Monday, July 6, 2009

Kuneitra Lessons

In eastern Europe I walked through the blasted showers and crematoria that laid waste to a generation of my people. In western China I volunteered in villages whose homes had crumbled like matchsticks in the face of the raw power of the earth. And so when I visited the town of Kuneitra on Wednesday June 17, I was not as overwhelmed by the senseless destruction of the border-town as my Syrian military guide would have preferred.

Over thirty years ago Israel and Syria waged a bitter fight in and around Kuneitra. When the 1973 October War drew to a halt, Israel agreed to return the town to Syrian civilian control, establishing the current de-facto border that runs along the edge of Kuneitra. The decision to cede control of the town to Syria was not made without controversy in Israel. Following Syria's humiliating loss of Kuneitra and the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War, the former provincial capital became seen as "the badge of Syria's defeat, an emblem of hatred between Syria and Israel and a cross that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had to bear." Many Israelis feared that returning Kuneitra to Syria in 1974 would be rewarding Assad for attacking Israel in the Yom Kippur War.

A much larger controversy ensued after the Israeli withdrawal. Kuneitra lay in ruins. And while Israel claimed that most of the damage was the result of the last two wars, Syria succeeded in getting the UN to rule that Israel had systematically destroyed the town before withdrawing. Ever since Syria has preserved Kuneitra as a symbol of Israeli aggression, a lesson visiting dignitaries like Pope John Paul II and the Chinese foreign minister are asked to accept on their scripted tours of the town.

I hardly qualify as a visiting dignitary so perhaps the Syrians will not mind that I do not buy their narrative. From my perspective, Kuneitra is only a superficial symbol of the 1970 war. The real lesson to draw from the ruins is the failure of the Assad regime to emerge from stilted Cold War politics. Thirty years ago nearly every Arab state was committed to a doctrine that demonized Israel and vilified the western world at large. And while the Assad regime now plays a wily game of alliances with newly assertive Shia voices in Lebanon and Iran, the rest of the Arab world has come to terms with reality and today more or less accepts Israel and the influence of America in the Middle East.

What does Syria have to show for Assad's Machiavellian politics? A country whose citizens are genuinely afraid at the stirrings of liberal democracy in their erstwhile allies, Lebanon and Iran? A regime that boasts of embracing the "China experiment" (al tajriba al siniya) by embracing economic reforms without political liberalization, yet ironically fails to heed the cardinal rule of the China model: separating economics from politics. As Hong Kong based economist Ben Simpfendorfer points out in his recent book "The New Silk Road,"

[While] there are many similarities between the Syrian economy today and the Chinese economy in the 1980s...Today Japanese manufactures are free to invest in China even as Beijing criticizes Tokyo about visits to the Yasukini Shrine where Japanese war criminals are interred. Taiwanese manufacturers build factories in the mainland Chinese province of Fujian not far from the same military arsenals that target Taiwan....[Japan, Taiwan and South Korea] have invested nearly $300 billion dollars in China during the past decade while also transferring years of managerial and technological expertise to China.

Meanwhile, Syria remains committed to a tired mantra that demonizes the very neighbor that could prove crucial to its success. Some of Syria's leaders at least seem to appreciate this strategic malaise, such as the former Minister of State Planning who wrote an article in March 2004 arguing that his country has suffered greatly because of its refusal to come to terms with the State of Israel. The influential former Minister, Issam Za'im, of course was quick to qualify his criticism by insisting that Syria has had little choice when faced by the threat of the "Zionist enemy." The tragic irony of this whole political failure is that Syria is a far more liberal society than the other major Arab states. Radical religious voices like the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi imams are far less established in Syria than they are in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Syria seems poised on the threshold between dynamic social and economic development or continued malaise. But who will emerge with the courage and wherewithal to take the country in a new direction?


Most guide books provide incredibly unhelpful directions on how to visit Kuneitra. The reality is that one must first stop by the Ministry of Interior in Damascus. After showing them your passports and assuring them you are not a spy, the office provides the necessary--and free--permit. Travelers can then simply catch a ride on a really cheap minibus that regularly leaves from the main bus station with its final stop outside Kuneitra.

When I visited on June 17, the minibus driver offered to accompany me and my friend into Kuneitra in return for a few dollars. We accepted his offer and after touring the ruins for an hour--easily enough time to see everything--we had become friendly enough that the gracious young driver invited us over to his family's nearby house for lunch. We spent another hour conversing over watermelon and tea, by which point the driver had insisted that next time my friend and I are in Syria, we consider living with his family!

It was fascinating to stand atop a ruined minaret in Kuneitra and gaze across the nearby border into Israel. I had looked down upon the town numerous times before during visits to the Golan Heights in Israel and so I was grateful for the chance to literally see how things looked from the other side of the fence.

The most compelling ruin in Kuneitra is undoubtedly the hospital. From the roof one can gaze into Israel and check out the small UN military complex charged with safeguarding the ceasefire in the area. Inside the hospital there are all sorts of messages scrawled onto the walls. The most intriguing is a series of paintings of beautiful, dark eyed girls. It took me a few minutes to realize that the artist was probably visualizing one of the seventy virgins promised to martyrs by Islam. The best part of the hospital may be the sign by the door. In large English and Arabic script, it boldly proclaims: "Golan Hospital. Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target." Because, you know, those Zionists hate hospitals that much.

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