I’ll never forget one of the opening scenes in the movie Back to the Future. Doc and Marty have gathered in a mall parking lot to experiment with Doc’s new time machine. This is the setting for the first test run of a machine that will travel through time and space. Einstein will be vindicated.
As Doc and Marty unload the Delorean and back it onto the pavement, Marty is recording the entire episode with one of those old school hand held vhs recorders (can you believe we used to haul those things around to capture a memory???)
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something disturbing. He notices a white van armed with heavy artillery machine guns careening in his direction…and at once, as the audience is still trying to figure out what’s happening, Doc yells with a squeaky high pitched tone, “The Libyans!”
Marty is lost. Why should they care about Libyans? Doc quickly explains that the time machine needs powerful fuel and the only fuel powerful enough for time travel in 1985 is plutonium…and Doc stole the plutonium from the Libyan Terrorists!
The Libyans crash into the scene shooting up Doc’s car and making Marty duck for cover. Doc himself is caught in the fire and is presumed dead after being riddled with bullets. Unbeknownst to Marty (and the audience) Doc isn’t really dead. He had a silver try on his chest because he knew the Libyans would show up.
As the scene is coming to an end, the time machine eventually has a successful flight “back to the future,” Marty is left recording it all and the Libyans crash their van in a wreckage of fiery misplaced glory as they chase after the Delorean.
And that is how a generation of Americans were introduced to Libyans and Middle Easterners of similar ilk: Terrorists who smuggle arms, money and chemicals on the black market.
I vividly remember as a child of 7 years old watching Back to the Future the first time and having this very subtle impression lodged in my consciousness.
Some things never change.
Millions of Americans, if not a majority, continue to have a biased opinion against Middle Eastern Islamic countries. The images projected upon us in 1985 from Back to the Future have found a similar place in our collective geopolitical consciousness. This despite the fact that millions of the same Americans have never visited these countries, lived with its people, studied it history or asked hard questions of our governments approach.
The contemporary hatred for Syria is a fine example of this stereotyping.
Many steretypes exist around Syria and thinking its government to be akin to Nazi Germany or theocratic Iran has been fueled by the Bush Administration’s ability to turn Syria and Assad into a molten pariah and has been continued by Obama’s pathological desire to want regime change in Syria regardless of the geopolitical consequences.
Obama’s stance has been so hardened that it led him to declare what many of us remember as his “red line” if you will. The Red Line was Obama’s arbitrary designation that prohibited Assad and his military from using chemical weapons in its war with Free Syrian Rebels. If Assad used chemicals, then Obama would act with a swift military campaign.
In 2013, it was believed by the administration that that had in fact happened. A series of attacks in March and April of that year were launched in a small village around the city of Aleppo. Chemical weapons (a type of sarin gas) were deployed and at least 19 civilians, and 1 solider were killed while scores of others suffered injuries. The Obama administration was hot and it began to make preparations to neutralize Assad.
The attack was supposed to happen no later than September 2, but on August 31, 2013, Obama gave a press conference at the Rose Garden and announced the attack would be put on hold as he would seek the approval of Congress (even though he did not seek this same approval in Libya).
Long story short, it is now well known that the Al-Nusra front and the Turks both have the ability to make and proliferate the type of Sarin used in the attack at Aleppo. Assad’s army did not have that type of Sarin at its disposal. Obama was being punked, set up, in order to fight a proxy war for Turkey and the Rebels. The Rebels had released the Sarin on civilians in order to induce an American attack.
Luckily, at the behest of the joint chiefs, the attack never occurred and Obama eventually wised up. Though his neurotic Syrian policy remains the administration’s stance and few Americans know the truth about chemicals used in Syria…even fewer care to discover the truth as it is much easier to hate Syria than not fall victim to cultural group think.
As Americans, we should ask ourselves, “Should we allow images of Back to the Future and our government’s policy against Syria to be projected onto us?” Should we embrace it? Or might it be better to ask a few questions of the government many of us already distrust?
There are actually several reasons to not hate Syria and I would like to propose a few here. The situation is complex and fraught with the danger of painting too broadly or not considering the many facets of discussion. Nonetheless, a corrective step in our thinking about Syria is in order.
No doubt, the Assad family rose to power as the result of government take over. Those are rarely pretty and they are rarely done without exacting causalities. Bashir Assads father, Hafez, was a shrewd politician and came to power via the Corrective Revolution of 1970 as he took his Ba’ ath Party to power. He arrested and imprisoned much of his opposition and appointed men of similar religious and political persuasion to positions of power in the new government.
What would result would be a police state and the president (a president by force if you will) was established as a national icon and allegiance to him (or at least not against him) was expected. This is similar to many other Middle Eastern countries by the way.
There are several occasions of brutality and political maneuvering during Haffez’s presidency that would appall Americans. Attempts to overthrow the government were the harshest offenses. Those are well documented and you can search for them yourself. Despite those attempts, the Assad’s have held onto Syria for nearly 50 years. Hafez groomed his son Bashar to become president and Bashar has now been president since 2000 (the year his father died).
What I want to point out is not how we got here, but now that we are here how we might think more clearly about Syria and an Assad “regime.”
Is our current opinion and policy warranted? Should we desire Assad’s ouster because of its historical trajectory or might the world be better off to support his presidency as Westerners even though we may wince at the political culture itself?
First, we should support Assad because he espouses religious toleration. Anyone that replaces him, such as the folks that now run Iraq, Libya or Egypt, will not espouse religious toleration.
