• Omar Imady

Stranded in Kabul

With Abdallah Dardari, November 2018

More than eight years after the Syrian Uprising began, I now have an unexpected answer to the question I am repeatedly asked. “Where is Syria today?” Without blinking, I respond: “Stranded in Kabul!” My response generates the effect I am seeking, a combination of confusion and curiosity, followed by a request, by some, for me to elaborate. To those who are genuinely interested in an explanation, I proceed to share a story that began on the morning of March 1, 1994 in the basement of a building at the heart of the Damascene neighbourhood of Abu Rummanah. This was where, back in the 1990s, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office was based. My mother too once worked in this office, and she remembers the wounded pedestrians who rushed into the building, victims of the shrapnel of bombs dropped on Damascus by Israeli Phantoms in October 1973.

But on March 1, 1994, the sky was clear, and the jacaranda trees glowed violet blue. I walked into this building as UNDP’s new National Programme Officer, with the added description of Head of the Programme Support Unit. A few minutes later, I was introduced to the Head of the Programme section, a man who looked far bigger than the small desk he was sitting behind. This was Abdallah Dardari who, by the end of the day, had convinced me that he was not only physically not well suited for his desk, but that he was also far bigger than his position at UNDP. Mind you, I’m not easily impressed, especially intellectually. Taught at Macalester by the likes of Mahmoud El-Kati, and at Penn by the late George Makdisi, and Alan Watson, I had high standards for what constituted crisp and cohesive discourse. I remember Abdallah speaking non-stop on Syria’s politics and economy, moving easily from Arabic to English. What captured me most was the faith he constantly reflected, faith that something can be done to make things better. This ‘something’ was not an actual plan, though it was thirsty to become one.

With time, it became clear that we both had a lot in common. We both came from old Damascene families and had fathers who had played an important role in modern Syria. Abdallah’s father was General Abd al-Razzaq Dardari, commander of the Operations Division in the war of 1973, and my father was the long serving Minister of Economy. Both of us had also been educated in the West, and had deep respect for its liberal values. And yet both of us were also deeply committed to Islam, though our understanding of it was far too enlightened, as we liked to describe it, than most of our acquaintances would have been comfortable with. We did, however, have a very important difference. Watching my father over the years, as he moved from one failed reform attempt to another, watching him having to deal with the dark side of Syria as he did his best to remain untainted, had left me unable to engage with the idea that reform, real reform, was possible. I was still very interested in studying and understanding how reform attempts were planned, organised and executed, but I was not in the least tempted to join such an attempt. Abdallah on the other hand was eager to do just that. At UNDP, we would both initiate a micro-finance program in rural Syria, and the first poverty alleviation program to openly use the term ‘poverty’ since 1963.

It took around nine years for Abdallah to finally become one of Syria’s new technocrats. Sometime in 2003, I recall him inviting me into his office. He closed the door and said he had something important to share with me. He then explained that he had been asked to be the new Head of the State Planning Commission. By then he liked to refer to me as al-Damir, an Arabic word that can be translated as Mr. Conscience or moral compass. Abdallah used it in jest to highlight what he regarded as my hyper-idealism (which he blamed on my American mother). So, what does al-Damir think? I smiled, and replied, well it’s too late for me to think anything, you clearly can’t say no to this, but my prayer is for you to be protected. Abdallah understood my words to mean that I wished him to be protected from all the enemies of reform who had often driven my father and many others into despair and depression. And I did mean that, but I also was praying that the Abdallah I knew, the light Damascene genuine man I had met back in 1994, would not allow the circle of power and influence to change him.

Only two years later, Abdallah was appointed as Deputy Prime Minster for Economic Affairs, a post reserved during my father’s tenure for hard core Ba’thists. Abdallah was not only not a Ba’thist, he was also a strong believer in the market economy, though he would argue that his take on the economy was far more consistent with a Swedish take on capitalism, with strong emphasis on the role of the state in protecting the poor and fragile segments of society. After 2003, meetings with Abdallah became less frequent, partially because by then I was working at a university in Jordan, but also because his new duties meant he was always very consumed. But when I did meet him, I was always comforted by the fact that he was still the man I knew. In many ways, I felt sad for him. I regarded him as entrapped in a framework where, if things go wrong, as undoubtedly they will, he would be blamed by everyone, and if something happens to succeed, he would be the last to be credited with its success. Mostly, however, I was troubled on his behalf for all the contact he had with figures and officials with whom I could not imagine myself sitting in the same room.

