Thursday, May 25, 2006

Phil Weiss on Syria II

Phil Weiss of the "New York Observer" has posted on his blog, "MondoWeiss" his second installment of "My Trip to Evil Syria." I am quoted at some length. The last part is the most important. Syria is a dictatorship. The arrests this past month remind us again. Yassin Hajj Salih, one of the most eloquent opposition writers, who spent 16 years in jail, spoke out to defend Michel Kilo, Bunni, and the others today. His words, recorded by Christine Spolar in the Chicago Tribune are reminders of just how bruttal Syria's jailers can be. Yassin explained:

"In 1996, when I was in the prison near Palmyra, they would flog people with whips, the kind of whips made of electric cable that could crush muscle and skin.

"Islamists were flogged up to 500 times. People like us, Communists, whoever, only got 100. Me, it was less, I think," he said with a tiny smile. "I lost consciousness after 72."

"It's not right for a man of 19 to spend 16 years of his life in jail."

Al-Haj Saleh's experiences have made him wary of authority, particularly those who paint themselves as the good guys. Washington is as distrusted as Damascus by those who care about real reform, he said.

"However opposed Syrians are to the regime, they distrust the Americans more," al-Haj Saleh said. "The way the Bush administration has handled Iraq. The way it deals with the Hamas victory in Palestine . . .

"We don't want you talking about democracy or giving us $500 million. Democracy would be helped greatly in Syria if the United States would pressure the Israelis, rather than always the Arabs.

"This is our tragedy. We want democracy, but we can't identify with the West because it does such terrible things to Arabs."

Lee Smith wrote after the last Weiss post:
Hi Josh,
I tried to post this on your site without much luck, re. the Weiss blog, I'd just note that the ritual stoning of Paul Berman is pretty telling. I don't believe Berman has anything in Terror and Liberalism on Syria or has ever written on it, though of course he writes extensively on the Baathists in there, which I know you largely disagree with. In any case, I seriously doubt Berman thinks Syria is evil, or that part of the country that most tourists would get to see, which is largely ordinary Syrians going about their business. So, who has ever made a blanket statement that ordinary Syrians are evil?

On the other hand, you've noted that ordinary Syrians are not ready for democracy, which you make a good case for and I might be inclined to agree with, but that case partly rests on your reading of an educational system that has ill-prepared its citizens to observe liberal democratic principles especially insofar as it indoctrinates students into Baathist ideology and incites a fair amount of hatred, especially toward Jews. (A little off topic, but I'm curious to read Weiss' blog to see if for the purposes of proving all those neocons wrong he told the ordinary Syrians he met if he was a Jew and what their responses were.)

Anyway, Berman and the neocons aren't the ones who have detailed the issues of ordinary Syrians, but certainly many neocons have a problem with the regime, which they would explain, incorrectly as I think we would both agree watching Iraq the last two years, that once the bad regime goes then Syria will fall back to its natural state of democracy. But this isn't even a debate that Weiss or most of his leftist brethren, as he identifies himself, have chosen to engage. They are involved in an intramural debate, which weirdly isn't even that much about Bush, rather it is about the left, and insofar as it has to do with Berman it has to do with their anger at him over his position on Latin America, and insofar as places like The Nation and others have attacked him over that it goes back to their very old fight dating back to the 30s over the USSR. That is, the left is engaged in a big family fight and for most of them, the Arabs are merely a proxy force. Most US leftists, certainly those under 30, have no idea what's going on; others do, as does Berman, whom they've chosen to attack, and it's to his great credit that he is actually trying to look at the issues rather than keep waging a war where you can interminably substitute Michel 'Aflaq for the Sandinistas for Stalin because none of that really matters, and neither does it matter that others far from New York have to find some way to go about their ordinary business; and because what really does matter is what side you're on in NY politics (in the old days it was the City College cafeteria) and the only constant is the US is worse than anyone it is facing down.

I am writing in hope that Syrian readers or others, regardless of how much they might despise the US and be inclined to agree with the US/NY leftist perspective, they have few allies on the US left and should recognize what this battle is about, and it is not about the Arabs. I think some Lebanese started to understand that after Professor Chomsky's recent visit here and found him woefully mis- or un-informed about Hizbullah. But why should he care that so many Lebanese want Hizbullah to disarm so they can move on with their own lives? That's not Chomsky's fight; the Lebanese are merely a proxy force for him to wage his real fight, which is in the US.


At 5/26/2006 03:14:00 AM, Blogger 10452 said...

woopido, somebody quoted Landis...

At 5/26/2006 06:13:00 AM, Blogger George Ajjan said...

I do agree with Smith's assertion that the seemingly pro-Arab stance of American leftists is a proxy battle.

This is one of the harmful effects of a 2 party system. My correspondence with Phil Weiss following his recent writings on Syria lamented the fact that the extreme politicizing of the Iraq War, particularly during the 2004 election cycle, made the real debate on sensible American policy impossible to have. The right galvanized and rubber stamped the neocon view, partly in reaction to attacks from the left. The "intramural debate" as Lee Smith puts it, has not developed sufficiently in GOP circles, with the expection of the Buchananites and libertarians.

However, Phil Weiss has genuine interest in the region and can only be commended for actually traveling to Syria to learn more (which is a lot more than we can say for the neocons he attacks). He plays an important role by challenging his colleagues of the American Jewish constituency, who tend to lean left, to reengage issues concerning American policy in the Middle East, especially vis-a-vis Israel, from a different perspective.


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