The following article ran as part of a thirteen-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch January 23-February 15, 2003.
The dozens of market stalls that line the oldest souk in Damascus were open for business but the hundreds of customers who usually throng these ancient streets were nowhere in sight.
Perhaps that's because it was just past dawn. The shopkeepers were in fact making a command performance, under police orders to provide a colorful backdrop for Syria/s young president as he came to pray at the mosque that lies just beyond the Roman columns at the end of the souk's main arcade.
Never mind that the president is Bashar al-Assad, the lanky London-trained ophthalmologist billed as the softer, gentler version of his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand until his death nearly three years ago.
This is Syria, perhaps the most confounding and paradoxical country in a region that is struggling to keep its balance as the United States moves toward war with Iraq.
With Syria the country, as with the shops in its souks, everything is negotiable -- and don't expect to outwit some of the shrewdest bargainers in the Middle East.
When tens of thousands filled the streets of this capital Saturday they were protesting against the U.S. and war with Iraq, not against their own government. That's because Syria has distanced itself from U.S. policy more than any other government in Iraq's immediate region, denying access to U.S. military personnel and praising Iraq's compliance with UN disarmament resolutions.
"The Syrian government is in step with public opinion," a western diplomat here said. "People may hit the streets but they won't be targeting the government."
While distancing itself from any Iraq war the Syrian government has adroitly played up its cooperation with the United States on another front, the broader war on terror. U.S. officials acknowledge the value of Syrian help; CIA Director George Tenet and Secretary of State Colin Powell both credit Syria with saving American lives through the timely transfer of intelligence regarding movements by members of Osama bin Laden?s al Qaida network.
U.S. specialists are less comfortable with the lesson many Syrians have drawn, that the United States is finally following the tough lead of countries like Syria -- which crushed an uprising by Muslim Brotherhood extremists in 1982 by killing an estimated 20,000 people in the single city of Hama.
The same officials, and many ordinary Syrians, say the country has no intention of ending its active support for anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- support which has landed Syria on the State Department?s short list of governments that sponsor terrorism.
"That's not an issue we care much about," says a leading intellectual here with long-standing American ties. "In a way, in our culture, being put on the American terror list is not necessarily a bad thing. For us it's a national liberation struggle for Palestine. We're helping them. National movements now and again resort to terrorism. The problem is if you have no program beyond terrorism, as with bin Laden and al Qaida. Then it's a terrible thing, and self-defeating. But that's not the case, we believe, with Palestine."
Syria joined the coalition fighting Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war and in November cast a vote in favor of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, demanding that Iraq give up its weapons of mass destruction. Its border with Iraq was closed beginning in the early 1980s, when Syria took Iran's side in the Iran-Iraq war, and only reopened three years ago.
Yet that summary doesn't begin to capture the nuances of one of the most complex relationships in the Arab world.
Syria and Iraq are governed by competing factions of the Ba'athist party, a 1960s-era movement that stressed socialism and pan-Arab unity. With the recent warming in relations Syria became a major supplier to Iraq under the UN's oil-for-food program, which funnels Iraqi oil revenues through UN offices for the purchase of food, medicine and other goods.
Iraq also agreed to an under-the-table arrangement to sell Syria up to 200,000 barrels of oil a day, at a heavily subsidized price now averaging about $10 a barrel.
The deal has clear benefits for Syria, freed as a result to export much of its own oil production at world prices that have recently surged past $30 a barrel. Iraq benefits too, obtaining from the Syria sales hard currency that it cannot get through the UN program. The United States, so quick to challenge other violations of the UN sanctions on Syria, has quietly looked the other way.
Iraq remains a highly sensitive issue, so much so that the mere suggestion of Syrian cooperation with international plans to establish camps for potential Iraqi refugees was enough to get one of the country?s most prominent journalists thrown in jail. Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus bureau chief for the respected pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, was arrested in December for printing "false information" that endangered state security; he faces a trial, closed to the public, later this month.
George Jabbour, a law professor at the University of Damascus and long-time adviser to Syria?s top leaders, accentuates the positive. "The model of arrests under Bashar is much more advanced than in the old days," he says. "The Syrian media will publish news of the arrests, and that the charges are based on such and such a law. That's not bad; it's an improvement."
A new leader, mixed results
The balance sheet since the younger Assad took office is mixed.
On the personal level freedoms have clearly advanced, with rapid increases in access to cellular telephones and the Internet (although many individual sites continue to be blocked). Parliamentary elections take place March 2, with over 10,000 candidates registered to compete for the one-third portion of parliament reserved for independents; the rest of the seats are reserved for members of the ruling Ba'athist and related parties.
