National Geographic : 2009 Nov
to reclaim the Golan Heights, a Syrian plateau captured by Israel in 1967. Relations with the United States, rarely good, turned particularly dire a er the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when George W. Bush, citing Syria s opposition to the war and support for Iraqi insurgents, threat- ened regime change in Damascus and demon- ized Syria s young president as a Middle Eastern prince of darkness. It s been nearly a decade since Bashar took o ce, and it s fair to ask what, if anything, has changed. It s also a good time to take stock, as Syria---responding to overtures from a new U.S. administration hungry for success in the Middle East---seems poised to resume a pivotal role in regional a airs. Henry Kissinger famously said you can t make war without Egypt or peace with- out Syria, and he s probably right. Like it or not, the road to Middle East peace runs right through Damascus. Yet even Bashar acknowledges that it will be hard for Syria to move forward without tending to its crippling internal disrepair. Outside the ancient Hamadiya market in Damascus, a photograph of Hafez al Assad as tall as a three-story building once stood. Marked by a high forehead and poker player s eyes, the president s giant head peered out over his tra c-choked capital of four million people, as it did from billboards and posters all over Syria. Modeled on the totalitarian cults of the Soviet imperium, this Big Brother iconography always gave Syria the feel of being sealed in amber, trapped in an era when dictators were really dictators, the days of Stalin and Mao. is is the Syria that Hafez le behind. In its place today, flanked by the city s "Dr. Bashar," a U.K.-trained ophthalmologist, became president after the death of his father, Hafez al Assad, who ruled as a dictator for 30 years. Bashar al Assad inherited his father's iron fist, but he also has an eye for reform. Don Belt is the magazine s senior editor for foreign a airs. He and photographer Ed Kashi reported on the plight of Arab Christians in the June 2009 issue.