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Syria Refutes International Criticism

December 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: The Souk-Al-Hamadiyeh in Damascus is a 13th century gem, one of the arteries through which the lifeblood of the Syrian capital pulsates every day.

On this site, peddlers have traded their wares since before the birth of Christ. And the Souk is so well-preserved that at times it feels like a movie set. Indeed at times, it is a movie set.

Earlier this month, the Souk was transformed by Syrian television into a dramatic backdrop for the production of a music video, a music video with a message: Syria is strong, its government has public support and it won’t be bullied by America or anybody else.

AMER MONSOUR, Coffee Vendor (Translated): This is a national song. Not only every Syrian, but every Arab person should participate in this. It’s a national song, whether you’re walking around selling something, or you own a store here, it’s your duty to be a part of this. In a situation like this, a song like this can bring us all together.

SIMON MARKS: At times just bringing together the volunteers who participated in the video was a challenge for Syrian television’s personnel. “You haven’t learned the words,” screamed an increasingly anxious producer, as take-after-take was ordered in a bid to get the message right, a message that Director Mohammed Skiyah says is not just intended for domestic consumption.

MOHAMMED SKIYAH, Video Director (Translated): We are directing a message to all the people of the world that Syria is a country of proud and courageous people. This is more than just a song. It’s a presentation for the whole world to see that we have millions of people, from two-year-old kids to 70-year-old men, so we can show the world that Syria is not what they think it is. Syria is a peaceful country.

SIMON MARKS: The suspicion that Syria might not be a peaceful country has been fueled by recent events in neighboring Lebanon.

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, blown up in a Valentine’s Day car-bomb attack in Beirut, precipitated massive anti-Syria demonstrations in the Lebanese capital.

The so-called “Cedar Revolution” demanded, and ultimately secured, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, ending a 15-year military occupation of the country. The United Nations appointed former German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis to probe the Hariri assassination. He concluded the Syrians were behind it, prompting calls for U.N. sanctions against Damascus. The Syrians vigorously deny any culpability.

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban is a senior Syrian government minister and close adviser to the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Syria is the first country who would like to know who the real perpetrators are. Certainly they are not Syrian, for the simple reason that the instability in Lebanon will be extremely harmful to Syria.

When the civil war broke in Lebanon, Syria lost 12,000 of its soldiers to put an end to the civil war in Lebanon because it will be destabilizing for us as well.

So it is impossible that Syria would think of any action like this. Plus the assassinations of Palestinians and Lebanese are taking place not because Syria is doing it, but because other parties are doing it.

SIMON MARKS: Other parties, the Syrians assert, who are conspiring to make life difficult for President Bashar al-Assad. His image, along with that of his late father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades till his death in the year 2000, is still ubiquitous on the streets of Damascus.

And President Bashar has himself been appearing in public to refute the charges leveled against Syria by the UN investigation. In an appearance at Damascus University, the president called the UN probe a “foreign attack.” His student audience turned out in force to demonstrate against the U.S.A. after he asserted Washington was behind “cultural and psychological warfare” aimed at destroying Syrian unity.

The U.S. has pressured Damascus to stop the alleged flow of fundamentalist fighters crossing the border into Iraq, and to close the Damascus offices of Palestinian organizations that Washington says support terrorism.

DR. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: The threats against Syria are huge. I think I would like to get out of the theory of regime change or threatening Bashar or Arafat to attract the world’s attention to the fact that we are millions of people living here, and we deserve to live a normal and happy life.

We don’t deserve to wake up every morning worrying about our countries for things that are being constructed for ulterior motives.

SIMON MARKS: If the Syrian government is waking up every morning worrying about the future, that probably suits the White House down to the ground.

One top Syrian official told us that he could not remember a frostier time in the relationship between Damascus and Washington, D.C.

PROFESSOR JOSHUA LANDIS: Syria is going to push back because it’s been put against the wall.

SIMON MARKS: But Professor Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University, who has lived in Damascus for the past year on a Fulbright scholarship and has studied Syria for 20 years, says President Bashar al-Assad is proving adept at mobilizing public opinion against the Bush administration.

PROFESSOR JOSHUA LANDIS: They don’t need proof that America is not good for Arab countries. It’s just clear. They all have friends who are refugees here who fled their country because America came in and tried to fix the damn place.

So when it comes to justice, being good to Arabs, there isn’t any question in the Syrian mind that America is not out there to help the Syrian people. It’s out there to help itself. And so they don’t trust it.

And when Bashar al-Assad says “Don’t trust it,” they don’t have any reason to trust it. Even if they don’t like their own government, they’d rather the devil they know than the devil they don’t.

