by Ramah Kudaimi
The uprisings which have taken place across the Arab region have prompted many to ask what role Arab Americans can- or should- play in supporting those demanding the fall of their authoritarian regimes. In particular Syrian Americans are the latest group trying to figure out how they should organize to help those who are risking their lives across Syria. The interplay among Syrian Americans serves as an example of how diasporic communities may organize along differing approaches. Some people
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Efforts by the Syrian American community have focused on: (a) raising awareness by calling for more media attention on what is happening in Syria; (b) pushing for the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the regime; and (c) working towards getting Bashar al-Assad indicted in the International Criminal Court for war crimes. There has also been a humanitarian effort to help Syrian refugees in Turkey.
While these steps may seem small in the face of continuing massacres by regime forces, there also needs to be a realization that due to the actions of the United States, especially these past ten years, there is little the American government or international community can be expected to do on behalf of Syrians.
Some pundits have been making the rounds arguing that the United States needs to take a more aggressive approach to Syria and it is time to help force Assad out just like is happening in Libya with Muammer Gaddafi. Others, particularly those from the AIPAC think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have pushed that this is an opportunity to break the Syria-Hizbullah-Iran alliance. This type of analysis either ignores the fact that no one in Syria has been calling for US intervention or seeks to promote its own agenda which has no interest in realizing the rights of Syrians but rather in strengthening the position of Israel in the region by turning Syria into what Egypt was under Hosni Mubarak’s rule: an American puppet.
To truly help Syria, US foreign policy in general needs to be reformed. The United States has almost zero leverage with the Syrian regime due to various reasons. The inclusion of Syria in the axis of evil after 9/11; the 2003 Iraq invasion and subsequent threat of regime change in Damascus; and the continuing unconditional support for Israel all hinder the United States from having any ability to effect the actions of the government. These issues also keep the United States from being able to connect to the Syrian protesters themselves. The one thing the opposition agrees on is to avoid military intervention- which speaks to how deep the lack of trust in the United States and international community runs.
Even if the United States did have leverage over Syria, there is no guarantee that the administration would actually use it to support the people. To paint the macro-level picture of the MENA region, just take the examples of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen and you can predict what the United States would have actually done if it had a relationship with Syria. The protests in Egypt were greeted early on by quite ridiculous statements from the United States including Joe Biden claiming Hosni Mubarak is not a dictator and Hillary Clinton demanding restraint from both sides. In Bahrain the United States sat on the sidelines as Saudi Arabia sent in its troops and even claimed that it was “not an invasion.” The fact that the United States had relationships with all these governments did not stop the brutal repression of protesters as the United States once again chose to protect its supposed national interests vs. upholding its values. And let’s not forget that the United States had no problem cooperating with this same Syrian regime in its secret rendition and torture of Maher Arar or that Clinton back in March claimed many see al-Assad as “a reformer.”
Diasporic communities are in a unique position to exert influence both in their new and old homelands. The American reaction to the uprisings thus points to what the role of Syrians and other Arabs in the United States should be: to push for a change in foreign policy from one which is based on (a) buying oil, (b) selling weapons and (c) guaranteeing the supremacy of certain allies to one which is based on values of equality, justice and dignity. The biggest threat to the successful transformation of the region is not necessarily the regimes themselves but rather American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia who have already started promoting the counterrevolution through pushing to guarantee pro-Western policies in new governments or stopping the revolutionary spirit from reaching other countries.
Thus it is essential that we as Americans concerned with the MENA world work to change the mindset of our government which operates on the idea that national security depends on power and dominance instead of a mutual working relationship which promotes the values of equality, justice and dignity. There are many ways to do this but here are three initial ideas to consider:
1. The budget battle that we have witnessed symbolizes macro-level problems with current American priorities. Recommendations to slash benefits such as Social Security and Medicare are promoted yet there are virtually no suggestions that perhaps it is a bad idea that 60 percent of the proposed discretionary US budget is dedicated to the departments of defense, war, veterans affairs and nuclear weapons programs. Every minute the US government spends $2.1 million on the military. The United States sends the Israeli and Egyptian militaries more than $4 billion annually and has spent almost $800 billion on its Iraq War. You can check out how these billions could be spent otherwise and then use this information to get in contact with your elected representatives and demand that your tax dollars go towards building peace instead of waging war.
2. The atrocities committed by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to have a deep impact on millions even if the current administration has taken a “forget the past” attitude to the war crimes committed. About 15 percent of babies born in Fallujah have birth defects due to the use of depleted uranium and though supposedly the American presence in Iraq will end by the end of the year, there are at least 5,000 private mercenaries employed to protect US diplomats left there. In Afghanistan there are no actual plans for the future and the maternal and child mortality rates remain the same as they were in 2000. These realities have led a group of Americans to proclaim that come October 2011, they will partake in their own nonviolent resistance denouncing militarism and warmongering.
3. Many self-proclaimed analysts the past few months have done their utmost to relay that that these protests have nothing to do with Palestine/Israel and that dictators such as Mubarak were the ones flaming anti-Israel and anti-American sentiments. One cannot deny that the Palestinian cause has been used to gain support for regimes, but it is quite absurd to deny that Palestine is a central issue for most Arabs. Protests in solidarity with Palestinians, especially around the 43rd anniversary of the Nakba, have taken place across the region. The Egyptian Independent Union Federation recently rejected any normal relations with Israel. And the absolute fear many pro-Israel pundits have displayed now that Arabs will actually dictate their governments’ stances shows that they understand that if the decision is left to the people, the position of Israel in the region will be very different. The US-Israel relationship is the most blatant example of American hypocrisy and needs to be overhauled. Educate yourself on the work of organizations such as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation as well as the worldwide Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement and see how you can get involved.
While each country in the region has its own specific circumstances, all of us as American citizens should use this time to help all the Arabs- and anyone else seeking self-determination- risking their lives for a future free of oppression.
Ramah Kudaimi is a Master of Arts Candidate in Conflict Resolution at the Department of Government at Georgetown University. She may be reached at Rkudaimi@gmail.com. Tweet Ramah @ramahkudaimi.