Saturday, July 31, 2004

Women Terrorized in Damascus

Syrian Terrorists in Iraq David Patel recently scolded me for giving Syria a pass on terrorism in Iraq. He wrote:

I spent 8 months in Iraq after the war. One of my best friends was picked up by the British in a raid and sent to Camp Bucca, near Um Qasr. He told me there were dozens of Syrians being held there and only a few Arabs from other countries (although he thinks most of the Syrians were leftovers from the war).

To amend my erring ways, it is worth reporting that recently the Iraqi Police Arrested 270 Militants, Interior Minister al-Naqib Says:

"Police have recently arrested 270 terrorists, mostly nationals of neighboring countries, such as Syria," al-Naqib said. "I wonder whose interest is it to target national Iraqi elements and civilians?" On July 12, Iraqi Human Rights Minister Bakhtiyar Amin said his government had 99 foreign fighters in detention, including 26 Syrians, 14 Saudis, 14 Iranians, 12 Egyptians, nine Sudanese, five Palestinians, five Yemenis, five Jordanians, five Tunisians, one Lebanese, one Moroccan, one Turk and one Afghan. U.S. officials had long blamed foreign fighters of playing a role in Iraq's 15-month-old insurgency, but recently the military has said the fighters are mainly loyalists of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The US head of Central Command, General John Abizaid, also recently complained:
The Syrians have allowed, and I don't say they do this with government approval, but there is too much infiltration of money and foreign fighters that takes place across the Syrian border.
terrorism of women - ammended last (August 2, 2004) In Syria, there also seems to be a rise in the terrorism of women. An in-law and friend, who have just returned from summer visits to Damascus, spoke of a general fear among women in Syria about wearing short sleeve shirts and otherwise liberal clothing in Damascus. Evidently a women was stabbed by an Islamist recently as she exited a fancy sports club in Damascus wearing a comfy sports suit. The word is that the man called her a Kafra before running off. I also heard reports that in souq Hamidia, a number of women wearing cool clothing have been stuck with needles. Such stories (whether true or not) express the general anxiety about the rising level of Islamic radicalism in Syria and spill over from Iraq violence and Islamism. Correction (Aug. 1): My sister-in-law just wrote me to say none of the above stories are true. She wrote:

The news about conservatives, which my aunt and your other friends told you about, is not true. My aunt asked me and I told her it was all not true and I told her the real story. It was only one psycho-man who hurt some girls with a knife and he was already caught when our aunt was here. He targeted all girls. He did not distinguish between veiled and unveiled girls. He is not normal and the story is over since then. It was clear that X was influenced by the conservativism of her mother in law, who always tries to scare her and get her to dress modestly (The mother-in-law is a Sunni muhajiba). As a result, X always wore jackets with long sleeves, wherever she went. The country is completely secure and there is no security problem at all.

My experiment with yellow journalism has turned out to be scare mongering (lesson learned); all the same, the fact that a number of Syrians believed the stories to be true gives some indication of the anxieties that are always just below the surface of calm Syrian life. Addition Aug. 2: John Measor just e-mailed this update on the souq al-Hamidia stabings. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter, just returned from summer study in Damascus and traveling in Iraq for field work. He writes:
The purpose of my email is to back up what you posted today on your blog. Indeed there was a lone crazy who was stabbing women, apparently with little pattern as to why. A friend who runs a shop in the souk right behind the Ummayad mosque was queried by friends in the police when the first attack occurred (I happened to be sitting there sipping tea and was merely happy they weren't there to query him about me ;-)). There were two other attacks of which I was aware prior to the perpetrator being caught. The regulars in the souk were concerned (as is to be expected) and it was an interesting lesson as the community rallied in support of the local authorities (usually they are grudgingly accepted at best and more often complained about as you must know well). That being put to rest, I must say that I'd amplify the comment about the presence of Iraqis in Syria generally and Damascus in particular. They were everywhere!!! Shopping, buying (homes and business') and relaxing away from the insanity that has overtaken their own country.
Iraqis in Syria The spill over from Iraq has also brought many good things to Syria. This summer, an estimated 250,000 Iraqis have flocked to Syria, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein making it easier for them to travel and do business. Increased Iraqi business and tourism should help make up for some of the 1 billion USD Syria lost in 2003 due to the cut off of Iraqi oil and trade. Evidently Syria has been a prime destination for Iraqis looking for a vacation from insecurity or just looking for fun and money. The Syrian policy of issuing visas on demand to any Arab visitor and its history of personal and political ties with its neighbor have aided this flow. A recent article by Zeina Karam reports:

Cars with Iraqi license plates are abundant in downtown Damascus. Hotels are full, and real estate agents say prices have gone up sharply with the increasing number of Iraqi visitors. Armed with a passport, hard to get under Hussein, scores of Iraqis are also heading to Syria to apply for visas at foreign embassies in Damascus.

"Work is good," said Yaarob al-Qaisi, a 42-year-old Iraqi industrialist who was counting his money in a Tartous hotel full of businessmen.

The collapse of Hussein's regime has meant an end to tight border controls, and entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity for business. For almost a year, al-Qaisi has been importing trucks and other construction vehicles from Germany to Iraq through Tartous. "I know dozens of other Iraqis doing the same," he said.

"The Syrian people are very hospitable and show solidarity with the Iraqi people. We feel comfortable in Syria," said Faisal Elias, 27, who exports wood and Syrian-made soft drinks to Baghdad. Elias has Syrian business partners and recently bought a house in a Damascus suburb. He and his wife, 24-year-old Raghad, plan to divide their time between Baghdad and Damascus. "This suits me. I feel free in Syria," Raghad Elias said.

Iraqis opposed to Hussein have long found a haven in Syria. During an official visit to Syria last week, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi thanked Syria for supporting and welcoming Iraqis "when we were struggling against the dictatorship in Iraq."

More than half a million Iraqis fled to Syria ahead of the US-led war that began in March 2003. Jassem, the Iraqi businessman, said he came with his wife to "escape the hot weather and security situation in Iraq." "Syrians are generous people. I don't feel like a stranger here," he said.

EU and Syria nearer to signing the EU-Mediterranean partnership agreement Nicholas Blanford has written a useful article detailing the contentious history of Syria's talks with the EU. It begins:
The European Union has "somewhat diluted" a clause calling on Syria to revoke its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program which has been blocking the signing of a joint political and economic pact, a European diplomat said Tuesday. But the diplomat added that the long-awaited EU-Mediterranean partnership agreement with Syria would not be signed without the clause.
The significance of this trade agreement on the reform process in Syria could be great.

"Syria will benefit in the short-term politically - by countering US pressure and showing that Syria is not isolated - and economically, because it will instigate the process of economic reform," said Nabil Sukkar, an economist and managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment. He said that Syria had made a "strategic decision" to conclude the agreement with the EU and had proven more amenable in the negotiations over the contentious subject of agricultural trade than all other Mediterranean partners.

"Signing the agreement will give reformists the strength to say that we must carry out economic reforms to honor our international obligations," Sukkar said. "It will be disastrous for Syria to sign the agreement but not go ahead with economic reforms."

Friday, July 30, 2004

Michael Young on Bashar, the Golan and Lebanon

Michael Young weighs in on the Golan, Lebanon and the nature of Bashar al-Asad's presidency. As the opinion editor at the Daily Star, Young has the most important job on the Middle East's most important English language newspaper. He is also a regular contributor to Reason Magazine. To understand the full context for his remarks see my recent opinion piece "Creating a Syrian Dream," which he skillfully edited, and my exchange with Lee Smith on the Golan in my last post. Michael writes:

