I arrived in Damascus a few hours after the Syrian government helped to end the career of the discredited acting leader of the Palestinian National Authority. Mahmood Abbas had made one of his characteristic misjudgements and sought a deferral of a UN debate on the Goldstone report into war crimes stemming from the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. The as-it-happens democratically-elected Palestinian group Hamas slammed the decision as “shameful and irresponsible”. Damascus told Abbas that a pre-arranged visit was cancelled and closed its doors. Abbas is seen by many not to understand the value of armed struggle and, ironically, it could be his teenage years in the very city of Damascus that sealed his fate.
In Damascus, there is no sign of any need for armed struggle as people of all faiths and none go about their business as they have for millennia. Within days Abbas announced his effective resignation. Even President Obama’s people must realise they have been talking to the wrong man and Syria is central to peace in Palestine.
Damascus still wields power in the region and her close ties with Tehran and her warmer relations with Washington are the result of artful manoeuvring by a new generation of Syrian politicians, carefully navigating change. A few years back, some of them would have banged the table about the need for economic “reform” but they have been chastened by the world economic crisis, less prone to the ideologies of moronic western economics textbooks. If Syria had gone along with the discredited World Bank and IMF economists, had opened up its economy, “freed” the state-controlled economic system, become hooked on too powerful, private foreign investment it would not be in as strong a position today.
The Syrian economy is not dead and it’s all the more surprising given the shadow cast on the country by U.S. foreign policy and, perhaps even more importantly, its lack of geological luck. Nearly a century of Syrian politicians must have asked what Syria could have done if it had the oil and gas reserves of the Persian Gulf.
Today, the latest Damascene elite politicos have inherited geopolitical antennae plugged in by Assad père. There is no crack in their solidarity for the plight of Palestinians. There is steadfast support for the present day’s favourite hero of the Islamic world, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah. And, duly, there is withering contempt for Egyptian compliance with the Washington consensus. Syria beats Egypt on infant mortality and it beats Egypt on child literacy by a cool 10% for women. In Egypt, a fifth of the population are below the poverty line. In Syria it is 12% albeit that that is the same as in the United States. Except that the Syrian government has had to grapple with another factor – the five million displaced by the Bush war on Iraq.
Syria has more refugees per capita than any other country in the world, perhaps two million. The Bush war on Iraq casts a shadow of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives ruined across Syria. By contrast, the chief sponsors of the 2003 war have taken a trickle, a hundred here and a thousand there. Of those, a recent Baltimore Sun article quotes an Illinois refugee resettlement coordinator, Edwin Silverman, as saying the financial aid for those few who get in to America is “abysmal.” The State Department provides a one-time $425 grant per adult refugee. In the UK, only one in six Iraqis even gets asylum.
Today, a tourist visiting Syria can tread the topsoil of a hundred previous civilisations that have determined the development of the world and take in the sites – the Ozymandian ruins of Palmyra, Lawrence of Arabia’s favourite castle, Krak des Chevaliers, the citadel of Aleppo, the Grand Mosque of Damascus – but there’s now a new photo opportunity for Western tourists, the road signs for Baghdad.
The signs are as disturbing as the water-wheels at Hama, when in 1982 the Syrian government ordered a massacre to stem burgeoning Salafist fervour that might rock a secular state. It is the echoes from these places that will inhabit the imaginations of tomorrow’s 911 attackers, from Yemen to Indonesia. Syria’s war on terror uses alms.
With nothing like the U.S. budget for bombs, it frantically works with UN agencies to alleviate the squalor of Iraqi asylum in Syria. Without further outside aid, it offers only Elastoplasts and, with the pain unabated, the squalor will no doubt breed more terrifying anti-American hatred.
The border with Iraq is around 400 miles long and, along it, American-trained former Saddamists built pint-size Kracks des Chevaliers, small U.S.-taxpayer funded forts.
