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The Assads’ Syria: one year on, ten years on, thirty years on …

April 20, 2012 4 comments

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Syria was the first country in the Middle East I got to know well more than three decades ago. I loved much about it. But my experiences – retold in the first chapter of Dining with al-Qaeda – seem fully part of the continuum being acted out today.

For instance, on my first visit in March-April 1980, I was trapped in the northern city of Aleppo when Syrian troops ringed the town and started searching for regime opponents quarter by quarter, house by house. For three days gunfire echoed through the night and in the mornings truckloads of frightened citizens, sometimes still wearing their pyjamas, could be seen crowded helplessly in open trucks on their way to impromptu interrogation and torture centres in half-finished buildings on the outskirts of town (Dining with al-Qaeda, pp 1-10).

Then followed the Assad crushing of the Hama in 1982 with some 10,000 dead; Lebanon’s problems from the Syrian occupation of part of that country; and finally the controversy over Syrian links to the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Given the impunity Syria mostly enjoyed, I’m not surprised that the Assad family thinks it hasn’t used up its nine lives yet, even if I remain amazed at how Syria has for so long seemed to live all its many lives simultaneously.

The way time stands chaotically still in Syrian matters reminds me of the early 2000s, when I was a reporter who kept trying to find a story that would illustrate the idea (then thought possible) that Syria might be turning the corner towards a more open, pluralistic society. One possible subject for the story was Ali Farzat, a notable caricaturist in Damascus. The story didn’t work out – nothing much was going forwards in Syria. But ten years later, I was shocked see that this same turbulent stasis had sucked in Farzat, when thugs beat him for perceived disrespect for President Bashar al-Assad. Luckily he mostly recovered, as CNN tells here.

Syrian caricaturist Ali Farzat tells CNN attackers beat him for 45 minutes "so that you don't challenge your masters ... Bashar's foot is on your head ... one said, 'beat his hand so that he can't draw'"

Here’s how the Syrian world of Ali Farzat appeared to me – by turns tragi-comic, brutal and charming – in some excerpts from Dining with al-Qaeda’s Chapter 13: REGAL REPUBLIC, DEMOCRATIC KINGS: Syria, Jordan and the dimensions of dictatorship. (pp 202-210).

I was back in Syria a year later, in 2001, keen to update Journal readers on the fate of the Damascus Spring. Dr. Bashar had closed a notorious desert jail and released six hundred political prisoners. He had allowed a first private school to open. Parliament had passed new laws to introduce private banks and to protect banking secrecy. Steps were being taken to liberalize the currency and customs regulations that had choked Syrian business for so long. Satellite television dishes spread thickly across the Damascus skyline.

One symbol of this era was a caricature-filled weekly magazine called al-Dumari, the Lamplighter. When it appeared in 2001, it outsold the entire print run of the three turgid state-run daily newspapers in an hour. Syrians had seen nothing like it since thirty-eight years before, when private newspapers were banned.

“Aren’t you scared to be stocking this?” I asked at a newsstand, looking over my shoulder.

“There’s no fear anymore. We want to see criticism, something good at last,” the newspaper seller said. “I ordered one hundred copies this week, but I’ve asked for five hundred for next week!”

Ali Farzat, 2001

Even though the colorful Lamplighter’s satire was light, and mainly directed against obvious corruption, the idea of a publication entirely outside state control seemed unbelievable. I tracked down the magazine’s offices to a well-off middle-class neighborhood. The owner, publisher, and chief editor, Ali Farzat, had a full beard, neatly pressed jeans, and a taste for big Cuban cigars.

Farzat said he’d been encouraged to found the weekly by Dr. Bashar seven years before, but even though Dr. Bashar was then the president’s son and had now been president for a year, the press laws had only just changed.

“I rang up Dr. Bashar after the first edition hit the streets. He was very happy,” Farzat said. “He loves this kind of thing.”

“But Syria is still ruled by fear!” I insisted.

Farzat hunkered down in his chair with his head under his arms as if protecting himself from being beaten, then laughed.

“There is a new period that has started. Bashar loves initiative, he respects it. He loves arts and sciences. He is young. He has a map in his head and he’s implementing it step by step. Reform is something that imposes itself, like the need for oxygen.”

