Syria Stays Above the Fray

Assad to Ahmadinejad: “You’re a great guy, Mahmoud, but I’m just not that into you.’

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Click image to expand.
Syrian President Bashar Assad

DAMASCUS, Syria—The historic Abu Nour Mosque has been, by reputation, one of the Syrian capital’s shining examples of moderate Islam. For many years, it was the spiritual home of Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, who spent much of his career proclaiming Christians and Muslims “brothers under the banner of Abraham” and participating in interfaith dialogue with figures like Robert Schuller of California’s famed Crystal Cathedral. Kuftaro’s sermons may not have always been models of Western-style multicultural sensitivity, but by regional standards, he was a model of religious tolerance.

Last weekend, as the Israel-Lebanon conflict dominated discourse here, Sheik Salah Kuftaro—the former grand mufti’s son, who has said in the past that political Islam has no place in the mosque—sounded a different note in his weekly address at Abu Nour. Hamas and Hezbollah, he said, represent the middle ground. Their members are not terrorists; in fact, they present a path young Muslims should aim to follow. The younger Sheik Kuftaro laid out a litany of recent Muslim grievances, a thread of outrage that ran from the alleged desecration of the Quran at Guantanamo to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to the violence that continues to rage in Lebanon. Jihad, he concluded, was the calling of all Muslims.

Clearly, Sheik Kuftaro has his finger on the pulse of this town. At this moment, Hezbollah is the toast of Damascus. Giant banners hanging over the Souk al-Hamidiyeh laud the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah; stalls in the open-air market offer T-shirts, posters, and banners featuring his likeness, along with the ubiquitous Hezbollah logo—a clenched fist grasping an AK-47. Last night, a grinning merchant in the souk proudly displayed his selections: multiple T-shirt styles, in assorted colors and sizes, each bearing a portrait of the Hezbollah leader proffering subtle variations on the same tight-lipped smile. (Beside me, a woman in a black hijab seemed more interested in a stack of T-shirts that bore an English-language motto: “Parental Warning: Explicit/Original Thug.”)

For Syrian President Bashar Assad, the outpouring of public support for the militant group, in Syria and throughout the Arab world, offers both promise and peril. Hezbollah’s current popularity is one reason the regime he heads feels that the breaks are finally coming its way at the expense of U.S.-backed governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “The U.S. blocks the cease-fire, which is like saying, ‘Right now, Hezbollah is defending Arabs, and the Americans are providing the bombs that kill them,’ ” one official told me yesterday. “Nothing about this is hard for people to understand.”

Syria hasn’t yet joined in the fight to its south—but that isn’t because Hezbollah hasn’t tried. The group has attempted to draw Syria into the conflict through means both indirect (via rumors that Israeli jets had bombed areas within Syria) and far more pointed (Haifa, Israel, has been bombarded with Syrian-made missiles). Still, Syria has so far refused to take the bait.

Why the pragmatism? Some observers here believe that it’s nothing more than a transparent play to enhance Syria’s influence in post-conflict Lebanon. Others point to a larger external concern: Syria is just, well … lonely. The country’s economic fortunes have suffered since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last February; the resulting international isolation has forced it further into the Iranian axis. A restrained Syrian response could warm up the international cold shoulder. Besides, the government is not eager to be drawn into an unwinnable fight it didn’t ask for. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad and the mullahs have been aching for Assad to make a more tangible show of support for both Iran and its proxy militia. Assad’s reluctance to enter the fray on those terms seems to be an unmistakable signal to his eager ally: You’re a great guy, Mahmoud, but I’m just not that into you.

Obviously, Syria can’t, and doesn’t particularly want to, completely turn its back on Hezbollah; the usual rent-a-crowd demonstrations on the streets of Damascus, and the vitriolic statements from the Assad regime have happened as expected. But the country is clearly keeping its options open. Syria may offer more support for Hezbollah than the United States and Israel are happy with—but U.S.-backed regime-change here, despite the tough talk out of Washington during the last few days, now seems more unlikely than ever. In fact, in light of the failure of the Rome cease-fire talks, which excluded both Syria and Iran, it seems inevitable that Damascus will ultimately play a role in negotiating a lasting cease-fire agreement.

Some Israelis are even calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to enter into negotiations with Assad that could include Lebanese issues—a development that has not been lost on leadership here in Damascus. In a deteriorating situation—where options range from the merely unappetizing to the mind-blowingly awful—some observers say the return of Syrian influence might be the best Lebanon can hope for.