Tuesday, July 12, 2005

"Enigma of Damascus" by Bennet of the NY Times

James Bennet of the NY Times has written an excellent article about Bashar and Syria in the Sunday magazine section. (It has already been translated into Arabic by Syria-news.com here) Bennet came to Syria during the week of the Baath Party Conference on the promise that he would be able to interview the President and his wife, but it was only during the last days of this stay that his appointment was confirmed.

In the meantime, he began gathering a story about Syrian versus Arab national identity in Syria. It is a big story, and one that is hard to tell, but Bennet does a nice job here of weaving it into his interview with the first family. Needless to say, President Bashar would not cooperate with him by talking about these larger identity questions. To mention Syrianism is a touchy issue and one the President cannot touch. Everyone in Syria is an "official" Arab nationalist, even though, Syria is rapidly developing a "Syrian" national identity.

Bashar's drive to open Syria up economically necessitates Syria backing into its borders. It must have good relations with its neighbors if it wants to trade, build superhighways that cross the Middle East, build pipelines and attract foreign investment. Old irredentist claims - such as Alexandretta, the province Turkey took in 1939, or the sliver of land Syria grabbed from Jordan in 1970, when it sent its troops across the border to aid Palestinians during Black September, have had to be abandoned. In fact Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon was aided by Bashar's over-arching policy to normalize its relations with its neighbors in the interests of the Syrian economy and boosting employment. If Bashar is to produce jobs in Syria, he must stop fighting his neighbors. It means a general regional retreat. Of course, Bashar will not talk about it in this way, because it flies in the face of Arabism and Syria's stated Baathist goal of "strengthening its regional role." To grow Syria's economy means embracing its borders and trashing old-style romantic Arab nationalism.

Once Syria accepts its modern borders and abandons the dream of Bismarkian unification for the stated and clear goal of Arab federalism on the European model, Syria will have taken a great step toward liberalism and constitutionalism. Law and reality will be raised above Volkism and dreams of being greater than it is. Bennet captures this relationship in a nice way, giving the big picture and explaining the many challenges Bashar faces as he backs Syria towards a place in the changing Middle East.

The United States should encourage Bashar in carrying out this transformation. Naturally, the Washington hawks will insist that they are doing just that by forcing Syria out of Lebanon and smacking it around until it abandons super-national projections of Syria power, such as supporting Hamas, Hizbullah and other militant groups. And they will be right, up to a point.

But by placing an economic embargo on Syria, trying to impoverish its people, and thwarting Bashar's efforts to grow the Syrian economy, the US is undermining this process of integration and normalization. Just as importantly, by squandering this opportunity to solve the Golan issue and settle Syria's differences with Israel, Washington is stepping on its own toes. By being too mean and relying on force alone, George Bush is keeping old hatreds alive. By adding toads eyes and newts' tongues to the boiling cauldron of Arab anger, the US is feeding the black spirit of Arab irredentism and ethnic discontent that this region has supped on for too long. He needs to offering some "rahma" or forgiveness as well. A little economic carrot would sweeten the pot.

Here is the story:

The Enigma of Damascus
Published: July 10, 2005

The opera house in Damascus was a long time coming. Hafez al-Assad, the iron-willed military man who ruled Syria for three decades, was in power just a few years when he laid the cornerstone. But lack of materials and equipment, hard economic times and a devastating fire delayed the project year after year. It fell to Assad's son and successor, Bashar, to finish the job. He opened Al Assad opera house with his wife, Asma, last year. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by Syrian artists, offering up classical concerts and works by Arab playwrights, the building expresses something of the elder Assad's vision of Damascus as the Arab capital of cultural, if not political, enlightenment. The name of his controlling party, Baath, means resurrection, and nothing could better reflect an Arab renaissance than achievement in the arts.

Taryn Simon for The New York Times
President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, at their private office overlooking Damascus.

Omar Amiralay, a Syrian director. His latest film criticizes the regime.
For a dance performance one evening last month, a mixed crowd streamed through the doors. Women with showy hairstyles mingled with others in head scarves; men came in suits or jeans. One teenage boy wore a T-shirt that admonished in English, ''Your game is still as ugly as your girl.'' As curtain time approached, Syria's power couple walked in.

President Assad wore a black suit and a charcoal shirt without a tie; Mrs. Assad, a sea-foam green sweater over a sheer top and a white skirt. Her long, honey-colored hair was uncovered. Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor-turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J. P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.

For the Bush administration, many European leaders and many reform-minded Syrians, this is a mirage. Some of them had hopes for this Assad when he came to power after his father's death five years ago. But since then, what they have seen as a pattern of empty promises, nasty oratory and bloody tactics has turned them against the Syrian regime. Since Saddam Hussein's rule ended in Iraq, no other Arab government has come in for as much pressure and disdain from the Bush administration. In December 2003, President Bush imposed economic sanctions on Syria. This February, the administration recalled its ambassador, who has not returned to Damascus. It acted after a powerful bomb in Beirut killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and a critic of the Syrian regime. International pressure soon forced Syria to end its military occupation of Lebanon, which began in 1976 during Lebanon's civil war.

By ideology, inclination and geography, Bashar al-Assad's regime looms as a rock in the road to fulfillment of the Bush administration's foreign policy, if not its philosophy. It is the one government in the Middle East that has not recognized that Bush is serious about comprehensive reform, a senior administration official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. To the administration, Assad is a murderous proxy warrior, permitting or even encouraging jihadists to stream eastward into Iraq, and allowing Iranian weapons to stream westward to the guerrilla group Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Bush administration accuses him also of encouraging terrorism to the south, against Israel, by permitting militant Palestinian leaders to operate in Damascus. It sees him as a dictator interrupting a new expansion of democracy from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. If, as Bush has said, ''in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,'' then Syria's relative stability, after 35 years, may be due to run out.

or Assad, however, it is the Bush administration that is sowing chaos in the region and reaping new extremists who menace Syria as well as its neighbors. Assad contends that he is opening his economy and preparing for a day he can be peacefully voted out. Although he is viewed in Washington as possibly a mere figurehead, he says he is just at the point of consolidating control by removing the so-called old guard of his father's government and installing change-minded technocrats. While his Syrian critics see him as trapped in the system created by his father, or complicit in it, or simply uncertain what to do, Assad insists he has a plan but is implementing it at a rate that Syria can manage, given its turbulent past and social divides. In any event, he is acting like a man with plenty of time. His unhurried pace may be a sign of a self-assurance that his critics insist he lacks, or else of a dangerous complacency, or possibly of both.

When he paused on his way through the opera house to say hello, I asked if he was concerned about a report that American troops were again operating in western Iraq, near the Syrian border. The report had renewed rumors in Damascus of an imminent American invasion. Assad shrugged. ''The United States is a very powerful country,'' he said -- one that could strike as easily from the Mediterranean as from Iraq. ''It's not a matter of where they are,'' he said. ''It's a matter of how they behave.''

Well, was he worried that they may indeed strike from somewhere? ''No,'' he said, as a wry smile formed on his lips. ''I think the experience in Iraq has not'' -- he hesitated for a beat -- ''worked out.'' His wife flashed a warm smile and deftly flicked me away. ''We're off duty,'' she said in her plummy English.

The show proved not to be the ballet I anticipated but a kind of Orientalist pageant, with jingling Bedouin headdresses, flashing scimitars and barefoot women. It was a story of good versus evil, the good led by an elderly sheik and his strapping son in a black-and-gold robe, the evil led by a sinewy man with a shaved head and a snake tattooed over his left shoulder blade. He wore a sort of leather singlet studded with chrome buttons, and he brandished the biggest sword onstage.

Like Big Macs or a fully convertible currency, news of the end of history and the triumph of liberal capitalism has not reached Syria. Although Assad has begun to update it, the ideology of the Arab Socialist Baath Party -- less a vehicle for political participation than a far-reaching instrument of state control -- pulls at the economy, politics and society. The dance evoked the romantic pan-Arab dream that still burns in Syria, and in the Baath Party, long after it has faded through most of the Arab world. This once-revolutionary dream of a border-erasing, secular-leaning Arab union, promoted by the Assads and historically centered on Damascus, is now being squeezed between two more dynamic movements: its longtime, bloody Islamist rival, the vision of a renewed, border-defying caliphate; and the countering demand by Bush and Arab democrats for a Middle East of defined borders and democratic governments.

During the performance, the bad guys at first had the good guys on the ropes, stealing their women and abusing them. But then the Arab tribes united and stood up to the villains. Clearly enchanted, the man in the seat next to me leaned over and whispered, ''This is our history.''

''Syrian history?'' I asked.

''Arabic history,'' he replied.

