Hostility, peace spirit coexist in Syria today

WASHINGTON — An Arabic translation of Shimon Peres' memoirs was not the kind of book one expected to find in the streets of Damascus.

But there it was, prominently displayed in a popular bookstore, the former Israeli prime minister's face beaming at passers-by.

On another shelf, books espousing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views — displayed no less prominently — told a different story.

To an American Jewish delegation who recently visited Syria, the juxtaposition of the Israeli peacemaker's visage alongside demonizing anti-Jewish propaganda seemed competing symbols of a country in the midst of a transition, where the old and the new sit uneasily beside each other.

"It seems that the idea of peace with Israel is percolating down to the grass roots of Syrian society," said Thomas Smerling, executive director of Project Nishma, which recently completed a fact-finding mission to Syria, Jordan and Israel.

The Washing-ton-based organization describes itself as a supporter of the peace process and Israel's security concerns.

Even as some Syrians appear to be warming to the notion of peace, there is still "plenty of hostility and misunderstanding that continues alongside the more positive changes," Smerling said.

Indeed, the state-run Syrian media consistently issues anti-Israel editorials and propaganda bordering on anti-Semitism. Damascus at times has appeared to talk out of both sides of its mouth, calling for an honorable peace with Israel while equating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Adolf Hitler.

"These contradictions are inherent in the transition from war to peacemaking," Smerling said, noting the importance of looking at "the whole picture and the changes over time, how the rhetoric changes in response to progress in the peace process and what other Syrian voices are saying."

Recognizing the limited contact between Syrians and American Jews, the Project Nishma group recently traveled to Damascus, as it did two years ago, trying to look beyond the demonizing rhetoric and foster mutual understandings.

Returning this summer, the 15 American Jews, including Theodore Mann, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a co-chairman of Project Nishma, found evidence of "a slow, but palpable" transformation in the Syrian attitude toward Israel, Smerling said.

Much of the hostile rhetoric about the "Zionist entity" and hesitation to talk about peace with Israel had given way to open aspirations — articulated by dozens of Syrian academics, journalists and businessmen with whom the group came into contact — to sign a peace agreement with the Jewish state.

Evidence of a government campaign to legitimize the concept of peace with Israel was also visible, according to Smerling.

Banners could be seen hanging from the streets declaring Syrian President Hafez Assad a hero of war and a hero of peace.

"We fought with honor and we are negotiating with honor," one banner read.

"The progress shouldn't be overstated," Smerling said. "You have to remember that these two societies are starting from a point of near-total enmity and isolation toward each other."

As the delegation arrived in Damascus less than a month after Netanyahu took office, an air of uncertainty prevailed over the prospects of resuming Israeli-Syrian talks.

Sporadic Israeli-Syrian negotiations, initiated after the 1991 Madrid peace conference, were suspended March 4 after Damascus failed to condemn a series of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.

But conversations with top Syrian, Israeli and U.S. officials who were involved in the talks indicated that "significantly more progress had been made than is publicly understood," Smerling said.

The group met with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa; Syria's former ambassador to the United States, Rafik Jouejati; Israel's former chief negotiator with Syria, Uri Savir; and Peres, among others.

"Large gaps remained on many items, especially the security arrangements," Smerling said, "but enough progress had been achieved in informal understandings to give hope that an agreement would eventually be reached."