Syria's economy suffers from burdensome state control and opaque accounting procedures that make most government statistics worthless, in the view of western observers here. Actual unemployment is believed to run as high as 30 percent and the per capita income barely exceeds $1,000. Long-delayed plans to introduce private banking remain on hold.
The winds of reform that accompanied the younger Assad's rise to power have died down since. Within little more than a year the government moved against independent political discussion groups that had popped up around the country. That was followed by the arrest, beginning in mid 2001, of 10 leading political opponents, most of them jailed on vague charges of attempting to subvert the country's constitution.
Human rights lawyer Haitham Maleh, 72, spent seven years in Syrian jails during the 1980s. He continues to represent political dissidents and is facing trial himself, for discussing political prisoners in an interview with a reporter from the satellite television station al-Jazeera.
He feels his work is more difficult, now that the United States has rejected, in the name of fighting terrorism, some of its own guarantees of human rights.
"You have security laws now that aren't much different than those of Syria," Maleh said, citing the detainment of foreign nationals at the Guantanamo military base in Cuba, the fingerprinting of visitors to the United States from many Arab countries and the denial of legal representation to individuals suspected of participation in terrorism.
"What is the difference now between the United States and us?" Maleh asks. "Before we thought that the big countries, like the United States, had a special feeling for human rights. No more."
Syrian intellectuals say Assad's uneven ascent to power resembles that of George W. Bush. Neither expected to follow in his father's footsteps and both were received with considerable skepticism. In Syria, at least, neither president has yet met the test of leadership.
"There's the sense of inexperience with both, and incompetence too," a well-placed Syrian with experience in both countries asserts. "And then there's the whole 'son-ship' thing, the feeling that both of them are exerting a lot of effort to project an image you could respect."
He said that with Bush the result are statements that to Arabs appear outrageous, such as hailing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a man of peace. With Assad the younger it's over-the-top denunciations of Israel and the proliferation of photographs and billboards that is making the younger Assad almost as ubiquitous a presence as his dead father.
A presidential show
Cultural traditions stretching back a millenium and more were amply evident over the past week, as Syrians celebrated the festival known as Eid al-Adha that concludes the annual period of pilgrimage to Mecca.
Those who could afford it bought a lamb for slaughter. Plenty could, judging from the lambs lined up outside shops in Damascus neighborhoods where expert butchers made amazingly quick work of a complicated, bloody process: slitting the lamb's throat over an open drain, squeezing out the blood and then hanging the carcass from giant metal hooks as the first the skin, then the legs and vital organs were stripped away.
Neighborhood children gathered to watch, while older family members carried leaf-filled branches of trees and shrubs to nearby cemeteries to mark the graves of the departed.
Last Monday, on the eve of the festival, it appeared that all of Damascus was at the at the al-Hamidiyah souk, taking advantage of a last opportunity for shopping before much of the country shut down to celebrate the four-day holiday.
Omar al-Din tempted a visitor to his upstairs shop with piles of rugs, jewelry, silk dresses and painted wooden icons more than 100 years old. He mentioned, in passing, that it would be a long night. The police had just come through, he said, informing all of the shopkeepers that President Assad (set ital) might (end ital) come to pray the following dawn and that he expected to see the souk in full operation.
Omar said shopkeepers who lived nearby planned to catch a few hours' sleep and then reopen at 4 a.m. Many others had decided it wasn't worth traveling home and back; they would just stay open through the night.
Crews of workmen descended on the area, meanwhile, working through the night to paint lampposts, put up awnings and remove the metal barriers that normally block vehicles from the main souk area.
As dawn broke all was ready.
Assad's motorcade arrived shortly after 7 a.m. He and his party stayed for nearly an hour inside the Umayyad Mosque, a magnificent 8th Century structure filled with golden mosaics that was originally a Christian church. One of the minarets is named for Jesus Christ; an ornately decorated crypt inside is said to contain the head of John the Baptist.
Assad walked out of the mosque?s main courtyard with a minimum of ceremony and no contact with local residents, who were kept out of the mosque while he prayed.
His motorcade, a dozen limousines and security vans, raced through the market at 30 miles per hour, despite the people crammed against the shop openings with barely a foot to spare. A woman holding a photograph of her son's bloodied head, crying out for the president's attention, was rudely shoved back.
And then the motorcade was past.
As if on order, pull-down metal doors up and down the souk clanged shut. The scene that just a moment before was full of color, noise and shopkeepers was suddenly gray, silent and emptied of people.
The big man's show had ended. It was time for home, for family and religious rituals that had gone on for centuries -- and would continue, no doubt, when the strutting politicians of the day had long since left the stage.