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American radio wins fans in Syria

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2003


SYRIAN-IRAQI BORDER -- Now playing on your 1260 AM dial -- it's Radio Sawa!

Launched a year ago, Sawa is drawing a wide audience in the Middle East with its snappy blend of pop music and Arabic-language newscasts. The approach is clever enough that few listeners realize Sawa is a creation of the U.S. government, aimed at improving America's image in a hostile region.

"It comes from London," says Mousanna, a young Syrian taxi driver, when asked what he knew about the station.

Mousanna says he first heard Sawa -- it means "together" in Arabic -- while visiting the Syrian capital, Damascus. When he got home to Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria, he told his fellow cab drivers about it and now they all tune in.

On a recent trip with two American passengers, Mousanna said he likes Sawa because it plays "a lot of nice, slow songs" as well as livelier fare by Jennifer Lopez, one of his favorites, and the Spanish group Ketchup.

He also likes the newscasts, which have reported on the Iraqi crisis in a factual way but tend to downplay the huge international criticism of the United States.

One example: The 7:15 p.m. news Monday led with a segment in which America's biggest supporter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, discussed the timetable for Iraq to disarm. The female announcer only briefly mentioned that France and Russia oppose a war before moving on.

Radio Sawa is the brainchild of Norman J. Pattiz, a U.S. broadcast executive who visited the Middle East in early 2001 and found that few people were listening to the Voice of America Arabic service. Its dry, analysis-heavy format had little appeal in countries like Syria, where much of the population is under 30.

Radio Sawa's music-and-news approach was conceived before Sept. 11, but the terrorist attacks -- along with the sudden prominence of the Arab channel Al-Jazeera -- prompted Congress to approve $35-million to get Sawa on the air sooner than planned.

Critics question whether Sawa will help improve perceptions of the United States, as most listeners seem more interested in the music than the news.

But if Mousanna is any judge, the station is growing more popular by the day, even if he and others don't know who's behind it.

"I love it," he said, turning up the volume.

* * *

Like most Syrians, those in the eastern part of the country oppose a war in Iraq. Many have relatives there: Mousanna's father, a widower, plans to marry a cousin who lives near Baghdad.

But there's another reason for the opposition: War could mean an end to cheap Iraqi oil.

In Abu Kamal, a dusty town just across the border from Iraq, Syrians can get diesel oil for 16.5 Syrian pounds -- about 32 cents a liter -- compared with 24 pounds elsewhere in the country. That means a savings of $20 or more filling up a gas tank.

Nor is there any need to hunt for a gas station. Dozens of street vendors dispense diesel from blue plastic jugs through aluminum funnels.

The diesel enters Syria in defiance of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Syria was part of the allied coalition in the Gulf War, but later patched up relations with Saddam Hussein. The two countries enjoy a thriving trade -- much of it black market.

With Baghdad just 250 miles away, hundreds of Syrians drive into Iraq every day to sell clothing, appliances and other goods. They bring back oil and dates, Iraq's second-most-popular export.

Coming from the other side of the border are the battered orange-and-white taxis of Baghdad. Most of them carry Iraqis who will stay with Syrian relatives during the war; the taxis return to Iraq with bottled water and supplies for those planning to stick it out.

People on both sides of the border are Sunni Muslims who share a simple lifestyle nurtured by the Euphrates, the fabled river that flows from the plains of eastern Syria into Iraq. Those ties make the Abu Kamal border crossing Iraq's friendliest, most accessible link to the outside world.

The Iraqi-Kuwaiti border has been closed since the '91 Gulf War, and Turkey shut its border recently in anticipation of a new war. Getting to Baghdad from Jordan or Saudi Arabia requires a drive across hundreds of miles of desert. It is also possible to cross the mountains or desert from Iran, though relations between it and Iraq have been sour since the two fought a devastating war in the '80s.

But in Abu Kamal, the crossing is quick and easy, and fear of war has not diminished the bustling traffic between Syria and Iraq. In a rare example of optimism, Abu Kamal expects even more trade -- the town is widening and improving the main highway to the border.

* * *

Iraq isn't the only Middle Eastern country that doesn't get along with some of its neighbors. To get an idea of the bad blood between Syria and two other countries, just look at a Syrian road map.

Along the Mediterranean coast, the map shows Antakya and Iskenderun as part of Syria. In fact, they are officially part of Turkey although Syria claims the area was stolen from it in the late 1930s.

(Interestingly, Iskenderun is the port through which the United States planned to deploy thousands of troops before the Turkish Parliament rejected the idea. Turkey and Syria may not agree on which nation Iskenderun belongs to, but they are united in their opposition to war.)

Like most road maps, the Syrian one also shows parts of neighboring countries. But given Syria's longtime enmity toward Israel, which captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Mideast war, Israel is nowhere to be seen. Instead the area is labeled Palestine. That might explain why you can't make a phone call to Israel from Syria -- as far as Syrian mapmakers are concerned, the Jewish state doesn't exist.

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