Amid the squat concrete towers and traffic bridges of the new and expanding Damascus, a few mud-brick houses endure like Palaeolithic mammals resisting the inevitability of extinction. Massive apartment blocks modelled on those of the Soviet Union and hotels straight from the American Midwest are transforming the Syrian capital into an Occidental artefact. Oriental structures, struggling under the weight of satellite receivers large enough for families to sleep in, survive on sufferance. Most stand in a state of near destruction, a wall down here, doors falling from hinges there, prisoners shaved for execution. Posterity can lay the blame on Syria’s modern rulers: the French, who between 1920 and 1946 cleared acres of labyrinthine quarters to make room for cannon and tanks to control the natives; the few elected and many military regimes who succeeded them; and, latterly, the Baath Party/Army/ Intelligence Service junta that has been in place since 1970. Only in a small corner of today’s Damascus, demarcated by the broad stone walls of the Old City, are ancient houses being restored and gentrified after generations of neglect. Syrians who for years avoided the dilapidated bazaars are revisiting the charm of mud and wood, stone and marble, running fountains and cobbled paths too narrow for cars. A few landlords are turning their empty palaces into hotels, restaurants and bars where the young stay late into the night in jasmine-scented courtyards to savour water pipes as their ancestors did in Ottoman times.

Many young people in Damascus look and act like Americans, sitting in cafés, holding hands when they stroll with their girlfriends or boyfriends, buying jeans and trainers and hip-hop CDs. Others have chosen the women’s headscarves, the asceticism and the ethos of the desert, of religion, which they believe lends them a more authentic Arab and Muslim identity. You see both types of children in a single family. In any group of teenage girls, there are as many bare midriffs as dark veils. At the Pit Stop Café, one of Damascus’s trendier new meeting places, they mingle over espresso and Turkish coffee, Marlboros and nargilehs, hamburgers and hummus. The Baathist motto – ‘Unity, Socialism, Progress’ – doesn’t mean anything to them. A new music video by Shakira – a sexy Lebanese-Colombian rock star whose lyrics reunite Spanish and Arabic – does.

This should be a time of hope in Syria. When the old President died three years ago, Syrians sensed the possibility of escape from the deadening, if steady, hand with which he had governed most aspects of their lives. Power in what many deride as a ‘hereditary republic’ passed to his son, Bashar Assad, without civil war, sectarian violence or a military coup d’état. There was a brief ‘Damascus spring’ when the new, 34-year-old President encouraged citizens to speak out. A country in which owning a fax machine required security clearance suddenly found itself awash with mobile phones and Internet connections. The first private newspaper since the declaration of martial law in 1963 began publishing, and hundreds of civil society groups met in houses and public auditoria. They demanded change: an end to the state of emergency, genuine elections and a stop to the corruption that has enriched senior officials and their families. Beware, the old President’s inner circle advised the son. Rushing towards a Syrian perestroika would jeopardise his father’s work and lead to chaos. The police arrested scores of activists, including two MPs. Glorious spring reverted to familiar winter.

Survival is a preoccupation in Syria, as much among the conservationists who lobby to defend ancient monuments as within the governing elite who seek to protect themselves. Everyone in Syria senses that, following its invasion of Iraq, the US is turning to Damascus. Iran – a higher profile target in recent weeks – is unlikely to divert American attention from Syria. Washington has made it clear that it intends to deal with both regimes at once. When Colin Powell visited Bashar Assad after the conquest of Baghdad it was to name the price of Baathism’s survival in Syria: ending support for Hizbollah in Lebanon, closing the Damascus offices of Palestinian guerrilla organisations and deporting their leaders. He told President Assad not to allow Palestinian spokesmen in Syria to speak to journalists. Years ago, it was the regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, that did not want Palestinians to talk. Bassam Abu Sharif, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s spokesman in the early 1980s, met me secretly at his Damascus flat and spoke in whispers while letting water run into the sink to conceal our voices from the Syrians’ electronic eavesdroppers. He referred to Syria as ‘Alaska’, just in case.

