In 1995, I had a rare opportunity to spend some time in Syria, where the Damascus Trade Fair was taking place. A normally secretive Arab country had opened its doors to a select group of Western journalists, businessmen and officials. The event was aimed at showing glimpses of a rich mix of civilizations going as far back as between 9000 and 11000 B.C., described as a Hidden Pearl of the Orient. Syria today has Muslims, Shia and Sunni; Assyrian-Syriac Christians, ethnic Kurds and Turkmen in the north; Druze in the south.
People of all ethnic and religious groups live in Aleppo, the country’s most populated city. For centuries, Aleppo was the largest urban center in Greater Syria and the third largest in the Ottoman empire, after Constantinople and Cairo. Ancient Syria included today’s Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. According to the Torah, on the other hand, God promised the “Land of Israel” to the Jewish people. And on the basis of scripture, the first Kingdom of Israel was established around the eleventh century B.C. Such ancient claims, religious or secular, are at the heart of Middle East politics, in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. A civil war fueled by foreign intervention has turned large parts of the country into ruins.
Damascus is no longer the city where, despite a heavy presence of state security, Syrian families could be seen spending a moonlit evening on a picnic while children played hide and seek in the rocky terrain until well after midnight. Like its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq above all, Syria has been fragile since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. All three states, and others, were artificially created amid the rubble of the Ottomans’ Arabian domain, in a manner that split communities. The Druze, the Kurds and the Palestinians, each divided and enclosed in different national boundaries drawn by Britain and France under the legal instrument called “Mandate” are part of the legacy of the First World War.
My journey to Damascus in 1995 was by Air France, the only Western carrier flying to Syria at the time. It was a reminder that modern Syria and neighboring Lebanon were carved out by France under the French Mandate while Britain got the lion’s share over Arabia, leading to the creation of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine-Israel. The manner in which the modern Middle East was carved out by the victorious Allies after 1918, and individual territorial entities granted independence in subsequent decades, made sure that the new states were small, weak and unstable. It also made sure that those states could only be held together by authoritarian rulers, beholden to external powers.
New imperialism was born and, like its previous incarnation, it was about controlling vital resources and trade. Suspicion of Western powers, and of each other, in a highly diverse population runs deep in Syrian society in the same way as in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq who aligned themselves to the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Syria remained the leading member of the “Rejectionist Front” for its determination of no-compromise with Israel and America over issues such as lost Arab territory and Palestine.
The Ba’ath party, rooted in Arab nationalism, secularism and socialism, and dominated by military officers of the minority Alawi (Shia) sect, was as much a thorn in the side of the conservative Arab bloc as the West. The Soviet Union’s demise in the early 1990s was a disaster for Syria. In the aftermath, Damascus did make attempts aimed at reconciliation with Israel, but failed. Syria sought compromises with the West, too, most shamefully in the rendition and torture of people in the “war on terror.” It is mentioned in the Swiss senator Dick Marty’s 2007 report for the Council of Europe and the European Parliamentary Assembly. All that has not produced any concessions for Bashar al-Assad from Washington.
When I visited Syria in 1995, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was still the country’s president. I was among a small number of foreign journalists invited by Farouk al-Sharaa, then foreign minister, now vice president, to his residence in Damascus. I had taken a small tape recorder with me and, during our conversation over a cup of tea, I requested a short interview with him. In impeccable English, al-Sharaa declined. His response was that “Syrians are not known for instant reactions.”
The Syrians have long been suspicious of the West and its Arab allies while the West has consistently failed to read the country. These failures have been to the detriment of peace in the Middle East. For Syria is essential for peace and stability in the region––something that will not be achieved by a Western-inspired overthrow of the present government in Damascus. If Bashar al-Assad’s government and Syria’s armed forces disintegrate, the consequences for the Middle East will be disastrous.
With disparate groups in the population, and weapons aplenty in a volatile region, an Afghan-type scenario is very likely. And the consequences will be worse than those of recent wars.