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The View from Damascus


Is Syria as Syria, and not just as a government and regime, ready for peace with Israel at the present time? The answer has to be a cautious and qualified yes.

Consider, first, the major sea change in official Syrian statements about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general since the convening of the Madrid peace conference in October 1991. It is a sea change that has continued unabated in spite of the many hurdles and adverse developments that would have normally reversed it along the way, under less auspicious circumstances. This striking shift reached its climax in the wholly unprecedented kind words spoken by President Asad in praise of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in May 1999, words expressly intended for local Arab as well as worldwide publication and circulation.

Well before that, President Asad had announced to the world, during his summit meeting with President Clinton in Geneva in January 1994, that Syria had taken a firm “strategic decision” in favor of peace with Israel and its readiness for “normal and peaceful relations” with the ex-enemy. In August 1997, these same assurances were again spelled out by Asad while he was addressing a delegation of Arab Israelis invited to Damascus in a first attempt to reach out to a sympathetic segment of the Israeli public.

At a less august level, Syria’s energetic minister of foreign affairs, Mr. Farouq al-Shara’, had already violated several strict Syrian political taboos in the autumn of 1994 by accepting questions from Israeli journalists at press conferences in London and Washington and then by agreeing to meet with prominent Jewish and Zionist leaders in the American capital. He even granted a lengthy interview to a major news program on Israeli television, broadcast October 7, 1994.

These manifest changes did not remain confined to the formal utterances of high officials, governmental communiqués, and press releases, but extended with equal thoroughness to the Syrian media, all government-owned and tightly controlled. It has internal significance when the prefabricated, wooden, repetitive, and at times surreal language used by the Syrian media suddenly starts referring routinely and matter-of-factly to Israel, Israeli leaders, officials, etc., by their proper names, formal titles, actual functions and positions—instead of following the hackneyed, but in Arabic rhetorically quite flowery, practice of speaking about “the so-called prime minister of the Zionist entity.”

Consider, second, the intense debates that have been raging inside Syrian society since the Madrid Conference on Israel over the “peace process” and the nature of our future relationship with the neighbor, as well as the fears, anxieties, disappointments, failures, and expectations aroused by a coming, seemingly willy-nilly, deal with the old enemy. Here, a word of warning is very much in order against possible misunderstandings. These intense discussions are not open public debates aired on radio and television or conducted through newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, etc., but are highly charged, comprehensive, and pervasive exchanges whose main vehicles are the time-honored methods of oral transmission, through conversations among people who are within earshot of each other. This is Damascus’s rumor mill and the people’s free press at one and the same time.

Through a series of informal, private, and overlapping circles, people in Damascus discuss and rediscuss, hash and rehash, spoof and respoof the affairs of the world big and small, internal and external, Pan-Arab and local, regional and international. Through these personalized, highly efficient, and always active informal networks and face-to-face encounters, an informal public opinion is created and crystalizes on the issues, anomalies, and problems of the day. The result is a public opinion which the power centers take into account without ever formally admitting it.

For example, one reason why Damascenes invest so much time visiting one another is to stay informed. This is also why, in a city like Damascus, gossip is hardly ever mere gossip and secrets hardly ever remain secret for any length of time. Thus, when some Damascene old-timers checked the information of their rumor mill against Henry Kissinger’s memoirs about his dealings with President Asad after the October war of 1973 with Israel, they were both proud of and pleasantly surprised by how well informed Damascus was, at the time, about those ongoing secret proceedings.

What is particularly interesting about these discussions is that they have come to take Israel for granted, to assume that a peace will come as a matter of course. They argue over issues and matters such as: Is Syria really ready for the coming contests, rivalries, and dealings with Israel? In view of Israel’s economic superiority, high technology, advanced planning techniques, and world-class managerial skills, will it not quickly dominate the area, turning itself into a kind of regional core country around which a far less developed Arab periphery revolves? What kind of impact will the peace have on Syria’s internal economic life, political arrangements, military posture, Arab nationalist credentials, etc.? How will Syria’s projected settlement with Israel interact with the pressing high tide of globalization, the newly emerging Middle Eastern order, and the partnership with the countries on the other side of the Mediterranean as outlined in the Barcelona agreements and commitments? What are the most urgent reforms that Syria needs to make now to feel anywhere near prepared for the post-peace phase?

Naturally, these questions and issues are of the greatest concern to the merchant classes in general, who are the backbone of Syria’s civil society, and in particular to people prominent in commerce, agriculture, and industry. The currently dominant opinion in these milieus is that Syria is definitely unprepared for the challenges attendant on the approaching peace on account of its highly shackled economy, absentee banking, heavily regulated commerce, and constricted industrial activity. The emblems of these shackles can be seen in such local characteristics as martial law, the backward command-operated public sector of the economy, the maze of unending state restrictions, bureaucratic obstructions, erratic rules, and arbitrary regulations.

