Steven A. Cook, previously a Soref Research Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
No tour buses take visitors to the home of Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad. No garish souvenir stands herald the approach to the gates, and no cardboard cutouts are poised on the sidewalk for keepsake photos.
But a Syrian college student of Palestinian parentage named Ahmad knows the way to the house: after taking me on a two-hour expedition by foot through the sun-drenched streets of Damascus, doubling back and forth so as not to arouse suspicion, Ahmad hails a taxi and directs it to Suq Hamadiya, halfway across town. As the taxi winds through Damascus's fashionable West Malki district, Ahmad nods toward a cordoned street and a rather ordinary block-long building surrounded by a six-foot fence. It might go unnoticed if not for the presence of the Republican Guard (al-Haras al-Jumhuri). "In front of you is the president's house," he nervously whispers. "Please, no pictures, it is very dangerous." As the house fades in the distance, Ahmad warns, "Do not look back, it would be suspicious."
Then regaling his guest with a commentary on the wonders of modern Syria (no doubt also for the benefit of the driver, possibly an informant for one of Syria's many internal security organizations), Ahmad becomes calmer as we leave the president's house behind and wend our way toward Al-Merjah (Martyr's Square). This square clearly shows the contrast between Syria's austere physical environment and its lively entrepreneurial spirit. Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and the beating heart of Arab nationalism, is filled with drab Soviet-influenced architecture and the dreary details of a Soviet-style carelessness. Daily power outages are no longer a fact of life, but the lights do go out often enough. But the city also boasts endless traffic jams and ear-piercing noise from cassette shops and sidewalk juice vendors.
The walled old city, an oasis of calm amidst the frenzied pace of modern Syria, is in the middle of Damascus. Dominated by the Umayyad Mosque (built in 705), the old city is oddly subdued, the quiet broken only by the muezzin's call to prayer. The hush returns as those who heed the call proceed to the Umayyad compound or its lesser satellites for the ritual pre-prayer ablutions. Commotion, however, reigns at the Shrine of Rokiah, located inside the gleaming Shi`i mosque built by the Iranians in the mid-1980s, where a noticeably large number of Iranian women come to pray. Unlike its theocratic ally, Syria's government is ostensibly socialist and has a secular patina. Most Damascenes seem to ignore at least their observable religious duties (such as prayer, abstaining from alcohol, and, in the case of women, wearing the hijab), though a noticeable number of Syrians are embracing Islam with renewed fervor. Nabil, an Arabic-language tutor and a Christian, suggests that as the disparity between rich and poor increases, more Syrians will look to Islam for salvation. Along with most observers of Syria, however, Nabil has only anecdotal evidence to support this assertion.
It is equally difficult to glean economic insights from official Syrian sources, for, as in many Third World countries, they are notoriously inaccurate. But Nabil's analysis rings true as one stands on a weeknight along Quwwatli Street near the Damascus International Fairgrounds and witnesses the parade of late-model BMWs and Mercedes racing toward Umayyad Square, past Damascus's new high-tech opera house, the enormous Asad Library (which is rarely open), and then on to the Sheraton Hotel, where Syria's twenty-something elite like to play. It is no wonder that many of the Muslim poor in Damascus -- not to mention those in rural areas, who live in sparse housing along marginally paved streets with unreliable water and electricity -- have turned to the Qur'an. Syria's poor have watched in dismay as, while they struggle to eat, the rich continue to accumulate wealth. There is little doubt that under such circumstances the Muslim poor find hope in a fundamentalist Islamic vision.
Yet Islam poses little threat to the current regime. Religious activity, like everything else in Syria, takes place literally under the president's gaze. An enormous bronze statue of Asad--ten times larger than life--looms over the city of Hama, serving as a palpable reminder of his brutal 1982 suppression of Islamic agitation there, which left some twenty-five thousand dead. His huge eyes piercing, his worry beads in hand, Asad peers down on the masses, smiling his crooked smile. The likeness varies from place to place--a waving hand or the glint of sunglasses--but Asad is always present.
To the average Syrian, Asad is the defender (munadil) and protector of Syria from the external forces that seek to undermine the country's stability -- chiefly Israel and Western imperialism. Although the strongman of a minoritarian and predominantly `Alawi regime, he has dominated the country for so long (twenty-six years) that he appears to many as larger than life. However brutal the regime, this stature has some advantages, for, like neighboring Lebanon, Syria is a sectarian society, comprising Sunnis, Shi`is, `Alawis, many Christian sects, Druze, Turks, and Kurds (and until recently a small but not insignificant Jewish community). Governing Syria is made more difficult by the legacy of France's malevolent Mandate policy: during its control of Syria between 1921 and 1946, Paris raised the status of the country's minorities at the expense of its Sunni majority, hoping thereby to undermine potential threats to its control.
