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To Understand the Value Systems of Syria, Look to Lebanon

Said E Dawlabani

Said E Dawlabani

Said E Dawlabani

I am honoured to publish this ‘guest blog’ by the remarkable Said E Dawlabani. Following a prominent 3-decade long career in the real estate industry, he has become one of the leading experts in the value-systems approach to macroeconomics and is the founder of The Memenomics Group.  He has lectured widely on the subject of ‘Where Economics meet Memetics’, has a blog with that title and has authored several papers on economic policy and global value systems. His upcoming book, ‘Memenomics: The Quest for Value-based Economic Policies’, will further develop these ideas

Said’s other overriding interest is the development of the Middle East and North Africa. He is Chief Operating Officer of the Centre for Human Emergence Middle East and serves on its Board of Directors, alongside pioneering thinkers like Elza S Maalouf, Jean Houston and Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck. As a Lebanese-American, he writes with experience, insight and passion of the way its meddling in Lebanon has contributed to the neo-civil war increasingly engulfing Syria.

The gruesome images of dead children and the systemic slaughter of innocent people in Syria continue to shock the world day after day. Just recently a human rights group uncovered over 2-dozen torture chambers spread throughout the country which are run by the notorious Syrian Mukhabarat (intelligence). As the regime continues to invent stories about who is responsible for the violence, their credibility seems to diminish by the hour and the spectre of a full-blown civil war hangs over every square inch of the land. For me personally and for millions of Lebanese who grew up during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the horror of the Syrian Army and its intelligence unit is something that is forever etched in our minds.

Lebanon has been a place for regional proxy wars since its independence from France in 1948. The place is a paradox and a cross roads between East and West. Before this oldest Arab democracy could ever get a chance to function, much bigger political forces sealed its fate. It was in the best interest of the West and regional Arab powers to keep Lebanon’s central government weak. For the West, it was a place to relieve pressure on Israel by housing hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, while the United Nations paid Lebanese and Palestinian officials to administer care but did very little to improve lives in refugee camps. By the 1970s these deplorable conditions exploded in what became known as Lebanon’s civil war. In 1974 the Syrian Army entered Lebanon under the guise of peacekeeper to separate Palestinians and Sunnis on one side and the Christians on the other. The Syrians found life in Lebanon to be too good to leave and justified their occupation by being the perpetrators of instability – siding first with one side and then the other. The country has since been set back in its cultural emergence by several decades. For 30 years the world powers looked the other way while the Syrian Army was inflicting the same horrors on its much smaller, much richer and helpless neighbour it is inflicting on its own people today. Much like a bully who is not confronted in time, the pathology of bullying helpless people has taken on a far more dangerous form, emboldening it to become the disturbed, cold blooded killing machine it is today.

Although Lebanon has its longest common border with Syria, the value systems of the 2 countries could not be any further apart. In general, the elements of culture that are considered essential for human emergence in Lebanon amounted to what is called an open system that, for centuries, allowed its inhabitants to seek higher levels of human existence. As a child growing up there, the presence of any form of governmental authority was barely noticeable. Laissez-faire policies (due more to the absence of government than to deliberate design) enabled commerce and the media to thrive with freedoms rarely seen in any of the Arab dictatorships. Before the start of the civil war, Beirut was known as ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ where it would be a common occurrence to see The Beatles perform in one venue while across town an Indian Guru lead a meditation group. In short, Lebanon’s culture had far more memetic complexity and density that made its values more comparable to the West than any other Arab nation. The Syrian value systems, on the other hand were anything but open. It was in the best interest of Syria’s Baath Party and the Assad family to keep the majority of their citizens, including their soldiers, illiterate on purpose. At one point, before the winds of the ‘Arab Spring’ blew through the streets of Damascus, one out of every 4 men worked for the Syrian Mukhabarat. These men dressed in plain clothes, pretending to read a newspaper – although everyone knew they couldn’t read – but they made sure no one spoke ill of the leadership. Lebanese culture, on the other hand, frowned upon its citizens if they didn’t attain a minimum of a high school degree and learned to speak a minimum of 3 languages. When the Syrian brutal RED system entered a Western-oriented-but-weak ORANGE system, a clash of civilizations was inevitable. Following are just a few examples of the torture the Lebanese people suffered under a 3-decade long Syrian occupation…

While the Lebanese believed in hard work to get the creature comforts of life, the Syrian Army believed in stealing it. If a Syrian security officer in Lebanon liked a nice car, within 24 hours it was on the streets of Damascus driven by an army officer. If the owner of that car ever confronted the soldiers stealing it, he would be either killed on the spot or taken away to one of the most notorious torture chambers, the Mazzi prison, never to be heard from again. Over the years this type of civil society bullying on the hands of a brutal military (with a much lower level of complexity) grew to become the biggest kleptocracy in the region. It formed organized crime gangs and spread systemically to Lebanese institutions from government ministries to private banks. The Assad family continued engaging in political meddling in Lebanon to justify the presence of their soldiers as peacekeepers in order to keep money coming in from the oil rich Gulf States and the UN. The Saudis and the Kuwaitis favored the status quo so they could enjoy their summer vacations in the mountains of Lebanon in peace and tranquility. In typical RED vMEME fashion, the Assads and the Baath party elites kept all the money that poured into the Syrian coffers for themselves and ignored the most basic needs of their soldiers, such as winter blankets and proper shoes. This turned some the soldiers into petty thieves who would steal firewood from homes near their garrisons – just to keep warm in the harsh, snowy winters.

