To Engage or Not to Engage!

I have been repeatedly asked before as to my policy recommendations to the current administrations will be. This statement of mine, which I recently sent for inclusion in the European Parliament file on the Association Agreement with Syria, might be helpful in this regard. 
My approach might be described as a call for public and conditional engagement that puts everything on the table, including the sensitive issue of political reforms, serious political reforms, ones that begin with general amnesty for all political prisoners and exiles and culminate in free and internationally-monitored parliamentary and presidential elections within an agreed timeframe, no longer than 2 years.

Will the Assads accept such conditions? Not when they think there is room to maneuver. The conflict between the European and American stands vis-à-vis Syria, and between different political current within the various governments concerned, as the divide between the neo-cons and realists, not to mention Republicans and Democrats, in the US amply illustrates, is allowing the Assads much room to maneuver. Coupled with their reinvigorated alliance with Iran, their recent vicarious sense of triumph in the aftermath of Israel’s August Folly in Lebanon, and their continued dabbling in the Palestinian Territories, they are even emboldened now and will not likely settle for anything less than that illusive “perfect deal” that can somehow allow for the indefinite prolongation of the rein of a handful of losers over the affairs of 20 million dehumanized creatures mired in manifest misery. If logic does not militate against this, if the people involved themselves do not rebel, I will. I have nothing better to do with my time, I guess.

Call me a Saint Jude, if you like, or a pretentious asshole even, it does not matter. I don’t pretend to be driven by principle alone, or by principle at all, I just don’t know what else to do. If I knew how I can conduct myself differently and save myself and my family from the troubles that my course of action will bring upon us all, I probably would have taken it. But I don’t. So, there but for the Grace of Whoever, go I…

As for the Assads, this post notwithstanding, it does not matter in the least what the US and the EU will or will not do with them, because their fate, in the final analysis, rests with their people (Sunnis and Alawites alike), and, surface appearances notwithstanding, they are not happy, they are not happy at all.


I have titled my brief intervention in this manner because, despite the fact that I am currently a member of the Syrian opposition, and of the National Salvation Front to be more specific, I have always been a strong advocate of signing the Syrian-European Association Agreement. In fact, considering my 3-year affiliation as a consultant with the Syrian-European Business Center (2001-2004), an initiative sponsored by the MEDA II Program, I have personally been involved in translating and preparing many of the reports and studies intimately related to the Association talks, and I have, therefore, managed to acquire a virtual insider knowledge of the process, the way it was conducted by the Syrian side, and the various pitfalls it encountered before it was finally frozen for lack of serious progress.

More so, I have been invited on a number of occasions to speak, both publicly and privately, to various European delegations visiting the country, or to take part in quiet briefings at a variety of European embassies and ministries, for the sole purpose of discussing the viability of the Association Agreement and its potential contributions to improving the human rights conditions and encouraging political and economic reforms in the country. Throughout all these meetings and briefings, my main argument has been and continues to be that it is indeed quite possible for the SEAA to produce some positive results in this regard provided that the European side did not fail to push hard for a greater emphasis on Article 2 of the Agreement, and to do so in a systematic and methodical manner. That is, the Europeans should ask their Syrian counterparts for a clear timetable for reforms, preferably no longer than 7 years, that begins with a general amnesty allowing for immediate lifting of the Martial laws, in effect since 1963, and for the return of all political exiles, and culminating in free parliamentary and presidential elections. Naturally, my European counterparts thought that this was a bit too much.

But my assessment and recommendations were based on the simple observation that the Assad regime has always proven resilient to change, and that the Assads have always wanted to give themselves enough wiggling room to back down on any promise. It is for this reason that all the economic and administrative reforms that took place since the arrival of Bashar al-Assad to power, as meager and inconsequential as they are, were premised on presidential decrees rather than acts of legislator. This means that Bashar can repeal or reverse any decision he made without having to obtain parliamentary approval, not even for formalities’ sake. In this way, he can avoid any potential “embarrassment” that some truly independent MPs such as Mamoun al-Homsi and Riad Seif can cause. Such temperament and mentality are by no means compatible with the inherent requirements of reform, where the basic ethos calls for a real measure of accountability to popular will.

In the case of Syria, the Madrid and the Barcelona processes dragged on for years and produced no tangible results, in part due to the inability of the Syrian side to commit, as many of the negotiators involved on the European side will undoubtedly attest. The Assad regime is clearly more interested in the process than in the eventual rewards, more interested in maintaining power than in accepting the eventuality that, at one point in time, no matter how far into the future, reform should entail a peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected alternative. If asking the Assads to reconcile themselves to this possibility is too much, then I think the EU should drop all pretense of interest in democratization and human rights in our part of the world. But, should we grant that making such an “ambitious” request would have been too much within the geopolitical context of 2001-04, I think the current context argues strongly in favor of such a development now. After all, and despite their continued defiance, the Assads are clearly in a much more precarious position today. They are internationally isolated, and the current administration in the US will brook no possibility for talks with them so long as their behavior remains unchanged. Moreover, they are facing an existential threat of sorts posed by the continuing UN probe into the Hariri assassination, among other heinous developments in Lebanon, of which all indications point to high level involvement on part of the Assads.

As such, to resume talks with the Assads at this stage over the signing of the Association Agreement have implications that go far beyond economics. It can indeed provide them with a way out of their diplomatic isolation and some wiggling room with regard to the Hariri investigation that could allow high-ranking members of the regime to escape indictment, without compromising the integrity of the investigation itself, not to mention the sovereignty of Lebanon. If this is the reward that the Assads expect to reap, if this is the reward that the EU is willing to help provide, then the asking price must be high enough to be commensurate with it. The European Parliament should make a clear and public call on the Assads to commit to a timetable of specific political and economic reforms in exchange for the signing of the Association Agreement and for a mediation role with regard to Syria’s relations with the United States, and the issue of the Golan Heights.

The ball should be sent back where it belongs at this stage in the courts of Syria’s rulers. They should be obliged to earn their way out through serious and far-reaching reforms not through blackmail, assassinations, crackdowns and strong arm tactics. If they cannot deliver on this, then the world has no choice but to reconcile itself to the necessity of their continued isolation. Meanwhile, the Assads, and by turning their back on a public offer of support in exchange for reforms will have been exposed to their people not as heroes of the national resistance, but as dictators interested only in maintaining their power regardless of the cost involved for the people. Meanwhile, European officials should relinquish that long-standing and unfortunate assumption that dictators can somehow deliver on stability in the region. Nothing could be any farther from the truth. In fact, dictators always need an outlet for the pent-up rage, frustration and violence in their societies, for this reason, they will always export instability to neighboring countries and will always be locked in an internecine territorial feuds.

This is what lies behind the Hariri assassination, this is what lies at the heart of Syrian official duplicity in abusing the oil-for-food program and encouraging insurgents in Iraq today, and this is why the Assads will continue to be one of the region’s worst troublemakers for as long as they exist. But, if the events of the 9/11 have taught us anything, if the various terrorist attacks in Europe have demonstrated anything, and if the continuing waves of legal and illegal migration to the West prove anything, it’s that our region’s problems have long been globalized, we are not the only people who will suffer as a result of the authoritarian, corrupt and inept policies of our leaders, the world will suffer along with us. Indeed, the Assads are as much Europe’s problem as they are ours, and their current tactics are as detrimental to Europe’s interests as they are to ours. It is for this reason that Europe cannot afford to look weak and confused in their stands and policies vis-à-vis the Assads, and it is for this reason that they need to send a clear message to the effect that if the Assads want Europe’s help in saving their hides, they need to learn how to be nice and civilized both to their own people as well as to their neighbors.