Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In early December I was walking with my Syrian friend D through the late-evening streets of his city, Damascus. Despite the hour the streets were hopping. It was one of the last evenings of Ramadan, and people were out shopping for gifts for the big end-of-Ramadan feast that lay ahead. Small groups were enjoying the night air or gathering in cafés with friends over lattes and scented hubble-bubble water pipes.
When I was a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitorin the 1970s, I was a close student of Syrian affairs. On my first visit to Damascus, in spring 1970, I saw dusty streets studded with the protruding man-high sandbag walls that protected the entrances to the city’s three- and four-story buildings. The city was midway between two major Arab-Israeli wars. At night the streets were ill-lit. But morning and evening they came alive with screeching small cars, teeming buses, boxy, motorbike-based delivery vehicles, and an overflow of pedestrians and hawkers from the sidewalks. A distinctively acrid smell, made up of equal parts poorly refined gasoline, dried piss, and hot tar, hung over every street.
Back then a large proportion of the city’s people were in uniform; many were disheveled country boys, here in their nation’s capital for perhaps the first time. A large proportion of these conscripts, it felt to me, went out of their way to jostle me as I walked by them. Some had perfected a hard, elbow-led lurch to my chest, executed from a dizzying variety of different angles.
This time many things had changed, starting with the jostlers, who are now few and far between. The streets are better paved, better lit, less stinky. Many buildings rise four or five times higher than before. There is scarcely a uniform to be seen, and in the ancient covered markets the flocks of tribal women draped in black, red, or blue chadors have almost disappeared. Nearly everyone is in some kind of Western dress. Even the 30 percent of women who wear the headscarves of the religiously observant tuck them into a modestly stylish variant of a modern pantsuit rather than the drab, long raincoats worn by their sisters in Jordan or Egypt.
Many of my American friends still think of Syria as an exotic and scary place whose main features are an authoritarian regime, unremitting hostility to Israel, and a habit of providing support to terrorists. They express surprise when I tell them about the lengthy period between 1991 and 2000 during which Damascus maintained productive—if ultimately unconsummated—peace talks with Israel. Many have forgotten that Syrian troops fought in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Many know nothing about Damascus’s role as the seat of patriarchs of half a dozen ancient, and still thriving, Christian churches—or its more modern role as host to TV studios that produce a string of well-regarded soap operas for the booming Arabic-language market. They have little idea that a westerner can move easily around today’s Damascus and have a broad range of conversations with well-informed and friendly local people. And they knew nothing of a subtle political opening and a tentative, emerging prodemocracy movement.
Even Ramadan, traditionally observed as a month of fasting and reflection, has now changed. “These days,” D told me, “Ramadan is mainly about two things: eating, and watching television.” Every year in Syria (and, more notoriously, in Egypt), the national television stations prepare a number of special Ramadan series, with episodes aired nightly after the big meal that breaks the day-long fast. This year, Syrian friends told me, one of their country’s state-backed TV stations was airing a brand-new satirical series called “Bouq al-Daw” (“Spotlight”) that had won a wide following for its cutting-edge treatment of political subjects. One episode, these friends said, portrayed a summit meeting of Arab heads of state. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad was shown acting in a wooden, inflexible way, while his counterpart from Lebanon fawningly agreed with every word he said: an unprecedented incident of lèse-majesté in this country that has been dominated for decades by a pervasive cult of presidential personality.
“Suddenly, people are not sure where the ‘red lines’ on freedom of speech are any more,” one person noted.
I was reminded of these words when I learned just after Christmas that the well-respected Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi had been arrested. The state news agency SANA said at first that Hamidi was under investigation “for publishing incorrect news contrary to media law provisions.” Later, it emerged that he would be charged in the state security court for actions that allegedly harmed national security—a prospect that was considerably more worrying since the proceedings of these courts are conducted in secret and allow of no appeal. Some things have not changed.
