My Travels In Evil Syria: An Expert’s Response

One of the things I love about blogging is you can’t talk down to your readers, they’re as smart as you are (smarter!). I’ve gotten more comment about a post I did a few days ago on my impressions from a trip to Syria earlier this year than anything else I’ve done. When I posted my impressions, I announced that I was going to seek an expert’s take: Joshua Landis, a professor at Oklahoma U. Landis has lived in Syria, is married to a Syrian, and has the leading blog on Syria.

Landis began by echoing my general impression that life in Syria is pretty good.

“You go to Syria as an American and you’re expecting Saddam’s Iraq. A Mini Saddam. You discover it’s not a totalitarian state. It’s authoritarian, it’s a dictatorship. But Syrians are forthright with you. There’s not much feeling of surveillance. That said, had you gone as a journalist you would have been followed around.”

My impression of “the Arab street” post-Iraq was also accurate, he said.

“America has lost the propaganda war, the war for hearts and minds. Democracy and freedom are very tempting concepts to a lot of people in Syria. Because Syrians are not getting good governance. But now some of the things their own government does in suppressing discussion about religion and ethnicity begin to make sense to them. A number of people have told me, we’ve learned a lot about democracy—about dividing up your country and having civil war.” And Landis echoed my impression about the anti-Semitism in Syrian discourse. “There is a new culture of anti-Semitism. The protocols of the Elders of Zion are available in the souk. Books about the blood libel, and other Russian-European anti-Semitic tracts are being translated. Syria is ideologically stuck on this anti-Israel stuff. But [our allies] Jordan and Egypt have the same bullshit, the same textbooks.”

We moved on to the issue of totalitarianism versus just good old authoritarianism (thank you, Jeane Kirkpatrick!). Landis points out that there are many political prisoners in Syria. Most estimates say about 2000; the number may actually be 500-600. These figures are comparable to other states in the region. “Egypt is our main ally and the figure is closer to 18,000 people. Turkey, 3000. Israel, 3-4,000. Jordan is really the only country that does a better job. Syria is better than almost the entire neighborhood. That’s why you don’t feel there’s some giant increase in evilness when you come in from a neighbor: People aren’t markedly more scared, possibly because they don’t have to be.” He noted one important difference between Syria and its neighbors: in Syria there is less freedom of speech than in the neighborhood. “The local press is severely restricted and Syrians must rely on neighbors to bring them the news, in particular Lebanon.” (Also, note the international protests of the imprisonment of scholar Arif Dalila.)

What about killings of its own citizens? Famously, there is the suppression of the Islamists in Hama in 1982. Somewhere between 5,000 and 20,0000 were killed by the late President Assad. Landis: “But if you take the whole period from the 60s, let’s see who killed more of their own people.” Again, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Israel score more in bloodshed. These countries, in Landis’s view, suffer from what the entire neighborhood does, sectarian strife. “None of these countries have gelled as nations yet, and they’re all suffering for it. But Syria has managed the internal ethnic and religious divisions better than its neighbors.” Landis uses an interesting analogy. If the United States had been forced to comply with the Bush doctrine of democracy in the 1850s, we would have gotten 10 or 15 nations within our borders. Say, if we had had to deal with Indian rights without ethnic cleansing, or the confederacy without the use of force. As it was, right or wrong, “we shed a lot of blood for the value of national integrity. When Arab nationalists do that, we call them fascists. Yet Syrians are thinking about their country in precisely those terms.” (I’d note that historical anachronism as a rationale for present-day action cuts both ways: Israel can say that the U.S. put its Indians on reservations; why can’t they?)

To maintain its authoritarian structure, Syria has accepted a lesser rate of growth, Landis says. Here he echoes my observation about the lack of intellectual life. “No one is reading in that society, and that is the absolute truth,” he said. “The people are not reading.” Because of the failures of the education system and the dominance of a one-party state, there is, sadly, little value in gaining knowledge. But Landis says that the President of Syria, Bashar Assad, a former ophthalmologist who lived in London for years, is actually trying to change that culture.

