“Syria is No Longer Cuba,” by Ibrahim Hamidi

Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat's bureau chief in Damascus, has just returned from Turkey where he covered the Assad visit. He writes: "Hello, I just came back from Turkey. It was a really good experience." I attach an article published in Sam Moubayed's magazine, Forward. Cheers, Ibrahim

The Beirutization of Damascus

The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 accelerated the reform process in Syria. Everything that could be found in Beirut is now readily available in Damascus. This social revolution in the Syrian capital has yet to spread to the rest of Syria.  Ibrahim Hamidi 

Syria is changing. Not all of Syria, however, is included in this change. The speed of change varies. It is quick for those living inside Syria, although they may not feel it on a daily basis. Things are different for an expatriate, who sees the change process as slow, incapable of coping with the rapid spread of globalization. The expatriate, however, acknowledges how deep and symbolic this change actually is. The one who feels the change most, however, is the Syrian who has been away from his country for many years. He feels the change the minute he walks into Damascus International Airport.

Syria no longer looks like Cuba or North Korea. True, some security personnel still do not greet visitors in a proper manner. Routine is still paramount at border crossings. Advertising billboards, however, are everywhere to be found. There are duty free shops at all border entrances, just like in any other country in the world. No sooner does a visitor finish with all official formalities at passport control and the customs department, than he finds a completely different setting awaiting him. It is the private sector. Private transport companies, private GSM providers, and private banks all ‘welcoming’ visitors to Syria.  

Within the city, the situation is different yet similar; full of contradictions. Buildings dating back to the Soviet legacy, copied from the Eastern bloc. Huge buildings, constructed from grey cement, with neither life nor taste. These are mostly government and residential buildings, all constructed by the public sector, aimed at accommodating the largest number of ‘proletariats’ in the smallest amount of space. These buildings are not new.

What’s new is the change that has overcome the architectural philosophy of Damascus. New beautiful buildings are sprouting all over town. The Damascenes were stingy when it came to spending on exteriors, as opposed to the interiors of their homes, unlike the people of Aleppo, who spent lavishly on both. Today, new touches have started to appear on Damascene architecture. Good examples of this architectural renaisance and concern for beauty are the Four Seasons Hotel and the Cham Islamic Bank, which have sprouted up like spring flowers amidst ‘boring’ monuments of the previous era.  

In Syria today one can open private schools, universities, and banks. It is possible to spend thousands of US dollars on international brands like Prada, Dior, and Gucci. Even Gap, which is banned in several Arab countries, has found its way to Damascus, which hosts the General Secretariat of Boycotting Israeli Products. KFC—the symbol of Americanization—can now also be found in one of the most elegant streets of Damascus.  

Some residents of the Syrian capital live a life that does not resemble that of other Syrians. They wake up at will to drink Nescafe or head to one of the numerous coffeehouses that are scattered all over town. There is an In-House Coffee chain in the Syrian capital, along with a chain for Gemini restaurants. Newly opened is the Costa coffeehouse near the Four Seasons.

The few Syrians who can afford this luxury can now chose from a mixture of coffee blends and flavors. Supermarket shelves are now filled with the finest products. A few years ago, availability of sugar or cooking fat was an event in itself in Damascus. There was a scarcity of products in Syria but not anymore. The opening of a  mini-market was a big event. It is now natural to hear that the Cham City Center, a huge mall, has opened in the Kafarsouseh neighborhood. It is no longer surprising to see that it contains international brand names, automobiles, food stuff, and designer clothes.

There is also a newfound interest in healthy products—ironically, in a country that invented greasy Arabic cooking and Oriental sweets. Transportation is simple. Public buses are still available. They are colored in white, and come from Iran. Mini buses are also available, and so are yellow taxi cabs.

What is new is the large number of luxury cars speeding through the Syrian capital. Some of them cannot even be found in the countries of their origin. Maserati. Hummer. Lamborghini. Bentley. And of course, Jaguar, Mercedes Benz, and BMW. All of them can now be found in Damascus.  

After drinking blended coffee, and chatting through a wireless connection on one’s laptop, these privileged few Syrians can kill some more time with telephone business deals, made through one’s own mobile. It is no longer needed to go to Lebanon to deposit revenue from these ‘business deals.’ One can make us of the seven private banks that have started operation in Syria, with a total deposit that has reached $3 billion USD.  

For lunch—or dinner—there is a wide variety of restaurants to chose from; Turkish, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, French, and Italian. All of them are located in the posh neighborhoods of Damascus. Oriental restaurants can still be found in the Old City. It must be noted that a 4-person meal at any of the se restaurants is equivalent to the monthly salary of a senior official in the government service.  

Those with correct fitness and age can now also flex their muscles at the numerous health clubs that have sprouted all over town. Those with abundant time can get a massage or healthy herbal prescriptions at the doctor’s clinic. After caring for the body, one can then turn attention to what he or she is wearing. The ‘openness’ of these last few months have created a wide variety to chose from. Taboos of the previous era—foreign label clothes—are now within reach. Almost instantly, international brand names mushroomed all over Damascus. It is no longer surprising to find boutiques in the posh districts of the Syrian capital. The surprise lies in finding them in the old commercial districts of the city.

The finest examples are Villa Moda, a fashion outlet in the Midhat Pasha Street near the ancient Hamidyya Bazaar, and L’Avenue, an old Damascene palace that has been transformed into a modern fashion boutique. It contains expensive items of clothing, where a woman’s jacket can cost up to $2000 USD—after a 50% discount.

Contradictions are ripe over here as well since these boutiques are located amidst a multitude of small shops that have been selling cheese and salty refreshments for centuries. Ever since the Ottoman Era, they have been offering products to average Syrians for no more than a few Syrian piasters. Also located in the vicinity of these new fashion shops are small ones selling school stationary, adorned with photos of Hizbullah chief Hasan Nasrallah and his yellow party flag. Suddenly, in the heart of all of this, one finds a large exquisite wooden door—the entrance of a cave carrying all of Ali Baba’s secrets. Customers need to be ‘armed’ before entering, with a chauffeur driven automobile, a Visa Card, or thousands of US dollars in order to purchase in cash from Ali Baba’s cave.  

