SYRIA: Winds of change in Syria
Marc Gopin

April 18, 2005

In between speaking at two seminars in Israel regarding the future of peace and conflict in the region, I slipped out of the country into Jordan and then on to Syria.

The trip was the brainchild of Hind Kabawat, a Syrian Canadian attorney who I had met at the World Economic Forum. She planned with me an unprecedented set of engagements in Damascus raising publicly for the first time in 40 years the subject of peace in the Middle East.

We raised these issues through the lens of culture and religion, a less threatening approach than pure political discourse, and, most importantly, I would raise these issues as a scholar of conflict resolution with a cultural background as a religious American Jewish scholar.

Hind displayed a combination of intense national pride, commitment to peace, political savvy and public relations know-how that really should be studied as a textbook example of how to open up political dialogue across civilizations when it has been closed for generations.

Everything was approved at the highest levels even though all the engagements remained unofficial. I was a private citizen, but I was greeted at the border by a representative of the minister of information who gave me an official talk summed up by the words, `Our president has offered a full peace to Israel and normalization of relations.`

The main public dialogue on Thursday night, January 6, 2005 - excerpts of which were nationally televised - was attended by 300 distinguished guests, government officials, artists, professors, professionals. It took place in the most prestigious building of Damascus, the Assad Library, and attendees included the American, Canadian and Swiss ambassadors, the Syrian ambassador to the US, assistants to President Bashar Al Assad and representatives of various ministries, especially the ministry of information and the ministry of expatriates, in addition to professionals and officials from Lebanon.

The atmosphere of the public dialogue, simultaneously translated between English and Arabic, was electric in many ways, with great anticipation of how a public dialogue would proceed with 300 people on the most sensitive issues of war and peace. I was treated with immense respect, but, at the same time, some in the audience had the opportunity to vent anger at what they saw as the victimization of Syria and the Palestinians. Others expressed deep appreciation for my willingness to come and listen. We had a great, tough dialogue.

I knew the political leadership was watching every word to see if this experiment of public dialogue across civilizations would fly and be a precedent, and I knew the American ambassador was watching, too. Those who planned the event expressed through word and deed their sense of astonishment that something utterly new was happening.

The words that Hind said publicly by way of introducing me were far more important than mine because she is an insider to the culture. She is the kind of catalyst that the West should support. Such people can change history nonviolently because they are from within the privileged group that leads the country.

The question hovering over the entire trip was would the West listen to her words, would the West engage a complicated Syria and support its best reformers, or would it ignore her and others. Would it see the side of Assad that is trying to make change, or would it focus instead on the Syrian supporters of Hizbullah and other violent incursions in the region.

Despite the obvious challenges of what the military supports, there are some winds of change at the heart of Syrian culture, winds that the West is missing. In fact, my biggest problem since I left Syria was that no one in Israel believed that the event actually took place, or that a religious Jew would be treated this way in the capital of Israel`s fiercest foe.

Fortunately we made a videotape, and yet the sense of disbelief remains palpable. I said this to one Syrian, and she said in a generous way that is typical of her culture, `It`s ok, we could hardly believe it ourselves, how could we expect others to believe it.`

The United States, Japan and other Western investors should seize the opportunity at this time in history to find a creative way to support the reformers in Syria, including Assad, and they should learn who to support, who not to support and who to try to pressure into change. Blanket condemnations and boycotts of a society of 18 million people are useless and just create solidarity with the hardliners in their midst.

We tried to offer a vision of the future that week, one in which an open Middle East would be a boon for Syria in particular. Old Damascus is a goldmine of civilization and yet it is empty of tourists. Business interests should unite here with a political and military plan to pull Syria away from terrorism and old forms of geopolitical control and corruption.

We stand at a dangerous and hopeful crossroads in the course of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a conflict that cannot be separated from a discussion of Syria`s future. Many feel that it would be political suicide for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel to open right now a Syrian-Israeli peace track, specifically involving giving back the Golan. Yet can the Palestinian-Israeli peace track proceed with Hizbullah, a client of Syria and Iran, doing everything it can to disrupt the peace process?

What all parties need most right now is not the immediate start of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, but a palpable thaw in relations, a firm direction away from support for terrorism accompanied simultaneously by significant gestures of cultural and economic rapprochement. This, combined with subtle US efforts to engage and support Assad, are key ingredients that will bring Syria into the circle of an enlarged peace process, and this eventually will deal a final death blow to state-supported terrorism in the Arab Middle East.

Marc Gopin holds the James Laue Chair at George Mason University`s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, directs its center on religion and diplomacy in Washington DC and is the author of Holy War, Holy Peace. Acknowledgement to George Mason University