The day after I spoke with Hassoun was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and the sheik delivered the sermon at Aleppo’s main mosque. His preferred tactic when dealing with orthodox calls for sharia, or Islamic law, is a frontal assault, and on this day he issued an impassioned plea for ecumenical modernity, referring frequently to Jesus Christ, a revered prophet in nearly all Islamic sects, as a model for good Muslims. “Know the real religion!” the sheik thundered to a congregation of nearly 4,000 worshipers. “Neither Mohammed nor Jesus would tolerate extremism. I ask [local fundamentalist groups] to recite pure Koranic verses and they cannot provide them. And they are preaching to you?” The show was videotaped for distribution on Arab satellite-news networks. In Syria as elsewhere, the culture wars have taken to the airwaves, and Sheik Hassoun had just delivered a blow for the moderate side.
Syria, a senior Western diplomat told me in Damascus, is playing poker when everyone else is playing chess. It is an apt characterization of a regime that is too insular and backward looking to realize it is waging a war abandoned long ago by its allies as well as its antagonists. With the rest of the region scrambling to keep up with change, Damascus is stuck in its slipstream, peddling the remains of the pan-Arab dream.
The war in Iraq has heightened tensions between Syria and the United States, with the Bush administration accusing Syria of not doing enough to stop Arab fighters from crossing its border to join the insurgency in Iraq. For the moment, Bashar al-Assad appears safe from direct U.S. intervention, but his own maneuvering—commitments to change that inevitably fall short of the overhaul that many say the country so desperately needs—is wearing thin. Syrians are ready for democracy and expect steps to be taken in that direction. While Assad cultivates the various power centers in his midst—security forces, the army, oligarchs, clerics—the legions of young Syrians who have indulged him with loyalty and goodwill may soon lose patience. Fundamentalists, meanwhile, are eager for a void to fill.
Basmeh Hafez, the German-educated head of the finance ministry’s banking and insurance division, wears a head scarf that nicely complements her Western garb. For 18 years she worked at the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria, which until recently was the country’s monopoly lender and is now part of the economic reform effort. “I came here on a contractual basis,” Hafez says. “And I stayed because here I am able to start up new products, to make a difference modernizing the Syrian economy.”
Among other things, Hafez and her staff are working to establish a bank clearing center, a database for risk management, a center for processing international credit card transactions, and a surveillance and security team to counter a recent startling increase in the number of bank robberies— all on a lean budget and with precious little help from the West.
Yet Hafez, too, is optimistic about Syria’s future. Like my merchant friend Samer Kahwaji, she occupies a distinct and potentially pivotal place in Syrian society. Both are seriousminded members of a cosmopolitan elite. Unlike the Syrian exile groups vying for the attention of President Bush and urging the ouster of the Assad regime, they enjoy the credibility that comes only to those who work from within. They are active in the kind of nongovernmental organizations that can serve as the building blocks of civil society. They are, in short, the closest thing Damascus has to a new generation who could help Syria leverage its history and culture to restore the spirit, but not the geography, of Greater Syria. The only question is whether they will do it with Bashar al-Assad or without him.