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Fear in Syria: After Iraq, who's next?

A pro-American regime in Iraq would leave Syria stranded, and the strain is fueling fundamentalism.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003


DAMASCUS, Syria -- Barbie has come to Syria. So have Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Now Syria's 17-million people fear something more sinister from America -- a war against Iraq that could make them the next targets on the U.S. hit list.
[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
Antique American automobiles, such as this 1957 Pontiac, are cherished, and perhaps as common as portraits of the president.
"Baghdad today! Damascus tomorrow!" shouted dozens of women at a weekend rally here in the Syrian capital.

"Syria is adamantly against the war because none of the postwar scenarios seems favorable to it," says Nadim Shehadi, an expert on the country at Oxford University. "It's for the preservation of the status quo mainly because the repercussions of war could be dangerous for it."

War would end a thriving trade in which Syria smuggles in cheap Iraqi oil and sells its own oil to Europe at higher prices. The aftermath of any conflict could also leave the nation politically isolated.

"If there is a pro-American regime in Iraq, Syria will be surrounded by pro-American countries -- Turkey, Jordan, Israel and Iraq," Shehadi says. "Syria looks good compared to Iraq, but once Saddam Hussein is gone, it may again be identified as a rogue state, which it is trying to get out of."

* * *

Under its youthful new leader, Syria has shown some encouraging signs of reform. It has cooperated with America in the war on terror. But it remains on the State Department's list of countries that support terrorism because of its backing of Hezbollah, the militant group that has killed dozens of Israelis.
A Syrian man pays respect at a shrine for Mashhad al Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, whose head is believed to lie inside the Al Hussein Mausoleum in Damascus.
Syria is also home to Ramadan Shallah, head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In February, he was indicted along with University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and seven others on charges related to the organization's alleged activities in the United States.

Syria maintains that Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are legitimate resistance groups trying to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. That plays well in the Arab world, but not in the United States, Israel's closest ally. In recent talks with Israeli leaders, a top U.S. official said Syria, along with Iran, Libya and North Korea, would be next after Iraq.

What "next" means is the big question here.

"One of the main factors in the psychology of anti-Americanism is that nobody knows exactly what America wants," says Dr. A.S. Altaqi, a cardiologist and former member of Syria's parliament.

"Nobody is with Saddam Hussein in the Syrian street, but there is huge fear of ultimate repercussions. Will there be a change in the status of Syria? What will happen to Iraq? Is the United States going to be a force of continuous intervention in the area or does it want a stable geopolitical system in the region?"

In Syria, a secular country where Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together peacefully for centuries, opposition to war has taken some unsettling turns. State-controlled newspapers and TV are even more stridently anti-Israel than usual. Increasing numbers of women wear head coverings.

"Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise," Altaqi says. "Even secular, democratic people are now shifting to Islam because it is the only expression of identity against what they think is American aggression."

For Syrians, war couldn't come at a worse time. After 30 years under the stifling, sometimes brutal rule of Hafez al-Assad, the country at last seems to be opening to the outside world.

When Assad died in 2000, power went to his son, Bashar, a London-educated eye doctor. He freed hundreds of political prisoners, closed several infamous prisons and promised legal and economic reforms. Dozens of "salons," or forums, sprang up, in which citizens discussed political, cultural and social issues.

A new sense of energy pervaded the country, especially here in Damascus.

Compared to five years ago, the city is flourishing. The first mall opened within the past year; a luxury Four Seasons hotel is under construction. The streets are clean and lined with new boutiques, flower shops and coffee bars.
Spitting-image knockoffs of American brand-name products are everywhere in Damascus, as seen in this sign for "Master Cola." Others include Cheer-Up (Seven-Up), and Pizza Hot (Pizza Hut).
Although Syria still protects its industries from foreign competition, Barbie, Coke and other U.S. brand-name products are imported through neighboring Lebanon and are now readily available.

"It takes optimism and patience" but sales are increasing, says the owner of a new toy store, a young Syrian who graduated from Canada's McGill University with a degree in business administration. Syria has one of the highest rates of literacy in the Arab world: 93 percent for men and 78 percent for women.

"For an Arab country, Syria has changed, but I don't think Americans know that," says a waiter at the new City Center mall, where patrons sip espressos while watching American music videos.

In general, Damascus no longer has the oppressive air it did in the past. The police seem more friendly and relaxed. And while stores and offices still display portraits of the Assads, they are smaller and fewer.

"There is a much freer atmosphere than before," says Oxford's Shehadi. "There is definitely a change."

Yet Syria is by no means a free country.

The salons, which had begun pressing for radical change, have been disbanded and several political dissidents jailed. Hotmail.com and some other popular Internet sites are blocked for fear they could be used to spread subversive ideas. Syrians warn foreigners that their hotel phones might be tapped.

Last week, the government announced the winners of elections to the People's Assembly, an "important democratic establishment." In reality, the 250-member parliament has no power, although Assad will rely on its support as he pushes for reforms.

The struggle to solve Syria's internal problems is complicated by two huge external ones: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and war on Iraq.

Syria maintains there can be no true peace in the Middle East unless all issues are resolved between Israel and the Arab world. That includes Syria's demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war.

With sentiments against Israel and America running high, even critics concede it would be hard for Assad to crack down now on anti-Israeli groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. Doing so would cost him support among his people and further delay reform.

"A leader can't afford to confront the street while he is weakened outside and weakened inside," says Ataqi, who calls himself a political activist. "Even if you could demolish Hezbollah, it will turn into 10 other radical organizations. This will not change the world -- you have to change the detonator."

Syria also has antagonized the United States and hurt its chances to share in the rebuilding of Iraq because of its strong stance against war. A nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it voted for the resolution to disarm Iraq but has said it would oppose one authorizing use of military force.

At a recent Arab League summit, Assad urged Arab countries not to open their military bases to America. He also refused to support a call for Saddam Hussein to go into exile to avoid war.

Syria has been so unyielding in its position on Iraq that it risks "being isolated on a geo-strategic limb," Lebanon's Daily Star wrote in an editorial.

But Oxford's Shehadi says the country wants to be involved in postwar Iraq and could be a valuable participant.

"The Syrians play a very clever balancing act between all the parties in the region. . . . They have the rhetoric, but in reality they are reliable and useful and quite reasonable."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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