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.
I criticise it a lot, but it would be a great shame if that site was neglected and forgotten.
Innocent Criminal and Maysaloon, two pals from the old days. Where have you been? 🙂
Good to know you’re still around (but not doing a very good job of keeping me honest).
Not to worry, when Lebanon decides to go democratic, this website will be humming as well.
Leaving it solely in the hands of Alex?
Should be changed to Regime Comment…. for transparency’s sake.
It is a sad day Qifa,
I have been largely silent the last 2 years preferring to read rather than contribute, but I will put my 2 cents worth,, since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria , I feel SC ( in the comments section ) has become slightly banal, and highly charged emotionally, but will state FIRMLY, it is no where near as good as the OLD days.
I concur slightly with Akbar here, that demise might bring opportunity- it all depends on how we handle it!
What wasn’t covered in Ehsani’s ‘farewell’ to Syria Comment was the why and the how he felt it necessary to forcefully step back.
I wrote a few times to the new honchos on their ascension, and urged them to do a major outreach, to bring in guests, to host interviews with some of the real players in the Syria opposition forces, to draft help if needed from longtime readers and contributors. I noted the challenge in keeping to Joshua Landis’s remarkably civil tone with critics.
First to fall off the civility wagon was Camille, who stooped to bitch with such as Robin Yassin Kassab in the comments, showing a lack of Joshua’s gift for responding to queries and notes ‘above the fray’ — Camille made what I think is a mistake in that he personalized the response, even indulging himself in psychological speculation about Robin, vague enough to cover ‘people like you.’ Not a good portent.
Another unsettling portent was a very very very long article, promised now three weeks, by Camille, in which he would answer all questions! While I appreciate his detailed Lebanese/Syrian political analyses, wherein he takes the big, long-range position involving all regional actors and interests, mansplaining why Assad deserves up to five years to achieve reform. If this is what he has worked on while avoiding other SC editing duties right now, then this may be pretty much all Camille will do on SC: emerge with major lengthy post, squabble with commenters, leave the post up for a week, and then do it again.
No more would we have the quick, responsive round-ups of news across the spectrum — which round-ups have been effectively suspended. It looks like Camille may turn out too busy, too ideological to attempt what Joshua did even under pressure: regularly fork up stories, essays, and topics for discussion from the world’s media.
I hope I am utterly wrong in these observations and speculations, yet I can’t help wondering just what broke a years-long relationship between Ehsani and Syria Comment that it had to be formally set aside. I hope I am utterly and completely wrong to suspect that Camille Otrakji ‘won’ some kind of hidden power struggle, and will not now carry on as if he were chosen by history to be regnant.
That is so cynical of me! So, as antidote, I must commend Qifa Nabki on his even-handed, friendly and fair assessment above. All I might add that is if Syria Comment is in some distress, its friends and beneficiaries across the spectrum of opinion should lend a hand, and help Camille out now that he has lost Joshua and Ehsani . . .
Hmm, SyriaComment anchored many of us in the art of blogging and did provide a valuable forum whose dynamic has likely resulted in many a benefit that will only become apparent years from today. I do hope it sticks around. Whether you agree with him or not there is no denying that Alex is a powerhouse of knowledge, technical savvy, discipline, and nuance. Yet, he is not omnipotent, at least I don’t think so. Here’s a suggestion on keeping the main postings flowing. How about inviting guest contributions? I suspect there will be no penury of volunteers as long as the frequency at which they have to provide input is fairly low. QN might be one, no? Joshua too, etc.
Alex’s burden will then be one of filtering, moderating, and scheduling these contributions (and having one of his own every now and then). Besides with what seems to be an explosion in faculty positions in Arabic studies nationwide, wouldn’t one or more of those assistant professors (or senior faculty) find it a good venue for an occasional main post?
I obviously support the call for keeping SyriaComment active, alive, and well.
Would soliciting low level financial support via a simple online donation help? Many small contributions might add up to a significant amount.
Here’s a potentially controversial suggestion: Add AIG to the list of invitees for main postings!
Bill, thanks for that comment. Yes, Camille has a totalizing impulse, to be sure, and he’s not exactly dispassionate when it comes to these issues. It needs to be a team effort, like it was when both he and Joshua were running SC.
In the last 7 months Syria has changed in the most fundamental way. Nobody saw this coming (except you know who 🙂 ) including Assad as his WSJ interview from January shows. I imagine Landis is feeling just as lost. He cannot rationalize anymore his basic instincts in favor of freedom and democracy with his respect for the Syrian elites he has known for years. Landis himself attested that Imad Mustapha has cut him off based on the tone of SC in the last months. In times of deep crisis and divide you cannot stay in the middle and hope both sides will like you. Most likely both sides will hate you. So given the personal cost Landis did the reasonable thing and opted out of the fray.
