Syria Old and New

Stephen DeAngelis

April 22, 2010

Portions of the modern state of Syria rest in what has been labeled the cradle of civilization. New excavations there are uncovering some of the earliest clues about the people who established the foundation for that cradle [“In Syria, a Prologue for Cities,” by John Noble Wilford, New York Times, 8 April 2010]. Wilford reports:

“Archaeologists have embarked on excavations in northern Syria expected to widen and deepen understanding of a prehistoric culture in Mesopotamia that set the stage for the rise of the world’s first cities and states and the invention of writing. In two seasons of preliminary surveying and digging at the site known as Tell Zeidan, American and Syrian investigators have already uncovered a tantalizing sampling of artifacts from what had been a robust pre-urban settlement on the upper Euphrates River. People occupied the site for two millenniums, until 4000 B.C. — a little-known but fateful period of human cultural evolution. Scholars of antiquity say that Zeidan should reveal insights into life in a time called the Ubaid period, 5500 to 4000 B.C. In those poorly studied centuries, irrigation agriculture became widespread, long-distance trade grew in influence socially and economically, powerful political leaders came to the fore and communities gradually divided into social classes of wealthy elites and poorer commoners.”

Like many other countries with an ancient and rich history of culture and trade, Syria has, in the more recent past, fallen on hard times. For decades, Syria has been a pariah state governed by authoritarian rulers who have helped fester rather than heal the region’s political wounds. Perhaps new discoveries concerning the area’s past will help inspire Syrian leaders to become more open. Wilford indicates that the work at Zeidan has just begun and will continue for decades. The fact that American archaeologists are working alongside Syrian counterparts demonstrates that Syrian political leaders are moving, however slowly, to become more open. Wilford continues:

“There are several reasons for excitement over the Zeidan excavations. Warfare and ensuing unstable conditions have locked archaeologists out of Iraq and its prime sites of Mesopotamian antiquity. So they have redoubled research in the upper river valleys, across the border in Syria and southern Turkey. And Zeidan is readily accessible. Having never been built upon by subsequent cultures, it is free of any overburden of ruins to thwart excavators. Above all, a driving ambition of archaeologists always is to dig beneath the known past for more than glimpses of the little known. For almost two centuries, the glory went to expeditions unearthing the houses and temples, granaries and workshops of earliest urban centers like Uruk, seat of the legendary Gilgamesh, and the later splendors of Ur and Nineveh. The challenge was to decipher the clay tablets of a literate civilization with beginnings in what is known as the Uruk period, 4000 to 3200 B.C. Uruk remains overshadowed the traces of Ubaid cultures, the region’s earliest known complex society. Only a handful of ruins — at Ubaid, Eridu and Oueili in southern Mesopotamia and Tepe Gawra, in the north near Mosul, Iraq — had produced at best a sketchy picture of these older cultures. A few Ubaid sites in northern Syria were either too small to be revealing or virtually inaccessible under other ruins. … The site consists of three large mounds on the east bank of the Balikh River, just north of its confluence with the Euphrates. The mounds, the tallest being 50 feet high, enclose ruins of a lower town. Buried remains and a scattering of ceramics on the surface extend over an area of 31 acres, which makes this probably larger than any other known Ubaid community. … One of the most telling finds was a stone seal depicting a deer, presumably used to stamp a mark on goods to identify ownership in a time before writing. … Other artifacts attest to the culture’s shift from self-sufficient village life to specialized craft production dependent on trade and capable of acquiring luxury goods, the archaeologists reported. Such a transition is assumed to have required some administrative structure and produced a wealthy class. The expedition will be searching for remains of temples and imposing public buildings as confirmation of these political and social changes.”

Political analysts today are also searching for clues; but clues about the future rather than the past. They are looking for clues that demonstrate how seriously Syria’s current leadership is seeking political, social, and economic change. Back in November of 2009, The Economist claimed that “Syria has stubbornly nudged its way back into the heart of regional diplomacy” [“Has it won?” 26 November 2009]. The magazine reported:

“Six years ago, President Bashar Assad looked weak, stumbling and isolated. In the words of the neoconservatives dominant in Washington after the conquest of Iraq, his regime was ‘low-hanging fruit’. Its fall would complete a circle of Western influence in the area, with Turkey, a NATO member, to the north-west and Israel to the south. The decline of Syria seemed to hasten when, after it was widely blamed in 2005 for the murder of Lebanon’s five-times prime minister, Rafik Hariri, it ignominiously lost its place as master of its small neighbour. Only Iran, among Syria’s friends, stood fast against the West. Yet now the position has drastically changed. Mr Assad is increasingly viewed as an essential part of the region’s diplomatic jigsaw. He is fast coming back into the game. Even America would like to embrace him. … This sudden popularity marks a triumphant turnabout for the 44-year-old Mr Assad. As a hereditary ruler in an ostensibly republican system, as a member of Syria’s historically marginal Alawite minority, and as a second son with a background in medicine rather than war or statecraft, he looked unlikely to succeed when he took power nine years ago.”

