Across the Bay

Friday, March 30, 2007

Press Briefings on Syria

Two press briefings ahead of the ill-advised Pelosi trip to the ME which will include a stop in Syria.

The first is by Sean McCormack:

MR. MCCORMACK: Thank you, it's good to be back. I have one short opening statement for you and then we can get right into your questions.

This is -- this concerns the release of political prisoners and open political discourse in Syria. We deplore arbitrary arrests and detention of political prisoners by the Syrian Government. We are concerned about the cases of Syrian political prisoners Anwar Al-Bunni and Kamal Labwani, who are being tried in criminal court for expressing their opinions. We join others in calling on the Syrian Government to immediately and unconditionally release them and other prisoners of conscience, including Mahmoud Issa and Michel Kilo. The continued use of arbitrary arrests and detentions of its opponents demonstrates the Syrian regime's contempt for accepted international human rights standards.

Open political discourse, where people do not fear imprisonment simply for expressing their views, is an essential element of democracy. The United States stands with the Syrian people in their struggle for universal freedoms and calls on the Syrian Government to end its abusive practices.

QUESTION: Are you stopping (inaudible) in Damascus?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't know. We have raised this with them in Damascus, although we have in the past made public statements about these individuals. The reason why this comes up again right now, is the sentencing phase for the two individuals, Mr. Labwani and Mr. Al-Bunni, is coming up. We don't know exactly when that may occur, but prior to that occurring we wanted to make sure that we made another statement highlighting their continued detention. Also you are going to have elections -- parliamentary elections in Syria at the end of April and we want to do everything that we could to highlight the importance of free and open political discourse within the Syrian political system. Obviously, that's not something that is the case at the moment and we still hold out hope that at some future date that will, in fact, be the case.

The second is by Dana Perino (White House), dealing specifically with Pelosi's visit:

Q Dana, the Speaker of the House is traveling to Syria next week. Wondering what the White House's view on that is.

MS. PERINO: Well, as you know, we do not encourage -- in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria. This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Siniora government in Lebanon, and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders. And so we don't think it's productive to go to Syria and try to -- well, I don't know what she's trying to accomplish. I don't believe that anyone in the administration has spoken to her about it. But in general we do discourage such trips.

Q So specifically on this one -- this will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to go to Syria since the Hariri assassination, even before that, and apparently she's going to meet with President Assad. Would you have a specific message to the Speaker of the House about meeting with President Assad at a time when the administration has even withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus?

MS. PERINO: Well, again, I don't know if anyone has spoken to the Speaker. I do think that, as a general rule -- and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking -- that we don't think it's a good idea. We think that someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends, and the message that it sends to our allies. I'm not sure what the hopes are to -- what she's hoping to accomplish there. I know that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they're coming from, but we do think that's a really bad idea.

Update: There was yet another briefing by McCormack today that touched on the Pelosi visit:

QUESTION: Nancy Pelosi is visiting Syria. The White House criticized her decision to go. I was wondering what you think of this. And it's my understanding that the Bush Administration tried to dissuade her from visiting Syria at this time, didn't think it would be appropriate.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: Can you speak to that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we've -- you know, our message both to Republicans and Democrats alike who either have visited Syria in this recent period or intend to, as Speaker Pelosi does, has been consistent, it's been the same. In our view, it's not the right time to have those sort of high-profile visitors to Syria mostly for the simple fact that the Syrians, despite a number of different pleas and approaches from the United States as well as other countries, have refused to change their behavior vis-à-vis support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, for their support for -- their unhelpful stance with respect to Lebanon. And we don't think it would be appropriate for high-level visitors, even those from the Congress, to pay a visit to Syria right now.

A typical Syrian MO on this is to use these visits to tell the rest of the world and say, "Look, there's nothing wrong. We're having all these visitors come to Syria, coming to Damascus, there's no problem with our behavior," and they point to the visits as proof that there is no problem with their behavior and that they are not, in fact, isolated. So that's the simple reason why we have encouraged others as well as Speaker Pelosi not to travel.

That said, congressmen and representatives are going to make their own decisions about where they travel. And in this case, they made the decision to go forward. We are going to provide all the support that might normally be expected to be provided to a member of Congress traveling to a foreign country. We provided a briefing for Speaker Pelosi's staff and those traveling with her. So that's about -- that's really where we stand right now.

Unfortunately, as McCormack noted, the Syrians will spin this to declare "victory," a "deal," "end of isolation," and so on. All nonsense of course.

Here's where the al-Hayat article that I recently translated becomes once again relevant: "Damascus, however, sees these contacts as proof of its ability to maintain its positions and to force others to change their policy towards it."

Damascus (whose misreading of these things is notorious), in other words, presents "Western engagement" as "Western surrender." And since it's a totalitarian state, it conditions public opinion to see it that way; to view any visit, in and of itself, regardless of the message delivered during the visit, as a vindication and legitimization of the regime and its policies! Witness this example.

It should be kept in mind, as you read the inevitable Syrian spin, that Rep. Tom Lantos is going with Pelosi. Lantos is a known hardliner on Syria, and an advocate of deploying UNIFIL troops on the border with Syria.

David Schenker recently recalled Lantos's record with Syria:

The notable exception to the stream of highly damaging congressional visits has been Lantos, incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee. In 2003, when he was in the minority, Lantos met with Asad, but unlike his Democratic and Republican colleagues, Lantos towed a hard line both in the meeting and out. In fact, immediately after his audience with Asad in 2003, Lantos returned to the Damascus Sheraton hotel and gave an unprecedented press conference, reviewing the full litany of U.S. grievances with Syrian policy, from human-rights abuses, to active undermining or stability in Iraq, to Syrian support for Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah.

Although the Bush administration was likely not pleased with the Lantos trip at the time, his courageous public message countered the potentially negative implications of the visit. Not surprisingly, when Lantos returned to Syria in 2004, he was not granted a meeting with Asad, but instead had to settle for then Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa.

Hisham Melhem reported on the visit, quoting official sources as saying that the administration, which opposed the visit but couldn't stop it, ended up urging the delegation to at least carry "a strong message" to the Syrian government on human rights and interference in Lebanon, and convinced the delegation to meet with representatives of civil society and human rights organizations.

Melhem also noted Lantos's inclusion in the delegation:

The [official] sources expressed their satisfaction at the fact that the delegation includes Lantos who is known for his hardline positions on Syria and its leadership, and who has met in the past more than once with President Bashar Assad, and directed harsh and public criticisms at him, even when he was in Damascus.

They [the official sources] hoped that Lantos will play that role once again during the trip.

In all likelihood, the delegation will get the same result as the one Bill Nelson (and every other Western delegate) got: absolutely nothing.