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The Road from Damascus

Now that a disengagement agreement has been signed, attention in Washington will surely be distracted from the relations between Syria and Israel. Yet it is on the relations between the two countries that peace in the Middle East may depend.

Why Syria should be so important may on its face seem difficult to understand until we realize that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations lie at the point of greatest strain between Israel and the four Arab principals in the current round of conflict. These are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinians. In order to reach peace Israel and the US must deal with each of them in turn; for while King Faisal and the Palestinian commandos have little in common, they are bound together by their relations to the other two powers. And strangely enough, the relations among each of the principals are similar in the sense that Egypt’s interests are just about as important to Saudi Arabia as Syria’s are to Egypt and the Palestinians’ to Syria. Syria, for example, cannot publicly refuse to permit commando raids from her territory any more than Egypt could publicly urge Syria to accept the disengagement agreement. But both countries could make their influence felt privately.

The point could be reached where negotiations are impossible. There is no compromise between the maximum demands of the Israelis and the Palestinians, unless two floors were built over the same small piece of earth. Of course, concessions are possible between peoples. But if there is to be a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it must have the backing of all three Arab states. And negotiations between Israel and Syria will be crucial in deciding whether or not such a settlement can be had.

Damascus, May, 1974

For Americans Syria has always been a largely unknown quantity. Unable to visit there in recent years, we have tended to see it from an Israeli point of view. Damascus, even the looks of the city, is a surprise. When I arrived in early May only the crowds of soldiers in the streets visibly reminded me there was a war on twenty-five miles away. The archways over the road from Beirut announced an international fair to be held later this summer. The civilian officials I met did not engage in polemics. Many of them seemed disappointed I had not flouted their visa restrictions and gone to Israel—they always used that word—before coming to Damascus. They were curious about Israel and, it seemed to me, somewhat uncertain. Two of them compared Rabin favorably with Dayan, and also saw some hope in the fact that Rabin would be the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the Middle East.

A visitor’s impressions of course cannot provide conclusive evidence about Syrian attitudes to war and peace, but if one also considers the political and economic changes that have recently taken place, Syria now seems closer to peace than it has at any time during the last decade.

To look at the Assad government without taking account of Syrian history is to see a fabulous, contradictory creature—a seeming impossibility. From a distance the regime is at once a military dictatorship, a socialist party, an esoteric sect, a Pan-Arab movement, a family fief, a police state, and a liberal political coalition. The strangest thing about it is that it seems to work. In power since 1970, it is in fact the most stable government that Syria has had for the past two decades. But at close hand, the regime is not quite so contradictory as it would appear. It has lasted for four years because to a great extent it reflects the diversity of Syrian society and the conflicts within it.

It takes only two hours to drive from Beirut to Damascus. The new road, crowded with tourist taxis from Lebanon and produce trucks bound for Kuwait, climbs two mountain ranges before descending into the river-fed oasis at the edge of the Syrian plateau. It’s a pity that the old road through the mountain passes is too narrow for modern traffic, for on the cliff wall at the entrance to the first gorge there are stone tablets carved by all the armies that marched through it, from the Roman legions to the British regiments that liberated Damascus during the Second World War. Both roads, however, remind one that Syria is a part of that passageway called the Levant—a passageway for the world’s great empires. For nearly 1,200 years Damascus was not the capital of a country but a station on the pilgrimage routes and a trading port for merchants crossing between three continents. In spite of national boundaries, it remains similarly connected to the outside world and similarly vulnerable.

The Syrian republic is only as old as Israel and even more illogical as a piece of geography. When the French carved up their mandated territories after the First World War, they excised half of the Mediterranean coastline to form Lebanon; then they drew straight lines enclosing a few mountain ranges and valleys, a fertile plain, and a triangle of the great desert that extends to Arabia. This new “country” had economic potential—its population was not too great for the amount of arable land—but it had no political raison d’être.

The lines the French drew surrounded a few million orthodox Muslims who were settled in the cities and the central plain, a number of Bedouin tribes that had roamed the Arabian desert, and a wide assortment of religious sects and ethnic groups that had settled in the cities and narrow valleys of the Levantine passageway. There were Druzes, Alawites, Armenians, Syrian Christians, Kurds, and Jews. From the point of view of all these people the new “country” was either too big or too small to define a community of language, religion, or culture. Its boundaries were to them an artificial European division in the open passage of the Middle East.