Syrians appear to remember the pre-Asad era as a time of foreign domination, political intrigue, and underdevelopment. In contrast, they have been convinced that the Asad era offers stability, a degree of modernization, and the emergence of the country as a regional power.
A SOCIETY IN TRANSITION
The re-orientation of Syrian policy since the early 1990s reflects the harsh realities of a client-state that has lost its patron--in this case, the Soviet Union. The Syrians cannot afford to shun the West, and Asad has taken the first tentative steps toward opening Syrian society to prepare his people for the changes ahead.
In July 1993, the Syrian government relaxed the 1960s-era restrictions on the import of Western goods, and consumerism is making headway into Syria's mostly austere society. Several Syrian entrepreneurs have recently opened the Damascus version of the music megastore now common in large Western cities. A few hundred Syrian pounds (about $5) buys pirated versions of everything from Madonna to Metallica to Mozart, and all of excellent quality. A short walk from Cafe Nofara, where Syria's last traditional storyteller performs for a male-only audience sipping sweet tea and smoking water-pipes, one finds Le Piano Bar, where -- Islamic strictures to the contrary -- the beer and bourbon flow while a crowd of men and women enjoys karaoke, Japan's contribution to polyglot world culture. Syrian interest in the American Michaels--Jordan and Jackson--transcends religion and class, as it does all over the world. Even hockey has come to Damascus, as Syrian street vendors hawk New York Rangers t-shirts after that team's 1994 Stanley Cup triumph.
Foreign manufacturers such as Adidas, the German sports-clothing firm, have established assembly plants in Syria. More important yet, Syria in recent years has become a significant petroleum exporter. The state-controlled oil company, Al-Furat Petroleum, has joined with Royal Dutch Shell to develop extensive oil fields in Deir-ez-Zor and has plans for other areas in eastern Syria, notably a potentially significant find near Palmyra. Although Syria's daily oil production -- 600,000 barrels per day -- is modest compared to other Middle East exporters, Shell is investing large amounts in its Syrian venture. At its planned new corporate campus at Deir-ez-Zor, Shell's facility will include housing and recreation facilities (including an eighteen-hole golf course), as well as operational infrastructure.
The regime must also contend with a growing influx of Western technology. Advertisements for the Japanese industrial giant Mitsubishi now light up the capital's modest skyline. IBM, Apple, and a host of other American and European companies have representatives in Damascus, but their sales cannot be too great, as computer purchases are almost completely limited to the government and state enterprises (such as Syria Shell); individuals or private companies cannot buy computers. Nonetheless, computer skills are spreading. In a country where making even an intercity telephone call requires painstaking patience, two guys in the back room of a storefront near Martyrs Square in central Damascus can, without any hesitation or technical problems, debug the hard drive on a laptop computer.
Although officially proscribed, satellite dishes have begun to appear in Damascus's more well-to-do neighborhoods and provide Syria's elite with both news from CNN and American sitcoms. Clearly, Damascus is fighting a losing battle against the tide of technology, which in the long run will destabilize a system dependent on centralized control. Further, the seepage of Western culture into Syria will, no doubt, also contribute to the emerging tensions already present in this closed society. Syrian society appears to divide between those amenable to accepting Western influences and those adamantly opposed to them. The key difference here is not class but religious orientation; the more Islamic-oriented the person, the less tolerant he is of influences from the West.
Both Christians and Muslims deny the existence of tension between the two groups, but this belies the reality of two communities that coexist uneasily and rarely interact. Symbolic of this situation, fashionably dressed Christian women mingle in the market while their Muslim counterparts are draped in full hijab. Even those who successfully cross the religious divide harbor deep-seated suspicions of each other. Matameus is a Greek Orthodox barber who studies English at Damascus University and hopes to become a government-licensed tour guide. He is seemingly inseparable from his best friend Nayif, a Muslim, but in quiet moments alone he expresses a wish to move to Lebanon. Despite the sorry history of sectarian relations in that country, he says that "things are better for Christians there."
THE SUCCESSION PROBLEM
Amos Gilboa, a former Israeli intelligence officer and political commentator, once observed that "Assad is Syria and Syria is Assad."1 If true, this raises the single most important question concerning Syria's future: After Asad, what? Beginning in 1992, it became clear that the president was preparing Syria for dynastic rule. Syria's media and other organs of state propaganda gave Basil, his oldest son, unprecedented exposure. Hafiz became referred to often as Abu Basil (Father of Basil), and the younger Asad won the sobriquet of "Golden Captain."
