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Syria Revisited

Bashar Al-Assad shakes hands with series editor Stephen Talbot.

FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot shakes hands with the Syrian president during a reporting trip to the region.

Following her visit to Israel and Lebanon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Damascus, Syria, this week to hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad, a meeting criticized by President Bush, who told reporters, "Photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they're part of the mainstream of the international community, when, in fact, they're a state sponsor of terror."

The White House has condemned Syria for interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs, for supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, and for allowing Arab insurgents to cross the Syrian border into Iraq to fight U.S. troops. Yet, the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker, has recommended that Washington engage both Syria and Iran in talks to reduce tensions in the Middle East.

Pelosi is leading a delegation of high-ranking Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. They arrived in the wake of three Republican congressman who also met with President Assad.

All this reminded FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot of his own meeting in Damascus with President Bashar al-Assad in May 2004, during a trip of U.S. news editors sponsored by the International Reporting Project of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. Below, we are reprinting Talbot's impressions of the Syrian leader at that time. A year after that meeting, Talbot would return to Damascus with reporter Kate Seelye to cover the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. -- FRONTLINE/World Editors

* * *

My Photo-Op with Bashar al-Assad

by Stephen Talbot

Just as President Bush was ordering sanctions against Syria in the spring of 2004 -- banning all U.S. exports, except for food and medicine -- I was traveling on the road to Damascus. I had an opportunity to meet Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who rarely speaks with American reporters. I was hoping to gauge his intentions in Lebanon and his response to U.S. pressure to reform the regime he inherited from his father, the late dictator, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years.

I was hoping to gauge the president's intentions in Lebanon and his response to U.S. pressure to reform the regime he inherited from his father, the late dictator, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years.

Unlike St. Paul, I did not experience a blinding conversion on my journey to Damascus. That's hard to come by in a tour bus full of American foreign news editors. But I did have a minor revelation: Damascus, that ancient capital, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, is really close to Beirut, less than 55 miles away. Even crossing two modest mountain ranges, and allowing for delays at the border, it only takes a few hours to drive from Beirut to Damascus. Yet another reason why Syria perhaps feels proprietary about its more prosperous former territory. It's so close at hand.

Descending from the crisp mountain air into dusty, smoggy Damascus was a let down. The city has the look of a drab communist capital down on its luck. But as I wandered around, I quickly discovered what all the guidebooks talk about: the souk, the famous market with its twisting passageways, antique carpets and piles of spices; the courtyard restaurants, where customers smoke hookahs and dine on fatteh, a local dish of chicken and yogurt; and the historic Omayyad Mosque built during the golden age of rule by Islamic caliphs in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Inside the mosque, the atmosphere was calm: children played, men and women chatted quietly, prayed, even slept. I was startled by one group who looked like Druids, but they turned out to be the women news editors on our tour who were taken aside and covered in what looked like hooded, full-length raincoats.

Oddly enough, the head of St. John the Baptist is said to lie within the Omayyad Mosque, which was once a church, and before that a Roman temple. In these back streets, surrounding the Mosque, Damascus lived up to its reputation -- it felt Biblical -- or, to the more secular-minded, like stepping into a Monty Python movie in which all buyers and sellers want to haggle.

Strolling around the city center, speaking to people in English, I never once felt threatened, even though the war in Iraq raged on TV screens and in newspaper headlines. "That's one advantage of visiting a police state," a jaded Western diplomat said. "It's even safe for a woman to walk around Damascus."

My dowdy hotel advertised itself as a place "Where Exclusive People Gather to Whisper with Pleasure" -- unfortunately, I did not experience this myself. The call to prayer over loudspeakers woke me early in the morning and a few hours later a convoy of cars arrived to take us to our interview with President Assad.

* * *

Arriving at the immense presidential palace on a hill overlooking Damascus was like entering the Emerald City of Oz, as remodeled by the North Koreans. There were soaring fountains and cavernous marble rooms. It was a cold and intimidating fortress, empty except for scurrying aides. We were ushered into a vast hall and seated in armchairs -- with the president, his ambassador to Washington, and a translator at the far end of the room. It reminded me of those old photos of Nixon meeting Mao.

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.

