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The Syrian Crackdown

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The last time I saw Haitham al-Maleh, a dissident lawyer in Damascus, he couldn't stop criticizing the Syrian regime for its human rights violations and repression. As we talked in his office nearly three years ago, he realized that his words could get him into trouble, so he said mischievously, "The worst thing about me is my mouth. I can't shut up!"

About the Author

Mohamad Bazzi
Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, is a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday.

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On October 14 the Syrian secret police arrested Maleh, a 78-year-old former judge, after he told a television interviewer that Syrian authorities "hide behind laws which have no logical or legal or just basis," and the country's security services "commit crimes with impunity." On November 3 Maleh appeared before a military judge in Damascus. He was charged with "conveying false news within Syria that could debilitate the morale of the nation," "weakening national sentiment" and "slandering" a government agency (presumably the secret police). The charges would be laughable if they did not carry a maximum sentence of fifteen years in prison.

What does the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad have to fear from a septuagenarian human rights lawyer? Not much. But Assad's regime has shown very little tolerance for internal criticism. After years of isolation imposed by the Bush administration and its Arab allies, the regime is stronger than ever. Barely a week goes by without a foreign leader or diplomat visiting Assad in Damascus. In recent months, Syria has launched a diplomatic charm offensive, holding seven high-level meetings with the Obama administration and working to mend its relations with fellow Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In September the State Department invited Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, for talks in Washington; he was the highest-ranking Syrian official to visit the United States in five years. Last week the administration nominated Robert Ford, a career diplomat who has served in Algeria and Iraq, as the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. (Washington withdrew its last ambassador after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which a United Nations investigation later blamed on Syria.)

Assad's regime seems emboldened by the diplomatic thaw, seeing it as an opportunity to crack down further, instead of improving its record. President Barack Obama and his aides must make it clear that this is unacceptable, and that the jailing of activists like Maleh will lead to Syria's continued isolation. So far, the White House has issued a tepid statement expressing its "deep concern" over Maleh's detention and urging the Syrian regime to "end its practice of arbitrary arrests."

Of course, Syria is not alone in its suppression of internal dissent. The Obama administration inherited a decades-old US policy of supporting autocratic regimes -- including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- in exchange for political acquiescence. Virtually all governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the "war on terror" as a cover to silence any opposition. These regimes put on a veneer of stability for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.

US policy seemed to be changing in June 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that America would no longer support repressive regimes in the name of political expediency. "For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither," she said at the American University in Cairo. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

For a brief period, Rice's message resonated in the Arab world. It came five months after Iraqis showed extraordinary bravery by turning out in droves to vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2005. In Lebanon, a popular revolt had helped dislodge years of Syrian military and political domination. At that moment, the United States could have encouraged some genuine change in a region ruled by kings and despots. But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: in late 2005 and into early 2006 a small group of Egyptian judges challenged the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The United States stood by silently while Mubarak crushed public protests, and the Arab world understood, correctly, that Washington had given up on democracy -- or had never meant what it said in the first place.

It is these contradictions between US rhetoric and actions that lead people in the Middle East to distrust the United States and spin conspiracy theories about its motives. When the United States continues backing autocrats like Mubarak against the will of their people, then Washington loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other repressive regimes, like Iran and Syria. Favoring "stability" over democratic values will come back to haunt America in the long term.

If the United States has any hope of nurturing political maturity in the Arab world, it must support an independent judiciary and a free press -- the institutions that help democracy thrive. As Rice herself said: "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees, and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.... Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media." But there was no action behind that rhetoric.

Obama also took up the soaring oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated address to the Muslim world last year. "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election," he said at Cairo University in June. "But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

Since that speech, the administration has remained remarkably quiet on democracy promotion and has been reluctant to criticize US allies who fall far short of the ideals about which Obama spoke so eloquently. The administration has also blocked Congressional threats to link future US nonmilitary aid to democratic reform or improvements in Egypt's human rights record. Mubarak's regime receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in US assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel (excluding US spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). The president and his aides regard these policies as political realism. People in the region see them as yet another example of the United States favoring expediency over real change.

