Science Diplomacy Does Not Always Work – the Case of Syria

bridges vol. 35, October 2012 / Norman Neureiter on S&T in Diplomacy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter An unusual and intriguing invitation arrived one day in 2008. I was invited to join a group that eventually totaled 10 people, for a science diplomacy visit to Syria. The visit, which took place in March 2009, was sponsored and financed by Mr. Wafic Said, one of the richest men in the UK, and organized and managed by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, the leadership- and policy-oriented Washington Think Tank run by David Abshire – one of the truly great policy figures in Washington. Wafic Said was born in Syria in 1943, came to England as a young man, made a fortune in the construction business in Saudi Arabia, and now has homes in Monaco, Great Britain, and Paris. With a gift of 23 million pounds, he established the Said School of Business at Oxford University and his contributions to Oxford now total some 70 million pounds. As head of Said Holdings, he is a billionaire with investments throughout the world. With such broad interests, it is remarkable that he was willing to be personally involved in this science diplomacy activity toward Syria and went to great lengths to be with us throughout our three-day visit to his native country – particularly to Damascus University, where his father had once been president.

In addition to two of us from AAAS, the group included representatives from the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Association of Universities (AAU), the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, the Dr. Scholl Foundation (President Pamela Scholl was the head of our delegation), former US Ambassador to Syria Ted Kattouf, and Nobel Prize-winning biologist David Baltimore.

We were initially presented with commercial airplane tickets to the UK. Upon landing at Heathrow, we were met by a private bus and our host, Mr. Wafic Said, and driven to his 3000-acre Oxfordshire estate called Tusmore Park; there, in 2000, he commissioned and had built on the site of an old country house a spectacular neo-Palladian mansion. Each of us was assigned to rooms (or more accurately, to suites) in the exquisite home or in adjacent buildings to rest and freshen up. After a late brunch, we boarded the bus again for a visit to the Said Business School at Oxford.

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Even though it was a Sunday, all professors (including the director) seemed to be there, proudly showing off their institution and describing its programs. There we learned that Said had driven a hard bargain with Oxford: He insisted that he had to compete for the best professors in the world if Oxford were to have a top-ranking business school. He was convinced that could not happen if compensation were based on seniority, which was the custom in public universities in the UK. Eventually Oxford agreed and changed their compensation system so Said could pay competitive salaries and attract a world-class teaching staff. I am told this was a real revolution in British education, a view confirmed by a famous British chemist and friend of mine who abandoned his beloved Cambridge in favor of Oxford because of the markedly different salary scale. We toured the magnificent buildings and absorbed the atmosphere of Oxford's Christ Church College before returning to Tusmore Park.

The splendid evening dinner hosted by Mr. Said was followed by a tour of the great house and a look at the intriguing memorabilia that lay about (for instance, a large portfolio of original paintings of scenes created for planning Napoleon's coronation). We then repaired to our respective rooms to be ready for the early morning flight to Damascus. Boarding the bus in the morning, we did not go to Heathrow or to Gatwick, but to Stansted – a smaller airport where Mr. Said's private Boeing 737 awaited us with complete crew at the ready. Once on the plane, Said had his own computer and printer set up and began to prepare the remarks he would make while leading our visit in Damascus.

Needless to say, immigration formalities in Damascus were perfunctory, as our passports were simply collected on board the plane and we were promptly transferred by bus to the Four Seasons Hotel. Mr. Said was gracious and charming throughout our three-day visit. He was very interested in our mission to increase US and Syrian cooperation in science and education and spent much time with us as well as introducing our delegation at each new venue. Considerable time was spent at Damascus University – the leading university in Syria, bursting with students. Our host was University President Dr. Wael Mualla. While there, we separated into three groups – one to discuss science and innovation, a second group on higher education, and a third on medicine and health. We also visited Assad University Hospital and the Linguistic Institute.

In the subgroup that I chaired, we discussed the kinds of cooperation that might be possible and concluded that agriculture, energy, and water would be three promising areas in which to begin. It was also apparent that medical education in Syria is at a high level, although the Syrians complained to us about US trade sanctions and their resulting inability to purchase needed medical equipment from the US. In fact, Syria has been training more doctors than needed, which partially explains the large number of Syrian physicians living and practicing in the US.

One reason we were received at such a high level was that the leader of the Syrian "delegation" that hosted us in Damascus was the Syrian-born British cardiologist Dr. Fawaz Akhras, who is also the father of Asma, wife of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Our program for the third morning included an entry labeled "high-level visits." That turned out to be an hour-long visit in the marble palace with President Bashar Assad himself.

It is useful to recall the state of US-Syrian relations at the time. "Strained" would be a good way to describe them. There was a US Embassy in Damascus, but our visit to the Chargé d'Affaires made clear how lucky we were to have the visits we were having, as it was almost impossible for Embassy people to meet with senior Syrian officials. A year or more later, there was a definite warming in the relationship, as the US appointed an ambassador. However, at the time of our visit, we were graciously received by the Syrians and their officials but the US Government people were not.

The visit with President Assad was fascinating. As we entered the capacious room for our visit, he stood just inside the door, smiling, shaking hands with each of us in turn, and greeting us in very good and colloquial English. Only one or two other staff people were in the room besides ourselves and those accompanying Dr. Akhras. We occupied chairs on two sides of the room facing each other and the President sat in the center at the head of the room – the standard seating arrangement for an audience with a prominent Arab official. A very pleasant and interesting conversation ensued. Assad had just returned the night before from an official visit to Saudi Arabia accompanied by his female advisor, and the difference in the dress of women in the two countries was noted with some humor. We summarized our present visit for him and emphasized our desire to begin some meaningful science cooperation.