Except that Bashar al-Assad is no Chairman Mao. On the contrary, he's a tall, 39-year-old former opthamologist in a well-tailored suit. And he doesn't reside in the palace. He, his wife, and two small children live downtown and are often spotted in local restaurants. Friendly and clearly eager to meet with this delegation of American journalists, al-Assad -- with his receding chin and polite manner -- displayed none of his father's ruthlessness.

He began by apologizing, unnecessarily, for his rusty English, though he spoke clearly and colloquially and rarely relied on a translator in our 90-minute interview.

The first thing I discovered is that Bashar al-Assad is a computer geek. He used to be chairman of the Syrian Computer Society and has surrounded himself with a number of techies, including his U.S. Ambassador, Imad Moustapha, who was dean of the computer department at Damascus University. When we started the group interview by asking Assad to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he launched into a computer analogy, comparing the Arabs and Israelis to PC and Mac users who are sometimes "not compatible" and need help communicating.

Bashar al-Assad's story is that he wasn't supposed to rule Syria. "I never cared about this position," he told us. "I'd be comfortable not being here." His older brother was the heir apparent, but was killed in a car crash. So, when Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, the mantle fell to Bashar al-Assad, who was "elected" in a referendum in which he was the only candidate. The ruling Alawite clan, a minority group in Syria, and the Soviet-style Ba'ath Party don't like to take chances. They prefer to keep things in the family.

There was a brief "Damascus Spring" in which he released political prisoners and eased press restrictions. But it didn't last. Some question whether Bashar al-Assad has the clout to change his father's old order. They call Syria "a dictatorship without a dictator."

Suddenly, an unassuming man, who had been studying medicine in London, was president of a regime that ruled Syria under martial law. His marriage soon after to a London-born, English-educated Syrian woman, Asma, who worked for JP Morgan as an investment analyst, encouraged those who longed for Western-style economic and political reforms. There was a brief "Damascus Spring" in which he released political prisoners and eased press restrictions. But it didn't last. Some question whether Bashar al-Assad has the clout to change his father's old order. They call Syria "a dictatorship without a dictator."

Western diplomats and reform-minded Syrians agree that a well-entrenched "mafiaocracy" -- built up over many years -- still controls Syria's stagnant economy, and that any challenge to Bashar al-Assad will come from hard-liners inside the regime -- "the thugs," as one diplomat put it. Washington doubts Assad's good intentions, but others, especially in the Arab world, see Assad as a genuine reformer who deserves all the help he can get from the outside world.

"Definitely, we're going to change," Assad insisted, but added it will take time. "There is a long road ahead for us."

"In the past," Assad acknowledged, "this law [the state of emergency] has been used frequently in the wrong ways." Now, he claimed, "The emergency law is not used to suppress freedoms, but to suppress terrorism, and there is a huge difference."

Human rights activists we met in Syria, including two former political prisoners, insisted there was still "a wall of fear" in the country, though they said some "space for civil society" had begun to open up. Assad had authorized the opening of a private bank and private universities. In July he released more than 250 political prisoners under a general amnesty.

The war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to overshadow the debate about domestic reform. The Bush administration blames Syria for supporting terrorist groups like Hamas, for developing weapons of mass destruction, and for failing to stop foreign fighters from crossing the border into Iraq. But Assad downplayed Syrian support for Hamas, denied possessing WMDs, and said Syria was doing what it could to control its 400-mile desert frontier with Iraq, a remote border infamous for smuggling. Assad countered, "You can't even control your border with Mexico."

On the matter of WMDs, Assad stressed that Syria had no nuclear capability: "We do not even have a nuclear reactor for peaceful means." The International Atomic Energy Agency announced recently that there was no evidence Syria was trying to develop nuclear weapons. Assad also denied U.S. accusations that Syria has an advanced chemical weapons capability and a stockpile of the nerve gas sarin.

Assad made the case that U.N. inspectors had uncovered all of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. "Of course, you don't need much [of a biological agent]," he added, "You can put toxin in a glass. Anyone can do it." Throughout the interview I had been enjoying the fruit juice we had all been served. I was lifting my glass for another sip as President Assad mimicked the act of dropping poison into his own glass. I wasn't the only one in the room who decided, in a moment of paranoia, not to take another drink.

