A shifting, rolling human sea bathed the streets from Ommayed Square down the tree-lined boulevard that runs through the heart of the city, hundreds of thousands of Damascenes waving, cheering, singing and applauding one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East.
“With our blood and our souls we defend you, Assad!” screamed a fist-waving truckload of boisterous teen-agers threading their way crazily through the crowd. In the words of one Syrian newspaper, “The masses expressed their overwhelming joy” that Hafez Assad, Syria’s soft-spoken, iron-fisted president, had been nominated to a fourth seven-year term last week.
Along the ancient Street Called Straight, where the scent of cardamom and cinnamon and saffron wafts past steamy Turkish baths and hymn-filled churches, a middle-aged shopkeeper, safe in the close confines of his antique clocks and inlaid boxes, sighed. “Crazy,” he said, pointing to the strings of Assad photos strung like banners across the street, dancing in the late afternoon breeze. “Why this? Why spend millions to put these things over the streets, and who put it there? He did! Why? . . . What have they done for us?”
But the shopkeeper, like most Syrians, stopped short when it came to Assad’s tough talk about Israel. After the Madrid peace conference, much of the world saw Syria as a hard-jawed obstructionist, calling Israel names over the peace table, stubbornly delaying the onset of bilateral talks, refusing outright to go to regional peace talks.
But that’s not the way it’s playing at home, where millions of Syrians cheered when they saw their foreign minister waving a wanted poster of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from the 1940s, branding him a terrorist and a murderer.
If there is such a thing as public opinion in Syria, it is solidly behind Assad’s go-slow approach, and Assad himself is skillfully playing the peace game at home, perhaps fearful that to give up Syria’s role as protector of hard-line pan-Arabism risks upsetting a regime whose legitimacy has always come not from popularity but from the secret police.
So it may be no surprise that, in the wake of the Madrid conference, Syria shows no signs of mellowing and in fact is beginning to have second thoughts about talking to Israel at all.
The carefully organized popular demonstration was a prelude to elections Dec. 2 in which Assad, expected to be the only candidate, may again capture upward of 98% of the vote. It was also, diplomats and officials here said, the Syrian president’s way of moving the nation along with him toward the peace table--after telling the world for more than two decades that peace with the Israeli occupiers, if it is like the peace former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made 12 years earlier, is dishonor.
“You can’t suddenly stop being the throbbing heart of the resistance when you’ve been at it for 20 years,” said a Western diplomat based in the Syrian capital.
There was a note of desperation in the words of one Syrian official, who bleakly recounted Israel’s seeming intransigence on the issue of trading land for peace in Madrid, followed by the Israeli Parliament’s resolution a week later declaring non-negotiable the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.
“How can the regime survive if it comes back with nothing? People will say, ‘OK, your words for Sadat were traitor, sellout. Why are you not the sa” The official shook his head and spoke with unusual candor. “At least we need something (in order) to say we did not give up everything.”
Indeed, the conventional wisdom here is that Syria went to Madrid with the other Arabs fearful that Assad would cut a quick deal with the Israelis on the Golan Heights and leave the rest of them holding the bag. “Now, after Madrid, the mirror part of the question arises,” said a diplomat here. “Whether the others might go ahead and leave Syria behind.”
Privately, the assessment of most Syrian officials is glum. Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh was said to be “absolutely outraged” about the Israeli Knesset resolution. And Assad’s own remarks afterward, declaring that the Israelis have made peace “a false commodity,” were interpreted by a newspaper editor with close ties to the government as a grim pronouncement. “The way he said it gives the feeling there is a stalemate, an impasse,” he said.
An official with Syria’s ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party said the Syrians are committed to moving forward, but virtually no one is hopeful.
“We went there without much trust in the Israelis. We had a belief that they don’t want peace; they want to keep the land and settle Russian Jews there, and they proved our worst suspicions,” he said. “We went and we talked, and that’s all. It was a nice party, well organized, but there was nothing positive at all.
“I think after the Knesset resolution everybody understands that we were right,” the party official said. “The Israelis are not ready.”
The official message is much more optimistic, and it seeks to smooth over the hits Syria took in presenting its case to the world in Madrid. They were outfoxed there by the media-savvy Israelis, who started the feud over where the bilateral talks would be held and then took advantage of it when Syria, losing the contest, dragged its feet over details such as what building the talks would be held in. Western-educated Syrians in Damascus watched the Israeli public relations machine kick into gear on television, portraying Israeli negotiators waiting in an empty building for a Syrian team that never showed up, and winced.
“Where were we?” one Syrian asked. “Why weren’t we there explaining it was the Israelis who were trying to move the conference away from Madrid, when everybody had agreed in advance it was going to be in Madrid?”
