Syria's next trick: a bargain for power
Lebanon's neighbour is willing to help the U.S. -- if they can get a few things straight
JONATHON GATEHOUSE | Aug 03, 2006
In the tiny record store in old Damascus, his CDs are number one with a bullet. At Friday prayers, T-shirts bearing his likeness are for sale at the entrance to the giant Umayyad mosque. His smiling, bearded face is on billboards outside of government offices, taped to storefronts, and plastered across the rear window of almost every second car. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has become the latest inductee to Syria's exclusive cult of personality -- a turbaned, Shia oddity, sandwiched between the ubiquitous tributes to the late Hafez al-Assad, founder of this majority Sunni country's secular Baathist regime, and the new president-for-life, his son Bashar. He's a symbol of Arab resistance to the United States and Israel that the people will joyously embrace just as long as their totalitarian government and the 15 different branches of the Mukhabarat, its secret police, permit them.
Hassan El-Ghafeer, a shopkeeper in the old city's Qaymarieh quarter, has a wide selection of Hezbollah products. Key chains, audio and video recordings of the sheik's sermons, the militant group's yellow flag, with a clenched fist thrusting an assault rifle into the air. But his biggest seller is the poster of a wide-eyed Nasrallah, sporting the type of playful expression and ear-to-ear grin one usually associates with Borscht Belt comics. Since July 12, the beginning of Israel's all-out assault on Hezbollah's south Lebanon strongholds sparked by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, El-Ghafeer has been moving 25 to 30 posters a day at 75 Syrian pounds(about $1.65)each. "All of the money we're collecting is going to the resistance," he says proudly. "We want to help Hezbollah. People see what's happening in Lebanon and they feel like it's happening here."
The U.S. has branded Syria as a "state sponsor" of international terrorism, imposing sanctions and cutting off diplomatic ties. They blame Bashar al-Assad for doing little to stop the cross-border flow of money, arms and men to the Iraqi insurgency, and cite the Damascus safe haven provided for Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, and other Palestinian militants. But these days, the biggest bone of contention for the White House is Syria's long tradition of support -- moral, financial, and otherwise -- for Hezbollah. In George W. Bush's view, the relationship is so cozy that Bashar should be able to put an end to the rockets showering northern Israel with a single phone call. The Syrians are at pains to explain that things are a lot more complicated, mounting a furious PR campaign to send the message that they can help broker a solution, but only if they are returned to their rightful seat at the table of nations.
The Damascus offices of the Baath newspaper, the official voice of the regime, are a testament to past glories: a decaying Soviet-style office block with a giant bust of Hafez al-Assad in the lobby. Behind the electronically-locked doors of his sixth floor office, Elias Mourad, the editor-in-chief, expresses the frustration and fears of a country that seems adrift in the new Middle East. "In the first stage after Sept. 11, Syrian intelligence and the U.S. used to co-operate. We helped save lives by providing information about al-Qaeda," he lectures a visitor.(They also imprisoned and tortured terror suspects sent under the controversial U.S. rendition program, as well as Canadian Maher Arar, deported by the Americans in 2002.)Now, the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration have blinded the President to that cooperation, and the traditional role that Syria has played as a buffer -- between the Cold War East and West, the Sunnis and the Shias.
The allegations that the country supports terrorism are unfounded, Mourad says. Syria has arrested more than 1,500 would-be Iraqi insurgents, built a sand berm and fence along its border, dispatched 10,000 troops to patrol the frontier, but receives no credit. After the regime withdrew its occupying troops from Lebanon in 2005, it no longer has any formal ties with Hezbollah, he says. And even if it did, what would be the problem? "The U.S. is giving Israel the most sophisticated weapons in the world and they're thousands of miles away," says Mourad. There are strategic considerations for Syria. If Israel again occupies south Lebanon, its troops will be less than an hour's drive from Damascus. "If there was no need to arm Hezbollah, no need for Hezbollah, Syria would be more than happy to spend the money on economic development," says Mourad.
