Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Honest talk and taking flak on Syria

Note: The following was the opening anecdote of my talk to the Houston World Affairs Council on April 28, 2008 entitled "The High Road to Damascus: Engage Syria's Private Sector".

“Last week was Syria week in Washington. A number of think tank folks, political activists, and in my case journalists spoke at seminars or hearings on various aspects of recent developments concerning that Arab country. I spoke at the Stimson Center on Iran’s role in Syria, specifically what we see on the ground in Damascus that indicates the state of relations between Washington’s two premier adversaries in the region. I spoke alongside Daniel Levy of the Century Foundation, who advocates engagement with Damascus, and Emile Hokayem of the Stimson Center, a critic of engagement.

I made four main points. First, that Syria’s relationship with Iran was strong but ambiguous. Second, that a recent US Executive Order seizing the assets of prominent Syrian businessman and cousin of Bashar al Assad Rami Makhlouf on charges of corruption showed that the United States was paying more attention to Syria’s economic situation - something I have advocated for the past four years. Third, that US trade sanctions against Syria were so ineffectual that I was even able to get an iphone – an item firmly banned from export to Syria. Fourth, that the current state of relations between Damascus and Washington are as bad as they have been in over forty years, and that bridging this gap in the short term is unlikely due to massively different version of what President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to in meetings in Damascus with US officials and legislators, and how this differs from US meetings with his father, Hafez.

The shooting started the next day, just as the Bush Administration released a video of an alleged Nuclear reactor that the US says Damascus constructed with North Korea’s help and which Israel bombed last September.

A journalist in the room from a newspaper in Kuwait - an important ally for the Bush Administration in the Arab World – wrote a story on the Stimson session the next day. He accurately covered most of my points on Iran’s role in Syria – that recent signs showed the roots of Tehran and Syria’s relationship do not run deep, but are spreading. But it made reference of analysts close to the government as (roughly translated) Syrian-mongers – which I didn’t say (I don’t even understand what the term means). When it came to my comments on the Syrian businessman’s designation, the newspaper quoted me as saying the move was “very smart, as the regime relies on him a lot” – which I also didn’t say. I seriously doubt that the businessman has assets in the United States, and will change Syrian foreign policy, but does highlight that the United States considers corruption in Syria as an important aspect of US Syria policy. On President Assad’s meetings with US officials, the journalist quoted me as saying what many of those who testified on Capitol Hill last week (such as Martin Indyk) said: that officials dealing with President Assad’s father, Hafez, has been a much more positive experience than dealing with his son. What the journalist failed to add to this quote were comments that Damascus feels that massive misunderstandings are taking place in those meetings, which Damascus says shows, in part, Washington’s ill will toward Damascus.

Needless to say, I’m gonna get an earful about that story when I return to Damascus.

The same day I sat in the gallery of a conference on Capitol Hill organized by the Syrian opposition group “The Damascus Declaration” – a domestic opposition group I have written about. As I approached the hearing room, one of the activists approached me and said: “Why did you say that you got an iphone in Damascus?” I was surprised, as I knew this person was not in the session at Stimson. “How did you know I said that?” I said. They responded: “Everyone is talking about it!” “But it’s the truth!” I replied. “That doesn’t matter!” they said.

It was then I realized that realized that having an honest conversation in Washington on what was actually going on on the ground in Syria is virtually impossible without taking heavy flak from both sides. So I’m going to try and do so here in Houston tonight. And I’m going to start by saying that all my comments are most definitely OFF THE RECORD!.....”

I then delivered a presentation on engaging Syria through its private sector, and why it should be an important part of US Syria strategy in the years to come. You can find the link to the report here.

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