Postcard from Syria

In June 2003, I made my first trip to Syria, home to generations of my family, the two oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth (Damascus and Aleppo), the final resting place of Kurdish leader Salahaddin and on a lighter note, purveyor of arguably the most decadent, mind-numbing syrupy sweets.

At the time, the aftermath of the Iraq war and lingering U.S. occupation loomed large in the minds of Syrians of all stripes–from intellectuals and government officials to storeowners and Bedouins picking cucumbers in Bosra, near the Jordanian border. With a U.S. military presence in neighboring Iraq uncomfortably close to Syria, many wondered: “Will Syria be next?”

But millions of people living in Syria had other pressing questions. While visiting Jaramana, one of 10 official Palestinian refugee camps in Syria just outside of Damascus, an elderly Palestinian woman originally from Jericho reminded me of a more enduring concern in the region. “We’re still waiting for a home of our own,” she said, epitomizing the core of human patience.

I returned to Damascus three years later, in the midst of the Israeli war in nearby Lebanon, yet the unresolved plight of Palestinian refugees and the “are we next” question remained not only relevant but have been magnified by the political climate of tension and uncertainty.

The word “refugee” no longer signified only the wave of Palestinians who fled to Syria after the 1948, 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. It now included an estimated 400,000 Iraqis entered Syria following the March 2003 war and over 100,000 Lebanese who fled their livelihoods and sought refuge from the latest conflict with Israel. Even in wake of the ceasefire, 5,000 remain in Syria.

Israeli Defense Force airstrikes targeting road crossings between Lebanon and Syria during the war further dramatized the “are we next” question. It soon evolved into “are we really prepared?” Indeed, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad addressed the Syrian military in late July he warned, “We are facing international circumstances and regional challenges that require caution, alert, readiness and preparedness.” Before I left Damascus in early August, with still no ceasefire at the time, a visually shaken Syrian minister confessed, “I am worried what will happen to Syria.”

I, too, began to worry. During a visit to old Damascus, characterized by narrow, labyrinthine streets where horse-drawn carts carrying colossal watermelons compete with gas guzzling vehicles, I passed by the shrine of Salahaddin. How would this great ruler of the Ayyubid dynasty advise Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East, I wondered? I imagined him saying, “Wisdom and courage must guide your path–even in the face of a better armed enemy.”

As we navigated our way around the old city, one Syrian friend, who was studying in Lebanon when war broke out and managed to escape back to Damascus, summed up a larger frustration, “We’ve seen the war in Iraq, the ongoing violence in Palestine and now another war in Lebanon. I feel like we in Syria are just waiting for our turn. When the U.S. didn’t attack Syria after Iraq, I breathed a sigh of relief.” She paused, before quickly adding, “And so far, it doesn’t look like Israel will strike Syria, but how long can we keep living like this?”

Indeed, the trademark Syrian sense of humor that so tickled me during previous visits now competed with a more palpable sense of shock, outrage, and fear over the prolonged conflict, particularly after Israeli warplanes bombed the village of Qana on July 30, 2006, killing over twenty civilians. “What is happening here is a huge blow to the credibility and moral stand of the U.S.,” Syrian Minister of Expatriates Bouthaina Shabaan told me. “The Bush administration didn’t condemn the Qana massacre against children and civilians–they should have seen the pictures. What does this mean? That the U.S. approves of such war crimes?”

Shots of the Beirut airport in flames, leveled homes, families daring to evacuate south Lebanon on foot and emergency workers lifting lifeless, bruised bodies from the rubble in Qana were carried moment by moment on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and the local news. Most commentators attributed the origins of the war not with Hezbollah’s “kidnapping” of Israeli soldiers, but rather with the continuing occupation of Palestinian land and Syria’s Golan Heights. The public sees a direct connection to the United States. Echoing the sentiments of most Syrians who I spoke to, a taxi driver said, “Of course I’m angry at Israel, but President Bush allowing the fighting to continue is unforgivable.” When I admitted that I lived in the U.S., expecting the driver to launch into an angry tirade, he instead smiled and replied, “Americans are always welcome in Syria.”

Unlike previous visits, I saw more public display of support for Hezbollah–considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel. The group’s yellow and green flags and images of Nasrallah hung at storefronts, streets and on cars, rivaling those of President Bashar al-Assad and his late father, former President Hafez al-Assad. Some posters depicted the united front of the younger Assad and Nasrallah. In the evenings, I watched young students gather near busy streets and wave Hezbollah flags and banners, prompting drivers to abuse their car horns and cheer. At one dinner party, I heard a Syrian Christian recite a poem that she sent to Nasrallah, praising his leadership and strength. Surely this was not reaction that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had hoped for, by launching a war aimed at destroying Hezbollah.

Before I left Damascus, a Syrian friend took me to a center housing 600 Lebanese refugees. I helped serve dinner with a group of 20 eager, young Syrian volunteers, who told me they felt compelled to help after watching images of the war on TV. Their generosity, alongside the local women who organized fundraisers and food drives for the Lebanese, was truly inspirational. I saw tired, painful, hopeless looking faces, evoking Edvard Munch’s “Silent Scream” painting. Others expressed their appreciation that Syria was “doing something.” That same night, one woman learned that her father had been killed in Lebanon on the way to the market. “The kids who are here at this center will never forget what happened and will grow to hate America,” concluded a woman managing the center.

I hope she’s proven wrong. In the meantime, with a shaky UN-brokered ceasefire in place, Syrians still grapple with the persistent insecurity facing their country’s war-weary borders and the growing refugee problem. More typical concerns like the state of the economy continue to plague the country as well. But despite these serious challenges the nation must overcome, I have hope for the country and the people there seeking peace. Throughout my visit I was constantly reminded of the words of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani who wrote, “Not in a single flower-market will you find a rose like Damascus.”

Farrah Hassen is a Melman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and was the Associate Producer of the film, “Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” with Saul Landau.