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Hope is as scarce as water in the Middle East.

Regional unity key; tribal splits the rule

A July Sunday afternoon in Damascus, I stopped in on a meeting of the Nation of Islam. A bearded cleric standing beneath a huge portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini spoke in Arabic while I stood in the back trying to figure out what was going on.

"You are American. From what tribe?" a tall man asked.

I responded that America was not divided into tribes -- yet.

"You are Irish? German?"

I said yes.

"So, you are Catholic. You have your pope. Then this is something you will never understand."

An insult, I figured, from a Muslim fundamentalist; a presumption that my Catholic dogmatism would exclude me from any sympathy with Islam.

It was the first week of a month of study and travel in Syria and Jordan with a faculty/student group sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, based in Washington. The purpose: to gain sympathy for the Arab world. As in many travels, however, discoveries don't always correspond to expectations.

The day we flew into Damascus, President Clinton bombed Baghdad -- an act of vengeance that inevitably transformed the trip. CNN showed the rubble, the weeping mother who had lost her little boy, again and again. Syrian cabinet ministers canceled our meetings rather than be seen with us.

We toured mosques, tombs, crusader castles. We listened to peace conference delegates, university professors, people on the street -- and in Jordan, the PLO and leading politicians. Everywhere the same refrain: America is the most powerful country in the world; with its might it can do anything it wants -- for example, it could intervene in the peace process and force its client Israel to adhere to U.N. Resolution 242 and withdraw from the occupied territories -- but it uses its might to kill Arab people.

Recently American public opinion has focused on three issues: the moribund peace talks; southern Lebanon, where Israeli shelling has left at least 130 civilians dead; and the alleged "threat" of Islamic "fundamentalism" -- now virtually synonymous with "terrorism" -- the latest stand-in for defunct international communism.

Leon T. Hadar argued recently in Foreign Affairs (Spring 1993) that Egypt and Israel, among others, with the help of lobbyists and sympathetic journalists, have capitalized on the bombing of the World Trade Center and inflated the "Green Peril" (Islam's color) to gain American support. In the same issue, Judith Miller warns that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible: Because of Islam's theocratic-autocratic traditions, self-criticism and public disagreement are foreign.

Our group had a small example: When I asked a Jordanian cultural czar which issues Jordanians "debated," he replied that they all agreed on the immorality of America's "double standard" -- which was not a debate.

In 1917 when Woodrow Wilson's confidant Col. House was the allies' secret agreements on the partition of the Middle East, he said, "They are making it a breeding place for future wars." In that sense, though we center on today's headlines, the larger issue is identity -- or, in other words, legitimacy: achieving a common, independent future for an area that was deliberately divided and ruled by the Western powers to keep it unstable and dependent, where few of their leaders could claim to speak for their people and be believed.

A glance at the map makers it clear that some kind of fusion joining Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq would benefit all five; but right now the would-be spouses seem to lack the political and emotional maturity for union.

A "new" Assad

In Syria there's the story about the man taking his 4-year-old son on a bus ride through Damascus. The little boy sees one of the heroic statues of President Hafiz al-Assad that loom over public parks and asks loudly, "Daddy, isn't that the man you always say you hate?"

At that, the father picks up his son, holds him out in the aisle, and asks, "Anybody lose a child?"

Assad's gleaming new presidential palace dominates the mountaintop over Damascus -- and the imagination of the city below it. Nearby is the notorious Al Mezze military prison, where, as a signal that Assad is slowly opening up his country, he recently released five old enemies and four dissidents, some who had been held 23 years.

His biographers describe Assad as adaptable, smart, a workaholic, ruthless without being bloodthirsty. I asked several people who knew him to describe his personality; some called him "pious," an honest man, not personally cruel like Saddam Hussein. One said Assad had become a vegetarian because he felt meat made him more aggressive. One called him "soft" for not punishing the spoiled elite who use their state connections to get rich and flaunt their new Mercedeses.

Actually, Assad tolerates -- uses -- the corruption of the new bourgeoisie to bind them to his regime. A Christian bishop, whose private schools go along with government policy, told me Assad had recently granted him a $2 million plot of land.

