Syria: A Tale of Two Ironies

By Foster, Charles. | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Syria: A Tale of Two Ironies


Foster, Charles., Contemporary Review


IN the cafes on the boulevards of Damascus and Aleppo there is a self-satisfied mumbling. The satisfaction is justified; the last two years have been good for Syria and triumphant for its Machiavellian President, Hafez al Assad.

Exports are up. Investment, both public and private, is encouragingly high, and the investment law of 1991 provides sensible incentives and a rational plan to wean the Syrian economy away from its past dependence on monolithic socialist financial institutions. Syria's GDP continues to grow, and the GDP per capita is the highest of any Levantine country except Israel.

The best thing of all was the Gulf War, for Syria put all its money into the stock which was bound to rise on the market, and won a dividend out of all proportion to its investment. There was no real risk in supporting the Alliance, and cynical commentators in Damascus say that no Syrian troops ever reached Saudi Arabia, despite the extravagant pledges. The photographs of Syrian tanks rolling towards Iraqi lines were taken, says the word on the street, safely within Syrian territory.

The war shuffled the Middle Eastern hierarchy around in a way very favourable to Syria. Iraq, the great rival, was pounded and foundered. Jordan, an uneasy friend with too much love for Baghdad, failed to wave the Stars and Stripes with unqualified joy, and Yasser Arafat, loathed by Assad, committed an error of judgement in backing Iraq which even his silver tongued sophistry could not mend.

Also, Syria has effectively annexed the Lebanon. In the 'Brotherhood Agreement' of May 1991, signed at a time when Syria was far too important to the USA to offend, Assad achieved with the stroke of a pen what Saddam Hussein with all his rockets and guns failed to do--the appropriation of a neighbouring Arab state. It was nicely done. The timing was immaculate: the wording of the agreement made it sound like the friendly and meaningless twinning of two European towns: and the world's press, bemused by the pictures of diplomatic kisses, and thinking that enforced peace in Lebanon meant more than sovereignty, reported it in brief filler columns, if at all. Only the Israelis screamed that the agreement was no agreement at all, having been forced upon a broken people. But no-one, least of all the US State Department, listened.

The Syrians weren't fooled. They knew exactly what had happened, and there was jubilation in Damascus. There was talk again of Greater Syria, the dream which has burned since the time of Saladin, and which has flickered humiliatingly since the post-war partition of the Middle East.

But this new Syrian self-satisfaction is very strange. For the real satisfaction is not with the achievements of the State themselves, but with the new alliance with the West which those achievements have forged. Assad has been able to present himself as the reasonable broker in the Middle East peace process; a sensible man in a suit with whom the Americans can do business. Syria's long and intimate affair with Moscow has been forgotten. So too, has the crushing of the Hama uprising, when Syrian bulldozers levelled Syrian houses and Syrian conscripts pumped cyanide gas into the ventilation shafts of Syrian homes.

This has had an immediate effect on Syrian self perception. 'We are now,' said Mahmoud, an engineer in Aleppo, 'part of the Western World. We have shown that we are different from the medieval Arabs around us'. He spoke with contempt. 'I would be more at home in New York than Amman.' He was very proud to be Syrian. He would sing the Syrian national anthem with a sincerity previously unknown amongst most of the Syrian population, which had always paid fearful and reluctant lip service to the all-seeing paternalistic state of the Baath party.

It seems that this new redefinition of national success in terms of acceptability to the West indicates the end of the Baathist pan-Arab dream which brought modern Syria into being. …

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