Why US Should not Push Syria to the Wall
Nationalism is on a dramatic rise here following the President's speech. Many people are getting into the act. There were several "street parties" organized near my home in the Italiani section. Local streets were blocked off in the evening and young people gathered with music blaring from special trucks, banners hanging overhead, and people dancing the debke and partying. They were block parties, a new development clearly inspired by the Lebanese Cedar revolution, but appropriated by the Syrian state. The radio stations are full of nationalist songs, (listed in the article below.) Ali Deek, the Alawi country singer who has had many number-one hits in the past, is number one on the charts again with his song, "I am Syrian and I invoke Syria." But all the other local artists are getting into the act with their own songs.
The President's speech, published in the form of a handsome pamphlet, is being handed out in the stores for free, and people are reading it. The newspapers are full of denunciations of the America-Israel plan to enslave Syria, chop it up, rip out its Arab heart, and turn it into another Iraq. The Lebanese government has become the new punching bag for local journalists and taxi drivers.
The Syrian opposition has also been bitten by the nationalist bug. They denounced Kamal Labwani on his return to Syria after he met with high American officials. Even though the government arrested Kamal at Damascus airport, following his return from Washington, which should have raised his stature with the opposition, he remained radioactive to most Syrians. They accused him of going over to the enemy. If Bush thought he was going to score points by using Labwani against the Syrian government, which he clearly thought he was doing by mentioned him in a national address as a symbol of the oppressed Syrian and proof that Syria was undemocratic, the strategy failed.
The West will criticize the Syrian opposition for not taking sides with democratic America against undemocratic Syria and the Asad regime, but that is the way it is here. Many of my intellectual friends, both Alawi and Sunni, were not sympathetic to Labwani. They said that keeping a distance from the American government was the basic barometer of national good taste, whether one likes the government or not. Syria must stick together, they said. "We will not accept America determining our future." This sentiment is wide spread and demonstrates how few tools America really has in trying to turn the Syrian street against the government.
There are dissenting voices. One friend told me that the Syrian opposition is likely to look back at the past five years under Bashar as the "lost years," because it failed to develop a "foreign strategy." Instead it clings to its old Arab nationalist ways and refuses to make common cause with foreign powers against the strong Asad regime. "So long as the Syrian opposition insists on facing the regime alone," he said, it will fail." He was dismayed that the leaders of the Damascus Declaration had cold shouldered Labwani.
He may be right, but the common stand of the Syrians is quite remarkable and has surely given the regime a great boost of confidence. The spirit of the people has begun to lift since the President's speech. Much of the anxiety has been transformed into corporate solidarity. Most important is that the government and Mehlis are negotiating over venues and a memorandum of understanding, people are beginning to think the government will find a way out of its quagmire and may not have led them into a dead end after all. Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, who is becoming a star along with Foreign Ministry Legal Council Daoudi was on TV again today, this time on al-Jazeera. He was professional and kept insisting that Syria has every intention of "cooperating fully with the investigation within the context of a legal framework that does not impinge on the sovereignty of the state and the honor of the nation." He refused to be provoked into repeating Baathist slogans or invoking conspiracy theories. He was excellent.
America should also take note of the strong nationalist solidarity, because it will lose if it pushes Syria too hard with economic sanctions. It can win tactically, meaning it is more powerful than Syria and surely can strangle the country if it imposes far-reaching sanctions. It can drive the poverty rate through the roof, which will eventually cause the state to fail and people to turn against Asad and the government. But strategically, it will fail. There will be not democracy as a result. Chaos will most likely be the outcome in the medium term, after Syria strangles slowly in the short term. In the long term, a regime that is more radical, more unstable, and more prone to violence will take the place of the Asad dynasty. Syria will need years before it is ready for American style democracy or more probably Lebanese style sectarian republicanism.
Syria is not ripe for the kind of transformation that President Bush is calling for. It has no mature opposition and a depoliticized population. If Bush pushes Syria to the wall, he will break it, rather than transform it in a direction he hopes for. He will only get mud on his face and possibly another Iraq - that is what many Syrians think.
Pressing for greater democracy in Syria is an important and noble foreign policy goal. America must not relinquish it, but it will have to get a lot smarter about doing it. It will have to build bridges to the Syrian public and win them over the old fashion way, through hard work, foreign assistance, and buying more and more sectors of the government bureaucracy and public into the things westerners like, such as capitalism, efficiency, the rule of law, and ultimately, political freedoms.
The Iraq debacle has driven American legitimacy as a democracy-exporter - and, even more so, as a justice exporter - though the floor. Add the Iraq experience (500,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria) to America's Palestine policy (400,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria)and one can be little surprised that Syrians are giving Bush the middle finger. Syrians still love and admire America more than any other Arab population - except perhaps the Lebanese. (There are 7 to 9 million Syrians living abroad, most in the Americas. They send home good news and money.) They love it for its freedoms, wealth, and culture, but they aren't buying its foreign policy.
David Ignatius, in his op-ed, Careful With Syria," touches on many of these themes. He was just in Damascus and we had an interesting talk. I will copy the entire article below after this interesting piece on the new pop songs of Sham.