But Assad's health is poor. He is training his equestrian son, whom the press calls "the golden captain," to succeed him. But he is haunted by what happened in Romania, the gruesome end of Ceausescu -- the possibility that his own regime, once a Soviet client, could fall as quickly as the Berlin Wall. He "solved" his Islamic problem in 1982 by leveling the center of the insurgent Muslim Brotherhood town of Hama -- which he quickly rebuilt as if nothing had happened -- after slaughtering at least 10,000 of its inhabitants.

Today's visitor is struck by the loveliness of its 700-year-old water wheels. Now Assad's goal is to move the authoritarian socialism of the Baath party toward a moderate market economy, come to terms with Israel and survive.

To the visitor, Syria looks prosperous, and it is. Last year the annual growth rate was 8 percent. Oil production has quadrupled sine the mid-1980s. There have been record harvests, new buildings are going up everywhere -- new housing for government employees and (with a population growth of 3.7 percent and 50 percent of the population younger than 20) new floors on family homes to shelter the next generation.

The young men all spend two and a half years in the military where, they tell me, they waste time training on obsolete equipment. The markets, seaports and construction sites swarm with 10-year-old boys toting bricks and pipes bigger than they are, while the average state employee works about five hours a day.

In an Aleppo cafe young men who saw me reading Ronald Seale's biography of Assad wanted to borrow it to photocopy material they otherwise couldn't get. Better, I said, I would send them a copy from home. Good, they replied, but I should remove the cover because the package would be opened and the regime would be offended by David Levine's caricature.

A glass of water

We arrived in Jordan euphoric about King Hussein's successful visit to the United States. The king told friends that Clinton was the "most intelligent and best-briefed American president he had met in 40 years."

They were hopeful for quick relief from the economic sanctions leveled against them -- unfairly, in their judgment -- for their alleged stand during the Persian Gulf War. We were told several versions of a story that King Hussein had negotiated an agreement wherein Saddam would withdraw from Kuwait, but that Bush, influenced by Margaret Thatcher and Mubarak, wanted war. Whatever the accuracy of the report, its wide acceptance illustrates an Arab conviction that they are pawns in a larger battle.

A Syrian sheik close to Assad told us Saddam Hussein was an "American agent" the United States kept in power to serve its purposes. I asked a Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood member of Parliament what Clinton should do to rescue Muslims in Bosnia. He held high a glass of water: "American missiles can hit this glass from 1,000 miles away. If they can do that, they can save Bosnia."

Yet, while much of Jordan's political imagination is focused on the United States and Israel, Jordan itself exists "on the knife edge of change" and is, an embassy official said, "the most important country in the world."

Hussein, like Assad, is in failing health but has designated his brother, not his son, to succeed him. Unlike Assad, he has nourished democracy and faces parliamentary elections in November, when the Muslim Brotherhood -- although they say they "do not choose to establish an Islamic state in Jordan" -- could win a majority.

Jordan's main economic resource is its educated population (80 percent of its doctorates are from the United States). But its 4 million population is growing at 4.1 percent a year, and half its population is younger than 15. The average family size is seven; families of 14 are common.

In the last two years Jordan has absorbed an additional 300,000 Palestinians expelled from Kuwait. Some rich ones have built lovely villas in West Amman; many more have swelled the refugee camps and helped push unemployment to almost 30 percent. At the current birthrate, the doomsday scenario runs, in a culture that resists Western notions of birth control, Jordan could become another Somalia in 20 years.

Finally, Jordan -- indeed most of the Middle East -- is running out of water. By some estimates, Jordan and Israel have at most 20 years before their situation becomes critical and their agricultural capacity collapses. This summer Amman suffered shortages of drinking water. Furthermore, by its military presence in southern Lebanon, Gaza, the Golan and the West Bank, Israel controls the Litani River, major tributaries to the Jordan River and its basis and underground aquifers in the occupied territories.

