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Dispatches From a Small Planet: Lebanon/Syria, May 2005

FRONTLINE/World dispatches: Lebanon/Syria

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May 10, 2005
Syria: Measuring the Mood in Damascus

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Border Town: Stopping the Insurgents

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April 12, 2005
Notes from the Road to Damascus

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Dispatch 5

May 10, 2005

In her final dispatch from the Middle East, FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye travels to Damascus, Syria's capital city, to find out what the people think about their country's involvement in Lebanon and about their fears of being next on Washington's hit list.

Measuring the Mood in Damascus
Kate Seelye

FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye visits the bazaars of Damascus.
by Kate Seelye

On my first day in Damascus, I hit the souks -- the city's ancient labyrinthine marketplace where merchants hawk everything from fragrant spices to oriental handicrafts. Unfortunately, I wasn't there to browse or to sip tea in one of the busy outdoor cafés, but to gauge the mood of the people. How are Syrians affected by the Lebanese success in shaking off 30 years of Syrian domination?

Traveling between Lebanon and Syria is like moving between separate universes. The Syrians like to emphasize their close, brotherly ties with Lebanon. But brothers or not, their capitals, at least, have little in common. Beirut is a freewheeling port town, where a well-traveled population flaunts its worldliness and love of materialism. In contrast, Damascus is a traditional, landlocked metropolis, proud of its history as the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Whereas Beirut is working hard to put itself back on the international map after a 15-year-long civil war, Damascus is stuck in a time warp because of some 40 years of Socialist-style Ba'ath Party rule. As in Cuba, classic American fin-tailed cars from the 1950s still ply the streets while in the city's hippest bars, young Syrians dance to music from the 1980s.

Political posters

Posters of Bashar al-Assad appear as soon as you reach the Syrian border and are displayed across the capital.
So it was no surprise to find the atmosphere in Damascus to be very different from what I had left behind in Lebanon. The powerful dynamic for change that has electrified Beirut since the killing of Rafiq Hariri seems to evaporate in Syria. Producer Stephen Talbot and I were greeted at the border by photos of President Bashar al-Assad and his father, the late dictator Hafez al-Assad, images that would follow us everywhere on our trip. Later in Damascus, I found posters plastered throughout the streets proclaiming the people's support for their young president, who has been under mounting international pressure to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. Continuity, rather than change, is the prevailing theme in Damascus. Everywhere we went, Syrians praised the benefits of living in a secure and stable society. Pointing to the chaos in Iraq, they say, "Who needs freedom and democracy when in Syria you can walk the streets safely at night?" And they truly seem to mean it.

People praying in a mosque

Syrians gather to pray in the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque, which holds the tomb of John the Baptist.
On the surface, Damascus does feel safe and relaxed. In the eighth-century Umayyad Mosque, one of the most important sites in Islam, families lunch on large oriental carpets, within feet of the tomb of St. John the Baptist. In the nearby souk, business goes on as usual as merchants and shoppers haggle over prices, far removed from the swirl of regional politics. I sensed an almost studied calm in Damascus, as though the turmoil next door bears no relationship to Syria. But as I started to scratch beneath the surface, I discovered a quiet anxiety about the future and a country on tenterhooks.

Most Syrians we met seem relieved that their army is pulling out of Lebanon, and they try to put the best spin on what is clearly a humiliating retreat. Still, there is anger and resentment over what many view as Lebanon's ingratitude toward Syria. My Syrian taxi driver, Bassam Injai, warns that the Lebanese shouldn't forget the many sacrifices the Syrian army made in Lebanon after it entered as peacekeeper in 1976, during the Lebanese civil war.

In fact, thousands of Syrian soldiers died fighting the Israeli army during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But few in Damascus appear to be familiar with their government's mistakes there -- especially those made since the end of the civil war. I suppose that shouldn't come as a surprise, given the decades of state-controlled Syrian media.

Inside a market

Much of Syria's nightlife centers around the bustling and labyrinthine markets.
Not far from the Umayyad Mosque, jeweler Laith Mokdad assured me that Syria brought stability to Lebanon, helping to unify the country after a fractious conflict. He was apparently unaware of the Syrian government's smothering control of Lebanese politics over the past few decades or of Lebanese charges that Syrian mafias have milked Lebanon's economy of billions of dollars.

Most curious to me, however, is the Syrian take on the Hariri assassination, so very different from the view in Lebanon. Most Lebanese believe that the Syrians played a role in the killing. It's an assumption based on long experience. Scores of Lebanese politicians have been assassinated soon after their opposing Syria's policies. Not even Syria's closest ally, Hezbollah, bothers to push the theory that the Israelis were responsible for Hariri's death. But in Damascus, most Syrians -- even those exposed to the Western and Lebanese press -- are outraged by the charge.

One intellectual asserted that Syria wasn't capable of orchestrating such an assassination. A young female editor of a reform-minded business magazine heatedly denied Syrian involvement, arguing that the Syrian regime had paid the highest price for the assassination. Later, a Syrian dissident, speaking off the record, told me that Syrians are in serious denial about the Hariri killing, just as they are about their country's ugly past in Lebanon. And few Syrians, I noted, want to contemplate the meaning of Syria's diminished regional role as a result of its hasty retreat from Lebanon.

However, the question on most people's minds is not related to Lebanon, but to the United States, specifically, to what Washington might have in store for Syria. The Bush administration has called Syria a "junior varsity" member of the axis of evil and for the past several months has piled the pressure on Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanese internal affairs.

Relations have never been warm between the U.S. and Syrian governments, primarily because of Syria's support of radical anti-Israeli organizations, like Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel still occupies the Syrian Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and Damascus and Tel Aviv are avowed enemies. But never have U.S.-Syrian relations reached such a low point.