Alaska, frozen in the political rhetoric of a 1960s Soviet client, is now surrounded. Jordan, Israel and Turkey host American forces and are formidable foes in their own right. All three are in dispute with Syria over water rights, while Syria claims that both Israel and Turkey occupy part of the land allotted to it under the post-First World War French Mandate. Iraq has become an American protectorate, and America has told Syria that it must, like a rare breed of bird, adapt to the new environment or die. The Syrian Army and Intelligence Services are playing their own imperial game in Lebanon, but their presence there has become as vulnerable to American subversion as America’s forces are to indigenous resistance – with or without Syrian and Iranian encouragement – in Iraq.

Syria’s precarious military position is matched by its economic weakness. Assad Senior, master strategist in foreign affairs and local intrigue, presided for thirty years over financial incompetence that successive dei ex machina disguised but failed to correct: Syria survived on Soviet subsidies, hand-outs from Arab oil states which wouldn’t confront Israel themselves and remittances from workers in Lebanon. As the country approached bankruptcy in the early 1980s, deliverance came with the discovery of oil near its border with Iraq. Deals with Iraq followed in the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein gave Syria 150,000 barrels of free oil every day and allowed Syrian businesses to sell Iraqis about $1 billion worth of goods. When the US assumed control of the Iraqi side of the frontier in April, the oil and the trade stopped. Syria’s economy was in trouble. ‘By 2010,’ says Nabil Sukkar, an American-educated former World Bank economist in Damascus, ‘we will be net importers of oil.’ Half the population is under the age of 20. Unemployment is already 25 per cent, and the job market is not absorbing the 300,000 young people joining it each year. ‘Children are our only export,’ lamented a businesswoman whose sons have moved to Canada.

I met her at a lunch in Sednaya, a Christian village outside Damascus whose summer villas sport the vast lawns and lush gardens seen in other arid resorts like Palm Springs. There were about a dozen well-off Syrians, mostly professionals and business people, as well as foreign diplomats, at a collection of outdoor tables. I had known one of the guests, Jacques Hakim, for more than twenty years. He was almost the only Syrian there whose grown-up children were staying in the country. One daughter is an architect; the other daughter and the son are, like him, lawyers. ‘I took my son to make his first appearance in the Supreme Court,’ he said. ‘He looked at the portraits of the old judges and there he saw his grandfather.’ Youssef Hakim, Jacques’s father, had been an Ottoman-trained jurist who served on the Court during the country’s brief moment of independence under King Faisal in 1920. Later, he wrote a book on the French Mandate that robbed Syria of its independence. Jacques said that his family could not just walk away from all this. Things were getting better in Syria, he believed, but he feared that American interference would reverse tentative steps towards liberalisation.

Syria – encircled, broke and threatened by America and Israel – has been down before. In 1967, a few days of fighting against Israel cost it the Golan Heights, the prestige of its military dictatorship and a large part of its Armed Forces. Humiliation led to regime change the old-fashioned way: a coup by brother officers against the losers of the war. The Air Force commander, Hafez Assad, emerged as overall victor among the Baath Party militarists in November 1970. Although Assad gave Syrians a longer period of continuity at the top than any since Ottoman times, he suffered a defeat of his own in Lebanon. The Israeli invasion of 1982, undertaken to expel the PLO and install a puppet regime in Beirut, pushed Assad’s forces out of the southern half of the country and destroyed the Air Force, his personal fiefdom. Almost every Syrian jet that went into the sky fell to an Israeli missile or fighter, and for the next year Syria had no air protection. Israel occupied most of Lebanon, and the Americans – towing the British, French and Italians behind – set up in Beirut as multinational peacekeepers. Assad seemed to be finished. His health suffered, and his brother Rifaat attempted a palace coup. But he recovered, threw out his brother, bided his time and rebuilt the military. The Lebanese guerrilla operations he sponsored against the US, France and Israel forced an American evacuation early in 1984. Assad lived just long enough to witness the total Israeli retreat from Lebanon in May 2000. He was probably the only Arab leader to earn America and Israel’s respect, having inflicted defeats on both. And he left a son to prolong his legacy.

