Syria

IN FROM THE COLD?

ADNAN R. KHAN on whether this Mideast power-broker really is on a new path

April 12 2004
Syria

IN FROM THE COLD?

ADNAN R. KHAN on whether this Mideast power-broker really is on a new path

April 12 2004

IN FROM THE COLD?

Syria

ADNAN R. KHAN on whether this Mideast power-broker really is on a new path

THE SENSE OF ISOLATION and regret is almost palpable in this modest home one floor above Damascus’s congested streets. A wilting bouquet of flowers and a handwritten message conveying a warm welcome to freedom sit idly on a side table. But for Fares Murad, freedom is also a kind of imprisonment. Now back in his parents’ home after nearly 30 years locked up in a Syrian prison, he is trying to reconcile past and present. When he last looked out of his living room window, Syria was in a state of flux. The 1973 war with Israel had ended a few years earlier without any clear victor, and Syria’s youth, discontented and eager for change, were exploring political alternatives after more than a decade under the erratic leadership of the ruling Baath regime. For Murad, Communism offered the best solution. “We were young and reckless idealists,” he recalls. “We were boys who gave ourselves a name that included the word ‘Communist.’ ”

For that, they were arrested, charged with membership in a secret organization and jailed indefinitely. Three decades later, Murad mentions the suffering as a footnote. What’s more important to him now is the new world he finds himself in. “I have no personal anger toward the regime,” he insists, “but I do feel a duty to press for real change.”

feels like a stranger in his own home. His sudden release in January, along with more than 120 other prisoners, was completely unexpected. “I couldn’t even find my own house,” says Murad, now 54 and suffering from a litany of medical problems, some the result of torture. “Things look so different.” He’d rather not talk about what he endured, and

Unconvinced that the Syrian regime is beginning to reform itself, Murad is determined to speak out against his government’s persistent abuse of power, and he’s not alone. Cautiously, Syria’s human rights movementrepressed after a brief resurgence in the early days of Bashar al-Assad’s ascent to power in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez— is regaining some momentum. Some cite the recent prisoner release as a sign that Syria’s power-brokers are bending under the pressure of a massive U.S. military presence across the border in Iraq. The softening may be reciprocal: in Washington, the Syria Accountability Act, passed by Congress last October, has become the centre of a heated debate in recent weeks, with some administration officials pushing for a softening of its sanctions. And there’s been public praise in the West for Syria’s co-operation in fighting international terrorism since 9/11. One Turkish official, after a February meeting between al-Assad and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remarked that Syria is “on a new path.”

THE STATE may be quietly promoting the spread of Islamic conservatism in rural areas of the country

But how real is Syria’s rapprochement? Allegations surfaced in early February that the country had resumed arms shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas operating in Lebanon. Hamas, whose spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was recently assassinated by Israeli forces, has found safe haven in Damascus for decades. Some observers say Syria is tacitly supporting the flow of insurgents determined to destabilize the occupying coalition in Iraq. Journalists are still being imprisoned at an alarming rate, while reformers continue to risk persecution if they criticize the status quo. “The changes in Syria are all cosmetic,” says Haitham Maleh, 73, a human rights lawyer and chairman of the country’s Human Rights Association.

In his office in a dingy, windowless warehouse, down a dark alleyway on the edge of Damascus’s bustling city centre, Maleh plows forward with his work, despite more than 50 years of little progress—and two sojourns in the brutal prison system. In the reception area, two assistants tap away at their computers, files stacked precariously around them and Che Guevara looking down from a poster. Real reforms, Maleh says, will come only when the regime repeals the state of emergency legislation that has been in place since the Baath party forcibly took power in 1963. “The secret police rule this country through the legislation,” Maleh says, “and under this law everything has been destroyed.

There is no civil power, no power in the opposition parties, no power in the press.”

Syria’s political reformists contend that the security services—the Mukhabarat—have all but completely siphoned political power away from al-Assad, 38. Every aspect of Syrian life is in some way connected to a branch of the Mukhabarat. According to a 2001 estimate by Alan George, a specialist on Syrian politics, there is one full-time secret policeman for every 153 Syrian adults, not counting the paid informants who include, one diplomat says, most taxi drivers.

The Mukhabarat seem to employ little elegance in their spying techniques. There are few sophisticated bugging devices or complex infiltration operations, but rather basic mafioso tactics, plain and simple. “The secret police are all around,” Maleh says with a casual sweep of his arm. “Sometimes they sit in their cars photographing people. Sometimes you’ll find them sitting in the coffee shop across the street. I don’t worry about them much. They are silly and stupid.”

