Bashar's Syria at Ten: Does the Eye Doctor See Straight?
With a Keynote Address by Senator Mike Johanns
About This Event

The accession of Bashar al-Assad to the Syrian presidency, after his father's June 10, 2000, death, was greeted with optimism: here was a Western-educated eye doctor who promised to be moderate and to modernize Syria after three decades of dictatorial rule. U.S. officials hoped that young Assad would jump start Listen to Audio

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the Arab-Israeli peace process and end Syrian support for terrorism. All Syrians welcomed the "Damascus Spring."

The early optimism about Assad appears to have been unwarranted: an investigation into Syrian complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri has continued, Syrian support for terrorism is evident, and Syria is known as the principal waypoint for foreign fighters and suicide bombers entering Iraq. In addition, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a covert Syrian nuclear plant in 2007, and intelligence reports released in April have indicated that Damascus is seeking to transfer Scud missiles to Hezbollah.

On this tenth anniversary of Assad's presidency, where does U.S.-Syria policy stand? Does a policy of engagement offer promise, or is isolation warranted? Is the Syria-Iran relationship unshakable? Will Damascus ever cut ties with the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas? Is terrorism integral to the Syrian regime's foreign policy? To answer these and other questions, an international array of experts gathered at AEI to assess the legacy of Assad's decade-long rule and the future of U.S.-Syria relations. Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) delivered the keynote address.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, JUNE 10, 2010--On the tenth anniversary of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's ascent to power, an international array of experts gathered at AEI to assess the legacy of Assad's decade-long rule and the future of U.S.-Syrian relations. In the keynote speech, Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) criticized the Assad regime's support for terrorism and its destabilizing role in the Middle East. The first panel examined Assad's doctrine, highlighting that initial hopes that Bashar would liberalize Syria faded as he declined to modernize the country and renounce terrorism. The second panel assessed the Obama administration's policy of engagement with Damascus and found it to be flawed. Washington's concessions to Damascus on democracy and human rights issues have not changed Syrian behavior either on issues such as terror support or on the Middle East peace process. The third panel discussed Syria's support for terrorism and agreed that Syria's longstanding role as regional spoiler and state sponsor of terrorism will continue until the United States adopts a firmer policy that demands serious changes from the Assad regime. 

  • "Syria knows what it needs to do to improve its relationship with the U.S. It's not a mystery. It must completely cut off the flow of terrorists slipping into Iraq. It must stop helping the numerous terrorist groups it supports outside of Iraq. It must recognize that Israel has a right to exist, and negotiate a real peace in good faith. It needs to cooperate with the IAEA's [International Atomic Energy Agency] investigation into its suspected nuclear site. It has to do more to restore the Lebanese government's sovereignty, disarm Hezbollah, and hold accountable those responsible for the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. And it has to take positive steps toward political liberalization and human rights. It's a big agenda. But it's certainly not a secret agenda. The Syrians know this is what we want--and the fact that their poor behavior is continuing should be a sign that they are not interested."
    --Senator Mike Johanns (R-Neb.)

  • "The absence of any achievements emanating from the Obama administration's attempts to engage Damascus thus far suggest that the Assad regime sees little benefit in making even minor modifications in its support for resistance in the region. Now this, of course, should not come as a surprise. . . . Given what Bashar says and how the regime has behaved in its first ten years, it would be difficult not to conclude that support for terrorism, or resistance, is the sine qua non, the essential element of the regime."
    --David Schenker, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Director of the Program on Arab Politics

  • "If you want to understand how Assad sees engagement, think of a movie without a soundtrack. If you had a soundtrack to this movie, you would see American officials saying, 'You must stop doing X and you may not do Y, and we're not going to put up with you doing Z,' but there is no soundtrack. So all you see is American officials coming to pay tribute to Damascus. That's how he sees it. He doesn't listen to what American officials say to him. He doesn't care. What he sees is, they keep sending top officials. . . . What he is paying attention to is, 'They keep courting me.'"
    --Elliott Abrams, Council on Foreign Relations, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
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Speaker biographies

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Abrams served as the senior director for democracy and human rights, senior director for the Near East, and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Previously, he was assistant secretary of state for UN affairs, human rights, and Latin America in the Reagan administration.

Tony Badran
is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He focuses on Lebanon, Syria, and Hezbollah. His research includes U.S. policy toward Lebanon and Syria; Syrian foreign policy, with a focus on its regional relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon; Syria's ties to militant nonstate actors and terrorist groups; and Syria's international relations, especially with Russia and the European Union. Mr. Badran's other research has dealt with Syria's use of information warfare, as well as with the Syrian opposition movement. Mr. Badran also works on Islamist groups in the Levant.

