Caution: Old material! Written in September 2002

Children of Golan

Over the past two years, Syria has entered a new period of determined reforms. It is bulding a path of change with cautious and firm steps with its young president and his staff.

While looking into the night, onto the city lights from a airplane flying over the city that has laid its back on the mountains not letting the warm Mediterranean weather in from the West, and has faced the tough, stormy desert, it is actually only the known that can be viewed: a map created from fragments of information gathered from areas of history, geography, politics and economics. Once landed, the bird’s-eye view leaves its place to a three-dimensional picture. Although the information is limited to the frame of the picture, it is something more than just a map. The picture of Syria gains another dimension when placed between Hafiz Al-Assad and his son Dr. Bashar Al-Assad at the Damascus International Airport.

The realm, which we refer to as the Middle East has suffered, and continues to suffer, from massive wars, occupations, disasters and fights throughout history. It is of no surprise that a vast civilization has emerged from inside this uproar. The lands that today’s Syria borders have taken a great share from this uproar and civilizations. Egyptians, Babel, Hittites, Persians (even Alexander the Great), Romans, Byzantines, have visited, ruled and then left this country that is compressed between the desert and the sea. As the Arabs came in AD 636, Syria in general, and especially Damascus, has become a part of the ever-growing Islamic Empire. Emevi caliphs have chosen Damascus as the capital due to its magnificence and geographical location, and later the Abbasids have continued in this manner. The soldiers of Seljuks, Mongols, Memluks, and of the Crusaders (11th-14th centuries) have also passed through Syria. The country, that has been handed over to France in 1922 by the Ottomans that have ruled Syria for centuries, gained its sovereignty only when the French soldiers withdrew on April 17, 1946.

Father, son and the younger son

Up until the Ba’th Party took over the rule in 1963 along with a coup d’etat, Syria has suffered the consequences of “being left out”; one coup led to another. While the country was working hard to create a state tradition, a national consciousness, and targeting a fast economic growth, the political, economic and social uncertainty very much debilitated the country. The socialist and Arab nationalist politics of the Ba’th settled when Hafiz Al-Assad came to be the President in 1971 as a result of a coup and established a presidency system that gave him extensive authority in political, military and legislative issues. Then a phase ensued which created a nation state from a population structure composed of Sunnes, Shi’is, Druze, Nusayris (Syrian Shiite), Christians, Armenians and Jews.

When the foundations of the “other” centered identity was laid by defining the enemies (i.e. Israel) that pose a threat against the national security, the path toward national unity was reassured. Although from time to time it contradicted with Ba’th’s radicalism, Al-Assad, who belonged to the minority group of Nusayris, that composed 11% of the total population, followed an internal policy that helped him sustain his legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the population. With no doubt, this policy did not always pleasantly embrace the entire society. The massacre of tens of thousands of Sunnis in 1982 inHama or the activities of an internal security organization named El Muhaberat rendered the idea of “embracement” into a painful situation. Still, the picture as seen from a distance would portray Hafiz Al-Assad a representative of Arab nationalism, rather than a member of the Nusayri community. Of course it is no coincidence that the high level officers were mostly (90%) Nusayris. However, Al-Assad had settled his criteria in the political spots as absolute obedience and created a staff composed of varied backgrounds that were mostly Sunnis.

Meanwhile other exciting historical events occurred that kept the tension high in the region, such as taking back one third of the Golan Heights in 1973 that Israel had occupied during the Six Day War in 1967, Syrian soldiers occupying Lebanon in 1982. Al-Assad managed to overcome all of these without any serious repercussions. The 1980s were dominated with internal conflict, rapid economic growth and approaching the Soviet Union, was followed by the 1990s, which was determined by the efforts to straighten the relations with the West.

