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Detours on the road to Damascus

On my first trip to Syria, nearly 13 years ago, I rarely opened the curtains in my Damascus hotel room. • The view outside was of a bleak army barracks and a huge poster of President Hafez Assad towering four stories high. His stern visage left no doubt: Syria was a police state. • Accompanying me everywhere was a "minder'' from the Ministry of Information who, to his credit, did his best to ignore the first rule of all such Arab bureaucracies: provide as little information as possible. There was no Internet, no cell phones, no idle chatting with people on the street. • In 2000, Assad died and his son Bashar, a London-trained eye doctor, became president. • Syria continued to be a tough place for journalists — on my next two visits I had to sneak in as a tourist — but the atmosphere definitely lightened up. • There were still posters of the Assads, though they were smaller and fewer. People could talk a bit more freely. Damascus, one of the world's oldest cities, blossomed with galleries, nightclubs and boutique hotels as Western travelers discovered the country's wealth of Roman ruins and crusader castles. • By last year Syria had become certifiably hip. The New York Times deemed it one of the Top 10 destinations for 2010. • Then came 2011, and the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

Seemingly more stable than its neighbors, Syria at first appeared immune to the tornadic fury of the Arab Spring. But after lifting a 48-year state of emergency and promising change, Assad sent tanks and thousands of soldiers to crush prodemocracy demonstrations. Nearly 400 have died in the five weeks of the uprising.

That a mild-mannered doctor who made tantalizing nods to reform could act as thuggishly as any other dictator came as a surprise to some. But Syria is a country that has often zigged when you might expect it to zag, giving it an outsize role in Mideast politics.

It has long advocated Arab unity and Arab nationalism, yet its closest ally is the non-Arab nation of Iran. Its leaders have been secular, yet it is headquarters of the radical Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Its support of another group, Hezbollah, helped spark Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon, yet its own border with Israel has been remarkably quiet for decades.

The Obama administration and the European Union have called for an end to Assad's crackdown but not to his regime. As with Egypt, there's concern over what would happen if a longtime ruler suddenly left the scene. But some think it's time to move on.

"What the West has to say (to Assad) is, 'We do not buy your story any more, you are not indispensable, you are not irreplaceable, we see the future beyond you as a bright one,' '' says Nadim Shehadi, an expert on the Middle East at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Otherwise, he says, "history will show that 500 more people died because people believed Bashar could be a reformer. Because it's not to do with the personality, it's the system and the system cannot reform itself. It's a rigid system that can only crumble, it cannot reform.''

Beginning with the Baath

Whether Assad will bow to Western pressure is debatable, given Syria's traditionally anti-Western bent.

After World War I, France governed Syria and Lebanon under a League of Nations mandate. Both countries won their independence in the 1940s, but while Beirut bloomed as the "Paris of the Mideast,'' Syria took a different road.

In 1947, a group of Syrian intellectuals founded the Baath Party. It denounced Western imperialism and called for a renaissance of the Arab world. (Baath means renaissance or resurrection in Arabic.)

Syrian Baathists were among those pushing for a union with Egypt after that country's charismatic president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, dealt a stunning blow to Israel and the West by seizing the Suez Canal in 1956. The resulting United Arab Republic lasted just three years, but the nationalist fervor sweeping the Arab world propelled Baathists to power.

By 1969, Saddam Hussein was leading the Baathists in Iraq. A year later, Hafez Assad took over in Syria.

Assad — the name means "lion'' — was a former combat pilot who belonged to a small, moderate sect of Islam called the Alawites. In the late 1970s, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, who considered the Alawites secular heretics, launched an armed insurgency against Assad's regime.

The uprising was covertly backed by Sunni-led governments in several Arab countries and lasted until 1982. That's when Assad sent troops to Hama, a center of the Muslim Brotherhood, and ordered them to level much of the city.

As many as 20,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in what has been called perhaps the single deadliest act ever committed by an Arab regime against its own people. But as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman noted, Assad never again had a problem with Islamic extremism.

Tensions grew, though, between the secular Baathists in Syria and those in Iraq. With each side claiming to be the real thing, the parties became such bitter rivals that Syria was the only Arab nation to support Iran in its war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Other factors, too, pushed Syria and Iran together.

An anti-imperialist, Assad had also supported the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran and led to Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return from exile. (Assad had offered him asylum in Syria, but he opted for Paris).

Assad's Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam; Iran is the world's largest Shiite country.

And Syria and Iran had a common interest in Lebanon, where a 15-year civil war threatened Syria's stability, and Israel's 22-year presence enraged Iranian-backed Muslim fundamentalists.

For these and other reasons, Iran and Syria forged what analyst Abbas William Sami in 2006 called "one of the most enduring regional alignments in the Middle East.'' It still is.

Hope for the son

When his father died at 70 after three decades in power, Syria's new president stirred hopes of positive change.

Bashar Assad and his gorgeous wife, Asma, a former investment banker, seemed the epitome of the progressive young Arab couple. He spoke fluent English and French. She shed her Christian Louboutin pumps and traveled incognito around Syria to learn how people really felt about the government.

Nor did Assad seem power-hungry. He got the job only because his father's favorite son, Basil, had been killed in a car wreck.

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States arguably blew a chance to bring Syria more into the Western fold. Syria tipped off the CIA to a planned attack against Americans in the Persian Gulf and provided intelligence on Islamic groups and individuals linked to al-Qaida.

Nonetheless, in 2002 the Bush administration included Syria on an "expanded Axis of Evil'' with Iran, Libya and other countries accused of sponsoring terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

A year later, Assad emerged as one of the most strident critics of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. I remember attending a rally in Damascus where crowds carried giant posters of Assad and Egypt's Nasser, still revered decades after his death for his vision of a united Arab world free of Western domination.

The posters' message was clear: Assad saw himself as heir to Nasser's legacy. Opposition to the Iraq War would endear him to a new generation of Arabs, especially those in Jordan and other countries whose leaders publicly denounced the war yet let U.S. forces use their bases and airspace.

As Iraq descended into chaos, the Bush administration accused Syria of harboring terrorists. But it gave little credit to Assad's government for taking in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of them Christians who found a new home in one the most religiously tolerant Arab countries. (Christians might have been jailed had they carried a Bible into Saudi Arabia, one of our closest allies.)

At other times, Assad has also acted in maddeningly contradictory ways.

He made moves toward political reform, only to back off and clamp down. He pulled Syrian troops out of Lebanon after its prime minister died in a 2005 bombing, widely blamed on Syrian intelligence forces, but helped arm Hezbollah during the 2006 war with Israel.

When it comes to the Jewish state, Assad has often sounded sincere in wanting to make peace. Indeed, the two sides apparently were close to a deal in late 2008 when Turkey, an ally of both countries, acted as mediator.

Then, without informing Turkey beforehand, Israel launched its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. That so outraged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that talks collapsed.

Now, as Assad and Syria find themselves in crisis, at least one expert thinks it is Turkey, not the West, that could successfully appeal to Assad's better instincts.

"Recent statements by the Turkish prime minister and messages passed by Turkish officials have been crystal clear: Reform, right now,'' writes Rime Allaf, a Syrian associate fellow at the Royal Institute.

"After years of cultivating this relationship, unable to turn a blind eye to the current repression, it is clear Turkey is potentially one of the most significant foreign factors to influence Syria — either playing a role in helping save the regime from its own excesses, or helping save the Syrian people from their predicament.''

Or there is a third potential outcome. Syria could rock along as it has for years, a puzzlement of a country that can't get its own act together and repeatedly complicates life in others.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Detours on the road to Damascus 04/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 29, 2011 8:28pm]

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