Dear Josh, Thank you for the piece. Most interesting. I was wondering whether I could barge into your exchange with Lee on this. On Lebanon and the Golan, I quite agree with Lee that the linkage defines an open-ended Lebanese stay, but I actually go further than that; I don't think Assad was serious about that at all. The Syrians may or may not leave Lebanon one day, but they are certainly not preparing for such a withdrawal, by which I mean by a physical and political withdrawal. Even if they cut back on the number of troops, this regime will not agree, unless compelled, from within or without, to a fully sovereign Lebanon. The Syrians after Madrid systematically sought to ensure that they would get back the Golan and a free hand in Lebanon after a peace settlement (which prompted Rabin to say, "I prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan." You write: "On the other hand, the fact that Assad has repeated many times now that Syria has no national or territorial ambitions in Lebanon is significant. For so long, Syria has dissembled on this question, but now it is on the record from the president, so the Lebanese, Israelis, and everyone else can use it against Syria if there is ever a Golan deal or if Israel finally renounces the possibility of giving up the Golan." However, Hafiz said virtually the same thing ("The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two nations"); what he didn't do, and Bashar has added nothing to this, is define what "no territorial ambitions" mean. Syria has not seriously contemplated annexing Lebanon for quite some time, but that doesn't mean it will not seek to perpetuate a relationship ensuring that Lebanese sovereignty is a fiction. Alas, I disagree with you, I don't think Bashar's statement was significant at all. On the claim that: Bashar "has asked for peace with Israel, even announcing he would not insist on returning to the 1967 borders that tripped up negotiations between his father and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin," I would be skeptical. The Syrians have been of several minds on this, and while Bashar did hint at such a move in his NY Times interview, people like Sharaa and Shaaban almost immediately made statements qualifying that claim. My view? Bashar simply does not have the domestic political power to agree to less than his father did, and he knows it. Those were just words to interest the US. Finally, you write: "Assad has jettisoned Baathist rhetoric and renounced Syrian irredentism in order to patch up relations with his neighbors and get on with internal reform. He is much closer in ideological outlook and instinct to the West than the US seems prepared to admit." Again, it's your view and I had no business asking you to reconsider when I edited your piece, but my own view is rather different. Even the Baath is no longer Baathist, really, in that it has become a giant warehouse for patronage. Ideology is all but gone from that creaky leviathan, so that Bashar is no longer a Baathist actually means very little. I also must disagree that Bashar is "much closer in ideological outlook and instinct to the West." His backers in the West may want to think so, but, alas, all he really is is a second class Oriental modernizer. Really being close in ideological outlook would mean that Bashar embraces representative government. I know that's easier said than done, but the fact is that he presides over a system of patronage that he is utterly incapable of changing, and he has failed to even consider mobilizing the population as a means of building up a counter-force to the elite that frustrates him at every turn. Yes, he might be sincere, but he's really no democrat and doesn't know how to play such politics. Gorbachev is very much on the minds of Syrian leaders, as is China pre-Tienanmen. They want a more modern order, but also one where the regime can easily undo demands for true democracy. Don't make the mistake of reading your desires and sympathies into Bashar's actions; my guess is that he is a temp in whatever direction Syria is moving into; a classic middle-grounder, with no ability to control those on his left, or those on his right. That means that at some stage he will become expendable. Phew, and thanks for bearing with me on this. Best, Michael.
Can I possibly respond to such trenchant analysis and criticism? You will have to tune in this weekend.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Creating a Syrian Dream

The Daily Star in Lebanon printed an opinion piece of mine today entitled: "Creating a Syrian dream, where none exists today." It begins:

Following on the heels of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's visit to Damascus last weekend, it is worth asking: What does Syria want in Iraq? ... Syria opposed the US invasion of Iraq for obvious reasons. Washington's anti-Baathist crusade was a direct threat to the Syrian regime. Syria was doubtlessly relieved to see the Iraqis stop the American juggernaut. With 5,000 Americans killed or wounded by the Iraqi resistance, early US dreams of remaking the Middle East through regime change have evaporated. The sooner Washington adjusts to these new realities by downsizing its ambitions, the better it will be for Iraq. One thing it can do is hammer out a new relationship with Damascus, even as Syrian President Bashar Assad has courted the US.
I received the following comment on my article from Lee Smith, who writes for The American Prospect, Slate and Wired Magazines and is writing a book on Arab Culture to be published by Scribner. After the obligatory: "Josh, nice piece." (We have become friends through Tony Badran since I began writing Syria Comment.) He ribbed me on one of the points I made about Lebanon and Syria:
I have a question: if Asad says he'll leave Lebanon once Israel gives up the Golan, does this mean that Syria will never leave Lebanon? Also, why would he leave Lebanon (esp giving up Beirut and the Bekaa?) for territory that is probably much less valuable than it, not just economically but also strategically?

I answered:

Of course, it will be hard for the Lebanese to get Syria out of their country. Who would want to leave such a beautiful place? On the other hand, the fact that Asad has repeated many times now that Syria has no national or territorial ambitions in Lebanon is significant. For so long, Syria has dissembled on this question, but now it is on the record from the president, so the Lebanese, Israelis, and everyone else can use it against Syria if there is ever a Golan deal or if Israel finally renounces the possibility of giving up the Golan. Will there ever be a Golan deal? You are probably right to be pessimistic, or, at the very least, to point out that it is not on the horizon. But from a Syrian point of view, if there is any hope of a Golan deal, it is only because of the Lebanon - Hezbollah cards Syria still holds. If these should fall from Syrian hands, there will certainly be no deal. Both Barak and Netanyahu recently talked about how they were "ready" to make a deal under Clinton if the terms had been right. That was one of the more interesting exchanges to come out of the Clinton memoirs. Maybe the idea is not dead. It won't happen under Sharon, who said as much, but Israel is going through a period of change. It would be foolish for Asad to give up hope. Moreover, it would be political suicide for him to abandon the Golanis and the Golan. One needs to remember there are several hundred thousand displaced Golanis in Syria. 100,000 were given 48 hours to leave in 1967. Today they and their descendents must exceed 3 hundred thousand. When I lived in Damascus in the 1980s, at least once a month some poor woman with an infant suckling at her breast would knock at my door to ask for money and say she was a Golani refugee and couldn't I help. My Arabic wasn't good enough then to be able to distinguish a Golani accent from a Damascene one, but I assume they were telling the truth. It is not a dead issue in Syria, nor, perhaps in Israel, either. For the Golani Druze who were allowed to remain in their homes, the question of return is much more complex. Many would be destroyed economically by a return to Syria, but almost all have refused Israeli citizenship in case they are returned. Some want a return despite the economic hardship and disruption such a change would bring because they have been cut off from relatives and the greater Druze community in Syria and Lebanon. Most of the Golanis I have talked to do not want to be returned to Syria, at least not under the present circumstances (terrible economy and lack of political freedom). All the same, none I have talked to believe they will ever be treated as equals by Israel and worry that settlers will continue to encroach on their land and autonomy. For the 60% of Lebanese who recently told opinion pollers that they want the Syrians to leave Lebanon now, the Syrian occupation is unfair and intolerable. Lebanon is still a hostage to regional politics. The just solution is for a Syrian-Israeli-Lebanese deal. As Lee suggests, though, the realistic outcome is that things will stay as they are. Alas, for Lebanese and Syrians.

Lee Smith follows up: I think you must be right on much of it depending on Hizbullah. Assuming they're in the picture, if I were Asad I'd be pretty happy with the status quo, at least militarily. What sort of outrageous stunt would he have to pull to get Israeli troops to come across the Golan? That is, it seems he has a whole bunch of political insurance against a strike like that; Israel seems to have much less. I wonder what the various estimates from Israeli military intelligence have been, if anyone there, rather than an elected Israeli leader under pressure from the US and EU, ever thought the Golan could be given up without serious risk. I don't know much about it at all, but just looking at the terrain--and weirdly I have a picture of it from a trip to Umm Qays in Jordan--I don't know how I'd be persuaded to give it up. And back, sort of, to the first point, wouldn't the Golan be worthwhile to Asad only if he was ready for a pretty major offensive? And with Lebanon he can peck away at Israel for ages with relative impunity. So, just in military--I guess also political--terms, why would he make such a swap? Of course, it's silly of me to imagine land and refugee and prestige issues can be separated that clearly, but it seems there's already been a fair amount of calculation on the part of the Asad family. It seems like what the State Dept called "constructive engagement" might have translated for the Syrians into something like their version of brer rabbit in the brer patch. yrs, Lee

