Middle Israel: Letter to a Syrian rebel

Twelve years on, this column revisits its call to await the Syrian majority’s moment.

Syrian anti-Assad protest 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian anti-Assad protest 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is two minutes to dusk now in Damascus, Palmyra, Aleppo and Homs, and you must be counting the day’s toll.
How many shot and how many bombed, how many killed and how many maimed, who by soldiers, who by cops, who by agents, who by a mob, who has vanished and who resurfaced, who intact, and who dismembered.
And after nightfall, ensconced behind lowered shutters and sealed doors, you will exchange camouflaged messages with local comrades and foreign allies, about a guerrilla raid here, a neighborhood rally there, a foreign journalist who met defectors in the morning, a minister who went underground in the evening and an Arab League observer who heard a trigger’s snap.
And at the crack of dawn you will be looking through the window, gauging what the next day may have in store, like a surfer considering a new morning’s height of the waves and color of the clouds. And weighing their paths elsewhere will be parents wondering whether their kids would be safer today at home or in school; and students will be at a loss to predict what will await them on campus: a lecture, a rally, a smuggled iPhone or a mustachioed thug; and a father will soon decide whether to navigate between rifle barrels en route to the gallon of kerosene without which his family will shiver at night, and a mother will pray the grocery will have today the flour, sugar and eggs it didn’t have yesterday, and the grocer will demand cash, and the black marketeer dollars, and the doctor baksheesh, and the preacher repentance, and the garbage truck just will not come.
HERE IN Jerusalem it is also dusk, a quiet reminder that despite the distance that yawns between us in other respects, geographically we would be but a few hours’ train ride from each other – if only such a train link existed – and emotionally we already are literally around the corner. For we Jews have been in the business of freedom fighting for ages, and we can tell when its pursuit is real, and when its enemies are near their demise.
It’s been 12 years now since this writer, while advocating a Golan-for-peace deal, called on Israel to await the Syrian majority’s moment (“Wuthering Heights,” The Jerusalem Post, December 17, 1999).
“It isn’t unlikely that [Hafez] Assad’s people will some day – either before or after he clears the stage – do in Damascus what [Nicolae] Ceausescu’s flock did a decade ago in Bucharest,” this column wrote, while our government held talks with the Assad regime. “Should that day arrive,” it cautioned, “we won’t want to be seen by the average Syrian as the ones who collaborated with the man who imposed on them the rule of a remote, mountainous tribe, and who once bombarded to death 20,000 of his subjects.”
Now all have come to share my early faith in your cause. The question therefore is where you will head the morning after you remove your evil leaders. And since as long as you remain underground so do your thoughts, you will have to forgive us for keeping our expectations low. The fact that the people who ruled you for the past several decades never asked your opinion about anything, does not mean that when finally free to talk what you will say will please our ears.
We have been around this neighborhood long enough to assume, until proven otherwise, that you too hate us, certainly if you are Islamist, but also if you are not. And even if you are Druse, or Christian, or a Kurd, and therefore less hostile, or even secretly sympathetic to us, you will have to forgive us for remaining pessimistic; we have had bitter experience meddling in this sorry region’s minority politics, and can therefore be counted on to avoid it this time around.
Moreover, chances are high that your Syria, while undoing the alliance with Iran, will become the proxy Turkey now wants to make of you, and who knows what such a configuration will mean for all of us. Yes, maybe you will prove resolute enough to reclaim your honor, rather than replace one regional patron with another, but for now Middle Israelis will have to assume post- Assad Syria will not be progressive.
Indeed, we are readying ourselves for a religious Syria that will make it even more outlandish than it already is for a genius of Syrian stock like Steve Jobs to flourish in Syria itself; or for a Christian woman wearing shorts to win Syria’s second Olympic gold the way Ghada Shouaa won its first.
Ever skeptical, we prepare – whether mentally, politically or militarily – for a new Syria that will uphold its dictatorial predecessors’ hostility to Israel. Due to our marginal position in this region, we cannot assume people around us want peace until they make that plain.
Obviously, should you produce democracy, stability, tolerance and an unambiguous peace offer – you will find Middle Israel as forthcoming as it has been previously in similar situations. But since we take this for now as a distant prospect, the question arises: Is there any common denominator, even the lowest, that you and we can share even before you have downed your enemy? Well actually there is.
BACK IN SPRING 2001 the man now fighting you told pope John Paul II, in the presence of TV cameras from the entire world, and shortly after claiming to speak “on behalf of the Syrian Arab people,” that “there are those” who “try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him.”
In some respects, this pronouncement, like other aspects of Bashar Assad’s biography, was a farce. After all, who was he to pontificate in general, and to John Paul in particular, and about freedom of all things. And altogether absurd was his insinuation that he knew better than the Vatican what Christianity should preach, for Catholicism had long abandoned and also condemned the blaming of what happened to Jesus on “the Jews.” But for us Jews there was nothing funny about that situation; it was the same blood libel that left our forebears dead, and us on guard.
Tonight, as you quietly turn on your laptop, Google to that speech, and think of the irony of Bashar Assad, the man who is shooting Syrians daily like ducks in a range, back then saying things like “there are those who invariably attempt to subject all people once and again to the journey of ailments and agony”; consider the audacity of him, of all people, saying “the application of heavenly tenets requires taking a stand against those who oppose them”; and the joke he made of you when he told the pope “we highly appreciate your efforts for the benefit of humanity, and for spreading love among people, as well as your efforts in defense of the victims of injustice.”
Now you, a rebel whose courage has been demonstrated, but whose convictions remain unknown, can introduce yourself by renouncing this butcher’s anti-Semitism and saying that the way you see it, Bashar Assad has been not only every Syrian’s enemy, but also every Jew’s.