Ibrahim Hamidi is one of the most talented and visible members of Syria’s rising generation. Just thirty-four, he has been the Damascus bureau chief for the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat since 1996; before that he was the paper’s correspondent in Damascus. Until his arrest, his career—which always required a good working relationship with the government—seemed to be going well. He was contributing an informative column to Beirut’s English-language daily The Daily Star and had recently started doing some work for an Arabic-language TV station. “When my mother saw me on television, she said she finally understood what my work was about,” he told me once, explaining with a smile that because his mother is illiterate his print journalism always remained something of a mystery to her.
Hamidi was very much the product of the “Corrective Movement,” the wing of the ruling Ba’th (Renaissance) Party that brought the predecessor—and father—of the current President, Asad, to power in September 1970. The Asads, père et fils, have ruled Syria ever since. Hamidi was just two years old when the Corrective Movement took over. He was educated in the government schools that were proliferating around the country in the 1970s and then at Damascus University. (Back in the seventies nearly every news show I watched on Syrian TV seemed to feature the first President Asad opening yet another school, agricultural project, or health clinic in the countryside. He was always attentive to his peasant political base.)
Evidently, something went wrong.
Syria is a generally repressive place but it does—nowadays—have the rudiments of the rule of law. By and large people do not just disappear. On December 23 Hamidi was summoned to a meeting at an office of one of the country’s security organs. He was detained, and four days later the official news agency confirmed that he had been arrested. The Human Rights Association of Syria also distributed a statement that gave additional details about the arrest. (HRAS has its own woes. Two of its founding members were arrested in 2001 and have since been given five-year jail terms. It was feisty of them to distribute their statement about Hamidi.)
According to HRAS, Hamidi was arrested in connection with a December 20 article he had published in Al-Hayat, in which he reported that the government was preparing to receive “around a million” Iraqi refugees along its five-hundred-mile border with Iraq in the event of an American attack on that country. The day after his detention Al-Hayat published a clarification from “a government press office”: the meetings and logistical steps in the border area that Hamidi had written about had been launched, it stated, with a view to preparing only for future “natural disasters,” not for war.
It is possible that the true motivation of those who arrested Hamidi was not limited to (or even not linked at all to) what he had written about the government’s activities along the border with Iraq. Nevertheless, the facts of his arrest and the government’s huffy “clarification” indicate just how sensitive the prospect of a big American-Iraqi war has been for the Asad regime, as for the rulers of all the countries that border Iraq.
When I was in Damascus this past December, friends there told me that on a number of domestic issues, and on the Palestinian issue, the still-untested government of the younger President Asad had had some success in finding nonviolent ways to deflect the popular protests that had emerged during his thirty months in office. But, they cautioned, popular reactions in the event of a new “big” U.S. war against Iraq remained unfathomable and doubtless constituted a massive cause for regime concern.
Americans might think that Damascus—often referred to as “the beating heart of Arabism”—would be standing foursquare against any American action or threat against a fellow Arab regime. Or they might suppose that because Iraq and Syria are both ruled by something called the Ba’th Party, Syria might be closely allied to Iraq. But neither Arabism nor Ba’thism brings the countries together. Indeed, the fact that Saddam Hussein’s ruling party is a competing claimant to the mantle of true Ba’thism gives the relationship between the two regimes the same quality of intense ideological rivalry that marked relations between Moscow and Beijing after the Sino-Soviet split.
For nearly thirty years now the two regimes have been at loggerheads. Damascus has provided a safe headquarters for many Iraqi opposition groups—including some that are now intimately involved in Washington’s war-planning. And ever since the 1978 revolution in Iran— Iraq’s main rival to the east—relations between Damascus and Teheran have been extremely close.
In recent years a number of factors have mitigated the inter-Ba’thist rivalry. One has been Baghdad’s urgent need to gain outlets for bootleg oil exports. Syria—like Turkey—has been quietly and profitably helping to provide such an outlet. A second factor has been a persistent Syrian concern that any increase in the power of the Iraqi Kurds, who form an important strand of the Iraqi opposition, could also stir up destabilizing expectations among the two million or so Syrians who are ethnically Kurdish. (The area of northeast Syria where, Hamidi reported, the Asad regime was preparing to receive so many Iraqi refugees, is predominantly peopled by Kurds.) In addition, Syria—like all the other Muslim countries of the Middle East—has a fine appreciation of the realities of American power.
