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Daniel Hamilton: Syria - Corruption, censorship, and the veneer of democracy

By Daniel Hamilton

Syria200It has been nearly eight years since John Bolton’s ‘Beyond the Axis of Evil’ speech to the Heritage Foundation which first brought the Syrian regime’s oppressive tactics and dangerous dalliances in Islamic extremism to public note. 

Since that time, President Bashar al-Assad’s administration have conducted one of the most notable global public relations campaigns ever witnessed with numerous Western pundits hailing the country’s the “progress” the state has made in the field of human rights and democracy.  In reality, Syria can be held up as a great case study for Middle East democratisation; not because of any true democratic or economic reforms, but as an example of how a huge state-funded spin operation can present a few smart hotels as evidence of a liberalising and modernising government.

A brazen example of the deceitful public relations operation being waged by Damascus can be found in the recent coverage of the powerful regime insider and political fixer Rami Makhluf.  The World Finance Magazine’s Top 100 list of those who have made the most significant contribution to “fiscal and economic progress across the globe" described him as:

“A genuine leader, well known for his strong will and for his high personal and professional ethics...  He plays a role in Syria’s vibrant economic development, investing his enthusiasm and energy to set a wind of change in the business environment. Makhlouf has a rock-solid reputation as a visionary that realises his vision. Philanthropic, a family man and sport passionate, he masters the art of work – life balance”

How times change. This isn’t quite how he was described by the US State Department in 2008

Indeed, they took a more critical view, of his activities, describing him as a “powerful regime insider whom improperly benefits from and aids the public corruption of Syrian regime officials.” In the State Department press release, the Bush Administration described Makhluf as:

“A powerful Syrian businessman who amassed his commercial empire by exploiting his relationships with Syrian regime members. Makhluf has manipulated the Syrian judicial system and used Syrian intelligence officials to intimidate his business rivals. He employed these techniques when trying to acquire exclusive licenses to represent foreign companies in Syria and to obtain contract awards.”

Neither nascent signs of economic development nor a few rosy paragraphs in a corporate magazine should not conceal the truth about Syrian politics.

European politicians are forever being flown out to Damascus to take in the new air of modernisation, and to marvel at the bustling business and tourism districts of the capital city.  Behind this mask there lies an uneasy truth about Syria; a country alarmingly close to the despotic regime in Iran, which exercises huge influence on internally and regionally Syrian politics.

Towards the end of last year, evidence was uncovered regarding the transportation of weaponry from the North Korean administration to Hamas and Hezbollah cells stationed in Syria.  Acting on a tip-off from the American government, a North Korean aircraft bound for Tehran was seized at Bangkok airport containing thirty-five tonnes of weaponry destined for exiled terrorists in the country plotting attacks on Israel.  One needs little reminding that the majority of the weapons used in the 2006 Hezbollah attacks on Israel which resulted in 2,000 deaths and thousands of injuries originated in Syria to know just how cataclysmic the consequences of such weapons reaching the hands of terrorist could turn out to be.

While the government of Syria insists its missile installations are secure and invulnerable to capture by rebel forces, the closeness of the regime to terrorist groups is a significant cause for concern.  Indeed, as John Bolton highlighted in 2002 “all of Syria's missiles are mobile and can reach much of Israel, Jordan, and Turkey from launch sites well within the country”.

America has been trying, in vain, to tempt Syria away from Iran.  High-level diplomatic envoys have been welcomed in the morning, and spurned in the evening as Syrian top brass dine with Iranian officials and the Hezbollah leadership.  As recently as February, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad visited Damascus and participated in a public appearance with Hamas leader Hassan Nasrallah and President Bashar al-Assad  in which he praised the country’s membership of his so-called “resistance bloc” opposed to the American and Israeli regional influence. 

Global security concerns aside, my organisation Big Brother Watch is keen to draw urgent attention to the regime’s treatment of bloggers and journalists – the very people who are playing an increasingly important role in the struggle for freedom and democracy in the Arab world. 

In July of last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Syria 165th out 175 countries in their Press Freedom Index, and they regard Syria as one of the world’s 40 worst “predators of press freedom” and as an “Enemy of the Internet.”

As is de rigueur in undemocratic regimes, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned inside the country.  Sensing that other news sources cannot be so easily suppressed, the Syrian government has sought to take further concrete steps to assert their control over the free press. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently marked 10 years of President Bashar’s rule with a report placing Syria in the top 10 worst countries in which to be online. Indeed, under the new internet law which is awaiting final assent from the Syrian Parliament, a new legal framework has been established which would require both ordinary bloggers and journalists to register as members of the country’s state-controlled journalism union – a move which would see their comments subjected to the veto-power of the government’s powerful media regulator. 

The regime is fundamentally hostile to criticism whether it comes from teenage bloggers or elderly poets, academics or housewives. 

In November, a teenage girl was arrested and jailed on charges “spying for a foreign government” for writing “dissident” poems while the 79 year old human rights lawyer Haytham Al-Maleh was sentenced to three years in prison last year for “transferring false and exaggerated news that weaken national sentiments” after criticising the regime’s continued use of emergency laws designed for times of war.  At the other end of the spectrum, cartoonist Ali Farzat has faced intimidation for his gentle ribbing of political figures (no national newspaper dares any longer publish his content). 

At the 2009 party conference in Manchester, the then Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke of his intention to conduct “robust dialogue with Syria” when in government.  In light of the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria today, now Foreign Secretary Hague must now put that plan into action.


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