From Damascus to Tel Aviv

Dimitar Mihaylov, Bulgarian ambassador to Israel and persona non grata in Damascus, shares his views on Syria as both an insider and outsider.

Dimitar Mihaylov 521 (photo credit: Victoria Martynov)
Dimitar Mihaylov 521
(photo credit: Victoria Martynov)
Ambassador Dimitar Mihaylov is the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to the State of Israel. He has a PhD in Islamic history from Bulgaria’s Sofia University and received his master’s in Arabic language and literature from Syria’s Damascus University. He has served in the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Bulgaria for more than 20 years.
Sitting in his modest office in the Bulgarian Embassy in Tel Aviv, the ambassador speaks about his political journey from Syria and Lebanon to Israel. He recently published an article titled, “The Upheaval in Syria Viewed from Inside and Outside” for the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.
You received your MA from Damascus University in the 1980s, while at that time most students from the Eastern bloc were pursuing their Arabic and Middle Eastern studies in Moscow, Leningrad or Tbilisi. How did you find yourself in Syria? Due to the good relations between the USSR and Eastern bloc countries with the Arab world at the time, studying in Syria, Egypt or Iraq were viable options. I was fascinated by the prospect of learning Arabic, so I chose Damascus University. I still remember the day I arrived in Syria – January 24, 1982. I passed my exams in late 1988, and in 1989 I received my diploma – a bit later than expected.
Damascus was one of the best places to study Arabic literature. Despite the fact that it was under a strict authoritarian regime, Syria was a calm and stable country. There was no crime; people walked around freely day or night. Economically, however, life was very tough. In those days, Bulgarian students in Arab countries lived modestly, receiving a small grant that was scarcely enough to make ends meet, while students who studied in the Soviet Union could afford more.
I had many friends who belonged to different groups and religions, but socially and intellectually they were together. Somehow, I naively thought that those friendships would last forever.
When I returned to Syria as the ambassador of Bulgaria, some of those friends contacted me. In my encounters with them, many shared their stories of bitterness and worries about the future.
How did you find Damascus after being away for 20 years?
In April 2011, I was appointed head of our diplomatic mission in Syria, just when the conflict began. When I arrived in Damascus, the city was still calm. The turmoil was in Dara’a in the south. It crept into Homs, another region, but it took months before it came close to the capital. One could say that, metaphorically, Syria resembles the old Roman Empire: it is a centralized authoritarian state with a solid structure. Were such a crisis to befall Lebanon, it would affect the whole country very quickly. In Syria, however, it took months before the war finally slithered into the capital and eroded it.
It was becoming dangerous to move around. Syria had reached a point where, when stopped on the outskirts by armed men, one couldn’t tell whether they were part of the regime’s army or the rebel militia. As with other conflicts in Middle Eastern countries, appearances – whatever they may be – mean nothing. Criminality and kidnappings became the name of the game for both the pro-government forces and some of the rebels.
I spent 14 months in Syria and witnessed the tragedy of the Syrian people. Once, a good friend from Busra al-Sham, a city where the small Shi’ite community had lived peacefully with the Sunni community for over two centuries, approached me. He told me, “When the conflict erupted, one of my friends from the Sunni community, who was like a brother to me, suddenly turned hostile towards me... But my problem is that I, too, don’t see him as a human being anymore. For me, he is like a mummy from the seventh century who has come back to life.’ I was shocked by that accurate comparison. The conflict led to the reawakening of demons from the past.
The fitna – the great schism that led to the outbreak of the first Islamic war in 680 CE, splitting Islam into Sunni and Shi’ite factions – was here again.
How does it feel to be persona non grata in Syria?
In May 2012, the Bulgarian government expelled the Syrian ambassador because of the massacre in Khoula, where many children were killed by the pro-government militia.
Reciprocally, I was expelled. I could not return to Syria, but I was considered to be an ambassador to Lebanon. We didn’t have an ambassador in Lebanon at that time, and it was easier for me to cover Syria from there. However, being persona non grata in Syria does not make prospect good for ambassadorship in Lebanon. I felt really uncomfortable. But I was not alone. As I recall, 17 colleagues fell into the category of returning to the steps of their governments.
I had spent many years in Syria.
I didn’t do anything wrong to the country or the people or even against the regime.
Can you compare the Syrian conflict with events in former Yugoslavia?
Each event is unique, and each has its own features and characteristics.
Yugoslavia was sort of an artificial state.
It came to the fore in the aftermath of World War I as a project of international engineering. It was not a pattern of unification, such as Italy or Germany in the 19th century.
The modern Arab world also bears the marks of such engineering. Iraq, for example, was created artificially as a state. And so, in a way, was Syria.
But there are similarities with the former Yugoslavia. In both cases, people were at a crossroads when the ordeal came and their state started to fall apart.
