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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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If Syria’s present appears complex, consider the burden of its past. Syrians are custodians of, and the last believers in, Arab unity, and as such they cling to the mantle of Arab leadership. It is a pretense that dates back to the dawn of the last century, when Arab nationalist movements began to resist the region’s then-imperial overlords, the Ottoman Turks. During World War I, Arab intellectuals, politicians and tribal leaders allied with Britain and France against Turkey, Germany’s ally. When the war ended and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Western powers reneged on agreements to allow the Arabs to establish a single nation, presumably stretching from the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula to what is now northern Syria, and from Egypt to Iraq’s frontier with Iran. Instead, Paris and London partitioned the Levant into their own corridors of influence—a plan hatched well before the war’s end. The result was the modern Middle East. It comprised the newly created Lebanon and Syria, administered by France, and British-controlled Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine.

The redrawing of borders and the disruption of the ancient trade links that underpinned the economy dealt the region a concussive blow. The occupation by foreigners of the vibrant trading hubs of Aleppo, Damascus, Tyre, Sidon, Acre, Amman and Gaza fueled resentment and a sense of betrayal that still lingers, in Syria as much as anywhere else. It was Syrian intellectuals and activists who most vigorously promoted the idea of a transcendent Arab identity, a nation of mind and spirit, impervious to monarchists, imperialists, Zionists and radical Islamic groups. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who came closest to realizing the dream of a pan- Arab state, once called Syria “the beating heart of Arab nationalism.” The dream was extinguished generations ago. Nasser died trying to subdue fratricidal Arab strife in 1970, three years after Israel entrenched itself during the Six Day War. Only in the minds of Syrians does Arab unity linger still.

Ammar Al-Summer is a 40-something history student at DamascusUniversity, who is researching his doctoral thesis at Syria’s historical archives. His office walls are spare but for a collection of pro-Palestinian pamphlets and propaganda materials. “Within the Ottoman Empire,” Summer says of the pre-partitioned Middle East, “people were at least free to travel. But when these borders were drawn, suddenly those on the Syrian side could not go to Baghdad and those on the Iraqi side could not go to Damascus. It took us 50 years to get used to the [redrawn borders].”

I met Summer just as Syria was preparing—under stiff international pressure—to withdraw from Lebanon. The violent anti-Syrian backlash among Lebanese that followed Hariri’s assassination came as a rude jolt to Syrians, who had long regarded their neighbors as meek beneficiaries of the partition. Until the rise of Arab socialism in the mid-1950s, Damascus was a regional financial center with a sophisticated banking system, and Lebanon a sleepy coastal strip of Greater Syria. But when the Syrian government nationalized the banks, the nation’s financial expertise migrated to Lebanon’s freewheeling capital. Beirut grew into a worldclass banking center while Damascus, the soul of Arab culture and consciousness, became a state-run backwater.

The Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which began soon after civil war erupted in Beirut in 1975, was at first a peacekeeping operation. Syrian forces stayed on after the war ended in 1990, however, and Lebanon began to chafe at Damascus’ increasingly heavy-handed and corrupt authority. Syrian companies were favored in Lebanese projects, and Syrian security agents were given shares in Lebanese companies. Many politicians and dissidents who, like Hariri, dared to challenge Syrian control were cut down or forced into exile.

In response to the anti-Syrian vitriol in Lebanon that followed Hariri’s killing—visiting Syrians were spat upon and Syrian guest workers attacked—angry Syrian merchants withdrew a sizable share of their deposits in Lebanese banks. For Syrians like Summer, the Lebanese reaction was a slap in the face by ungrateful libertine provincials and a rebuke to the rich heritage of Greater Syria, which of course once included Lebanon. “The Lebanese hate us because of the corruption and brutality of the occupation,” Summer acknowledges.

“The scenes from Lebanon were distressing,” says Abdul-Salam Haykal, an entrepreneur and founder of what he describes as “an outspoken” economic monthly journal. “Most Syrians are not used to this. They perceived it, unfairly, I believe, as a personal attack.” He is relaxing at his family’s farm on the outskirts of Damascus; it is a cool afternoon in early spring, and he is enjoying a water pipe with political analyst Sami Moubayed and management consultant Basel Nasri. The three young men have just consumed a lunch of traditional Syrian fare—hummus, chicken kebab, lamb kibbe, tabbouleh and flatbread—and the conversation, carried out between curt but frequent cellphone exchanges, is as pungent as the smoke weaving up from their colorful glass hookahs.

Attempts to disarm Hezbollah could lead to another civil war, says Moubayed, who has just written a column about Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrullah for the Asia Times.

America’s economy is in trouble because of its trade and budget deficits, Nasri declares.

The Syrian-Lebanese relationship is symbiotic, and Beirut should take care not to abuse it, asserts Haykal, who has written a treatise on Syrian banking reform.

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