TOPICS > Politics

A Frontline Report About Syrians’ Views On Lebanon and the United States

May 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


KATE SEELYE: For me arriving in Damascus always feels like a kind of homecoming. I spent several years here as a teenager when my father was posted at the American embassy. Damascus is a city of two million people.

Walking around, I couldn’t escape the images of the ruling family. For the past 35 years, the Assads have governed Syria with an iron fist, first the father, Hafez, who died in 2000, then his western educated son, Bashar. When he came to power, Bashar promised reforms, but never really delivered.

There’s talk in Washington that Syria should be a target for regime change. But as I walked through the old city and its ancient marketplace, the Souk, I was surprised to find how calm it was. You’d never know there was turmoil next door in Lebanon. Damascus is one of the world’s oldest cities.

Whenever I’m here, I feel suspended in time. At the heart of the city is the Umayyad Mosque. Once a Roman temple, then a church, the mosque is home to the tomb of St. John the Baptist. I noticed all over the Souk new posters saying “Bashar, we’re all with you.”

SPOKESPERSON (translated on screen): What are the reasons for the posters?

MAN (translated): We love President Bashar al-Assad.

MAN (translated): We’re a people who love Syria. We love our president. Here in Syria, there’s no opposition. There’s nobody against the president or the party.

KATE SEELYE: I heard that kind of praise from a lot of shop keepers, but Syria is a police state and many people are afraid to speak openly. The Syrian government is defensive about the lack of freedoms here, not to mention the charges that they killed (Rafik) Hariri.

BUTHEINA SHABAAN: Those who arranged the killing of Hariri were planning things against Syria and against Lebanon. It would be a political suicide for anybody in Syria to think of doing that. Syria is as interested as everybody in the world to find the truth of who killed Hariri because it is in our interest to find the real perpetrator of that terrorist crime.

KATE SEELYE: Shabaan also says the Bush administration misunderstands the Syrian president.

BUTHEINA SHABAAN: How could they talk about Bashar al Assad without talking to him? I think they should talk to him and know who he is before talking about him.

KATE SEELYE: Why is he being compared to Saddam Hussein then?

BUTHEINA SHABAAN: Absolutely stupid comparison. Excuse me. Very stupid. None in Syria would compare — none in the world would compare Bashar al Assad to Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a criminal against his own people and against Syrian people. So the comparison shows absolute lack of knowledge and that’s one of the big problems of the U.S. policy in the Middle East.

KATE SEELYE: Unlike Saddam Hussein, Bashar al Assad is not guilty of mass murders or developing nuclear weapons. But Syria’s Baath Party rules under a state of emergency. There are many political prisoners in the state-controlled economy is in trouble. I went to see one of the country’s few outspoken dissidents. Anmar Abdel Hamid is a blogger and runs an organization that defends minority rights.

ANMAR ABDEL HAMID: Frankly after five years you just have to see the obvious and admit the obvious. This regime is not — has not been good for this country anymore. It’s time for them to go. What I want is an orchestrated collapse, not necessarily the kind of sort of catastrophic collapse as a result of, you know, some kind of an invasion.

KATE SEELYE: Ammar Abdel Hamid says he welcomes U.S. pressure on Syria to reform and democratize but opposes U.S. Military intervention.

AMMAR ABDEL HAMID: I don’t want to see insurgents and I don’t want to see the destruction of the infrastructure. And I don’t want to see Abu Ghraibs happening here in Syria. What I want to see is a peaceful change in this country, a long overdue change. And despite my vehement criticism of this regime, I still hope that they will be able to understand that the reason for my criticism is my desire to avoid having to see an Iraqi-style scenario unfolding in Syria.

KATE SEELYE: I wondered how secure Bashar al Assad’s hold on power really is. I went to see an old family friend, Mohammed Aziz Shukri, who’s been an advisor to the government.

MOHAMMED AZIZ SHUKRI: We are fighting against time, and we cannot sleep while others are putting the squeeze on us, including the very United States of America. They want everything to happen overnight.

KATE SEELYE: And are you worried about the squeeze? I mean, could the squeeze…

MOHAMMED AZIZ SHUKRI: I am, I am worried. If I tell you I’m not worried, I’d be laughing at myself.

KATE SEELYE: What are you worried about?

MOHAMMED AZIZ SHUKRI: I’m worried that the Syrian economy is going down the drain if we maintain the status quo. The government is under severe pressure, once through Lebanon, once through Iraq, once through Turkey, to the extent that I wonder at times whether the American administration, the American president’s administration wants to bring the regime down.

KATE SEELYE: How nervous is this regime that the U.S. might attack?

MOHAMMED AZIZ SHUKRI: On the surface it doesn’t act nervously. But I know that everybody almost is nervous. Everybody almost is asking, “What’s next? Could we wake up tomorrow and find the Marines trying to land in Syria?”

KATE SEELYE: So do you think this American pressure on Syria is threatening the Assad regime?