So, the regime has had to walk a fine line. It has had to navigate between being seen by the Americans and others as too pro-Saddam and being seen by its own people as too pro-American. The first President Asad was able to stay in power until his death in 2000 only because he was always a consummate navigator of just such dilemmas. In 1970, as commander of Syria’s air force, he seized the presidency precisely because he opposed the previous president’s desire to support Palestinian insurgents in Jordan. In 1976—and this time acting in clear coordination with the Ford administration—Asad sent forces to Lebanon to crush the resurgence of Palestinian power there. In 1991 he contributed Syrian troops to Operation Desert Storm, though those forces were ostentatiously brought home immediately after Kuwait’s liberation.
Most of those moves provoked some domestic opposition. But Asad péreweathered those protests, as well as a broad and violent attempt by Muslim fundamentalists to unseat him in 1981–82, and ended up dying in office of natural causes in June 2000. No mean achievement.
In 1998, however, the bosses of his powerful and usually hyper-alert intelligence organs, the Mukhabarat, were apparently taken completely by surprise by the spontaneous eruption of a large popular protest on the U.S.–Iraq question. When the United States bombed Iraq quite seriously in December of that year, Syrian citizens poured into the usually quiet middle-class portion of Damascus that houses many diplomatic missions and rampaged through the American ambassador’s residence there.
On that occasion, order was restored quickly; profuse apologies were offered and accepted; a fifteen-foot-high protective fence was erected around all the U.S. government’s real-estate holdings in Damascus.
Throughout the present US-Iraq crisis, the regime has been trying to make quite clear to Syria’s sixteen million citizens that Syria will absolutely not participate this time in a military action against Iraq. In 1991 the need to reverse Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait allowed Asad pére to give an “Arab-liberationist” spin to his policy. No such spin now seems easily available. Of course, the pére managed quite well without such a spin when he went against the Palestinians in 1970 and 1976. But things are different now. Thanks in good part to the schools the regime has built, the satellite dishes it has permitted, and the Internet connections it has helped to provide, the Syrian public is much better educated and informed than it was a generation ago.
In the December 20 article that apparently got him into trouble, Ibrahim Hamidi was careful to report the nuance of regime spin regarding Iraq. He prominently mentioned “Damascus’s refusal to give any political legitimacy to any American military undertaking.” And, he wrote, when President Asad instructed his officials last October to start making preparations to receive “hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees” in the event of an American military strike, these instructions merely confirmed Syria’s stand of solidarity with “Iraq, the country and the people, and not with the regime and not with the opposition.”
But it seems Hamidi was not careful enough. Either that, or the level of the regime’s jitters regarding the fallout from a U.S.–Iraq war are extremely, perhaps irrationally, high.
During my December visit I had the chance to listen to a sustained and intelligent exposition of the regime’s views on a possible U.S.–Iraq war by the country’s foreign minister of the past eighteen years, Farouq al-Sharaa. Back in mid-November the Syrian ambassador in London called me quite out of the blue to invite me to Damascus to conduct the interview. The invitation may have been part of a charm offensive then being launched in Britain, in preparation for Asad’s groundbreaking state visit to London in mid-December. I do contribute a regular column on global affairs to Al-Hayat, which is published in London, and years ago I used to write for a number of British news outlets. But I haven’t done much of that recently, and have lived in the United States for twenty years; so the invitation may have been part of a broader charm offensive here as well.
I was particularly interested in hearing the reasoning behind the vote that Syria cast in the U.N. Security Council in support of the crucial, early-November resolution—number 1441—that forced the current tough arms-inspection regime upon Iraq. That was the main reason I was in Damascus on December 3, walking along the ornately tiled, thirty-foot floor of Sharaa’s office in the Foreign Ministry. Sharaa, a smiling, medium-height figure newly in reading glasses, met me halfway and ushered me to a seat next to his at the end of the room.