Ehsani is well known in the Syrian community and his quick u-turn makes me suspicious that he or his family were threatened or that he acted in anticipation of such move. I hope I am wrong.
As for Alex, I would like to know if he is still friends with Imad Mustapha.
SC was an interesting window into the thinking of Westernized Syrians that supported the regime. I just got could not get enough of the mental gymnastics required to live in the US and Canada, have Western values, yet support the Assad regime. Unfortunately, the best “gymnist”, Off The Wall (OTW) changed his views following the revolution and admitted his mistakes. I am half joking of course. I respect OTW very much for his courageous change of views.
So for me, SC is already gone. Alex barely comments, all the Lebanese commenters are gone and worse of all, at least half the posts I agree with or support my views! And what is the fun in that?
@11: Great post; you have an interesting assessment of SC.
“Mental Gymnastics” is an excellent description, and IMO it boils down to right and wrong.
The way I see it, there are 2 “mental gymnastic” issues when dealing with the ME and Syria:
– Castigating Israel when Arab governments are guilty of the same and usually, much worse.
– And excusing the Syrian regime when all your supposed education and sense of right and wrong tell you the opposite.
The Main Stream Media and specifically, Fareed Zakaria is an example of a political/foreign policy pundit whose reputation suffered from his change of heart regarding Iraq (which he initially supported). Likewise, the supporters of ME despots, including the Israeli ones, are not looking so good today. And it seems the worse the despot, the more the excuse-maker’s resume has become tainted.
I feel emotional after reading this post.
It sums up what is unique and valuable and so worthy of appreciation about SyriaComment and those who have been driving it.
I have been reading it for years and it’s been a reliable source of information, intellectual stimulation and “social enjoyment”. Something that really brings home the purpose of the internet.
Joshua, Ehsani, Alex and other contributors like yourself have proved to have sadly few counterparts out there online.
Let’s hope it foreshadows the quality and tone of public analysis and debate that blooms one day in Syria.
I would’ve thought Camille had got the message 6 months ago:
….and kept to his day Job….
RIP Syria Comment.
Stop the emotional and sappy good byes! Time to move on. QN you grew up so did others. Shut Alex and his five year demented plans down…
i featured about this blog in my class at LAU
Yeah, sure Danny. Had anything better to recommend? Let’s hear about it. Pity you couldn’t keep your ass and head still long enough to properly read some of the best stuff on SyriaComment over the past few years.
Maverick – settle the personal bee in your bonnet. Play the argument, not the man.
Alex’s view of the world may not be to your liking – and sometimes not to mine – but I still respect and appreciate him as an energetic and competent producer, not just an armchair consumer.
You can post and SC and see your comment online after 2 seconds, so the “moderation” which many fear here comes only afterwards, and basically trashes pure insults and overlong posts, as far as I have seen in the last few days. Ehsani might be busy fighting the Wall Street protesters, or thinking about joining the movement?
Sorry to disagree QN, but I won’t miss SC one iota,
Maybe it’s your academic professional courtesy or what have you. I have not been on SC in 4 years after realizing it is low brow and Landis may be nice but so are many useful idiots, besides being totally unimpressive as a writer.
Yes, he is not your average Baathist thug, but really as an apologist for the regime and its criminal behavior, who better than Landis’s bespectacled angelic face and western academic credentials?
Come on, damn it, at what point do we draw the line on apologists for criminals?
If you thought Landis was bad, try reading the spins and hypocrisies of Sir Alex.
Ahhh yes, so thats why the regime forbids media coverage of the protests, because the media has been “unfriendly” to the regime in the past… okayyy that explains it then.
trust me I have no issues with Camille, i just think a 12 year old would have done a better job.
Very interesting. It seems that Qifa Nabki and I are the only ones who’ve actually followed SyriaComment and know what’s been published on it.
The others are revealing lack of knowledge by being fixated on the alleged personal quaities of Joshua and Alex.
(Who are, incidentally, two civilised – and likeably civil – people, who are entitled to express their views and form conclusions as much as the “haters” above.)
As any serious reader of SC would know, J. and A. have occupied limited space on the site, and that a lot of its value lies in the wealth of first-rate original material contributed by others. Contributions which have been welcomed and given a prominent position by Joshua, regardless of whether they outshine or oppose his own posts.
SC thanks to Joshua’s style is also refreshing in often mirroring what actually happens in discussions and debates in real life, not the usually anonymous insults and rantings that occur online.