To the Syrians, Lebanon was a goldmine. Not only did the Syrian intelligence apparatus pillage its intuitions, its economic system provided employment for as many as 600,000 Syrians who supported their extended families. Although most of the work was in farming and construction, wages were much higher in Lebanon than in Syria (which offered meager employment opportunities). But, as is often the case with a closed diabolical RED system, the regime couldn’t see the benefits of its presence in Lebanon and wanted a much bigger peace of ‘the pie’. It thought nothing of cutting down anyone that came in the way of what it wished for. In a stark display of poor judgement, typical of the RED vMEME, the Syrians killed the ‘goose’ that laid the ‘golden egg’. In 2005 Syria’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, was implicated in assassinating Rafik Hariri, a self-made billionaire and a very popular (ORANGE-driven) Lebanese Prime Minister. This heinous act exposed the true face of the Syrians and unleashed the fury of the Lebanese public, forcing the ouster of the Syrian security apparatus. All the Arab leaders loved Hariri and the pretense of a Syrian army keeping the peace quickly disappeared along, with millions in Arab aid. Suddenly the 30-year kleptocracy came to an end. In a matter of weeks, Syrian labourers were no longer welcomed in Lebanon. Over half a million Syrians with Purple/RED values suddenly had nothing to do – and there were millions of mouths to feed.

Not having Lebanon to bankroll Syria’s RED compulsive habits and to feed its growing population, in my opinion, was the primary reason for the Syrian uprising. Although the young Assad had embarked on economic reforms, they weren’t moving fast enough to keep millions of mouths fed and transform a leadership that had gotten used to stealing everything it had ever desired. Reforms that target real economic change take a long time to bear fruit and very few in Syria have that kind of patience. The economic reforms that have been implemented so far became the Baath party’s substitute kleptocracy for Lebanon. Meanwhile the killing machines of the dreaded Shabiha militias have turned their weapons on their own people because their diabolical RED training doesn’t allow them to think of what else to do. All this combined to create the perfect storm for emergence out of the most closed and toxic RED systems imaginable…and the gruesome results are horrifying to see.



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6 Responses

  1. Said says

    Keith, here’s a link for to a blog entry I wrote a year ago about first steps towards building the future economies of the Middle East. The biggest challenge that faces the region is not economic in the same sense as western economic cooperation, it is the establishment of non-Quranic BLUE as a foundation for a new national and regional political paradigm before a new economic one can take form. Currently, the tribes in charge of running the oil wealth, or the dictators are the only BLUE that the Middle East knows. Secularism (as in Syria today) is not a reflection of the free will of the culture, but by brutal imposition that is only polarizing sectarian tensions as the system collapses. Islam, especially in these states needs decades to evolve to become aligned with the needs of the region’s Life Conditions as the world becomes more of a global village. Currently, merit does not exist. In the Gulf, The the highest paid are the Americans and the Brits regardless of education. If you’re Filipino, with a PhD, you are still the lowest paid on the totem pole. Advancement in society is limited to which tribe they belong to regardless of qualifications. Ex pats can never become citizens nor can their offsprings born in that land. They are all subject to deportation at any given time.

    Graves used to say a culture in a certain value system borrows from other value systems to make itself comfortable where it is. In this case, it’s PURPLE-RED with money that buys modernity and calls it Orange. Who knows where the Middle East will be today in its developmental stages without the discovery of oil. Maybe a footnote to modern history with nomadic tribes that would have to exit PURPLE-RED much like the West did centuries ago in order to build authentic BLUE-Orange over a very long period of time. There are very few sustainable institutions in the region that will remain standing should oil dry up tomorrow, and that, in my opinion is the the biggest squandered opportunity in the history of modern humanity.

  2. Keith E Rice says

    I had a wild and wacky daydream today.

    Since grinding poverty among the masses and wealthy autocratic ruling dynasties seem to be the 2 common characteristics of the Arab Spring states, the revolutions will only resolve the second characteristic. (This assumes, of course, that something more unsavoury doesn’t replace the ruling dynasty…!) The poverty remains – as Tunisia and Egypt know only too well. States like Iraq can be oil rich in a way that benefits most of the population IF they get the right government. (Results from the elections are mildly promising.) States like Syria, on the face of it, have much less economic potential. (Presumably why Lebanon was so tempting!)