He gave five closely argued reasons for the Syrian vote. First, he said, Syria “highly respects the U.N. as an international organization, and respects international legality. So it would have been difficult for Syria to say ‘no’ to a resolution adopted by all fourteen other Security Council members. Though we would have had the courage to do so, since we are not indebted to anyone.” (A slight emphasis on that last “we.” Nothing else was added but he and I were both aware of the contrast between Syria’s situation, as a state that receives no aid from the United States and little from other aid donors, and that of heavily aid-dependent Arab states like Jordan or Egypt.)
“Secondly, though the resolution was drafted with ambiguous and ill-intended objectives, it still doesn’t give the right to the U.S. or anyone else to use force automatically.” Sharaa said that Colin Powell had assured him verbally that Resolution 1441 “cannot be used on its own as a pretext for a strike against Iraq”—though he also said he understood that Powell’s assurance did not constitute a firm guarantee. “But if the Americans want to strike against Iraq, they will do so without international cover, without U.N. cover, and without Arab cover,” he said.
“Thirdly, . . . the Russians explained to us that our objective of avoiding warwas in the resolution. There were also communications along those lines to President Bashar from Jacques Chirac and Kofi Annan.”
Fourth, he noted the importance of avoiding military action that would harm “the Iraqi people,” with an emphasis on “people.” “We have seen what happened in Afghanistan—how the Americans don’t care who receives their bombs. They are ruthless! And in Iraq, the casualties would be much more numerous because the density of population there is much greater.
“We have tried to address the interests of the Iraqi people, much more than the Iraqi government. We were concerned that if we opposed the resolution, that could lead the Iraqi leadership to reject it. And then that would speed up the military actions from the Americans.”
Finally, he expressed some satisfaction that “the return of the Americans to the Security Council, after weeks and months of threats against Iraq, happened under pressure. There were demonstrations in the U.S., in Europe, in Arab countries, Islamic countries, even Turkey—all against the war. All the neighbors of Iraq, except perhaps Kuwait, are opposed to any American invasion of the country. The Security Council is led by the U.S.; still, it has serious input from other countries. It’s a definite change after the end of the Cold War. A small one, but a change in the right direction.”
With regard to the sanctions, he charged that U.S. officials didn’t seem to discriminate between the Iraqi people and the Iraqi leadership. “The Arabs and Muslims see this same lack of discrimination regarding the U.S. sanctions regimes imposed all over the world. They see these sanctions as inherently anti-Muslim and anti-Arab.”
Syria itself was one of the first to be placed on the U.S. government’s list of “states supporting terrorism,” a status that automatically triggers a broad array of U.S. sanctions. (Managers at the local affiliate of the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell are quietly delighted that these sanctions prevent American companies from competing for the nicely lucrative contracts they have with the Syrian government. Syria has modest but not trivial oil exports which allow the government to stay free of too much dependence on external aid.)
Now, pro-Israeli groups in the U.S. who are upset by the support Damascus gives to anti-Israeli organizations like Lebanon’s Hizbollah or the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad are urging Congress to pass something called the “Syria Accountability Act,” which would impose even tighter sanctions on Damascus.
Sharaa downplayed the significance of the Syrian Accountability Act, saying that many of the sanctions mentioned in it were already being applied. A little later he commented, “People here can’t understand how it is that a superpower can’t stand up to Israel, when even the small unarmed portion of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories are able to withstand them.” (The characterization of the Palestinians as “unarmed” was not strictly apt, though the scattered light arms available to the Palestinians provide nothing like a military match for the massively overwhelming force that Israel has used against them.)
He was sharply critical of the alleged double standards employed by Washington in regard to Iraq and Israel in questions of noncompliance with U.N. resolutions and weapons of mass destruction. “The U.S. is even pressing Germany to send Patriot missiles to Israel to defend its secondnuclear installation!” Also, talking about double standards, “Look at the ‘right of return!’ Israel has a law for the right of return for any Jew, from anywhere, to go to Israel, while they totally neglect the fact that the Palestinian refugees in the diaspora were expelled from their homes.”
