Several indicators are coming out of
Damascus showing that Syria is about to initiate
long-awaited reforms to please the Syrian street.
Damascus has been boiling with rumors on what the
reforms are going to be.
there will be a lifting of martial law, in place
since 1963. Others want a general amnesty to set
free all political prisoners, including three
famous dissidents - ex-parliamentarians Riyad Sayf
and Maamoun al-Homsi, and economist Aref Delilah.
On November 2, 190 political prisoners
were granted an amnesty, including human-rights
activist Mohammad Raadoun and writer Ali
al-Abdullah, who was arrested
in mid-2005, but excluding the three mentioned
above. Another amnesty is expected on November 16,
which marks the 35th anniversary of the
"correction movement" that brought Syria's former
president, Hafez Assad, to power in 1970.
Other reforms under consideration by
President Bashar Assad and promised by the ruling
Ba'ath Party are citizenship for 90,000 Kurds and
a law to permit parties not affiliated with the
Ba'ath Party to operate in Syria.
expected reform is a cabinet reshuffle, expected
in mid-November, which would reduce the number of
seats allocated to the Ba'ath Party. Syria has
also refrained from harassing or even questioning
any of the dissidents who drafted an opposition
document called the "Damascus Declaration" in
All of these measures are Syria's
way of responding to the latest escalation in its
"cold war" with the US following the October
release of the United Nations-sponsored Mehlis
report into the killing of former Lebanese prime
minister Rafik Hariri (which pointed fingers at
Syria) and the subsequent passing of UN Resolution
1636, which urges Syria to cooperate with the UN
commission investigating Hariri's death.
Syria wants to mobilize its street and
create a united front to ward off international
pressure and show the world that its people are
not disgruntled, but rather are standing firm
behind the government and the president.
The government wants to reduce, in
anticipation of eliminating, any reason for
dissent inside Syria. And to some extent this has
worked, with its recent moves being welcomed by
politicians, activists and intellectuals, although
they demanded more in the months to come.
The Syrian street, however, has welcomed
these political reforms with mild enthusiasm at
most. The majority of Syria's 18 million people
are not interested in political reforms. Syria is
composed of young Syrians, mainly below the age of
35. This young generation has more pressing needs
that it wants the government to address, such as
better schools, better universities, better jobs,
cheaper real estate, cheaper automobiles, and
cheaper private hospitals.
pluralism and general amnesties are low priorities
for people struggling to just survive. It is
tangible necessities that the government needs to
address before political freedoms can have real
This is something that the Syrian
opposition has failed to seize on. While they
carry flashy and honest slogans about political
freedoms, they ignore the real demands of the
Syrian street. Discontent among the masses at the
grass-root level is not because of a lack of
political freedoms; it is about corruption in the
civil service and judiciary, unemployment and
other such matters. To the dismay of the average
Syrian, and to the pleasure of the government, the
opposition has failed to touch Syrians at a
domestic issues Yet although the street
might be opposed to corruption in government, it
is by far more opposed to Americans and what is
perceived as their "cold war" against Syria.
The Syrian street believes that the Mehlis
report is biased and and that it unjustly targets
the people of Syria. Syrians would be willing to
rally, rank-and-file, behind their government if
it would give them the reforms they really wanted
- and needed.
For a start, the government
could end forced conscription into the army, which
has antagonized generations of Syria's youth. Any
able male above the age of 18 who is not studying
has to spend two-and-a-half years in the military.
The pay is only symbolic, and recruits are
indoctrinated, drilled and forbidden from travel
or from taking up another job.
youngsters evade service by fleeing to the Gulf.
If conscription were abolished, thousands of
talented young men might be encouraged to return.
Others would be encouraged not to leave.
Other reforms that go hand-in-hand with
this step would be to dramatically improve school
and university education by relaxing government
restrictions and paying higher wages to teachers.
Corruption and unemployment, too, will have to be
addressed. Unemployment is estimated at 30% among
university graduates and officially at about 11%
among all Syrians.
Currently, there are an
estimated 17 million Syrians in the diaspora, many
being second and third generation emigrants.
According to al-Thawra newspaper, their money is
estimated at $80 billion. Rigid economic laws,
compulsory military service and maltreatment at
Damascus Airport are among the few reasons that
prevent them from returning to work or invest in
Once these measures are
addressed, the government should prohibit the
intelligence services from interfering in the
lives of Syrians. Then political freedoms could
A brand called Syria As
they work on reforming themselves from within,
Syrians should re-read their history. Essentially,
the West never cared for the well-being of Arabs,
and certainly not for the well-being of Syrians.
This is something that in recent weeks the
government has been strongly trying to remind the
There is a uniform
conviction in Syria that the US does not really
care for who murdered Hariri, but is just using
the affair to pressure Syria to comply on other
issues, in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.
Why did the French colonize Syria in 1920?
Because they saw a lot of potential in this small
Middle East country that they wanted to exploit,
and did, until evacuating in 1946. Why did the
Americans launch the first coup d'etat of the Arab
world in 1949 in Damascus? Because they realized
that the Syrians, government and public alike,
were a hard-headed and stubborn people who would
not fulfill US interests in the Middle East.