For the men who came to rule the United States with the inauguration of George W. Bush, the Syrian menace was nothing new. Some of them had long wanted to wage war against Iraq as a way of containing Syria. ‘Israel can shape its strategic environment, in co-operation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria,’ a Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy advised Benjamin Netanyahu when he assumed office in 1996. This group’s paper, ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’, suggested that efforts should ‘focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions’. Did the United States invade Iraq with this objective in mind? The leader of the study group was Richard Perle, who became head – now, after press disclosure of a conflict of interest, he is a mere member – of the Defense Policy Board under Donald Rumsfeld. Another member of the study group was Douglas Feith, now the Pentagon’s Under Secretary for Policy. The advice that Perle, Feith and other American friends of Israel’s Likud irredentists gave Netanyahu in 1996 became the Bush Administration’s policy in 2003. The reasons stated in public for invading Iraq – sometimes Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, occasionally his mythical collusion with Osama bin Laden, often his brutality – never included ‘foiling Syria’. However desirable to the Likud Government, this would not have struck American public opinion as a plausible casus belli. (Did anyone tell Tony Blair about the Syrian objective?) After the toppling of Saddam’s statues in Baghdad in April, however, the Bush Administration turned its attention to perhaps the real objective of the war: Syria.

With American forces in Baghdad, Perle continued his rhetorical assault on Syria. He told Graham Turner, whose three-part article, ‘An American Odyssey’, appeared in the Daily Telegraph in June: ‘Somehow, we’ve got to isolate Assad and make him realise that there’s very little benefit in playing host to these people’ – i.e. Hizbollah and Palestinian groups. His neoconservative comrade at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Ledeen, was more explicit in conversation with Turner: ‘Iraq is not what it’s all about. We have been at war for twenty years with a terror network supported by Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia . . . Now, like it or not, we’re in a regional war, and we can’t opt out of it. We have to bring down these regimes and produce free governments in all these countries . . . Undermining the governments of other countries? No big deal.’

After Bush’s election in 2000, a Presidential Study Group published ‘Navigating through Turbulence: America and the Middle East in a New Century’. ‘The two main targets,’ the group advised the incoming President, ‘should be Syria and Iraq.’ The authors of the report were ‘guided’, they said, ‘by the wisdom and insight of a distinguished Steering Group that included . . . Alexander Haig Jr, Max Kampelman, Anthony Lake, Samuel Lewis, Joseph Lieberman, Paul Wolfowitz and Mortimer Zuckerman’. Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, is, along with Perle, best known as an architect of the regime change in Iraq. (‘Regime destruction’ may be a more accurate term.) The report noted: ‘Almost exactly a decade after the Gulf War left the Middle East under a virtual Pax Americana, the region seemed to have become a very inhospitable place for Americans.’ The authors offered neither diagnosis nor cure for the Arabs’ inexplicable and uncharacteristic lack of hospitality. The US, they seemed certain, could have the Israeli cake and still eat Arab oil. ‘Maintaining a strong alliance with Israel’ has not prevented ‘every state on Israel’s border, except Syria, from accepting America as their principal source of military aid and matériel’. The Syrian exception, however, needed prodding. ‘Specifically, the United States should clarify to Assad that the key indicators of his intentions are policy toward Lebanon and terrorism.’ (The italics are, for some reason, in the original.) The report’s recommendations are remarkably similar to the demands Powell made during his meeting with Assad:

Important benchmarks would include permitting the deployment of Lebanese troops to the border with Israel, the closing down of terrorist training camps in the Bekaa Valley, the expulsion from the Bekaa of remaining Iranian revolutionary guards, the termination of Iranian flights into Damascus carrying arms for Hizbollah, the redeployment of armed Hizbollah personnel from the Lebanon-Israel frontier zone, the disarming of Hizbollah, especially its long-range rockets, and eventually the phase-out and withdrawal of Syria’s troop and military intelligence presence in Lebanon.

These recommendations, like Powell’s demands, furthered Israeli interests more than they did any direct interest of the US. Eliminating Hizbollah, the guerrilla organisation that fought a successful war against the Israeli forces occupying Lebanon, was an obvious example of this. Requiring Syria to withdraw from Lebanon seemed to contradict the objectives of previous American administrations, however much General Sharon would like it to happen. Only the express approval of Henry Kissinger, the then Secretary of State, had allowed the Syrian Army to enter Lebanon in 1976. Syria expanded its military dominance to Lebanon’s Christian heartland in 1991, with the approval of Kissinger’s successor, James Baker – a quid pro quo for Syrian participation in the American war to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. When I reminded an American diplomat in Damascus that the US had given a double benediction to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, he said: ‘That mandate just ran out.’ We were arguing at dinner in a European-style restaurant, when he suddenly asked: ‘What are the ground rules here? Off the record, right?’ I agreed to keep his name to myself, but during our second bottle of Lebanese wine it became evident that he was trying to convince the Syrians that Washington was deadly serious about each and every demand it was making. There was no room here for the subtleties of diplomacy.