Women in Syria

Earlier this summer, Nikki Keddie, who has just published a book on women in the Middle East, email a number of Middle Easternists asking about women in Syria, because she could find so little written on the topic. All4Syria, the new web newspaper put out by Zyman Abdul Nour in Damascus, recently ran this article by a woman named Castro Nisi. Ghada Janbey kindly translated and summarized the article published in Arabic for Syria Comment. It gives the flavor of the sort of articles that are now cropping up in the press. Castr Nisi wrote her article in response to the General Director of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, who had declared that, "There has been no women's problem in Syria ever since Islam freed women." Another Syrian Shaykh recently declared on TV that, " Woman is the most dangerous thing on earth because she is fitnah (seduction or tempation) for men more than they are for her. The best guarantee to keep social order is not to let women work to earn a living unless it is absolutely necessary.” Translated and summarized by Ghada Atrash Janbey (Yes, she is a great granddaughter of Sultan Basha al-Atrash for those who like royalty!) In her article "The woman is half the man: There exists no cause to liberate women in Syria," Castro Nisi roundly criticizes Syrian society for being oppressive to its women. She begins by detailing the main Islamic Syrian civil laws pertaining to women, listing numerous articles by number to depict how a woman, for example, is assigned half (or less) the inheritance portion of her husband, brother or child. She is denied the right to divorce, the same citizenship rights of men, and many others. She goes further to explain how the woman is deemed a "body" and "a tool" in society, and moreover, she "must remain that way." Castro depicts how this notion of the woman being a "body" is embedded in all avenues of the culture whether in Syrian factories where hundreds of women line up working for a continuous twelve hours a day for a wretched sum of 3000 Syrian pounds a month (80 USD), or in Syrian advertising agencies where they act as a marketing tool to allure the consumers to buy products, or in the export/import and communication offices where the woman's worth is in her body's ability to attract clientele, or in the home where again she is a body who performs the duties awaiting her every day from sweeping to washing and cooking, or in a marriage where she is looked upon as a body for sexual pleasures or merely a uterus to bear children. Castro rationalizes that the man, because of his oppressed and impotent existence in an oppressive society, living at the mercy of higher authority, turns to prove his power and authority by oppressing the woman because she must abide by his laws and regulations. Moreover, Castro explains that for a woman to be considered “modern” and “able to win the man’s heart,” she must also try to live above her means. She must carry a fancy cellular, and be dressed in Kicker’s pants, a Beneton suit, Pierre Palman accessories, and Georgio Armani shoes. Within this context, Castro quotes a Syrian female university student who openly makes known that “One red night with those who line up their cars in front of the university is enough to provide us [women] with what we want. I know many female students who do that…” Castro ends her article by quoting Haydar Haydar, a well-known Syrian author, who writes, "This miserable East has no hope. From the darkness of the caves it was born, and to its caves it returns. If it does not destroy its ornate idols, then there is no hope for the sun of wisdom to rise." And here, Castro leaves her readers with a question that, perhaps if acted upon, can spark the fire of a revolution amongst Moslem Syrian women, or Arab women in General (or at least that is my hope!). Castro asks, "But who will destroy these idols, who???"

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

250 Political Prisoners Released

The latest joke going around Washington: What's the difference between Bashar al-Asad and Imad al-Allawi? Both are trying to rule fractious countries. Both want to make their countries capitalist. Both have given up Baathism; and both want to be on Washington's good side. What's the difference? One is busy rounding up political prisoners, while the other is letting them out of jail. Syria releases 250 political prisoners - (United Press International)

Syria Tuesday released more than 250 political prisoners under a general amnesty, the second to be granted by President Bashar Assad in four years. Syrian human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni said authorities started releasing the prisoners two days ago, including 200 Islamic militants and 50 Kurds who were rounded up during Kurdish riots in northern Syria last March. "There are also an estimated 20 additional prisoners from various banned political parties who were released but we have no final figure," al-Bunni said. "The majority of those released belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood Organization and the Islamic Liberation Party." Authorities had arrested hundreds of Islamists in the late 1990s on suspicion of trying to infiltrate the military. Al-Bunni welcomed the release as "a good step" towards boosting human rights in Syria but stressed the "file of political prisoners should be resolved once and for all."
Arabic gives a breakdown of the amnestied prisoners:
In a statements issued yesterday the " Syrian human rights society" said that the Syrian authorities released 28 Islamic political prisoners with some of them were spending life imprisonment sentences since the 1980s, noting that all released persons belong to the banned " Muslim Brothers movement and the " Islamic liberation party." Lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, one activist for human rights said that it is expected, according to a presidential amnesty on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of President Bashar al-Assad in power on July 15, 2000 to release 257 political prisoners in all most of them are Islamists. The Syrian authorities also released 100 Kurds detained following clashes that took place in march in al-Qamishli in the northern part of the country as well as several persons escaped the military service. Al-Bunni ruled out the release of Damascus spring' prisoners including the two Syrian parliamentarians Riad Seif and Mamoun al-Homsi and the economic expert Aref Dalila who were detained in 2001.
Another report claims that, "There are also an estimated 20 additional prisoners from various banned political parties who were released but we have no final figure, al-Bunni said." There are a number of conflicting reports about who exactly the prisoners are. They should be cleared up soon. The IAEA and Mohammed el-Baradei say there is "No evidence for nuclear activity in Syria, contrary to early allegations by US Undersecretary of State, Bolton. Israel threatens to attack Syria due to the killing of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah following the crisis which started one day after the assassination of Ghaleb Awali. Washington has called for restraint from all sides.

A Spate of articles bemoaning the lack of reform in Syria have been generated to greet the President's fourth anniversary in power. Their are several objects of blame. First is the standby "old Guard" - the monied interests which stand to lose the most from free competition and rational laws that create a level playing field for capital.   President Bashar is second on the list. No one credits him with having enough power to really be an effective engine of change. He's too young, too inexperienced, too complicit in the old system, and fears losing his thrown. These are the standard gripes.   Also, the Americans get part of the blame. Their ham fisted sanctions and threats have scared reformers from rocking the boat too hard in the face of "the threat to the nation from the outside." Everyone in power is anxious lest they create unrest by pushing through economic reforms that are sure to hurt state employees and beneficiaries of subsidized goods, cheap apartments, etc.   The war on Iraq has created instability and fear in the region. Increasing terrorism, Islamic radicalism and anti-western sentiment in general. This atmosphere of suspicion makes it hard for globalizers to argue, "trust the West," "love democracy," and "put your hand in the hand of the man who kicks Arab butt."   Then there is the new generation, which is apathetic and more interested in their cell phones rather than risking body and soul in politics. It usually comes in for a hit or two in most articles.   The following is a typical analysis DAMASCUS, July 15 (AFP) - Four years after President Bashar al-Assad took power -- July 17, 2000 -- and pledged to bring change, Syria presents an elusive picture of incomplete economic reform and a paralysed political climate, analysts say. "The current climate reflects serious threats as the Americans increase their pressure. This should encourage the authorities to adopt democratic reforms," dissident writer and political activist Akram Bunni told AFP. The past few months have seen a deterioration in relations between Syria and the United States, with Washington in May imposing sanctions on Damascus who it accused of supporting terrorism, a charge strongly denied here. In addition, an association agreement between Syria and the European Union, which should have been signed early this year, has been frozen while waiting a compromise over a clause about weapons of mass destruction. Internally in recent months, clashes and arrests have increased involving security forces and human rights activists, students and even minors, according to non-governmental organisations. In May, Aktham Naysseh, president of the Committees for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms in Syria, was arrested after seeking signatures for a petition urging the abolition of the emergency law, in place since 1963. The restrictions on political activity, with unofficial political parties apparently being banned recently, come amid growing tensions in the Middle East linked to the continuing violence in Iraq and US pressures. Even the pro-regime communist party is dissatisfied with the progress. "Debate is developing, hundreds of political detainees were freed (in recent years), special economic courts have been repealed (in February), but (reform) accomplishments remain rare," acknowledged the communist newspaper An-Nur. Economist Nabil Soukkar also charged that reforms to free up the economy "remain slow and lack coherence", and he urged the government to adopt a broader plan to ward off the effects of an expected "major decrease" in oil production in 2008. The anticipated fall in the output of oil, which accounts for 70 percent of national revenues, will have a negative impact on the whole economy, he said. He argued that the banking sector will remain ineffective -- despite the recent creation of private banks to boost banking services and encourage investment -- in the absence of more monetary and financial liberalisation. The increasing external pressure on Damascus has found a parallel internally. In mid-March, clashes between Syria's Kurdish community and security forces in the northeast, resulted in the deaths of at least 25 people over six days. Kurdish groups said the authorities also detained about 2,000 people although several hundred were subsequently released. The clashes "served as a pretext for the security forces to tighten their grip on society", said Bunni, a former political detainee who has spent 17 years in prison. Last month, to stop a planned sit-in by demonstrators, security forces mobilised thousands of their forces. The main visible ray of light appears to be a new generation of public figures considered close the president who, like him, were educated in the West and are not affiliated with the ruling Baath party.  They include Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, the head of the state planning commission, Abdullah Dardari, presidential advisor Nibras Fadel, and Duraid Dargham, head of the government-run Commercial Bank of Syria. Their emergence is a sign of a "new spirit, not bureaucratic and not corrupt," Syrian journalist Shaaban Abbud recently wrote in Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper. However, he warned that "it is very difficult to know who in Syria represents the reformist line, how many they number and their influence. "It is even more difficult to know if these people will keep their jobs." Jihad Yaziji as always is smart. He explains why Syria's attempt to following the China model is a bust.

Since the arrival to the Presidency of Bashar al-Assad, in July 2000, and until around a few months ago, the Chinese model of economic reform and political non-reform was praised as being the ideal template Syria should apply for itself. Many in Syria dreamt of leading the country to high rates of economic growth without giving away their hold on power. Debates on the Chinese model are now almost completely absent, a sign that the Syrian authorities have at last realized that this model simply won't be applicable because the two countries differ in so many aspects (size, potential, geo-strategic position, etc.).