The audience burst into applause and whoops when a chorus figure lip-synched a warning: ''Do not make peace with them, for they are truly evil!'' In the ensuing battle, Snake Tattoo killed the sheik's son by stabbing him in the back. Then came despair and a funeral, followed by the happy arrival of a handsome stranger from another tribe to marry the sheik's daughter. The performance ended with the wedding, a tableau of celebration and Arab unity despite the evil that remained unvanquished. Nobody mentioned Israel.

The Assads' applause never ventured beyond the perfunctory. After the bows, the actor who portrayed the sheik began the inevitable chant -- ''In our blood, in our souls, we sacrifice for you, Bashar'' -- but Assad did not pause in his exit from the theater, and the chant quickly died. Once outside the hall, the couple stopped to shake hands and chat. Scores of audience members clustered by the president's Audi sedan. Some held high their cellular telephones -- legalized by Assad only three years ago -- to snap digital photographs. ''God protect you!'' one woman called. Then Asma al-Assad climbed into the passenger's seat, Bashar al-Assad slipped behind the wheel, and they drove off alone into the jostling traffic and the balmy Damascus night.

The next day, when I asked Asma al-Assad what she thought of the dance, she winced. ''I think there was a lot of talent,'' she said carefully. But, she added, ''I don't think it portrayed what Syria is, in any era.''

Yet what Syria is -- what it means to be Syrian -- is at the center of the debate over the country's future. To the extent that Syria has had a national identity, it has been based on the dismissal of a local Syrian identity in favor of its grander claim, to be ''the beating heart of Arabism.'' Along with the presidency, Arab socialism, the occupation of Lebanon, a network of corruption and the security state, Hafez al-Assad bequeathed that perplexing legacy, and the question of what, if anything, to do about it, to his son, who had expected to be an eye doctor.

I spoke with the Assads on successive days in the same setting, their private office in a small, sand-colored villa on the western hills overlooking Damascus. On the first occasion, Assad was waiting alone in the doorway. He ducked his head slightly as we shook hands. Perched atop that attenuated body, his head and features seem small; his deep- and close-set eyes make his default expression one of worry. That morning, his mustache, the essential accessory of the Baathist male, was shaved to a bar of stubble above his lip. He led me to the office, where he sat on a black leather sofa. An interpreter sat across from him, but Assad, who spoke in English with a slight lisp, would turn to him for a word only a handful of times over the next two hours. Hafez al-Assad was notorious for lecturing visitors for hours on end, testing their patience and their bladders. His son waited politely for my first question.

I began by noting that there was a debate in Washington over whether he was in control of his government. I asked his view. He laughed. ''That was before our conference,'' he said, referring to the Baath Party congress that had just ended. Several senior figures had stepped down; Assad had now replaced all but 6 of the 21 members of the Syrian Baath Party's top panel, its Regional Command, and in replacing them, he had whittled their total number to 15.

Assad said he had been following the Washington debate. ''There are maybe two different articles,'' he said. '' 'He is not in control' -- but in the other article, 'He is a dictator.' So there is a contradiction.'' Neither description fit, he said. ''By law and by constitution, the president of Syria has a lot of authority. But if you take a decision by yourself -- it doesn't matter if it's a big decision, an important decision or a normal decision -- you do a lot of mistakes. You must consult everybody. This is my way. Second, they say, 'He's reluctant, not in control,' because I take my time. I'm not hasty.'' He pointed to another change made at the Baath congress, the substitution among the party's goals of a social-market economy for socialism. That change was 18 months in the works, he said. I knew that, in the past, Assad had asked for patience from Americans by indicating that the old guard -- remnants of his father's regime -- were thwarting him. But now he brought up the members of the old guard only to dismiss their influence. ''Now they're gone,'' he said. ''We made that change.''

Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria is more isolated in the world than it has ever been. Hafez al-Assad made his share of mistakes; he did not fully emerge as the ''lion of Damascus'' until years after taking control. Yet the father had the Soviet Union and cold-war gamesmanship to fall back on. He also had on-again-off-again peace talks with Israel, which gave him a framework for talking with the United States. Bashar al-Assad has had neither of these tools. He came into power after talks collapsed in 2000 over the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967, in the Six-Day War. Soon a new Palestinian intifada was raging. And then came Sept. 11, 2001. In the eyes of the Bush administration, Assad set about digging himself a deeper hole. His father supported the Persian Gulf war, but Bashar al-Assad opposed the war with Iraq in 2003. He pushed the Lebanese to change their constitution to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, an Assad loyalist. Then, on Feb. 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri and 19 other people died in the Beirut bombing.

Assad denies having anything to do with the Hariri assassination. He told me that allies of Syria had also been killed in Lebanon, and no one had figured out who was responsible. ''There are always assassinations in Lebanon,'' he said. ''Hariri was an international businessman. We don't know anything about his relations.'' I asked if he agreed with a recent op-ed column in the Arabic press by one of his ministers, Buthaina Shaaban, suggesting that American or Israeli intelligence was responsible. ''Even if I want to blame any other international or regional party, I can't say it as president,'' he said. ''That's why we supported the international investigation.''

Responding to claims made in Washington, Assad said Syria had complied completely with a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on it to withdraw its soldiers and intelligence agents. When I asked if he would help the United Nations fulfill another component of that resolution -- the disarming of Hezbollah -- he shrugged. ''They asked Syria not to interfere in Lebanon, so it is not our issue.'' What did he think the Bush administration wanted from him? ''I don't know,'' he said. ''This is the problem.'' He said that all he heard from the Americans was about sealing the Iraqi border, which runs more than 300 miles through the desert. ''They say, 'You do not do enough,' but we ask what is the meaning of 'enough'?'' American officials have acknowledged that the Syrian government provided valuable intelligence in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But they said Assad repeatedly dragged his heels when it came to combating the insurgency in Iraq. They said that in January, when Richard L. Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, gave him a list of former Iraqi officials hiding in Syria, Assad did nothing. The Syrian version is quite different. A senior Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that after the Armitage visit, Syria arrested and turned over a suspected insurgent leader, Saddam Hussein's half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, and more than 20 others. But he said that the Syrians, while seeking nothing in return, asked to keep their cooperation quiet for fear of alienating Arab opinion and angering extremists. The arrest by Syria made headlines worldwide, and the disclosure was seen in Damascus as double-dealing. Syria immediately denied any involvement.

The senior Bush administration official, by contrast, characterized the Syrian arrest of Hassan as one more attempt by Assad to play his father's hedging game, trading a chit sought by the Americans for the freedom to work against Bush policies elsewhere. Assad simply did not realize that the Bush administration would not play this game, the official said.

Assad told me he had arrested more than 1,500 extremists who tried to cross the border, to or from Iraq. He said his repeated offers of border cooperation with the Bush administration had gone ignored. ''First of all, who to cooperate with?'' he asked. ''If you go to the border, there are only Syrian guards on our side. But if you look at the Iraqi side, there is nobody. No Iraqi guards, no American guards. Nobody.''

I asked if he considered the violence in Iraq to be legitimate resistance. He sidestepped, saying he had put the same question to Iraqis. ''Of course, about suicide bombers and killing tens every day, nobody considers it legitimate resistance anywhere in this region,'' he said. ''But at the same time, they talk about Iraqis attacking allied forces -- they consider it resistance.'' Despite their shared ideology of Arab unity, the Baathists of Iraq and Syria were always trying to kill each other off, plotting coups and countercoups. Hafez al-Assad supported Iran in its war with Iraq, a decision that Bashar al-Assad listed for me as an instance of his father's farsightedness. Assad told me he did not regret his own opposition to the latest war with Iraq. He said he was against war on principle, and that he knew that Syria would ''pay the price of any side effects of this war in Iraq.'' He said Syria was now paying that price. Days before our interview, the Syrian government announced that it had arrested one man and killed two others who had been planning an attack in Damascus on behalf of an organization called Soldiers of Al Sham, a reference to a ''greater Syria'' that would include Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Assad now provided new details. He said that the group intended to send a 3-year-old girl laden with explosives into the crowded Ministry of Justice. He also said that the Syrians had foiled a planned attack last year on the American Embassy by a man ''with a bomb and machine gun.'' Assad said the Americans did not understand what he called their common enemy, the forces of religious extremism and intolerance he said Syria had been fighting since the 1950's. ''This state of mind is dangerous for everybody, for East and West, for everybody,'' he said, and as he talked he laid out what amounted to a three-step formula for his governance. He said that his top priority was stability. To achieve that, to dispel rising extremism, he needed to achieve a new prosperity. To achieve prosperity, he needed democracy. The adjectives he used throughout our conversation were ''open-minded'' and ''closed-minded.'' Emphasizing the former, he said, was his key to prosperity. ''When you talk about upgrading society, you talk about open-minded,'' he said. ''When you talk about open-minded, you mean freedom. Freedom of thinking.''

