Time for a Syrian Revolution

"I know we've had political differences, but there are only about a hundred people in Syria who care about political differences. We can easily throw them in jail," Hafez Assad told a political opponent he was trying to win over to his side, according to Joseph Kraft, reporting for The New Yorker from Damascus, in June 1974.

Assad's son and successor, Bashar, has honored this tradition. This week, a court sentenced 19-year old blogger Tal al-Mallouhi to five years in prison on some obscure charge of passing on secrets to the United States. Out of supposed patriotism, the girl's father publically "admitted" to his daughter's wrong-doing.

This is the Syria that the administration of President Barack Obama has been trying to engage since 2008. So adamant on engagement America has been that this president has appointed Robert Ford as US Ambassador to Syria during Congressional recess.

The reason behind engagement goes something like this: Assad intends to become America's friend, but his allies in Iran and his entourage have been misleading him with wrong advice. Sending back an ambassador will allow Washington to win Assad's ear and give him proper advice, or so engagement lovers argue.

Proper advice to Syria, however, excludes domestic issues, such as human rights, and is restricted to the realm of regional politics. When in Assad's presence, Ford is supposed to convince this autocrat of the rewards his regime will collect if it breaks with Iran and Hezbollah, and sign a peace treaty with Israel.

How much convincing do the Assads, the father and the son, need to go for peace with Israel? After all, the first peace conference was held in Madrid in 1991. Since then, eight prime ministers have governed Israel and four presidents have lived in the White House, all of whom have been engaged in Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

Exactly how complicated is it to negotiate the return of the Golan Heights, whose area is a mere 450 square miles, from Israeli to Syrian sovereignty?

This shows that the Assads were never interested in peace. Instead, they have entered talks whenever they fell out of favor with peace-seeking Washington. As long as Syria can win international acclaim for the never-realized peace, the world will look the other way when Assad throws all Syrians in prison.

But Tunisia and Egypt have shown that the popular political mood in the Middle East is changing, and so should American policy. Despite rampant anti-Americanism in Arab countries throughout the past decades, President Obama was seen to be fair, and was hoped to take the side of the Egyptian people against Washington's longtime ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which he did. As a result, anti-American sentiment was invisible during the Egyptian revolution.

Siding with freedom and democracy in Egypt should apply to Syria too. The Assad regime is brutal, corrupt and has -- like Iran -- defied the world by turning down requests from the international community's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, to inspect Syrian sites believed to have been part of a nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in 2007.

If Washington was able to sacrifice Mubarak, there is no reason why it should engage Assad, knowing that Mubarak's 30-year autocracy pales in front of 40 years of brutal rule of the Assad dynasty.

Assad the father acceded to power after a coup in 1971. His son succeeded him in 2000 in the only succession of its kind in the banana republics of the Middle East. After the demise of Saddam Hussein and his sons and the toppling of Mubarak, only Libyan autocrat Moammar Qadhafi hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Assads by pushing one of his sons take over Libya.

By all international standards, Syria has ranked close to the bottom in all governance indicators and freedom placements. Despite the Syrians' miserable life standards, Assad argued that his regime would not face the fate of Tunisia or Egypt because he was staunchly anti-America and anti-Israel, thus winning favor with his subjects.

The revolution of Egypt and the rallies of Iran, in 2009 and this week, show that peoples of the Middle East are taking to the streets regardless of international politics. Instead, they are asking for their basic human rights and for better lives for themselves and for their children.

For Syrians to finally depose their dictator, like Egyptians did, they have to go to the streets, despite the regime's promised violence. If they do, America should be the first to endorse the Syrian revolution. Signs that Washington is prepared to do so, and not let the Syrians down, will help brew the revolution in Damascus.

Today is the time for a Syrian revolution. The Syrians should not miss their chance.