With Syria, the Obama administration has an opportunity to take a stand in favor of human rights. As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed to engage what the Bush administration had called rogue regimes, like Syria and Iran. That outreach is essential, but it must not come at the expense of democracy. Last year Obama renewed economic sanctions against Syria, which were first imposed by the Bush administration in 2004, to punish Damascus for its meddling in Iraq and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But Syria's human rights record does not figure into the sanctions, and it should.

Syria has a long history of jailing dissidents, starting under Bashar's father, Hafez Assad, who seized power in a military coup in 1970. When Assad died in June 2000, his son succeeded him. Bashar was a soft-spoken, British-educated ophthalmologist who had little experience in the hard-knuckled politics of the Middle East. While many dismissed Bashar as incapable of balancing his regional cards as masterfully as his father, he has grown into the role of strongman.

After the younger Assad became president, he promised change. There was a short period of openness, known as the "Damascus Spring." The freedoms gained were small: modest gatherings in people's homes to discuss democracy and reform; writings and speeches critical of corruption and government failures (although never directly critical of Assad or his family); gatherings of small civil society groups. But most of these meager freedoms have been rolled back since 2001.

By 2005, the crackdown in Syria accelerated to include activists, lawyers and writers who once thought they were safe because of their high profiles or connections to the West. But the United States and Europe could not protect them. In November 2005 Kamal Labwani, a physician and leader of a pro-democracy group, was arrested at Damascus Airport after returning from Washington, where he had met with Bush administration officials. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison for "communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria." His sentence, handed down in May 2007, is the harshest imposed on a dissident since Assad came to power. Labwani's case was meant to send a message to human rights activists: keep quiet and don't deal with the West.

Maleh did not heed these warnings. I visited him several times during the crackdown and he was always eager to discuss the regime's transgressions. He worked out of an office in a rundown Ottoman building in downtown Damascus. His greeting room was lined with flower-print couches, fluorescent lights and a noisy ceiling fan. On one wall hung a certificate presented to Maleh in 2006 by the Dutch foreign minister: the Geuzen Medal, named after the sixteenth-century Dutch dissidents who fought against Spanish domination. The Syrian regime would not allow Maleh to travel to the Netherlands to receive the award in person. But he was so proud of the prize that he handed out reproductions of the certificate on a postcard bearing his motto: "Together for Freedom and Legitimacy."

The last time I visited Maleh, in May 2007, he was hosting two Egyptian human rights activists who had come to Damascus to monitor the trials of Syrian dissidents. At the end of the meeting, they asked to have a photograph taken with Maleh, who obliged happily.

"In our meetings with Syrian colleagues, everyone introduces themselves with their name, where they're from, and how many years they spent in prison," joked one of the Egyptians. "We're beginning to wonder if any of you have not been to prison." Maleh smiled behind his thick glasses and shook his head: he spent seven years in prison during Hafez Assad's rule.

After the Egyptians left, Maleh became glum. "It is not possible for a dictatorship to reform itself. This is a dream," he told me. He knew that his words could be crossing one of the constantly shifting red lines of the regime, but he did not care. A week later, there was a national referendum to grant Assad another seven years as president. In Baathist style, the ballot featured only Assad's name, with the choices "yes" or "no." He garnered 97 percent of the vote. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the regime sentenced six dissident lawyers, writers and human rights activists to multi-year prison terms for speaking out against the government.

Maleh was understandably dejected, but that did not keep him from speaking his mind. "I don't think we are ready for a change. The opposition is weak, the regime is strong and the regional situation is working in its favor," he told me. "Any democratic reform or progress that was made in the last few years has been taken away. We're now back at zero. Maybe even less than zero."

Now, Maleh sits in a Damascus prison. His only hope for freedom is international pressure on the Syrian regime. The Obama administration must not abandon Maleh and other political prisoners in its effort to make a deal with Assad. As the administration continues its outreach to repressive regimes, it must express more concern, not less, about human rights.