On the western boulevard of the Four Seasons Hotel, one finds Rotana Café, with its expensive prices and breathtaking waitresses. A few meters from this ‘globalized’ scene is a public station for small warn-out buses. They carry thousands of workers per day to and from their jobs, for a fee of 5 SP per passenger. These are two different worlds indeed. Nothing unites them except geographic proximity.  Morning coffee. Online chatting. Cosmopolitan lunch, French perfumes, and foreign clothes with international brand names imprinted on them.

Everything seems set for a wild night out in the city. More options are now available than ever before, from the Marmar Nightclub in the Old City to the Amigos Club on the northern entrance of Damascus. There are many such venues both in the old and new city and one can easily spot them by the valet parking and security guards—bouncers—stationed at their doors, all hired from the private sector. What happens within them is similar to what happens in similar places around the world; drinking, dancing, romanticizing, and rising ecstasy from a particular scent in a particular corner of the club. Those who still enjoy an Oriental final to their evening—after clubbing all night long—wrap up with foul or hummos, obtained from the Midan district of Old Damascus.  

Some of the few—or their children—can now also go to university in Syria. Private universities have opened after all, and are teaching in English for a tuition that is payable in US dollars. That also applies to private schools. In addition to the American, French, and Pakistani schools, which have been around for decades, private schools emerged in recent years, based on foreign curriculums and a high annual tuition that reaches up to thousands of US dollars.  

All of this means that Beirut is no longer important. The need for Beirut is over. What Beirut used to provide for some Syrians can now generously be found in Damascus. The Syrians were accustomed to spending their weekends in Beirut; coffee at Verdun, lunch at the downtown district of the Lebanese capital, and shopping with thousands of US dollars. Lebanese banks used to perform transactions for their Syrian customers and other services that could not be found in state-run banks in Syria. One well informed source commented saying: “Instead of spending these dollars in Lebanon, they are now being spent in Syria. It is the same segment of society—all that has changed is the market.”  

There is no disagreement that the Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005 accelerated the Lebanonization of Syria, and the Beirutization of Damascus. This was in appearance, scent, food, and spending. One can now see how the ‘few Syrians’ look—and where they socialize—in a variety of Syrian publications that cover social events in Damascus and Aleppo, like Layalina Magazine, Star, and What’s On. Those interested in reading about politics and cultural affairs can browse through Syria Today and FORWARD, two famous English-speaking Syrian magazines.

They were founded by a team of graduates from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and other Western universities. Online, one can find further reading in Syrian websites like Syria News and Cham Press. One can enjoy light readings in the daily newspaper Baladna or through the cultural/political daily, al-Watan.  Syrians no longer need to tune onto Lebanese radio channels to follow the latest Arabic and Western music. Commercial, non-political radio stations have also started operating in Damascus.

Official news sources however, in TV, radio, and the printed media, are still there, just like the case with public sector banks, universities, and schools. No sooner than one leaves this limited new and modernized circle than he finds himself back to a bygone era—as if nothing has changed. Thousands still embark to their schools every morning, paying measly tuition. At dawn, millions still go to their factories, crops, and mosques. Change has not reached all parts of Syria. It only affected some districts and neighborhoods.

There is a bigger world out there—very different from the one that is experienced by the wealthy few. According to official statistics, 11% of Syria’s 18 million people live below the poverty line. There is a 9% unemployment rate; approximately 1 million of Syria’s work force. Most of the unemployed are young people. One needs only to talk a walk through rural Syria to confront how different things actually are.

On Thursday and Friday evenings, thousands of families go out on picnics, bundled in their Pick-Up trucks or small three-wheel automobiles. They settle in the numerous public parks and spaces of Damascus for a family gathering that costs them nothing. The situation is different from that of the ‘few’ in Syria’s urban interior. The pace of change is slow. The repercussions of ‘openness’ have not reached these districts. People commute with simple public transportation. When they return they eat at home. The only pleasure is watching Arab satellite TV. Those interested in politics watch debate shows. Those looking for entertainment watch the abundant number of drama series that are broadcasted around the year. Those who are still in their adolescent years wait until late after midnight to watch de-coded Western channels. But life doesn’t change as fast as it does in the virtual world.

Dreams that are beamed into living rooms from satellite TV are must faster than society’s ability to change and cope with them. Some find salvation in depression and isolation. Others find it at religious lessons or the local mosque. They look for the second life. Some still search for victory. That’s why Hasan Nasrallah is so popular in these districts. People raise his photo and the Flag of Hizbullah over trees, village posts, and the rooftops of their humble homes.  

The Syrian scene is becoming increasingly complicated and contradictory. One segment increases in wealth. It gains education and ‘globalizes’ rapidly. Gradual economic reform, along with Gulf investment money pouring into real estate and tourism. The appearance of indicators signaling extravagance and luxury. On the other hand, other indictors point to more needs among the general population.

There are is talk of a drawback in oil revenue. People are becoming increasingly unable to meet their basic needs. These are early warnings for great poverty. They are topped with religious and nationalistic radicalization in a region that is becoming increasingly sectarian. It is not easy to envision the future in Syria. This needs analysis, study, observation—and a early warning vision with caution.  

Ibrahim Hamidi is bureau chief for the London-based al-Hayat newspaper in Syria.

Comments (31)

AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Hamidi’s article is a classic example of a technique that I have often seen used by Arab writers. They devote a huge part of their article to praise and portray things as great as a prelude for the bad news they want to convey.

The important part of the article starts with: “There is a bigger world out there—very different from the one that is experienced by the wealthy few.”

And the real news to which Hamidi is building all along is in the very last paragraph:
There are is talk of a drawback in oil revenue. People are becoming increasingly unable to meet their basic needs. These are early warnings for great poverty. They are topped with religious and nationalistic radicalization in a region that is becoming increasingly sectarian. It is not easy to envision the future in Syria. This needs analysis, study, observation—and a early warning vision with caution.

I don’t know if Hamidi is right or wrong, but his article is a dire warning that Syria has to change course since what is happening is that Syrians on average are getting poorer and more radicalized.

October 26th, 2007, 1:25 am


Wassim said:

I have to agree with the previous comment made. Those things Hamidi seems to be in love with are glittery and superficial, the first thing to be swept away should the hungry decide they’ve had enough.

