In his three and a half years as Syrian President, 38-year-old Bashar Al-Assad has been called many things by U.S. officials. Misunderstood is not one of them.
Yet, if Assad's recent comments to the New York Times are any indication, the U.S. has it all wrong when it comes to the Syrian dictator. In a wide-ranging interview published in the November 30th edition of the Times, Assad-in what undoubtedly came as a great surprise to the hundreds of political dissidents languishing in Syrian prisons-spoke of taking "better steps towards democracy." Citing his commitment to progress, he declared, "We [Syria] have to change…I don't agree to stand still…We are moving forward slowly but steadily." Assad's paean to democracy followed similar remarks by Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam at the Ba'ath Party conference in November. Acknowledging that "regional and international developments require the (Syrian) government to adapt," Khaddam promised that "the (Baa'th) party is studying the issue of developing its political thinking."
Could this be the same Ba'athist regime that has guided Syria to a seemingly permanent place on the U.S.'s list of state sponsors of terrorism? The same repressive dictatorship that remains in an official state of war with Israel while, according to the 2002 State Department Report on Human Rights, continuing to commit "serious" human rights abuses?
A new profile of the Syrian ruler appeared to emerge from the New York Times interview: Assad is a man of peace, more than willing to negotiate with Israel immediately and "without any Syrian conditions." Moreover, he expressed a desire to form closer ties with the U.S., with whom Syria shares "many common interests." Perhaps, under Bashar Al-Assad's leadership, the Syrian leopard-long hostile to both the U.S and Israel and inexorably tied to Islamic terrorist groups-is finally changing its spots?
The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding "no." Far from a steely-eyed reformer, Assad is merely an inexperienced despot committed-at the behest of a corrupt "old guard" still loyal to his late father, Hafiz-to maintaining the Ba'athist status quo. Outside the pristine offices of the New York Times, Assad's rhetoric appears slightly less forthcoming. As recently as October 15, for instance, Assad told the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, "With this Israeli government in power, there will be no peace," and added, "the U.S. is in disagreement with countries in the world, and we are one of these countries." Indeed, it appears that the true motive behind Assad's recent talk of reform is not a genuine desire for change but a cockroach's instinct for survival.
The passage of the Syria Accountability Act (likely to be signed by President Bush) in both the House and Senate is one reason for the current public relations campaign coming out of Damascus. The Accountability Act can be seen as a direct result of the Assad regime's continued occupation of Lebanon and support for terrorist groups like Hamas, Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, not to mention the growing number of terrorists arrested in Iraq carrying Syrian passports.
Applying further pressure on Assad and the Ba'ath Party are the rising voices of opposition being heard both in Syria and abroad, highlighted by a successful conference of Syrian opposition leaders in Washington last month. The conference led to the emergence of a Syrian Democratic Coalition, a merger of 10 pro-democracy Syrian parties that called for an end to 40 years of Ba'athist rule and the creation of a democratic Syria.
The Coalition is actively calling for the release of all Syrian political prisoners, including the economist Dr. Aref Dalila and physician Dr. Walid al-Bunni, founding members of the Syria-based Committee for the Revival of Civil Society. Last August, Dalila and Al-Bunni were found guilty of attempting to change the Syrian constitution by illegal means, inciting armed rebellion and spreading false information. As a result, for the next 10 years, they will languish in a Syrian prison. Earlier this year, Syrian parliament members Mamoun Homsi and Riad Al-Seif were sentenced for similar counts to five years imprisonment. Veteran political activist Riad Al-Turk was sentenced to thirty months in June, and human rights activist Habib Saleh to three years, also in June. Despite Bashar Al-Assad's words to the contrary, such treatment is commonplace for any Syrian who wishes to speak of freedom.
Interestingly enough, on December 10, the Kurdish Yekiti Party plans to hold a peaceful march in front of the Syrian Parliament in Damascus. In addition, the Party's leadership in Germany is fasting in front of the German Parliament on December 10, 11 and 12 and holding a march in front of the foreign ministry in Berlin.
Considering developments like these, it is clear that Bashar Al-Assad has good reason to be worried. It's no wonder he told the New York Times "it is normal for us to seek good relations with the United States in all fields." At this point, Assad and his Ba'athist benefactors need all the friends they can get.
Nir Boms is Vice-President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington, DC-based counterterrorism research institute.