Syria

The Syrian Culture Wars

A relative of mine was in Damascus last week on business, and he told me about a conversation he’d had with a government official. The official dismissed the protests as being organized by “terrorists” and “hoodlums” who had no interest in real reform in Syria. When I mentioned this conversation to a Syrian friend of mine, he bristled and said: “Of course that’s what the government wants people to believe. They are the real terrorists.”

This interchange is emblematic of the increasing polarization of commentary about Syria that we’re getting in the press. As protests gain momentum across the country, the Syrian “condition” is finally being explored on an international stage. I’ve found it very interesting to follow the debate about the legitimacy of the protest movement, the agendas of its supposed instigators, the brutality of the regime’s crackdown, and the role of opposition parties in exile over the past few weeks, and it seems to me that one is starting to witness the coalescence of certain “camps” among the commentariat.

The biggest camp is certainly the pro-democracy, anti-regime camp that has generally shaped the debate on Syria for the past several years, inhabited by folks like Andrew Tabler, Tony Badran, Radwan Ziadeh, Steve Heydemann, and Patrick Seale. Interestingly, this group is also starting to attract people like my friends Robin Yassin-Kassab and Rime Allaf, who have generally been supportive of Syria’s foriegn policy but today are no less critical of the regime’s domestic crackdowns than the folks at WINEP. This is an interesting development, in and of itself.

The regime’s defenders are a far more quiet bunch, but they have a voice and a constituency. Alastair Crooke wrote a much-discussed article for the MidEast Channel a few weeks ago that was about as laudatory a sweetheart piece as Bashar al-Assad could have hoped for outside the pages of Vogue. Michel Kilo, one of Syria’s most famous former prisoners of conscience, wrote about the need for a “political solution” to the crisis (rather than a revolutionary change driven by the anger of the street) for as-Safir late last week. And Joshua Landis has, in my view, tried to walk a middle path with regard to the regime’s fate. (He has cut Bashar some slack and given him the benefit of the doubt, but he has also courted criticism from regime supporters by painting the standoff in sectarian tones.)

No matter what happens in the near term, it is very difficult to imagine things returning to the status quo, now that the system has received a shock and an opposition has been mobilized. Then again, the Iranian Green Movement seems to have been successfully strangled by Team Ahmadinejad…

Next up, more Wikileaks.

Update: A comment by a reader, J of Chalcedon

“Well spotted. Do you think someone like Michel Kilo, even at this stage, would recognize himself as a “regime supporter”? Maybe the unspoken point of his comment in Assafir was that the regime has taken itself to a point at which it can’t hope to change things even by addressing the very modest demands of such dissidents?

Keep in mind that this is someone who was very adamantly about not kicking over all the chessmen, with Iraq as the referent, and got years of harassment for his troubles. Now the ground his shifted under his feet as well, and satisfying those reasonable demands looks insufficient to save the people who wouldn’t have him as an interlocutor.

I’m wrong all the time, but it looks to me like the effective authority has hit on the idea of palliative measures long after they could have helped. If they have the support of Michel Kilo, it’s because – and after – they made him irrelevant. Now it’s about a system that can only break; bending is beside the point.”
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Discussion

37 thoughts on “The Syrian Culture Wars

  1. QN,

    The difference between Syria and Iran, as even Landis admits is that Iran has oil and its economy could weather many shocks. Syria’s economy is on the brink all the time and it has no room to maneuver. That does not mean Assad is going for sure, but it does mean that if he does stay in power it will be the Zimbabwe scenario.

    Posted by AIG | April 18, 2011, 12:20 pm
  2. Career Change NewZ

    I think the US should ferry Assad and his lovely wife out of Syria ASAP. I would hate to see anyone get hurt.

    With their fluency in English, I think they would make a great addition to Fox News or, specifically, The Huckabee Show. I’m sure they could give the American viewers a special inside taste for Arab politics.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 18, 2011, 12:47 pm
  3. Bashar may still have a chance to save himself the disgrace and the agony-in-waiting for Syria. I am just saying this for those who still want to grant him the benefit of the doubt.

    He can go on TV and announce a decree immediately lifting emergency rule unconditionally and the abrogation of article 8 of the constitution as well as another decree limiting the President to a maximum of two terms of 4 years each. The last decree would be the most convincing in soothing the demonstrators, and I mentioned it in a recent exchange here on QN with one of SC diehards, after which he disappeared perhaps out of despair or ‘disgust’ at the proposed solution.