October 26th, 2007, 9:49 am


MSK said:

Dear Wassim,

I think that Hamidi is not “in love” with those glittery things at all. He almost cynically describes how the “upper 1,000” can now lead a Beiruti lifestyle in Damascus, which he despises.

And he points out that none of this is affordable by the vast majority of Syrians.


October 26th, 2007, 10:11 am


Bashmann said:

This article is a testimony to the ill advised policies of a government that has lost touch with its people.


October 26th, 2007, 2:36 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:


Is it lost touch with its people or doesn’t care about its people? The latter implies that Bahsar knows the situation well but chooses to continue with his current policies because they preserve the regime. The main reason I think Bashar is in touch is because of the compulsive military draft. The Syrian army surely knows the education and economic level of its recruits.

October 26th, 2007, 3:46 pm


Joshua said:

Hamidi is very concerned about the income gap that is yawning ever wider in Syria – as are most Syrians. It is the big story that will be covered in a hundred ways over the next decade.

As all the commentators note, the government is well aware of the dangers. That is why the effort to reduce government subsidies, which has been draining state coffers, has been stalled. Dardari insists that Syria must go fast and deep in restructuring. Others have put their foot on the brake – and, for the time being, seem to have the support of the president.

Everyone agrees that Syria must join the world of market economies – the dispute is whether such a thing as “social” market economies really exist or do any good. SC’s very own Ehsani2 has been trying to argue that there is no such thing as a social market.

Can the Syrian government manage the transition to a market economy in Syria? The Egyptian government stood firm throughout the very painful infitah, despite bread riots and growing fundamentalism.

Syria is a more divided country. but in some ways, the divisions make it easier for the government to kick the legs out from under the opposition. The opposition is as divided as everyone else.
Heydemann’s article on the “Upgrading of Authoritarian Regimes” speaks to this process.

October 26th, 2007, 4:35 pm


Nour said:

Syria needs a long way to go to become a modern, advanced, efficient state. What Mr. Hamidi is describing is true in all third world countries, where the gap between rich and poor, between the wealthy and the deprived, is starking. This is a dangerous trend in Syria as it can only lead to further instability. There is a need to focus on serious economic reform. Bringing in investments in the tourism and services sector will get you nowhere. The economy needs to be organized on a productivity basis. The bottom line is that Syria needs to produce. It needs to industrialize, but with serious, effective industries that can bring in revenue from exports, create jobs, and raise the standard of living of the average Syrian.

Unfortunately, the Baath has repeatedly failed to implement any serious, effective economic policy, as it has always been guided by a misguided ideology, and the need to consolidate its power, rather than by practical measures aimed at improving the lives of Syrians. While certain recent reforms have certainly improved some things, they cannot constitute a sufficient means of improving Syria’s economy as a whole. Syria needs a complete overhaul of its political and economic systems, and their replacement with a functional, effective system that can lead the country to ultimate prosperity.

The sprouting of superficial structures can only disguise the underlying problem. The Lebanonization of Syria and Beirutization of Damascus are bad ideas and cannot possibly provide a solution to Syria’s ailments. Things will only get worse if reforms are not implemented and implemented now.

October 26th, 2007, 4:42 pm


Alex said:

AIG, Wassim

You are both right in reading the serious warnings that Ibrahim hinted to. Moving from a socialist system towards a moderately capitalist system can easily affect many people’s standard of living. Egypt went through that transition in the late 70’sand in the 80’s.

And AIG’s observation regarding the way Arab writers have to hide the criticism part in the last few paragraphs is also accurate. My favorite is Jihad elKhazen in Alhayat … he is very smooth. You won’t even notice it when he criticizes you.

But … Ibrahim is also enjoying living in Damascus…. not only the superficial rich 1000 are enjoying their life in Damascus.

It is a mistake to simplify it to “Annie is saying good things because she is afraid to criticize from Syria” …

Here is the Washington Post on the new Damascus … again.

But .. the pollution .. and the smoking … and the traffic …

One last thing … Hafez disappointed “the elite” for decades with his almost total lack of interest in superficial development… Damascus was VERY different from Beirut. Bashar needs the elite to invest in Syria, to stay in Syria, and to feel that he is not another socialist like his father… I don’t mind the past two years’ superficiality … an acceptable break from 30 years of socialism. BUT … it is time for the tough decision … subsidies.

October 26th, 2007, 4:58 pm


Zenobia said:

This is an incredible exaggeration!….. i want to know what Damascus he is living in..??? Cause i don’t see all this. French, Italian, chinese, Japanese, and Mexican restaurants. I thnk there are two Chinese restaurants in the whole city. One in Cham Palace with no people in it and one in Messeh. but the rest? they have restaurants with NAMES from these other ethnic foods….but have you tried the food? It is pathetic.

All these new buildings going up that are beautiful? way out in the Terraces of Dummar….ok, maybe. Hidden somewhere in the suburbs, maybe.. but in Damascus? all i see are old crap. And one Four Seasons, and a boutique hotel or coffee shop does not a new city scape make.
Have you tasted the new coffees? are they even Starbucks? (and mind you…i despise starbucks…) but really….are they. NO NO THEY ARE NOT. they all still taste like Necafe. Nescafe with different flavors. Desert drinks of all kinds of variety flavors….that are once again a really sad imitation…of the western trends in coffee. Wait till they try imitating the icecream. It is going to be a disaster.

aahhhh and he boast of sipping this deliciously titled, and repulsive coffee..while using your wireless…
but Hamidi should stop telling people about the wireless. The connections are horrible. This country is an internet nightmare.
but you won’t know that…yes…if you are staying in the four seasons…. or pay the five hundred dollars a months… for that excellent fast DSL type service. If you are one of probably 100 people in the city. the rest of us just suffer.

and ok Cham city Center…… yes i have been there. but again….who would buy these ‘designer’ things….they look like nothing…normal i have ever seen. Except for sports wear stores. For men. This…syria has mastered. Sports wear for guys….. forget the girls though.
Mens wear is not bad here. maybe because it is men who are the purchasers owning the stores. But womens clothing is disgusting.
and i haven’t been to the three fancy boutiques.
see……. there is really only ONE of these things he talks about. ONE supermarket in Cham Center…thats it.
all those….supermarkets……??? where are they?
and all those great restaurants. ok, i admit I come from San Francisco… the land of great restaurants…my standards are high. but give me a break….. the FAKE western food here…is truely truely pathetic. It is the worst. And the SERVICE is the worst…i ever experienced anywhere. ten people standing around….no…hovering around…. acting like they are paying attention. but really….they tell you how many tables you are not allowed to sit at……and which two in the corner…you could maybe sit at….with Shishe blowing in your face.