Syria’s stability is somewhat enviable. The country is not that different from Iraq in terms of its rival tribes, it could easily dissolve into the same chaos. Even Israel has lately signaled to the United States that it should lay off the anti-Syria rhetoric because Assad’s dictatorial, Arab-nationalist state is preferable to the terrorist hive that Iraq has become. “But America has refused to say, we won’t take down the regime,” Landis notes. Why? “Because we’re in bed with every other dictator in the Middle East and there was no other Arab country that we could be mean to. Qaddafy, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt. We have no choice. There has to be one country as a poster child for the new policy of democratization, and that’s Syria. After the Hariri killing in Lebanon [March 14, 2005; the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister in Beirut, for which international bodies have accused Syria], Syria turned into the monster with big bloody dripping teeth.”

And yet Syria has cooperated with our so-called war on terror. It has aided the invasion of Iraq in subtle ways (as I observed in Tartus), and even tried to share intelligence about Al Qaeda. Though yes, it has supported Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Israel. Terrorist organizations.

That’s the tragedy here. Strategically, we have a lot to gain from playing good old realist footsie with Syria. A secular state, a stable one (for now). “Think of the role that Syria could play in a regional concert to [deal with Iraq],” Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation told me earlier this year. The same point was made by the two realists Mearsheimer and Walt in their now-famous paper in the London Review of Books on the Israel lobby: in a world convulsed by crazed religious radicals, Syria is generally on our side. We should be working with them.

Landis says, “We have our ideological blinkers on. Everything is about Hizbullah and Hamas.”

For me, this gets to My Jewish Problem: Why are all of Israel’s enemies always ours? Is the United States not a superpower? Can’t we show any independence of Israel’s interests, especially when it is mired in an ethnic dispute that is souring Arab opinion everywhere? The Iraq war came in part out of Israeli pressure. So has our Syrian policy.

If we showed greater tolerance and authority with Syria, who knows what might result. Last fall, Landis says, the Ministry of Education in Damascus held a conference at the prompting of President Assad, at which it offered a five-year plan for improving education. The demonstration used a film of a neighbor’s practices as a primary example of how to push literacy—Israel. The people attending the conference were stunned to silence, and then they clapped, Landis says. Why can’t we engage that Syria?

P.S. I showed this entry to Landis before posting it. He wrote the following:

In the long run, only education and the development of a liberal public outlook and solid institutions will be able to constrain absolutism. By refusing to engage with Syria in any way and by slapping hundreds of economic sanctions on the country, designed to impoverish the people and local businessmen, we are doing just what we shouldn’t be doing; we are dumbing down the public and making them angry at America and things western—including liberalism.

One of the reasons we are failing in Iraq right now is that we starved Iraq with sanctions for a decade before deciding to invade. We acquired an abused and impoverished people; we inherited national institutions that had been hammered to a pulp. Yes, Saddam was responsible for most of this, but the US made it worse. Now we are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The same thing is happening in Palestine. By standing by as the Palestinian leadership was undermined, the standard of living of Palestinians destroyed, their education reduced to war propaganda, we are losing any possibility of creating a two-state solution. The Palestinians are becoming dehumanized. How could we expect Hamas not to win? Now we are joining in the embargo of the PA, which will only reduce the Palestinians to a life of animals. What will be accomplished by doing that?

Our model for treating Syria is developing along the same lines as Palestine or Iraq. We are isolating and sanctioning Syria. We act as if it is “tough love” and say it is in the name of spreading democracy and combating terror, but it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that by starving a nation, you get hate and make things worse. Do we really want another Humpty Dumpty to fall off the wall?

We know this foreign policy model doesn’t work, yet, we seemed determined to repeat it. The Europeans are trying to maintain a level of engagement with Syria that is constructive by continuing education programs, development projects, administrative reform projects, etc. But American wants them to halt this engagement. It will not help. American needs to build a constituency of reform and liberalism, not undermine it.