A LAND IN THE SHADOW OF DEATH

The fate of the Middle East is in the balance: this year may bring peace; more probably, it will bring war. Either way, Syria will be involved. Yet our knowledge of this closed, suspicious country is limited. This account of an investigative journey there offers a rare insight into a land whose tensions epitomise the region's, and whose future affects us all

They are still building the shrine over Basil Assad, chevalier of Syria, leader of men, enemy of corruption, favourite son of Hafez, the President of Syria. At the gates of the unfinished mosque at Qardaha, a paratrooper in a red beret and a young man greet me. The civilian is dressed in black, with a black tie bearing the image of Basil, in which the president's son wears black sunglasses. Another young man approaches me, the guardian of the shrine, unwilling to give his name because "Basil outshone all of us who remain alive." I gesture towards the monument to my right, a tall concrete spire upon which an artist's impression of Basil, in the uniform of the Syrian army, is riding his show-jumping horse upwards towards the stars of heaven while his father Hafez, in presidential blue suit, holds out his arms in farewell, his face a mask of sorrow and pride. Tell me about Basil, I ask the anonymous guardian. Is Basil not more present in death - in his portraits - than he ever was in life?

The guardian of the shrine smells of musk. He smiles and clutches my hand. "The late Basil had no peers - as a leader, no one could match him," he says. "He won a gold medal as a horse-rider in the 10th Mediterranean games. He had no rival in sportsmanship. As a free-fall paratrooper, he was one of our heroes." I tried to ask another question but the guardian politely raised his hand in protest. "Thanks to the late Basil, the government has computers - he was the founder of the Syrian Data Processing Society. He was a staff major in the army, winning all his mili- tary courses, and he graduated with a PhD in military science from the Khruschev university in Russia as well as a civil engineering degree at Damascus University."

I wanted to talk about the monument but the admonishing hand rose again. "The late Basil spoke French and English fluently. He was modest. He talked to all the people in an ordinary way. He embodied the modesty of our president but you would never think that the late Basil was the son of so important a man. He was against corruption and encouraged the youth to turn to sports in order to avoid the evils of drugs. He symbolised the morality of the younger generation." It was an oral version of the words carved on the shrines of great Arab nobles, but unstoppable - at least until I asked for the dates of Basil's birth and death. "He was born on 23 April 1962. He died on 22 June 1994." Died, it should be added, on a foggy morning on the Damascus airport highway when his car overturned as he rushed to catch a flight to Germany.

The guardian invited me to enter the shrine. A cloud of incense funnelled towards the roof and, beyond a glass door, there stood the catafalque of Basil Assad, draped in green silk and embroidered with gold Koranic script: "God is Great and His Prophet is Mohamed." The tomb is that of a nobleman, faintly modelled on that of the horseback warrior who drove the Crusaders from the Holy Land and who rests today under an equally green canopy scarcely 250 miles away in Damascus: Salahadin. Behind the catafalque, two bright sodium lamps illuminated a startling oil painting of Basil: unsmiling, bearded, handsome, hair tossed carelessly over his forehead, a look of grim determination on his face, a man - like his father - not to be crossed, in life or in death. The young mourners in black were there to ensure respect and watched me carefully for a minute, but then - with a sudden flourish of open arms - told me I could take photographs. "Because it is darker here, I suppose you'll be using 800 film," the guardian said softly. It was like the end of a religious service, that moment when the priest warns his congregation that it is raining outside, that they will most certainly need their umbrellas. I needed 800 film.

And through the Olympian eye of my camera, as it flattened the green and gold silk and the tomb beneath which Basil lay buried, I caught sight of two middle-aged men in old clothes, standing at the doorway, hands upraised to heaven. Were they remembering the young man who grew up in this windy, hilltop village with its new shrine and its delicate, painted mosque down the road that houses the remains of the president's mother - Basil's grandmother - Naisa? Assad means "lion", and the road-sign outside Qardaha had greeted me with the words: "Welcome to Qardaha, the Lion's Den." The lion's den turned out to be an unremarkable village - save for its luxury hotel and modern highway - buried in a fold of hills below the mountains east of Lattakia in north- west Syria, where the minority Alawite people, to whom the president belongs, form a majority of the population. Their sons have found fame - and position - in Assad's regime, alongside the majority Sunni Muslims and the Christians.