I can’t believe this man…claims that Syrian’s care about health!…. There is absolutely no health food whatsoever. Everything….is ultra fattening and full of sugar. The fast food is all over the place….. in your face. Pizza….is the main street food in the country now.
And frankly, the famous Barada Health Club is like a fourth rate health club in the United States. the Cham has an empty club… And I walked all over the place looking for and at health clubs. Most of them are for MEN ONLY. And the ones that are co-ed…are still pathetic, run down, dirty, or just not very good.
Please, if I am missing the fantastic club in Rawda….tell me about it….cause I can’t find it!

no, i am sorry….THIS IS CUBA. IT IS WAY MORE CUBA THAN BEIRUT. I cross the border in Lebanon… land in Beirut….and you feel you entered the civilized world. That is a place with real restaurants. and a real Starbucks. Not withstanding the bombs and the soldiers everywhere and the non-functioning government…. I will take Beirut daily fare any day.

October 26th, 2007, 5:40 pm


Bashmann said:

Thank you Zenobia for putting some sense into people’s reading this article. The truth is with all the superficial wealth that is concentrated in the hands of the few, the situation in Syria is beyond disastrous when it comes to widening the income gab between the rich and poor.


You ask the right questions, but I beg to disagree with you on your comparison with Egypt. Syria is isolated regionally and internationally and no matter what the government can muster and argue over the road to the promised infitah it will not save Syria from becoming the boiling keg for the next disaster in the Middle-East. Unlike Syria when Egypt made the turn, it had the help of the US and the West to float its economy and safeguard its government from an all out popular uprising.
If we think Iraq was a disaster, wait ‘till the situation gets worst in Syria, as Bashar keeps missing the signals for major reversals in his policies and staunchly insist on sacrificing the nation for the sake of his seat.

Here is a perfect article to illustrate all this;


The Damascus Conference versus the Conference of the Fall Grandstanding at the Expense of the Palestinians
Raghida Dergham Al-Hayat – 26/10/07//

NEW YORK – The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, presented an important report to the Security Council this week. The report returns to the forefront the issue of disarming Hizbullah as a cornerstone to enabling the Lebanese state to recover full sovereignty over its territory. Ki-moon called for implementing the commitment to dismantle all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias and disarm the Palestinian militias operating in Lebanon. He asked Syria and Iran to cooperate in this effort and halt all military supplies and support for these militias. He spoke at length about Palestinian organizations headquartered in Damascus and other groups like Fatah-Islam exploiting Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and using their camps.

The secretary general said that Fatah and Hamas sometimes fight in Lebanon, as they do in Gaza; he added that he had received information about Damascus’ facilitating the flow of weapons and fighters across the Syrian border into Lebanon, and about Hizbullah’s training of other militias and rebuilding its military capacities, in violation of Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for dismantling and disarming militias. Ki-moon added that he had received information about preparations carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headquartered in Damascus, for “operations” in Lebanon, and that this organization “has a close relationship with Syria and Hizbullah, and receives material support and training from Iran.” This information appears at a time when Damascus is preparing for a conference from the 7th to the 9th of next month to confront the “conference of the fall” being prepared by the White House to treat the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and launch the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Damascus Conference considers the fall conference an attempt to eliminate Palestinian national rights, “which requires wide-scale national and popular movement through historical mechanisms and tasks, led by escalating resistance against Zionist occupation, calling on Arab countries to shoulder their responsibilities, and rejecting normalization with the enemy,” according to the working paper that has been published by the conference. This paper rejects all of the agreements that have been signed with Israel, considering them “invalid and non-binding.”

Damascus’ sponsorship of Lebanese militias and Palestinian factions isn’t new, but today it is more violent and “generous” in Iranian terms, which means these groups can be offered military supplies and equipment and fighters in order to challenge the Lebanese state, the Palestinian Authority and international resolutions.
Syrian President Bashar al-Asad found no “Arabist” objection to his support for Turkey’s invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that this would be an invasion against a Kurdish terrorist party in Iraq, as if Iraq is suddenly no longer classified as a state, or Arab land. Such positions do not necessarily represent short-sightedness or caprice; more likely, they are a direct investment in self-protection. The Syrian leadership found in the vehement national anger in Turkey an opportunity to save itself from international pressures and a quasi-gift that allows it to avoid difficult matters, regardless of whether or not Turkey is correct in its stances. The announcement by the president of an Arab state that he understood the decision to invade the territory of another Arab state, by a neighbor, is an indication of how distant Syria is from the Arab state system.

Thus, if we understand the Syrian leadership’s exit from the Arab fold and move toward the Iranian one, its blackmail of the Palestinian cause and exploitation of militias in Lebanon should be put a halt to, one way or another.

As a start, if Damascus wants to stir up the mechanisms of escalating resistance against Israel, then it should do so on the Syrian-Israeli border. This front is available for resistance and nothing can hold things up here except a Syrian decision and the Syrian regime. Anything less is merely another act of deceit toward the Palestinians. If the Damascus Conference wants to cancel the conference of the fall, all that Syria should do is open the Syrian-Israeli front for the resistance that it is promoting. Syrian territory is occupied, and Syria has enough weapons, men, Arab and Persian volunteers, and other Muslims, and “pure” money from Iran to liberate Palestine. So let Syria, Iran, the Palestinian factions and Lebanese militias step up and launch resistance from Syrian territory this time.

The fall conference won’t be about miracles, and won’t lead to an immediate Palestinian-Israeli peace. However, it won’t be about rhetoric and grandstanding, which have begun to distinguish the Damascus conference.

