Assad’s State of the Nation Speech to People’s Assembly

President Assad delivered a state of the nation address to the People's Assembly on Tuesday. It lasted an hour and a half. It was a much anticipated address, marking the beginning of his second seven-year term as president. (The speech has finally been translated into English by SANA, almost two days after it was given. Here it is in Arabic.)

The vast majority of the Syrians I have asked about the speech liked it. Syrians with lower incomes seemed much less critical of it than Syrians with higher incomes, but the overwhelming majority said they liked it.

Only one person I spoke to said it made him angry. He was a businessman who has lived decades in the West and wanted accountability. He hoped the President would set a time-line with benchmarks for various economic reforms. He did not accept the President's excuses for not accomplishing certain economic reforms and believes he should delegate more to experts, naming them in front of the people and giving them set dates to accomplish various tasks and holding them accountable. "If they fail, they should be fired," he said. He was not particularly interested in democracy or political reforms.

Many Syrians agree with the president that security and stability, as opposed to democracy, are the most important goals in Syria, given the present Middle Eastern realities of political instability, and violence in the neighborhood. The president spoke about democracy "in our own way," which was repeated to me by many with conviction. Syrians are buying this. Not all, but many. Bashar said it is committed to moving toward democracy and talked about having to delay the new party law, spoken about at the 2005 Baath Party Conference. Not too many people are convinced of this, but they like to hear him raise it. He admitted that many laws that have been passed have not been applied and gave security and Syria's administrative backwardness as an excuse. Some accept this as genuine. Others are more cynical. 

 Most of the speech was about domestic policy, a contrast to many past speeches. Syrians liked this. Many said it was a "quiet" speech, meaning it was not confrontational. He didn't mention Lebanon, which pleased many people and which was remarked on with a smile. Upper-class Syrians were relieved because so many are half or a quarter Lebanese and hate to have bad relations between the two countries. The absence of any reference to Lebanon was also made necessary by the meeting going on in France between Lebanese leaders and by Cochran’s visit to Syria yesterday, a day after the president's speech. France should have sent their delegate here before the Paris talks, but better late than never.

Syria wants a deal on the Lebanon situation and is not interested in further troubles there, so does Hizbullah and Iran. Most Syrians, although pessimistic about the ability of France to deliver much on the Lebanese front, are hopeful that the tide is running out of America's confrontational policy there. The March 14th leadership is also beginning to realize that some accommodation with Hizbullah, Aoun and Syria is required and that Bush's policies in the region are living on borrowed time.

The fact that France has abandoned its isolation policy is an indication that the dam is about to break in US-Syrian relations. Bush can continue to try to put his fingers in the dike and sabotage direct dealings with Syria, as he did to Rice's Sharm al-Sheikh meeting with Moualem by renewing US sanctions on Syria and adding a few extras a week later, but his domestic base has eroded beyond repair. President Assad made a joke about the long list of things he is being asked to do in the region by Western powers, claiming that Syria should be given a seat on the UN Security Council to reflect the power imputed to it by such demands.

Assad mentioned the word "infitah," or economic opening quite a few times. Many believed that the most important line of the speech was when the president said that he understood that the wealth from this opening was reaching only a certain section or "shariha" of Syrian society and that it needed to be broadened to reach more people. For the average Syrian who does not taste the sweets of economic reform but only its bitterness, in the form or reduced subsidies and inflation, this was important. It demonstrated the he understands the main problem of the ordinary citizen.

He also promised that he would not eliminate subsidies, which relieved many low-income Syrians, who have been listening with anxiety to all the discussion about the necessity of eliminating subsidies. Economist friends found this irresponsible. Many feel subsidies which are a heavy burden on the state should be slowly eliminated because they distort markets. (The basic pact between government and people is that subsidies and the state sector will not be eliminated until there is enough economic growth to absorb unemployment and to provide a safety-net.) He spoke about  "making the question of unemployment our top priority in the coming period." The president made a joke about his commitment to keeping subsidies and the state sector that many thought was wonderful and was repeatedly mentioned to me by those I asked about the speech. He said, "There is only one circumstance in which we might cancel the role of the state or lift subsidies and that is if the Security Council passes a resolution under chapter 7 mandating it, only then… You should not be surprised if a day comes when they say that supporting the poor is a form of supporting terrorism."

