Shelf Life

I have a piece in the current issue of The Nation, reviewing two recent Middle East books by American think-tank analysts: Andrew Tabler’s In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria and Steven A. Cook’s The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. I was critical of Tabler’s book. While billing itself as part memoir, it neglects much discussion of the author’s own shifting views and politics about Syria. As a journalist in Damascus who founded the English-language magazine Syria Today, Tabler technically worked as a consultant under first lady Asma al-Assad; now he advocates what American sanctions “can teach Assad” from a job at a think-tank that was founded to be Israel’s lobbyist in the foreign policy circles of DC. He used to advocate the benefits of engagement; now he talks about America’s ability to change regime behavior and domestic affairs in Damascus simply through sanctions and tough talk — a foreign policy view shaped by conservative think-tanks and Congressmen in the capital who have little experience and knowledge of Syrian, let alone broader regional history and politics.

The two books make for an interesting pair for how the authors see America’s role in a changing Middle East. Tabler writes of his time in Syria, and the current crackdown and threat of civil war there, from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative think-tank whose Middle East analysis hinges on how things in the region affect Israel, particularly Israel’s security, and the American-dictated status-quo. Cook, meanwhile, ends his book on a surprising, refreshing note, that “The United States should greatly lower its expectations of what is possible in the post-Mubarak era and come to terms with the end of the strategic relationship.” While US pressure on the ruling Scaf is needed — especially in light of rising military crackdowns in the street, and the recent raid of NGOs in Cairo — Cook says that to “salvage its position in Egypt,” the Obama administration should say the right things about “democracy, tolerance, pluralism, accountability, and nonviolence—and then take a hands-off approach as Egyptians build a new political system on their own terms.” Cheers to that.

The piece is behind the subscriber wall, so here is the beginning. To read the PDF as it appeared in print, click here.

In 2003 Andrew Tabler met Asma al-Assad, the young, glamorous wife of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. A black Honda whisked him away from his apartment in Damascus to the hills above the city, and then to a secret location guarded by sweeping low branches, an iron gate and men cradling machine guns. He remembers the visit as being surprisingly casual. Nobody bothered to check his ID before he entered Asma’s office. When he left, he almost called Syria’s first lady, a former hedge-fund analyst and investment banker in London, by her first name. Then one remembers what he says her secretary had told him: “We know where you live, Mr. Tabler.”

From 2001 to 2008 Tabler was the only Western journalist permanently based in Damascus, partly because of the rarest of things: a multiple-entry press visa. In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle With Syria (Lawrence Hill; $16.95) is his account of that time, but it neglects to answer some obvious questions. Why was Tabler granted such access? And what of his career change, from observer and consultant in Damascus—he worked for Asma as media adviser for a quasi NGO that she patronized and through which he founded Syria’s first English-language magazine, Syria Today—to his present post at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? The narrative is a maze of opaque remarks, like this one about a colleague from Damascus: “While Leila didn’t like the Washington Institute’s position on Syria and was critical of my work, she understood that I was leaving Syria behind.”

Adam Curtis, archives, and the US in Syria, 1947-49

BBC documentary filmmaker and part-time blogger Adam Curtis went into the archives and returned with a timely reminder of what Americans mean when they talk about intervention. Or rather what they choose to forget. A chapter of Syrian history that is glossed in nearly all media coverage of the uprising since March:

Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite – and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that “the Syrian people are naturally democratic” and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites – and a new world of “peace and progress” would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

The archive interview with Miles Copeland reveals the CIA as it once was: dastardly, knowing, but also frank and direct in a way that American foreign policy and politicos aren’t anymore. Among the old BBC reels is footage of Hama in 1977. As Curtis writes, “They are labelled Stockshots in the BBC archive. But since 1982 they have become more than that. They are one of the few film records that remain of a city that was practically destroyed by Assad as he struggled to put down an uprising by the disgruntled Sunnis, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the town.”

You can practically hear the groan of the norias in the silent, washed out color stock.

Read the full post, and watch the various clips, at Curtis’s BBC blog.

