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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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All three reject the widely held notion that Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon will hasten the end of the Assad regime. “If Syria does achieve Bashar’s vision [of economic reform], we will not need Lebanon as much as Lebanon needs us,” says Haykal.

The men belong to the Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association (SYEA), which they launched after winning the endorsement of Asma al-Assad, Syria’s British-born first lady and a former JPMorgan economist. In a country without independent political parties, high-profile groups like SYEA are a relatively safe and compelling vehicle for venturing opposition to government policy and supporting reform efforts. Association members support what they believe are Assad’s ambitions to modernize the Syrian economy, so it no longer has to rely on its neighbors, particularly Lebanon, to keep it afloat. They praise the new, more liberal, banking laws, which eventually will allow for a stock exchange. But they acknowledge it will take time. Even if Syrians could be persuaded to deposit their black-market wealth into the new private banks—where it would be taxed by the state—the country lacks the basic financial resources, such as qualified lending officers, to effectively use those funds to advance economic self-reliance.

The regime’s previous experiment with political reform didn’t last long. Just over a year after he assumed office, in July 2000, the president hinted in a television interview that criticism of the government was getting out of hand. Within days, dozens of activists were arrested, and hopes for a Damascus spring were crushed.

Now the green shoots are back, nudging their way through softened terrain. Ammar Abdulhamid is founder and general coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to increase awareness of the living conditions and aspirations of religious and ethnic minorities throughout the Arab world. He is also a thorn in the Syrian government’s side, having written columns harshly critical of Assad for Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper. Abdulhamid, who is in his 30s, once compared the president to Fredo Corleone, the youngest and weakest of the brothers in Mario Puzo’s Godfather. (The Godfather films are hugely popular in Syria; I have met young Syrians who can recite Michael Corleone’s best lines with unsettling conviction.) Unlike most NGOs in Syria, Tharwa is not registered with the state and is operating extralegally. Abdulhamid has said he wants to see Syria’s blue-collar workers unionize—an activity that could result in his detention, if not arrest. “I have been under a travel ban,” he says. “They could conjure up a number of things against me. I live at their whim.” Abdulhamid studied astronomy and history in the United States, then dropped out of college to preach his own brand of Islamic fundamentalism from a mosque in Los Angeles. Disenchanted with orthodox Islam after religious leaders issued a fatwa against the British writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his allegedly heretical writings, Abdulhamid finished college and then returned to his native Syria. He now writes novels and poetry.

But he remains an iconoclast. “Here, I am a Westernized liberal in a place where even liberals are anti-American,” he says, referring to widespread opposition to U.S. Middle East policy, especially the invasion of Iraq. “No one will admit things are softening up thanks to pressure from the United States. People speak of the pan-Arab dream, but the reality is we are not united and we are cut off from the West.”

Abdulhamid is pessimistic. “Bashar is an autocrat by predisposition,” he says. “Reform is not something his regime takes seriously.” Then why does the president tolerate criticism from an increasingly bold set of detractors? Abdulhamid frowns. “This is an autocratic regime that just happens to be in a benign phase.” Just as political activists tread a fine line in Syria, so do moderate religious leaders in the increasingly evangelical nation. In the early 1980s, Assad’s father ruthlessly put down the Muslim Brotherhood, an international militant group advocating Islamic law, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people and the devastation of parts of Hama, a city of 270,000 in central Syria. Since then, fundamentalist groups have kept a low profile, but that has not prevented them from gaining popularity. Militant and extremist groups such as Hezbollah, in Lebanon, Hamas, in the Palestinian territories, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, have established themselves as alternatives to corrupt secular administrations. Rising fundamentalism is as much a concern to Damascus as to any regime in the region. A former U.S. ambassador to Syria told me that the Syrian government has even infiltrated its own army officer corps with intelligence agents because of fears that Islamist extremists have penetrated the military.

Like his fellow despots in the region, it seems that the younger Assad would rather compromise with Islamic fundamentalists than arrest them. Raiding a town hall or an NGO office is one thing; storming and occupying a mosque, quite another. And that makes the Grand Mufti of Aleppo, the supreme religious authority in Syria’s second-largest city, one of the country’s most influential and controversial figures. He must promote and protect state secularism, yet he must also keep his distance from Damascus, lest he be perceived as a stooge of the regime. As Syrian balancing acts go, this may be the most challenging, and few religious leaders have proved as accomplished at it as Sheik Ahmad Hassoun.

Until recently, Sheik Hassoun was thought to be on the shortlist of clerics to become the Grand Mufti of Damascus, the most senior religious figure in Syria. But when I asked him about this, he shook his head. “I am in a struggle here with fundamentalists,” he told me.

We were seated in the reception room of the sheik’s Aleppo home, a modest dwelling generously stocked with religious tomes and elaborately embellished copies of the Koran. He had injured his back a month earlier and was hobbling about on a cane. He was, as usual, dressed in spare but elegant gray vestments and a striking white turban.

I asked how the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and its policy of spreading democracy in the Arab world had affected Syria. “The United States will lose not only Iraq but the Islamic world with its current policy,” he said. “This is because its government is standing with [Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon. Take Hezbollah. The Americans and Israel call this an extremist organization, but I know Hasan Nasrullah [the head of Hezbollah]. He is not an extremist. If anything, he is a bulkhead against extremists in his own party. Remember, when Hezbollah kicked Israel out of southern Lebanon, Nasrullah saved many churches there and prevented reprisal attacks against those who fought on the Israel side. This is extremism?”

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