FROM the moment I arrived at Damascus Airport until 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 almost as though they were rehearsed: ``We want and desire peace and the sooner the better.'' ``But peace,'' they added, ``must be based on a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.''
The question of how deep this sentiment ran and what precipitated such feelings after five decades of intense enmity toward Israel greatly interested me. After many conversations it became abundantly clear that peace was more than a slogan.
Individual Syrians view renewed war as an utter waste that will only inflict further suffering and pain. Most Syrian families, I was told, have sustained terrible losses in past wars and have no stomach for renewed conflict.
Although they are technically still in a state of war, Syria and Israel have not engaged each other militarily since 1982, and the Syrian public has begun to think realistically about the prospects for peace.
Socially, Syrians seem to have found a healthy balance between the Baath socialist political orientation and Islam, the state religion. Though Islam is predominant and the Syrians' general outlook is conservative, personal freedom is expanding without upsetting the delicate social balance the government is bent on preserving. The Syrians are proud that there is hardly any crime in their country and no drug addicts roam the streets of Damascus. They boast that there is only a handful of AIDS cases and that a sense of personal safety exists throughout the country.
Having said that, I must add the strains of 25 years of limited political and social freedom are quite apparent. Abu-Omer, a taxi driver, rolled up his car window before he could answer even a sympathetic question about President Hafez al-Assad's domestic policies.
The measured liberalization the Syrians have experienced over the past three years, however, has raised expectations that peace with Israel will inadvertently pave the way for more personal freedom.
The three-year-old government's economic development program has dramatically changed the economic outlook for a majority of Syrians. The government's encouragement of private industrial investments, expansion of farm land, building of light industry, and more liberal import and export policies, have made Syria nearly self-sufficient in food production.
But despite this progress, the average Syrian worker earns only 4,000 to 5,000 Syrian liras ($100 to $120) a month, making it tough to cope financially. Since most women stay at home to care for their children, Syrian men often seek hard-to-get second jobs to supplement their incomes.
For the average Syrian, only peace would open up extensive economic opportunities, further expand the market economy, and attract foreign capital - all of which is essential to create sorely needed well-paying jobs. ``I look forward to the day when I can trade with Israel - God willing,'' a shopkeeper said.
All the Syrians I encountered during my trip, including taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters, tailors, businessmen, and teachers, refused to engage openly in discussion about government policies. They never mentioned President Assad by name. They did, however, speak freely and with excitement about the prospects of peace with Israel. On this score, they followed their president's position and said they fully support his concept of ``the Peace of the Brave.''
This was not just a catch phrase among the Syrians I have met. For the vast majority, Assad's characterization of the requirements for peace touches a deep nationalistic and emotional cord. Like the Israelis, the Syrians have become prisoners of a national 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. At the same time, Syrians were being told by their government that the Golan was captured through a war of aggression that had exacted a heavy national toll. Therefore, as desirable as peace has become in the eyes of ordinary Syrians, the question of national pride and honor looms larger, making it unthinkable to accept peace under any circumstances other than total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
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 has passed is dead], no more hatred and no more fear, we want to live and let live.''
For the past three years, the Assad government has embarked upon a low-key public relations effort to present the idea of peace with Israel as a way to ensure regional prosperity. The news media has been given the green light to discuss the advantages of peace. Having made a total Israeli withdrawal a prerequisite to restoring national honor, Assad may have painted himself into a corner.
``But patience pays,'' says Abu Salem, the restaurant owner. ``The Israelis will eventually realize that we mean business when we say we want peace, and the price is the Golan.''
For people who have followed the flag patiently and have sacrificed much in the name of peace, recovering that land seems not only natural but imperative. I am firmly convinced that the Syrian people will follow their leader, not because his portrait follows them everywhere they go, but because they truly believe that his concept of ``the Peace of the Brave'' is the right one. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.