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Assuring Assad

Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a delegation to Damascus in defiance of the express wishes of President Bush. In response, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s spokesman praised her “courageous position” and expressed the hope that it would inaugurate a dialogue between “the people of the United States” and the Syrian regime, despite President Bush’s efforts to isolate it. Pelosi explained her unusual action by saying that she was trying to “build some confidence” between Americans and the Assad government.

Apparently she has succeeded, after a fashion. Assad, at least, seems to have gained confidence that he can behave as brutally as he wishes without incurring too much international opprobrium. In the month since Pelosi’s visit, he has ratcheted up repression, all but snuffing out the lingering embers of the “Damascus spring” that followed his accession to power seven years ago. Six prominent dissidents were packed off to prison for sentences ranging from three to twelve years, the longest term being given to Kamal Labwani for “communicating with a foreign country,” i.e., the United States. “It’s back to the 1980′s, to the worst days of his father’s rule,” commented the exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid.

Pelosi reportedly raised Labwani’s case, specifically, with Syrian authorities during her visit. His crime, after all, consisted solely of talking to Americans, and here she was to promote dialogue. The specially long sentence now slapped on him amounts to a direct rebuff of her appeal, an expression of disdain. So how has she reacted?

Not at all. There is nothing about Labwani’s sentencing, or about any of the other dissidents, on her website. So I put in a call to her press spokesman, Brendan Daly, asking if the Speaker had commented on these events. I received a call back from a deputy of his who assured me that Assad’s actions were in “the opposite direction” from the course she had urged on him when she was there. In view of that, I asked, what was her reaction? She had not addressed it yet, he said, but he promised to get me a statement from her by the end of the next business day. That was ten days ago, and I am still waiting. Meanwhile, she has left the country yet again, this time leading a congressional delegation to Greenland, Germany, and Belgium to discuss global warming. Presumably this will build Assad’s confidence even further.



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