5 NOVEMBER 1988, Page 13


Charles Glass on the part played

by Muslim fundamentalists in the rivalry between Syria and Iraq

Damascus THERE is a shop in the old souks of Damascus which sells, among other things on its shelves of oriental bric-a-brac, post- cards of Syria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The shop's proprietor is particularly proud of the faded photo- graphs of his native city, Hama, in the near north of Syria. These sepia-tinted prints show Hama as it looked many years ago, with its stone mosques and palaces rising gently from both banks of the river Orontes. One card, captioned, '12– HAMA.–Vallee de l'Oronte', has a view of the town from a bend in the river which makes it look like a Syrian Venice, houses and terraces built at the water's edge. Another card pictures 'Les Norias pour l'irrigation des Jardins', wooden water- wheels three storeys high turning with the river's flow, lifting water up to ancient stone aqueducts which had long before 'I'm proud of him, he's deactivated all his fireworks.' fallen into decay. Another card, called, '13–HAMA.–Maison du Moutsaref , shows a lovely domed house with its own water-wheel at the river's edge. Its grace- ful, arched balconies and shuttered win- dows face the gardens on the opposite bank.

When I asked the shopkeeper what the house was, he said, 'It was the Keylani Palace. It's not there any more.'

'What happened to it?'

'Those nice boys destroyed it.'

'Those nice boys' were, of course, the government commandos and artillery gun- ners who reconquered Hama in the spring of 1982, after the city had fallen briefly into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood was the largest underground Islamic fundamentalist move- ment in Syria, and the putsch in Hama marked the height and end of its power to challenge the secular regime in Damascus. When the Brothers took the town, they murdered the ruling Baath Party's officials and their families. They declared their control of the town and waited for the rest of Syria to rise. It didn't, and the govern- ment retook Hama with all the force at its disposal. Thousands died. The story has been told and retold, and it has many lessons for Syria, for the rest of the Levant and for the outside powers who would play a role here. Like the norias in Hama, the wheels of history are always creaking and turning, even if the water they deposit onto their broken aqueducts merely falls back into the river.

'This administration', an American di- plomat, referring to the Reagan adminis- tration, said at an off-the-record briefing for the visiting press, 'is determined to leave a viable policy for the next adminis- tration.' The new American ambassador, a suave Armenian with a brilliant command of languages, echoed his subordinate later, amending the formula only slightly, to 'a coherent policy'. I wondered how on earth an administration whose policy in the Middle East had been neither 'viable' nor 'coherent' hoped to leave this chimera to its successor.

In September 1982, in the aftermath of Israel's public disgrace for facilitating the Sabra and Chatila massacres in Beirut, President Ronald Reagan unveiled the `Reagan Plan' for peace in the Middle East. Reagan's stated policy at that time was a just peace between Israel and the Arabs, a settlement of the Palestinian question, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and the restoration of Lebanon's territorial integrity and unity. Israel, in word and deed, rejected Reagan's proposals outright. Most Arabs, with the notable exceptions of Syria and the PLO, accepted Reagan's goals, with modifications.

The Reagan administration set about trying to restore order to Lebanon. Leba- non is living with the results of that element of the 'viable' and 'coherent' policy today. Where did the United States go wrong? I am reminded of an old New Yorker cartoon of two men in an earnest discussion at a cocktail party. One is saying to the other, 'You're leaving out one thing, Fred — Asia.' The United States forgot one thing in Lebanon — Syria. Syria had 40,000 troops in more than half of Leba- non. It armed all the major, and most of the minor, Lebanese opposition groups. Many of the Palestinians were under its thumb. Ignoring Syria, the United States encouraged discussions between the frail Lebanese government and Israel on what concessions the Lebanese would make in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from their country.

