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Oklahoma U’s Syrian Apologist By: Hugh Fitzgerald
The Iconoclast | Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Every schoolboy in Lebanon, Christian and Sunni Muslim, Druze and Shi’a Muslim, knows that Syria has always staked a claim to Lebanon. Long before the Assad dynasty arrived on the scene to see Alawite justice done, Syrians were lamenting the lopping off, as they saw it, of Lebanon from its natural place as part of Al-Shams, Syria. Naturally, successive Lebanese governments just as forcefully rejected these Syrian claims. And these claims were, amusingly, not different in kind from the same claim made about Israel, which Syrian officials for so long insisted on calling “part of southern Syria.” This insistence became muted only when the Arabs, after the Six-Day War, decided it would be necessary to repackage the Lesser Jihad against Israel as a “struggle for the legitimate rights of the (recently invented) ‘Palestinian’ people.”

And everyone, schoolboy and Christian schoolgirl alike, knew that the reason for the Syrian claim was that Lebanon was much richer than Syria, its economy more advanced, its connection to the West (that is, France) closer, and the Lebanese diaspora more influential. Some of those Lebanese were, of course, the descendants of those who left Ottoman-ruled vilayets that are now part of Syria, not Lebanon, and the Ottoman passports for both kinds of emigrants often read “Turco.” The less advanced Syrians saw Lebanon as a source of riches.

Syria had its chance when the civil war broke out in 1975. That war, as everyone also remembers, was between Christians and Muslims, but there were also so many fights between and among both Christian and Muslim militias. (And the Jumblatts, who ruled the Druse, also kept making new alliances and dropping old ones). In this crazy quilt, the Syrian army entered not really to help the Christians (though sometimes it did that), nor to help the Muslim side (though sometimes it did that), nor the PLO (though very infrequently it might even do that), but rather to promote the interests of Syria, which is to say, the interests of the Alawite rulers who controlled and control Syria.

And it all worked out for Syria. At Taif, in 1989, the Saudis managed to force the Maronites of Lebanon, for the first time, to declare officially that Lebanon was “an Arab nation.” Since the Maronites rightly regard themselves as Arabic-users but not necessarily as Arabs, and since many of them have prided themselves on their descent from those who were in Mount Lebanon before the arrival of the real Arabs bearing the poisoned chalice of Islam, this was a catastrophic concession, as yet still not understood by the West, and certainly not by smiling David Satterfield, the State Department representative who attended the Taif summit and diktat.

Syria came away a big winner. A million Syrians found employment in Lebanon, and the Lebanese could do nothing to keep them out. Syrian officers and men established themselves in the east, and the Bekaa Valley became a center for their activities – drug smuggling, smuggling of all kinds, the production of counterfeit dollars, and so on. Whatever louche and illegal activity one can think of was conducted under the benign gaze, and often with the encouragement of, the Syrians who took, who never forgot to take, their cut. It was working out smashingly.

And then there were the politicians. It was easy to bribe all kinds of Lebanese politicians. Everyone knows, for example, about Emile Lahoud, who long ago was pegged as a willing agent of Syria. Whenever anyone threatened the Syrian hegemony, he was warned – and if he did not relapse into silence, was promptly killed.

Then into all of this there entered a new element. That was Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and native of Lebanon who had made his fortune in the ways that people make their fortunes in Saudi Arabia, and that do not bear much looking into. He was powerful, he was very rich, he had his own money, and what’s more, he had the money of so many Saudi Mr. Bigs behind him, that this time the Syrians had finally met their match. They called him to Damascus. They warned him. He was worried, but did not back down. Then, on the Corniche, the Syrians blew Hariri to smithereens. The rest of it was given extensive coverage in the world press: the demonstrations, the attempt by so many Lebanese, but especially by the Christians, the Druse, and some of the Sunni Muslims, to gather and demonstrate their hatred of Syria, their desire to be free of this criminal gang that had essentially made Lebanon the source of much of its income, the site of its rackets.

The Syrians, of course, had allies – the allies of Hizballah. And Syria was and is ruled by Alawites who constitute about 12% of the population, and who have one fatal flaw: they are not real Muslims, or at least are not regarded as being real Muslims by the real Sunni Muslims who constitute 2/3 or ¾ of Syria’s population. The history of attacks by the Ikhwan against Alawites, who dare to have pictures of Mary in every Alawite household, making them guilty of shirk, of associating others with Allah in their worship, is a long one. Perhaps the most spectacular Ikhwan attack was that on the graduating class, almost all of them Alawites, at the military school at Homs – an attack in which there were no commencement speeches or proud marching around, because 82 cadets were murdered. That began the series of counterattacks, which culminated in the 20,000-40,000 dead at Hama, when the Syrian army simply fired at anyone who moved, and anyone who shouted “Allahu akbar.”

