A fact-finding trip, as part of the Washington based Council for National Interest delegation, included conversations with high government officials in Syria and Lebanon. Damascus’ appearance started the fact-finding experience. Expect a faded and grey city, still struggling to enter the 21st century, and find a lively city with new neighborhoods, several wide boulevards, and super highways that don’t interfere with the city’s appearance. The surrounding hills sparkle at night and the hilltop restaurants, with superb views of the city, are filled with food and chatter. Walk around Damascus, looking like an American, and never be made to feel you are any different than those around you. The citizens of Damascus are amicable and sympathetic.
Nevertheless, the Syria government does not allow ample expression. Beyond the order and stability, arrests of opposition figure have occurred. Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry informed me that “prison terms have been given for persons convicted of ‘weakening national sentiment’ and ‘inciting foreign powers to attack’.”
President Bashir Assad claims, “It’s us or chaos,” a refrain repeated by Musharraf in Pakistan. Note the difference – The U.S. supports the Pakistan leader and rebukes the Syrian leader. The U.S. administration’s attitude towards Syria is unnecessary, counterproductive and hypocritical. Syria has performed exemplary actions and provided explanations for its policies and actions. The U.S. owes Syria a more sympathetic attention.
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To its credit, Syria has succored Palestinians forced from their homes in Israel. The displaced Palestinians have established neighborhoods, showing commitment to a national identity that Israel’s leaders minimize, but has been intensified in the Diaspora. Add to Syria’s credit, its sacrifice in allowing 1.2 million Iraqi displaced persons to move among its population and secure housing, free education and entry to the health system. Syria deserves commendation for acting as a safety valve to the calamities resulting from several wars that have displaced Palestinians and Iraqis. Syrian Vice President of Foreign Relations, Farouk Sharaa, contradicted a belief that Syria will not accept direct assistance for the Iraqi displaced persons; NGOs and the U.S. government are welcome to contribute their assistance.
An accusation, by U.S. Charges d’Affaires Michael Corbin that Syrians encouraged bus loads of insurgents to enter Iraq is stated without proof and seems exaggerated. Syria has problems with radical Islamists and strengthening Radical Islam in Iraq is harmful to the Assad government. Mohammad Mansoura, chief of the political security branch of Syria’s intelligence apparatus, has been quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “We are conducting operations against terrorist cells, and we have taken martyrs.” It is obvious that instability in Iraq creates more displaced persons, more U.S. soldiers at the border and more suspicious characters wandering about, all of which creates instability in Syria. Similar to the rest of the civilized world, I was told that Syria wants the U.S. military to stabilize Iraq and then slowly leave.
Michael Corbin tempered his remark that Syria participated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri: “Even if the government didn’t order it, the Syrian government knew about it.” Actually, no proof of any direct participation by the Syrian government in any of the assassinations of Lebanon’s March 14 Party members of parliament has been uncovered. One theory is that business rivalries, that include Syrian intelligence agents acting as individuals, have been involved in the assassinations. A bit of hypocrisy – rumors have Israel’s Mossad involved in the assassinations of several Lebanese opposition leaders. Why isn’t Israel pursued for these murders?
Syria has a special interest in Lebanon, just as the U.S. has a special interest in Mexico. MP Saad Hariri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora expressed concern with Syria’s behavior, which they considered interfering and conspiratorial. Other Lebanese official, including President Emil Lahoud, Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh and of course, Hezbollah leadership, were less concerned. Does Syria expect to incorporate Lebanon into its borders? Hardly likely. The Lebanese aren’t inclined to be part of a greater Syria. Nevertheless, as long as the U.S. and Israel pose a threat to Lebanese populations and parties, these populations and parties will seek friendships where they can, including with Syria and Iran.
Syria has created some social and economic conflict in Lebanon. Nevertheless, compare this damage with Israel’s horrific damage to Lebanese life; several invasions, thousands of Lebanese killed and infrastructure constantly destroyed. Why pick on Syria?
Syrian ties with Iran bother the United States. They probably bother the Syrians more. The Islamic regime and its Shiite population are alien to secular Syria and its mostly Sunni population. Syria is a natural antagonist to Iran, but U.S. policy has forced the two nations into an alliance. Anyone who will assist Syria to recover the Golan is welcome in Damascus. Syria’s attitude in demanding the return of captured territory, where Israel evicted 100,000 residents and destroyed about 132 villages, is understandable. Which nation wouldn’t want back captured territory considered by the U.N. to be illegally occupied?
The United States needs Syria’s cooperation to protect against infiltration of insurgents into Iraq, to stabilize Iraq, to prevent Iran from assisting Hezbollah, to provide a secular response to Islamic Iran, to stabilize Lebanon, to assist the Iraqis who have been displaced by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and to achieve peace in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the U.S. continually criticizes and antagonizes Syria. Wouldn’t the U.S. more likely gain Syria as a cooperative partner by considering Syria’s authentic posture rather than by manufacturing a distorted appearance of its actions?
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