Officially, the Syrians are presenting Madrid as a success story, arguing that while Syria wasn’t able to keep the bilaterals going in Madrid and wasn’t able to stop the other Arabs from proceeding with the talks until its demands on venue were met, at least Syria succeeded in keeping all the Arabs meeting in a single building--a point most Arabs regard as a dubious one at best.
“This is a symbol that whenever there are bilateral talks, the Arabs will be together, not dividing and splitting the Arabs, as Israel wants to do,” said a Syrian authority charged with giving the official government position.
He next counted it a success that during five hours of bilateral talks, when Israel attempted to raise questions about where the next meeting would be held and whether Syria recognized Israel, Syrian delegates stuck to discussing the issue of trading land for peace. (They stuck so close, in fact, according to some here familiar with the talks, that Syrian delegates spent much of the time reciting the text of U.N. resolutions.)
Finally, most Syrians, official and otherwise, counted Shareh’s waving of Shamir’s picture and his branding of him as a terrorist a resounding victory.
“Even when Yitzhak Shamir wanted to attack Syria, saying Syria supports terrorist actions, our foreign minister showed the world he (Shamir) was the first terrorist. This was a great success,” said the Syrian official. “It was not a matter of defending Syria; it was a matter of exposing something most Americans don’t know. Even if it was known, nobody dared to say it. And to find a picture the next day in three columns in the (International) Herald Tribune was something, and to see it repeated on CNN every 10 minutes was even more.
“There were many, many attempts by the Israelis to push us to be angry and either threaten to withdraw or withdraw,” he added, “but they failed.”
Shareh’s angry rebuttal to Shamir discomfited some U.S. officials co-hosting the conference. But in Damascus, it is likely to be fondly recalled by almost anyone who is asked about the peace conference, from radical young Palestinians in the refugee camps to university professors.
“People feel Shareh really avenged their dignity,” explained Bouthaina Shaaban, an English literature professor at Damascus University and former Fulbright scholar at Duke University.
“After the vote in the Knesset, people felt really disheartened. They felt disillusioned. I think if President Assad pulled out of the negotiations, people would support him. What people really feel is we are trying against a hard reality, because the other party is not showing any willingness to acknowledge our rights,” she said. “People here want peace, but they want a dignified peace. The Golan Heights is very much wanted by people, not just the government.”
Americans who want to understand why Syria’s hard line in Madrid made good use of the peace process need to understand Syria’s political situation and Assad’s need to convince the public that he is not embarked on a search for peace at any price, one official said.
“Shamir gave a very good opportunity for Shareh to retaliate against him, and this opportunity was a very good push for Syria to go forward with the negotiations,” he said. “At the Arab level, at least, it acquitted Syria of any accusation that it is going to the peace conference to sell out everything, to make peace at any price. When Shareh made that speech, there was a kind of change of heart. People said, ‘A person who is going to sell everything out would not say these things.’ It helped Syria a lot domestically, at the Arab level, and it gave a push to go forward very clean to the bilateral negotiations.”
Syria has been working carefully behind the scenes in the weeks since Madrid to improve its position for the next round.
Stung when Palestinian negotiators from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip balked at delaying the start of their own talks with Israel until Syria gave the go-ahead, Assad invited an old enemy, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, to his seaside resort for talks. At the same time, he opened the way for re-establishment for the first time in years of an office of Arafat’s Fatah organization. The mission: persuade the Palestinians to join Syria in holding off on multilateral talks on such regional issues as water, arms control and the environment until Israel signals a willingness to withdraw from occupied lands.
Next, he entertained an envoy from Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly offered handsome financial rewards to Syria for moving forward with bilateral and multilateral talks with Israel. He is scheduled in the next few days to host President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, which has joined the Saudis in trying to prod the Syrians to join the multilateral talks. Increasingly, the Syrians see the prospect of being left out in the cold.
“The Americans are playing the game very cunningly,” said one official in Damascus. “They will start these multilateral negotiations without Syria and, once they achieve something tangible, Syria will find itself isolated, stuck in the bilateral negotiations, facing Israel’s stubborn refusal to give up territories, and what can they do, being blamed by the others who say peace is at hand?”
Diplomats seeking to promote the conference seem largely undaunted by Syria’s foot-dragging and say it should not be misread as unwillingness to move forward.
“I think Syria intends consciously to be difficult about every step of the process. The Syrians remain to be convinced that this process is going to work,” said one envoy. “They’re extracting every possible concession so that if they fail, they can blame it on Israeli obstinacy or American treachery.”