The Arab press has concentrated on the President's statement that the coming months will be "fateful" or months of destiny, "maasiri." Few can figure out what he meant by this. Was he preparing the people for something? Was he referring to events in Lebanon – the presidential elections there, perhaps? The International Court? Was he referring to a possible American attack on Iran? No one can figure it out.

On Golan, Assad was clear. Syria insists on open talks with Israel and the return of all the Golan according to international law and justice. If Israel commits to this, he said, everything else is negotiable, "security and water." Everyone understood this to mean, Syria's relationship with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran would be on the table. Israel's response to this was negative. Israelis accused Assad of trying to place preconditions on the talks, and thus, placed a few of their own, claiming that because Syria refuses to cut relations with Iran and Hizbullah before the talks it is not serious about negotiations. No one here seems to think that talks with Israel without American backing can get far. Israel suggested renewing talks without an American role. This strikes many as hot air. Both countries, in particular Israel, have demanded large US handouts in exchange for signing a peace in the past. It is hard to believe they would be content to make peace today without such handouts and support.

The Presidents delivery was good. He was excited and a bit rushed during the first half of the speech. He used his hands a lot and on many occasions clipped the microphones that were placed too close to him. This style appeals to many in the younger generation. They like his youthful passion when talking about Syrian affairs and believe it reveals his honesty and sincerity. They liked his jokes, off the cuff remarks, and willingness to depart from the written text to explain things and elaborate. It gives the sense that he is in control and confident. It also allows him to be a bit folksy and direct.

Comments (27)


1. Bilal said:

The president showed that he does not understand international politics when he said that all UN & G-8 resolutions ask Syria not to interfere in Lebanon and then send him delegates asking him to interfere. Doesn’t he understand what they are telling him? No wonder we got to this isolation and do not be happy with the small opening by France as it is not going to getter bigger or to last. Remember what advice president Sarcusi got from the king of KSA.
He claimed that the reforms got stopped because of the US sanctions. Can you believe this? He is extremely good in blaming others for his various mistakes & corruption. He should be happy now that he got the US to blame as usually he blames everything on Israel but now they are becoming his buddies so he got the US and somehow Europe to blame instead.
He mentioned that to stop corruption it should start at the family level. Well let him start with his own which is responsible for more than 90% of all Syrian corruption to the point where his personal wealth is estimated by some sources to exceed 40 BILLIONS Dollars.
He did not mention Lebanon as per the advice of his aides as he always messes things up. Maybe this was the best thing in his speech.
After all that and you say he made a good speech?

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July 19th, 2007, 3:06 pm

 

2. ausamaa said:

Dear Josh:
Nice analysis, but I would like to make a remark on the margine of your note:

“If Israel commits to this, he said, everything else is negotiable, “security and water.” Everyone understood this to mean, Syria’s relationship with Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran would be on the table.”

While an eventual Peace Treaty between Syria and Israel will carry within its context and evolve out of a situation where the above players are part of things, yet I do not think the President’s rference was to “Syria’s relationships” with Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran.

I beleive the President’s reference was actualy to the other “negotiables” being the demilitarized zones, the Diplomatic, Economic and other inter-state relationships, borders, security arrangements and the nature of the Peace Agreement, etc,…

نحن نفاوض على أمور أخرى.. نحن نحدد هذا الخط.. خط الرابع من حزيران على الخارطة.. يتم النقاش حول موضوع الترتيبات الامنية.. العلاقات.. كما حصل فى التسعينيات أيام رابين .

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July 19th, 2007, 3:11 pm

 

3. Atassi said:

Thank you for the insight and good faith reporting, it’s interesting and I was expecting to read that the Syrians would prefer security and stability, as opposed to democracy.
Why can’t we have both!
I am serious, Why not seek to establish democracy and security at the same time? Unless the Syrians are deemed incapable by nature or by the rulers. many other places in this plant practices democracy values and security at the same time.
I wanted security and peace for the Syrian but I consider security without freedom a suppression!!
Please.. Dr Landis, I know you would not except this kind of format it in your home country, Why are excepting this formula for others. What the moral behind it?

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July 19th, 2007, 3:26 pm

 

4. ausamaa said:

A very good question, as speakers say, Why can we not have Peace and Security AND Democracy at the same time?