While the discussions were under way, someone blew up the US embassy on the Corniche in Muslim west Beirut. George Bush flew out to have his picture taken amid the ruins, Marine helmet at a jaunty angle on his head. The secretary of state, George Shultz, sought to salvage some- thing from the debris by compelling the Lebanese to sign an agreement with Israel a month later on 17 May 1983. It was known then, if not now, as the Shultz Accord. It was Shultz's only negotiated settlement in his six years as secretary of state, and it was a disaster. The Lebanese negotiators insist to this day that the Americans assured them they could deliver Syrian acceptance of the accord. The Americans couldn't.

Syrian opposition led to the abrogation of the Shultz Accord, the end of the uneasy peace which then reigned in Beirut, the loss of all hope for an end to the Lebanese civil war.

The coherence and viability of the admi- nistration's Middle East policy revealed itself earlier this year when the United States switched sides in Lebanon and embraced the man who had been Shultz's undoing, President Hafez al Assad of Syria. The United States said it would support Syria's candidate for president, an obscure Maronite member of the Lebanese parliament named Mikhail Daher, when the term of President Amin Gemayel ended in September. The Syrians insist, and American diplomats confess, that the Americans assured the Syrians they could deliver Lebanon's Maronites in support of the Syrian-US candidate. The Americans couldn't.

Lebanon has no president. The outside world is delivering, not concessions for peace, but arms to the Christians in the east and Muslims in the west of what was the capital of what was Lebanon. The `There's been a full and rank exchange of views . . Christians have been encouraged to resist American pressure by two states which should be beholden to the United States: Israel, indebted to America for obvious reasons, and Iraq, which the US fleet and observation satellites enabled to salvage partial victory from total defeat in the Gulf War.

Iraq is back in the Arab game now that it has a ceasefire on the Iranian front. It is using the Lebanese Christians to damage Syria, just as Syria used Lebanon's Mus- lims to oppose at various times the United States, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Syria is again compelling the Muslims and so-called 'progressives' to resist Christian attempts to keep Lebanon partitioned. The Syrian-Iraqi confronta- tion is not confined to Lebanon. Iraq has allies inside Syria, many but not all of them in prison. It can attempt to destabilise the regime, playing on Sunni Muslim sympathy for Iraq, whose Sunni Muslim dictator held the Persian Shi'ites at bay. The president of Syria, though primarily a secular leader, is not a Sunni Muslim, as are most Syrians. He is an Alawite Muslim, a branch sect of Shi'ism, and he has been generous to the other minorities in Syria, including the Christians and Jews. Many Syrians now speak openly of their fears of, or hopes for, a Syrian intifada, possibly with Iraqi back- ing, like the uprisings in Palestine and Algeria.

Syria for its part plays host to most Iraqi groups. A spokesman for one of the Iraqi parties told me that, with the ceasefire, the Iraqi opposition can no longer be accused of supporting the Persian enemy. 'Saddarn Hussein uses the Maronites in Lebanon,' he said. 'They have their co-ordination with the Zionists. Iraqis must ask them- selves where they are going. With the [Christian] Lebanese forces and with the Zionists?' Syria, despite its new-found friendship with the 'coherent' and 'viable' strategists in Washington, is supporting Ad-Dawa, the Islamic fundamentalist dis- sidents from Iraq who blew up the US embassy in Kuwait in 1983. Syria's presi- dent recently received the head of Iraq's underground Islamic Council, Sayed Bakr al-Hakim, and encouraged him to join a front of other Islamic militants, commun- ists, dissident Iraqi Baathists and Kurds to bring down the regime of President Sad- dam Hussein in Baghdad. (If that coalition ever took power, I would not want to be the only unarmed man in the first cabinet meeting.) The Muslim Brotherhood, which was fighting for exactly the kind of Islamic government in Syria which Sayed Bakr al-Hakim wants to install in Iraq, must have been puzzled by the photograph, published on the front pages of all Syrian dailies, of Hafez al-Assad with the Iraqi Muslim fundamentalist. As they look around Hama, they must know that as long as the Orontes flows, the norias will turn round and round, changing nothing.