Three months after Dr. Bashar took power in June 2000, ninety-nine opinion leaders wrote to him asking for more civil liberties. The following January, one thousand politicians and reformists went farther and demanded an end to four decades of martial law during which they said “society was desecrated, its wealth plundered, and its destiny commandeered by tyrants and corrupt people.” It seemed like something was on the move in Syria. But the more I looked into what had re- ally changed, the less I found.

The state nipped in the bud a movement of left-leaning intellectual home discussion groups. Dr. Bashar, who had given a green light for these National Dialogue Forums, now suddenly criticized them as “futile intellectual exercises,” telling an Arab newspaper that Syrians should “avoid the possibility that the process of advancement is exploited by seekers of leadership. It is more important for development to be stable and effective than to be rapid.” When a society lady was caught distributing by e-mail a caricature of the Syrian leader in unseemly union with the president of Lebanon, she was detained. In the first issue of Lamplighter, Farzat suggested that there might be a cabinet reshuffle, which, in Syria, is discreet code for getting rid of corrupt old guard ministers. In private, Farzat told me these people were “profiting from the state of fear, like thieves after an earthquake.” Still, his next issue’s front page was more careful: an article on coeducation in a distant province on the Euphrates River.

“Does that count as self-censorship?” I asked.

On the cover of the latest issue in front of us was his drawing of a man walking down a darkened street, looking nervously over his shoulder and worriedly realizing that the armed secret service agent on his tail was his own shadow.

“None of our stories have been stopped. But there are conditions for the newspaper. There can be no opposition to the army, no personal attacks. Like everywhere, there are red lines, like state secrets,” he said.

Just then, a Lebanese man in uniform with a thick black beard put his head around the door. I registered that he had a pistol tucked into his belt. He kissed Farzat on both cheeks and they chatted like old friends until it turned out he was looking for someone next door.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“No idea!” Farzat laughed. “But this is exactly the kind of thing the magazine is about. What we are representing is the street, the Syrian street. We criticize things about the traditions of our society. Like when you get a guest who stays for three days and you don’t ask why, and you don’t know why. You can’t spend your time that way. The oppression we suffer is within our society itself, not the government.”

Farzat was constantly being oppressed by the telephone—as in many Syrian offices, there was no secretary—as was his brother, who was on the line to the state printing house. Although everything had been paid up front, the printers had stopped the presses. He wheedled and negotiated. A big tip was promised. The presses started rolling again.

Another guest was one of his young contributors who had traveled for hours by bus just to pick up a pay packet of $15. The man would talk to me only while out- side and on the move. So we strolled through a jasmine-scented district whose confident curved houses dated back to the first flush of Syria’s 1944 independence from France.

“Syria is waking up culturally. But we are still frightened,” the contributor said, looking around to see if his shadow was a policeman. “For intellectuals, the Lamp-lighter is as light as a soap bubble. It’s a symbol of how the government is talking a lot but doing nothing.”

For sure, the censors at the Ministry of Information didn’t feel much of a threat. Their office was on a high floor of an aging office block known as the Palace of the Baath. Work on a new façade had been proceeding for years, and renovations were in fitful progress inside. Wires dangled loose in the corridors and the false ceiling was missing slats. Metal filing cabinet doors hung open. Stacks of dusty files on top of cupboards were tied together with string.

“Some tea?” one censor asked me from behind one of half a dozen desks piled high with papers and magazines.

Everyone in the room had studied somewhere in the former Soviet bloc, and all welcomed a chance to chat and communicate their convictions about the Zionist-Israeli-American plot to hold Syria back. The families of two of them lost homes in the Six-Day War when Israel captured the Golan Heights, a significant chunk of Syria that Israel still occupies southwest of Damascus. One had taken part in the latest demonstration outside the U.S. embassy.

“The only problem was that we couldn’t find any stones to throw!” he said, but confided, “I hope the Lamplighter strengthens into something special. But right now, it looks a bit weak.”

