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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 June 2007, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Syria's 1967 war goes unmentioned
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC News, Damascus

Syria is not marking the 1967 war for obvious reasons. Countries do not celebrate defeats. Syria suffered its worst military defeat in living memory and lost the strategic Golan Heights to Israel.

Israeli tanks on the Golan Heights in June 1967
Israel inflicted a crushing defeat

Paradoxically, however, the first week of June finds Syria in a festive mood, albeit an officially sanctioned one.

An extravagant piece of pageantry is touring the country to celebrate the "re-election" of President Bashar al-Assad for another seven years in a referendum in which he was the only candidate.

It is a grandiose spectacle featuring Phoenician chariots, Syrian farmers and Baath party boy scouts.

The ostentatious display is nearly 2km (1.2 miles) long and is touring the whole country with huge posters of the president bearing the slogan minhebak (We Love You).

The machinery that created the personality cult around the president's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, shows itself to be still well oiled in this extravagant display of love and devotion to the "eternal leader".

No-one here wants to hear anything about the 1967 defeat.

One party member taking part in the parade in Damascus looked shocked when I suggested to him that maybe the ruling Baath party was to blame, since it was in power then and still is.

"Mistake?" he retorted. "No. The party never made any mistakes."

In a bizarre way, the most visible legacy of that war is not so much Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, as that the political system that presided over the defeat has survived more or less intact.

Syria's minister of defence in 1967 was Hafez al-Assad. He later became president and ruled the country for 30 years.

Unfathomable defeat

Here is how the war is described in a history textbook for secondary school students:

Poster of Bashar al-Assad at post-referendum celebrations
Syria has been ruled by the same family for nearly four decades

"As the Arab nationalist tide of liberation grew stronger, and some Arab revolutions became victorious, the Zionist aggression on 5 June 1967 had the aim of bringing down the Arab progressive forces with the help of the United States."

This is a vintage Arab-nationalist interpretation of what happened.

It is almost identical to the passionate appeal by the Baathist president broadcast on the day Israel stormed the Golan Heights.

President Nur al-Din al-Atasi took to the airwaves on 9 June and urged his people to turn Syria into a graveyard for "the Anglo-American Zionist invaders".

The idea that British and American forces were assisting Israel's war effort was hatched in Egypt, disseminated by its popular Arab radio station Sawt Al Arab (Voice of the Arabs) and picked up by Damascus.

It was a desperate attempt to justify the devastating defeat of three Arab armies in less than a week by tiny Israel.

Arab leaders in Egypt and Syria had promised to wipe Israel off the map in the run-up to the war.

There is an ongoing defeat because we are living under the same political and perhaps cultural structures that brought about that defeat
Yasseen Haj Saleh
Syrian writer

Throwing Britain and America into the equation was clearly intended to deflect public anger.

From the start of the war, the Arab public had been fed lies about their countries' military prowess on the battlefield.

Enduring crisis

Talk of foreign conspiracies against Syria and the wider region is still very much the official prism through which the current turmoil in the Middle East is seen in Damascus. Predictably, critics of the Baath regime disagree.

Syrian writer Yasseen Haj Saleh does not dispute the role of the West in buttressing Israel but believes that 1967 was a symptom of deeper malaise in Syria and other Arab societies.

Mr Saleh, who spent 16 years in a Syrian jail, says:

"There is an ongoing defeat because we are living under the same political and perhaps cultural structures that brought about that defeat. That is why we are still living with it."

Today the majority of the Syrian population was born after 1967 and many of the young do not even remember that date.

But a young Syrian student spoke for the majority of Syrians when I asked him about the occupied Golan Heights:

"The Ottoman Turks occupied our land for 400, the Crusaders were here for 60-70 years but as long as there is the will, we will get what is ours back.

"By war or by political means, we will certainly get it back one day."

Tangled web

The Syrians believe that history is on their side, that right will somehow overcome the Israeli military might.

Syrians attend an independence rally near the cease-fire line with Israel
Syrians can look into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights

Ethics aside, today the conflict between Syria and Israel has become caught up in a wider regional power struggle between Israel and America on the one hand, and Iran on the other.

In 1967, during the heyday of the cold war, there were only two sides to the conflict, the Arabs, backed by the former Soviet Union, and the Israelis, supported by America.

Today, the Arab side has fractured into rival camps.

Syria has allied itself with Iran, which has ambitions to become a regional power and the standard-bearer of Muslims against Jewish Israel and the Christian West.

Despite official denials, Damascus is also embroiled in the turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon.

Washington is directly involved in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbour in ways that were inconceivable back in the 1960s.

The old fault lines are now criss-crossed with new ones.

Peace between Syria and Israel - if it ever happens in the near future - may have to begin by disentangling a web of regional, international and growing national, even sectarian, conflicts.


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