Los Angeles, CA – A special town hall-style meeting Friday night brought together a large crowd of Syrian and Arab-Americans from Southern California and across the country. The atmosphere was slightly tense as the attendees lined up immediately outside the ballroom of the West LA hotel to go through tight security. The special guest that evening was Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Dr. Bashar Jaafari. Dr. Jaafari was warmly welcomed by the crowd as he entered the room and took his seat on the stage. He was also joined via video-conference from Damascus by the Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun and Archbishop Luka Khoury of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Mufti Hassoun began the evening with an address that emphasized the common history and civilization that’s shared by Syrians of all faiths. Pointing out Syrian history predates Christianity and Islam by thousands of years, he stressed the historic unity of the Syrian people and the essential strengthening role it’s played in countering the current onslaught on Syrian society. “Never throughout the entire history of Syria has a Syrian killed another Syrian on account of his faith”, he told the crowd. During the address a member of the audience shouted out his condolences to the Mufti for the death of his son. The Mufti’s son was shot and killed in an ambush near Ibla University in October of 2011. In response Mufti Hassoun told the crowd “all the Syrians that were martyred are my children” and called for peace and an end to violence. The Mufti concluded on a positive note expressing his confidence that the “dark cloud” that now hangs over Syria will pass and all Syrians will come together in a Syria once again at peace. Following Mufti Hassoun Archbishop Khoury also addressed the crowd and stressed the same themes, the historic unity of the Syrian people and the need for an immediate end to violence in the country. The Archbishop also made clear that what is happening in Syria is not a civil war among Syrians, but a war on Syrian society by outside forces.
The highlight of the night was clearly Dr. Jaafari. After an introduction by the Palestinian-American MC that reminded everyone of Syria’s historic and geopolitical role, Dr. Jaafari was welcomed with a resounding standing ovation. His talk began with a neutral description of what he deliberately referred to as “the situation” in Syria and emphasized the importance of precision in the choice of political terminology. Throughout his almost two-hour talk he appeared as he’s been often described, a seasoned diplomat and scholar. Dr. Jaafari pointed out the struggle between secular, enlightened, Arab Nationalism which Syria represents and the dark, backwards Islamist (in reality un-Islamic) agenda backed by Wahhabi funding and support is not new, and has been going on for decades. He also stressed the Arab identity of Syria and gave a very brief review of its Arab Nationalist foreign policy orientation beginning with its opposition to the Baghdad Pact, its role in supporting the Palestinian armed resistance which was launched from the Golan Heights, and its support for the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century and leading up to its critical role in the success of the Lebanese resistance and opposition to the wars on Iraq and Libya. Dr. Jaafari also told the crowd “whenever I visit an Arab capital I stand in line with the foreigners at their airports”, and went on to add “the only place in the Arab world where there is such a thing as an Arab citizen is at Damascus airport.”
Dr. Jaafari was, to the surprise of some in attendance, refreshingly honest about the need for constructive self-criticism telling the crowd “we made mistakes, and we must recognize that we have made mistakes.” Among the mistakes that he highlighted were the authoritarian excesses within the government during previous periods which “did not allow an opposition to flourish within country.”
During the evening he quoted Martin Luther King and Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib and in typical Arab fashion peppered his talk with verses of ancient Arabic poetry. Dr. Jaafari assured the audience “when it comes to terrorism we are on the offensive” and Syria is “looking forward to holding all those responsible for terrorism in Syria accountable.” During the evening he was interrupted several times with chants of “Syria! Syria! Syria!” and “One!…One!…One!…The Syrian People Are One!” (“Wa7ad!…Wa7ad!…Wa7ad!…Al-Sha3b Al-Soori Wa7ad!”). At one point a few people in the crowd began the chant of “Abu-Hafiz” (“Father of Hafiz”, the honorific referring to President Bashar Al-Assad) which is popular among supporters of the government, but fewer people joined in. The crowd was determined to show its support for the Syrian Arab Army, however, and the “Allah im7ayi Al-Jeish” chant (The popular Syrian salute to their army) was heard several times with the entire room joining in.
The crowd was not of one political opinion. Supporters of the Syrian government were heavily represented and a couple of pictures of President Assad were prominently displayed outside the ballroom behind one of the tables where flags and memorabilia were being sold by one of the organizations sponsoring the event. During the intermission break prior to the Q & A session I asked several audience members for their thoughts. One Syrian-American Engineer from Southern California that left Syria in 2012 told me “I am not a supporter of Assad, but how can I support the destruction of my country?” One Syrian student said “I came here to study and return to Syria and now I’m not sure if there will be a Syria to return to.” Non-Syrian Arab-Americans were also present and one Jordanian-American made clear he was not here to “support any government, but to listen to the Ambassador”, he added, “I pray for Syria every day.” During the Q & A session several questions were quite critical of Dr. Jaafari and expressed displeasure with some of the things that he said.
But government supporters were also eager to make their opinions known and voices heard. A Syrian woman that left Syria 20 years ago told me “I left because I hated the father, but when I return to Syria the first thing I will do is apologize to his son.” Another Syrian-American insisted that “President Assad would win any election in Syria”, and with a sly smile added “unless they register voters from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.”
The town hall ended with a photo-op with Dr. Jaafari who clearly enjoyed a great deal of popularity among the Syrian-American crowd.
The event, which required several months of preparation to make possible, brought together a large Syrian-American community that reflected the many viewpoints and opinions found among the Syrian people in and out of Syria. On several points, however, there was near total agreement: The violence must cease, all foreign intervention and interference in Syria must end, and Syria’s unity, sovereignty, and independence must be the paramount objective. From Damascus to Los Angeles this is the Syrian consensus.
Ikhras Co-Editor Thabit Al-Arabi Reporting From Los Angeles