The censors knew that the magazine, just like Syrian business franchises, was not exercising any right. Farzat had merely won an individual and temporary favor granted by their ruler. Everyone seemed to know his or her place. Syria’s few legal political parties, locked in a “front” with the Baath Party for decades, had been allowed to start publishing their newspapers too. But they seemed to be fighting the same battles as before they were all closed down in 1963. An editorial in the new organ of the Communist Party was a didactic exposé of class war under the Rip Van Winkle–esqe motto “Workers of the World Unite.” Even more amazing was the reappearance of the Unionist—a relic of Syria’s short-lived political union with Egypt in the early 1960s—featuring a front-page news photograph of legendary Egyptian leader Jamal Abd al-Nasser. He died in 1970.

No wonder they gave censors little trouble. Real opponents fared much worse, men like Riad Seif, Syria’s most outspoken opposition politician. That spring of 2001, we could still meet in his modern office. He was bright eyed then, a maverick who had just dared to challenge the Assad family’s control of lucrative cell phone licenses.

“It’s dangerous. They bankrupted me!” he said. “Who’s they?” “The Baathists! There’s no competition, no vitality, no ideology with which to defend themselves. The Baathists in the 1950s were all idealists. Now they are opportunists. Their brains have calcified. They believe their own lies.”

“Like what?”

“There’s been a drought for two years, farmers cannot pay back their loans, there are no jobs in the provinces, and unemployment is a huge problem. Against all that, the Lamplighter is just an aspirin,” Seif told me. “There is still no basis for fighting the roots of corruption, there are no popular organizations, no real unions, no opposition parties, no separation of powers, no free press.”

“What’s happened to you for speaking like this?”

“They put the knife on the neck and leave it there. My supporters are very silent people. Nobody likes to take a risk. Some friends don’t phone me anymore. I became isolated. It doesn’t mean I’m not supported. The intellectuals are determined to go on. These months of breathing some freedoms, expressing ourselves by getting rid of some taboos—we enjoyed it. It’s difficult to go back to being humble. It’s not 1980. There’s the Internet, satellite TV stations. The Syrians are just playing at being sheep.”

But Seif was wrong that the Syrians would rise up in any significant way. Perhaps they were wise to act cautiously, given the country’s forty-year absence of political experience. The subsequent example of Iraq showed the danger of knocking out a dictatorship when a population had no idea how to exercise freedom. In any event, it was clear that the Syrian regime had no intention of anything more than minimal change. Bill Spindle and I discussed my week’s reporting and decided that there was too little change to justify publishing anything in the Journal.

Ummayad mosque from the Souq al-Hamidiyyeh

Back in Syria in the spring of 2002, two years after Dr. Bashar’s takeover, Damascus felt better. Shops seemed fuller of imported goods, restaurants were more brightly lit, people were better informed, and even the ancient columns and street of the main Souk al-Hamidiyeh were undergoing a sensitive restoration. Government officials insisted that if everyone would only be patient, change was now really on its way. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush had categorized Syria as part of an “axis of evil.” I felt this was wrong. I went back to Ali Farzat’s office to see whether his magazine’s slow struggle might now epitomize a possible reawakening in Syria.

When I sat down with Farzat, however, he waved a piece of paper in front of me. It informed him that the government had decided that the Lamplighter could sell no more then 14,420 copies. And all had to go through the government distribution system.

“To cover our expenses I have to sell thirty-five thousand copies! There should be rules to allow us to work as a private press. They issued this with no warning, no discussion. They just say: We have to distribute it. And they want to take a forty percent cut. It’s as if we, the private sector, are producing for the state. Then they have ordered all ads to go through the government’s Arab Advertising Organization, which takes a twenty-seven percent cut. They do absolutely nothing, and the state gives me no advertising at all!”

“Can’t you complain? What about Dr. Bashar?”

“Even the minister of information refuses to see me or to talk on the phone.”

“I know how that feels.”

“What can I tell you? Our research affects people, hits those responsible. People who fear their interests will be damaged find ways to fight innovation. We need to find a new way to push our civilization forward. The newspaper isn’t a success just for us, but for the country itself. It is a symbol of development. It should have gone farther.”

I continued on my rounds, reluctant to give up. I learned that six months before, Riad Seif, the brave opposition politician, had organized a meeting of a few hundred democracy activists. He was thrown into jail, where he would remain for more than four years. An American diplomat told me the regime was no longer about the Big Man, but the Big Lie: Outwardly the most stable place in the world, inwardly scrambling to save itself every day.

