Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, March 20th, 2007
"A Response to Michael Young
By Joshua Landis
March 20, 2007
Michael Young wrote an article in the Daily Star, "The blogosphere's foreign informant," taking issue with my post on Lebanon and making a number of accusations about me, the most damaging of which was the suggestion that I "intentionally" and "dishonestly" justified Michel Kilo's arrest. I will answer this slur, but first let me address the larger ideas on which Michael and I differ.
I used Michael Young as an example of the Lebanon analysts and commentators who support the Bush administration's stand against negotiations with Syria or accepting the various deals advanced by Middle Eastern mediators, meant to bring an end to the political impasse paralysing Lebanon.
Let me start, by saying that I have the greatest respect for Michael, whom I consider the most thoughtful and convincing advocate for boycotting Syria, refusing to negotiate with its allies — whether Hizbullah or Iran – and supporting the Bush administration's premise that the use of force can bring advances to democracy and peace in the region. I have disagreed with Michael in the past, arguing that the US would fail either in bringing about regime change in Syria or forcing the Asad regime to make a "Qadhafi-type reversal" of its policies, as many of the administration neocons advocated. Michael persists in supporting this general policy, even as it looks less and less likely to succeed. In the article that I took issue with, Michael wrote, "Syrians have to be made to realize that their regime can only last if they make fundamental concessions in the region. Assad is too brittle to demand more than recognition of his survival."
This analysis is at the heart of our differences. I have never believed that the Asad regime was particularly brittle or its survival threatened by Western isolation. On the contrary, I have consistently maintained that the use of military violence in Iraq or economic sanctions against Syria in an effort to starve it into compliance would neither bear fruit nor advance democracy in the region, a goal that both Michael and I share.
I think the facts bear me out. Iraq is a human disaster; the Palestinian issue is more hopeless than ever; Lebanon is immobilized by its endless standoff and threatened by the constant escalation of extremist rhetoric and militias; but more pertinent to my dispute with Michael, the Asad regime has been given new legitimacy in the eyes of its people; it is less brittle today than at any time in the last seven years since Bashar al-Asad came to power. The basic social compact between the regime and the Syrian people that was hammered out under Bashar's father has been give a new lease on life by America's misguided policies. The regime offers stability and security in exchange for submission of the populace. This is not unique to the region. Throughout the Arab world authoritarianism is under-girded by the same compact. We are now witnessing the reversal of the tentative democratic advances that were achieved in the wake of 9-11. The Economist recently ran an article cataloging the long and desultory list of crackdowns, imprisonments, and authoritarian retrenchments in Egypt, Bahrain, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries of the region. The reason for the strengthening of authoritarianism in the Middle East is simple. Dictators and monarchs of the Middle East are exploiting the fears of their people to strengthen themselves. The rise of extremism, threat of instability, and hatred of America — all of which have been immeasurably increased by the Bush administration's violent policies – make it all too easy for cynical governments to throw troublemakers in jail in the name of maintaining stability. No one wants to experience what the Iraqis are living through. The silent majority throughout the Middle East is acquiescing to the sad argument that they are not prepared for democracy. Michael Young suggests that the US should persist in its present policies by refusing to negotiate with adversaries such as Syria. I believe the administration's policies are not working and will only retard the emergence of democracy and the spread of liberal institutions in the region. This is my fundamental difference with Michael, one he chooses not to address. Instead, he finds secondary disputes.
Sectarianism: I do not for a second believe that Michael is sectarian. I wrote in my article that "Young is one of the smartest hawks in the Lebanese firmament and he has written thoughtfully on the need for a more equitable power-sharing in Lebanon." He objects to my using the term "Shite Crescent" for its sectarian implications. This is a distraction. It is not Shiites Michael warns against, It is the "crescent" or alliance between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas – the very un-Shiite member of the group.
The point of my article was to highlight how America's policy of refusing negotiations with its adversaries undermines movement toward democracy. By not moving decisively to resolve long-standing injustices in the region, Washington prevents the formation of consensus, which is the only soil upon which civil society can grow. The US should be on the side of working out a new power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon rather than obstructing it. Eventually this will have to include taking a new census in Lebanon and revising the Ta'if Accords, as Lebanon's National Pact is called. Michael himself has advocated this in recommending that Lebanon move toward a bicameral system of government, a solution everyone can applaud. But why not begin the difficult task of finding an accommodation with the opposition today? Opponents of the governing coalition have legitimate criticisms of the Lebanon's democracy. One of the reasons they refuse to relax relations with Syria and Iran is because they have not been able to advance their claims through negotiation. Instead they cling to resistance. The spring 2006 "national dialogue" between Lebanon's za'ims or communal chieftains came to nothing, demands for new elections were refused, and now a deal for increased representation of the opposition in the cabinet has seemingly been scuttled. Lebanon's factions must find a way to address the inequalities in their system of representation, which were at the root of the civil war and continue to bedevil relations among Lebanese communities. My provocative title, "Counting Lebanon's Shiites as Slaves: Why the Lebanon Deal is Obstructed," was a way to draw attention to the very real social and political issues that are at stake in Lebanon. Shiites in Lebanon are not treated as slaves. I make this abundantly clear in my article, but they are not counted for the purposes of parliamentary representation in proportion to their actual numbers. We can dispute whether they are counted as half or two-thirds of Lebanese from some other faiths, but quibbling over how badly they are underrepresented cannot obscure the fact that they are underrepresented. The only way to find out the correct numbers of Lebanese is for the government to take a new census, something it has refused or neglected to do since 1932 because entrenched authorities have much to lose.
