It seems that the events of the “Arab Spring” have continued into late summer. Most recently in the Middle East, political protests across Syria have invoked reactions by President Bashar Al-Assad, and have drawn his security forces into the fray and- along with the attention of the international press- the Syrian cause to the forefront of world news. In response to the protests and growing condemnations against Assad as a result of the escalating violence and death toll, Syrian Americans from as far as Texas, Boston, California, and New Jersey gathered today in the small town of Catasaqua, Pennsylvania in the Lehigh Valley. According to the Allentown Morning Call, the Lehigh Valley boasts the eighth largest Syrian population in the United States (approximately 3,403, the largest in any county in PA). The group is known as the Syrian Arab League of America and the majority, according to member Aghnatous Shetayh, are Christian (roughly 97-98% were his estimates; these are debatable). They have come together to discuss the situation, to assure the public of their continued support for their president and to simultaneously stress that they are Syrian-American (some emphasizing the latter over the former, and some vice versa) and that they love America, too.
According to the Morning Call, a previous rally in Allentown in March 2011 had the same objective- to show that even here in America, the president is still “well-liked” and that “news reports have exaggerated the severity of the situation.” A counter-protest that followed in June pitted both sides- anti- and pro-Assad- against one another, some citing the 1982 Hama Massacre perpetrated by his father Hafez Al-Assad and calling for a stop to the killings, others shouting support for the president “along with yells of ‘We love USA.'” Things really heated up then; someone even got stabbed.
Luckily, no one was stabbed today (or at least, hadn’t been up until the time we left). The rally began with the speakers welcoming everyone- “ahlan wa sahlan“- followed by the seventy or so members in attendance standing and singing the Syrian National Anthem. Various speeches, chants, and pro-Assad rhetoric ensued (most of the speeches were in fussha Arabic, but every time President Assad’s name was mentioned, cheering and clapping directly followed.)
Why support Assad? Many, in the face of the threat of a growing Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic fanaticism in the region, give the reason: “At least he is secular.” (This to me seems to be the prevailing opinion and reasoning behind many of the Syrian-Americans’ support.) From a May 2011 article in The Atlantic: to countries like the United States and Israel, “Assad may be an implacable foe, but he is better than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.” However, fanatic Muslim groups are not the only ones out there protesting; there are secular opposition groups who focus mostly on human rights issues and have a “clear picture” of Syria’s future without Assad. I’m not exactly sure what that future could look like for certain minority groups in Syria, especially for the Alawite sect (to which Assad belongs) who would have little or no political protection should the Sunni majority come to power.
If Assad is overthrown, is the dream of Syrian unity possible? Or will be simply have another Iraq on our hands, a country imploded by a pre-emptive attack and the forcible removal of its iron-fisted dictator, Saddam Hussein. One could argue that sure, he was a monster and a murderer, but he was also Machavellian in the sense that at the very least he kept the country together. Is that just what it takes to rule in the Middle East? Are we being naive (think 1980s Lebanon) about what we as a foreign power can actually accomplish in these countries with our dicta, our troops and our economic sanctions? Or is it our moral imperative to try anyway?
All in all, the majority of these Syrian-Americans seem to support Assad. They were also very concerned to know what I and my reporter friend would write and publish in the media about what happened during their rally, and were disappointed to hear that her story along with its reporting from today had to include information from AP and Reuters reports of the casualties inflicted abroad. Perhaps the numbers are exaggerated; perhaps not. I’ve never been to Syria (certainly not recently), and can’t judge the situation for myself; they have family over there who claim that life is normal and that things have been blown out of proportion. From living in the West Bank it is easy to identify with this, how small things over there echo into big news over here (and of course sometimes it’s the other way around- big things over there will hardly get coverage here). Yet such events cannot be totally ignored. They are like dominoes: one thing- one death, one protest- leads to another; one falls, and the others follow. The coming months will prove whether this paradigm applies to Assad’s regime, whose domino tile is lined up directly behind Ben Ali’s, Mubarak’s and Gaddafi’s.