Bashar al-Assad was a spare, not the heir. His elder brother, Basil, was groomed to lead. Growing up under their own Baathist father, the Assad brothers of Syria were never like the wilding Hussein boys of Iraq. Neither had a reputation for personal corruption or cruelty. Yet they were very different from each other. Old friends and teachers of the Assad children remember Basil as charismatic and commanding, Bashar as self-effacing. Bashar had fewer, though long-lasting, friends. Basil was a champion equestrian and followed his father's path into the military. Bashar chose medicine, the profession his austere father had dreamed of pursuing as a boy. When Basil died in a car accident in 1994, Hafez al-Assad summoned his second son home from his studies in London, dispatched him to the army and began promoting him through the ranks. As president, Assad has chosen to decorate his office with paintings and sculptures of horses drawn from his brother's collection. Bearded, eyes blanked by aviator sunglasses, Basil's face still haunts many walls in Damascus.

When asked about himself, Assad tends to drift into using the second person -- a kind of grammatical step away from oneself, the opposite of the embracing royal we. When I asked if he sometimes wished he was pursuing his chosen profession, ophthalmology, he replied that he was accustomed to Syrians turning to him, as his father's son, for help. ''You're maybe just an ordinary person, but they don't consider you as ordinary,'' he said. ''They want you to help them. So this is since you are young. So you get attached to the problems of the general people.'' Assad seems to draw a line between himself as a person and his attempt to perform his father's self-designated job of Arab spokesman. In May 2001, while greeting Pope John Paul II in Damascus, Assad suggested that Christians and Muslims make common cause against those ''who try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ.'' Yet in the crowd at the funeral of that pope this year, Assad reached out to shake the hand of Israel's president, Moshe Katsav. Even when they were negotiating with Israelis during the Clinton presidency, Syrian officials resisted any public handshakes. ''God made him,'' Assad said of Katsav when I asked him about the handshake. ''Anybody God made should be recognized.

''As Syrians,'' he added, ''we have never been closed-minded.''

Assad told me he had moved to open general debate in Syria, permitting new criticism of the regime. When I asked if he really believed that people felt free to speak their minds now, he said: ''No, we don't say that we achieved democracy. We don't allege that. It's a long way. But we are going this way. The situation today, the question that we should ask, Is the situation today like the situation, say, 10 years ago? It's definitely not the same. So it's a road. You should walk the road.'' He added, ''They want us to jump.'' But, he said, ''if you jump, you will fall on your head.'' I said that some Syrian reformers, after watching him for five years, concluded he was not serious about political change. He said that his priority had to be economics, and he grew impatient: ''What should I feed them? Statements? Or paper? They want to eat food.'' He had to act against corruption immediately, he said. ''If we don't have a new party today, we can have it two years later, nobody will die. But if you don't have the food today, they will die tomorrow.''

The next day, when I sat in the same seat across from Asma al-Assad, she seized the initiative. What had I expected from my visit to Syria? What had I found? My first, vague response was met with polite impatience. ''Away from the cosmetic,'' she emphasized. ''I mean underneath.'' She went on to surprise me -- and to flatter my line of work -- by describing the difficulty of promoting development in a nation without a free press or, as she put it, ''in a country like Syria, where the media hasn't reached its full potential.''

She went on to say, ''The employee will give you his perspective as a government employee -- he wants modernization, but he doesn't want the government to be able to fire him.'' The businessman, she added, ''wants development, but he wants the market to remain closed, because he's benefiting.'' So ''everybody's looking at development from within his own aspect, rather than seeing a country's development.'' The media ''gives it a national perspective, rather than a community perspective.''

So could Syrians expect to see a free press soon? ''Absolutely.'' How soon? She hesitated, then smiled to acknowledge the impending evasion. ''Let me start by telling you a bit about myself.''

The daughter of a Syrian cardiologist, Asma al-Akhras grew up in London and graduated from the University of London. She did stints as a banker in New York, first with Deutsche Bank and then with J.P. Morgan, where she worked in mergers and acquisitions. She loved New York, and while she lived in a corporate apartment uptown, she wants it to be understood that she preferred to hang out downtown. She also worked in Paris, and she speaks French and Spanish. She has relatives in Houston. She had been accepted to Harvard's M.B.A. program when she chose to return to Syria and marry Assad, less than a year after he succeeded his father. The couple have two boys and a girl; the eldest, Hafez, is 3 1/2. The Assads had just begun speaking English with Hafez, having focused on his Arabic first. They have no professional day care and rely instead on the extended family. Asma al-Assad is 29 years old, 10 years younger than her husband.

But all that came later in the conversation. It turned out that in saying she wanted to talk about herself, she had a particular aspect in mind, one that seemed meant as a caution to an outsider asking about change, and maybe to an American administration hoping to reshape the Middle East. ''I came to live in Syria for the first time five years ago,'' she said, ''and I haven't even touched the surface. The fact that I speak the same language means nothing. The fact that I understand the culture means nothing. Because I didn't know what the mechanics of the society were.''

She was accustomed to working in a large bank with a clear objective, where ''the system doesn't allow you to go away from that objective or go out of that focus.'' Syria lacked institutions, she said, and even basic habits like ''absence of leave'' forms: ''Here, in Syria, if somebody wants to take a day off -- 'Where is he? Don't know, hold on, let me find out. Where is his contact number? Oh, let's ask admin.' And they've got a number that's 20 years old.'' Every ministry, she said a few minutes later, was ''a one-man show.'' The dearth of competent administrators was a refrain for both Assads.

Asma al-Assad has given almost no interviews; yet it was hard to imagine the wife of any other head of state in the region speaking with such easy assertiveness. Like an American first lady, she has focused on family issues, particularly economic empowerment and education. She said she gathered complaints and ideas and studied those around her to see, for example, if Syrians were following a new seat-belt law (they were not, she said). She presented herself as a full partner to her husband. When I asked if she passed this information on to him, she said: ''Of course. We exchange it, not only pass it on.''

She said that she initially approached Syria's problems as a businesswoman but added, with a laugh to drain the pomposity, that Assad ''gave me back my humanity.'' Cutting state jobs, however necessary it was, meant hurting families. ''We've got to make sure there's opportunity someplace else,'' she said. ''It's about finding the right balance between creating opportunity and managing risk. And that's for me what Syria is about today, and that's the transition process we're going through.''

As the sentences paraded smartly by, I thought of Syrians I had met who spent years in prison for opposing Hafez al-Assad, of the stories of torture I had heard. I thought of accusations of murderous policies pursued under Bashar al-Assad, of corruption among his relatives. It made for a jarring juxtaposition with this earnest talk of bureaucratic reform. You grew up in a capitalist democracy, I said at last. Didn't Syria seem kind of crazy to you when you moved here?

''Um,'' she said, momentarily searching. When she began again, she spoke more slowly. ''It's a process. And I know. I've seen the end of the process, if you like, and we are moving toward that objective.''

What did she say to Syrians who considered this a repressive government that jailed political opponents? ''How many political prisoners and how many have been released?'' she shot back. Assad has released hundreds of people imprisoned by his father, though he has also jailed some of his own. ''How many prisoners do you have in the U.S., political or otherwise? It doesn't mean you're a repressive society either. But just by focusing on one, you skew the picture.''

I noted that in Washington her husband was called a dictator who did terrible things. What was it Americans did not understand about him? Leaning forward on the sofa with her hands clasped in front of her, she sat silently for 13 seconds. ''I don't know which angle to take it from,'' she said at last. Another pause. ''I think people need to see the man behind the presidency,'' she said at last. ''They need to see what values he has. What his work ethics are. What his personal characteristics are. And then they can understand more about who he is and what he's trying to do.'' As I left the villa, I thought her initial inquiry was still the most important. What was, in fact, cosmetic, and what might be underneath?

ime has not forgotten Damascus, but it seems to have remembered it only on special occasions -- the invention of the tail fin, for example, or of the Soviet-style apartment block or, more recently, the rediscovery of the latte. But as Assad's stop-and-go changes open cracks in the socialist economy, money and modernity are trickling in. A few Internet cafes have opened their doors. People can now use credit cards. ''Kingdom of Heaven'' was playing downtown. One afternoon, a man in a Spider-Man suit was hawking Tweety Bird balloons outside the Scuzzi Café. ''Hi,'' he said, when he caught me staring.