The US will fail to build the trust it requires in the region in order to advance its policies so long as it refuses to throw it's weight behind settling long outstanding issues of representation in Lebanon, the return of the Golan to Syria, or respect for Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories. Iran or some other power inimical to US interests will champion these causes so long as the US refuses or fails to resolve them in an equitable manner.
Talking to Syria and negotiating a broader Arab-Israeli peace in the region is not extreme. Increasingly, this argument is being put forward by America's most experienced Middle East hands. Haaretz reported a week ago that James Baker told an Israeli audience, “The Middle East has grown less stable during the presidency of U.S. President George W. Bush, but dramatic improvements could be made by opening broad talks with Syria." Zbigniew Brzezinski said in January, "The U.S. refusal to explore the possibility of talks with Iran and Syria is a policy of self-ostracism that fits well into the administration's diplomatic style of relying on sloganeering as a substitute for strategizing.” Top Israeli intelligence and army officers have come to the same conclusion.
Michel Kilo: Finally, let me address Michael Young's scurrilous accusation that I jeopardized Syria's leading opposition figure, Michel Kilo, who I have long championed. (See this article I wrote when he was arrested, May 16, 2006: "Michel Kilo the Patriot." Young suggests that I "intentionally" and "dishonestly" justified his arrest. Let me quote Michael:
Take a piece on the Syrian opposition that Landis co-authored in the Winter 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly. In it he asserted that the Damascus Declaration, an October 2005 document signed by Syrian opposition figures calling for democratic change, “grew out of a clandestine trip to Morocco only a few months earlier by intellectual Michel Kilo to meet with [the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddin] Bayanuni to discuss a new initiative to unite forces.”
This item was quite damaging to Kilo, who had been languishing in Adra prison for having purportedly colluded with Syria’s enemies. Where did Landis get this information? In reading the article you see that the authors have footnoted an article by Andrew Tabler, which I happen to have read. But as an astute reader reminded me, Tabler only wrote that “two unnamed members” of the Syrian civil society movement had met with Bayanouni. There is no mention of Kilo at all in the piece, because Tabler could not confirm his presence in Morocco. One of two things happened: Either Landis read Tabler as carelessly as he reads everything else he quotes, which still doesn’t explain how Kilo’s name slipped in; or, knowing the impact of what he was saying, Landis mentioned Kilo intentionally, effectively justifying his arrest, then dishonestly attributed this to Tabler.
I’m increasingly inclined to believe the latter.
Why was Michel Kilo arrested and what is he charged with?
Kilo's arrest and the charges brought against him by the Syrian government have nothing to do with the Damascus Declaration or the trip to Morocco that prepared the way for the Damascus Declaration of 16 October 2005, about which I wrote. My article, entitled "The Syrian Opposition," which I coauthored with Joe Pace, a Harvard researcher, was published in the December 2006 issue of the Washington Quarterly.
Kilo was arrested with other opposition members following the publication of the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which they signed in May 2006, more than half a year after he helped prepare the Damascus Declaration. The charges brought against him have nothing to do with the Damascus Declaration. On March 6, 2007, the last time he was brought before the military prosecutor in Damascus, Kilo was accused, according to Reporters Without Borders, "of inciting fellow inmates in Adra prison, near Damascus, to sign the 'Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut' joint statement, which he himself signed in May 2006 and for which he is being prosecuted by a criminal court." The notion that Joe Pace's and my article had anything to do with his arrest or persecution is nonsense. Young writes that my article "was quite damaging to Kilo." He invents this. It is not true.
Did I tell the Syrian government something it did not already know?