The article noted that Syria’s moderate rebound is quite surprising considering that “decades of central planning under the Baath party’s stifling rule had left it with few competitive industries and surging unemployment, even as its meagre oil resources rapidly shrank.” If that was not bad enough, the article notes, “an influx of more than a million Iraqi refugees, plus the sudden return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian labourers from Lebanon, added extra burdens.” Add to those adverse conditions the economic pressures caused by U.S. sanctions and it’s easy to see why it appears to be a minor miracle that the Assad regime has managed to cling to power. The article continues:

“Mr Assad’s regime has not only endured but thrived, along with Syria’s economy. Its GDP, its foreign trade and the value of loans to its private sector have all nearly doubled in the past four years, as reforms have tapped suppressed entrepreneurial vigour. For decades Damascus looked as dour as Bucharest under communist rule. Now it pulses with life. New cars throng its streets. Fancy boutique hotels, bars and fully booked restaurants pack its rapidly gentrifying older quarters, while middle-class suburbs, replete with shopping malls and fast-food outlets, spread into the surrounding hills. The revenue of Damascus’s swankiest hotel, the Four Seasons, is said to have doubled between 2006 and 2008. Bank Audi Syria, one of several Lebanese banks prospering there, made a profit within six months of launching in 2005. It now boasts $1.6 billion in deposits, and recently led Syria’s first-ever private syndication to finance a cement plant, a joint venture between France’s Lafarge and local businessmen costing $680m. In March [2009] Syria relaunched its stock exchange, moribund since the 1960s and still tiny. But with new rules allowing foreign ownership of equity, investors are showing keen interest.”

The article explained that one doesn’t have to look back to ancient history to find Syria’s glory, just “50 years ago [Syria] was the most prosperous [state] in the region.” It went on to explain some of the factors that have recently helped to resurrect the Syrian economy:

“It is not just the promise of Syria’s own market of 22m people. Trade with Iraq, a traditional market for Syrian goods, has surged. Syria is a natural transit hub for the region’s energy exports. In October [2009] it signed a series of agreements with Turkey. A decade ago the Turks had threatened to invade; now they can drive across the border without visas. … The EU also abruptly signalled its eagerness to sign a long-delayed association agreement, leaving the Syrians to ponder whether it needs revision in light of their stronger bargaining hand.”

The article gives much of the credit for this economic resurgence to government economic reforms; but, the article states, “economic reforms have not been matched by a liberalisation of politics.” Assad still rules with a firm and repressive hand even though “repression is far less severe than under Mr Assad’s father, who ruled from 1970 to 2000.” Syria’s persistent stonewalling of Middle Eastern peace efforts has resulted in other countries (even other Arab countries) keeping Syria at arm’s length. But, the article asserts, that may be changing.

“Rather than flipping on Iran or abandoning ties to Hizbullah or the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, in order to please the West, his regime has upheld ‘resistance’ as the best way to apply pressure on Israel, while offering to negotiate with it. Frightened by the invasion of Iraq, Syria nevertheless yanked the American lion’s tail by letting insurgents slip into the fray. Such nerve, along with Syria’s generous accommodation of Iraqi refugees, improved Mr Assad’s Arab nationalist credentials just when America’s moderate Arab allies looked callow and spineless. For sure, Syria’s dogged refusal to kowtow has been costly. … But Mr Assad’s tenacious immobility has proved a winning course overall, reinforcing Syria’s centrality to regional issues. As stalemate prevails, from Iraq to Palestine, Mr Assad has slowly regained many of the cards he appeared to have lost. … In the capitals of America’s Arab allies, a sense is growing that, in the light of the persistent stalemate between the Palestinians and Israel, stubbornly bloody-minded Syria has been canny all along. In the past, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been waiting for Syria to come truckling back into the moderate fold. Now people in Damascus think the moderates may come truckling to them.”

