Axis or Not

Axis or Not

As news of the Abu Ghraib scandal and Nicholas Berg's beheading dominates the headlines, American media have all but ignored one of the most significant developments since President Bush's now-famous 2002 "axis of evil" statement.

Human Rights

Syria's human rights record remains extremely poor according to human rights groups and democracy activists. The State Department has stated that "the (Syrian) Government continues to restrict or deny fundamental rights…The Government uses its vast powers so effectively that there is no organized political opposition...significantly restricts freedom of speech and of the press (11)." Amnesty International reports that the state of emergency has led to "thousands of suspected political opponents to be held, tortured and kept incommunicado without trial or charge, sometimes for over two decades (12)."

Just last month, Aktham Naissa, founder and chairman of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, was accused of spreading misinformation detrimental to the Syrian government and was arrested in the northern port city of Latakia. His group issued a report in April accusing the Syrian authorities of arresting more than a 1,000 Kurds and torturing many of them. In the report, he said that two Kurds died under torture. After a week of incommunicado detention at an unknown location, Naisse, who suffers from an irregular heartbeat, kidney ailment, and cerebral stroke, was taken to Tishrin Hospital. Nevertheless, Amnesty International stated that Naissa remains in solitary confinement in the Sednaya prison (13).

Likewise, Syrian authorities prevented Haitham Malih, a lawyer and human rights activist, from boarding a flight from Syria to the United Arab Emirates in February. His Human Rights Association in Syria attributed the ban on his travel to a speech that he made in the German parliament in December 2003 concerning the conditions of human rights in Syria under the state of emergency that has been in place since the Baa'th Party's ascension to power in 1963. Malih also participated in hearings before the Bundestag's human rights committee (14)

Clearly, the decision to enact sanctions on Syria is far from being arbitrary or unjustified. It is based on sad realities that reveal Syria's role as a destabilizing actor in the Middle East during a crucial time in the region. Consistent with the stated protocol of the War on Terror on the one hand, and with the Bush administration's democratization efforts on the other, the sanctions imposed have sent a clear policy signal to Damascus and the region indicating that state sponsorship of terrorism will not be tolerated.

If Syria is displeased with this decision or if it would like to explore rapprochement with the West, it should back up its words with actions.


Nir Boms is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance.



[1] WorldNetDaily exclusive interview with Fayssal Mekdad, May 11th, 2004.

[2] NewsMax report, April 17th.

[3] Chicago Tribune April 29, 2004.

[4] Guardian 12/30/2003; Washington Times, 04/17/2004.

[5] CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee on February of 2004.

[6] Middle East Newsline, CIA: Syria maintains insurgency operations.

[7] Jerusalem Newswire, February 1st, 2004.

[8] BBC Monitoring Middle East Jan 8 2004.

[9] Alex Fishman, Yediot Ahronot Jan 9 2004.

[10] Associated Press April 11, 2004.

[11] Country Report, Department of State, 2001, 2002, 2003.

[12] Reuters, May 8.

[13] Baltimore Sun, May 7th.

[14] Aljazeera, February 11th, 2004.