As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
In what direction is Syria going? Whatever scenario unfolds in the near future, one thing is clear: Syrian society will never be the same. The social uniqueness of that country for hundreds of years was that people were living together, despite being different... is coming to an end.
Syria has a new sociopolitical reality that is affecting its neighbors – close neighbors such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey, and more distant neighbors such as Bulgaria. Paradoxically, the clock seems to be going backward to the status quo that characterized the Ottoman Empire – with each community shaping its private life by itself. The radicalization of Sunni movements, the rise and strengthening of Shi’ite groups, terrorism and the extreme spiral of criminality can make the situation explosive in 10 years or sooner.
While in the past Sunni Islam dominated with its tolerant approach and its bonds with Sufi orders, after the outbreak of civil war a radical trend bearing the trademark of Wahhabi and Salafi-jihadi doctrines surfaced. Proregime sheikhs once opposed military activism and tried to mitigate the fact that the president and his close advisers had heterodox – Alawite – bearings. It is now a bygone era. Jihadi Salafi factions such as the al-Nusra Front are strengthening their positions in the country.
On the other side, there is a new phenomenon – the appearance of an Alawite-Shi’ite jihad against what is perceived as the Sunni takfiri front. The Syrian conflict is becoming increasingly sectarian and religious. In a tragic manner, this split is reminiscent of the period of the great schism of Islam in the seventh century, when the Sunni and Shi’ite division took place.
Which side did the Christian community of Syria take?
It remains a faithful supporter of the regime. But I think it was a mistake that Christian community leaders did not distance themselves from President Bashar Assad’s government. I think they are now in trouble, being exposed to threats from radical Sunni movements.
As I mentioned in my article for the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, when at the time a member of the Christian community was talking about the takfiri massacres that would be committed by radical Muslims against the Christians, I asked whether in the past – save for the unfortunate events in 1861 – such an event had ever taken place on Syrian soil, there was no reply. Then I met with younger leaders of the community and realized that they were also faithful to the regime. Such grim predictions of upcoming hostilities that may befall the Christian community are, unfortunately, likely to become reality.
I’d like to make a point here: While Israel is sometimes criticized for the mistreatment of Arab Christians, after spending time in Syria and Lebanon I believe that Israel is the best place for Christians in the Middle East. They can feel safe and secure here, with their rights guaranteed by the state.
Some Israeli politicians have expressed the notion that having two sides in Syria busy fighting each other is good for Israel. Do you agree?
That is a good tactical advantage, but only for a short time. If you contemplate the strategic questions, you’ll see that another “Somalia” might be created on your borders. You should not be happy about that. It is naive to think that Israel will remain an island of stability in this stormy sea.
That is why all responsible international bodies should somehow control this crisis. The official position of Bulgaria stresses that the UN can and should assume a leading role, and fulfill the responsibility to find a political solution to the crisis. It’s extremely difficult but certainly preferable to letting it escalate into an all-out clash, which is really unpredictable.
I prefer not to focus on the issues everybody is commenting on, such as “Who used the chemical weapons?” “What is the fate of the regime?” “What will happen to the rebels?” I prefer to look ahead to the future of the religious and ethnic groups that lived together.
Right now, we are seeing evidence of the first consequences of the Syrian conflict.
Even Bulgaria is facing an influx of refugees from Syria. Every day, Bulgaria is finding it more difficult to absorb the ever-growing number of people who are fleeing the country.
So the new Syrian reality is a challenge for its neighbors. It’s a challenge as far as security and demographic balances are concerned, and it’s a challenge for the wider region, mainly Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Some Western leaders have expressed hope that the Syrian conflict will ultimately enable its people to rebuild the country and make it more democratic. Do you think that the goal of building a better place to live, namely a democratic state, will cement Syrian society?
That is a very important point.
Considering such a straightforward perspective in the near future is a little naïve. Against the backdrop of horrific scenes of bloodshed and cruelty, to suggest that democracy could be the remedy while keeping Syrian society together would be both sad and cynical.
The Syrian conflict, which started as a peaceful movement for reforms, transparency and greater civil rights, has already mutated into a brutal civil war. It hardly smacks of a move toward democracy. Democracy is a universal value. All people are able to develop it. Before the changes in Eastern Europe in 1989, skeptical voices from the West said we were not able to develop a truly democratic society. Now it has been proven that they were wrong.
But the key to success is evolution.
Creating a democracy is an evolutionary process. It needs time.
It takes a society to mature and be wise. How long did it take for Europe to pave the way for today’s EU? I am not saying the Middle East will not qualify, but it requires time and patience. Syria will gradually pave its own way to democracy, but it won’t be a Jeffersonian one. Rather, it will bear marks of the Islamic culture, which is a natural and inevitable process. Overall, you cannot impose democracy.