Another good read on Syria

Reported pieces from Syria are few, so it’s great to read such a good one as Asne Seierstad’s piece in Newsweek, beautifully written and deeply reported. Most of all she captures the mood of surveillance and fear of the ever-present Mubkhabarat here:

Surveillance dominates every aspect of life. The secret police—the Mukhabarat—is divided into an intricate system of departments and subdepartments; no part of society is left unexamined. A network of agents spans Syria. Some have tenure; others work part time. Who could be a better observer than the greengrocer by the mosque or the hospital night watchman? Who can better keep tabs on a family than the schoolteacher who asks what Daddy says about the man on the posters?

And in the following scene of Friday prayers at the Umayyad mosque in the Old City:

This Friday the Umayyad Mosque is stage to a modern drama. The mosque is the only legal gathering place, and still strictly monitored by the security forces. Every word from the imam’s mouth is noted.

The bazaar is empty. The stalls are closed. Iron shutters protect glass jars and baskets. A whiff of cardamom rests over the spice market. The leather craftsman has left behind a faint tang of hide, the soapmaker a trace of lavender. The tourists have gone; only the locals are left, small boys on bicycles, grandfathers on their chairs. Police units on motorcycles have closed off several streets. Some plan a protest after prayers.

The silence is oppressive. The area teems with Mukhabarat. Everyone knows who they are, even though they act like normal men. They squat on curbsides, lean against walls, sit on benches or together by doorways. They’re dressed in shirts and trousers, like other men. Though they might be more broad-shouldered than the average Syrian, and certainly have a stronger proclivity for leather jackets, the clothes aren’t what set them apart. It’s their glance.

They possess a way of looking that is inquisitive but not curious. It’s one-way; they want to take, not meet. Their conversation, or lack thereof, is the other giveaway. Between most people there is at least a little chitchat. These men hardly talk, and when they do, they do it without facial expressions, without a jab in the side, a poke on the shoulder. They don’t talk like people really talk. They are on assignment.

Photo by Ed Kashi.

What to read on Syria

Joshua Landis recently posted this long account, anonymous, written by an American in Syria. Read it. It’s the best writing on Syria so far, in my humble opinion, and I’ve seen it all over the ‘social networks’ for days. Fear and confusion reign; there is propaganda from the government, perhaps exaggeration or at least unreliable sources and information from media barred from the country; and worst of all people seem to be digging in. Not only the government and it’s myriad security arms and special army units. But sects and communities, though the picture isn’t stable, and nothing is certain. As the author writes:

Amidst the new voicing of patriotism and all this rhetoric about unity, Syrians are terribly divided. People like Nisreen are not trying to empathize with those who are protesting, to understand their difficulties and motivations, but instead cling to easy explanations that vilify them. And people like Na’ima are writing off the sectarian fears being experienced by many, without trying to understand their experience. These fears may or may not be justified, but they are certainly not absurd. The real tragedy that I observe is that different groups are not working to understand each other. This is the main problem of Syria today: Syrians do not understand each other. If only they could reach across the divide a little and consider the fears and concerns of the other side.

This is just one short excerpt from a long, excellent read. The rest is at Syria Comment.

The Nation – Roadblocks to Damascus

July 2, 2010 – The weekend before Memorial Day, Senator John Kerry visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus—his third such trip as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and second in as many months. He was there, by all accounts, to defuse tensions and clarify Syria’s response to Israel’s unconfirmed accusations, echoed by the United States, that Syria had delivered Scud missiles to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

With past visits by special envoy George Mitchell, Under Secretary of State William Burns and a stream of other officials, the presidential palace has been busily receiving guests at its perch above Damascus—and that’s only the Americans. The French and German foreign ministers were in town the same weekend. Assad has become one of the region’s busiest hosts in the past year, as he maneuvers Syria out of the diplomatic cold by talking to everyone: friends (Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey), enemies (America) and cool neighbors (Saudi Arabia) alike.

