Whence the Real Kiss of Death?

Well, here it is this week’s installment of our Creative Syria debates. This week’s round features: Rime Allaf, Sami Moubayed, Imad Moustapha and yours truly. The debates will revolve around the very loaded question of “Do you think it is right to seek US assistance to push for political change in Syria? Here is my answer: 

I remember a line from a play called Ghourba by the late Syrian poet and playwright Muhammad al-Maghout, which was very popular back in the mid to late 70s, the line went as follows: “Woe to the nation that wears of what it does not manufacture and eats of what it does not plant.” People always applauded here of course. After all, this was the quintessence of the socialist message that we were all asked to believe in now that the Baath was in charge of running the national show.

The line in the play was pronounced by a young actress playing the role of a rural and idealist girl who, like all the other girls in her village, was left to fend for themselves and take care of the farms as all the young me opted to go to the US in search of a better life far from the oppression and avarice of the local feudal lord. The young men ended up being treated likes slaves, of course, and they decided to return back home where they were first berated by their womenfolk before being accepted back and taught how socialism in their absence changed things to the better for everyone.

Time has already debunked this laughable and disingenuous line of thought, so I won’t bother repeat this here. But what I am trying to say here is this: to minds that have been raised on the ultranationalist ideology of the Baath party, with its well-nigh xenophobic condemnation of the “outside world,” the above question is far from innocent and is actually meant to suggest the “right” answer, which is, naturally, a resounding NEVER. It is also meant to bring about the condemnation of all those opposition members inside and outside who continue to call on the international community, including the US, to apply more pressures on the Assad regime in the hope of bringing about some measure of political change, because not all these people want to see regime change necessarily. Indeed, some measure of political openness coupled with a greater respect for the basic rights of citizens and an end to corrupt practices on part of the country’s officialdom and their extended families will suffice for most.

But this scenario remains unlikely so long as the Assads seek to monopolize all initiative in the country, be it economic or political, and so long as they would use whatever ideological weapon at their disposal to serve this end. So, when they tell people not to wear and eat of other country’s products, the call is, in fact, designed to help them establish greater monopolies both on legal trade and illegal smuggling activities. And when they tell people not seek outside support to push for political change, it is because they don’t want to change, and they know very well that without external support the opposition will not be able to defy them. Why? Because the Assads have managed, as a result of many years of cruel and bloody crackdowns, to virtually decimate the internal opposition by killing and jailing its leaders, by depriving it from access to the media and forbidding it to establish its own, thus cutting it of from its grassroots support, and by preventing it from taking part in any civil, social or developmental activities that could endear it to the people. Meanwhile, all the media in the country, and all the textbooks, official institutions, and semi-official institutions continue to propagate, justify and defend the ideas and policies of the Assads as if they are holy dicta.

Moreover, we have to bear in mind here how this entire episode of growing American pressures on the Syrian regime really started. For these pressures did not materialize, as the regime wants us to believe, as a result of its nationalist stands, nor did they come as a result of opposition activities. They were, in fact, the result of the confrontational policies that the Assads adopted vis-à-vis the US-led invasion of Iraq. The regime could have opted for more neutral stands here, but it did not. Instead they smuggled weapons, recruited and bussed volunteers and called for national resistance against the Americans.

Many tried to retroactively justify these policies by insisting that there were those in the US who were encouraging the Bush Administration to include Syria in its invasion. Still, the administration could not just attack the Syrian regime without a casus belli. Therefore, had the Assads chosen to remain neutral they could have averted this entire situation, and had the Americans really wanted to invade Syria, they could have used the Assads’ open defiance as the necessary justification for mounting an operation against them, especially since their troubles in Iraq had not yet begun. But, the Americans never really had their eyes on Syria, as then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, tried to explain to Bashar, to no avail. The Assads continued to maintain relatively open borders with Iraq until they were distracted by developments in Lebanon, and they ended up adopting more wrong policies bringing more international pressures on them.

