Return to Syria


Syrian Airlines flies from several European capitals to Damascus, but Americans can’t book seats from the United States, thanks to the 2003 Syrian Accountability Act, which an obedient (to the Israeli lobby) Congress passed and an eager Bush signed and renewed every year since 2004. The act outlawed commerce between the two countries, stopping just short of breaking diplomatic relations. Washington recalled its Ambassador and marginalized Syria’s capable emissary in the U.S. capital. U.S. officials make unfounded accusations that Damascus regime helps supply Iraqi insurgents and aids and abets terrorism. In addition, they denounce Syria for “interference in Lebanese affairs.”

How ironic, said Dr. Bouthaina Sha’aban, Minister of Expatriates. Syria provided U.S. authorities with intelligence to help stop a 2003 attack on U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. Syrian security forces also obliged U.S. Homeland Security, although Sha’aban did not refer to this, by accepting a Canadian citizen of Syrian birth and torturing him at U.S. behest. Maher Arar endured almost a year of Syrian “interrogation,” before Canada concluded that they never had evidence of his linkage to terrorists. Canada has since apologized and paid Arar compensation for their role in his suffering. Arar remains on the U.S. no-fly list. Homeland Security refuses to give reasons for his exclusion. Syria also “interrogated” other victims at the behest of U.S. authorities.”

Syrian President Bashar Assad discovered painfully that Washington allows no good deed to go unpunished. Until late February, Washington had even ruled out discussion with Damascus, stopping just short of including it as part of the axis of evil. A former U.S. diplomat who served in the Middle East until recently said at a Damascus dinner: “U.S. policy toward Syria makes no sense. Nothing Syria does is enough. The neo cons who run Middle East policy want Assad’s government to beg for forgiveness, even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Then Syria has to bow to U.S. political and economic changes –democracy and privatization. After they do this,” he concluded, “maybe Washington we’ll deal with them. Surprising Syria rejected such terms? Who wouldn’t?”

I had spoken previously to this former official while preparing to film in Syria in 2003. Now, he laughs at Bush’s 180 degree turn. U.S. officials met with Syrians in the second week of March –and with Iranians as well –to try to resolve the Iraq crisis. A businessman close to Syria’s President said: “I’m not sure we want the Americans to leave so quickly. I know that is surprising, but U.S. intervention has splintered Iraq into several resistance movements. Each one delights in killing Americans as well as its Iraqi rivals. But we can try to impose some sanity on groups we have known over time and together with other countries in the region this can mean a lessening of violence. On the other hand, U.S. presence in Iraq provokes violence.” The source, a wealthy businessman, concluded. “What Bush has done in Iraq is unforgivable.”

Apparently, the daily Iraqi carnage and Bush’s dropping poll ratings (29% on March 8) has finally begun to reverberate somewhere in the White House. Syrians know from their media’s graphic presentations about dead Iraqi and Palestinian children, victims of a suicide bombing or U.S. air strike; or daily Israeli repression.

On March 5, I watched a CNN Middle East anchor alert viewers to stay tuned for the excitement to come, live action gore from the Middle East. Following a March 5 news report from Baghdad loaded with bombing victims and a war photos special, Nic Robertson lightened the venue by taking CNN viewers on a sports trip. “Inside the Middle East,” the producers called footage of an Englishman who converted to Islam, moved to Saudi Arabia and opened a lucrative sports tourism business: deep sea diving, with 14 Germans examining the coral reefs. Another “feature” promoted buggy riding in the desert and aeronautic sports in that kingdom as well.

CNN doesn’t want to bum out its viewers on war images, so the network offers deep sea diving experiences, the vicarious thrills of watching cars bounce off sand lumps, virtual flying in small planes at low altitudes (by staying tuned), and finally the next best thing to wind sailing, watching wind sailing on TV.