The Lion of Qardaha became the Lion of Damascus on 16 November 1970, when, as minister of defence in the Baath Socialist government, Hafez Assad toppled his rivals in a bloodless coup, ever afterwards to be called the "correctionist movement", opening up his country to economic and political liberalisation but ensuring that his rule remained - with the help of a ruthless secret police apparatus - unchallenged. But now that his favourite son is gone, can Assad's regime survive his death? It is a question which every Syrian asks - including, no doubt, those two Syrian peasants in my camera lens.

Assad gave his country stability and unity, crushed his internal "Islamist" enemies and fought the Israelis, in a vain attempt to recapture the Golan Heights in 1973 and in a successful battle to prevent Israel from subduing Lebanon in 1982. He wanted to bequeath to his favourite son a Syria that had regained its lost lands, that stood unchallenged as the vanguard of the Arab world. The son has died; but Assad's Syria still demands the return of the Golan Heights from Israel. There can thus be no Middle East peace without Syria. Basil's ghost stands sentinel over the country's future. "He is with us still," the guardian of the shrine tells me in the frozen wind outside the still unfinished mosque. "He will always inspire us." And he holds my hands in both of his, looking into my face.

As I drive out of Qardaha, the smell of musk comes from my hands - it will remain with me all day. On the right of the road, towering over the trees and embankment, a massive statue of Basil and his horse stares down at me. Basil will follow me all over Syria, on banners and flags and posters, in the camouflage uniform of the Syrian army, in khaki dress on horseback, or, in bronze, striding towards me beside the international highway north of Damascus. And so will his father, the 66-year old president whose giant statues and busts appear at the gates of Syria's great cities. From some of his plinths, he holds out his arms towards me. From others, he stares at my passing car, eyes fixed, presidential sash over his shoulders. At the village of Deir Attiah, the home of Assad's chef-de-cabinet and close personal friend, Abu Selim Daabul, his statue dominates a cliff-face, waving down at me cheerfully through the winter rains. "We cannot stop the people from erecting his statues out of gratitude," a Damascus newspaper editor insisted when I raised with him what could easily be mistaken for a personality cult. "The president did not ask for these statues. They were not his doing." And he watched me for a long time after saying this, to see if I believed him.

It is certainly true that the cult of adoration with which Saddam Hussein surrounds himself in Iraq - a Saddam city, a Saddam International Airport, a Saddam hospital and a Saddam art gallery - is quite absent in Syria. While Basil's name has been given to hospitals and provincial airports, there is only one Syrian institution which is dedicated in the name of the father. In Damascus, he sits upon a mighty iron chair - open book in his right hand - outside the Assad library, a vast institution whose 22,000 square metres of pre-stressed concrete galleries contain the very continuity of Syrian history: 19,300 original manuscripts dating back to the 11th century, 300,000 volumes, a brand-new audio-visual and computer centre, a series of state-of-the art halls for ancient manuscript repairs and preservation. When I meet Dr Mazin Arafi, director of the library's "cultural activities", he speaks in near reverence, in a whisper, of the mass of information now being placed on computer, including every Syrian law enacted since 1918 - when the Syrians briefly enjoyed freedom from the Ottoman empire before French colonial rule was clamped upon them. Every Syrian-produced film, including Palestinian documentaries of the 1948 war with Israel, has been videotaped. Even those books banned by the regime are available for student research, including the later works of Michel Aflaq, who co-founded the secular, socialist Baath party in 1940 but subsequently exiled himself to Iraq when the party divided between Syrian and Iraqi factions.