Dont see why not! Actualy I also have on my wish list a sustainable 20% growth, having the Dollar linked to the Syrian Pound, becoming the world’s #1 ranked exporter of technology, winning the next World Cup title. Of course among other smaller wishes.

But yes, why can we not have it all at the same time? Like right now for example?

Why cant the Palestinians have their Independent State tomorrow? Why cant the Iraqis have their peace, security demaocracy and prosperity tomorrow? Why cant Bush immediatly begin haveing a goodnight’s sleep without being bothered about a failing surge and a world collapsing all around him?

Good questions, but I dont think even Josh can answer them! He may say that the morale behind them is that “somethings dont come easy, somthings take some time”, or he might tell us: ” but Who said life is Fair?”…

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July 19th, 2007, 3:45 pm

 

5. SimoHurtta said:

Well let him start with his own which is responsible for more than 90% of all Syrian corruption to the point where his personal wealth is estimated by some sources to exceed 40 BILLIONS Dollars.

And the some anonymous sources are what Bilal? To be able to make such estimates most of the property should be in listed companies and equal “open” assets. Has Assad castles and huge villas around Europe? No doubt that the ruling family is wealthy and has put aside a retirement fund, but 40 billion? Not even the US favourite generals Marcos and Suharto managed to steal such sums in much bigger countries during their enlightened democratic regime times.

There has been very little in public domain of the billions Saddam’s family was claimed (before the war) to have stolen after the occupation. Most of the money was found in governmental buildings before it vanished in the occupiers astonishing (=non existent) accounting system.

Forbes the famous rater of the rich managed to put Saddam and Castro on its list by putting state owned property in their “ownership”. Astonishingly Forbes did not apply the same “rating” standards to dictators which USA “approves”. Propaganda is propaganda even it is made by famous institutions and big countries.

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July 19th, 2007, 3:50 pm

 

6. Atassi said:

ausamaa,
I am asking, why can’t the regime advocate both the democracy values and keep grip on the security matter at the same time? Maybe the regime require the Syrians to earn democracy!! Possibly democracy is not compatible and it conflict with the regime interest!!
Syrian being told you can’t have both. I think they should have both

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July 19th, 2007, 4:41 pm

 

7. Nihad Riffai said:

When Bashar will be giving Syrians the State of his Bank Accounts speech? The State of Syrian oil reserves left in the ground, if any!!!

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July 19th, 2007, 5:35 pm

 

8. Safwan said:

I love it when Lebanese people disguise as Syrians and participate in these posts, to the first guy “Bilal” I am saying he did not mention Lebanon because really, it isnt a matter of importance to us Syrians anymore, judging by how things are going politically I really doubt Syria is going to be held accountable for anything that went on in Lebanon.
Regarding corruption, lets not forget that your entire country “Lebanon” is corrupt from Lahoud to Haririy, they are all a bunch of midgets with your people’s blood on their hands 🙂

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July 19th, 2007, 6:36 pm

 

9. Bilal said:

To Safwan,

I am sorry I am not Lebanese but I am Syrian from the Heart of DAMASCUS and extremely proud to be SYRIAN.
I do not agree with you that Syria does not care about Lebanon as look what Bashar & Co. are doing there in Fath AlEslam and others.
As for the 2 people (Syrian & Lebanese) they will be back as brothers after this regime fall. Remember the late Samir Kassir who is Syrian has said. Lebanon will never live in peace as long as there is no democracy in Syria. The unfortunate has lost his life for this very real remark.
As for the corruption in Lebanon I agree with you that it is filled with corruption but they are not taking my money. Bashar is.
As for the 40 Billions I would like you to look what happened when Syriatel has done an IPO. Today the market value of Syriatel is over 1 Billion Dollars. Tell me how did he get it? Ask Mamoun Homsi or Riad Seif. They will tell you they went to prison just because they questioned Syriatel existence. Remember they were deputies and this was their duty but who cares.Just for daring to raise the issue they went to prison and lost their future.

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July 19th, 2007, 8:05 pm

 

10. t_desco said:

To be fair, when Olmert is “claiming that because Syria refuses to cut relations with Iran and Hizbullah before the talks it is not serious about negotiations”, he is simply adopting the official White House position.

