For Syrians, a Siege Mentality Sets In

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria, Oct. 24 -- Waving Syrian flags, thousands of people poured into the capital's Seven Lakes Square on Monday in an orchestrated show of anger over a U.N. inquiry that implicated the country's leadership in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

There was indignation: "Stay away from Syria," one banner declared. There was a hint of festivity, too -- the cheer that comes with schools, universities and government offices taking the day off to bolster the crowds.

"I came to denounce the investigation," explained 17-year-old Hisham Hassan, holding a portrait of President Bashar Assad.

He paused, furrowing his brow. "Why else?" he asked, turning to his friend, Hisham Shaqairi.

"National unity," his friend said.

"Right, national unity," Hassan answered, nodding.

But amid the chants and smiles, one poster hinted at the deep unease that courses through Damascus these days, as its government faces its greatest crisis since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. "Syria will never be Iraq," it read.

Shaqairi saw the poster and understood the message. "Iraq yesterday is Syria today," he said, turning serious.

In markets suffused with the scent of spices, in homes struggling to make ends meet and in cafes crowded at the end of the daily dawn-to-dusk fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the plight of Syria's neighbor casts a long, menacing shadow. It is bolstering the legitimacy of Assad's isolated government, dictating the strategy of its still-feeble opposition and molding opinion toward the United States' hinted aim, the end of 35 years of rule by Assad's Baath Party, many people here say.

"The scenario of Iraq is in the back of the minds of the majority of Syrians," said Yassin Hajj Saleh, a 44-year-old opposition activist. "The regime has greatly benefited from the disastrous situation there. It points its finger: 'Look at Iraq, look at Iraq. Occupation, terrorism, death, daily killings and civil war.' That scenario is terrifying to Syrians."

The mounting crisis, with the U.N. Security Council due on Tuesday to discuss the U.N. investigation into Hariri's killing, has fed anxiety more than anticipation, fear more than hope, creating some of the same sentiments voiced in Iraq in March 2003.

"You are in a car, the driver is crazy, the road is downhill and we have no brakes," Saleh said.

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