TOPICS > Politics

Syria at the Crossroads

May 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: Last weekend in Damascus, we chanced upon this crowd of young Syrians standing in line. In scenes that the Syrian government says are emblematic of the remarkable changes underway here, they were patiently waiting for the doors to open, so that they could have their chance of getting online. The Internet revolution has come to Syria, and for the capital’s youngsters, it is the latest craze. Many of these kids told us they spend between four and six hours a day online, e-mailing their friends, catching up on the latest headlines, following European sports teams and the latest music news from the U.S.A.

YARA BADER: I don’t remember when that event started, but I remember it was like a surprise. I was really happy because of that. I’ve known that there was something named “Internet” and “mail” and everything, but I wasn’t sure that event will happen here. So I was really happy.

SIMON MARKS: And this new face of Syria has been brought to the world by this new face: President Bashar al-Assad, just 37 years old, who three years ago inherited ultimate power from his late father. The image of Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, who ruled here for 30 years, remains omnipresent on the streets of Damascus. But it is now his son and heir who is shaping this country’s future.

Syria today is suddenly surrounded by nations friendly to the United States: Turkey to the north, Jordan and Israel to the south and, presumably now, Iraq to the east. The president, who visited last weekend’s trade fair, personally spearheaded the arrival of the Internet in Syria the moment he took power, and did so to prove his readiness to open his country to the outside world. But that openness notwithstanding, across this ancient city — first established 6,000 years before the birth of Christ; the Syrians claim it’s the oldest in the world — we found it consistently difficult to persuade people to share their views on the country’s new president and Syria’s next steps.

MOUHANNAD AL-SHOUEIKI, Merchant: We believe that the president is a wise man, so he knows what to do.

SIMON MARKS: One man who did agree to talk to us is Mouhannad al-Shoueiki. For 24 years, his family has run this store in one of the oldest bazaars in Damascus. Many of his fellow traders refused to speak for fear that their less-positive views might get them into trouble with Syria’s secret police. But Mouhannad al-Shoueiki, a supporter of the president, was happy to tell us that life in Syria today is improving.

MOUHANNAD AL-SHOUEIKI: Many things has been changed in Damascus to be better, and we have more freedom. We… here has been fixed many streets and roads in the city. And we feel that a very big change happened in those two years, so that’s perfect. And that’s what we really need, of course, because since a long time, nothing has happened in Syria in general. And it’s not in Damascus; it’s in the whole country.

SIMON MARKS: Off-camera, other Syrians told us they hadn’t noticed much change since the country’s new president came to power. They expressed worries about the economy. Unemployment is hovering at around 20 percent, and traders in the market say business is down nearly 60 percent, because the turmoil in neighboring Iraq is keeping tourists away.

Syria does have some natural advantages. It is the only Arab country self-sufficient in food, and its agricultural sector has been largely freed from decades of Soviet-style central planning. But oil is a major problem. Syria has limited reserves of its own, and since the year 2000, relied heavily on subsidized exports from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They ended the moment the U.S. military switched off the pipeline through which the Iraqi crude illegally flowed, bringing to a halt trade that analysts estimate was worth nearly one- fifth of Syria’s entire economy.

Syrian government officials failed to make themselves available for interviews with western journalists this week. But there are many things that they implored us to report about their country. Syria supported U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which called for the unconditional disarmament of Iraq. It backed the U.S. war on terror, helping to apprehend leading members of al-Qaida. It severed diplomatic relations with Baghdad back in the 1970s and never restored them. Damascus even served as the headquarters for many leading members of the Iraqi opposition throughout Saddam Hussein’s rule.

And then there are the things that the Syrian government is less keen for us to emphasize. This remains a tightly controlled country, a virtual one-party state that continues to jail journalists, academics and political opponents. This weekend, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who arrived in Damascus this afternoon, is expected to demand that Syria ends its development of weapons of mass destruction; abandons its support for the terrorist activities of militant Islamic groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad; and agrees not to harbor fleeing members of Saddam Hussein’s former regime.

Mahdi Dahlala is the editor-in- chief of the daily newspaper operated by Syria’s governing Ba’ath Party, and a former top party official. His newspaper, “al Ba’ath,” today sells only 55,000 copies in a country of 17 million people — many Syrians now choosing to read newspapers from other more liberal parts of the Arab world instead. Like many loyal government servants, its editor vigorously denies claims that the Syrians sent military supplies to the former Iraqi leader or offered sanctuary to Saddam Hussein or his top lieutenants.

