Syrian-Americans and the Assad Regime

There is no doubt that Syrians in the United States searching for a role in Syrian current events must carefully avoid reifying American imperial power without eschewing their ethical duty to stand against the killing, injuring, arrest, and other abuses of protesters, the vast majority of whom have been peaceful despite the ruthlessness of the security services.

That space is difficult to find when the past decade has seen a U.S. establishment that is perpetually waiting for the next opportunity to undermine the Syrian government, not because it cares about the welfare of Syrians or wishes to weaken dictatorships as a general matter, but because Syria has not knelt to American and Israeli agendas in the region — despite its participation in the war on Iraq, its cooperation with the War on Terror through the extraordinary torture of people like Maher Arar, and its satisfaction with the status quo with regard to Israeli apartheid and the occupation of the Golan Heights.

What should be certain, though, is that today even a single word in defense of the Syrian government’s actions is morally indefensible. That maxim must also extend to indirect actions that function to deceptively embellish the government’s image while it continues to pursue an agenda of violence and brutality against the Syrian people.

It is outrageous, then, that, according to Syria News, a “delegation of Syrian-Americans” recently met with Bashar al-Assad (I will not call him ‘president’ today) and rendered free propaganda services for the regime. The event was clearly a public relations stunt by the Syrian government meant to whitewash the crimes that have led to the death of 1,300 protesters, not to mention the deplorable state of Syrian affairs overall. In organizing the event, the Syrian government sought to convey the image that Syrian-Americans stand by the government even as thousands of demonstrators stand against it.

Even more troubling is the fact that, according to Syria News, this so-called delegation included Jay Salkini and Assad Jebara, two board members of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). While I doubt that they intend their actions to reflect a personal endorsement of regime violence, even if the publicity around it conveys that image, their meeting represents a style of elite political engagement — one, perhaps, that many other upper middle and upper class Syrians would gladly partake in — that must be done away with.

One cannot draw an analogy between this meeting and the recent conference of Syrian opposition figures in Damascus, where the dissidents — many of whom have served jail time –  were unrestrained in their criticism of the government. In contrast, Jebara remarked in an interview with Syria News that the meeting was “very positive” and that “President Bashar al-Assad was very realistic and open to all opinions, reaching the limits of candor and honesty.” Here, Jebara himself reaches the limits of flattery and obsequiousness!

Salkini continued to promise al-Assad that Syrian-Americans would call on Congress and the American government to give Syria a “chance to implement reforms adopted by the Syrian government.” Had the Assad regime presented its people with a credible plan for reform, Salkini’s statement might not have been so objectionable. As of yet, however, endless committees continue to “study” reform at a snail’s pace, even as the government swiftly and ruthlessly mobilizes the army and security services to attack its people. It seems this government is more competent at some tasks than others.

Reprehensibly, Salkini told Syria News that Syrian-Americans would aim to support Syria’s economy with more investments, especially because “the tourism industry was harmed most by the events in Syria.” Were it that such a callous phrase never left his mouth to remind us of March 14th’s disgusting whining about the tourism industry while Israel was bombarding Lebanon in 2006, killing over a thousand people!

It is truly embarrassing for Jebara and Salkini to participate in this event, given that they are board members of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). How unbecoming of people who defend Arab civil rights in America to function as allies of a government that recognizes civil rights for no one. In doing so, they give fodder to anti-Arab factions in the United States who accuse people who criticize United States and Israeli policies of hypocrisy in order to distract from the egregiousness of those policies. Jebara, Salkini, and other members of this “delegation” insult the Syrian protesters and, in Jebara and Salkini’s case, further damage the credibility of the ADC, which is barely recovering from the last Syria-related flap, the dis-invitation of Malek Jandali.

Of course, Jebara and Salkini’s meeting with Bashar al-Assad has nothing to do with the ADC. It has nothing to do with civil rights. It has everything to do with preserving and protecting social, political, and business ties. Salkini and Jebara are well within their rights to feel, despite mounting evidence and mass graves to the contrary, that al-Assad is capable of leading the country on a path to reform. They are well within their rights to feel that supporting al-Assad’s endless reform committees is the best way for Syrians. But they should not do so in their capacity as representatives of Syrian-Americans nor while they are board members of an organization that needs impeccable credibility to be an effective champion of Arab-American civil rights. And they certainly should not do so while protestors continue to be killed in the streets.

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