Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008
American dream expelled from Syria
By Sami Moubayed
Asia Times, Nov. 4 2008
DAMASCUS – A belated victim of the United States raid into Syria on October 27 was the American school in Damascus. The institution has been a controversial satellite of US interests in Syria since its founding more than a half-century ago, and it has often been featured as political football during the two nations’ turbulent, often bitter relationship.
The American school in Damascus, known as the Damascus Community School (DCS), was one among many US academic institutes that started appearing in the Middle East in the mid-20th century. Unlike the American University of Beirut (AUB), a missionary school, or the American College in Aleppo, northern Syria, DCS was part of American initiative fostered by then-US secretary of state John Foster Dulles during the Cold War in 1956.
There was no US ambassador in Syria at the time of its founding – as is the case today – and relations were tense. The White House, under president Dwight D Eisenhower, had accused the Syrian government of transforming Syria into a Soviet satellite. Yet a key architect of the school’s opening was Syria’s ex-foreign minister Salah al-Din al-Bitar, ironically also one of the two founders of the Baath Party.
The school’s unlicensed status, certainly illegal for a full-fledged school as far as the Syrian legal system was concerned, went unnoticed from the 1950s and it remained part of America’s policy of promoting American ideals in the Arab world to challenge the rising trend of communism.
An earlier American school did exist in Syria, founded by Howard Bliss in the 1920s, but DCS was different. It was founded by the American government, not under any agreement between the Syrian and American ministries of education, but directly by secretary of state Dulles.
As part of America’s foreign policy in the Arab world, DCS was for many years a success, helping to promote America as a land of opportunity, freedom, and dignity to hundreds of Syrians. It marketed the American dream and its graduates went on to American universities in the US, who returned home to promote America.
Everyone in Damascus is debating the decision of Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari to close down DCS, and the American Culture Center (ALC) in the wake of the US raid on the town of Abu Kamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border, which left eight Syrian civilians dead. Some say it is a wise symbolic gesture to show just how angry the Syrians are with the US administration, but others claim that it has targeted the wrong people, with the 200 Syrian students enrolled at DCS set to suffer rather than the US government.
The school, which has been given a grace period until November 6 to shut down, has refused to comment on the ordeal, promising its students homeschooling for the remainder of the academic year, until a new president comes to power in the White House. If the victor is Democratic candidate Barack Obama, they feel symbolic steps will be taken to mend bridges with Syria which could lead to the re-opening of DCS.
The 200 Syrian students at DCS will need to find other schools to complete their schooling, and the US, which attaches a great importance to its cultural mission in the Arab world, will be badly affected by the closure. It has lost the chance to coach 200 potential ambassadors who could have defended America to the rest of the world and worked on mending Syrian-American relations.
Syrians who studied at DCS from the 1970s to the 1990s, when Syrian-American relations were experiencing turbulence, had the luxury to defend the America they learned about at school. They were brought up learning about the entrepreneurial spirit of men like Henry Ford and Walt Disney, the leadership of former president Abraham Lincoln and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the wisdom of former president Franklin D Roosevelt.
They learned US history, and memorized the preamble of the US constitution, along with the Bill of Rights and the 10th Amendment. The American school in Damascus not only promoted American history, it promoted the American way of life, much sought after during the 20th century by Arabs and Syrians.
Valentine’s Day, a novelty in Syria until the late 1980s, was brought to Damascus by DCS. On Valentine’s Day Syrian students at DCS would exchange flowers in the morning, and attend a chaperoned dance party at night. Their wearing of red roses for love, white for friendship, and pink for affection were blasphemy as far as many Syrians watching the scene were concerned.
But Valentine’s Day has now become not only the norm, but also a much-anticipated social and commercial event in the capital, where entire streets are colored in red, and roses sell like hotcakes every February 14. Not only did DCS teach Syrians about Valentine’s Day, but everything from prom nights, school trips to Greece and Italy, and movie nights on campus to Sloppy Joe sandwiches, made up part of its cultural curriculum.
The entire concept of electives during high school was also new to Syrians, who were used to compulsory, rigid Syrian education, modeled after the French curriculum. Student committees were formed at DCS, along with student elections, and a national honors’ society. The school invested in young people, bringing out talents through sports and sending them to athletic tournaments around the region, or in extra-curricular activities like drama and debate clubs.
DCS offered students a variety of courses in subjects like world religion, computer design, and politics, and did not force them to wear uniforms – a far cry from the khaki military uniform worn by students from state-run schools.
The school was not big, with only 385 students in its 2007-2008 year, and charged an astronomical tuition fee by Syrian standards, with annual fees of around $12,000 for students in grades 9-12. Even well-to-do Syrians have found the price exceptionally high, and often prefer to send their children to the local French or Pakistani schools in Damascus.
When US president Bill Clinton came to Damascus in 1994, he was scheduled to speak to Syrian and American students at DCS, and acknowledge how important such schools were for building bridges in the Middle East. DCS was directly affiliated to the US Embassy, with any sitting ambassador being chairman of its nine-man board.