He gave a veiled response to the allegations made by Israeli and American officials that Syria gives operational support to Islamic Jihad. Jihad maintains an office in Damascus and has some support amongst Syria’s half-million-strong community of Palestinian refugees. Syria claims that Jihad’s Damascus office is permitted only to do public-relations work. “When Israel hears of the actions of Palestinian refugees living in Syria or wherever, they don’t blame themselves for the fact of these people’s dispersion,” Sharaa said. “Instead, they blame Syria for giving them freedom of expression!”
I asked if he feared that, under the cover of a big American-Iraqi war in the region, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon might stir up a confrontation with Syria. Syria’s thirty-eight-mile border with Israel, atop the Golan Heights, has been totally quiet since 1974; but the two powers have often engaged in deadly shadow contests in neighboring Lebanon. In early fall 2002 a dispute seemed about to erupt over the diversion of water by Lebanon’s Damascus-backed government from a Lebanese river that is one of the headwaters of the Israeli-controlled Sea of Galilee. Mediation by Americans and others dampened that dispute. But it, or any one of a number of other still-simmering conflicts, could still be ratcheted up at a moment’s notice—by either side.
“Nobody wants war,” Sharaa said. “But as a politician and a student of history, I can tell you that Israel is now on a decline. No one is now afraid of Israel, psychologically speaking, because what is happening in the occupied territories shows that Israel, like all who use only force to impose their will, has a limitation on its power. After it has unleashed its power, it has been revealed as weak. I’m not afraid of the future.”
He leaned forward. “Can you write about this in the West?” he asked. Well yes, Mr. Sharaa, I am doing just that.
“Remember that the present Iraqi government was never a friend to us. So people should believe us when we say that Iraq poses no threat to anyone! With respect to the Israelis and Palestinians—I spent so many years negotiating with the Israelis. I am not someone who believes in the liberation of Palestine ‘from the Jordan River to the sea.’ I have had to explain to so many people that we seek a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israeli withdrawal from Golan only up to the line of 4 June 1967. . . . So people should believe us when we say the fault in the occupied territories is all with the occupying forces.”
Bashar al-Asad was not raised from birth with expectations that he would one day rule his country. That role was reserved for his elder brother, Basil, who received a lengthy apprenticeship from their father throughout his life. But Basil died in a car accident in 1994. Bashar was then aged twenty-nine. He was in London studying ophthalmology when the call came. He was rushed back home and only then, after he had already experienced a world very different from the closed-in world of Syrian leadership politics, did he start apprenticing with his father.
After the first President Asad died in June 2000 the country’s top job passed not to any of the “uncles,” his longtime colleagues among the leaders of the Corrective Movement, but instead to the youthful Bashar. I wrote at the time of Bashar’s succession that many of the hopes expressed in the West that he could be a completely “new broom” in Syria were unrealistic. The “uncles” were not about to turn their power over to him easily. They would try to constrain him, I thought; and they might be more successful than they had ever been with his wily father.
But the “uncles” have been getting old, and so the present president has had opportunities to make changes and bring in new people. But when he has sought to do that he has come face-to-face with one of the direst problems facing his rule today: the weakness of nearly all the institutions in the nonmilitary parts of the national government, a result of a thirty-plus-year failure to build such institutions on a sound basis.
The stasis in the country’s governmental bodies has been remarkable. Many of the ministers who were in office when I used to travel to Syria in the late 1970s were still sitting in (more or less) the same dusty offices two decades later. Predictable merit-based policies for hiring, training, and promoting civil servants; standard operating procedures across the board; the maintenance of efficient internal archives—all the mundane features of an organization that enable it to perform well and generate effective replacement leadership have been notably missing from Syria’s ministries. And so, according to my Syrian acquaintances, many of the attempts that Asad fils started to make to bring in new faces ended up failing rather badly. It often proved impossible to find anyone with the knowledge base needed to take over. The older-generation folks whom the president sought to replace were not always eager to share their own knowledge of their work with their successors, and in many ministries the institutional archives simply don’t exist.