Maleh meets regularly with foreign reporters, works closely with Amnesty International, and harangues the spy network at every opportunity. But most other Syrians live in a culture of fear, quietly accepting the status quo and the elevation of the ruling elite to an almost mythical status. The al-Assad personality cult, beginning with Hafez and extended to his successor-son, remains strong, with billboards of the fatherand-son team scattered around Damascus and iconographie images pasted onto car windshields and storefronts. “Syrians don’t know how to criticize,” says Anwar alBounni, a 45-year-old lawyer who has taken on difficult and politically sensitive human rights cases. “They’ve never been taught to question. From the time they are small children, through their university education, Syria’s youth are intellectually bound to the regime’s version of the truth.”

‘THE secret police rule this country. There is no civil power, no power in the opposition, no power in the press.’

In his small second-floor office overlooking a tranquil park in the Mazra’a district of Damascus, al-Bounni, like Maleh and Murad, is cynical about Syria’s recent liberal overtures. “The regime wants to make a show that things are better,” he says. “But they are not. The machine is still running strong.” Core changes, including an overhaul of the education system, are the only hope for real change, he says, while things like the recent prisoner release are simply token gestures.

According to some Syrian human rights groups, most of which operate clandestinely, the majority of those released in the recent amnesty, the first since 2001, were either sick or elderly, like Murad, or former religious activists. In the first case, according to one foreign diplomat, optics are important: the last thing the Syrian government wants is political prisoners dying inside jails during a time of increasing outside scrutiny. As for the second, al-Bounni says that “our military leaders are starting to recognize the political advantage of allowing fundamentalist groups some operating room in Syria. They are, after all, killing Americans in Iraq.”

The days of iron-fisted crackdowns on groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Liberation Party are long gone. Instead, Islamic conservatism is spreading through Syria, some of it quietly promoted by the state. In the countryside, where poverty and lack of education have created an ideal environment for fundamentalism, religious schools of the type that have fostered virulent extremists in places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are taking root. AlBounni speculates that the trend is taking place because the government is turning a blind eye. “They are Islamicizing Syria,” he contends. “And in a country that offers a desperate person no hope for political change, what does he do? He goes to the mosque.”

In the area around Al Qamishli, a drab, halffinished town straddling the Turkish border just 90 km west of Iraq, almost every branch of the secret police appears to have an office. And yet, local religious leaders are zealously reinvigorating practices that, a few short years ago, would have drawn the government’s wrath. “We do not deal at all with the regime,” says Sheik Abdulghani alKhaznawi, the imam in Khazna, a village 20 km west of Al Qamishli. “We do not feel we have to explain ourselves to them.”

Some 200 m from his mosque is the religious school he is building. It will teach Islam in “the old way,” al-Khaznawi says, with strict adherence to religious texts and the power to interpret them invested in a few select scholars. “The most dangerous thing for non-Islamic states is this system of religious education,” al-Khaznawi says, “because it teaches the true Islam. It is dangerous because anyone who accepts the true Islam will only want to live in an Islamic state.” The sheik avoids answering questions about why, in a place that appears positively overcrowded with the Mukhabarat, he is being allowed so much latitude now.

People are listening to the imams. Abu Fuad, a 64-year-old father of 12 in Mohammad Diab, a ramshackle village 40 km west of Al Qamishli, would welcome a madrassah (religious school). “Right now my children have no way of learning the Koran,” he says. “They would have to go somewhere else, Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, to study Islam, but I cannot afford to send them.” He says that others in Mohammad Diab and the neighbouring villages feel much the same way, especially since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. “All of Islam is under attack,” Fuad says. “Ten men from this area alone went to fight the Americans during the war. One of them was the son of a major in the Mukhabarat. They are heroes to us.” And despite assurances from the Syrian government that it is cracking down on cross-border activity, Fuad insists infiltration into Iraq is continuing—with some degree of state sponsorship.

Back in Damascus, Fares Murad’s imprisonment hasn’t really come to an end. Weeks after being released, he remains sequestered in his parent’s apartment, staring through the window at a world that’s alien to him. With a sweep of his arm, he brushes aside his new-found freedom. “I’ve come out of a little jail,” he says, “and found myself in the big one.” P!1