Thoughts on Syrian politics, history and religion.
Saturday, August 28, 2004
SYRIA AND THE 1948 WAR IN PALESTINE
I have recently posted a new article entitled: SYRIA AND THE 1948 WAR IN PALESTINE on my website. I hope readers, should there be some, will use this post to comment on it, correct errors of fact or opinion, and add their own insites.
A shorter version of this article was first published as: “Syria in the 1948 Palestine War: Fighting King Abdullah’s Greater Syria Plan,” in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., Rewriting the Palestine War: 1948 and the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Cambridge U.P., 2001, which has also been translated and published into French and Arabic (The pirated Rose al-Yusef translation was horrid but understandable.)
SYRIA AND THE 1948 WAR IN PALESTINE (It begins)
Shukri al-Quwwatli’s war policy during the conflict in Palestine was a disaster both for his presidency and for democracy in Syria. Indeed, the two had become intimately intertwined. In retrospect, it is easy to argue that Syria should never have pushed for war in Palestine. Had Syria not acted as the whip in the Arab League driving the others toward war, the United Nation’s partition plan might well have been carried out; and Israelis would have lived in a much smaller country. After all, who can deny that the Palestinians would have been better off had the Arab League not entered the conflict? King Abdullah was determined to work out a peaceful partition with the Jews, and the British were ready to oversee it.
Most popular accounts of the conflict give two principle reasons for why the Arabs went to war. First, the Arab people considered the partition plan to be highway robbery... Second, Arab governments believed they were stronger than the Jews and calculated that they could overwhelm the inconsequential Zionist forces and “push them into the sea.” Although the first argument is sound, the second is myth. The Arab leaders all hoped to avoid war, which promised few benefits and many dangers. We now know that early military assessments by the Arab League and individual states of their ability to defeat Zionist forces in the impending conflict were unanimous in warning of the superiority of the Zionist military, which outnumbered the Arab forces at every stage of the war. Certainly, the Syrian leadership was painfully aware of the weakness of the Syrian army and had little or no faith in the ability of the “Arab leaders” to cooperate effectively against the Jews or win the war in Palestine.
This begs the question then of why President Quwwatli and Prime Minister Jamil Mardam were so adamant about opposing partition and pushing for war. Indeed, Syria’s role in shepherding the reluctant Egypt and Saudi Arabia toward war is little appreciated. Of all the Arab states, Syria was the most adamant about the need to go to war. Indeed, it was the first in and the last out of the war and, thus, bears much responsibility for the extent of the nakba, or disaster, that befell the Palestinians as a result. So why would Syria encourage the Arab world to go to war in Palestine even as it prepared for defeat?
Washington struck back today
Friday 27 August, against Syrian plans to extend Lahoud's presidency. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement the United States "believes strongly that the best interests of Lebanon and Syria are served by a positive and constructive relationship based upon principles of mutual respect and non-intervention'' between the two neighboring states. He said Lebanon should be free of all foreign forces and stand by a constitutional provision that prevents a president from seeking a second term. This shot across Syria's bow comes at the same time that some in Washington seek to build on claims that Syria has acquired centrifuges and is developing nuclear weapons.
As the State Department reports:
The United States has assessed that Syria acquired components for centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium in what could be the most significant step in that Arab country's nascent nuclear weapons program.
U.S. officials said Syria was believed to have been a client of a nuclear smuggling network led by Pakistani nuclear chief Abdul Qadeer Khan. They said the U.S. intelligence community obtained evidence that the Khan network sold and delivered components for an unspecified number of Pakistani-designed P1 centrifuges to Syria. The officials said Damascus through Firas Tlas, the son of Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, became a customer of Khan in 2001. The centrifuge components and other nuclear equipment were ordered by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein via Syria, officials said. The centrifuges and nuclear equipment were said to have reached Iraq through Syria and deliveries might have continued after the fall of the Saddam regime in April 2003.
Andrew J. Tabler, in his consistently smart analysis of regional affairs, explains in "Some useful rules for reading Syria's coffee grinds "that Damascus has responded to Washington's and Israel's pressure in some surprising ways. "In the aftermath of various external crises throughout 2003-2004, the state actually accelerated economic reform initiatives," although it kept a tight grip on the internal political situation. He provides four wise rules for assessing Syrian goals. He is even hopeful that Washington has begun to engage Damascus on some important economic issues and gives some sound advice:
Today, Washington and Damascus seem to be on talking terms again. The US says it is currently "engaging" Syria over proposed sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, and other talks are reportedly under way. At this point it is important for both sides to stop and think where they hope to be five or 10 years down the line, and how to get there. Syria is at a political and developmental crossroads. Its reformers need international assistance to clean up the country's murky regulatory environment and allow Syrians to thrive as individuals. Help is coming from the European Union, Japan, and the UN, but much more is needed. Taking a closer look at what we really know about Syria is a good first step.
Whether Washington will be able to continue such negotiations now that US-Syrian relations have stumbled on Lebanon is anyone's guess. Those in Washington who are trying to negotiate with Damascus will likely get sidelined by the hardliners who itching for a fight and for continued efforts to isolate Syria. If Washington believes that it can unite the Lebanese against Syria, it is in for another disappointment. Washington has little to offer the Lebanese, but encouraging words. Because it refuses to offer Syria real concessions, Syria will continue to jam a stick in Washington's regional spokes. Ali el-Saleh, writing in all4syria.com, gives some background to Tabler's ovservation that Damascus has been pushing ahead with economic reforms. He also argues emphatically that Washington is misguided if it thinks it can provoke a revolution in Syrian or regional affairs without first building strong relationships with regional actors. In his article: "Damascus Between “Islam” and “Secularity”: Continuities and Discontinuities in Syrian Economic History" Ali El-Saleh, writes that: The Syrian colonial state that was implanted after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was only autonomous from the society it governed. France as the mandatory power was firmly convinced that the achievement of a program of economic development could not be left to the initiative of the mandated Syrian “secular” state. France’s concerns to benefit from the privileges of the Mandate Charter and to reduce the costs of its occupation of the country proved an obstacle to any overall planning which would meet the real needs of the Syrian economy. The major achievements consisted in consolidating the financial position of politically reliable absentee landowners and that of their allied emerging entrepreneurs. France also helped in playing the role of the midwife at the birth of the new “class” of white collars. The postcolonial national Syrian state went much further than either the Islamic or the “secular” colonial states in redrafting the social structure of the country but not in reshuffling its economy properly: The Syrian Ba’ath before coming to power, recruited heavily among professionals of rural origin, particularly among religious minorities, but also among the urban petite bourgeoisie trading segments, not to mention pan Arab intellectuals. From their ranks emerged the cadres and leaders of this secularist party. They were by default the seedbeds for a new dominant class of a new expanding state system: the Syrian “statist” state. The military had again been the prime path for their ascent.The expansion of the state apparatus led to the formation of a large and inefficient public-managerial stratum. The concentration of investable capital among a great number of dependant private-sector businesses, the rent-seeking behavior, corruption, and twisted deals with the private sector were and are in turn part of the decay of bureaucratically managed development strategies implemented in Syria during the last forty years. The gray and black clandestine economies came to rival the legal economy. Vast fortunes made from evasion and rent-seeking behavior had totally undermined the statist project. The failure of the old Ba’ath ideology led the state leadership to explore other horizons. One realizes that the state elaborate system of controls, regulations, licenses, administered prices, and inflexible exchange rates drove much of the economic activity underground where it could not be monitored, oriented, and taxed. Paradoxically, liberalization can thus be seen as the only means by which the state can regain control over the direction of the economy! It seems, paradoxically too, that the observed symbiosis between the national “secular” state and the Sunni Islamic orthodoxy has remained a barrier to liberalization and open discussions of religious and national diversity ever since. The irony is that in Syria the secular rulers have sought to conform to the majority Sunni notions of Islam, rather than to enforce secularism or western notions of separation between church and state in order to strengthen the unity of a dangerously diversified society facing regional centrifugal challenges. However, they chose that direction rather to reinforce above all their political legitimacy. A struggle is now underway between those “technos”, who wish to believe further and firmly in the renewal of a dying public sector to whose disruption they have once contributed and those “politicos” of the state bourgeoisie who believe they should turn the actual state itself, with the hope of reproducing themselves this time under the “liberal” banner. This is a very familiar situation. The state bourgeoisie after four decades of state capitalism will begin liquidating through privatization most of the state economic assets. The new rural and urban entrepreneurs and the large “new” middle classes have been largely created, as already mentioned, because of the state policies. They are already strong enough to constrain state initiatives in several domains. Would they be able or wish to press ahead with changes? I doubt it under the present circumstances. Many private-sector actors do not want the state to get out of the provision of subsidized credit nor to cease to supply intermediate goods at low cost. They do not wish the state to curtail the leasing of large contracts to the private sector or to lower too soon protective tariff walls as subscribed by the projected Association Agreement between Syria and the European Union. Besides, what happened in Iraq for instance does not give them much choice if they have to face on their own the so-called “liberal” rules of American free market competition policies. In view of this, one can repeat once more that the public and private sectors in Syria share a symbiotic, not an adversarial, relationship, and that the retreat of the state will not be uniformly welcomed, or encouraged. Conclusion In winding up this subject, I am of the opinion that Islam in the past did not seek to mobilize people for economic purposes. Nowhere, did we observe any mobilization for an economic change or transformation on the social level, at least not in Syria. However, it is clear that Islam as was understood in the tenth century was not precisely that of the Koran and that Islam of the twenty-first century is not the same as that of the tenth century, etc. and that all of this must be associated with social evolution. One might also draw attention to how modern conditions have strongly changed the manner of how the majority of Muslims interpret and practice their religion now. Generally, the fundamental economic relations that shape production and the distribution of products also reshape the main tasks and occupations of the society. Together they form a system. A society is not built around “interpretations and symbols”, but around essential tasks without which it could not be able to sustain itself. The relations of production are primary, simply because they structure the main functions of the society, while ideologies, religions, philosophy, etc. and similar think-tank tools and intellectual disciplines seek to think, to interpret production, reproduction, and their structures; they think also society itself and other many things. The producer engaged in the production process is also a thinking man. His mode of thinking influences the way he is engaged in production, but his thinking hardly changes and it rarely alters the relations of production whereas the latter are always present and weigh heavily and enduringly upon ideology. Even more so since, they do not belong to the sphere of consciousness. What is extremely important now besides other pressing matters is what kind of political action is intended for example by the G8 concerning their so-called project of “Greater Middle East Initiative”. It is important to realize and to affirm here that one cannot change societies by merely trying to change their consciousness and their culture from the outside, in other words change them by sheer will. One cannot command a society or the natural world without complying with their inherent rules. It is simplistic to consider ideological motivations as a “reflection” of “rational” motivations. The American war in Iraq is a further classic example of a political action with an “ideological” motivation. There is no doubt that for many GIs at least, the incentive that propels them is the wish to fight against international terrorism, which was responsible for September 11 and similar actions. Others, in the upper US political stratum think in terms of Armageddon and absurdly entertain expectations of gratitude on the part of Iraqis for their “liberation”. These driving forces, more or less, blend with other prosaic motivations, such as those embraced by individuals. However, on the collective social level, the war was planned and executed at a fixed date, in conformity to engineered projects, plans, and calculations. In other words, the war focused on “rational” and extra-moral or religious factors, the target being the political control of Iraq and the Middle East. This example is worth mentioning as an illustration of the type of rationalization specifically occidental, mentioned by Max Weber and others, which parades as well as shelters under the guise of Christianity or western ethics. There is not much evidence of the clash of values here. The problem seems to be rather simpler. The Arab and the Muslim Worlds do not mind American and European values, but they cannot stand American policies and by extension these policies when embraced or tolerated by Europeans. Explaining Syrian apathy toward Lebanon: Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian reporter, tries to explain to his Lebanese readers why Syrians don't take the side of the Lebanese against their government. He writes that: "With the exception of a very small number of people at the very top of the political leadership in Damascus, the general attitude of Syrians toward what goes on in Lebanon is characterized by a lack of concern, even bewilderment." Only a very small group of Syrians objects to Syria's domination of Lebanon, he states. The vast majority of Syrians ignore Lebanon and the half-million or so Syrians who work there, are largely from the countryside and poor. Their attitudes toward Lebanon "are similar to those in the rest of Syria, but more extreme. To the peasant from the Hawran or the Jazeera, Lebanon is not only a place characterized by pleasure seeking and over-indulgence that he neither understands nor feels at home with, it is also a country that denigrates and fails to respect him. Syrian laborers, who find that their own country cannot employ them all, but who are also downtrodden in Lebanon, have no incentive to change the hegemonic relationship between Syria and Lebanon." Another reason for Syrian silence on the situation in Lebanon, the author notes, is not "because we are feigning innocence, but because we lack confidence in both ourselves and our regime."
