Gate of the East

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As an ancient country with geopolitical significance, Syria has always been appealing to colonial powers. The country has been a constant battlefield between the people and foreign invaders.

TIME CODE : 00:00_05:00

Narration:

Syria, a land I’ve visited a lot… with its markets, churches, and mosques. Syria, a picture of coexistence painted in all kinds of colors. I know that no one can create such dazzling beauty, except for God. Syria is really beautiful. End of story.

But how did Syria, this haven of security and astounding picture of beauty, turned into a victim of raptors?

Dark clouds surrounded it, and tried to darken its white face with evil fumes.

What’s happened to Syria that every time I hear its name I’m afraid it may fall into civil war and bloodshed, and worry about outsiders' raid and insiders' betrayal?

I decided to go to Syria, and talk to Syrian elites, intellectuals, officials and people. I also wanted to talk to Lebanese, who attach great importance to their neighbor’s developments.

And that’s what I did. I went to that country… to the Levant. I met many people and prominent experts. I wanted to ask them with a heavy heart, “What does Syria mean to you?”

Badi' Safour,Poet & scholar:

I’m saying this as a Syrian citizen; this land is the land of civilizations. The first alphabet was invented in Syria.

This is what Manazer, the Phoenician poet, says, “O man, Why is it a surprise if I’m from Syria? We live in a country whose name is the world. Please, if you pass me by, throw a greeting my way, and say, ‘Hello. I’m from this country.’”

Archbishop Loofa Alkhuri, Episcopal Representative of Roman Orthodoxy:

Syria has an exceptional human civilization. Man learnt the alphabet from Syria, learnt how to read and write.

He learnt how to live with love and passion; how to sacrifice his life for others; all from Syria. These messages have not appeared in this holy land for nothing.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, Imam, Lebanon’s al-Quds Mosque:

The first capital of the world. According to foreign historians, there was no capital in the world before Damascus. There’s a hadith from Prophet Mohammad that says, “The Levant is my quiver. If someone shoots an arrow at it, I will shoot one of my arrows at them." Syria is the origin of calling people to Islam.

Hassan Abdul Azim,National Coordination Body for Democratic Change:

Syria is a small land in a bigger fatherland - the Arab world. Syria is the heart of the former Levant. In 1916, the Levant was divided into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Eastern Jordan, and Iraq. Syria is the heart of the eastern Arab world, and Egypt is the heart of the western Arab world.

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban ,Political Adviser to Syrian President:

When I hear Syria’s name, I feel a deep sense of pride in my heart; pride for my country’s 7000-old civilization, and cultural and religious values. Syria is the cradle of the Triple Religions. It is the land of coexistence between religions and races; the land of love and kindness that Prophet Mohammad has talked about. My feelings are like those of a mother who’s worried about her child’s future. I’m worried that hurt, pain, abuse or envy will be imposed on Syria. For me, Syria is like the faith we have in God. God has made this land sacred.

Nohad Machnouk, Lebanese MP:

I’m very weak when it comes to Syria. Because I know it very well. I’ve visited the country during different periods of my life; during the time I was a young journalist and politically active. I have different memories of Syria.

General Michel Aoun, Former Lebanese President :

The Syrian nation has long been a friend of Lebanon. Syria and Lebanon share a geographical border, although this border has not caused a human distance; certain circumstances have made these borders inevitable for us.

Some issues need to be resolved. What is known today as distance will disappear when we are in need of help.

Narration:

Colonialism won’t come to a country unless with the aim of destroying it, undermining its old infrastructures and structures in an attempt to steal its resources and treasures, and preventing its people from trying to rebuild their country and ruin their dream of a bright future.

I went to Syria to ask those who love this country and its people if France’s colonialism has done this harm to Syria. What were the consequences of colonialism in that period? They all answered the same way, “Yes, France did this to us.”

TIME CODE : 10:00_15:00

Mohsen Dalloul, Former Lebanese MP and Minister:

England left many border problems in its colonies at the end of its colonialism; border problems between Kuwait and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the UAE and Oman, Bahrain and Qatar, Egypt and Sudan. These border problems have always divided these countries. On the other hand, France’s colonialism caused discord between religions and ethnicities.

Hassan Abdul Azim,National Coordination Body for Democratic Change:

Syria has an important strategic position. This country is situated at the heart of the region. Fighting over Syria is not a new thing; there are lots of books written about it, actually showing the conflict over ruling the entire region. Syria, Egypt and Palestine are the hearts of this great land. Therefore, someone who rules Syria and Egypt can dominate the whole region.

