Across the Bay

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Republic of Paranoia

Congrats to Dave at Harry's Place for writing some of the most interesting and honest material on Syria this side of Karfan. (Hat tip: BM).

It's hands down the best stuff by a traveler to Syria. Finally, a sober traveler that can look and write beyond the shallow accounts of "quaint cafes," or "the majesty of the souqs," as Dave put it, and all the nauseating cliches that permeate such asinine accounts.

Dave's accounts have countless of brilliant lines and truths. Here's a sample:

Kanan Makayia famously described Iraq under Saddam as The Republic of Fear.

Syria under Bashar Al-Assad is slightly more subtle; it’s best described as The Republic of Paranoia.

The paranoia is everywhere. You feel it, you can practically taste it. Everyone feels as if they’re being watched. At all times and at all places.

See those pictures of Bashar everywhere? On the streets, on people’s cars, in the restaurants, outside the Barada sports club, above the Tishreen Stadium swimming pool, etc. They’re saying, “We’re watching you mate”.

Syria’s a strange place. Nothing is as it seems. Nothing. On the surface everything’s fine, people are friendly and very hospitable, everything looks pretty much Western: clothes, food, music.

But as soon as you go under the surface, especially when you punch a hole through the language barrier, you enter a Bizarro-Land where the rules have changed but nobody will tell you. Where reality and logic cease to exist and it seems as if everyone turns into Muhammad As-Sahaf (Saddam’s information minister), denying what’s in front of them.

Even the most mundane things take on a bizarre surreal quality.
One of the hallmarks of a successful dictatorship is that it gets people to internalise its values and self-censor. It gets them to do the work of the observers and security apparatus for them. It gets the secret policeman to enter their heads. And that’s the most immediate difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. In a dictatorship there is no private space. There is no downtime. It’s suffocating.
You want to understand Arabic? Observe people’s unconscious body language when you’re speaking to them. That’ll teach you more than years of learning classroom Arabic (which NOBODY actually speaks) at SOAS back in London. You pick up on it quite quickly once you know where to look. These signals are instantaneous. But look for them when you’re speaking to people. The eyes never lie.

First their eyes dart looking around you to see who is watching them. Ask them something about Syria, something you think is neutral— it doesn’t have to be anything political or connected to Assad.

Their eyes look up, as if they are trying to remember the rehearsed party-line answers to any questions you ask them.

And some more, which my readers will find familiar:

I have no idea how the West views Syria.

I guess the general view is that it’s a secular state that’s acting to stem the tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the area. The reality is way more complicated than that. The longer you stay there, the more you notice that radical Islam is actually being used as both a domestic and foreign policy tool by the Ba’athists.

Of course if radical Islam attempts to overthrow the government then it is ruthlessly crushed, as anybody over the age of 30 from Hama can attest. On the other hand if you can mobilize radical Islam to serve your interests and keep you in power then this can work to your advantage on many levels.

It’s understood that attacking Israel using conventional military methods is suicide-- so use a proxy. Get Hezbollah to do it from another country, so when Israel retaliates it doesn’t retaliate against you.

You keep the Islamic fundamentalists busy by giving them the opportunity to vent their grievances by fighting in Iraq against the common enemy, America, which as everybody knows from reading the opinion pieces in the newspapers Tishreen, Ath-Thawra and Al-Ba’ath is in fact run by the Jews.

As long as Israel exists and America has a presence in Iraq you can mobilize radical Islamic discontent in that direction, thus letting you off the hook. But you keep a tight reign on the radicals by specifically recruiting them via the Abu Qa’qa mosque in Allepo. Anybody who attempts to enter Iraq independently in order to fight is arrested and punished.
Most important, the government uses the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism to isolate any secular, liberal opposition, warning that any movement towards democratisation will open power to the fundamentalists who represent a greater threat to the liberals than the Ba’athists do.

This is also very effective on the foreign policy level. The same claim used to check domestic liberal opposition can be used on the West-- that is Syria isn’t a threat, unlike radical Islam which is a threat to both parts of the world.

Therefore in order to defeat Islamic terrorists in Iraq the West needs to engage and work alongside Syria.

What they don’t tell you is that they’re sending the very same Islamic terrorists into Iraq to kill Iraqis and Americans. No, they tell you that they are a secular force acting as a restraint against religious extremists. Hopefully the West isn’t naïve enough to be taken in by this.
For a country that claims to be anti-imperialist it certainly seems to have plenty of imperialist ambitions on the countries around it-– Lebanon, Palestine and now Iraq. (Emphasis mine)

Read the whole thing.

In one of his typically hilarious postings, the apologist-in-chief of the Syrian regime said that this sad, decrepit state of affairs was "something the Syrians could be proud of" because Syria "gets an A for security"!

How did Dave put it? Ah yes, "One of the hallmarks of a successful dictatorship is that it gets people [TB: including academics] to internalise its values." And then the flack's job is to rationalize and whitewash them. "You’re expected to approve, legitimize and reinforce the values held here."

PS: I've been terribly busy with a number of pressing deadlines as well as a nasty cold. Once things clear up I'll be back with regular postings including on the Lebanese situation.