Basil's death in an early morning car crash in January 1994 was a great shock to Syrians, who continue to mourn him as they wait anxiously for Asad's new successor to emerge. Many Syrians told me of their grave concern for the future of Syria after Basil's death and speak of the president's former heir apparent with an odd reverence. Indeed, I found more feeling for Basil than for his father. Books honor the "Golden Major" (he was promoted posthumously) and official delegations travel from as far as Siberia2 to share their grief and pay respects at Basil's grave, located in Asad's home town of Qardaha. Damascus is awash in Basil memorabilia, ranging from lapel pins to ever present political posters: Basil (a dead-ringer for British pop star George Michael) on horseback, training with paratroopers, on the firing range, and on the `umra (lesser pilgrimage) in Mecca. Here he stands uncomfortably by his father, there he relaxes in a garden. Basil has become part of the Damascene landscape, joining the Umayyad Mosque and monuments honoring such Muslim, Arab, and Syrian heroes as Saladin, martyrs of the October 1973 war, and Asad himself.
In the wake of Basil's death, Asad tapped his next son, Bashshar, to assume Basil's old mantle. Bashshar-related propaganda has by now begun to eclipse the image of his departed brother, but the shy British-trained ophthalmologist lacks Basil's military experience and charisma and has thus far been unable to fill the void. As the elder Asad battles diabetes and a recurrent heart condition, the succession issue will clearly continue to plague the regime.
Even were Asad to groom an heir, Syrians have little assurance that their country would not degenerate into turmoil after his death, perhaps bringing back the coup-mad days of Syria's past: in the twenty-four years between Syria's independence and Asad's power grab in 1970, Syria had no less than twenty-nine different governments. Interview with Professor Alexander Bligh, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dec. 19, 1992. Forces just below the apex of Syrian power -- among them the military, Islamic factions, elements of the `Alawi security apparatus, and members of Asad's inner circle -- appear poised to seize power at the first sign that Asad's control is faltering. The well-armed private militias on twenty-four-hour watch outside the homes of various government ministers, military officers, and Ba`th Party functionaries lend credence to the expectation that the succession, when it comes, will not be smooth.
The visitor has a sense that Asad's grip has eased up, if ever so slightly, and that his regime's inability to shun Western technology and culture could have dire consequences in the long term. That said, the regime still massively dominates the country. A foreigner finds it difficult to engage in even modest forms of political discourse with ordinary citizens but a prying traveler can, behind locked doors and closed windows, elicit candid remarks. The Syrian people, one senses, are eager for peace with Israel, but steadfastly oppose anything resembling a compromise on the Golan Heights -- an indication of the depth of nationalist wounds that have scarred Syrian society for twenty-nine years. An American-trained Syrian doctor told me, "Unlike the Palestinians, we will not settle for what Israel is willing to give up. They must return all of our land." Then, even in the event of an Israeli withdrawal, Syrians appear reticent to accept their Jewish neighbors, citing the cold peace between Israel and Egypt as a model to be emulated. In their words, they want a "peace of paper" (salam al-waraqa) not a peace of the heart (salam al-qalb).
The tenor of Syria's government-controlled media no doubt has a role in creating the ambivalence with which most Syrians greet the prospect of peace with Israel, for the Syrian press has not abandoned the virulent anti-Zionism of its past. The tone of coverage of Israel in Syria's three principal dailies--Tishrin, al-Ba`th, and Ath-Thawra -- as well as in the electronic media depends on the prevailing tone of negotiations between Damascus and Jerusalem at any given moment. When the negotiations are stalled, Israel is a colonial power bent on aggression and occupation of Arab lands;3 when things are going well, it is a colonial power that has given up its futile occupation policies in favor of economic domination of the Arab world.4
At times, exceptions to this pattern occur. On June 28, 1994, the English-language Syria Times ran a Reuters story in its business section about the imminent privatization of Israel's national air carrier, El Al. In a rather positive manner, the article described the return to profitability of the "security conscious airline"; the placement of such an article was clearly designed to make an impression on Damascus's English-speaking expatriate community, as the piece did not run in the Times's parent paper, Tishrin, and the great majority of Syrians do not read English.
The frayed, wall-size placards carrying statements in Asad's name and appealing to the Syrian masses about the coming "Peace of the Brave" bring to mind the empty Soviet slogans calling for peace and disarmament. These testimonials to Asad's "strategic choice" for peace mean little in the context of a whole host of pernicious policies that betray the moderate image that Damascus, Washington, and the Labor Party government in Jerusalem were at great pains to portray. It perhaps no longer matters greatly that Asad has not crossed the psychological divide to accept Israel's presence and the United States's predominance in the region, for the Asad era is already waning.
Related Topics: Syria | Steven A. Cook | December 1996 MEQ
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