Ayman Hakki | MD/Prof Georgetown U. United States
May 29th, 2008

Re: ‘Syrian Israeli Peace Process

Despite Turkey’s efforts, and all the reports to the contrary, I feel that there is little hope for Israeli Syrian peace, because both Syria and Israel are doing relatively well in today’s global market. Syria is thriving instead of withering under US pressure, and Israel is exploiting the entire security fear market.

Bush and Cheney policies have made Syria’s regime popular, and they have even made it profitable to be anti-American in the Middle East. Global and local factors have led to Syria’s current and surprising enrichment. A few years ago, Syria was besieged, and nearly economically bankrupt. President Bush’s inept policies towards the region supplied a new lifeline to Syria. A well executed relaxation of Syria’s banking system coincided with an inept US crackdown on everything “Islamic,” and both undertakings made Syria a natural deposit site for all Muslim funds. You don’t need to be a terrorist, or a terrorist sympathizer, to have once written a check to a charity that has been now (fairly or unfairly) linked to Hamas or Hezbollah. And if you are one of the unlucky men or women who have ever done so, then Syria…not Switzerland (or New York) is where you want to bank today. Money talks and money has no ideology. With skyrocketing oil prices, plummeting dollar and harsher US security measures, Syria is winning the all-important war of the Euro.

Just visit Damascus, as I recently did, and you can conclude that Uncle Sam, intent on making Syria “accountable,” has lost his touch. The ineptitude of the Bush administration in concert with the wise financial reforms instituted by the Syrian government have created a situation where Syria is thriving. This recent economic boon in Syria has allowed Syrians to adopt a wait-and-see strategy Vis-à-Vis Israel. Hafez Al Assad once asked something to the effect of ‘why are you all (Arab Leaders at a summit) in such a hurry to sit down with Israel and negotiate a peace agreement? The Crusaders were amongst us for hundreds of years, so were the Ottomans, Israel has been around for a few decades…give us another hundred years and they too will be gone!’ President Bashar Al Assad grew up listening to the farsighted musings of his father and he has internalized them; what is the point in negotiating with a foe that has all the cards? If one can afford to wait and see, then things will change. Things now have changed, and as long as the neocons run America things will change even more in Syria’s favor. Syria thrives on low grade confrontation with America; rejection of Israeli inspired US hegemony is Brand Syria.

The other reason for my pessimism is the fact that Israel is also thriving on tension with Syrians Arabs and Muslims in general. The clash of civilizations paradigm has become a cottage industry for Israelis who are the global leaders in technology and security. They are the first to market in this growing field. Fronted by other world nationals the security industry is thriving. Who, other that the Israelis, can really viscerally understand this atmosphere of insecurity and therefore profit from it? They have made it laudable and more importantly profitable to be pro-American and pro-western in an atmosphere of hyped fears for national security.

Syrians and Israelis love to talk politics, and that’s why this peace initiative is being discussed, but at heart they are mercantile people who share a y-chromosome that resonates to the music of cha ching. Walk the streets of Tel Aviv and I dare you to tell Israelis apart from the Syrians of Damascus; thier real differences are in their nurture not nature. Israelis have been brought up to yearn for security “in purity” while Syrians have been raised on pride “in patrimony”. Both are false Gods and until both realize this fact they will be no peace.

Both have been told lies for so long that they fully believe in them. The “Israeli Lie” is around the notion that it is possible to live safely in the middle of the bloody Middle East as a purely “Jewish” state. This is what I call security in purity. I don’t even bother arguing this point with my many Jewish friends because their discourse is dominated by the Holocaust and one can’t say, “Get over it!” and not sound like an Anti Semite. But to all my none-Jewish friends, the idea of being purely anything and building a nation-state around that concept seems irrational. Imagine a purely Christian America! Or a purely Native American Manhattan returned to it indigenous owners! Can such a fantasy be sustained? Yet, every day we hear some powerful Israeli standing side by side with an even more powerful American informing some hapless Palestinian that he must first and foremost acknowledge the existence of the “Jewish” state of Israel. There is no security in purity, security only comes in diversity.

