I knew what I was getting into when I decided to attend the Washington D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute’s Syria conference on June 10. Just look at the suggestive title: “Bashar’s Syria at Ten: Does the Eye Doctor See Straight?”
As I looked at the program I noticed that the panelists, supposedly an “international array of experts,” mainly came from the AIPAC allied Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which gave me little reason to believe that a three hour session on Syria at a conservative think tank—which housed notable cheerleaders for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example—would focus on the facts. AEI’s own Danielle Pletka served as a moderator on the “Terrorism” panel but mainly offered snark (and not even funny snark); female analysts were noticeably missing in action.
Despite this not-so-friendly environment for serious analysis, policy prescriptions and dare I say, dissent, I decided to attend this event because as a Syrian-American, as someone with family still living in Syria, I have a stake in U.S. Middle East policy.
I’ve met Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Damascus, people who serve as a living testament to the consequences of war and occupation. With a Syrian filmmaker I walked around his destroyed hometown, Quneitra, in Syria’s Golan, occupied by Israel following the 1967 war. In the middle of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, I volunteered at a shelter in Damascus and served food to the thousands of Lebanese who sought temporary refuge in Syria. I’ll never forget hearing one woman say, “I hope my child doesn’t grow up to hate America,” referring to unquestioning U.S. government support for Israel.
U.S. Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) delivered the keynote address, in which he espoused “crippling sanctions” on Iran, without acknowledging that sanctions don’t work unless they have the backing of people against their governments (and most Iranians, like Cubans, Iraqis and yes, Syrians, don’t support sanctions). He berated the Syrian “regime”—note, according to AEI, Syria has a “regime,” not a “government,” and no speaker or audience member asking a question ever deviated from this rule—and admonished the Obama administration for sending the “wrong message” to Syria by seeking engagement.
According to the senator, Syria “must completely cut off the flow of terrorists slipping into Iraq. It must stop helping the numerous terrorist groups it supports outside of Iraq. It must recognize that Israel has a right to exist, and negotiate a real peace in good faith.” Other speakers would repeat these demands during panels on “The Bashar al-Assad Doctrine,” “Assessing Engagement” and “Terrorism.”
No one mentioned Syria’s cooperation with Iraq on border security, refugees and elections. No one mentioned that Syria as early as January 2002 opposed the invasion of Iraq, and warned the U.S. about the consequences, including the rise of extremism. No one questioned the illogic of the senator’s demand that Syria recognize Israel’s right to exist, given that Syrian and Israeli officials have been in the same room together on several occasions and have attempted to negotiate peace.
David Schenker, Andrew Tabler and Scott Carpenter, all from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Elliott Abrams, Tony Badran, Brian Fishman, Bill Harris and William Wunderle, from the Council on Foreign Relations, Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, New America Foundation, Otago University in New Zealand and the Pentagon, respectively, expressed their opinions freely—their right. However, on an intellectual level, their analysis and presentation of the facts left large holes.
I reminded the speakers after they finished presenting in the opening panel that none of them mentioned that Israel continues to occupy Syria’s Golan, a strange omission when discussing Syria’s foreign policy, or why Damascus views Hamas and Hezbollah as legitimate resistance movements. Israeli occupation of the Golan also relates to the larger impact that Israel’s occupation of Arab land has throughout the region.
Absence of context throughout the panels signaled to me that this AEI conference was an overall exercise in intellectual dishonesty and ideology, not serious analysis, much less discussion of U.S. policy toward Syria and the region.
For example, in making his case that President Bashar al-Assad is “worse” than the late Hafez-al-Assad, Schenker tried to score audience humor points by referring to a “bromance” between Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. In the same vein, while it is clear that Syria needs political and economic reform, Carpenter’s gloom-and-doom scenario of the human rights situation there (but not in U.S. allied Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, for example) offered no constructive policy prescriptions.
I had hoped a panel entitled “Assessing Engagement” would actually “assess” reasons for and against engagement with Syria and cite historic precedents. Perhaps even point to examples of cooperation between Syria and the U.S., such as during the Gulf War or on intelligence sharing after 9/11, and discuss the lessons learned. Instead, Elliott Abrams, who in 1991 plead guilty to lying to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, concluded that present U.S. policy toward Syria is “just giveaways in exchange for nothing.” AEI could have saved time and ink by nixing such a panel and replacing it with moderator Michael Rubin informing audience-goers at the outset, “No engagement with Syria because we said so.”
What did I learn after the event concluded? When someone asked the last panelists the “where do we go from here” question, no one answered it. Nor did anyone seem to want to. Why did AEI promote such an event? Based on what I heard, it wasn’t to offer probing insights on Syria rooted in scholarly research, or promote peace and security between Syria and Israel, and throughout the region; nor to improve relations between the U.S. and Syria, or elevate reform and development in Syria. Perhaps it really was just to schedule a public demonization of another country (with free coffee, croissants and fruit).
Am I more motivated now to lobby my Members of Congress to support crippling sanctions on Syria (and Iran)? No. Will I ask them to challenge President Obama’s decision to send an Ambassador to Syria? Nope.
However, I can thank AEI for reminding me to keep pushing for improved relations between the U.S. and Syria, which includes supporting peace, security and development inside and outside Damascus.
How about a conference on that?
FARRAH HASSEN is a writer and videographer living in Washington DC.