Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012
Iranian activists and State Department Officials Argue over Sanctions and US Objectives in Iran
Since the story of the Syrian and Iranian opposition is similar in many ways and since both Damascus and Tehran are facing foreign sanctions and regime-change policies, a friend wrote to share this news of an encounter between Iranian opposition figures and State Department officials during a recent conference on Iran.
A couple of friends were invited to a conference last week to present the perspective of the Iranian opposition about the current situation in Iran. They told me that during their talk at the conference they lambasted the sanctions policy and told the attendants that sanctions are counterproductive and detrimental to the middle class in Iran and the opposition’s social base. When a State Department representative asked them “What do you expect us to do for Iran?” they said “Lift the sanctions. That would be the best thing you can do for Iran!”
My Iranian friends at the conference explained that one of the US diplomats said that the US priority in Iran is not human rights violations and not public opinion in Iran. Rather, the diplomat insisted that Washington’s main concern was Iran’s nuclear program, its impact on the security of Israel, and avenues for regime-change. He mentioned Pakistan as an example where regime-change is no longer possible because of its nuclear capabilities. The US diplomat added that regime-change causes instability which is dangerous in the case of a country with nuclear capabilities. So time is running out for regime-change in Iran. This triggered a quarrel between some of the Iranians and the speaker to the effect that one of the prominent opposition leaders retorted that the US should have no role in changing the regime and that it should be the choice solely for the Iranian people. He went on to ask that if the US was not concerned with human rights in Iran “why did you invite us here in the first place”! He said that we have been insisting that the human rights should be the central issue, however your strategic concern is the nuclear program.
Syria faces the same dilemma as Iran. Anti-Assad activists designed and lobbied for the sanctions imposed on Syria by the West. They wanted to undermine the regime and create an environment of crisis in the country with the aim of toppling the regime. With foreign powers unwilling to commit their air-forces, as they had in Libya, sanctions seemed like the best and only avenue open to Syrian activists and anti-Assad policy makers in the West.
Syrian rebels cling to bullets and hope
22 May 2012 by Martin Chulov in Jebel al-Zawiya
The Guardian reports: In the shadow of the monolith they call the Corner Mountain, Firas Abu Hamza was carefully counting his most prized possessions. He removed a dirty sock from his camouflage vest and spilled its contents, 13 old bullets, on to the fire-scorched concrete in front of him. “I’ll use them if I have [...]
Abu Ahmed said he has lost scores of men to ambushes and detentions. A Saudi-based businessman until the uprising erupted, he returned to take a leadership role in the nascent guerrilla force. He now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel, one of about five such senior officers in the dozen or so villages between here and the encircled city of Idlib, which was retaken by loyalist forces in March.
“They are cruel and they are evil,” he says of his enemy. “And they will never stop killing and lying. To them and those who blindly back them, we are Muslim Brotherhood and Muslim Brotherhood is al-Qaida. Both claims are dishonest.”
At this base and all the others the Guardian visited during five days in Syria, a television was playing in the background. Each set of hosts would insist on showing the Syrian state TV channels, then the rebel-backed TV and pan-Arab networks.
On state television, the al-Qaida line is relentless. The narrative has become essential to the regime’s bid to hold on to power. Rallying support for state repression is easier when people believe it is needed to combat a global jihadist “terrorist” plot against a secular Arab nationalist state.
“They are always talking about al-Qaida,” said Abu Hamza of the state coverage. “They are stopping at nothing to make us look like devils when they know very well that the Free Syria Army are no more than men who have seen the light. Have you seen their claim that there are 3,000 foreign Arabs fighting here with us? There is not one.”
Rebel groups across Jebel al-Zawiya sense that the regime’s narrative of al-Qaida-backed groups taking a lead in the insurgency is starting to prevail – in the western psyche, in particular.
“Political Islam in Syrian Revolution“, published by Aljazeera Center for Studies
Syrian Heart Patients Set to Feel Economy’s Squeeze
By Donna Abu-Nasr – May 17, 2012
…“The economy is going to continue to decline,” said Ayesha Sabavala, a Syria economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, in a phone interview. “But whether the economy will decline to the extent that it will actually cause the regime to change tactics — that is probably not likely. Not in the near term, anyway.”…
The pound has lost about one-third of its value, pushing prices higher and slashing the purchasing power of Syrians on fixed incomes. International embargoes have disrupted trade, bank lending has slumped and businesses have closed.The $65 billion economy shrank 3.4 percent in 2011 and will contract another 5.9 percent this year while the budget deficit widens to 18 percent of output, the EIU forecast in March. Central bank Governor Adib Mayaleh, interviewed at his office in Damascus on May 10, said inflation was 15 percent in January, while declining to give data for growth or other indicators.
