It was still a summer day in Damascus on October 22, the day Tarja Halonen, the President of Finland, was due to arrive at the Finnish Institute in the Old City. We drove through the narrow streets of Bab Sharqi, one of the seven gates of Damascus, decorated by the white and blue Flag of Finland, for a 5:00 pm interview with the President, who was on a state visit to Syria. This was her first trip to Damascus since becoming president in 2000, the same year that President Bashar al-Assad came to power in Syria. She had been here before, while serving as her country’s Foreign Minister, in 1999 and 2000 and met President Assad at the Euro-Mediterranean Conference in Paris in July 2008.
She obviously knew the country well and although we were told that we would get no more than 20-minutes with the President, due to her tight schedule, we were certain that it would be a rewarding and rich interview with a woman who had plenty of admiration for Syria and its people. Halonen, a remarkable lady, was the first women president of her country, with an impressive approval rating of 88% among Finns, respected and admired by Syrians from all walks of her life for her strong positions on the Golan Heights and commitment to peace in the Middle East.
Everybody at the Finnish Institute, an academic center located at a beautiful Damascene home in the Old City, was very excited at Halonen’s visit. Finnish and Syrian journalists surrounded the water fountain in the courtyard, drinking cold lemonade, eagerly waiting to greet the President. The Finnish visitors were clearly impressed by the beauty of old Damascus, clicking away with their cameras, taking pictures of crooked alleys, pigeons on rooftops, and small children walking right past the presidential security eager to catch a glimpse of the state visitor from Helsinki.
Wearing a black and orange outfit, the 65-year old President shined under the Damascene sunlight, smiling and waving to ordinary passer-sbys before walking into the Institute, escorted by a Finnish officer in full military uniform. She had just met with President Assad and clearly from the look on her face, the meeting had been a grand success. By technical accident, she later told us, Finnish media was unable to translate the Syrian President’s words into Finnish, prompting him to speak “directly and fluently” in English, appealing directly to the people of Finland in a language that they understood well, projecting an excellent image of his leadership and country. After touring the Institute, she spoke briefly to Syrian TV, had some refreshments with her hosts, then sat down for an exclusive interview with Forward Magazine, represented by editor-in-chief Sami Moubayed and CEO and publisher, Abdulsalam Haykal. Before we clicked the RECORD button, Haykal presented her with two gold-colored Syrian quroush (dimes) dating back to 1979—the year she had been voted into parliament in Finland. She admired the coins, recalling her six terms in parliament, then looked up and smiled, “How time flies!”
“Apart from spending time in meeting rooms,” she started, “I had the chance to walk the streets of Damascus, and meet our peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. What I noticed is that Damascus is visibly more open today than it was 10-years ago. When I first came here as Foreign Minister, there was a boom taking place and we were all hoping that Middle East peace is in the horizon. President Bashar al-Assad, who I met in Paris in 2008, came across as a very pragmatic leader, very strong, and we have always encouraged him to work for peace in the Middle East.” Peace was clearly a priority on her mind as she stressed her country’s commitment to hammering out a solution to the Arab-Israeli Conflict; “Syria has a very important role to play in any peace deal, not only concerning its own track, but also because of its connections. We also do our utmost in the EU through the Quartet, to support the peace process.” Halonen acknowledged, however, that times could be better for the Middle East, pointing out that because of the Gaza war and gridlock on the Palestinian-Israeli track, the peace process needed a serious push by all parties involved, Finland, Syria, and the United States.
We quickly shifted to economic relations between Syria and Finland, which in her own words, “can be much better.” Bilateral trade currently stands at $40 million USD “which is not very impressive,” she added. Probably the most visible Finnish trademark in Syria is the giant telecommunications corporation Nokia, which manufactures mobile phones that are very popular on the Syrian market. “Nokia has made the quality of our work visible. Nokia is not all the forest, it is one huge tree. It has made the quality of Finish work and research visible, mirroring our progress in telecommunications and technology.” She then laughed and quickly added, “presidents don’t know everything” noting that enhancing bilateral economic trade will be up to the business communities of both countries to decide upon, at a later stage, adding that this was a political visit, aimed at strengthening bilateral relation on a macro-level. “I said to your president; both Syrians and Finns have to say: Yes, we are good! And they have to show that to the rest of the world, on how closely and effectively our two countries can cooperate.” In the near future, Finns should grab at the opportunity at investing and doing business with Syria, “you have to be an early bird!”
Halonen told us that she had extended an invitation to President Assad to visit Finland, and that in the near future, an agreement on avoidance of double taxation will be signed between her country and Syria. “I have said in a friendly and gentle way that we have something that might interest you, fit for your wishes, being cultural and educational cooperation. We have a low-cost educational system that is very effective and that can be used by Syria.” Her eyes then glowed as she flashed her knowledge of Syrian culture; “The people of the Middle East and Syria in particular don’t need anybody to teach them how to do business!” The only problem, she noted, was the time it took to strike any deal in the region. “You like to negotiate so much” she commented joyfully, clasping both her hands, “You Syrians are simply at home when negotiating! We are not like that in Finland. Sometimes, when coffee is hot, you should just drink it!”
Wrapping up with a few words, she affectionately smiled and said, “I am glad to be back in Damascus!”
Forward Magazine, February 2010