Syria opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but privately the Syrians were not particularly sorry to see Saddam ousted. He was an unstable neighbor and a rival in the region. For a while, in the first flush of American victory, there was talk among neo-conservatives in Washington that "Syria may be next." That hawkish talk ceased after post-war Iraq turned ugly. What Assad fears is chaos in Iraq, which could inflame Islamic radicals in Syria. A secular regime, the government in Damascus has in the past violently suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Syria has no interest in Iraq becoming a center for radical Islamic terrorists.

Assad also worries that the U.S. has opened a Pandora's Box in Iraq and scoffed at the idea that the Bush administration acted out of a desire to bring democracy to Baghdad: "Is it the democracy of the Abu Ghraib prison?"

Assad also worries that the U.S. has opened a Pandora's Box in Iraq which it cannot control, and he scoffed at the idea that the Bush administration acted out of a desire to bring democracy to Baghdad: "Is it the democracy of the Abu Ghraib prison?"

Assad also blamed Bush for making Iraq his priority rather than trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of Syria's principal foreign policy goals is to regain the Golan Heights it lost to Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but Assad argued that Syria has little or no ability to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. "We do not have relations with the Israelis, and our relations with the Palestinian Authority is quite weak." Only the U.S. has the power to push for a comprehensive Middle East settlement, he said.

Asked to comment on the U.S. presidential election, Assad said he'd never met George Bush nor John Kerry, just spoken with Bush on the phone. "We're not looking for changing presidents," he said, "we're looking for changing policy."

Finally, I asked Assad about those Syrian troops in Lebanon. "We started a withdrawal four years ago," he said, "because the Lebanese army is stronger and can maintain the peace." But Assad made it clear that the remaining Syrian soldiers would not be leaving Lebanon any time soon. "In the media we hear they [Lebanese] want us to withdraw, but that's not what they tell us in private." With a straight face, Assad declared, "The Syrian army does not interfere in Lebanese politics," but I left the presidential palace with the clear impression that Syria has no intention of abandoning what it sees as vital interests in Lebanon and will continue to be the political powerbroker there.

Barring a radical shift in Lebanese and Mideast politics, the president of Lebanon will still be anointed in Damascus.

As we filed out of the hall, I shook hands with the Syrian leader and told him I was from San Francisco near Silicon Valley. He smiled broadly and assured me, "I am an Apple user!"

I promised to let the Apple people know and walked out of the palace trying to imagine Bashar al-Assad on one of those Apple billboards with the slogan, "Think Different." No Apple exec would ever put him up there alongside Einstein, Ghandi or Martin Luther King. Then again, what if Bashar al-Assad decides to fulfill the promise of his "Damascus Spring," withdraws his army from Lebanon, or decides, like Anwar Sadat, to make peace with Israel?

* * *

Read more about the International Reporting Project trip to Lebanon and Syria in May 2004 on the IRP Web site.


Lebanon: The Earthquake
Video and dispatches from reporter Kate Seelye and producer Stephen Talbot about the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the "Cedar Revolution" that followed, and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Syria: A Tie that Binds
An Editor's Note about the arrest of human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni in Syria.

REACTIONS

Brooklyn, United States
This is my first time visiting your site and i must say i like it alot. Your article was an interesting read.
I will surely come back here more often!

(anonymous)
I was in Syria a year ago and it was a fascinating country to visit. People were kind but guarded. Those who would talk (and not all were open) did say that they could see progress with Bashar's policies, compared to his father's rule. They reminded me that any great change takes time and possibly generations. The Syrians that I met are a proud people and want peace and security in their country to live happily with their families. They want good health care and schools, reliable transportation and jobs that pay the bills. While we have many differences, I observed that we are so similar in so many ways.

- san francisco, ca
Pelosi for President?

- san francisco, ca
Pelosi for president?

(anonymous)
You should do us all a favor and move there.

N. Payne - Richmond, Virginia
Very good piece, esp. relevant three years after the interview took place. Short and candid, provides an insightful glimpse into Assad's intellect and personality -- and possibilities for the future should we decide to engage Assad and his government diplomatically. Loved the Mac/Apple reference at the end.