On the West Bank, the Palestinians complain that the Israeli settlers hog the resources; a settler scoffed to a National Geographic writer (May 1993): "Why don't the Arabs build up themselves? Huh? Why not? I'll tell you why not. It's easier to sit and cry."

The combined water/population crisis is an impending environmental catastrophe that, once realized, should impel one-time enemies to put aside differences to assure mutual survival. But nation-states are slow to sacrifice immediate holding for a long-term good.

Thinking big?

The new buzzword in the peace process is confederation -- a union of two sovereign states, Palestine and Jordan (or, from the Israeli standpoint, a union of Jordan and portions of the West Bank population, according to a recent Jordan Times). But isn't the next logical step to apply the confederation idea to Israel and the West Bank, as John Whitbeck did this year in Middle East Policy, where he proposed a single nation called the Holy Land, a two-state "confederation," a "single economy and social unit encompassing two sovereign states and one Holy City" that would be the capital of both? Borders on the map would not exist within the Holy land; Jews and Arabs would choose citizenship in either state, all would vote in municipal elections and in statewide elections according to citizenship. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized, but each state would control its outside borders.

From here, it's only a short leap to a larger union, perhaps like the "Greater Syria" Assad once dreamed of when Pan-Arab nationalism was more in vogue, but probably closer to one proposed by American-educated, Palestinian Christian journalist Rami G. Khouri. He argues that the rise of Islamic "fundamentalism" is a response to the pain of life, to the failure of the older Arab political system to provide the staples of life (education, food, security, water) and the vision of a better future.

The key lies first in the adherence to a single standard of human rights by the United States (to assume a role in the peace process as a truly neutral broker) and then in a reintegration of resources among the Arab countries that once shared a common culture -- in the Ottoman Empire -- before the triple poisons of colonialism, poverty and terrorism destroyed their unity from without and within.

What stand in the way are the usual reluctance of tribal societies -- whether in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian refugee camp or Brooklyn -- to look beyond that night's meal or TV show and the shortsightedness of national leaders.

A powerful essay in the Jordan Times on July 12 by an Arab graduate student in London condemned Clinton for bombing Baghdad simply to improve his ratings by killing Arabs and condemned his fellow Arabs for accepting their own disunity and tolerating the corrupt dictators "who call themselves heads of state."

The PLO, likewise, does not respect Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It says he lacks the vision to imagine a solution. Arafat told Israeli novelist Amos Elon, "He is no de Gaulle. Let him at least be a de Klerk."

I asked the prime minister of Jordan, Abdul Salam Majali, if he could imagine the mindset of his Israeli opposites and see the logical or moral strength of their positions. He said he could not. In spite of King Hussein's personal enthusiasm for President Clinton, the Arab leadership sees Clinton as weak, "a schoolboy" tied to his pro-Israeli advisers. Surely Clinton's silence while Rabin proved his own "toughness" by killing Lebanese -- and thus created countless angry recruits for the Hezbollah -- did not enhance his reputation for moral courage or evenhandedness.

Yet America (Clinton) is all they have -- in Elon's words, "an Archimedean power outside the direct Arab-Israeli sphere that will produce miracles." As a PLO spokesman told us, if de Gaulle could free Algeria and Nixon could open China, we should not give up on Clinton and Rabin.

A paucity of hope

In our first week in Syria we visited the Syrian ghost town on the U.N. line in the Golan called Quneitra, which the Israelis, who captured it in 1967, destroyed in 1974 after driving out its 30,000 inhabitants, rather than return it to Syrians.

For the Syrians, it is a small holocaust museum, and their bitterness is strong. Yet they invite their visitors to plant and water an olive tree as symbol of the struggle for peace. The symbol itself transcends its immediate purpose. Other more misleading symbols attract public attention. The day I got off the plane in New York I bought a New Yorker that featured a cartoon cover of a screaming kid in an Arab headdress on the beach, crashing down on a sand-castle representation of lower New York and the World Trade Center.

Trees grow slowly, and there's little hope.

Raymond A. Schroth, a journalism professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, is on sabbatical at Georgetown.
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Title Annotation:foreign relations
Author:Schroth, Raymond A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 3, 1993
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