America may use all sorts of coercion – economic sanctions, Israeli attacks on Syrian forces in Lebanon and in Syria itself, American military action and destabilisation in Lebanon – to goad Syria into obedience or to change the regime. But the incentives it is willing to dangle in front of Damascus are paltry. The Presidential Study Group suggested ‘perhaps the establishment of a Peace Corps programme in Syria or the set up of a special Internet Training Institute . . . even to actually promoting Syria as a place where US companies – especially in telecommunications, oil/gas exploration and high-tech – should pursue business’. American companies already work in the Syrian oil industry, and Syria has allowed European telecommunications companies to do business there. As for the T-shirted youths of the Peace Corps, would they teach the world’s oldest mercantile society to weave carpets?

A year after that report, in September 2001, the Project for the New American Century wrote an open letter to Bush, headed ‘Lead the World to Victory’. Perle, along with forty other high priests of the neoconservative creed, put his name to the demand that ‘Syria and Iran immediately cease all military, financial and political support for Hizbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the Administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.’ As with Iraq, accusations of sponsoring terrorism may not be sufficient to win public support for action. On 6 May 2002, John Bolton, the Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, filled the gap by accusing Syria of developing chemical and biological weapons and acquiring hundreds of Scud missiles. He warned that Damascus was a step away from inclusion in the ‘axis of evil’ with Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Two weeks later, for the eighth year in a row, the State Department declared Syria a sponsor of terrorism. Members of the US Congress introduced the Syria Accountability Bill to make nearly all dealings with the country illegal.

Syria’s response was, by and large, to give in to American pressure. After 11 September Damascus apprehended al-Qaida suspects and handed them over to the Americans. It voted for America’s UN Security Council Resolution 1441 to pressure Iraq to display its elusive weapons of mass destruction. When the US proclaimed victory in Iraq, Assad ordered Iraqi exiles from Saddam Hussein’s regime back home and expelled many other Iraqis. He closed the offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as those of the Popular Front General Command, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, some of whose leaders have quietly left the country. Some went to Cairo to sign up to a Palestinian Authority ceasefire with Israel. Hizbollah ceased actions against Israel from South Lebanon, but so far Syria has neither disarmed Hizbollah nor compelled it to abandon its bases in the South.

An American Administration whose style is diplomacy by diktat has no interest in listening to a rehearsal of Syria’s case: that the Palestinians are waging a legitimate, legal struggle to end military occupation; that the Syrian people, like Arabs elsewhere, believe in Palestinian national rights; that Hizbollah is a legal political party in Lebanon with nine elected members of parliament; that Israel has far more weapons of mass destruction, including at least 250 nuclear warheads, than Syria has or could afford to acquire; that the Syrian Government, far from aiding Islamic fundamentalists, waged war against them twenty years before 11 September, notably in Aleppo and Hama; that an abrupt Syrian departure from Lebanon could free Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, who are not unreceptive to the call of Osama bin Laden, from any effective control and reignite the Lebanese civil war.

‘What can we do?’ Boutheina Shaaban of the Syrian Foreign Ministry asked. ‘If we say yes, they will ask for something else. They don’t understand the issue of dignity here.’ When I went to see Dr Shaaban last month, I walked into the wrong office and saw an ethereal portrait of the Assad family, arranged like the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Golden light emanated from the father, Hafez, as if from an icon in a Syrian Christian church. Seated beside him on a throne was the son, Bashar. The spirit of the older son, Basil, floated above them. Basil had been the designated heir, but after he was killed in a car accident near Damascus airport in 1994, Bashar replaced him as the father’s chosen vicar on earth. Portraits of Presidents – the late one, the one who should have been and the one who is – were as common in Syrian offices as bureaucratic lethargy. The story went that, if you worked for the Government, all you did was go to your ministry, leave your jacket on the chair behind your desk, go out to a café and return at the end of the working day to retrieve your jacket. The Ministry of Information was notorious, and still is, for lazy, unco-operative officials. A friend of mine called them slurpers, because their only job appeared to be slurping tea and coffee. It was far easier for them to answer requests with a ‘no’ than to risk criticism from above by saying ‘yes’. Censors said no to the publications of books they did not understand, no to visas for journalists they did not know, no to requests for interviews with senior officials and no to anything else a visitor might ask.