    After all, it only took half an hour to amend the constitution in 2000 after Hafez died to allow Bashar to become President.

    AP, the Brits are actually eying the couple and they may get them before the ‘Yanks’. Bashar already has an offer from a British University to retrain him as an Ophthalmologist (really) The ‘Yanks’ may have to come up with a far more lucrative offer. Besides, the couple already acquired the Royal British accent. It would be a double disgrace to go all the way down and behave like a mere ‘ommoner ank’.

    Posted by anonymous | April 18, 2011, 1:16 pm
  4. One thing I have noticed about the Syrian demonstrations, the commentary by Syrians on blogs and from the Syrian workers in Lebanon is that what is going in Syria is a “class” war.

    Posted by R2D2 | April 18, 2011, 1:34 pm
  5. AP, the Brits are actually eying the couple and they may get them before the ‘Yanks’.

    anon,

    I think the Assads should opt for an American audience. Depending on their success on the Huckabee Show, they could replace Glenn Beck with their own show called, “Living with the Assad’s”. They could have a camera man follow them to the grocery store, cooking at their new home in LA, or showing Asma driving their screaming kids to school. Or, possibly, he could team with Fareed Zakaria in a show called “Fareed and Bash’s Middle East”.

    I’m talkin’ big bucks and a huge TV audience.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 18, 2011, 1:37 pm
  6. @Anonymous #3

    Your proposal might save Bashar and his immediate family, but it would spell the end of the Alawite regime, which is why it can’t happen (at least not at the pace that you’d like to see it). This is, more or less, what Josh Landis argued in his article entitled “No soft landing for Syria” that was published in Time Magazine a few weeks ago, if I recall correctly.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 18, 2011, 1:57 pm
  7. QN:

    I’m a little surprised you lumped Patrick Seale in with the Anti-Regimies. It’s been a while since I last read his Assad tome, but I seem to recall it was quite friendly to the establishment. Also the linked article seems quite Assad positive.

    As for the general remarks on peoples’ general reactions, are they not predictable and in line with the sectarian goggles different people put on?

    Just a thought

    Posted by Gabriel | April 18, 2011, 2:51 pm
  8. I should have added to my last comment in the previous thread, the possibility that professor Landis is not 100% free to speak up his mind about the Syrian regime. If this is the case, hopefully in the not so distant future, he will be able to do so along with every Syrian.
    Qifa Nabki, is this true?

    Posted by Badr | April 18, 2011, 3:13 pm
  9. Professor Josh’s Advice: “Lebanese should support Syria’s cause…”

    QN,

    I keep a handful of posts for future reference. Really, just a couple.

    Here’s one from Professor Josh…

    Joshua said:

    Dear QN, You write: “These issues, however, are small potatoes compared to the damage that the relationship will sustain if Syria uses Hizbullah to turn up the heat on Israel again, with all of Lebanon paying the price.”

    Syria will undoubted encourage Hizbullah to turn up the heat on Israel if peace talks go no where. What else can it do? The only reason Israel is talking to Syria today is because Olmert couldn’t destroy Hizbullah by force of arms. Without Hizbullah, there would be no talks or hope of Syria getting back the Golan, I fear.

    This all means that Syria will try to keep that card an ace.

    That, you will say, suggests that Syria really has no regard for Lebanese sovereignty. I would argue that what it really means is that Syria places its own national interests above those of Lebanon and that Lebanon is too weak to deny Syria Hizbullah.

    We get back to the old question of how Lebanese should try to deal with it annoying Syria problem.

    Lebanese should support Syria’s cause of getting back the Golan as best they can, rather than trying to thwart it, as Geagea et al do.

    They, of course, believe Syria wants to own Lebanon and unify, which helps explain why they would prefer to side with Israel to defeat Syria. I think we have proven that this is a losing strategy for Lebanon.

