Lee Smith

Open letter to the Syrian opposition

Hafez al-Assad greets supporters in Damascus, in a photo taken in the late 1980s

As you may have already read, last week four US Senators introduced a bill to block any military aid to your colleagues fighting on the ground in Syria. The bill was sponsored by two Democrats and two Republicans, which is to say that the general sentiment – to leave you on your own in the field – has bipartisan support in Washington, DC.


It’s true that, on the other hand, there is some bipartisan backing for your cause, but the reality is that arming your sons, husbands, and brothers is not popular with the American public, neither with the right, nor the left. Americans are tired of the Middle East, frustrated by it – also, frankly, we’re angry.


Over the last decade, the United States has brought down or helped to bring down four Arab dictators, and with little to show for it. For spending trillions of dollars to topple Saddam, you’d think that instead of conspiracy theories imputing the worst motives to us, we might have earned some gratitude in the region. Gratitude at least for the sacrifices made by our family and friends in uniform, the thousands dead, the tens of thousands wounded, so that Iraqis can vote in free and fair elections and live without fear of being dragged off by Saddam’s security forces to be tortured, raped, and murdered.


We also helped bring down Qaddafi, which didn’t stop Libyan Islamists from killing our ambassador there and three other Americans. In Egypt, the White House called for Hosni Mubarak to step down, which left a vacuum that Egyptian voters filled in their freest elections ever by choosing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists with an explicitly anti-American agenda. Compared to these three outcomes, Tunisia, where we encouraged Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to leave, is an American success story – so far.


It’s not difficult to see then why there’s not much public US support for your cause. Polls show that about 25 percent of Americans believe the US should intervene in Syria. However, these polls are slightly misleading insofar as Americans do not ever favor foreign interventions. Because American citizens do not need to plunder foreign peoples to feed ourselves or furnish our homes, the public will never lead the charge for foreign intervention, not in Syria, not anywhere. It is the role of the president of the United States to explain to the public why there are sound strategic and humanitarian reasons to back your comrades, bring down Assad and advance the national interest of the United States. The fact that Obama’s aides and supporters excuse his inaction with poll numbers is just another symptom of the president’s failure as a leader.


You, too, have a leadership problem. I’m not referring to your military leadership, the various rebel commanders on the ground and their apparently often contentious relations with each other. Nor do I mean your political leadership, the fragmented nature of which the Obama administration has often, and cynically, pointed to as one of the reasons it won’t back the opposition. No, I’m talking about the intellectual leadership. I’m talking about you. I’m referring to your silence. I want to know where you were the last 40 years.


The world is astonished by your sacrifices, your courage and your strength in your struggle against Assad. But the regime in Damascus that is now at work slaughtering your loved ones has employed the same means against your neighbors and others for 40 years. You overcame your fears of Assad’s depredations when they came for you, but when it was others that the regime targeted for death, you said nothing. Or did you approve of it?


The regime waged acts of terror for 40 years against every country on your borders – Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Israel – other regional states, and us, against our family and friends. During the Iraq war, Assad turned your capital’s airport into a transit hub for foreign militants who sought to kill American troops fighting against extremists – Sunni and Shiite – so that Iraqis might have a better life. What did you tell yourselves when it was our sons and daughters who were put through Assad’s meat grinder?


What about regime atrocities against Arabs and Muslims? What did you tell yourselves when the Assad regime occupied Lebanon for 29 years? When it buried Lebanese in mass graves like the ones his son has dug for your sons? And the thousands of Lebanese the regime disappeared during the years of war and occupation as it has disappeared your brothers during your rebellion? What about the car bombs Assad dispatched to Baghdad over the last decade destined to murder Iraqis? What about the Turks killed by the PKK, yet another terrorist group supported by the Assads? What about the Palestinians slaughtered by other Palestinian factions that the regime supported? Where were you when the Hamas fighters that Assad backed threw their Fatah brothers off roofs in Gaza? Was your humanity awakened to the suffering of others, or was it only when they came for you that your conscience was stirred?


