Syrian renaissance darkened by prospect of war

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It's past 11 p.m. in the trendy Pitstop cafe in central Damascus. We're in the last days of Ramadan, so the cafe - like the streets outside - is bustling. At the table next to us, two young women, enjoying an evening out over a latte and a traditional hubble-bubble pipe, symbolize the way a new generation of Syrians is creating its own modernity from "Eastern" and "Western" sources.

One of the young women wears the hair-concealing head scarf of an observant Muslim tucked into the neck of her stylish pantsuit. The other, tossing flowing J-Lo locks as she talks, could be either a secular Muslim or one of the 15 percent of Syrians who belong to the country's ancient Christian churches. Young women having a night out together without a male chaperone: until recently, you wouldn't see that in many Arab countries. And in many of them, you still don't.

If there's much that's new in 21st-century Syria, the easy social interaction between local Muslims and Christians, in general, is traditional.

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For example, my Syrian Christian friend Mahat Khoury took me to a traditional Ramadan iftar meal at the ultrasnob Club de l'Orient. As we waited at our food-laden table for the prayer permitting Muslims to break their day-long fast, several of Mrs. Khoury's Muslim friends came to greet us warmly. Many of the family groups there had a mix of head-scarved and free-hair women - all seeming to have fun together.

"We really do have a tolerant society," one high government official told me. "The degree of anyone's religious observance, or what particular religion a person belongs to, is really a personal matter. Other people respect that. That's how we get along."

I've been traveling to this lovely city of minarets, nestled between a large mountain and the desert, since 1970. Today, I see Damascus poised on a knife-edge between a palpable sense of new excitement and a strong sense of fear. Much of the excitement stems from the hopes foreconomic and political liberalization sparked by the new-generation president, Bashar al-Assad, inaugurated in 2000 after the passing of his father, the previous president. The fear stems from the prospect that a US-led war on neighboring Iraq would create regional turmoil.

Signs of the nation's renaissance include the adoption of new means of communication by many. There's been a steady growth in Internet access, and Syrian studios now produce a lot of the Arab world's TV programming.

Syrians particularly like watching TV during Ramadan. This year, there was a new series called "Spotlight" that intrigued viewers by poking an unprecedented amount of fun at Mr. Assad. In one episode, he was portrayed as bumbling and wooden at an Arab summit, while his Lebanese counterpart sycophantically agreed with everything he said.

"Suddenly, people are not sure where the 'red lines' on freedom of speech are any more," one Syrian friend commented.

Not all the signs are good. Last year, 10 organizers of the proliberalization Committees for the Revival of Civil Society were sentenced to prison. Few Syrians expect political change to be rapid - but it does seem possible.

Now, though, the threat of war between the US and Iraq hangs over Syria. Syrians express three main fears in this regard. Primarily, they worry that instability in Iraq will spill over here. Syria borders on both the government-controlled and the Kurdish-held portions of Iraq. It has some business relations with Baghdad - but a much warmer array of relationships with Iraqi opposition groups.

Syrians told me they fear that a war-induced breakup of Iraq might prompt Turkey - which borders both Syria and Iraq - to grab land in oil-rich northern Iraq. This could send a cascade of instability through the region. A recent peaceful demonstration in Damascus by some of Syria's own sizable Kurdish community was a foretaste of what might lie ahead.

A second fear is that under cover of a US-Iraq war, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might strike very hard against the Palestinians, or Syria, or Lebanon.

A third fear is the clear expectation that a unilateral US strike against Iraq could poison Muslim-Christians relations in Syria - and between the Arab world and the West. When I visited local Christian leaders here last summer, they warned that the anti-Muslim rhetoric heard from some prominent US church leaders threatened to put their own situation as members of the indigenous Christian minority at risk. A US-Iraqi war could deepen that polarization.

Most Syrians are very welcoming to an American guest, but express anger at US policies that they see as hostile to them and other Arabs, trigger-happy with respect to Iraq, and complicit in Israel's many actions against the Palestinians.

So while Syrians remain eager to adopt those "Western" ways that fit their own view of a desirable modern lifestyle, they try hard to reject anything specifically American. There is a broad grass-roots boycott of US products - but Syrians still love to shop European.

The many Syrians who retain fondness for the US feel themselves under increasing pressure to choose sides.

"I feel torn down the middle," a Syrian professor here on sabbatical from an American university told me, in anguish.

He and many Syrians judge new US immigration regulations - which force residents of Syria to be fingerprinted when entering the US - to be particularly humiliating.

One outraged think-tank administrator pointed with horror to the fact that even Mrs. Khoury, a well-respected doyenne of Syrian society, was fingerprinted on a recent church-related visit to the US.

"They cannot possibly think she is a terrorist! But it seems we are considered guilty just for being Syrians," she said.

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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