Talk to any connoisseur of Arab entertainment and you are likely to hear high praise for Syrian actors, directors and scriptwriters. You will hear that Syria produces the best sitcoms and the most entertaining serials for Arab television.
Last Ramadan, Arab audiences were captivated by the serial "Neighbourhood's Gate" which depicted life in part of old Damascus that has managed to avoid the changes that time and its child, history, inflict on all cities.
The old quartier is dotted with Damascene houses, original architectural devices designed to ensure minimum contact with the outside world. Isolated by high walls, these houses include an inner court that no outsider can see. In them, all windows open towards the inside, making sure that the inhabitants cannot know what is going on outside unless they leave home.
Over time, the inhabitants of those houses develop their distinct version of reality while trying to cajole, console or contradict one another with a narrative sustained by fantasy.
Can the Damascene house provide us with a key for understanding Syrian politics?
The question is not as fanciful as it might appear. After all, for centuries Syria was the very heart of the so-called Byzantine Empire with its, well, Byzantine politics. British thriller-writer Eric Ambler preferred the term '"Levantine" which he described as "Byzantine multiplied by four".
So, what is the Levantine scheme that Syria may be nurturing in Lebanon? Talk to virtually any Lebanese outside Hezballah and you are likely to be rewarded with a torrent of accusations against Syria. You will be told that Syria has been behind the series of political murders that have shaken Lebanon since February 2005 when former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was blown up in the heart of Beirut. You will hear how Syrian security services, the notorious Mukahberat, have revived their old networks in Lebanon with the aim of bringing down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud is blamed for blocking many government decisions by using his veto whenever possible under the constitution. Needless to say the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, the Minister of Industry, last week is also presented as another Syrian move in a Levantine scheme to force Siniora to resign.
The problem is that none of those claims is easily verified, if only because the Damascene house remains hermetically sealed to outsiders. The idea of setting up an international tribunal to investigate the murders and verify other claims about Syrian machinations is unlikely to make much headway in Damascus.
What is certain, however, is that the Syrian elite believe that the tide is turning in their favor.
That belief is based on a number of assumptions.
The first is that the Bush Doctrine with its principles of regime change, pre-emptive war and the removal by force of impediments to democracy is all but dead. If anything, the continued chaos in Iraq, magnified by the global media that hate Bush for other reasons, has shifted the balance in the old debate between freedom and security in favor of the latter. Most people, at least in the Middle East, would rather be secure and un-free than free and insecure. And, that is precisely where the Syrian system has something original to offer.
The image of a United States taking the road to Damascus, cap in hand, to beg for help on Iraq reinforces the mood of glumness of the Syrian elite. If James Baker III believes that Iraq cannot see peace without Syrian help, how much more convincing is the claim that Lebanon needs Syria in order to survive as a distinct entity.
Seen from Damascus, the US is looking for ways of throwing the towel in and burg all hope of remolding the Middle East the way it wanted five years ago. The new Middle East will be shaped by "regional powers", a code word for the Islamic Republic in Tehran. And there, too, Syria has quite a few strong cards. For, if the US needs Syria to help it implement a cut-and-run policy, Iran needs Syria to help it enter the region as the new regional "superpower". Without Syria, Iran would have no Arab ally and thus no point of entry into an Arab world that it has always regarded as hostile territory.
For precisely the same reason, the Arab states also need Syria if only to reduce the weight of Iranian presence in the region. Having isolated Syria since the Hariri assassination, Arab states may soon have to put in peace feelers to Damascus.
Israel also needs Syria to curb the Hezballah in Lebanon and to keep the more radical Palestinian groups in check. Only Syria can help Israel escape being caught in a pincer made of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
In other words, according to the Syrian elite, yesterday's Cinderella is today's princess.
But how justified are those assumptions? Are the Syrian elite merely deluding themselves in the same way as characters in the TV serial were throughout Ramadan?
Will the new Democrat majority in the US force Bush to hand the Middle East to the mullahs in Tehran and their Syrian acolytes on a tray? Would other states of the region, including Turkey, go along with a scheme to transform the Middle East into an Iranian zone of influence? Will the Iraqis welcome such a new balance of power? And would the Lebanese return to Syrian domination without any qualms?
The fundamental weakness of the current Syrian analysis lies in its basic assumption that the new Middle East has to be either American or Iranian, and that the Ba'athist regime can play the two rivals against each other, and thus ensure its own survival.
Imagine the many different things that can happen without the inhabitants of the Damascene house learning about them until it is too late. The Americans may not run away or, if they do, may come back later with greater determination.
The Iranians may not have the wherewithal to play a power game that their ailing economy, ramshackle military, and inexperienced political cadre cannot sustain. Rather than buying protection from Damascus against Hezaballah and Hamas, the Israelis may decide to hit Syria itself. The Lebanese may prove a tougher nut to crack than the Syrian elite assume. Turkey and the Arab states may not cherish the idea of becoming client states in a region dominated by a Khomeinist ideology that seeks their destruction. Unthinkable though it may seem at present, there is also the theoretical possibility of an Irano-American "Grand Bargain" to impose a condominium over the Middle East.
By shaping its policies based on troubles that others face, Syria may be trying to avoid the hard choices it faces.
It is not enough to think of what effect what Syria does might have on others. The real question is what effects what Syria does will have on Syria itself. There is no dishonor in seeking to play Sancho Panza. But to play it with Quixotic illusions could lead into a deadly trap. As war clouds continue to thicken over the Middle East, the inhabitants of the Damascene house would do well to open at least one window to the real world.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.
Mr. Taheri's articles are under his copyright and are syndicated by Benador Associates at firstname.lastname@example.org subject line: Taheri-syndication.