Across the corridor, where I found the right office, young, serious civil servants of a kind I have not often encountered in Damascus were tapping computer keyboards, sending faxes, answering telephones in three or four languages and passing documents from one desk to another. The men and women were not afraid of their boss, in a country where fear of those higher up the hierarchy of power rivals corporate America’s. While Boutheina Shaaban and I spoke, a young man made notes until she told him not to bother. Then he took part in the discussion.

Boutheina Shaaban graduated in English literature at Damascus University and went on to Warwick. She met her husband in England and wrote a thesis on Shelley and the Chartist Movement. Her book on Arab women novelists will be published by Syracuse University Press later this year. She joined the Ministry in 1988 as an interpreter. ‘I got involved in the political scene,’ she recalled. She took part in the peace process in Madrid and Washington and became an interpreter for President Assad. I had often wondered, watching Hafez speak through interpreters whose English he occasionally corrected, how well he spoke any language other than Arabic. ‘He understood English, French and Russian,’ she said. ‘But he believed that, as a president, he should speak his national language.’

American diplomats said that Colin Powell had read Bashar the riot act when the two met in May, but that was not how she remembered it. ‘The Secretary said: “We are going to discuss the issues of the region . . . We are giving our perspective and are ready to hear yours.” He gave us his perspective, and it’s very far from reality. He said the US had no ambitions in Iraq.’ Powell told Bashar what America wanted Syria to do. ‘These were not presented as demands,’ she told me. ‘The Secretary stressed that. He said we were conducting a dialogue.’ And Bashar’s reaction? ‘The President said that these demands have nothing to do with the United States.’ Before the visit, Sharon had announced publicly seven or eight points that the US should raise with Syria, and Sharon’s points and Powell’s were the same, she said. What did she make of that? ‘This is my own analysis,’ she said – Syrian officials don’t often offer their own analyses. ‘There are countries that are looking at this force as vehement and unstoppable – Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar. They say: “Let’s try and be in their good books.” Syria, with its history and its pan-Arabism, does not want to be the country that risks the anger of the United States. But, in the meantime, it does not want to compromise its consistent position in line with UN resolutions. I wonder if there isn’t room for a margin between those principles and this force.’ As far as Washington is concerned, there is no margin and there can be no half-measures. Syria meanwhile waits to see how long the US will continue to tolerate casualties in Iraq before turning the whole mess over to the United Nations. US defeat in Iraq would, though no Syrian official will say so, be in Syria’s interest. But Damascus cannot afford to be seen helping the Iraqis attack US troops, as it helped Lebanese Muslims in 1983.

There are now uncertainties in Syria that Bashar’s father wouldn’t have countenanced. Divisions between the old guard and the reformers have paralysed the system. For example, when the US invaded Iraq, state television, in common with the rest of the Arab world, concentrated on the Iraqi dead. Until 8 April, newsreaders were comparing Baghdad’s heroic resistance to Stalingrad’s. Then, when Baghdad was falling, Syrian television stopped showing news. For four days, nothing but drama, sport, archaeology, weather and soap operas. Young technicians and journalists said that the station’s director and Adnan Omran, the Minister of Information – an old-guard politician and a former Ambassador to Britain – simply went home without issuing instructions. The journalists dared not transmit anything for which they might be called to account later. At another crucial juncture – when the US proposed the UN resolution legalising its occupation of Iraq – the Syrian Ambassador did not attend the Security Council. There were rumours that Syria would vote against the resolution, but it didn’t vote at all. Government sources in Damascus said that the hardliners, notably the Vice-President, Abdel Halim Khaddam, and the Foreign Minister, Farouq al-Sharaa, were demanding that Syria vote against the measure. By the time the President had sided with the ‘yes’ faction, the votes had been counted in New York. A few days later, Syria quietly cast its vote in favour of the resolution. The effect was to antagonise the United States by not voting immediately, while showing the Syrian public that the Government would not honour the pan-Arab principles on which the Baath Party bases its legitimacy. Something else happened afterwards that would never have taken place under Hafez Assad. A former Minister of Information, Mohammed Salman, admitted on Lebanese television that the Government’s delay over the UN vote was a mistake. In the old days, there were no mistakes.