Colin Powell has recently pointed out the absurdity of this approach to diplomacy:

“And so I think it is short-sighted not to talk to Syria and Iran and everybody else in the region, and not just for the purpose of making a demand on them, and “I’ll only talk to you if you meet the demand I want to talk to you about.” That’s not the way to have a dialogue in my judgment.”
(Meet the Press, June 10, 2007)

Some comments on the Brammertz reports

Do we have to call a spade a… shovel?

Brammertz IV, §34 ” states: “The upper right central incisor found at the crime scene in February 2005 and belonging to the unidentified male shows a distinguishing mark related to the lingual surface shape of the crown, which has the form of a spade. This feature is rarely seen among people from Lebanon.”

Could it be that he is actually talking about a shovel-shaped incisor? This feature is indeed rare among people in the region, for example in one study from Saudi Arabia only 4% of the patients showed this peculiar trait which is prevalent among people from Northern Asia, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and also Native Americans.

Brammertz V, §24 stated that “the man had significant exposure to lead pollution in an urban environment up to the age of about 12, and that such exposure was low during the last ten years of his life”.

Lead pollution is particularly high in Pakistan:

“Karachi is considered the lead pollution capital of the world, due to a number of factors: the absence of lead-free fuels, heavy industry and use of make-up known as surma. … Often people rely on local ‘quacks’ who distribute medicines known to contain lead.”
(Scientists link iron deficiency to Third World brain crisis, Medical News Today, 09 Jul 2005)

Parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are certainly “more arid than Lebanon” (Brammertz VI, §25), but I doubt that shovel-shaped incisors are a very common feature in the region.

Jürgen C. Külbel has discovered a small and insignificant error in the last report: §24 speaks of the “city of Kanagawa”, yet the city where the Mitsubishi was stolen is called Sagamihara, situated in Kanagawa Prefecture.

PS: Cool, I can post as t-desco again. Thanks, Alex!! 🙂

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July 19th, 2007, 9:49 pm

 

11. why-discuss said:

The only people who are known to have accumulated billions (with honesty?) are the Hariris. I really wonder where Bashar is hiding his “billions” as any transfer in foreign bank is been scrutinized.. Maybe in Lebanon? But maybe Bilal can tell us where he got this information, or is it one the numerous rumours coming from Lebanon.
Peace and democracy? Yes, maybe Bashar should ask Bush and the genius Condie Rice, they probably have some good ideas how to do that in the middle-east..

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July 19th, 2007, 10:05 pm

 

12. Ford Prefect said:

T_Desco,
Thanks for the excellent analysis. Glad you are back with the very familiar name.

Alex, glad you got it fixed!

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July 19th, 2007, 10:29 pm

 

13. ausamaa said:

Improving U.S. and Syrian Relations: Some Possible Beginnings

http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/071907_syrian-us_relations.pdf

By Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

“Dr. Cordesman recently traveled to Syria with Jon Alterman and Thomas Sanderson. Attached is a list of imporvements in Syrian-US relations that may be possible in the near future.

“There are many areas where the US and Syria do have common interests and might be able to move forward without some kind of formal improvement in relations It is not necessary to have “breakthroughs” to make progress or to wait on the next Administration. In fact, waiting nearly two years for a new Administration to fully take office is in neither nation’s interest. There is too much instability in the region; there are too many areas where leaving things unintended can only make things worse.”

A sound article (still a Working Draft) by a sound and a well informed no nonsense expert.

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July 19th, 2007, 11:03 pm

 

14. norman said:

There is corruption in Syria but has nothing to do with Bashar Asad , It has to do with single party system , The US had the Republican in power only for 6 years with many incidences of corruption and abuse of power in spite of very strong laws ,
The American public is in favor of security even if it leads to restriction on civil liberties according to the polls , Now in the US we ( health professionals ) are mandated to have our fingerprints on records , ( I do not think that is the case in Syria) every American who intends to leave the country to Canada , The Caribbeans or Mexico has to have a Passport to return , That is forcing American to get Passports which can be used as national ID cards , The Patriot act in the US is as intrusive as emergency laws in Syria , Ask Paideia the American who was held without trial for years as an enemy combatant before they charged with things has nothing to do with the initial accusations .

