The Arab World’s American Savior Complex
The Middle East may be cheering Trump’s Syria strike today, but they’ll be cursing his name the next.
Whenever I’m pondering the Middle East’s love-hate relationship with America, I flick through the pages of a book I discovered recently. In the wake of President Donald Trump’s recent military strike against Syria and the avalanche of conflicted reactions it provoked in the Middle East — from jubilation to fear to anger — I picked up the short work again.
In the preface, the author writes, “I have made my plea to America to undertake the reconstruction of Syria,” explaining that the purpose of his brief volume “is not to give an exhaustive treatment of its subject but to voice the desire of an oppressed people for deliverance. It is a brief expression of the ardent hope that America will heed the call of the oppressed as well as that of her greater destiny and go to the rescue of the Near East.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking this was written as a call to either Barack Obama or Donald Trump to intercede in the six-year-long Syrian conflict on the side of the rebels in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Except for the words “Near East,” which are not commonly used anymore. Or, of course, the reference, in another paragraph, to the “Asiatic Turkish provinces” and the call to be saved from “Turkish misrule” and “European complications.”
Indeed, America Save the Near East is a strange little book, written in 1918 by Abraham Mitrie Rihbany, a theologian and political writer who immigrated to the United States in 1891. Rihbany was originally from the town of Shweir in present-day Lebanon, which was back then part of Greater Syria and the Ottoman Empire.
His book seems to encapsulate the hopes pinned on America by a region where so many can’t seem to give up on the Land of Opportunity. Although written during the horrors of World War I, which brought a devastating famine to the region, it is a reminder of more innocent times, both for the United States and its relationship with the Arab world.
That was before the United States actually got involved in the Middle East, before the creation of Israel, and before American support for both Israel and strongmen across the Arab world. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2009, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, said: “We used to love America in the region in the ’40s. [President Woodrow] Wilson’s principles of [national self-determination] represent freedom facing a Europe that was colonizing us.” Fadlallah, who was Lebanon’s most influential Shiite cleric and the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, points to America’s unwavering support for Israel as a turning point in how Arabs look to the United States.
And yet hope springs eternal. Even today, as I write this from Beirut, the Syrian opposition and the rebel groups just across the border have been cheering America’s military strike, heartened by the 59 Tomahawks and hoping that the United States will now help save them from Assad.
On social media, Trump has earned the affectionate nom de guerre of Abu Ivanka el Amriki, Father of Ivanka the American, as a sign of gratitude for taking on the Syrian president and perhaps a nod to his daughter who reportedly pressed him to do something about Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Kinda Kanbar, a journalist in the United States and Syrian opposition supporter, wrote on her Facebook wall that if Assad falls during Trump’s time in office, Syrians should name a square after the American president in her Syrian hometown of Deraa, where the Syrian uprising started in March 2011. She makes a comparison to Kosovo, where a statue of former President Bill Clinton was erected in recognition of his intervention during the Balkan war that brought down Slobodan Milosevic.
America has learned few lessons from repeated failures and dire consequences of its interventions, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Latin America, but those in the region who look to the United States for salvation have short memories, too. When I asked a senior Obama administration official why they weren’t heeding calls for more forceful involvement in Syria, he looked at me puzzled: “Name me one successful American military intervention after World War II?”
But in their Twitter posts, Facebook updates, and published articles, those who oppose Assad and his allies Iran and Hezbollah — in Syria but also in neighboring Lebanon, which Syria occupied for 30 years — were jubilant and relieved. For six years, the opposition has been waiting for this moment as various Syrian opposition leaders, civil society activists, and their supporters in the United States pleaded with the Obama administration to be more forceful in its deterrence of Assad and more generous with weaponry for the rebels.
Despite some hope that the new administration’s anti-Iran stance would have an impact on the Syrian conflict, by January, exhausted and disillusioned with a feckless Washington, the anti-Assad camp did not expect the Syrian leader’s recent winning streak on the battlefield to be put on pause by a president who’d also banned Syrian refugees from entering America.
The real effect of the strike and the follow-up strategy are still unclear, and those cheering the Tomahawks are only too aware of that. But this was not just another American military strike against an Arab country. Trump did something no other Western leader has ever done: use force against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria since 1971 with cunning and brutality. Aside from one, brief cross-border strike into Syria by U.S. forces in Iraq targeting al Qaeda militants in 2008, and various ineffectual sanctions, the Assads have mostly eschewed paying a price for the use of force against their own people; their support for militant organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; or their alleged connections to various violent incidents, including a car bomb in Paris in 1982 and a string of assassinations in Lebanon.