Dr Nihad Jord opens the cabinet at the entrance to the manuscripts department and there, 6in from my face without a sheet of glass to separate us, lie pages of gold and blue Farsi script, a work of Islamic philosophy by Bin al-Marzouban al-Azerbaijani, handwritten in western Iran in 1066. As Harold of England was preparing to fight William of Normandy at Hastings, al- Azerbaijani was completing a text that would, nine centuries later, be photographed and placed on a database at the Assad Library. Dr Jord walks through a narrow passageway. Lying beside us are a 1649 French translation of the Koran, a 1671 Bible in Latin and Arabic, a 500-year-old Arabic dictionary, the collected speeches of the Caliph Ali - dated 1308 - and a 1466 study of how an Arab warrior should ride his horse while fighting with sword and spear. All have been transferred to the computer where Syria's modern history is also carefully recorded for posterity.

It is like a brain, this library; I understand this when Hasna Askihita takes me into the computer room. "Here we have put on our database every speech made by our president since 1970," she says. And how many speeches has President Assad made since he came to power, I ask? Quick as a flash, she replies: "He has made 544 speeches. Would you like to call for one?" And she trawls through the computer memory. Up on the screen comes an angry denunciation of fundamentalist violence in 1982, a presidential meeting with British journalists on 30 January 1992, a conversation between Assad and Time magazine editors the same year, a 1994 press conference with President Clinton. Here is immortality indeed - and, I reflected, a demonstration of just how formidable must be the capacity of Syria's other computerised institutions; its intelligence services, for example. But it has greater relevance than this.

For the Assad library is clearly intended to provide a historical continuity that connects the Caliphate with the Baath, the ancient Islamic philosophers with Hafez Assad, as carefully as the women in the archive repair rooms bind together the torn pages of 15th-century books. Indeed, the president's latest speech is that very day being entered into the database, Assad's address made to mark the 36th anniversary of the "correctionist movement". "With adamant resolve," it begins, "we continue our march for victory, working with all strength for increased immunity of the homeland." Which, come to think of it, must have been what Harold of England was telling his troops in 1066.

What Syria tells its soldiers today is inscribed in a Koranic quotation around the top of the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier opposite Assad's hilltop palace above Damascus: "Don't think that those who have been killed for the cause of God are dead now. They are alive and are now enjoying the gifts of God." In the crypt, a flurry of Syrian officers walk over to me, small moustaches above brown and grey uniforms. "Do you know what this is?" one of them asks, pointing to an oil painting of a brown-walled building with smoke pouring from its windows. Like all Syrians, he wants to test the foreigner's knowledge of history, to see where he should start his narrative. I know that the building is the Syrian parliament in 1946, under fire from troops of a French government that refused to abandon its old League of Nations mandate after World War II - 25 MPs and Syrian soldiers died in the bombardment. In showcases in the wall, there are three-dimensional tableaux depicting a similar continuity to that established at the library. In one large showcase Salahadin is depicted slaying Crusader occupation forces at the Battle of Hittin north of Jerusalem. Another shows Syrian Special Forces re-taking the hilltop Al-Shaikh Observatory from the Israelis in 1973 before the Israelis stormed back on to the heights of Golan. A third display shows Syrian infantry destroying Israeli tanks at the battle of Sultan Yacoub in southern Lebanon after Israel's invasion of 1982.

A fourth tableau displays a struggle about which every Syrian learns at school but about which almost every westerner is ignorant: the 1920 Battle of Maysaloun. In the aftermath of World War I, France was given a League of Nations mandate for Syria, an obligation which it honoured by chopping part of the Mediterranean coast off from Syria - to create a Christian-dominated Lebanon which was to collapse in civil war 55 years later - and destroying the Syrian army which had trusted Lawrence of Arabia's promise of independence in return for its help in the war against the Turks. The Syrian minister of defence, Youssef Azmi, led his cavalry against French tanks in the narrow valley at Maysaloun, on the border between present-day Lebanon and Syria, on 24 July 1920. General Henri Gouraud's mechanised armour - in a largely unrecorded prelude to the German tank attack on the Polish cavalry 19 years later - annihilated the warrior horsemen from Damascus and left them to rot in the summer heat.