About subsidies in Syria , Syria does not needs to cancel subsidies to the poor, they just need to direct the help to the poor and let the rich pay market prices so instead of subsidising Gasoline they can give monthly assistant to poor by infusing subsidies to their electric bill or water bill , give credit on real state that owned by low income families. food stamps for low income families instead of subsidising Flour , Sugar and tea .

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July 20th, 2007, 2:24 am

 
 

16. Akbar Palace said:

Atassi asks:

I am serious, Why not seek to establish democracy and security at the same time?

Atassi,

Syria isn’t secure? How many Syrians were killed by suicide bombs in the past year? Past 5 years? Past 20 years? How many missiles fell on Syrian villages and population centers?

I think Syria has to be one of the most safest places in the world!

Please check your data and report back to us.

As far as why there isn’t democracy, I keep repeating myself here, so I’ll link to an article that touches on the subject.

After all, the entire regime is premised on the animosity and conflict with Israel. If there is no conflict with Israel there will be no minority Alawite regime ruling Syria either.

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3427399,00.html

Totalitarian regimes must have an external enemy Habibi.

norman said:

There is corruption in Syria but…

SimoHurtta states:

No doubt that the ruling family is wealthy and has put aside a retirement fund, but 40 billion?

The chorus of 2-Faced, Arab excuse-makers continues.

“Our despots are better than your democracy”. “But we want democracy, and only our crummy Arab “leaders” that are pro-American are corrupt, and only our leaders that support jihad are OK, but we want security, and Bush is a terrorist, oh yeah, stop the occupation and let us kill a few Jews a year and don’t make a big deal about it.”

Ausamma asks:

Why cant the Palestinians have their Independent State tomorrow?

They could have had their Independent State in 1947.

Why cant the Iraqis have their peace, security demaocracy and prosperity tomorrow?

Did you ask the same question when Saddam was “leading” Iraq for 35 wonderful years? I doubt it.

Why cant Bush immediatly begin haveing a goodnight’s sleep without being bothered about a failing surge and a world collapsing all around him?

The world has been collapsing before Bush got into office and before any US troops entered Iraq and Afghanistan.

Good questions, but I dont think even Josh can answer them!

Easy questions to answer (if one isn’t brainwashed by the Arab press, al-Jazeera, and PA TV). And I think Professor Josh could even answer them (but probably he’d answer with the typical excuses and anti-American language du jour).

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July 20th, 2007, 11:35 am

 

17. Akbar Palace said:

July 20th, 2007, 2:24 pm

 

18. SimoHurtta said:

SimoHurtta states:

No doubt that the ruling family is wealthy and has put aside a retirement fund, but 40 billion?

The chorus of 2-Faced, Arab excuse-makers continues.

“Our despots are better than your democracy”. “But we want democracy, and only our crummy Arab “leaders” that are pro-American are corrupt, and only our leaders that support jihad are OK, but we want security, and Bush is a terrorist, oh yeah, stop the occupation and let us kill a few Jews a year and don’t make a big deal about it.”

Hmmm Akbar you 3 faced hypocrite, Zionist excuse maker, I do not understand what your comment has to do with the wealth of Assad family. Assad either has 40 billion or not. If it can’t be proven it is pure propaganda. What if I would say that some sources claim that Ariel Sharon and his henchmen stole 67 billion dollars? Would it be fact or propaganda? The fact is that Ariel and his henchmen stole through corruption large “retirement” funds, that have the ongoing investigations and court decisions showed, but not quite 67 billion dollars.

A rather good proven fact is that Israel is controlled economically by a few families

Israel’s richest families control 34 percent of top income
Nineteen businessmen and their families control more than third of income of Israel’s 500 leading companies

An other interesting news. A poll says: Half of Israeli teens want to live abroad
Why Akbar? The poll found that 68 percent of the teens believe Israel’s general situation is “not good.”

We can add to the list that some other interesting news about Israel.
* draft-dodging has sky-rocketed in Israel. One in four avoids military service. And it seems to get worse as the teenager poll shows.
* today, 23 percent of first-grade pupils are ultra-Orthodox who do not serve, when they grow up, in IDF and the males do not work. The fact is that 80 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work; instead, they live on government grants and stipends and the earnings of their wives. How long the 19 families are going to tolerate that, before they ship their treasures to USA?

