All Writings
December 2, 1994

No More Hatred, No More Fear

From the moment I arrived at Damascus Airport till the moment I left the city eight days later, I engaged every Syrian I met in a discussion about the Israeli-Syrian peace process.

The answers I received sounded rehearsed: "We want and desire peace, and the sooner the better." But peace, they quickly added, "must be based on a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights."

Nevertheless, the Syrian public has begun to think about the prospects for peace in real terms.

Conversations with scores of ordinary people from all walks of life made it abundantly clear that peace wasn't just a slogan. The individual Syrian views renewed war as an utter waste that can achieve nothing but further suffering and pain. Most Syrian families, I was told, have sustained terrible losses in past wars and have no stomach for renewed conflict.

The people I spoke to, whether taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, waiters, tailors, businessmen or teachers, refused to engage openly in any discussion about government policies, or mention President Assad by name. But they all talked freely and with excitement about the prospects of peace with Israel.

"I look forward to the day when I can trade with Israel," said shopkeeper Abd Al-Alhalim. "Inshallah," he kept saying, "God willing, God willing."

For the vast majority of Syrians, Assad's characterization of the requirements for peace touches a deep nationalistic and emotional chord. Like the Israelis, the Syrians have become prisoners of a national psychological disposition created over the years to explain the 1967 war and its consequences.

For 27 years, successive Israeli governments projected the Golan as indispensable to their country's national security. During the same period, the Syrians were told by their government that the Golan had been captured through a war of aggression which had exacted a heavy national toll.

Desirable as peace has become in the eyes of ordinary Syrians, national pride and honor loom much larger, making peace unthinkable under any circumstances other than total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.

And what about the hatred and animosity toward Israel? I asked Ahmad Hassan, a tailor in the old city of Damascus.

"No, no," he said emphatically. "We Syrians believe in the proverb 'Alfat mat' {what is past is dead}. No more hatred and no more fear, we want to live and let live."

Socially, the Syrians appear to enjoy a healthy balance between the Ba'ath socialist political orientation and the state religion of Islam.

Though Islam is predominant and the Syrians' general outlook is conservative, personal freedom is growing without upsetting the delicate social balance the government is bent on preserving.

The Syrians are proud of the fact that there is hardly any crime, that no drug addicts roam the streets of Damascus. They boast that there is only a handful of AIDS cases, and point out the complete sense of personal safety that exists throughout the country. The measured liberalization the Syrians have experienced over the past three years has raised expectations that peace with Israel will pave the way for more personal freedom.

But the strains of two and a half decades of limited political and social freedom are apparent. Abu-Omer, a taxi driver, rolled up his car window before he would answer even a sympathetic question about Assad's domestic policies.

Economically, the government's three-year-old development program has dramatically changed the economic outlook for the majority of Syrians. Private industrial investment, the expansion of farmland, light industry and food processing, and more liberal import and export policies have together made Syria nearly self-sufficient in food production.

Still, in spite of this remarkable progress, the average Syrian worker in the private or public sector earns only between 4,000 and 5,000 Syrian lira ($100-$120) per month, making it extremely difficult for the single provider to cope financially.

Since most women stay at home to care for their children, men often seek hard-to-get second jobs to supplement their income. For the average Syrian, only peace would open up extensive economic opportunities, further expand the market economy and attract the foreign capital so essential to creating sorely needed, well-paid jobs.

Over the last three years, the Assad government has been conducting a low-key public relations effort to present the idea of peace with Israel as a viable option that would ensure regional stability and prosperity.

Newspapers, TV and radio have been given the green light to discuss the advantages of peace. But having openly and publicly made the condition of total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights a prerequisite to restoring national honor, Assad may have painted himself into a corner.

"But patience pays," says restaurant owner Abu Salem. "The Israelis will eventually realize that we mean business when we say we want peace – and the price is the Golan."

For a people who have followed the flag patiently and sacrificed much to contemplate peace, recovering their land seems not only natural, but an imperative.

I am firmly convinced that the Syrian people will follow their leader, not because his portrait looks down on them everywhere they go, but because they really believe in his concept of "a peace of the brave."