Syria & America exchange
messages as both peoples
breathe more easily… for now

Franklin Lamb
Veterans Today
September 2, 2013


Damascus – The morning following President Obama’s announcement
he would not bomb Syria immediately, the streets of Damascus were packed
with shoppers and employees heading to their jobs. Several reasons for this
were mentioned by my friend, Eyman. Some Damascenes who had fled their
homes last week had returned, and a palpable sense of at least temporary
relief pervades much of this capital city. It is also the first of the month.
In Syria, government and other employees have just received their monthly
paychecks and need to stock up on food, particularly now, upon entering
this most uncertain month.

Adding to the uncertainty are people’s plans for the immediate future. Many
of those who fled and returned following Obama’s deferral to Congress, are
planning to leave again before next weekend’s possible attack. Others, due
to conditions for refugees they discovered in Lebanon, have decided to stay,
essentially playing a game of Russian roulette with death as they await
their fates in their beloved Syria.

At any rate, in Damascus this morning citizens can be seen scurrying to
workplaces, feeling safe enough, at least for now, to go grocery shopping
and do errands. Even the gunmen who man electronic ‘frisking” equipment
just outside my hotel, and who search all wishing to enter, seem genuinely
relieved, happy and unusually friendly, as do the army troops on downtown
Damascus streets. Friends in Damascus, both in government and private
citizens, talk of an “uncertain relief” since last Sunday night, though it
is a relief combined with an awareness that a terrible event of some sort
may be on the way. Still others, aware of what seems to be increasing
opposition to military action amongst the American public, think the attack
may be delayed again.

Perhaps most surprisingly, local news outlets are reporting this morning on
the results of a new poll showing that 60 percent of the Syrian people think
the US will not attack at all. As for the Syrian government, it has been
nearly mute internationally, not wanting to provoke the White House, while
at the same time assuring the public here that Syria can face all challenges
and that history and God are with its people. The weather here has changed
since my visit last month. While the days will stay oppressively hot for
another month, the early mornings have turned cool with refreshing soft
breezes. Doves and pigeons in the park opposite the National Museum on
Beirut Street coo and enjoy the large green space next to the Four Seasons
Hotel, the same hotel which the UN CW investigators just vacated as they
prepare their report for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Given that an American attack, should one occur, may well open the gates of
hell, this observer is constantly amazed by the mundane, everyday things
one is still able to observe around here. For example, last Friday afternoon I
watched transfixed from a park bench as two public works employees
weeded a few errant dandelions and weeds that had dared invade a beautiful
manicured garden-park in downtown Damascus. This struck me as a bit
bizarre, given the then widely-held belief that a US missile blitz might light
up Damascus that very evening. On the scale of things these days, I doubted
that a few weeds sprouting in a city park were of great import. Or were
they? Perhaps carrying out one’s individual duty and work assignment these
days is a wholly interconnected part of the nation’s overall resistance to
foreign invasions, and is congruent somehow to what seems to be a
pervading attitude–of people wanting to carry on with, or at least simulate,
their pre-crisis lives and routines, their accustomed simple pleasures. And
so maybe weeding gardens in Damascus makes perfect sense these days.

A Palestinian family from Latakia refugee camp up north who had fled their
homes last December, joining thousands who have come to Damascus
seeking safety, were visiting with me this morning. When I asked how their
beautiful three and five year old children were adjusting to  the crisis
atmosphere in their new surroundings, the mother replied, “When the
bombing started over a year ago the children could not sleep well because
they were frightened by the loud noise. But over time they got used to it and
slept fine. But last night they could not sleep because there was no shelling
and it was too quiet for them. So what are we to do?” And she laughed.

It is true that there was no shelling and bombing here in Damascus during
the night of Sunday, September 1, which the lady was referring to. And this
fact is significant. Informed sources report to this observer that the
government decision not to bomb the suburbs including East Gouta, which
normally occurs nightly, was taken at the highest level in order to send a
reply message from Syria to America and personally to President Obama.
The latter’s speech, just hours earlier in Washington, contained several
messages for the leadership in Damascus. What the Syrian government was
signaling, some claim, was its willingness to join Tehran, Moscow and
Washington in finding a peaceful solution to Syria’s crisis, starting with
Geneva II.

Meanwhile, the ever-rising cost of living for Syria’s population, due in
large measure to the US-led economic sanctions, continues to devastate many
families here. Those sanctions are designed by the US Treasury Department’s
Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC), and they intentionally target
Syria’s civilian population in an effort to get the population to break with its
government, thereby facilitating the US goal of regime change in Syria and
Iran. This observer, with two student friends, yesterday visited a government
owned supermarket called “Marazaa Government Supermarket”–one of
approximately one hundred government-operated grocery stores in
central Damascus. We compared prices by also visiting  the privately owned
“Supermarket Day by Day” in the Sabah Bahar neighborhood, also in central
Damascus, and found that government-owned grocery stores average 5-15
percent lower prices, depending upon the item. The private grocery chains
tend to be frequented by those with more money and who might seek
European products and a wider product selection. Government stores, on
the other hand, sell only Syrian products.

