National Geographic : 2009 Nov
• capital of the eastern world, it s hard to nd a bookstore that isn t stocked with communist-era treatises penned by Baath Party ideologues. "My 11-year-old daughter is so confused," said Dardari. "She hears from me at home about free markets and the way the world works, and then she goes to school and learns from textbooks written in the 1970s that preach Marxism and the triumph of the proletariat. She comes home with this look on her face and says, Daddy, I feel like a Ping-Pong ball! " into the family business, the old way of doing things can be very hard to change. And even though the eldest son, Basil, was considered more like his father, Bashar has ended up following in his footsteps--- in more ways than one. A year into his presi- dency, planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City, and suddenly the threat to sec- ular, "non-Muslim" regimes like Syria s from al Qaeda and its cousins in the Muslim Broth- erhood appeared stronger than ever. e U.S. invasion of Iraq---and subsequent saber rattling toward Damascus---in amed Syria s Islamists even further, while swamping the country with some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees, most of whom never returned home. Some believe that Bashar, in a move reminiscent of his father, diverted the widespread rage in Syria away from his vulner- able regime toward the Americans across the border in Iraq, allowing jihadists to use Syria as a staging area and transit point. Even before 9/11, Bashar had backtracked on political reform and freedom of expression. His anticorruption drive had stalled, undermined by the shady business dealings of his own extended family. Investigations into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Ra q Hariri in Beirut led to Syria s doorstep; shortly thereaf- ter Bashar rearrested many of the political pris- oners he d released just a few years earlier. And last year, in an ironic twist for a self-confessed computer nerd who brought the Internet to Syria, Bashar s government banned a long list of websites, ranging from Arabic news sites to You- Tube and Facebook. In all this, some see Bashar as the victim of reactionary elements within the regime---the youthful idealist dragged down by forces he is powerless to resist. Others see a young godfather learning to ex his muscles. Bashar blames the U.S. invasion of Iraq for pushing the region, and Syria, into a dark cor- ner and defends his tough internal security measures as vital weapons in the struggle to sur- vive. Whether he s talking about the survival of Syria, or his regime, is unclear. "We re in a state of war with Israel," he said. "We ve had con icts with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s. But now we have a much worse danger from al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a state of mind. It s a CD, it s a booklet. And it s very hard to detect. is is why we need a strong internal security." Members of the opposition, nearly all of them underground or in jail, don t buy that argument, having heard it used for 30 years to smother any spark of dissent. While acknowl- edging that today s repression is administered with a lighter touch, the activists I talked to consider the differences between Bashar s regime and his father s to be cosmetic. "Bashar seems like a pretty nice guy, but the government is more than one person," said a young human rights activist I met secretly with in a tiny, book- lined apartment on the outskirts of the capital. He d been interrogated a half dozen times by various agencies of state security. "Living here is something like a phobia," he went on, smok- ing a cigarette, dark circles under his eyes. "You always feel like someone s watching. You look around and there s no one there. So you think, I shouldn t have this feeling, but I do. I must be crazy. is is what they want." Whatever its purpose, Syria s shadow of fear, the cloud that blocks its sun, is pervasive. To LIVING IN SYRIA IS LIKE WALKING SIDEWAYS WITH A LADDER, HAVING TO WATCH EVERY MOVE YOU MAKE.