So, it was the Assads who brought American pressures upon themselves, the opposition had nothing to do with it. Indeed, opposition groups are merely trying to steer the US and international pressures in the right direction, by calling for multilateral diplomatic pressures, while opposing military invasion, and for targeted sanctions against members of the regime, while opposing the concept of wholesale economic sanctions against the entire country. Indeed, this is a difficult balancing act, but one that was necessitated by the corruption and the authoritarian predilections of the Assads and by their continuing refusal to contemplate any kind of reform that will loosen their grip on power and allow for a greater public participation in the decision-making process in the country.

Furthermore, Syria’s various regimes always had to rely on the support of regional and international powers to shore themselves up. Indeed, the whole episode for unity with Egypt was premised on this need. And after Egypt, and under the rule of the Baath and the Assads, came the Soviet Union, China and now Iran. Yet, since these powers are willing to give the regime some support regardless of its internal politics, its corruption, and its oppression, what choice does the opposition have but to rely on support from the EU and the US?

Some people might question the commitment of the US to the whole concept of human rights and democratization, and, indeed, we in the opposition feel the same way, we are always afraid that the US might end up striking some sort of a deal with the regime at the expense of the Syrian people and their basic freedoms. But again, seeing that we have no direct way to communicate with the Syrian people at this stage, on account of our continued problem with access to the media, what choice do we have but to rely on the potentially wavering and unsure support of international actors, including the US? More importantly, if we are not involved in advising the US on the nature of the pressures that can be applied, what guarantees do we have that the US will not end up adopting the same policies that wrought disaster on the Iraqi society? Our continued involvement in applying pressures is the surest way to avoid the kind of mayhem we are witnessing now in Iraq.

So, while the Assads are pushing themselves and the entire country into the dark corner of international isolation, the opposition is trying to dig the country out from the other side. It is too late now to bemoan and decry international and US involvement, the Assads brought this crisis upon us all, and we now have to wiggle our way out while ridding ourselves from these toxic relics of a bygone era. It is about time. We deserve better.

10 thoughts on “Whence the Real Kiss of Death?

  1. “Woe to the nation that wears of what it does not manufacture and eats of what it does not plant.”Erm. Is it just me? Doesn’t that line from that 70’s play sound almost identical to: “….Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own wine-press…” Ripping off Gibran?Tacky Dudes, Tacky.

  2. And Tacky’s the word on many levels. As for you, Dear Doctor, and since you won’t take the word of a “drone” like me, let me just refer you to our friend Joshua Landis on this matter. He researched it rather extensively and I don’t think his conclusions differ much from mine, albeit he is not and had never been affiliated with the “racist” institutions you mentioned, and he is not exactly the kind of researcher they’d invite, for ideological differences of course. And wouldn’t it be a little more fair to this 40 year old activist, if you were to give, Doc, if only a little consideration to the possibility that at least some of that analysis above was actually premised on my own little experiences in life? And on the fact that I had to imbibe this bullshit of an ideology that the Baath has had to offer for so many years of my formative life? And on the nature of my own contacts with the Kurdish population in Syria, who are both victims of Arab nationalism and their own Kurdish version of nationalism? Just wondering in my little dronish manner, I guess.

  3. mmm. well..and the doctor’s response wasn’t exactly precisely written for you – Ammar, since he cut and pasted it almost word for word (changing a few phrases) from his previous reply to a post by Anton Effendi on his blog. I guess you and Effendi are the same!, and he needn’t actually bother himself with a reply to your exact ideas or words. Of course, i appreciate the doctor when he is busy thrashing his lebanese offenders. But really, i don’t think ammar is in bed with WINEP, are you?

  4. Well, I agree with you that the current state of affairs did not come as a result of the regime’s nationalist stands (Actually, these stands are mostly false). The regime is only nationalistic when it needs to incur support. I have seen diplomats representing the Syrian government speak in the United States, and the line they tow here is much different from the line they tow when they write in Arabic newspapers and on Arabic television. Here, they pretend to be the victim: they look at awe at how America’s policy is irrational (and I agree, to a reason it is) but then they BRAG about Syrian “cooperation” with America in the war on terror. Well, Syrian friends, this “cooperation” actually consists of complicity between the CIA and the ruthless thugs of Syrian intelligence in a pleasant practice known as “extraordinary rendition.”I am as much for national sovereignty as the next guy–but I certainly will not pretend that supporting the Assad regime is supporting any nationalistic goals.Ammar, maybe you know who to contact to get an answer to this question: why is it possible to review all of the articles, except those written by Dr Moustapha?