SYRIA: POP SONG DERIDING UN INVESTIGATOR TOPS THE CHARTS
Damascus, 18 Nov. (AKI) - The latest song of Syrian pop star, Ali Deek, strikes a sour note against Detlev Mehlis, the UN-appointed German judge whose probe has linked top Syrian officials to the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. "Your report, oh Mehlis, is not worth a (Syrian) pound - it's a political move, you just want to put us out on the road, behind bars or kill us," are some of the lyrics contained in the song, entitled "I am Syrian and I invoke Syria". The track which appears in the singer's latest record compilation, is one of many politically-charged songs being aired in recent days on Syrian radio.
Deek's song, which is in Arabic, appears aimed as much at Lebanese listeners as to the singer's compatriots. "The Syrian stands next to you, oh Lebanese, and things are going bad for both of us... if misfortune strikes it will be for both me and you.... So awake, listen and be on guard!," say the lyrics accompanied by lush, melodic strings and percussion.
But despite the pop tune, the message becomes increasingly macabre: "If you want war from us then we will take to the trenches.. but we want to live... yet if we have to perish, for us to fall in battle will be like a wedding feast."
Amid growing international pressure on Damascus to co-operate with Mehlis' investigation, Deek is but one of a batch of Syrian pop stars who have recently released songs with strong patriotic overtones. Others include Kanana al-Qasir, Linda Barakat, Hussam Madaniyya, Muhannad Mushlih, Husayn Duwayri, Ali Dawli, with most of the tracks aired on the Damascus-based radio, FM al-Madina.
"We play the 'political' songs at least 40 times a day, and to date we have never been censored," says the station manager, Mizar Nizam ad-Din.
"We ourselves have produced eight new patriotic songs and on our 'top ten' playlist just behind Deek's song which in top spot there's a song by Hussam Madaniyya which goes like this: "For you oh Sham (Syria) we and God are your sons and for all the fury of the storm from the West, we shout the voice of justice for you our abode."
Careful With Syria
By David Ignatius
Friday, November 18, 2005; Page A23
DAMASCUS -- In the United Nations' looming confrontation with Syria, it's hard to define the best strategy but easy to identify the worst one: the imposition of general economic sanctions that would hurt the Syrian people while allowing the ruling clique to grow even richer.
That's my strongest impression from a visit to Damascus. Broad-brush sanctions would disrupt Syria's contact with the West at the very time it's most needed and would alienate ordinary Syrians who need reassurance. They would undermine a process of political and economic change here that, if it continues, will gradually create a new Syria. "If you want to save the Syrian regime, then use economic sanctions as in Iraq," a European diplomat told me. A Syrian intellectual confided that in his view, "The regime is dying for sanctions."
You can feel the tension building here after President Bashar Assad's defiant speech last week about the U.N. investigation of Syria's alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The Syrian leader said he would cooperate with the U.N. probe led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, but his tone was so strident that several Syrians said he was almost daring the United Nations to impose sanctions.
Until Assad's speech, there had been hope that he would break with an inner clique, including his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, whom Mehlis suspects was involved in Hariri's killing. French diplomats here spoke of a "Juan Carlos option" -- in which Assad would assume a benign role as head of state, in the model of the Spanish king, while a new government reformed Syrian political and economic life. Those hopes were never very realistic. Assad is in effect the chief executive of a family business, and he's hardly likely to throw his relatives overboard.
It's hard to find a Syrian who doesn't want Assad to remain at least as a figurehead. He's a symbol of stability for a country nervously watching the carnage in Iraq. Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst, is probably right when he tells me that "the president would win in a landslide if there was an election." But I doubt that Syrians will permanently ransom their political futures to an Assad clan that doesn't deliver economic and social change.
I talked with one of Assad's friends, Col. Manaf Talas, a senior officer in the Republican Guard and son of the former defense minister. He agrees that Syria wants reform but insists: "You need time. You need years. There's a generation you have to push forward." He argues that Assad is still the reformers' best bet, but many Syrians have given up on Assad as a change agent.
Syria is a country in ferment. People talk politics here with a passion I haven't heard since the 1980s in Eastern Europe. They're writing manifestos, dreaming of new political parties, trying to rehabilitate old ones from the 1950s. Internet cafes are scattered through Damascus, allowing people to constantly share news and gossip. The security forces have been arresting dissidents, but that doesn't stop people from talking. Indeed, the only thing that could really put a lid on this society would be the strangulating effect of sanctions.
You never quite know what's behind someone's front door in Syria. That's part of the mystery of this country. Take the tiny eight-room hotel where I stayed in the Old City. There's not even a name on the door to mark the entrance to the Beit al Mamlouka, as the hotel is called. But inside is a 16th-century Oriental jewel box -- frescoed-ceiling rooms gathered around a courtyard of marble fountains, fishponds and flowering trees. And the place has wireless Internet service, to boot.
The right policy for this ripening nation is one of engagement -- not of the regime but of the Syrian people. The United States should send its ambassador back to Damascus, despite the government-organized demonstrations taking place almost every day near the U.S. Embassy. America and France should broaden their outreach to Syrian dissidents, human rights groups, artists, professors -- indeed, almost anyone who's willing to talk with outsiders. They should convey the message that the West is standing with the Syrian people as they move into the future. When Syria is truly ripe for change, these helping hands can ensure a safe passage.
More pressure on Syria will be necessary if the Assad regime openly defies the United Nations, but it should focus on individuals targeted by Mehlis -- so that they can't travel abroad, can't draw on their foreign bank accounts, can't strut on the global stage. This time, sanctions should punish the criminals, not the victims.