Hill skeptical on Internet diplomacy with Syria

June 15, 2010

Some lawmakers are raising eyebrows at a State Department-led delegation of U.S. high tech firms to Syria.

Senior representatives from Microsoft, Dell, Cisco Systems, and Symantec Corp are in Syria this week along with a State Department senior adviser on promoting Internet freedom, Alec Ross, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The executives met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and have also met with Syria’s prime minister for economic affairs and Syrian business leaders in Damascus and Aleppo, a Syrian official said.

“The State Department views the mission as a test of Mr. Assad’s desire for better ties with Washington and to potentially pave the way for a more open political environment inside Syria,” the Journal reported, citing one senior official: “We’re going into this open-minded. This has never been done before with a country of this nature. We’re hopeful and optimistic that this will lead to collaborations. But that’s something we can’t be sure about until the trip is done.”

One House Democratic staffer, briefed in advance of the trip by representatives from the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, called it “f***ing idiotic.”

The staffer said State people briefing congressional staff on the trip said, “we are going to infiltrate them (Syria) with technology without them even knowing it.”

“It’s a stupid thing to do,” he said. “Because they are so enamored of their own brilliance. It’s ridiculous. They don’t know what they are doing if they think they are going to subvert the Syrian government with technology and Syria won’t even notice.”

Another Washington Middle East hand was more sympathetic.

“If it means I’ll someday be able to use my Blackberry in Damascus, I’m all for it,“ he said. “More seriously, that’s silly. It’s not like we’re sneaking these guys in. What do we lose by showing Assad what he stands to gain, even if it won’t lead to any short-term changes in behavior?”

Among the trip’s objectives, “to advance U.S. commercial interests by opening a new and emerging market for U.S. technology exports, … supporting access to technologies that facilitate communication innovation …. broadening our engagement with both the Syrian government and people; and supporting the rights and values that Secretary Clinton spoke of in her speech on Internet freedom late last year,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday.

Damascus for its part welcomed the U.S. high-tech firms.

“It is a golden opportunity for the U.S. companies to get contracts if they are interested,” one Syrian official said, adding that Syria wants engagement with the United States.

Syria watchers note that Assad has a particular “soft spot for high tech,” having started a Syrian IT society; Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Mustafa has a Ph.D. in computers.

The administration thinks “they can make Assad like Gorbachev,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Schenker said. “They think they are going to have some level of opening [in Syria] with the Internet.”

But “everything that the administration has dangled in front of the Syrians so far has not worked,” Schenker continued. “So now they are sweetening the pot. …The Obama administration has been trying to think creatively. They think that this is a key. They have given a whole number of things to Syria,” including airplane spare parts and lifting U.S. opposition to Syria applying for membership in the World Trade Organization.

On Sunday, Syria released three dissidents from jail.

The dissidents’ sentences were up and there was no connection between their release and the visiting U.S. delegation, the Syrian official said.

Source taken from: http://www.politico.com/blogs/laurarozen/0610/Hill_skeptical_on_Internet_diplomacy_with_Syria_.html

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