Damascus damage

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Damascus – while the world out side verges on geopolitical chaos, life continues as it has for thousands of years in the maze of streets in the Old City. They’re so narrow you can touch the walls with outstretched arms. In the same passageways that John the Baptist walked, shopkeepers still do business while downing sweet black tea, and in the hammam (bath) at the end of the day, men huddle together bathing and shaving each other with a gentle intimacy.

But it’s not only its history that makes one of the oldest cities in the world feel different from any other place on the planet. So much of what we expect in any big city just isn’t found in the Syrian capital. There are no Starbucks outlets (as there are next door in Lebanon), no English signs, few camera-toting tourists.

For the wandering foreigner, the splendid isolation is comforting reassurance that there are still places we can go to forget who we are. But for many Syrians, separation from the rest of the world is not nearly as sweet.

For the past 50 years, the poorest country in the Middle East has been in the grip of an all-seeing, all-encompassing state (via 18 separate security services, according to one count), and the regime has been suspicious of outside influences that might encourage Syrians to be critical of their rulers.

One would think that American purveyors of democracy would understand the needs of the courageous and vulnerable band of freedom-seekers here. But this month’s announcement by George W. Bush of sanctions against this ‘rogue state’ is being greeted by human rights advocates as another American blunder.

It’s not that sanctions mean much in practical terms. After Bush’s announcement, the EU made a special point of sending a trade mission to the country, and Canada continues to be one of the largest investors in Syria’s budding oil and gas industry.

Planes don’t fly direct from the U.S. to Syria. (So much for the ban on flights.) Exports will continue to arrive through Lebanon, its neighbour to the west. And Syria will continue to give succour to Hezbollah, its ally against Israeli occupiers of the Golan Heights.

But though they are economically ridiculous, sanctions are another boot heel on attempts to change Syria’s political culture. When dictator Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and his British-educated eye doctor son, Bashar, took the reins, there was an outpouring of civic interest – “Damascus spring,’ it was called. But the authorities shut it all down. And dissidents are betting that sanctions will keep it down.

One of the voices lamenting the latest American bungling is Haitham al-Maleh of the Freedom and Human Rights Committee of Syria’s bar association, perhaps the country’s most outspoken dissident, whose office in the Baramkeh district near the Old City is an essential educational outing for diplomats newly arrived in Damascus.

When I got to see him at high noon one Tuesday, Syria’s most outspoken government critic greets me in the street in dress slacks and a blue corduroy shirt slightly darker than the cloudless noonday sky.

“Look at the grey car on the right as we pass,’ he says, waving an arm to one side. “Security agents.’ I take a glance – yes, there they are, one in the back, one in the front, staring a little too intently for my comfort. They apparently keep watch on his office all day, every day.

As we enter his cool, neat office – once the home of the head of French intelligence when France ran Syria – Maleh points to the framed beadwork on the walls, the output of his seven years behind bars. The largest contains 96,000 beads and spells the Muslim invocation “In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.”

Assad the younger, he tells me, doesn’t have the influence among his father’s old guard to have his way. Indeed, despite all the talk about the new era, Maleh has, for the first time, been refused permission to leave the country to speak in Europe. “Bashar has some good ideas, but he has no power to do what we need,’ he says.

Sanctions will only weaken him and play into the hands of the old-timers, just as the war in Iraq did, he says. To criticize government positions will be seen as being disloyal to the Arab republic in its time of need.

That’s the worry of another dissident, Ammar Abdulhamid, who runs an Internet think-tank (whose contributors span the spectrum from left to right, even Israeli). It’s true, he says, that things have changed somewhat. People are still arrested for their views, but “you can count them and you know what happened to them,’ says Abdulhamid, sporting long hair (unusual among Syrian men) pulled back in the style of North American graduate students.

“(The government) realizes it cannot operate in the same old style,’ he says. But Abdulhamid sees the key to democratic revival in precisely the process that U.S. sanctions upend – an opening up of Syria to the world and to the World Trade Organization. Sanctions, on the other hand, are precisely what the ruling elite needs to consolidate its power. America – wrong yet again.

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