Hezbollah now besieges your cities and countryside – the Party of Satan, you call them now. But what about before Qusayr? What about thirty years ago when Hezbollah bombed the American embassy in Beirut, and then the US Marine barracks, killing 241 American marines, sailors and soldiers on a peace-keeping mission. Back then did you think Hezbollah was a gang of butchers? What about when Hezbollah turned the “pure” arms of the resistance against other Lebanese as it laid siege to Beirut and the Chouf mountains in 2008? What about when the Special Tribunal for Lebanon accused a Hezbollah assassination squad of killing Rafiq Hariri in 2005? Did any of this figure in your estimation of Hezbollah, or the support that Assad gave the party?


I know what you said when Hezbollah dragged Lebanon to war in the summer of 2006, costing your neighbor billions of dollars worth of damage, as well as thousands of lives. I was in Damascus the second week of the war and watched you celebrate Hezbollah’s war against the Zionists, and Assad’s supporting role, too. If they were fighting the Jews, you believed, they were in the right. You were played for fools. For 40 years the regime sold you on the notion that the great enemy was the Zionist entity, which permitted the Assads to rule and kept the Syrian state unified. But the reason you cannot live together now in peace, the reason Syria is at war, is because you were held together by hatred of someone else, Israel, the Jews.


Have you not noticed yet that it all hangs on the same thread? The hateful language the regime used about Israelis, Jews, is the same extermination-ist rhetoric driving their war against Sunnis, against you. You, says Assad, are “foreign terrorists.” The Jews, said the regime, are a colonialist export, foreign to the region. They must be destroyed, driven into the sea, exterminated – the same plans he now has in store for you. Assad’s war against you shows that the Arab war against Israel is simply another aspect of a regional dynamic – the inability to accept and live with the other, whether they are Sunnis, Alawites, Shiite, Druze, Christians, Jews, or for that matter Americans.


We need an account from you, especially those of us, like me, who support your cause. If we hesitate to say we are your friends, it is because we do not know who you are, where you are going, or where you have been for the last 40 years, when the regime that now hunts you like animals was killing all the rest of us.


Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.


Read this article in Arabic

Hafez al-Assad greets supporters in Damascus, in a photo taken in the late 1980s. (Image via AFP)

"You overcame your fears of Assad’s depredations when they came for you, but when it was others that the regime targeted for death, you said nothing. Or did you approve of it?"

  • GOTC

    Hanibaal, You make some very good points, but we Lebanese have only ourselves to blame. I don't harbor bitterness towards the American people especially since their Marines were sacrificed in a conflict that was a result of Lebanese siding with the PLO against their fellow countrymen. I live in America and don't know a single American who cheered the destruction of Lebanon. A large portion of Lebanese were willing collaborators with Syria all of those years. Even the Chamouns and Gemayels collaborated with Syria in the mid 1970s. There haven't been many statesmen in Lebanese history outside of Abu Arz who truly put Lebanon first.

    July 3, 2013

  • JamesKeane

    So disillusioned! Mr Smith, you didn't seem to mention that hours after the Libyan Ambassador was killed, ALL of Benghazi took to the streets and kicked the Islamist perpetrators out of the city and burned their HQ! On Iraq, the US opened up the Pandora box of hell and all daemons were let loose. I HIGHLY doubt the Iraqis needed to get rid of Saddam that way. Perhaps if the US didn't intervene, and I'm convinced they did so out of neo-con illusions of a new Middle East, Iraq would have liberated itself like others in the region are doing as part of the Arab Spring. On Egypt, the Americans were very slow to respond and only opposed Mubarak when the MB gave the US administration all typed of assurances of the new Egypt to follow, in fact the Americans got a great deal out of it. The United States, through decades of post-imperialism, globalist ambitions and corporate savagery has in fact polluted the Middle East and is in a moral obligation to save the civilians from the very monsters they created. Go learn a bit of history before you make such preposterous claims Mr Smith!

    July 2, 2013

  • Beiruti

    As an American Lebanese, I could not agree more with Lee Smith in the questions asked of the Syrian people. Where were they when the regime that now is devouring them, was devouring us. If the contagion of this regime had been stopped earlier, maybe you would have been spared. My only problem with Smith's argument is that despite the apathy of the Syrian people in the past that has allowed the twin cancers of the Assad Regime and Hezbollah to metastazize, tf the regime succeeds now, with the active aid of Hezbollah, in the extermination of all domestic critics and enemies, God help the rest of the regime from what will be a rogue regime on steroids. The problem is now no longer a domestic problem for Syrians, because they did not tend to their business and allowed a national problem to fester into a regional problem, shall the international community also stand by and allow a regional problem to become an international one?