Tank on the road

A constant military presence is part of the fabric of some 40 years of Ba'ath Party rule.
The heightened tensions are mainly a result of what the United States says is Syria's backing of the Iraqi insurgency. The White House accuses the Syrian regime of not doing enough to stop fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq. It also claims the Syrians are harboring high-ranking Iraqi Ba'athists -- charges Damascus denies. And given Washington's relentless criticism, backed by economic sanctions imposed last year, many Syrians believe their country may become a U.S. military target.

Mohammed Aziz Shukri, an old friend of my family and a professor of international law and relations, told me everyone in Syria is nervous -- the people and the government

"On the surface it [the country] doesn't act nervous," he says. "But everyone is asking what's next. Will we wake up tomorrow morning and find the Marines trying to land in Syria?"

Shukri, who attended law school in the United States, says he has long admired American values, but is disillusioned with the Bush administration. "I like America," he says, "but I hate the foreign policy of the U.S."

In fact, most Syrians I spoke to seem genuinely upset with U.S. policies toward Syria, which they characterize as biased and dangerous. One government spokesperson angrily asked if the United States would rather have a bunch of Islamist extremists ruling Syria. It's an argument shared by some Western analysts, who have cautioned against destabilizing the Assad regime.

But I did find some support for mounting U.S. pressure on Damascus -- mainly among government critics.

Ammar Abdel Hamid is one of Syria's most vocal regime opponents. Young and articulate, he greeted us in an office whose walls were decorated with pictures of Washington, D.C. Abdel Hamid had returned from the United States just 10 weeks earlier, following a fellowship at the Brookings Institution. He says he welcomes U.S. pressure on Damascus to reform, as long as it remains political. Change, he says, needs to come from the inside.

"I don't want to see Abu Ghraibs happening here in Syria," warns Abdel Hamid. "What I want to see is a peaceful change in this country, a long overdue change."

When Bashar al-Assad came to power five years ago, he promised political and economic reforms in a country suffocating under single-party Socialist rule. Syrians hoped that the Western-educated eye doctor would deliver on his promises. But few reforms materialized, and Abdel Hamid believes that Syria is running out of time.

he Roman ruins of Palmyra

The spectacular Roman ruins of Palmyra, approximately 150 miles northeast of Damascus, sit on the ancient caravan route. The ruins are Syria's most popular tourist attraction.
"Frankly, after five years, we just have to say the obvious and admit the obvious. This regime has not been good for this country," he says, adding that it's now time for Assad to lead a democratization effort, both for the sake of the country and for the sake of its foreign critics.

Abdel Hamid stresses that he sharply criticizes the government because he hopes it will listen to him and take the needed steps to avoid becoming a U.S. target. But apparently that's not how the regime views his outspokenness. He told me that he'd recently been interrogated by Syria's intelligence services because of his political positions. He admits that he is nervous, as is his wife, who wants the family to leave Syria.

It's not unusual for government critics to be thrown in jail in Syria. Dissident lawyer Anwar al-Bunni represents several government opponents who were imprisoned following the Damascus Spring, a period in 2001 when, for the first time in Syria's recent history, intellectuals and politicians publicly called for multiple political parties, more freedom of the press and an end to Syria's emergency law. Not long after, several were detained, and they remain in prison.

Bunni says fear is pervasive in Syria. He says it explains why Syrian opposition to the government is so negligible. Along with Abdel Hamid, Bunni is one of the bravest voices in Syria. And he, too, is paying the price. I interviewed him in his office. He was surrounded by packing boxes. He told me that he was being forced to vacate his law office for lack of funds. Clients, fearful of his anti-government reputation, would no longer hire him, and the threat of prison lurks in the background. "I wouldn't be the first family member to go to prison," he shrugged.

The fear factor may help explain some of the more surreal conversations I had in Damascus. One fabric merchant assured me that Sryians "have freedom and democracy; we come and go wherever we want. ... Everything is all right," he added. No one says otherwise.

A couple of the members of Kullna Sawa, a popular Syrian folk-rock band, recently back from a U.S. tour, told me that Syria is developing toward democracy. Change is happening. Their only frustration, they added, is the lack of a music scene in Damascus.

Women outside a mosque

Women gather outside the Umayyad Mosque, a place Syrians use for prayer and for family gatherings.
Worried and cautious about the future, many Syrians seem far more inclined to look on the bright side of their current condition than to want to contemplate what life might be like in a post-Ba'ath Party state.

Yet despite the Bush administration's relentless pressure on Syria, I felt no hostility toward me as an American. "Welcome to Syria, your second home," pronounced Mokdad, after I told him where I was from.

Mokdad was just one of many Syrians who embraced Steve and me and plied us with tea. Many were careful to note the distinction between the American people, whom they say they love, and the American government, which they say they dislike.

I asked one shopkeeper what he would say to George W. Bush if he had a chance to address the president. With his ingrained hospitality supplanting any political resentment he might have felt, he replied, "I would tell him, 'Welcome to Syria, welcome to Damascus.'

"I would even offer him a coffee."

Watch full coverage of Kate Seelye's reports on recent events in Lebanon and Syria in the May 17 broadcast of FRONTLINE/World. (Check local listings.)
For more history on the complex relationship between Lebanon and Syria, and the role religion has played in political life, read two additional reports from correspondent Kate Seelye.
Lebanon's History of Occupation - In one form or another, Syria has exerted its influence over Lebanon for nearly a century.
Lebanon's Religious Mix - Hariri's assassination has united some sects and divided others.

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