Scott Carpenter is the Keston Family Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of Project Fikra, which focuses on empowering Arab democrats in their struggle against extremism. From 2004 to 2007, Mr. Carpenter served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, responsible for overseeing the Middle East Partnership Initiative. Prior to joining the U.S. Department of State, Mr. Carpenter served as the director of the Governance Group for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), helping to guide Iraq's political transition and to initiate a wide array of democracy initiatives. From May 2003 to July 2004, he served as a key adviser to the CPA administrator, facilitating the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council and the first post-Saddam cabinet, the drafting and signing of the Transitional Administrative Law (Iraq's interim constitution), and the establishment of Iraq's first fully sovereign government. He also presided over the design and implementation of the largest democratization effort in one country since the fall of the Berlin wall. Before joining the State Department, Mr. Carpenter worked with the International Republican Institute.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation and a research fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. He previously served as the CTC's director of research and was a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. Mr. Fishman was a regular contributor to the CTC's Harmony Project reports; he authored Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons Learned from Inside al-Qa`ida in Iraq, coauthored Al-Qa`ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records, and edited Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout: Al-Qa`ida's Road In and Out of Iraq. As part of his duties at West Point, Mr. Fishman deployed to Iraq and served on the CENTCOM Assessment Team. Mr. Fishman was a founding editor of the CTC Sentinel.

Bill Harris teaches Middle East history and contemporary affairs at the University of Otago in New Zealand, where he is a professor of politics and head of the Department of Politics. His most recent books are Faces of Lebanon (Markus Wiener, 2006; Princeton, 2005) and The Levant: A Fractured Mosaic (Markus Wiener, 2005; Princeton, 2008), which won a Choice Magazine outstanding academic title award. He is currently finishing a history of Lebanon from 600 to 2010 for Oxford University Press in New York. Mr. Harris lived in Lebanon in the late 1980s as a staff member at Haigazian University College in Beirut and is fluent in Arabic.

Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) was sworn in as U.S. senator for Nebraska on January 6, 2009. He won the support of an overwhelming majority of Nebraskans by demonstrating principled leadership throughout twenty-five years of public service. Senator Johanns serves on five committees: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Commerce and Transportation; Veterans' Affairs; and Indian Affairs. He is the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee's Domestic and Foreign Marketing, Inspection, and Plant and Animal Health Subcommittee. Senator Johanns became the twenty-eighth secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January 2005 and served as Nebraska's thirty-eighth governor from 1999 to 2005.

Danielle Pletka served for ten years as a senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Since coming to AEI, Ms. Pletka has developed a conference series on rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq, directed a project on democracy in the Arab world, and designed a project to track global business in Iran. She recently edited a publication on dissent and reform in the Arab world and coauthored a report on Iranian influence in the Levant, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Ms. Pletka comments frequently on foreign and defense policy issues on television and in major American newspapers.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Civil-Military Relations. He also teaches a graduate course on Iranian history at Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Rubin is a former editor of Middle East Quarterly and served as an Iran and Iraq country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is the author of two books about Iranian history and politics, most recently Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), and he publishes articles in a range of scholarly and policy journals. Mr. Rubin lectures frequently on the politics, culture, and strategy of Iran to senior U.S. Army officers deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is completing a history of U.S. engagement toward rogue regimes.

David Schenker is the Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute. Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon's top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant. In that capacity, he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. He was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 2005. Prior to joining the government, Mr. Schenker was a research fellow at the Washington Institute, focusing on Arab governance issues at a time of seminal leadership transition in the Middle East. In addition, he authored two institute books: Dancing with Saddam: The Strategic Tango of Jordanian-Iraqi Relations (copublished with Lexington Books, 2003) and Palestinian Democracy and Governance: An Appraisal of the Legislative Council (2001). Most recently, he published a chapter on U.S.-Lebanese relations in Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave, 2009).

Gary J. Schmitt is a resident scholar and the director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at AEI. Previously, he cofounded and served as the executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a Washington-based foreign and defense policy think tank. Prior to that, Mr. Schmitt was a member of the professional staff of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where he also served as the committee's minority staff director. In 1984, he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the post of executive director of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board at the White House. Mr. Schmitt is the coeditor, with Thomas Donnelly, of Of Men and Materiel: The Crisis in Military Resources (AEI Press, 2007). He has written books and articles on a number of topics, including the founding of the United States, the U.S. presidency, intelligence, and national security affairs. His most recent book is The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition (Encounter Books, May 2009), of which he is editor and contributing author. He is also a contributor to the forthcoming AEI Press volume Safety, Liberty, and Islamist Terrorism: American and European Approaches to Domestic Counterterrorism, which he edited.

Andrew Tabler is a Next Generation Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute, where he focuses on U.S. engagement with Syria. He is the cofounder and former editor-in-chief of Syria Today, Syria's first private-sector English-language magazine, and has been a media consultant for Syrian nongovernmental organizations (2003–2004) under the patronage of Syrian first lady Asma al-Asad. Most recently, Mr. Tabler served as a consultant on U.S.-Syria relations for the International Crisis Group (2008) and as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (2005–2007), writing on Syrian, Lebanese, and Middle Eastern affairs. After editorships with the Middle East Times and Cairo Times, Mr. Tabler became senior editor and director of editorial for the Oxford Business Group (OBG) in 2000. The following year, he personally oversaw with OBG the first comprehensive report on Syria in more than thirty years. Mr. Tabler is the author of the forthcoming book In the Lion's Den: Inside America's Cold War with Assad's Syria (I. B. Tauris, 2010) and the 2007 Stanley Foundation report The High Road to Damascus: Engage Syria's Private Sector.

William D. Wunderle is a foreign affairs specialist on the Joint Staff with responsibility for Iran and the Levant. He is also a fellow at the Society for Applied Anthropology and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute of Strategic Studies.          

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