On Syria: From Deafening Roar to Silence of the Lambs


In Greek mythology, a "Siren" was a seductive woman whose enchanting voice lured men to their deaths.  As ships sailed near rocky shores, the Sirens' song entranced mariners, causing them to jump overboard.  Greek mythology does not appear to have a male equivalent to a siren, although some scholars suggest "Triton" is appropriate.

For years under the Bush 43 Administration, US congressmen beat a path to the door of a Middle East Triton.  Their trailblazing began as they believed they, better than their President, could conduct US foreign policy.  These trips were made against White House advice as Syria's Triton-Bashar Assad-was a state sponsor of terrorism.  While President Bush opposed talks for this reason, a conveyor belt of Democratic politicians, who believed they could influence the Syrian leader, rotated through Damascus, where they tried conducting their own foreign policy.

First to visit in December 2006 was Senator Ben Nelson (D-Fla).  Following a one-hour meeting, he announced Assad appeared willing to work with the US on border control issues with Iraq, that Assad "took note" of Nelson's concerns over a nuclear-armed Iran and that Nelson had now opened "a crack in the door" for further discussions.

Nelson was followed to Damascus, again against President Bush's advice, by Senators John Kerry (D-Mass), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) and Republican (later turned Democrat) Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa).  They too believed engagement with Assad was the right road to take. 

In 2006, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued a report, recommending engagement with both Syria and Iran.

In 2007, the highest ranking US official to make an unsanctioned trip to Syria was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca).  Defiantly ignoring Bush's request not to go, Pelosi offered, "The road to Damascus is a road to peace." After only a three hour meeting with Assad, she announced he was "ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel."  Having visited Israel two days earlier, Pelosi told Assad Israel too was ready for peace talks.  This came as a surprise to Israel which denied any change in its foreign policy towards Syria-i.e., Israel would not deal with a terrorist nation.  Even the Washington Post said of her trip, "Ms. Pelosi's attempt to establish a shadow presidency is not only counterproductive, it is foolish."    

What is ironic about these US politicians who visited Damascus to register concerns about human rights, Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and its allowing militants to access Iraq via Syria's border is what happened after their visits.  Assad clamped down on human rights activists at home-many receiving long prison sentences; he was secretly working on his own nuclear weapons program in Syria; and, according to a December 2007 Department of Defense document, it was estimated 90% of all foreign terrorists entering Iraq came through Syria.  As far as a positive impact on Assad, these unsanctioned visits to Damascus by US politicians achieved nothing.  Triton apparently lured them into a trance.  How else could they believe, in the course of brief meetings, they could turn Assad around?  While Triton's allure or politicians' egos may have been a factor, it certainly was not due to their understanding of the Syrian dictator. 

Assad's situation in Syria is not unlike Saddam Hussein's was in Iraq.  Both were members of religious minorities-Assad an Alawite Muslim in a country predominantly Sunni while Saddam was a Sunni in a country predominantly Shiite.  For both, a direct correlation existed between their survival and minimizing the power of the majority.  Both did so brutally. 

But there was one more element key to Assad's survival-maintaining an alliance with Iran both out of fear and convenience.  Assad feared what Iran could do if he failed to cooperate but also knew by becoming an Iranian lapdog, should Syria's Sunni majority rise up against him, he could count on Iran's help to put it down.  He was right.  As the thirteen month uprising in Syria against him has now claimed 10,000 lives, Iranian special forces have been responsible for numerous deaths. 

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's peace plan for Syria has failed.  It is much easier for a brutal dictator to retain the reins of power than to let them go.  Undoubtedly, also weighing heavy on Assad's mind are the final minutes in the lives of two other toppled Middle East leaders-Saddam Hussein and Moamar Ghadafi.  Assad fears any relinquishment of his reins of power may mean a similar end for him.

What is most telling, however, now that Assad's colors are known to the world, is what we do not hear.  After a gaggle of US politicians beat a path to Assad's door, roaring that engagement was necessary and naively believing they could make a difference, we hear nothing from them as Assad slaughters his people.  Where is their accountability for their failed foreign policy?

When a referee makes a wrong call in a sporting event, all that is lost is a game; when the wrong call is made in the conduct of foreign policy, the consequences are much more severe.  As our politicians marched into Damascus, they departed, like sheep, to the tune of the Triton's song. But no longer under his trance, they should at least acknowledge they made the wrong call. 

Yet, from their once deafening roar, all we hear is the silence of the lambs.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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