Hence the mixed mood of fear, apprehension, opportunism, and bravado prevalent in these circles. Some people within them certainly argue that once freed from these artificial constraints, the merchants and entrepreneurs of Syria—who, as they boast, have been in business for thousands of years—will prove to the world that they are up to the coming challenges on all fronts and will show the Israelis, in particular, that they are their match and equal if not more than that. Such an economically revived Syria—so the argument goes—would quickly surge forward, and be able to stand up to a currently superior Israel and more than adequately confront its threats and challenges by means other than the ones tried so far without marked success.

Another view suggests that Israel, after all, may not be that interested economically in the Arab countries when it considers that its own economy, including its production processes, goods and services, etc., are wholly compatible with the most advanced economies of the world. Those who question this position point out that Israeli capitalism is so agile and so adaptable that it would be foolish of the Arabs not to expect the new economic partner to quickly manufacture the kinds of products and develop the sorts of enterprises that will find him profitable markets in the Arab world. Underlying this last position is the fear not so much of a strong Israel at peace with its weaker neighbors as of the emergence of a dynamic core country in the region flexing its superior economic, military, and strategic muscles (under American protection) to restructure the Arab Middle East in accordance with its own long-term vital interests.

In addition to these issues, members of the intelligentsia also debate bigger questions pertaining to Israel’s long-term vulnerabilities, inherent weaknesses, future possibilities, etc., vis-à-vis the Arab world in general and the Palestinians in particular. For example:

(1)In spite of possessing atomic bombs, in spite of undisputed military superiority, in spite of powerful American support and protection, during the Gulf War Israel seemed scared almost out of its wits by forty badly aimed Iraqi Scud missiles, which created near panic in a militarily very well prepared and hardened population. Damascus intellectuals did not fail to compare and contrast this curious situation with the fact that no scares or panics of any sort were registered and/or reported in West Beirut during the three-month-long Israeli siege of the city in the summer of 1982. This, in spite of (a) the prolonged, accurate, and finely synchronized Israeli bombing of the capital from air, land, and sea at one and the same time, and (b) the unavailability to the people of West Beirut of any help but their wits and survival instincts, as opposed to the shelters, sealed rooms, necessary provisions, prompt first aid, efficient medical services, etc., available to Israelis during the Gulf War. A friend ironically asked of Israelis scared by the Scud missiles: “Are they a country or a settlement?” At a later point, it did not escape his attention that upon the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, the spontaneous reaction of Mrs. Leah Rabin was to declare that she was packing and leaving, a reaction for which she later apologized profusely to the Israeli public.

(2)Given Israel’s pioneering spirit, and its craving for more land, more settlements, more water, more resources, will we have in the longer run a formula for peace or for another hundred years of unspecified kinds of strife and violent conflict?

(3)No matter how many peace treaties the Arabs sign with Israel, no matter how many accords they reach with it, no matter how many assurances and guarantees they give it, will any of this really alleviate, calm, and/ or dissipate Israel’s profound existential angst about its place, future, and identity in an Arab region, an angst complicated by a heritage of unspeakable persecution, by its current domination of the region, and by its practice of manipulation, for example its cynical and dismissive treatment of Arafat and the Palestinians after the supposed Oslo reconciliation?

(4) Below the surface, what is the situation now of the “historical” balance of power between Israel and the Arabs? Is it not noteworthy, ask Damascus intellectuals, that while the June 1967 war was crushingly won by Israel in six days, the October 1973 war, initiated by Egypt and Syria, shook the country to its very foundations? Then, the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and short occupation of Beirut ended in an unmitigated disaster for the invader on all fronts, even in Israeli eyes. Not too long after, the Palestinian intifada finally demonstrated to all concerned the unsustainability of the Israeli status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Again, Operation Grapes of Wrath, ordered in April 1996 by Prime Minister Shimon Peres against Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, not only failed to translate Israel’s overwhelming military superiority into a swift, effective, and neat punitive military operation on the ground, but instead backfired, leading to (a) what is now generally known as the Kafar Qana massacre where one hundred civilians (mostly village women and children) perished in the Israeli shelling while taking refuge at a United Nations facility nearby, (b) acute international embarrassment for Israel over this disaster and severe Arab condemnations of it, (c) a hastily arranged cease-fire that still makes Israel’s military feel uncomfortable, (d) the ouster of Peres and the Labor Party from power by the Israeli electorate a few weeks later, and (e) Israel finally coming around to convincing itself of the wisdom of unilaterally withdrawing from southern Lebanon as soon as possible.

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