Sanctions plus devaluation have left imports scarce or too expensive for many Syrians. At gas stations, long lines of men wait to fill blue or gray cylinders with cooking gas. Oil Minister Sufian Alao told state television on May 12 that local gas meets 60 percent of needs, and said he is working to avert shortages by finding new sources for the rest.
… More than 6,000 small factories and businesses closed last year, said Khandji, who runs a company that makes hair-care products. Some banks shut down in cities such as Homs that were the scene of the bloodiest clashes, she said.Tourism has ground to a halt after a boom between 2005 and 2010, when arrivals rose 14 percent a year and revenue exceeded $7 billion, contributing 12 percent of gross domestic product and employing 13 percent of the workforce, according to Tourism Ministry figures.
In the capital’s covered Hamidiyyeh bazaar, there are few customers at shops offering embroidered tablecloths, boxes studded with mother-of-pearl, Persian carpets and clothes made from Syrian cotton. Some salesmen play backgammon, others were gathered outside their shops for coffee and a chat. A jeweler said he has received some business from Syrians selling gold rings, pendants and earrings to help pay for food.
Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist and managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau in Damascus, which advises the government, businesses and international organizations, said private-sector job losses exceeded 100,000 last year, pushing unemployment above 20 percent. The government has reversed course from the liberalization it was pursuing before the revolt, and now employs more people. It also increased energy subsidies last year while maintaining payments for sugar, rice and pita bread.
Still, Sukkar said, the economy can survive the difficulties for at least another year. Agriculture, almost one- fifth of GDP, “is in very good shape because of two consecutive rainy seasons” and can make up for shortfalls elsewhere. Plus, Syria started the crisis with high foreign exchange reserves and low external debt of about $7 billion that leaves it room to borrow, he said.
‘Can’t Beat Us’
Sukkar cited the international embargo as Syria’s main economic challenge. “Unless the sanctions are removed, Syria is not going to go back to normal,” he said…
The Syian Paradox - May 22, 2012
New York Times Sunday Magazine, By ADAM DAVIDSON
….The Alawite ethnic and religious minority, which eventually assumed leadership of the party, was made up of poorly educated people from mountain villages who “knew nothing about running a country or an economy,” says Joshua Landis, a pre-eminent Syria watcher and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. The Alawites, he notes, had been given a role by the French colonial government in the military precisely because they had few ties to the majority Sunnis in the big cities: “They were very unsophisticated, and they didn’t have a deep community of cosmopolitan people from which to draw.” … As Landis notes: “They look out at the countryside and think: What if these people win? Are they going to respect capitalism? Are they going to preserve our wealth? Or are they going to come by and say, ‘Oh, you’ve been a collaborator for 40 years, and we’re going to take everything you own’? They don’t know.” …
Crony Capitalism, Syria Style – May 22, 2012
NPR – by Dan Kedmey, the Power of Money
Meet the guy who embodies everything that’s wrong with Syria’s economy. He’s the president’s cousin, and his nickname is “Mr. Ten Percent.”…
Damascus ‘Bubble’ Belies Violent Reality of Assad’s Syria
By Donna Abu-Nasr – May 22, 2012
Syria marked Traffic Day this month with five programs on state-run television and radio fostering road safety and responsible driving.
On the streets of the capital Damascus, motorists are lulled by sprinklers feeding lush traffic circles studded with yellow and purple spring flowers. The theme of benevolent government is underlined by news in Tishrin, the state-run paper, which reports that the state spent 80 million Syrian pounds ($1.25 million) last year treating more than 19,700 people bitten by stray dogs.
More than 14 months into the Syrian uprising, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is projecting a facade of normality belied by a breakdown in security and a proliferation of defensive emplacements. Photographer: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
More than 14 months into the Syrian uprising, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is projecting a facade of normality belied by a breakdown in security and a proliferation of defensive emplacements. Sandbags, blast walls and heavily armed men seek to protect government buildings in Damascus, where suicide bombers killed at least 55 and injured almost 400 in twin attacks on May 10. …
Omran al-Zoabi, a lawyer who’s a member of the ruling Baath party, said “the secret to Syria’s survival is that what’s happening here is not an Arab Spring.”
With a large, gold-framed photograph of Assad in military dress to his side, al-Zoabi said in an interview at the Damascus’ Lawyers Syndicate that the president will emerge stronger from the crisis.
