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SYRIA: Former U.S. diplomat's 'mission improbable' -- healing rift

June 4, 2008 |  9:18 am

Shearer_largeWhen former ambassador and Occidental College international policy professor Derek Shearer, right, first told colleagues he was going to Syria as a speaker on behalf of the State Department, he was sure that even if the authorities didn't shut down his appearances, people would boycott, maybe even hold demonstrations.

But that’s not what happened, not by a long shot.

Despite frosty relations between Damascus and Washington, he was treated more like a celebrity than a graying envoy of a hostile state. He was interviewed by half a dozen Syrian media outlets, delivered six lectures to packed audiences and appeared on the front page of Syrian newspapers.

"Nobody protested my talk at the American Cultural Center, nobody broke up my meetings, nothing was canceled, and the turnout of people was always more than we expected," said Shearer, who teaches public diplomacy at Occidental in Los Angeles.

In a lengthy interview with the Los Angeles Times, Shearer said he wasn't sure why Syria allowed his visit. Only three years ago, after the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Syria. Damascus stopped permitting American-sponsored cultural activities, boycotted U.S. Embassy receptions and neglected demands for entry visas.

But relations between the two countries appear to warming. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus sponsored a well-attended jazz concert a few weeks ago and gave permission for Shearer's goodwill tour, paid for by the American government.

During his visit he spoke his mind about the Bush administration, to which he's hostile, and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Among his speaking engagements was the government-sponsored Syrian Public Relations Assn. and the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Assn., where he told the aspiring businesspeople that their government needs to give them freer Internet access, let their country join the World Trade Organization and increase relations with the outside world.

Los Angeles Times: What brought you to Damascus?

SHEARER: You know, there is this natural tendency to think that whenever an American comes, especially sponsored by the State Department, that someone sent him with a secret agenda. I can tell you that my dear classmate, President Bush, didn't send me because as you have heard, I'm very critical of him. although I'm personally friendly.

There is a general message in that America would send people who disagree with the president around the world even if the president wouldn't like to hear what they have to say. The fact is I am part of the circle of Democratic Party thinkers...

Plus, I have a list of cities I wanted to visit before I die and always wanted to go to the best chocolate shops, and I've done that.

Shearer_2LAT: What have been some of your most interesting experiences here?

SHEARER: What I'm excited about is to see a country that has such great potential for doing well in this era of globalization. We went out to dinner once at Narenj Restaurant and we got introduced to jallab juice, and what I thought that there are some men I know that made a fortune by mixing good American juices with sparkling water and selling them and I thought there could be great Syrian healthy juices if you add some sparkling water to jallab and a few others we don't have in America …

At my lecture at the American culture center, five or six Americans came up to me and said, "I just told my university I am taking the year off to study Arabic," and at first their parents said: "You will be killed. It's not safe." And it's safe and they are having great time.

LAT: You spoke before a number of Syrian institutions, many of which are official or government financed. What was that like?

SHEARER:  I spoke at Damascus University at the school of political science... I was the only American speaker allowed on campus in three years and was told that the minister of higher education had said that any member of the university faculty that meets with an American will be fired.

But when I was in Washington I met with Syrian Ambassador Imad Mostapha... My advice was: Stop winding up the Bush administration because they are winding down. Think ahead and start making whatever signs you want to make and that you are going to be a bit more open because you don't want to wait until January. You want to start the process ... so when the new administration comes in you can move more quickly. So I was allowed to speak ...

LAT: Do you feel that there is a a gap between how Syrians see American policy and how Americans see it?

SHEARER: I think most Syrians I met understand that the last few years have been very difficult and part of it is Bush's fault and part of it is the Syrians' fault. It's a vicious circle. I mean remember [former U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright came for [President Bashar] Assad's inauguration in 2000. But when 9/11 hit, and Bush responded the way he did, in dividing the world into us and them, and made bad guys out of people, the Syrians responded by saying if we are the bad guys we will do bad things. It spun out of control...

One guy asked me a question today: ... did whether I thought the policy of the U.S. was "creative chaos." Actually, the chaos is the result of bad policies which mean having the bad guys with guns killing a lot of people, women and children and others...

There is a great potential for improving the relations between Syria and the U.S ... and if we don't try the worst-case scenario is really bad, and it's worse for the people who live here than it is for us. I mean we can retreat to the United States and nobody in the world has the ability to destroy our society, but chaos in the Middle East...you see already. You have a million Iraqi refugees in your country.

Jazz LAT: What ties could be built?

SHEARER: I met with Honey Sayed and "Al-Madina" FM radio team. They are young people, not political, but they want the freedom to create a very exciting business and want to have their radio station connected up to satellite radio, so that if I am driving across the country in the U.S., one of my choices would be Syrian FM radio. Right now we can't do that, but we should be able to.

There should be music festivals, where our rock 'n' roll and hip-hop groups could come here... There is a hunger among younger smart professional people for that...

There are all these personal ties between Syria and Americans … so at the level of people to people we are natural friends and have a lot in common.  So there is no reason why, if we could get past a lot of the government problems, bad behavior on our part or your part, we could be real allies. This is where I'd like things to end up. It's not going to happen overnight but I feel pretty strongly that a new administration headed by Democrats is more capable of making that a reality than another version of the Bush administration.

LAT:  Do you think that public diplomacy efforts are working?

SHEARER: No, not working, because they have been doing it with their hands tied behind their back. Because of Bush's policy and things like Abu Ghraib and others have just made it hard...The actual good public diplomacy on both sides is hindered by the guys on the top.

LAT: Did you meet with any dissidents in your visit?

SHEARER: I don't know. What's a dissident? And I am not going to name names if I did. But what I know is there is a new generation, and what they have learned to do is to operate in Syria without being put in prison and still maintain dialog with the government and foreigners.

I met with the Syrian Public Relations Assn. and it's a government-sponsored group and their issue is: "How do we re-brand Syria in the world? How do you get people to see Syria as a wonderful, historic and normal nation?"

Well they have the same problem we have in the United States.  Bush would do something like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo and destroys the general image. No amount of public diplomacy can counteract the pictures of Abu Ghraib.

LAT: What should America's policy be toward the ongoing indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel?

SHEARER: If we are talking about the current administration, I don't think it will actively encourage or actively undermine. And if [peace] happens, Bush would be smart enough to celebrate it and take some credit and say, "See, being tough in Iraq got us results," and spin it.  And if it doesn't happen on Bush's watch ... then it's a low-hanging fruit for the new president.  "See we can check that box. We got one problem out of the way so we ... can engage and talk about other things"

LAT: And if it doesn't happen?

SHEARER: It will be different if it's McCain or Obama, because the Republicans ... are still going to be skeptical of Syria. I think Obama and the Democrats will be realists and be more willing to engage, because they have people that have dealt in the past with Syria. Obama will be able to deal with more confidence with Assad, and won't have to fight with his advisors....

I think that having the permanent unresolved state of war is not in Israel's interest or in Syria's interest, and that Syria and Israel are not natural enemies.

Ziad Haidar in Damascus

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