For its part, Israel appears to be a partner, indirectly, in making the fall conference a success. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni are doing quite well in peddling honeyed talk about peace and stalling when it comes to the actual requirements of this goal. They are a living example of Israel’s lack of readiness for peace. In this, Israel is a partner of the leaders of the Damascus Conference, and particularly the regime that is hosting the event, since they all see peace as a vital threat to their existence.
Another common denominator among all of these sides is the inability to settle things military, through resistance or invasion. Israel believes that it can have a military victory, but it is consumed by fear and unable to carry this out. The others believe that they have the tools to inflict defeat on Israel, but they are truly ill-prepared for resistance. It is a game of death that is being played by all, at the expense of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Israelis and Americans as well.
Thus, if US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is serious about making the fall conference a success, she must be strict when she sends messages to the host of the Damascus Conference as well as the Israeli guest in Annapolis, Maryland.

For the Israeli leadership, the message must be as follows: the US is asking the state of Israel for a deadline on a serious political process that leads to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement on the structure of peace between them, and the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and security next to Israel.

In other words, if it is impossible for the fall conference, scheduled to take place during the last week of November, to produce clear tracks for a permanent solution and the permanent status of the Palestinian territories, the White House should produce a serious negotiation process, with time-tables and a final deadline. If this is impossible, there is no need to hold a conference at this time. It would be better to postpone it until Israel is ready to be serious about working for peace, or cancel it altogether.

At the least, the fall conference should involve negotiation on the final status arrangements, based on certain fundamentals, and should be a conference of negotiations in light of the inability to turn the gathering into a conference of implementing commitments, visions, and the road map to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Today it’s being said that Olmert is weak and unable to make deals. The same is said about the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Israeli circles.

The goal can be summed up as providing justifications for Israeli stalling when it comes to the requirements and deals that need to be made for a permanent peace. The current stalling can be observed in the lack of readiness to make any reference to the 1967 borders: the borders of defeat and victory, the borders of peace, the borders of coexistence, the borders that have entered the mind of every international negotiator of the road map to an Arab-Israeli peace.

oday, the Israeli leadership isn’t ready to talk about borders. In fact it wants to erase them and ignore them, and by this it seeks to erase the vision of the establishment of a Palestinian state and erase the idea of ending Israeli occupation; it wants a new dictionary for negotiations.
The duty of US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Rice is for them to say to Olmert and Livni that negotiating with the Palestinians must be the basis. The recognized basis for this are the 1967 borders, UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the principle of exchanging land for peace. Perhaps these borders could be modified based on land exchange, but the agreement must involve putting a certain ceiling on the exchange of land in the West Bank based on the 1967 borders.

In this way, the conference of the fall can be turned into a serious process with a deadline for active negotiations that lead to a solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the next ten days, Rice must understand that Arab states are truly unable to accept their invitations to the conference if it lacks these goals as a minimum. Bush and Rice should stop believing that the Arabs are coming to the conference, no matter what it comprises, and under any condition. This act of political suicide is unlikely to happen and the US and Israeli leaderships should understand this. If Israel insists that now isn’t the time for negotiations, then the Arabs will not attend the conference of the fall, no matter how much Bush shouts, and no matter how much Rice stares with determination.

Of course, there is a benefit for Palestinians, supported by the ranks of Arab moderates, in attending an international conference dedicated to the Palestinian issue, after spending seven years experiencing the US’ boycott of the Palestinian Authority and the international boycott of the Palestinians. Since there is awareness about this benefit, Arab moderates will be satisfied by a modest conference, as long as it is useful.

They know that there is the possibility of saving the fall conference from collapse, and they believe that the Palestinian interest dictates that this opportunity not be lost; they insist on not giving in to Israeli intransigence so easily. This is an opportunity, not only to see an effective and serious US role, but also to see the international community get involved in the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Here, we can see the importance of the European and Russian roles at this historical juncture. The European Union countries, led by France and the UK, should play a leading role at this time, in the countdown to the fall conference. We can learn whether Russia is truly serious about its interest in the Palestinian issue and ready to take steps on this front, and not just issue pretty statements.

These states must be clear in their messages on three fundamental topics: Israel, Syria and Iran, and the US. The content of the messages should involve an insistence on implementing the Security Council resolution that adopted the Road Map to establishing a Palestinian state – this insistence should be clear and serious. The time has come for seriousness when it comes to international resolutions on Palestine.

The failure to push seriously for a successful conference in the fall will mean a devastating failure for the conference. This in turn will result in destroying the two-state solution and threatening the Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas and the government of Salam Fayad. The two represent the most moderate of all Arab leaderships. Their collapse means, practically speaking, the collapse of movement toward Arab moderation. This is because there is no room for grandstanding against them when it comes to moderation or patriotism, or defending the Palestinian interest. If Israel and the US administration believe that Arab moderates are merely a herd that can be led in any direction and exploited, they should be warned once again: Arab moderation won’t serve as a safety valve and a line of protection for Israel from Arab and Islamic extremism. This is not the task of these moderates. The task of Arab moderation is to adhere to a peaceful solution, coexistence and normalization, if Israel is serious about ending the occupation, establishing a Palestinian state, and halting the practice of avoiding the requirements of peace. Otherwise, Israel can confront extremism by itself – let it be responsible for wasting the negotiation option, so that it is isolated in confronting the option of armed resistance against it. Israel can opt for this path if the option of peace and negotiation fails. If this is Israel’s choice, let it be, since Arab moderates won’t act as an excuse for stalling when it comes to peace and negotiations, or resistance and conflict.

The powers-that-be in Israel appear convinced that the Syrian leadership constitutes the best protection for the Jewish state when it comes to the march of armed Arab-Muslim resistance to it across the long Syrian-Israel border. The Israelis believe that messages of “an understanding” between them and the Syrians are clear, whether this involves a truce or a military confrontation. Within Israel and in American circles, there are those who are preparing for a qualitative jump in Israeli-Syrian relations, because of developments in the Syrian-Iranian relationship, to the extent of crossing the red lines in developing rockets and banned weapons, arming Hizbullah, and allowing it to train and arm other militias in Lebanon.