‘In Our Heart’
Rabaa Shaalan, a 35-year-old mother of three who helps organize a weekly pro-Assad youth rally in front of the Central Bank, insisted “the regime will not fall.” As she spoke, her mobile phone rang, trilling a pro-government song called “In Our Heart We Chant Bashar.” She said her phone’s ringtone, like the photos of Assad on a pendant she wears, three pins on her lapel and her keychain, were expressions of her love for the 46 year-old president.
The belief among Assad supporters that the government is winning has several causes, Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said in an interview on May 15.
Assad has been given a breathing space by the international community and not least by UN envoy Kofi Annan’s cease-fire plan, which has failed to stop the bloodshed, he said. In addition, there’s not yet been any major organized effort to arm the opposition, allowing the government to continue its use of violence and intimidation, he said.
“Plus, the Iraq war in particular has seared a real indelible mark on this particular U.S. administration which is why it and other Western powers have up until now not provided the support and backing for what we all know is what is required” to unseat the government, Shaikh said….
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Center in Beirut, said the regime has “reached a plateau but certainly not a solution or a situation that they can sustain for very long.”
“Yes, they are trying to project normalcy, but the country is still largely paralyzed, the economy continues to be in very bad shape, they remain isolated and Damascus barely sputters along,” Salem said in a telephone interview.
Book Review: Pierret, Thomas. Baas et Islam en Syrie: La dynastie Assad face aux oulémas. Paris, PUF, 2011.
By Erik Mohns in the Newsletter of the Syria Studies Association
…Only a small minority of Syria’s Sunnite ulama have distanced themselves publicly from the regime since the outbreak of the uprising. Their large majority has adopted a quietist posture towards the regime’s ongoing campaign of repression. This overwhelmingly complying stance of the religious establishment results certainly from direct threats and coercive measures by the regime. However, the reasons for this positioning of the Ba’thist regime’s traditional foes emanate from longer-term sociopolitical processes that Thomas Pierret’s remarkably riveting study of Syria’s religious field reveals.
Throughout the book’s five chapters, Pierret convincingly unrolls his central argument; namely, that the ulama have been able to adapt to challenges emanating from social change and the authoritarian context due their resource of tradition. …He analyzes how the ulama as ‘custodians of commodities of salvation’ have been able to hold on to their relative autonomy by demonstrating considerable flexibility in an ever-changing political contexts, even under authoritarian rule….
Pierret’s study …. refutes two common claims about Assad regime’s mechanisms of rule. It has widely been argued that the secular and Alawite-dominated regime lacks any substantive legitimacy among Syrian Sunnis. Pierret, however, reveals that the regime has been remarkably successful in the establishment of an ambiguous, but nevertheless robust relationship with the urban-based Sunni clerics, social actors that possess considerable credibility of many pious Syrian Muslims. He considers this ‘clergy-regime-partnership’ being embedded in the encompassing transformation of the regime’s social base in its post-populist phase, from its former rural-based, popular constituencies toward urban-based, socioeconomic elites, a dynamic that became all too obvious throughout the ongoing uprising.
The second, often-made assertion that the recent incremental reconstitution of the clergy’s social authority emanates from a deliberate policy by the Ba’thist regime to encourage a quietist and moderate form of Islam, is denoted by Pierret as an overestimation in the regime’s capacity as a ‘social engineer’. By retracing longer-term historical developments that led to the ulama’s considerable social following, he convincingly argues that the increased religious popular fervor and the concomitant influence of the Sunni clergy stems only marginally from the regime’s intervention into the religious field. Instead, the regime has rather accompanied this social process and strove to confine its political impacts by applying alternating, at times erratic strategies towards the Muslim clergy.
The traditionalist clergy’s hegemonic position within the religious field has not solely been based on the regime’s interventions, but rather by their access to considerable economic resources. The fourth chapter analyses the political economy underpinning the clergy’s continuous social power. The existence of a ‘clerical-mercantile complex’, designating as an alliance between the urban based ulama and the private sector, allowed an ever-growing enlargement of different forms of religious social action. The alliance does not only assure the clerics’ financial autonomy from the state, but enabled them to benefit directly from the economy’s liberalization. The state’s scare resources deprived it from upholding its welfare policies vis-à-vis a growing, impoverished population. In order to prevent potential destabilizing effects emanating from pauperization of large section of the society, the state liberalized its policy towards the welfare and enabled religious networks, in particular the Damascus-based Zayd movement, to establish a wide-ranging web of charities. Pierret argues that the alliance between middle-size entrepreneurs and merchants and the ulama is nurtured by mutual interests over which the state exercises only limited control. The ulama provide the private sector with social capital, trust and networks, while merchants and entrepreneurs provide financial donations, management expertise and relations to the security apparatus. In addition, both actors range from the same social merchant and commercial milieus and share often common familial origin. Through a thorough analysis of the parliamentary elections campaign in 2007, Pierret reveals that the religious men have moved even closer to the politico-military elite, resulting in an ongoing transformation of the clerical-mercantile complex. Financial donations by crony capitalists to the religious foundations during the electoral campaign appear to be too tempting to be refused by the clergy….
