From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
November 4, 2008 at 3:09 AM EST
DAMASCUS – Bassem Suweida drops his voice out of habit when discussing politics, even though it was today’s election in the faraway United States that the 45-year-old waiter was about to weigh in on, not the closer-to-home intrigues of Bashar Assad’s regime.
“Of course we are with Obama. Everybody in the Middle East is with Obama, because everybody hates Bush,” Mr. Suweida explained, almost whispering, during a break in serving mezze at an upscale restaurant hidden deep in the stone warrens of the walled old city of Damascus. “Will Obama be any different? That’s the question everybody is asking. We don’t know, but we hope so.”
Hope. It’s the word that Barrack Obama has built his campaign for the U.S. presidency around, and it’s the word that defines him, even here in the capital city of a country that many Americans likely consider to be an enemy.
There’s yearning across the Middle East – at least outside of Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan – for a new face in the White House, and John McCain doesn’t fit the bill. He’s seen both by the governments of this region, as well as the legendary “Arab street,” as too close to the policies of George W. Bush. And the eight years the latter spent as the most powerful person in the world are viewed here as an unmitigated disaster.
And so the Arab world is ready to embrace the fresh-faced senator from Illinois, should he win today as the opinion polls suggest he will. They hope a President Obama will be less unblinkingly pro-Israel, more willing than Mr. Bush to talk to those who disagree with him, and less likely to use military force to assert America’s broad but declining influence in this region.
Few countries will be as happy to see the back of the Bush administration as Syria. Over the past eight years this country has faced heightened international isolation and economic sanctions, along with being swamped by more than 150,000 Iraqi refugees fleeing the war that Mr. Bush began next door. Relations between Washington and Damascus hit a new low last week when U.S. troops and helicopters staged a raid inside Syrian territory – allegedly targeting a network that helped funnel anti-U.S. fighters into Iraq – that left eight people dead.
“I think that all Arabs, not just Syrians, would prefer Obama to McCain,” said Sami Moubayed, a journalist and historian based in Damascus. “Obama would not have a neo-con agenda for the region and is promising to right all the wrongs of the Bush administration, in Palestine, Iraq and Syria. That is not to say that he is going to be a champion of Arab causes – far from it – but at best he would be similar to another Carter, or Clinton.”
Mr. Assad’s regime has a lot riding on the outcome of today’s vote. In recent months, Damascus has made an effort to end its years of confrontation with the West, building ties with Europe, establishing links with the Western-friendly government in Lebanon and even entering into back-channel peace talks with Israel. It has seen its efforts go unrewarded in Washington, and Syrian officials have openly spoken of waiting now for the next U.S. administration to take office before pushing ahead with its efforts.
A more damning judgment of Mr. Bush’s time in office comes from those Syrians who believed his rhetoric about spreading democracy in a “New Middle East.” Instead of advancing their cause, Syrian democrats say they lost ground over the past eight years, as “democracy” became a dirty word in the region after the catastrophe of the Iraq war.
“The New Middle East talk had a negative effect on democracy in the Arab world. [The Bush administration] supported democracy with words, but they didn’t take any concrete actions to help us,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a 25-year-old Syrian dissident living in exile in Beirut. “Before, I think the Syrian people wanted democracy, but after Iraq they don’t. They looked at Iraq and said, ‘We’re next if we don’t support our leader.’ “
Amid the uproar over the U.S. attack in Syria last week, Mr. Abdullah’s father, Ali, was among 12 writers and human-rights activists who were sentenced by a Syrian court to 2½-year prison sentences for daring to put their signatures on a 2005 document called the Damascus Declaration that called for greater political openness in Syria. Ali Abdullah told the court that he had been beaten by police and forced to sign the confession that led to his conviction on charges that included “weakening national morale.”
An ardent opponent of Mr. Assad’s regime and himself a veteran of Syria’s jails, Mohammed Abdullah is also pulling for Mr. Obama to win today, believing – hoping – that engagement between Damascus and Washington, rather than conflict, is what will get his father out of jail.