Two years ago, several people who had never met and, in certain cases, did not even know each others’ real names, launched an online experiment called OneMideast.org.
The group consisted of ten Israelis and ten Arabs from a variety of professional backgrounds: academics, journalists, businesspeople, and various others. They had little in common apart from an interest in Middle Eastern politics, and a habit of spending hours on the Internet discussing current affairs with other political junkies on various Mideast-themed blogs. One of the most stimulating venues for such discussion was Syria Comment, a daily newsletter on Syrian politics authored by Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma.
The combination of anonymity, politics, and a crowd of amateur pundits does not usually produce ideal conditions for respectful and reasoned debate, as anyone who has visited the comment section of an online publication can attest. However, Syria Comment seemed to be different. It had its share of “trolls”, to be sure, but it also had something else: a core group of several dozen regular readers who spent hours each day discussing the latest news out of Damascus, Beirut, Washington, and Tel Aviv.
These readers—largely expatriate Syrians living in the West, but also many Israelis, Europeans, Americans, and other Arabs—espoused a wide spectrum of political views. There were Baathists and Syrian nationalists; leftists and pan-Arabists; American Zionists and Israeli anti-Zionists; pro-Western critics of the Assad regime; sectarian apologists of all stripes; Salafists; technocrats and neo-liberal capitalists living abroad; and many others. Whatever the topic of any given day—Syrian fiscal policy, democratic reform, the war in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood—the mix of clashing perspectives made for vigorous and often enlightening debates.
It was at Syria Comment that I got my start as a blogger. Joshua graciously invited me to write my own posts about Lebanese affairs for his blog, even when they ran counter to his own politics or dabbled in pre-Qnion-esque satire. I have no doubt that much of Qifa Nabki’s early exposure during the build-up to the Lebanese elections in 2009 was due to Joshua’s endorsement and support.
Over the past several months, for obvious reasons, Syria Comment’s readership has exploded. After a valiant effort of daily updates containing anything and everything about Syria in the English and Arabic language press, YouTube, Facebook, the blogosphere, Twitter, etc., Joshua decided to turn over the maintenance of the site to two of his lieutenants (and good friends of mine), Ehsani and Alex. I woke up this morning to find that Ehsani (who has a real job as a banker in Manhattan) is also buckling under the pressure and will be taking a break from Syria Comment. This leaves Alex, who runs his own business in Montreal, to keep the site going.
As Mustapha notes over at Beirut Spring, many will gleefully read this latest development as a sign that Syria Comment is folding along with its supposed Baathist patrons in Damascus, which is silly nonsense. While I often disagree with Joshua on political issues, the accusation that his site is nothing but a mouthpiece for the Assad regime is a hollow critique, and one that misses the greatest virtue of Syria Comment, namely the role it plays as a forum for debate among Syria-watchers.
I recall, for example, the oddly disembodied camaraderie that emerged between many of the regular discussants at Syria Comment during the post-Hariri assassination years. We rarely seemed to reach a consensus on any issue, but if there was one thing that we all seemed to appreciate, it was the idea that sustained dialogue had a way of undermining deeply-held convictions and reconciling seemingly incompatible positions. The presence of a community—of strangers, perhaps, but a community nonetheless—made it possible to explore the multiple facets of a contentious subject over a series of days or even weeks, with the record of these interactions being preserved within the archive of the blog, a kind of collective memory of the conversation itself.
I’m no stranger to the challenges of trying to maintain an online forum without shirking one’s professional duties and family responsibilities, so I sympathize with both Joshua and Ehsani. However, I just want to say that if Syria Comment does indeed disappear — at this moment when it is needed most — we will have lost something very valuable indeed.