When Syrian-American relations plummeted in 2005, the Syrians began to seriously toy with the idea of closing down DCS, and authorities threatened to not renew the residence permits of American teachers at DCS. A 12-year-old Syrian schoolgirl from the famous Samman family of Damascus then tragically died while on a DCS field trip to Palmyra, some 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus.
The accident was a result of human error – no doubt – but many Syrians blamed it, at the height of Syrian-US tension, on the American imperialists.
Minister of Education Ali Saad responded by passing strict laws which prevented any Syrian students from enrolling at DCS, and he stressed the words “no exceptions”. The school’s status was put into serious doubt, with authorities asking why it had been able to operate for nearly 50-years with no license from the Syrian Ministry of Education.
As a temporary measure to “authorize” the school, ministry authorities forced it to add four courses – all copied from the Syrian curriculum – in Arabic, for Syrian students. They included Arabic, and social studies, but not the Syrian course “patriotism”, which teaches Baathist ideology. Even Syrians with dual nationality at DCS had to take the courses.
School authorities objected to the plans, but were forced to either to accept them or close down. They eventually agreed, and additionally had to accept a new co-principal, representing the Ministry of Education, who was tasked with ensuring the Syrian requests were carried out.
For now, all of that has become history – as could American cultural influence in Syria. Last week, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Damascus, chanting anti-American slogans. There was no Syrian in his right mind who could defend America, now that it been caught red-handed, killing ordinary Syrians.
The US has yet to come up with a logical explanation for its Syrian raid, apart from contradicting declarations from military personnel. One was that they had “no knowledge” of the attack. Another was that the Americans were “investigating” the raid, yet investigations are usually carried out when a mistakes occurs or after a minor skirmish.
It is clear that a high degree of preparation went into the raid, on different political and military levels. Adding insult to injury was the statement made by a military official in Washington DC claiming the raid targeted a logistic network for foreign fighters in Iraq, working with al-Qaeda.
The name floating in press reports is that of Abu Ghadiyah, a militant from Mosul who is part of the terrorist network of Abu Musaab al-Zarkawi, the former “prince” of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The list of the dead from Abu Kamal proves that there was no Abu Ghadiyah among them, and not a single “foreign fighter”. All of them were Syrian: Dawoud Mohammad al-Abdullah and his four children, Ahmad Khalifeh, Ali Abbas Hasan and his wife. What kind of a “terrorist cell” is gunned down in broad daylight and does not fire back a single bullet in defense?
The US attack lasted for minutes, but its aftershocks will be felt in the region for a whole lot longer. And its intensity will depend on the Syrian response, which to date, has been restricted to closing down DCS, and reducing the number of troops patrolling the Iraqi border.
John Foster Dulles – who attached a great amount of importance to DCS – would probably been angered by this sad end to the school he helped build.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst [who went to DCS]
[Addendum by Landis]As far as I can tell, Sami is the only Syrian journalist working in Syria who writes English flawlessly and with great facility. As someone who has spent much of his life trying to develop proper language skills, I know how hard it is and admire Sami’s ability to write in English and his willingness to stay in Syria. There are, of course, many Syrians who are bilingual, but most of these are either not in Syria or they are not journalists. The US State department seems not to have one employee who speaks Arabic well enough to represent the US effectively on al-Jazeera.
Syrian authorities have asked the staff of the American school and cultural center in Damascus to leave Syria within 48 hours, Lebanese radio reported Monday.
A week ago, Damascus ordered the closure of the facilities, in what appeared to be a response to a U.S. commando raid inside Syria on October 26.
Maysaloun– A blog written by Wassim – Is in favor of the School closing.
I have always resented the Damascus Community School, or the “American School” as it is called locally. There was something about it that annoyed me immensely, firstly in that the only people who could afford to put their children there were very rich people with more money than sense, secondly their children grew up to be little Americans. During my last few trips to Syria I had noticed that the wall surrounding the school has gotten higher and higher to the point where it now looks like a mini-fortress, much to my approval. I don’t believe it should be a target but I do believe that the students who go there must be made to recognise that there is something abnormal about their attending classes there, that they are not the same as other students elsewhere, and they are not. …. I hope its closure becomes permanent.
Next US president may have shot at Israel-Syria deal, AFP Nov. 4, 2008
Egypt and other key Arab states look constantly for a US-brokered solution to the Palestinian problem, which they see at the core of the region’s troubles and central to restoring US credibility.
The problem, Miller and other analysts say, is that such a solution seems as distant as ever and it might make more sense to open doors with Syria.
Patrick Clawson, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suspected that Obama would like to try to draw Syria away from its ties to Iran in order to work with the West in securing a peace deal with Israel.
A McCain team would share an Obama administration’s “real excitement and enthusiasm” about such a prospect but “may be much more skeptical” and spend less effort on it, Clawson said by telephone.
Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, said the deal he and other former US officials let slip from their grasp between 1993 and 2000 is back within reach.
“There is a very real possibility of an Israeli-Syrian agreement,” Miller, now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, told AFP in a telephone interview.
Miller, who said he is associated with neither campaign, insisted it is a “fantasy” to think such an agreement would drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran….
Peter Beinart, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, also suspected Obama would support the prospect of a deal with Syria while a McCain administration would balk with skeptics in its midst.