Dr. Mohammad Noureddine, Director, Center for Strategic Studies:

With the revealing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it became clear that the region was divided between England and France. And Palestine was chosen as the Jews’ Promised Land.

It was decided that except Palestine and Jordan that had no social, historical, and cultural roots

That’s why it was targeted, so that 4 or 5 small religious and ethnic governments could be established there, like the small government of Aleppo and Jabal al-Toor, etc.

This was the start of a wave of resistance against the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Michel Samaha ,Former Lebanese Information Minister :

Syria was undividable. After the Sykes-Picot Agreement, France tried to make a suggestion to Syria in the first Syrian Constitution Project. It entailed dividing the country into several religious countries. They wanted to tear up the country and pit these small countries against each other. They did the same in Lebanon. They designed the constitution in a way that caused war between different religions.

Badi' Safour,Poet & scholar:

When the Sykes-Picot Agreement took place, the region was divided into phony small governments, and the Ottoman Caliphate, known as the Islamic Caliphate, was destroyed, the Westerners came to enslave humans again, not set them free.

Narration:

All of us must have heard of the 30 coups that happened after Syria’s independence. Those years are considered an important stage for all political observers. For two decades, Syria suffered ploys that threatened its security and stability and new-founded government, so much so that its social structure was almost destroyed, and the country was left alone against severe storms, and was almost prevented from establishing a powerful and strong government.I decided to talk to the Levant's elites about the causes and consequences of this period, as well as those who'd spoken against it.

Karim Pakradouni, Former President of Kataeb Party:

If you compare the two, you'll see that the French left Lebanon peacefully, but were forced to leave Syria. Syria's independence from France left a bitter taste in their mouth. It wouldn't be wide of the mark to say they were defeated.

They settled this issue peacefully and through negotiations in Lebanon. Based on this logic, the West (Britain and France at that time) conceived Syria as an enemy. France made the West fear Syria, promoting the idea that Syria would open its doors towards the East, which was the Soviet at that time.

TIME CODE :15:00_20:00

Karim Pakradouni, Former President of Kataeb Party:

That's why after Syria's independence, almost immediately a fight started over it; a fight to decide who could win it over. Would it be the West, which wanted to dominate the region again and also reassure the newly-established Israel? If Syria escaped the West's clutches, if the West couldn't get its hands on Syria, the interests of the West and Israel would be endangered. Since then, there was a conflict about Syria and its role in Israel, which was the main focus of the international and Arab world at that time. That is why many coalitions emerged, and there were treaties like the Baghdad Pact, which was anti-Syria, not anti-Israel.

Michel Samaha ,Former Lebanese Information Minister :

They couldn't disintegrate Syria, because the Syrian people's will was very strong. They established a unified and comprehensive government, and adopted a comprehensive citizenship and a comprehensive Arabic-Syrian identity. They entered Syria to seize power from this comprehensive and unified government; they tried to gain power through the influence they held in certain places. They went to Iraq, an oil-rich country whose oil pipes to the Mediterranean Sea passed through Syria. They needed to take control of the resources in Syria and Lebanon.

The Baghdad Pact, signed in the 1950s during several coups in Syria, was a serious attempt to place Syria under siege through Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, Imam, Lebanon’s al-Quds Mosque:

The ongoing conflict was not only with France, but also with Britain and the U.S., which constantly tried to cause unrest in Syria. Foreign countries have always attached great importance to Syria, and know it to be a key player in the region. And when the last government did not sign a peace treaty with Israel, they started to act against it.

George Khazar ,Lebanon's Jabal Archbishop :

The west is aware of everything that happens in these countries. This does not necessarily mean direct interference in these developments; for example the Arab Spring was definitely an Arabic movement by people and students. But there is no doubt that the west observes everything from afar, and tries to recruit people and groups when a good opportunity presents itself, without any direct interference. So the West is always present. Adel Ismaeel, our Ambassador, acquired about 30 documents in French which contained diplomatic papers that were taken out of these countries; especially from the Lebanese coast, Sidon, Tripoli, Beirut, etc. Foreign consuls wrote to their government about the state of Arab Muslim countries. Adel Ismaeel proved that after the 17th century, all the bloody incidents which happened in these countries were caused by foreigners.

