Syria A 101 Course in Mideast Dictatorships

When his powerful father died in 2000, Bashar al-Assad promised the end of political repression in Syria. But after a brief period of democratic transparency, the curtain of dictatorship fell once again. The country's true power brokers refused to let go.

It is 1 a.m., and the night is still young at the "Laterna" nightclub in downtown Damascus. Fatima Haidar wears an extremely short miniskirt, only about half as long as the dark curls that fall to below her shoulders. She drinks with a straw from an ice-blue beverage they call a Tropicana: a lot of vodka, a little Curacao. Fatima is 23 and a student of fine arts. She taps her white stiletto heels to the beat. The DJ has just put on music by Amr Diab, a sex idol among Arab youth. The disco ball hanging from the ceiling reflects shafts of light into the room, and Fatima pulls her date onto the dance floor.

The nightclub is jam-packed, as it is every Thursday night before the Muslim Sabbath on Fridays. On Saturday night, the place will be filled with Christians, and the bouncers, two enormous but courteous men dressed in suits, will again turn away anyone without a reservation or who isn't glamorous enough.

The next morning, a few blocks away in an old section of the city known as Bab Tuma, Syrian Orthodox priest Mor Dionysius Bahnan Jajawi, 80, sits down on a velvet-covered baroque chair in his church and smoothes his black robe. He wears a heavy golden cross around his neck. The Metropolitan (leader of an Orthodox "diocese") has just returned from a meeting of Christian and Muslim leaders from throughout the Middle East. The topic of discussion was war and peace, and the meeting was held in Damascus, one of the region's most religiously liberal and colorful cities. "We are always very brotherly and sincere to one another," says Jajawi.

Here in Damascus, Orthodox churches stand directly adjacent to mosques. Muslims like Basil al-Alaf and Christians like Abraham Thabit are in business together. In their case, the Muslim is the better craftsman, while the Christian is the better businessman, and together they run a company in the old city that specializes in inlay work. "Our faiths are different, but our mentality is the same," says Alaf.

Looking outwards?

The Arab Republic of Syria, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963, armed to the teeth and constantly on the lookout for dissidents, is a secular state that does not tolerate any form of religious extremism. In fact, the state tolerated nothing at all during the regime of dictator Hafez Al-Assad. But now that his son Bashar Al-Assad has come to power, things are a little different. Nowhere in the Middle East -- with the exception of a revitalized Beirut -- is life as colorful and contradictory as in Damascus.

The secret services have apparently been instructed to take a less capricious and brutal approach. Satellite TV dishes, outlawed until recently, now dot the city's roofs and facades of apartment buildings. There are Internet cafes and mobile phone shops on every street corner. Supermarkets offer virtually every product consumed in the West, from Nutella chocolate spread to Nivea beauty products. The city's boutiques display the latest fashions by European high street labels like Kookaï and Stefanel. A larger-than-life image of soccer star David Beckham smiles from a billboard along a highway. Nearby, displayed on the side of a high-rise building, is a gigantic poster for the new BMW 3 Series.

This is supposed to be the "Rogue State" of Syria, which is allegedly behind the bombing attack on billionaire and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut last Monday? The state that some American neoconservative dreamers would love to have seen occupied along with Iraq? The addressee of highly urgent warnings from Washington to finally abandon its support of anti-Israeli Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and to issue an official assurance that it possesses no weapons of mass destruction? The state that can expect heavy sanctions if it does not finally begin monitoring its border with Iraq, a border through which fighters from all over the world are allegedly flowing into Baghdad to join the Iraqi insurgents?

Or is it a state that has already learned its Iraq lesson? Could it be a state whose government has realized that it is surrounded by America's allies, Turkey, Jordan and Israel? After all, other dictators have since relented. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has eaten humble pie. Iran is at least negotiating with the Europeans over nuclear weapons. By contrast, Syria seems a little lost. And, more importantly, the Syrian people are pushing for the reforms they were promised by their president, the son of the former despot.

When Bashar Al-Assad assumed power in 2000, following the sudden death of his father, there was suddenly a sense of hope in Damascus. In a moving speech, the then 34-year-old regent, trained in London as an ophthalmologist, spoke of opening up the country and ending repression. "I invite all Syrians," he said, "to actively participate in this policy."

They were nice words, but they were also quickly forgotten. Syria has essentially remained a police state that brutally suppresses its critics. The answer to why this is so can be provided by a man who spent his career ensuring that state power in Syria remained concentrated in the hands of a small clique. His name is Mustafa Tlass and he was a close associate of the former ruler Hafez Al-Assad. And one of the few people Al-Assad trusted throughout his life.

Tlass, 72, is a stately bright-eyed man with a short, white moustache. The old general with the appearance of a friendly grandfather receives visitors in his apartment in Abu Rummana, an upper-class neighborhood in downtown Damascus. Sparkling crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and the floors are sumptuously covered with oriental rugs. Family portraits hang on the walls. Two small chalk drawings of wildflowers hang behind the sofa. The artist is Adolf Hitler.

