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A Report from Syria Between Israel and Iraq...a Hard Place

Between Israel and Iraq

by SAUL LANDAU

Father Tofiq, an Arabic speaking Roman Catholic priest from Lebanon, recites the Lord s Prayer in Aramaic in the Convent of St. Serge in Maaloula, a town about thirty miles north of Damascus.

He affirms that Jesus, his disciples and contemporaries spoke and wrote in Aramaic, which derives from Aram, Noah s grandson. The Apostles used this language to spread the Christian message to Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq). The priest learned English at the Vatican and insists that piety and justice go hand in hand, referring critically to US behavior, especially in the Middle East.

"Pontius Pilate wanted to free Jesus. He didn’t find evidence against him and asked why they wanted to crucify him. `If you free him, you’re not a friend of Caesar, they said, so Pontius had to crucify Jesus even if he didn’t want to. Maybe Bush didn’t want this [Iraq] war but to save his position, he had to abide by some economic interests like oil. Also don t forget the Zionist lobby in the US."

Syrians of all ages echo Tofiq s sentiments. In Bosra, just north of the Jordanian border, the site of a Fourth Century 4,000 seat Roman amphitheater in which you can sit at the top hear a whisper from the stage with its carved stone seats in miraculous condition, a youngster of about 11 made a hissing sound and sneered when I asked him what he thought of George W. Bush. Bush bad, his pre-adolescent companion offered. Then, as an afterthought, perhaps not to insult me: American people good.

The tour guide grinned.

So, I asked him, what do you think of Bush?

He fucked us, he snorted in his accented English. Americans and English tourists hardly show up. Bush is the terrorist. Not us. Look what he did in Iraq! And look how the cowards who run Arab countries don t stand up to him. He shrugged his shoulders.

The old and older Syria form a backdrop for a smattering of the new. An antique three-wheel motorized vehicle clanks past the horse drawn cart on the crumbling street that leads to the modern well-paved highway. Even in Damascus, Syria s mushrooming capital of five plus million, ancient edifices (not only the monuments) serve as foreground for the crumbling concrete high rise in the background old Damascus. In New Damascus the Sheraton and other five star hotels share real estate with the homes and apartments of the rich. It looks like a wealthy neighborhood in scores of cities throughout the world.

But God placed Syria, modern and ancient, in a region where politics make hornets’ nests seem peaceful. Bordered between Iraq and a truly hard place Israel — along with Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Syrians logically understand that geography and their colonial past have defined their current political possibilities.

Because of their geography they play a pivotal role. But what s in the US-endorsed Road Map for them? Anti-Israeli sentiment burns brightly in the minds of adult Syrians, not just because Syria lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 war and failed to win it back in the 1973 war. Syria claims that Israel systematically bulldozed and dynamited every edifice in the city of Kuneitra. Israel claims that during the 1973 war, the buildings were victims of artillery and tank battles. A US diplomatic source in Damascus dismissed the Israeli claims and confirmed the Syrian version of events.

Once a metropolis with more than 50,000 inhabitants, Kuneitra today is a ghost town. I looked out over the barbed wire onto the acres of no-man s land, filled with mines and weeds. Beyond this strip, Israeli settlers have filled the fields with neat rows of crops. Atop the fields is an Israeli military post. UN vehicles drive back and forth along the barbed wire line to insure the uneasy ceasefire between the two countries.

Mohamed Malas was born in Kuneitra. He returned there after the Israeli devastation to film Memory (1974) for Syrian TV. Joining us in early July, he walked down the rubble-littered street and talked about his love affair with Kuneitra s movie theater, the one that turned him on to cinema.

He stands inside the shell of that theater that faces the barbed wire. The Israelis see the world as a movie, Malas opines, with themselves as conquering heroes and others as villains worthy of death and destruction. Maybe the people of Kuneitra were just extras. The Americans produce the films for them, he concluded bitterly.