The road to Maysaloun is today a six-lane motorway; Azmi's tomb lies almost hidden in a grove of trees to the south. When I arrived there on a cold November evening, I found only his grave and a group of broken houses on the main road that appeared to have been destroyed by shells. Up on the hillside, however, was an old man who had faint memories of the battle, Hamzi Abdullah, who could not remember his own age but who had a clear recollection of a boyhood in which he spent weeks picking up the cartridge cases and shell fragments after the hopeless, doomed Arab cavalry charge of 1920. Hamzi was unshaven and wore an old kuffiah headdress. "The French came down from Wadi Nemsi with their Algerian and Senegalese troops," he said. "There were aircraft too and we didn't have any chance."

Hamzi held his right hand and wobbled it from side to side like a bi- plane caught in an uprush of air. "It was all over in hours and the French killed almost everyone they found. My mother was taken prisoner and put in a house just over there. Youssef Azmi and another of our leaders was tied up and the French decided to execute them. My mother has been dead 27 years but I remember her telling me how she saw Azmi led to a telegraph pole to be executed. He threw his kuffiah at her and the other women and said, `This is for you to remember me.' My mother said the women were crying but they threw it back to him, saying, 'You are the hero and you are the only one worthy of wearing these clothes.' He was tied to a post over there and the French told the French Algerian troops to shoot him. But they refused. They were good Muslims. So the French told their Senegalese colonial troops to do it. And the Senegalese shot him as he was tied to the telegraph pole."

Hamzi Abdullah's family produced the obligatory hot, sticky coffee, and a younger man joined us, a soldier who had fought in the Lebanon. "I'll show you the place where they kept the women and Youssef Azmi," he said, and led me down the dirt hillside to one of the smashed Ottoman houses by the road. "This is where the French imprisoned them. But the house was mostly destroyed in 1967 when the Israelis shelled this area." So what the French had left undone, it seemed, the Israelis had finished. But not quite. For the ex- soldier's story was not complete. "This has always been my home. In 1982, I fought across the border in the battle of Sultan Yacoub - we captured the Israeli tanks there - and the next year, when I was at home here, the American navy shelled us right across Lebanon and the shells of the New Jersey fell on the hills up there." There was a silence while I scribbled this powerful example of historical continuity into my notebook. In 1920, the French had destroyed the Arab army at Maysaloun. In 1967, at the end of the Six-Day War, the Israelis had shelled Maysaloun. Another 16 years later, the US Sixth Fleet, supporting President Reagan's collapsing Nato force in Beirut, had shelled the Syrian army's supply route through this very same valley of Maysaloun. And the man who was telling me this had himself fought in the tank battle commemorated in the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier. France, Israel, America. If the Syrians were xenophobic, it was easy, here in this valley where the bodies of men and horses were once left to decay, to see why.

Syria's soldiers would fight again - to crush the nascent Israeli state in 1948, and then to oppose Israel in 1967, in 1973, in Lebanon in 1982. And they fought, also in 1982, at a city in central Syria called Hama - a name which is remembered with as much fear as it is left unspoken. And when I began the long drive up the international highway, the cold, grey Anti-Lebanon mountain range scudded with snow to my left, I, too, found the very name of Hama oppressive. I had driven this same road many times as a reporter during the "Muslim Brotherhood" rising of 1982, as the rebels of Hama assaulted the city's Baath party officials. They had cut the throats of the families of government workers, murdered policemen, beheaded schoolteachers who insisted on secular education. I had, for an extraordinary - and, I realise now, dangerous - 18 minutes, succeeded in entering Hama as the Syrian army's Special Forces under Hafez Assad's brother Rifaat crushed the uprising with great savagery. I stood by the river Orontes as Syrian battle-tanks shelled the ancient city; I saw the Syrian wounded, covered in blood, lying beside their armoured vehicles, the starving civilians scavenging for old bread. Up to 20,000, it was said, died in the underground tunnels and detonated buildings. The real figure may have been nearer 10,000 but most of the old city was destroyed.