Magdi Abdelhadi writing for the BBC starts his article: "After four years of Bashar al-Assad's presidency in Syria, his promises of economic and political reform have not materialised. The system he inherited from his father, including a feared security service, looks very much the same. " Ammar Abdulhamid, a careful observer of the Syrian scene and head of the al-Tharwa Project writes:

Four years after the (s)election of a new and young president, one that clearly promised change in his first public addresses, no major change has yet taking place in the country. Moreover, public pressure for change and for the enunciation of some clear public vision in this regard, a pressure exerted by civil society advocates in the country during the first year of the new president's reign, were unashamedly stamped out, leaving no room for public accountability on anything.

The people of Syria were expected to fallback on a blind belief in the presumed good intentions of their new leaders without there being any clear commitments by these leaders to any specific reform program. As a result, four years have so far passed but no real change in any field has taken place.

Meanwhile, the various security apparatuses of the country are rediscovering old habits of crackdown and torture, using the Kurdish riots that have rocked the country a few months ago as an excuse.The wave of panic that overtook the country in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of neighboring Iraq and the various bellicose pronouncements made towards the Syrian regime at the time by high-ranking US officials seems to have dissipated now, leaving behind the same stagnant scene that spelled the essence of the country for years. Such is the volume of inertia involved here.

The Khaleej Times article starts, "Four years after Assad took over, economic and political climate paralysed in Syria." Middle East Online leads their story with "Four years on, What has Assad achieved?  Syrian President's vision of reform still struggles to emerge amid increasing external pressure on Damascus. "

Saturday, July 17, 2004

The Iraqi PM Allawi is hoping in particular for a new relationship with Syria, reports Al-Hayat. He will be visiting Damascus as part of his tour of neighboring states next week. In the many recent article about Iraqis getting passports to travel, most of those interviewed say they want to go to Syria as their first destination. And why not? It is cheap, fun and beautiful. It has the best restaurants of the region - save Lebanon.  Most of all though, it is right there and affordable.   The IMF is predicting that Syria's GDP will grow only 4% next year - healthy by Western standards but anemic by Developing nation standards. Syria may just get a boost out of the Iraq war. Growth was depressed last year at roughly 3% because of multiple blows dealt by the war. But now things are picking up - and they may pick up with a vengeance.   Not only are Iraqis beginning to come into Syria in ever greater numbers as they get new passports, but tourism is up by 60% overall.

In the post-septa. 11, 2001, world, Middle Eastern tourism markets have undergone an important shift in customer profile, with intra-regional tourism a clear winner. Syria recorded a 60 percent jump in tourist numbers in the first six months of 2004, year-on-year. Almost 1.2 million tourists traveled to Syria during the period, up from 725,000 visitors in the first half of last year.

The country-of-origin breakdown of these figures was also telling. While the number of Western tourists rose to 141,000 from last year's 85,000, Sana said, visitor numbers from neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey had also increased sharply. This has many implications for the country's tourism sector, and for its transport infrastructure.

Speaking of Turkey - a real love-fest is getting underway that could have a real impact on the economy. The Turkish Foreign Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen said on Wednesday that the troubles between Turkey and Syria regarding the border have been overcome and that the border area would become a model for the Middle East - "a valley of stability." The political and commercial relations between Turkey and Syria improved dramatically once Damascus cut off support to the PIKE (Kurdistan Workers Party) terrorist organization's militias and leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. The two countries' reciprocal trading volume reached U$821 million in 2003, up 52 percent from 1999.   The trading volume is expected to be U$1 billion this year and U$2 billion next year. "The free-trade agreement will help us reach next years' goal of U$2 billion," said tsunami. Preparations for a foreign commerce agreement are underway. tsunami pointed out that apart from this agreement they would also collaborate on border trade and the agricultural and transportation sectors. Otri emphasized that even if every Syrian citizen has not visited Turkey, they feel themselves to be close to Turkey. "We often say brother when referring to Turkey in our discourse. This is the very feeling every citizen of Syria bears inside." (This is first class mujammila. Rarely does one encounter such brotherly spirit in Syrians. Most still curse the Turks for colonialism and stealing Alexandretta. The real test was during the last World Soccer tournament when almost no Syrians were rooting for the (brotherly Muslim) Turkish team, which did very well. All preferred Italy, Brazil, even France and Germany over Turkey. But good trade builds good friends. And Bashar gave up Alexandretta without a peep - more evidence that he is not a real Baathist. Otri indicated that there must be a reciprocal relationship in commerce and called upon Turkish businessmen to invest in Syria. Otri responded to Turkish businessmen's criticism that Syria is making it hard for Turkish exports to enter the country. "Over the course of time Syria will allow all kinds of goods to enter the country," Otri said; however, would not give a specific date as to when this might happen. (Although 2 billion is probably an overly ambitious figure, trade should pick up smartly.)   All the same, many little reforms demonstrate that the two countries are quite serious about changing laws to ease trade. Syria will reduce its territorial waters from 35 to 12 miles while Turkey will open four new air corridors between itself and Syria.  The sources said that two countries aimed to make use of their maritime potential.  In order to allow Turkish and Syrian businessmen and truck drivers to get visas more easily new, consular offices are being opened in Aleppo and Gaziantep.  Otri also toured the Turkish Stock Market and said he wanted Turkey's help to establish a stock exchange market in Damascus. Syrians just want to make money - and God bless them.   Other good news for the the less fortunate is that Syrians jailed or charged on minor crimes will be exonerated under an amnesty issued yesterday apparently to mark the fourth anniversary of President Bashar Al Assad's ascendancy to power, Syria's official news agency reported. The amnesty offer covers offenses like theft, forgery, military desertion and other white-collar crimes. No details were provided on how many people could be cleared under the amnesty, but the number is expected to reach thousands.  The amnesty will not include political prisoners. Syria is doing the China thing. Yes, to capitalism. No to democracy.   There can be no greater indication of the failure of economic reforms in Syria than the following bad economic news . Syria received a paltry USD 41.7 million in Arab direct investment in 2003, or 1.12% of all inter-Arab investments, according to the latest annual report of the Inter-Arab Investment Guarantee Corporation (IAIGC). Since 1995, total Arab investments into Syria totaled USD 1.541 billion. Those Turkish businessmen were not joking when they complained to Otri of silly Syria laws.   The number of 41.7 million dollars can be compared to the 850 million dollars of direct Arab investments in Lebanon, (about 20 times the Syrian amount!) which makes the land of cedars and zaatar the greatest recipient of private investment in the Arab World.  Go Lebanon.    In a thoughtful piece in al-Ahram on foreign terrorists in Iraq and cross-border smuggling, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Jordan are credited with being the main sources of fighters and money for the Iraqi resistance. Syria comes in a distant last. Last Friday, Jim Krane of the Associated Press quoted unnamed U.S. military officers saying that Iraq's insurgency is led by well-armed Sunnis angry about losing power, not by foreign fighters. They number up to 20,000, not 5,000 as Washington briefers maintain, Krane added in his well-reported but generally overlooked dispatch.  

Friday, July 16, 2004

US Foreign Aid to Syria

Last night the House passed the foreign aid bill. It included $1.5 million for grants to NGOs and human rights groups in Syria and Iran. This same provision was in last year's budget, but only for Iran. I believe it was used to support websites.    At this point, there is no companion legislation in the Senate, and one can’t expect to see a bill signed by the President until late in the year. There will most likely be an omnibus spending bill, which will incorporate foreign aid.   That means that the $1.5 Mil., which would be distributed in all likelihood through the National Endowment for Democracy for use in Syria won't be available for a while. The Middle East Partnership Initiative Office at State would theoretically allocate the money to NED.  Syria and Iran are on the State Sponsors of terrorism list, which means that aid to them is prohibited; however, congress can use a "not-withstanding" clause to get around this.     It is hard to speculate on which groups could accept it. All Syria’s human and civil rights organizations need support badly, but taking US government money might be pushing their luck in the present climate. It could end up buying them a very expensive express ticket to the clink.   It does raise the question, however, of how the US can support reform in Syria. Analysts are always carping that the government should not waste their time supporting foreign opposition groups such as Ghadry’s Reform Party of Syria, which are happy for foreign funding. Rather, they argue it is smarter to concentrate on the “civil society” movements now active in Syria. Now that the government is actually moving in this direction, however, the implementation will not be easy. Will they give it to the now outlawed Kurdish parties? Will it go to the Committees For the Defense Of Democratic Liberties And Human Rights In Syria? The head of the organization, Aksam Noaisse, was arrested a year ago. Other Civil Society leaders, such as Riad al-Turk, have spoken out against reform groups working with the United States. He was attacked for this position by Nazir Nayouf, one of the founders of the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Liberties, who spent a decade in prison before being pardoned by Bashar. He now lives in France and has been a vocal critic of the Syria government. (It was Nayouf who originally made the claim that Syria had taken in WMD from Iraq. He has been working with Ghadry.) He recently called Riad al-Turk an aging toady of the system. The accusations between the inside and outside groups have grown uncivil and nasty.   There are, of course, a whole other category of reform supporters and innovators in Syria, who run websites promoting a freer brand of journalism, minority rights, women’s issues, etc. Though not engaged in the direct political action, they are doing the hard and also risky work in the trenches by opening up public debate and pushing new ideas. Three are listed at an earlier post on “Syria Comment.” The Tharwa Project is doing very interesting things. Its director, Ammar Abdulhamid, is now supporting eight employees on $40,000 he was granted by Pax Christi Nederland, which is part of an international peace movement, headquartered in Brussels, the current president of which is H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem. Most of these sites are run on a shoestring and can use all the support they can get. Abdulhamid is now a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institute, so clearly he is not afraid to be associated with the US, though how far he can take that association is unclear. He has already been quite courageous by Syrian standards in asking Yitzhak Nakash, who is an Israeli-American expert on Shi`a Islam, to serve on his board. Whether he could take NED money is another question.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Iraq Gets Border Cooperation but no Recognition from Syria

