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.


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