For a while, however, the new president seemed to be trying to open up the political system. In November 2000, just five months after his inauguration, he gave presidential amnesty to some six hundred political prisoners, some of whom had been in jail for decades. In January 2001 he announced that the emergency law that had been in force for nearly forty years had been “frozen”—though it was not rescinded completely.1
Throughout the following half-year the country experienced a phenomenon that has been described by some as a “Damascus spring.” But the intended reference to the “Prague spring” of 1968 is overdrawn. In 2001 Damascus witnessed nothing of an intensity comparable to the remarkable flowering (and subsequent crushing) of prodemocratic forces that Prague saw in 1968. In early 2001 a number of prodemocracy intellectuals, including two parliamentarians, started to quietly host small gatherings inside their homes to discuss ideas for building a democratic movement. They sketched the outlines of what some prodemocracy organizations might look like. Independent parliamentarian Riad al-Seif reportedly was planning to start a political party called the Movement for Social Peace. Economist Arif Dalila helped to found a network called Committees for the Revival of Civil Society. Lawyer Habib Issa and physician Walid al-Bunni helped found the Human Rights Association of Syria. . . . That was about it. Heady stuff in a country where projects like these had not been attempted for more than forty years, but not earth-shattering.
For some months, the regime stepped back and let the discussions continue, though everyone assumed the Mukhabarat knew more or less what was going on. A complex cat-and-mouse game ensued, especially in cyberspace. In an irony of history, expanding Internet access for Syrians had long been one of Bashar al-Asad’s personal campaigns; by 2001 the country had two state-sanctioned Internet service providers that served some tens of thousands of Syrians at a base cost of around $10 per month. The democracy advocates set up their own websites; when the government managed to block them, they would switch to proxy servers.
In early August 2001 one of the prodemocracy parliamentarians, Mamoun al-Homsi, apparently crossed a significant red line. The state authorities charge that on August 7 he began a hunger strike in support of his prodemocracy demands. Two days later he was arrested. He was charged with trying to change the constitution by illegal means, harming national unity, and defaming the state—and also with owing around $1 million in back taxes. In September nine more prodemocracy activists were arrested, including those named above. At the end of the month Asad issued a decree that further tightened existing restrictions on the press. Among its provisions were a ban on publishing “details of secret trials” (such as the ones the ten activists were undergoing) and a ban on anyone owning periodicals who was not a “Syrian Arab.”
By the middle of 2002 nine of the arrested activists had been convicted in the state security court and sentenced to jail terms of between two and ten years. The tenth arrestee, Riad Turk, a veteran communist leader who had already spent many decades in jail before Asad had released him in late 2000, was the only one of the ten who was released.
There were several differences between Damascus 2001 and Prague 1968. One key difference is that when Syrian authorities make arguments about “national unity,” these receive a far more sympathetic hearing from many Syrian citizens than any justifications the Soviets or their local supporters could ever have hoped to win from the mass of Czechs and Slovaks for the crackdown of 1968. Syrians have many complaints about aspects of their government’s policies, such as its failure to distribute available resources widely or fairly or the disproportionate access to power of adherents of the Alawi religious group which makes up around twelve percent of the national population. (The Asads are Alawis, as are many powerful people in the security apparatus.) But most Syrians are still sincere when they say they have many more complaints against those—in Israel or in the U.S.—who are perceived as threatening the interests of all Syrians. And for all its shortcomings, which are widely understood even if seldom discussed, the regime retains a significant degree of legitimacy with most Syrians, who strongly applaud the steps it is seen as having taken to withstand Israeli and American demands.
