Give Asad the benefit of the doubt?

March 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just a few months ago, I criticized the New York Times’ assessment that the “new generation” of Syrian youth was only capable of producing “a culture of small-bore opportunism.” I still disagree with reporter Michael Kimmelman’s elitist and narrow-sighted dismissal of Syrian art, culture, and society, but I can’t bring myself to disagree with what Kimmelman said next:

A young generation of Syrian entrepreneurs, weaned on the Internet and devoted to the global marketplace, has arisen in the last decade or so. They see fresh chances to make big bucks and show little appetite for political confrontation. During the 1960s, and then under Hafez al-Assad in the ’70s, Syria had its version of the youth movement. It survived partly because Syrian activist-artists steeped in Sartre shared with the country’s rulers a dream of pan-Arab prosperity. But today young Syrians, many of them freely admit, dream not about making waves but making money.

During the past weeks of protest in Syria, many of the elite and wealthy “youth” of Syria have spoken out on Twitter and in op-eds, letting it be known that while they condemn violence, they strongly support Bashar al-Asad. Their arguments and reasoning are not one-sided or simplistic; many elite supported demonstrators in Deraa and condemned the killings of demonstrators by security forces, yet ultimately, the prevailing sentiment is that the stability of the known must reign over the chaos of the unknown.  This is not to say that all elite Syrian youth share these sentiments or that it’s only the non-elite who support revolution, but at least to say that there is a segment of the youth elite firm in their support of the regime. (Insert here something about how these people, despite their support for the regime, really support human rights, release of political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency and so on and so on and so on.)

Syrians like Abdulsalam Haykal and Sami Moubayed, who I guess are on the younger side of the spectrum, are in line with Kimmelman’s description. Both are involved with the development of the private media in Syria, with Haykal being CEO of Haykal Media and Moubayed writing and editing the Haykal-owned magazine Forward. It was Haykal who announced last month via Twitter that Syria had lifted its ban on Facebook. I have singled out these two since not only are they very successful financially, they are also media savvy and serve the regime just by being young Syrians who support Bashar.

With Bashar’s wife Asma al-Asad spearheading the “development” of Syrian civil society through a network of government-sanctioned (N)GOs, such as the Syrian Trust for Development, characters like Haykal and Moubayed embody the ideal type of leader emerging from this tightly-controlled civil society.

Now, moving on to Moubayed’s recent op-ed for Gulf News titled “Al Assad Deserves Benefit of the Doubt.” The title pretty much says it all, but his arguments present succinctly some of the Syrian youth views on past weeks’ demonstrations. You see, there are really only “two paths” for Syria:

One is that of Al Assad, which calls for calm, and offers far-reaching reforms that would completely face-lift and revamp the entire composition of the Syrian regime . . .  This path promises democracy via the British model, through evolution not revolution.

[ . . .]

The second path is that of chaos and a very uncertain future at the end of the tunnel. It calls for bringing down the regime, shattering Syria’s tranquillity, and thrusting the nation into a very murky future.

Is it possible that Moubayed speaks for a large segment of the Syrian population when he lays out these two futures? Yes. It’s also possible that the stability of a dictatorship will continue to bring success, a stable economic future, and steady foreign investment for the elite, continuing the trend of the past several decades of circulating power and wealth amongst a small cadre of individuals. When I talk to other Syrian youth, those whose family members have served time in jail for political views, I see optimism in a different future, one that does not involve “trusting” your leader or giving him the “benefit of the doubt,” since this option has certainly benefited only a select few.


Making friends in Syria

March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Trinity University Professor David Lesch with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. Source: Trinity University

For academics, establishing access in Syria for research is difficult. Maintaining that access over years is even more difficult. While I understand this basic concept, and have experienced the so-called “red lines” in Syria while attempting research, it seems to be a given that academics shouldn’t sacrifice the honesty of their work in order to maintain this access.

With the past two weeks of demonstrations and violent responses by security forces in Syria, those academics who have maintained their access to Syria – undoubtedly with some bumps along the way – have weighed in with their analyses. Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and David Lesch of Trinity University are the two that come to mind and are the most likely to be branded as apologists for the Syrian regime. It’s hard to find much evidence that contradicts that judgment.

Though I often think that Landis is doing his best to ward off hawkish responses to the Syrian regime, i.e. sanctions and invasion, it’s also apparent that he is quick to support the Syrian regime’s assertion of ongoing “reform,” even when the reality of the situation is repression, political prisoners, and widespread deception in the Syrian press. There is no denial that many Syrians support Bashar al-Asad, but should this preclude harsh criticisms of past and current regime actions? Landis and Lesch have both paid their obligatory lip service to human rights, stating that Syria must seriously work to improve its human rights record, but often, this statement is just an afterthought tacked to the end of some tome about how Bashar is really on the verge of reforming.