Culturally, the atmosphere is far more open than it is in much of the Arab world. Lovers hold hands and cuddle in the parks. Over a sushi lunch one day, I watched the Syrian couple at the next table suck down six Scotches between them. It is a dissonant environment, of a policed liberalism confined to religious and cultural life and banned from politics. White-gloved policemen are everywhere directing the clogged traffic. They are obeyed. Syria's state of emergency, dating to 1963, gives them the power to arrest anyone with no stated cause. Some reformers hoped Assad would cancel the emergency law, but he told me he planned to change it ''to have more security, less abuse of the people.'' He cited as a model the Patriot Act.

The poverty is stark. Unemployment is said to stand at 20 percent. Maybe even more dangerous to the regime than American pressure is that the oil is running out. Nabil Sukkar, an economist and business consultant in Damascus, told me that Syria may become a net importer of oil by 2008. Sukkar said that he used to believe the regime could separate political and economic reform, but that it had now run out of time and had to do both over the next two or three years. ''You can't have the party monopolizing decision making,'' he said. Sukkar said that gulf investors were eager to build in Syria, but the Baathist ideology was scaring them off.

In his documentary ''A Flood in Baath Country,'' the Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay gives a chilling look at a society stunted by Baathism. As his camera stares, children in uniform in the barren classroom of a rural village mouth their slogans: ''We the Vanguards of Light salute our leader, Bashar.'' Together, the children chant: ''We are the voice of the proletariat. In sacrifice, we eat little.'' The film is banned in Syria. Like everyone else there, I watched it on DVD.

I met Amiralay at a Damascus coffeehouse with walls banded in black and white marble. As a fountain splashed nearby, backgammon pieces clicked and Madonna warbled, he told me his story of long-term cultural resistance. He came to politics after the Arab defeat in 1967, and to filmmaking and Marxism on the barricades in Paris in 1968. His first film was a celebration of a giant dam that Hafez al-Assad built across the Euphrates. ''As a Marxist, I found it something to honor,'' he said wryly, in French-accented English. For the new film, he visited villagers relocated to make room for Lake Assad.

Amiralay said that one of the Arab satellite networks had bought ''A Flood in Baath Country'' Since Bashar al-Assad had permitted satellite television, this meant the movie would be shown in Syria after all. Amiralay said he had asked the network to include a dedication to a friend, Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist and critic of the Syrian regime who was killed on June 2 by a bomb hidden in his car. The dedication seemed tantamount to accusing the regime of the murder, and I asked Amiralay how he could be sure he was not going too far. He touched his right index finger to his nose. ''It's an animal sense,'' he said. But he also said that times had changed: ''There was a demystification after the death of Hafez al-Assad of the fear, because he personified this power, this charisma and this capacity of violence. There was a psychological release, because the people felt the state was not controlled as before, and because the state is confused.''

The journalistic shorthand for Syrian critics of the regime is the ''opposition.'' It is the wrong word. It suggests coherence, organization and political leverage that do not exist. It suggests the existence of leaders with followers. A better word might be ''dissidents,'' with its connotations of moral authority and solitude. They are a mix of Baathist reformers, communists, Islamists and even one or two Syrian-style neoconservatives. In Arabic and English, they have seized the tools of communication that Assad has permitted: the Internet and satellite television. Assad told me he had hoped to foster a productive conversation about reform and that he kept track ''from time to time'' of the Internet chatter. ''Some people, they just talk because they want to talk,'' he said. ''Some people, they just hate. And some people, they want to criticize because they need a better country. That's what you want.''

Ayman Abdel Nour, 40, puts himself in the last category. A Baathist, he issues an e-mail bulletin bird-dogging corruption and promoting change within the movement. He attacks senior Baath figures by name. He sees himself as strengthening Assad's hand. When I visited him at his apartment, he was enthusiastic about the sacking of Baath leaders during the party congress. Now, he said, ''we expect that the decisions will be more radical, and faster.'' He said that Assad was now in ''100 percent full control,'' which meant he also had complete responsibility for delivering and no more excuses. Abdel Nour told me there would certainly be multiparty elections by 2007, when Assad is to run for a second term. (Assad did not commit to this when I asked him about it. He said he would need a year or two to build consensus for a new multiparty law. ''We should give it time,'' he said.) There may be limits even to Abdel Nour's faith. When I asked if he believed that Assad had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, the brazen reformer gave his response in baby talk, and addressed it to the infant son he was cradling in his arms. ''This is a question,'' he told the baby. ''I don't know.''

Some Syrian intellectuals have a darker view. ''I think the Arab regimes will live a very long life, and a prosperous life,'' said Mohamad Shahrour, an engineer who writes about Islam. ''Because freedom as a value does not exist in our consciousness.'' He blamed this on ''Islamic culture.'' In Syria and some other Arab nations, he said, regimes should fear only religious uprisings. ''The government could arrest 5,000 people now in one day, and it will not be afraid of an uprising. But if in any city they will take the veil, the hijab, from 1,000 women, they will be afraid of an uprising.''

Given focus by the chaos in Iraq, that is a vision of the end days of this regime that many Syrians fear. A green-domed mosque in the hills above Damascus marks the spot where Cain is said to have slain Abel. The city took its name from the stream of blood that ran down. There are those who think that a time of violent reckoning with sectarian hatreds may be necessary. Ammar Abdulhamid, 39, runs the Tharwa Project, which tracks treatment of minorities in the region. He had a fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington last fall, and he has decorated his Damascus office with photographs from his walk to work along Connecticut Avenue. One shows the American flag through the bare limbs of trees. When I stopped by, he called the regime ''defunct'' and the Baathists ''idiots'' and ''morons'' while we were still settling into our seats. He saw no alternative in civil society either. ''They all want a leader or a messiah,'' he said. He did not advocate ''bloody revolution,'' he said. But he also said that the civil strife accompanying regime change in Iraq might be the only way forward in the region. ''Stagnation is killing our souls and our minds,'' he said. ''Hopefully, this baptism by blood and mayhem will teach us to cherish the liberties.''

A few days before I spoke with Assad, I received an e-mail message from Joshua Landis, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies from the University of Oklahoma who is living for the year in Damascus. Landis writes an indispensable blog about Syria, Syriacomment.com. He is married to a Syrian woman who is a member of the same esoteric Islamic sect as the Assads, the Alawites, who believe in the divinity of Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Alawites were oppressed as infidels for centuries by other Muslims.

Landis's e-mail message recapitulated a remarkable petition he came across while researching his dissertation, which is to be published next year as a book, ''Democracy in Syria.'' In 1936, as the French were debating how to carve up their League of Nations mandate in the region, a group of Alawite notables urged that their northern mountainous redoubt not be annexed to Syria, which would surely be dominated by Muslims. ''The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion,'' the petition read. ''Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.'' According to Landis, one of the six signers was Suleiman al-Assad, Bashar's grandfather.

Before I had the chance to bring up the petition, Assad volunteered that his grandfather had petitioned the French with other Alawite leaders to ''go back to our mother country, which is Syria.'' He said: ''They knew that if we divide the country we would have wars. So it's better to be, to mingle, with the others.'' I had the spooky feeling that someone else was reading my e-mail.

I said that I had heard the petition proposed separation. ''No, no, no, no, no,'' Assad replied. ''It's the opposite.'' Setting aside that question, the petition in favor of separation helps explain the profound appeal of Baathism, with its message of an embracing Arab unity, to a man like Hafez al-Assad, a member of a brutalized minority. Baathism could be the way to bring together all religions and races -- or else the means for minority domination. It could also be the bandage beneath which sectarian wounds healed or festered. As to which effect it has had in Syria, no one can know unless the bandage is pulled off, as it has been in Iraq.

The Syrian Baathists have dealt with sectarian differences through official denial. The education system teaches one vanilla brand of Islam. Yet sectarianism is never far from the surface. Within Syria, some who blame the regime for the killing of Hariri see it as a sectarian play that cost Assad international support but strengthened him internally. Hariri, a Sunni, had money, influence and contacts with Syria's Sunnis to potentially foster an alternate power structure. (Others dismiss this theory as crediting Assad with a cunning he has not otherwise displayed.) Unlike Lebanon, Syria has a clear majority -- Sunnis -- and some view them as the potential foundation of a stable democracy. Farid Ghadry, who has set himself up in Washington as a regime opponent and has been invited in for discussions by the State Department, presents a candidly sectarian vision of Syria's future. He speaks of a state with minority rights but also argues, ''We need to give Muslim Sunnis a country -- a legitimate country -- from which to launch the war on ideology,'' meaning extremism. Yet the new mosques that have sprung up across Syria in recent years -- another kind of patient resistance -- may well be preparing believers for a different war. They just happen to be fighting it now in Iraq.