Why did the Americans try to launch two
coups in Syria in the 1950s? Again, because the
Syrians were acting too independently from US
interests in the Arab world and cozying up to the
This is the reality of
Syria's history with the Western world. Syrians,
under global scrutiny today because of the
anti-Syrian media campaign, are actually a proud
people who never wanted their lives or actions to
be dictated by a Western power, be it London,
Paris, Washington or Moscow. They may be
politically indifferent to reforms at a grass-root
level inside Syria, but they remain vigorously
anti-American and anti-Israeli.
combination of Syrian and Arab nationalism comes
to a confluence in the Syrian street. Contrary to
what the West believes, this nationalism was not
created by the Ba'athists when they came to power
in 1963. It existed under Shukri al-Quwatli in the
1940s, under Adib al-Shishakli in the 1950s, and
under the early Ba'athists in the 1960s.
It is part of Syria's national identity.
The Americans cannot expect to change that
overnight. The issues on which the US government
has been haranguing Syria since 2003 happen to be
the issues where there is a consensus between the
street and government, and these issues mainly
concern Lebanon, Palestine and the Iraqi
The Americans cannot expect to
dictate their demands to Syria and immediately
find a majority - or even a minority - of Syrians
saying: we want Hezbollah to disarm, we want the
resistance in Palestine to end, and the insurgency
in Iraq to be crushed by the Americans. And more
importantly, we want to replace our government
with a pro-American one that will cooperate with
Syrians are not like that.
Actually, because they are not like that they are
being made to pay a price for their nationalism.
This is the mood that prevails in Damascus today.
This "cold war" with America is not about Hariri.
It is not about Bashar Assad. It is not about
supporting or opposing Iraq. It is about the
stubborn and arrogant people of Syria.
Defiance is not new to the presidents of
the Syrian Republic. Shukri al-Quwatli was
defiant. That is why he was ejected by the Central
Intelligence Agency in 1949. Adib al-Shishakli was
defiant. That is why the US did not lift a finger
to defend him when his regime was toppled in 1954.
So were Hashim al-Atasi, Nazim al-Qudsi, Amin
al-Hafez, Nur al-Din al-Atasi and Hafez Assad. In
fact, the only common denominator in every ruler
in Syria was a strict commitment to Syrian
nationalism and the Palestinian cause, which is
part of a broader commitment to Arab nationalism.
Each of these leaders worked towards this
end in a different and often conflicting manner,
but each lived by his principles and died
defending them. Many exploited the Palestinians,
but in the end they could not declare a break from
the Palestinian cause.
They were all
committed to principles of national pride, which
automatically put them at odds with a great power,
be it Great Britain, France or the United States.
Quwatli was punished in 1949 because he
refused to crush communism in Syria, sign an
armistice with Israel and grant passage rights to
an American oil firm wishing to pass through
Syria. Atasi was punished for stubbornly
antagonizing France and refusing the annexation of
the Sanjak of Alexanderetta to Turkey in 1939, and
again in 1949 for passionately pursuing a union
between Syria and Iraq.
punished in 1954 for refusing to tone down his
brinksmanship with Israel and offer unconditional
acceptance of the Eisenhower Doctrine, which aimed
at crushing communism. Qudsi was punished in 1963
for his commitment to Syrian nationalism at the
expense of both Western and Arab interests.
Bashar Assad falls in line with this long
list of people who ruled Syria. Strip him of his
presidential powers, and you will find a Syrian
citizen who thinks, feels and acts like his
countrymen towards US interests in the Middle East
A Syrian expatriate in the US
expressed his views to Asia Times Online in a
manner that mirrors what the Syrian street is
thinking today. Basically, the Syrians believe
that Syria is a small country with a big brand, a
brand that rejects Israel and the new world order
being created by the US. No country in the Arab
world, not even Egypt or Iraq, carries the
rejectionist brand like Syria. This is a common
denominator that unites all Syrians, government
and opposition, men and women, young and old,
secular and religious. It is the only thing all
Syrians have agreed on since 1948. They may
disagree on religious issues, reforms, politics,
ideologies, but not on Israel and the US.
This Syrian observer added that the Syrian
regime "can do everything asked of it but the
[great] powers won't be pleased because the real
target of the attack is not the Syrian regime, but
Syria's no-compromise brand".
Lebanese writer and philosopher Munah al-Sulh once
said that unlike any other nationalism, Arab
nationalism is measured by the answer to one
question: how does one feel about Israel and
Today, more than 50 years into
the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria is the only
country, apart from the Palestinians themselves,
which is still overwhelmingly Arab nationalist.
This does not apply to Libya, Qatar, Oman,
Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Sudan
or Lebanon. It no longer applies to Jordan, Egypt
This stubbornness vis-a-vis Arab
and Syrian nationalism is something that the US
will simply not be able to change.
Note  Syrians began
immigrating in large numbers during the socialist
years of the Syrian-Egyptian union (1958-1961),
during the early Ba'ath years (1963-1970) and in
the early 1980s. A report issued by the United
Nations Development Program and the State Planning
Commission in Syria in 2005 said that only 20% of
Syrians who received a PhD from a foreign
university returned to work in Syria. Brazil, for
example, has 5 million Syrians and Argentina has
1.5 million. The US has 750,000 Syrians and
Germany has 59,000, of whom 18,000 are doctors. In
the Arab World, two thirds of teachers are Syrian.