Watching CNN for 30 minutes inspired me to turn off the set and see Syria. Unfortunately, TV followed me into one of Damascus’ tourist restaurants. I met no U.S. or English tourists. Iraqi tourist guides confirmed that the majority of the visitors were Europeans or Iranians. In Palmyra, the site of an ancient civilization in eastern Syria, I spoke to three middle aged Madrid women who extolled the “fabulous ruins and exceptionally good food at extremely reasonable prices.” We agreed also that modern architects could learn lessons in design and simplicity from those who crafted the pre-Christ Palmyra edifices

Under the vast old civilization’s pillars and arches, preserved in the desert sand and dug out in the 19th and 20th Centuries, these remnants of cities induce humility. How much our ancestors knew about architecture, aesthetics and city planning. Viewing the vast ruins with the desert mountains as a backdrop, I felt a sense of awe at the age of this civilization. One woman from Madrid commented: “How horrible for Syrians to watch the disintegration of Iraq, a neighbor and also a once powerful country with a proud people. You didn’t vote for Bush, did you?”

Her Spanish speaking Syrian guide agreed. “Your Bush is a monster.” He described the influx of Iraqi refugees. “They have changed Syrian life. The price to buy a house or even rent an apartment has jumped up, because the Iraqis who Syria welcomes have money.” A few days later, a Syrian businessman shook his head sadly. “Most of the Iraqis who came here,” he confided, “have Syrian family. We don’t act like Americans and let our cousins be homeless, especially if they have money,” he laughed.

According to Dr. Sha’aban, in four years Syria has taken in 1.2 million Iraqi refugees. Jordan, Egypt and Iran have received more than 2 million more. “Bush has created a terrible crisis in the region,” said Sha’aban. “Your media doesn’t show you how bad it is, how your soldiers rape Iraqi women, torture Iraqis, murder them in cold blood. Nor do you see how the Israelis recently [early March] destroyed 250 homes in Nablus. That adds up to 2,000 refugees. We watch the Israelis do their acts of cruelty every night on TV. The policy is humiliation in the occupied territories, which is what the United States is attempting to do in Iraq.” More than one and a half million Palestinians live in Syria (almost 1/10 of the Syrian population). Half a million of them are classified as refugees. “Israel is humiliating the Palestinians as the United States is humiliating Iraqis.

“Imagine,” Sha’aban said, “one of eight Iraqis, more than 4 million, have left their country, and we know there is a move to partition the country, which would destabilize its neighbors as well. Do Americans know what their policy is doing? Do the American people want more enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere? I think Americans are kind, considerate and good,” she concluded, explaining she has done several lecture tours in the United States. She speaks “as a humanist” who despises anti-Semitism and insists that criticism of Israel should not get confused with anti-Semitism.

I found the opposite discourse in a gift shop attached to the Palmyra ruins. Amidst post cards and photo books made for tourists, I saw Volumes I and II of “The Jewish Roots in History,” by Dr. Hassan Hiddeh. For only $10, one can read: “The terrorism is the best methods for the Jewish to occupy the earth of the others, and they practice the terrorism during the war and peace, because this is Torah legislations which insists to commit massacres, then the inhabitants would immigrate before the Massacre, therefore the earth will be empty.” (p. 43, Vol 1, “translated by Eng. Noureddin Hamid”). Were it not for the laughable syntax, the tracts could have been written by Hitler’s propaganda machine. Yet, a government sanctioned gift shop sells such books, a statement of hatred that has become a defining attitude in a Middle East out of control.

“Who invited you to invade Iraq?” asked a man who sold shawls to the tourists. “Did Iraqi people sending letter to Bush asking him to bomb and have troops occupy? It make Syrians worried. This means democracy?”

A Syrian tourist driver also admitted he felt vulnerable. On the outskirts of Damascus, I observed the new housing under construction. I asked him if some of these new apartments would go to Iraqis. He snorted. “They are too rich for those apartments. We Syrians are poor. We want to go to America like our cousins. It is too bad you have such a government that makes war and makes all people hate it.”

* * *

The bus ride from Damascus north takes us –a rare group of American visitors — to Sednaya, thirty miles north and the site of All Convent of Our Lady, Greek Orthodox Church. Mother Superior told us the Virgin Mary had visited this spot, disguised as a deer. The elderly woman with a twinkle in her eye prayed for George Bush to bring peace. Three years earlier she had told me she prayed for Bush to get a brain. The tour guide did not take us to nor mention Sednaya prison, which houses political prisoners, some of whom belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1981, Brotherhood members assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Gamal Abdul Nasser, Sadat’s predecessor, had imprisoned and tortured MB members, including Sayyid Qutb, a scholar who said violence would cleanse souls and overthrow secular states –like the one in Syria. Sayyid’s brother Muhammad, an Egyptian professor, reportedly influenced Osama bin Laden.

