This week's question | 2006-05-24

Do you think it is right to seek US assistance to push for political change in Syria?

The first American "assistance" for political change in Syria (actually the first in the whole region, way before Mossadegh's removal in 1953 Iran) dates back to 1949, when the first democratically-elected president of Syria, Shukri Al Quwatli, was overthrown by a CIA-backed military coup installing Husni Al Zaim. To the great misfortune of Syria and its people, that same military is still in power nearly six decades later, having been sidelined for brief periods only.

As it welcomed this American assistance, which brought it power in the first place, it would be fair to assume that the current military/Baathist regime does not object in principle to foreign assistance ? as long as it is assistance to increase its hold on power (a notion advocated in a recent op-ed by my fellow Creative Syria contributor, Joshua Landis, when he stressed that the Syrian president "must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority").

Indeed, outside help is only forbidden to "dissidents" who have been conveniently branded as "traitors" for even suggesting some types of reform, let alone for holding meetings in "hostile" territory (such as the US or Europe). And yet, none had requested or even accepted American assistance, having publicly refused the peanuts thrown to them by the Bush administration last March ($5 million to support democratic governance and reform in Syria).

In the past month alone, respected Syrian citizens such as Michel Kilo and Anwar Bunni have been slandered and vilified by pathetic propaganda rags such as Tishreen, which gloated about the arrest of "17 traitors." Every regime sycophant has tried ? and failed ? to rationalize the accusations of treason by implying this was not the time for criticism or for pushing such agendas. Even veteran writers like Colette Khoury have now sunk to unnecessarily low levels by penning arrogant denunciations of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration signatories in other rags like Al Baath.

Yet, none of the accused even considered the possibility of US assistance. Nor did they socialize with hostile powers. Nor have they shaken the hands of Israeli leaders.

Why, then, have they been wrongly accused of something of which only the regime ? thus far ? is guilty? Is the regime trying to pre-empt a situation whereby some Syrians feel so suffocated that there is nowhere else left to turn? Is the regime perhaps convinced that its downfall could come only with foreign assistance (be it la Iraq, la Venezuela, or la Ukraine, just to name a few), knowing full well how effective (but possibly destructive) active American interference can be?

And if the regime is so worried about outside interference, why isn't it easing this suffocation of a people that ask nothing more than to keep things in the family? After all, most Syrians are more patriotic, nationalistic and ethical than the regime, and most would cringe at being reduced to beg the help of an America whose founding ideals have been all but forgotten over the years, whose recent "assistance" to the region has brought untold injustices to the people, and whose moral high ground has been torn down by support for brutal, undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. As long as they satisfied American regional aims, Arab regimes have been free to rule as they pleased internally. This is not the America of the "American Dream" that people can aspire to; the Libyan "opposition" (amongst others) can testify about Washington's remarkably short devotion to democratization, justice and human rights, and the Palestinian and Iraqi people could wax poetic about double standards.

In truth, American visions of a democratic Middle East are as believable as Syrian (and Arab) reform agendas. The Syrian regime knows that.

Therefore, the whole question of US assistance in political change is badly posed ? assuming such aid could be forthcoming. Perhaps we should ask whether any foreign assistance is justifiable if it comes from a neutral, uninterested, non-aligned side (such as Finland? Switzerland?), and whether the end would then justify the means. Unfortunately, realpolitik eliminates such parties from the equation, and leaves only the powerful (and far from neutral) countries as an option. This is an option the Syrian opposition is reluctant to take, but for which it's being punished anyway.

Obviously, such regimes have no legs to stand on when they flippantly distribute accusations of treason to those who dare question their excesses; even school children today understand they are partly in power in their capacity as Washington's "devils we know."

But if things remain as they are, it might soon not matter anymore whether the call for help is right or wrong; if people are pushed to the point of no return, they might stop wondering about moral considerations and end up selling their souls to that other devil promising everything under the sky.