In visiting Syria this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi no doubt meant well. She wants dialogue. As a woman, mother, and now the third-highest-ranking elected official in American politics, she has achieved a great deal in life by talking with people. On this trip she made a point of showing how easy it is to interact with Syrians, with an itinerary that included a visit to a souk in Damascus - where she was photographed holding out her hand while a cheerful vendor gave her some nuts.

Unfortunately, that photo-op sums up the best that can be said about Pelosi's trip: Nuts. Having done her shopping, Pelosi went on, against the express wishes of the White House, to talk with President Bashar Assad. Perched on pillowed armchairs, chatting away, they provided yet another photo-op - a tableau implying that Assad is no monster, but in many ways a reasonable fellow, just like the rest of us. Pelosi emerged to announce that she had expressed her concerns on various fronts and that Assad is now willing to hold peace talks with Israel.

This is not just nutty politics; it is dangerous. For Pelosi, this may count as interaction. But for Assad's regime in Syria, this amounts to chumps on pilgrimage. Damascus is infested by a dynastic tyranny in which "dialogue" serves chiefly as cover for duplicity and terror. These traits are not simply regrettable habits that Assad might be charmed out of. They are big business and prime instruments of power.

The long litany of Syrian depredations includes the long and brutal occupation of Lebanon, Syrian involvement in the brazen car-bombing assassination two years ago of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al- Hariri, and likely Syrian involvement in the continuing series of murders of Lebanese reformers. Syria has been a highway for Hezbollah terrorists trucking weapons from Iran into Lebanon, leading to the war launched by Hezbollah last summer against Israel. Syria provides safety and support for the terrorists of Hamas. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Syria has become a conduit of terrorists inflicting mayhem and murder in Iraq.

The real trademarks of Assad's regime are neither the mosques nor the souks (where vendors, when not posing for photo-ops, will on occasion fearfully confide their unhappiness over Assad's repressive policies). The more telling places - which dignitaries such as Pelosi do not get to visit - are institutions such as Syria's Tadmur Prison, a place that Amnesty International has described as "synonymous with brutality, despair and dehumanization." Among the inmates who land there are political dissidents who have defied a regime that for Assad is effectively a lifetime family business.

As with any severely repressive regime, details are hard to come by. The best window we have had came via the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, which brought to light a trove of secret documents showing the extent to which Syria's regime was involved in dirty arms deals and illicit finance. The CIA's chief weapons inspector, Charles Duelfer, in some much-overlooked sections of his famous 2004 report described "high-ranking Syrian government officials" - including members of the Assad clan - heading some of the main Syrian trading companies that helped Saddam clandestinely order military equipment from places such as Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and negotiate for missiles from North Korea. These, not that smiling nut vendor in the souk, are the Syrians who call the shots.

Dignifying Assad with visits, chats and photo-ops is bad policy, whether it comes from America's top Democrat, from Republican congressmen, or from the White House itself. Assad runs the kind of government for which the phrase "regime change" was invented - and however unfashionable that phrase has now become, it is still the only true path to peace in Damascus.

Claudia Rosett (claudiarosett@hotmail.com) is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.