Mourning for Syria: I love America, I love Syria, I hate the war, but will things get better if Assad is gone?
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I'm mourning for Syria.
It's killing me every day.
As much as America is my country (born and raised in Steeler Nation), Syria is my country, too. I can't function one without the other. I'm waving a Terrible Towel in one hand and a mesbaha (Arabic beads) in the other.
Until now, I've stayed out of the whole Syrian conversation. I avoid politics and religion like the plague -- I'd rather focus on what brings us together than what divides us. That said, I'm proudly a Syrian-American Antiochian Orthodox Christian, and my faith comes before either of my nationalities.
My position is simple. Governments can be straight-up evil. All governments. No hands are completely clean. Publicly, governments say one thing; privately, they're in bed with each other. People are different -- most just want to make a better life for themselves.
Ever since the start of the Syrian "revolution," many Syrian-American Christians have rallied around President Bashar Assad -- a position I find stomach-turning as I watch the bloodshed on Syrian streets. How could they? Can't they see the brutality of this man?
I've even had heated arguments for refusing to display the official Syrian flag at the Pittsburgh International Folk Festival's Syrian Cultural and Educational Exhibit, which my father, Mikhail Khalil, founded.
Syria is now at the brink of civil war and, whether we like it or not, whether it's true or not, the official Syrian flag has come to symbolize unwavering support for the Assad regime. The opposition waves its own flag. As Syrians first, we will not dishonor bloodshed on either side.
Spending the summer of 2008 in Damascus, it was evident that Syrians loved President Assad. And not out of fear. Not like his father. You could tell they really supported him. He was young, Western-educated and all about reform. His wife, Asma, toured the country incognito to learn the needs of the people.
I was proud, too. I, too, was excited for a new Syria.
A new Syria ... but not this one.
I believed in Mr. Assad. But when the uprising started, I became confused and upset. I wasn't pro-Assad then. And I still am not pro-Assad. But I started thinking, "What's really going on here?"
When I returned to Syria in October 2010, just months before the uprising, I saw improvements that blew my mind. I was there just two years earlier and now could hardly recognize the place!
The Old City of Damascus looked amazing, with tons of European shops and modern amenities. An unprecedented sense of pride was emerging. The dawn of a new Syria was beginning to manifest itself and you could feel it everywhere.
There was a new city garden where artists, poets and musicians could mingle and exchange ideas. Next to it were three new theaters. I met an actor there who told me he was doing a political satire show. I didn't believe him. I thought he was lying until he showed me his poster on the wall. He was arrested a few times but explained that the theater had been thriving since.
For those who don't understand the Arab world, it's real simple: In the Arab world, you don't criticize the government; you just don't.
But that was changing. Progress was being made. I witnessed it myself.
Look, Mr. Assad is a dictator and I'm not justifying his brutal actions by any means. But, I'm sorry, Bashar Assad is no Moammar Gadhafi; nor is he a Hosni Mubarak. For damn sure he wasn't a Saddam Hussein. His father was, but he wasn't -- at least not until now.
Prior to this conflict, Syrians lived a decent life under Mr. Assad -- at nowhere near Western standards, but they were basically happy. They just were. Especially Christians, because we have it good under him, generally speaking. It is not like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Yemen -- in Syria, we have it good, really good.
Christians and Muslims in Syria are neighbors and have gotten along very well. The Damascus skyline is interspersed with blue crosses and green minarets and Muslims regularly visit Christian holy sites, including the tomb of St. John the Baptist housed in the Omayyad Mosque. But the truth is, many Syrians -- Christians and Muslims -- are terrified of what is coming next.
You see, Syria was the rock. Syria always got respect among its Arab brothers because it stayed true to itself, kept its identity and never sold out to the West.
Syria was safe, strong, unswerving and fun. It took in millions of Iraqi refugees and fed, clothed and housed them when the rest of the Arab world turned their backs on them. I know, I worked with them.
Now, Syrians themselves have become refugees, with thousands fleeing to Iraq for cover. Iraq for cover?! That sentence just doesn't make sense. Thousands of others have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. The once-bustling city of Homs has become a ghost town, and the fighting has spread to Damascus and Aleppo.
Syria is changing, all right.
Night after night the media spotlights President Assad's brutal crackdowns and accumulates the toll -- 10,000 dead, 16,000 dead, 19,000 dead ... There are inner-circle assassinations, officials defecting, Russia and China stalling U.N. action, the Arab League promoting its exit strategy. Half the world is so fired up it's ready to back the opposition. But who the hell is the opposition?
Look, I'm not convinced that what we see is all there is. I'm not convinced this was a genuine popular uprising. I'm not convinced that this is a black and white revolution -- a ruthless dictator against his people. Sorry, but I'm not.
Yes, Syrians wanted change. And yes, the fighting definitely escalated after the brutal crackdowns. But I've been Syrian all my life -- I know our people. They weren't that angry with Mr. Assad. They just weren't.
It may have started out with the whole Arab Spring busting out, Syrians taking to the streets, that sort of thing -- fine. All I know is that Syria is waaaay too critical of a player in this global game for it to be just about Bashar Assad and his people.
The fact is, I don't know what's up. I'm not there. I can't support Mr. Assad, but I'm not convinced he's the only one in this game, either.
And God forbid the United States intervenes. With one military suicide a day, do we really need to stress out our troops with yet another Middle Eastern conflict?
The fact remains, Syria is in turmoil. There is blood on the streets. And we were never like this before. We were used to seeing other countries in conflict: Lebanon? Yes. Palestine? Yes. Iraq? Yes. Syria? No. Never.
We are Syrians! We are the rock.
Look, I have a big mouth. And God blessed me to have been born in a country where I can say what I want, whenever I want and to whom I want. I would never wish anything but the same for everyone. The very fact that I can write this article without fear of my life is testament of my fundamental belief in freedom of expression.
Without it, I am nothing.
God Bless America ... and Syria.
First Published August 12, 2012 12:00 am