Assad is a member of a unique religious minority that is a mixture of Christian mysticism and Islamic practice. He is an Alawite, a minority in Syria (less than 5% of the population) that has been persecuted and targeted by the larger Sunni presences for the majority of Syrian history. As a religious minority and from a family that had experienced religious intoleration, Assad provided (and would provide) a safe space of Muslims, Christians and other minorities to practice their religion. Syria is one the historical birth places of Christianity and the early church had a strong presence there. There are convents in Syria that can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and these Christians, though a minority, have been free to live and practice their religion in Syria without persecution.
Likewise, Alawites, Druze, and Ismallis also experienced religious toleration. To be sure, such was not the case at the beginning of the Corrective Revolution when suspicions were high of any religious expression that could usurp the new Alawite controlled government, but today toleration was the modus operandi.
If Assad is removed such will no longer be the case and we could see the eradication of minority religious sects, including Christianity, from Syria.
Second, Assad provides stability.
The largest point of contention during Bush’s administration was the proliferation of weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, in attacks upon Israel. The previous administration felt as if Assad was not doing enough to control their borders and stop the trafficking of weaponry.
How times have changed. With Isis active in the region, the issue is now just to get rid of Assad for the hell of it. This administration has made no good argument to oust Assad except the false chemical narrative and to continue the narrative of Bush’s axis of evil. With multiple examples of what attempting to inaugurate “democracy” in the Middle East has actually done, how is this argument still a good one?
Otherwise, why do we want him to leave when it is now clear that the rebellions in other Middle Eastern states have NOT produced the kind of democracy we had hoped? Is anyone in the government so foolish as to think this is a rebellion of civilians against their government in search of a more democratic way? In fact, the opposite has shown itself to be the case. If Assad is deposed, mass instability will ensue into every facet of Syrian life, and the Syrian refugee crisis will disclose itself as the tip of the iceberg.
As Seymour Hersh states, “the so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey…The assessment was bleak: there was no viable moderate opposition to Assad and the US was arming extremists.”
We may not like a Syrian version of democracy, but is the alternative really that much better?
Third, Assad has cooperated militarily with our government even though the public is unaware.
The US and its allies have the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world. Sryia does not. However, in unauthorized protocol and communication, there is strong evidence to suggest that Sryia has cooperated with distributing military intelligence about the locations of Isis and Al-Nusra within Syria to the West and its ally in the east, Russia. Further, Syria provided information about its capabilities and intentions through various military channels with the understanding that it would reach the US. In exchange, the US military has also put out actionable information that it knew would reach Syria.
In addition, and despite our national amnesia, Syria has cooperated with the US under the Bush administration as well. After 9/11, Assad was “extremely helpful” according to a former consultant in the intelligence community. Seymour Hersh notes the extent of cooperation with the US after 9/11.
“In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany. Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant. In violation of the agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers. Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like the Americans allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere- tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus Prison” (104-105)
Like Washington, Syria believes Isis must be stopped. Yet we remain churlish toward their historical overtures.
Fourthly, countries we know that support extremism want him gone.
Some of these countries are our allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In fact, these countries have been conspiring with our own government to traffic weapons into Syria in order to exact regime change. Why would we, as Americans, support the same regime change of a country with no evidence to ever suggest it (Syria) is an existential threat to America when we have documented mountains of evidence that the few nations mentioned above support, fund and have provided haven to people who are hostile to America, the west and any other religion but their own?
There are existential threats but the Syrian government is hardly one of those.
Why would we be motivated to partner with the devil in order to get closer to the Anti-Christ? Seems to me there’s much more at stake (money, ideology, silent promissory notes, etc.) that is driving this decision.
Why is the US not directing its attention toward these countries? Why have we not stood on our moral high horse, our Reaganite “city on a hill” and demanded more from our NATO pals?
It’s not that the US is not cozy with regimes. We are very cozy with dictatorships that provide stability so long as we have a piece of the pie. Due to our frigid rhetorical flourishes toward Syria we have not been allowed to share in any of the pie they distribute.
We are the quintessential bully of the world’s militaries: We create fantastic narratives about how our violence is justified in order to hide from the reality of our misuse of power. We pick on countries we know we can defeat while we sleep with countries that have our babies…even though they are cheating on us every second they get.
And like one of my seminary colleagues who served in the armed forces was apt to say: We have to have conflict. If we don’t have conflict we cannot try out our weaponry, we do not know our full capability and the military cannot promote officers. Conflict and American Militarism go hand in hand.
Lastly, I have experienced Syrian hospitality first hand. In 2007 I was able to visit the belly of the beast, Damascus, and spend 4 days within the country’s borders. I visited sites that have been held by Isis such as Palmyra and I have seen the beauty of its people and its geography. I walked in downtown Damascus and I honestly felt safer there than when I was in Israel, where it seems guns are everywhere in public. The Syrian people were kind, informative, hospitable, and proud of their country. I shared Q & A sessions with Christian Syrian doctors, was given a tour of the country by someone that is now a Syrian refugee who has endured hardships and relocated his family to Scandinavia, shared meals with Syrians proud of their heritage and enjoyed the stability of the Assad government when I was there learning as a student and Christian pastor.
I loved Syria when I was there. I loved its people. It has a special place in my heart and I wish I could share that experience with each American I come into contact with everyday because I know if we could have passed the peace with Syrians together there would be less hatred toward the country, more empathy for those lost in its war time tragedy and more understanding for a government that might not be our favorite but may be doing the best it can.
Thus, with this overture I ask you to reconsider your opinions on Syria, its government and to caste an opinion that is informed. Study the situation. Read some investigative journalism. And by all means, think for yourself. Do not let your opinion be persuaded by Obama or Fox News…let it be persuaded by the sometimes ugly, and hard choice, that comes when we make decisions based on fact rather than feeling.
I know what we all learned from Back to the Future, but maybe it’s time to rethink that impression.
*The extended Hersh quote and other small quotes are taken from essays in his recently released, Seymour Hersh. The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2016.