Mr. Kucinich goes to Damascus

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich goes where seasoned diplomats and Middle East experts fear to tread. Is that a wise move?

This photo shows Syria's Bashar al-Assad meeting with US Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio and his delegation in Damascus, Syria, on June 27.

Hillary Clinton issued one of the sternest American warnings to Syria yet today.

Saying the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is "running out of time" she placed the blame for the country's violence squarely on the president and his supporters.

"We regret the loss of life and we regret the violence, but this choice is up to the Syrian government," Clinton told reporters. "And, right now, we're looking for action not words and we haven't seen enough of that."

Mr. Assad has ruled Syria since 2000, when his father Hafez died. The elder Mr. Assad took power in 1971, strengthening one-party rule in his time in office and expanding the surveillance and repression of Syria's citizenry. Bashar has carried on the family tradition, notwithstanding the fact that many in the West praised him as a likely "reformer." At least 1,500 Syrians have died in the government's ongoing crackdown against demands for political change and Assad has shown no signs of giving in. It's hard to see why he would, since a truly open political system would almost certainly spell the end for the power and privilege of his friends and family.

But at least one man continues to hold out hope that Assad will find his inner reformer: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio. Though a Democrat, he's been sharply out of step with the Obama administration. He criticized US participation in the NATO air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and has said on multiple occasions that he has hope that Assad will bow to demands for political change.

His visit to Damascus this week got off to a predictable start. After meeting with a group of hand-picked local journalists earlier this week, the state news agency quoted Mr. Kucinich as saying Assad "is highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians" and that Assad "cares so much about what is taking place in Syria, which is evident in his effort towards a new Syria and everybody who meets him can be certain of this."

Kucinich responded by issuing a statement that he was "misquoted" and it's certainly hard to imagine the "highly loved" comment having come out of his mouth, whatever his political views. But he has frequently in recent months expressed confidence in Assad, and even after having words put in his mouth by what amounts to a regime mouthpiece, he is willing to give Assad the benefit of the doubt.

"Arab-speaking friends accompanying me have explained that the problem may have come from a mistranslation as well as the degree of appreciation and affection their state-sponsored media has for President Assad," his statement says. "It is up to the people of Syria to decide the future of their government. There is a process of national dialogue beginning and this process is important. It is important that the Assad government listen carefully to the just demands and act positively to fulfill the democratic aspirations of the people of Syria."

In May, he made it clear in an interview with The Plain Dealer of Cleveland that he doesn't see Assad as the sole problem in Syria and shifted some of the blame for the violence on to the country's protesters. "We also understand that there's very serious questions raised about the conduct of the Syrian police, but we also know the Syrian police were fired upon and that many police were murdered," Kucinich told the paper. "I've read where President Assad has made certain commitments, and I would imagine that when things finally settle down, that President Assad will move in a direction of democratic reforms... He has already made that commitment from what I can see."

Even then, Syrian civilians were being butchered for standing up to Assad, whose regime routinely uses torture on its opponents and jails dissidents. There's no doubt that he's right that regime opponents have killed policemen. With the frustrations of decades of abuse boiling over, that kind of behavior is inevitable – particularly when it's preceded by cops and soldiers firing at unarmed demonstrators. Kucinich joins a long line of seemingly well-meaning people duped into believing that regimes like Assad's are willing to reform themselves out of existence, despite no evidence – anywhere, really – that fundamental change doesn't come to dictatorships unless they're pushed by their people or outside forces.

At the end of his trip, he also appeared to buy into the Syrian government's narrative that a process managed by Assad is needed to avoid a descent into chaos.

"During a time when matters of such grave consequence are under way, it is essential that the media analyze the political dynamics and understand that lurking beneath the surface of the already abominable violence in Syria is a dangerous sectarian push for destabilization and chaos which can readily descend into a civil war threatening the lives of millions more," Kucinich said on June 30. “The situation in Syria is dire. I don't support the violence, I don't condone the violence, and by direct appeal to President Assad and in support of those who are seeking freedom and serious reforms, I am working to end the violence. I appealed to President Assad to remove his forces from the cities. He told me he would, and today we learned that he has begun to do just that."

The risk of civil war in Syria is real – though that risk remains whether Assad stays or goes. It's true that forces pulled out of some cities on Thursday. In the district of Jebel al-Zuwayia, near Turkey, the troops pulled out of the town of Rameh after killing 19 people there that morning and the previous day. Where did they go? They spread out along the Turkish border, to prevent more refugees from fleeing the country.

Even in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, a far more gentle and open regime than Assad's, the reform two-step was generally one step forward and two back. And Egypt does not have the challenging sectarian issues that will face Syria if and when the Baathist Assad regime crumbles. After all, Assad and many of those around him are drawn from the tiny Alawite sect, Islamist politics have been brutally repressed, and there's a scathing list of grievances against him and his family in almost every Syrian town or city worthy of a name. If real reform was a risk Mubarak feared would be hard to manage, for Assad it's hard to see it being anything less than catastrophic.

What Kucinich's trip counts for is hard to say. Syrian democracy activists worry that it will give comfort to Assad as evidence that opinion among his external enemies is split. There's probably a little bit of truth to that. But Assad's motives for hanging on hardly need strengthening. The real damage could end up being to Kucinich's own reputation. He's long spoken up admirably for human rights abuses and an end to torture.

In April, he spoke out against the continued use of the Guantanamo Bay prison by the US. "We cannot credibly claim to support democracy-building abroad when we have tortured people and held them indefinitely without allowing them their due process rights," Kucinich said then. Yet here he was two months later, meeting with a man who presides over a torture regime that makes Guantanamo look like a summer camp.

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