All went reasonably well in the recent meeting between Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh and President Bashar al-Assad. The Iraqi minister said the talks were guided by a keenness for cooperation in all fields. All the same, the question of whether Syria will recognize the Allawi government in Iraq is not solved. In an interview published Tuesday in the Kuwaiti 'Assiyasa' daily newspaper, Saleh said his talks with President al-Assad and other senior officials in Syria were frank. He said there is much promise for relations between the two states and good prospects for boosting trade and economic cooperation between Syria and Iraq and hope Syria would participate in the rebuilding of Iraq. Allawi had called on the neighboring states "not to solve their problems with Washington at the expense of Iraq" and warned that Iraq was running out of patience with Syria. Evidently, Saleh and Asad discussed Syria's giving back Iraqi money being held in Syrian banks, but would not say how much the sum was or when it would be returned. More negotiations will be necessary before that sticky issue can be resolved. On the border issue, the two countries claimed that they would construct a joint border guard to coordinate policing activities and apprehend Islamic militants crossing the border. Saleh also chided the Syrians for describing the US forces in Iraq as "occupation forces" or the military operations carried out by Iraqis against the Americans as "resistance." But he quickly added "what is more important is the official position which seeks to support the ambitions of the Iraqi people and government." Saleh stressed that the "multi national forces" will remain in the country until the Iraqi government asks them to leave. He said "we have to be realistic and not ask the multi national forces to leave because security requirements for the stability of this country are not enough. The Multi national forces are in Iraq at Iraq's invitation." Bashar repeated that he wanted to hasten Iraq's independence and unity. He denied that Israeli forces are operating in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, when Asad asked about them. he also said that prime minister Eyad Allawi will visit Damascus "when appropriate conditions are provided and when his visit will result in tangible results." It will be interesting to see how long that will be. Several diplomats and Syrians argue that they believe Bashar is sincere in his desire to cooperate with the new Iraqi government on the border issues, but they doubt how successful he can be. In a Jordanian Times article, Syria hard put to halt border infiltration: political analyst Imad Al Shuaibi said, "Syria was not able to seal the border in the face of [incoming] trucks laden with explosives in the 1980s," referring to the Muslim Brotherhood bombings which Damascus blamed on Saddam Hussein's government. "A Western diplomat said Syria, with its own economic problems, clearly needed improved economic ties with Iraq. "It would be daft to think the Syrians want US troop"' presence in Iraq to be a picnic, but that does not mean that Syria wants to destabilize Iraq or to become a path or a heaven for insurgents,' one diplomat said. "I think Syria genuinely wants... good cooperation in all areas with Iraq," an Arab diplomat said. Despite an improvement in economic ties in the latter years of Saddam's era, political ties remained cold. Syria's trade with its larger neighbor amounted to around $1 billion in 2002 and it hopes to raise this in the post-Saddam era. It wants Iraqi oil to be ferried to Syrian ports through an envisaged 800,000 barrels per day pipeline that can only be built if stability is achieved." Nevertheless, Saleh denied that his talk with Asad touched on the issue of operating the Iraqi oil pipeline, which was blocked by the Americans during their invasion of Iraq. Obviously, so long as the US has its foot on Syria's toes with sanctions and can sit on Iraq, there will be no discussions of pipelines. Perhaps Iraq is waiting for full recognition of the Allawi government before it will discuss oil? Perhaps the US won't allow it until Syria satisfies American demands to get out of Lebanon and caught up Palestinian groups and chemical weapons? Remi Leveau, a Middle East expert at the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, argued that

some political forces within the Syrian government do not want President al-Assad to recognize the Iraqi interim administration unless Damascus receives security guarantees from the United States in return. "If the Syrian administration has no insurance in those terms coming directly from the United States, they will not consider working seriously with the Iraqi prime minister," he said. "[Syrian recognition of the Iraqi interim government] has a price. The United States is not ready to pay it right now." Leveau also said that Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's planned visits to neighboring countries this week could put him in the position of being an intermediary who could help build up relations between the United States and the Arab world. But as far as security is concerned, Leveau says it is most important for Baghdad to establish diplomatic relations with Iran and Turkey: "Syria is important in terms of controlling the border, but I think Iran is much more important due to the influence it can have on the Shi'a areas of Iraq. It is easier, maybe, to start [by trying to establish relations] with Syria because Syria is afraid of the situation in the Middle East and the pressure which can be exercised on her by Israel and the United States in relation to a settlement on the control of [parts of] Lebanon, for instance."
Leveau is a bit confusing. Can Allawi get recognition from Asad or not? How easy can it be for Allawi to get full recognition of his government if the US won't recognize Asad in turn? I guess it is safe to argue both sides. All the same, it underscores the stakes at issue in negotiations. Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs, looks at it from Syria's perspective. She argues that
Salih's visit to Damascus was a necessary initial step for the interim government in Baghdad as it attempts to gain recognition from its neighbors: "This visit by the [Iraqi] deputy prime minister to Syria is what Syria was looking for -- a recognition by the Iraqis that cooperation is needed by the Syrians and by Iraq's other neighboring countries, and the recognition that the Iraq situation is an issue that concerns the whole Middle East, whether it is the Arab countries or Turkey or Iran." But Allaf says Syria's cooperation with Baghdad on border security does not mean that Damascus is about to recognize the U.S.-appointed interim administration as a legitimate government: "Syria, like the rest of the Arab countries, is really looking forward to a pacification of the Iraqi situation. So like most governments, although they have not really recognized [the Iraqi interim] government as a legitimate government, they are more than willing to cooperate with them to make sure that the chaos is not exported over the borders -- whether it is to Syria or Saudi Arabia or Jordan."
On the less interesting but always-important economic reform front, this just in: Syria approves French plan to modernize its finances 7/14/2004 Syrian and French finance officials on Tuesday discussed a French report prepared by specialized French advisors to modernize and develop the Ministry of Finance in fields of taxes, customs and banking. Minister Mohammed al-Hussein held talks with the French treasury delegation headed by Bernard Pichoure on the report which explains ways of unifying the state balance sheet and establishing a General Directorate for budget and expenses as well as the use of information technologies in organizing and preparing the balance sheet. In taxes domain, the report aims at the implementation of a just and soft taxes for citizens who would be encouraged to pay their taxes with a stress on laws, transparency and procedures to bring back confidence between the tax earner and finance departments.

Is Ba`thism Secular?