SIMON MARKS: In a controlled society like Syria it is impossible to get a complete picture of public opinion.

The power of the security apparatus here leaves people uncomfortable talking to reporters, especially those representing American media organizations, but to the extent that you can sample the views of people, there seems to be a genuine national pride in Syria’s achievements and a willingness to believe that the Bush administration is out to orchestrate regime change here.

Even though virtually everyone you meet in Damascus immediately tells you about their family members living in the U.S.A., hostility toward U.S. policy in the region remains strong. The U.S., people maintain, is out to get Syria and to advance Israel’s interests in the Middle East.

No one publicly will confess to viewing the United States as an honest broker in the region.

MOAHMMED AL SHAER (Translated): Thank God we are moving forwards despite the pressure America is putting on us. We are right, and because we are right we are not afraid. And even if they impose sanctions or whatever else they do, we’ll be fine; our country is going to be just fine.

MOHAMMED AL OBEIDI (Translated): Attacking Syria is not a new thing. They’ve always done that. And the government is answering them exactly the way we want them to.

SIMON MARKS: The government here is also maintaining public support by liberalizing Syrian society.

The changes in the two years since the NewsHour last visited Damascus are immediately noticeable: Changes like Internet cafes, where Syrian youngsters congregate every night to surf the web, check their e-mail, and now make web-based telephone calls to friends in Europe and the U.S.A.

TV satellite dishes are everywhere. Syrians are soaking up news and entertainment from over 300 competing pan-Arab stations and dozens of networks that carry Asian, European and American programming.

The government is licensing a dozen local private television stations; they are allowed to carry news programming and you don’t have to be a member of the ruling Baath Party to work for them. Those youngsters already on the air say the country is alive with change.

JOURNALIST (Translated): Whoever watches our channel regularly will realize that we don’t only talk to lawmakers or government figures. We talk to them, but we also talk to the people. The opinion of the Syrian people is actually more important.

So in our newscast, viewers might here about official pronouncements, but the rest of the time they’ll hear the opinion of people on the streets.

SIMON MARKS: Economic transformation has not been so rapid. Damascus is attracting inward investment, some of it from Iraqi exiles, the rest from the Persian Gulf, where the high price of oil leaves people with ready cash. But Syria still has no stock exchange and no timetable for its introduction.

And on the political front, Syrians could only marvel at the ability of the country’s one million Iraqi expatriates to vote on Syrian territory in Iraq’s parliamentary elections this month.

There are no plans for Syrian citizens to be offered a chance to participate in a similarly open and competitive race. Nevertheless, long-time observers of Syria say the change in the country is palpable and should not be ignored.

PROFESSOR JOSHUA LANDIS: The intellectual climate in the ’80s was dead. There was nobody to talk to. First of all, they didn’t read any western papers or foreign papers, they didn’t have any TV; they didn’t have Internet. They had no clue.

So you’d try to talk about European and American politics, and you were talking two different languages. And people were frightened to talk to you.

Now, this year has been just a fantastic year. I’ve been writing this newsletter every day, people are coming to me, there’s real dialog. I go out to dinner all the time with leading journalists, thinkers, artists and, you know, you can talk about “Did the president kill these guys? Are they responsible for this? Who is the bad guy, who is the good guy? Is George Bush’s plan right or not right?” And people engage you, in spirited discussions on all these things.

SIMON MARKS: And in our discussion with government Minister Bouthaina Shaaban, at one point she asserted that Syria wants to the see the U.S. partner with liberal, democratic-minded forces in Damascus.

SIMON MARKS: I’m fascinated to hear a Syrian government minister saying that the United States should invest in liberal, democratic-minded people in Syria.

DR. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: Absolutely.

SIMON MARKS: Is President Bashar al-Assad a liberal, democratic- minded leader?

DR. BOUTHAINA SHAABAN: He is the first democratic, humble, young, hopeful leader for his country. I think the West doesn’t know him, doesn’t know what kind of man he is. If they know him, and they know what kind of person he is, and if they truly want democracy and freedom in our region, this is also a very important question. If they truly want peace in our region, they couldn’t have a better partner than President Bashar.

SIMON MARKS: The Syrian government is certainly preparing its people for ongoing confrontation. One of the music videos airing on Syrian television at the moment allows some of the country’s schoolchildren to offer their judgment on America and its Middle East designs.

If the war of words between Washington and Damascus intensifies, the Syrians have no shortage of stunningly beautiful ad hoc movie sets at their disposal to create more videos designed to mobilize public opinion and shore up support for the country’s government.