This public attitude results from a variety of factors, namely alienation from and fear of the regime, an inability to understand why it behaves the way it does, and a realization that the ruling elite only acts to further its own interests and to prolong its time in power. Within this context, Syrian military and security hegemony over Lebanon is still, until today, shrouded in the frightening considerations buttressing the regime in Syria - those of "national security," "high matters of national interest," as well as fear and secrecy. And despite the fact that the climate of fear that had inhibited the discussion of internal Syrian political matters has ebbed in recent years, this impression, particularly when compared to the freedom of speech enjoyed by Syrian writers in the Lebanese press, is overstated.
An even more compelling reason for the lack of concern for Lebanese issues in Syria is probably a lack of public awareness. There is nothing in the psychological make-up of Syrians, or in their living memory, that allows them to fall back on a previous time when their country ruled over another. That's because such a reality is in stark contradiction with contemporary Syrian history, which has been distinguished by the fact that it is others who have imposed hegemony over Syria. It is normal that this sentiment should have provoked a sense of victimhood, a psychological state that has brought about a disregard for facts and prevented Syrians from considering the potentially hegemonic relationships in which their country has played an active part (whether with respect to Syria's Kurds, Palestinians, or, in the past, the Palestinian Liberation Organization). Official statements aside, independent analyses of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship tend to focus on the dangers that Israel poses and on the intricate religious and sectarian dimensions of Lebanon as the defining characteristics of this relationship. Clearly, however, these two characteristics serve to defend the status quo in the relationship rather than provoke its reconsideration.
It is bad news for Lebanon. It seems that Bashar al-Asad will insist that Lahoud have a second term of three or four years. The constitution will not be changed. Evidently the head of the Maronite Church Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir was opposed to the notion of changing the constitution and chose the lesser evil of prolonging Lahood’s term for three or four years - the same as was done for President Elias Hraoui in 1995.
He said that under such critical circumstances, Syria's allies ought to stay united to face all dangers. He also said that the nature of the regional battle led by Syria requires that Lahoud would direct the Syrian alliance in Lebanon.
Bashar painted a dire picture of two choices for politicians in the region, according to those who had been in negotiations in Damascus: either they are with Syria during its time of trial and need, or they are with America and France, which are opposed to the Syrian camp. It is therefore up to Syria's allies in Lebanon to opt for one of these two alternatives.
Zeina Abu Rizk has written an interesting article in the Daily Star on the behind the scene negotiations. It will be a sad day in Lebanon. Just as the Lebanese were beginning to regain their self-confidence as a nation, they are reminded of their unhappy reliance on Syria. Many deputies have already begun to speak out in Syria's favor, formost is Kandil.
Many Lebanese will undoubtedly be torn between two emotions. On the one hand they will curse their politicians who have rolled over and negotiated this compromise with Damascus, for being spineless. On the other hand, some will find hope in adversity and begin plotting how Damascus may have overplayed its hand. Perhaps it will galvanize the Lebanese resistance?
Some my calculate that:
In the end, it's still important that the Lebanese are unafraid to voice their displeasure. Syria's heavy handedness could lead to many more wins on the local level for the opposition. If Jumblat actually sticks with the opposition he can hurt both Lahoud and Hizbullah (who are the new Syrian allies now in cahoots with each other) in the Shouf and Baabda area elections, where without his help they would have lost to the Aounist candidate. Perhaps Jumbatt will once again try a rapprochement with the Maronites and the Christian opposition.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who insisted that he would not go along a constitutional amendment some days ago, had his Thursday meeting with Assad cancelled.
But even were Jumblatt to tempt the fates and his father's memory by rebuilding the Christian-Druze alliance that gave some backbone to the Lebanese state in the pre-civil war days, it would not be enough. The political balance of power has turned so much in Lebanon since the 1960s. The Shiites present a totally new force that makes the old calculus inoperative. The Sunnis would have to get on board with the Christians as well.
Everyone in Lebanon is waiting to hear from Harriri. The bets are that he will deliver the Sunnis to Damascus if he is given another term along with Lahoud. Then the Christian opposition will be caught out in the cold, just as it has been since Taif. Jumblatt's sympathies will be small consolation.
Nevertheless, Syria will pay a price for this. The US will be raging mad at Bashar for embarrassing them yet again. Only days ago, a team of congressmen asked Bashar not to do this. The US it is still trying to push "Democracy now" in the Middle East. Bashar's fiddle in Lebanon will underline, once again, how nothing seems to be going Washington's way in the region - certainly not democracy.
The Syrian Reform Party
The following Article, published in the Harvard Political Review, gives the best description of the activities of the Syria Reform Party, the Washington based Syrian opposition party. (Because access to the article requires registration, I have copied the whole thing here.)
The author claims that the Syrian Reform Party rejects violence, but it must be remembered that it also supports regime-change as the only viable path forward for Syria, which is a polite way of saying it advocates violent change. A number of key administration figures, led by Rumsfeld, gave it a lot of attention following the invasion of Iraq and during the run up to the imposition of the Syrian Accountability Act this spring, but as Bosco writes in his article, key CIA and State Department people are very skeptical of its intelligence claims, seeing in Ghadry another Chalabi. Many view the notion of regime-change in Syria as highly unrealistic or just a bad idea. In the wake of the Iraq fiasco, Washington interest in the SRP has plummeted. Nevertheless, with rising tensions between Washington and Damascus, the SRP may make a come back, especially if Bashar stumbles, hence it is wise to keep an eye on SRP activities. SRP's big claim for the future seems to rest on its efforts to get "Radio Free Syria" up and running, but from exploring its website, which has many broken links, pages "under construction," and no streaming sound for the radio broadcasts, The SRP it appears moribund.
The Syrian Domino?
By Stephen Bosco
Exiles' efforts to increase global pressure on Damascus have yet to meet with success. Published on Tuesday, May 4, 2004
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and President Bush's explicit call for political reform in the Middle East last fall, few issues have as much currency as the progress of democratization in the Islamic world. In his speech at the National Endowment for Democracy last November, Bush outlined a bold "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East, committing the United States to a long-term effort to promote democracy in the region.
Directly repudiating decades of U.S. policy in the region, Bush argued that "60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe-because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of freedom." Democracy promotion, Bush's address suggested, is no longer simply a goal of U.S. policy in the Middle East, it is the goal.One organization that appears singularly well-placed to benefit from this new American emphasis on Middle Eastern political liberalization is the relatively new Reform Party of Syria. Founded by a group of Syrian and Lebanese expatriates in October 2001, the RPS has one overriding goal: bringing democracy and human rights to Syria.
Grass-Roots for the Desert
RPS members, as described on the group's website (reformsyria.com), are "secular, peace-committed American-Syrians, Euro-Syrians, and native Syrians who are determined to see that a 'New Syria' is reborn that embraces real democratic and economic reforms." The party's founders saw a direct connection between authoritarian regimes like Bashar Al-Asad's Ba'athist dictatorship, and the strength of the terror networks behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Anticipating many of the points in Bush's speech by two years, the RPS founders were and are convinced that political liberalization in places such as Syria would be an irreplaceable element of any campaign to end Islamic terrorism.
From modest origins, the party has expanded steadily in its two-and-one half years on the Beltway scene. The RPS president, Washington-area businessman Farid Ghadry, has appeared on an increasing number of radio and television programs to make the case for increased American pressure upon the Syrian government. What's more, in November 2003, the RPS helped organize the first conference of the Syria Democratic Coalition, a group of organizations devoted to ending the Ba'athist autocracy in Syria. This past January, the Coalition held a second conference in Brussels whose 17 participating organizations included eight that refused to release their names for fear of reprisal by the Syrian government.
The participation of these clandestine groups indicates that at least some semblance of pro-democracy opposition has begun to form within Syria itself; indeed, the RPS' own membership, according to an HPR interview with RPS official Oubai Shahbandar, includes several hundred people currently living in Syria. Shahbandar also noted that the RPS supported and had prior knowledge of a Damascus pro-democracy demonstration on March 8, 2004. The demonstration involved just 25 individuals, and its participants were swiftly arrested; it was significant, nonetheless, because such public displays of opposition toward the government have been virtually unheard of within Syria.
Political action along these lines is central to the RPS' short-term planning. The RPS hopes that larger, more frequent demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience will attract world attention and convince Syrians that they have the strength to challenge their own government. The RPS is also poised to launch "Radio Free Syria," an independent, privately financed radio station broadcast out of Cyprus that will provide Syrians with a non-state-controlled source of information. According to an RPS press release, Radio Free Syria will argue for democracy while "mak[ing] it clear to Syrians that the Ba'athist policies have no hope of improving [Syrian] economic, political, and social stagnation" and emphasizing "the need for a true and lasting peace with all of our neighbors based on equal rights and respect." The RPS sees its radio station as a vital tool in its effort to build viable domestic opposition to the current Syrian regime.
A Legitimacy Gap?
The relative strength and future potential of this in-country opposition heavily influences perceptions of the RPS in policy-making and scholarly communities in Europe and the United States. The notion that regime change in a nation like Syria would lead to democratic governance is frequently regarded with suspicion. As one U.S. Defense Department official told the HPR, "prevailing wisdom in the USG [United States government] has been that Islamists would stand a good chance of stepping into a void left by the [removal of the Al-Asad regime]." Many in U.S. foreign policy circles, moreover, particularly within the State Department and intelligence communities, are currently quite wary of "exile-led" advocacy groups. These skeptics attribute the Iraq Survey Group's failure to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq, as well as the allegedly inadequate coalition preparation for post-war violence and instability, to an over-reliance on information provided by Iraqi exile organizations. The members of exile groups have often been absent from their home countries for so long, the argument goes, that they have neither the legitimacy in these countries nor the up-to-date knowledge of their social and political situations requisite for effecting real change. The United States, skeptics contend, has little to gain by publicly identifying itself with such groups and much to lose in terms of compromised relationships and cooperation with the governments in question.
The RPS leadership counters that the repressive nature of Syria's vast police apparatus makes foreign-based organizations "essential to any serious attempt at political reform within Syria," in Mr. Shahbandar's words. The RPS also strongly takes issue with the notion that U.S. security, ideals, and interests are better served by working with the current government in Syria. Such arguments, Shahandar suggested, ignore the reality that in the Middle East, "terrorism and despotism are two heads of the same body." He pointed out the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Asad continues to occupy Lebanon in clear violation of U.N. resolutions, provides funding and weapons for the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, and has maintained its support-despite strong American pressure-for Palestinian terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The RPS highlights Syria's seemingly willful failure to act against the large numbers of militants who have crossed into Iraq in order fight American troops and commit acts of terrorism. Such militants died in large numbers during the initial phases of the Iraq conflict, but remaining foreign terrorists are thought to be behind many recents attacks against American troops and Iraqi civilians. A "policy of half-measures" against such clear malevolence to the United States, Shahbandar argued, will strengthen and legitimize Ba'athist rule and undermine American security.