Syrians who have lived under Assad’s oppressive rule and Lebanese who have lived under Syrian occupation had long tried to convince American officials that the only language the Assads understood was the threat or use of force. When Turkish tanks seemed poised to roll into Syria in 1998, after a war of words over Syria’s support for Kurdish separatists, Hafez al-Assad did what no one expected him to do: He backed down.
Trump may not intend to unseat Assad. And, yes, both Trump and his predecessor have sought to disentangle the United States from a messy region. And sure, Russia thought it could supplant American influence there. But for now, Washington remains key because its influences are deeply embedded in the alliances and architecture of the wider Middle East — for good and ill.
So while people resent America for its support of strongmen like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and now Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi or its willingness to overlook human rights abuses in Bahrain, they also know that, perversely, only America has the power to alter those dynamics in favor of more freedom. Indeed, the United States is simultaneously the indirect oppressor and the savior, a dynamic that sustains a conflicted love-hate relationship.
In late February 2011, as the Libyan uprising was underway and Muammar al-Qaddafi threatened to hunt down his opponents alley by alley, I was struck by a feverish imploration, carried live on CNN, by a woman speaking from Tripoli in broken English: “Please help us, Mr. Obama, please help us!” How could this be, in a region where just seven years earlier, the United States had been criticized, resented, and attacked for invading and botching the occupation of Iraq?
In late August 2013, I was en route from Washington to Beirut when Assad crossed Obama’s chemical weapons red line and the drums of war were rolling. The Syrian opposition and armed rebels were hopeful that Assad’s hour had finally come. In Lebanon, the initial reaction in the anti-Assad camp was also positive. But as Obama prevaricated and consulted Congress, and as headlines turned from retribution to the shuttering of Lebanese airspace and ports, even some of those who had been actively advocating for strikes against Syria were seized by dread.
When the strikes were called off and the chemical weapons deal was announced, much of the Syrian opposition — the rebels but also the civilians being shelled by government planes — was overwhelmed by a deep feeling of abandonment, a realization that they were truly on their own. Some described it to me like a rip in their heart. The chemical weapons deal did nothing to stop death from the sky as barrel bombs and other munitions continued to rain on civilian populations. In a conversation a year later with a Lebanese Sunni, Western-educated, progressive politician, I was surprised to hear the vehemence with which he decried how Obama had abandoned the Syrians to their fate. The United States and the West, he said, should never again speak of their role as defenders of freedom and democracy.
So has that now been restored, with Trump’s strikes? He certainly acted quickly enough that there was no buildup of angst, despite the whiplash of a policy reversal on getting involved in Syria. But if you read the newspapers and listen to the television commentary, it’s clear that no one is under any illusion about Trump’s motivations. What the Syrian opposition wants is to leverage his willingness to strike to their advantage. Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, wrote that the strikes were “a major first step to end the chaos and lay the foundation for a peace process in Geneva.”
But there’s a new layer added to the complex codependency with America because of the nature of Trump’s presidency. I found confusion alongside the jubilation. People are torn. Are we really cheering a sexual predator who banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States? Can we celebrate the wrong man doing the right thing after a good man refused to do so?
And then there’s the deeply conflicted relationship with American military force.
Kodmani acknowledges that while the strike could help set the stage for peace talks, watching her own country be a target of American missiles wasn’t easy. In a powerful article in the Wall Street Journal, Kassem Eid, a survivor of the 2013 gas attacks, wrote that “Trump has given my people hope” and asked important questions: Where were the throngs of Americans who had protested against Trump’s travel ban on refugees? Why did they not mass outside the White House to demand that Trump stand up to Assad’s use of chemical weapons? “If Americans truly care, they can help remove Syria’s tyrant,” he wrote, echoing Rihbany’s 1918 book.
The answers to his questions lie partly in the American Left’s ambivalence or outright rejection of the use of force, even when it comes to the so-called responsibility to protect.
In this codependent relationship it’s hard to find a steady middle ground. What Obama didn’t understand was that by the time he had come to power, the region had stopped seething from the Iraq invasion. By the time Assad started killing peaceful protesters, the region had come full circle and bemoaned his unwillingness to intervene.
What Trump needs to understand is the lesson George W. Bush learned standing at a podium in Iraq, next to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in December 2008: The liberator celebrated one day can have a shoe thrown at his head the next.
What might help Trump deal with the yo-yo of emotions America stirs up in the Middle East is that he’s as emotive and reactive as we are. Just last month, he cared little about the plight of civilians dying under Syrian government and Russian shelling. Now he calls Assad an animal and talks about the “beautiful babies” who died in Khan Sheikhoun.
Today, some people in the Arab world are cheering him. He shouldn’t be surprised then if tomorrow the same people are cursing his name.
Photo credit: Muhannad Fala’ah/Getty Images