The Syrians have a shared interest with the U.S. in preventing the spread of Salafism. A senior Syrian official explained to me that the Syrian Army had sought night vision goggles for its soldiers to better patrol the border so that insurgents could not travel to Iraq and kill American soldiers. But the U.S. Syria Accountability Act of 2004 prohibits the export of most goods containing more than 10% U.S.-manufactured component parts to Syria.
Another said that President Obama had recognised the need and asked Britain to supply the equipment. According to him, Israel pressured Gordon Brown’s flailing regime to renege on the request. Yet another expressed disbelief that Washington prefers to endanger its boys and girls rather than trade with Damascus. It was back in 2003 that members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied the U.S. government to prevent exports of night goggles to Syria.
Two years later, blogger Joshua Landis, who buys the line that U.S. rapprochement with Syria will temper the power of regional superpower, Iran, was complaining “It has refused to supply Syria with much needed night-vision goggles and other high-tech equipment to help survey the border. It has kept the Iraqi government from establishing links and dialog with the Syrians. It has rebuffed Syrian attempts to keep intelligence sharing on Iraq…America’s attempts to isolate Syria have undermined intelligent Iraq policy.”
This policy so far continues under President Obama. It doesn’t seem to matter to U.S. executive power that, before 911, according to an undercover CIA source of Seymour Hersh that “at every stage in [Mohammed] Atta’s journey is the Muslim Brotherhood,” that the Syrians had intelligence from their own spies in Germany which they offered to the U.S., handing them plans for future Al Qaeda atrocities. Maybe the born-again President Bush confused Syria with some other country when he talked about the axis of evil.
It’s easy to understand orientalism amidst the long-faded grandeur of Aleppo’s Baron Hotel where the bar once hummed to the voices of FDR, Mustafa Kemal Atarturk and the British spy, Lawrence of Arabia. But you don’t have to be Poirot, hero of Agatha Christie, who wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” there (the Baron was near the famous train’s biggest Middle Eastern stop) to figure out who is doing the murdering today, some 450 miles east of the art deco lobby.
Obama’s top general in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, however, is no Poirot. In al-Hayat, recently, he said that “during the past years Syria was lending indirect support to some of the fighters, on top of financial support.”
Damascus, he continued, “has not changed this type of interference and the American forces are watching that closely, and cannot interfere unless the Iraqi government requests it, that is for us to offer support and backup inside Iraqi territory and not outside it.” How nice to be notified of the great respect a U.S. general holds for borders as President Obama’s drones drop bombs on Pakistan which cause more millions displaced in a war on a neighbouring country that has nothing to do with Al Qaeda. Without a shred of evidence, Odierno said that “there are armed groups that receive financial and logistical support from Syria.”
The U.S. troop surge in Iraq has had nothing to do with greater peace in Iraq. For that development, the U.S. has Iran’s friend Moqtada Al-Sadr to thank, whose support from the urban poor is undiminished even after his change in strategy. But Sadr can’t do it on his own. In the final week of last month, explosions in front of the Iraq’s Ministry of Justice and the Baghdad Provincial Council caused more than 1,000 casualties. The corporate media quickly tired of the story as if to say in an Anna Wintour voice, “Iraq? That is so last season.”
In Britain, the top line on the war on terror was plaintive op-eds about how on earth a plan by British soldiers to teach Afghan drug addicts to fire automatic weapons could go wrong (five Brits dead). In U.S. corporate media, amidst statistics showing that last month was the deadliest for U.S. troops since the invasion, there was much scratching of heads: why are Afghans not more grateful about having their country occupied.
Let Syria have the night goggles, President Obama!
AFSHIN RATTANSI has helped launch and develop television networks and has worked in journalism for more than two decades, at the BBC Today programme, CNN International, Bloomberg News, Al Jazeera Arabic, the Dubai Business Channel, Press TV and The Guardian. His quartet of novels, “The Dream of the Decade” is available on Amazon.com. He is executive producer of a new TV show, “Rattansi & Ridley” which broadcasts internationally, every Saturday at 2032 GMT on Press TV. He can be reached at email@example.com