It is not surprising therefore that Seif, Homsi, and others took only very tentative steps to build a prodemocracy movement. They never really attempted to build a mass opposition movement. They seemed to act more like a group lobbying the existing power for more access and influence than one seeking to overthrow it. And the response of the regime in 2001–2002 was in kind; the number of arrests was small and the sentences suggested that the arrested might one day be politically reintegrated. Meanwhile, most of the prodemocracy actvists have been left at large. They continue their discussions in a way that keeps them, generally, out of the hands of the Mukhabarat.
One key sign that the regime has not considered itself to be in mortal danger has been its relatively relaxed reaction to the manifestations of popular discontent that continued to occur even after the arrests of late 2001. There have reportedly been some tens of such protests, most of them apparently spontaneous or nearly so. Most of them concerned the Palestinian question, an issue on which, admittedly, the strong popular sentiment runs in the same direction as official rhetoric. But on some occasions demonstrators challenged the regime. For example, one friend said that fall 2002 saw a couple of demonstrations in Damascus protesting zoning laws that mandated demolition of a number of homes to make way for new highways. One of those demonstrations, my friend said, had been quite spirited, and the conflict was resolved only after several days of open confrontation between the government and protestors.
But even when the cause of protests was the Palestinian issue, protestors reportedly challenged the informal government norm that allows any number of demonstrations on this issue—provided they stay in the Palestinian refugee camps around the city and not move downtown. On one notable occasion, professors at Damascus University said, pro-Palestinian students angry at news from the Occupied Territories simply walked out of the vast campus that straddles the six-lane “Autostrade Mezzeh” and sat down in the roadway, blocking all traffic on that important cross-city artery. “The Mukhabarat came up and surrounded them, all yakking away on their walkie-talkies,” one witness said. “Everyone was afraid there would be mass arrests. But the Mukhabarat did nothing! They just stood there watching. And after a couple of hours the students drifted back to class.”
On December 10, after I’d left Damascus, Reuters reported that one hundred Syrian Kurds held a peaceful demonstration outside the national parliament, carrying placards demanding Kurdish-language rights. The situation of the Syrian Kurds, who live mainly in the strategically sensitive northeast of the country, has often been fragile: official Ba’athist ideology stresses a secularized form of Arab nationalism that cannot easily accommodate the demands of non-Arab ethnic groups. Nowadays, of course, the Kurdish question is particularly sensitive, given the possibility of spillover from any U.S.–led war against Iraq that involves the Kurdish organizations now headquartered in northern Iraq.
The Asad regime reacted to the December 10 demonstration in an apparently calm way. Organizers of the protest were invited in to discuss their demands with the parliament speaker. They asked for, and were apparently promised, a continuing dialogue over their concerns. Once again, the regime was showing that force was not its only response to dissent.
Now the prospect of the “big” war against Iraq hangs heavy over all these continuing processes of internal politics. At one point during my December visit to Damascus I found myself sitting in a full-to-bursting café in the new part of the city, drinking endless espressos with a friend. He puffed constantly on a cigarette (and told me that like many Syrians, he had recently joined the spreading anti-American boycott movement by switching from his preferred American brand to a local brand). “One of Syria’s main fears in the event of a U.S.–Iraqi war,” he said, “is the very real possibility of chaos, and a breakup of Iraq. There’s a big chance that the Iraqi Kurds might engage in some very violent score-settling. That happened during the aborted Kurdish uprising in 1991, you know. Also, if Saddam’s followers, the Takritis, feel they have their backs totally to the wall, who knows what they will do?
“But I think the main fear here in Syria regarding Iraq is the prospect that the Iraqi Kurds might, in the heat of the moment, try to declare independence. And then, Turkey would almost certainly intervene, perhaps using the question of the ethnic Turkmens in Iraq’s northern cities as a pretext to send in troops. The whole region would be thrown into chaos.”
Another round of espressos, another cigarette. “Then again, the regime here is also really fearful of a big Israeli strike against Syria if there’s a big American war against Iraq.” He recalled that either the water-diversion issue in south Lebanon or the unresolved territorial question around the Shabaa Farms area of that region—or indeed, any one of a number of other possible future flashpoints—could be used as a pretext for this. “I wonder whether the regime’s support for Resolution 1441 was motivated in part to get some degree of guarantee from the Americans against an Israeli strike?” he speculated.
