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Notes on the Syrian Revolution from Marrakech

MARRAKECH – I'm in Marrakech, Morocco, attending the fourth meeting of the Friends of Syria gathering. One international delegation after another is taking to the podium and announcing where its capital stands on the bloodiest conflict to slam into the Levant since the Lebanese civil war.

I'm in the press room with hundreds people, almost all of them Arab journalists and most of them men. I hear a smattering of French spoken here and there, and it's the lingua franca of Morocco, but almost everyone is speaking Arabic. Most of my colleagues appear competent and professional, at least on the surface, and nearly all of them dress like I do. There are a few Gulfies around wearing the traditional robes and head gear of that region, but the rest of us look like Europeans even though we are not.

The speeches are being made elsewhere in an adjacent building. They're broadcast on a screen and over big speakers in the room, the kind of speakers you'll find in a bar where live bands play. A few of my colleagues stand near the speakers and record the speeches on little hand-held recorders, but most people are talking to each other or sit hunched over laptops and iPads.

Pre-packaged videos play during breaks in the main room. They're professionally-made short documentaries about the atrocities being committed a few thousands miles to the east. You could dismiss them as propaganda, but they seem solid enough and not terribly different from what I've seen on Frontline, which aired an outstanding two-part program in the United States a few weeks ago. The video footage from Syrian battlefields is intense. The sound of gunshots coming through those speakers is nerve-wracking. The war sounds closer than it really is.

It's safe to say most of us in this room detest the Syrian regime and wish to see it destroyed, and I confess to feelings of vindication. For years I took flak in the Levant for describing Bashar al-Assad as the villain of the region rather than the Zionist Entity, but here we are. This room full of Arabs has at least partially come around to my point of view. Not that they like Israel any more than they used to, of course, but Israel isn't to blame for the tens of thousands killed. Everybody knows that. It has been some time now—well over a year—since a single person, Arab or Western, has given me even an ounce of grief for describing Assad and his regime of Baath Party fascists as the principal arsonists of the Eastern Mediterranean.

* The meeting is taking place at a luxurious resort that's well out of my price range. I'm down the road at a nice enough place, but this resort really is something. We're in the shadow of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains. This time of year those mountains look like the Rockies, but they rise above palm trees. Supposedly it's sunny 350 days a year here. That's what they tell me. It's warm enough even in December to eat lunch outside without wearing a jacket.

Everything here is beautiful. This place is like a North African fairyland. Middle class tourists from the United States can afford to vacation here without any problem. It's not very expensive, at least not this time of year. And you'll get plenty of bang for your buck.

This place might as well be on the moon as far as the brutalized citizens of Syria are concerned. The beauty and serenity of Marrakech is beyond the comprehension of people who live in war zones, and I feel a bit guilty sitting here in a cushy chair with my coffee and wi-fi and nice weather outside while kids are getting their guts shot out on the streets over in Syria.

* It's not crucial for me to be here, nor is it crucial for anyone else. Covering a meeting like this is for wire agency journalists. The job entails writing that so-and-so said this thing or the other. I feel a bit out of place because I hardly ever do this sort of thing. All the reporters, including me, are entirely separate from the events we're here to cover. We're in the press room. It's huge and it's full. We're sitting around at tables and in the lounge waiting for someone at the meeting next door to say something interesting and quotable that grabs our attention. Hours and hours of talking gets ignored in favor of a couple of pertinent sentences.

Most of the speeches are in Arabic, but some are in French and some are in English. I only understand fragments of the Arabic speeches, and only a little bit more of the French speeches, so there's not much for me to do most of the time, but I'm no less busy than anyone else. Ninety five percent of my colleagues aren't paying attention at any given moment. I'm glad to be here, but I'm also glad I don't do this sort of thing every day.

* A messenger from His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco hands me a pamphlet with a statement from the palace written in four languages. Helpful! Something for me to work with. The King of Morocco isn't impressed with Bashar al-Assad. Doesn't think he's a reformer. Doesn't think he's a crucial part of the peace process. Of the war there he says, “This particularly serious and tragic situation is calling out to the conscience of mankind, given the ever-growing numbers of dead and wounded, tortured citizens, displaced persons and refugees. The numbers are set to increase dramatically if there is no resolute international reaction, especially as the Syrian regime has threatened to resort to weapons of mass destruction.”

Morocco is urging the United Nations Security Council to support a regime-change. That's my phrase, not the king's, but that's what he's saying. “I therefore call upon Security Council member states...to support the transfer of power in Syria for the establishment of a democratic multi-party system in which all representatives and components of the Syrian people would be involved.”

The king also says to those of us in attendance, “Welcome to your home [away] from home.” In Spanish he welcomes us to “our second country.” Moroccans are such magnificently hospitable people. Really, they are. They're not faking it, either. They're not. I know what forced and fake hospitality looks and feels like in the Arab world. I see it in Iraq and in Egypt from time to time. In Kuwait you won't even get that. The welcome I've received in Morocco feels like a hug.

* Some policemen come in for coffee. They look like SWAT team commanders. These are not the common traffic police officers I'm seeing elsewhere in town. They're not even in the same time zone as the bumbling idiots in the Iraqi police who so disappointed their counterparts in the U.S. Army's military police during General David Petraeus' “surge.” These cops at the Friends of Syria gathering in Marrakech look perfectly capable of putting down a serious ground assault by terrorist forces. You can tell just by looking at them.

