Portrait of a Despot

I sat across from President Hafez al-Assad of Syria in his newest palace overlooking Damascus, on a hill at the end of a gently twisting road.

“You know, Mr. President,” I said, “on the road from the airport and throughout the capital, I couldn’t help but notice posters with your portrait everywhere, in all of the shops, in every window of every bus, every pole and lamppost, the back of the windshields of all the cars. It is quite remarkable.”

“Yes,” he replied, managing to sound even more sincere than I did. “I protest, but the people hold me in such affection, it’s almost embarrassing. Sometimes I feel like going out after dark, just quietly taking them down.”

The New York wise guy in me couldn’t resist. “Well, Mr. President, if one night you can’t fight that urge, do call me,” I said. “I’d love to take a picture of you climbing up a pole ripping down your posters.” The laughter all around seemed genuine.

I’ve thought more about that brief exchange than I have about anything else in our two-and-a-half-hour meeting in December 1997. More than I have about the Golan Heights; about how to revive peace talks with the Israelis; about the proposal of my travel companion S. Daniel Abraham, of the Center for Middle East Peace, to build a desalinization plant; about what Mr. Assad wanted us to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel; or about Syria’s playing host to terrorist organizations.

The omnipresent posters — of Mr. Assad, and of his successor and son, Bashar al-Assad — are starting to come down. Statues of the father have been toppled. But the posters are not being removed quietly in the night by a humble leader.

Posters of despots all over the Arab world are being torn down by their not-so-adoring peoples — protesters who have been emboldened by freedom’s fervor but are being slaughtered by those who want to keep the posters in place.

The United States is paralyzed: unable to match our rhetoric about standing with people who demand freedom, cautious because we don’t have each of their résumés, and faced with so many such causes at once.

Hafez al-Assad never intended to take these portraits down. It seems the Syrians no longer want to keep them up. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will be there in the morning. But it is going to be a very long night.

By Gary L. Ackerman, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens and Nassau County, the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

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