Earlier this week, a group of Syrian dissidents were allowed to hold a meeting at the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus. The US Department of State made a point to praise the conference as a “move in the right direction,” and flaunted it as an example of why the US needs an ambassador in Syria. In fact, the Obama administration is playing right into Bashar al-Assad’s hands.
Over the last two weeks, this column has noted the curious role US Ambassador Robert Ford was playing in his discussions with certain Syrian dissidents who were involved in the Semiramis conference. During a press briefing on Monday, after the meeting had taken place, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland hailed the event, and revealed that “some of the folks participating in these meetings or some of them are clearly contacts of the Embassy.” The following day, Nuland further hyped up Ford’s activities, explaining that he had been “in close contact” with some of the participants, as well as with Assad’s “closest advisors” (most likely meaning Bouthaina Shaaban), whom he urged to allow the meeting to take place.
In fact, Assad hardly needed convincing—the conference was undoubtedly a step in the right direction for him. Prior to Ford’s mediation, Shaaban had reached out weeks ago to the two leading organizers of the conference—Michel Kilo and Lou’ay Hussein—in hopes of recruiting them for the regime’s sham “national dialogue.” The effort was not very successful, as most opposition figures inside and outside of Syria refused to openly negotiate with the regime so long as its brutal crackdown continued.
Having no intention of stopping the crackdown, Assad sought to bring pressure to bear on the most vulnerable opposition figures (those living inside Syria who have been imprisoned before but have not gone into hiding). He found in the US ambassador, who has been eagerly declaring his support for a "real dialogue" with the authorities, an unlikely partner. The full details of Ford’s role might have to await the next Wikileaks scandal, but one gets the picture from Nuland’s description, and it’s hard to escape the impression that he was effectively advancing Assad’s goals.
Ford did not get quite the turnout he had hoped. In the end, a majority of well-known intellectuals and activists, including such names as Suhair Atassi and Yassin Hajj Saleh, declined to participate. Some who initially agreed to participate, like Aref Dalila, later changed their minds. Others who might have participated, like Walid Bunni, were reportedly vetoed by the authorities. The result of this winnowing process was a group of under 200 over-aged, overall irrelevant (even if respectable), and highly vulnerable dissidents.
The fact that this group of people has no influence over the protest movement was neither an overlooked detail nor an accident—Assad has no intention of negotiating with the people leading his subjects to mutiny. All he aimed to do was to put on the appearance of a divided opposition, critical to the regime’s efforts to portray itself as the only alternative to chaos. On the day of the conference, the government announced that it was inviting members of the opposition to talks on July 10—a transparent ruse aimed at showing the world that it was willing to dialogue with “peaceful” opponents, even as its violent campaign continued. Ford’s actions did little other than to provide US cover for this crude propaganda.
As predicted by Bunni, Assad exploited the conference “as a cover-up for the arrests, brutal killings and torture that are taking place on a daily basis,” a view held by many in Syria. Those with real organizational involvement in the protest movement, the Local Coordination Committees, openly denounced the meeting for being held “under the banner of the regime” and giving it legitimacy.
The Obama administration’s refusal to declare Assad illegitimate is one thing. But to have the US ambassador effectively shore up the Syrian dictator's agitprop and practically facilitate his maneuvers is another thing entirely.
Believing that Assad must “lead the transition,” the Obama administration is now helping confer legitimacy on his farcical “reform” process. It has encountered some difficulty explaining why Ambassador Ford pressed for the convening of this conference, despite the unfavorable reaction of the uprising leaders. The explanation given by Nuland—that the conference allowed the opposition to make its demands known—was a particularly poor one. Thousands of Syrians braving death on a daily basis to call for the downfall of the regime could not be any clearer.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.