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The best article on Syria in a decade

October 22nd, 2009 · 11 Comments · Politics

Screen shot 2009-10-22 at 16.24.26It’s that good. Seriously. I had my doubts – especially with the Mafia intro, and with the following paragraph, but this pot of gold is worth digging into, despite the mud obscuring the top.

[Syria is] a place where you can dine out with friends at a trendy café, and then, while waiting for a night bus, hear blood-chilling screams coming from a second-floor window of the Bab Touma police station. In the street, Syrians cast each other knowing glances, but no one says a word. Someone might be listening.


A bus in Bab Touma at night?

But honestly, the extensive quotes from Bashar and Abdallah Dardari (deputy prime minister for economic affairs) more than make up for it. As does Don Belt’s solid analysis throughout this National Geographic article. He’s obviously been given a great deal of access to the higher rungs of Syrian government, and understands how the country works.

This article is the real Syria. It is a checklist of points which Syrians know about their country, but which foreign journalists skip over, in the rush to confirm their own stereotypes.

Belt has clearly been reading Patrick Seale’s Asad, and David Lesch’s excellent Bashar biography, The New Lion of Damascus in preparation for his interviews. Certain chunks are written in exactly the same tone:

Shortly after the funeral, Bashar entered his father’s office for only the second time in his life. He has a vivid memory of his first visit, at age seven, running excitedly to tell his father about his first French lesson. Bashar remembers seeing a big bottle of cologne on a cabinet next to his father’s desk. He was amazed to find it still there 27 years later, practically untouched. That detail, the stale cologne, said a lot about Syria’s closed and stagnant government, an old-fashioned dictatorship that Bashar, trained in healing the human eye, felt ill-equipped to lead.

It gives a nod to American concerns about Syria – Iraq, Hariri, even Hama. And it is brutally honest in its assessment of where Syria is at – and all told through an authentic Syrian voice, thanks to Belt’s excellent interviews.

Inside Syria, Hafez was a master at downplaying the country’s potentially explosive religious identities and building an adamantly secular regime. He discouraged the use of the term Alawi in public and changed the name of his home region to the Western mountains; it is still considered impolite to ask about a Syrian’s religion today.

Wasta (Vitamin Wow – a combination of influence, nepotism and corruption) gets a mention. It’s not often it gets explained in Syrian terms in the English-language press:

Shortly after Bashar returned from London, he diagnosed Syria as suffering from an overdose of Vitamin Wow. After taking office in 2000, he launched a tough anticorruption campaign, firing a number of ministers and bureaucrats and vowing to replace old, wasta-loving ways with the “new mentality” he was seeking to instill. Swept up in the spirit of reform, he went on to release hundreds of political prisoners and eased the restrictions on political dissent—a so-called Damascus Spring that quickly spread from living rooms to a growing subculture of Internet cafés. It was Bashar himself who had made this last trend possible, working with like-minded technocrats to computerize Syria even before he became president. Over the objections of the country’s powerful military-intelligence complex, Bashar had persuaded his father to connect Syria to the World Wide Web in 1998.

There are brutal acknowledgments of the mistakes of the past:

“We’ve inherited an economy that runs on patronage and government money, and we can’t keep it up.” … “Forty years of socialism—this is what we’re up against,” said Abdallah Dardari, 46, a London-educated economist who serves as deputy prime minister for economic affairs. Bashar has recruited Syria’s best and brightest expatriates to return home. The new team has privatized the banking system, created duty-free industrial parks, and opened a Damascus stock exchange to encourage more of the private and foreign investment that has quickened the pulse of the capital and launched dozens of upscale nightclubs and restaurants.

And an understanding of the country’s future:

In his push to modernize, Bashar’s most potent ally is his wife, the former Asma al-Akhras, a stylish, Western-educated business executive who has launched a number of government-sponsored programs for literacy and economic empowerment. Daughter of a prominent Syrian heart specialist, Asma was born and raised in London. She and Bashar have three children, whom they’re fond of taking on picnics and bicycle rides in the hills around the capital—a marked contrast to Hafez al Assad, who was rarely seen in public. “You only know what people need if you come in contact with them,” Bashar said. “We refuse to live inside a bubble. I think that’s why people trust us.”

And it all swings round to a beautiful – and powerful – ending, with an unexpected twist. It’s a twist that challenges the Big Brother cliche about Syria – and draws a big circle around the real issue facing the country. It’s that twist – that reality – that the writer hopes you’ll be left with. He’s truly a brilliant storyteller. Read the article, pass it on, read it again. It should be compulsory reading for every journalist flying into Damascus International Airport.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Don Belt also wrote this excellent piece about Christians in the Arab World a few months ago.


11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Qifa Nabki // Oct 22, 2009 at 7.10 pm


    I thought it was good too, but it didn’t leave me as optimistic as it left you. Bashar has a lot on his plate… it’s not clear to me how exactly he is going to turn the country around any time soon.

    Another 40 years may be needed…

  • 2 Sasa // Oct 22, 2009 at 7.13 pm

    Good to have you here Qifa. I agree the challenges are massive. But you know me, the “regime hack”, an eternal optimist.

    My commentary was on the accuracy of Belt’s representation of Syria – more than the state of Syria itself. Belt points out a number of challenges facing the country, but he does it without resorting to the usual hysterical style. And he puts his finger on the country’s real problems.

    All in all, an impressive piece of writing.

  • 3 Ali // Oct 22, 2009 at 8.33 pm

    “It was Bashar himself who had made this last trend possible, working with like-minded technocrats to computerize Syria even before he became president. Over the objections of the country’s powerful military-intelligence complex, Bashar had persuaded his father to connect Syria to the World Wide Web in 1998.

    He succeeded in doing the reverse what he thought he is up to. He killed this medium and kept Syria in Dark Ages.

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  • 5 abu kareem // Oct 23, 2009 at 4.51 am


    I read it just last night. It was good, but nothing much new. There remains a level of opacity in the workings of the Syrian government that is still hard to penetrate even by the best journalists. No one has yet explained to my satisfaction the discordance between Bashar’s apparent openness, his likeable demeanor, his sincerity and the reality on the ground ; the way the government actually behaves towards its people. A 78 year old respected lawyer is thrown in jail and no one dares to utter a word. Fear still prevails as the article makes clear. Is this Bashar’s Syria or is it still the Syria of the old guard?

  • 6 Syria Almighty // Oct 24, 2009 at 5.05 am

    I read this article last week. A classmate of mine had a copy of National Geographic and read the Syria portion. He gave me the magazine, not telling me why, but I knew it was going to be about Syria.

    Anyway, it was a good article, but that’s it. It was not completely accurate, and the mafia intro was ridiculous.

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  • 10 Raed ibn al sham // Feb 2, 2010 at 5.04 pm

    Not surprised. Americans have a way of looking at the bad side of everybody else but themselves. A quick tour of many american cities would show you the real truth about their society and so called freedom and security. Try walking at night in most of their cities, you’d better have a up to date will before you do. And the screams you hear at night in American cities which they have become accustomed to are the screams of kids getting molested, women being raped and anyone venturing outside and getting mugged. Oh America the beautiful, look inside, hypocracy is an american invention.

  • 11 M. M // Mar 4, 2014 at 6.46 pm

    It is interesting to read this article 3 years into the civil war. Lets see now if these “rebels” got what they want. Total chaos

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