Jasmine Damascus (do not publish again).
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
IN A FAMOUS POEM BY NIZAR Qabbani, perhaps the most renowned Arab poet of the
last century, the poet expresses an abiding love for his native city. In the
“Jasmine Scent of Damascus,” he calls the Syrian capital “the rose of the
universe” and wishes that he’d been a minaret planted in the city or a lantern
hung on its gates.
For all that deep connection, though, Qabbani left
Syria in 1967. Disgusted with the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel, he lived
in London until his death in 1998. From safety in England, Qabbani shifted from
the romantic poetry for which he is revered to writing more political poems,
exhibiting a strong anti authoritarian bent.
He didn’t know that what
would start as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia would create a revolutionary
aroma that would waft all the way north and east. But he would very likely not
have been surprised. In a poem called “Sultan” he laments: “Your spies are
following me all the time,” and later adds: “They interrogate my wife and write
down all the names of my friends.”
His words reverberate eerily in Syria
today, where anti-regime protesters are struggling to hit a critical mass that
will not be deterred by a government crackdown that has included countless
killings and arrests.
The numbers are difficult to ascertain. Few foreign
media are allowed into the country; many local reporters covering the
developments there have gone missing or have been deported. Reuters has issued
statements that several of its local reporters were missing and that one had
been released by Presstime. The journalists the agency had sent in from Lebanon
and Jordan to cover the story were expelled.
Protests have spread from
heretofore little-known Daraa, a small town near the Jordanian border, to bigger
cities; on Friday, April 1, demonstrations of varying size were held in
Damascus, Homs, Baniyas, Idlib and Qamishli. Those gunning for real regime
change, however, had hoped for a bigger showing.
After striking a defiant
tone on March 30 in a speech before parliament, on April 3 Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad said he was appointing a new premier, former agriculture
minister Adel Safar, and that he would announce a new cabinet within days.
However, it is also difficult to say whether Assad is convincing people that he
will actually pursue reforms or simply attempting to scare them back into
Only a poet or a prophet would try to predict which way this
one will go. But suffice it to say that the Syrian regime has always been far
more repressive internally than say, Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. It is
clear that the situation in Damascus in early April is not akin to that in Cairo
in early February, when every union from the bus drivers to the doctors were
joining the call for Mubarak’s resignation.
Other factors also contribute
to make Assad’s grip firmer than Mubarak’s. Among them is a reluctance in
Washington and Jerusalem to see him go. Some of the savviest Syrians on Twitter
– albeit an elite demographic – were tweeting with outrage when US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton said on March 27 that “many members of Congress of both
parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a
There seems to be a clear message that the US would like to
give “young” Bashar, a 45-year-old educated in London, a bit more time to figure
things out. Last year, Washington sent its first ambassador to Syria since 2005,
and the Obama Administration has continued to try to engage Assad on several
tracks. The road to Iran, naturally, goes through Damascus.
Jerusalem, few are agitating to see Assad dethroned. There’s a belief here that
only with Assad Jr. could there be a chance of negotiating an Israeli-Syrian
peace, although at this rate, no one sees Israelis running up to the Golan for
one last ski trip before a deal is inked.
Explaining Israeli strategic
thinking, Moshe Maoz, Israel’s foremost expert on all things Syrian, told
correspondents in Jerusalem, “You want to work with the devil you know.” The
Hebrew University professor adds: “Bashar wants to continue with the strategy of
his father: peace with Israel.”
In the meantime, Assad has more pressing
problems on his hands. While the US and other Western powers have no
interest in seeing the Assad regime toppled just now, they cannot
bloodbath. Why, the rest of the world might ask, does Qaddafi get an
internationally enforced no-fly zone while Assad gets a
The answer, in part, is that the Syrian regime is much smarter than
Qaddafi’s. It doesn’t shoot citizens from helicopter gunships. In
smaller Syria, one doesn’t find rebel militias waiting in the wings. And
doesn’t need to mow down 20,000 or more people, as his father did in
1982. Today, the young Assad, in power for just over a decade, can let
plain clothed mukhabarat (secret police) do the work, filming
a cellphone camera as if they were merely protesters in the crowd, then
the footage to track people down and arrest them in the middle of the
In honor of the annual Jasmine Festival of Damascus, held every
April, Assad has instructed citizens to plant at least one jasmine
that the city will be infused with the pristine white flower’s
fragrance. Clearly, Assad believes he can ride the revolutionary horse
being thrown from it. After all, Syria has always been special in the
world. And yet also emblematic of that world, which means it’s not
what goes around.
As Qabbani describes in his poem, “Damascene Moon:”
From Damascus, eternity begins…and
languages remain and genealogies are
and Damascus gives Arabism its form
and on its land, epochs