The report by Ban Ki-moon discusses Hizbullah’s capabilities, the Syrian and Iranian role in strengthening this capability and the Palestinian and other multi-national militias, while Lebanon has once again noted that it is being prepared to become an arena for proxy wars with Israel, so that wars are kept distant from Syrian and Iranian cities.

However, this time the wager will fail, despite all of the attempts. The failure will be helped by the Damascus Conference and the fall conference, while the greater failure will come at the hands of the Security Council, international resolutions and the report by Ki-moon, who clarified that he supported the state, sovereignty and independence, and not militias and their sponsors, who set up a state-within-a-state. He has shown patience and diplomacy in his discussions with Iran and Syria regarding Lebanon. He is telling anyone concerned, with the utmost diplomacy, determination and insistence, that the situation he faces is clear – supporting the state against militias and defending Palestinian refugees from being exploited by Palestinian militias and their sponsors, whoever they are.

October 26th, 2007, 7:05 pm


Bashmann said:


I’m interested to hear your opinion about the article also as it indicts Israel of protecting the Syrian regime.


October 26th, 2007, 7:12 pm


Majhool said:

Great piece. I was thinking along these lines for some time now. I disagree with those who called these changes Superficial. This is globalization and consumerism in the making and this is the real drive for western-like economies. The fact that people want more and better goods will change the entire country very soon. I think Syria is lucky in that the same people who lead Socialism are the ones destroyings it it much peacful that way. I continue to wonder what will happen with those communities that used to support socialism will feel/think!!

In the 50s/60s peasants looked with envy/anger at the wealth in the interior and revolted (Baath) but what will they do now that the Baath itself is revitalizing the old system?

October 26th, 2007, 7:40 pm


Alex said:


Raghida Dergham is the last person to take her opinion about Syria.

It is like asking an antisemitic person if he wants to convert to Judaism.

You know why she is sad latrelyh? .. she attended the New York luncheon of the Centiry Foundation on Syria … the Jews at the conference advocated making deals with Bahsar and spoke nicely of him.

She kept raising her hand and interrupting “I object! … as a Lebanese Ia m deeply offended”.

She is the one who was jumping up and down like a teenager when she read live to LBC viewers the news that Mehlis accused Maher Assad of taking a part in the Hariri murder.

October 26th, 2007, 8:18 pm


Youssef Hanna said:

They were left for a few hours, for everyone to see, and shiver in fear and horror.

Dangling puppets, with the Aleppo court judgements wrapped around the body.

They were five, aging between 18 and 23.

They were hanged.

Brother Syrians, do not, please do not accept.

Arab dictatorships must be stopped.

The matter is urgent.

October 26th, 2007, 9:48 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:


There is point of view in Israel that says that a weak and ineffective Asad is better than the Muslim brotherhood. I think this is short term thinking and too realist for my liking. Israel should give democracy a chance in Syria.

October 26th, 2007, 10:21 pm


Bashmann said:


My point exactly, isn’t a contradiction in your opinion?
Many in Israel, including yourself, are advocating a democratic change in Syria as the price for the Golan, yet the government of Israel seem to be content on keeping the regime in place and at its status quo as to avoid a direct clash with extremists settlers movements and the radical right.

We seem to be in a catch 22. Don’t you think?


October 27th, 2007, 12:21 am


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:


Israel I think is in a reactive stance here. Israelis are not willing to fight in order to instill democracy in Syria. It is just not a goal we are willing to die for and in any case, it won’t happen unless the Syrians are behind it. Therefore, Israel will wait until the regime crumbles or is changed by the Syrians and then make peace. I don’t think it is a catch-22 but let’s discuss.

October 27th, 2007, 12:36 am


IsraeliGuy said:

Dear Bashmann,

Let me try to shed some light on how many Israeli citizens see this issue – and yep, they do have some contradicting thoughts.

Their romantic / human side, wishes the Syrians to have a free and open democracy – just like in any normal democratic country (like in Europe).
That line of thought sees Syria as a potential peace partner and a potential friendly neighbor.

On the other hand, their practical / cynical way of thinking, wishes that nothing will change in Syria and everything will remain the same as it is now.

They wish the country will remain a weak isolated dictatorship that can’t threaten their security strategically.

These contradicting thoughts are often being held by the same people, believe it or not.
It’s like a fight between your heart and your mind, if you understand what I mean.

October 27th, 2007, 12:36 am


Youssef Hanna said:

These were five dummies, aging between 18 and 23.

Their bodies were wrapped with rolls of paper, for every citizen to read, and shiver in horror, and fear.

Dangling for hours, in the middle of Aleppo, in the Middle of Ages.

Is there for liberties in Syria a hope? any other means for the regime to face misery and despair than the rope?

October 27th, 2007, 6:04 am


Enid Houston said:

Flying out of Beirut after the beginnings of the Bristol group’s Reform slate, I remarked to a social anthropologist that if this election did not work then the Swiss Federal Cantonal system was the only way out…she agreed…. This model, vision, for Lebanon is different in the Levant for Syria because of the many small (and large) civil wars fought in Syria since 1918. The US had the horrible Civil War to forge its semi-flexible unity. Lebanon does not want to have to rebuild Beirut and the rest of the country again. Syria has had order if not total internal peace…but the order has survived. Secular and cultural matters should be handled with comity and respect for all people. Why is it that Christians can live in a Sunni or Shia village and “brother Muslims in Lebanon cannot? All this Shia crescent paranoia about Nashralla and the Alawies subverting the Sunni majority is hogwash…for that matter the whole Syria Kurdish population problem can solved be granting those within your borders citizenship. Remember it was they whose statue commemorates the liberation of the Damascus citadel. Civility and order is possible among a cultured civilization as Damascenes, and Damascus owes rural Syria the help it needs from sewage to power…laptops to Wi-max….

October 27th, 2007, 6:45 am


Youssef Hanna said:


October 27th, 2007, 7:32 am


Alex said:

My friend Zenobia … move to Aleppo : )

Ancient Aleppo cuisine tastes of conquest and trade
Wed Oct 24, 2007 11:04am EDT

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis | Reuters

ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters Life!) – Chef Yann Ghazal minces onion, bulgur, lamb and sun-dried chili paste according to an ancient recipe for quince kubbeh, a sweet and sour delicacy influenced by Aleppo’s trade with China.