As Nehemia Shtrasler predicts: The end of Zionism Akbar you must at once show example, move back to Israel and begin to fight against the religious extremists, who are not Arabs.
🙂

News about free speech and religious tolerance / freedom in Israel: HOT wants to pull Christian station

Easy news to read (if Akbar isn’t brainwashed by the Fox press). Well Akbar reads only “positive” news, that is obvious.

Remember Richard Reid?

Is Akbar Richard Reid an Arab, Turk or Persian? Christians, Jewish and Muslim nuts have made “stupid” things. In that “contest” the Jews, considered their number of world’s population, have performed well.

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July 20th, 2007, 2:26 pm

 

19. George Ajjan said:

SimoHurtta, don’t forget that probably an equal number (compared to the ultra-Orthodox you mention above) of the 1st grade Israeli pupils are from the Arabic-speaking non-Jewish citizenry.

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July 20th, 2007, 3:54 pm

 

20. Akbar Palace said:

SimoHurrta states:

The poll found that 68 percent of the teens believe Israel’s general situation is “not good.”

I wonder what teens in other Arab and Muslim states would say?

SimoHurtta, I am glad Israel’s rich and famous are doing well. They employ a lot of people and keep Israel’s stellar GDP humming right along.

I just don’t understand why Syria’s rich are not doing enough to imporve their GDP?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/374776.stm

http://freerepublic.info/focus/f-news/1274525/posts

As far as Nehemia Shtrasler is concerned, Jews have survived every major power throughout history: Ancient Eygptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Inquisators, pogroms, Nazis, and now, Islamists. There are forces at work that Nehemia Shtrasler chooses not to be aware of.

I’m glad she gives you the news you want to hear.

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July 20th, 2007, 4:26 pm

 

21. CWW said:

T_DESCO:

With respect to negotiating it appears placed pre-conditions on negotiations during his speech.

From Josh’s text:
On Golan, Assad was clear. Syria insists on open talks with Israel and the return of all the Golan according to international law and justice. If Israel commits to this, he said, everything else is negotiable, “security and water.”

Bashar wants Israel to commit to te return of ALL of Golan prior to the start of any negotiations. I believe your quote from Colin Powell aptly applies here.

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July 20th, 2007, 6:46 pm

 

22. Observer said:

from asia times
Iran-Syria alliance on uncertain ground
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

On the occasion of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s second inauguration, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad made his second trip to Damascus on Thursday in hopes he could shore up relations in a time of rising uncertainties regarding their strategic alliance.

That alliance, solid since the early 1980s when Syria backed Iran against the other Ba’athist Arab regime, ie, Saddam Hussein’s, invading Iran, has been subjected to new pressures due to

evolving security and geopolitical calculations in the Middle East. These fresh pressures renewed hopes for Israel, the United States and pro-US Arab regimes such as Jordan and Egypt for a Syrian “reorientation” away from Iran.

While such expectations have been previously dismissed by astute Middle East observers as far-fetched, the latest round of speculations on the demise of the Iran-Syria axis has been fueled by, among others, the United Nations’ special envoy to the Middle East, Michael Williams, who has stated: “The impression I got from my visit to Damascus was that if there was progress in terms of establishing a peace track, then we would see some changes in Syrian behavior on the three issues, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.”

Coinciding with news of Syria’s new “flexibility” regarding Iran is the related news of secret contacts between Syria and Israel amid repeated calls by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for Syria to engage in serious peace talks.

Both the US and Israel are hedging their bets on the combined pressures facing Assad nowadays. These include the growing Iraqi refugee crisis, the political stalemate in Lebanon, the international tribunal on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a stagnant economy and threats of military confrontation with the superior Israeli Army, all factors that the US and Israel see as weakening Syria’s ties with Iran. That is why various Israeli pundits never tire of writing about the divergent priorities of Iran and Syria, irrespective of the fact that so far there is little empirical evidence to corroborate their predictions.

