Syrian President Assad Regarded As a ‘Reformer,’ Clinton Says

Patrick Goodenough | March 28, 2011 | 4:47am EDT
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Syrian President Bashar Assad addresses a press conference at the presidential palace in Damascus on Thursday Oct. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

( – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday drew a contrast between Syrian President Bashir Assad and his late father and predecessor, and said U.S. lawmakers who recently have visited Damascus regarded him as a “reformer.”
She made the startling comment while explaining why the United States will not intervene on behalf of Syrian civilians revolting against the regime as it has done in the case of Libya.

The recent wave of unrest in Syria originated in the city of Deraa near the border with Jordan and has spread to other centers, including Damascus and Latakia, a coastal city with a sizeable population of Allawites, members of Assad’s minority Shi’ite sect.

Security forces have opened fire on protestors on several occasions, and human rights groups put the death toll in Deraa alone at more than 60. Clashes in Latakia at the weekend left more people dead, with reports of fatalities ranging from six to 21.

As it has done since the unrest began, the regime’s official SANA news agency has blamed shadowy conspirators and “foreign plots,” attributing the deaths in Latakia to “armed gangs.”

Doing the round of Sunday television talk shows with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Clinton told CBS’s Face the Nation that the U.S. would not enter the conflict in Syria as it has in Libya.

“No,” she said. “Each of these situations is unique.”

While saying the administration deplored the violence in Syria, she contrasted the situation to that of Libya.

“What’s been happening there [in Syria] the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities and then police actions, which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.”

Clinton described Muammar Gaddafi as “someone who has behaved in a way that caused grave concern in the past 40-plus years in the Arab world, the African world, Europe, and the United States.”

CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, the interviewer, noted that the president’s father, Hafez Assad, had “killed 25,000 people at a lick” – a reference to the crushing of an Islamist revolt in the town of Hama in 1982 – and said the regime now was firing at civilians with live ammunition.

“Why is that different from Libya?” he asked.

“There’s a different leader in Syria now,” Clinton said. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

Despite appeals from the Obama administration, Bashir Assad has aligned himself with Iran and Hamas.

The most recent congressional delegation to visit Syria was one led by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) last month.

There was no public statement from either side after the talks, but SANA said Assad had told the visitors -- speaking about protests in the Arab world -- that leaders should “better understand the will of the people and to carry out policies that reflect” their demands. Attempts to get comment from Shelby’s spokesman on Sunday were unsuccessful.

‘Assad has been very generous with me’

Syrian President Bashir Assad holds discussions with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, in Damascus on November 8, 2010. (Photo: SANA)

A regular visitor to Damascus is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has met with Assad at least six times, most recently last November.

Kerry was a strong supporter of the Obama administration’s decision to re-engage the Assad regime and to send an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in five years. He has also taken an interest in prodding Syria and Israel towards peace talks.

In a March 16 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on U.S. policy in the light of what he called “the new Arab awakening,” Kerry referred to the situation in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Lebanon.

There was not a single reference in the speech to Syria, however.

When Kerry was asked about Syria during a question-and-answer session afterwards, he voiced optimism about the direction relations were taking.

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Kerry continued. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

He mentioned some of the requests, including the purchase of land for the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the opening of an American cultural center, non-interference in Lebanon’s election and the improvement of ties with Iraq and Bahrain, and said Assad had met each one.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move; Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

Syrian President Bashir Assad and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meet with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in February 2010. (Photo: Hezbollah/Moqawama Web site)

Kerry said nothing about the need for internal reform in Syria.

In contrast, Kerry early this month was an outspoken advocate for the administration to act in Libya, describing Gaddafi as “a mad man bent on maintaining power” and saying the U.S. should lead the world in preventing the slaughter of more Libyan civilians.

After President Obama’s election victory in November 2008, Kerry was widely tipped to become secretary of state. The post went to Clinton, but speculation persisted through last year that Kerry remained keen. Clinton recently said she would not serve as secretary of state in a second Obama term, if the president is re-elected.

Assad became president on his father’s death in 2000. Despite his pledges to liberalize he continues to restrict civil liberties and hold onto power by force, and human rights groups name Syria among the world’s 20 most repressive countries today, citing thousands of political prisoners, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and a state of emergency in place since 1963.

In 2005, opposition figures and groups in Syria signed the “Damascus Declaration,” calling for “peaceful political reform based on dialogue,” an end to the emergency laws and the release of political prisoners.

Twelve signatories were later found put on trial for their participation and sentenced to jail terms ranging from three to six years.

Assad, like his father, has nurtured strong ties with Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, while continuing to host Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus.

He also maintained Syria’s decades-old policy of political and military interference in Lebanon, and his regime was suspected of high-level involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

The Hariri killing prompted President Bush to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Damascus. Seeking improved relations with Syria, President Obama nominated Robert Ford as ambassador and, after the process stalled in Congress, appointed him during a recess last December.

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