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.