    Supporting Syria’s claim to the Golan may also be a losing strategy, but, at least, many Israelis still say that they will return it under the right circumstances.

    best, Joshua

    August 25th, 2008, 10:31 pm

    Which, today (and putting it mildly), rings a bit HOLLOW.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 18, 2011, 3:21 pm
  10. AP,
    You may have missed the point I was trying to make. If offers are to start coming forward from certain quarters, then those behind the offers, such as the ‘Yanks’, must understand that the couple are in no hurry or desperate position to accept anything mediocre that would require such a huge sacrifice of a double descent into the banality of a commoner state of existence. Money here is not the issue; it is status. And besides the offer of becoming a ‘reborn’ Ophthalmologist has such an attractive lure to it that no Huckabee or Yupie offer can surpass. It is like being granted the opportunity to live your youth all over again. And also, please keep in mind, the guy may still have some attachment to the profession otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen it in the first place. Knowing the type of ‘blackmailer’ the guy has grown into in the last eleven years, all I am saying, expect a heavy bargaining process that may wear all the Huckabees and State Department resources.

    QN,
    Either way, The Alawite regime as it existed in the last 40 years is coming to an end. Besides what is soft landing for Landis? Is it just soft landing for the minoritarian Alawite regime itself or is it for Syria? I read some comments for seemingly Alawite commentators on JL blog calling for creating an Alawite ‘Canton’ on the coast. Is that what JL has in mind? Knowing how gifted Landis in reading geostrategic considerations, I would refer him to a recent scenario I suggested not long ago here that would trigger once and if such ‘Alawite foolishness’ appears. But I still maintain that most Alawites are not pro-Assad and feel mistreated by the clan as much as the rest of the Syrians. Eventually the Alawites themselves may turn against the Assad clan and become instrumental in saving Syria.
    Besides, I may add, if such solution, as I suggested in the first comment, is to be considered, then it should be understood that Bashar has already served (illegally due to a rubber stamp amendment of the constitution) past his allowed terms. Consequently he would become a care-taker President overseeing new elections supervised by independent observers from all over the world. He would have no executive powers to issue new decrees and should immediately dismantle the security apparatus operating outside state control and remove it from the streets.

    Posted by anonymous | April 18, 2011, 3:21 pm
  11. What of this Wikileaks based reporting in the Washington Post…any comment? It doesn’t seem like very breaking news, sort of like, “Extra! National Endowment for Democracy Exists”…

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/us-secretly-backed-syrian-opposition-groups-cables-released-by-wikileaks-show/2011/04/14/AF1p9hwD_story.html

    Posted by omooex | April 18, 2011, 3:27 pm
  12. This is something that baffles. An ardent supporter of Assad, and until recently defender of the state version of events makes a complete 180 degree turn that would make even WJ feel jealous.

    He is now a ‘revolutionary’,

    Actually, the guy almost issued a ‘fatwa’ a week or so ago calling on the youth to stop visiting Facebook. And he was a full believer that Syria is facing a ‘conspiracy’ from the imperialists. There is also a youtube clip showing him in an interview with al-Jazeera proclaiming all of that. It can be easily found.

    Posted by anonymous | April 18, 2011, 4:14 pm
  13. QN,

    Well spotted. Do you think someone like Michel Kilo, even at this stage, would recognize himself as a “regime supporter”? Maybe the unspoken point of his comment in Assafir was that the regime has taken itself to a point at which it can’t hope to change things even by addressing the very modest demands of such dissidents?

    Keep in mind that this is someone who was very adamantly about not kicking over all the chessmen, with Iraq as the referent, and got years of harassment for his troubles. Now the ground his shifted under his feet as well, and satisfying those reasonable demands looks insufficient to save the people who wouldn’t have him as an interlocutor.

    I’m wrong all the time, but it looks to me like the effective authority has hit on the idea of palliative measures long after they could have helped. If they have the support of Michel Kilo, it’s because – and after – they made him irrelevant. Now it’s about a system that can only break; bending is beside the point.

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | April 18, 2011, 4:44 pm
  14. The “reformer” image is still in Vogue at Foggy Bottom:

    Embassy Chargé D’affaires Maura Connelly warned officials in Washington that “some programs may be perceived, were they to be made public, as an attempt to undermine the Assad regime.”

    Accordingly, Connelly recommended that the Obama administration “aim less at fostering ‘regime change’ and more toward encouraging ‘behavior reform'” on the part of the Assad government. She also asserted that the activities of “the various expatriate reform organizations operating in Europe and the U.S.,” a category that includes the Movement for Justice and Development, “have little to no effect on civil society or human rights in Syria…”
    All this balderdash is courtesy of the Infamous White house Murder INC. and its criminal closeness to the Assad Mafia in Damascus for Decades…

    Posted by HK | April 18, 2011, 4:50 pm
  15. “the pro-democracy, anti-regime camp”

    Call it like it is instead of pussyfooting around with disingenuously flattering descriptions of the neocons whose “interest” in MENA “democracy” is driven by their ignorant fantasies about what’s “good” for Israel.