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

Duraid Lahham, Famous Syrian Actor and Director:

I was 14 in 1948. The first coup happened in 1949, directed by Husni al-Za'im. When we read the secrets related to that period, we find out that it was the Americans who plotted this coup, and brought this man to sign a ceasefire treaty with Israel. The national government would not have signed the peace treaty at that time. They brought this man and he signed the treaty in Malta or Rhodes, I've forgotten which one. He was brought in for that purpose, and when he served his purpose, they carried out a coup against him. He stayed in power for only 6 months. They realized their goals through coups, or at least some of them. I'm angry at myself, my generation, and people of that time. We should have come to the streets and demanded the return of democracy and the return of soldiers to their garrisons.

Narration:

I know that the enemy is deceitful and evil, is still lurking near the borders of this dear country, and has made the best of that difficult period. But I always think about the man or the government that will put an end to this situation one day.

I always wonder about the elixir or formula which that man will think up once he is in power to save Syria from its hardships; hardships that cost it a dear part of its territory, and made the other parts subject to greed, betrayal and invasion.

I know that the late Hafez al-Assad made a small part of it possible, and put a stop to all the bloodshed. I asked the people I talked to about his priorities for restoring stability and national peace. Was it democracy, security, development, defending the country against foreign enemies like Israel, or something else?

Karim Pakradouni, Former President of Kataeb Party:

To put Hafez al-Assad's strategy in a nutshell, it was fighting Israel. He took the reign of the military in order to stand against Israel. He cared about the economy to use it against Israel. He paid attention to social issues like education and knowledge to stand against Israel and its culture. I think Hafez al-Assad managed to persuade his nation that he was the symbol of resistance against Israel.Thus, he not only provided stability, one of the main conditions for fighting Israel, but also prepared his forces; he managed to create balance between the ideology of war against Israel and the forces that could carry out that ideology. He managed to persuade his people that he was working on both of these pivotal issues. When there is a problem, all the world comes to Syria, and when Syria is in fight against Israel, it can cause problem for the whole world. The 1973 war is a prime example of this fact.

Hassan Abdul Azim,National Coordination Body for Democratic Change:

The stability that lasted from the 1980s to the transition period in 2000 was imposed by force, not by people's will. It was imposed through security and military means; it was called unstable stability imposed by force, not by political methods, freedom, reforms, and democratic changes. It might have collapsed at any minute! Do you think the reason for that is the Ba'ath party's monopolism of power? Of course, the party turned into a window display for security and military power. The frontier turned into a window display for the party. Pluralism could be seen everywhere and democracy did not exist at all. Security solutions are necessary when time and circumstances demand it.

TIME CODE : 25:00_30:00

Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, Mufti of the Syrian Arabic Republic:

God bless al-Assad's soul. He came to power at a very critical time; at the time of Syria's advance towards a secular socialist system. A group of military and civil leaders wanted Syria to move towards an atheist socialist block. He sat down with them in 1970 and told them that Syria was the land of faith, and they couldn't destroy people's faith in their hearts. Even the socialism imported from Russia or China is dominated by our values and culture. If it’s compatible, we’ll adopt it; if it’s not, we’ll reject it. We may also adopt parts of it which are not incompatible with our culture. I’m saying this based on the conversation I had with Hafez al-Assad. There was some problem with the country’s leadership at that time. He adopted some corrective measures. But his opponents didn’t accept them, and tried to turn the Syrian society into an unreligious one. They called it a secular society. If we know how to use the concept of secularism in the right way, we’ll see that it’s not anti-religion at all. But if it’s used in the wrong way, it can destroy you. That’s why he started a corrective movement in 1970. He adopted measures aimed at establishing a new culture based on respect for all. He stated this fact during war in his speech in 1973, one of the most difficult periods in the history of Syria after 1967. Listen to his speech and see what he said. Wearing military attire, he said, “In the name of God. You children of Abu Bakr and Umar, you descendants of Khalid and Ali, you soldiers of Saladin. We’re not thirsty for war. We want peace, and would like to establish it. Today, we are under attack. The path of your good ancestors lies before you. Rise, and answer their call.” He created the modern history in a new language.

Narration:

Is this the same formula of Arabism and Islam?

- I was going to talk about that. Because after that incident, a fight between Nationals and Islamists occurred.

