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Syria at a Crossroads

Following a humbling retreat from Lebanon and increasingly at odds with the U.S., the proud Arab nation finds itself at a critical juncture

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To get to the kahwaji family’s antiques shop in Old Damascus, start at the main corridor of Souk Al Hammadiya, one of the Arab world’s oldest markets. Head north along its cobblestone thoroughfares past shops and stalls filled with textiles, rugs, soaps, jewelry, clothes and a galaxy of spices. The souk’s arched, corrugated-steel roof is perforated by time and the elements, so on a clear day its warrens and byways are riddled with slender beams of light. At the northernmost exit is the Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest sites of Islam and a gem of eighth-century architecture. To the right, up a flight of stairs (beware the low ceiling), is the Old Bazaar for Damascus Crafts. The shop offers a vast assortment of items, from wedding chests to brass pepper grinders. Its 29-year-old manager, Samer Kahwaji, is an ambassador of sorts for Syria’s glorious past as well as an advocate for greater freedoms today. “When that mosque was built,” Kahwaji told me, “Syria was bigger in every way. As a nation, as a regional power, as a market.”

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From the shop’s veranda you can sip tea and take in the mosque’s abundant dome, delicate minarets and crenelated walls. It was built by the Umayyad caliph Khaled Ibn al-Walid in a.d. 715, a half-century after an army of Arab Muslims swept north from the Arabian peninsula to conquer the then Byzantine- controlled Levant, the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean. From Damascus, the conquering Arabs would establish the largest empire the world had yet known. The mosque was built on the site of a Roman temple, which later became a church, and it still houses the tomb of St. John the Baptist. It’s also a monument to a nostalgic yearning among Syrians for the age of Bilad al-Cham, or Blessed Lands, when Syria included in its dominion what we know today as Lebanon, parts of western Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel. The contrast between the “Greater” Syria of old and its modern equivalent, a stately ruin inhabited by a proud and capable people under an enigmatic dictator, could hardly be more profound.

Syria is well into a fateful period in its modern history. The economy is stagnating even as the population (now at 18.4 million) is expanding rapidly. Petroleum, long the leading resource, is being depleted at such a rate that Syria will be a net importer of oil in only a few years. And when oil income dwindles, so, too, may the government subsidies—for items and services such as flour, cooking oil and transportation—with which the regime has curried public favor. “What happens when their main source of subsidies goes?” a World Bank official says. “Economically, this is Eastern Europe just before the Wall fell.”

Then there is the confrontation with the United States, which has long criticized Syria’s repressive regime and maintained that it supports terrorism, partly because of ties to militant Islamic groups like Hezbollah; from the 1970s until May 2000, Hezbollah waged a vicious and ultimately successful guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and Damascus and the Jewish state remain locked in a dispute over territories around the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Syria opposed, it was widely speculated that Syria would be next on President Bush’s list for regime change, though Syria has reportedly aided the United States’ pursuit of Al Qaeda suspects. And after the assassination in February of Lebanon’s ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, the United States recalled its ambassador to Syria in protest. (Damascus is believed to have ordered the killing—except among Syrians, who tend to suspect Israel, the United States, or both.) In May, Bush renewed economic sanctions against Syria.

For his part, President Bashar al-Assad has shown no inclination to accommodate the Bush administration, thanks partly to Hezbollah’s popularity in the Arab world as a strategic counterweight to Israel. Still, the Assad government is thought to have been weakened by its April withdrawal of troops and security forces from Lebanon, and Syrian officials were expected to unveil plans for political and economic reforms at a ruling party congress in June. Meanwhile, Damascus blames Washington for abandoning what little cooperation the two sides had with each other. Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, told me in May that “for one reason or another, there is no longer engagement between us and the Americans.”

It is an authentic Oriental scene, this view from the veranda of Kahwaji’s shop, though updated by his Nokia cellphone/ personal organizer, which he pokes relentlessly with a stylus as he talks. Flanked by antique lanterns and tribal rugs hanging from the walls, Kahwaji says the future looks promising. He tells me that President Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, is popular in Syria and that the country is stable despite the seismic events in the region. “Syria is a different country than before,” he says. “It’s time to start talking.” Just talking openly—and to a journalist—is a measure of dramatic change in a country with a history of oppression and severe human rights abuses. (There undoubtedly remain large segments of the population fearful of speaking freely.)

When I first met Kahwaji, in 1999, early into a three-year assignment as the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent, he was extraordinarily candid about Syria’s condition. “We hate it here,” he said. He then ran through the grievances that Syrian merchants commonly express, from excessively high import taxes to the layers of state officials angling for bribes. But he would not then speak on the record. Today Kahwaji hopes to expand his father’s trading firm, and unlike many young Syrians with his education and skills—he has a master’s degree in business and speaks French and Italian in addition to Arabic and English—he has no intention of fleeing the country. “This is my home,” he says. “My father built this business from nothing. How can I leave?”

Just in the past year or so, Syria has undergone some liberalization. Dissidents are increasingly vocal, and independent media outlets have proliferated. The Syrian banking sector, which was nationalized beginning in the late 1950s, has been restructured, and private banks have been doing business for more than a year. Syrians are now allowed to hold foreign currency, a move the government hopes will gradually drain the huge black-market economy. The country’s tourist sector is beginning to evolve, as investors—both domestic and foreign—convert ancient villas in the old quarters of Damascus and Aleppo into fancy hotels. The newer districts of Damascus are beginning to resemble Beirut for their swank cafés and boutiques.

In a country rich in paradox, Syrians will condemn their government and praise its leader in the same breath. In fact, the most charitable assessment of the 39-year-old Bashar al- Assad is that he is the Syrian everyman’s fellow inmate. Despite recent reforms, Syria today remains a garrisoned state. Assad has released several hundred political prisoners, but human rights organizations estimate that thousands more remain in Syrian jails, and there have been many reports of systematic torture. Bashar inherited the presidency five years ago following the death of his father, the autocratic, ex-fighter pilot Hafez al-Assad—an odd transition in a country that presumes itself a republic—and he has kept intact a state-security arm that can strike without notice. A hideously corrupt oligarchy controls an economy whose excesses are driving a wedge between a minority of haves and a ballooning majority of have-nots. Muslim fundamentalism, if not Islamic militancy, is on the rise in part because of the government’s inability to provide competent, secular leadership. The only way Syrians can reconcile a positive image of Assad with the reality of the state’s myriad failures is to associate his plight with their own. “Bashar is constrained by the old guard,” Kahwaji says, voicing a common refrain. “He signs edicts, but they are ignored. He promotes reform and is quietly challenged. But the people are with him.”

Earlier this year Kahwaji agreed to organize Syria’s first conference for the country’s independent press—largely trade journals for doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals. “They don’t talk about politics, but they do talk about the need for administrative reform,” Kahwaji says, his eyes brightening. “And once you have that, you’ve got people openly criticizing government policy.”

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