The underlying reasons for the durability of Iran-Syria relations remain intact: Israel has not shown any serious sign of giving up the Syrian territories it occupies, and it continues to threaten Syria militarily. That is enough reason for Syrian leadership not to be swayed by the small carrots frequently dangled before them by the US or Israel. At present, there are several such “gestures” toward Middle East peace. US President George W Bush has belatedly and feebly called for an Oslo-type peace conference, and the European Union’s latest “Mediterranean initiative”, which was not well received by either the US or Israel, since it was based on the idea of land for peace, much like the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.

Concerning the latter, representatives of the Arab League are planning to travel to Israel shortly, and this is yet another sign of the Arab world’s path toward rapprochement with Israel. It is bound to have ramifications for Iran-Syria ties in the event it somehow manages to remove the significant hurdles that have been blocking the peace process. For the moment that does not seem likely, particularly as the wounds of last year’s Israel-Lebanon war are still fresh and the Hamas-Fatah split in the Palestinian camp has been widening.

Irrespective, the Syrian government under Assad has been evolving in a direction not entirely in sync with Iran’s foreign-policy objectives. Its Arab nationalist ideology notwithstanding, the Ba’athist regime in Syria has lent its voice in support of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the thorny issue of three islands – Abu Mousa, Little Tunb and Big Tunb – in the dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Given the GCC’s financial support for Syria to cope with the massive refugee problem, Damascus will likely continue with that policy for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the sheer weight of the refugee issue, which shows of no sign of easing despite Damascus’s embrace of some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, will push Damascus toward Saudi Arabia, whose nationals-turned-jihadists have been using Syria’s entry points to Iraq for the past several years – not to mention Syria’s own and other Arab states’ “freedom fighters”: according to the latest US Army report, nearly 15% of foreign fighters in Iraq come from Syria.

Damascus has also warmed to Turkey, Israel’s ally in the region, and this is somewhat unsettling news for Tehran, which looks to Syria as a counterbalance to the Israel-Turkey nexus. France, under the new pro-American President Nicolas Sarkozy, has wasted little time before trying its hands at an active Syria policy. From the vantage point of Tehran, the net result of all the external influences on Syria may indeed be a considerable mellowing or an incremental “soft decoupling” of its relations with Syria.

And then there is the Iranian nuclear crisis, with some Iranian political analysts pondering whether or not Israel’s new opening toward Syria is a part and parcel of an Israeli offensive strategy against Iran. In other words, does Israel have to make serious concessions to Syria prior to any attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities? “It appears that there is a slow movement in the Syrian government not so much to reconsider its relations with Iran so much as to reconstruct them,” a Tehran University professor has told this author, wondering aloud what the “parameters” of this reconstruction on Damascus’ part might look like.

Today inside Iran, almost no one can rule out the possibility of a US and or Israeli military strike in the (near) future, which, in turn, aggravates the country’s need to bolster its regional alliances and networks of solidarity. Israel’s “psychological warfare” against Iran has the opposite, unintended, effect of causing a redoubling of Iran’s efforts to keep Syria within a strategic partnership. But does that apply to Syria with equal force or urgency? Probably not.

In his one-day trip to Damascus, Ahmadinejad was accompanied by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and a housing official as part of Iran’s effort to aid Syria with its acute housing shortage caused by the huge influx of Iraqi refugees. In effect, Iran may be forced to subsidize the Syrian government playing host to the Iraqis fleeing their war-devastated country. But Tehran has its own economic and financial limitations and there is a limit to the incentives it can provide for Damascus.

Should Damascus tilt more and more in favor of dialogue and reconciliation with Israel, then Iran will have to make a drastic choice of either emulating Syria and making similar adjustments in its own foreign policy or risking a growing policy wedge between Syria.

For the moment, this question has been largely relegated to the future. Israel’s Olmert is under fire at home and somewhat paralyzed; he is unlikely to have the political will to initiate anything serious vis-a-vis Syria. There is a lame duck president in the White House mired in Iraq. And the fate of political dialogue in Lebanon, where Syria, despite removing its forces two years ago, still has considerable influence and vested interests, is suspended under a thick cloud of uncertainty.

Indeed, so much uncertainty in Syria’s vicinity lends itself to the durability of its relations with Iran. By making minor adjustments in its foreign policy that are called for with periodic reviews of its relations with Syria, Iran has in effect ensured that continuity has the upper hand.

