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Syria's Delicate Balancing Act

Traffic police on motorbikes parked at a busy intersection.

Syrian traffic police display their support for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in downtown Damascus.

No one puts to the test the Bush administration's post-9/11 "You're either with us or against us" foreign policy challenge quite like Syria. After a month of flaunting its support for Hezbollah, the Syrian regime turned around last week and foiled a terrorist plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

It had me, and probably many young Arabs, asking, "What's it to be, Syria? Are you with the United States or against it?"

I had a chance to visit Syria last month to search for some answers.

With the war raging next door in Lebanon, there was a sense of quiet exhilaration on the streets of Damascus. Hezbollah was on parade -- their bright yellow flags hung in storefronts and car windows and around the necks of particularly devoted fans. The ancient streets of Bab Touma echoed with the sounds of "resistance songs" playing out of pirated-CD shops. I even saw some young boys having "Hassan Nasrallah," the name of Hezbollah's leader, drawn on their cheeks and foreheads at the face-painting booth of a children's party.

To all visible effect, Damascus was putting the "party" back into the "Party of God."

But clearly, something profound was taking place.

To all visible effect, Damascus was putting the "party" back into the "Party of God."

"Today, the Arabs have found their leader, a hero who can stop the Israelis, who can actually challenge them," said Marwan Qabalan, a Syrian political analyst. "They have been waiting for such a leader for decades now."

And with Nasrallah surfacing this week for the first time since the conflict, claiming before thousands in Beirut victory over Israel, his popularity is back on display to the rest of the world.

I interviewed Qabalan at his apartment on the outskirts of Damascus. When we were finished, he turned to the corner of his living room where the television was showing images of burning Israeli tanks and armored vehicles.

"Imagine," he said, incredulous. "Never before in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict did you see this."

After enduring so many years on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terror for its support of groups like Hezbollah, Syria was not about to play coy at this moment, especially as its support for the militant group was finally paying dividends.

Portraits of Syrian president Bashar al-Assasd flanked by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah adorn shop windows across the Syrian capital.

In fact, the government did its best to co-opt the feverish support among Syrians for Hezbollah. President Bashar al-Assad's somewhat manufactured cult of personality was quickly latched to Nasrallah's rising star. (It's worth noting that although al-Assad's father, Hafez, did command a cultlike following, his son, who inherited the presidency in 2000 after his father's death, doesn't have anywhere near his father's strong-man image.) While I was there, billboards suddenly appeared with Nasrallah and al-Assad pictured side by side. And shops, which normally display a large solo photo of Syria's leader, now featured posters with Assad's portrait gazing toward Nasrallah's.

"The closer you get to Hezbollah, the more legitimate you are in the eyes of the people here," explained Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus Bureau Chief of Al-Hayat. "Being anti-American foreign policy; being anti-Israeli policy; being pro-resistance and pro-Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic jihad in the Middle East; all of it is part of the legitimacy of the Syrian regime."

"The closer you get to Hezbollah, the more legitimate you are in the eyes of the people here," explained Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus Bureau Chief of Al-Hayat.

Not exactly music to Washington's ears. But Qabalan and Hamidi did say they believed that by isolating Syria, the Bush administration has forced the regime to follow a more populist agenda. While I was there, what the people were feeling needed no translation. It was on full display.

The young man who ran the music shop outside my guesthouse spoke with equal passion of his love for Gwen Stefani and his hate for Israel.

One morning I woke up to find that he and some of the young men in the neighborhood had painted a giant Israeli flag across the entire narrow street, so that passersby would walk over it. Soon, several more cropped up in the heart of the Old City.

A young American student was staying at my guesthouse, and we joked with each other one night about how we tried to hopscotch around the flags without drawing too much attention. But a few days later, he was stopped and asked why he always avoided the flag. "Do you support Israel?" they wanted to know.

Not long after, I noticed that the young man in the music shop had added a small American flag as doormat to his store. When he saw me, he apologized. But, he said, he couldn't find a picture of Bush.

When I reported from Syria three years ago, a few months after the "end of major combat operations in Iraq," Syrians always made a special effort to differentiate between the American people and their government. This demonstrated two things to me. First, Syrians still truly exemplify Arab hospitality. And second, the concept of democracy is still not fully understood in Syria, as the American people elect their government leaders.

Poster in shop window of Hassan Nasrallah.

During the month-long war in neighboring Lebanon, images of Hezbollah's leader were displayed all over Damascus along with the militant group's traditional yellow flags.

On my return visit, I saw many signs of an Islamic revival. Mosques are full, and Islamic bookstores are doing brisk business. And I noticed many more young men were sporting long beards, and many more young women were wearing the hijab.

At a cafe one afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a couple of young women who were wearing the headscarves. They told me they decided to cover up because that's what their religion commands them to do. One girl told me how her father, a Baath Party loyalist, was initially against the idea. Even her mother, who had never before in her life worn the hijab, decided to follow her daughter's example and cover up.

