In September 2010, I attended a public lecture at the Salve Regina University Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy in Newport, Rhode Island. The speaker was the Syrian Ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha. The auditorium was standing room only, and he proved to be a captivating speaker. Ambassador Moustapha was articulate, engaging with the audience, knowledgeable, and overall an excellent orator, with panache for persuasion.
Similarly, former Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa manifested his cleverness and political savvy, especially during the Madrid talks (1991). When you get a chance, watch the footage of FM al-Sharaa when he responds to the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who in opening remarks, even before the “peace talks” began, condemns Syria as the “haven for terrorists” (paraphrasing). FM al-Sharaa was the next speaker at the podium, and he decides to change his speech upon hearing PM Shamir’s hostile rebuke; instead he whips out a piece of paper and holds it up to the audience, and al-Sharaa points to the paper and exclaims in the mic that Shamir himself was a wanted terrorist during the British mandate era. Shamir’s photo was on the paper, with the words “WANTED” in bold type on top, a wanted poster from the 1940s. You can find this footage in the PBS documentary film “The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs.”
The point of all this is that Syria is full of paradoxes. Having lived in Syria for almost a year, I discovered that the political elite is usually highly educated and politically very savvy. The educated classes in Syria are also very impressive, and I am sure particularly among the youth who are spearheading the current protest movements, we are likely to find some of the most intelligent individuals. Despite these rich assets, Syria has a very dark side, as we are witnessing today, although it’s not unprecedented. The father, Hafez al-Assad, set the bar for brutality, no doubt. So, in one sense, we should not be surprised about Bashar al-Assad’s reactions and brutality. On the other hand, one would believe that after all these years the Syrian government would mature. Not so. Hafez and Bashar have kept Syria economically lagging, politically isolated (with the exception of strong ties with Iran), and violent repression seems as routine as breathing. Police states do not flourish socioeconomically and otherwise. They only invest heavily in the military, and lock their boots on the necks on their own people. Imagine if all those resources were invested in development, education, economic ventures, technology, R&D, I mean, where would Syria be today with that kind of investment and visionary leadership?
Syria today is a grave tragedy, and each time I see the headlines, it breaks my heart. Having seen the paradoxes in Syria, I should not be too surprised, but I am profoundly affected nonetheless.
NOTE: Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.