s were never serious about peace with Israel since it would have negated their own legitimacy. I don’t always agree with Rubin, but in this case he was correct; without the external enemy or other, the Ba’ath Party would lose its hold on power.
    Since Mar 2011, many writers have been talking about negotiation and compromise; all very idealistic, but misplaced. They either fail to recognise, or refuse to accept, that Assad has been fighting an existential threat from the beginning; but always a day late and a dollar short. The Allawi minority cannot cede government control to the majority Sunni and survive as an elite.
    The idea that the international community can impose what is essentially a moral solution on the combattants is a total mis-reading of casue and effect. This rebellion has gone too far for a negotiated settlement, not least because even if the Syrian regime wanted to negotiate, there is no party to talk to. The opposition is not represented by anyone with control over them. It took 3-4 years to learn this in Bosnia and this is much more complex.
    This biggest concern for the West is, and will be, the security of Syria’s chemical weapons…a very nasty thought.

  • Posted by Steve

    If Kerry said this, it is not a reflection on his inability to “come to grips” with this kind of regime. It is a reflection on his intelligence, or lack thereof. You don’t need to be a professor to understand that his advice was simply stupid.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I suppose all of that red stuff in the streets of Damascus is Heinz Ketchup .

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