Of course, like all the oil-fueled dictatorships of the Middle East, one reason for the lack of change was that oil supplied 70 percent of Syria’s export income. The situation was similar in Iran: As long as the regime had enough money to bankroll its support base, it could survive. Leaders tolerated corruption because, in the absence of popular legitimacy, corrupt ministers could be relied on to be loyal. As in the Soviet Union, which had a similar resource-based source of funds for the regime, dissidents could be tolerated as long as they mounted no direct challenge. On the other hand, a country like Turkey, with few natural resources, is forced to be more pluralistic, open, and democratic, since it has to borrow money every week from domestic and international markets.

Haitham Maleh, 2002

I paid a call on Haitham Maleh, an elderly lawyer who still insisted on holding the regime to account from an old colonial-era apartment building in the heart of Damascus. It was a feature of Syria’s dictatorship that few young people bothered fighting for human rights. In the absence of domestic publicity, Maleh pursued his cause meeting with diplomats and Arab and international correspondents. He sent Dr. Bashar letters pointing out the contradictions between Syria’s constitution and its emergency laws. He waved a copy of a secret ordinance showing that civil servants could be brought to account only if their superiors permitted it. Sitting under a piece of elaborate embroidery he had done in jail, Maleh laughed at the idea that the United States would ever really help someone like him promote democracy in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East.

“All our Arab dictators are made in the USA. It’s because the U.S. just wants one person to talk to, to get their business done. Here they’ve made us a very strong, fascist dictator. What can we do about it?” he asked.

Indeed, in the months after September 11, the rhetoric from the United States toward Syria had grown threatening once again. I passed by a shop that sold elaborately woven Damascus fabrics, which I used to visit often as a student, and from which I bought the sparkling turquoise silk that my wife used to make her wedding gown. I remembered in 1980 how the bolts of cloth formed a rippling wall of golds, silvers, and scarlets. Now just a few rolls remained, and the Kurdish owner complained that his business was nearly dead. Tour agencies minimized their stays in difficult, corrupt Syria and the tourists no longer had time to shop.

By 2009, the opposition gadfly Riad Seif was still not being allowed out of the country to have his prostate cancer treated. Instead, he was sent back to jail. The 1963 state of emergency was still in force and hundreds of political prisoners remained confined, including many who came to prominence in the stillborn Damascus Spring. The three years of difficulties of the Lamplighter, which collapsed under all the pressure in 2003, might have made a story in another newspaper. But the Journal did not think that Americans wanted to dwell on failure as usual. The editors preferred upbeat narratives.

“Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault,” Bill Spindle said after we’d talked through another wasted week of interviews. “Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it.”

In February 2003, three years after the great change that never was, I was once again passing through Syria. I was going to Iraq and had to report to the border base of the mukhabarat, Syrian Intelligence, that apparent oxymoron that wagging tongues savor all over the Middle East. My driver dropped me at the end of a long series of barricades leading to a compound sealed off by high concrete walls. I had no idea which of Syria’s many secret services this actually housed. At the guard hut, I explained my mission to a Syrian plainclothes agent with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder. When I was a student in Damascus, such guards stood outside the houses of the elite, and at night sometimes suspiciously trained the barrel of the gun on me as I walked by.

“Do you know the way?” he asked me, taking another sip on a brass straw of South American maté, beloved of Syrian minorities like Alawis and Druze. Their communities had picked up the taste after migrations there to escape from past poverty and persecution by the Sunni Muslim majority and now consumed it as a badge of empowerment.

“Of course not!” I said.

He gave some peremptory directions and sent me off alone into the intelligence compound. I wandered through overgrown streets of what in French colonial days must have been a delightful row of villas. The buildings were in various stages of collapse, and vegetation was running riot. The nondescript one-story house pointed out to me had the same tumbledown appearance. In front, water overflowed from the bowl of a fountain with dirty green tiles. The outside wings of the villa were falling down and had many missing windows, but toward the center of the building I saw signs of renovation.

Next to where I stood were three Russian military trucks alongside a white van that had collapsed with a broken axle. I felt that I was visiting the commander of a rebel unit that had just captured some far-flung third-world outpost, not the executive arm of a working government. The idea that such a tumbledown country should ever trouble the strategic vision of the United States seemed absurd.