The last time I saw Haitham al-Maleh, a dissident lawyer in Damascus, he couldn't stop criticizing the Syrian regime for its human rights violations and repression. As we talked in his office nearly three years ago, he realized that his words could get him into trouble, so he said mischievously, "The worst thing about me is my mouth. I can't shut up!"

On October 14 the Syrian secret police arrested Maleh, a 78-year-old former judge, after he told a television interviewer that Syrian authorities "hide behind laws which have no logical or legal or just basis," and the country's security services "commit crimes with impunity." On November 3 Maleh appeared before a military judge in Damascus. He was charged with "conveying false news within Syria that could debilitate the morale of the nation," "weakening national sentiment" and "slandering" a government agency (presumably the secret police). The charges would be laughable if they did not carry a maximum sentence of fifteen years in prison.

What does the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad have to fear from a septuagenarian human rights lawyer? Not much. But Assad's regime has shown very little tolerance for internal criticism. After years of isolation imposed by the Bush administration and its Arab allies, the regime is stronger than ever. Barely a week goes by without a foreign leader or diplomat visiting Assad in Damascus. In recent months, Syria has launched a diplomatic charm offensive, holding seven high-level meetings with the Obama administration and working to mend its relations with fellow Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In September the State Department invited Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, for talks in Washington; he was the highest-ranking Syrian official to visit the United States in five years. Last week the administration nominated Robert Ford, a career diplomat who has served in Algeria and Iraq, as the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. (Washington withdrew its last ambassador after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which a United Nations investigation later blamed on Syria.)

Assad's regime seems emboldened by the diplomatic thaw, seeing it as an opportunity to crack down further, instead of improving its record. President Barack Obama and his aides must make it clear that this is unacceptable, and that the jailing of activists like Maleh will lead to Syria's continued isolation. So far, the White House has issued a tepid statement expressing its "deep concern" over Maleh's detention and urging the Syrian regime to "end its practice of arbitrary arrests."

Of course, Syria is not alone in its suppression of internal dissent. The Obama administration inherited a decades-old US policy of supporting autocratic regimes -- including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- in exchange for political acquiescence. Virtually all governments in the Middle East rely on vast secret police agencies to keep them in power, using the "war on terror" as a cover to silence any opposition. These regimes put on a veneer of stability for the West, but in reality their political systems are weak, corrupt and calcified.

US policy seemed to be changing in June 2005, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that America would no longer support repressive regimes in the name of political expediency. "For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither," she said at the American University in Cairo. "Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

For a brief period, Rice's message resonated in the Arab world. It came five months after Iraqis showed extraordinary bravery by turning out in droves to vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2005. In Lebanon, a popular revolt had helped dislodge years of Syrian military and political domination. At that moment, the United States could have encouraged some genuine change in a region ruled by kings and despots. But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: in late 2005 and into early 2006 a small group of Egyptian judges challenged the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The United States stood by silently while Mubarak crushed public protests, and the Arab world understood, correctly, that Washington had given up on democracy -- or had never meant what it said in the first place.

It is these contradictions between US rhetoric and actions that lead people in the Middle East to distrust the United States and spin conspiracy theories about its motives. When the United States continues backing autocrats like Mubarak against the will of their people, then Washington loses much of its leverage to demand reform from other repressive regimes, like Iran and Syria. Favoring "stability" over democratic values will come back to haunt America in the long term.

If the United States has any hope of nurturing political maturity in the Arab world, it must support an independent judiciary and a free press -- the institutions that help democracy thrive. As Rice herself said: "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees, and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice.... Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media." But there was no action behind that rhetoric.

Obama also took up the soaring oratory of democracy promotion in his much-celebrated address to the Muslim world last year. "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election," he said at Cairo University in June. "But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

Since that speech, the administration has remained remarkably quiet on democracy promotion and has been reluctant to criticize US allies who fall far short of the ideals about which Obama spoke so eloquently. The administration has also blocked Congressional threats to link future US nonmilitary aid to democratic reform or improvements in Egypt's human rights record. Mubarak's regime receives nearly $1.8 billion a year in US assistance, making it the second-highest beneficiary of American foreign aid after Israel (excluding US spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). The president and his aides regard these policies as political realism. People in the region see them as yet another example of the United States favoring expediency over real change.