The whole notion of a “secular” Ba`th needs correcting. Ba`thism is often referred to as a secular movement and non-religious version of Arab nationalism, but this just isn’t true. When I recently suggested to fellow board members of the Syrian Studies Association that we shouldn’t refer to Syria as a “secular state” in an SSA statement, my friends argued against me. They won the day by declaring that Syria is secular in comparison to other states in the region, so why confuse the matter. I argued that to call Syria secular was misleading because Ba`thi values are absolutist and backed up by revealed truth - even if they aren't exactly the same revealed truth as the Quran. (see Badran on this issue in a recent critique of an article by Shibley Talhami.) Secularism as it has evolved in the historically Christian countries of the West is based on the idea that politics should be carried out in a different sphere than private morality or faith. The one is based on a notion of “truth” with a small “t” that is at its heart relative and subject to compromise, the other is based on Truth with a capital “T” which has its foundation in transcendent morality and is resistant to compromise and skepticism. Private faith is another matter and may be absolutist. That is why secularism insists on such a clear divide between public belief (politics) and private belief (church). Ba`thism is based on the big “T” Truth and is a transcendent faith. Both the founders of Ba`thist thought, Michel `Aflaq (Greek Orthodox)and Zaki al-Arsuzi (Alawite Muslim), discovered early in their careers that their party would never appeal to the broad masses of the Sunni heartland without making it perfectly clear that Ba`thism was not secular or based on earthly truths. They both insisted that Ba`thism was part and parcel of the Islamic worldview embraced by most Syrians. `Aflaq was so adamant about placating Muslim and religious sensibilities that he became known among his friends as Muhammad `Aflaq (and indeed he converted to Islam before his death). His genius lay in his ability to align Ba`thism with Islam. In Ba`thism political and private life have the same source of truth. The beauty of Aflaq and Arsuzi is that they just tweaked GOD a little to make him a source of nationalism and Ba`thi "al-risala al-khalida," or the “eternal message.” Like good Neoplatonists or ghulat they argue the Semitic truth is one, whether it is packaged by Jesus or by Muhammad for his age in the 6th c. or by Aflaq and the Ba`th in the modern age of nations. Of course they hold with the Islamic narrative in that they claim Muhammad's message was an improvement over Jesus', but they go one step further in suggesting that the Ba`thi message is an improvement over Muhammad's. Actually that is a sticking point and they tried to dispel it. Many Muslims figured out that Ba'this were making themselves prophets of the modern age and accused them of bida' (introducing new ideas) and mulhidism (atheism). That is why Aflaq wrote his famous article on Muhammad in1943. He needed to dispel the notion that Ba`thism and Islam were in conflict. He repeated over and over again that the values of Ba`thism and Islam are identical. Both are divine, both come from the same Semitic genius and from Nature-God speaking through the chosen people. “There is no fear that nationalism will clash with religion,” he wrote, “for, like religion, it flows from the heart and issues from the will of God; they walk arm in arm.” Aflaq explained that Muhammad should be a constant source of inspiration to all Arabs. He directed non-Muslim Arabs to “attach themselves to Islam and to the most precious element of their Arabness, the Prophet Muhammad,” for he was the greatest Arab nationalist. The eternal message of Arabism, he insisted, is identical to that of Islam. Both issue from the same divine source and creator and point in the same direction. Islam went into decline, Zaki Arsuzi argued, when non-Arabs were brought into the umma or nation and corrupted its true meaning. Thus, like the Salafis, the early Ba`thists argued that to revive the eternal spirit of the Arab world, Arabs had to return to their roots, which Aflaq insisted was an Arab Islamic message.

All the victories and cultural advances that Islam has achieved were in germination during the first twenty years of the message…. Therefore the meaning which Islam reveals … is that all our efforts should be directed to strengthening the Arabs and awakening them and that these efforts should be within the framework of Arab nationalism.
Michel `Aflaq did not try to take Islam out of Arabism; he sought to make Arabism the central tenet of Islam. Both `Aflaq and Arsuzi stressed that the umma arabiyya, or Arab community and nation, was the proper unit of analysis, both called for struggle against outsiders and alien influences, and both stressed that their message was the eternal message of the Arab nation, no different in its values and divine inspiration from that of Islam. Ba`thism is destined to reveal and strengthen the Islamic message and genius which would bring "rahmaniyya," "`adala" and the highest form of "insaniyya" to the world community. Ba`thism and Islam both construct their political identity and demand political allegiance by reference to an unknowable absolute moral imperative. Unlike Western secularism, Ba`thism does not include the idea of politics as an arena that no longer exists by virtue of a transcendent and divinely ordained morality. One can argue that the original Ba`this were only faking it in order to make their movement palatable to a society that still defined itself through religion. But if that is true, they faked out their own followers who believed they were on a divine and sacred mission. Perhaps “ta’ayyush” would be a better term to describe the Syrian ba`thist take on religion. It means “convivienda” or live and let live. Syria does enforce a degree of tolerance and respect for its different religious communities that is unusual in the Middle East. All the same, it permits Muslims clerics to uphold the dominance of Islam, which is all-pervasive in the culture. I would also like to take issue with Tony Badran on his Across the Bay blog. He has suggested in several posts that I place economics over culture and education in recommendations for reform in Syria and the Middle East. He is right that I argue economics are fundamental, but helping people get richer goes hand in hand with improving education and increasing literacy rates. Education is at the heart of the reform process. Furthering the enlightenment project and strengthening notions of skepticism and "secular" truth is essential. It means getting away from memorization and the worship of authority, whether it be of the president, or "texts," or revealed truth. Free debate is at the heart of this project. Only by reinforcing the notion that there are many sides to an argument and many ways to view truth will citizens begin to relinquish notions of a transcendent morality and value compromise over conflict, cooperation over confessionalism, and tolerance over tribalism.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

An Asad Arrested for Smuggling Weapons

Munzir al-Asad, a cousin of President Bashar, was detained by the security services of an unnamed European country to prevent American intelligence agents from arresting him. That is what a Syrian exile group called the National Council for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation in Syria is saying. According to Michael Young's report on this in Reason, July 8:

It is fairly certain that the Syrian intelligence services did not arrest Munzar in order to end the smuggling of arms or anything else to Iraq. Indeed, according to Syrian sources, the shootout that occurred in Damascus last April, and which was falsely blamed on Islamic militants, was, in fact, an exchange of fire between a group of smugglers reportedly tied to Military Intelligence, and a group from a rival intelligence service, the Political Security directorate, that was shadowing them. The smugglers, among many deeds, reportedly ran guns to Iraq. By most accounts, Bashar’s control over the various centers of power in Syria is very weak, so that it’s unlikely that he would further erode this by going after a cousin. Nor would Syria's intelligence services hit on an Assad family member. The "house arrest" claim seems partly or entirely bogus. The real question was which European intelligence service arrested Munzar, evidently to shield him? I have my doubts—if indeed the exiles’ account is accurate. Most interesting was the exiles' claim that "the events surrounding the Munzar Assad case were the reason that the Syrian president cut short a recent trip to China." I know people who were on that trip, and the rumor among the delegation was that a coup attempt, or something similar, had taken place. That never seemed plausible, but I'm not sure this story is either.
If these reports are true (and there seems to be much confusion about them), it can mean only one of two things: either Bashar is unable to contain the freelancing of his subordinates and is as weak as many of his critics claim, or he is much more Machiavellian than I have suspected. Most likely, it is the former. News stories about the Tlas son being involved with smuggling as well as the recent Times story about the al-Majid clan (see last entry) helping to organize the Iraqi resistance from Syria and Jordan would suggest that Bashar doesn't have control over his minions and intelligence services. This is very bad for business in Syria. The British and Europeans are trying to give Bashar the benefit of the doubt in the face of US criticism. If they get mud in their face, they will give up on Syria and Bashar will be completely isolated. Bashar must be as good as his word. When he promises that he is doing everything he can to control smuggling across the border, he needs to back it up. It seems quite clear that he does not want to destabilize Iraq, but if he can't control the border, he will demonstrate that he does not make Syrian foreign policy. Mundhir al-Asad is the son of Jamil al-Asad, the brother of Hafiz. At one time in the 1990s Jamil sought to present himself as the Mahdi al-Muntazir but Hafiz stopped that pretense in its tracks. Jamil has two sons by his wife (I don't know her name but she is one of at least 4 wives) - Fawwaz and Mundhir, who is the oldest. Fawwaz was always a troublemaker, involved in smuggling, etc. Mundhir was the "good" son. He is married to Hikmiyya (last name may be Shalish, a relative) Hikmiyya is well educated and a good mother. Mundhir is reportedly a good family man and was always interested in business and kept out of the limelight, unlike his brother. Mundhir, though, like his brother watches al-Manar TV (the Hizballah station)and may well have been caught up in the nationalist ethos of resisting the American invasion of Iraq. This is probably the case with many power brokers in Syria. There is some proof that Bashar is not afraid to discipline his cousins. In 1999 he had Fawwaz's bodyguards thrown into jail for a time, after they beat the living day-lights out of someone for no good reason other than he had looked at them in the wrong way. When a friend complained to Bashar of this lawlessness, he didn't hesitate to shame Fawwaz by chucking the toughs in the clink. In a separate incident, Bashar forced Fawwaz to open the street in front of his house in Latakia to traffic. Fawwaz had closed it in order to connect his front yard to the park which spread out on the other side of the road. The closure created havoc with local traffic. When someone complained to Bashar about the closure, he didn't hesitate to tell his cousin to back off, much to the delight of the Ladhqanis. And this was all before he had become president. Bashar was a very postive force in Latakia during the late 1990s. He disciplined the "Shabiha" as they are called - the young and lawless Asad relatives or their retainers who largely come from Qardaha and who ran roughshod over the town. Hazem Saghieh reports in al-Hayat that the US is gearing up to put more pressure on Syria in the coming months. The breathing space Bashar earned from the unexpected virulence of the Iraqi opposition to the US occupation forces, he argues, was just that, a breathing space. Bashar must now prepare Syria for round two. Now that the Iraqi PM, Imad Allawi is reaching out to Bashar and hopes to visit Syria in the coming days, Bashar is on the spot. He must get control over his people and put an end to regime sponsored smuggling. On a personal note, I would also like to thank Michael Young for fluffing "Syria Comment" in his "Hit and Run" post the other day. Though we don't always agree about Syria, Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star and regular commentator at Reason Magazine, is one of the very smartest on the Middle East. Ammar Abdulhamid, director of the Tharwa Project, has featured my Islamic Education in Syria article on his site as well as having it translated into Arabic, which is a great boon. He said the initial reaction to it was largely "negative," but calmed my wounded vanity by saying he wouldn't change a thing. "It means it is hitting home." A more flattering reader wrote to say, "The paper is outstanding. It documents facts even some very educated Syrians do not know about." But argued:
One concern I have is that it may overstate the impact of the education system on where we are today. Please note, I am not disagreeing with the fact that Syria, the Middle East, and Islam have major, gigantic issues to deal with in catching up with the modern world. I am saying that schools and textbooks are not the reason. I have seen a large number of people survive the educational system. They lived as secularist despite having to read these texts. Then in the 90s, they reverted to religion and Hijab etc. These are people I went to swimming pools with, who listened exclusively to western music, and who wore shocking clothing even by Italian standards. So, the question is why did these people revert to fundamentalism after 20 years of leaving the system. I do not think it is the education system. Another point. My secular classmates considered my religion teachers idiots. My religious classmates considered them government stooges. They got their religion from the mosques and the brotherhood. So even the religious ones paid very little attention in class.
I answered: I appreciate your argument that it isn’t the education that makes Syrians become fundamentalists later in life. You would probably argue that they turn to fundamentalism because of the pervasive corruption in Syria, the lack of freedoms, a terrible economy, and a general sense of frustration and injustice. I would agree with this. But what can they fall back on when they have a philosophical crisis later in life? Their schooling and cultural education as children have prepared them to believe that Islam has the answers to their ethical questions and political problems. The school books are written by the same Imams that push a generic and narrow Islam in the mosques. If the texts actually taught Syrian school children that Islam is a "big ocean: filled with many currents – shiite, sufi, ghuluw, mu`tazali, hanbali, wahhabi, liberal and conservative, they would be better prepared to question the easy answers of the fundamentalists. If they want a more accurate understanding of Islam, they must find it on their own, because the schools, which should be teaching them about the richness of the Islamic tradition, fail to prepare them for the big questions that arise later in life.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

