06.03.2012 _____________________

The Arabic coffee was thick, bitter. Unsweetened. Brought to a foamy boil three times, then served steaming hot in tiny cups, foam on top, grounds on the bottom, the perfect antidote to the platters of sweet homemade desserts, filled with dates and walnuts, temptingly placed before us.

Armenian, Arabic and English filled the air, with an occasional French “bon mot” thrown in. We weren’t sitting in an 18th century Ottoman palace overlooking Aleppo’s Citadel; rather, we were happily gathered in a comfortable living room along New Hampshire’s Seacoast, overlooking a golf course, on Easter 2012.


I had been invited for dessert to join three generations of an Armenian family that had immigrated from Syria decades ago. Sittoo, the matriarch, hovered over us, seeing that we were well-fed and tended.

Making Arabic coffee (don’t ever call it “Turkish” in an Armenian home) takes skill, and making it was left to Sittoo. Grandchildren played in the front yard, coming in occasionally to hover around the coffee table and pick out thick chunks of rose-water flavored “lokum,” Turkish Delight, licking powdered sugar off their fingers after they finished off choice pieces.

The afternoon represented the Syria I remembered: the Syria where I played backgammon and smoked “nargile” on warm evenings sitting alongside the Barada River deep in the Damascus Oasis, where I visited Palmyra’s sprawling Greco-Roman ruins, and where I stayed in Aleppo’s Baron Hotel, where, from a balcony in Room 215, King Faisal, in 1920, declared the short-lived independence of the Arab Kingdom of Syria.

The Syria I knew wasn’t free, but there was freedom. The Syrians I knew embraced hospitality and beauty in their lives even as their government tried to insidiously impose itself on all aspects of their lives.

The Syrians I knew believed in Syria.

Syria today is neither independent nor free. Today, Syria is the besieged criminal fiefdom of President Bashar al-Assad and on the threshold of full-scale civil war. Daily, new horrors emerge, deaths are revealed, massacres are unearthed. The horrors of this war cannot be contained.

Today, no one believes in Syria.

Syria is ruled by a cabal of Alawites, an off-shoot of Shi’a Islam, who control Syria’s military, police and intelligence apparatus, as they have since Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970.

What to do? I don’t know, and that makes me very sad.

Syrians, after decades of al-Assad and Alawite rule, emboldened by the Arab Awakening, are today demanding basic human rights, social justice and freedom. We follow their tragedy in real time, through Tweets, texts and YouTube. We wring our hands as Syrians pay for their demands with blood and with the bodies of their children.

What to do? I don’t know, and that makes me very sad.

Last year we supported Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Bahraini protestors who fought for liberation. We watched when NATO successfully intervened in Libya and helped Libyans get rid of Kaddafi.

Now we watch Syria.

We want to believe it’s about human rights and freedom, but we need to acknowledge it’s also about politics and power. It’s about Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It’s about arms and oil and about Israel and Hizbullah. It’s about the United States.

Sometimes it’s about the Syrians. Sometimes the Syrians are pawns.

Arm the opposition? Who are they? No one knows for sure. Not President Obama. Not Putin. Not Romney, Not even al-Assad. I certainly don’t, and the opposition won’t tell us.

That worries me.

Be careful what you wish for.

Firstly, not all Syrians want al-Assad deposed. The Alawite rulers fear loss of power and retribution. The religiously moderate Sunni middle class fears both a loss of prosperity and increased Jihadist influences, and the 10 percent of Syrians who are Christian, knowing how the Christian community was disenfranchised and attacked in Iraq, fears the possibility of Syria being taken over by Islamists and Jihadists.

I don’t blame any of them for their fear.

We should listen to their voices; we should listen to their fear.

Better the enemy they know than the one they don’t know? The one we don’t know.

The voices that urge caution in arming the Syrian resistance fear that the opposition may be supported by Arab rulers who see an opportunity to replace a primarily secular regime in Damascus with a conservative Sunni Muslim regime β€” a counter to Shia dominated Iraq.

There is a real fear that it is Islamists and Jihadists that are a principal driving force of the Syrian resistance.

Be careful what you wish for.

For many Arab states, as well as for the United States and Israel, the fall of the Alawite, Iran-backed regime in Damascus would further isolate Tehran in the region and fracture a critical link between the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran. Perhaps that’s true, but would further isolating an already vulnerable Iran, at a time when we are in sensitive negotiations with them over their nuclear program, be in our security interests?

A historical note: During the Cold War the United States conspired with many Arab governments against local nationalists, intellectuals and secular leaders and helped oppressive dictators consolidate power. Mosques, as sanctuaries, became a refuge from both the United States and Arab despots, and it was in those mosques that a new political, militant Islam took root, finding resonance in disaffected and disenfranchised communities, phenomena that continue today.

Later, Professor Rashid Khalidi writes, “The Cold War was over, but its tragic sequels, its toxic debris, and its unexploded mines continued to cause great harm, in ways largely unrecognized in American discourse.”

Syria today, I believe, is part of that toxic debris.

Be careful what you wish for.

This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.