Citizen “Street Teach-Ins” As the Obama Prepares to Bomb Syria



The Persians, whose bright, articulate students are well known internationally, and with whom this observer has been honored to discuss international politics on several occasions, may well have met their intellectual match in the Syrian Arabs. I base this conclusion on what is happening among the public in Damascus, not just in the universities and schools, but during impromptu “marketplace of ideas” sessions increasingly taking place on the streets and in coffee houses and places of public gathering.

Last night was one example.  Way past this observer’s bedtime, some friends dropped by, desiring to sit outside “for a few minutes” to discuss the latest news from Washington and St. Petersburg. We ended up perching ourselves on concrete slabs that divide Al Bahsa Street in front of my hotel—where no cars are allowed—for more than three hours!  Miss Hiba, a wild and wonderful Palestinian journalist born in Yarmouk camp, interpreted for us. The congregation very quickly grew as a few soldiers, shabiha and national defense force types showed up to see what was going on. Some even joined in the fast moving, animated discussion.

There were several students and neighborhood residents assembling and at the start of the ‘seminar” it quickly became obvious that Syrians are carefully tracking developments in the run-up to the widely expected “9/13/13 black Friday” now less than one week away. It is this date when many Damascenes and foreign observers believe the American attack will begin. A minority expressed the view that Obama is unlikely to order the attack because of an increasingly skeptical—indeed hostile-American and international public that see only disaster from another reckless US invasion of this region.

Life appears on the surface fairly normal, but tensions are rising and people are alarmed at the prospects of an American attack. This observer was educated by these Syrians about a number of things, including the conflict raging here, and on how events locally and internationally are apt to unfold.

Very few here, if any, are inclined to believe that the American attack will be limited or short, this despite the fact that for the past few days the Obama team has made frequent use of the word “degrade” (as in demolish or destroy, one might note); nor do they believe its sole purpose is to send a message or to punish the Syrian leadership.

An elderly gentleman who owns a pharmacy around the corner explained, “It’s regime change here and in Tehran and nothing less!  They will bomb anywhere at will because their top 75 listed targets have already been emptied and keep shifting.  We are all working to provide Obama with no targets.”

One aged Bedouin woman interjected, “Who benefits from the Americans attacking us other than Israel?”   A rough looking elderly gentleman standing next to her, maybe her cantankerous husband, blurted out, with a trace of condescension and wearing a faint scowl, “That’s the whole idea, woman!”

This observer was dumbfounded by the sophistication of the comments made at the impromptu gathering. One Damascus University student preparing to return to classes later this month rattled off some likely or projected results of the upcoming Congressional vote, explaining to the growing assembly that in the House of Representatives the count, as of 9/4/13, could be viewed as 47 members firmly or inclined toward voting yes; 187 firmly or inclined to a no vote, with 220 unknown or undecided. Then she announced she was pretty certain the President will be forced to withdraw the resolution or postpone a vote in the House.

Another lady, who I have seen around my hotel garden, mentioned yesterday’s report in the Washington Post that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has linked with the Israeli lobby AIPAC in an all-out public campaign for a U.S. war on Syria. I had no idea about this, and wondered how she was so current with her information.  She then explained, “So far, only 21 senators have said they support or are likely to support the Obama resolution, thirteen have said they oppose or are likely to oppose the resolution, while 66 votes are undecided or unknown.”

By early this morning, when our gathering had begun drawing to a close, the conversation had made its way around to the U.S. Constitution. One young man, presumably a law student, zeroed in on Article One, Section Eight, Clause 11, reciting for this observer not a summary, mind you, but word-for-word—from memory—“The Congress shall have Power To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.

He then explained that the particular passage provides no specific format for what form any legislation must have in order to be considered a “Declaration of War,” nor does the Constitution itself use this term. Then came the zinger: “Sir can you compare and contrast this Article and Clause with the 1973 War Powers Act and share with us your interpretation of both with respect to what your President is threatening to do to my country.”

“Who is this guy?” I thought to myself, and I began to stutter, thinking to myself, somewhat in anguish, “Where is Professor Richard Falk when I need him. For sure he could answer this question perfectly.”

Not knowing where or how to begin to answer the gentleman, I mumbled something like “that’s an excellent question, can we meet later to discuss it because it’s very late now.”

But mercifully, just as I glanced at my watch, noticing it was 4:28 a.m., we all heard the Adhan, (Islamic call to prayer) called out by a muezzin from the nearby mosque. The somehow reassuring strains, even a bit eerie, wafted around us. The time had come for al Fajr (Dawn) prayers. It was this observer’s good luck; I could duck the question.

The soldiers on the street fell silent, listening, becoming contemplative. One can only imagine their ruminations about next week’s likely American bombing campaign. Most everyone began now to disperse. I was saved.

No thanks to absent Professor Falk, who would doubtless would have answered the gentleman’s question flawlessly and he did many, during his recent visit next door in Lebanon.

The people of the Syrian Arab Republic are politically sophisticated and amazingly well informed as to the current crisis, even down to specifics on external players and their plans.

As a dark day approaches the Syrian Arab Republic, one can only wish each Syrian, whatever his current condition, a return to peace, and join with them, and with all people of good will, to achieve an end to the destruction of this ten thousand year old civilization.

In the words of  the Papal nuncio contained in the letter from Pope Francis to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the recent G-20 summit in St. Petersburg:

“To all in attendance, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.  Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.”

Taking his views on Syria to Twitter, the Vicar of Christ added: “War never again! Never again war! How much suffering, how much devastation, and how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake. We want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out! With all my strength, I ask each party in the conflict not to close themselves in solely on their own interests. I pray for peace.”

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and can be reached c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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