The Culture of Tyranny


The ancient city of Damascus received another mark of recognition last week. Following in the wake of Liverpool – which was recognized as the European Capital of Culture, and Stavanger in Norway, which was named the non-EU European Capital of Culture, UNESCO last week designated Damascus as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2008.

In a speech celebrating this decision, Syrian President Bashar Assad chose to highlight a very specific element of his capital city’s culture — namely, Damascus’s self-appointed role as the center of Arab ‘resistance.’ “Damascus is the capital of resistance culture by symbolizing Arab culture” he declared, and went on to define ‘resistance culture’ as “the culture of freedom and defending freedom.”

A closer look at what exactly President Assad means by ‘resistance culture’ might lead one to ask whether the type of activity designated by the term really deserves the acclaim and recognition of an august international body such as UNESCO.

UNESCO’s Cultural Capitals Program was launched in the Arab world in1998. It aims to promote the cultural aspects of development and increased international cooperation.

The new Arab Capital of Culture has a unique approach to “international cooperation.” Damascus serves as the headquarters of a long list of designated terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), and an alphabet soup of smaller organizations similarly committed to the practice of violence against civilians. This particular approach to encouraging international cooperation brought the Assad regime to international recognition even prior to its latest accolade from UNESCO. Syria has successfully defended its position at the top of the USA’s list of “countries supporting terrorism” since 1979.

Since the mid-1990s, Damascus has served as the operational headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and as a nexus for the transfer of external funds to operatives of these organizations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Seized documents revealed a series of direct financial transactions from Syria to the two terrorist organizations. Syria, who was quick to recognize the Hamas Government in Gaza (despite the objection of the Palestinian Prime minister) also announced a public donation campaign to support it.

According to the State Department, Syria gives the Lebanese militia Hizballah “substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid”. Iranian arms bound for Hizballah regularly pass through Syria which effectively occupied and controlled neighboring Lebanon between 1990 and 2005, and which is currently engaged in attempting to regain control in Beirut.

Hizballah’s July 2006 missile strikes on Israeli cities – another expression, presumably, of the “culture of resistance,” prompted allegations that Syria and Iran were using the group to deflect international attention from other issues, such as Iran’s contentious nuclear program.

Syria is also active in Iraq. David Satterfield, coordinator for Iraq at the State Department, recently noted that the US had received ‘no Syrian cooperation’ in attempting to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Rather, he continued, “Syria still allows foreign fighters and suicide bombers to pass across its territories into Iraq.” A recent US media report estimated that 90% of foreign fighters entering Iraq to take part in insurgent activity come via Syria.

In Lebanon, Damascus is thought to be behind the wave of killings of anti-Syrian political figures which began with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Syria is doing its utmost to prevent the emergence of a new president and a stable government in Lebanon. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner last week told Arab reporters in Paris that “Syria wants to appoint the prime minister in Lebanon, the ministers, the distribution of ministries and the governmental plan of action through its allies in Beirut.”

The new Capital of Culture and Resistance also, according to U.S. defense and intelligence reports, maintains an active chemical weapons program. Other reports suggest that Syria was clandestinely working on a nuclear program when these efforts were halted by a successful Israeli attack in September, 2007.

Thus, the ‘culture of resistance’ means acts of terror against civilians, the deliberate subversion of the governments of neighboring countries, the assassination of political opponents and the apparent attempt to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. One wonders if this is what UNESCO — which describes its own goal as ‘to build peace in the minds of men’ had in mind. The title of ‘Arab capital of culture’ is currently held by the capital of one of the most brutal and lawless regimes in the world. Arab culture – which has given so much of lasting beauty and value to humanity – surely deserves a better representative.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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