There is no way the commentators above would dare to sit in person in a gathering with J and A. and others and spit out the personal insults as they have done here. But they choose this way to have their say because proper open discourse and debate is too hard for them.
Seriously…Time to say good night. The brutal regime’s end is near. It’s apologists and cronies need to go away for good. You are always entitled to your opinion and others are too!! My condolences. 😀
News Danny – I’ll bet I have been wishing and waiting longer and harder than you for Syria’s vicious criminal regime to fall over.
You’ve obviously caught the fever late and in a shallow form or you wouldn’t be making silly remarks and randomly labelling others as “apologists and cronies”.
Put your full name out there and your credentials and particular knowledge about Syria and investment in a post-Assad future, and then maybe we’ll give your opinions the same weight as the people you are lobbing lazy insults at.
Why don’t you tell us why the Assad regime is good for Syria? Maybe you will convince us.
AIG, how about reading what I said? The Assad regime is a toxic disaster and tragedy for the people of Syria. I have always known that and said so, long before it was a popular cause on blogs and in the media.
But I can also respect the thoughts of people like Joshua and Alex who bring their own experiences and world view to this, and have an equally strong interest in and love for Syria, and have done a lot to create awareness and understanding of Syrians and their country, It’s childish nonesense to infer they are “apologists and cronies”. I certainly don’t agree with some things they have said over the years, but recognise where they are coming from.
If you were actually getting around with Syrians inside Syria in recent years and meeting educated outsiders who have longstanding contact with Syria you might have been constantly frustrated, as I have been, at how doggedly so many have insisted that “young Assad” is different and not a bad guy. It’s taken a lot of public killing and a few stupid speeches for the shocking truth to start hitting home to many otherwise intelligent and reasonable people.
And incidentally, I am equally deeply distressed both by what the regime is doing to Syrians and by the death of any Syrians caught in the crossfire of resistance to the regime, including young men in the military. It’s disturbing that some on these blogs keep baying for Syrians to shed the blood of other Syrians. The vermin eradication program needs to focus on Assad, his brother, brother in law and their apparatchiks, not Syrian people pitted against each other.
It seems that people who are supporting the wish of any people would be called hypocrites or shallow as you say:”You’ve obviously caught the fever late and in a shallow form or you wouldn’t be making silly remarks and randomly labelling others as “apologists and cronies”.
You have an issue with your own psyche dude. You were first. Is that ok now? As for mine or others’ opinions…learn to respect them even if you don’t agree with it. As for Alex, he could be a great human being. How does that have anything to do with his misplaced trust in a brutal dictator? Syrian people are being “pitted” against each other because of apologists like you and Alex and Joshua.
Don’t fret or worry about us. We are people who live in freedom in the West and wish the same for all mankind. Unlike people who breathe the freedom in Montreal but wish that bloody regime should survive as there are only 300 people demonstrating or a fictitious five year plan (most likely from drawers of a long gone Soviet era).
I have not read from any commentator here who advocate a civil strife in Syria. You say”It’s disturbing that some on these blogs keep baying for Syrians to shed the blood of other Syrians”. Where? Point it to us.
AIG, my long time interlocutor. LOL, you got the Gymnastic part almost right, but the chronology wrong. Here is a statement I posted on December 30, 2011 that went unnoticed.
That was even before Mr. Al-Assad famous WSJ interview. The process was not really a gymnastic flip, it was a two years process of tedious examination of the type of dichotomy you have described. All my posts for more than two years now have been clear on that subject. Syria comment was the place where this happened, hence my emotional attachment to it. I, however still believe that you are harsh on Joshua. I believe that his expertise will be very essential in better understanding the forces that will continue to shape the escalating struggle and the post Assad Syria. But we must find his commentaries now elsewhere.
Please remember, opposition to some of Israel’s policies and actions does not necessarily equal propagandizing for the Syrian Regime. The two are mutually exclusive, and their separation was naturally among the things I, and many like me, had to work on. You asked me a question on SC and I answered very briefly about changing my mind. A longer answer is available on my own recently launched blog. But I thank you for your comment. I must say that you yourself have also undergone some transformation that was quite apparent in your change of style after returning to SC, which made it easier to give your comments careful reading.
I meant December 30, 2010. I am not a time-traveler. Although that would have been nice.
Sorry for not understanding your position, but let’s take the argument forward.
“It’s taken a lot of public killing and a few stupid speeches for the shocking truth to start hitting home to many otherwise intelligent and reasonable people.”