As the crisis in Lebanon enters its fourth week, the Syrian government is carving out two distinct paths: signalling its willingness to negotiate, and preparing for a wider war. The military is on high alert, and al-Assad has warned that his forces will not sit idly by if the Israelis march northward. State television alternates between pictures of the destruction in Lebanon -- bombed out buildings, dead children, women wailing over the wounded in hospitals -- and entertainers singing patriotic hymns before a backdrop of tanks, helicopters and missiles.
Georges Jabbour, a long-time senior adviser to Hafez al-Assad who maintains strong ties to his son's government, says Syria is tired of being marginalized by America, and seeing its legitimate interests in the region dismissed out of hand: "They are dealing with us as if we are below the intelligence of ordinary men." Syria's asking price for helping to rein in Hezbollah is clear -- a reopening of talks about the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. All the focus of United Nations resolution 1559, which demanded a Syrian pullout from Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah, is hypocritical when the world body's calls for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and the return of Palestinian refugees have gone unheeded for decades. In addition, the Syrian government wants the international community to acknowledge that it has a role to play next door. "Lebanon has three neighbours," says Jabbour. "The sea, Israel and Syria."
Nasrallah is not an unreasonable man, says Jabbour. If he is offered a logical proposal -- one that saves face for all sides -- he will accept. But only Syria is in a position to convince him to do the right thing. George Bush must simply reach out and touch someone. "He wants Bashar al-Assad to call Hezbollah. So why won't he call us?" asks Jabbour. "I think that both Syria and the U.S. are suffering from not being on speaking terms. They are both inflicting pain on themselves."
The emerging White House strategy appears to be to exert pressure, and perhaps offer blandishments, to peel Syria away from its newfound best friend, Iran. According to diplomatic sources, Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, made an unannounced trip to Damascus last week to try and shore up the alliance. Iran's view -- shared by many of the hard-liners in the Baathist regime -- is that the U.S. is weak. Iraq has proven that the strongest army in the world can be bogged down by guerrilla tactics. Israeli forces in southern Lebanon are vulnerable to the same kind of attacks. The Republicans, heading into mid-term elections, and gearing up for the 2008 presidential campaign, aren't willing to risk toppling al-Assad and setting off another ethnic and religious time bomb. Bush will blink, goes the theory.
What the Americans do have going for them is the Baathist's track record of pragmatism. For all their talk about the Arabs being one people and one nation, the father and son al-Assad regimes have never hesitated to turn their backs on their brothers when their own best interests were at heart. In four decades, Syrian Baathism's only consistent ideology has been self-preservation.
Dr. Samir Altaqi, a former cardiologist, heads the Al-Sharq Center for International Affairs, a quasi-independent think tank that advises the ministry of Foreign Affairs.("I am part of the tolerable opposition," says Altaqi.)He believes that Bashar al-Assad will split with the Iranians if given the right encouragement. "It's a marriage of convenience. It's not doctrine." Syria, like other countries in the region, has been seriously thrown for a loop by what has happened since Sept. 11. The overarching fear is that the Americans are engaged in some master project to redraw the map -- erasing the rather arbitrary national borders the British and French concocted in 1916 in favour of new ethnic states. "Some countries are reacting by hiding under the U.S. wing, others are reacting by becoming difficult," says Altaqi. Syria's military pact with Iran is a purely political alliance, based on a common enemy -- the U.S. -- not a common agenda.
Bashar al-Assad does have much to fear. Although he has replaced most of his father's old guard with his own loyalists, his position as president is less than rock solid. His stick-handling through the tricky politics of the Middle East has not been nearly as adroit as the old man's, who skilfully played the West and the Soviets off against each other for two decades. The forced withdrawal from Lebanon was a huge blow to Bashar's prestige.