Hafez al-Assad maneuvered endlessly to co-opt Syria's Sunnis. He reserved top posts in his government for Sunnis. Land reform helped ally him with rural Sunnis against the urban Sunni elite. Through intricate sectarian balancing, he created what Landis calls a supertribe. ''You're substituting party ideology for blood,'' Landis told me over coffee, ''but it's very similar.'' When this method broke down -- when the Muslim Brothers, Sunni extremists, rose against him in the 1970's -- Hafez al-Assad used his Alawite-dominated security forces to crush them. In 1982, he leveled the old town of Hama, the city where their resistance was based.

Anwar al-Bounni, a 46-year-old lawyer in Damascus, was living in Hama in 1981, when Syrian forces first moved in. Bounni is a Christian, but he was bearded, and soldiers grabbed him as a suspected Muslim Brother. As the soldiers began beating him, Bounni said, neighbors ran up to identify him. Pinning Bounni's hands behind his back, the soldiers set his beard on fire, then let him go. Bounni now does the Sisyphean work of representing political prisoners. To finance his work, he was preparing to sell his office; he had already sold his car. As we talked among his packed boxes, a beaming young man with a bouquet of flowers entered. He was Abdel Nasser Kahlous, a 33-year-old accountant for General Motors in Syria. He had just been released after a week in prison. He and eight other members of a dialogue group called the Atassi Forum were arrested after one of them read a statement by the Muslim Brothers, e-mailed by their leadership in exile, during a meeting. It is a capital offense in Syria to belong to the Muslim Brothers. ''We thought it was open and modern,'' Kahlous said of the statement. He said that, once arrested, he expected to get at least three years in prison. But he took heart when, at the initial detention center, he glimpsed Bounni on satellite TV speaking about the case.

When I raised the Atassi Forum arrests with Assad, I thought he might call them a mistake. He did not yield an inch. ''When you know in the United States that somebody has a relationship with Al Qaeda, what do you do?'' he asked. ''You arrest him.'' The Muslim Brothers, he said, ''are terrorists. They killed more than 15,000 in Syria.'' (That is the official number. It is believed to be lower than the number killed in the regime's crackdown.) He said that Atassi group members were released after they said ''they wouldn't do it again.'' As of this writing, the member of the Atassi Forum who actually read the e-mail message aloud, Ali al-Abdullah, is still in jail.

The subject of sectarianism creates a bind for the regime. On the one hand, it would like to argue that it has succeeded in easing sectarian tensions; on the other hand, it would like to argue that these tensions are a terrible threat. In the interview, Assad did both. When I cited the historic oppression of the Alawites and asked if he believed that such wounds ever healed, he responded with a rather airless tautology. ''The proof is that I am in power,'' he said. He did not mention it, but in another way he clearly is evidence of assimilation: his wife is a Sunni. Yet Assad also argued that sectarian tensions in the Middle East recognized no borders. ''There is a domino effect, not only in Syria but in the region in general,'' he said. ''This domino effect will start from the Mediterranean -- Syria and Lebanon -- and go south to the gulf region and the Red Sea and east to Middle Asia and north to the southern borders of Russia. All these societies are linked with one another. So the answer is yes, very clearly yes. We always worry about the effect of this conflict.''

ou could blame bad intelligence for it all. In 1915, a member of a Damascus secret society opposed to the rule of the dying Ottoman Empire made his way to British intelligence headquarters in Cairo. As recounted in David Fromkin's history, ''A Peace to End All Peace,'' claims by this young man persuaded the British officers that Arabs would rise in revolt against the Turks in exchange for commitments about the postwar Middle East. Not much of a revolt materialized, but the commitments and the borders that they led the Western powers to demarcate helped create the crisis of legitimacy that Middle Eastern regimes are still facing. Nowhere is this crisis greater than in Syria, where those postwar borders have always been scorned as imperialist artifacts. Syria has such a weak commitment to its own national identity that it once willingly surrendered its sovereignty, giving itself away in 1958 to Gamal Abdel Nasser's short-lived United Arab Republic. ''What constitutes a nation?'' asked Georges Jabbour, a Baathist parliamentarian. ''Is it modern Syria, now? Or is it Greater Syria? Or is it the Arab nation, as the Baath Party says? Or is it the Islamic nation, as the Muslim Brotherhood says?''

Throughout the region, the struggle to clarify and legitimize borders is reaching a new pitch. The Israelis and Palestinians are edging toward another division of historic Palestine. In Iraq, the Bush administration is trying to create a government with the legitimacy to resist sectarian fragmentation and preserve the postcolonial boundaries. In Lebanon this spring, there were hints of a national patriotism that transcended ethnic and religious divisions. And in Syria, by default, design or desperation, Assad is taking steps as well. He has withdrawn his soldiers from Lebanon and moved to clarify Syria's borders with Jordan and Turkey. He has erected a berm that for the first time defines the border with Iraq.

Assad defended the pan-Arabism that his father relied on, though he described it today as more a feeling of connectedness than a desire for shared government. ''The practice is more, now, open-minded,'' he said. Some who watch him most closely say they have detected a significant change. ''There is a sort of transformation within the party,'' argues Jabbour, a onetime aide to Hafez al-Assad. Referring to a speech by Bashar al-Assad before the party congress, he told me: ''President Assad did not talk about Arab unity. He talked about Arabism in general, the Arab identity.'' Ayman Abdel Nour, the Baath reformer, made a similar argument. '' 'Unity' doesn't mean that you have to conquer all the Arab countries and absorb them and occupy them,'' he said. ''No. It means to raise the standards of cooperation, of economic cooperation.'' Amiralay, the filmmaker and opponent of Baathism, says he also sees a change. ''I think this is absolutely the end of this sorrowful page in the Syrian history,'' he told me. ''I think that with the new era in which we are entering today, there is a redefining of the borders. They will be definite for the first time.'' He added, ''It will be a mercy killing of Arab nationalism.''

Yet if Assad sees this, he has yet to spell it out. ''It's a crab-walk,'' Landis says. ''They're backing toward this. It's not an articulated, conscious thing.'' It looks, much like his moves on reform or on Lebanon, more improvised than strategic. A defined Syrian nationalism could be a bulwark against sectarian chaos, a source of legitimacy and regional stability. It could also help bring home the skilled expatriates whom Assad is trying to woo, the ambitious Syrians who fled the smothering state to seek fulfillment abroad. But to achieve it, Syrians would need something to be proud of besides a threadbare pan-Arabism and their periodically glorious history.

The crab-walk is certainly not impressing the Bush administration. Bashar al-Assad is in a box. If he makes what the administration would consider concessions, he would confirm its view that only pressure can move him. ''If you give, you convince them that pressure works,'' argues Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, which is closely monitoring Syria. ''If you don't give, you convince them they need to put more pressure on.'' Flynt Leverett, a former C.I.A. analyst and Bush official and the author of a new book on Assad, ''Inheriting Syria,'' told me that this approach was carrying the Bush administration along a fixed path. ''I think this administration is basically moving in the direction of a regime-change policy in Syria,'' he said. Yet while some administration officials see the regime as ultimately doomed -- unable to reform because to do so would be to surrender the privileges of the ruling clique -- they also see no alternative now for governing Syria. Outside of the Baath Party and the security apparatus, Syria, like Iraq before the war, has no institutions for sustaining national coherence and channeling political expression. If he wants to build a modern Syria, Assad must -- like the American president he confronts -- develop a strategy that breaks radically with his father's.

James Bennet is a staff writer for the magazine. His most recent article was about Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.


At 7/12/2005 04:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joshua I think that you are uberoptimistic about Syria.

Long live Lebanon.

At 7/12/2005 04:40:00 AM, Anonymous Tarek said...

i am not sure if you noticed but that article was not by josh. and i guess you meant overoptimistic?

Long live Syria and....Lebanon ;)

At 7/12/2005 05:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Syrian, I can truly say that Arabism does not really mean anything to me. My Syrian identity is what ties me to my country. President Assad would be wise to ride this revived syrian spirit that has come up with a lot of people following our (humiliating) retreat from Lebanon. It is a much more powerful force than arabism in building a new, modern, syria.

At 7/12/2005 06:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 5.59,

I totally agree and share your view. Furthermore, from a practical point of view, Arabism is dead (bcs of the arabs who defended it). After all those decades of “arabism”, what has it ever added to us as Syrians? What have our arab brothers contributed to us? Political support (when, where)? Financial support (a-we as people never saw this, and b-if there were no profits to be made in Syria they wouldn’t come there to start with)! This revival of the Syrian identity is healthy for our society! I t should help us refocus on real life and turn a page to this naïve childish romanticism! We need a chance to be Syrians, and not Arab Syrians!