With Syria, the Obama administration has an opportunity to take a stand in favor of human rights. As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed to engage what the Bush administration had called rogue regimes, like Syria and Iran. That outreach is essential, but it must not come at the expense of democracy. Last year Obama renewed economic sanctions against Syria, which were first imposed by the Bush administration in 2004, to punish Damascus for its meddling in Iraq and its support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But Syria's human rights record does not figure into the sanctions, and it should.

Syria has a long history of jailing dissidents, starting under Bashar's father, Hafez Assad, who seized power in a military coup in 1970. When Assad died in June 2000, his son succeeded him. Bashar was a soft-spoken, British-educated ophthalmologist who had little experience in the hard-knuckled politics of the Middle East. While many dismissed Bashar as incapable of balancing his regional cards as masterfully as his father, he has grown into the role of strongman.

After the younger Assad became president, he promised change. There was a short period of openness, known as the "Damascus Spring." The freedoms gained were small: modest gatherings in people's homes to discuss democracy and reform; writings and speeches critical of corruption and government failures (although never directly critical of Assad or his family); gatherings of small civil society groups. But most of these meager freedoms have been rolled back since 2001.

By 2005, the crackdown in Syria accelerated to include activists, lawyers and writers who once thought they were safe because of their high profiles or connections to the West. But the United States and Europe could not protect them. In November 2005 Kamal Labwani, a physician and leader of a pro-democracy group, was arrested at Damascus Airport after returning from Washington, where he had met with Bush administration officials. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison for "communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria." His sentence, handed down in May 2007, is the harshest imposed on a dissident since Assad came to power. Labwani's case was meant to send a message to human rights activists: keep quiet and don't deal with the West.

Maleh did not heed these warnings. I visited him several times during the crackdown and he was always eager to discuss the regime's transgressions. He worked out of an office in a rundown Ottoman building in downtown Damascus. His greeting room was lined with flower-print couches, fluorescent lights and a noisy ceiling fan. On one wall hung a certificate presented to Maleh in 2006 by the Dutch foreign minister: the Geuzen Medal, named after the sixteenth-century Dutch dissidents who fought against Spanish domination. The Syrian regime would not allow Maleh to travel to the Netherlands to receive the award in person. But he was so proud of the prize that he handed out reproductions of the certificate on a postcard bearing his motto: "Together for Freedom and Legitimacy."

The last time I visited Maleh, in May 2007, he was hosting two Egyptian human rights activists who had come to Damascus to monitor the trials of Syrian dissidents. At the end of the meeting, they asked to have a photograph taken with Maleh, who obliged happily.

"In our meetings with Syrian colleagues, everyone introduces themselves with their name, where they're from, and how many years they spent in prison," joked one of the Egyptians. "We're beginning to wonder if any of you have not been to prison." Maleh smiled behind his thick glasses and shook his head: he spent seven years in prison during Hafez Assad's rule.

After the Egyptians left, Maleh became glum. "It is not possible for a dictatorship to reform itself. This is a dream," he told me. He knew that his words could be crossing one of the constantly shifting red lines of the regime, but he did not care. A week later, there was a national referendum to grant Assad another seven years as president. In Baathist style, the ballot featured only Assad's name, with the choices "yes" or "no." He garnered 97 percent of the vote. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the regime sentenced six dissident lawyers, writers and human rights activists to multi-year prison terms for speaking out against the government.

Maleh was understandably dejected, but that did not keep him from speaking his mind. "I don't think we are ready for a change. The opposition is weak, the regime is strong and the regional situation is working in its favor," he told me. "Any democratic reform or progress that was made in the last few years has been taken away. We're now back at zero. Maybe even less than zero."

Now, Maleh sits in a Damascus prison. His only hope for freedom is international pressure on the Syrian regime. The Obama administration must not abandon Maleh and other political prisoners in its effort to make a deal with Assad. As the administration continues its outreach to repressive regimes, it must express more concern, not less, about human rights.

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