And then March 2011 arrived. I remember at one point in Asad’s infamous speech on the March 30, 2011 reference was made to failed economic policies, and I understood this as an implicit critique of Abdallah, and I actually felt relief. This to me meant that Abdallah would soon be relieved of his duties, and he would be out of what was bound to become a political and humanitarian nightmare. But the ever-believer in reform would not quit. In no time, Abdallah was creating an extensive network of Syrian researchers and experts from both loyalists and opposition circles to be part of an ESCWA sponsored program entitled National Agenda for Syria. And sometime in late 2015, he asked me, and the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews, to be part of a team that would author Syria at war: Five years on. During this phase I met and spoke to Abdallah more than I had the chance to when he was working for the government. Many were troubled at the time by the fact that Abdallah did not openly attack the Syrian regime. He explained to me his logic, though I was already very familiar with it. It was not only his logic; it was also my father’s and that of many others whom I once described as Damascene reformers; figures who wanted to do something for Syria, and who understood that the quickest way to become irrelevant in Syria’s reformers’ map was to become entangled in an inflamed political battle.

Presenting a UN report on Syria with Abdallah at a Chatham House event, April 2016

Of course, in my mind there was, and continues to be, far more at stake than mere politics, there is a human aspect to what unfolded after March 2011 that I do not believe can be ignored. But as strong as my feelings are against the regime’s brutal crushing of peaceful protesters, I also do not subscribe to the ‘with us or against us approach’ which both loyalists and opposition figures overwhelmingly employ. Ba’th party members, like Muslim fundamentalists, had produced a mindset where those who disagree or act differently are instantly branded as traitors, and ironically Syrians who hate the Ba’th and the Syrian regime are just as capable of using this tactic against those who do not publicly stand up against the regime as they do.

My dilemma is that I can understand both perspectives. After all, I was raised as a cultural bridge, constantly ‘translating’ to my mother, who was born and raised in Orangetown, New York, the Damascene ideas and perceptions that escaped her and doing the same to my Syrian relatives when they seemed bewildered by my mother’s words or actions. And so, when I listen to Samar Yazbek eloquently and powerfully describe the regime’s brutality, I sink into a deep mood and ‘get it’; but when Abdallah speaks about all the reforms that need to be implemented in Syria, from the minute details to the larger frameworks, I smile, unsure of how much of this I can see unfolding in actual space and time, but I also ‘get it’. I get the need to believe that something rational can be done for Syria, and not for its regime, the need to believe that Syria is bigger than the transient regime that rules over it; I get all of this because my father, like Abdallah, and like many other Damascene reformers I have met along the way, believed in this too. My dilemma becomes even more complicated because something in me thinks I can successfully ‘translate’ for both, if only given the chance; that I can demonstrate that in their raw essence, both Samar and Abdallah are after the same objective; a prosperous Syria where human worth is valued and no one under any pretext is empowered with the right to oppress others.

Even after 2011, Abdallah still wanted to do something, still believed that something could be done; and for this, some went as far as describing him as a fundraiser for the regime, a description which stood in deep contrast to Abdallah’s strong moral position against what was taking place in Syria, a position he repeatedly shared with me and others in the clearest of terms, though not with media outlets. In Abdallah’s mind, this was not the time to withdraw and allow Syria’s dark side to fully take over. It was rather the time to try to do something, something however modest for those who really mattered, for those who were suffering in destroyed villages that lacked access to the most basic requirements of a healthy and dignified life. What would another anti-regime statement achieve exactly? he would rhetorically ask.

After ESCWA, Abdallah moved to the World Bank where he was the team leader of a project focused on reconstruction in the MENA region, for which he was once again attacked, this time for allegedly trying to legitimise the regime’s reconstruction efforts. Once again, the Centre for Syrian Studies was engaged, and I contributed The Weaponization of Syria’s Reconstruction; a piece which clearly contradicted the idea that whatever Abdallah or his team at the World Bank were after was research that supported the regime’s approach to reconstruction. If anything, my colleagues and I thoroughly documented why regime practises were the very obstacle to fair and sustainable reconstruction — and I went even further, questioning the very purpose of the term ‘reconstruction’. And yet, in the midst of all of this, I recall sitting and watching Abdallah on my computer screen as he spoke in a World Bank conference of his vision of what must take place in Syria, and I recall how he was able, in a manner very similar to what he did on the March 1, 1994, the day I first met him, to inspire me, to make even the idealist sceptic in me believe that perhaps, just perhaps, something meaningful can still be done for Syria.

And then last month I received an email from Abdallah which was sent to me and many of his other friends and colleagues informing us that he had been designated as the new UNDP Resident Representative in Kabul. The email was entitled ‘Goodbye’ and it evoked an unexpected feeling, a feeling that it was not just Abdallah who had, for the first time since 1994, shifted his energy to a project that was not purely Syria-related, but that somehow Syria as well was now in a metaphorical Kabul: dangerous, beyond any form of political transition, and forgotten by the world. The suffering of its people has been normalised; the destruction of its towns and villages has been normalised; and its political nightmare has been normalised. Or perhaps somewhere in Abdallah’s reformist Damascene mind, this new appointment constituted a specialised training session focused on learning the art of picking up the pieces and rebuilding, one tragic brick at a time.

*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.

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