Looking Long Term
As compatible as RPS goals appear to be with President Bush's stated objective of promoting democracy in the Middle East, it is by no means clear-in the short term, at least-that the Bush administration will exert the type of pressure on Al-Asad that the RPS seeks. Though the recent passing of the Syria Accountability Act makes some sanctions on Damascus appear imminent, there are also signs that the United States is backing away from some of the more ambitious elements of its vision for a democratic Middle East. The New York Times, for example, reported on March 12 that the Bush administration, "yielding to pressure from European and Arab leaders, has set aside its plan to issue a sweeping call for economic, political, and cultural reform in the Middle East." As described in the article, diplomats from European and Middle Eastern nations believe that aggressive American democracy promotion will only alienate the many Arabs who bristle at external, paternalistic efforts at altering their political systems. The pressures of an election year, moreover, play a role in limiting direct American engagement with democracy promotion groups such as the RPS.
The administration's current emphasis is very much on resolving unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan, while managing ongoing diplomatic confrontations with North Korea and Iran. Any significant escalation of Bush administration pressure on Syria, then, will most likely come in a second term, if at all. Whatever the similarities between Bush and Ghadry in their rhetoric and stated objectives, for the time being at least, the possibility of real cooperation between the United States and the Reform Party of Syria seems remote.
Fantasies of impending peace negotiations have been sparked among some journalists by recent moves in Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. The comment by Israeli Chief of Staff Yaalon (quoted in my last post) that Israel can defend itself happily without the Golan sparked speculation in Israel that perhaps Sharon was sending up a trial balloon for renewing negotiations with his nemesis Syria. When Yaalon's remarks were added to Vice PM Olmert's balloon about Israel needing to relinquish 80% of the West Bank and Likud's recent vote blocking any future coalition with Labor, speculators put 2 and 2 together to imagine that the US may be agitating for renewed peace negotiations.
In Lebanon, their is a new wrinkle in the Lahoud story (Will Syria force through a second, unconstitutional, term for its man in Beirut, President Emil Lahoud). When Suleiman Franjia maintained after a recent meeting with Bashar al-Asad, that Lahoud's chances of being reelected as President had risen from 20% to 60%, the Lebanese all began reading the tealeaves. Michael Young's always incisive imagination was sparked, leading to this article in the Daily Star. Speaking of the Syrian's Michael writes:
Their noisy support for Lahoud may be a way of driving a bargain with the Bush administration, perhaps when Syrian and American representatives meet on Aug. 27 in Rome. The American response will likely be a brush-off, since the Syrians are unwilling to give the US what it really wants. [What do they really want, Michael? I can't figure it out.] Genuine negotiations must await the November US election, and if any deal is to be made, which is far from certain, it will rise above the tenant of Baabda; it will include Syria's giving up its domination of Lebanon and support for Hizbullah, in exchange for negotiations on the future of the Golan.
Throughout the 1990s, as they talked with Israel, the Syrians never accepted this equation. Hafiz Assad always sought a comprehensive agreement that would compel Israel to return the Golan to him in its entirety (which new talks "from scratch" could undermine), while Syria would also retain overpowering influence in Lebanon. Washington appears dead set against any such arrangement. However, Israel might see the benefits of compensating Syria for a limited pullout from the Golan by helping it find a long-term role for itself in Lebanon.
For the moment, this is just mental foreplay. Even the statement by Israel's chief-of-staff, Moshe Yaalon that his country could defend itself without the Golan will not change much. Syria needs regional relevance, and the only ones playing along are its pitiful partisans in Lebanon. That's why it is ironic that if anyone pays the price of a Syrian extension of Lahoud's mandate, it will be those very partisans who have
offered their country up as Syria's ticket to regional significance.
Michael is right that Syria's partisans in Lebanon will suffer the most if they have to usher a change of the constitution through parliament in order to get Lahoud reelected. Junbalat has already fired a warning shot.
Walid Junblat has effectively warned Syria that keeping Lahoud in power for a new term would amount to a disaster that leaves Lebanonfraying in depression. "An Extension for Lahoud and for Premier Hariri for six more years is a catastrophe," Junblat said in an interview splashed across the front-page of As Safir Friday. "Respecting the constitution means no extension as a matter of principle."
Junblat said "it is important that we aren't told that it is Lahoud or else…this will be an insult to us." The leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, which holds three cabinet seats in Hariri's current 30-man government, reiterated that he would not join the government if Lahoud's term is extended, even if Hariri is retained as prime minister. (Thanks for sending this, Tony and the Nahar article below.)
Syria will pay a high price for fiddling with Lebanon's constitution. Young speculates that Bashar's interest in having Lahoud reelected is tied to US pressure for negotiations on the Golan and a Lebanon withdrawal. Abdullah Alahmar, Assistant Secretary General of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, said that Ya'alon's remarks were "active", but Syria would continue to observe "whether the Israelis were sincere or only kind of rhetorics".
Zeina Abu Rizk of the Daily Star, claims that some Lebanese "politicians believe that Assad's early move was the result of a deadlock in the US-Syrian negotiations. The Syrians may have come to the conclusion that they will not get anything from Washington in return for picking up a new president in accordance with the Lebanese Constitution, which is why they publicly started showing their preference for Lahoud. For its part, Washington may find it more interesting to let Damascus commit a constitutional mistake and later hold it responsible for it. "
Samir Qasir, writing in today's al-Nahar also takes Bashar to task, claiming he is blind to the realities around him. Of course he can humiliate and marginalize the "nationalist" politicians in Lebanon that his father created. He can do whatever he wants in Lebanon and no one can lift a finger to stop him. He can even grind their faces in the mud to show America who is boss, perhaps in the misguided belief that Washington will negotiate with him to save Lebanon. Qasir argues, however, that this would be the worst possible choice for Syria because it would reduce Syria to the smallest kind of nation. The US would not negotiate and Bashar would only have succeeded in destroying his own house. Qasir even suggests that Bashar is not the "real leader" in Syria and perhaps that is why he acts so arbitrarily in Lebanon, to disguise his impotence at home. Qasir argues that there is no honor in humiliating one's servants. His anger gives us a hint at what anger Bashar will stir up should he mess with Lebanon's constitution.
Azme Bashara, the Palestinian-Israeli MP, believes there is nothing new in Yaalon's remarks. He writes that any speculation about an improved Israeli attitude toward talks with Syria is deceptive. He believes that Israel and the US will go to war against Iran eventually. In a recent al-Ahram article, he argues:
Apart from the fact that [Yaalon's remark about the Golan] was issued in the context of Sharon's silent treatment towards Syria and expectations of what US pressures on Damascus might bring, the statement contains nothing new. This was always the position of the Israeli military establishment on Golan. At the time of Barak and Netanyahu, then chief of Israeli Military Intelligence Uri Saghi campaigned to revive negotiations with Syria on the basis of returning the Golan in exchange for peace. Rabin and Barak, who were the most prominent representatives of the military establishment in government since the founding of Israel declared their approval of a complete withdrawal from Golan to the borders of 4 June 1967. What was always missing was the ultimate political resolve.
According to prominent Israeli journalists, such as Raviv Drucker in his book, Hara-kiri, on the rise and fall of Barak, Barak eventually altered his position on the Golan. In the Wye River negotiations (December 1999-January 2000) he started out with a clear intent to negotiate on the basis of a full withdrawal from the Golan but soon retracted his position when he caught sight of public opinion polls. In his narcissistic
memoirs, Bill Clinton confirms the Syrian account of this development and belies that of Barak, almost in so many words.
No one bothered to apologize to Syria for blaming it for the collapse of the negotiations. Those commentators who let their antipathy towards Syria make them lose sight of the fact that Syria is the victim of armed aggression, with a large chunk of its territory under occupation and that it is weighed down by national and regional responsibilities with regard to how it handles this situation. They simply do not want to mention Syria in any positive light.
It wasn't Syria that was the object of Clinton's anger that fateful day in Geneva. Rather the resentful glare of all, including Clinton and Albright, was directed at the "champion of peace", Barak (who was not there, of course). At least the Arabs did not reproach Syria, as some of them reproached the Palestinians for having had the audacity to turn down the "deal" Barak offered in Camp David.
According to Itamar Rabinovich who headed the Israeli negotiating team in the days of Rabin and Peres, the greatest breakthrough in the negotiations occurred in August 1993 with the issuing of the deposit, which he terms the "non- Paper". Syria regards this document, whose existence is recognised by the US, as the point at which negotiations with Israel must be resumed. In 1999, Barak agreed to abide by it.
Rabinovich mentions further progress on the Syrian-Israeli track in 1995. Nevertheless, Peres called a halt to these negotiations following a wave of bombings in February and March 1996. It appears that the bombings themselves were merely a pretext; Peres and his advisors had certain qualms regarding Syria's regional role and simultaneously felt that they could make quicker progress on the Palestinian track, operating under the mistaken presumption that progress on one track undermines progress on the other. Ultimately, however, the issue boiled down once more to the lack of political resolve and domestic political considerations inside Israel.
It was as clear then as it is today that the resolution of any Israeli-Syrian negotiations entails the restitution of the Golan to Syria. Sharon was put in such an awkward position by the peaceful overtures made by the Syrian president in an interview with The New York Times in December 2003. When pressed by a parliamentary committee as to why he had ignored the initiative, he was forced to respond that he had chosen to remain silent because the resumption of negotiations with Syria meant returning to pre-June 1967 borders. If he had to enter into negotiations with Syria, he added, they would have to begin at zero.
So, Ya'alon offered no startling revelations regarding the Syrian track. Nevertheless, his remarks were taken as a peace gesture towards Syria and it is probably only a question of time before someone faults Damascus for failing to return the complement.
Israel has obstructed every political agreement, either because the government felt that it could never get the support of the Israeli people (as though democracy gives Israel the right to annex any land between Pakistan and Morocco as long as the majority of the Israeli people vote for it) or because, even in the Rabin era, it expected more from Syria than just "normal" peaceful relations. Of course there will always be Arabs who agree. After all, they would argue, why should Syria be prevented from changing its role and joining the American camp so that it could work to spread stability and democracy just like the current government of Iraq?
It is not useful to allow his remarks to drive us to ecstasy over some "new" Israeli position, as some thrilled over Sharon's deceptive approval of the roadmap. There is no new position, not even a budge.
The US and Israel are working their way up to another war. It might be in a year, it might be in 10, but the Iranian question is the way. Every interview and every statement by Israeli and US officials seem to point in that direction. The details are not always important. What is important to the strategists is building up Iran as the focal concern in the region as they did with Iraq. If Syria is threatened in the process, its only possible response is to cling to fundamental positions on national and Arab issues (even the Israeli chief-of-staff recognises Syria's right to Golan). It will have to step up and expand a political and economic reform process that will mobilise the social, economic and political creativity of Syrians towards the development and consolidation of the state and society, and it will have to strengthen its alliance with the whole of, not just part of, Lebanese state and society. Syria should be looking for allies not collaborators, and there are a lot of them around.
The notion that the US administration would propose a real peace plan for the region is attractive. It would give Bush a new profile as a possible peacemaker and electrify the region, allowing US allies among the Arab countries to breath more easily and say that America is not all bad. It would give Allawi in Iraq a big boost for the same reason. It would give a boost to Labor in Israel and Perez's call for new elections. If Sharon could get on board, it could even give his plan of unilateral withdrawal a boost. By offering Syria the Golan in exchange for Lebanon withdrawal, he could neutralize Arab criticism of his West Bank policy. The Palestinians are in such disarray that they would be in no position to do much about it. Jordan and Egypt and even Saudi would be back in business as helpful brokers and hand holders.