Now I was going back, and I had some uneasy thoughts. Only a week earlier, I had been in Algeria, reporting the massacre of civilians by the armed Islamist opposition, the throat-cuttings and beheadings, the death squads and torture rooms. Back in 1982, the world condemned Syria for the cruelty of its suppression of Hama; but it is now largely silent as the Algerian government ruthlessly eradicates its own "Islamist" enemies. Was there not, I pondered, as my car hissed up the rain-soaked highway, an awful parallel here? We demand respect for human rights in the Middle East - rather more loudly among the Arab states than in Israel, to be sure - but we also warn of the dangers of "fundamentalism", of "Islamic terror".

The road blocks of plain-clothes intelligence men who had stopped me in and around Hama in 1982 have gone, but their presence can still be felt in a society in which any opposition to President Assad's rule is regarded as treachery. There is no doubt about who rules Hama today - nor about the need to erase its past. Over the wreckage of much of the old Hama now stand gardens, an Olympic-size swimming-pool, a luxury hotel and a magnificent new mosque, still under construction. The latest British guide-book to Syria makes not a single mention of the events of 1982, save for acknowledging the mysterious - and unexplained - absence of the original Great Mosque. Only when I walked across a small bridge in the Keylani suburb did I find reminders of the past: 18th-century buildings scarred by bullets, a palace of black and white stone lying gutted behind one of the city's famous nouria water-wheels, a modern villa with a shell- hole where the window should have been. A few local painters keep alive what has been lost in fragile water-colours, which can still be bought as postcards in the market.

And a few bold souls still recall what happened. Mohamed - it was the name he chose - stood in a narrow street in Keylani, speaking slowly and with great care. "I lived here throughout the battle," he said. "My home was on the front line between the army and the rebels. I lived in the basement with my family of six for 18 days. You cannot imagine how we felt when we ran out of food. I crawled out and found some old bread by an oil drum - it had been soaked in oil but we ate it. At the end, on the last day of the battle, we were able to leave."

The fact that Mohamed spoke to me at all was almost as extraordinary as his story. Was this because the climate of fear in Syria has evaporated? Or because the bloodbath at Hama is now seen in a different perspective? A junior government employee - necessarily anonymous but genuinely loyal to Assad - tried to explain this to me as we lunched at the Sahara restaurant in Damascus. It is an expensive cafe of white linen table- cloths and bow-tied waiters, owned - ironically - by the man who oversaw the suppression of the Hama rebellion, the president's brother Rifaat. "I know you disapprove of what happened at Hama, Robert, the killings and the executions," he said. "But you must also realise that if our president had not crushed that uprising, Syria would have become like Algeria is today. We tried to talk to the Brothers at first, to negotiate with them. We didn't want this bloodbath. We asked them: 'What do you want?' They said: `The head of the president.' And, of course, that was the end. We were not going to have an Islamic fundamentalist state in Syria. You in the west should be grateful to us. We crushed Islamic fanaticism here. We are the only country in the Middle East to have totally suppressed fundamentalism." And over our plates of chickpeas and tomatoes and garlic-pressed yoghurt, the local Syrian arak burning the mouth, one could only reflect upon the devastating truth of the man's last sentence.

Assad's own hatred of the Muslim Brother-hood comes through in a speech he made a month after the Hama bloodbath, his words now dutifully preserved in Hasna Askihita's computer memory in the Assad library under the date of 7 March 1982. Assad's comments are astonishing, even frightening, for he might well have been talking about Algeria today.

"Nothing is more dangerous to Islam than distorting its meanings and concepts while you are posing as a Muslim. This is what the criminal Brothers are doing... They are killing in the name of Islam. They are butchering children, women and old people in the name of Islam. They are wiping out entire families in the name of Islam... Death a thousand times to the Muslim Brothers, the criminal Brothers, the corrupt Brothers."

And so it came to pass, just as President Assad said; death did indeed come to them, a thousand times and more.

