Don’t invite an Assad to Capitol Hill

You won’t often (or ever again, maybe) see me link to something from Josh Rogin, the Bloomberg View columnist who, along with his fellow traveler Eli Lake, covers matters of war and peace well, mostly war. But he’s got the only reporting on this story that I can find, and I really wanted to write something about it, so here we are. Earlier this week the Middle East Policy Council was supposed to hold its annual “Capitol Hill briefing,” at the Rayburn House Office Building, and this year’s subject was a retrospective on the first year of the coalition campaign against ISIS (I’m working on a piece for LobeLog on that topic at the moment, or rather I’m writing this because I was working on that piece but I hit a little temporary block). I was planning to watch the event via livestream (ideally I’d go see these things in person, but while I take pretty good notes I do not take verbatim quotes very well unless I can pause and rewind and all the stuff that a livestream lets you do that you can’t do if you’re there in person). Anyway, I turned on the livestream and was surprised to find that the panel was not in Rayburn but was instead doing an online-only event from MEPC’s offices.

This seemed odd, but I had a theory. One of the panelists was a fellow by the name of Siwar al-Assad. His last name may ring a bell. Siwar is Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, the son of Rifaat al-Assad, formerly a general in the Syrian army working for Bashar’s dad (Rifaat’s older brother) Hafez. Rifaat was directly responsible (though obviously Hafez gave the order) for the Hama Massacre in February 1982, where 20,000 Syrians who had started an uprising against the Assad regime were slaughtered by a Syrian army unit commanded by Rifaat. Later, Rifaat tried to launch a coup against his brother, and while he did get appointed Vice President as result, Hafez actually promoted him in order to sever his ties to the army units formerly under his command, and when it was safe to do so Hafez sent Rifaat into exile in France, from which he has periodically protested Bashar’s accession to power and argued that he (Rifaat) should actually be running Syria.

Siwar al-Assad, looking very respectable

Siwar grew up in France and is an accomplished French author; he also runs an organization called United Nationals Democratic Alliance, which is nominally in favor of a democratic transition in Syria. However, Siwar and his organization (to the extent they can be separated from one another) have lately an argument that goes something like “hey, we think Bashar is a bad guy, but you know, what can you do? Better just accept that he’s there and worry about the real enemy, ISIS.” Siwar is very concerned about preventing more deaths and displacement in Syria, though apparently not concerned enough to seriously call for the removal of Bashar, who’s the guy who’s caused most of the death and displacement since the civil war started.

Anyway, I got to thinking that maybe somebody in the House of Representatives got word that the cousin of Bashar al-Assad, the son of the guy who led the Hama Massacre, was going to be speaking in one of their office buildings and decided to pull the plug on the event. And, according to Rogin (who seems to have his sources in line on this one), that’s pretty much what happened:

But when Washington-based representatives for the Syrian opposition found out about the event, they lodged protests with the organizers and also with the office of Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who had reserved the room for the event. When Connolly’s office realized he’d be hosting a member of Syria’s first family in the Capitol complex, he cancelled the room reservation.

“Once we were made aware of the panel of speakers, we immediately cancelled the room in order not to be associated with Siwar al-Assad,” Connolly’s press secretary Jamie Smith told me. “Congressman Connolly has been a strong opponent of the Assad regime.”

Smith pointed out that Connelly supported military strikes against the Assad regime when the Obama administration was planning them in 2013. He said the council requested a room and his office approved the request without examining the agenda.

A junior staffer at the Middle East Policy Council acknowledged that the congressional conference had been cancelled due to objections over giving Assad’s cousin such a prominent platform.

And, I can tell you from having watched the panel, Siwar spent most of his time arguing that, yes, Bashar is not good, but gosh, we should probably just ignore him and worry about the real problem, ISIS. He even compared ISIS to the Nazis, and suffice to say the Nazis came off better.

So, in summation, if you’re planning to hold a panel discussion in a Congressional office building, please try not to invite any Assads. And if you’re in Congress, or working for a member of Congress, and somebody asks you to reserve them a room for a panel discussion, maybe do yourselves and everybody else a favor and check the list of participants before you say yes.

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