Offering singular praise for the reform efforts being enacted by Syria’s embattled leader, President Bashar Assad, noted anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich urged the United States and the rest of the international community to lift economic sanctions against the Syrian regime.
Rep. Kucinich’s comments were made to reporters during a visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus. There, Kucinich chastised the media for overly “dramatizing” the chaotic events transpiring in the country. According to Kucinich, Assad was “highly loved and appreciated by the Syrians,” adding that those opposing him were still free to speak their minds.
It should be noted that when his remarks appeared in the Syrian paper Al-Watan, Kucinich was quick to state he had been misquoted, saying the report contained “a number of mistranslations and mischaracterized statements. It is unfortunate that translation errors can create such problems.”
Of course, there was confusion as to why Kucinich happened to find himself in Damascus in the first place. While Kucinich said he was on a “fact-finding mission” on behalf of his constituents, Al-Watan pointed out his visit was organized by the Syrian embassy “as part of a campaign intended to relieve external pressure on the regime, and allow it to present its situation.”
In any case, whether he was misquoted or not, Kucinich has demonstrated a soft spot for the Syrian despot. In a recent interview with an American newspaper, Kucinich said he thought Assad “will move in a direction of democratic reforms. He has already made that commitment from what I can see.”
To speed that reformist commitment, Kucinich has now urged the United States and the rest of the international community to lift the economic sanctions they have imposed against the Syrian regime. Those US sanctions – which have frozen assets of selected Syrian officials – were first slapped on Syria in May 2011 by the Obama administration.
The European Union soon followed with its own sanctions, which included a travel ban and the freezing of assets for 30 additional Syrian officials. Ironically, Kucinich’s plea came on the same day the US announced a new set of US sanctions that would be placed on additional Syrian individuals and entities.
While many have viewed the sanctions as nothing more than symbolic gestures, the Syrian economy has nevertheless been undergoing some very difficult times. In May, a report by the Institute of International Finance forecast a shrink of 3 percent to Syria’s $52 billion economy this year.
Additionally, Syria’s $18 billion in reserves have been falling at a rate of $70-80 million a week. Underlying the financial insecurity, the current spate of political unrest has hindered foreign investment, leading to high unemployment and inflation.
Despite Kucinich’s belief in Assad’s Jeffersonian impulse, it’s a view not shared by many Syrians these days. To illustrate that point, in Assad’s last public speech on June 20, he trotted out his latest reform plank, which included a move towards multi-party democracy, a crackdown on government corruption, and a reduction of the political role of his Baath party.
The response to the speech, however, sparked widespread demonstrations in 19 Syrian cities, including in Damascus, with crowds chanting “liar.” Of course, it’s certainly understandable that Syrians remain skeptical of Assad’s motives.
Since the Syrian uprising began in March, an estimated 1,600 civilians have been killed and 10,000 arrested. Moreover, many of those killed came at the hands of Syrian security forces opening fire on funeral processions being held for slain anti-government protesters.
Moreover, Assad has shown no inclination to ease up on the bloodbath. Only yesterday, Syrian tanks and helicopters assaulted the village of Rameh, killing seven people and wounding scores. The result has been a mass exodus of Syrians fleeing the country. It is estimated that over 12,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey, apparently unaware of the reforms being enacted on their behalf by Assad.
However, Assad still commands loyalty among his mainly Alawite forces led by his brother Maher, including the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division. Each of these units contains nearly 10,000 highly trained soldiers equipped with large numbers of heavily armored tanks. In comparison, the rest of Syria’s 200,000 troops are mostly poorly trained and poorly equipped conscripts.
Still, while it’s easy to be hard on Kucinich for his romantic view of Assad and his regime, he certainly hasn’t been alone in that stance. The Obama administration, despite its recent stance, has long been an advocate for Assad’s role as a strategic ally in the Mideast region.
In fact, it was only in March that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had also referred to Assad as a “reformer,” even as his regime was already in the midst of its brutal crackdown on Syrian demonstrators. As such, she insisted the United States, unlike in Libya, would not intervene militarily to stop the Syrian regime’s murderous repression of its own people.
To his credit, at least, Kucinich is nothing if not consistent in his support for some unsavory figures, including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. To that end, he recently issued his own 10-point plan calling for the saving of the Gaddafi regime with calls for an immediate ceasefire followed by political reforms to be ushered in by the Libyan despot.
In the end, however, despite Kucinich’s support, the future path of Bashar Assad and his regime remain in doubt. For Kucinich, his path may be much clearer. As his Ohio congressional seat is being redistricted out of existence, there has been speculation that he is exploring options to run in some out-of-state ultra-liberal congressional district.
However, if that proves to not be a viable option, he can always find work in the Syrian government. After all, Bashar Assad appears to be in the market for an experienced political reformer.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.