Syria’s obfuscation is what I call pride in patrimony. I have resigned myself to never discuss the issue of leadership with any fellow Syrian. Every Syrian is a chief, and all the chiefs yearn of an ever greater and bigger chief to come along and further lead them with his inspired leadership. Thus, the faults of all Syrians rest in their leaders and indirectly the regime while, ironically, all their strengths also stem from the same regime. To my non-Syrian friends this is incomprehensible. People’s faults reside in the people and not their leaders because they all end up with leaders that are (in one way or another) reflective of who they are. President Bush is what America wanted after Nine Eleven, a warmonger who may not be too smart but he can sure scare the crazies that are out to get them. Bashar Assad is exactly what Syrians want; the son of Syria’s long-term wise father.

Security in purity and pride in patrimony are two lies that Israelis and Syrians have propagated. Lies that have served them well financially but that have also been emotionally costly. For Israel and Syria to talk of real peace, a new set of questions must be asked in hope of shifting the existing paradigm. The first question’s simple: Is the profitable status quo sustainable? The second question is more nuanced: Can you see any profit in cooperation? And last and but not least; the most important factor needed to bring about real peace talks is the expiration of the Bush Presidency…all that is going on now is a prelude to 2009.

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6 Responses to the Article

Alex Says:

Ayman,

You came up with a number of very interesting hypotheses and conclusions.

I really enjoyed reading this piece.

To illustrate your “Every Syrian is a chief”, I want to remind you of a scene in Doraid Lahaam’s “Gurbeh” … a play in some Syrian village (that symbolizes Syria itself). The head of that village was asked by the young teacher visiting them from the big (civilized) city “Why don’t you have elections to pick the most popular head of the village?”

He told him “you want elections?!” .. then he asked the men gathering at some “village downtown” coffee shop “Hey everyone, we decided to hold elections for my position as the head of this village … anyone of you thinks he should lead the village?”

Everyone raised his hand enthusiastically.

And the village chief looked at the teacher and asked him “with all them leaders, we won’t have anyone left to vote!”

I think the play was from 1976- 1978?

Shai Says:

Ayman,

Very interesting points indeed. I’ll relate to one point you made in particular and, which I happened to believe in one hundred percent. Syrians and Israelis are VERY similar to one another. Israelis like to think of themselves as “Westernized” people, enjoying McDonalds, iPods, and WIFI cafes. But at the core, we are far more similar to our neighbors than we are different. It takes knowing and being close to Arabs (Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians) and to Israelis, to recognize this. In my many years in the States, and now in Israel, I’ve had great friends from almost the entire region, and have learned to see our amazing similarities. Not only external but, as you suggested, also internal ones. We think like mercantile people do, we are far more emotional than Europeans or Americans are, we’re more cynical, sharper, with a very Middle Eastern sense of humor. Indeed put a Syrian in the heart of Tel-Aviv, or an Israeli in Damascus, and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

So while I agree with you, that no one should be feeling overly optimistic with these “peace talks” going on, I’d like to partake in some wishful-thinking, at least enough that will keep my drive for peace going strong and steady, and hope to one day prove to my fellow Israelis, and to our neighbor Syrians, just how close we truly are to one another. In’shalla, that day will come soon. Thank you for your comments.

ayman hakki Says:

Both optimism (yours) and pessimism (mine) regarding what is going on now are usless. So, and at the risk of making you (and everyone else) bored I’ll present to you my take on this historic Brand (I’m fond of my Brand Syria analogy, it’s the only way I can explain how Syria-a weak state-can stand up to stonger states and continue to survive) conflict. It is emotion based…but may be of some help to you since you seem to want to understand us, and inhance our understanding of you.

The first chronicle of this seemingly eternal Israeli Syrian conflict was in 175 BC in the story of Hanukkah. It as you know (but as my fellow Syrians may not) is the story of the struggles of the Maccabees, led by Judas Maccabeus, against Antiochus IV of Syria, a struggle Judea won. Their latest Israeli Syrian (I’ll explain why it was Syrian not Lebanese in a second) conflict was in 2006 in southern Lebanon, and it resulted in a tie at best.