George Khazar ,Lebanon's Jabal Archbishop :

I’m familiar with that accusation; to say that there’s an implied or secret coalition between the minorities, documented and registered nowhere else. But it’s a wrong belief, because they were indeed minorities living among a large number of Sunnis. It’s wrong to say that the Sunnis were afraid of a possible coalition between the Alawites and Christians. It wasn’t like that. Was it an attempt to frighten them? They weren’t afraid of a militarily or security movement against them.

Dr. Mohammad Noureddine, Director, Center for Strategic Studies :

Hafez al-Assad knew the importance of the existence of different groups that were called minorities. A few leaders in the Arab world understood that. So he wanted to act like a scale, creating balance between these minorities, whether in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq.

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, Imam, Lebanon’s al-Quds Mosque:

Hafez al-Assad wanted to change the Sunnis' point of view about the Alawites. If the Alawites or at least some of them where accused of having links to the Crusaders, or the French, or the colonialists in general, he wanted to change this belief. And I think he succeeded. Perhaps he did rely on the Alawites or his relatives or some minorities that I don’t want to mention by name.

TIME CODE : 30:00_35:00

Sheikh Maher Hammoud, Imam, Lebanon’s al-Quds Mosque:

But once he consolidated this support supposedly by committing several mistakes or by force, how did he use it? He strengthened himself by several methods, some of which questionable and some others acceptable, but where did he use this power? Didn’t he use it to help the Palestinians’ resistance? Or to help the Islamic resistance in Lebanon? Or to thwart America’s projects in the region which were aimed at defeating us?

General Michel Aoun, Former Lebanese President :

He adopted a stance that was not in contrast with the interests of his people from a national point of view. The Syrian nation had always been the pole of the Arab world. He was a nationalist and respected this policy. It wasn’t a maneuver. His firm stance regarding Israel is a testimony to this fact. This issue has always been important in the culture of all Arabs and also the Islamic culture. That’s why the Arab governments showed rapport with him.

Nohad Machnouk, Lebanese MP:

This is 2011, and I’m not a historian. We are 50 years old, and our experiences, although long, are limited. And we can’t put any other label but democracy on all the changes that have occurred in the past 20 years. We can’t go back to that period with all its good and bad moments, and deny the freedoms and democracies. According to our thought structures, it’s not possible anymore; not because of bravery or cowardice, but because of our fundamental thought structure. Since the collapse of the Soviet, it's not been possible to study any issues outside the logic of freedom, democracy, and people’s right to freedom of speech. That is why relating that period from an impartial point of view is difficult.

Narration:

Yes, the late Hafez al-Assad left with all his bitter and sweet memories, and another part of history began. But Syria did not and will not leave history, and history will not let it go. I hesitated near the false structure that colonialists built for Syria during her new history. I know that this structure lies at the root of all of Syria’s problems in its new era. Israel, which brought about all these hardships and problems for Syria; corruption, backwardness, the government’s stability or shakiness, the interference of outsiders and insiders in its security. I know that Syrians, despite all their differences, religions, tribes, and colors, are in constant war with Israel and will never make peace with it. But I wanted to know if Bashar al-Assad really followed in his father’s footsteps when he came to power, or if he really tried to walk out of his father’s shadow, as some people say. Is he really capable of putting things to rights in Syria?

TIME CODE : 35:00_40:00

Nohad Machnouk, Lebanese MP:

It’s not fair to say Assad is like his father, and it’s not fair to Hafez al-Assad to say Bashar al-Assad is the incarnation of his father. We're faced with different experiences, people, and situations. There’s no doubt that people are very different from each other, but I don’t want to be cruel and say it is just a matter of changing one’s personal demeanor, and he wrecked havoc and such things. The situation changed as well. A person who doesn’t pay attention to the situation, doesn't care about global changes, or doesn’t adapt himself to these changes cannot be expected to act efficiently. Everything changed so fast in the last two decades, whether in the Soviet, Germany, or other places. It was a very fast development. None of us could understand it at that time.

Haleh As'ad, Expert on War Crime Cases:

President Bashar al-Assad has a quality which distinguishes him from his father and all the other heads of states. He came to power to continue his father’s rule. He was trained under Hafez al-Assad in a systematic and scientific way. But he came with a new vision, and transferred Syria from one stage to another. You can’t say he was just Hafez al-Assad’s son. As we can see, Syria has gone under new developments since 2000. For me, there are many things I don’t agree with. Economic developments have many positive and negative points, but there’s no absolute positivity or negativity in this matter.