And his biggest vow when he took power in 2000 -- to bring Syria into the modern age -- has gone mostly unfulfilled. True, the country now has a cellphone network, the Internet, and bank machines. The billboards feature David Beckham shilling for Pepsi, and Bruce Willis wearing Police sunglasses. And in the capital at least, Syrian teens walk around with New York Yankees caps, and T-shirts with snappy English messages like "Thug Life" and "Tell your girlfriend I said thanks!" But the economy continues to languish. Government statistics put the Syrian unemployment rate at 12 to 15 per cent, but unofficial estimates place it as high as 30 per cent. Before the presumed Baathist-backed assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, more than 400,000 Syrians worked in Lebanon, many in the booming construction sector. Nearly half came home when the troops pulled out. Now, with the war in the south, hundreds of thousands more have streamed across the border(accounting for much of the "refugee" traffic). The masses have lost an important source of income, and the Syrian elite been deprived of their favourite playground.
The promise of increased democracy and personal freedoms has also withered. The brief Damascus Spring, that saw opposition and cultural groups spring to life after Hafez's death, faded away when the U.S. started to back away from the regime in 2002. Haitham Maleh, the country's most prominent human rights activist, who spent seven years in jail under Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s, says the situation is even worse under his son. "It's bad, very bad. We cannot have any meetings, we can't do anything. They follow us." Ten high-profile intellectuals were jailed earlier this year for signing the Damascus-Beirut declaration, an open letter that apologized for past Syrian conduct in Lebanon and called for better ties in the future. Maleh represents a couple of the men, but has not yet been allowed to visit them in jail. In the week prior to our interview, the Mukhabarat had broken the windows of his law offices on three occasions and spread animal feces on his door. "It's not a change to the future, it's a change to the past," he says.
The movement for democratic change in Syria has lost much of its momentum, say oppostion leaders, and not just because of the renewed repression. Acram al-Bouni, a former Communist, spent a total of 17 years in jail in the 1980s and '90s, in such a deep-freeze that he and his comrades didn't learn of the collapse of the Soviet Union until 1992. Now a journalist and writer, his youngest brother is one of 10 who signed the Damascus-Beirut declaration. Democracy is a difficult sell in Syria, he says. "The Iraqi experience has had a deep impact, especially when people see their social divisions, the ethnic and religious problems." Syria's Sunni majority are less than enthusiastic about the prospects of trying to reformulate a country that has 19 different religious and ethnic groups. The masses on the streets talk a good game about "resistance" -- always abroad, never at home -- he says, but they are mostly interested in their own comfort. More than 1.5 million people work for the Syrian government, each supporting several family members. Al-Bouni estimates that as much as half of the country's 19 million citizens might be dependent on a government paycheque. "This is the only thing they have," he says. "They fear change."
And the international will to stare down Bashar's regime appears to be ebbing away. Bush is now calling on Syria to "do the right thing" rather than demanding that they "stop doing this shit." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Italian government and other European powers say the Syrians must be made part of the negotiations. Voices in Israel are calling for the reopening of peace talks, if only to isolate an even scarier regime in Tehran. "It would be a pity not to exploit the fact that Syria has no connection, either ideological or religious, to the Shia revolution," Shmuel Rosner argued in the pages of Haaretz, the liberal daily, last week.
In the meantime, Syria's deepening love affair with Sheik Nasrallah may simply be an old trick from Hafez al-Assad's playbook. Muhammad Shahrour, a Damascus engineer who has written five books on the place of Islam within Syria, estimates the country now has 6,000 mosques -- the vast majority of them built since the "secular" Baathists took power. The al-Assads have a history of promoting Islamic social organizations to give themselves the sheen of piety, but no domestic tolerance for those with a political agenda, like Hezbollah. No Syrian group has ever tried to liberate the Golan Heights by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, or shooting rockets at Haifa, Shahrour notes archly. And he predicts that Nasrallah will be just the latest in a long line of "prophets" -- Nasser, Yasser Arafat, even Saddam Hussein -- to be embraced, and eventually discarded by Arab rulers and their easily-fooled subjects. "The Arab people are castrated, and the opinion of the Arab street costs one dime," says Shahrour.
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