    ….even if it can be dangerous to the ambitious to voice the bare-ass naked truth about these emperors of entrenched FP failures.

    Ironically, the Israelis think “democracy” is a joke but pretend to embrace the concept in order to appease their
    shabbos goyim champions & enablers.

    Posted by lally | April 18, 2011, 5:15 pm
  16. J of Chalcedon;

    Very well articulated. I totally concur.

    #8.Badr..”I should have added to my last comment in the previous thread, the possibility that professor Landis is not 100% free to speak up his mind about the Syrian regime”

    Why is that? He has been around forever trumping up the Assad line.You mean he will be looking for new paymasetrs?

    Posted by danny | April 18, 2011, 6:21 pm
  17. Lally’s Lament

    You may have missed the point I was trying to make.

    anon,

    Sorry if we misinterpreted each other. You may be right about Assad’s possibilities outside of his country. I was merely making a suggestion (jokingly), since the concensus here is he won’t last.

    I do not wish harm to him and his family even though Assad and his main supporter Professor Josh feel it necessary to arm a terrorist organization that has no qualms firing sophisticated missiles into Israeli population centers.

    I guess I’m too nice.;)

    Ironically, the Israelis think “democracy” is a joke but pretend to embrace the concept in order to appease their
    shabbos goyim champions & enablers.

    What exactly is the “irony” when Israel has a democracy, Arab representation in the Knesset, and Israeli-Arabs enjoy more rights than ANY arab country in the Middle East?

    Certain the biggest “irony” are the all Arabs that whine about Israel from cradle to grave.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Arab_members_of_the_Knesset

    A Happy Pesach to our Shabbos Goyim employers!;)

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 18, 2011, 6:38 pm
  18. Another CIA puppet; a crook and an idiot with an inflated ego; linked to the most infamous White House Murder INC. and who fully supports the Assad Mafia of Assassins in Damascus; Elias Murr…

    http://www.aljoumhouria.com/articleDetails/13153

    Posted by HK | April 18, 2011, 6:43 pm
  19. Gabriel

    I read that article differently… but it was a while ago. Maybe I should re-read it.

    Badr,

    I don’t think Josh engages in self-censorship, or at least not more than most other public commentators do.

    AP,

    Thanks for the blast from the past. Any others you’d care to share? :)

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 18, 2011, 9:58 pm
  20. J of Chalcedon

    Well put. I’m promoting your comment to the main page.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 18, 2011, 9:58 pm
  21. This was Homs today,

    Al-Muallem is extremely upset and calling the demonstrators ‘terrorists’ and ‘outde agents’ and ‘intruders’.

    Badr-din Hassoun may have realized it is getting too close to his home city (Aleppo) so he hurried south to Hawran (perhaps with government request) to stage a show of ‘solidarity’. He should have been kicked out.

    There are also reports of more killings at night in that city with the so-called ‘amn’ (the thugs of maher) trying to disperse the protesters.

    Posted by anonymous | April 18, 2011, 10:45 pm
  22. That should have been ‘outside agents’

    Posted by anonymous | April 18, 2011, 10:46 pm
  23. This is the same city next morning at dawn when maher and his ‘dogs’ were let loose,

    Do not know the toll yet.

    Posted by anonymous | April 19, 2011, 1:28 am
  24. Qifa Nabki #19,

    I’m trying to help you finding an explanation for your saying:
    “I can assure you that he has no love for the Assads.”
    If there is none, then make a retraction. Remember:
    الرجوع عن الخطأ فضيلة
    the virtue of admitting mistakes ;-)

    Posted by Badr | April 19, 2011, 3:24 am
  25. Thanks for the blast from the past. Any others you’d care to share?

    QN,

    There may be a few more old posts I saved on the various computers I used. I’ll have to check.

    But the real issue QN has always been Professor Josh’s language and his flawed opinions. Unfortunately, Professor Josh has always favored saving this empty suit’s (Bashar Assad) ass. Professor Josh has always made excuses for backing Assad and with numerous explanations as to why Assad was the right choice for Syrians. All this despite the harm Assad has caused his people and the immediate neighborhood.