* The United States government now recognizes the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This is good and proper, but let's not kid ourselves, okay? The Syrian opposition is only united temporarily. Secular and Islamist factions will battle it out in the aftermath. They know it. Believe me, they do. They're united right now because they have to get rid of Assad. They'll settle their own accounts later. Sunnis and Alawites are likely to slug it out, too. And there might even be fighting between Arabs and Kurds. When the next phase starts in earnest, there will be no sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

* A pretty young woman from SNRT, the public broadcaster of Morocco, makes the rounds in the press room. She gives me a booklet, a DVD, and a thumb drive. The thumb drive has www.diplomatie.ma stamped on it. The Web site for Morocco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The booklet is titled “Syria: The Destruction of a Nation.” It is professionally produced. I open it. A photo on the first page shows a woman with tears in her eyes and blood on her face and her hand over her mouth. The text says, “In Syria, to simply be alive is reason enough to be killed. Whatever your age, gender, sect, conviction, or skills, this savage regime will come after you.”

* People are smoking inside the building. I ask when the government will ban smoking indoors. Everyone says: “Never!”

* An American delegate is speaking at the meeting. The room gets quiet. People want to know what the United States has to say. It carries weight. Most of it is boilerplate for public consumption. Government people everywhere say far more interesting things off the record than on. Often they say the opposite things. Most of the real story is off the record. I hear off the record things all the time. I can't put any of it in quotes, but I can factor it into my analysis and use it in other ways.

But this time the United States is announcing policy changes. Washington now recognizes the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And it considers the armed Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.

* Now Britain is speaking. The room is still quiet. The United Kingdom is expanding its assistance to the Syrian opposition and is doing so publicly, on the record.

* Morocco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped me get in here and gave me a press card. Actually, they did more than just help me. They invited me.

I spoke to Youssef Amrani, Morocco's minister delegate for foreign affairs. He's second in command at that ministry. “We want a democratic transition in Syria,” he said. “The future of Syria should be democratic. Or there is no future. We hosted this Marrakech meeting so we could listen to the opposition and their platform and to help them move forward.”

Should the West get involved militarily,” I asked him, “or keep sitting it out?”

You need the United Nations Security Council to intervene,” he said. “And today the Security Council is divided.”

Yes,” I said, “but what if we did it without the Security Council?” We've done that before. “Or should we stay out of it?”

Personally,” he said, “I believe the Syrian people need to decide their future. They have the instruments. They have a vision. They want to realize a democratic transition. And they're on their way.”

That was his on the record response.

I wanted to ask him about something else, too.

You spend a lot of time in Washington,” I said. “So you have an idea what Americans think about Morocco. What do you think they need to know about this country that they don't know already?”

Morocco is an ally of America,” he said. “We share the same values. We have no conflicts at all with the United States. It's good for you to have a strong ally in the region that understands American values, that can work with America. We've been working together for a long time. We work together on promoting democracy in the Arab world. You can trust us and we uphold our commitments.” That was his on the record response. But I hear the exact same thing off the record. Just so you know. And I hear it from Americans as well as from Moroccans.

* I wasn't sure what to expect from this conference. I thought I might feel a bit lost amidst chaos. But it's being hosted by Morocco, and Morocco is pretty well organized, not just in Marrakech, but in general. Compared to Egypt, this place is Switzerland. Compared to Syria, well, the difference is incomprehensible.

* A delegate from Senegal is speaking now. He's speaking in French and sounds a little like James Earl Jones. The room is quiet for him, too. Morocco pays attention to Senegal. It's just down the coast. A different region, sort of, but it's just down the African coast.

* Have you seen the Moroccan aesthetic? This place is exquisitely beautiful. Really, it is. Its beauty has been refined over millennia.

 I recently reviewed a book called On Saudi Arabia by Karen Elliot House for the New York Times. And I quoted a line from her book that really struck me. “For millennia,” she wrote, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Morocco is a long, long way from Saudi Arabia, not just geographically, but culturally and aesthetically. That's for damn sure. It's also an opposite of Iraq. In Iraq, everything is a jagged assault on the senses. It's brutal, not just politically but also aesthetically. Morocco is a gem.

* I don't have any earth-shattering insights from the Friends of Syria meeting or any particularly juicy quotes I can use that you won't read elsewhere. Here's what you need to know: Assad is increasingly isolated. Even Russia is being forced to re-evaluate its position. And the Syrian opposition is increasingly being recognized as legitimate.

The mood here is one of near-absolute confidence that Assad is going to lose. At this point it's mostly a question of how long it will take and how many more people will suffer. No one is talking yet about what kind of conferences will be held in the aftermath, but there will most likely be many. Assad's fall won't be the end. It will only be the end of the beginning.

* I spoke with a man who sat in Assad's office many times, sometimes with others, and sometimes for one-on-one conversations during the time when his armed forces still occupied Lebanon. The subject of Lebanon came up during one of those conversations, and it took a turn Assad didn't like. He angrily jabbed his finger on his desk and said no Lebanese person had ever come into his office with a complaint. Instead, all asked what they could do to help Syria. (That's because any Lebanese person who did have a complaint would rather suffer in silence than suffer a car-bombing.)

Those days are over. Assad's Lebanese allies—most of them fear him, but not all of them are bullied into being his ally—will have a lot to answer for when a new flag flies in Damascus. Assad's Shia allies will still have Iran as a patron, but Assad's Christian allies will have accounts to settle with the rest of the country. It won't be pretty.

* Morocco is a gentle, civilized, and refined place. And it's stable. It's stable because Morocco is a coherent nation with a non-sectarian and non-ethnic identity, and because the monarchy is widely respected and provides space for modern secularists, traditional conservatives, and Islamists to co-exist without fighting each other. Visiting here after spending time in Egypt and Iraq is like coming up for air or slipping into a bath. I don't expect I'll ever see Syria doing as well as this place. I could be wrong. But I'm pretty sure that I'm not.

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