President Bashar al-Assad of Syria may be feeling the effects of President Obama's promised "change". After years of US-imposed isolation, Assad has received two US Congressional delegations since Obama became president, plus a visit from John Kerry, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The very fact of these visits is an important step in resuming diplomatic dialogue with Syria. But there are concerns that the US delegations may be focusing solely on Syria's regional policies and ignoring the country's abysmal human rights record. Such a decision would be shortsighted and would ultimately hamper the stated objective of making Syria a positive actor in the Middle East.
The experience of European officials who have engaged in talks with Damascus over the last year about Syria's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and its relations with Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, is a good lesson in what not to do. The European officials rarely raised the issue of human rights with their Syrian hosts and, when they did, it was often as an afterthought and without much insistence. They effectively allowed Syrian authorities to continue to oppress their citizens while gaining in stature at every "photo-op" with a visiting dignitary. The US should be clearer than Europe in adopting a principled foreign policy that encourages dialogue but also stands up for human rights in Syria.
Currently, at least 30 known political and human rights activists, including Riad al-Seif, 61, a former member of parliament suffering from prostate cancer, and Dr Kamal Labwani, a physician and founder of the Syrian Democratic Liberal Gathering, are serving prison terms for publicly criticising the authorities. The treatment of these activists is only one aspect of Syria's repression. The government has multiple security agencies devoted to keeping itself in power and quashing voices of dissent.
Emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remains in effect, severely restricting freedom of speech and assembly. There are no opposition political parties; there are no free elections. Syria's security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants, and in many cases, torture them to extract confessions. The authorities treat Kurds, Syria's largest non-Arab minority, as second-class citizens. Independent press remains nonexistent; Syrian internet censorship extends to popular websites such as Google's blogging engine, http://www.blogspot.com/ and http://www.facebook.com/.
Early signs indicate that the US is following the European trend in ignoring Syria's internal record and focusing only on its relationship with the US and Israel's adversaries. US Senator Benjamin Cardin, on a two-day visit to Damascus with other members of congress, called on Syria to end its alliance with Iran and its support for militant groups in the region. Senator John Kerry stated on the same day that the Obama administration would press Syria to help disarm Hezbollah. Neither man alluded to Syria's human rights record. This has not gone unnoticed by the Syrian activists. "Bush used us, and now Obama will ignore us," one of them told me.
For many foreign policymakers, it is natural for regional politics to take precedence over Syria's internal record. For others, it is preferable to avoid mentioning Syrian's human rights record because the mere act of establishing a dialogue with Syria is difficult enough. A Damascus-based European diplomat summed up the approach by saying, "once relations with Syria are good, we can then raise our human rights concerns."
This approach is shortsighted. US officials currently have a good opportunity to press for needed human rights reforms because Syria is eager to emerge from its isolation. And Syria's respect for human rights is not just a "good thing;" it also has a direct impact on its foreign policy. Without internal reforms, Syria's policies in the region will continue to be determined by the interests of the security services and the narrow ruling class that have governed the country for the last 45 years.
A Syria that permits a free flow of information and an internal debate about national interest and priorities is a Syria that is likely to act more responsibly in the region. It is also important for the new US administration to send a clear message that it will be committed to promoting genuine democracy and human rights in the Middle East, despite the disastrous impact of Bush policies in the region that were sometimes conducted under the guise of spreading democracy.
President Obama said in his inaugural speech: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
President Assad has heard the second part of the sentence but not the first. In an interview printed in the Guardian on Wednesday, he referred to Obama's call by saying that "we never clenched our fist". His visitors in Damascus must remind him that as long as he continues to abuse the rights of his own people, his fist remains as tightly clenched as ever.