Life under Assad

Syria was charming and safe, but without rightsFrank Armstrong 


I think I may be one of only a handful of people, not engaged in espionage, to have travelled overland on the same day from Jerusalem to Damascus since the foundation of Israel in 1948. Then, 2003, Israeli border officials allowed travellers to avoid permanent stamps, but the Jordanian entry visa I had been issued, to traverse that country, must surely have given my whereabouts away.

After crossing the border I spent a few uncomfortable minutes inside Syrian territory without my passport which was in the hands of the border guards. The temperature outside was about 40 degrees and I was sweating from the inside out; visions of being accused of spying were coming to mind. Eventually I admitted to visiting ‘Palestine’, flashed some dollars and beseeched the official to let me through. He gave me a toothy grin and relented. I was to find the inconsistency of Syrian border officials less charming in future.

At least I was given leave to enter what was an instantly fascinating country. A tangle of east and west removed from history, an oriental Cuba frozen in time.

On that first visit, I saw some of its remarkable sites: Crac de Chavalier, a Crusader castle of lore; Palmyra’s ruins, a lost Hellenic city in the dessert; and of course Damascus, the longest continuously-inhabited city in the world. There, Roman ruins mingle with an Islamic heritage that includes the stunning Umayyad mosque as well as some recent ugly additions inspired by close relations with the USSR. Alas, I never made it to Aleppo, where the battle for Syria now rages, on this or my subsequent visit.

I returned in 2004 to improve my Arabic, a project that was sadly de-railed. It is said to take 20 years to master the Arabic language. I never got past year two, but in that time I at least gained some appreciation of what life was like in Syria.

The first point to emphasise is its religious diversity. This is inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule which ended abruptly after World War I. Under that Empire confessional communities joined together into semi-autonomous millets. The leader of each was the patriarch or chief rabbi depending on denomination; he would regulate relations between that community and the sultan’s officials.

It was a system that functioned successfully for centuries. Though Sunni Muslims dominated and did not pay the zakat, a tax levied on religious minorities, there was a degree of toleration not seen in Europe until the nineteenth century. But it left a patchwork of self-contained communities when state boundaries were clumsily forged by the French and British who divided the Ottoman carcass between them. The League of Nations ‘Mandates’, as these new arrangements were termed, were a cloak for imperialism.

The French, who conquered Syria by displacing nationalists seeking to build a pan-Arab state under the Hashemite King Faisal, set about dismembering the old Ottoman province of Syria, creating the state of Lebanon with a Christian population sufficiently large to dominate its affairs. This left a Syrian rump, reduced further when Antioch (now Anatakya) was effectively transferred to Turkey in 1938 to ensure their neutrality in the forthcoming war.

The French preserved religious identifications but eschewed the traditional ruling Sunni notables in favour of the religious minorities; perpetuating sectarian differences in the process. Alawis, an Islamic offshoot, who formed under 15 per cent of the population, were invested with particular responsibility. Centuries of marginalisation ensured their antipathy to the Sunni ruling class and many were made officers in the new army. When independence was achieved after World War II, their group solidarity endured and their positions in the military gave them serious clout.

After a succession of coups, the country became a stable military dictatorship in 1970 under Hafiz Al-Assad who surrounded himself with a loyal coterie of Alawi. Substantial Christian communities (20 per cent) and a smaller Druz (below 5 per cent), also identified with the regime. There are ethnic differences too, with substantial Kurdish and Turkmen minorities to the north – but these groups are too distant from the urban centre of power to play a significant role in national politics.

The Syrian Arab Republic is an avowedly Arab nationalist state under the Ba’ath party. Pan-Arab nationalism was a useful ideology for a fractured, irredentist polity where a religious minority held the reigns of power.

Carefully-selected Sunni Arabs were co-opted and placed in visible positions of authority, though the bulk of the population did not identify with the regime, as the recent revolt shows.


Syria proved a durable presence in a dangerous neighbourhood – between irascible Iraq and Israel,  under the canny and often brutal leadership of Hafiz Al-Assad. A Cold War has been maintained with Israel since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with Lebanon being the scene of proxy conflict where Syria, along with Iran, has supported Hizbullah. The presence of an external enemy has served the regime’s interests, drawing attention from the fractured nature of Syrian society. A sense of paranoia over Israeli espionage was fostered; we learnt to refer to it as ‘the country with no name’.

On my second visit in 2004 I again arrived overland, this time from Turkey. I was to spend three months learning what life was like in Damascus under the dictatorship.

The first thing that struck was how safe it was. Crime was virtually non-existent, at least in the historic medina where I lived. The greatest threats emanated from fleets of taxis that sped recklessly through narrow streets emitting cloud puffs of intoxicating smoke and horns beating Satanic rhythms.

Life seemed straightforward for most; artisans plied trades that would be undertaken in factories in the West. There were an extraordinary number of barbers, juice bars, and of course falafel or shawarma at every street corner. It’s a charming city of tea rooms where narguila pipes emit fragrant odours, and old men sit along roadsides playing endless games of backgammon. There is also the impressive street bazaar, the Souk Al-Hamidiyeh, where the bullet holes of French soldiers could still be seen. One wonders whether recent events are adding to those patterns.

In any business or government office there was always a smiling picture of the then young president Bashar Al-Assad, the son of Hafiz who assumed power in 2000 after the death of his father. This cult of the leader was firmly entrenched.

There was a tedium to life under the dictatorship: bookshops were a rarity and internet use highly circumscribed, at least at that time. Whenever I was lucky enough to receive a phone call from my parents there was always a muffled sound as if someone was snooping on the call, though they must have grown bored by the accounts of what we ate for dinner.

There were more sinister aspects that I caught a glimpse of. Militants were said to ‘disappear behind the sun’ and mukhabarat agents were rumoured to abound. I once saw a chain gang of prisoners; but the regime did not generally air its dirty laundry in public.

When my university course finished and it was time to leave, I took a taxi, as you did, to the Lebanese border in order to catch my plane in Beirut. There my problems began, as the military officials at the border told me I couldn’t leave. I was now in serious danger of missing my flight, or worse, so I rushed back in another taxi to Damascus and scurried around a number of government buildings, waking up officials en route before someone in the tourist ministry made a phone call to allow me through. At that point I resolved not to return as had been my intention.

I could not live in a country where my rights were so impeded. It is hardly surprising that so many Syrians drew the same conclusion after seeing their Arab brothers and sisters taking to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. I hope they succeed in their struggle, but that diversity and religious tolerance in that country is preserved.