This, of course, is fantasy. Bush is not a peacemaker. He is too wedded to his vision of punishing Syria and Arab nationalists. He is too beholden to Sharon's tough talk. Washington's recent acceptance of Sharon's West Bank expansion plans proves this yet again. Sharon is cut from a similar mold. He doesn't have the imagination or desire to deal with Arab nationalists as people with legitimate concerns and aspirations.
Yaalon's remarks were meant to impact internal Israeli politics as Sharon's position weakens. Sharon was very forthright it declaring that he has zero interest in the Syria file at this time and is focused on his Gaza deal.
Syria and the US are playing hardball as the war of nerves between them escalates. Perhaps Bashar just wants to send a message to Washington that it has complete mastery over Lebanon and can do what it wishes there. If Syria should persist in making Lahoud President for a second time, it will only damage its own position. I suspect Syria is only showing its teeth in the face of recent US tough talk about Lebanon.
I can't really see what the US can do to hurt Syria further. Any attempt to cut Iraq-Syrian trade would hurt Iraq more than Syria. Hurting Lebanon would push many Lebanese closer to Syria and only punish the victim. Europe recently said it is closing in on finalizing the Madrid process and the EU trade pact with Syria. They don't want to play Washington's game of punish Syria. European countries don't see Syria as a big problem in the region. They are more inclined to see the US and Israel as the problems. I suppose the US could encourage Israel to strike out at Hizballah or even at Syria itself. But this has been done before and wouldn't really change anything beyond making Arabs mad. The Lebanese Christians are powerless to clamp down on Hizballah. They would end up being hurt by Israeli action against Lebanon more than Syria would be. The US has zero leverage with the Syrian opposition and can't stir things up internally in Syria. It could give more money to Farid Ghadry and the exiles, but they are losers and it would just be a waste of taxpayer money. Washington could cut off all diplomatic relations, which would upset Syria and inconvenience many people, but Washington needs the phone lines open.
Washington has run out of good options for punishing Syria. That is why fantasizing about a Bush revolution, revived peace talks, and a Golan deal is therapeutic. What does Washington have to lose?
Aktham Naisse was released on $200 bail this weekend. He is the head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights who was arrested in April after publishing a report on human rights in Syria and leading a campaign urging an end to 40 years of emergency law. He was charged with tarnishing the country's image. US officials, among others, have focused on his case to highlight the oppressive and arbitrary character of the Syrian regime. Bashar, who has been releasing hundreds of political prisoners of late in an attempt to take away the political prisoner issue from his detractors, may have decided Naisse's detention was too politically costly and undercut the message of reconciliation and mercy he is trying to get out.
"It was a surprise, a positive one though." one of Naisse's attorneys, Anwar Bunni, said after the court session. "He will still have to stand trial. The next session was set for October." If convicted, Naisse, 53, could be sentenced to between three years and life in prison.
"I will persist, and no one has asked me to stop. They (the authorities) are fully aware that I will never retreat," Naisse noted. "The current circumstances are conducive for more respect of human rights and for more pressure for democratic initiatives," he added. He said he expects to be sentenced to a three-year prison term when his trial convenes Oct. 24.
US pressure has created a very favorable environment in Syria for the release of political prisoners and internal reconciliation. This is perhaps the one good thing to come out of the ongoing war of nerves being waged between Washington and Damascus. Bashar has been able to neutralize Syria's opposition groups and call for national reconciliation in the face of "American hegemonic designs" on the region. The Syrian government has successfully painted the US as the oppressor of the Syrian and Arab "everyman," such that the Syrian opposition, whether Kurd, Communist, Muslim Brother, Civil Society advocates, or what-have-you have been forced to close ranks with the government in denouncing US policy toward Damascus and Iraq. This closing of ranks gives Bashar the opportunity to pardon prisoners and show that he is reaching out to his opponents, further undercutting the popular legitimacy of any radical action or demands by opposition members.
By severely limiting the field of action of the Syrian opposition, Washington is helping prisoners of conscience and, and oddly enough, Bashar. This is not the intended result of the architects of Washington's present policy of pressuring Syria economically and politically. The original plan was to bring down the Syrian regime in an effort to transform the region.
It is important to remind ourselves how Washington got itself into this war of nerves with Syria. At the moment Washington seems to be at war with itself over future policy toward the region. Some in the administration and within the various branches of government - intelligence, State, and Defense, who never bought into the neocon vision in the first place - are arguing for a major rethink of US objectives in the Middle East in light of failure in Iraq. But the neocons are tenacious and unprepared to throw in the towel on their original plans. They still see success coming out of Iraq, continue to enjoy the support of President Bush, and are pushing for more regional change, faster. That is where Syria comes in and why reading US policy motives there is anything but simple. The policy is confusing because Washington is confused.
The neocons still want what they wanted at the start of the war - a "clean break." James Bamford gives a summary of the original objectives of the neocons in his recent book, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies. He writes:
The Blueprint for the new Bush policy had actually been drawn up five years earlier by three of his top national security advisors. Soon to be appointed to senior administration positions, they were Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser. Ironically, the plan was originally intended not for Bush but for another world leader, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.At the time, the three officials were out of government and working for conservative pro-Israel think tanks. ... A Key part of the plan was to get the United States to pull out of peace negotiations and simply let Israel take care of the Palestinians as it saw fit. "Israel," said the report, "can manage its own affairs. Such self-reliance will grant Israel greater freedom of action...But the centerpiece of their recommendations was the removal of Saddam Hussein as the first step in remaking the Middle East into a region friendly, instead of hostile, to Israel. Their plan, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," also signaled a radical departure from the peace-oriented policies of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin...As part of their "grand strategy," they recommended that once Iraq was conquered and Saddam Hussein overthrown, he should be replaced by a puppet leader friendly to Israel. "Whoever inherits Iraq," they wrote, "dominates the entire Levant strategically." They suggested that Syria would be the next country to be invaded. "Israel can shape its strategic environment," they said. This would be done, they recommended to Netanyahu, "by reestablishing the principle of preemption" and by rolling back" its Arab neighbors. From then on, the principle would be to strike first and expand, a dangerous and provocative change in philosophy. They recommended launching a major unprovoked regional war in the Middle East, attacking Lebanon and Syria and ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Then, to gain the support of the American government and public, a phony pretext would be used as the reason for the original invasion.The recommendation of Feith, Perle and Wurmser was for Israel to once again invade Lebanon with air strikes. But this time, to counter potentially hostile reactions from the American government and public, they suggested using a pretext. They would claim that the purpose of the invasion was to halt "Syria's drug money and counterfeiting infrastructure" located there. They were subjects in which Israel had virtually no interest, but they were ones, they said, "with which America can sympathize." Another way to win American support for a preemptive war against Syria, they suggested, was by "drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction program." The claim would be that Israel's war was really all about protecting Americans from drugs, counterfeit bills, and WMD - nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons....Once inside Lebanon, Israel could let loose - to begin "engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iraq, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon." They would widen the war even further by using proxy forces - Lebanese militia fighters acting on Israel's behalf (as Ariel Sharon had done in the 1980s) - to invade Syria "by establishing the precedent that Syrian territory is not immune to attacks emanating from Lebanon by Israeli proxy forces."As soon as that fighting started, they advised, Israel could begin "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at selected targets in Syria proper. [emphasis in original]."Years later, [they would use this method] to justify their own Middle East war; Iraq would simply replace Syria and the United States would replace Israel.
Although Netanyahu rejected the task force's plan for a bloody war that would get rid of Saddam Hussein and also change the face of Syria and Lebanon, writes Bamford, Bush was receptive and incorporated much of their preemptive war strategy as his own in order to "correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict," George W. stated.
Although the neocons have lost a lot of support within Washington as Iraq has turned sour and other, more realistic, policy makers are beginning to push for more modest goals in the region and for US re-engagement in peace negotiations to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the neocons continue to agitate for more dramatic action toward Syria, the "low hanging fruit." [See my march article on US policy toward Syria.]
For an example of the continuing call for action against Syria, see yesterday's article by Michael Ladeen in the National Review. He tops off this week's spin by insisting that Hizballah is really the paymaster and "operational glue that binds together the various terrorist factions on the ground in Iraq." Of course Hizballah is controlled by Syria and Iran, which Ladeen assures us is "the organizing center" or "directorate" of the "regional war" we are fighting. Iran and Syria have mapped out a master plan to drive the US from Iraq, and they are directing the Iraqi resistance movement and terror organizations of the region. In fact, there are no autonomous or individual terror organizations such as al-Qa'ida, the Zarqawi group, or Hizballah, Ladeen argues, just one big enemy coordinated by Iran and its henchman, Syria. If we can liberate those two countries, we can win. Our quagmire in Iraq will quickly come to a happy resolution and the peoples of the entire region will rise up to celebrate democracy, freedom and apple pie. It won't be hard to win, he continues. "We could liberate Iran in a matter of a few months. And if Iran falls, Syria will most likely come right alongside."
The drug smuggling of the 1990s and counterfeiting are no longer major concerns and cannot be used as a pretext to interest Americans in action against Syria. Today the focus is on the Lebanon occupation, WMD, Palestinian terror groups, political repression in Syria and, the important new issue, securing the Iraq border. The new Iran nuclear scare would seemingly help Syria by moving it down on the US priority list. This isn't the case though. The neocons have been reinvigorated by the Iranian Nuclear mess. If they can mobilize the US to take action against Iran, perhaps Syria can be folded into the general hit list.
This is what Ladeen is after, by arguing that Hizballah is actually the master terrorist group, not Bin Laden, he brings the focus back to Lebanon and Syria. It is also the reason he tries so hard to discredit recent reports that al-Qa'ida is not a centralized organization, but rather has continued more as an idea, giving legitimacy and an ideological focus to what has become a diffuse collection of autonomous or loosely related terrorist groups. Richard Armitage was picking up on this argument a year ago when he announced that Hizballah was the "A" team of terrorism, whereas, al-Qa'ida was only the "B" team.
Richard Armitage's statement a week ago that the US was preparing "a more draconian sanctions regime" for Syria may spell the beginning of a new round of tensions between Syria and the US. The Washington Times, a main outlet for neocon opinions and unnamed sources at the Defense Department, carried an article yesterday entitled, "Saddam agents on Syria border helped move banned materials" by Rowan Scarborough. The article resurrects all the old accusations about Syria taking in Iraq's WMD. The only new material in the article is that some Iraqi border guards have confessed that "Saddam Hussein periodically removed guards on the Syrian border and replaced them with his own intelligence agents who supervised the movement of banned materials between the two countries." This meaningless information gives the author the opportunity to renew old allegations that Bashar was in cahoots with Saddam.
Vincent Battle, the departing US ambassador to Lebanon, renewed calls on Monday for Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon, 48 hours after a US Congress delegation made a similar plea.
He said it "was time the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon" He added that differences between Washington and Beirut were growing over the question of southern Lebanon and the Syrian-backed Shiite Hezbollah militia which holds sway there and is branded a "terrorist organization" by the US government. "We have begun talks with the Lebanese government with a view to deploying the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon and disarming Hezbollah, but they haven't brought about a result for the time being," Battle added.
