Previously, at a time of competition between the great powers, America was interested in its military presence in important regions of the world, especially those defined by sea lanes or oil sources. For America and other great powers, military and economic issues have always taken precedence over cultural and civilizational exchange. Before the stage of globalization, the great powers did not think seriously about building real partnerships with peoples, especially in the Middle East.
I do not mean that America establishes new states inhabited by Americanized peoples, like a colonial power, but rather that it partners with systems and societies that adopt American civilizational values. The greatness of America is not in the strength of its army or the magnitude of its economy alone, but in its democratic and liberal values and human rights, which unfortunately are almost non-existent in most of the countries with which America makes alliances. It is also unfortunate that many of America’s allied countries have fallen into conflicts and failures, while other regimes that spurned America have turned to the East in search of similar powers that are based on the values of tyranny and corruption. We are now in a global climate of blatant challenge and conflict between the values of Western civilization and regimes that deny them altogether and want to undermine them everywhere they exist in the world.
The global competition between East and West is not just an economic or military competition; it is first and foremost a competition of values over the future of the world and its system. In this competition, America desperately needs all its remaining partners, because democracy has shrunk in quantity and quality and is threatened with extinction even in many civilized Western countries. The slogan of America First should not mean that America neglects its role in shaping the future of the world, but instead should mean that America’s values will be the ones that shape the future, rather than disappearing.
Let me relate a personal example of what I mean. On September 11, 2014, when ISIS was expanding its control over large parts of Syria in an inexplicable way, almost certainly with the secret support of regimes that invest in chaos, I went to Israel to attend the annual international conference on combating terrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. It was, admittedly, an unusual step for a Syrian to take. But I went there to tell the world that there are Syrians who are partners with you in the war on terrorism, although it was not easy for a citizen of an enemy country to obtain a visa, without the special approval of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The Israelis appreciated the symbolism of the step, which encouraged me to raise the idea of humanitarian support across the military borders separating Syria and Israel. The rebels had taken control of most of southern Syria at that time, and in my estimation the afflicted Syrian people would have appreciated an Israeli gesture of a cross-border humanitarian initiative in those territories. Such a gesture would have broken the ice between the two peoples and paved the way for the sailing of ships of peace and stability. I told the Israeli defense minister at the time that the doctors’ corps could be a much more important and stronger tool than the Israeli air force in Israel’s dealings with the Syrian people.
What encouraged me to make this trip and the recommendations I made was the special relationship that linked me to the West and the United States. When I was in conflict with the Syrian regime and demanding freedom, democracy and respect for human rights, the Assad regime was oppressing us while the United States was defending us. Therefore, I visited the United States in 2005 and received support from the U.S. administration for the will of the Syrian people for democratic change.
When I returned to Syria from Washington, the Assad regime arrested me at the airport and prosecuted me on charges of treason and inciting a foreign country to aggression against Syria. In Syria, the regime considers any citizen’s demand to respect the rights of Syrian people as an aggression against it. When I presented my clear defense before the First Criminal Court in Damascus in the session of 18 March 2007, the regime put me in death cells (a practice that all Syrians know) to die and rot in them.
But the United States did not abandon me. At that time, the Republican administration of George W. Bush, which had a tense relationship with the Assad regime over the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, withdrew Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Damascus. But even with no U.S. ambassador present in Syria, the U.S. administration supported the visit of Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Damascus. Pelosi met my wife at the U.S. embassy and then went to meet Bashar al-Assad and demand my release. Pelosi told Bashar that I was America’s friend, and that my health condition in prison was such that my life was threatened. Under this pressure, Bashar ordered me returned from the death cells to the ward, which saved me from a death that was probably only two weeks away. I remained in prison until the revolution broke out in 2011, when Bashar was forced to accept the initiative of the Arab League and released me, which enabled me to continue my struggle for justice.
When I was in a bitter conflict with those I lived with in Syria, I found allies and partners thousands of kilometers away: people and a country who were my allies because of our shared values and humanity. America’s firm position rejecting normalization with the Assad regime; its insistence on justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity; its firm stand against the crimes of torture, enforced disappearance, and use of weapons of mass destruction; its insistence on the need for a solution through the imposition of a transitional authority without criminals, as expressed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254; and finally, its issuance of the Caesar Law: to me and many Syrian victims, these principled stands by America are a message of friendship established between the two peoples. What is more, they are a horizon of hope for a new future for humanity and a united world.
Recently there have been some voices in America calling for the U.S. government to abandon its support for the Syrian people in the name of economic or security interests. These voices are not reflective of America’s greatness or its civilizing role, but rather they are rejecting America’s greatness and capitulating to the powers of tyranny, totalitarianism, oppression, and exploitation that attack civilization and want to undermine it. It is not realistic for Western countries to seek to rehabilitate a criminal regime like that of Bashar al Assad, which killed a million people, displaced half of Syria’s population, and imported terrorist militias to its country. If they insist on doing so, the Western countries will just be sending a message that encourages others to imitate Assad. Take, for example, the West’s silence about Russia’s crimes in Syria, which did nothing but encourage Russia to invade Ukraine later and treat that country in the same barbaric way.
When the revolution broke out in 2011, U.S. diplomat Frederick Hof had reached an advanced stage of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, although the Assad regime had repeatedly evaded signing such an agreement many times before. But despite Hof’s progress, the Assad regime’s decision to adopt a policy of repression and to deploy its military against the civil protest movement made Secretary Hillary Clinton and President Obama change their minds about pursuing a peace deal with Bashar. How could they accept Assad’s pledge of peace with Israel if he failed to establish peace even with his own people, they wondered?
For my part, I told the authorities in Israel that signing peace with Assad would make Israel a partner in Assad’s massacre of the Syrian people, and being perceived as Assad’s partner would lead to a much greater level of violence and hatred against Israel. If, instead, Israel were to sign a peace not with a dictator, but with the Syrian people and a new democratic system, it would bring security, peace, and prosperity to Israelis and to all the peoples of the region.
I was imprisoned in Syria for six years for being a friend of America. I was sentenced to death in absentia because I visited Israel seeking real peace between peoples. Today I am a refugee in Sweden because it is the only place I found that gave me a chance to enjoy security and freedom as a citizen on this earth. But I will remain a believer in the values of civilization and in the greatness and ability of America to save the world in partnership with the people who have hope in America–not with criminal, tyrannical regimes that join together to attack and undermine the civilization that America has championed.
Syria is the heart of the old world, the gateway to the Arab and Islamic world. The establishment of a democratic and civilized Syria would make most of the peoples and countries of the region follow the path of freedom, democracy, and peace. It would transform the region into a reliable partner in the great, impending struggle to preserve the future of Western civilization and values. It would tip the balance of power between East and West back in the West’s favor–irreversibly.
I am not asking America to invest economically or militarily in Syria. I understand that Syria may not be a policy priority for the United States now. What I am asking is that America remain steadfast in its humanitarian and political values, which is the least it should do toward the civilization it has become responsible for defending. What the oppressed Syrian people are asking of America is to keep the candle of hope lit.