  5. Yaman, I ‘ll try to answer that question which I also got from so many readers this week.Unlike all other writers in this group, Dr. Moustapha in not an independant. He also represents the Syrian government. “Rating his articles” will end up a process of rating Syria’s policies in general. If Syria was situated in Northern Europe, then that would have not been a problem, but Syria happens to be in the lovely Middle East… even if Dr. Moustapha wrte the most impressive article, he would still get negative votes from those voting on Syria’s policies in general (internal and external), not on his contributions.It is not optimal, I agree. But the important thing is to keep this dialog going.

  6. Great Post Ammar, Excellent written article …I would emphasize to all the regime lovers that it is ok for the Syrian government to monopolize its relations with all international governments including the US of course that it cares most about to survive, but when people different than the regime or Lebanese or Jordanian officials contact the US or other governments then they become big traitors. I would say that this regime is the luckiest ever considering the support that it gets from all kind of people, these people don’t know that by applauding the regime and celebrating its policies are kissing the region advance goodbye.Bashar got the biggest boost from Israel to survive this crisis, and it is time for the people to know that. It is time for people to know that Israel will be there for a very very long time and that the arabs got nothing but frustration and decline by being enemy to it. The initial reaction to Isreal’s creation was needed and it was very understandable (like refusing a foreign son-in-law for a diferent race or religion or social class then time heals), but now they are fighting for a lost cause. Time to approach the issue in a different way and accept Israel in the region for our own good. When people become less hostile then Israel won’t have that much influence in deciding who rules us as long as we are friendly. Israel represents the big powers interests and the arabs are so weak to stand up to that, so time to admit and move on. Also when people are very poor and very religous then they are very easily manipulated and all they care about is survival. When the regime does nothing to solve that problem then it increases its power. I would say time to reduce population growth to 2% or less, it is great to have kids but the population growth is not sustainable in Syria even if it has much more wealth that currently shows up because of corruption. No matter which problem exist in Syria or the region, the regime align itsself and stands to benefit the most to fortify its rule.Losing hope for a better Syria, go on Bashar and jail more people because we are with you to the death, destroy the country and don’t forget to burn Lebanon like you promised because people see you as the solution and not the problem. What can I say…we are under a long long occupation by a lucky regime who got the worst opposition…FaresFreesyria.wordpress.com

  7. “This being said, Bashar Al-Asad is better than his father…And MUCH preferable to the baroque assortment of bloodthirsty Neo-Hambali Islamists, Marxist fools and Kurdish separatists cooked in the dirty propaganda kitchens of Beirut and Riyadh.”I am tired of this the worst of all evil argument, it has kept us under the tyrannical and corrupt regime for 40 years and it is bound to keep us there for a 100 more, if people kept on believe in it. It is premised on fear of change, of challenging the status quo, well guess what? People who are not willing to risk failure, will never succeed in anything. Being so risk-averse all the time is a sure guarantor of the continuous erosion of our society. I am not saying there are no threats of Islamists and separatists, of course there is. But under the existing regime these currents are only going to grow stronger and stronger. What did the bloody crackdown of the 80s produce? A more unenlightened and devilish version of Islamists, who began rearing their ugly heads under the selfsame rulers. As long that we have this corrupt cliquish and minoritarian regime with its commitment to one brand of nationalism, when 15% of its population belong to a different nation all together, our problems will get worse not better. There is nothing preferable to freedom and to respect for basic rights, and we are not going to get there, unless we are willing to go through the necessary birthing throes and baptismal rites. But yes, I am quite aware that bringing the Syrian people to a stage where they can see the wisdom of this logic might as well be a multi-year process, and I am here for the long haul. For no matter what we do, and no matter how critically urgent the situation is, if a people are not ready to revolt, then they are not ready to revolt. We can try to be somewhat aggressive in our campaign to convince them, but we cannot impose change upon them. It does not work this way. This is why I am ultimately against violence. Albeit, oftentimes, the decisions in this regard are made elsewhere and by figures who are less concerned about the wellbeing of our people. But this is also why, I am willing to accept a transitional period that is far less than we expect and deserve in this regard, simply because breaking the stalemate might be the only way to introduce some new dynamism onto the parched scene. No this is not fair, but throughout our history we have been numerous times at both ends of the equation: we have deal this unfairness to others and we have received from others. At various times, we were both victims and perpetrators. And there were times when we were both at the same time. This is why I don’t bother to condemn. Condemnation of other people’s wrong against us is the most hypocritical act in the history, not to mention a complete waste of time. International affairs have never been about fairness, but about interests. We are better off trying to find ways to cut down our losses, and for this we need some enlightened leaders, or at least, leaders who are Machiavellian enough to help mange the crisis and cut down on our potential losses, especially on the longer term. The Assads are far being such leaders. On the contrary, they are the exact people who will lead us to disaster and maximize our losses.