That Syria has always claimed Lebanon, that Syria has in the last 30 years done whatever it can to exploit Lebanon’s potential as a place to run Syrian rackets, or to take a cut from rackets run by Lebanese, is well known to everyone.

Everyone, that is, but one Joshua Landis, an Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma, who recently spent a year in Syria, and apparently learned as much about it as do American college girls learn about France, French literature, French culture, on their Junior Year Abroad in Paris or Rome. It was this Joshua Landis, “Syria expert,” whom I heard on NPR recently. As he was at first not identified, I assumed he was some college kid who had called in to some show to make an idiotic point, and only at the end, when he was identified, did it become clear to me that this “expert on Syria” knows nothing about Syria’s relation to Lebanon.

For what Landis said nothing more than the official line of the government of Syria, the blague that it offers the world that no one – except for the Joshua Landises of this world – could possibly take seriously. Landis repeated, not out of malevolence, one suspects, but out of surpassing credulity, the official Syrian line, that Syria was in Lebanon for one reason, and that reason was – to hold high the anti-Israel standard for all the Arabs, and above all to use its presence in Lebanon as a way to regain the Golan Heights. Nothing, not a word about the long history of Syrian governments laying claim to Lebanon, long before 1967. Nothing at all – any Lebanese citizen could have told him – about what the Syrians were doing in Lebanon, milking it as the cash cow it was for them, and for so long, and which they are quite unwilling to relinquish.

The Syrians did not murder the Sunni Muslim Rafik Hariri, or the Christian (Greek Orthodox) Gassan Tueni, or so many others, in order to “get back the Golan Heights.” By remaining in Lebanon, through their mutual-aid agreement with Hizballah (which organized its own pro-Syrian demonstration to counter that of the Cedars Revolution, in order to proclaim their, Hizballah’s, gratitude to Syria and expression of hope that it would, coute que coute, remain as a solicitous and disinterested Big Brother to Little Lebanon, as it had for nearly thirty well-recompensed years). Now all Syria had to do, in 2000, or 1990, or 1980, or even 1970, to recover the Golan Heights was to enter into negotiations with Israel which, in all of those years, would have been quite prepared, with the terminal naivete from which successive Israeli governments have suffered, to discuss surrendering the Golan Heights. This is, of course, something one devoutly hopes they will now never think even for one minute of doing, for the military value is gigantic, and the value in winning Syrian hearts, minds, or cooperation invisible to the naked eye. Syria did not have to enter Lebanon, it did not have to support now this militia and now that, it did not have to take control of all the smuggling, all the counterfeiting rings, all the drug trade, in the Bekaa Valley and elsewhere, in order to “get back the Golan Heights.” Syria was in Lebanon for the same reason that in the 1940s, and 1950s, and 1960s, Syrian maps showed Lebanon as part of Syria – because Syria wanted to be in Lebanon, it wanted to control as much of the Lebanese economy as it could, it wanted to benefit from the more highly developed level of civilization that Lebanon enjoyed, as a result of having, for a long time, a Christian majority, and behind that majority, the power of France.

Not for Joshua Landis, however. He spent a year in Syria. He talked to members of the Syrian government. They told him why Syria was in Lebanon. They told him, again and again, that Syria was in Lebanon only in order to recover the Golan Heights. They told him that, just the way Arab leaders, according to Madeline Albright, told her that they “had no idea” what Saddam Hussein was doing inside Iraq to the Kurds and to the Shi’a. And she, Madeline Albright, brightly retailed this story to a television interviewer, and appeared to have not the slightest suspicion that just maybe, those Egyptian and Jordanian and Saudi interlocutors really did have some idea, just a whiff, given that a million Iraqis had fled Iraq and everyone in the world knew how Saddam Hussein treated those he regarded as potentially hostile. In exactly the same way it is clear that Joshua Landis has “no idea” why Syria has laid claim to the territory of Lebanon, and when that didn’t work, laid claim instead to Lebanon as a source of wealth for the Syrian rulers, a place that existed largely for the benefit of Syria, to be exploited to the fullest extent possible.

Everyone in Lebanon, everyone in the Middle East, knows this. Some care very much. Some don’t care at all. But Joshua Landis doesn’t know this. He only knows that Syrian after official Syrian told him, assured him, looked him straight in the eye and leveled with him, telling him that “we are in Lebanon in order to get back the Golan Heights.”

And Joshua Landis not only believed all of them, but assured an NPR audience that it was so. He knew. He spent a year in year. He’s an Assistant Professor. He’s an “expert on Syria.” We know this because that is what he calls himself, and that is what NPR calls him. “An expert on Syria.”

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Hugh Fitzgerald is a lecturer on the manipulation of language for political ends.

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