It's 8 a.m. in Damascus, and Honey Al Sayed (her real name) is at the microphone, ready to greet her large contingent of faithful daily listeners on Al Madina Radio, the country's first private radio station. As she scrolls through a flurry of text and e-mail messages informing her about the personal worries and wishes of her fans, she dispenses advice, songs and upbeat chit-chat.
Never sitting still, she bounces to the music, while at intervals her sound engineer, Abdullah, separated from her by a glass wall, feels moved to leap to his feet and dance. Of course she doesn't wake up happy every morning, Honey confides. But she sees it as her civic duty to get the country off to an optimistic, positive start each day, to give her listeners confidence and energy in place of the griping and depression to which Syrians have become all too accustomed.
In his smoke-filled bohemian studio, filmmaker Najdat Anzour previews his upcoming television series for guests. He has taken the unusual step of hiring a dozen female script writers to tackle issues related to the oppression of women, violence in the family, and honor killings.
"This will cause a stir," he predicts gleefully. The new TV drama series Al Kawareer will be as controversial as his previous work, which included accusing the religious establishment of encouraging suicide bombers and suggesting that a push to revive the wearing of hijab (by a sect-like movement known as the Kubaisiyat) was fueled by sexual pathology.
A marginal, eccentric artist? Hardly. Walking through Damascus with Anzour is like strolling through Rome with Bertolucci or Fellini. Restaurant owners rush to offer the best table as clusters of excited fans gather. And that episode from a recent series questioning the wearing of hijab? When he screened it at a public gathering, the loudest applause came from veiled young women.
Syria is changing and the United States should take notice. A vibrant youth scene, complete with chic cafés and art exhibitions where bearded intellectuals discuss philosophical matters, the modish shopping districts and the WiFi hotspots in a country late to adopt the Internet, are not the only surprises in Syria. Americans will be amazed by the friendliness with which they are received. The rough-hewn tour guide in Palmyra hails his sparse American visitors as "pioneers" and instructs them to tell other Americans to visit, too; business is bad without them.
More significant, perhaps, is the smile of the heavily veiled lady guarding the entrance to the Sayyidah Zeinab Mosque. An important site of Shi'a pilgrimages, it is filled with throngs of wailing, praying pilgrims anxious to touch and kiss the tomb of the Prophet's granddaughter, and one might expect it to be barred to unbelievers. Instead, the woman offers a hearty "America? Welcome!" in English, as she half-hugs and half-envelops her guest in a loaner chador.
At Syria's U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees headquarters, the job of helping to take care of 1.2 million Iraqi refugees is made more difficult by authorities' suspicion of outside agencies — the supporting organizations that would ordinarily implement the aid work are not registered to work in this country. On the other hand, UNHCR unanimously praises the generosity of Syrian officials and private citizens in the face of this huge burden on the country's infrastructure and economy. Many refugees were surprised to receive free lodging in private homes and to see their children quickly enrolled in Syrian schools.
But let's not be naïve — all is not rosy in Syria. The nation's involvement with terrorism, obviously, remains to be carefully scrutinized. Hezbollah and Iranian propaganda is displayed in alleyway shops and bookstores. People still clam up as soon as the conversation shifts from culture to politics.
In constant visual reinforcement of autocracy, the male members of the ruling Assad family still have their faces splashed all across the city in the form of decals on the rear windows of cars, and near-ubiquitous posters, banners and murals. Everyone sees the images of deceased father Hafez, son Basil (the designated heir until he died in a car accident), son Bashar (he became the leader in his brother's stead), and the next generation in the dynasty, Bashar's toddler son, Hafez.
Several reform waves, including the Damascus Spring Movement in 2000 and the Damascus Declaration in 2005, were squelched by the simple expedient of jailing key participants. Still, the Syrians we spoke with seemed to see a positive trend of steady liberalization, and highlighted the previous year as a near-watershed. That assessment was shared by local journalists, business people and, most persuasively and surprisingly, from a dissident who spent 16 years in prison under the former president. He still has no passport and is not allowed to travel abroad, but he has been able to publish his prison reminiscences and to write for a leading Arabic daily paper.
And we should keep in mind that with some effort, positive change can occur. Libya for years pursued a foreign policy that was in many ways even more disturbing than that of Syria. The U.S. policy toward Libya moved over time from seeking regime change to seeking policy change. The Assad regime can be helpful to U.S. goals with regard to the rise of Islamic extremism, Iraq and Lebanon — and vice versa. We have to make it clear to Syria that there is more to be gained by aligning with the West than aligning with nations like Iran. Through persistent diplomacy and receptivity to overtures from the other side, including Libyan preparedness to make amends, the West's relationship with that country has undergone a transformation surprising even to the most optimistic policymakers.
So while it may be premature to buy into the "sweet, sweet Syria" that Honey proclaims every morning, the time may come to start contemplating whether Syria might follow the example of Libya and make its way off the axis of evil.
Cheryl Benard is a senior political scientist and Edward O'Connell is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation. They recently returned to the United States from a trip to Syria.
This commentary originally appeared in Providence Journal on April 22, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.