In 2005, despite electoral fraud, Brotherhood candidates won 20% of the vote and became President Hosni Mubarak’s most significant Parliamentary opposition. In 1979, MB violence hit Syria. MB attackers killed eighty-three cadets at an Aleppo military school, near the Turkish border. In 1980, “the fanatics” as their opponents refer to the Brotherhood, murdered hundreds in Damascus car bombings.

President Hafiz Assad declared membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death. The MB retaliated by trying to assassinate Assad in 1980. Within hours, state security forces killed hundreds of imprisoned “fanatics.”

Rather than ending the conflict, Assad’s bloody response led to increased violence. In February 1982, Brotherhood organizers took over the city of Hama, calling it the “liberated city.” They issued a call: all Muslims in Syria should unite to overthrow the “infidel” (Assad). MB militants killed Ba’ath Party members and loyalists throughout Hama.

Assad demanded MB surrender. He warned Hama residents to leave or else consider themselves targets. Its leaders refused. Asasad’s elite brigades attacked and were repelled. Assad then ordered artillery fire on the Brotherhood held city of 350,000. Tanks and troops moved in. Air force jets bombed and killed as many as 10,000 in the two week battle (Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, page 186).

Human rights organizations condemned Assad. “He did what he had to do,” a conservative Damascus business man told me in early March. “How do you deal with fanatics? Bush and his polices have made more of them,” he lamented.

“The number of fanatics in Syria,” according to a third world diplomat in Damascus, who served for decades in the Arab world, “has multiplied, although they don’t represent an immediate threat as they did under the first Assad. By attacking Iraq and threatening Syria, the most anti-terrorist of regimes, Bush has created enemies everywhere. `Fanatics’ hate the infidel crusader in the 21st Century and secularists despise him because his hypocrisy had led to the proliferation of religious fundamentalism in the Muslim world and aggressive Zionism in Israel and the United States.”

The Muslim Brotherhood confounds secular governments trying to modernize and liberalize. So, they jail and torture them. During the 10th Ba’ath Party Conference in June 2005, delegates agreed to allow for new non-sectarian political parties, a direct affront to the sectarian Brotherhood. But Party leaders apparently lacked confidence to declare an amnesty law that might have helped bring reconciliation. The number of MB members has reportedly grown, and the regime sees them as a threat. Ali Bayanouni, exiled in London, formed the Syrian National Salvation Front with former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam. They intend their political grouping to force regime change in Damascus. They will open an office in Washington DC as well.

Try to imagine religious rule in this ethnically and religiously diverse country where Sunnis (the majority) and Shi’ites, with sects like Alawites (like President Bashar Assad) and several Christian religions –and a handful of Jews!

“The Baathists’ secularism has helped make Syria one of the more stable regimes in the region, my diplomatic acquaintance assured me. “Look at the corrupt Gulf States and Egypt, the pitiful US puppets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even Israel, of course stable, has a government of clowning and corruption.” He referred to the February fiasco of Defense Minister Amir Peretz gazing through binoculars covered by lens caps and “seeing clearly.” “On the morning of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli Defense Force Chief Lt. General Dan Halutz sold his stock portfolio. Two aging ministers groped the asses of young women in their offices.”

Such droll thoughts vanished when our tour bus stopped in Hama where tourists stared at ancient water wheels ­17 of them. Kids with parents supervising ran around a nearby park. Two women wearing abayas and hijabs, one with a baby in her arms, begged from tourists and locals. The slowly spinning wheels, replicas of those originally built 2000 years ago, lift river water onto aqueducts, which irrigates agricultural lands in the area. The wheels of up to 60 feet roll with the river current.

In 2007, Hama’s ancient history had eroded visible signs of the 1982 carnage. I noticed no signs or remnants of the 1982 battle carnage as the bus curled through quiet streets. Syrians have witnessed bloodshed for thousands of years. Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans occupied the land. Hebrews settled near Damascus, an area later called Palestine. The Phoenicians occupied coastal areas along with Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites. The Persian Empire grabbed Syria followed by Alexander the Great, succeeded in turn by Roman and Byzantine empires.

