Syria’s Assad Better Than Jihadists But That’s Quite A Low Bar

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The situation in Syria is complicated, but in the end is not all that complicated. President Bashar al-Assad isn’t the nicest leader in the world, to state the obvious. He inherited power from his father, who was worse. He and his family have ruled Syria for about half a century and have committed serious human rights abuses along the way, and the uprising against his government that began in early 2011 had a good deal of popular support.

At the same time, Islamic radicals ended up hijacking the revolt. In backing the opposition, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel were not interested in promoting democracy in Syria but, as always, had their own strategic interests in mind (which may explains why American-led regime change operations have no lasting record of success). There’s no reliable way to measure public opinion in Syria, but it seems likely that most citizens, having seen in Iraq and Libya what happens when the state collapses, are relieved, if not ecstatic, that Assad prevailed over his opponents. Like it or not, Assad has effectively won the war and talking to his government is necessary, as even many of his critics agree.

In the U.S. it’s hard to have a reasonable conversation about Syria. On the right noting the latter set of facts makes you an apologist for Assad. In some left circles, noting the former makes you a proponent of regime change.

Look, there’s unquestionably a lot of dubious information put out about the Assad regime’s abuses and policies, but you don’t have to agree with all of it to see that some of the allegations are true and that the protests against his government were not purely the result of outside meddling. “To bury sedition is a national, moral and religious duty, and every one who can contribute to its burial and doesn’t do is part of it,” Assad said shortly after the protests began. “Sedition is more severe than killing as the Holy Koran says. Those who get involved in the sedition, whether intentionally or unintentionally, work for the killing of their homeland.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has put out a number of reports detailing abuses under Assad, as has Amnesty International. Noam Chomsky has called Assad’s government a “moral disgrace.”

I don’t know how Chomsky gets written off as an apologist for the U.S., and Amnesty and PHR have also trashed the Saudis for their egregious record on human rights and hideous role in Yemen.

I was in Lebanon twice this year and tried to get a journalism visa to interview Assad (or a senior government official if the president was unavailable), which several American magazines had agreed to publish. I met all the requirements but then was informed I would need to also submit a tourist visa, even though I would only drive to Damascus from Beirut and return the same night.

The journalism visa and a tourist visa application are virtually identical but a tourist visa requires that a Syrian citizen sign the form as well. I had plenty of friends in Beirut with relatives in Syria, but no one would sign the application because it would have put them at serious risk, even if they were pro-government. Meanwhile, Syrians in the U.S. had told me that they would like me to meet their families if I got a visa to got to Syria, but in the end also decided it was too risky to give me their contact information.

The irony is that I had planned to ask Assad (or a stand-in) questions about human rights and corruption — there’d be no way not to — but my focus was on rebuilding Syria now that the war is essentially over and the impact of U.S. sanctions. In the end I didn’t get a journalist or tourism visa. A Syrian I met in Beirut, who asked to speak off the record, said he wasn’t surprised. He noted that even pro-government journalists in Syria have been harassed by the government. My visa request being denied is obviously a minor matter and I still think regime change in Syria was a terrible idea, but the experience didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the government’s openness.

Shortly before war broke out Assad’s government hired a PR firm to polish its image in the United States and at the time was eagerly seeking to win favor with the Obama administration. His intelligence officials were cooperating with the CIA during that period and also did during the rendition program of the “war on terror.” Assad is no leftist and sure, he’s better than jihadists, but that’s a pretty low bar.

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