MAHDI DAHLALA, Editor, “Al Ba”ath” Newspaper (Translated): Logically there could not be any cooperation, politically or militarily, with the former Iraqi regime. Many high Iraqi officials have been wanted here in Syria since 1966. Saddam Hussein would sooner show up in Washington than in Damascus. He would be in Washington for sure before he would be in Damascus, because he has been wanted here since 1966, and there was no contact between Hafez al-Assad or Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein. No contact between them at all.

SIMON MARKS: The Syrians insist their relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was purely economic. In downtown Damascus, the Iraqi trade office is now shut. The lackluster Iraqi consumer goods inside were kept off-limits to the NewsHour’s camera by the last remaining and hostile Iraqi official. Elsewhere in Damascus, Syrians themselves are still reeling from the regime change that has occurred in Iraq. Threats by some U.S. officials to seek the same outcome in Syria do not go down well with either the government here or many of its people.

MAHDI DAHLALA ( Translated ): We do not want a foreign country invading an Arab land just because you dislike its regime. Even if Syria had the military capabilities to change the regime in Iraq, we would not have done it. The Iraqi opposition has worked in Syria for over three decades and is still here. Saddam’s was one of the worst regimes ever. But the problem for us is that an Arab country is being occupied by a foreign force without United Nations approval. Our stance is just like that of the French.

SIMON MARKS: Do people in Syria worry that what happened in Iraq yesterday might happen in Syria tomorrow?

MOUHANNAD AL-SHOUEIKI: No, I don’t think so. Because Syria is completely different from Iraq, and they have no reasons to come here, I think. And it’s not… lie. It’s true. We want everyone to know that this is true. We love the government, we love the president, and we want him to stay forever. We don’t want any American, any English, anybody to come to Syria.

SIMON MARKS: All over Damascus you can see evidence that many here think the U.S.-led war against Iraq was aimed at shoring up Israel’s position in the region. It is the issue of the disputed territory of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, that Syrian officials specifically want to resolve as part of any negotiation that brings about improved relations with the United States. The Syrians say the town of al-Qunaitra was laid waste by retreating Israeli forces in 1973, the year the Syrians recaptured it along with around one-third of the Golan Heights. The Syrians won’t rebuild al-Qunaitra or allow its citizens to return. Instead it’s been turned into a museum that Syria says is a testament to Israeli aggression. Strategically vital to both countries, the Syrians insist the Golan Heights must be returned to them.

Ali Jamano is an independent Syrian journalist. He’s familiar to many here because he contributes frequently to the pan-Arab satellite networks that Syrians now prefer to watch instead of the country’s domestic television channels. He’s aware that in Syria today at least one other leading independent journalist is jailed, charged with publishing “false” information. He says the U.S. relationship with Israel is a major sticking point that could prevent improved ties between Washington and Damascus.

ALI JOMANO, Independent Syrian Journalist (Translated): There is a clear American bias toward Israel. Israel has unconditional us support. How can you ignore something like that? Israel occupies Syrian lands, just like it occupies Palestinian lands and Lebanese lands. Should the Syrians give up their lands and their rights so easily, just because they want to have a better relationship with America? There are over 150 Security Council resolutions condemning Israel. So why didn’t Tommy Franks take his tanks to Israel to implement them?

SIMON MARKS: The Syrian government enters this weekend’s talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell knowing that intense national pride over the Golan Heights among both the country’s Muslim and Christian communities fuels attitudes towards the U.S.A. In more general terms, independent observers here argue that the government is in tune with popular opinion, and reflecting it as it introduces change.

ALI JOMANO (Translated): Syria and its government are making slow changes. Some say it’s too slow. But others say the pace is right, because we don’t want the country to be shaken up. We’ve seen this happen in Eastern Europe and other countries when governments tried to change rapidly and fell from power. And these countries descended into chaos. So this is what the Syrians do not want.

SIMON MARKS: Syria remains a country at a crossroads, under intense pressure to improve its historically chilly relationship with Washington. But the Syrians want to know how they will benefit as a result. And in tomorrow’s meetings here, President Bashar al-Assad is likely to bring as many demands to the table as America’s secretary of state.