Craving for connect in antique land
Post-Obama, Syria wants an end to the international isolation enforced by the Bush administration
Shubha Singh Damascus
Syria has an image that veers towards extremes - it brings to mind an exotic tourist destination with ancient monuments that is in stark contrast to the western image of Syria as part of what former American president, George W Bush, branded an 'axis of evil' for hobnobbing with terrorist groups. But Syria is in transition; it wants an end to the international isolation enforced by the Bush administration. In recent weeks, Syrians have watched US President Barack Obama's visits to Turkey and Egypt with great interest. They have been following American moves in the Middle East, hoping that the mood for change in Washington will translate into a new policy towards their country.
For the past couple of months, the American special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, has visited the Syrian capital, Damascus, as have several American delegations. The State department has indicated that Washington has taken a decision in principle to post an ambassador in Syria. Do these contacts herald a change for Syria? Most Syrians blame former US president, Bush, for demonising Syria. "Bush was bad for the world," said a teacher at a school in Aleppo. "Bush is history now and we can hope for better things." Many Syrians see the new American presidency as a moment of opportunity when Syria can move out of its isolation and improve relations with the West.
However, at the official level the government in Syria is looking for more positive action on the part of the Americans. Information Minister, Dr Muhsin Bilal, explained, "We haven't seen any action as yet. We are waiting to see some action on the ground. America must act honourably and cleanse Syria's name." An American ambassador residing in Damascus would be the beginning of this process. Washington had withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus, accusing Syria of involvement in the killing of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri - a charge that Syria had denied.
Syria's relations with the US plummeted as it opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq; the flow of refugees from Iraq added to the mistrust as Washington charged Damascus with supporting insurgency in Iraq. The Bush administration imposed tough sanctions on Syria and brought in the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. It had even considered a regime change in Syria. In a recent interview to an American publication, Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad said that he is ready to meet President Obama. He has also said that Syria would be willing to resume talks with Israel if the US plays an active role as a mediator.
Syria's isolation has been easing for some time as European countries have begun to re-engage with Syria. Damascus has been back on the itinerary of international visitors for some time, ranging from French President Nicholas Sarkozy to sundry foreign ministers. Syria's position in the Middle East makes it integral to achieving peace in the region. It has a border with Turkey in the north, Iraq in the east, Jordon to its south and Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea towards the west. Syria has influence over militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and Washington would like Syria to help in the stabilisation of Iraq.
The western image of Syria as a radical Muslim nation is at odds with its character as a multi-religious society that lives in peace with its minorities. According to Dr Bilal, the world has to distinguish between Muslims and Islamists. "To believe that you are unique and good and to think that you have to eliminate those who do not think like you is bad. To refuse to accept any other kind of view is a kind of a disease, an infirmity."
Syria is a determinedly secular society with liberal values. The people are welcoming to the foreigner and openly express their anger at their country's vilification in the West. A stone's throw from the capital's magnificent Umayyad Mosque, runs the Straight Street cutting through old Damascus. It houses a string of ancient churches of different denominations - from the Armenian Christian church, the Syriac Orthodox church, the Greek Orthodox church, a Maronite church to the church of St John the Baptist that exist peaceably by the mosque.
"It is the melting pot of civilisations. We have lived like this for thousands of years. Religion is important to us but it does not divide us from our neighbours who may profess a different faith," said Jamal Qadar, who runs a sweet shop in the famed al-Hamadiyah souk in Damascus. Besides the Christian minority, Syria's population includes 25 per cent Shias but there is no sectarian strife in the country.
The winding alleys of its souks have an eclectic mix of stalls which sell goods as varied as olives, nuts, sweets, herbal medicines, silver jewellery, rugs and kilims, Iranian miniatures, daggers and scimitars nestling among other merchandise of everyday use from groceries to electrical goods. Crusader castles evoke stirring tales from history. Thousands of archaeological sites are spread across the country, but it is Palmyra, the spectacular ruined city that flourished in Roman times which is Syria's famous tourist attraction.
Syria has been changing in the recent years. President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000 and began the process of slow change. Economic liberalisation has changed it from a State-controlled socialist economy to a mixed economy where new sectors opened up for private participation. The country's oil income had subsidised the socialist system, keeping control on prices of essential commodities. But, falling oil revenues as the oil reserves began running out forced some policy changes.
There has been a loosening of controls in Syria. The control of the Baathist party is visible in the large portraits and posters of President Bashar al-Assad and occasionally of his late father, Hafez al-Assad, that adorn the facades of tall buildings and other prominent locations. But, the economic liberalisation has brought many changes in Damascus; decaying mansions in old Damascus have been converted into new restaurants and boutique hotels, a few bars and night clubs. Private banks have emerged and in early April the Damascus Securities Exchange - its first stock exchange - was opened. The Syrian economy grew by 6.5 per cent in 2007 and 2008. However, the global recession has had its impact on exports and declining remittances for expatriate Syrians.
The Syrian government gave priority to the development of the tourism sector in 2002, opening out the sector to foreign investment and offering attractive tax incentives. Syria, with its spread of antiquities that can rival anything offered by other ancient lands, draws its share of tourists from Europe and Japan. Barely 10,000 Indian tourists, however, visit the country.
India and Syria have traditionally enjoyed warm relations but there is limited contact between the two countries. There is a familiarity with India among the Syrians, who display a sense of warmth towards people from 'al Hind'. The Syrian government has been keen to increase cooperation with India ever since President Bashar al-Assad visited India in 2008. The Syrian leader, who had visited the Infosys campus, an IT park in Bangalore as well as the NIC, has sought assistance from India to help make Syria the IT hub of the region. In modern times, the IT highway could help re-connect the two countries that were once linked by the ancient silk and spice routes.