In the coffee shops, classrooms, and private homes of Syria, the speculation—about the motives of the regime, the directions it will take in the future, and above all about the fallout from the expected U.S.–Iraq war—doubtless continues apace. Many American proponents of the war, at neoconservative institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have expressed hope that in the aftermath of an American victory over Saddam democracy can be implanted in Iraq and will thereafter spread rapidly to the other Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East. (They have also expressed the hope that once democracy has won out in these countries the resulting governments will quickly establish good relations with Israel—though all of the available evidence on public attitudes flies in the face of such a prediction.)
But this vision of postwar democratic opening-up is at best an expression of unsubstantiated wishful thinking and at worst a cynical attempt to win broader support for a war effort that the American hawks are determined to wage for reasons that have very little to do with “liberation” or “democracy.”
In the case of Iran, which like Syria features prominently on the wish list of nations slated for war-induced democratization, a recent New York Review of Books article by Christopher de Bellaigue has punctured the claims of an imminent democratic insurgency put forward by people like the AEI’s Michael Ledeen.2
Ledeen’s most notorious connection with Iran occurred when he was part of Oliver North’s “Iran-Contra” operation. Unlike Ledeen, de Bellaigue has actually spent a substantial amount of time in Iran in recent months. “There is no revolution in Iran,” he reports. “Most Iranians are sullen but cautious; they were merely observers of the recent protests.”
In Syria the prodemocracy movement is nowhere near as well developed even as its counterpart in Iran. Most of the (relatively small) anti-regime public protests that have occurred in Syria in recent months have been met not with sullenness but complete indifference. Such protests as have occurred, moreover, expressed opposition to specific aspects of regime policy, like zoning laws or the lack of Kurdish-language rights. They have never come anywhere as close as some of the protests in Teheran have, according to de Bellaigue, to expressing a challenge to the entire constitutional basis of the current regime’s rule. The only really large and popular protests in Syria have been directed against the actions of othergovernments, like Israel or the U.S.—governments that are also widely judged to be hostile to the Asad regime.
In Syria, as in all the other countries of the Middle East, there is considerable popular and governmental apprehension about the possibly calamitous knock-on effects of an American strike against Iraq. But one outcome that no one in or near the government seems to fear, and that none of the people I met during my recent visit to Damascus even judged worth mentioning, was the prospect that such a war might provoke a democratic opening in Syria. The major political reaction in Arab societies to attempts by outsiders to impose their will by force is to resist those attempts and to breathe new life into the tired old arguments that repressive regimes use about the overriding importance of “national unity” and “national security.” Democracy will certainly come to Syria someday, through persistent, careful, and sometimes dangerous organizing work by the country’s own homegrown democratizers. Democracy will come in spite of American military posturing and military adventures in the region, not because of them.
1. Syria remains in a formally unresolved state of war with Israel, which continues to occupy Syrian territory in the Golan Heights. Some of the government’s security-based restrictions on citizens’ freedoms may have some validity. But as in every case where governments claim “national security” reasons to curtail freedoms, there has been a tendency to broaden the applicability of those claims in order to stifle domestic dissent. People who claim they want to see democratization and increased freedoms in the Middle East cannot avoid the need to work hard at finding a just and comprehensive resolution of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such a resolution would not only restore to millions of Palestinian and Syrian individuals those basic human rights that have been denied by the continuation of a state of military occupation for more than 35 years, but would also allow for the healthier development of democratic processes in all those Middle Eastern countries where “national security” is today used as a reason for curtailing dissent.
2. Christopher de Bellaigue, “The Loneliness of the Supreme Leader,” New York Review of Books, 16 January 2003, 51–53
Helena Cobban blogs at JustWorldNews.org. Her 1985 book The Making of Modern Lebanon was named to Choice magazine's list of Outstanding Academic Books. She is president of the nonprofit Just World Educational.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
How would I know / when I’m empty and quiet like breath?
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.