Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hope and Change

President Obama's speech to the Arab world on Thursday June 4 marked the start of two weeks of busy geopolitical events in the region. And like everyone else in the Middle East, Syrians are political news junkies to the core. The funny bit is that unlike their peers in Egypt and Israel, who from my experience will loudly and fiercely debate the merits of any political decision, Syrians are hesitant to share their opinions on the news. A Syrian friend explained to me that the hesitation is a holdover from the tight reins that the late President Hafez al'Assad maintained over the country. No one has quite the same fear of his son and successor, President Basher al'Assad, though the anticipation in 2001 of a Damascus Spring has chilled into what looks to be a long winter.

The irony of Syrian reticence to talk politics is that their country is probably the Arab state most affected by the political events this June. If Obama's desire to unclench the fists of America's opponents in the Arab world is to bear fruit, the harvest will necessarily take place in Damascus. And the ramifications of the elections in Lebanon and Iran have strong implications for the country that considers the former its territory and the latter its closest ally.

Obama's Thursday morning speech from Cairo University was replayed on all the Arab channels in primetime. Most locals I spoke to had caught some if not all of the president’s remarks. But they did not seem to give the speech much thought. Syrians remain cautiously optimistic of Obama, though the Arab street is deeply skeptical by nature and remains unconvinced that anything but actions will signal a new direction in American policy in the region.

Obama’s decision to locate the speech in Cairo did elicit comment from many Syrians. Like my chess opponent in the mukhabarat, many Syrians voiced envy that Damascus had lost out in the location of the speech to its perennial opponent for leadership of the Arab world. Although Syrians recognize that the idea of Obama speaking in, let alone visiting, Damascus remains a pipe dream in the near future, they were not ready to concede that the decision to locate the speech in Cairo says much about the political bedfellows that the Alawite regime has chosen to align itself with in the region. As I told a Syrian friend, as long as Syria is tied up with Iran, Hezbollah and perhaps the radical Palestinian groups, America will find it difficult to make much progress with Damascus.

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