Mohsen Dalloul,Former Lebanese MP:

I was witness to an important fact. When Dr. Bashar al-Assad came to power, he saw many things that were wearing down the government’s structure. Therefore, he designed a comprehensive and complete plan of reforms. But the old army, as it was called in those days, rose against him, and hampered his plan inside the party, government, and everywhere else. Some of them are his opponents now. But at that time, they believed that those reforms would destroy their honor and the party’s position.

Dr. Mohammad Noureddine, Director, Center for Strategic Studies :

Some problems do exist inside Syria. No one can deny it. Government bodies need to be modernized to meet people’s needs. The country needs more freedom, political pluralism, and respect for all races and clans; it’s a natural matter, and realizing it will make the country more stable and powerful.

General Michel Aoun, Former Lebanese President :

Dr. Bashar al-Assad understood this matter and started to grant more social and economic freedoms. He was a little slow (with political freedoms). It was like a race. I happened to talk to him about it once, and he acknowledged it.

- With Bashar al-Assad?

- Yes. We were at a family dinner together. He started talking about party pluralism in Syria, saying that party pluralism was necessary.

TIME CODE: 40:00_47:00

Khalil Harb, Arabic and International Affairs Secretary at as-Safir Newspaper / Lebanon:

Syria doesn’t have many resources that can attract others. Bashar al-Assad cannot act like the Saudi Arabian king. He cannot suddenly decide to give billions of dollars to his citizens as extra salary for government and military officials, residential houses and marriage grants, or give money to religious and other organizations. It is impossible in Syria, because Syria lacks the necessary resources. Even if there’s a real will to do reforms, it cannot be done overnight. It needs years of constant and serious work. The point is, it cannot be realized as long as there is unrest and aggression on the streets.

Narration:

I learnt many things through my conversations with the people of the Levant, both Lebanese and Syrian. It seemed everyone I interviewed, both Bashar al-Assad’s opponents and supporters, really loved Syria. So what’s brought about this situation in this loved-by-all country? My personal conclusion was that Syria is a critical country, with a very important strategic position. The person who rules its destiny can dictate a fundamental part of regional and international formulas. I realized there were many opportunists who played a role in Syria’s crisis. I know that democracy, people’s opinion, and human rights may be very important to Syria at this historical moment. But what’s their link to those governments and regimes that claim support for the Syrian nation? Can democracy really come about through undiplomatic means; through violence and terrorism and killing people because of their religion and identity? Can peace be realized through religious civil war? I raised my question with everyone who cares about Syria and its affairs.

Khalil Harb, Arabic and International Affairs Secretary at as-Safir Newspaper / Lebanon:

What happens in the Arab and Islamic world is full of contradiction. I can talk about these contradictions all night long. Someone who supports uprising in Libya does not sympathize with uprising in Bahrain. Someone who has extremist political tendencies, like what we see in Saudi Arabia, does not express support for the Syrians’ freedom and reform, while forbidding women to drive on the streets. This is a big contradiction… really astonishing!

Duraid Lahham, Famous Syrian Actor and Director:

Not even one Arabic country came to Syria and said, “No, my friends, what you’re doing is wrong. Let’s sit down and talk.” They kept spreading the unrests and fanned the flames of crisis by handing out money, weapons, etc.

Badi' Safour,Poet & scholar:

I’m always optimistic about the future. Syria has always been strong throughout centuries and eras. And this reminds me of a saying by a great poet. “For years, conquerors have turned to dust and been taken away by the wind”. They are the dust that the wind will take away. Syria will remain as long as human’s mind and spirit exist there; because eternity is always defined by that mind, spirit, and humanity. As I said, Syria greets everyone that comes along with a “Hello, there!”. Syria greets all the guests warmly, but never accepts enemies.

Narration:

It is some time after my return from Syria. But I still can’t forget that white and glittery landscape and glorious soil. It’s because the black and ugly lines with which Syria’s enemies tried to distort the picture of the Syrian nation are still messing with my head. But there’s one thing I understood very well; the Syrian people are very attentive and intelligent, and no matter of their stances or points of view, they can stand against the demands of their enemies. I’ve decided to turn all my wishes and anxieties into a big dream which I hope is realized in Syria. My dream is to return to Syria and see that its great nation has managed to get over this difficult period and establish a new Syria, according to its own criteria and without foreign interference. A new Syria with a promising future; a future Syria… with a beautiful and happy future in which all the Syrian citizens take part without exception. I know that this day is not far away. It will come soon, the dawn of a new era.

   

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