Human rights groups regularly condemn Syria for ferocious torture, for wrongful execution, for imprisoning its political enemies without trial. Syrian officials have told Amnesty International that any Syrian guilty of torturing a prisoner will be punished, and Human Rights Watch last year welcomed the release of 1,200 political prisoners. But Amnesty has 21 "prisoners of conscience" in Syria and lists inmates who have been kept in detention after the expiry of their sentence. Although the Syrian authorities said that they would attempt to arrange an interview for me with a government official who could discuss human rights, the interview did not materialise.

For now, Syria remains a picture of stability and unity in the Middle East. Assad's regime is probably more secure - and exercising less coercion - than in 1982. Yet Assad's health - he suffered a heart attack in 1983 and underwent a prostate operation this month - remains a subject of speculation among his antagonists. His enemies remain at Syria's gates. After agreeing to the land-for-peace formula of the Bush administration, he is now being told by the Israelis that he must make peace without the return of Golan. Six times last year, the Israeli military talked of a possible war with Syria. When Assad transferred some of his 21,000 troops out of Lebanon and positioned an armoured brigade south of the Damascus-Beirut highway to prevent a possible Israeli assault last autumn, he was accused of preparing for war. In reality, he was the only Arab leader to warn of the dangers of the "peace process" and to speak publicly of his suspicions that the Israelis would decide - after obtaining concessions from the Arabs - to hold on to most of the land they seized in 1967. Which is exactly what has happened under Binyamin Netanyahu.

The United States maintains Syria on a list of nations which support "terrorism" - ostensibly because Assad allows violent groups opposed to the Middle East peace accord to base themselves in Damascus. Britain broke off relations after Syrian intelligence agents were involved in a plot to bomb an El Al airliner flying out of Heathrow in 1986. Ankara has abused Syria for supporting the bloody Kurdish uprising in south-eastern Turkey; just after Christmas, a bomb killed 13 Syrians on a bus in Damascus. Syria blamed Israel, suspected the Turks and talked of the dangers of "terrorism". It is easy to bestialise Syria - along with our other favourite pariahs like Iraq, Libya and Sudan. But Syria is too important to be dismissed so glibly. If an earthquake - political or military - shakes the Middle East in the coming months, then Syria will be close to the epicentre.

The Map of Syria which you can buy in Damascus bookstalls contains an intriguing anomaly. To the south, the Golan Heights are shown as Syrian - which they are, though under Israeli occupation - but in the north, the national territory is drawn far up the Mediterranean coastline, way beyond Lattakia. Yet drive up the coastal highway and the map seems to be a little ambitious. Even before I reached the town of Sweidiyeh, I found, beyond a Syrian customs post, the Turkish flag. Indeed, above the frozen mountain road inland to Aleppo, alongside the wood-smoked valleys and frosted orange orchards, Turkish flags stood upon the heights - 60 miles south of the border printed on my map .

Only on closer inspection did I notice a thin, almost invisible broken grey line on the paper, marking the modern-day Turkish frontier and another piece of lost Syria. The cartography told a largely forgotten story; for, back in 1939, the French government - still controlling Syria under its League of Nations mandate - gave the northern city of Alexandretta to the Turks in the hope of persuading them to join the Allied side in the forthcoming war against Germany. After engineering a fraudulent referendum in north-west Syria - the Turks trucked their supporters into the city - the French handed over hundreds of square miles of Syria to Ankara. Turkey accepted the gift - and stayed neutral in the war.

Still confronting the challenge of peace - or war - with Israel, Syrian officials will not talk about this lost territory. But they have given at least tacit support to the Kurds who are demanding a homeland in south- eastern Turkey and the infuriated Turks, so the Syrians claim, have poisoned and diverted Syrian rivers. If the Syrian accusation seems incredible, it also happens to be true. Armed with my map I set off to find the river Qweik, marked as a broad watercourse flowing across the Turkish frontier into Aleppo. But in the old walled northern city, I could find no river, not even a brook. Nearer to Turkey, I came across a muddy stream passing beneath the piles of what had once been a Roman bridge. Though a river on my map, this was a sewer, black and thick, its sulphurous odour drifting over the icy fields and orchards. By the road north, I found some poor shacks, inhabited by Syrian shepherds and workers at the local glass factory. Where was the river Qweik, I asked them? And Etain al-Musri, a plump 71- year-old grandmother in a purple dress and a white scarf, threw her arms in the air.

