Pelosi in Syria

Pelosi

Image: So last week Nancy Pelosi sat down for a photo talking to Syrian president Assad. Note her choice of Western style outfit for a sit-down with a hardline Muslim leader: an above the knee skirt. I’m probably stealing from Colbert, but: The woman’s got balls.* Moving on.

This brouhaha (really, brouhaha is the standard term) over Democratic representatives talking to Syria raises a question that troubles me–no snark today, this genuinely troubles me. Our administration refuses to talk with Syria, because it is a state sponsor of terror. But at the same time, Syria has been a go-to destination for prisoners transferred by Americans through extraordinary rendition: this fact is exhaustively, conclusively, meticulously, redundantly, and redundantly well documented. This means that while the United States denounces the Syrian regime as a state sponsor or terror, on an operations basis we are interacting with their law enforcement and intelligence routinely. We are handing terrorists over to state sponsors of terror.

Even if we accept the value of extraordinary rendition, isn’t that tautologically absurdist? If we don’t trust them to help find a solution in Iraq, why do we trust them to prevent another terrorist attack in America? We have no shortage of other torture-friendly regimes who are ready and willing to abuse our prisoners for information. Why did we need Syria?

It has to be either:

1. We actually do have a dialogue with Syria that, while secret, is built on the American government’s trust that Syria can extract actionable intelligence from suspected terrorists, and then communicate that information back to us faithfully and in a timely manner. As counterintuitive and horrible as this option sounds from a human rights standpoint, at least this reasoning signals a behavior—cooperation and dialogue with Iraq’s neighbors—that is in line with what the Iraq Study Group and Pelosi have urged.

2. American intelligence agents don’t actually give a shit what happens to suspected terrorists after they are handed over to the Syrians. In which case, the publicity of extraordinary rendition to Syria–beware, when we get you, you will be tortured–is the end itself. The whole point was for it to be leaked. This is the worse scenario.

(*Fun fact: Despite its wide and creative instances of denying rights to women and others, Syria does not impose strict religious limitations on women’s dress, such as you might find in practice today in Iraq. Syria is still ten percent Christian, and its constitution guarantees nominal equal rights, though its penal codes and customs perpetuate discrimination. But Ms. Pelosi did wear a head scarf when she visited an historic Damascus mosque during her tour. Syrian-resident blogger Damascus Dreams recently posted a run down of the diversity of Syrian dress.)

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