THURSDAY AFTERNOON is the start of the weekend here,
but the Christian Quarter of the Old City, home to
most of Damascus's liveliest bars, restaurants, and
cafés, seems strangely subdued.
"People are scared and angry," says D, a 22-year-old
student and journalist from Syrian television with
whom I'm spending the day, walking around and speaking
with ordinary Syrians whose most palpable fear right
now is of what they believe is an imminent U.S.
"We'll fight the Americans," says T, a 25-year-old
businessman whose presence in this trendy café
suggests that he probably will not fight but may have
enough money to finance some fighting. "I'm a
Christian," he says, "but it doesn't
matter--Christian, Muslim--we're all Syrians, and
we'll fight as Syrians."
During my last trip to Damascus, in the winter, I was
surprised to find Syrians who believed that they might
be better off if the Assad regime fell. I am less
surprised now to see how that enthusiasm has been
tempered. It's not that President Bashar al-Assad has
finally won the hearts and minds of his people;
rather, many Syrians see the sectarian violence in
Iraq, and they are fearful the same might happen here.
T may say he's ready for the Americans, but I wonder
if he isn't more concerned about having to fight other
Syrians, especially the country's overwhelmingly Sunni
Arab majority. There's a reason the ruling Alawites
have cloaked themselves in Arab nationalism--it
disguises the fact that a minority sect some Sunnis
consider heretical is running the country. But D, like
virtually all Syrians, is very sensitive about
anything touching on the country's confessional
issues, so she won't let me ask T, and we move along.
D is an Alawite whose father used to hold a high
diplomatic post under Hafez al-Assad. By all accounts,
Bashar's father did a much better job of spreading not
only the regime's wealth and power among other sects,
especially the Sunnis, but also its culpability. Right
now Syria's ruling class--Bashar, his brother Maher,
and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat--can fit on the head
of a pin. And with the U.N. report on the murder of
former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri due to
be released October 25, it's hard to see how the
family can entirely escape a day of reckoning.
How is Syria coping with the pressure? The way it
always has, with violence. Last week, a popular
Lebanese television journalist was maimed and nearly
killed in a car bombing, the latest in a string of
assassinations and explosions for which the Syrians
and their Lebanese cut-outs are commonly thought
responsible. Since Hariri's death, all of the violence
has been directed against Christian individuals or
Christian areas in a transparent attempt to provoke
sectarian fighting. It is worthwhile to note that a
state fearful of sectarian conflict runs a regional
policy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel that aims to
provoke elsewhere its own worst nightmares at home.
Still, many Arab officials and Western analysts
continue to believe that Washington should find some
way to engage Assad. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, for
instance, may truly fear the fallout of a collapse in
Damascus, but what's even more terrifying to him and
other Arab leaders is that if Bashar falls, the Bush
administration might think it's on a hot streak. Who
knows where the finger will point next? As for the
Western analysts who want Bush to warm up to Syria,
some are legitimately concerned about the possible
fate of Syrian minorities, while others counsel
engagement merely out of habit.
"The regime was already given lots of warning and
advice," says Farid al-Khazen, a first-term deputy in
the Lebanese parliament and a professor of political
science at the American University of Beirut. "But it
has zero margin for flexibility or adaptation. Even
Saddam had a larger base of support than the Syrian
One major difference between the former Iraqi regime
and Bashar's is that the latter has very little
sectarian depth in the region. While Iraq's
once-ruling Sunni minority made up maybe 20 to 25
percent of the country, across the entire Middle East,
Sunnis constitute perhaps 70 percent of the
population. When Western journalists and academics
argue that Sunnis cannot possibly win their insurgency
in Iraq because they are a minority, or scoff when
Iraqi Sunnis claim that they are actually a majority,
it is we who are not recognizing the regional reality.
The Sunnis of Iraq may not win back power through
their insurgency, but the Sunnis in the region are not
going to let their Iraqi coreligionists be decimated
in a civil war, either. The problem for Syria's
Alawites is that, except for what currently seems like
a pretty tenuous alliance with Shiite Iran, they have
nowhere to turn for help.
This real fear of being surrounded and vulnerable not
only drives the regime's authoritarian apparatus, it
is also the source of Syrian identity. "Because no one
is allowed to touch on sectarian issues," says Andrew
Tabler, an American researcher who lives in Damascus,
"the Syrians have forged a more or less viable Syrian
identity." There's another factor as well. "The regime
has been in a state of war with Israel for so long,"
says Tabler, "that modern Syrian identity is carved
out of the struggle against Israel."
Thus Syria--a state that derives its sense of
well-being from repression, fear, and hatred--is
hardly ready for a peaceful democratic transition.
"There is nothing left of civil society," says Khazen.
"The Syrian political landscape is a desert. There is
no institution that can help the country make a
Washington may hope there is some plausible
alternative to the Assads, but none is in
evidence--not a secular, democratic opposition, not a
reform movement in exile, not moderate Islamists. (Not
even Islamist extremists, whose organizational
capacity the regime has invariably exaggerated for its
own purposes.) Thus, the regime has effectively
booby-trapped Syria, and if it falls it is quite
likely Syrians will shed each other's blood.
Would a Syria in free fall cause trouble in the region
and for the United States? Well, it's unclear whether
a failed state exports more violence than one already
determined to export violence, especially if it is
going to take that failed state a long time to exhaust
its own sectarian furies. Moreover, the fact is that
Syria's intercommunal violence has already spilled
over into Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, and the West
Bank. Eventually, Syrians will have to learn how to
construct a positive national identity out of a
multisectarian, multiethnic society without
dispatching their demons abroad or sweeping them under
an Arab nationalist rug.
Lee Smith is writing a book on Arab culture.