Syria loves Lebanon
Do young syrians really hate the Cedar revolution?
هل حقاً يكرهون "ثورة الأرز"؟
By Youssef Bazzi for Babelmed
There can be no doubt that Syrians, for the most part, love Lebanon. Their love is a dramatic love, amongst its symptoms, a constant desire to stay close to and imitate the beloved, and occasionally to bicker.
The majority of Syrians believe that the two nations are not merely joined by common borders, but by the unshakeable bond of brotherhood. Without thinking twice the young Syrian girl says to the television camera: "We love the Lebanese. We and the Lebanese are one people."
Like most young Syrians she truly believes what she says, and she would be surprised to find out how many Lebanese are repelled by these simple words, how much they inspire caution and fear; that this brief sentence harbours an ideological and political discourse that refutes Lebanon's independence and denies its separation, as a state and people, from Syria. She hasn't the faintest idea that these very words are parroted by millions of other Syrians in imitation of their leader ("...one people, forever..."), a state of affairs that only goes to support the theory that Syrians don't have opinions of their own; that such uniformity is a symptom of an awful, Soviet-style totalitarianism.
This innocent expression of love towards Lebanon seems so natural, so commonplace, to the Syrian girl. It never occurs to her that politically, her words are a threat to Lebanon's independence and sovereignty, part of Syria's age old policy to deny the existence of a distinct Lebanese people who exercise their freedom of expression within their own political system.
Elegant and grinning with passion and glee, accompanying her young friends in their patriotic protest against the international pressure being brought to bear on her country, this beautiful young girl was innocent of all this. Chanting their slogans and waving banners, this girl and her friends pushed towards the camera not to condemn international policy but to address "her dear friends" the Lebanese. She seemed to know, instinctively, that the real danger lay in the end of political goodwill between the two countries. Standing in front of the camera she had her chance, not to answer the microphone-clutching presenter's questions nor to explain the reason for the young Syrians' strike, but to send a message to the very Lebanese that had so profoundly shocked her and her fellow Syrians over the past three months. The slogans calling for Syria's withdrawal, the racist incidents against Syrian nationals, the powerful feelings of resentment towards the Syrian state and its agencies in Lebanon, and the clear rejection of all traces, signs and symbols of the "occupation". She was so shocked at recent events that she was, like her compatriots, unable to believe; unwilling to admit to the deadly wounds that Syria and its Baathist regime has inflicted on its "beloved" Lebanon. "A Zionist or American Imperialist conspiracy" must be behind it all.
Theories such as these come naturally to successive generations who have been taught that all their woes spring from such conspiracies. Even as they suffer the pain of Lebanon's rejection, these young Syrians have made another error: blaming Israel, America or France for the deterioration in Syrian-Lebanese relations insults the Lebanese. Implicitly, it is part of a Syrian political discourse that casts doubt on the "Arabness" of a democratic Lebanon and portrays it as a willing accomplice to Israeli and colonial policy. In other words, their attempt to excuse the Lebanese they end up accusing them in even harsher terms than before: not only do they think of the Lebanese as the willing agents of a conspiratorial master plan, they go on to deny that the Lebanese have any will of their own, making it easier for them to dismiss their independence. The same young Syrians that wanted to proclaim their love for Lebanon were simultaneously engaged in a strike to show their solidarity with their government. As loyal Syrians, perhaps they want to shoulder some of the blame for Rafiq Al-Hariri's murder (not to mention the effects of three decades of interference by their secret services, officers and politicians in Lebanese affairs) that lies so heavy on their government's shoulders...
Despite their anti-Western political stance and their professed loyalty to the Baath regime, these kids like to keep up with the latest fashions paraded across Lebanese TV. Their elites indulge in Beiruti shopping sprees and spend their nights in Lebanese casinos and bars. They lap up Western culture and do everything they can to impose this way of life--learnt in nearby Lebanon, outside the walls of their precious capital--at home. They hoard the memories of families and friends of life in Lebanon, and work to ensure that their capital is not left trailing in the dust of these wonders. And this is just how these young Syrians appeared on television, lively and passionate, protesting and political, torn between loyalty to their land and love of what Lebanon represents to them.
After the Lebanese demonstrations of recent times, this love seemed someone dishonest, the same one-sided love (mixed with frustration and anger) hinted at by their young leader in his two "historical" speeches. They had no idea that their country "loved" Lebanon, too: that oppressive, suffocating, Syrian affection. Like them, their country is jealous of Lebanon and fantasizes about domination, possession, merging as one...
As they talked about their love for Lebanon and rejected "foreign intervention" they appeared a little confused, as if an idea had suddenly hit them: that their feelings for Lebanon weren't so different from that of their fellow citizen and spy Rostom Ghazali, and that their motives and his might appear to be the same: Baathist, dictatorial and oppressive.
