January 23, 2006

Syrians oppose U.S. but love KFC

By Rasha Elass

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The U.S. flag serves as a doormat to
an office and nearby merchants announce "we boycott American
goods," but some Syrians can't seem to keep away from American
fast food at the new KFC fried chicken restaurant.

"I oppose American politics totally, but what does food
have to do with it? Politics is one thing, and food is
something totally different," Tareq Mashnouk, a 26-year-old
fashion designer, told Reuters.

KFC opened its first outlet in Damascus this month,
becoming Syria's first fully licensed American food franchise.
It belongs to Kuwait Food Co. (Americana), which owns and
operates KFC and other American food chains like Pizza Hut and
TGI Fridays throughout the Middle East.

Syria has been reforming its socialist economy by allowing
more private businesses to open, but some say the timing is
wrong for the KFC opening. Similar fast-food outlets have been
attacked in the Muslim world and elsewhere as symbols of the
United States.

"To be honest we were surprised they opened this American
restaurant in the midst of our political situation," said Tareq
Farzat, 25, adding that he liked his Chicken Burger Combo and
would definitely return to KFC with his friend Kalam.

A businessman welcomed the restaurant's arrival.

"Fast-food franchises are a new thing in Syria and (the
opening of KFC) is a good thing," said Firas Safi, owner of
Kuwaiti-based food chain Shrimpy.

Syria's political relations with the United States have
deteriorated since it opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Washington has since accused Syria of allowing insurgents to
cross its border with Iraq to attack U.S. troops there.

Syria is also in a political showdown with the
international community over its alleged role in the February
14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik
al-Hariri and 22 others in a truck bomb in Beirut.


The United States recalled its ambassador in protest days
after the murder, and mounting international pressure forced
Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon in April after a
29-year military presence.

Interim reports by a United Nations inquiry have implicated
Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies in the crime,
although Syria has repeatedly denied any involvement.

The U.N. Security Council has threatened to take
unspecified action against Syria if it fails to cooperate with
the ongoing investigation. The United States reiterated the
same threat last week, re-igniting anti-American feelings.

"I wouldn't go (to KFC) because it has an American brand
name and business has a lot to do with politics," said Zakariya
Tayyan, 26, a student.

But many others seem pleased with the KFC experience and
trust American brands.

"This tastes good, and we'll definitely come back to eat
here when we're in the mood for chicken," said a 45-year-old
Muslim woman wearing a headscarf.

Besides, as the country worries about bird flu, surely KFC
"examines its chicken before cooking it ... I trust KFC chicken
more than any rotisserie," said Farzat.

The World Health Organization has said Syria is among
countries at risk of bird flu after an outbreak killed four
children in neighboring Turkey.

An Americana representative overseeing the restaurant's
opening said other chains will open soon, declining to comment
further. But politics aside, KFC may not suit all pockets in a
country where income is low.

The average college-educated government employee earns
about $100 per month, which is the price of five "bargain
combo" KFC buckets each filled with 15 chicken pieces, a large
order of French fries and coleslaw, five buns and a liter of

"It's expensive," said Farzat, who lives in the wealthy
neighborhood where KFC has opened. "I've been to KFC in Dubai
and Beirut, but this one is much more expensive compared to
local income."