Some will argue that democracy was rapidly adopted in Germany and Japan after World War II and immediately rendered results. But Germany and Japan were heavily industrialized and developed societies, able to bring democracy to the fore. It is fair to say the modern Arab world, with vast differences between its states and regions, is a different case. Here and there, we have very traditional and paternalistic societies. We also have societies that just 50 years ago had been living a tribal way of life.
[Democracy must] come naturally, from within, with social maturation and advancement.
For two years we have heard that Russian support of the Assad regime contradicted the American approach, exacerbating the situation and preventing the UN Security Council from properly condemning the measures – harming American interests. Do you think Russian President Vladmir Putin finally won, suggesting the solution for the Syrian crisis?
Putin proposed something that worked, avoiding something that was unknown. A military operation would have introduced many unknowns into the equation. For example, it would probably have affected Lebanon in a more immediate way. The society there is very fragile. And this could affect Israel as well. Such a trend would have accelerated the spillover to Iraq, where the situation is already unstable, with bombings taking place every day. In the worst case scenario, this clash could expand to Kuwait with its 30-percent Shi’ite population, to Bahrain with a Shi’ite majority, or to Saudi Arabia, with entire Shi’ite areas and Sunni establishment. And Turkey is also not immune. How will the closing of the Hormuz Strait, for example, affect the levels of crude oil on global markets?
The current Bulgarian government seems to be more Russian-oriented than the previous one. Do you think there is room for new rapprochement of the former Eastern bloc countries with Russia, and, if so, how it will affect Israeli- Bulgarian relations?
Historically, we have had good ties with Russia and its people. In the second half of the 19th century, the Russian state helped Bulgaria achieve national liberation, and we remember history. But, most of all, we are now in the EU and NATO; we have our common priorities and policies. However, this does not mean that good relations with Russia are at someone else’s expense. We also have good relations with moderate Arab countries, and it’s important for us to sustain that in the future. This may turn into an advantage, not the other way around.
As for Israeli-Bulgarian relations, they are stable, positive and prospective, based on shared values and principles, and joint interest in peace and prosperity for the two adjacent areas – the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Do you think the UN Security Council can find a solution?
The Syrian civil war has demonstrated clearly that the UN is having difficulty finding an effective mechanism to solve such a complicated crisis. Nevertheless, the UN mechanisms are what we have at hand. And now, with the Geneva II Conference, it’s a prospect that should be explored to the fullest. The efforts of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are tremendous and commendable.
Nevertheless, the crisis is very complicated.
The bombing in Burgas on July 18, 2012, was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back, and Hezbollah – not the entire organization, just its military wing – was put on the EU terrorist list. Among Israelis, there is endless debate about the effectiveness of this half-hearted measure. What is the Bulgarian evaluation of this step?
Our position is clear as defined on July 22 of this year. A year after the terrorist act, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, “Due to concerns over the role of Hezbollah, we have agreed to designate its military wing on the list of terrorist organizations.’” I am not an expert on Hezbollah, but according to sources in Lebanon, Hezbollah is currently in a difficult situation. It is involved in Syria as a foreign faction that intervenes on behalf of the regime. Ironically, the organization is facing the same tactics from the Syrian rebels it once used to fight what they call the “Zionist enemy.” What matters is the end of a myth: In the past, they had the aura of a pure “liberation force” that was fighting for a cause. Now the embittered and escalating conflict turned the tables and changed the attitude of the Sunni population in the region, including many Palestinians, toward Hezbollah. They now see Hezbollah as a blunt instrument of Iranian policy.
If you take into consideration a complicated reality in Lebanon, you realize that the situation Hezbollah is in now is getting even more difficult.
Regarding the EU terrorist list, it is a serious, painful step for them.
Ultimately, the period of revolutionary idealism and the aura of high principles has come to an end, and everybody can see the true face of the organization: religious, sectarian and narrow-minded.
The bubble is obviously bursting.
How do you feel about coming to Israel after Syria and Lebanon?
I feel very relaxed here. Israel is a friendly country to both Bulgaria and the EU. There is a Bulgarian Jewish community, which is very significant.
Then we have the very positive story of Bulgarian Jews being saved during the Holocaust.
I have all these positive elements to bolster my work here, and that is what makes me feel that I can contribute a lot apart from my professional experience as a historian and an expert on Arab culture. I have started working on a number of cooperation projects.
From a cultural point of view, I am making a transition from Arab culture to Jewish culture, and I am pleased to be meeting a lot of creative people here, many of whose thinking is out of the box. In addition, there is an assignment to learn Hebrew, which I have been doing intensively for the past six months, using my knowledge of Arabic.
I enjoy being here very much.
The writer is a diplomatic correspondent for Novosty Nedeli newspaper,