Middle Easterners are not the only individuals “truckling” into Damascus. Scions from Wall Street are also knocking on Syrian doors [“Syria Woos Wall Street,” by Joanna Slater, Wall Street Journal, 11 January 2010]. Slater reports:

“As Syria emerges from its diplomatic isolation, it is receiving emissaries from a surprising locale: Wall Street. Late last year a group of big-name investors—including Bill Miller of Legg Mason Capital Management and Barton Biggs, managing partner of Traxis Partners, a New York hedge fund—spent a week in Syria and Lebanon. They met with top political leaders, local businesspeople, and were feted with elaborate dinners with the cream of society. Traveling to far-flung corners of the world to get an early look at a promising markets has long been a staple of global investing. But Syria—until recently a pariah state in the eyes of the U.S.—proved irresistible, drawing an unusual array of money managers. Long isolated from international finance, Syria is one of the last remaining investment frontiers. It has a sizeable economy, an educated populace, and, lately, a new degree of openness to foreign investment.”

Wall Street investors are looking for high rates of return and, Slater reports, “at the top of Syria’s agenda [is] bringing in private capital to collaborate on infrastructure projects.” Although there appears to be a road that can be mapped to a brighter future for Syria, Slater indicates “many hurdles remain.” She explains:

“Syria still faces sanctions from the U.S., including a ban on receiving nearly all U.S. exports. For the investors who traveled there, Syria was an economic and technological throwback to a different time: a place where their BlackBerry devices didn’t work and where only 12 companies are listed on the stock exchange, which trades less than 10 hours a week.”

Despite the challenges, Wall Street investors who visited with President Assad were impressed.

“Mr. Assad provided direct and open answers to their questions, the investors said, and talked about the need to raise incomes, build infrastructure, and ease the government’s grip on the economy. This was ‘a fairly cynical group,’ Mr. Biggs says. But ‘he blew them away.'”

While most of the news out of Syria is upbeat concerning its future, the greatest challenge Syria currently faces is beyond its control: the weather [“Syrian economy risks wilting in severe drought,” by Andrew England, Financial Times, 4 February 2010]. England reports:

“[Syria currently] grapples with a three-year drought that experts describe as the worst for four decades. … The impact has been felt across the country, with 1.3m people from the rural east and north-east ‘drastically affected’ and 40,000-60,000 families forced to migrate in search of alternative employment, putting extra pressures on urban areas, says a UN report released in September. Officials play down the effects of the drought, citing recent rains to suggest the problem has diminished. … Lack of water is a problem that blights the Middle East, and by 2050 per capita water availability is expected to fall by half, says the World Bank. In Syria, about 90 per cent of water is used in the agriculture sector, which is central to the economy and accounts for about 20 per cent of gross domestic product.”

England notes that discussions about climate change are now cropping up all over Syria; but especially in conversations among farmers in Syria’s semi-arid hills and valleys.

“As a consequence of the diminishing water levels, walnut trees have wilted and vegetables such as potatoes, beans and marrows are no longer grown in the area. … Apricot trees still dot the area, although some are irrigated with sewage. Farther to the north and east the situation is worse. In some districts livestock farmers have lost up to 70 per cent of their herds, while others have endured failed crops for a third successive year, says Abdulla Tahir bin Yehia, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s representative in Damascus. The lack of rain has sucked farmers into a vicious circle: because of the drought they have to buy fodder to feed their livestock, but the failure of crops has driven up cereal prices. Yet because so many are being forced to sell their sheep and goats, livestock prices have plummeted.”

England concludes that “the size of the problem is ‘beyond the capacity of the country’.” All sorts of challenges are likely to linger in Syria. Relations with Israel, for example, are not improving. But there continue to be signs of change. Among those changes is a new found attraction to sushi [“Can exotic food lead to liberty?,” The Economist, 8 April 2010]. The article reports:

“Proud and nationalistic, modern Syria has not been known for welcoming outside influences, be they political, economic or culinary. A decade or two ago Damascus offered just a handful of restaurants serving typical Syrian cuisine. But that is changing as Syria opens up to the world. The sushi boom is partly a product of economic liberalisation, which has most visibly led to a proliferation of luxury services targeting the better-off. But as more Syrian expatriates return, they are pushing new trends and demanding the services and cuisine they have been used to outside. Syrians no longer automatically cross the border into Lebanon and head for its capital, Beirut, when they want to play. Rich Syrians are starting to invest at home. ‘The mindset is changing,’ says a beady sushi restaurateur. The Syrian outlook is expanding. Flatbread and hummus may no longer do. And is Baathist socialism still tasty?”

Although The Economist doesn’t have an answer for the question it posed about Syrian liberalization, the fact that Syria is opening up more to the world is a good sign. It’s leaders have to know, however, that until a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel is reached sustainable prosperity is likely to remain just over the horizon.

Postscript 2018: Looking back on this article, I’m saddened by what has happened to Syria in the years since it was published. Syrian erupted into a civil war. It’s president used repetitive gas attacks against his own people. Many Syrian cities have been leveled and the conflict resulted in a widespread humanitarian crisis.