    July 1, 2013

  • benad36

    As soon as a westerner is killed, their is outrage. Nobody in the US could point to Benghazi on a map, when Gaddafi brought in African mercenaries to slaughter them in the hundreds. They knew about it (especially in right-wing circles) like clockwork, as soon as a white man in a suit was killed by a minority of extremists, who they went on to portray as representing the whole population (and thus used this narrow-minded point of view in arguments to justify why we shouldn't have helped the Libyans), despite the fact that the local population chased the responsible militia out of Benghazi. But that barely got into the media coverage at all. You seem to homogenize Arab countries and Arab peoples as all one body, hell-bent on hating America, and worthy of your arrogant, patronising, self-entitled whinging. To fail to take into account the different Arab states' cultures, languages, mentalities, religions, etc and homogenize them as a like-minded mass is the height of ignorance. Why is NOW Lebanon giving a platform to this drivel?!

    July 1, 2013

  • benad36

    " I want to know where you were the last 40 years." - Being tortured, killed, murdered, and driven into exile, you troglodyte homunculus. This sums up western entitlement in a nutshell. 'Fair enough, your struggle is heroic and all that... BUT then, a minority of extremists from a totally different country altogether killed the US ambassador, and you chose to remain silent under a genocidal dictatorship - meaning I can't bring myself to support you in any way, shape, or form. Sorry!'

    July 1, 2013

  • benad36

    (...)'You should have been happy that we brought down the only leader who actually helped the Palestinians, caused millions of Iraqi people to die, and destroyed a recovering Middle Eastern nation, instead you (referring to all Syrians as a homogeneous mass, despite the fact that he had moved on to talking about Libya) killed our ambassador, blah blah terrorism, etc...' But this has to be the most insulting part of all: "I’m talking about you. I’m referring to your silence. I want to know where you were the last 40 years. The world is astonished by your sacrifices, your courage and your strength in your struggle against Assad. But the regime in Damascus that is now at work slaughtering your loved ones has employed the same means against your neighbors and others for 40 years. You overcame your fears of Assad’s depredations when they came for you, but when it was others that the regime targeted for death, you said nothing. Or did you approve of it?" Maybe that's due to the fact that any grassroots opposition was shot, beaten, bombed, gassed, intimidated and bribed into the ground for around half a century, and society was strangled by a huge network of spies? Does he really think prominent people and normal Syrians would be able to raise their voices against such a regime, while they were under it? REALLY? He takes silence and fear as complicity?! People remained silent under the Assad family tyranny (until they found their voices in 2011) to save their own lives, and their family's. Is that a crime in his eyes? They chose to stay silent, fearing for their own lives, instead of speaking out against the deaths of US soldiers which they barely knew?!

    July 1, 2013

  • j26

    This 'American supporter of the Syrian opposition' happens to be a well-established neoconservative. A long-time advocate for the Israeli lobby who has made a career attacking the voices of those who challenge America's unconditional, uncritical support for the state of Israel. A support that is only possible because of outdated US laws governing campaign financing and lobbying of lawmakers which have corrupted the democratic process by giving huge advantages to wealthy elites and corporations in creating policy. In considering his views it's important to keep this role he makes a living playing in mind. Now Lebanon should fully disclose context when giving platforms to contributors.

    July 1, 2013

  • Tim Lebanese

    Continued: I started reading about the massacres Assad have done in his country to suppress an uprising. I read about how he ousted his brother for his, I started reading more into the incidents and how they were all used to control the public. How many of the rallies you saw on TV supporting Hizbullah or denouncing Israel or whatever the government wanted them to were organized by the regime with paid individuals setting the show. You don’t have to believe what I said, far from it. Try to meet some Syrians who have lived during the regime reign, take them aside and ask them privately off the record (they will still fear the regime hurting their families at home), and you will be told the horrors I mentioned and much more. It took insane courage for the Syrian people to stand up to this regime, courage that I asked my self many times if I would’ve been able to muster and shamefully I would say no I wouldn’t have been able to. The idea that not only am I risking my life, but risking the life of my family and loved one is beyond my ability to control. For the past 40 years Lee these people have been oppressed beyond any imaginable way. It took the courage beyond mankind for them to fight for their freedom and if they can’t get your support, they certainly deserve all the respect and recognition anyone could possibly have.