  8. I must admit, I have a few problems with the original question, with Ammar’s article, and with many of the comments…First of all, let me state it clearly from the outset.. I am a mere simple-minded physician, who does not have the political savvy that a lot of you guys and gals have so abundantly… so please humour me and please excuse my naiivity.. But could someone please explain to me why are we assuming that the US actually wants to push for political change for our sake?.. The US would only be interested in what is beneficial to the US.. They might want to push for political change, but it would not be for the betterment of OUR lives.. Why do we have to behave like the battered wife, and go back to our tormentor for more abuse???… Do we not ever learn??… When has ANY US Administration done anything or pushed for any change that was ACTUALLY in the interest of our People???…Can I also emphasize that I start from the premise that I CAN actually hate the Assad Ba’athist Regime, and at the same time, object to the US actions in the Region.. The two are not mutually exclusive, you know.. So, my objection to the biased, one-sided policies of the US are not the result of xenophobia that has been hammered into my skull by the Ba’athist propagandists, but more through observing the history of the US involvement in the Region.. Nor do I buy into the Regime’s nationalistic claims.. In fact, like Yaman, I too am extremely cynical about the Regime’s readiness to use that shield to hide its blatant sins.. Ammar says that the ‘opposition’ is worried that the US Administration might abandon the cause of human rights and democratic reform in favour of a shady deal with the Regime.. Well, my friends.. History again… It would not be the first time..Trurning a blind eye on Hama, and on Syrian excesses in Lebanon are but two relatively recent examples…I agree very firmly with a number of points that you have raised, Ammar.. I, too, am sick to the back teeth with the logic of ‘the better of two evils’ or even ‘the devil you know’.. I firmly believe that you should engage with the US Administration to try and steer them away from a path similar to the one they have taken in Iraq.. You are too smart for me to give you such advice as ‘Don’t trust the bastards.. Engage with them, but don’t trust them..’I also agree with you that people must want change for change to happen.. Regrettably, as I have said on previous occassions, I think people still have much to fear for, and are still not willing to risk what little they have for the big unknown.. I believe our biggest struggle is with OURSELVES..

  9. SB, we are in agreement of course. My position vis-à-vis both the Assad regime and the US involvement is dictated by necessity, not by some kind of vendetta against the Assads, nor by some kind of blind faith in US intentions. We just have to deal wit the hand that was dealt to us the best we can. We are in a crisis mode, we have been born in a crisis mode, and our task is to minimize the losses and draw some benefits if any can be drawn.Zenobia, indeed I am not affiliated with WINEP, but I am a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

  10. I have always been disturbed by references to syrian dissidents outside of Syria as traitors. The simple truth remains: in Syria, if you speak up about changing the way the country is governed you go to prison.This was how it was Ottoman-ruled Syria; the enlightened group of youthful citizens who spoke up against the atrocities and corruption of the Ottomans and wanted to be free of it were persecuted and killed. So, many organizations sprang up in Europe and South America which effectively formed the core of the patriotic class of rulers that ruled Syria following World War 1 up until 1963 (apart from the Military Dictators, who were the real pawns in the hands of the foreign powers) .If we were to apply the current regimes’s criteria, then the very patriotic members of “Jam3iyat al-Nahda Al-Arabia” and “Al-Jam3iya Al-Arabiya Al-Fatat” were just traitors !!! This is unacceptable.

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