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Syria: a tale of two ironies.

IN the cafes on the boulevards of Damascus and Aleppo there is a self-satisfied mumbling. The satisfaction is justified; the last two years have been good for Syria and triumphant for its Machiavellian President, Hafez al Assad.

Exports are up. Investment, both public and private, is encouragingly high, and the investment law of 1991 provides sensible incentives and a rational plan to wean the Syrian economy away from its past dependence on monolithic socialist financial institutions. Syria's GDP continues to grow, and the GDP per capita is the highest of any Levantine country except Israel.

The best thing of all was the Gulf War, for Syria put all its money into the stock which was bound to rise on the market, and won a dividend out of all proportion to its investment. There was no real risk in supporting the Alliance, and cynical commentators in Damascus say that no Syrian troops ever reached Saudi Arabia, despite the extravagant pledges. The photographs of Syrian tanks rolling towards Iraqi lines were taken, says the word on the street, safely within Syrian territory.

The war shuffled the Middle Eastern hierarchy around in a way very favourable to Syria. Iraq, the great rival, was pounded and foundered. Jordan, an uneasy friend with too much love for Baghdad, failed to wave the Stars and Stripes with unqualified joy, and Yasser Arafat, loathed by Assad, committed an error of judgement in backing Iraq which even his silver tongued sophistry could not mend.

Also, Syria has effectively annexed the Lebanon. In the 'Brotherhood Agreement' of May 1991, signed at a time when Syria was far too important to the USA to offend, Assad achieved with the stroke of a pen what Saddam Hussein with all his rockets and guns failed to do--the appropriation of a neighbouring Arab state. It was nicely done. The timing was immaculate: the wording of the agreement made it sound like the friendly and meaningless twinning of two European towns: and the world's press, bemused by the pictures of diplomatic kisses, and thinking that enforced peace in Lebanon meant more than sovereignty, reported it in brief filler columns, if at all. Only the Israelis screamed that the agreement was no agreement at all, having been forced upon a broken people. But no-one, least of all the US State Department, listened.

The Syrians weren't fooled. They knew exactly what had happened, and there was jubilation in Damascus. There was talk again of Greater Syria, the dream which has burned since the time of Saladin, and which has flickered humiliatingly since the post-war partition of the Middle East.

But this new Syrian self-satisfaction is very strange. For the real satisfaction is not with the achievements of the State themselves, but with the new alliance with the West which those achievements have forged. Assad has been able to present himself as the reasonable broker in the Middle East peace process; a sensible man in a suit with whom the Americans can do business. Syria's long and intimate affair with Moscow has been forgotten. So too, has the crushing of the Hama uprising, when Syrian bulldozers levelled Syrian houses and Syrian conscripts pumped cyanide gas into the ventilation shafts of Syrian homes.

This has had an immediate effect on Syrian self perception. 'We are now,' said Mahmoud, an engineer in Aleppo, 'part of the Western World. We have shown that we are different from the medieval Arabs around us'. He spoke with contempt. 'I would be more at home in New York than Amman.' He was very proud to be Syrian. He would sing the Syrian national anthem with a sincerity previously unknown amongst most of the Syrian population, which had always paid fearful and reluctant lip service to the all-seeing paternalistic state of the Baath party.

It seems that this new redefinition of national success in terms of acceptability to the West indicates the end of the Baathist pan-Arab dream which brought modern Syria into being. There had always been fierce inter-Arab hostility, but never has there been such intense national snobbery, and this is far more dangerous to Arab unity than the dagger-pulling feuding ever was.

There has been, over the past ten years, talk of a Middle Eastern economic community, which would, say the idealists, be the precursor to some sort of political union. This is looking more far-fetched than ever: the borders of the Arab states are harder than at any time since the Middle East was carved up by the British and French in the 1920s. Perhaps this was inevitable. If you tell a people often enough that they are Syrians or Jordanians or Iraqis, they will come to believe it. But until recently it was unclear whether the arbitrary labels stuck on by the Europeans would be adopted by the inhabitants themselves, or whether they would insist on being simply Arab. Now it seems that the French label 'Syria' has stuck. And this is the clue to the first of Syria's two ironies: at the zenith of Syria's national pride, Syrians have, for the first time, acknowledged with one voice the validity of the Syrian state, and rejoiced that they are closer to the western world than ever. The corollary is increased alienation from their Arab neighbours.

The second irony is a related one. It is this: when Syrians are at their most genuinely jingoistic, more of them are clamouring to leave the country than ever before. There are long impatient queues outside the western consulates as the new patriots jostle for visas. Westerners wandering through Damascus are stopped and bought coffee and made to translate letters to embassies and overseas funding centres by would-be emigres. Mahmoud was desperate to study for a BSc in France. 'Syria is the best', he said, unconscious of the contradiction, 'but Paris is better'. This is not just the childish binge of a naive people discovering blue jeans and chewing-gum in the shops. It is the stuff from which dangerous discontent and eventual revolution are made.

But for the moment things look as stable as they ever have been. Assad has not loosened and will not loosen his grip on Syria. This is despite recent reminders of his mortality. There are rumours that he has cancer. But the Alawite(1) establishment which rules through the army and the sinister mukhabarat(2) is firmly in control, and Assad's air-force officer son, Basil, is being pushed to the front of the stage. He would change nothing. Damascene dreams of Piccadilly and Wall Street will remain frustrated. So too, most likely, will the pious wild ambitions of reactionary Islam. But the odd interaction of Syria's two ironies in this key Arab state make Syria a particularly fascinating place to watch as the peace talks murmur on. The ironies have conditioned Syrian foreign policy: Syrian foreign policy will condition the ironies.

Syria and Lebanon originally declared that they would take no further part in the American sponsored talks. Syria did this without in any way damaging its credentials with the Americans. The Israeli right wing was being obstructive. Syria, which had always been fearful of real success in the talks (since Syria's strength and prestige depends very largely on there being a Zionist bogeyman at which to rail) saw its moment and called its delegates home, blaming the fiasco on Tel Aviv. It was a wonderful move. The Arab-Israeli stalemate remained and remains. Washington believed that the Syrians were good business partners. Obloquy was poured on Israel. And at home in Damascus, Assad showed his people that Syria is the main player in the great peace game (for no serious commentators suppose that any Middle East peace can hold unless Syria is a party to it).

The coming to power of Bill Clinton, who seems to be more of a Zionist than either Shamir or Rabin, does Assad no harm at all. It used to be true that he who was for Israel was against Syria, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is now more complicated. President Bush, ably assisted by Saddam Hussein, was Syria's PR man. He brushed her up and made her respectable. That work cannot be undone. Assad needs confrontation to retain power and popularity. Clinton's bias to Israel gives Assad exactly the sort of apparent opposition he needs to impress the Arab nations by tough talking and to justify a huge defence budget at the disposal of faithful and grateful Alawite soldiers. Patriotism soars. Assad is safe, and feted.

But the two ironies still grate away in the hearts of the Syrian people. The cleverness over the talks has not stilled them. Maybe one day the constant rubbing will sever something vital in the national body. Assad knows this, and the knowledge must mar his quiet satisfaction.


1. The Alawites (or Alawais) are a sect of Shi-ite Islam. They seized power in a violent coup in 1966 and have ruled Syria since, notably through Assad (who came bloodlessly to power in 1970) and his henchmen, most of whom are Alawites. A recent estimate suggests that the Alawites comprise about 12 per cent of the Syrian population.

2. The Syrian secret police.
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Author:Foster, Charles.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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