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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he will have time to make reforms because of his close links 'to the beliefs of the people.' (Hussein Malla/Hussein Malla/AP)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he will have time to make reforms because of his close links 'to the beliefs of the people.' (Hussein Malla/Hussein Malla/AP)

Chrystia Freeland

Harvard Arab alumni buy into dictator charm offensive Add to ...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dictator who wants to be accepted by polite Western society should look for a charming, glamorous wife. That, at least, is what the world's autocrats are learning from the example of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

His wife, Asma al-Assad, was the subject of a glowing profile in the March issue of the U.S. edition of Vogue, which described this "rose in the desert" as "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" and reported on the "wildly democratic principles" that govern family life chez Assad. And this week, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association organized an event in Damascus, "under the patronage" of Mrs. al-Assad, who delivered the keynote address on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the day before the event, Syrian security officers beat and detained a group of non-violent demonstrators who gathered to call for the release of the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 political prisoners in the country.

On its website, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association highlighted its connection with the dictator's wife, saying: "We are greatly honoured to hold our Arab World Conference under the esteemed patronage of Her Excellency Mrs. Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria ... A thought-provoking, inspiring and tireless leader and advocate, the First Lady's address will certainly be the highlight of our event."

According to a Human Rights Watch report in January, Syrian authorities were among the worst violators of human rights in the world in 2010, torturing opponents, imprisoning lawyers and violently repressing ethnic Kurds. Human Rights Watch said it had "credible reports that security agencies arbitrarily detained dissidents and criminal suspects, held them incommunicado." It also said that those detained were subjected to "ill-treatment and torture."

Nadim Houry, senior researcher on Syria and Lebanon for Human Rights Watch, said the prominent role for Mrs. al-Assad is "part of a general charm offensive." He took particular issue with the Harvard Arab Alumni Association website's reference to the presidential family's support for independent civil society. "This is definitely crossing the line," he said. "There is nothing independent and nothing self-sustaining about what the government is doing with civil society in Syria."

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is surprised that Syria - which effectively occupied Lebanon for almost 30 years, allied itself with Iran and aided groups like Hamas - has faced less scrutiny than other local dictatorships. "It is ironic that it has escaped, for the most part, criticism," he said.

Six people with Harvard affiliations took part in the Damascus gathering, the school's vice-provost for international affairs, Jorge Dominguez, who delivered the "Harvard Guest Address."

In an e-mail, John Longbrake, a Harvard spokesman, said the Harvard Arab Alumni Association is an independent organization and that "we are supportive of any alumni group that hosts a conference encouraging open dialogue and the exploration of ideas." He said Professor Dominguez's talk "will be highlighting Harvard's engagement in the Arab world and discussing the value of freedom of inquiry and why liberty of the mind builds a democratic society."

The positive references to the Syrian government in a conference with Harvard involvement provoked intense debate among U.S. political scientists this week, with one e-mailing a colleague to say it was "shocking and disgusting." But others said the event highlighted how hard it was to strike precisely the right balance between engaging authoritarian regimes and appearing to legitimize them.

"To me, the real challenge is to navigate simultaneously working with governments and civil society," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Dr. Slaughter, who has been a dean and has just completed a stint as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, has been a strong advocate of a no-fly zone over Libya. However, she argued: "It can't be either/or. You can't just abandon the government and focus on the protesters. The world doesn't work that way. The question is on which side of the line does this fall."

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