Case in point: Lesch’s recent analysis of protests in Syria published on Landis’s blog. In listing the several reasons why Bashar al-Asad’s regime is “safe and secure,” he points to Asad’s humble lifestyle.

He lives and acts humbly, i.e. you will not find any Wikileaks reports detailing the extravagant lifestyle of Bashar al-Asad.  He is a good family man with a beautiful, cosmopolitan, and civically active wife.

Lesch seems blind to the reasons why many Syrians are opposed to the regime, if not the actions perpetrated by the numerous arms of the regime, such as the security forces. For Lesch, the fact that Syria is a police state might be OK since Bashar has “good intentions.” If you’ve ever read Lesch’s biography of Bashar, The New Lion of Damascus, then this analysis will come as no surprise.

In a 2009 interview, Lesch said:

I enjoy my access, and I think there are certain red lines,  he says. I think I have learned these red lines.

More importantly:

He [Bashar] loves Electric Light Orchestra, Lesch says. That’s his favorite Western band . . . and I like them, too.

Even better:

I basically said ‘Mr. President, you know I am not an apologist for Syria. I’m going to tell it like it is.’ And he said ‘I know that because I have read some of your writings and you are very critical of Syria, especially under my father.

What better way to know you’re not an apologist by sitting down with the Syrian president for tea and have him tell you you’re not an apologist?

In short, if you’re starting to toy around with the idea that Bashar al-Asad is a true reformer in the midst of those “other” Middle East dictators, it might be time for you to abandon your access to Syria and re-examine the basic principles that fuel your work. Lesch and Landis use their academic status to elevate themselves above your typical political commentators, but unfortunately, in the process of cultivating sources in Syria and wishing to remain on friendly terms with the regime, they have given up much of their credibility as astute observers of Syria. I don’t believe that those academics working in Syria should be compelled to become vocal critics of Asad’s regime at every turn, but those that chose to get involved politically, like Landis and Lesch, would be better suited in turning a critical eye on those in power.

New Syrian lira?

March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Syrian one thousand lira note, about $20, featuring Hafez al-Asad and “Free Syria” penned in over his face. Posted on the Syrian Revolution Facebook site.

Marjeh Square: a space of the would-be Syrian uprising

March 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Marjeh Square in 2011. Source: Benjamin Douglas

This article at Spaces in Public looks to Marjeh Square as one of the few spaces in the core of urban Damascus that has been the site of thwarted sit-ins and demonstrations.

Symbols of the Syrian Regime Falling

March 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

The ubiquitous visual representations of Asad’s cult of personality are becoming the targets of demonstrations in Syria. After over a month of demonstrations in numerous Syrian cities, the statues and posters that are a familiar aspect of every Syrian’s life are now being stripped down from their prominent locations in some central squares.

Poster of Bashar being ripped down in Homs

Painting of Hafez al-Asad being chipped away with a mallot in Inkhil

Shoes thrown at poster of Bashar in Talbisiya, Homs

Sign with faces of Hafez and Bashar being blotted out with markers in Homs

Statue of Hafez decapitated in Deraa

Poster of Bashar torn from building in Hama

Poster of Bashar ripped from building in Jasar al-Shaghour

Posters of Bashar and Hafez beaten with sticks, pelted with rocks, and then ripped down in Hama

Posters of Bashar and Hafez torn down in Hama

Poster of Bashar ripped from the “Communications Branch” in Hama

Bashar poster taken down in countryside of Damascus

Tearing down posters of Bashar al-Asad in Hama

Protestors tear down posters of Bashar al-Asad in Midan in Damascus

Burning of Basil al-Asad statue in Deir ez-Zour

Protestors destroying symbols in Douma

Bust of Hafez al-Asad chipped away

More bust action

Statue of Hafez al-Asad toppled in Rasta.

Soldier urinating on Bashar poster in unknown location Via Facebook

Burning of the “largest” poster of Bashar al-Asad in Homs

A poster of Hafez al-Asad destroyed at the “Officer’s Club” in Homs.

A of poster of Bashar al-Asad torn down at the center of Dera.

Bringing down a statue of Hafez al-Asad in Deraa.

These powerful images show how the Asad cult of personality that has become embedded in Syria’s cities and towns can be torn down in seconds.

(Note: I have re-posted this at Spaces in Public.)

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