Assad made one strong point: He said that Syria needs more science and more research in the universities in order to invigorate their industries, which at present are largely government-owned institutions without much science or modern technology. He said he was very much in favor of cooperation that can bring science and technology into Syrian universities but, he added, "of course, I have my bureaucracy to work through." I didn't quite realize at the time that this was another way of saying "but it ain't gonna be so fast and easy." I can now say that this was a considerable understatement. We left the meeting very impressed with the visit, the congenial and even jovial manner of President Assad, and the belief that we would actually be able to do something. That feeling was enhanced by being in Damascus – a grand city of bazaars, mosques, restaurants, and hotels – and by the gorgeous view over the city (particularly at night) from the great mountain facing those who enter by the same road on which the New Testament says the Apostle Paul walked into Damascus. On the last day of our visit, we were hosted by the president of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce at the Orient Club, to which it seemed all the prominent businessmen of Damascus had been invited along with their wives. Clearly, Wafic Said and Fawaz Akhras were very important people in Syria.

After our three days of visits, we reboarded Mr. Said's 737 and headed for Europe. After stopping in Paris, where Said took his leave, we flew on to London and Heathrow, where we used the return tickets provided for our return to Washington. It was a really outstanding visit but, curiously, none of us has ever heard another word from Mr. Said. Attempts to call his office or his assistant on trips to the UK have not been successful. Throughout the visit, he was extremely pleasant, very friendly, informative, and interested in what was happening. But once he left the plane in Paris, that book seems to have closed.

So what did we do at AAAS to develop the science cooperation with Syria? We decided that we needed to know more about them and they needed to know more about us and how science works in the US. With some support from the Lounsbery Foundation, we were able to invite a representative of the Syrian science community to come to AAAS for 3-4 months with the specific goal of identifying areas or topics on which we might develop cooperation. It took some time for the Syrians to select an individual, but eventually a young woman – a highly talented, US-trained Ph.D. biologist – arrived and spent several months with AAAS, meeting with funding agencies, visiting universities, and talking about possible projects.

When she returned home and we waited for her suggestions, it appeared that whatever she had proposed was not acceptable to the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education and there was no progress. There were indications that a visit to Damascus might be useful, and so I volunteered to go and see if the relationship could be advanced. We also met and received encouragement from Ambassador Imad Moustapha, the Syrian Ambassador to the US – a former computer science professor – and his wife, also a computer scientist, who was taking graduate courses at George Washington University. The Ambassador seemed very supportive of our efforts to develop cooperation, hosted a group of us for dinner, and made himself available for consultation.

And so I took my own road to Damascus. During my stay there, the key meeting was with the Ministry of Higher Education. I was surprised, but also pleased, to find that the young woman who had stayed at AAAS in Washington was apparently now in charge of international science cooperation in the Ministry. Coincidentally, I had also met the Minister of Higher Education Dr. Ghiat Barakat several years before, when I attended a large scientific meeting in Damascus.

In any case, a meeting had been arranged with the Minister, his deputy who was in charge of research in the universities, the young woman, and myself. At the end of our session, I was somewhat discouraged, because I felt we had made little or no progress. But I noticed that the young woman was very happy. "Don't you see, Norman," she said, "he could have said 'No, absolutely not,' but he didn't. We can now go ahead." Shortly thereafter, there was a picture of the four of us: Minister, deputy, the young woman, and myself posted on the Ministry's Web site with a text that I could have written myself about the visit to develop S&T cooperation between the US and Syria. Dumbfounded is a bit strong, but I really was surprised. Yet, despite this apparent "approval," the question still remained as to what we could do to start the cooperation.

Several months went by without any progress and it seemed that yet another trip to Damascus might succeed in moving things forward – especially as we had received some financial support from the Lounsbery Foundation to start a project. I scheduled my trip and was all set to leave in March 2011, when the first signs of trouble appeared: protests, arrests, demands for change, and then shooting. The Arab Spring had come to Syria and the Government reaction was harsh. I then met again with Ambassador Moustapha and asked his advice on what to do about my trip. He said he was in close touch with Damascus and well informed about what was being planned, and that the Government was going to take several positive steps: There would be lifting of the rigid security law, the cabinet would be replaced, and in five days – just a week – this should be all straightened out. "Just give me a call in a week and I am sure things will be fine."

Needless to say, I never made that call. Things have gotten steadily worse, the number of dead is now in the thousands, there is danger of war with Turkey, and demands for foreign intervention are increasing. The US closed its embassy in Damascus in December 2011, and Syria withdrew Ambassador Moustapha, who is now Syrian Ambassador to China. Demands for the end of the Assad regime are being heard around the world, but there is no clear picture of what could or would replace the Assad Alawite regime.

I am a great believer in the role of science diplomacy but, in the case of Syria, it was not enough to change what perhaps, in a long season of Arab Springs, was indeed inevitable. It is also not clear whether Syria will be better off and more stable than before. But that is for the wonks to speculate on and write about – not for us scientists. We have had only one email from the Syrian science community people since the uprising began. All it said was "the only real victim is the truth."


The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD) since July 2009.