Although they want nothing more for their country to be in the right, this doesn't mean that they want Lebanon to be in the wrong. In actual fact, they desire one thing: that Syria's efforts to "retain" Lebanon be reconciled with their need for the Lebanon of their dreams, the Lebanon of modernity, fun and freedom. This crucial reconciliation between the regime's plans to Baathize Lebanon along Syrian lines and the Syrian youth's desire to imitate Lebanese liberalism only heightens the ambiguity of their freely proffered "love" and Lebanese suspicion of such excessively brotherly sentiments.
The demonstrations and independence movement that sprung up in Lebanon clearly displayed this ambiguity. Despite their shock and outrage, one could clearly detect awe in the eyes of the Syrian strikers. Awe... or was it infatuation? Such feelings lead one to imitate one's opponent; to copy the enemy. With the consent of their government and its security agencies and organized by their Party, the demonstrating Syrians could only imitate what the Lebanese had done, even when they were, openly or implicitly, meant to be rejecting the new policies the Lebanese had chosen to follow.
The demonstrations in Damascus' squares imitated the language, slogans and techniques pioneered by the Lebanese in the Cedar Revolution, and especially those witnessed around the world on 14 March in the demonstration of more than a million and a half citizens that took place in Martyr's--now Freedom--Square in Beirut. Lebanon's intellectuals and political activists had predicted that 14 March would infect Damascus like a virus and imprint itself on the Syrian consciousness. While it might not affect the Syrian regime in Lebanon it would, exploiting the strategic and cultural bridge that links the two capitals in a way unimagined by the Baathists, leap into Damascus and produce a profound change in the heart of Syria.
To date the prediction has only been fulfilled in outward form with the irony that it is the Syrian regime and not Syrian civil society that has adopted and adapted these demonstrations for its own purposes. The regime organized strikes and marches all over Syria, but they were nothing like the demonstrations it has been putting on for the past five decades. For the first time in memory they were not gatherings of "workers and peasants" nor were their ranks swelled with freedom fighters, young revolutionaries, local party members, tribal groups or regional representatives. They were instead urban and civilian. Nor did the organizers attempt to disguise the source of their inspiration, brazenly changing the 14 March slogan "For Lebanon" into "For Syria". "All of us for the nation" was written on a huge sign hung across a building's facade, the very same phrase the Lebanese chanted at the beginning of their national anthem.
There was no attempt by the Syrian demonstrators to invent their own slogan. Dazzled by the television reporting on the Lebanese demonstrations, the Syrian government tried to televise their own attempt, setting up huge screens next to the marches. Noticing that the Lebanese protesters had agreed to wave only the national flag to preserve unity across the spectrum of ethnic, party and religious affiliations, the Syrian authorities ordered that only the Syrian national flag (and not the Baath emblem) be raised above supporters' heads. Then, as if they'd suddenly realized that on other occasions the Lebanese actually had been flying different flags, the Syrians then encouraged a whole profusion of different flags to appear, which ironically included Lebanese flags: the National Party and Hizballah). And as a final touch, because the Lebanese carried banners, the Syrians carried banners, too.
The Syrian state abandoned the techniques of Kim Il Song for a youthful, student crowd gathering "spontaneously", lighting candles and laying out rugs and cushions on the ground. The demonstrators were like none we'd ever seen before: gone were the working classes, replaced by attractive young men and women dressed like their trendy Lebanese contemporaries in caps and T-shirts.
In clear imitation of the one expression of Lebanese political will that had been most painful to the Syrian regime, the authorities commandeered one of Damascus' squares and set up a strike tent in the middle of it. Their respect conquered their resentment at what the Lebanese had done, and they encouraged university students to come and write messages and sign the huge boards they had set up under the gaze of television cameras.
Then, to make sure they'd left nothing unimitated they copied the idea of the Lebanese opposition they so despise, and started wearing shawls across their shoulders. They even had a Syrian gentlemen moving through the crowd and distributing such shoulder-wear to demonstrators.
They couldn't even manage to use the beginning of their own national anthem ("Syria, my sweetheart") as a slogan, they had to use the Lebanese national anthem. They couldn't think of anything for themselves. They made no attempt to distinguish themselves from the Lebanese. And why? Not because it was a conscious attempt to imitate them and not because the Syrian regime, with the downfall of the Soviet and Saddamist models of state, has exhausted its ability to renew itself. It is more likely that it stems from a deep-rooted Syrian conviction that Syria and Lebanon are one. Lebanon is not a different country or a separate people but a jealously guarded lover. What is Lebanon's is Syria's.
(hat tip: Sandmonkey, Arabist.net)