    The Islamic fundamentalists are expert at gaining the trust of the rural poor through what we might call ‘charitable works’ (zakah) – food, medicines, etc – which then translates into support for the fundamentalist cause. (Meet the BEIGE need and engender PURPLE loyality!) So ongoing poverty not only destabilises the country and limits social and political progress but it beefs up the fundamentalist programme.

    So what, if the really wealthy players in the region – viz: Israel and the Gulf States – set up an economic cooperation zone, with the aim of bringing the Arab world into plurality and out of poverty? Of course, there would be HUGE problems to overcome. Israel would have to resolve the Palestinian issue fairly and end the occupation. The Gulf States would have to become decidedly less autocratic and implement major social and politcal reforms on their home turf. As for the reilgious divides, emphasis would be have to be on worship of the common Abrahamic God and focus on many of the ritualistic similarities between Judaism and Islam, rather than the details of belief.

    Such a zone would have to respect national, tribal, religious and ethnic identities within a common cooperation region in the 2nd Tier way you talk about, Said. It would also make Arab-Israeli conflict marginally less likely. Maybe….

    Would it work? Almost certainly the mindsets in the region are far too rigid and simplistic for the idea even to be considered.

    Told you it was a wild and wacky daydream!

  3. Said says

    The Swiss cantonal system has always fascinated me, which is in line with your thoughts Keith on the idea of loose confederation. The image that stays in my mind from years of working with Don Beck is a reference he once made to distinguish a First Tier model for democracy from a Second Tier. A First Tier model has sought to make a melding pot out of any given culture (blue-Orange-GREEN) melded into one identifiable unit of conformity be it British, French, Chinese, etc.. A Second Tier model (YELLOW-Functional) seeks to make a soup rich in identifiable chunks swimming in a rich broth. The broth is the common thread, and the chunks are the things that hold identity. A truly revolutionary redistribution of power that might work for advanced countries with functional YELLOW thinking.

    Of course, the Middle East needs to experience true Blue and the rule of law for many decades to emerge into full expressions of the remaining systems of the First Tier before that conceptual image for governance can materialize.

  4. Keith E Rice says

    A very interesting perspective, Said. In the Western media, the Syrian revolution is all too often presented as simply the latest in the collapsing dominos of the ‘Arab Spring’, triggered by the near-bloodless revolution in Tunisia. In your comments on ‘Well, are the Arabs ready for Democracy’ – – you caution against treating “the MENA…as one homogeneous culture”. You’ve certainly demonstrated here that there are differences between Syria and other fallen dominos, due not least to the recent history with Lebanon.

    And certainly, with possibly the worst massacre so far (Tremseh) and speculation from American intelligence that the military may be about to use chemical weapons, it does seem that the regime is becoming ever more destructive and self-destructive.

    You’ve talked a lot about RED driving the Syrian regime, military and militias. How do you see ethnic divisions playing out in the Syrian and Lebanese landscapes? It seems to me that PURPLE tibalism and possibly BLUE’s use of religion may be playing a role as well….


    • Said says

      Keith, since the start of the Syrian crisis, every time I speak to a family member in Lebanon, I’m told that the worse things get in Syria, the easier Lebanon can breath. Hizballah has crippled Lebanese politics since the ouster of the Syrians in 2005 and now find themselves in a position where their primary sponsor is in trouble and are having a hard time redefining themselves. Lebanon will continue to be a hollow democracy for many decades after the Syria-Hizballah alliance wanes. There will just be less political assassinations and a much lower probability of going to war with Israel.

      As far as Syria is concerned, I’m afraid its future doesn’t look that promising. The way I see it, there will be 2 choices after Assad is gone: A Sunni military general will ascend to power who will put an end to much of the reforms that Assad started while restoring law and order with an iron fist far worse than the 2 Assads. The other choice, which the West will favor, will be to install a weak, democratically oriented leader. A Syrian ex-pat professor of history type (in a heavy RED system) which will insure a full blown sectarian war and the defacto partition of Syria along sectarian lines. The Kurds to the north are aching to reunite with their ancestral mother land, which is the natural way to build nations today in tribal cultures.

      • Keith E Rice says

        This is going away from the topic a little; but I’m fascinated by your comment, Said, that “the natural way to build nations today in tribal cultures”.

        As an experienced and informed observer, do you think that’s the way it’s going – that we’re approaching the end of the constructed nation state, as per Garibaldi (Italy) and Bismarck (Germany) and, most especially, the boundaries imposed in Africa, slicing across tribal areas, by the European colonial powers in the 19th Century…? (There is considerable speculation that Italy’s financial woes may lead to its break-up….)

        With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavian ‘super states’ into ethnicity-dominated smaller countries, with the secession of ‘black’ South Sudan from ‘Arab’ Sudan, with the Basque separatist movement still bubbling, as high profile examples…even in the UK, some pundits think the Scottish independence movement has a real chance of winning in the 2014 referendum…could it be that we’re moving into an era of smaller, ethnicity-dominated states perhaps working together in loose confederations…?

        I could see the EU morphing into something like that…but the thought of PURPLE tribalism with access to nuclear arsenals is not an edifying thought!