US lawmakers led by Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, announced as they were leaving Lebanon for Damascus yesterday: “We will talk with President Bashar about the Syrian government’s interference in Lebanon ... and we will be discussing our concerns about weapons of mass destruction in the region, the situation at the border between Syria and Iraq, and the support of extremists by the Syrian government.” After Shay's talks with Bashar al-Asad, Shay made no pronouncements about Lebanon, however. The Syrians insisted their talks centered on the Iraq situation and US-Syrian dialogue. Meanwhile, Lebanese from every sector of society and several presidential hopefuls condemned the US and Shays' visit and intentions. For their actual words, see the interesting article in the Daily Star.
Something new is going on in Israel, however.
Ze'ev Schiff wrote in Haaretz on 16/08/2004 that the top brass of the IDF is pressuring Israel's politicians to resume talks with Bashar. "IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon is essentially recommending a return to Yitzhak Rabin's position," Schiff writes.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad reiterated in January 2004 that he was willing to resume negotiations with Israel, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom approached Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and recommended not rejecting Assad's proposal. Sharon's response was: Is the price clear to you? He wants the Golan Heights and I am not willing.
The Israel Defense Forces agreed with Shalom. So did Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, as did head of Military Intelligence Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash. Both of them doubted Assad's offer was serious. They knew the Iranians were pressuring him not to hold talks with Israel. But the IDF top brass believed that if it became clear Assad meant what he said, that would be good. And if the whole thing was only a gimmick to remove American pressure, well, it would be good to reveal the gimmick for what it was.
The IDF holds the opinion - also found in the recently published memoirs of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and of U.S. special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross - that Israel is at fault for the failure of the talks with the Syrians at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000, and that at that time it would have been possible to reach an agreement with Hafez Assad, the father of the current president.
Last weekend Ya'alon did something else that raised eyebrows in the Arab world as well. He told Yaron London in an interview for Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth that if the political leadership reaches a peace agreement Syria in which it gives up the Golan Heights, the IDF will be able to defend Israel without the Golan.
Syria belittled Ya'alon's remarks, claiming that Israeli's political leadership would have to state unambiguously that it was ready to return the Golan in order to impress Syria. Other Syrian commentators suggested Israel is just playing Washington politics as usual during presidential election time or that it is trying to get cover for an eventual strike against Iran's nuclear development sites.
On another front, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claims that Washington is placing considerable pressure on Israel to begin peace talks with the Palestinians again and to give up settlements.
"In the future there will be a need to evacuate more settlements in the West Bank - not because it's just, but because there is no choice if we want to remain a Jewish and democratic state," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert's office quoted him as telling settler leaders.
Olmert, who is close to Sharon and has often floated ideas at the prime minister's behest, said dismantling settlements in the West Bank would prevent Israel from becoming a pariah state. "The United States is virtually our only friend so we must remember that it too supports a withdrawal almost to the borders of 1967," said Olmert, referring to the lines Israel held before it captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.
Olmert has said in the past that Israel would eventually have to remove tens of thousands of the 230,000 settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His latest comments indicated the possibility the disengagement plan, which calls for uprooting all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank, may be followed by a more extensive withdrawal.
Two things seem to be going on in Israel. First, the Israelis are divided over how to proceed with the Palestinian issue and Syrian issue. The success of Sharon's policy of expansion in the West Bank has forced many Israeli realists to question anew how they will rule Palestinians without destroying Israel and how they will come to terms with their Arab neighbors.
The second is that the United States may actually be altering its Israel policy and readying itself to revitalize the peace talks. Those who never believed that the road to Jerusalem passed through Baghdad may be on the offensive again, arguing that the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem. If the US has any hope of calming down the Iraq situation and defusing the deep distrust of most Arabs, it must show a creditable effort to adjudicate between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than just leave the Palestinians to the tender mercies of the Israeli right.
So what does this all mean for Syria? Damascus is undoubtedly as confused as any observer would be in trying to figure out what the US really wants. Are its complaints about WMD and Lebanon really only a pretext for neocon hostility? Do their hopes for another opportunity to carry out regime-change in Damascus still carry weight in Washington?
Not even the Lebanese seem to take Washington seriously any more. That is the significance of the anti-US remarks made by the many Maronites who recently entertained Senator Christopher Shays and his delegation. Surely, they would all be happy for Syria to decamp from their country, but they know that to go out on a limb for Washington is foolishness. Syria would punish them and Washington would stand by and watch. That is the gist of Patrick Seale's report in today's Daily Star. He writes:
"There are no secrets or surprises in Lebanon's political life," an eminent Lebanese journalist said to me the other day. "Decisions are made in Damascus. Politics are reduced to local squabbles between president, prime minister and speaker of Parliament. Nothing much takes place except that the national debt has soared to above $35 billion. No one cares about Lebanon any more. It has slipped out of the world's consciousness."
The Lebanese know Washington is posturing. Damascus suspects the same. But there is always the possibility that Washington will learn from its Iraq lesson and return to its customary realism. Perhaps the remarks of Israeli politicians should give it some hope that Washington is preparing to engage in constructive dialog with Damascus? Maybe Washington now realizes that Bashar is here to stay and that he will need carrots and have to be dealt with as a ruler and not just a temporary nuisance. Let's hope so.
(I will respond to some of the criticism of my last post soon.)
I am leaving for 4 days and won't be able to respond to the considerable email in response to my last contentious post. Two items are worth noticing though.
This article posted by the Voice of America giving the US Government position on Syrian human rights.
8/10/04 - SYRIA’S POLITICAL PRISONERSThe following is an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government:The Syrian government has reportedly released dozens of political prisoners. The releases came in connection with the fourth anniversary of the rule of Bashar Assad. He took office in July 2000, about a month after the death of his father, longtime Syrian dictator Hafez Assad.
When Bashar Assad became president, hopes were high that government repression would ease in Syria. Indeed, hundreds of political prisoners were released, and some restrictions on freedom of expression were lifted. But this “Damascus Spring,” as some Syrian activists called it, was short-lived. Government officials soon began to crack down on free discussion and make new arrests.
Nonetheless, many Syrians have continued to take the risk of pushing for reform. Earlier this year, thousands of people signed a petition demanding the repeal of the 1963 emergency law, which is used to deny fundamental rights to Syrians. On March 8th, the forty-first anniversary of the law, a group of Syrians held a rare demonstration in Damascus. Police broke it up and briefly detained several demonstrators.
One of the organizers of the demonstration who was initially detained was former political prisoner Aktham Naisse, head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria. “Sooner or later,” he said, “our hopes and aspirations will be fulfilled.” But only days later, Aktham Naisse was jailed again. He was arrested after his group released a report on Syria’s abysmal human rights record. Mr. Naisse has reportedly had a stroke while in custody. But like some two-thousand other Syrians, he remains a political prisoner.
The U.S. supports the aspirations of all people for freedom and democracy. President George W. Bush says that a newly sovereign Iraq is pointing the way toward greater political freedom in other countries, including Iran and Syria: “The rise of Iraqi democracy is bringing hope to reformers across the Middle East, and sending a very different message to Tehran and Damascus. A free and sovereign Iraq is a decisive defeat for extremists and terrorists -- because their hateful ideology will lose its appeal in a free and tolerant and successful country.”
For millions of people in the Middle East, says President Bush, “freedom has been denied too long.”
God knows where they got the 2000 figure. Perhaps they are using old figures? Perhaps they know something Syria's human rights organizations do not? Anyway, why the US government would want to compare Syria to "free and tolerant and succesful" Iraq is beyond me. The government must be blind or willfully ignorant. Anyway, I certainly hope the Iraqi experiment succeeds in producing some level of democracy. I just hope America is not still advocating regime change a la Iraq to make Syria democratic, free and tolerant.
Another news item just published by the Daily Star reports the arrest of 25 Islamists in the town of Hama. Perhaps this is to show America that Syria is trying to help it combate extremist support for the Iraqi resistance. This is the kind of action the US government has been urging Syria to undertake for some time. It is, of course, carried out contrary to law, without the proper procedure and charges. Another example of how little respect for the rule of law there is in Syria and throughout the region. US initiated regime change will not solve this problem. Only careful work ,primarily by Syrians, but also with the support of the international community, can help build the institutions and respect for the law that can protect individual rights. The government should be leading the process, but society is ultimately responsible for holding governments to moral accountability.
See you in four days. Joshua
Is Syria Holding Fewer Political Prisoners than any other Major Middle Eastern Country?
The Syrian Government has been busy freeing additional political prisoners this week, which made me curious to know just how bad Syria is compared to other major Middle East countries. Could it be holding the fewest political prisoners?
The number of political prisoners in Syria has fallen precipitously over the last decade. In 1991 Hafez al-Asad amnestied some 3,500 detainees. In 1993, Amnesty International estimated that some 4,000 remain incarcerated. In 2001, Human rights organisations estimated there were 1,300 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience being held in Syria. Recent reports claim Bashar has released 800 of these since coming to power. Syrian lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni Says 200 remain incarcerated. The Human Rights Association in Syria said the release of the remaining 200 political prisoners is not expected.
Al-Bunni said that the Syrian authorities have been dribbling out the 281 recently pardoned political prisoners (president's forth anniversary in power), most of whom were Muslim Brothers. 161 were released over the two past weeks. 55 detainees were released a week ago Tuesday, another 36 on Monday, and 70 more recently. Bunni said that some 120 amnestied detainees are still being held in prison. He hopes they will be released within the two coming days.
The human rights society in Syria said that on 5 August the Syrian authorities released an additional 35 political detainees, many of whom had spent 20 years or more in custody. One was Immad Sheiha who was a member in the Arab communist organization and spent 29 years in prison. Sheiha and his group were accused of planning and carrying out several explosions targeting trade projects and American establishments in the 1970s. He killed a Syrian guard in the process. Shiha said
prison life was hard, and he had moved at least four times. But the difficulties did not subdue his love for life or his sense of humor, which he said "helped me have hope in life." "I love life and women," he said.
Shiha said the thing he wanted to do most after his release was visit his 100-year-old grandmother. "But I didn't want to give her a deadly shock. So I changed my mind and I went to my aunt's instead," he said. Now that Shiha has his freedom back, he would like to find a job and get married. "Working represents human dignity and reveals the true meaning of freedom," he said. However, he said he would not give up his interest in public affairs. He called on the Syrian government to release all political detainees and help rehabilitate former prisoners.
Hard to know if Shiha, his name would suggest he is an Alawite, is a political prisoner or a murderer. In Oklahoma he would have been put to death by lethal injection long ago.
How many political prisoners is Syria holding?
Lebanese in SyriaGeneral Aoun's group claims that Syria is holding no less than 200 Lebanese citizens in Syria. "This is now an established fact that requires no further proof," says Aoun.
Syria released 50 Lebanese prisoners on Monday, Aug 9, 2004. A group named the Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile said many of the prisoners were army officers who fought against Syria under Michel Aoun in 1991, a former prime minister whose ouster from power by Damascus heralded the end of the Lebanese civil war. It might be added that the United States gave Damascus a green light in 1991 to take out Aoun and his men. This was done because Aoun had no means of winning his war against the majority Muslim Lebanese population and Syria and Washington understood it could not hope that Aoun, who had made many blunders, would ever win. The Lebanese were tired of civil war and many accepted Syria as the price of stability and an end to 25 years of fighting. Finally, the US cut a deal with Asad: Asad would get Lebanon for help in combating Saddam Hussein and joining the US coalition which was preparing to eject Saddam from Kuwait.
By reasonable estimates, Syria would seem to be holding considerably less than 1,000 political prisoners today, though we don't really know. Bunni and Syria's human rights groups estimate 200 are in jail. But they are only counting Syrians and seem to be speaking specifically about prisoners arrested during the turbulent 1970s and early 1980s.
Many Kurds were rounded up following the riots in Qamishli this spring, although many of those were subsequently released. (Update: Aug: 31, 2004) "The Syrian authorities say that most of the Kurds who were detained on the background of the acts of violence which claimed the lives of 30 persons were released, but the Kurdish parties say that more than 180 [Kurdish]detaineesare still held in the government' s jails."
