Washington allows no good deed to go unpunished

15 March 2007
Article
Syrian Airlines flies from several European capitals to Damascus, but Americans can’t book seats from the United States, thanks to the 2003 Syrian Accountability Act, which an obedient (to the Israeli lobby) Congress passed and an eager Bush signed and renewed every year since 2004. The act outlawed commerce between the two countries, stopping just short of breaking diplomatic relations. Washington recalled its Ambassador and marginalized Syria’s capable emissary in the U.S. capital. U.S. officials make unfounded accusations that Damascus regime helps supply Iraqi insurgents and aids and abets terrorism. In addition, they denounce Syria for “interference in Lebanese affairs.” How ironic, said Dr. Bouthaina Sha’aban, Minister of Expatriates. Syria provided U.S. authorities with intelligence to help stop a 2003 attack on U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Syrian security forces also obliged U.S. Homeland Security, although Sha’aban did not refer to this, by accepting a Canadian citizen of Syrian birth and torturing him at U.S. behest. Maher Arar endured almost a year of Syrian “interrogation,” before Canada concluded that they never had evidence of his linkage to terrorists. Canada has since apologized and paid Arar compensation for their role in his suffering. Arar remains on the U.S. no-fly list. Homeland Security refuses to give reasons for his exclusion. Syria also “interrogated” other victims at the behest of U.S. authorities.” Syrian President Bashar Assad discovered painfully that Washington allows no good deed to go unpunished. Until late February, Washington had even ruled out discussion with Damascus, stopping just short of including it as part of the axis of evil. A former U.S. diplomat who served in the Middle East until recently said at a Damascus dinner: “U.S. policy toward Syria makes no sense. Nothing Syria does is enough. The neo cons who run Middle East policy want Assad’s government to beg for forgiveness, even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Then Syria has to bow to U.S. political and economic changes – democracy and privatization. After they do this,” he concluded, “maybe Washington we’ll deal with them. Surprising Syria rejected such terms? Who wouldn’t?” I had spoken previously to this former official while preparing to film in Syria in 2003. Now, he laughs at Bush’s 180 degree turn. U.S. officials met with Syrians in the second week of March – and with Iranians as well – to try to resolve the Iraq crisis. A businessman close to Syria’s President said: “I’m not sure we want the Americans to leave so quickly. I know that is surprising, but U.S. intervention has splintered Iraq into several resistance movements. Each one delights in killing Americans as well as its Iraqi rivals. But we can try to impose some sanity on groups we have known over time and together with other countries in the region this can mean a lessening of violence. On the other hand, U.S. presence in Iraq provokes violence.” The source, a wealthy businessman, concluded. “What Bush has done in Iraq is unforgivable.” Apparently, the daily Iraqi carnage and Bush’s dropping poll ratings (29% on March 8) has finally begun to reverberate somewhere in the White House. Syrians know from their media’s graphic presentations about dead Iraqi and Palestinian children, victims of a suicide bombing or U.S. air strike; or daily Israeli repression. On March 5, I watched a CNN Middle East anchor alert viewers to stay tuned for the excitement to come, live action gore from the Middle East. Following a March 5 news report from Baghdad loaded with bombing victims and a war photos special, Nic Robertson lightened the venue by taking CNN viewers on a sports trip. “Inside the Middle East,” the producers called footage of an Englishman who converted to Islam, moved to Saudi Arabia and opened a lucrative sports tourism business: deep sea diving, with 14 Germans examining the coral reefs. Another “feature” promoted buggy riding in the desert and aeronautic sports in that kingdom as well. CNN doesn’t want to bum out its viewers on war images, so the network offers deep sea diving experiences, the vicarious thrills of watching cars bounce off sand lumps, virtual flying in small planes at low altitudes (by staying tuned), and finally the next best thing to wind sailing, watching wind sailing on TV. Watching CNN for 30 minutes inspired me to turn off the set and see Syria. Unfortunately, TV followed