The Daily Star, 7 July 2004

The June 12 letter that Elliott Engel and 11 other members of the US Congress addressed to the State Department, asking it to put pressure on the Syrian government to release from detention Aktham Nuaisah, the head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, conjures up strange emotions of trepidation rather than joy and satisfaction for members of the opposition in Syria. For those who might be surprised by this, there is a famous Arabic adage that says: “Reasons dispel wonder.”

The “reasons” in this case concern, on the one hand, the record of US policy toward the Arab world, and in particular Syria; and on the other, Engel’s own record. For the same congressman who is advocating pressure to obtain the release of Nuaisah is also one of those responsible for the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. The original version of the act, released in 2002, contained the usual litany, accusing Syria of cooperating with Iraq and Iran, harboring Palestinian terrorist groups, supporting Lebanon’s Hizbullah, providing cover for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, instigating operations against Israel from the Shebaa Farms in Southern Lebanon, impeding peace in the Middle East, “rejecting Israel’s generous peace offers” and maintaining a state of war with Israel, and pursuing its “occupation of Lebanon.”

However, absent from this list, which was part of the letter sent by the 12 members of Congress, was any mention of the Syrian regime’s blatant disregard for the fundamental human rights and dignity of its own people.

This reality suggests that for Engel and his colleagues the case of Nuaisah and others like him is not really a priority, except when it coincides with their own agendas – agendas that have nothing whatsoever to do with the welfare of the Syrian people. It seems they are not concerned in any way with the nature of the Syrian regime and its undignified human rights record. This leads us to believe that the 12 congressmen would be willing to maintain their silence on abuses if the Syrian regime, or an eventual successor, responds to their demands. This crude manipulation of human rights principles not only does great harm to these very principles, but also to those they are supposed to protect.

Members of the Syrian democratic opposition are right to refuse to place the “dignity of the Syrian people and their fundamental rights” in untrustworthy hands. Reinforcing this decision are the policies of successive US administrations regarding various regional issues. Contrary to the prevalent impression, until Sept. 11, 2001, Washington turned a blind eye to reform, democracy and human rights in the Arab world. Its newfound interest in these matters was not born out of feelings of concern for the tenets of justice and fairness, but rather is a strategy to put pressure on regimes that, in stifling their peoples’ aspirations, accelerate their own demise and put themselves and their patrons in jeopardy.

Engel, therefore, cannot simultaneously fight for the rights of Nuaisah, the prisoner of conscience, and maintain his enthusiasm for the Syria Accountability Act. The lesson of the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1991 to 2003 was that they took their toll on innocent civilians, while having hardly an impact on the leadership. In fact, US pressure on Iraq, and now on Syria, does more harm to the cause of democratic transformation than good, and this for two major reasons:

First, Arab regimes are abusive, sectarian and nonelected, and their failure to solve economic and social problems does not lead to their replacement. By the same token, the failure of their foreign policy, even their military defeats, does not mean their removal from power. They impose themselves by force and are accountable to no one: This is dictatorship in every sense of the word.

Second, societies in Arab countries with autocratic regimes are very suspicious of anything emanating from Washington, so that pressure from the US brings no benefit to the people. If we are to believe our own eyes rather than sweet-sounding talk of democracy (and this is democracy’s first lesson), doubting US intentions would be wise. The Syrian regime has been successful in highlighting the American bias toward Israel and disregard for Arab society, culture and people – a ploy that has deepened the mistrust of the US felt by most Syrians.

It is evident that American sanctions against Syria will be even less effective in changing the behavior of the Syrian regime than were the international sanctions against Iraq. However, they will no doubt have an impact on the Syrian economy and its development opportunities, at a time when per capita income for the past 25 years has stood at around $1,000 per year. Therefore, it is safe to assume that ordinary Syrians will suffer from the sanctions, not the ruling elite.

For example, in the aftermath of the Hindawi affair in 1986 (when a Palestinian, Nizar Hindawi, was accused of trying to bomb an Israeli passenger plane on orders from a Syrian intelligence service), European countries imposed an economic boycott against Syria that resulted in a severe penury of vital products, such as baby milk, paper napkins, oil derivatives, rice, sugar, tea and tobacco; there was even a danger of famine on account of the country’s low wheat reserves, which were enough for only a few weeks. Thanks to the importation of contraband from Lebanon, some individuals (known as the “boycott wealthy”) accumulated large fortunes in a very short time at the expense of the poor. Naturally, none of Syria’s officials or bureaucrats felt the pinch, and nothing tells us this will not happen again.

Are Engel and his colleague wrong in defending Nuaisah? No, they are not, because defending even one individual is a hundred times more constructive than general talk about advancing democracy and human rights. Their support, though, will have only a limited impact in view of their concomitant support for sanctions and enthusiasm for Israel.

We wish Engel would put his defense of Nuaisah within a less ideological and personal context. A recent statement of his, where he observed that the US considered it its business to defend freedom around the world, was, ironically, reminiscent of the former USSR, which called itself the “first homeland of socialism,” which all socialists had the duty to defend. We hope that Engel does not also make it a duty for all democrats around the word to defend the first homeland of democracy.

No occupation takes place in the Middle East without Washington’s agreement, and no occupation can be maintained if Washington opposes it, as the 1991 war over Kuwait proved. This applies just as well to Israel’s “mother of all occupations” of Palestinian areas as to Syria’s presence in Lebanon. Therefore, if Engel is sincere in his push for democracy in the Arab world, the safest route to attain that goal could be to reconsider his attitude vis-a-vis Israel.