Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Syria: Enemy of our Enemy (1)

This essay of mine, calling for an end to the neocon-inspired US hostility towards Syria, appears in the anti-war magazine The American Conservative. It's a long article, so I'll be posting it in two parts, part two will follow shortly.

If you haven't visited Syria, then don't be put off by the negative propaganda surrounding the country, the people are incredibly kind and hospitable and Damascus is one of the most magical cities in the world.

It’s a Middle Eastern country where Christian celebrations are official state holidays and civil servants are allowed to take Sunday morning off to go to church, even though Sunday is a working day.

A place where women can smoke and wear make-up and are active in public life.

A country implacably opposed to Islamic fundamentalism and al Qa’ida, and whose security forces helped foil a terrorist attack on the US Embassy.

No, not Israel, Syria.

The list of the Bush’s administration’s foreign policy errors is long, but not least among them is the way in which it has treated Syria- in many ways a natural ally- as a pariah.

Despite having a secular government, led by a London- trained ophthalmologist who has a British born wife, Syria was added to the ‘Axis of Evil’ by US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton in May 2002. In 2003, Washington passed the ‘Syria Accountability Act’ which imposed economic sanctions on Damascus. And according to President Bush, Syria poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy" of the US.

Then to add injury- and death- to insult, in October American forces launched an attack from on Iraq on the Syrian village of Sukkiraya from Iraq. Eight people were killed. The US claimed to have been targeting the network of al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters moving through Syria to Iraq, but the Syrian government denounced the strike as ‘criminal and terrorist aggression‘.

How can we account for the US’s extraordinary hostility to a country that has never threatened it? The answer is the baleful influence of our old friends the neocons.

Nothing better illustrates the fundamental deceit that underpins neo-conservatism. If defeating radical Islam really was the name of the game as Podhoretz, Feith, Wolfowitz, and company insist, then the US would surely have been building bridges with Damascus, instead of treating it as an outcast.

For Syria‘s problem with Islamic militancy predates America’s.

Since the Ba’athist takeover in 1963, the Syrian regime has come under pressure from radical Islamists who dislike its socialistic, secularist policies, its empowerment of women and the dominance of the Alawites- a group previously considered the underclass in the country.

In 1973, there were violent demonstrations against planned changes in the constitution which proposed allowing non-Muslims to be head of state. Extremists assassinated prominent members of the regime and the Alawite sect.

Then in 1979 came the bloody massacre of 83 cadets at the military academy in Aleppo, followed by terrorist attacks in other Syrian cities. Three years later there, there was a violent Islamic uprising in the town of Hama, in which Ba’athists were attacked and murdered. The government‘s response was brutal: up to 30,000 people were killed when the army, under President Hafez al-Assad’s brother, attempted to restore order.

The threat that radical Islamists pose to the secular regime has receded since the early 1980s, but it has not gone away. The car bombing of a Shia shrine in Damascus in September, which killed 17 people, was the third such attack this year.

I first visited Syria in 1999, during the last year of the 29-year rule of Assad père. With its state-owned self-service cafeterias, socialistic style public buildings and East German-made trains, Syria reminded me more of the communist countries in eastern Europe I had visited in the 1980s, than a predominantly Islamic Middle Eastern state.

While the Syrians I met could not have been friendlier or more hospitable, there was no disguising the totalitarian nature of the regime. Pictures of Hafez al-Assad hung everywhere. An extraordinary amount of people were in military uniforms, including in the universities I visited- a ‘state of emergency’ has existed in Syria since the Ba’athists came to power.

If that all sounds pretty grim, there is, thankfully, another side to the story. The Ba’athists have undoubtedly bought stability to a country divided on religious and tribal lines- and considerable economic and social progress.

In my travels in Syria I did not see abject poverty of the sort that exists in most other countries in the region. The government's secularism means that most members of religious minorities, such as the Alawites, Druze, Christians and Isma‘ilis support the regime. “We support the government here because if it was toppled the Islamists would rule” a young female academic at the University of Latakia told me. The parallels with neighbouring Iraq- and the ethnic and religious strife which engulfed the country when the secular Ba’athist regime was toppled there-are all too obvious.


David Lindsay said...

Syria has at least five predominantly Christian provinces, and, as you say, civil servants are given Sunday morning off to go to church even though Sunday is a working day.

Syria is in talks with Israel ("indirect" talks, but so what?), and her government is the Arab world's pre-eminent remaining bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism. There used to be another one just to the east, but let's not go into that...

Yes, Syria was behind the Lockerbie bombing. But she can always turn round and say that it was we who framed Libya instead because we needed Syria on side at the time, and we and the Libyans who sent an innocent man to the prison in which he languishes to this day.

Anonymous said...

" How can we account for the US’s extraordinary hostility to a country that has never threatened it? The answer is the baleful influence of our old friends the neocons. "

Correct, if 'neocons' is a euphemism for the Israel lobby - in fact it's practically a synonym. Israel's objective is to weaken and break up every Arab state, leaving itself as the only real power in the Mid E. Israel doesn't care if they're good, bad, Islamist or whatever - it just wants them weak.