Long live Al Jumhuria Al Souriya

At 7/12/2005 07:20:00 AM, Anonymous Tarek said...

Call me a dumb romantic, but it boggles my mind why can Europe a collection of 2 dozen countries that do not share a common language and pretty much have been separate for most of their history unite? I know it’s a cliché but I believe in that old saying “strength in unity”. Anon claims that Arabism is dead and/or never did anything for us, but I say it never existed.

We have never been united, Middle Eastern leaders have been pushing their old occupier’s (France, UK, Italy) divide and conquer policy. There have been halfhearted attempts but nothing tangible. I know it’s a utopian dream that will probably never come true. But my point is that in its purest essence, Pan-Arabism is the paramount form of strength for the Arab world.

But as long as we have pricks like King Abdullah of Jordan promoting PR campaigns like (Jordan first). Or low-lives like the leaders in Saudi Arabia and Libya, and corruption ravished systems like Syria’s and everybody else for that matter. We will never even come close; it will be like pissing against the wind…forever.

At 7/12/2005 07:32:00 AM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

A new bomb explodes in Beirut, killing 2 and injuring 12 others... the target was former pro-syrian ally, Elias Murr.

At 7/12/2005 07:40:00 AM, Anonymous Tarek said...

And i heard someone on CNN saying that he was probably targeted because the cheif inspector in the Hariri probe will state Murr had some information about the assasination beforehand. Dont quote me on this, time will tell

At 7/12/2005 08:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don’t think that you are dumb; I actually even think that you have a point about how Arabism was never put in practice! But this said, I would like to go back to the European model (I live in France).

The Europeans do not have a common language, but do you seriously think that Arabs do? Have you ever tried speaking our Syrian Arabic with a North African? I have tried, and thanks to our mousalsalat they understand 75% of what I say! On the other hand, I can’t catch more than 25% of what they say! And when I say thanks to our mousalsalat, it is because “Arabic” (the classical/nahawi Arabic we are taught at school) is not taught there! They are instead taught French! I actually feel that share more with Turks than with North African Arabs!

The Europeans actually speak two common languages: democracy and a market economy. Coming back to our “Arab world”, the first one doesn’t exist. As for the economic model, there is no shared Arab economic model. There is the common Gulf model up to a certain context, and this is why the GCC is the most successful gathering of Arab nations (success is relative here too, but this is in comparison to the Maghreb Union or even the Arab League). The Gulf countries do really have something in common: language and economics.

In the long-term, I would dream of having an Arab League based on the model of the EU (or the GCC). But simply talking about a common language that does not exist, and a common history and all this, even if true, does not lead to Union of whatever sort. However, this future union should not cancel the specificities of each member nation. In the EU, France is France, the UK is the UK, Germany is Germany, and all pursuit their own interests within the framework of the EU. In France, the population did not vote against the EU treaty bcs they are anti-EU, they did this bcs their interests were not served within the EU as they wanted to (whether rightly or wrongly is a different debate). I would love to see the Syrians voting in such a manner one day in the “AU”; but they should remain Syrians; pursuing Syrian interests, within the Arab framework (if we can afford such a luxury). Enough of this “sacrifice for the brothers” nonsense. We need to start sacrificing for and building Syria and Syria only.

At 7/12/2005 09:21:00 AM, Anonymous kingcrane said...


Let me propose the following in regard to the French-'Alawi relations: the French ultra-Catholics (including Picot, a man who got along well with his Roman Catholic British counterpart Sykes) wanted to seal off access to the Mediterranean to Sunni Arabs, and in doing so decided to create an 'Alawi entity, thinking that the 'Alawis, being economically deprived, will be enthusiastic. The French cajoled many of the 'Alawi leaders into this direction. Initially, 'Alawi leaders obliged, but cautiously. Giving the 'Alawi-dense Sandjaq to the Turks was a decision (the French wanted to please the Turks, and also -once again - wanted to reduce Arab access to the sea) that sparked some questions among the 'Alawis, and led somehow to the start of the Ba'ath embryo, with Zaki al Arsouzi, an 'Alawi from Antioch. Also, rural 'Alawis later became very receptive to the ideas of the SSNP, a rural Party (it has very few supporters among the Greek Orthodox Christians of Lattakia, but it constitutes the main ideology among the Greek Orthodox Christians of the Wadi al Nasara, or Wadi al Nadhara to be politically correct), but I am getting ahead of myself. In time, the 'Alawis were less enthusiastic about the French plans, and opted for a unified Syria. So, in my humble opinion, the statements about the 'Alawis wanting to go their separate way constitutes the official French administration version of the events.

PS: In addition, in my conversations with people who lived at the turn of the century, people were harboring strong anti-Turkish (but not necessarily anti-Ottoman) feelings, as local Turkish administrators were very unpopular. My generation of mostly French-educated Lebanese and Syrian Christians (my wife is born in Lattakia) turned eventually against French colonialism. Once, again, it is utter French propaganda to say that the 'Alawi leadership was really in favor of a separate 'Alawi entity.

PPS: My coments to all those who posted on this subject. Hello Tarek!

At 7/12/2005 09:23:00 AM, Anonymous Tarek said...

To anon 8:03

I am running a 39 degree fever so I did/do not feel like writing an essay here. But of course Market Economy and some sort of democracy is a must. I live in The Netherlands, the other country that rejected the EU constitution. Even though it was a for a different and somewhat more valid reason than the French I voted yes.

And I promise you this, they will shove that constitution down the European’s throat if they like it or not, just watch and see. Democracy my ass, it’s just a big illusion and a scam.

As for the common language you must admit that Moroccan and Algerians are the extremes. But most GCC, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Levant understand eachother so give me a break here.

At 7/12/2005 10:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


3alek el 3afieh brother. Hope you get better soon. It is nice to get to meet someone with so much common background: we’re both Syrians, we live in the two European countries that voted against the constitution, we both voted Yes for this constitution, and we are both trying to come up with ideas to help push our native country forward. This last one is democracy in practice. But this said, I hope we both agree that a 100% pure democracy does not exist (as least not on this planet). However, the best model we do have happens to be the one adopted in Europe (with all its defaults). Wouldn’t you love to have even a fraction of this “big illusion and a scam” in Syria? Would you yourself like to live in any other system?

As for the language issue: well I would add Tunisia to Algeria and Morocco and include also Libya (I’ve been in contact with people from all these countries). Even Egyptians actually do not understand us as we do them (again bcs of movies and mouslsalat). Maybe I only met exceptions, but this is the result of my personal experience, and I spend a big chunk of my time dealing with people from there bcs of my work, after a moment it doesn’t look like exceptions anymore. This leaves out a significant fraction of the Arab world. This in regards to language, which is not a sine-qua-non condition to set up a cooperation body of some kind (EU being an example).

As for the rest of the Arabs, what countries have a homogenous system aside the Gulf? Even in the heydays of Saddam Hussein (when he was the spoilt kid of Gulf regimes and a member of the Gulf Gold Club), the “republican system” did not fit with the monarchies of this region. On the other hand, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria have totally incompatible systems (political and economic). So where do you want the unity to start from? Do we adopt the Gulf system and join the GCC? Do the GCC countries adopt our system? This is not going to happen. However, the light at the end of the tunnel (and I’m being over optimistic here), is that there seems to be a push towards a market economy in the region overall. This is a good foundation for a starting point towards an AU. Let’s see how/if it will move forward. I’m not against an AU, but I do not want to see Syria ‘dissolve’ in an AU and give up its unique identity and persona for the sake of the “brothers”.

I’d love to get your feedback, but if you’re ill, then it’s ok; your health is a priority. I wish you a fast recovery.


At 7/12/2005 11:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

-If the future of Syria is to have good relations with its neighbors, why is the border with Lebanon being closed?
-Arabism is just a common denominator for most of the people in the area. It need not be something sinister.
-Of the 16 million inhabitants of Syria, half of them are below 18, half of the rest are women. We are left with 4 M. Take away the elderly, subsistance agri., buraucracy, army, immigrants... How many Syrians are econ. productive in a modern sense?
-Syria needs massive international econ. help to make it. Are the institutions being reformed to eventully efficiently receive this help?
-For a non-Syrian, the most interesting part of the NYTimes article (not posted in this blog)is the picture of Damascus: I have never seen so many satellite dishes in a single location. For how long will the Syrians believe the official line?
Conclusion: Bashar is going to need to hire Gandalf the Magician as his next prime minister.

At 7/12/2005 11:08:00 AM, Anonymous Tarek said...

Well trade agreements are a start. And even though most are done with the west, significant trade agreements are being signed between Arab countries as well. Of course, I want a fraction of the European democracy (not the American) please see my previous post. But name me any other Arab country that is democratic? I will not be over-optimistic, because I feel it will get a lot worse before it starts getting better.

