Former Sen. Arlen Specter, a longtime proponent of diplomatic exchanges with America’s most hostile counterparts, is calling for renewed negotiations with the regime of iron-fisted Syrian ruler Bashar Assad.
“As Syria's situation worsens, there are some indications that President Bashar al-Assad may be serious about dialogue,” Specter wrote in an op-ed published Monday in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“A credible mediator like the United Nations could monitor promised reforms, report the facts, and apply international pressure, including sanctions, when appropriate,” he added.
The essay comes at a time of mounting criticism -- and even outright dismissal -- at the prospect of diplomatic exchanges with Assad, particularly as evidence rises that the regime has unleashed violent forces to put down an anti-government protest movement.
Last week, after an apparently regime-backed crowd stormed the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Assad had squandered his legitimacy to lead.
“From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy,” Clinton said last Monday, in the aftermath of the embassy attacks. “He has failed to deliver on the promises he’s made. President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”
President Obama later echoed that sentiment in an interview with CBS News, although he softened the formulation slightly, and declined to demand that Assad step down.
“I think that increasingly you're seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people," Obama said. “He has missed opportunity after opportunity to present a genuine reform agenda."
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Specter contended that there is daylight between the terms “lost legitimacy” and “losing legitimacy,” and argued that there may still be hope for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis, especially if the U.N. leads the process.
“I’ve spoken about dialogue for a long time,” Specter said. “I think that the U.N. would have a lot better chance of doing something. And I think the demonstrators would believe that the U.N. would tell the truth, fact find, and, if Assad didn’t keep his commitments, would be able to apply some pressure.”
The essay by the former senator, who paid nearly two dozen official visits to Syria during his career, comes at a difficult moment for diplomacy with Syria. The U.S. ambassador in Damascus recently irked the regime by openly offering support for the reform movement there, and the ranks of those calling for engagement in Syria have been thinning lately, even among its staunchest proponents.
On Sunday, in an article in the New York Times magazine, Sen. John Kerry appeared to back down from his previous claims about Assad’s reformist bona fides.
“I never said to anybody this guy is a domestic reformer,” Kerry said when asked about his earlier arguments. “This was an external opportunity.”
Kerry “had made a statement a while ago when the shooting was starting, that he wasn’t that sanguine about talks. I am, and I base that on a lot of experience," Specter said.
Specter, who became a Democrat in 2009 in order to avoid a difficult Republican primary challenge, lost his seat last year to a primary challenge by upstart Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak. He now runs a private law practice in Philadelphia, where he says he keeps a wall full of pictures of him meeting with some of the world’s most notorious dictators.
“I’m looking at them now: Chavez, Gadhafi, Hafez al-Assad, Arafat, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Castro,” Specter said. “I believe in talking.”
Specter does not whitewash Assad’s recent actions -- in the op-ed he wrote that “his brutality has turned the international community against him” -- but he argued that past discussions between the Syrian leader and American officials have often proven fruitful.
“Hafez al-Assad always kept his word,” Specter said, of the father of Syria’s current president. “It’s a little harder to figure out the younger guy.”
In a meeting last year with Assad, Specter said he and five other senators found the discussion “useful.”
A diplomatic cable account of that encounter, released last year by WikiLeaks, described it as a “frank one-hour meeting” and noted that “Assad welcomed the prospect of more Congressional visits and candid exchanges.”