Just as the Holocaust provided the moral justification for Judea’s reemergence as “Israel”, the 1948 “Nakba” caused the re-packaging of Syria’s southern branch as “Palestine”. Prior to 1948, and the creation of the modern state of Israel in Palestine, Jews identified more with Judaism than Israel, and Syrians identified with Syrian nationalism and not the Palestinian cause per se. Palestine was then considered by all Syrians as Syria’s southern province, this pan-Syrian élan was especially prevalent in the Orthodox Christian community in every Middle East city.

European pogroms were the immediate cause of the birth of Israel and a new “Brand” re-alignment in both the Jewish and Syrian communities of the world. Jews had been praying “next year in Jerusalem” for centuries and they had read their Old Testament which seemingly gave them an exclusive title to all the Promised Land, especially-though not exclusively-Palestine. And with the fulfillment of their prayers came a new brand; brand Israel. Its brand logo was a Star of David; its credo was why, not? (A can-do attitude similar to the attitude of American culture). It is now a ubiquitous brand that is often confused with Brand America. One may even argue that the celluloid America of Hollywood fame was created by them, and not vice versa. Brand Israel was born of scattered, well-heeled, intelligent, yet marginalized parents. In just sixty years it has taken a stunning proportion of them from the ghetto into the gazebo. Its reluctant low profile representatives were innately prudent, but recently they have gotten cocky. This change in attitude may have been earned, but it may not be wise. Imagine going from Freud and Einstein, to Perle and Wolfowitz! The last ten decades have been a virtual pantheon of Judean men and women of guile and substance, while today the Jews are hitching their wagon to a bunch of intellectual lightweights and Bush administration cronies. These impractical and soon to be forgotten theorists have set their sights on Syria and its brand.

The saying: our enemy defines us, was never truer than it is today. Brand Syria is (and has always been) more about “reaction” than it is about action. So today it defines itself as the brand of rejection to Israeli inspired U.S. world hegemony. Even before the Iraq war and the birth of Israel in 1948 Brand Syria had rejected Ottoman, Crusader, Fatimid etc., world hegemony. Presently it’s reacting to spreading Israeli-inspired U.S. foreign policy. Its credo is a soft “yes,” or more precisely; “no, but”! The ‘but’ cancels the no or yes by it’s qualifying the answer. Our most common Syrian phrase is this “ay, bas” (yes, but.) Look carefully at it…it’s an equivocation of an affirmation. It’s so bad, that we can’t say a single yes or a simple no without a caveat. Brand Syria’s logo would be-if it had one-a Kufi LA (a big no in calligraphy) inside a crescent. A fertile crescent, not an Islamic crescent one…mind you. Yes, but…that subtle no, is the only thing that binds Syrians. If you ask Syrians; do you want to fight Israel? They’d say; yes, but! It’s a nuanced no. Ask them do you want Peace with Israel? No, but. Are you anti American? No, but. Pro American? No, but. For Iraqi freedom? Yes, but. Saddam? No, but. Pro Lebanon’s freedom? Yes, but. etc. An example of this odd mindset, so prevalent in Syrians of all types, is the Syrian Jews in Brooklyn N.Y… Ask them; are you more Syrian than Jews or vice versa? I challenge you to get a straight answer from any member of that community, they-more than anyone-on earth exemplify Brand Syria at it’s nuanced best.

Brand Syria has no brand (tenets) or brand explaining rules because there’s nothing they wouldn’t say no, or yes but, to. Still by surviving 10,000 years Syria has done well with this mind-set. So, Brand Syria (or its non-brand) allows for everything except extinction. Brand Judea is again in conflict with Brand Syria, but today they aren’t the Maccabees and Syria’s on its way to its own Hanukkah victory and rebirth. The recent war in Southern Lebanon may be the first of many skirmishes that Brand Judean can only lose. Syria is good at survival, but if it is to prevail it can do so only by its adversaries’ tendency to self-destruct.

Shai, Brand Syria is brand Judea’s Semitic cousin, and not its natural enemy. Brand Judea’s only natural enemies are the anti-Semites of the world, the abhorrent neo-Nazis who may still be around but are now (in turn) very marginalized. If the two Semitic sister-brands merged they’d make good global partners. These two Semitic brands are in conflict in Israel proper, and nowhere else. Brand Syria should learn from its sister brand, and emulate its ways, and brand Judea should in return ease up on Brand Syria while it’s still ahead. Syrians know that under similar circumstances of world wide general indifference and occasional attack, their Judeans cousins who were like they are today ( a scattered bright and talented minority in Diaspora) reconciled, and by adopting a “why not” attitude now rules. Brand Syrians can do it, and by globalization what was once achieved by Brand Judeans in sixty years can be achieved in twenty, but only after real Semitic brand reconciliation begins.