Finally there are the 200 Lebanese prisoners from the 1980s that Aoun spoke of, many of whom are still unaccounted for, though some have been released. Surely there are other prisoners we don't know about, but the total would appear to be considerably less than 1000 and possibly half that. Syria also detained fleeing Iraqis during the last several years, some of whom it returned to Saddam Hussein in exchange for favors during his last years in power. Most of the Iraqi refugees, it permitted to remain in Syria or helped to gain asylum in the US, Australia, and Canada through the UNHCR offices in Damascus, where my sister-in-law was a case manager for thousands of their files. Many had been horribly tortured. Many did get refugee status outside the Middle East. The remaining are now free to return to their families.
Egypt is much worse than Syria in numbers of political prisoners:
Saad Eddin Ibrahim recently wrote that the number of political prisoners in Egypt has skyrocketed over the last decade. He writes: "The number of detainees and political prisoners jumped tenfold, from 1,850 under Sadat in September 1981, to over 18,000, according to the 2003 report of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights." Amnesty International claims: "Torture is systematically practised in detention centres throughout Egypt, and victims of torture and their relatives continued to report harassment by security agents. The death penalty continued to be used extensively by criminal courts.
Turkey is not much better than Egypt, despite EU pressure.
Over 10,000 political prisoners were being held in Turkey in 2001. I can't find more recent estimates, but recent Islamist and Kurdish bombings means the jails must be filling up again after a brief respite as Turkey sought to improve its human rights record.
Iraq: We won't talk about it: I don't know how many thousands of Iraqis the Americans are holding. In theory the Iraqi interim government should be in charge of prisons now, but the interim government has neither the man power nor trained personnel to oversee them. Not that the US had enough trained personnel either. 5,000 detainees were estimated held in the two biggest US-run prisons in the country, on August 2, 2004. I don't know about other prisons. The Allawi government has arrested many more.
Tunisia:Jim Lobe points out that US-Backed Tunisia is holding some 500 political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of the top Islamist leaders are held in isolation. And this, Lobe points out, is the "country chosen by U.S. President George W. Bush as the base for his plan to democratize the Middle East."
Roger Clark, head of Amnesty International's delegation to Algeria who carried out his first fact-finding mission there for over two years in 2003 say the following:
The situation on the ground is very worrying and hasn't really improved. Amnesty
International has always considered impunity a central issue, and it's still there, as serious and urgent as ever. Until justice is done, that's how it will stay. The problem is that crimes committed by the security forces, the GLD militia [anti-Islamist militia armed by the state] and armed groups go unpunished. We're talking about abductions, murders and other rights violations.
The relatives of the missing people we talked to are still grieving. They don't know whether their loved-ones are dead or in prison. How many people have disappeared? Some say 4,000, others 7,000. There are seldom investigations and the few there have been have never resulted in anything.
What about torture?It's still practised widely against people being held in detention, especially if they're thought to have links with terrorism. We talked to torture victims and lawyers who told us electricity was used.
Saudi Arabia seems to be in Syria's league. Historically it has been quite a bit better than Syria in terms of political prisoners, though probably not today. Amnesty International states that: "Today, (2003) there are probably between 100 and 200 political prisoners, including possible prisoners of conscience, in Saudi Arabia's jails.' Surely, there are two or three times that number today in 2004, now that Saudi Arabia is getting serious about cracking down on radical Islamists. This, of course, is to say nothing about the more subtle and internalized repression of women and Shi'a.
At least 79 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2002, and over 5000 Iraqi refugees continue to live in Rafha camp (they were collected in 1991) as virtual prisoners as of 2002. They are now finally free.
The Hashemite Kingdom, bless its heart, would seem to be the winner among the major states of the Mashriq with the fewest number of political prisoners. Amnesty International does not estimate the number of political prisoners in Jordanian jails, but the 2002 report claims "that hundreds of people, were arrested for political reasons" in 2001, and there were reports of torture or ill-treatment of detainees by members of the security services. This year dozens of political prisoners were arrested during the year, some of whom may have been prisoners of conscience. There were reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Political trials continued before the State Security Court (SSC) whose procedures failed to meet international fair trial standards. At least 15 women were reported to have been victims of family killings. By the end of 2003 more than 1,500 people fleeing US-led military action on Iraq remained in refugee camps. All the same, it seems that Jordan pardons or releases the majority of its political detainees after relatively short stints in jail, rather than holding them for years as Syria did with the Muslim Brothers and Communists.
Does Jordan hold less political prisoners than Syria on a per-capita basis? It must be very close considering it has a third Syria's population at 5,500,000.
Syria has a much better human rights record today than most countries of the Middle East, if not the best. Hama is now almost 25 years in the past, though it is still being invoked by opponents of the Syrian government to insist that it has one of the most brutal regimes in the Arab World. The lack of any separation between the judicial and executive branches of government is bad, there is no getting around it. Torture is still common as it is in most Middle Eastern countries.
All the same, there is no reason for Washington to vilify Syria while it holds up countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey as good allies and gives them a pass on human rights violations. They are all worse than Syria when it comes to detaining prisoners for political reasons and reasons of conscience. Some are a lot worse.
Bashar should be given credit for an important achievement in emptying Syria's prisons of its long held political prisoners and for trying to heal the wounds of his country's mini civil war. He has reached out to the banned Islamic groups, even as he has conceded very little political ground to them. Syria has managed the complex ethic and religious diversity of its population with surprising success. Where Lebanon's state was too weak to keep its uncivil society from coming to blows and killing over 150,000 of its tiny population, Syria has been a paragon of stability. Where the Iraqi state grew so tyrannical and muscular that it massacred 100s of thousands of its own in the name of Arabism and truth, Syria has been a comparative island of tolerance and shown the ability to use force sparingly. Even compared to Turkey (15,000 killed [It is actually closer to 30,000 as one of my commentors corrected me.] in the last 15 years) or Israel (3,131 Palestinians and 972 Israelis have been killed and 26,934 Palestinians and 6,506 Israelis have been injured since September 29, 2000.) Syria does well in terms of body counts.
"The Appeal of the Ba'athist State - Why Iraqi Christians are Fleeing to Syria" by Gary Leupp (who makes a good point even though he soft peddles Baathism.) Paul Berman does a great diservice in his book Terror and Liberalism by lumping Islamic fundamentalism and Baathism together under the rubric of totalitarianism. Iraqi Baathism may have been totalitarian, but Syrian Baathism is very different from its Iraqi counterpart, largely because Alawites sit at the top of the state. Now that Assyrians are in the news because they are being harrassed again in Iraq, it is worth noting that the Alawites are Syria's Assyrians.
Sulayman al-Asad, Hafiz al-Asad's father compared the Alawites to the Assyrians following the Assyrian massacre of 1933 in Iraq. He wrote to the French mandate authorities shortly after the event, pleading with them not unite the Alawite Territory with the rest of Syria. These are his words recorded in the French archives:
The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered
The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non‑Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.
...The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis‑a‑vis those who do not belong to Islam...
...We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.
Sulayman al-Asad's sons made sure that Syria would not become another Iraq - a land where the majority was able to tyrannize the minority.
In addition to our weekly Middle East pictures series, BBC News Online would like you to send us pictures of your city. Every week a different city will be chosen - this week we are asking for images from the Syrian capital, Damascus. (Posted on Aug. 5)
Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, threatened to place Syria in a full-nelson rather than the half-nelson it threw on the country in May with SALSA. He said that Syria hasn't "made any fundamental decisions to (becoming) a much more positive player in the region." "I don't think they fully learnt the lessons of Iraq and the termination of that Baathist player, so I think they still have some internal discussions ... to go through," he said without elaborating.
The Bush administration is studying Damascus' response to sanctions imposed in May, and warned that stricter sanctions could follow. "We have the ability to go to stage two, which will be a more draconian sanctions regime," Armitage said.
Armitage also threatened Syria with the Lebanon card. He urged Syria to withdraw its troops from neighboring Lebanon, where thousands of Syrian soldiers have been based since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. "The Lebanese civil war has been over for well over a decade and it seems to me - this is our strong view - that it's time for Lebanese forces to take charge of their entire country and Syrian forces to move themselves back to Syria," he said. Maybe a few ever-hopeful Lebanese Christians will be impressed by this last threat, but Syria will not be. Lebanon has been extremely calm during its recent election cycle and everyone is absorbed in the next round and the President question. Almost every Lebanese official, including the Maronite Patriarch, denounced the May sanctions and Lebanese Sovereignty Act as irresponsible and unhelpful. Washington cynically uses the Lebanon card in every hand it plays in Syria as if it were some mighty trump. The Lebanese must be getting tired of being yoyos.
Syria has responded, not by smacking the mat and crying uncle, but with its customary defient growl followed by soothing reasurances. Sham press reports that the Ministry of Information Counselor Ahmad al-Hajj Ali responded to Armitage, saying that the hawks and neocons in Washington are again prevailing over the more reasonable, who advocate cooperation. And who is really behind this recent announcement? The Zionist lobby. It is all part of America's continuing plan to impose its hegemony over the region.
Two factors are responsible for the US return to the language of enmity and attack, al-Hajj Ali says: first is the degradation of America's position in Iraq, which is making it panic; second is Bush's campaign. He suggests Damascus has been trying to cooperate with both Washington and Baghdad, but Washington hawks are insensible to Syrian efforts and driven by motives that have little or nothing to do with Syrian realities.
The fact that chaos in Iraq is not in Syria's interest has only been driven home by the flood of refugees pouring into Syria from Iraq. The New York Times reports this morning that the United Nations high commissioner for refugees says Christians are now fleeing the country in record numbers. 20% of Iraqi refugees are now Christian rather than the 5% they were at the onset of the war - their actual portion of the Iraqi population as a whole. Some 4,000 families have so far filed for refugee status in Syria. Many more can be expected to follow. Over 250,000 Iraqis are estimated to have come into Syria this summer. Most probably plan to return, but if the security situation continues to deteriorate in Iraq, one must ask how many will be foolish enough to brave the banditry and fanaticism that is spreading in Iraq.
So far Syria has been very welcoming. As one Christian said recently:
"We are safe here, and so we feel free," Mr. Nuaman said of his new home in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. "The Syrians are brothers to us. There is no discrimination here. That is the truth, and not a compliment."
How long Syria can continue to issue Iraqis visas freely is anyone's guess. At the onset of the war, Syria set up a number of refugee camps on the border in order to contain the expected flood of frightened Iraqis. When the deluge didn't materialize, Damascus let down its guard and began permitting Iraqis to flow into the country on the assumption that they would return after spending money in Damascus. Now it is becoming clear that many will not return. The poorer families are getting stuck in Syria. Wealthy ones travel on to Lebanon and beyond. If the situation in Iraq continues to get worse, as it has every indication of doing, Syria will be the main destination for its poor huddled masses. Not only for Iraq's Christian and Sunni population, who can find relatives and comfort in Syria, but also for the Shi'a, who will not dare to flee south into the Gulf countries, or, if they don' t speak Farsi as few do, will head for Syria and Lebanon, the two fellow Arab countries that won't treat Shi'a like dirt. (See my earlier article on the flight of Iraqi Christians into Syria.)
Dennis Ross in the ''The Missing Peace,'' his memoir of 12 years as the central figure of American Middle East peace policies, explains that he was persuaded that at a certain moment, "Assad was genuinely trying to make a deal with Israel." This is not widely accepted outside the Arab world. Second, Israel and its negotiating partners, both Syrians and Palestinians, were perpetually out of sync with one another. When Ross reported Assad's enthusiasm to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, Barak came back with a new set of demands. And third, Barak did hope to make a far-reaching deal with Syrians and Palestinians, but ambitions for accomplishing both made the attainment of either more difficult. Barak wanted two years to withdraw settlers from the Golan Heights, to be returned to Syria as part of the deal. Why so long? He could not confront settlers from both the Golan Heights and the West Bank simultaneously. See the review by Ethan Bonner in the Times.