There has always been an undercurrent of radical fundamentalism in Syria, and the regime has a history of brutally repressing it. The most famous and ruthless crackdown came in 1982 when then-president Hafez al-Assad crushed an Islamist insurrection in the city of Hama, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. Amnesty International claims that 10,000 to 25,000 people were killed in the military assault.

Now, across the region, the pan-Arab nationalism that Syria championed for 40 years is quickly being displaced by a pan-Islamism. Perhaps recognizing that its old ideology just wasn't jiving with the predominantly young population -- 60 percent of Syrians are 20 years old or under -- the once devoutly secular regime has suddenly found God.

"There is a big shift in the Syrian ideology from being secular-socialist to being more Islamist," said Hamidi, who has written extensively on the subject for Al-Hayat. "Now if you talk to the people, if you read the newspapers, if you watch the official TV, the Islamic discourse is everywhere, and the secular discourse is absent."

Government officials now often begin speeches with the first line of the Koran: Bishmillah Al-Rahman al-Rahim ("In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful"). And perhaps more symbolically, the Prophet Mohammed's birthday was celebrated this year with greater pomp than the anniversary of the founding of the Baath Party.

"Now if you talk to the people, if you read the newspapers, if you watch the official TV, the Islamic discourse is everywhere, and the secular discourse is absent."

"It's never happened before, as far as I know," Hamidi said. "If you walked on the street, you would have seen Islamic flags and slogans praising the Prophet Mohammed and you did not see much of the flags of the Baath Party, which used to be everywhere in the streets of Damascus."

But many see the regime performing a delicate balancing act. Although happy to reap whatever support comes from the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims in Syria, the government has no interest in creating a comfortable environment for extremists.

On my last trip, I reported on the Syrian jihadis who were crossing into Iraq to fight against the United States. Now, three years later, Hamidi gave me an interesting update on that story.

The threat that many are worried about today, he said, is from the so-called Iraqi-Arabs -- Syrians and other Arabs who went to fight in Iraq and are now returning to their homelands even more radicalized and experienced in terror tactics. Unlike the Afghan war, this battlefield is in the heart of the Arab world and right next door to Syria.

The Syrian government knows that no matter how well it plays its cards, the al Qaeda-types have an end game, which doesn't include having an Alawite minority ruling over a country that is 75 percent Sunni Muslim.

Last week's attack on the U.S. Embassy, which some believe might have been carried out by Jund al-Sham, an al Qaeda offshoot, was the latest in a string of incidents dating back to 2004, when a plot to attack a U.N. building in Damascus was foiled. That was Syria's first warning that there might be trouble ahead, as it was revealed that three of the four plotters had fought in Iraq.

For now, fundamentalist groups fomenting inside Syria might have a difficult time justifying direct attacks on al-Assad's regime, given the country's resistance against Israel and criticism of U.S. policy. But the Syrian government knows that no matter how well it plays its cards, the al Qaeda-types have an end game, which doesn't include having an Alawite minority ruling over a country that is 75 percent Sunni Muslim.

The fact that the Syrian security forces put down the attack on the U.S. Embassy shows that there is perhaps an area for cooperation between Washington and Damascus. Syria could have easily looked the other way, as it did last February when the Danish Embassy in Damascus was burned over the cartoon controversy.

As to whether Syria is with or against the United States? The answer is -- both. But probably still mostly against.

Darren Foster is a producer for Current TV. He lives in San Francisco.

REACTIONS

Elaine Trogman - Los Angeles, California
I thought it was very interesting. I was in Syria as a tourist in 1967. It does scare me to think that the Islamists are gaining so much ground in the Middle East--one of my primary criticisms is with the way woman are restricted. But saying that, as long as Electronic Voting Machines exist, which I feel has resulted in one party Republican rule, I don't feel we have a democracy...

Wilmington, NC
Syria knows what side its bread is buttered on. Papa Assasd never allowed these fundamentalists to take root in Syria. I do not think the son will allow the brotherhood to get a foothold there. Because then that region would really explode (literally).

Raleigh, NC
I enjoyed your reporting in this article. But there was a point that you made that I don't agree with. You said, "The concept of democracy is still not fully understood in Syria, as the American people elect their government leaders." I think they, like most everyone else, understand that governments in the US are not elected by the UNANIMOUS endorsement of the population. Isn't it possible that he was just presuming that you didn't agree with President Bush's policies? I think you greatly underestimate the Syrians if you suggest that they don't fully understand the idea of democracy. The concept is pretty basic. They don't live in a democracy. That's clear, but you're going to have to show me a lot more evidence than you did in order to make believe that they don't understand the idea. Still, on balance, I thought that the article was informative and, minus the previously mentioned point, insightful.