The favorite pastime of Arabs is showering the world with our glories stories and history of how we were the vanguard in science and culture when Europe was drowning in medieval ignorance. But until the majority of the 300 million Arabs of this world realize that we are a bunch of ignorant backward thinking imbeciles nothing will get better.

So we defined the problem what about the solution? I know we have the potential, and I feel this is the reason why we have been targeted and suppressed by foreign countries. I am not trying to shift the blame for Arab governments but who is backing most them but the west?

Religion is a key issue as well, as long as there is no separation between religion and state we will be eternally fu%@ed. I think our only hope is pure luck, in a sense that hopefully the next generation of leaders are intelligent, charismatic, and sincerely care for the well being of their people. But when I look at the selection of glorious leaders from the very influential GCC and Egypt I think we are in for a long wait.

At 7/12/2005 11:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joshua I think that you are uberoptimistic about Syria.
Long live Lebanon.

This blog isn't about Lebanon. Kindly leave and go to some lebaneseforces website, you are not wanted here.

At 7/12/2005 12:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

2 comments about the article.

(1) No mention of the Kurds, or their citizenship issues, or recognizing their language and culture, or solving the murder of prominent Kurds. This seemed to be an important part of what was missing in the article. There was very little discussion in the article of exactly what the current legal and political situation is, as opposed to what it was or what it could be.

(2) Why should the US help Bashar al-Assad? He doesn't seem to be very effective. All these claims about openness seem to end up nowhere. Why not just wait and see and if five years down the road Assad has done something, then the US can do something.

At 7/12/2005 01:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why should the United States or even the people of Syria give Bashar and his Baathist regime "RAHMA" like Alawite Josh is suggesting. Did he, his father, or his Alwites regime offered the people of Syria any RAHMA?

At 7/12/2005 01:33:00 PM, Anonymous Mohammed said...

To the latest Anonymous :

It is because of hateful and ignorant people like you that this regime has lasted so long. I think the Syrian people got exactly what they deserve. They deserve no better than the gangs that have looted Syria and exploited the dummy Syrian people, many of whom are exactly like this ignorant above.

At 7/12/2005 01:59:00 PM, Anonymous sebastian d'arfourt said...

has anyone info on the rumour that ghazi kanaan has been dismissed?


At 7/12/2005 03:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Mohammed,
No, he rule because ignorant Alawites like you that are willing to kill children and women.

We should have let Shishakly finish his work.

At 7/12/2005 03:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ali Bin Shitan

Nothing new or informative in this article that is full of factual errors.

At 7/12/2005 04:54:00 PM, Anonymous Mohammed said...

To this guy: " At 3:35 PM, Anonymous said... ":

Creatures who are killing innocent women and children across the world, whether they do this in London, Baghdada, or New York, or Jakarta, or Riyadh. or Damascus are known, and they are all Sunnis, no question about this fact.

Where is your proof, mr. that I killed any body? That I am even an Alawi, not that I mind being an Allawi?

Of course, your hatred that is in your heart dominates every thing about you, and you can not think or act in accordance to human norms, and you throw accusations without any proof. The thing is that you are a loser as are all of those who are like you whoo know nothing else to fight this regime except by insulting others, and crying hard that a minority governs them. You will always be subservants, and you will never never never be free. You are not free human beings, and freedom doesn;t mean only what the government allows you to do, freedom is in the heart which you don;t have, because you are a slave to your emotional inherited hatred that you do not like to be liberated of>

Pitty you!

At 7/12/2005 10:04:00 PM, Anonymous New3man said...

I was born and raised in damascus, Syria. I moved to the USA about 20 years ago and now I became an Arab American. Most Americans will call me an Arab rather than Syrian. The diferances between the Arabs fade away out side their countries.
The Arab world have the potential to support itself and become a major player in the world where America will be competeing with the EU, China, India, Russia and Brasil. All of them have many ties to the Arab world. The Arab World is the biggest threat to Israel and will be fought by the Zionist to the last day. Long live the world.

At 7/12/2005 10:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Arab world is closer to the USA than to europ in the US there are many ethnic groups some of mexican origin italian irish cuban many do not speak english but still consider themselves Americans ,Arabs are also of many ethnic groups but they are all semetics came from arabia which makes them arabs the kurds might be defrent but still because of where they live they are propably are cosiderd arabs as the mexican americans are americans with equal rights and chance like the mexican americanor the cuban to learn their languege and customs and be proud but like the the mexican americans should swear loyalty to syria in this case as the mexican americans swear loyalty to the unitedstate,a united state of arabia is more apropiate wher the borders will stay the same and fediralism like the unitedstates of america is more feasable,yes can start with economic reform and free market and lifting of restriction and regulation making th goverment as collecter of fair taxes without intrference like it is done in the uSA,taxes will make evrybody participate in their govermnt,tax wil decrease unequality in the syrian sociaty and will creat a midle class that is ready for representive democracy which should start at the local level to creative mature representitivs then go into country wide election ,when syria succeds then other arab countries will try to join in fediral union like the unitedstates.naim/usa

At 7/21/2005 12:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Israeli Occupation of Syria: What the US Media Hides

by Wendy Campbell

July 20, 2005

The inspiration for this article came to me after reading an article about Syria that was forwarded to me by a well-meaning, but somewhat naïve, fellow pro-Palestinian peace activist. He thought it was “interesting”. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to decipher the actual meaning and thrust behind the article. Unfortunately, this is the case with most Americans.

I read the article earnestly hoping for some insight, as it was titled “The Enigma of Damascus”, a city in Syria to which I have journeyed in 2004. I also produced a documentary entitled “Syria: Land of Friendly People and Hidden Treasure” based on my trip which I market on my website www.marwenmedia.com.

I had no idea as to the writer’s background, so I read it with an open mind.

As I read it, I started to become vaguely annoyed. By the time I was finished, I was in an acute state of annoyance.

Hence, I am moved to write yet another article exposing what passes for journalism in the US media, but what is actually war-mongoring Neo-Conservative propaganda written with the express purpose of preparing the US public opinion to go along with its aggressive agenda of forcing regime-change on any country that they deem is an enemy of Israel.

The article “The Enigmas of Damascus” was written by a certain James Bennet. He is obviously a Neo-Conservative and most likely a Zionist Jewish one at that. It turns out that this article was first published by the New York Times.

You can find this article at http://www.natashatynes.org/newwire/2005/07/the_enigma_of_d.html#more


I will now dissect and interpret Bennet’s article for those who are not aware of the Zionist Jewish modus operendi: use of code words, their deliberate omissions of pertinent facts, while at the same time cherry-picking talking heads whom they want to push into the limelight since they support the Zionist agenda: Zionist domination of the Middle East and perhaps more than that, generally using American resources to do so, as in an endless costly and deadly “war on terror”, that is not necessary to the security or best interests of most Americans.

He puts “the Bush administration, many European leaders and many reform-minded Syrians” all in one basket for instance. AS IF any reform-minded Syrians (except for the few Zionist neoconservative Jewish Syrians there) would ever want the kind of “regime-change” that Bush has in mind for Syria, such as the “regime-change” that is taking place in Iraq. By the way, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, the phrase “regime-change” is a Zionist/Neo-Conservative codeword for WAR. BLOODY WAR.

Reform-minded = Regime-change = WAR. Paid for with US tax dollars for Israel’s “security” and imperialistic ambitions.


As I wrote in another article about Syria (“Let’s Get Clear About Syria”, www.marwenmedia.com), the group leader for our tour of Syria, an American Christian Scientist, told me that if there were to be a democratic election in Syria, that Bashar Assad, the current leader of Syria, would probably win by about 70% of the vote. Our Syrian Greek Orthodox guide agreed. In fact, everywhere we went in Syria, from city apartments and informal business luncheons to Bedouin and Kurdish adobe homes in the countryside, the people we spoke to seemed genuinely positive, even glowing, in their praise of Bashar Assad. These were not cherry-picked people either, since sometimes we stopped by the side of the road at some village and got ourselves invited in for tea with people spontaneously.

I even asked our Syrian guide if it was mandatory that everyone have a portrait of Bashar Assad in their homes, and he said no. He reminded me of how he didn’t have one in his home, where we had previously had some tea with his family.

So Mr. Bennet’s observation that Mr. and Mrs. Bashar Assad “seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion” is accurate, not a “mirage” as he asserted.

Bennet claims that Assad’s “empty promises, nasty oratory and bloody tactics has turned them (the Bush administration, meaning the Neo-conservatives) against the Syrian regime.”