Pierret succeeds in drawing a number of general conclusions on the ulama’s modes of political action. First and foremost, the ulama are by definition representatives of a sectoral elite and their political engagement is always a secondary dimension of their social practice. Their political practice is characterized by strategic rigidity and tactical flexibility and their inventions into politics are of an inconstant manner, mainly in the form of punctual eruptions and lobbying. This political behavior allows the ulama, despite their total disagreement with the regime’s ideological choices, to adapt to an authoritarian environment as their political demands are primarily limited to negotiate the preservation and/or enlargement of those spaces to carry out their vocation. This sectoral logic of political action has facilitated in sum the ulama’s rapprochement to the regime in its post-Ba’thist stage…..
“Bashar: Decentralization should be implemented after Assad toppling…”in Al-Hayat, United Kingdom (translated thanks to Mideastwire.com)
On May 21, the Saudi-owned London-based Al-Hayat daily carried in its paper edition the following interview with President of the Syrian Kurdish National Council Abdul Hakim Bashar:
“… Q: “Is decentralization a major condition put forward by the Kurdish parties before joining the Syrian National Council?
A: “… Many Alawis, Druze and Kurds have abstained so far from taking part in the Syrian revolution because they are concerned about the future. This is why I believe that it is essential to give all these minorities some guarantees. The Syrian Kurdish National Council wants the opposition parties to adopt a clear declaration reassuring the Druze, the Alawis and the other minorities. We will defend the principle of decentralization until the end because we believe that it gives these necessary assurances….
Q: “Borhan Ghalioun said that he supported decentralization but you rejected his position and said that you wanted him to pledge to implement it in the future. Why is that?
A: “Borhan Ghalioun has supported the principle of administrative decentralization but there is a huge difference between this kind of decentralization and the political decentralization we have been advocating…
“Ghalyun responds to his critics: I am ready to quit…” Asharq al-Awsat - (translated thanks to Mideastwire.com)
On May 18, the Saudi owned Asharq al-Awsat reported: “Burhan Ghalyun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council yesterday responded to the criticism that followed his election for a new three-month term by announcing “his withdrawal from the Council as soon as a new candidate is chosen through accord or through new elections.” He explained that he accepted the latest nomination “out of his eagerness to maintain accord,” stressing that “I will not accept in any way to be the candidate of division, and I am not sticking to any position.” Ghalyun, whose chairmanship of the SNC for the third time since its establishment last October, said in a statement yesterday: “I will continue to serve the revolution from my position as a Council member along with the young fighters -the youths of the revolution of dignity and freedom until victory is achieved,” and called on the opposition “and all its groups to meet as soon as possible to reach an understanding on the unity of the national work and get rid of the circle of conflict and division.”
“A lot of criticism has followed Ghalyun’s election as head of the National Council that reached the point of suspending the membership or resignation to protest the failure to translate the principle of “the rotation of power” in the SNC’s chairmanship, and the refusal by the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood to give the chance to Ghalyun’s rival, Syrian opposition figure George Sabra. The local coordination committees, which constitute a main faction in the Syrian opposition and which are active in the field and in documenting the diary of the revolution, yesterday joined the list of those who oppose the results of the elections, which took place in Rome three days ago, and threatened to withdraw from the SNC in protest of “monopolizing the decisions by some influential persons in the Executive Bureau and the General Secretariat, the latest of which is the decision to extend for Ghalyun for a third term in spite of the terrible failure on the political and organizat ional levels.” Rima Fulayhan, spokesperson for the coordination committees, strongly rapped “the weak performance of the National Council throughout the past seven months.” She told Asharq al-Awsat that the Council “has not been up to the Syrian people’s aspirations and has not served the revolution due to the flabbiness of the work mechanisms and the weakness of the Council’s head,” and said that the Council “is still stalemated and we have not felt any progress on the ground.”