    July 1, 2013

  • Tim Lebanese

    Lee; I hope you get to read this message. I must say I agree with most of your comments and I sympathize. I understand your hesitance and your questions and where they are coming from and for that I have a long-winded answer I hope you spend some time reading it, understanding it, perhaps you won't believe it at first, but eventually with enough research you will come around to it. As a young Lebanese, I've been told the horrors of the Syrian regime. I've been told of the way Assad oppressed the population and controlled them tightly, I was told of spies embedded deep in the Syrian society that you are afraid that the walls will tell on you speaking badly about the government even saying a joke about them. It would sent you to one of the detention centers that will make you plead for your death. I had the opportunity to meet someone who was released and listened to the tails of horror. Prior to Bashar's reign his father had imposed an iron fist military law on the population, where curfew is common after 8pm and a gathering of more than 5 people is forbidden. Intellectuals were kept under close surveillance. Your mistake of speaking out against the regime won't be something you only paid for your self, your family, your friends WILL pay for it as well. The fear that was enthused by this regime went under your skin. On the other side of this regime was the most complex and devious propaganda machine, continuously feeding the public the hate of the western world, how the western world wants to take advantage of you, and your only protector is your president. You believe the western world is a monster waiting for the opportunity to tackle you and violate your way of living. It's insane, for the longest time of my life I even believed it, perhaps I didn't believe of the existence of the monster that is the west, but I believed that Assad is not the worst that it can be. The murder of Hariri and the research I have done afterword to be honest blew my mind.

    July 1, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Thank you, Mr. Smith. Your thoughts and feelings are exactly mine. The only thing I would add to your lament is: WHERE WERE THE AMERICAN PEOPLE WHEN EVERY SUCCESSIVE US ADMINISTRATION SINCE 1976 CALLED THE SYRIAN OCCUPATION OF LEBANON A "FACTOR OF STABILITY"? Where were the American people when Ronald Reagan packed what was left of his marines in Beirut and fled like a coward in the face of Assad's and Hezbollah's onslaught? Where were the American people when they believed every lie said about Lebanon to justify the US-Israeli-Syrian-Saudi collusion to maintain Lebanon - and only Lebanon - as the active war front against Israel, while both Syrians and Israelis enjoyed 40 long years of peace and tranquility on the Golan? I lived through many years of Lebanon's torment under the Baathist occupation and everyone, includuing the Americans, cheered the destruction of Lebanon. Not once did the Syrian or the American people express any solidarity with the Lebanese people. Instead, we - the victims - were blamed by everyone else. While I agree wholeheartedly with your reproach to the Syrian people, there is as much reproach to be thrown around at the Americans for having sold Lebanon - since Kissinger - to Syria just to keep peace between Syria and Israel. I do not subscribe to the hatred of Jews and Israelis that the Syrian regime has cultivated in Syria, but I know that hatred of Arabs is as endemic to the marrow of every American than hatred of Jews is endemic to Arabs and MuslimsI do not want to see another US intervention anywhere in the Middle East, but it is for a whole different set of reasons than those you expound on. I don;t want to see, two, three or four generations from now, another people wondering why they trusted the Americans only to see themselves stabbed in the back because of some higher US national interests.

    July 1, 2013

  • Vlad Tepes

    This is really funny. What a card you are. You believe the US has been doing all of this for some altruistic purpose or for promotion of Democratic values. Sir, you must be mad. Everything the US has done has been to further it's own interests or that of Israel's. Giving weapons to Saddam, to the Taliban, to Mujahideen, whatever, has never been a case of toppling a blood thirsty dictator. It has always been to topple a dictator who goes against their own interests and to have more influence than Russia. It's pretty sad that so many people can't see that. Get real bub. Assad is only a problem because he is in cahoots with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. All enemies of Israel and the West. They would gladly arm another Saddam to push out Assad just so they have more say so and more control over oil. I don't see them doing much or worrying about the Muslim Brotherhood. Matter of fact, they have sent them tanks and weapons, and even more funding. Funny isn't it. They control them and both sides know it. All the MB can do is posture. Sir, you are mad.

    July 1, 2013