Commentary Magazine


The HuffPo’s Lonely Planet Foreign Policy

Roger Cohen seems to have invented a genre. At the very least he has imitators. Olivia Sterns just published a piece at the Huffington Post decrying Syria’s “misrepresentation” in the media and arguing that President Barack Obama “embrace” Damascus’s tyrant Bashar Assad as a peace partner because the locals were nice to her when she visited Syria on vacation.

“Often described as a hotbed of anti-Americanism,” she writes, “that eschews ties to the West under Iranian tutelage, in reality that reputation couldn’t be further from the truth.” Her evidence that Syria isn’t really a hotbed of anti-Americanism? Assad schedules date nights with his stylish wife, locals in the souks are friendly to tourists, and the police keep visitors safe. All these things are true, but so what? Syria is still Iran’s staunchest ally, a hotbed of anti-Americanism, and a state-sponsor of terrorism and “resistance.”

Sterns lives in London and no doubt knows better than I do that European anti-Americanism is often in your face, rude, and obnoxious. The political is sometimes personal in the West, but that’s rarely the case in the Middle East. Arab hospitality even toward visitors from enemy countries is legendary and the stuff of guidebook clichés, yet Sterns writes as though she is startled to discover that Arabs have manners, that Syria isn’t a Mordor teeming with flesh-eating Orcs.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about personal warmth in Arabic countries. I often color my own dispatches from Lebanon and Iraq with Arab hospitality, but I’m careful to avoid making sweeping assumptions based on little else.

On my last trip to Iraq I visited the Adhamiyah sector of Baghdad. The people living there were just as friendly as the stridently pro-American Kurds in the northern provinces whose only insurgency was waged against Saddam Hussein, but their political views were radically different. U.S. Army soldiers introduced me to a trusted Iraqi informant who told me around 60 percent of his neighbors supported Al Qaeda not long ago. My Iraqi translator, who knows public opinion better than I ever will, said the neighborhood was a Baath Party stronghold when the old regime was in power and that a majority of the people there remain anti-American. Few Iraqis I casually met betrayed even a hint of hostility, and most would have been too polite to reveal it had I asked what they thought of me and my country.

If Sterns wants to write about what Syria’s people actually think about America and the peace process, she should ask them and quote them. They might politely conceal their anti-Americanism, but they aren’t at all likely to hide their support for Hezbollah or their hatred for Israel.

Listen to what Lee Smith heard during the 2006 war when he escaped Lebanon to Damascus, where posters of Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah were ubiquitous even in Christian areas. “If you think that the U.S. or anyone can offer the Syrian government a deal to abandon its support for Nasrallah and Khaled Meshal,” said a 25-year-old TV producer, “you are crazy, because all Syrians support the resistance.”

“The Arabs are traitors,” another Syrian told him. “All the rest deal with Israel or they signed peace treaties with Israel. The only men in the Middle East worth anything are our President Bashar, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. The Arab leaders combined aren’t worth the shoes of these three brothers.”

Smith had a hard time finding anyone in Syria who opposed Hezbollah’s jihad against Israel. “It is clear,” he concluded, “that the regime and the people are in perfect sync.” His in-depth reporting is strikingly different from that of Sterns and provides real evidence that Syria is part of the problem and not the solution.

“The terrorism that the U.S. accuses Syria of sponsoring,” she writes, “is mostly in cross-border support for Hezbollah that doesn’t threaten the safety of Syrians’ everyday lives. It’s a lawful state where bombs don’t go off randomly and civilians know that the police are very much in control.”

Of course the police are in control. Syria is a police state. And of course bombs rarely explode inside Syria. Assad is a state-sponsor of terrorism, and state sponsors of terrorism don’t terrorize their own countries – they terrorize enemy countries. Assad’s Soviet-style regime is a throwback to another era. Four out of the five countries bordering Syria – Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey – are either democracies or sort-of democracies. And Syria has exported terrorism to every single one of those countries. The only reason Hafez Assad shut down his support for terrorism in Turkey is because the Turks threatened war if he refused.

“Syria has said they [sic] can reign [sic] in Hezbollah and help with Hamas once the Israelis withdraw from the Golan Heights,” she writes. Surely that’s true. You know what else is true? Assad can rein in Hezbollah right now. But he won’t. Ever since his own army was forced out of Lebanon by the Cedar Revolution in 2005, Hezbollah has been his most powerful military instrument outside his own country. He can safely use Hezbollah in his war against Israel because Lebanon, not Syria, absorbs the Israeli counterattacks. And his support for Hezbollah gives him street cred at home where he needs it most.

Sterns thinks the Obama Administration should bring Assad into “the fold” of peace partners because he has the ability to stop terrorizing his neighbors. If Assad ever sincerely wants peace, he can prove it by severing his links with Hezbollah and shutting down the Damascus branch of Hamas. The fact that he won’t is far more telling of his intentions than is the friendliness of everyday Syrians in the market.

The problem with Sterns’s article and all others like hers is that she promotes the trivial and ignores the essential. She even thinks the trivial disproves the essential. Syrian hospitality is hardly evidence that Syria is unfairly maligned as anti-American or that Assad is a viable peace partner. One has nothing whatsoever to do with the other. There is little in her piece that you can’t learn from reading a Ministry of Tourism brochure. She upbraids President Obama for omitting Syria from his peace processing schedule this month, but smart foreign policy isn’t based on Lonely Planet guides or postcards from the gift shop.

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