The blend is shaped into an oval and filled with meat, nuts and onions. A sauce of quince pieces, garlic, pomegranate molasses and mint distinguishes the dish from 40 kubbeh varieties still made in homes across one of the oldest inhabited cities on the planet.

“If you mince the raw kubbeh too much you lose the crunchy taste. The meat is young lamb that is grazed on nothing but wild pastures,” Ghazal said, while mincing by hand and adding water to the mixture in a clay bowl.

“All ingredients are organic and most are grown around Aleppo. There is good appreciation of taste here,” said the 25-year-old chef who trained at the Pourcel Brothers in France before returning to his home city.

With silk road fame and cosmopolitan prosperity, today’s Syrian city of Aleppo was the culinary capital of the Middle East before cultural and commercial decline took its toll.

Syria is opening up its economy in the last few years after decades of nationalization and state control and reviving interest in the city’s cuisine.

A recipe for quince kubbeh was found documented in an 800-year-old book on Aleppan cooking. The cuisine traces its origins to various invaders who coveted the great city, from Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans as well as Armenian and Circassian refugees. Recipes have even come from Africa through Yemen.

Aleppo shares with the Iraqi city of Mosul a specialty for rice kubbeh, which does without the traditional bulgur, a crushed and partially boiled cereal mix. The two cities have ancient family and trading links.

Thousands of Iraqis refugees fled to Aleppo after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and a lot of Iraqi dishes are being incorporated into menus at food stalls which dot the streets.

But Abu Nabhan, an Aleppo institution in the Khan al-Wazeer district, still does brisk business only selling grilled or fried liver, called melak mutajan, the same phrase used to describe an overbearing person. A street in Bab Jenin district is dominated by shops selling zatar, a thyme mix.

Unlike a number of Aleppo restaurants, Ghazal does not use copious amounts of fat and has built upon his French training to develop dishes he first learnt from his mother.

Now Ghazal serves ice-cream with mamounieh, the simpler of usually sophisticated Aleppan desserts. Mamounieh is made from water, sugar, ghee butter and semolina. Ghazal has also created a dish of humus mousse cake wrapped in a layer of dried meat as part of a buffet he oversees at Aleppo’s Mirage Hotel.

“Chefs in France have started mixing Aleppan and European food and customers like it,” Ghazal said.


The young chef was lured back to Syria by Nauman Wannes, a founding member of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy, which started a few years ago in Aleppo to preserve and develop the city’s culinary tradition.

The international Academy of Gastronomy in Paris has awarded Aleppo a cultural gastronomy prize and a delegation from the Istanbul branch lately visited Aleppo, which has dishes similar to ones known in Turkey.

“Aleppo’s location has been key. There are also dishes that are not found even just outside city limits,” said Wannes, whose upbringing reflects the turbulence, tolerance and cultures that crossed Aleppo and influenced its cuisine.

Wannes’ father Najdat studied pharmacy during the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, where he met his Austrian wife. He returned to Syria and became a leading opponent of the 1920-1946 French occupation but still sent his son to study medicine in France.

Academy member Aida Gorani said Turkey’s influence could be mostly seen in Aleppan pastries and vegetarian dishes.

“It’s still common to find Aleppans who speak Turkish or have a Turkish aunt or grandparent,” said Gorani while sampling an aubergine filled with chickpeas and bulgur.

A lunch organized by the academy showcased salads, appetizers and main courses from daily Aleppan home cuisines that take hours to prepare.

Thyme leafs decorate olive salad, another salad combines pickles and vegetables, parsley omelettes have no milk and served cold, yogurt sauce covers a zucchini (courgette) dish and green peppers are stuffed with frikeh, or roasted green wheat.

“I live between France, Egypt and Lebanon, but this food is unavailable anywhere,” said Abboud Ghantous, a Syrian who runs a steel trading conglomerate.

Majd Hinedi, another expatriate businessman who is planning to settle back in the city, said they were still families in Aleppo who guard famous dishes they have been exclusively making for centuries.

“Get a few Aleppans together and the conversation naturally turns toward food,” Hinedi said. “In Aleppo, cuisine is the equivalent of art.”

October 27th, 2007, 8:15 am


Cuba » Blog Archives » “Syria is No Longer Cuba,” by Ibrahim Hamidi said:

[…] Advertising billboards, however, are everywhere to be found. … Posted in Cuba | Trackback | del.icio.us | Top OfPage […]

October 27th, 2007, 11:06 am


Youssef Hanna said:


Besides kebbé, thyme leafs, olive salad, parsley omelettes, frikeh, which r indeed five very interesting subjects, do Aleppinos talk of the five corpses that the authorities maintained yesterday on a public place, dangling for a few hours, covered with the text of the Aleppo court judgement?

October 27th, 2007, 1:13 pm


ugarit said:

That’s what capitalism is about. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. I think you guys are mixing it up with socialism by assuming that capitalism distributes wealth amongst the majority of the population.

October 27th, 2007, 3:27 pm


Bashmann said:

IG and AIG,

Thanks for the frank and open thoughts on this. It’s a pleasure to discuss politics without hypocrisy.

I totally see where you are coming from, however it does not serve the interests of many Free Syrians or Israelis who believe in those ideals of democracy and freedom.
The government of Syria or the current regime considers the State of Israel its #1 enemy. This gives the regime the perfect excuse to keep in effect the emergency law which was instituted over thirty five years ago and have since been used as we say in Syria like “Othman Shirt”, a metaphor for an Islamic historical reference to first major schism in Islam which led to endless wars and divisions amongst Muslims for over 1400 years.

It is understandable that an Israeli citizen feels torn between these contradicting positions on Syria and Golan, however what makes this particularly troubling is the animosity it produces towards Israel from ordinary Syrians who feels to be dealt double jeopardy in their quest for political reforms and a representative government, first by the regime then by its enemy.

In the Middle-East as you mentioned cynicism is second nature to anyone who lived in that part of the world, therefore my argument about catch 22 apply to both sides.