Tlass sips from a gold-rimmed tea glass and openly offers insights into the basics of dictatorship. "If you intend to remain in power," he says, "you must make others afraid."

Until nine months ago, Tlass was the Defense Minister of the Arab Republic of Syria, a position he held for 32 years. He was instrumental in suppressing all dissent by Islamists and democrats alike. The Syrian nationalist and proponent of Greater Syria was also just as responsible for the 1982 massacre of religious fanatics in Hama as for waves of arrests of left-wing opposition activists. Tlass no longer knows exactly how many death sentences he has signed personally, and he speaks quietly as he explains why these horrific acts were unavoidable, even the many who died by hanging. At times in the 1980s, he says, 150 death sentences a week were carried out by hanging in Damascus alone. "We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons," says the general, smiling.

A life of opposition

Riad Turk, an old man who has spent his entire life fighting against men like Tlass, lives no more than 20 kilometers away in substantially more modest circumstances.

Turk, a civil rights activist and the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Syria, is viewed as one of the intellectual leaders of the opposition movement. He is neither super-smooth nor is he entirely focused on his image. His office and apartment on the outskirts of Damascus is furnished with a few worn chains, a table and an iron bed.

Like Tlass, Turk has also devoted his entire life to politics -- but not in the Baath Party, rather on the other side of the political spectrum. He fought against the rebels before Hafez Al-Assad assumed power, and then he spent 30 years fighting against Assad's despotic regime, fighting for free elections, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. He fought steadfastly and always peacefully. Many in Damascus call him Syria's Nelson Mandela.

Turk spent more than 18 years in prison --17 of those in solitary confinement -- in a tiny 6-by-6-foot cell in the basement of a secret service prison. For 17 years, he hardly ever saw the sun, and for 17 years he remained imprisoned without charge and without having been sentenced by a court. He was imprisoned at the personal request of President Hafez Al-Assad, with the knowledge and approval of Defense Minister Tlass.

The general and the communist are about as far apart as two Syrians can be. But they are also as close as two men of their generation can be. Turk and Tlass are old classmates. Both men attended the Hashimiya School in Homs, 150 kilometers north of Damascus. Tlass remembers Turk as "stubborn and a fanatical communist, always an upright kind of guy." Turk also remembers his former classmate as if it were yesterday: "Mustafa always wanted to be the leader at demonstrations, and everything he achieved back then he only achieved through repression and strength."

The "Damascene Spring," as Syrians refer to the young Assad's first days in office, began in 2000, two years after Turk was released from prison. Many, including Turk, began giving public speeches again. In his talks, he described how Assad had acquired power, suppressed other political parties and trampled human and civil rights.

A group of politicians, lawyers and doctors established a round table which, among other things, produced documents on corruption in the economy and pamphlets on corrupt members of the government. The group revealed, for example, that Rami Machluf, a cousin of the president, was the biggest beneficiary of the issuance of wireless licenses, almost to the exclusion of the public.

But discussing and writing about such issues was apparently more than the young regent and his supporters could tolerate. The "Damascene Spring" quickly ended. Turk and nine other civil rights activists were arrested in the fall of 2001. The public prosecutor accused the 10 activists of having disseminated "false information" and of calling for armed demonstrations. The defendants were sentenced to between two and 10 years in prison.

In response to pressure exerted by French President Jacques Chirac, Turk was soon released. But six of his friends remain behind bars today. "Bashar Al-Assad deceived us," says Turk. "As long as he is in power, there will be no real freedom."

The last forum for dissidents

There are, however, still dissidents and dissent continues against a system that has essentially remained unchanged. The dissidents meet on a set date each month in the apartment of Suheir Al-Atassi, 33, the daughter of an industrialist, in the middle-class neighborhood of Dumar.

Intellectuals, human rights attorneys, journalists, students, women both with and without head scarves crowd together in the spacious apartment, listening to a presentation by Yassin Al-Hadj Salih, a 43-year-old doctor who was also imprisoned for many years. He was imprisoned for so long that he was only able to finish medical school four years ago. Thus, he is familiar with conditions at the university and denounces the arbitrary arrest of students.

The host Atassi is a delicate woman. She wears tight-fitting jeans, a black-knit turtleneck and a modest amount of make-up. She knows full well that not all of her visitors this evening are friends. She estimates that about 40 of the approximately 300 guests are from the state security agency. "But we must risk it," she says, pouring mocha into tiny cups, "otherwise nothing will ever change here."

The discussion -- on the Syrian secret service agency Al-Amn Al-Tullabi, which spies on politically active students -- is heated and it continues well into the night. It's a discussion about freedom.

