Khalil Ali Haider: Kuwaiti journalists… in Damascus

publisher: ايلاف

Publishing date: 2002-07-29


Damas appeared beautiful and historical, as always, but I did not see any significant changes in the streets since I left two years ago. I was in the ancient city in the summer of 2000 when President Hafez al-Assad passed away.

My feeling, while in Kuwait, was that Syria is going through a transitional phase or perhaps a slow political transformation. This was confirmed during my visit with the Kuwaiti media delegation last June.

Our first extensive meeting was with Syrian journalists at the residence of the Kuwaiti Ambassador, Mr. Suleiman Al-Murjan, who graciously hosted us for dinner. Our initial discussion covered Syrian forums and the government’s stance towards them, then transitioned to the differences between Western democracy and social democracy. When the conversation shifted to the state of journalism, I expressed my curiosity about the relatively limited presence of Syrian journalism on the Arab scene compared to, for instance, Egyptian journalism. This is especially noteworthy considering the significant historical role played by Syrian journalists and intellectuals in establishing Arab journalism, as well as the contributions of Syrian expatriates to Kuwaiti and Gulf journalism.

I then raised the question of the whereabouts of Syrian voices in global and regional journalism despite the abundance of Syrian intellectuals and academics.

The next day, we met with Mr. Abdelkader Qaddoura, the President of the Syrian People’s Council, in that historic building that had been bombed during the French occupation. Mr. Qaddoura extensively discussed the current political circumstances, the Arab cultural heritage, emphasizing their capability for progress. He strongly criticized the U.S. bias towards Israel, and his conversation was rich with religious references, highlighting the importance of the Levant, the region from which the conquests spread east and west.

Two members of the visiting media delegation spoke during the meeting. Dr. Shamlan Al-Eissa, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, emphasized the importance of a free economy and Western democracy, advocating openness. On the other hand, Professor Ahmed Al-Diyin criticized the new savage capitalism and liberalism. My question focused on the possibility of achieving progress and development in the Arab and Islamic world without cooperation with the West, leading to an extensive dialogue on these observations.

The meeting with General Mustafa Tlass at 1:00 PM was intriguing due to the man’s openness and his extensive discussion about his experiences and personal life. It seems he was a rebel since his youth, working as a teacher before joining the army. He surprised us when he said, “I participated in all Syrian coups and counter-coups, and today I am the longest-serving military leader in my position.” He mentioned that he personally organized all the steps following the death of former President Hafez al-Assad, including choosing the Quranic verse broadcasted in the statement.

One amusing story he shared was about 17 girls who refused to marry him due to his political activity. Once he assumed his high position in the Ministry of Defense, he invited them to a dinner, with their husbands, as a sort of revenge.

General Tlass spoke about many things, and time passed unnoticed. At the end of the meeting, he generously gave us a large quantity of his writings and publications from Tlass Publishing House.

Our evening meeting was with Mr. Adnan Omran, the Minister of Information, who welcomed us warmly, and the meeting extended for several hours. The minister praised Kuwaiti journalism and its role, acknowledging Syria’s sensitivity to some of its publications. He mentioned that Syria receives many reports about Kuwait and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in the journalistic field, but they choose not to publish them. Moreover, Syrian newspapers are prohibited from criticizing any Arab leader or president. The minister added that he does his best to expand the margin of freedom, grant licenses to new newspapers, abolish prior censorship, renew laws, and more.

I raised once again the phenomenon of the Syrian contribution being absent from Arab journalism compared to its distinguished status in the Arab world. I also compared it to Arab newspapers and magazines abundant with articles and analyses. Adnan Al-Rashid from Al-Anbaa Kuwaiti newspaper urged Syrian journalism to pay more attention to Gulf issues, especially during the summer when many Gulf citizens visit Syria. He also called for organizing media visits to Syrian tourist sites to introduce them.

The conversation then shifted to television and satellite stations. One notable point was his criticism of Al Jazeera’s report on the death of President Hafez al-Assad, where the report inaccurately mentioned the presence of a large number of tanks on the streets of Damascus: “I called the station’s correspondent and told him to come with me by car to see these tanks together.”

The following day, we met with Mr. Abdel Halim Khaddam, the Vice President. He transitioned from discussing Syrian-Kuwaiti and Gulf relations to the current Arab reality. He stated that we are advocates of a cause that should not be relinquished due to international military and political balances. Every call for our cause has gone through periods of weakness before prevailing, as vividly demonstrated by Hezbollah’s achievements in southern Lebanon despite their limited numbers and equipment compared to their adversaries. There is a need to believe in the cause because there is no immediate victory, and the Arabs will not remain in their current state.

The events of September in New York were genuine terrorism, but the American response was exaggerated. Regarding the required policy, we must not err in history to change geography. The Arab system founded in 1945 is responsible for the failure. The focus on the independence of Arab entities was a result of the concerns of the Arab axes at that time – the Egyptian axis, the Hashemite axis, etc. Thus, the idea of sovereignty took root in our minds, unfortunately deviating to hinder economic coordination among us, while not preventing the signing of a peace agreement with Israel! Despite our intimate search for security, there is no secure Arab state today. Israel’s proposal for the Palestinian resettlement in Iraq aims to incite sectarian strife. Our problems in Syria are under control. We are not a rigid society, and we are not a reckless leadership. Syria has the least Soviet debt if we set aside Soviet loans. Our agricultural situation is good, and we move quietly, producing double our wheat needs economically. We bear three burdens: the burden of defense, the burden of population, and the burden of global developments. We sense American pressure on Gulf countries not to invest in Syria. The results of the United States’ attack on Iraq are terrible, and the American-Iraqi problem is distinct from the Kuwaiti-Iraqi problem.

The official concluding meeting with the delegation was held with Mr. Suleiman Haddad, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, who happened to be outside Syria on an official mission. Mr. Haddad addressed several issues we mentioned and spoke about the upcoming changes in Syria, stating, “We want the Chinese transformation, not the Russian one.” Many talk about democracy without clearly defining it or understanding its implementation. Today, we practice democracy within the Baath Party, in the elections of the bases, committees, and others.

Regarding the issue of Kuwaiti prisoners in Iraq, he said, “We have never met an Iraqi official without raising the issue with them.” One member of the delegation said, “No one there has any opinion or decision except the president.”

The Syrian Journalists’ Union honored the Kuwaiti delegation at the Union Club, where both sides enjoyed a festive lunch. The next day, the two parties signed a cooperation agreement, after which the visiting delegation left by land for Lebanon!

Note: I had written a set of impressions about the trip of the Kuwaiti journalistic delegation to Damascus and Beirut for the Union newspaper in Abu Dhabi. The Emirati newspaper graciously allowed its republication, providing a more complete picture for readers in Kuwait about the delegation’s visit to the two countries they were delighted to visit in June of the past year. “Al Ittihad” also allowed the publication of another set of my articles, for which I express sincere thanks and appreciation.