What is Syria Doing in Iraq?

Several good Journalists have reported recently on the role that Syria may be playing in the resistance in Iraq. They do not directly assert that the Syrian government has a hand in organizign the resistance, but the suggestion that it is not doing enough to clamp down on the movement of people and money across the border is strong. Iraq's foreign minister recently rebuked the Syrian government, suggesting that relations between the two country's would deteriorate rapidly if something was not done. Nir Rosen in the New Yorker, learnt the following about foreign fighters in Faluja:

Several people in Jolan [the militant neighborhood] said that the foreign fighters—Saudis, Tunisians, Moroccans, Yemenis, and Lebanese, directed by Syrian militants—had been crucial to the defense of the neighborhood. The groups of mujahideen who hung around mosques included men who looked to me like Arabs from the Gulf. Most of them were dark, with angular features, and they had long, well-groomed beards. Their dishdashas were short, in the Wahhabi style, ending a little below their knees. Friends of mine who had been held by mujahideen told me they had heard men speaking with accents from the Gulf, Syria, and North Africa.
Douglas Jehl of the New York Times, writes in an article entitled, "Saddam's kin aiding terror,"
A network of Saddam Hussein's cousins, operating in part from Syria and Jordan, is actively involved in the smuggling of guns, people and money into Iraq to support the anti- American insurgency, say American government officials and a prominent Iraqi. The operations involve at least three cousins from the Majid family who now live in Syria and in Europe, the American officials said. A leading figure among them is Fatiq Suleiman al-Majid, a cousin of Hussein's and a former officer in Iraq's Special Security Organisation who fled from Iraq to Syria last spring and may still be living there. The view that the cousins are helping finance the insurgency developed fairly recently and is described in intelligence reports, the American officials say. They said the conclusion was based in part on suspicious recent movements of money and goods, including the transfer of cash into Syria, that were detected by American intelligence.
Juan Cole criticizes the Jehl conjectures on his site, Informed Comment:
Al-Hayat says that Syrian sources are categorically denying a New York Times report that Saddam Hussein's cousins from the al-Majid clan are directing the insurgency from Syria and Europe. Likewise, the Jordanians say they have no such information. The cousins named also denied the charges to al-Sharq al-Awsat. The Syrians are speculating that the story is a plant by US and Israeli intelligence aimed at preventing good relations from developing between the Allawi government and Damascus. Actually, it seems to me indisputable that the al-Majid clan is involved in the insurgency, it is just that it doesn't need to be abroad to do so. And as the Jehl article acknowledges, the insurgency comes from circles well beyond Saddam loyalists.
The Christian Science Monitor has a good assesment of the situation in today's issue by Ann Scott Tyson pointing out how hard policing the border is.
Along the Syrian border, tribes such as the Shamar, Al Jubouri, and Al Fawzil migrate back and forth from Iraq. Many of the Iraqi border guards are tribal members with family on either side of the border, and often turn a blind eye to such smuggling, according to US and Iraqi officials. No computer database currently exists for tracking the passage of people and goods across the border, they say. Meanwhile, border guards driving two-wheel-drive vehicles are often outrun by people crossing illegally in four-wheel drive Land Cruisers. Also, a long dirt berm built by US military engineers to delineate the Syrian border is easily transversed in many places by vehicles like Toyota pickup trucks, they say.
She points out that Under-Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz has been leading the charge in focusing on Syria's role in the resistance, which does not exactly inspire confidence. Wolfowitz still believes that Syria is hiding Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The charge that Syria is hiding Iraq's chemical weapons, by the way, has its origin in accusations made by Nizar Nayouf, the Alawite Syrian opposition member who has been working closely with the US Defense Department. He showed US intelligence a hand drawn map of three sites in Syria he said concealed the weapons. See the long interview with him in January 2004 in French at the following site. It includes the maps and also states that Rumsfeld supported him, whereas, Powel distrusted him and tried to deny him an American visa at the time of the Washington conference held by the US sponsored Democratic Reform Party. How trustworthy is Nayouf? Powel obviously thinks he is another Ahmad Chalabi. "Syria and Iran Should Support the Multinational [read US and British]Force in Iraq" Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said.
During an interview on Dubai's Al Arabiya television Allawi said, "I think that the heads of states of brother Syria and Iran should revise their positions for the interest of Iraq. At the very least, they should support the multinational force." Syrian President Bessar Asad and Islamic Republic of Iran President Mohammed Khatemi had earlier called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. Continued Allawi, "No occupation force exists in Iraq. The multinational forces are here upon the demand of Iraq and the Iraqi government. They are here primarily for providing security. If they left now, before forming the basis of the Iraqi armed forces and security, it would be a disaster for Iraq."
Syria's "multinational" force in Lebanon is also not an "occupation force" so I am sure it will understand Iraq's security needs! In all fairness to Syria, it has been receiving delegations of Iraqis eager to normalize relations. On the other hand, Syria's passage of a bill sanctioning the US and its recent high-profile diplomacy with Iran all point to heightened Syrian displeasure with the US. I doubt the Syrian government wants chaos in Iraq, as Wolfowitz has recently suggested. Having Islamic militants ruling Iraq would be worse than the Allawi government from a Syrian perspective. All the same, the strong US presence in the neighborhood rankles, especially at a time when the US refuses to acknowledge legitimate Syrian interests in the region. Perhaps the important question is how much control Bashar has over the border. There are many conspiracy minded Syrians who will see the Kurdish situation [read last post] and US pressure on the Syrian economy as a serious effort to destabilize the country. There are also many Iraqi families connected to Saddam's regime who moved to Syria or sent their families across the border just before the outbreak of war last year. My wife said two Iraqi colonels rented apartments in her neighborhood in Latakia just before the war and have moved their families there. I doubt the Syrian government could control all of them or keep them from contacting resistance members in Iraq even if it wanted to. Bashar has been warning about the destabilizing effects of the war - how weapons and people from Iraq have been coming into Syria, creating a dangerous situation for him. I don't think he is not just being cute about these warnings. On another note, a recent article by Robert Blecher - "Engage, don't alienate, Syrian reformers" - on the difficulties Bush policy has been creating for Syrian reform activists is worth reading.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Seymour Hersh interview on Israelis Operating in Iraq, Iran and Syria