Daniel Pipes summarizes Ross' account of the negotiations in the following August 6 2004 article. Also valuable are his earlier articles listed here, in which he lays out the claims and counter-claims about how much of the Golan each of the Israeli PM's were willing to give up for what Syrian assurances.
Strange Twists in Syrian-Israeli Diplomacy by Daniel Pipes
One of the most secretive and unusual rounds of Arab-Israeli diplomacy took place in the summer of 1998, when three private American citizens, businessman Ronald Lauder, his aide Allen Roth, and magazine publisher George Nader, made nine trips to each of Damascus and Jerusalem, trying to secure a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty.
(I provided the fullest account of these negotiations and the dispute surrounding what exactly Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered in "The Road to Damascus: What Netanyahu almost gave away," The New Republic, July 5, 1999;
[In that article Pipes writes:]
In fact, Netanyahu gave more to the Syrians than did either of the predecessors he so deeply scorns, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. And, judging by new reports coming out of Israel, he also gave away more than Barak would.
and I brought this story up to date in a weblog entry "What Was Binyamin Netanyahu Ready to Concede on the Golan Heights?" on June 27, 2004, with subsequent additions.)
The publication of Dennis Ross's memoir, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (Farrar Straus Giroux) offers much new detail on the impact of this diplomacy in the months after Netanyahu lost the prime ministry in May 1999 to Ehud Barak.
Ross, the long-standing American diplomat for the Middle East, picks up his account in what appears to be August 1999 (his memoir provides few dates). Barak and his colleagues, Ross recounts, expressed optimism about negotiations with the Asad government, for they
had received a piece of information that convinced them Asad would be willing to live with something less than an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the June 4, 1967 lines.
That information turned out to be from Ronald Lauder, in the form of "a paper consisting of ten points that Lauder claimed was largely agreed with Asad." Ross continues that if such agreement did exist,
Barak felt it would be possible to move quickly to agreement with Syria. Was Asad prepared to "validate" it? Only President Clinton would be able to find out, and so Barak believed it essential for Clinton to see Lauder and determine for himself if this was a promising track to pursue. If it was, it would have the added benefit of political cover, for it would enable Barak to say to the Israeli right that he was only agreeing to what had been accepted by Netanyahu.
Lauder then met with Clinton. He told the president that the Syrian and Israeli governments "had basically reached agreement on all issues: the border, security arrangements, peace, and Lebanon." (In contrast, in a statement published in Yedi`ot Aharonot, on July 2004, Lauder said that "None of the documents that were drafted during these talks was official, and no document was approved by Prime Minister Netanyahu.") Ross paraphrases Lauder to the effect that the two governments had boiled their agreement down
to ten points which they would have finalized except for Asad's insistence on reviewing maps on the border and the security arrangements and Bibi's refusal lest he lose all deniability. Then came Wye and the agreement with the Palestinians, Lauder explained, and Bibi did not have the political cover to pursue the effort further.
Ross pulled out a map and asked for specifics. Lauder pointed out that "Asad was prepared to draw the border off the Sea of Galilee and off the Jordan River." Ross asked what "basically reached agreement" meant and Lauder replied that "what he would show the President was 99 percent agreed [on by the two parties]."
That paper (which can be read at http://www.imra.org.il/story.php3?id=6061) included ten provisions. Ross summarizes the second of them:
Israel would withdraw from the "Syrian lands taken in 1967" to "a commonly agreed border based on the international line of 1923."
Ross expressed skepticism at the ten-point paper:
Once I had looked this over, the President asked me what I thought. I told him it was "too good to be true." But now I understood why Barak and his colleagues believed they did not need to commit to the Rabin pocket and the June 4 lines. [The 'pocket" refers to Yitzhak Rabin's having told Clinton that, were Israel's concerns satisfied, he would withdraw to the June 4, 1967, borders.] Now Sandy [Berger] and Madeleine [Albright] joined us, and the President told them I was skeptical about the content of the paper. But did I think Lauder was lying? I said, "No, he is sincere and I believe he believes much of what he is saying. But I am afraid he is not precise and what he considers minor differences are not so minor. Moreover, I think there is some real wishful thinking here." Where did I have the greatest doubts? I knew that the 1923 line was a complete nonstarter with Asad; in Asad's eyes, those were the colonial borders, and he would never accept them in a document.
[President Clinton, in the context of discussing the January 2000 Syria-Israel talks in Shepherdstown, Virginia writes in his memoirs:
Before he was killed, Yitzhak Rabin had given me a commitment to withdraw from the Golan to the June 4, 1967, borders as long as Israel's concerns were satisfied. The commitment was given on the condition that I keep it "in my pocket" until it could be formally presented to Syria in the context of a complete solution.
After Yitzhak's death, Shimon Peres reaffirmed the pocket commitment, and on this basis we had sponsored talks between the Syrians and the Israelis in 1996 at Wye River. Peres wanted me to sign a security treaty with Israel if it gave up the Golan, an idea that was suggested to me later by Netanyahu and would be advanced again by [Ehud] Barak. I had told them I was willing to do it.To probe the matter further, Clinton asked his staff to meet further with Lauder, which they did.
Ross asked Lauder
what questions he thought Asad might pose about the paper. He said Asad would have a problem with the bracketed language on the Israeli presence in the early-warning station - and that was all. What about the 1923 lines, not the June 4, 1967 lines? To my surprise, he insisted that Asad had agreed to this, and when Asad received the paper, we would see it was not a problem.
On the basis of this paper, Clinton called Asad:
Asad's response tended to reinforce my doubts. "This was really a bit strange," he said. He acknowledged having seen Lauder a number of times, but professed to know nothing about ten points. He said the effort with him had not succeeded and it had ended.
So Clinton sent the paper Lauder had given him to Asad (faxed to the personal attention of the ambassador, who was instructed to hand deliver it without comment to Asad).
Two days later, Asad responded, calling the President to say that Syria had not accepted this paper, and would not now. The effort with Lauder had ended; Asad preferred to work from the Rabin commitment - the 'pocket' - and have us make suggestions to the two sides. Ross subsequently states that Asad considered it "a mistake" to have participated in the Lauder-Nader round of diplomacy.
Despite this initial effort having gone nowhere, Ross tells about a round of super-secret Syria-Israel negotiations ("no one in the State Department was aware of it" other than his executive assistant and the secretary of state) he hosted a month later, in September 1999. At one point,
I pulled out the Lauder paper and showed it to him [Riad Daoudi, the Syrian representative to the talks] with the President's notations. I told him the President had gotten very enthusiastic when he was the ten points, and I reminded him about the value of having enthusiastic presidential involvement. The key for us was to take some of these points and build a structure around the traditional headings of withdrawal, peace, security, and the timetable.
Daoudi looked over the ten-point paper,
clearly impressed with the President's notes in the margin. But he said, "Dennis, I have seen these points; we spent thirteen hours going over them and drafting comments, and they don't reflect any of our comments. This is the first draft given to us, not the final version" in which he knew they [i.e., the Syrians] had insisted on the June 4 lines replacing the 1923 lines.
To which Ross said that this
was very important for us to know. Still, I added, there were legitimate points in the Lauder paper. We had a channel now, and we should build on it.
Daoudi responded non-committally to this and negotiations ended for the day.
When Barak called Ross, Ross told him that it was "a very disturbing discovery" that the draft Lauder had presented had lacked any of the Syrian comments. Barak
then observed that even if the Lauder points were not accurate, Asad had accepted negotiating over them. Daoudi was admitting as much.
But the next morning, Daoudi asked to speak to Ross alone.
He said he has spoken to Syrian Foreign Minister [Farouk] Shara and the Lauder points were off the table. Syria required a formula that was explicit on June 4 and on the "aims and principles" nonpaper as well. This was the starting point for a formal resumption of negotiations; nothing less was acceptable.
Despite this unpromising response, Ross tells how he
kept coming back to Barak's observation that the Lauder effort had produced a serious give-and-take on a paper. As I was being driven back to Zurich to catch a plane to Cairo, I came up with an idea. Why not recreate an indirect negotiation on a paper like the Lauder points.
The Syrians and Israelis both accepted this formulation and talks proceeded on that basis.
In mid-September 1999, Ross recounts, Ronald Lauder
sent a letter to President Clinton enclosing an eight-point paper which he claimed included the final points that had been agreed upon by both sides in 1998. Gone was the reference to the 1923 borderline, replaced by withdrawal to a commonly agreed border based on the June 4, 1967 lines.
Ross lists a number of other elements that had changed and notes that "Syrian concerns were clearly addressed, but this was a very different paper from the ten points we had been shown." Ross then asks:
Why hadn't we - Americans and Israelis alike - been shown this paper? Why had we seen only the first Israeli draft instead? My guess was that Bibi didn't want to give up deniability and so asked his friend [Ronald Lauder] to reveal only the ten-point version - not this later version reflecting Syrian comments. Whatever the motivation of the Lauder effort - or the reason for presenting the preliminary paper as a final version - it had certainly sown confusion. Now Lauder's "clarifying letter" to President Clinton indicated that Bibi Netanyahu had committed to withdrawal to the June 4 lines - which meant that Barak's position on peace with Syria was less forthcoming than Netanyahu's, at least insofar as it was revealed by Lauder's eight-point paper.
The mood in the negotiations shifted abruptly with the appearance of the eight-point paper:
I showed Foreign Minister Shara the eight-point paper in New York and he confirmed that this had been acceptable to Syria. But it was not acceptable to
Barak. The points he had seen as so advantageous to Israel were gone.
Negotiations did follow, but on a new basis, culminating in the Clinton meeting with Hafiz al-Asad in March 2000. That meeting came to naught, however (and Ross's account of how this came to pass is fascinating), and no significant talks have taken place since.
Ultimately the Syrian-Israeli track had to fail during Hafiz al-Asad's lifetime because he was petrified of its implications for his rule. Interestingly, the Lauder-Nader round of diplomacy, for all its controversy and confusion, came as close to an agreement as has any other effort.
Pipes blames Asad for the failure of a Golan deal. I abbreviate his argument, but all the following words are taken from Pipes:
A policy like anti-Zionism is an instrument, not an end in itself. In this context, peace with Israel poses three threats. First, it would alienate such key constituencies as military and security personnel, Ba`th Party members, and government employees.
Second, other Syrians understand it would mean that their country sheds totalitarian rule and move into the American camp.
Third, Asad has relied on the tools of the police state. The prospect of greater openness, more democracy, and even flocks of Israeli tourists in the souks of Aleppo must frighten him terribly. He surely fears such changes would endanger the position of his family.
He does not in fact seek peace with Israel. In all likelihood, he negotiates as a way to improve his standing in Washington. If peace itself spells little but trouble, the peace process brings many benefits. Asad's goal, then, is not peace but a peace process.
Pipes uses the same argument here that the Arabs use against Israel - that Israel is interested only in a peace process and not in peace. It strings along talks to placate the US but builds settlements at break-neck speed, undermining trust and showing its true intentions.
Syria clearly faces risks in making peace, as does Israel, but that does not mean that neither side wants peace if the terms are right. Clinton believed that Asad wanted peace. Ross believed that Asad was serious. I see no reason to take Pipes' word over theirs.
Syria has much to gain from peace. Most Syrians are fed up with losing. They have no illusions about Syria's strength or ability to take back the Golan though military means. Both Asad governments have faced very little internal resistance since Hafiz decimated the Muslim Brotherhood in 1981-82. There is no reason to believe that the regime is unstable or will not have a raison d'etre after a peace is signed.