Talk about the height of hypocrisy and obfuscation of the truth of the matter!

The Neo-conservatives represent Zionist Israel, which has long been known for empty promises, nasty and very racist oratory against Palestinians and the entire Arab and Muslim world, and bloody tactics!

Israel has always been aggressive and belligerent against the indigenous non-Jewish Palestinians there as well as all its neighboring countries of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and beyond since day one of its creation in 1948.

Bennet rightly asserts that “Since Saddam Hussein’s rule ended in Iraq, no other Arab government has come in for as much pressure and disdain from the Bush administration” however Bennet never makes a clear case for why that is. I’ll tell you why that is: it’s because Syria refuses to let itself be run over by Zionist Israel and its puppet benefactor the Zionized USA. And why should it? Would any self-respecting people or country?


A very important fact that Bennet only vaguely referred to is that Israel has been occupying part of Syria, specifically the Golan Heights since 1967! And believe me, the Syrians have been boiling about that ever since. Yet somehow the US media, including Bennet in this very New York Times article, treats this as basically a complete non-issue! It is rarely mentioned in the US media, and when it is, it is not clarified or emphasized for the average American to grasp the meaning of it.

Contrast that non-coverage of the Isareli occupation of Syria with the whole lotta coverage that the US media and US government spotlighted on the Syrian troops that were stationed in Lebanon! And by the way, the Syrian troops in Lebanon had many supporters! It is generally believed by those in the peace movement (the sincere, anti-Zionists especially) that CIA and Mossad agents actively stirred up trouble in Lebanon with regards to the Syrian troops there, and therefore we witnessed the spectacle fully covered in embedded-with-the-US-government US media of the massive dueling rallies, of which many were pro-Syrian troops in Lebanon.

The US government pressured the Syrian government to remove their troops there, and the Syrian government did so, in a timely manner, unlike Israel which the US never seems to exert any real pressure on to conform with international laws. Israel has defied over 70 UN Resolutions, and in comparison, Iraq had defied 17 before the US war on Iraq. It goes to show the complete bias that the Zionized US demonstrates towards Israel.

The Syrian government has clearly demonstrated that it is willing to cooperate with the US on many issues, but what exactly does the US want from Syria? It seems as if they want Syria to fall in step with whatever Israel wants, and that is tantamount to allowing Israel to continue to continue to steal Syrian land for a “Greater Israel”, a stated goal of many Zionist Jews.

If Israel really wanted to be on friendly terms with Syria, Israel should take the first step and withdraw from Syria’s Golan Heights. That is truly what is needed. Otherwise, why should Syria cooperate? Syria is thus placed in a catch-22 situation. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. This is the unfair way in which Israel and the Zionized USA behaves, and the world is taking notice. No wonder the US and Israel rank as the number one threat to peace in the world according to international polls.

Getting back to the Israeli occupation of Syrian land, Israel finally has had to relinquish what it captured in 1967 back to Lebanon, and also it had to give back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.

When is the US going to pressure Israel to give Syria back its Golan Heights? It’s obviously a non-issue to the Neo-conservatives who are in charge of the Bush Administration, and it’s obviously a non-issue to the New York Times and all the rest of the Zionized US media.

Just to show you how much of a non-issue Bennet prefers to keep it, I’ll quote his ONE SENTENCE referring to this VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE to the Syrians:

“He (Bashar Assad) came into power after talks collapsed in 2000 over the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967, in the Six-Day War.”

That’s IT! Look at how he does not provide any details about the history of the Six-Day War in 1967. Look at even his misleading use of language to describe the situation: “Israel occupied”, as in past tense, instead of what he should have written, that “Israel has been occupying” to indicate that this is STILL AN ON-GOING ISSUE.

Look at how Bennet did not bother to put the current events in any frame of reference or context to enable the average American reader to understand the current situation Syria finds itself in. This is not by accident either. The Zionized US media has been covering for Israel for decades, to keep anything that could be construed as negative press about Israel away from non-Jewish American eyes and minds.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Jews, especially politicized Zionist Jews, know about all of this, at least from the Zionist point of view. Because it’s the history of Israel, which is their primary concern with regards to politics. You can learn a lot by reading Jewish newspapers and websites. They cover many issues that they prefer non-Jewish Americans to remain ignorant about. This is why, as the saying goes: “Knowledge is power.” This is also why they have an advantage over non-Jewish Americans. How can non-Jewish Americans take a stand on issues when they don’t even know anything about them except for the smooth propaganda they read in the Zionized US media?


For example, how many Americans know about the 1967 Six-Day War?

This is when Israel, armed to the teeth (after all, it has the 4th largest army in the world even though the country is about the size of New Jersey!) preemptively waged war on all of its neighboring countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

In fact, it was such a secretive, preemptive attack that Israeli jets and naval boats relentlessly attacked the hapless USS Liberty, even though it was clearly marked as an American vessel and informed the Israeli jet pilots of such. Israel simply did not want anyone interfering or witnessing its illegal aggression against its neighbors.

Israel’s air force completely obliterated Egypt’s entire fleet of military jets while they were parked unmanned!

This was all completely illegal according to International Law.

The sad tale of the USS Liberty, a lightly armed reconnaissance naval vessel that was innocently in the wrong place at the wrong time, has been willfully hushed up for years by our government as well as our media, indicating that Israel’s interests rank even higher than American interests. Israel has never been brought to justice for its crimes against humanity, which are many, including this bloody incident. This shocking betrayal is movingly revealed by the survivors of the USS Liberty in “The USS Liberty Survivors: Our Story” available at www.marwenmedia.com. According to these American eye witnesses, Israeli jet fighters and boats relentlessly attacked the USS Liberty for 75 minutes, killing 34 American men and wounding 172 more. The Israelis were hoping to sink it and then blame it on Egyptian Arabs. Today the Israelis claim it was a “tragic accident” although all evidence points to the contrary.

In that illegal war, the Israelis stole even more Palestinian land (which they are still continuing to steal up to this very moment in time), as well as the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt (has been returned to Egypt), the Golan Heights from Syria (still under Israeli occupation) and southern parts of Lebanon (has been returned to Lebanon).

It is called the Six-Day War because that’s about how long it lasted. Since it was a preemptive war, the Arab countries were completely caught off-guard.


In 1973, Egypt retaliated with a preemptive war against Israel in a bid to reclaim the Sinai Peninsula back from Israel. Egypt was getting very close to winning this war, but at the last hour, Jewish Israeli-Americans Henry Kissinger and Golda Meir, who was the Israeli prime minister at the time, persuaded the US government to intervene and save Israel from defeat.

In retaliation against US intervention and to show solidarity with Egypt, the Arab countries of OPEC tightened the oil spigots and therefore Americans were forced to endure long lines at the gas stations. In fact, one could only get gas every other day depending on whether the last number on your license plate was even or odd. So gas was actually rationed at that time! Obviously that caused a lot of stress to a lot of Americans as I well recall. The Israeli connection to this politically induced “oil crisis” is something the US mainstream media has consistently hid for decades up to this moment in time. The reason for this is that the Zionized US media always hides any negative impact that US support for Israel has on the American people.

The US media wants to make sure that Americans continue to blindly support our government’s unconditional support for Israel.

Which brings me back to the inspiration for this article: the mainstream US media’s cover-up of Israel’s continuous, belligerent occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967.


In case you haven’t noticed, Israel’s “war on terror” has somehow become America’s war on terror.

This is what happens when the truth is not confronted, when human rights are being trampled on, and when some countries are allowed to play by their own rules rather than by international law.

It’s now time for Americans to demand that our government learns to just say NO to Israel.

No more double standards. No more free money. Israel receives over $4 billion dollars every year of our tax dollars in “loan guarantees” which means Israel never has to and never does pay them back. Israel often asks for and receives many billions of dollars on top of the yearly $4 billion. And that doesn’t even include the over $200 billion that we’ve paid so far for the unjust and unnecessary war on Iraq. No more diplomatic cover. No more Zionism (Jewish supremacism). No more nada.

In fact, I do believe it’s time to place sanctions on Israel unless Israel obeys international laws and transforms into a true secular society with completely equal rights for all, including the right to return of all the Palestinian refugees.

In the meantime, our best strategy to end this endless war is to continue to educate ourselves from reliable resources (NOT the New York Times or any US mainstream media, but rather from anti-war websites) and to spread the word.

Wendy Campbell is a California-based documentary film-maker and writer. For more information, her websites are www.marwenmedia.com and www.exposingisraeliapartheid.com.

She also recommends www.antiwar.com, www.rense.com, www.aljazeerah.info, www.cactus48.com , www.israelshamir.net, www.gilad.co.uk and www.whatreallyhappened.com.


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