To emphasize the living antiquity in the country, the tour guide brought our group to Maloula, a village north of Damascus, where, residents still speak Aramaic –Jesus’ and Mel Gibson’s language.

Father Toufic greeted us. I had met this Lebanese-born, Greek Catholic priest when I first filmed in Syria in 2003. After reciting the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic in the cold, stone church, he unleashed his wrath on Israeli and US injustice toward Palestinians. Syria, he noted, has been exemplary in its treatment of Palestinians. An estimated 1.5 million (about 1/10 of the population) live in its territory and have been successfully integrated.

“Syria is the only country that has integrated us,” Omar told me, offering a cheese filled goodie from his bakery. “Palestinian,” he assures me about the pie like yummy. “I came here as a child in 1948. I don’t remember Palestine, but I dream of it. We have relatives in Ramallah, but Syrians treat me like a Syrian, I have rights of a Syrian. My kids went to school with Syrian kids and are treated as equals.” He lives in an urban refugee zone, which looks like an ordinary Damascus neighborhood, apartment buildings, stores and lots of street life –with a mosque nearby, but inhabited by Palestinians and their offspring.

Syrians I spoke with, from Damascus hotel bellhops to a small farmer near Palmyra, agreed that Palestinians deserve to live in Syria as equals. The tolerant attitude extends to religion. The fervor men and women showed in prayer at the Omayed mosque doesn’t mean they are fundamentalist –“fanatic” as the businessman calls them. Those with covered hair and dressed in robes stand in stark contrast to teenagers in nearby streets wearing tight jeans and low cut blouses. To mix both into one society, plus Christians and Jews, Syria needs a secular government. Most Muslims appear to agree, no matter how fervently they pray in the mosque.

President Bashar Assad inherited the government from his father Hafiz al Assad, who ruled from 1970 until his death from cancer in 2000. Bashar, the unlikely successor studied ophthalmology in London and became the heir apparent only after his brother Basil died in an auto accident in 1994.

Syria, like neighboring Iraq under Saddam Hussein, maintained secular government in which minority Christians and non believers could function. Ba’ath Party founders in both countries emphasized Arab nationalism and state directed economic development. Immense and corrupt state bureaucracy, however, stands as an obstacle to progress. Corruption, according to my diplomat friend, begins with “bribing the traffic cop not to give you a ticket all the way to top levels where the bite is much more painful. The bureaucracy lives economically off the status quo and fights reform.”

My businessman friend and a Syrian diplomat agree. They want “progress”: WTO membership and privatization of state owned properties. They don’t mean dismantling health and education services, not free but accessible to most Syrians.

They argue that Syria must take advantage of its rich agriculture and two year grain reserve. It exports wheat, cotton, fruits, vegetables, meat and of course olive oil.

On the road, we waved to shepherds driving their sheep. Bedouins in colorful head scarves and toting long, flexible sticks steered their flock away from oncoming traffic. Near Palmyra, the sheep nibbled scant blades of grass still pushing their way through the ground. The rainy season ended in March and the shepherds will move their flock to greener pastures. Their ancestors did this for centuries before modern state borders imposed limits on pasture possibilities.

Bedouins represent Syrian past and the present, as do ancient ruins, churches and Aramaic speaking villages. Massive Damascus traffic jams force the present into the picture, sucking noxious emissions and witnessing the bustle of modern commerce.

The Christian Quarter is in the Old City, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited urban area in the world. Bab Touma, St Paul’s Gate, and the Chapel of St. Paul, mark the spot where Paul was lowered in a basket after his conversion to Christianity. Nearby, Moshe runs an antique store. A Jew whose family moved to Brooklyn in the 1970s, returned to his native Syria. “Life is calmer here,” he said. “Too much stress in New York.”

In the Cham Palace Hotel room I stared at the city and listened to the honking horns. I too felt calmer than I do in New York. But I was born there.

SAUL LANDAU’s new book, BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, with a foreword by Gore Vidal, is now available from Counterpunch Press. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, is available on DVD from



SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.