1. Archive

Syrians mix hope, fear when thinking of Israel

Even in his book-lined study, on a quiet Damascus side street, Dr. Suheil Zakkar says it is not easy to imagine what peace will be like with Israel, after nearly 50 years of bloodshed and war.

"If I said I were talking about friendship with Israel, I would be lying," said Zakkar, a gentle medieval historian whose works on the Crusades and Islamic history have won the special patronage of President Hafez Assad. "Let others here go and visit Jerusalem," he said, but at the age of nearly 60 "I cannot change overnight."

Like growing numbers of Syrians, Zakkar these days is openly wrestling with an idea that even a year ago few would have dared to broach in public here for fear of being branded a heretic or, worse, a traitor: the notion of living side by side with Israel as a neighbor rather than an enemy.

"The world has changed and we have arrived at a new reality," Zakkar said. "We have no choice now but to make peace, on both sides. But what kind of peace, this is something else."

Damascus is not a capital given to free and open public discussion of politics, and in interviews in recent days here with merchants and businessmen, academics and shopkeepers, no one challenged or doubted Assad's unbending demand that Israel must give back all of the Golan Heights before any kind of peace is possible.

But at the same time there is also a widely shared sense that some sort of peace with Israel is now inevitable. And for many people, the very contemplation of the idea has had a kind of dizzying effect, fueling both wild hopes and dark insecurities among those who for years never heard Israel described as anything but the Zionist enemy, and whose government has historically been among the most hard-line and autocratic in the Arab Middle East.

"What our president says about peace is what we all now believe," said Fahdi Tabah, the owner of a storefront photo shop in the mostly Christian quarter of Batuma. "If the Israelis give back what they took from us, then we can open the borders, and the Israelis may come. Why not? It will be good for business."

But for Bassam Kahwaji, a merchant and exporter, the idea of peace involves risk as well as promise.

"Peace, when it comes, means many opportunities for business and tourism, to be certain," Kahwaji said. "But when we open the borders, there will also be new people, and new ideas. Change will come fast, and we have not been used to this."

While Jordan, Egypt and the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization have now reached peace agreements with Israel, Syria remains unreconciled and technically still in a state of war with it.

Yet for all the frustration within Israel and Washington over what some regard as Assad's obduracy, the tortured diplomatic wrangling over the Golan Heights obscures a larger reality: There has been a slow, but steady, opening within Syria itself in the past two years.

The autocratic Assad government has embarked on a cautious course of liberalization, taking steps to open its economy to the West and even prepare its people psychologically for the idea of peace.

Diplomats say Assad has little choice, given the collapse of the Soviet Union, once his main patron, and the peace accords over the past year between Israel and the PLO and Jordan.

While Assad's authority remains uncontested, reinforced by a cult of personality that has his smiling visage peering from storefronts, banners and billboards across the country, diplomats say he is determined to widen the economic and political base of his regime, to better insure its stability.

To that end, said Dr. Andrew Rathmell, a Middle East analyst writing in Jane's Intelligence Weekly last month, Assad has embarked on a campaign to cultivate a "new constituency" of private sector businessmen.

"For two years now we have watched big changes inside Syria," said Khaldoun Zein, a former university professor who now runs his own consulting firm, dealing with American and European pharmaceutical companies.

"People now have cars, and there are fax machines and satellite dishes that bring us international television. Peace will bring more changes, although I cannot say for sure what they will be."

For every merchant and businessman who sees peace as a kind of elixir, a boon to trade and tourism, there are others who still struggle with the idea, seeing peril amid promise as Syria opens the borders of a society that until a few years ago was among the most insulated in the region.

"We must look carefully after our younger generations," said Zakkar, who expressed worries about the rising specter of Islamic extremism, which until now has been contained by Assad's strict measures.

"Already we have more students in our universities than opportunities on the outside," he said. "We will have to rethink our education system and much else."

For others, like Mohammed Adnan, 60, a cabdriver, peace looms as a kind of magic potion.

"Soon, God willing, Damascus will be filled with more business people and tourists, even tourists from Israel," Adnan said.

Would he like to travel to Israel himself someday?

"Why not?" he replied. "I want to see Haifa and Tel Aviv. I hear Israel is a beautiful place."