from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: the Background

July 1, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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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.

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