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Report from Syria: Between Iraq and Israel – A Hard Place


He affirms that Jesus, his disciples and contemporaries spoke and wrote in Aramaic, which derives from Aram, Noah’s grandson. The Apostles used this language to spread the Christian message to Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia (Iraq). The priest learned English at the Vatican and insists that “piety and justice go hand in hand,” referring critically to U.S. behavior, especially in the Middle East.

Syrians of all ages echo Tofiq’s sentiments. In Bosra, just north of the Jordanian border, the site of a Fourth Century 4,000 seat Roman amphitheater – in which you can sit at the top and hear a whisper from the stage – with its carved stone seats in miraculous condition, a youngster of about 11 made a hissing sound and sneered when I asked him what he thought of George W. Bush. “Bush bad,” his pre-adolescent companion offered. Then, as an afterthought, perhaps not to insult me: “American people good.”

“So,” I asked him, “what do you think of Bush?”

The old and older Syria form a backdrop for a smattering of the new. An antique three-wheel motorized vehicle clanks past the horse drawn cart on the crumbling street that leads to the modern well-paved highway. Even in Damascus, Syria’s mushrooming capital of five plus million, ancient edifices (not only the monuments) serve as foreground for the crumbling concrete high rise in the background – old Damascus. In New Damascus the Sheraton and other five star hotels share real estate with the homes and apartments of the rich. It looks like a wealthy neighborhood in scores of cities throughout the world.

Because of their geography they play a pivotal role. But what’s in the U.S.-endorsed road map for them? Anti-Israeli sentiment burns brightly in the minds of adult Syrians, not just because Syria lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 war and failed to win it back in the 1973 war. Syria claims that Israel systematically bulldozed and dynamited every edifice in the city of Kuneitra. Israel claims that during the 1973 war, the buildings were victims of artillery and tank battles. A U.S. diplomatic source in Damascus dismissed the Israeli claims and confirmed the Syrian version of events.

Mohamed Malas was born in Kuneitra. He returned there after the Israeli devastation to film “Memory” (1974) for Syrian TV. Joining us in early July, he walked down the rubble-littered street and talked about his love affair with Kuneitra’s movie theater, the one that turned him on to cinema.

Syrians I met refused to talk about their own politics, at least not on the record. “I don’t talk politics,” a silk merchant tells me, definitively, as he tries to sell me a tablecloth in the Aleppo souk, reputedly the largest and oldest market in the Middle East. Covered by stone archways, this vibrant market weaves for some 18 miles through a maze of alley-like cobbled streets. I shocked one vendor by buying a shawl and tablecloth for the asking price without the customary bargaining; even then, he refused to tell me how he felt about his President, Bashar Assad.

Given the constant Israeli threat – a real one – Syria must maintain a large and very costly military, which in turn, adds to the amount of corruption and also becomes a serious obstacle to change. When military officers institutionalize skimming from the state pot few dare challenge them – especially with the reputation of the Mukhabarat, or secret police. It’s nowhere near the level of brutality reached in Iraq, but every Syrian knows about it.

Non-regime connected Syrian intellectuals had high hopes for Hafez’ youngest son when the man who ruled from 1971 died three years ago. Bashar studied ophthalmology in England, married a Brit and understood the West and the Internet. He promised to free political prisoners, open the country to the Internet and reform the banking system to help modernize Syrian trade and commerce.

Whatever ideas Assad had about changing policy toward Israel evaporated and, writes Chris Suellentrop in the MSN.com opinion space on Wednesday, April 16, 2003, “anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric has endeared him to both Arab nationalists and Islamic radicals in his country and in the region.”

Syria’s population meanwhile grows faster than its economy. It cannot afford acts of generosity without poor Syrians paying a price. From Bosra in the south to Aleppo in the North, I saw a rich agriculture: wheat, fruit, olives and vegetables. I saw Bedouins and Christians of several varieties living alongside Muslims of different stripes. I even met a Jewish antique dealer who returned to Damascus “because I like it here better than Brooklyn.” He can go to Israel but says he’s happy in the place where he was born and grew up and feels no fear or discrimination.

So, this is the dilemma Syria is facing at the moment. Syria is a major force in the region that understands the importance of our language, culture and identity and we would like to keep that. In the meantime, we are open to all good things in the world, but I think this nuance is not appreciated by some.”

Landau teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. His films are available through Cinema Guild, 800-723-5522. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH’S KINGDON WILL BE PUBLISHED IN September by Pluto Press.

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