me into one of Damascus’ tourist restaurants. I met no U.S. or English tourists. Iraqi tourist guides confirmed that the majority of the visitors were Europeans or Iranians. In Palmyra, the site of an ancient civilization in eastern Syria, I spoke to three middle aged Madrid women who extolled the “fabulous ruins and exceptionally good food at extremely reasonable prices.” We agreed also that modern architects could learn lessons in design and simplicity from those who crafted the pre-Christ Palmyra edifices Under the vast old civilization’s pillars and arches, preserved in the desert sand and dug out in the 19th and 20th Centuries, these remnants of cities induce humility. How much our ancestors knew about architecture, aesthetics and city planning. Viewing the vast ruins with the desert mountains as a backdrop, I felt a sense of awe at the age of this civilization. One woman from Madrid commented: “How horrible for Syrians to watch the disintegration of Iraq, a neighbor and also a once powerful country with a proud people. You didn’t vote for Bush, did you?” Her Spanish speaking Syrian guide agreed. “Your Bush is a monster.” He described the influx of Iraqi refugees. “They have changed Syrian life. The price to buy a house or even rent an apartment has jumped up, because the Iraqis who Syria welcomes have money.” A few days later, a Syrian businessman shook his head sadly. “Most of the Iraqis who came here,” he confided, “have Syrian family. We don’t act like Americans and let our cousins be homeless, especially if they have money,” he laughed. According to Dr. Sha’aban, in four years Syria has taken in 1.2 million Iraqi refugees. Jordan, Egypt and Iran have received more than 2 million more. “Bush has created a terrible crisis in the region,” said Sha’aban. “Your media doesn’t show you how bad it is, how your soldiers rape Iraqi women, torture Iraqis, murder them in cold blood. Nor do you see how the Israelis recently [early March] destroyed 250 homes in Nablus. That adds up to 2,000 refugees. We watch the Israelis do their acts of cruelty every night on TV. The policy is humiliation in the occupied territories, which is what the United States is attempting to do in Iraq.” More than one and a half million Palestinians live in Syria (almost 1/10 of the Syrian population). Half a million of them are classified as refugees. “Israel is humiliating the Palestinians as the United States is humiliating Iraqis. “Imagine,” Sha’aban said, “one of eight Iraqis, more than 4 million, have left their country, and we know there is a move to partition the country, which would destabilize its neighbors as well. Do Americans know what their policy is doing? Do the American people want more enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere? I think Americans are kind, considerate and good,” she concluded, explaining she has done several lecture tours in the United States. She speaks “as a humanist” who despises anti-Semitism and insists that criticism of Israel should not get confused with anti-Semitism. I found the opposite discourse in a gift shop attached to the Palmyra ruins. Amidst post cards and photo books made for tourists, I saw Volumes I and II of “The Jewish Roots in History,” by Dr. Hassan Hiddeh. For only $10, one can read: “The terrorism is the best methods for the Jewish to occupy the earth of the others, and they practice the terrorism during the war and peace, because this is Torah legislations which insists to commit massacres, then the inhabitants would immigrate before the Massacre, therefore the earth will be empty.” (p. 43, Vol 1, “translated by Eng. Noureddin Hamid”). Were it not for the laughable syntax, the tracts could have been written by Hitler’s propaganda machine. Yet, a government sanctioned gift shop sells such books, a statement of hatred that has become a defining attitude in a Middle East out of control. “Who invited you to invade Iraq?” asked a man who sold shawls to the tourists. “Did Iraqi people sending letter to Bush asking him to bomb and have troops occupy? It make Syrians worried. This means democracy?” A Syrian tourist driver also admitted he felt vulnerable. On the outskirts of Damascus, I observed the new housing under construction. I asked him if some of these new apartments would go to Iraqis. He snorted. “They are too rich for those apartments. We Syrians are poor. We want to go to America like our cousins. It is too bad you have such a government that makes war and makes all people hate it.” Published by Progreso Weekly ©