During the past five years, a number of these types of political groups formed, and the government was no longer able to deny their existence. The groups became increasingly lively and forceful. Now, however, all of these forums are once again prohibited and closed down. Only the Atassi salon survives.

Is this the freedom that's been promised? Mustafa Tlass, the old cynic, shrugs his shoulders: "Never trust a politician. They all lie. They have to lie, otherwise they wouldn't remain in power," he says. I ask him what the crime was that his classmate Riad Turk committed. The general shakes his head. The resistance, he says, must be prevented from the start. "Amputation is the only answer," he says, flashing his charming grandfather smile once again. "That's how we got our start."

The next generation is taking up where the general left off, citing economic change and trying to keep the political process under wraps. "We want competition and transparency," says Abdullah Al-Dardari, 41. He is the president's new magic weapon, the head of the so-called Planning Commission, and his job is to develop and implement reforms in the economy. Dardari studied economics in Europe and has worked at the United Nations. He speaks excellent English and wears conspicuously good suits. As a sort of super-minister, he is supposed to transform the socialist planned economy and reduce the country's rampant unemployment rate (around 30 percent) in order to attract foreign investors.

To achieve these goals, Dardari, a journalist and business consultant by trade, has been given carte blanche from the very top. But even Dardari, the system's poster child in its relations with the West, shuns any debate over the democratization process. He has no intention of getting caught up in the ideological skirmishes between the old guard and the reformers inside the socialist Baath Party. He sees himself "as a technocrat, not as a politician." Dardari has essentially been ordered by the president to project open-mindedness and optimism. "In five years," he says, "Syria will have a vital economy with free trade and efficient management."

Of course, an old fox like Tlass knows that, in an age of globalization, Syria has no alternative but to open itself to the world, that reforms are necessary to prevent the country's moribund economy from collapsing altogether. But if there are reforms, he says, they have to "take place carefully and in a controlled manner," and should probably come from those who already rule the country today.

The reign of the dinosaurs

There is one principle that still applies today, even though a few dinosaurs of the old guard like Tlass are retired: Those who test the limits of the new freedoms under Bashar Al-Assad, whether they are journalists, politicians or business people, must still contend with the old power elite. Successful private entrepreneurs are infiltrated by the government or simply forced out of business. All major business deals must involve all the old players with just a few families sharing the bounty, as has always been the case. According to rumors heard on the streets of Damascus, the president's cousin holds large shares of the stock in two Syrian mobile phone companies and the licenses for duty-free shops, as well as holdings in hotels and restaurants. The sons of Vice President Abd al-Halim Chaddam and former Defense Minister Tlass dominate the media sector and large portions of trade.

Many high-ranking military officers have become immeasurably wealthy over the years, because the Syrian military controls the main road to Lebanon. Expensive cars and high-tech equipment, on which the supposedly socialist state charges import duties of up to 250 percent, are easily smuggled into the country without payment of duties, and are then sold on the black market. "It's a gang," says General Practitioner Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani, 46, who drives a stuttering 1963 British Vauxhall himself. Four years ago, during the "Damascene Spring," Labwani was part of a discussion group that advocated democracy, and was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court.

Does all this mean that the young ophthalmologist who so suddenly became president has already failed in his attempt to modernize Syria? Perhaps Bashar Al-Assad was serious when he spoke about a new beginning more than four years ago. But he most certainly underestimated the inertia of the forces his father created in three decades of dictatorship: the influential military and four monstrous secret service agencies that bring together political and military interests.

At the same time, the opposition is too weak today to mobilize the majority of Syrians. There are individuals who are willing to raise their voices, like Kamal Al-Labwani, the doctor, Yassin Al-Hadj Salih in the Atassi forum, and Riad Turk. An entire generation of political activists, today's 30 to 40-year-olds, has been decimated: intimidated into silence, worn down by imprisonment, or killed.

Does this mean that the only way out is through external pressure? The Americans are currently interested mainly in controlling Syria's border with Iraq as well as in Syrian intelligence information about militant groups such as Hezbollah. As long as the Syrians continue providing such information, they are unlikely to run the risk of becoming a military target for US President George W. Bush.

Mustafa Tlass, the powerful man with the pleasant smile, sits in his living room under the two Hitler sketches, which he acquired cheaply at an auction in England many years ago. He points out that he too had to pay a price for peace in the country: "I suffer from serious nightmares. It was terrible. I saw all my earlier friends get locked up. But we had to do it. There was no other alternative. We have achieved stability, 34 years without a coup."

But what about the victims? His classmate Turk, for example? Tlass raises his hands. "All he had to do was write a single letter, an apology to the president, and he would have been released immediately." Turk never wrote the letter. When he was suddenly released after so many years of imprisonment, his old classmate Tlass sent him a basket of sweets and his "best wishes." Turk rejected both.

"Tell him that I really like him," say Tlass.

"And I despise him," says Turk.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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