Arguments between defenders of the old Baathist faith and partisans of Syrian membership in the brave new world of American imperium delay decisions at all levels. At the Damascus Conservatory of Music, a beautiful new building in the style of the Ottoman hospices that surround it, auditions were underway for the Divan Orchestra that Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded to bring Arab and Israeli musicians together each year in Seville. Young Syrian musicians were playing for judges from the Berlin State Opera. Those chosen to go to Seville will have international exposure and may be taken up by orchestras in Vienna, Paris or London. There was one difficulty: the Syrian Government had yet to grant them permission to play with Israelis. But it hadn’t forbidden them either. The violinists and pianists did not know if anything would come of their efforts. The conservatory’s director, Nabil al-Lao, studied in France for ten years and Italy for two and a half. Would his students go to Seville? ‘It’s a little delicate,’ he said. A few years ago, the bureaucracy would have vetoed any involvement with Israelis. And no one would have bothered to put in a request. Now, there was a chance, however slight. ‘For reasons you know,’ Lao said, ‘there is no decision from the Ministry of Culture to take part. This is for political reasons.’

At a time of serious questioning in Syria, artists have been in the forefront of the demands for change, but their work has not. It remains censored, while their declarations appear freely in the Arab press beyond Syria’s borders. In 1987, the film director and actor Duraid Lahham made a movie that was critical of the bureaucracy. Al-Taqrir (‘The Report’) is the story of a government official dismissed because of his honesty. He spends the rest of the film compiling evidence of the corruption that is destroying his society. Most of his evidence is funny and obvious: the official who takes bribes, the minister who uses government money to pay prostitutes while beggars go hungry, and so on. The film was a success in every Arab country, where audiences responded to the little Chaplin-like hero who is eventually trampled to death in the football stadium where he goes to deliver his report to the public. When I met him in the late 1980s, Lahham believed that cinema had the power to put an end to government abuse. Now, aged 69, he has stopped making movies. ‘Nothing affects me anymore,’ he said. ‘As you get older, you think what you did was not up to it. Events are moving so quickly that there is no time to mature any ideas. For example, many poets were ready to write a satire on the resistance to the Americans in Baghdad. But it happened so quickly that they didn’t do anything.’ Was anyone else in Syria making political films? No, he said. Why not? He answered obliquely: ‘A major leader in an Arab country said to me, “You say what you want, and I’ll do what I want.”’

The public senses the weakening of the old order. There have been demonstrations that the Government hasn’t authorised – something unknown under Hafez Assad. More than a hundred Kurds from the illegal Yakiti Party protested last December at the Parliament in Damascus. The police didn’t stop them, although some of the Kurds were detained a few days later. (Damascus fears nothing as much as external manipulation of its delicate sectarian and ethnic balance. All its communities – the Sunni Muslim Arab majority and the Alawi, Ismaili, Christian and Kurdish minorities – are vulnerable to calls from outside.) A friend who lives near the Republican Palace, the President’s official residence, told me he had parked his car on the pavement while he posted some letters. ‘I parked as you park in Damascus,’ he said. But no one used to park like that near the Republican Palace, which is surrounded by Presidential Guards in suits. For the first time, he knew he could get away with ignoring the Guards. One of them told him to move the car, but politely. ‘He started pleading with me, saying he would get in trouble if he let me stay,’ my friend recalled. ‘I don’t know why I decided to say no. You see? There is both a change in us and a change in them.’

In September 2000, 99 members of Syria’s intelligentsia – writers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, film-makers – published a letter in the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat declaring a kind of war on the Government. Called Charter 99, it demanded an end to the 1963 state of emergency, the release of political prisoners, the return of political exiles, freedom of the press and the right to hold public meetings. Two months later, Assad freed about six hundred political prisoners and closed Damascus’s notorious Mezzeh prison, where political dissidents have been mistreated ever since it was built by the French. (The much harsher Tadmor prison in the eastern desert is still in use.) A month later, the Government issued a licence for al-Domari (the ‘Lamplighter’), the country’s only privately owned newspaper. Meanwhile, more civil society networks were forming, and more declarations were being issued. Although the government press in Syria ignored them, Lebanese newspapers reported their activities and published their statements. Some of their pamphlets circulated as samizdat in universities and schools. On 3 June this year, 287 ‘Syrian citizens’ published an appeal to Bashar in the Lebanese daily as-Safir. The petition warned that Syria faced two enemies, Israel and the United States, and was too weak to defend itself against either. While making the usual demand for an end to martial law and the release of political prisoners, it also argued for something more fundamental. ‘The authorities have no remedy for our ills,’ the petition stated. ‘There is a real cure, which is national reform.’ Rather than appeal to America to deliver democracy in Syria, the signatories appealed directly to Bashar.

