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The U.S. and My Syrian Aunt

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In 1948, when most of my extended family fled from Palestine, my grandmother and several aunts and uncles took refuge in Damascus, Syria. Their first home was on the Street Called Straight, one of the oldest streets in one of the oldest cities in the world. The Bible mentions St. Paul praying in the house of a Christian convert who lived on it. Today, have more relatives in Damascus than anywhere else, including an elderly aunt, who lives in a Catholic retirement community.

Like most people in Damascus, my aunt is terrified by the prospect of yet more violence, this time coming in the form of U.S. missiles raining on her adopted city. During our last phone conversation, she asked me with utter bafflement: "Why is the U.S. siding with Syrian extremists who are aligned with al-Qaeda?"

My aunt views the Syrian regime, with some justification, as her protector against an insurgency that is effectively led by allies of al-Qaeda. I, on the other hand, am far more critical of the Assad regime, with its brutal history of repressing any opposition, be it from liberals, leftists, or Islamists. Nevertheless, I feel I owe my elderly aunt some explanation. This is my best attempt to explain -- even to myself -- why my adopted country, the U.S., is taking a stance that, to many people all over the world, seems inconsistent with the so-called "War on Terror."

This is roughly what I will tell my aunt: In our political system in the U.S., you have to have either very well-funded lobbyists or overwhelming mass support in order for your political agenda to succeed. Without mass support from the public, for example, environmentalists would likely lose against industrial interests that can hire the best lobbyists in Washington. No matter how just the cause of the civil rights movement was in the 1960s, and how consistent it was with the ideals of the Founding Fathers, it had to rely on a massive mobilization of African Americans, faith-based groups, and others in order to achieve its goals-and the struggle is not over. However, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, there is seldom sufficient popular interest to counteract the influence of powerful vested interests backed by armies of lobbyists. The opposition to the war in Vietnam was among a few exceptions in recent decades.

I will tell my aunt that -- as far as Middle East policy goes, the most powerful U.S. lobbies have been the arms suppliers and the oil industry, and -- of course -- the pro-Israel lobby. For U.S. arms suppliers and oil companies, the Middle East is one of the most important regions in the world. In the world of arms deals, how often does one come across a news item such as this:

"The Defense Department is expected to finalize a $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates next week that will provide missiles, warplanes and troop transports to help them counter any future threat from Iran?"

I will tell my aunt that, historically, there is a strong case to be made that the interests of the above-mentioned three lobbies have been interrelated. A strong lobby advocating the creation of a Jewish state in historical Palestine was active long before the creation of Israel in 1948. However, the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. received a tremendous boost in 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt's Gamal Abdel-Nasser. His defeat was a momentous event, for he was the arch enemy of the Saudi family that presided over a country with the greatest U.S. oil interests. Big power rivalries in the Middle East -- always related to oil -- have frequently erupted in armed conflicts, and those have always been good for arms suppliers all over the world.

I will tell my aunt that her country's strongest ally, Iran, which has a predominantly Shiite population, has long replaced Nasser's Egypt as the biggest threat to U.S. oil and defense interests in the oil-and-gas rich Gulf region of the Middle East. Not long after the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s, Saudi Arabia and the Arab sheikdoms in the Gulf started worrying that the virus of rebellion would spread to their territories, especially among their Shiite minorities. In the case of Bahrain, the underprivileged Shiites actually constitute a majority, and in Saudi Arabia, they are the majority in the Eastern Province, which happens to be the part of the country that has the vast majority of oil reserves and installations. No one will deny that the Syrian civil war is being fought, at least to some extent, as a proxy war between Iran on side and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikdoms on the other.

As for chemical weapons, I will tell my aunt about two examples of U.S. double standards: The first is how Washington provided significant material support to Saddam Hussein's regime in his war with Iran in the 1980s, despite the use by the Iraqi army of chemical weapons that killed thousands of Iranians. No red line was drawn there. We looked the other way because Saddam's army was viewed as the bulwark against Iran and the "protector" of our allies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms. The second is the Israeli use of white phosphorous against the Palestinians during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-9; no red line was drawn there either. In fact the U.S. itself used white phosphorous against the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.

So, to my aunt in Syria I would say: For U.S. foreign policy makers, Syria is simply the friend of Iran and the enemy of Israel. You are up against very powerful lobbies in Washington: The pro-Israel, the pro-Saudi, the anti-Iranian, and the pro-arms industry lobbies.

This post has been updated from a previously published version.