Syrians I met refused to talk about their own politics, at least not on the record. I don t talk politics, a silk merchant tells me, definitively, as he tries to sell me a tablecloth in the Aleppo souk, reputedly the largest and oldest market in the Middle East. Covered by stone archways, this vibrant market weaves for some 18 miles through a maze of alley-like cobbled streets. I shocked one vendor by buying a shawl and tablecloth for the asking price without the customary bargaining; even then, he refused to tell me how he felt about his President, Bashar Assad.

Like many post World War II era third world governments that originally won power on nationalist and socialist tracks, the Ba’ath-led Syrian regime became encrusted and corrupted. Under Hafez Assad, Bashar s father, who died in 2000, the government delivered health care and education. But a Syrian engineer insists that the systems cry out for reform. Compare the private clinics with the public ones, he dared me. If you have money, you don t go to the public medical facilities.

Given the constant Israeli threat — a real one — Syria must maintain a large and very costly military, which in turn, adds to the amount of corruption and also becomes a serious obstacle to change. When military officers institutionalize skimming from the state pot few dare challenge them especially with the reputation of the Mukhabarat, or secret police. It s nowhere near the level of brutality reached in Iraq, but every Syrian knows about it.

Single party and family rule permeates the nation: the Ba ath Party and the Assad dynasty. Their photos and statues dot the streets, roads, windows, cars and every other place in Syria where poster hangers can find a place for the Assads. Indeed, the ubiquitous faces of the ruling son and his dead father outdoes in number at least picture-wise albeit not in intensity — even Saddam Hussein’s personality cult. The region has not shaken the concept of royalty.

Non-regime connected Syrian intellectuals had high hopes for Hafez s youngest son when the man who ruled from 1971 died three years ago. Bashar studied ophthalmology in England, married a Brit and understood the West and the Internet. He promised to free political prisoners, open the country to the Internet and reform the banking system to help modernize Syrian trade and commerce.

But Bashar discovered that you don t just inherit power and then blithely fight corruption, change policy toward Israel and cut back on state control of the economy. The political machinery, the military and civil institutions and officials at all levels have major stakes in keeping the status quo. Bashar did release some political prisoners shortly after his ascension to the presidency, but Human Rights Watch still estimates that the government holds more than 1,000 political prisoners, ten times less than Israel, snaps Dr. Bouthaina Chaban, the director of media for the Foreign Ministry.

Whatever ideas Assad had about changing policy toward Israel evaporated and, writes Chris Suellentrop in the <MSN.com> opinion space on Wednesday, April 16, 2003, anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric has endeared him to both Arab nationalists and Islamic radicals in his country and in the region.

Bashar understood very quickly the implications of maintaining a hostile Golan border with Israel and harboring as many as 1.5 million Palestinians. The Israel-Palestine debacle remains a major leitmotif in the daily politics and life of Syrians as it does for many in the Middle East. Neither it, nor the hostile Israeli presence will disappear. Unlike most of the Arab countries, Syria has offered Palestinians equal opportunities to jobs and services.

Syria s population meanwhile grows faster than its economy. It cannot afford acts of generosity without poor Syrians paying a price. From Bosra in the south to Aleppo in the North, I saw a rich agriculture: wheat, fruit, olives and vegetables. I saw Bedouins and Christians of several varieties living alongside Muslims of different stripes. I even met a Jewish antique dealer who returned to Damascus because I like it here better than Brooklyn. He can go to Israel but says he s happy in the place where he was born and grew up and feels no fear or discrimination.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an articulate Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, insists, We are open to modernization, the Internet, globalization in the sense of using what the human mind has reached. But what we have seen in Iraq during and after the war is really the attempt to eliminate an indigenous culture and install a different culture instead that has nothing to do with Iraqi people or Arab people. So, this is the dilemma Syria is facing at the moment. Syria is a major force in the region that understands the importance of our language, culture and identity and we would like to keep that. In the meantime, we are open to all good things in the world, but I think this nuance is not appreciated by some.

I appreciated it as I watched a guy who looked like a model for the standard portrait of Jesus getting a haircut in Maaloula and speaking Aramaic with the barber. I wonder if he sounded like Jesus or was he just telling the barber not to take too much off the top?

SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, will be published in September by Pluto Books.