This observer judges that the Persians, whose bright, articulate students are well known internationally, and with whom he has been honored to discuss international politics on several occasions, may well have met their intellectual match in the Syrian Arabs. This assessment is based on what is happening among the people in Damascus, not just in the universities and schools, but during impromptu "marketplace of ideas" sessions that are increasingly taking place in the streets and in coffee houses and places of public gathering.
Last night was one example. Way past this observer's bedtime, some friends came to see me and wanted to sit outside "for a few minutes" to discuss the latest speculations from Washington and St. Petersburg. We ended up sitting on concrete slabs that divide Al Bahsa Street, where no cars are allowed in front of my hotel for more than three hours! Miss Hiba, a wild and wonderful Palestinian journalist born in Yarmouk camp, interpreted for us. The assemblage very quickly grew, as a few soldiers, shabiha and national defense force types, showed up to see what was going on. Some even joined in the fast-moving animated discussions.
There were several students and neighborhood residents in the group, and, even at the start of the "seminar," it quickly became apparent that Syrians are carefully tracking developments in the run-up to the widely expected "9/12/13 Black Thursday," now less than a week away. It is on this date that many Damascenes and foreign observers believe the American attack will begin.
On the surface, life appears fairly normal in Demascus, but there is no question that tensions are rising and people are alarmed at the prospect of an American attack. This observer was educated by these Syrians with many views of the conflict raging here and of how events locally and internationally are apt to unfold.
One view in particular is virtually unanimous. It is that, for all the White House smooth talk, it is simply not credible that the purpose of the American attack--without benefit of UN Security Council approval--will be limited and
short, and designed only to send a message to, or to punish, the Syrian leadership. This is especially so, because, in the last couple of days, the President's team has frequently used the term "degrade"
(as in demolish and utterly destroy) to describe the purpose of the strikes it plans.
An elderly gentleman who owns a pharmacy around the corner explained: "It's regime change here and in Tehran, and nothing less! They will bomb anywhere at will, because their top 75 listed targets have already been emptied and keep shifting. We are all working to provide Obama with no targets."
This observer was dumbfounded at the sophistication and quality of the projections posited by the impromptu gathering. One student preparing to return to classes late this month at Damascus University rattled off statistics regarding vote prospects in the U.S. Congress. She explained to the growing assemblage that the House of Representatives count as of 9/4/13 included 47 firm or tentative Yes votes, 187 firm or tentative No votes, and 220 unknown or undecided votes. Then she expressed her view that she was pretty certain the President will be forced to withdraw the resolution or postpone a vote in the House.
Another lady, whom I have seen around my hotel garden, mentioned yesterday's report in the Washington Post that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has linked up with the Israeli lobby AIPAC to wage an all-out public campaign for a U.S. war on Syria. I had no idea about this, and wondered how she could be so current with her information. She told me, "So far, only 21 senators have said they support or are likely to support the Obama resolution; thirteen have said they oppose or are likely to oppose the resolution; and 66 votes are undecided or unknown."
The episode that ended our gathering early this morning started when one young man, presumably a law student, zeroed in on this observer and started reciting from memory--not a summary, mind you, but rather word for word--Article One, Section Eight, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution: "The Congress shall have Power To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.
He then explained that this passage mandates no specific form the legislation must have in order to be considered a "Declaration of War." Nor does the Constitution itself use this term.
Then came the zinger. "Sir, can you compare and contrast this Article and Clause with the 1973 War Powers Act, and share with us your interpretation of both with respect to what your President is threatening to do to my country?"
"Who is this guy?" I thought to myself, and I began to stutter and think in anguish, "Where is Professor Richard Falk* when I need him?"
I did not know where or how to begin to answer the gentleman. I started to mumble something like, "That's an excellent question. Can we meet later to discuss it, because it's very late now."
But, just as I glanced at my watch and noticed it was 4:28 a.m., mercifully, we all heard the Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) emanating from a muezzin at the nearby mosque. The eerie, but somehow reassuring, strains wafted around us, and it was time for al fajr (Dawn) prayers.
It was this observer's very good luck that I could duck the young man's question about the Constitution and the War Powers Act. The soldiers on the street fell silent and listened, and became contemplative. One can only imagine what they were thinking about next week's likely American bombing campaign. They then started to disperse, as did about half of the gathering.
I was saved, though with no thanks to Professor Falk.