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An e-newsletter delivering updates and analysis on current issues about Israel and the Middle East conflict

April 5, 2011

Is Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad Really a Reformer? How Should the U.S. Respond to the Killing of Syrian Protesters?

Dear Friend of Israel, Friend of FLAME:

On March 16, Senator John Kerry said, "President Assad has been very generous with me . . . I think it's incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way." On March 27, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Bashar al-Assad a "reformer."

Clinton's statement came the day after six protesters were killed by Syrian troops in the port city of Latakia, bringing the death count as high as 150 since the most recent Arab uprising in Syria started a few months ago. We don't know the exact number Assad has gunned down, since he refuses to allow Western news media into the country.

As you know, President Obama urged Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down after Egyptian troops fired on its protesters and likewise has supported air strikes on Libyan president Moammar el-Qaddafi in an attempt to prevent a bloodbath against protesters and to oust that dictator as well.

So why Obama's silence on Bashar al-Assad? Does he really believe against all evidence that one of the Middle East's most brutal dictators is a reformer? We are hard pressed to name a single reform implemented by Bashar since he seized the whip of governance in 2000, following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

Here are a few of the generous, reform-minded "good deeds" Bashar has accomplished in his short rule:

• Orchestrates the murder of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri
• Supplies weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon before its 2006 war with Israel and continues to funnel many more arms to them since, thus effectively ensuring another war with Israel
• Starts building a secret nuclear reactor, no doubt for nefarious purposes, which Israel destroys in 2007
• Permanently hosts senior Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal in Damascus
• Provided refuge for Sunni fighters who battled American forces following the ouster of Saddam Hussein
• Rules his people with an iron fist, kills and tortures his enemies and maintains order using a brutal state-of-emergency law that suspends the constitution and has been in effect for more than 47 years

Let's not forget the rest of Bashar's inheritance: His father, Hafez, killed 25,000 of his own people in the city of Hama in 1982. Syria took part in three major wars against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, fortunately losing all of them. (Lest we forget, Assad's Syria shares a critical border with Israel.)

What on earth is the Obama administration thinking? Instead of praising Bashar, shouldn't we be criticizing him outspokenly?

This week's FLAME Hotline, by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, forcefully argues that the stakes in Syria are much higher than in Libya and that the U.S. should, at a minimum, immediately denounce Assad and support his removal.

Please take five minutes to review Jacoby's powerful analysis. Then, do me a favor: If you have personal friends or colleagues who may want to know more about the rapidly unfolding situation in the Middle East, please forward this brief article to them, so they will understand why it's critical that the U.S. make smart decisions in these perilous times.

Thanks for your support of Israel and your support of FLAME.


Jim Sinkinson
Director, FLAME


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Assad's Shaky House: How Can the U.S. Keep Supporting It?
By Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, March 30, 2011

If the United States has good reason to support the popular revolt in Libya—and President Obama argued Monday night that there is "an important strategic interest in preventing [Moammar] Khadafy from overrunning those who oppose him''—it has considerably more reason to do so in Syria. If it made sense to speed the departure of Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, accelerating the fall of Syria's Bashar al-Assad should be an even higher priority. If North Africa was improved when the people of Tunisia threw off their dictator, the entire Arab world would be a healthier place if a Syrian uprising toppled Assad.

Why doesn't Washington say so?

Of all the waves of protest to wash over the Middle East in recent months, none has come as a greater surprise—and none should be more welcome—than the turbulence in Syria. Forty years under the fearsome rule of the Assad clan were supposed to have crushed the Syrians' will to resist. Though Bashar's brutality has not yet exceeded that of his father—in 1982 Hafez al-Assad annihilated some 25,000 civilians in the city of Hama, then literally paved over their remains—his own reign has nevertheless been horror a show of repression, torture, assassination, disappearances, and the near-total denial of civil and political liberties.

The result of all this was said to be a population too intimidated to make trouble. "Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt,'' explained an article in Foreign Affairs this month, "the regime and its loyal forces have been able to deter all but the most resolute and fearless oppositional activists.'' Consequently, the current upwelling of protest would "largely pass Syria by.''

That essay, "The Sturdy House That Assad Built,'' appeared on March 7. Yet in the weeks since, thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets—from Daraa in the south to the Latakia on the Mediterranean, and even in Damascus and Aleppo—to cry out for freedom and reform. The dictator's troops have killed scores of protesters—more than 150, according to some accounts.

Far from stifling dissent, however, the regime's thuggishness has only aroused more of it. On Facebook, an Arabic-language page titled "Syrian Revolution Against Bashar al-Assad'' has drawn nearly 100,000 supporters. Yesterday, the Syrian cabinet resigned. The House That Assad Built may not be so sturdy after all.

At a moment like this, the Obama administration should be taking every reasonable step to encourage the Syrian uprising and undermine the regime. In his remarks on Libya the other night, the president cheered "the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa,'' and promised (in words reminiscent of his predecessor) that "wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.''

If Obama is serious, why has there been no White House denunciation of the murder of protesters by Syrian security forces? Why haven't US officials publicly exhorted the Security Council and the Arab League to take as strong a stand against Assad as they did against Khadafy? Why hasn't the president ordered Ambassador Robert Ford, the US envoy to Syria, to demonstrate American solidarity with the demonstrators by traveling to Daraa, where dozens of them have been killed, and demanding an international investigation?

Rather than intensify the pressure on a regime that is every bit as odious as Khadafy's, and that arguably has more American blood on its hands than any other government in the Arab world, the Obama administration is bending over backward to reassure Assad. On the Sunday talk shows, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually gave Assad her seal of approval. "Members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer,'' she said. Reformer! Her characterization would be hilarious if it weren't so perverse.

Assad is no reformer. He is a totalitarian criminal and an enemy of the United States, and his downfall should be an explicit American aim. Surely we owe the tens of thousands of Syrians bravely confronting their vicious government at least the same encouragement we gave Mubarak's opponents in Egypt. We should cheer as Syria's people shake the House That Assad Built. Nothing could be more salutary than to see that awful, bloodstained dungeon come tumbling down at last.


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