Saturday 19 April 2003
DAMASCUS - In a year's time, there will be American tanks rumbling through the narrow streets of this typical Middle Eastern city - at least that's what a lot of people here are starting to believe as every day brings more US accusations against Syria.
Under the vaulted roof of the beautiful souk al-Hamidiyyeh in the old city, shoppers are going about their business. But, in the middle of the spice market, the carpet sellers and the ice cream vendors, there's a palpable tension.
One woman told me how worried she was. She didn't believe there was really going to be an American war against Syria, but still she couldn't help wondering.
A year ago, she said, the US was accusing Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction and ties with terrorists. Now there were American tanks in Baghdad. Would that be the lot of Syria a year down the line, she asked.
And, as very often in this region, the woman was convinced that, as a journalist, I knew more than her about the American plans and begged me to tell her what I thought was going to happen to her country.
Well, what I do know is that the US and Syria have never been great friends for many reasons, all political. There's also a strong sense of nationalism in Syria. Many of my friends here tell me that although they want to be modern and connected to the rest of the world, they're proud Syria is still resisting American pop culture, there are no McDonalds or Levi Jeans.
There's always been distrust of the US here, but now there's also real anger, and it's very obviously whipped up by the authorities.
I'm Lebanese and I speak Arabic and that's often helped me in my reporting to get the trust of people I interview around the region, but now even that's not enough to convince some people to talk to me as a BBC correspondent - and I've had my share of insults from angry mobs.
Even Iraqis aren't immune to angry Syrians. Just before the fall of Baghdad, I was standing by the side of the road talking to some Iraqis who were telling me how much they hated Saddam Hussein and wanted to see him go.
They said it didn't matter if the US was waging the war because of Iraq's oil - under Saddam they had never profited from the oil gains anyway, and they didn't have any freedom.
Maybe the Americans would take the oil, but at least they would give Iraqis their freedom.
All of a sudden, a Syrian man came up to us screaming. How dare they criticise a leader who was fighting against the imperialistic troops? How could they allow the Americans into their country?
The Iraqis started screaming back, saying Arabs had never done anything for the Iraqis, never said anything about Saddam killing his people by the thousands, and now anti-war protesters around the world were brandishing posters of Saddam. The Iraqis were furious.
The shouting match went on for a while before we managed to escape to a nearby a shop and continue our conversation about the future of Iraq.
But then Baghdad fell without much of a fight and the Syrians were furious. How dare Saddam give up like that? Where were the gates of hell he had promised to the Americans?
Now there are rumours every day that wanted senior Iraqi officials are hiding in Syria. Syria is probably the best way out - better than any of Iraq's neighbours where they would walk straight into the arms of the Americans, or in the case of Iran, into the arms of their worst enemy.
A very lonely, sad-looking Mohammed al-Douri, Iraq's man at the UN, is now staying in my hotel in Damascus, but I haven't seen any wanted Iraqis here yet.
And it may not be such a good idea for Saddam and his followers to head to Syria anyway. One man I spoke to in Damascus said that the rumours about Saddam fleeing to Syria were nonsense.
Saddam, he said, was a traitor for not fighting the Americans and if he even dared showed up at the Syrian border he would be shot immediately for betraying the Arab cause.
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