And the question is why? How could so many intelligent people be fooled for such a long time? The answer is of course complex, but part of it are views like Joshua’s and Alex’. As OTW describes, it is easy to buy promises that democracy is just around the corner. That is what Alex would propagate and Joshua would provide the “rational” why the regime should not be pushed. I am not saying there is anything malicious in what they did. Alex is acting out of sincere fear for the Christian minority in Syria. But he is not willing say outright that he is against democracy in Syria because he believes that will be very bad for the Syrian Christian community. And he may be right. Iraq does not make me hopeful in this regard.
As for why Alex feels the need to write thousands of words when his position can be described in one sentence that makes a lot of sense, I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. My hunch is that expressing his fear of Sunni majority rule contradicts the Pan-Arabist views which are part of the mythology of the Syrian regime. Also, the moment you acknowledge the existence of sectarianism, you are giving justification to Jewish sectarianism. So what is left to do but mental gymnastics?
AIG, the question is what would you have done, and what do you think the consequences would have been at a personal level?
I am not sure I understand your question. There is nothing much that can be done in the middle east if you are a minority without sovereignty. I would have either tried to create a Christian state in Syria or most likely tried to get my family out of there knowing that Assad would go sooner or later. We are sectarian here and it won’t change for generations.
To do the right thing you have to acknowledge reality, and the reality is that Sunni extremism will likely devour Syria. They will come into power like Hamas in Gaza and stay in power in the same way: one person one vote one time. All this despite the fact that most Sunnis are not extremist, they just have a problem standing up to the extremists.
Are you implying that an oppressive majority rule is better than the minority one? In other words, would a Sunni theocracy be an improvement for Syria over the current regime?
AIG, thanks. What is your assessment of Turkey?
I did not read that from AIG’s post, what I read from his posts is that such is inevitable, at least in the short term. I don’t personally think it is inevitable.
It is a problem when minorities’ inalienable rights are converted into privileges.
In a state where all citizens are equal and their rights are protected there is no such thing as a minority. All have the same rights. Within that mosaic one has religious minorities, racial minorities, among other minorities based on all sorts of yardsticks such as weight, height, sexual preferences … This is not a peripheral issue, on the contrary, it is a fundamental one. If the aim is to describe a democracy then you do not use a language and look at the issue from a wrong prism. A democracy is described in democratic terms. If that is done then one provides protection for individual rights and treats all citizens equally. Then and only then the subcategories will not feel threatened when the head of the pyramid has a different skin colour or prays in a different way.
I don’t know what will be better for Syrians, a Sunni theocracy or the current regime. Both are quite bad. But, in my opinion, Sunni theocracy is a necessary station on the way to true democracy. Just as it took some time for Arabs to understand that Arab Nationalism is not the solution, it will take time for them to understand that Sunni theocracy is not the solution. The only way they will be convinced is to see for themselves, no a priori argument will work. So Sunni theocracy is a little better in a sense that we might as well get on with it so people will be convinced sooner that it isn’t the solution.
Yes, your interpretation is correct. I also agree with you that it is not inevitable, just very very likely that a Sunni theocracy will emerge. And I would like to stress that even though the chances of democracy emerging are small in my opinion, the Syrian people should be given every chance and any support they need to try achieving it. I am cheering with all my heart for a democratic Syria, but just can’t bet on it, just like I cheer for the Israeli team in the world cup but would never bet they are going to win it.
I don’t know enough about Turkey to make an assessment.
This interesting and intelligent discussion reminds me of what the reader comments section used to be like in Syria Comment before it was swamped recently by some haters, non-debaters and data dumpers.
I hope they stay away from here.
As AIG points out, Alex’s anxiety is obvious and easy to source from his connections to Syrian Christians.
But Alex’s arguments are worth observing and puttng into the mix..This is because we all know there are plenty of Sunni middle classers in Syria with no regime links who are equally sceptical and nervous about having the system overturned. Don’t underestimate the effects of information control, blocking of alternative vision and economic and social stunting by the Assad regime all these decades.
These Syrians (probably correctly) see the rebellion as one of desperate poor people and impatient young ones who don’t the fear the risk of going the way of Iraq or Lebanon. They just yearn for the whole crisis to go away so they can resume their daily lives, including the familiar problems and hardships they are acclimatised to – still better than uncertainty, economic collapse and violent chaos.
For a Sunni theocracy, it may be possible to enlist the rural population and urban poor, but how will it contain the unrest of the younger generation? Any such government is likely to be economically incompetent, socially intolerant and disrespected by the west. All things that will continue the desperation for change by those who feel their life has no immediate opportunities or future prospects for improvement.