March 6, 2005

Syria Shudders

I have high hopes for post-occupation Lebanon, despite – and certainly not because of – Lebanon’s history of violent ethnic conflict. Lebanon’s politics are notoriously ruthless, but there also exists a dynamic, sophisticated, and partially liberalized civil society in that country that counters some of the darker strains in the system.

Things are different in Syria. Unlike the relatively freewheeling Lebanon (in some ways akin to Hong Kong under Chinese authoritarian rule) Syria’s political system is full-bore totalitarian. If the Baath regime were to crack or disintegrate all of a sudden, I wouldn’t be as optimistic about the prospects for a quick transition into democracy without a bit of luck or help from people outside the country. Syria isn’t Iran in 2005 or Poland in 1989, in other words. It’s more like Albania in 1989. Syria might do just fine on its own in an immediate post-Baathist environment, but the people there have been severely traumatized and damaged by the regime. It is impossible to say how things would turn out, and that goes for everyone inside and outside the country.

Marc Cooper found an outstanding blog by Ammar Abdulamid, a Syrian liberal who says the upheaval in Lebanon is reverberating inside Syria in powerful and terrifying ways. Reading his blog is like asking for an emotional punch in the stomach. But Ammar is so intelligent, so knowledgeable of his country, and such a painfully honest writer I can’t turn away.
The City’s air is rife with all sorts of untoward rumors, everything is now possible: there is talk of arrests, purges, coup d’états, assassinations, sanctions, invasions, anything and everything, except, of course, freedom. Everything is possible except freedom. Freedom is never mentioned. Freedom never comes to mind. Freedom remains a distant dream.

The world is changing around us, but we, Damascenes, Syrians, Sunnis, ‘Alawis, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, or however we define ourselves these days, including perhaps heretics, can’t feel any hope in that. Nothing has touched us so far. Nothing seems to loom in the air, except for rumors and hearsays, none of which particularly inspired or inspiring. The face of an ugly and malevolent god still stares down upon any possibility of hope within us.

A reported wave of arrests has already swept a variety of “low-key” dissidents, that is, those whose arrest is not likely to generate much notice abroad, or even here, no matter how terrible this may sound. But then, everything sounds terrible these days. Despairingly terrible. There is hope all around us, but somehow there always needs to be some pit of despair somewhere meant to serve as a continuous reminder of how things were or could again be. But those whose fate is to live in such a pit have themselves to blame as well. If history teaches anything it’s that such punishment is always earned somehow. We earned it with our long and studious silence.

Being a potentially high-profile case, not to mention, of course, a heretic, my punishment is doubled, tripled and quadrupled: I have to watch others arrested while I am spared, I have to live in the anticipation of a potentially worse fate when the “right” time finally comes, I have to face the look of sickly blame on my sullen wife’s face, and I have to come back home at the end of another long day feeling numb and defeated, regardless of any achievements made.

Khawla and I have indeed reconciled ourselves to the fact that things seem to be like a race against time now: our decision is not simply about leaving the country, but about leaving it before it’s too late, that is, before events catch up with us and prevent us from traveling, together, or at all…

All these years I spent abroad without ever trying to obtain if not another citizenship then simply another residency seem increasingly wasted to me now. All this misplaced love for and belonging to the homeland is coming back to haunt me.

But then, idealists never prosper, do they? Do they?

On the positive side though, I feel like I have enough materials for a quite a few bestselling novels. One day this should make us all rich. One day.
I want to say something encouraging, but it’s hard. These are dangerous days in Syria. Nothing good will happen there while the Baath regime is in charge. It’s an obstacle that absolutely must be cleared out of the way. So the fact that Ammar detects the odor of fear coming off the regime is at least some reason to hope. There are always reasons to hope. And there are some that Ammar seems to forget about.

Totalitarian regimes almost always disintegrate rapidly and seemingly out of the blue. I’m a bit surprised to find myself writing about the possible implosion of the Middle East’s other Baath Party state at all. I knew it would happen at some point, but in early February there was no way to say it would happen in early March.

If it really is the beginning of the end of the Assad regime (do keep in mind that it might not be) events on the ground one month from now will be just as astonishing and hard to predict. Ammar Abdulamid may have little hope at this moment, but history is swinging on its hinges again. In a few weeks he may find that he lives in a different and barely recognizable country.

The reason people in Syria aren’t talking about freedom may be because they don’t quite yet feel like they can. That is so often the story in these kinds of places. But a tipping point may be coming. It is too soon to tell, but soon Ammar and millions of others may find themselves - all of a sudden - saying in genuine astonishment to the people who live all around them: Gosh, it isn’t just me? You feel the same way that I do?

I hate to say it, but this also is true: The implosion of the Baath regime could turn Syria into an emergency-room case. The US, the EU, the UN, and NATO damn well better start thinking about what they will do if that happens.

UPDATE: I just had a thought. If no one in Syria is brave enough to talk about freedom just yet, maybe the U.S. and the E.U. should give it a shot. Give the the people of Syria an excuse to start talking about it.

UPDATE: As it turns out, Bill Clinton has his own blog. In his latest post he floats the idea of regime-change in Syria. (Hat tip: Marc Cantor in the comments.)

Does anyone know if the Clinton blog is a hoax? I poked around Technorati and only found one blogger who thinks it's not real. But it's hard to say for sure one way or the other.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay. Andrew Apostolou found some pretty convincing evidence that the Clinton blog is a fake. Funny! Check it out.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 6, 2005 3:13 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member



Testimonials

"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

"Terrific"
Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere


Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com


News Feeds




toysforiraq.gif



Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button

totten_button.jpg


Tip Jar





Essays

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn