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Silencing the Opposition

Syrian democracy activist Riad Seif gets a virtual death sentence.

11:00 PM, Feb 12, 2008 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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Not content with merely preventing Seif from seeking treatment abroad, the Assad regime has now seemingly condemned Syria's leading reformer to death behind bars. His incarceration is a strong message to would-be Syrian democrats. But it's also a clear message for Washington: the Assad regime is not interested in political liberalization. As the ongoing Syrian obstruction of Lebanese presidential elections would also suggest, the Assad regime's interventionist and destabilizing foreign policies are not up for discussion, either.

The Assad regime is unrepentant about Seif's unusually harsh treatment. Last week, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem had the temerity to blame the human rights community for the arrest. "The importance given to the case of Riad Seif," he told the Austrian Foreign Minister, "encouraged him to break the law."

For the Bush administration, Seif's death sentence should be a defining moment. Given the circumstances, last week's perfunctory condemnation calling on Syria to "modify its behavior . . . and provide its citizens with the rights they deserve," is not sufficient. Seif is far and away the most credible Syrian oppositionist. He is not particularly close to Washington--which has enhanced his local appeal--but administration concerns about undermining his position in Syria via a Western embrace ignore the urgency of the situation.

Like in Egypt, Washington has a choice to make. When Egyptian reformer Saad Eddin Ibrahim was arrested and convicted in 2002, the administration threatened to withhold $130 million in assistance. He was subsequently released. When reformist opposition presidential candidate Ayman Abdel Nour was arrested in 2005, the United States determined that the case was "an Egyptian issue," and he remains in prison to this day.

In recent years the policy of democracy promotion has gone by the wayside, but judging from the continued frequency of White House and State Department condemnations of Syria's atrocious human rights practices, the administration still considers the issue to be important. Given the lack of levers, pressuring Syria on human rights is clearly more difficult than it is in Egypt. Nevertheless, many in the administration acknowledge that Washington's response to the Abdel Nour case was not its finest hour.

With just eleven months left, time is running out for the administration and for Seif. Human Rights have always been an agenda item in Washington's bilateral representations to Damascus, albeit low on the list. The administration has a long range of grievances with Syria, ranging from its meddling in Lebanon and support for Hamas and Hizballah, to its continued meddling in Iraq. Among this crowded field, the administration would be well advised to raise the profile of it concerns regarding Syria's human rights practices.

Given the relentless repression of the Assad regime, when Seif is gone it could take years for another leader of his stature to emerge. In the absence of any real homegrown pro-democratic opposition, Damascus will face even fewer constraints to pursuing its pernicious policies at home and abroad.

David Schenker is senior fellow and director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002 to 2006, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as country director for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.