Saturday, July 28, 2007


The state of things as I see it

In response to a very opinionated (and apparently equally uninformed) online comment about Syria:

Syria is already engaged in economic reforms and liberalism, and needs no pressing from its neighbours to make further progress. It may be moving at a slower pace that certain western powers would like, but this is change that is emerging from within, involves both government and non-governmental agencies, and takes as fundamental a wholesale commitment to human development. In his most recent speech, President Assad spoke of democracy, the rights and responsibilities of individuals and further liberalisation. He mentioned poverty, the problems Syria faces, and corruption. Only a few years ago, these would all have been firmly off any public agenda. Now stated openly, these challenges and opportunities can at last be properly addressed. As it is, investment money is flowing into Syria, private banks are springing up, new laws make business easier, and money movement possible.

Noone is denying there is a long way to travel, but Syria is making progress. And it is doing so with nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq (which does not include those from Palestine, Afghanistan and now Africa) in a country of only 18 million people. What would help would be a little less of the knee-jerk demonisation that has until recently characterised UK/US policies, and a bit more readiness to see Syria as part of the solution, not just the problem. Syria, remember, is a secular state, not fundamentalist, and is now seen by most of the region's Christians as the only truly religiously tolerant country. It is an ancient trading nation that in many ways has a more Mediterranean outlook than Arab. President Assad has said publicly that he can see a future in which Syria and Israel can exist peacefully side-by-side. I believe the signs are positive, IF other nations can stop assuming they are always right and Syria is always wrong.

I have welcomed many people here from Europe and America. Invariably they come with expectations of anti-Western hostility, insecurity if not actual danger, violence. Most have been warned by friends not to do something so dangerous. In reality they find the place and people at ease, welcoming, extremely hospitable to all, entirely safe (honest!) and almost wholly free from street crime. If you ask embassy staff here they will tell you that Syria is among the world's safest postings. Anyone who wants to see for themselves will be perfectly safe here.

If Syria went the way of Iraq, it would be an eternal and irrecoverable disaster for the region. Stand back from the political rhetoric for a moment, look at what Syria is doing (and yes, its own PR is lamentable) and then wonder why it gets conveniently lumped together with Iran (with which it has almost nothing in common) as the region's bad boys. Ask too why some neighbouring countries (I will mention no names) which are far from models of democratic behaviour, have appalling track records on human rights, equality for women and other issues, are so immune from criticism from the west. Could it be that their willingness to spend money on our weaponry, house our military bases or supply us with oil has something to do with that?

Syria is not Iraq, Assad is not Saddam Hussein. If we have learned nothing else from Iraq it should be that such a scenario is just not the way to a solution. Syria already has a way forward; it should be helped.


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