    Someone with the credentials of all those ritzy-ditzy universities should have known better. That is why I take the opinions of these Leftist academics with a “grain of salt”. American and Israeli universities suffer from a high percentage of professors with opinions that don’t live up to decent moral standards. Professor Josh is just one of many ideological misfits.

    http://www.campus-watch.org/surveys.php/cat/Institutions

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 19, 2011, 7:18 am
  26. You place the name Tony Badran along with the others? And then describe him as pro-democracy?

    Are you joking?

    Posted by ac | April 19, 2011, 7:49 am
  27. Badr @24, remember that love and hate are two forms of the same passion. Frustrated love morphs into hate. The opposite of love is indifference.

    Courtesy the 17th century French Romantics…

    (Half seriously)

    Posted by Honest Patriot | April 19, 2011, 8:28 am
  28. The longer USA occupies Iraq; Israel and Afghanistan, the more they reveal the true nature of the ravenous American Beast. They are neo-Nazis, plain and simple. The sooner we accept that reality, the sooner USA can get on with total world domination. USA’s corruption of the world extends even into the English language, by semantic distortions of basic definitions of words like “permanent” and “peace.” That Clinton bitch can merrily proclaim that USA does not desire permanent bases along the strategic Iraq; Afghan oil corridor, since she is only speaking about the next 25 years, not forever. If there were even one honest government left in the world, they would resist this aggression, whatever the costs–but the whole world has been corrupted by the Infamous white house Murder INC; with soon to be worthless US dollars, meaning that every govt has a stake in a successful American/Nazi aggression. Imagine that.

    Posted by HK | April 19, 2011, 10:10 am
  29. I was about to post to declare that all the drama across the border in Syria has helped tone down matters in Lebanon. But it appears not!

    http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/Apr/19/March-14-defends-MP-Jarrah-Hezbollah-calls-for-his-prosecution.ashx#axzz1JzL9eTUm

    So Hizballah, avid supporter of the Egyptian Democrats, seems all of a sudden concerned about the question of Stability in the Syrian polity.

    Anyone else as thrilled as I am at this overt display of hypocrisies. It’s entertainment par Excellence!

    Posted by Gabriel | April 19, 2011, 12:51 pm
  30. Gabriel,

    You do know well that all authoritarian structures oozes of hypocrisy. HA; being a militant militia champions that. The most astounding fact is that the HA sympathizers; including those on this blog always try their own spin to this illogical logic.

    Posted by danny | April 19, 2011, 1:04 pm
  31. The sad thing is that these very obvious hypocrisies aren’t new. I and others have been pulling what little hair we left on our heads, screaming “hypocrisy” and pointing it out for years. The blind who choose to live in denial will continue to find excuses and refuse to see the hypocrisy. Even today.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | April 19, 2011, 1:24 pm
  32. BV.

    Yes. Hypocrisies are always glaring. But I think this is an interesting case of hypocrisy gone mad.

    As per QNs original post on some of the toned down commentary on Assafir.. One would have expected HA to maybe stand in the sideline and watch the developments with their mouths shut. We would then call them hypocrites anyways. But at least they don’t look ridiculous.

    Now they’ve opted to call for the prosecution of some fellow for ‘instigating’ democratic reform. It’s comical. If whatshisname from M14th really is behind the Syrian awakening, he should be given space in the history books, not hounded by the legal system.

    Posted by Gabriel | April 19, 2011, 2:28 pm
  33. On Hypocrisy:

    Saudi money wins Obama’s mind….

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MD19Ak02.html

    Posted by HK | April 19, 2011, 2:30 pm
  34. QN – Usually I agree with your analysis but here no… Some commentators have always been in one camp or the other but taking a view doesn’t put the neutral – Robin Yassin-Kassab and Rime Allaf – in a ‘camp’. Analysis which leads to condemnation of the regime does not make them biased. Likewise, calling Joshua Landis balanced seems off-tilt. He has long been considered too pro-regime, and now ever more so…

    Posted by avid reader | April 20, 2011, 8:42 am
  35. Hi Avid Reader,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. My point was precisely that we’re starting to see “camps” emerge on the issue of Syria. That’s my sense of it anyway. Rime and Robin have not just expressed a view or two. They have been doggedly criticizing the regime now for several weeks, taking the time to write articles and circulate news reports on Facebook. I’m not suggesting that they are “biased”… that has nothing to do with it.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 20, 2011, 11:17 am

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