October 27th, 2007, 4:32 pm


EHSANI2 said:

Syria’s main problem is the lack of economic growth. Whether its economic system is called socialism, capitalism or social market is not really the issue. The country does not have a growth-oriented platform. Its population is young and growing significantly. The current and expected growth numbers will not be sufficient to absorb such numbers. Relative to our regional neighbors and beyond,
the country has a poor infrastructure and a differential disadvantage when it comes to attracting capital. When capital did decide to come, it has done so because some of the assets were either too cheap or way underdeveloped. The capital investments thus far have been supported by a local sponsor who has guaranteed such investments a monopoly-type profit opportunity. Syrians in the Diaspora have close to $80 billion. The vast majority of them are yet to feel confident enough to start to invest some of their wealth back at home. Some have of course but the numbers have remained paltry. Syria’s leadership is yet to make a single major speech on the economy. One day, Bashar says subsidies will never be lifted. Soon thereafter, his chief economic policy maker hints that subsidies are likely to be phased out. Once the reaction turns negative from the public, the idea is quickly dropped.

Maintaining the status quo is Syria’s main strategy. Were changes or reforms to be implemented, they are likely to be of the baby steps variety. If one uses a spreadsheet to chart the country’s future growth, unemployment and income statistics the news is dire. In another country, a quick surgery will be ordered. In Syria’s case, a couple of Advils are likely to be advised in the hope that the pain will somehow disappear and that the inevitable day of will somehow be avoided.

Now to the Ibrahim Hamidi’s article:

During my trip to Syria this summer, I did fly from my base in Aleppo to Damascus for an overnight stay. I flew on Syrian Airlines, which was heading to Abu Dhabi with a stopover in Damascus (most internal flights work this way). The fare was Syp 1,100. Given that first class is syp 500 more ($US 10), I decided to indulge myself. There was only one other person in the first class cabin with me (turned out to be an old friend from Aleppo). We shared a taxi together to the Four Seasons hotel where I was staying. Given the fact that I made the reservation the night before, I was told that I would have to pay full fare without discount. My room had a view, which took me back $290 (without breakfast). I will not bore the readers with my trip. The highlight was a trip to the bar of the terrace on top of the Umayyad hotel (Dr. Landis’s suggestion). The glass of Vodka was for $8 each. My friend and I ordered a bottle. The cost of my day-trip to Damascus had by then quickly surpassed $500 (thankfully my wife decided not to join me on the trip).

This was the monthly salary of my cousin who was a rising star at one of the local private banks.

Was it worth it?

If Beirut were the benchmark, my answer would be not at all. From the hotels, to the service, to the restaurants to the nightlife, Beirut is no match to Damascus. Sadly, my dear Aleppo does not even come close. Those who are interested in my thoughts on this city need to wait for a dedicated post.

October 27th, 2007, 6:26 pm


MSK said:

Ya Ehsani2,

You say “From the hotels, to the service, to the restaurants to the nightlife, Beirut is no match to Damascus.” – Didn’t you mean it the other way around?

Another thought on Hamidi’s article: Beirut/Lebanon is, I think, the wrong yardstick for comparing today’s Damascus/Syria with a neighbor. A better one would be Egypt, or even Jordan. A very small elite gets insanely rich while the masses stagnate.

Beirut/Lebanon differs in that it has quite a sizable middle class and thus the distribution of wealth and opportunities is more spread out. Even a poor Lebanese youth can realistically plan to achieve a low-to-middle class career & life. Some even make it higher, but exceptions exist everywhere.

The question for Syria is now, whether it manages to re-create the strong middle class it had until the 1960s or whether it will go down the Egypt/Jordan path.


October 28th, 2007, 8:07 am


EHSANI2 said:

Dear MSK,

I did mean it the other way around. I do share your thought about the Syrian middle class. Sadly, it is fast dissapearing

October 28th, 2007, 12:30 pm


Alex.000 said:


You asked an interesting question. In turn I want to ask a related question to Ehsani (who just got a beautiful new exotic car, by the way)

How can a country like Syria choose between the two options? … what would you do to try to recreate the strong middle class?

Is it doable? I am worried that Lebanon’s substantial middle class had a cost associated with it … 4 million Lebanese accumulating close to $50 billions of debt.

Were they all living well through borrowing? … if Lebanon did not have that debt … how would you describe their economic condition?

And please forgive me if my question is stupid, you now I got a C+ in economics : )

October 28th, 2007, 4:59 pm


EHSANI2 said:


It is not a stupid question at all. Lebanon has one of the highest per capita inward transfer rates in the world. Lebanese citizens abroad send a significant money home in other words. It is true that Lebanon has a high debt level. So does the U.S. High debt is acceptable if the interest paid on the debt is below the expected return on the investments that this debt in financing.

Syria will do just that with the new t.bills. Government debt will rise. The increased debt may finance increased infrastructure. This may in turn attract new investments that would create jobs. This simple example highlights how increased debt need not be a negative for an emerging economy.

Middle class gets created or destroyed when the economy grows above or below potential. In Syria’s case, I would guess that the country has not seen such dynamic since socialism was introduced (yes, i am at it again). With low productivity and a weak income growth relative to inflation, purchasing power and standards of living keep sliding lower.

Syria needs a major export policy. Its infrastructure is not sufficient to attract capital. Its domestic demand is too weak. It must however rely on global demand to fill the void. Labor intensive industries need to be given special tax exempt status to help them compete on exports. The Syrian pound needs to stay competitive. This is the only way forward. Investments in real estate do not create enough jobs. Syria faces a daunting unemployment problem. Only a massive emphasis on exports can help.
Sadly, this is not easy. the labor force is not trained. It has no technological expertise. The education system needs an overhaul. The foreign language skills are shockingly inadequate. Jordan, Egypt and Turkey are years ahead of us in this race. Time is not on our side. We must get into the global economic system. The current road we are on is unsustainable. The health system is crumbling. The education system is antiquated. The corruption is endemic. The public sector is too dominant and unproductive. The subsidies are too expensive and unsustainable. With such a backdrop, it is not surprising to see the collapse of the middle class.

I am aware that most will think that I am being too negative and somewhat of an alarmist. The facts however argue otherwise. By 2030, Syria’s population will double. Just think of the consequences.

October 28th, 2007, 7:12 pm


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