The Syrian authorities knew whether Michel Kilo was one of the two opposition members who traveled to Morocco long before I wrote my article. Andrew Tabler, an excellent reporter and good friend, wrote in March 2006 that two unnamed opposition members traveled to Morocco, where they met counterparts in the Muslim Brotherhood to hammer out the rudiments of the Damascus Declaration. Kilo and other leading opposition members were arrested in May. If the Syrian authorities did not already know who had travelled to Morocco, they would simply have looked in their passports to ascertain which of them had. Opposition members can not hide where they travel. Any effort to do so would be useless and self-destructive. Young knows this. He also knows that Syrian military courts act pretty much as they wish. Blaming me for Kilo's predicament is petty and wrong.
Did I make up the claim that Kilo travelled to Morocco?
No, I did not. Several members of the opposition said he was one of the two members who went in February 2005. I checked this as thoroughly as I could. I communicated with reporters. I asked a friend to confirm what I had been told. I will send the record of what I learned about this to Michael Young. He did not ask for it before making his allegations even though we were in communication by email. Before his arrest Kilo told an excellent reporter that "he wrote the first draft of the Damascus Declaration," which then went through several permutations as it was worked over by the various opposition parties who were asked to sign it. Michel Kilo did not try to hide his role as one of the central architects of the Damascus Declaration.
On the contrary, like most other brave and daring reformers, he was proud of his role and tried to get as much coverage for the opposition as he could. Talking to foreign reporters and researchers was part of that campaign. As a reporter, Kilo knew that getting his and the opposition's story out was as important as signing agreements, maybe even more important. That was how I could help him.
Michael Young suggests that I was working on behalf of Syrian authorities with the intent of harming Kilo.
This is malicious nonsense. On the contrary, I championed the opposition. Living in Damascus during 2005 as a Senior Fulbright Fellow, I made it my mission to give as much coverage to the opposition as I could. Using my daily posts on Syria Comment, I decided to provide a platform for the Syrian opposition. They had struggled in almost complete obscurity. To fulfill this goal, I teamed up with Joseph Pace, a Harvard student writing his thesis on the opposition. I gave him a list of top opposition members to interview. He got interviews with most and came back to me with ten-page, expertly translated transcripts. I published them on Syria Comment and sent them out to the Daily Star, where a few were re-published. For some, it was a rare chance to be published in English. For almost all, it was the first time that they were given a lengthy platform in English to expound fully and in depth on their activities or to critique the regime. Previously, most had gotten one-line quotes by foreign journalists. Joe Pace was fearless and a skilled interviewer. He became celebrated for his opposition interviews published on Syria Comment. He was eventually expelled from Syria. What is more, Syria Comment was very nearly shut down by the authorities. Not a week went by when Syrian friends and journalists did not warn me to stop carrying interviews with the opposition and to stop courting a confrontation with the authorities. I ignored their well meaning admonitions.
I appeared with Michel Kilo on al-Jazeera's hour-long show, "Open Dialogue." The only quote that was later repeated to me by dozens of Syrians and my in-laws in Damascus was: "There is no democracy in Syria." I did not defend the regime. Michel Kilo and I spent a long day together taking a taxi to Beirut and back in order to do the show with Ghassan Ben Jiddou. We talked about the opposition the entire time and met on other occasions, when we had a chance to talk about his ambitions for the opposition and the role he played in it. He was forthright with me because he trusted me and knew Syria Comment was an effective way to get heard by foreign correspondents and in diplomatic circles. Michel Kilo did not hesitate to talk about his central role in bringing together Syria's fragmented opposition and writing drafts of agreements. He was proud of it and knew the risks he was taking.
I came to admire Michel Kilo above all other opposition leaders. I wrote about him and published his articles frequently on Syria Comment. I criticized the government when he was arrested or brought to trial on what were clearly trumped up charges. I had his letter from prison translated and published as soon as it came out in Arabic. Syria Comment was the first and only place on the web that offered an English translation of the Damascus Declaration for months after it appeared in Arabic. No other American source has done more than I have to introduce Michel Kilo's views to a Western audience, translate his writing, and hold him up as a true Syrian patriot. Joe Pace's and my article on the Syria opposition, which Michael Young tries to discredit, is part of our continuing effort to get out the story of Syria's courageous reformers and explain their importance to a western audience. No one writing about the Syrian opposition can hide Michel Kilo's important role, nor should they. The Syrian regime knows perfectly well what he has done. It is the rest of the world that undervalues him. Nothing can be gained by obscuring his history or relevance.
Michael Young wrote that he would "make no pretense of maintaining the high road" in depicting me as "The blogosphere's foreign informant." He was true to his word. But far from informing on Michel Kilo, I have championed him. The articles I have linked to in the preceding paragraph make this very clear. My record speaks for itself. Rather than justifying his arrest, I have advocated his freedom. Michael Young has avoided debating the basic issues on which we differ. Instead, he decided to go after the messenger.