What is happening in Iraq and in Palestine is just the beginning of what America calls the new era. The characteristic of this era is the use of force by America and Israel. We should stop them from achieving their goals by repairing our society and making our country strong. The way to do this is to have a free people. The masses have been ignored and excluded from public life. You should let them come back and use their power to protect the country.

One of the signatories was Sadek al-Azm, a recently retired professor of philosophy. A participant in civil society groups that include both Marxists and Islamists, he spoke to me about the message of the American war in Iraq for Syria. ‘In meetings, we asked ourselves: suppose this happened here? Who would go out and fight for the regime? No one said: “I would.” The strength of civil society is to tell the regime to be legitimate. There is a difference between defending the regime and defending the country.’ He said the Syrian dissidents who drew up the al-Hayat petition have studied the political process in Turkey. ‘When Erdogan said: “I have to submit to Parliament,” the Americans could not tell him to go to hell. What Arab leader could say that without the Americans laughing him off the stage?’ Syrian democrats are not waiting for democracy as a care package from the American Armed Forces so much as wanting to seize it themselves as a weapon with which to confront the American empire.

Bashar Assad’s regime is experimenting with a tactic his father wouldn’t have bothered with: explaining itself to the population. Vice-President Khaddam justified government repression to an audience at Damascus University in 2001: ‘We will not allow Syria to become another Algeria or Yugoslavia.’ One of the country’s Intelligence chiefs, Majid Suleiman, who is said to be close to Bashar, published an article in as-Safir on 15 May. In ‘Syria and the American Threats’, he declared that Syria would acquiesce in any arrangement the Palestinians reached with Israel. It was an important change. Until then, Syrian policy, laid down twenty years ago, had been to reject any arrangement that compromised Palestinian rights, even if the Palestinians accepted it. Suleiman insisted that the US still needed the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Only the Syrian Army could maintain surveillance of Hizbollah, the Palestinians and the Sunni Islamists. Without Syria, he wrote, violence might well break out in South Lebanon and provoke another Israeli invasion. His argument cast Syria in the role of guardian, rather than opponent, of American interests in Lebanon. (That was also Hafez’s line with Kissinger and Baker.) As for Syria itself, his view was that those who were against the regime were a ‘loyal opposition’. He believed the opposition in Iraq, by contrast, had been American agents. Surprisingly, Suleiman praised Riad Turk, a Communist leader who had been imprisoned by the regime for twenty years, for remaining loyal to the country. Turk, nonetheless, was awaiting trial for his criticisms of the Government. ‘This was the first time ever,’ Sadek al-Azm remarked, ‘that they deigned to discuss problems openly without resorting to the language of bombast and attacking their enemies with the old slogans.’

Does the United States really want democracy for Syria and the rest of the Arab world? Should it? Since 1949, when the CIA staged the first of the Arab world’s many military coups in Syria, America has helped to suppress democratic movements throughout the Middle East. I remember interviewing one of the founders of the Syrian Baath, a former Cabinet minister who had long since left the Party and gone into silent opposition. Dr Hafiz Jemalli was in his eighties when we met fifteen years ago in Damascus. ‘If we are democratic,’ he said, ‘we will be unified.’ He was thinking of pre-colonial Syria, which the British and French turned into the statelets of little Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine. ‘If we are unified, we will be a danger to Israel.’ Perle, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and the rest of the coterie who gave America its Iraq war are not interested in changing regimes only to see them become a danger to Israel. Will the US really allow Arab electorates to choose to resist Israel’s colonisation of territories occupied in 1967, American control of their oil and the imposition of American military bases in their countries? Or will American rule in the Middle East founder on the contradiction of a ‘democratisation’ that ignores the people?

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Vol. 25 No. 15 · 7 August 2003

The Syrian Intelligence chief I referred to in my piece in the last issue (LRB, 24 July) was Bahjat Suleiman, rather than Majid Suleiman, as I had it.

Charles Glass

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