“Fulayhan pointed out that “the traditional opposition in general has not served the popular Syrian revolution, but it has aggravated the crisis,” stressing the “need for institutionalizing the SNC work in the next stage and electing a leadership that represents the people’s aspirations.” She explained that “we want a leadership that has a vision and a plan and to be the one that launches the initiatives, not to wait for initiatives from inside and outside and be satisfied with just making reactions.” Commenting on Ghalyun’s recent stand, Fulayhan said that “he should not have nominated himself for a third term in light of the general feeling of the SNC’s failure to make any achievement, and he should have given the chance for others,” and asked: “How can we speak about democracy and the rotation of power in the upcoming Syrian state if we are unable to renovate the SNC chairmanship?” she stressed that “the political leaders of the Syrian opposition today are at stake, and we are going to overtake them if they are not up to the level of the revolution in the street,” stressing the rejection of “using the pretext of preserving the unity of the opposition to justify acceptance of the fait accompli and not making the aspired change, particularly since we have become in a stage on which the whole fate of Syria is hinged, and this necessitates that we bring ourselves to account for every mistake.”
“SNC membe r Adib al-Shishakli, who announced the suspension of his membership after Ghalyun’s election, told Al-Sharq al-Awsat that Ghalyun’s stand “is a courageous step in the right direction, so that to show that the one who makes a mistake can retract it, and this is the example that we want to see in the new Syria.” He said that this situation “stands as a lesson for the Syrian opposition and revolution and it is a big test for the National Council.” He also said that “what is required today is the restructuring of the National Council and the mechanisms of its work, particularly the mechanisms of elections before electing a new head,” stressing the importance of “rotating power and that all those who are qualified can nominate themselves for the SNC chairmanship so that the nomination does remain restricted to the members of the Executive Bureau.” Al-Shishakli said that “the Syrian opposition has not practiced any democratic experiment in the past, and it is normal to m ake mistakes, but what is important is that what happened should become a lesson in the next stage,” stressing that “he is not planning to go ahead in his resignation and that he is not protesting against Ghalyun in person, but he is protesting the elections mechanisms emanating from the fact that the SNC’s experiment should be an example to be followed in its capacity as the sole legitimate representative e of the Syrian people.”
“Samir Nashar, member of the Executive Bureau of the National Council, yesterday stressed that “the nomination of George Sabra to head the SNC has been made in consolidation of the principle of the rotation of power and in light of Sabra’s stands and the facts surrounding him, which make him qualified more than others in the SNC. Furthermore, he is a struggler from inside Syria, and he has organizational and leadership experience and belongs to the Christian sect, and this sends a reassurance message that the head of the SNC and the future president of Syria can be from any sect in Syria, and this dispels fears within this minority that the next regime after the collapse of President Bashar al-Asad would be an Islamic one, but it will be a national and civilian one, and will be rotational by all components of the Syrian people.” He explained that “Sabra’s election would have been an advance step (by the Muslim Brotherhood) in particular that they accept a president who belong s to the Christian sect to lead the Syrian people, but what happened has been the opposite when the Muslim Brotherhood voted against George Sabra, and asked their allies in the Islamic trend to vote against him.”” – Asharq al-Awsat, United Kingdom
KURDWATCH, May 14, 2012—Hasan ʿAbdulʿazim, chairman of the National Union of the Forces for Democratic Change, commented on the Kurdish question in an interview on May 7, 2012 in the chat room »Resistance from Western Kurdistan«. He explained that while there are Kurds in Syria, there is neither a Syrian-Kurdistan nor a region predominantly settled by Kurds. According to ʿAbdulʿazim, even in al‑Hasakah province, the proportion of Kurds is only between 33 and 35 percent; Arab residents are in the majority. Moreover, he rejected all forms of political decentralization. Instead, the National Union, together with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and in consultation with ten other Kurdish parties, supports the right to administrative decentralization based on the currently existing model of local administrations. At the same time ʿAbdulʿazim emphasized that he would not stand against more extensive Kurdish demands if the majority of the Syrian people were to accept them in a democratic election. In reaction to ʿAbdulʿazim’s comments, the PYD chairman, Salih Muslim Muhammad, communicated in a press release that his party’s use of the term West Kurdistan is not intended to convey that this region does not or should not belong to Syria.
KURDWATCH, 16. May 2012—Nationwide protests on 11. May 2012 resulted again in numerous dead and injured. Throughout the country, demonstrators demanded the fall of the regime. Once again protests in the Kurdish regions this week did not take place under a united slogan. Only a few demonstrators joined the all-Syrian slogan »God’s support and a speedy victory«. An activist told KurdWatch, »Our revolution is committed to freedom and dignity. We no longer have sympathy for the fact that so many of the slogans that are designated as the main slogans have an Islamic context«. Most of the demonstrators chose their own slogan; for example, supporters of the Democratic Union Party took to the streets under the slogan »Support for the Kurds in Aleppo«…. Overall the number of demonstrators in the Kurdish regions is currently in decline.