In 1948 the Syrian army naturally joined the Arab League in its war against the newly proclaimed state of Israel. Having just won a long struggle to evict the French, Syrian leaders saw the Zionist movement as but another case of colonial aggression in a territory that they considered to be just as much “theirs” as the mountains above Latakia in the north. The Arab defeat in the 1948 war did not convince them of the injustice of their cause any more than it settled the question of the composition of their political community. Indeed it intensified their problem by bringing them many thousands of Palestinian refugees. Powerless to change their situation the Syrians have simply resisted accepting it. On one hand they have refused to recognize Israel. On the other hand they have come to live with three separate realities—all of which are something more than just ideas. The first reality is the brotherhood of all Arabs. The second is the state of Syria, and the third is the variety of religious and tribal groups within the country.

The problem of governing Syria is thus very complicated. Syrian leaders have not only to manage sectarian and tribal conflicts, they have to deal with all three kinds of allegiances at once. And conflicts among allegiances manifest themselves both as social forces and as the divided loyalties that people feel. “Assad is a split personality,” said one Syrian who lives in Beirut. “On one hand he is a socialist who believes in secular society, in equal justice, in women’s rights, and so forth. He believes with the Ba’th that the old religious structures should be destroyed for the cause of pan-Arabism. On the other hand he has the spontaneous reactions of an Alawite peasant. There’s an Arab folk saying that goes, ‘Stand with thy brother in justice or injustice.’ Well, he does that, but that’s not the whole story, either. There is a constant dialectic.”

This three-way split personality of Syria reflects not only a political conflict but a social and economic struggle as well. In Damascus, high-rise apartments and multi-lane avenues co-exist with the mosques and the mudwalled houses of the old quarters. Not far from the souks, where craftsmen engrave eighteenth-century designs into huge brass trays, there are billboards with photographs of the Syrian Heroes of Labor. The middle-class school girls of Damascus wear their khaki paramilitary uniforms cut as tight and sexy as a Bloomingdale’s pants suit. To the tourist they seem to be of a different nationality from the city women who are veiled in black from head to knee. But they are not, of course. I saw one girl who wore an army uniform with a veil over her head.

To transfer the European definitions of “class” into the Arab world can be misleading. But class conflict is important in Syria; it has much to do with the political instability and the way the army and party politics are intertwined. When it became independent after World War II, Syria had a middle class consisting mainly of professional people, merchants, and small entrepreneurs. As the active, modernizing force in the country, this relatively small group found allies among the army officers who, with some reason, blamed their 1948 defeat on the corruption and inefficiency of the traditional leadership. In the early 1950s governments headed by soldiers carried out a program of reforms that included such measures as the break up of the waqfs, or religious foundations, and the creation of a monetary and banking system. The power was military, but the initiative remained civilian. The result was that political parties developed in Syria as they did nowhere else in the Arab world; and by recruiting military officers they carried their differences over into the army.

Syria was “progressive” and “neutralist” long before Egypt. But in the mid-Fifties, at the time of great upheaval in the Middle East, it was also very fragile politically. The union with Egypt in 1958 was made less from love than from fear of Western imperialism, of the Soviet Union and Iraq, and finally fear that Syria might disintegrate as a political unit. Rather than resolving these conflicts, Nasser simply suppressed them by dissolving the political parties and ruling Syria almost as an Egyptian province. Three years later, when the United Arab Republic broke apart, the situation remained much the same, except that with his land reform and nationalization measures Nasser had dispossessed the great merchant and landlord families.

By 1963 the most important political party in Syria was the Ba’th or Arab Resurrection, a petit-bourgeois party founded by French-educated intellectuals, whose purpose was to unite the country behind the general goals of independence (from the West), Arab unity, and social justice. The strength as well as the weakness of the Ba’th was that no one knew precisely what this meant. In practice the direction of the party came from those who happened to take power in its name. (One of its founders, Michel Aflaq, reportedly said after his exile, “There is only one true Ba’thist in the world, and I am living in Brazil.”) In practice, with the growth of the Syrian army, the party leaders were more and more frequently officers.

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