Syrians in Minnesota find Bush's policy confusing
Lourdes Medrano Leslie, Star Tribune
Published April 23, 2003
The verbal beating that the Bush administration has inflicted on his native Syria had Youssef Haddad, a St. Paul college instructor, scratching his head in puzzlement for days.
Haddad said that although he has no great admiration for the Syrian government, it is difficult for him to believe allegations that Syria is a rogue nation sponsoring terrorism, that it has developed chemical and biological weapons, or that it has become a haven for top members of the deposed Iraqi regime.
"Where's the evidence?" asked Haddad, who left Damascus in the 1970s for France and later moved to Minnesota. He is now a U.S. citizen and lives in Bloomington. He has a brother and several nephews and cousins in Syria.
The hard line that the Bush administration had taken toward Syria over the past three weeks eased slightly on Monday, when President Bush praised the country for sealing its border with Iraq and agreeing to hunt for Iraqi fugitives. But Haddad said Bush's latest remarks served only to confuse him even more.
"I wish the United States policy toward the Middle East was one of clear directions, clear visions, clear statements," Haddad said. He said he would rather see the U.S. government exert its influence through diplomacy than scare tactics.
The administration at one point threatened economic sanctions against Syria, among other measures. And its tough stance caused people to worry about possible military intervention -- including Haddad and other Minnesotans with ties to Syria.
But Haddad, 54, said that the rhetoric about Syria just doesn't make sense, particularly when taking into account its history. It supported Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, for example. "Is there any logic for Saddam's people to come and ask for protection from Syria now?" he said.
Furthermore, Haddad said, Syria supported weapons inspections in Iraq, aligned itself with the U.S.-led allies in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and has cooperated with the United States in the fight against terrorism. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Syria reportedly turned over information about Al-Qaida members to U.S. authorities.
"I think the U.S. policy is going in the wrong direction," Haddad said.
As a minority Christian living among Syria's Muslim majority, he remembers well the repression that he and his people suffered under the Syrian government. Still, he said, the Bush administration's casting of Syria as a villain in such black-and-white terms does more harm than good to already shaky relations in the Arab world.
The Israel factor
Like many Arabs, Haddad believes that the recent barrage of accusations is more about the U.S. government's aim to protect Israel's interests in the Middle East than it is about any real threats Syria might pose. Syria long has clashed with Israel, which seized the Golan Heights in southwestern Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel has occupied the land since, and control of the mountainous region has been a stumbling block to peace talks between the two nations.
Haddad, who teaches computer science at St. Paul College, said that if putting pressure on Syria is intended to spread democracy, then there are better ways. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be more effective, he said.
Sayd Amine, a law student at the University of Minnesota, also believes that the allegations against Syria are connected to the U.S.-Israel friendship.
"I think generally America's foreign policy supports Israel's interests, and that's what worries me, because I'm an American and I support America -- except when it furthers Israel's interests."
Amine, who was born in Chicago to Syrian parents and has relatives in Aleppo, said that without proof he does not buy the government's stance on Syria. The Bush administration made similar claims about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction to justify a war, Amine said, and so far they haven't turned up.
"When we go into Afghanistan, and then Iraq and possibly Syria, we are destabilizing the region," said Amine, 21. "Why don't we look at nations that have asserted the fact that they harbor weapons of mass destruction, such as North Korea or Pakistan?"
Syrian-born Mazen Halabi, who now lives in Fridley, said he thought the timing of the warnings to Syria was odd. Syria, he said, has been trying to get back on good terms with the international community after the United States listed it as one of the world's state sponsors of terrorism.
"They're trying to establish certain reforms," said Halabi, a computer consultant. "They've got a long way to go, no doubt, but at least they're on the path to doing some of the changes that are helpful to the nation."
The hope of the Syrian people for a better future -- including those of his parents and siblings living in Damascus -- are pinned on President Bashar Assad, said Halabi, 38. Assad, who succeeded his father, rose to the presidency almost three years ago and has instituted some changes such as the liberalization of the state-controlled economy.
Those policy changes may be baby steps toward reforms, Halabi said, but "as anybody who has family and friends who are living under any regime, you hope that they're living in conditions that are free and democratic. And so my hope is that it will happen and, how long it will take, I'm not sure."
Lourdes Medrano Leslie is at llesliestartribune.com.