High-profile American statesmen may go to Damascus, but not—at least not yet—an ambassador. In early May Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm career foreign service officer Robert Ford as the first American envoy in Damascus in five years, since Margaret Scobey was recalled to protest presumed Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. A week later, twelve Republican senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatening to prevent Ford’s nomination from going to a full vote in the Senate. Their letter warned that “if engagement precludes prompt punitive action in response to egregious behavior, such as the transfer of long-range missiles to a terrorist group, then it is not only a concession but also a reward for such behavior.”

Read the rest of the piece at The Nation.

Aga Khan in Old Damascus

Syrian Houses

Photo by Matjaz Kacicnik/Aga Khan Development Network

It’s back to Damascus (though I’m in New York) with a new story in Architectural Record about a restoration project of the Aga Khan Development Network in the Old City of Damascus. The accompanying slideshow, care of the AKDN’s photographer, looks very nice.

The Old City of Damascus, in Syria, might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but in recent years money has poured in for new hotels and restaurants. Dozens are already open, while licenses have reportedly been granted for more than 150 hospitality projects across the half-square mile area. In some cases, old buildings were razed to make way for newly constructed establishments. Others involved the often-hasty restoration and conversion of historic courtyard houses. With a lack of technical expertise, cheap concrete has replaced stone and mud brick, and many developers decorate with a pastiche of Orientalist elements.

Now the Aga Khan Development Network, the organization that promotes the preservation of Islamic heritage, is hoping to demonstrate a new development model for the area. The group is in the midst of slowly and judiciously restoring three of the Old City’s most splendid late-Ottoman houses: Beit Nizam (Nizam House), Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli. All three will reopen collectively as a yet-to-be-named luxury hotel. According to Ali Esmail, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services in Syria, the AKDN wants “to bring to life those important historical assets” without comprising their architectural integrity.

Read the rest at Architectural Record.

America’s First Consul in Damascus, a Brief History

From Historical Travel on The Faster Times.

First Obama named the first ambassador to Damascus in five years. Then the State Department lifted its travel warning for Syria – though not the 30-year State Sponsor of Terrorism tag. In a week of overdue warming, some observers might look to business next, even if Obama renewed economic sanctions last year.

Syria’s economy is ripe after years of being closed. As Josh Landis recently wrote, “Syria has been hosting one delegation of American and European businessmen after another as Western banks scramble to get in on the bottom floor of the Syrian economy.” Tourism is a quickly developed and expanding market already, even if it’s Middle Eastern and European investments pouring in and not American dollars.

Almost monthly for the past year or so, a travel section somewhere chalks up Damascus as the next Marrakesh, promotes Aleppo as a historic crossroads once again welcoming Westerners, or sings about Palmyra, Zenobia’s desert city on the silk road near Iraq. Americans visit, though in far fewer numbers than the French or Belgian, though the end of the State Department travel warning for Syria might change things. Or not… mind the reasoning of State:

“The current series of travel warnings were enacted in September 2006 following an attack against the Embassy, and were not based upon Syria being designated as a State Sponsor of Terror. Being a State Sponsor of Terrorism is not a basis for a travel warning.”

Syria has other designations, though, like history, something I wrote about at length in the Faster Times back in December. Travel dispatches from there can reference so many things, though they almost always hinge on the same: anecdotes of the old and exotic East, quite Orientalist pictures of ancient markets and mosques.

Syria has those, sure. It has a lot of other things, outside the cities, beyond the Crusader castles that represent more than a “reminder that conflict between Islam and the West stretches back centuries.”

A somewhat shorter historical view – the 19th century – presents a more immediate bit of Syrian travel and history in light of the news that an American envoy will return to a state for decades at odds with the US. The Embassy has been without its head since 2005, when the US withdrew Margaret Scobey to protest suspected Syrian involvement in the car-bomb death of Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri.

It’s a story about a Christian notable from Lebanon who became America’s first consul in Damascus in 1859. He witnessed a massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860, a sordid event in the city’s long history.

Read the rest at Historical Travel on the Faster Times.

Image via Wikipedia Commons: “Anonymous Venetian Orientalist painting, ‘The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus,’ 1511, the Louvre.”