Up until the death of Al-Assad’s elder son basil, in 1994, there was no doubt about who the inheritor of this longlasting rule would be. The pictures of Basil and his father were hung all over the country, from the rear windshields of the taxis to the walls of the village houses made of sundried bricks. Basil’s death had com suddenly, and there was a period of undecided silence. The younger son Bashar, who was studying dentistry in London, was immediately called back, and he started to rise rapidly from the lower levels of the government staff. When Hafiz Al-Assad died in June 2000, the age of Presidency in the Constitution was changed from 40 to 34, to meet Bashar’s age in the given year. Once the young doctor took over the Presidency, it was as if he was signaling the new period as he prohibited his picture to be hung on the taxis rear windshields.

Towards reforms

In the ruling of Hafiz Al-Assad, Syria harbored a business world, which was created and supported by the state and abstained from integration with world economies. As a result of regional disputes and constant threats from enemy states, Syria gave less importance to economic and social affairs. With the “correction plan” (al-Harakat al-Tashihiyya), Al-Assad had actually opened the way for the rise of private enterprises and Syria’s economy had signaled a significant progress as the price of oil started to rise after 1973. Then, in the 1980s, oil prices took a downturn. Although petroleum and petroleum products are in smaller quantity in Syria when compared to other Middle Eastern countries, there was severe damage since petroleum came first in the list of exported goods. In the pas 20 years the signs had become marred, petroleum prices had fallen, irregularities and degeneration had started showing itself in the inside.

Aside from an agriculture based on barley, fruit, vegetable, sugar beet, cotton and tobacco, Syria, which had undergone a boom in industrialization after the Secod World War, brought varieties to her economy. The heavy taxes imposed on customs products, shifted the industry that was composed of only processing agricultural goods to manufactured goods such as iron, steel, cement and glass, while taking cotton and silk textile products as the base of the production industry. In order to protect the newborn industries and their products, a long quota list composed of imported goods was created, which is still valid today. The criteria was as follows: if we can produce it in our country, the incoming product shall be put in the quota list. In the 1980s the government started to make policies to save the rapidly decreasing foreign currency reserves and to foster a general savings movement by slowing down both the public and private sector’s imports. The total export of the European countries to Syria recorded a 25-32% decline in 1984. In the same year, the Western European share in Syrian exports decreased from 60% to a mere 35.7%.

After Hafiz Al-Assad’s rule for 30 years where the state was involved in almost every industry from the banking system to media, from hospitals to tourism, it is now time for change. Although Bashar Al-Assad is cautious, he is paving the way for change. When he came to be the President, he first retired his father’s staff, with delicacy and precaution in order not to exasperate any of the “old rifles”. The young statesman took another brave step by gathering a group of experts and nationalists around him. For example, Hassan Rifai who is the State Minister responsible for economics and foreign trade, who has the experience of the World Bank, is one of the most outstanding members in this young staff, and is responsible for economic reforms. The Deputy Prime Minister in charge of economics Muhammed Hüseyin had been giving economic courses at the HalepUniversity until two years ago. Hüseyin, who is 43, is seen as the future Prime Minister.

Within the past two years, Bashar Al-Assad had encouraged the establishment of a free media composed of two daily newspapers and two magazines, and the broadcasting of private televisions. Now the banks are on the way. Muhammed Hüseyin clearly indicates, both visually and verbally, that the desire of this new staff is a “mentality change”. It is clear that they take their steps more carefully when the word “liberalization” is used. Because, their basic criteria is that when necessary they should be able to be self-sufficient economically, thus protecting their political sovereignty. They are, for example, staying away from the IMF and the World Bank, since they require Syria to make a concession on the Israel issue.

