by Kate Seelye
FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye visits the bazaars of Damascus.
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.
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.
Posters of Bashar al-Assad appear as soon as you reach the Syrian border and are displayed across the capital.
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
Syrians gather to pray in the
eighth-century Umayyad Mosque, which holds the tomb
of John the Baptist.
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.
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.
Much of Syria's nightlife centers
around the bustling and labyrinthine markets.
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.
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.
A constant military presence is part of the fabric of some 40 years of Ba'ath Party rule.
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
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Women gather outside the Umayyad Mosque, a place Syrians use for prayer and for family gatherings.
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
• 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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