Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Middle East

Syria: Odd man out in a tough neighbourhood
By Iason Athanasiadis

DAMASCUS - The capital is no longer an Assad theme park. The visitor is no longer greeted at the airport with a sign declaring "WELCOME TO ASSAD'S SYRIA". Where once 10-storey banners bearing the likeness of Hafez al-Assad draped entire buildings there are now gaudy ads for local or imported chocolate, mobile phones and other consumer products.

A European TV crew on shoot in Syria spent the better part of a day driving through Damascus last week, on the lookout for the monumental portraits of the former Syrian president that had once occupied prize positions in collections of dictator paraphernalia. Frustrated, the camera-crew ended up with paltry shots of conventional portraits hoisted up on government buildings. Businesses, cars and lampposts are no longer adorned with the cult of the raiss (president).

Today, another Assad is in charge - Bashar al-Assad, the son of the former president. A political neophyte, Bashar was studying opthalmiatry in London when he was suddenly recalled to Damascus and put through a crash course in presidential politics. He officially assumed power in September 2000, aged just 34 years old. An enigmatic figure who gives few press interviews, Bashar made a series of apparently contradictory moves which confounded observers and proved that the clique of senior advisers he inherited from his father were digging in and protecting their vested interests.

Bashar issued a license for Syria's first satirical paper, threw himself behind economic reform and appeared tolerant to moderate criticism of his government. But just months after appearing to sanction the mushrooming of democracy debates in private houses, a series of arrests brought an end to the "Damascus Spring". After the formation of a new government and a series of sackings of corrupt officials, inertia set in on the economic front. Despite brisk cross-border trade with Iraq in oil and goods, efforts made to tackle the bloated public sector or corruption in government were frail.

If Hafez al-Assad gave Syria 30 years of istiqrar (stability), then his son is trying to contribute economic, then political reform. Bashar's first order that his father's ubiquitous posters be taken down betrayed excessive zeal. The attempt to reverse 30 years of personality cult and foster independent thinking in his citizens was a faux pas in a country grown used to living under the president's patriarchal gaze. But three years after assuming power, a Damascus city-scene denuded of presidential memorabilia is evidence that Bashar's softly-softly approach worked.

Three years after his coming to power, Syrians enjoy marginally higher salaries, foreign products cram shop windows and private banks are about to start functioning. Instead of decrepit American cars dating from the 1950s and a surfeit of soldiers and policemen drifting through central Damascus, today's city is sunk in gridlock as new cars scrape fenders on the congested roads. In the evenings, many of the old city's Ottoman houses - converted to restaurants and coffee-shops - open their doors to friends and lovers as a newfound liberalism unfolds in the cobbled lanes. As one suq regular remarked, "Syrian girls have been watching Lebanese satellite TV [considered racy by Arab world standards] and it's starting to tell in their appearances."

Syrian girls are not the only thing on the mend. With a new government formed in September, boasting fewer Baathists than any other post-Assad government, bank reform under way, and Damascus making it clear it wants to sign a key trade agreement with the European Union, the economy seems set to improve. Jihad Yazigi, an economist who publishes the independent monthly The Syria Report from Paris, believes that "Syria has many advantages: low debt; a lot of resources; it is very competitive price-wise in all of the primary (agriculture, mining), secondary (industries) and tertiary (services) sectors. These are very rare features in developing countries. Its tourism is widely under-developed, it still has to benefit from its strategic geographic position and the same can be said of its expatriates."

But on Monday, one day after Israeli jets bombed an area outside the Syrian capital, several frightened Damascenes woke up to the sound of cannons thundering over Damascus. The tense city soon remembered that instead of facing a renewed Israeli threat, the cannons were ceremonial, fired in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the October War fought by Syria and Egypt against Israel.

Even before Sunday's strikes on an alleged base for Islamic Jihad ended 30 years of cross-border calm with Israel, Washington had been pushing hard to isolate Damascus. The US occupation of Iraq doubled the borders Syria shares with hostile countries and is forcing Syria to adapt to life in a changed neighborhood. Frozen relations with Turkey and Jordan and the occupation of Lebanon by Syrian troops complete the picture of Syria's diplomatic isolation.

Bashar's reaction has been to give Washington the kind of intelligence-sharing that would have been the preserve of Syria's former Soviet ally in the past. On top of that, the Syrian government is distancing itself from some of the controversial Palestinian groups it hosts and which Israel claims orchestrate suicide bombings. But crucially, the Syrian government did not renounce Hezbullah, the Lebanese militia group that spearheaded Lebanese opposition to Israeli occupation of the southern part of the country until June 2000 and whose chief sponsors are Syria and Iran. Additionally, Israeli and US accusations that Syria allowed Arab mujahideen and weapons to percolate through its borders into Iraq, mainly through influential middleman Firas Tlass, son of the Syrian defense minister, make Syrian claims of impartiality appear doubtful.

One unintended side-effect of the recent Israeli and US pressure on Damascus has been to radicalize figures heretofore considered to be moderates. "After insisting that America be the main moderator in Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, [Foreign Minister Farouq] Sharaa has given up and adopted a more hardline position," a Syrian journalist told Asia Times Online. Indeed, the urbane minister had a recent outburst during which he described the Bush administration as surpassing all others in "foolishness and proneness to violence" and accusing its hawks of wanting "the sword to remain over Syria's head".

The sword might well take the form of the Syria Accountability Act (SAA), a piece of legislation that has been a top priority for pro-Israel groups for the past two years. The legislation would ban military and dual-use technology exports to Syria and impose sanctions such as banning US investment , downgrading US diplomatic representation, imposing travel restrictions on Syrian diplomats, prohibiting Syrian commercial airliners from travelling to the US, and freezing Syrian assets.

With the bill expected to pass Congress with an overwhelming majority next week, the outlook for Syria remains bleak. "The SAA is an additional card in the hand of Israel's friends in the US, a stick which can be used to block all development in the relations between the two countries," opines Yazigi. "Should the SAA pass, it will mark an additional hurdle in Syria's relations with the US, which must improve if Syria wants to manage successfully its regional and domestic agendas: a peace agreement with Israel, its presence in Lebanon, economic and political relations with Iraq and the continuity of the current political regime." "It will end the dialogue between the US and Syria, a dialogue that Syria wanted very much," Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian scholar at the Middle East Institute told the Washington Post. The message it will send Arabs is that, despite cooperating with the US on the war against terrorism, it was punished. "No matter what Arabs do, the United States will stick to its bedrock support for Israel," said Jouejati.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Oct 9, 2003

Neo-con fingerprints on Syria raid (Oct 8, '03)

Time for US to preempt Mideast instability (Oct 8, '03)

US turns its sights back on Syria (Jul 31, '03)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong