Arabs take the long, long view


AL HOSN, Syria -- Standing on the ramparts, one can almost see the knights with the red crosses emblazoned on their chests, stringing their crossbows and sharpening their lances to repel another attack by the Saracens gathering below.

The words "Boil the oil!" echo through the corridors, where a visitor finds the honeycomb holes in the stone floor where the crusaders stored the scalding liquid to be dumped on the Muslim enemy.

Down a stairwell, nervous horses snort and whinny in the stables. Below the tapered Gothic ceiling of the assembly hall, the nobles argue over battle strategy.

All but impregnable with its massive stone walls and maze-like entrance, the Krak des Chevaliers was the cutting edge of military technology in its time.

The crusader fortress, which was never overtaken by force, is so well preserved that imaginative tourists can still conjure the sounds of holy war. But Muslim Arabs hear something else when they visit the fortress -- nothing but the wind through the empty chambers.

For many of them, the silence says patience. Time is on our side. The crusaders are long gone, and so too will be all the others who conquer us.

"The crusades lasted two centuries, and hope was never lost," said Youssef Makdisy, a political adviser to the Syrian government. "Our hopes and our rights have lasted through two centuries also."

The line, a thinly veiled threat against Israel, is heard often throughout the Arab world. It is half expected from the doctor who doubles as spokesman for Hamas, a radical group that supports a violent struggle against Israel. When the young West Bank construction worker says it, it may be just the recital of a schoolboy lesson. By contrast, it is sobering when it is the first thing uttered by Mr. Makdisy, a representative of the Syrian regime, after a journalist asks about Israel and the prospects for peace.

It seems especially puzzling at a time when moderates are said to have the upper hand in the Middle East conflict, when the peace process appears to have regained its momentum and when Syrian President Hafez Assad is otherwise making conciliatory sounds toward the Israelis.

Syria's position

A visit to the Krak des Chevaliers should be on the itinerary of every Clinton administration official promoting the latest push for peace under Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It might offer a lesson in the long-term Arab world view, or at least stubborn Syria's.

Syria is still at war with Israel, not only because the Israelis have occupied the Golan Heights since 1967. To many Syrians, Israel is no different from the Christian kingdoms that the crusaders established in Jerusalem.

In this era, they cheer their government's vow to contain what it sees as European Israel's quest for hegemony in the region. "In the popular mind and in some official discourse, too, Israel is regarded as a new crusader state," the author Amin Maalouf wrote in his 1985 book "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes."

They are weak now, shorn of their Soviet Cold War patron, struggling to catch up with a modernizing, globalizing world and anticipating a friendship with the United States, as Egypt and Jordan have.

History tells them, however, that they will not always be weak. The great powers are not eternally great powers, and war is not always the means for final victory. Birth rates also can be a weapon, and it is an oft-quoted fact in the Mideast that the Palestinians will soon far outnumber the Israelis.

"We [Arabs] have two schools of thought," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a Palestinian academic. "We have an older generation that is still a prisoner of the history, and they see the fight for Jerusalem through it. The younger generation doesn't know this history, but they have this same national pride."

In Syria, it is the older generation of Mr. Assad that insists on striking peace with Israel before a new generation emerges. In other places, the references to history sound like anachronistic posturing, but not here; diplomats complain that the Syrians are notoriously poor at public diplomacy. That could be another way of saying they are too honest.

Hostile territory

The historic grievances reach further back to 900 years of occupation by Mamluk and Ottoman Turks, and before that to seven invasions by crusading Franks who occupied Jerusalem, established Christian kingdoms in the Mideast and dotted the hostile land with huge fortresses like the Krak.

In the cafes of Damascus, young Syrians and Palestinian refugees who make a good living as traders and who have never seen Jerusalem say peace with Israel is about economic opportunity not acceptance.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, to some of them, is "the lap dog of the Americans," selling out Arab interests.

Perhaps it is instructive to remember that the crusaders also engaged in peace talks in the 12th century. Saladin, the great Muslim sultan, and Richard the Lion-Hearted, the King of England who led his troops into the Holy Land, tried to strike a deal several times.

Historical perspective

In one proposal, the sultan's brother would wed the king's sister and the two would jointly rule Jerusalem. The negotiations, according to one historian, were "long, complicated and insincere" and ultimately failed.

Finally, in 1192, Richard, in ill health, having lost Jerusalem and on the run from Saladin's forces, capitulated and went back to England after signing a peace treaty that left a small Christian kingdom intact on the Mediterranean coast but laid the ground for yet another crusade.

Still revered to this day for his great victories, Saladin had his frustrations, too. One was that he never succeeded in capturing the great Krak des Chevaliers, where the 4,000-member garrison of the Knights Hospitallers controlled an important mountain pass to the sea.

In that history lesson, too, however, some Arabs find hope that they will ultimately prevail, even as historic underdogs. The castle did eventually fall in 1271 to Baybars, a fierce Mamluk king and former slave, but through wit rather than superior force. Baybars smuggled in a forged order from the crusaders' commander for them to surrender, and the knights abandoned the fortress intact.

Hugh Dellios is Middle East bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune, in which this first appeared.

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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