"You haven't heard?" she asked. "You don't know what happened here?" And she talked for perhaps half an hour of the paradise she had known as a young woman, of a land watered by a broad river amid banks of flowers and gardens, her family's fields irrigated by the cold waters streaming down from the Turkish mountains. Her son Ahmed told the story less dramatically. "About 10 years ago, the water started going down in the river, quite quickly," he said. "I remember we woke up one morning and the river was only half its size. And then it began to smell. The fields dried up. When we tried to irrigate from what was left of the river, our crops died. Now it is just a sewer with all kinds of poisons in it. Look at my daughter."

Four-year-old Amina walked shyly towards me, a livid rash down her right cheek. "At night these big mosquitoes come from the stream and bite the children," Ahmed said. "All the children here have skin problems and we take them to the hospital every week for antibiotics. We all originally came from a village on the other side of the river called Hilan but the stench became so awful that we had to leave it." Ahmed climbs in my car and I drive him to the hilltop village, a place of ruined cottages and deserted, broken roads. The well stinks. Only the graveyard remains in use. Now Ahmed raises his hands, in the manner of his mother. "The Turks send us only black water now, to infiltrate our wells. We are waiting for our precious water to come back."

The Syrian ministry of irrigation repeated what Ahmed al-Musri said. The Turks had diverted water courses and released sewage, drainage and industrial pollutants into at least three rivers, including the Qweik. One of the rivers has simply dried up. So was Syria still claiming Alexandretta? When I put this to Syria's urbane minister of information, Mohamed Salman, he smiled wanly and pointed to his television, which was at that very moment forecasting the weather for northern Syria. "Look at the television," he said; and I recognised the territory of Syria - blue on the map - reaching far to the north, including all the lost lands. It shows Alexandretta, I exclaimed. Mr Salman did not respond directly. "This map is also seen by the Turks when they watch our programmes," he said. "But we do not state anything about this matter - because of course we are keen not to interfere in the internal affairs of Turkey."

The internal affairs of Syria, meanwhile, remain of passionate interest to its enemies. Israel alternately portrays President Assad as a symbol of stability - when "peace" talks are going in Israel's favour - or as leader of a potentially disintegrating regime when they are not. How can a nation run by an Alawite minority survive his death, the Israelis ask? Nikolaos Van Dam, a Dutch diplomat and a scholar of the Syrian Baath party, has proved that while Alawi officials and generals do play a prominent and disproportionate role in Syria's body politic, they by no means exclude the majority Sunnis or the small Christian minority from power. There is another son, Bashar; but the man who will have to hold Syria together if President Assad proves mortal - Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam - is himself a Sunni. Is this enough to protect Syria's nation state in the coming turbulent years?

I asked myself this question as I sped down the long straight road to Quneitra, the Syrian city which the Israelis systematically destroyed when they retreated from the initial 1973 post-war ceasefire lines under the Kissinger agreement. To my right, the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 - and the very fulcrum of the "peace process" - grew purple through the winter haze, capped by a line of snow. Israel's refusal to return this territory - contrary to the pledges given by the United States before the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli summit - may decide whether the Middle East faces war or peace in the near future.

I drove past the old front lines of the 1967 war, the abandoned, overgrown gun-pits of the 1973 war, the new revetments of the Syrian army's forward units, sprouting with radio aerials, defended with troop trucks and armoured vehicles. And, far down the road, inside the UN ceasefire zone, I came to the ghost-town of old Quneitra, greeted as usual by an Assad statue and a string of banners above a ruined house, each portraying the smiling face of the president and his son Basil. In the name of the father and of the dead son, the land beyond this town - the heights of Mount Hermon and the string of hills boasting Israel's hi-tech radar stations - is all supposed to be liberated one day, either by peace or by war.

