Although Syria is not yet a failed state, it is in danger of becoming one. Without the support received from Egypt and the Soviet bloc during the cold war era the economy has decayed alarmingly. However, the country is not a basket case. It has a wealth of natural resources and a sophisticated population more than capable of exploiting them. Why then is the West not rushing to lend it support?
Unfortunately for Syria, in the eyes of the US it is deemed to be non-compliant –” a capital crime with the Bush Administration. Syria has adamantly refused to be bullied by Israel and continues to demand the return of the Golan Heights as well as insisting on a just solution to the Palestinian issue in the Occupied Territories. Worse still, it is accused by Israel and the US of providing succour to Palestinian resistance groups. As a consequence, the increasingly hostile PR campaign mounted by the US accuses Syria of having enjoyed an unhealthily close relationship with Saddam’s Iraq, of permitting its border with Iraq to be porous, and of possessing WMD. The US demonisation process is well underway and trade sanctions –” at the very least –” against Syria are threatened.
President Bashar al-Assad has only limited space for manoeuvre, restricted as he is by the old guard of Syrian politics. He needs to be in a position to demonstrate to the public at large that his policy of gradual liberalisation has paid dividends and that living standards are rising. If national pride could also be massaged by an acceptable deal with Israel on the Golan Heights, he could then perhaps be in a position to muster sufficient popular support to initiate sweeping changes and dismember further the restrictive Soviet approach to government which so hobbles his country’s development.
Western involvement would inject the necessary boost to move Syria forward in these critical times. It possesses untapped oil and gas resources and the flat fertile land to the west of the country, the Euphrates flood plain and the rolling farmland in the north-west are crying out for the implementation of modern agricultural methods. And then there is tourism, potentially the biggest hard currency earner of them all.
Syria today is a quixotic mixture of charm, rampant bureaucracy, bath tubs without plugs, rural poverty, and a wealthy urban elite. It is a country caught in a time warp; agriculture, irrigation, power, construction and other key industries all remain under central government control. A farmer sowing his crops by hand – in the biblical fashion – is more likely to be spotted in the fields than a modern tractor or harvester. And everywhere the traditions of hospitality, friendliness and politeness are maintained. Community and family values remain at the heart of Syrian society and a complex amalgam of Christian, Moslem and Druze and Kurd, Bedouin and Palestinian coexists harmoniously. Is this really George Bush’s and Ariel Sharon’s terrorist state which so threatens its neighbour?
Occasional glimpses of the military hardly give the impression of readiness for war. The equipment on show looks obsolete in Israeli or American terms and in any case Israel’s military power now exceeds the combined force of all Arab nations by a factor of seven. The police too give the impression of being pleasantly behind the times. Two recent encounters involved much smiling and expressions of ‘welcome’ coupled with an invitation to coffee at the local police house near the Turkish border and the gift of a tangerine extracted from the voluminous pockets of a traffic cop close to Iraq, while vehicles hooted and swirled around us.
With its feet in the past and its eyes on the future Syria needs help. Evidence of new mosques under construction is widespread and if Syria is isolated by the international community and poverty spreads as a result, religious fundamentalism will have no difficulty finding new recruits. But sitting here in the warm winter sunshine at Palmyra watching shadows lengthen across the ruins of earlier imperial powers, it is impossible to ignore the feeling that the lessons of the past are not being learned. The United States is the new imperial power in the region and the rational it propounds to legitimise and provide cover for its policy is the same as the justification put forward by colonial powers down the centuries –” "the introduction of freedom and civilization". Apart from acting in its own self interest, it also has chosen to ignore the possibility that a multi ethnic, multi religious country like Syria might not yet be ready for western style democracy. During this transition phase maybe a ‘strong man’ like Bashar al-Assad is what Syrian society requires.
Because Syria refuses to accept the status quo with Israel and rejects Washington’s neo-conservative approach to the region’s affairs, it has been placed firmly on the wrong side of the "either you are with us or you are against us" divide by President Bush. So is it really so naÃ¯ve to hope that Britain and the EU might seize the moment and take a lead? Britain has been the architect of so many of the problems which currently beset the Middle East. It was Britain after all who introduced the Israeli cuckoo into the Arab nest. So instead of doing the US bidding, why can’t Britain side with Europe and put right a few past wrongs? What better moment could there be for Britain and the EU to strengthen their ties with Syria, to reject Israel’s water and land grab in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza and support Syrian demands for an acceptable deal with Israel on the Golan Heights and for Palestinians to be granted full autonomy within the 1967 borders?
The US, in tandem with Israel, has the power to enforce its vision of the new world order on Syria, but US plans for hegemony do not guarantee that the capitals of the world will be safer as a result.