Ayman

* Shem came before Abraham, he was the son of Noah, and settled bilad el-Shem after the Flood. He (not Abraham) fathered all of us Semites or Shemites, because from Shem comes the word Semite, and Sham is still the most commonly used name for Syria’s capital; which is “Sham”. Or more exactly (Dimashq-E-Shem, ergo Damascus) I am a Shami. I’m not (as some would gather) a Syrian Nationalist because I believe Sham is bigger than Syria, because if I’m right and Shem means Sem, shem includes us all and excludes many of our other neighbors.

Chris Says:

“Syria is thriving instead of withering under US pressure…”

Perhaps this was true when this article was published, However, today with the economic crisis in full swing, the baathist monarchy will be facing hard days ahead. This is because about half of Syria’s government revenues come from oil. Back in May, 2008, when this piece was written oil prices were over $100 per barrel and climbing. They are now fluctuating at around $35 per barrel. Needless to say this alone could send Syria’s fiscal position into crisis mode.

Oil prices are not the beginning of Syria’s problems in this crisis. As Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Dardari has noted, the sanctions have caused a stigma that has kept much needed foreign investment away. Now with the crisis in full swing, there there is an infinitessimally small amount of capital available for foreigners to invest in the Syrian economy. Furthermore, Syria remains an agriculturally dependent economy, much like Morocco, if it rains in Syria the GDP rises, if not there’s a recession, and this year there is a drought. State owned industries are unprofitable and remain a drag on the economy. They also face intense competition from China and other developing countries. This past year we’ve seen a number of textile factories shut down. Then combine all of this with the population explosion, in which addition adult males are added to the labor force every year to an economy that isn’t even keeping up with inflation. We could see that crisis that would lead to a desire for peace, whatever, happens, there will be great pressue on the monarch to adjust his policies.

ayman hakki Says:

Chris.

Syria and Israel are both hurting, but they are not hurting as much as the rest of the world because both brands are thriving. Israel has benefited from the crisis on Wall Street and deposits in Israeli banks have been massive. The same can be said of Syria’s banks, just ask anyone who is knowledgeable and you’ll find my contention to be true. That’s why peace is getting farther and farther away. Your water abundance and oil price ideas are valid but both are unrelated to what’s going on now. The capital-shift that the area has seen is seismic and it may not be directly linked to the innate talents of Israeli or Syrian policy makers. Our leaders will remain in power until the money flow stops. Despite the ill fated neocon inspired Syria Accountability Act (and possibly because of it) Syria is fine, it may even have been immunized from the global mess by that obtuse Act.

Syria will do just fine because (like Israel) it has a large Diaspora and more and more of us are starting to realize the magnitude of Syria’s double whammy accomplishment; it has managed to keep a lid on its Islamists while it escaped the machinations of the Christian Zionists. This is not some odd ball anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, it’s a simple fact. Yossi Ben Horin Maarive’s US correspondent acknowledges this; “the same nuts that were running America are running Israel”. I’m not an anti-Semite (or anti-Islamic) but I’m very anti-religiopolitical.

I -and many like me- have a new found pride in today’s Syria and we all share a justifiable disdain for Israeli policies of late. Israel’s politically motivated war of retribution on Gazans has shifted the scales of brand pride our way. I can’t stomach anyone who claims God is on his side while he goes about killing innocent women and children. I’ve always said that suicide bombings are evil but Israel’s war on all Gazans has upped the anti of evil and evil is hard to sell.

My whole premise is simple; money is what drives us both and its accumulation is the way we keep score, religion is just the product both our brands sell to their clients in the gulf and the US. Shift the profitability scales and watch us become fair weather friends. Until then Syria will sit on the sidelines and watch America deal with Israel and its real enemy; Iran. We’ll be beside Iran as long as it has money.

Ayman.

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