It was strange to reflect on how much Syria had lost this century. Portrayed as an expansionist state only awaiting the opportunity to seize all of Lebanon, Palestine, even Israel, Syria has contracted rather than expanded, losing northern Palestine in 1918, Lebanon in 1920, Alexandretta in 1939, Golan in 1967 - the first three through western trickery and the last through war. On the Syrian front line - so close that I could see the Israeli soldiers looking at me through binoculars - a Syrian lieutenant pointed to a group of tourists across the fields. "You see those three cars? They are probably Jews, foreigners, being told that Syria is their country, that everything they see should belong to them, Damascus and beyond." This, I am sure, is what the lieutenant believed. And I was almost equally certain than the tourists in those three cars were being told that Golan was part of Israel and that Syria was only waiting to seize it.

A hundred metres away, neatly maintained amid yew trees and grass plots, I found the graves of the Syrians who fought across this ground over almost half a century. Most lay beneath Islamic headstones, though some were beneath Christian crosses. Here lay 29-year-old Major Ismail Bin Khalaf Al-Shahadat, a Muslim who "fell martyr on 9 October 1973." Beside him lay Sergeant Mikhael Srour bin Wahebi, a Christian from northern Syrian who was killed in action just one day earlier. There were 21-year-old corporals from Lattakia and Aleppo and, behind them, older remains. Here was Private Kamel Mahomed Yassin of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, killed in action "for the Pan-Arab cause" - the attempt to destroy the infant state of Israel - on 13 July 1948; and Corporal Salah Brmawi of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and 100 others.

At the edge of the cemetery, I found former Syrian air force Private Assad Badr, now the grave-keeper of Kuneitra, tending his roses in the bright midday sun. How did he feel about the dead, I asked? "The feeling of any live man for the dead," he replied. "We take pride in martyrdom." But when I asked if he had seen death in war, the man's smile clouded. Yes, he said, at the Dumair air base during the 1973 war. "We were sitting in a slit-trench eating our lunch out of tin cans when an Israeli Phantom jet suddenly came at us, firing its cannon. The bullets ripped right through the trench and just missed me. But my friend, Morem as-Sair, was next to me and the bullets cut him in half - right in half beside me."

Like the crack of doom, two explosions changed the air pressure around us and, far above the Israeli front line to the west, two Israeli jets sonic-boomed their way northwards, their silver contrails hanging like ropes behind the war memorial and the white gravestones. It did not take much imagination to understand why, in the coming months or years, Assad Badr may have to dig more martyrs' graves. !

Basil Assad, the Syrian president's favourite son, was killed in a car crash on the road from Damascus in 1994, but his image is still ubiquitous, and displays like this one - on the road to Quneitra - are common

A rare glimpse inside the shrine of Basil Assad in Qardaha, the village in north-west Syria in which he grew up; the silk draping the tomb is embroidered with gold Koranic script, and the air is heavy with incense

A street scene in Damascus, Syria's capital, complete - like most Syrian street scenes - with a bust of President Assad. `The president did not ask for these statues,' insists one Damascus newspaper editor

Left: Syrian MiG-15 aircraft on display in Damascus. Above: Hamzi Abdullah, who, as a boy, was a witness to the massacre of Syrian cavalry by French tanks at the Battle of Maysaloun in 1920

Hama, left, still bears the scars of the Syrian government's bloody repression of the Islamic fundamentalist rising of 1982. Quneitra, above, still bears the scars of the Israelis' destructive retreat in 1973; just visible in the background are the foothills of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel for 30 years. Below, Syrian villagers who live near the Turkish border; they say that the Turks are deliberately poisoning their water

The cemetery at Quneitra, where Muslim and Christian war dead lie side by side. The vapour trails of passing Israeli jets can be seen overhead

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