Bread was being rationed last week in government bakeries. At least one such
bakery exists in every neighborhood, and a citizen is currently allowed to
purchase one plastic bag with 22 loaves per day. The government plastic bag
weighs three kilos (roughly 6.5 pounds) and sells for 50 Syrian lire or a
bit less than USD 25 cents. This quantity, I am advised by a supermarket
store manager, normally feeds a family of at least three for one day given
that the average bread staple consumption in Syria is three loaves per
person per day. Normally, even during this 30 month crisis, a citizen could
purchase as much as they desired from government stores, but the American
attack threat has caused yet more market complications in Syria for the
average citizens.

In private bakeries, severe inflation has hit, and just seven loaves of bread,
which would feed two persons for one day, now costs 150 lire or
approximately 75 cents. Despite the wide price differential (the government
shops have not raised their prices since the regime of Hafez al-Assad), many
people are shopping at the private shops because it can take five or more
hours waiting in line at the government bread shops. Before the onset of the
conflict now raging in Syria, the price of eggs was 125 lira (about 25 cents)
for 24 in a carton. Prior to the most recent crisis, the price was 500 lira (one
US dollar) for two dozen eggs, and this morning in Damascus it is 700 lira.

In seeking to end this crisis, Syria is fortunate to have tough and resolute
allies including Russia and Iran and, perhaps equally important, a skilled
diplomatic corps and group of officials who have exhibited remarkable
acumen and insight as well as nerves of steel–both during the crisis as a
whole and especially over the past several days of brinkmanship. This
observer has had the honor to meet with a few of them personally. These
include Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and his Deputy Foreign Minister
Faisal Mekdad, Information Minister Omran Zoubi and his able staff,
Presidential Adviser Dr. Bouthania Shaaban,  and her dedicated office
colleagues, and Parliament Speaker Mohammad Jihad al-Laham.

In this observer’s view, many Syrians, perhaps a majority, do not believe
that President Obama, Defense Secretary Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Chairman Martin Dempsey, or a growing number of members of Congress,
and most importantly the American public, want war. Some here are
thinking, wishfully perhaps, that without a strong Congressional vote in
favor of the Obama request, the president will not order a criminal attack
Syria’s  civilian population, for if there is a US attack, that is assuredly what
it will be.

Surprisingly perhaps, Obama is being praised by some for his courage in not
caving to the neocons and Zionist lobby by ordering the US military to begin
bombing promptly. As one Syrian journalist told this observer just hours
ago, “Obama still has the opportunity to earn that Nobel Prize, which he
received a few years back for I have no idea why, and secure his legacy as
one of American’s great Presidents–if he has the courage and vision of the
late Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Before ending a very long day with sleep, this observer invited the
Palestinian family to dinner near my hotel as it was not apparent that they
had been eating much recently.  We talked about prospects for the Syrian
Arab Republic, and Palestinian refugees, so many of whom have been
internally and externally displaced as result of this maelstrom, and as I
interacted with the wonderful children, I could not help becoming wistful as
I contemplated the certainty that it is these children, and Syria’s poor, who
are condemned, unless the American people prevent it, to suffer the brunt of
this latest US adventure–condemned as their country becomes more
divided, and a new batch of terrorist groups springs up like mushrooms
after a summer rain.

Washington’s ill-considered criminal attack will aid and abet these largely
Gulf financed militia and provide justification, in their minds for literally
hundreds of often competing jihadist groups to spread carnage across Syria.
The innocent in the USA and the West will also eventually suffer a severe
payback price as was the case on 9/11/2001 and a decade later on 9/11/2011.  
And on and on it goes.

This observers is frequently asked these days, as the bombs and rockets hit
ever nearer, if the American people have the political and moral will to
take to the streets, and to the offices of their Congressional representatives
whose salaries they pay, and make history–a history that will revitalize our
county and its claimed democracy. Each American, and all people of good
will, have the power to do this service to humanity. And they can do it in the
coming days. If they fail, who do we blame but ourselves? Because when
it comes down to it, it’s our country; it doesn’t belong to the politicians or the
corporations or to those who pledge fealty to a foreign occupying power
half a world away. It is our constitution, and if each of us doesn’t protect it
we cede it to others to sully and use as they will.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon. His most recent
book, The Price We Pay: A quarter century of Israel’s use of American weapons
against the civilian population of Lebanon
, is available in Arabic and English.
Expected soon, The Case for Palestinian Civil Rights in Lebanon: An Advocacy
. He can be reached at [email protected]