The Daily Star, 8 January 2005

Syrian attitudes toward the American election last November initially seemed contradictory. On the one hand many in the country displayed a greater than usual interest in the election itself; on the other, they displayed an inappropriately low interest in its potential results. But a closer look reveals that there was no contradiction at all. Heightened interest in the election resulted from an overall increase in interest in America in general, especially in matters relating to its Middle Eastern policies. The reason was simple: The U.S. had removed a neighboring Iraqi regime – a regime more or less resembling Syria’s – and, therefore, became a neighbor and a factor of change in the region. Furthermore, while U.S. actions had always affected Syria, after the Iraq war these had a more direct and powerful impact on individual Syrians, on the population as a whole, and on the state. The U.S. is no longer an outside power as far as Syria is concerned and multifaceted contacts between the two countries are the norm.

Why did Syrians have little interest in who won the election? Simply because of the limited influence the winner, his party, or his electoral platform would have had on U.S. policies in the Middle East. The Syrians believed, with some justification, that the differences between George W. Bush and John Kerry on regional issues were rather narrow. Although there have been new trends in Syrian attitudes toward the U.S., especially signs of a pro-American tilt in certain circles in Damascus, the U.S. presidential election was not a rallying factor even among these “Americanized Syrians.” The latter did not display any overt partiality toward either Bush or Kerry because they were aware that U.S. policy in the region was not apt to change. That said, there was a subtle tilt in favor of Bush, because he represented continuity in U.S. hostility toward radical Islam, while there was no certainty that Kerry would have maintained such a policy had he defeated the sitting president. The “Americanized Syrians” are a varied group of people with different backgrounds and motives. What unites them most, as suggested earlier, is their animosity toward Syria’s Islamists, and even toward Islam itself. They are also drawn by the Bush administration’s “war against terror,” more than by its regional democratization agenda. No doubt the awe in which they hold American power and ability to effect change is also a factor in their pro-American tilt. This factor will intensify as expectations of domestically generated reforms in Syria gradually decrease and as the traditional Arab nationalist and Marxist opposition continues to decline.

How many “Americanized Syrians” are there? They appear to be few, but are not to be dismissed since their presence is keenly felt through their honest and direct exchanges on the Internet, where they can give free rein to their thoughts and sentiments. They come from socially diverse ethnic, religious and sectarian backgrounds, and include Kurds, Christians and people from Muslim minorities. This does not mean, however, that the majorities in these communities are pro-American or that there are no pro-Americans in other sectors of the Syrian population. But the fact remains that a common denominator among them is that their “Americanization” is directed against someone else: the Arabs, the Muslims, the Sunnis and others, which makes their meeting of minds coincidental, momentary and difficult to unite in a single cohesive unit.

Ironically, there is also a dogmatic form of pro-Americanism within former communist circles, which believe that the U.S. has a civilizing and liberating role to play similar to the one they once ascribed to the U.S.S.R. In that sense there is an uncanny similarity between the “Americanized Syrians” and pro-Soviet groups of the past in as far as their fanaticism, drive and social backgrounds are concerned.

It is very tempting to ask the “Americanized Syrians” what situation they would be in had U.S. policies in the region been more balanced and fair toward Syria and Arab causes in general. They would have undoubtedly formed the strongest party in Syria, and the opportunity for democracy in Syria and the Arab world would, likewise, have been greatly enhanced, at least in equal measure to that in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. But do the Syrians prefer Bush for other reasons? Writing in this newspaper last Dec. 4, Tyler Golson, an English teacher in Damascus, observed that some Syrians preferred Bush to Kerry for religious and moral reasons. However, we need to take a closer look at this statement. Those Syrians who know that Bush is a religious man, a social and moral conservative, and who know that he opposes abortion and gay rights, are the same ones who reject social extremism and the intermingling of politics and religion – in other words the educated classes. Most Syrians, however, neither know nor care about Bush’s religious beliefs and social behavior inside the U.S. The exception are the students Golson teaches: members of the educated and high-income middle class who can benefit from the competency of an English-language instructor because they plan to work, or even live, in the West at some time in the future – perhaps in America where some may already live mentally. In short, they are a minority within a minority and not representative of the average Syrian. Even if they are, as Golson says, like average Americans, they are almost exclusively from Sunni Muslim and Christian backgrounds.

What is the attitude of most Syrians then? As was said before there is great interest in America, accompanied by a deep fear of the Bush administration’s agenda, which has diminished Syrian interest in the minutiae of American policies. Since such policies will not change, many Syrians argue, why should they care about the details? This conclusion derives from a combination of accurate perceptions and a feeling of weakness that prevents people from attempting to influence U.S. policy toward the region. And that’s not even mentioning another “minority within a minority,” namely those Syrians who find themselves in extreme opposition to all that is American.

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