Monday, June 05, 2006

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.