from the December 09, 2004 edition -

Listen to Iraq's unsettled Syrian neighbors

By Helena Cobban

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - A hard-fought election campaign has been under way in this ancient trading and manufacturing city on the edge of the Syrian desert. Elaborately painted election banners hang over major highways, and some candidates have even invested in fancyplacards bearing their names and photographs.

This election, however, isn't for a national post. It's for the leadership of the powerful Chamber of Commerce in a city whose steady economic performance stands in contrast to the stalled economy and general chaos of neighboring Iraq. At the political level, meanwhile, the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad remains firmly in power. And for now, most Syrians seem quite happy with that.

A number of reform-minded Syrian friends told me that immediately after the US invasion of Iraq, some reformers here hoped that the shock might persuade the Assad regime to democratize quite quickly.

"But then," one said, "we saw the chaos and suffering that 'regime change' caused in Iraq, and a series of events here in Syria caused people to worry that too-rapid liberalization might cause similar instability here, as well. There were Kurdish disturbances in the north, a huge scare over a man who went around slashing girls' [unveiled] faces, which caused people to worry about Muslim fundamentalism, and a large explosion in the Damascus suburb of Mezze. People finally concluded that the stability the regime gives us here has its own value."

The US presence in Iraq, which shares a long border with Syria, has presented the Assad regime with some tough dilemmas. The regime had a complex, mainly hostile, relationship with Saddam Hussein. It, and most Syrian citizens, were very happy to see him go. But since he went, Syrians have felt themselves sandwiched between two powerful and potentially threatening powers: the US forces in Iraq, and the Israeli army perched just 30 miles from downtown Damascus. Mr. Assad has dealt cautiously with this situation. He made a number of offers to resume peace talks with Israel (all rebuffed). And he has worked quietly with the Americans to meet their concerns about border security. "Assad does a bit more than you expect, but less than you hope," one Western diplomat said. "He's pretty clever."

In October, Syria concluded a landmark "association agreement" with the EU that will strengthen its ties to Europe and the world economy. In exchange, Syria - like Iran and Israel - had to commit to engaging in dialogue with the European Union on weapons of mass destruction.

The EU agreement came as welcome news to Damascus's powerful business community, which has recently shown some modest gains.

In the labyrinthine souks of the historic Old City, business seems good: Fabric wholesalers rub shoulders with craftsmen who make traditional brass or inlaid-wood products; visiting Iranian women in billowing chadors inquire closely about the price of clothes; and merchants offer scalding sweet tea to seal all but the smallest transactions.

In the summer, thousands of wealthy tourists from the Arab Gulf countries now come to Syria instead of heading for Europe or the US. In the craggy brown hills west of Damascus a number of huge, multistory residential neighborhoods - some very upmarket - have been built in the past few years.

I drove through those neighborhoods to the brand-new building housing the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs. The minister, Bouthaina Shaaban, a smart former English-lit professor with a ready smile, said she hoped Syria and Iraq's other neighbors can all help create a good environment for Iraq's January elections - and that then the US forces could quickly leave Iraq.

Syrians have found Iraq's turmoil unsettling in a number of ways. Citizens of the two countries have many ties. For years Damascus provided haven to Iraqis opposed to Hussein's regime. Some of those former oppositionists are still in Syria - but so too, Syrian friends told me, are a number of Hussein's former henchmen.

The upsurge in Islamist and sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq is of great concern to Syrians, nearly all of whom hope fervently that it won't spill over into their own society.

I went to the Abu Nour Foundation, a large seminary complex here where students are schooled in the pursuit of a moderate, tolerant form of Sunni Islam. The foundation president, Sheikh Salahaddin al-Kuftaro, said he strongly opposes the use of violence in all circumstances except immediate self-defense. He decried any use of aggressive violence that claimed to be motivated by "religion" - whether enacted by Osama bin Laden, the people who kidnap and kill civilians in Iraq, or anyone else.

Mr. Kuftaro said he could agree with the American goal of ending Hussein's regime. But he said he strongly opposes many aspects of what the US has done in Iraq since the overthrow - especially the Americans' use of massive military force in Fallujah and elsewhere.

Despite these differences, this moderate Muslim thinker is still one of the many people in today's relatively prosperous Syria with whom Americans should launch a broad dialogue about religion, democracy, and the future of the Middle East.

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies. She spent the past two months traveling in the Middle East.