July 23, 2012

Syria, the uprising and Mezzeh

Some personal thoughts on recent events in Syria from the perspective of having lived in Damascus for several years.

Over the past few days, there have been clashes in the city of Damascus, specifically in the al-Maydan, Kafr Susah, al-Rukn and al-Mizzih (usually spelled Mezzeh in the media) sections of the city. I am intimately familiar with these areas, especially the last two. The U.S. embassy, where my office was located, is in Abu Rumanah, adjacent to al-Rukn, and we lived in the al-filat al-gharbiyah (West Villas) section of Mezzeh. (See red dot on map above for approximate location of our apartment.)

Mezzeh was a pleasant place to live - numerous ambassadors and attaches lived in the area. We lived across the street from the Cuban ambassador, but we did not have any contact except the occasional buenos dias as we drove out of our respective driveways. The area was safe, especially on our street (Taha Husayn street) - the house on the corner was that of Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a terrorist organization with American blood on its hands. Between Jibril's guard force and the Syrian guards watching the PFLP-GC guards, the area was notoriously safe.

The main street of Mezzeh is called the autostrade, from the French, home of numerous embassies and United Nations facilities. To get to work, I drove on the autostrade to 'Umayad Square, which is actually a large multi-lane traffic circle referred to by Westerners as "Oh my God circle" because of the Syrian drivers careening into and out of the circle.

It is on these same streets that we now see Syrian army tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, while the skies over the upscale area are dotted with Mi-8/17 (NATO: HIP) armed assault helicopters.

It is no longer the city that I knew and in a way, loved. Syria was then and is now ruled by a iron-fisted dictatorship. I was there to represent the United States, specifically the Department of Defense and the United States Air Force. There were only perfunctory contacts between the military establishments of the two countries, usually limited to my handling of the military aircraft used for Secretary of State visits and one visit by then-President Bill Clinton. (See my earlier article, The President, the Secret Service and me....)

That said, I made many friends with "normal" Syrians, those not affiliated with the Syrian regime. Most of them were not supporters of the al-Asad government, but had little choice and virtually no input into the running of the country. Are all of them in favor of removing that same dictatorial regime? Surprisingly, no. Many of them fear - rightly so - what will come when (and I think it is safe to say when, not if) the Ba'th Party regime is removed.

There is an abiding fear among many Syrians that the replacement government will likely be dominated by the Islamists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the people I knew and am still in contact with fear their secular existence will come to an end. Those not in the mainstream Sunni sect of Islam - the 'Alawites, Christians, Druze, Jews, Kurds, etc. - fear their freedom of religion will basically evaporate as an Islamic regime is imposed.

I hope that does not happen, but I fear that it is a distinct possibility.