The big question is, what happens if the previously feeble attempts by the US and EU to jump-start the peace process succeed? Will Iran accommodate this process or play the spoiler role? If the latter, will this spoil its sensitive relations with Syria? This is perhaps the most important question asked today in the capitals of both countries.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of “Negotiating Iran’s Nuclear Populism”, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote “Keeping Iran’s nuclear potential latent”, Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran’s Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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July 20th, 2007, 7:00 pm

 

23. ausamaa said:

Kaveh L Afrasiabi wonders:

“The big question is, what happens if the previously feeble attempts by the US and EU to jump-start the peace process succeed? Will Iran accommodate this process or play the spoiler role?”

Poor Iran! Someone has to play the Devile in this never ending saga. How the hell can Iran play the Spoiler roll if all is fine and going well for the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese?

So THE BIG QUESTION in my not so humble opinion is: Had Israel not been occupying Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian lands, would Iran have had a reason to pick up a Quarrel with Israel which is 2000 miles away? Even if it did, why would the concerned parties listen to Iran?

And the BIGGER PROBLEM is that we do not just need to “jump-start” a Peace Process, we need to actively adopt, launch, support, and persue that Peace Processes to its Natural End, being -in summary- the implementation of 242 and 337.

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July 20th, 2007, 8:03 pm

 

24. SimoHurtta said:

SimoHurtta, don’t forget that probably an equal number (compared to the ultra-Orthodox you mention above) of the 1st grade Israeli pupils are from the Arabic-speaking non-Jewish citizenry.

No I do not, but I did not want to depress Akbar to much. He is a fragile soul. As Nehemia Shtrasler says 22 of the first graders percent are Arabs. The Ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and the draft-dodgers = Israel must really activate their Mahal2000 program and import cannon food and “concentration camp” guards from abroad. Or make peace and create a normal country.

The amount of Ultra-Orthodox among the Jewish population is growing and so is their influence. Not even the newest Harry Potter could be sold on Sabbath. And these guys blame others for religious extrimism …

SimoHurtta, I am glad Israel’s rich and famous are doing well. They employ a lot of people and keep Israel’s stellar GDP humming right along.

Well Akbar, who do you think are the other side in the Israeli extraordinary many politicians corruption cases we can read in the news? By the way Akbar how many of those 19 families created their wealth by stealing everything that was not nailed to the ground in the former Soviet Union’s ruins. Not to mention illegal arms trade.

PS interesting reading 25 ways to help Israel. Isn’t Akbar way 3 “Serve in the Israeli Intelligence Services” also a crime (treason) in USA (considering how much plutonium, military secrets and know how Israel has stolen from USA)? It would be in Finland. Encouraging publicly to join foreign intelligence services, strange isn’t it Akbar. By the way Akbar, Al Qaida is accused to be doing the same kind of recruiting …

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July 20th, 2007, 8:26 pm

 

25. why-discuss said:

Ultimately the only way for Israel to survive and thrive in the region is to become realistic, stop being an exclusive Jewish state and become a state similar to Turkey. Is that what Ahmadinejad meant when he declared that the Jewish zionist regime will should be eliminated (intentionnally and erroneously translated into ‘wiping Israel off the map”)

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July 20th, 2007, 9:08 pm

 

26. Georges said:

Good review; thanks Joshua. Syria is seeking US recognition of its role in the region. The speech reflects that; the message to the US is: you won’t get anywhere with pressure; the only way is to engage us.

How do you feel about the US engaging Syria and Itan? Vote on it at: http://www.youpolls.com/details.asp?pid=89

This is a great new site. You can vote on whatever issue you want, or you can create your own poll (in 1 minute) and guage how people feel.

It’s new, it’s easy and it’s cool. Check it out…

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July 21st, 2007, 12:44 pm

 

27. Akbar Palace said:

Is that what Ahmadinejad meant when he declared that the Jewish zionist regime will should be eliminated (intentionnally and erroneously translated into ‘wiping Israel off the map”)

Actually, Iran’s state-owned news agency made the translation:

Iran’s state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting translated Ahmadinejad’s comments as “Israel must be wiped off the map.”,[22] which may have been the origin for this translation controversy.[23]

It’s always difficult convincing your audience that an elephant is really a large mouse.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad_and_Israel

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July 21st, 2007, 5:42 pm

 

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