Somebody was trying to attract my attention from the top of the steps. Inside, two rooms had been fixed up for the man I had to see, Colonel Suleyman. He sported a loud blue-checked jacket and a very soft handshake. Two teenage boys sat on a sofa to one side, one of them his son, playing annoyingly with a Samsung mobile phone that produced irregular, loud bursts of reverberant music. The colonel looked on indulgently. He called for coffee as we began to go through the paperwork. He happily volunteered that I was in a Military Intelligence base.

He also made clear that he was a Christian, a Syriac Orthodox. I knew the ancient center of this faith in nearby Turkey well, and I was struck by a paradox. Syria was Washington’s enemy, mainly because of its below-the-belt kicks at Israel and the West, and partly because of its dictatorship. Turkey was America’s friend, for all kinds of reasons including its democracy and its cooperation with Israel. But it struck me suddenly that no Christian, like this man in Syria, would ever be allowed into a position of authority in Turkey. In fact, there were hardly any Syriacs left in the country thanks to Ankara’s century-long drive for ethnoreligious purity. Taking the paradox one step farther, the Christian colonel believed he owed his luck to the secular Arab nationalist ideology of Syria’s ruling Baath Party, the target of so much U.S. criticism. Syria and its surviving ethnic mosaic could seem the society that had remained truest to the old ways of the Middle East. Indeed, when I first lived in Aleppo, I used to pass by the shop of a middle-aged Armenian who still made that symbol of Ottoman times, the red and tasseled fez, a brimless hat pressed in heavy metal molds.

Fez maker, Aleppo, 1982

Since I was going to Iraq, which was ruled by another Baath Party and which the United States was about to invade, I asked Colonel Suleyman what the difference was between a Syrian and an Iraqi Baathist.

“Oh, very different!” he said, as if we were talking about Nigeria and Switzerland. “They’re rightist. We’re leftist. We’re more open-minded. And our leader is Dr. Bashar!’

We filled in more papers. We savored the paradox of my mother’s apparently male name. We worried about his son’s education. He took time off for a phone call in which he only picked up the receiver, listened, and replaced it. I waited deferentially to be released from my penance. Time stood still.

My eyes drifted back to the television on the ornamental display case in front of a bookshelf with no books in it. Syrian state TV had gone live to parliament, where Dr. Bashar was addressing the deputies and the people. We all watched him launch into a series of off-the-cuff remarks, his trademark I’m-one-of-the-people style that seems to show him to be a radical patriot, or potential populist.

Normally, Syrian posters of the British-trained eye doctor showed him striking the Hamlet-like pose of a man deeply pained by the state of the world, angry at the injustice of it, and possibly, or just as possibly not, gearing up to take revenge. On his wall, Colonel Suleyman preferred an unusual picture of Dr. Bashar in a cruel tyrant pose: black suit, dark glasses, unflinching expression. Elsewhere, people who were unsatisfied by Bashar’s to-be-or-not-to-be ambivalence added a picture of his father Hafez al-Assad, who looked undeniably tough and decisive, even if dead, or a militaristic pose struck by Hafez’s first heir apparent, his son Basil, also dead, killed long before in a car accident while speeding to the airport to catch a plane. With this spooky triumvirate, Syria’s father, son, and holy ghost, the regime wanted to maintain the illusion of being led by the toughest thugs on the block, a warning to any who might plot to take on their tribe or their country.

“Look at Dr. Bashar,” said Colonel Suleyman, admiringly pointing at the TV. “He’s speaking without a written speech. That shows he’s really got brains.”

I thought that Dr. Bashar was a prisoner, a bit like everyone in Syria, but politely said nothing. The Syrians, even Colonel Suleyman as he cheerily waved me off, still wanted to believe that the change from the old Assad to the new Assad meant that something better was on the way in their politically blighted lives. But it was surely going to take a terribly long time.

P.S. The maté straw plays an enigmatic role here in this spoof video example of black, deadpan Syrian humor, mocking the failure of Arab monitors to spot the tanks whose shelling was part of the awful violence in Homs. When activists hacked into Dr. Bashar’s email account, they found that the Syrian president had forwarded the skit to an aide.

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