Seymour Hersh gave an interview with Democracy Now about his New Yorker article on Israeli agents working in Kurdistan, which I wrote about two days ago. Much of this information is in his article, but he takes it a step further here Democracy Now! | Seymour Hersh: Israeli Agents Operating in Iraq, Iran and Syria AMY GOODMAN: The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh joins us on the phone. Welcome to Democracy Now! SEYMOUR HERSH: Good morning. AMY GOODMAN: So, can you tell us in full what you found in yet another one of your ground-breaking pieces today? SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, it's simply, as you said, Israel did very much support the war and I'm sure some of the people in the audience know there's even internal investigations going on now inside Israel into whether there had been falsification of evidence on weapons of mass destruction and some of the falsification had been give ton the United States before the war. Obviously as an Israeli once told me, it's wonderful to wake up in the morning and see America in the east, you know, in Iraq to the east of Israel. And so for Israel obviously getting the United States into the Middle East was very important. But once we got there, we did it so badly that by last summer, there was a lot of concern. One of the concerns being we were ignoring the fact that Iranian -- Iranians were coming across the border and helping the resistance to organize. No Iranian was taking any offensive action against America. They were simply helping their allies who were against us, to organize as I said. And eventually what happened is they moved into the Kurdistan. The Israelis have had long standing ties to the Talibani and Marzani clans Kurdistan and there are many Kurdish Jews that emigrated to Israel and there are still a lot of connection. But at some time before the end of the year, and I'm not clear exactly when, certainly I would say a good six, eight months ago, Israel began to work with some trained Kurdish command does, obstensively the idea was the Israelis -- some of the Israeli elite commander units, counter-terror or terror units, depending on your point of view, began training -- getting the Kurds up to speed. I think the initial goal was to help the United States fight the insurgency. We were doing very badly. Our special forces were not able to find the opposition, despite all the value our Delta Force and SEALS simply weren't able to accomplish the mission that we thought they could. That is through interrogation and house-to-house searching, find the people that were running the opposition against us, the growing opposition. I think, of course, there was a lot of miss judgment. One of the big ones being that last fall we concluded there was a finite number of 5,000 people or so who were involved in leading the insurgency. Remember those statistics that were given to us by Abizaid and Sanchez, the American army commanders there. It seems clear now that was a huge mistake that was as a widespread disaffection, probably inspired by our actions as much as anything else. In any case, once there, Israel got into terrific trouble with turkey. Turkey is Israel's -- the whole point of Israel's survival mechanism is to final non-Arabs and like them, like Kurds. In fact case of turkey, they establish add very good relationship with a largely Islamic country, a very progressive country. And in terms of being Islamic, not fundamentalist. Israel, I think something like 300,000 Israelis vacation every year in turkey. It is a great place to go. Good shopping, etc. And Israel's jeopardizing that long-standing relationship now. Because the Turks have gone batty about Israeli's support for Kurdistan simply because that also suggests that the Kurds will do, as they're threat tong do, go independent. And also move to seek the oil. Therefore, the Kurdish borders are about 40 miles or so from Kirkuk, the large oil field in Northern Iraq. And all of this is very dangerous. It would spark another great conflict up there if Kurdistan goes independent. The Turks would not tolerate. That is not acceptable. There is huge Turkish minorities inside -- Kurdish minors inside Turkey, inside Syria, inside Iraq, inside Iran and all those countries would feel very shaky. For example, two million Kurds live in Syria. They would feel very shaky by an independent Kurdistan. It is a destabilizing move by Israel. A move that they see in their good interest. As you said, the Israelis are actually helping to -- are involved on the ground, I understand, inside Iran. They're not inside Syria. But Israeli agents are working to collect intelligence on Iran because Israel sees Iran as its great menace. Not only because of its potential nuclear weaponry, Iran, we don't know exactly what Iran is doing with nuclear weapons. But also because Iran, as everybody agrees, if there is a winner in this mess in the former Iraq or whatever we want to call it now, it is going to be Iran. They are going to emerge as the strongest country. They have the -- they have a large population. They're going to emerge as the winner politically of the whole mess. AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about the Iran-Syria-Turkey relationship increasingly close relationships? SEYMOR HERSH: It's always been dicey. 10 years ago, Turkey and Syria almost came to war because Turkey, as I said, had I think from about '84 on, for 15 years, at least a dozen years, anyway, there was a huge violent Kurdish insurrection inside turkey, more than 30,000 Muslim and Kurds, but Turkish citizens were killed by the group we now call the P.K.K. or called then the P.K. K., a group led by a name of Abdullah Ocalon. And the Turks were just as brutal in stamping it out in the middle '90's. They snuffed it out with horrible brutality and great abuses and the leader of what we now call the P.K.K. Went to -- went to Syrian a was harbored there by the Syrians and Turkey in the late 1990's, literally their generals threatened war with Syria and now Syria released the guerilla leader, the insurrection leader, and the Israelis helped track him down and catch him somewhere in Africa. Not Nigeria, but one other countries in Africa, I think Kenya. And the Israelis actually captured the Turkish or helped capture the Turkish insurrection leader, the Kurdish leader which endeared them a little bit to Turkey. That helped improve Israel's relationship with Turkey. But, boy, by the 1999-2000 turkey and Syria were really staring daggers at each other. There's always been a natural rivalry between Turkey and Iran. They are both the same size. One is a fundamentalist country now, the other one, obviously Iran, theocracy and here is Turkey very much committed to a very progressive form of Islamic rule. Really if there was a role model for the America to follow in the world, in the Middle East, it would be Turkey instead of trying to recreate a democracy that is impossible to obtain in Iraq anyway. So, there's always been tension between Turkey and Iran and Turkey and Syria and now because of the Kurdish threat and because of the disaster in Iraq and, you know, obviously everybody there is telling me if you think - "we ain't seen nothing yet" , wait until July 1. And I quote a German intelligence official, very senior official as saying to me, with almost humor, I guess you could call it, black humor, " You are going to hand over sovereignty, is that what you call it, to the Iraqi new premier, prime minister, etc.? What sovereignty? What are you handing over? There is no miss, there's no army, there's no government, there's no electricity, there's no water, there's no mail, there's no telephone. What exactly are you giving to this government? You know, you don't have it to hand over!" which is probably as good assessment -- you won't read in newspapers that America you're going to get. There you are. We've driven turkey, Syria, and Iran into each other's arms. They're all cooing. We have a looming disaster on our hands in Iraq. We have a new prime minister that I write about that's very dubious, at best. Mr. Allawi. And once again, I guess you could say we do like to live in a bubble, don't we? AMY GOODMAN: Sey Hersh, what is Israel's role in the covert presence in Iraq? SEYMORE HERSH: Obviously acquiescence. At the minimum, acquiescence. We certainly didn't lean on them. There is a high level -- i think the chief of staff of the Turkish armed forces, there is a very high level military dell investigation of Turkish military officials in Washington now. They arrived over the weekend I think. They are certainly here now, leading generals, to talk just about this issue. What are we going to do with Israel? I asked add senior C.I.A. Intelligence official about this last week. And his comment, which I think is really pretty accurate, he said really how much control do we have over Israel. They will do what's in their best interest no matter what we say. This is a complicated one. Because Richard Perle, a Neocon, was really a great champion of the Turkish-Israeli relationship and now that move into Kurdistan is destabilizing that. What the Israelis did, which is remarkable stupid, I think, and I understand has caused enormous problems inside the Israeli government on just the issue of how dumb they are is when the Turks began to raise questions about the obviously growing Israeli presence in Kurdistan, and Kurdistan, Iran has got great intelligence and so does turkey. It is not hard to penetrate. Kurds are, you know, they're great bargainers and buyers and sellers. And one can easily buy information there. In any case, turkey learned quite a bit earlier this year and asked the Israelis their great buddies about this. And Israel said officially to them that there is nothing there and the people that are there, Israelis are there as private citizens doing their own work. And I can tell you I was an anchor and I did see -- I can't quote him, but it's clear from my story, very senior people in the government and they are really angry about this. They will not tolerate an independent Kurdistan. They will simply go to war immediately and they won't even tolerate the idea that the Kurds are getting closers and edging -- in their public statements, the Kurds are saying more and more that if things go badly in Iraq, they will consider going independent. So, Israel sort of screwed the pooch with its own ally and then they put themselves in a terrible position with a journalist like me of having to issue these stringent and strong denials, which, between you and me, people in the government acknowledge are just pro forma. They stuck themselves. They said we don't have anything there. What happened is some of the intelligence people and some of the military people, obviously don't go into Kurdistan and run operations in Iran with Israeli passports or anything connected to Israel. So, they wash them. We use the word sheep dip for taking in a military person. In America, when you take in a military officer and redress them as a civilian and send them into a war zone, that's called sheep dipping. Same thing happened with the Israeli Mossad and their military people. They went in undercover. AMY GOODMAN: Well, Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Pulitzer prize-winning reporter. His latest piece appears in this week's edition of the "New Yorker" magazine.