With his new film Tetro billed to open Beirut's recent International Film Festival, Francis Ford Coppola was diverted from landing in the Lebanese capital when it was learned that his private plane used parts manufactured in Israel. Fortunately, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose Lebanese ally Hezbollah controls security at Beirut International Airport, was able to overlook this minor indiscretion and permitted Coppola to land in Damascus, where he caught another plane to Beirut.
Coppola is revered in the Middle East, as in many other parts of the world, as director of The Godfather, and indeed a new version of the three-part epic has just been released in the region, dubbed into the Syrian dialect. (So how do you say "banana daquiri" in Syria? Banana daquiri.)
The director seemed to enjoy his time in Damascus in late October, where he was wildly impressed with Assad and his glamorous wife Asma. "We have felt so warmly received," Coppola told Fox News correspondent Amy Kellogg. "The people you meet are kind and welcoming. [Damascus] is fascinating for so many reasons, relating to history. The food is fantastic. The president, his wife and family are lucid, appealing and able to speak on so many levels. In this way he convinces me he has a vision for the country which is positive."
This Godfather fan assumes that Coppola cannot be serious, and that these anodyne phrases are an intentional echo of the fulsome speech delivered by Senator Pat Geary (D, Nev.) at young Anthony Vito Corleone's first Holy Communion party in Lake Tahoe--before the senator ripped into his family.
After all, implying that the Assad family is part of the same hypocrisy as the Corleones has been a familiar feature of Syrian commentary over the last several years--with late father Hafez in the role of Vito; Basel, who died in a car crash, as Santino; and of course Bashar alternately cast as Michael or Fredo, depending on whether his regime seems stable or wobbly. Bit players include the youngest Assad brother, Maher, who is probably less like Fredo than the part Andy Garcia plays in Godfather III as Santino's dangerous and willful bastard son. Indeed it is reported that Maher once shot the husband of his sister Bushra (Connie), Asef Shawkat, who unlike Carlo lived to become, for a time anyway, the chief of military intelligence.
Surprisingly, the Syrian government does not like the comparison; I say surprisingly because Damascus is proud of the violence that it promotes under the label of resistance. "Resisting occupation is a moral duty," Assad explained recently. And that is why the Syrians support "resistance" not only against Israel, but against the Americans in Iraq as well.
Here is Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman at the Syrian embassy in Washington: "A previous [U.S.] administration did not want to cooperate, even if it cost American lives," Salkini told an audience recently in Alaska. "[The Obama] administration is realizing you have to cooperate in order to save American lives." In other words, we have been helping to kill your sons and daughters in Iraq because you did not give us what we want.
Even now Syria is making Washington an offer it should not refuse. "We want to help the Obama administration have a very successful, smooth withdrawal from Iraq," Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa said Wednesday night at American University. "So that lives can be saved."
Despite the fact that the Syrian regime is temperamentally incapable of issuing a statement that doesn't sound like a threat, a recent National Geographic article that compared Bashar's ascent to Michael Corleone's elicited a rambling, indignant response from Mustafa that was posted on Joshua Landis's Syria Comment website.
"This comparison with the Corleone's," wrote Mustafa, "is an analogy that neocon, Israeli, and other writers wore-out during the previous eight years in an attempt to veil all of Syria's reform and development behind a specious veil of a 'mob-like' ruling family."
But of course it is a mob-like ruling family, which is why the U.S. Treasury Department last year designated Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, "a powerful Syrian businessman and regime insider who improperly benefits from and aids the public corruption of Syrian regime officials." At the time Stuart Levey, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said that, "the Assad regime's cronyism and corruption has a corrosive effect, disadvantaging innocent Syrian businessmen and entrenching a regime that pursues oppressive and destabilizing policies, including beyond Syria's borders, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories."
Of course it's likely that Coppola doesn't know all this, that like many visitors to Syria whose excursions are limited to tourist sites, he cannot imagine that a country with so much history and culture could bring so much death to its neighbors. Enjoying luxury accommodations at a five-star Damascus hotel, he cannot imagine the dozens of dissidents, human rights activists and intellectuals warehoused and tortured in Syrian prisons.
The other option is darker. Is it possible, I asked a friend in Beirut recently, that a man who made three films about a gangster family does not understand what the Assad regime stands for? Maybe, said my friend, the man who made those movies knows exactly what he's looking at and he admires it.
Lee Smith is the author of 'The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations' (Doubleday), forthcoming in January.