Syria: Paying the Price

Hidden deep beneath the glitz and glamour of the biggest news week in some time (G20, Nato's 60th, EU meeting) was a story that highlighted the difficulties of the new brand of pragmatic diplomacy emanating from Washington and London.

On another day the sudden arrest and subsequent three week disappearance of a 36-year-old British mother of four from the streets of Damascus may have registered as more than a blip on the news radar. This may have been a larger blip when we consider that as part of the new "engagement" between Syria and the west - Bill Rammell, the British Foreign Office minister, happened to be visiting Damascus to talk about issues of "counter-terrorism".

When foreign secretary, David Miliband, visited Syria last year, he told the BBC how he had talked to his Syrian counterparts about the importance of human rights. Why? Because "how countries behave at home and the sort of role they play abroad are linked in the modern world and they're increasingly visible thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organisations and others to publicise the human rights record".

Yet Bill Rammell's reaction to the arrest (or kidnap, or seizing?) of Maryam Kallis was to explain that "we understand that (the Syrians) have their own legal procedures".

Certainly Rammell does understand the Syrian procedures, after all his Foreign Office has catalogued that the "Syrian government's human rights record continues to be a cause for concern".

It's not hard to find stories about Syria's human rights record. There are an estimated 4,000 political prisoners being held in the country. The judicial system is notoriously tough. In February, Human Rights Watch documented how the Syrian authorities use special courts exempt from the rules of criminal procedure, where "defendants have no right to appeal their verdicts to a higher tribunal" and "Defence lawyers play a largely ceremonial role and usually see their clients for the first time on the day of the trial". Habib Saleh story is fairly typical; the 64-year-old dissident was sentenced to three years in jail last month for "weakening national feelings" after he published articles critical of the political system.

But while western governments found it easy in the past to use Syria's human rights record and undemocratic system of governance as a stick to beat it with. Now, as we enter the era of engagement, these same governments will find it hard to work around the human rights dilemma.

This is partly due to the fact that the scorecard on human rights abuses is much more even than ever before.

Despite British citizen Maryam Kallis being held in Syria for over three weeks "incommunicado in an unknown location" according to Amnesty International, over the past eight years several British citizens and residents disappeared into the legal black hole of US-run Guantanámo Bay.

The Guardian reported last week that "MPs are to undertake the most far-reaching inquiry into Britain's role in human rights abuses in decades as allegations mount to suggest that officials repeatedly breached international law". While Scotland Yard is examining allegations that terrorism suspects, including British citizens, were tortured with the complicity of MI5 and MI6 officers.

Yet while there is healthy debate in the UK over the balance between protecting security versus protecting civil liberties, no such debate exists in Syria, a national security state where the six "intelligence agencies" hold many of the real levers of power in the country.

We should be clear that the price of not engaging with Syria has been various levels of Syrian involvement in Iraq, Lebanon and the OPT that have been against US/UK foreign policy interests. However the twofold question that follows is how much of the moral high ground can the British government claim to have and whether the strategic benefits of engaging with Syria is worth the costs that will be paid by those like Mrs Kallis?