A view from Damascus

May 18, 2004

FROM HIS HILLTOP palace, Syrian President Bashar Assad rules a nation in a state of emergency. He inherited a country under martial law from his father, the late Hafez el Assad, who ruled for nearly 30 years. The young Assad professes to be an agent for change. But incremental change is all he can effect, he says, because of Syria's tribal customs, economic stagnation and political isolation. The United States, he says, has a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenge he faces.

When Mr. Assad talks to American journalists, which he rarely does, the 39-year-old ophthalmologist can sound perfectly reasonable. In an interview last week with editors from The Sun and other newspapers, he explained martial law as a necessary security measure to prevent terrorist attacks. That is a convenient explanation in these times, but hardly an accurate one. Human rights activists have long decried the dictatorship in Syria. Yet Mr. Assad is not his father, whose regime established the repressive policies cited by activists. Mr. Assad's overtures toward change, though reserved and extremely limited, should be encouraged, not ignored or dismissed.

Yet the United States is determined to isolate Mr. Assad even more than he is already. The recent imposition of U.S. sanctions against Syria, approved by Congress, will restrict trade and some banking and freeze assets of Syrian nationals and others. The measures, although less punitive than they could have been, won't improve the climate for reform-minded Syrians.

Syria has been on the U.S. enemies list for decades and for good reasons: its military presence in Lebanon, its support of terrorist organizations and its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration also has criticized Syrian efforts in the United States' war on terror and its activities during the invasion of Iraq.

Mr. Assad has refuted some U.S. criticisms and argues that America completely ignores Damascus' internal issues. He has a point. Syria isn't going to change because the United States demands it. Decades of totalitarian rule aren't overcome easily, and democracy, if it is to take root and thrive, needs to be cultivated from the ground up.

Punishing sanctions also don't equate to regime change. Iraq was proof of that. As it is, the United States' standing in the Arab world diminishes daily, fueled by events in Iraq and the lack of any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Bush administration may well regret the course it has set for relations with Syria, depending on the outcome of Washington's democracy project in Iraq. Win or lose in Baghdad, U.S. interests in the region would be better off with an ally in Damascus, instead of a foe looking for an opportunity to settle a score.

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