“Historical right, historical chance”

The economic laws are under review, and studies are done for amore liberal and open economy, with the condition of protecting the local producers. As a result of the cooperation agreement they have signed with the European Union, they have given themselves five years. They believe that they will be able to meet the EU production standards by 2005. The Arabic Free Trade Area Agreement that was signed in the beginning of 2002, and is expected to come into force by 2005, comprises all of the Arabic countries and it will lift the customs barriers in the Arabic countries will gain momentum by reforms. This period is of importance for all of the countries in the region. Turkey, which is targeting a full EU membership, is one of these countries. Muhammed Hüseyin believes that full membership to the EU is Turkey’s historical right, and the indicated that it is a historical chance for the Arabic countries. In three years (if nothing goes wrong) the economic outlook in the region may be very positive. An Arab realm where duty-free goods can float freely, and a neighbor, which is a member to the EU, Turkey!

From a more calm perspective, Syria views Turkey as a geographical, cultural, social and economic door opening to Europe. The Deputy Prime Minister, Hüseyin states that they intend to establish relations where economic priorities are on the foreground with Turkey, which has a strong EU experience, and the political problems can be left in the background. He believes that political disputes will be eased when economic problems are resolved. It is encouraging to see that progress can be seen in line with his belief. Last year Syria’s foreign trade with Turkey reached $650 million (one should not underestimate this figure, since t comprises 14.5% of Syria’s total foreign trade). The grounds for an agreement that will abolish double taxes to support mutual investments are being completed. The various sectors need to work closely and a strong infrastructure needs to be established for investment to take place between the two countries. We can see an example for this in the solving of the transportation problems. Deputy Prime Minister, who is responsible for the Syrian economy, states that they are seeking partners in the public sector through tender offers, especially foreign partners, and he underlines the fact that Turkey has a great opportunity in this spectrum, which the foreign investors have yet to explore. Although there is currently one textile and one shoe factory established by Turkish businessmen in Syria, Hüseyin invites more Turkish businessmen to take part in the tender offers. To accept this invitation and establish strong economic ties may provide both sides with a calmer environment when issues such as Hatay, water, terrorism, border smuggling and other political disputes about the region are discussed, and this would be a historical progress for both sides. It is in a way a relieve to see that the key to open the Arab world to Europe, and Europe to Arab world is embedded in economics.



The oldest steady settlement of Mesopotamia is in Damascus. The findings from this city that lays its foundations on the mountains and faces the desert goes all the way back to B.C. 5000. The inauspicious criminal incident between two brothers, Habil and Kabil, has given its name to the city. Dimashk (Damascus) means “running blood”. There is another alternative for those who do not wish to talk about violence and curse. “Shem” means “night” in Persian, which suits Damascus, “the night city”, very well. The nights in Damascus really possesses a great hue of colors. What attracts the attention most is the green lights spread all around the city, the color that embraces the minarets at night.

Damascus is a safe city for the local, foreigners, women, men, everyone. The only diffeence between a foreign woman walking by herself in the late hours of the night from a Syrian woman doing the same, is the simplicity in her outfit. The women in Damascus are aware of their beauty and they embellish this beauty even more with the care they show themselves.

The “old city”, located in the east of Damascus, has managed to blend into the city, while distancing itself from it at the same time, and now stretches as a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and a symbol of the ability to live together. The area of 7000 m2 where the Emevi Mosque, constructed in 705, is located also includes the mausoleum of Selahaddin Eyyubi, the tombs where John the Baptist and Hz. Hüseyin’s are and the saloons of Hz. Ebu Bekir, Hz. Omer and Hz. Osman. Emerging from the mosque you suddenly find yourself inside the Covered Bazaar. When you pass the mother-of-pearl, filigreed with gold or silver and glass ornaments, you find yourself engulfed in silk. The Christian neighborhood is at the end of the old city. In every corner you turn after a narrow street, you find either a chapel, an icon of the Virgin Mary over candel light or an antique shop. Long after everything has been seen and the city has been left behind, you realize that the city is fading away, but the distinctive aroma of the spicy coffee that welcomed you in the first breath remains in your memory. All the odors, all the memories lose their effectiveness, overwhelmed by the Kakule Arabic coffee.

Turkishtime, Publication of the Turkish Exporters Assembly, September 2002

Translated by K. Raj Kumar

Photos: Çağla Kalafat