Although Asad does perhaps gain some "legitimacy" among some Syrians for being the only remaining Arab rejectionist state, he also alienates many other Syrians, who are fed up with the country's isolation. Bashar is trying very hard to dig Syria out of isolation, but he will insist on getting back the Golan up to the 1923 lines, plus a little extra.
Bassam Haddad, who wrote a very interesting dissertation for Georgetown on the nature of the Asad regime, recently contributed this to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
Reform in Syria: Waiting for the Wrong Time
Those anticipating the imminent (re)blossoming of the Syrian "spring" ought not hold their breath. Nearly four years after the transition of power from Hafez Al Asad to his son Bashar, Syria's much-discussed economic reform process has yielded exactly two "private banks" with suspect ownership and operating under the watchful eye of the state. Numerous proclamations on regulatory and fiscal reforms languish on shelves, unimplemented. Imprisonment of outspoken dissenters, such as Professor Aref Dalila (serving a ten-year sentence) and independent parliamentarian and industrialist Riad Sayf (serving five years), reminds Syrians of the fate of those who call for real change.
Movement toward openness in entrenched authoritarian regimes requires external pressure from a credible source in exchange for aid or trade, a serious economic downturn that would compel fundamental reform, or the emergence of an organized opposition more appealing than the status quo. None of these factors currently exists in Syria. Thanks to the faltering U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the near-unconditional U.S. support for Israel's plans for occupied West Bank and Gaza, and the growing global protest against the Bush administration's international adventurism, U.S. credibility in Syria is zero. Thus, Washington's new Syria Accountability Act, which authorizes sanctions against the Syrian government, has strengthened Syrian hard-liners and brought many moderates to their fold. Rising oil prices are handsomely supplementing state revenue and reducing fiscal pressures that could compel reform. Furthermore, because the ties between state officials and select businessmen guide the economic reform process, reforms proceed only when they are seen to reproduce the existing winners in the Syrian social and political order. Once the benefits begin to flow to individuals and groups outside the state's sphere of influence, crackdowns ensue.
Nor is there a viable alternative to Bashar's rule. Those who argue that Islamism will form the basis of opposition in Syria fail to take into account the unpopularity of an Islamist alternative among broad sectors of the population. The chaos in neighboring Iraq, rather than inspiring an opposition movement, has enhanced the regime's "negative legitimacy" by leading the Syrian public to overvalue order, even when it is enforced harshly. This mindset explains the lack of protest against the regime's crackdowns following March rioting by Kurds in northeastern Syria and a rare shoot-out in Damascus in April.
This is the dilemma of reform in non-democratic regimes with stable institutions: reform takes place only when it is absolutely necessary, but necessity invites quick fixes and reversible measures that are unlikely to have structural consequences in the short-to-medium term. Yet the changes witnessed in Syria over the past decade are not inconsequential. These include the closing of some inefficient state-owned enterprises, the reduction of bureaucratic burdens on some economic and social transactions; the slight expansion of press freedom and of the ability to organize in groups for ostensibly non-political purposes; and most important, the gradual resumption of political life, as shown in the informal organizing of long-suppressed groups. Such arguably positive changes are the cumulative effect of seemingly insignificant local measures and a slow-moving regional reform trend. While elites in closed political systems rarely intend reforms to lead to genuine change, selective, incremental, and reversible reform measures can produce structural changes in due time—but not in the sense that many experts on "reform" and "democratization," on both the left and the right, anticipate. Conservative analysts often pay excessive attention to process, procedure, and particular market indices without paying sufficient attention to the masses left behind (or underneath). Some on the left are prone to dismiss "change" as either instrumental or inconsequential if it does not lead to desirable collective outcomes in the short run.
Incremental change can and often does produce fundamental change under certain structural conditions. It is these conditions that we should address to gauge the collective importance of potential reform measures in Syria. It is time to ask some important questions: has Syria's new private "bourgeoisie" as a whole accumulated sufficient capital to compel it to clamor for applying the rule of law to protect its assets? Has the state elite gone far enough into private business to secure for itself a socio-economic and political status without direct state backing or control? Are the ties that bind the social carriers of private and public wealth solid enough to produce an alliance (or perhaps a party) under a different political system? Have regional and international events ceased to provide a justification for maintaining a militarized society living under emergency laws? Is there consistent and credible external pressure in the direction of "democratization" being applied on Syria? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is "not yet."
Bassam Haddad, assistant professor of political science at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, is author of "The Formation and Development of Economic Networks in Syria: Implications for Economic and Fiscal Reforms, 1986-2000," in Networks of Privilege: The Politics of Economic Reform in the Middle East, Steven Heydemann (ed.), (New York, NY: Palgrave-St. Martin's Press, forthcoming 2004). Haddad is part of a collective that produced the new documentary film "About Baghdad" (www.aboutbaghdad.com).
Michael Young, opinion editor for the Daily Star, replies to my last post "Will Syria Ever Leave Lebanon?" Also be sure to read the two comments linked to the post by the always smart Tony Badran and Lee Smith. I promised Michael I would give him the last word on this, and I will. His elegant reply deserves no less. Michael writes:
You've been doubly kind offering me a detailed response, and, dangerously, the last word. I realize that readers will be cut low by my painful response strategy, but alas your points merit a step-by-step response, so please bear with me. I'll preface those with my initials: MY.
Michael's basic argument, as I understand it, is that nothing has changed in Syria. It doesn't matter whether Syrians believe in Baathism; the country remains a corrupt and rapacious power. Only force will drive it from Lebanon. Bashar is window dressing. What he says means little because he doesn't hold real power, and anyway, he is a cynical rhetorician, who would rather have Lebanon than the Golan. Syria remains controlled by dark oriental forces.
MY: Not at all. Syria has surely changed, and the Damascus Spring was proof of this. There are an increasing number of Syrians, particularly independent and educated Syrians outside the power structure, who no longer fear criticizing the regime and risking paying the penalty. They are Syria's hope. I don't think Bashar is window dressing; I just think that his ambitions are not democratization, but modernization. I'm not sure what "dark oriental forces" are, but you caught me on my use of Oriental modernizer. An example, as an illustration? Perhaps a 20th century (not 21st century) Muhammad Ali - someone who wants to enhance the efficiency of his system, and who (unlike the Albanian) is sensitive to letting people breathe better, but unwilling, or incapable, of altering the fundamentally autocratic nature of the system.
What kind of state is Syria: Syria is an autocratic state that is trying to become a liberal autocratic state. The vast majority of Syrians - powerful and weak - wish to be more like Jordan or Egypt and less like the Syria of old. This means allowing for NGOs to form and civil society to operate, all be it, at a very unthreatening level. It means greater pluralism (minor party activity as in Egypt), freedoms of speech, a modicum of human rights, and hopefully a bit more due process. Most importantly, I believe, Bashar wants administrative reform so he can begin modernizing the country. Even if it is "oriental" modernization; it is modernization, which is better than nothing, even if not as good as democracy.
Bashar has to do this for regime stability and to control social pressures that will soon become intolerable at present anemic economic growth rates. He needs growth of at least 6% to begin employing the gobs of young people who are being dumped into the system. It is good for Lebanon that Syria is trying to become less autocratic.
MY: Overall I agree, but I offer two skeptical questions: Has Syria progressed since Bashar took power? If not, then even "oriental" modernization seems a distant reality. Second, at this stage is ineffective modernization the only option? Yes, I would prefer all-out democracy; but there happens to be an alternative: internal disarray because the system can no longer sustain its variegated pressures. In other words, ineffective change may lead to volatility, and the status quo may also lead to volatility. In the latter cases, then, "oriental" modernization is not "better than nothing"; it can be a vehicle for breakdown. On Lebanon, sure we benefit from a less autocratic Syria. But for the moment there is no domestic debate in Syria on giving Lebanon back its entire sovereignty, even though as there is one on opening Syria up politically.
The economic argument: MacDonald's for the Middle East or Crony Capitalism will be better than Crony Socialism.
Unlike his father, who was content to keep his country in lonely and backward isolation and to cling to the dwindling number of "samud wa tuhaddi" states, Bashar has shown considerable flexibility and eagerness to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world and the larger capitalist world. Why? Not simply because he was educated in the West or because he grew up in an era in which old-school Arabism was not cool, but more importantly because he must feed his people. Only by increasing trade and foreign investment in Syria can he get the country out of its present stagnation trap. (Whether he can succeed is another question - but he is trying.) At no time in Syria's history have relations with Turkey, Jordan, and perhaps now, also Iraq, been so congenial and free. 250,000 Iraqis came to Syria this summer, using only their identity cards!
If Bashar is responsible for this opening to the world, he has more power than Michael suggests. If he isn't responsible for it, then the dark forces controlling Syria, that Michael hints at, are not so dark and backwards as he suggests. Even if Bashar is replaced some day (and we hope he will be before he reaches 70) the pressure for change will continue. Maybe it's a good thing that Bashar does not have the power of his father and that power is pluralized.
MY: I agree with much of this, but bear in mind that Bashar's decisions were as much motivated by Syria weaknesses regionally than by anything else. The opening to Iraq, Turkey and Jordan were/are a necessity (as your Star piece so elegantly argued in the Iraqi case.)
Syria's need for trade, economic growth, and its desire to open up to the world is good for Lebanon. It creates a dynamic of growth, which requires peace and security, rather than war and brutality. Once Syrians understand that their lives improve because the pie is getting bigger for everyone rather than because their share gets bigger at the expense of their neighbors, Lebanon's chances of freedom rise. This is the old argument about countries with MacDonalds not going to war. Syrians have yet to get their first MacDonalds, (They still have to go to Beirut) but they are dying for it and much closer to having one than they were 5 years ago. They are joining the capitalist world slowly but surely. That is occidental of them even if they can do it without democracy.
MY: True again, but I must remind you that our economic relations with Syria are heavily tilted in Syria's favor. I don't mean by this that we cannot benefit; we do. But there is always a fear that investment in Syria will be sucked up by the patronage system - unless a powerful Syrian partner is brought in, in which case profits are reduced. Yes, we've managed to impose some change on the Syrian economic system, and we have potential influence in the banking sector, but whether it is labor (and I actually support Syrian laborers in Lebanon on economic grounds) or agriculture, or indeed cross border trade, the relationship is not one between equal partners. But yes, Lebanon is Syria's ticket to economic openness, and it's in Lebanon's interest that Syria open up. Alas, they have been very slow in doing so.
The Golan:It doesn't shock me that Bashar would say he is willing to compromise over the Golan's border and then let Buthaina Shaaban deny it. This is standard diplomatic ambiguity. It is no different from Powel saying, "Let's talk" to Syria and Bolton saying, "Never!" The door is now open if the Israelis are willing to try it. More importantly, When Bashar stated that Syria would give up Lebanon when it gets Golan, he is signaling Israel that he is willing to link the two, although his father refused to. Hafiz tried to insist that Israel had no right to control Syria's relationship with Lebanon. Negotiations on Golan were about the Golan and that was it. In contrast, Bashar suggests he is willing to talk about the whole nine yards. This is greater flexibility from Bashar than Hafiz showed. The Lebanese should see it as a good sign.
If Israelis still "prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan," as you quote Rabin saying, that is a problem for Lebanon - but it is Israel's fault, not Syria's. Why not ask the Lebanese to pressure Israel to get out of the Golan and come to the bargaining table? Without Lebanon to sweeten the pot, Israel will never consider giving back the Golan, and Syria will have one more excuse to stay.
MY: I must disagree that Hafez de-linked Lebanon and the Golan. He also tied in progress on one with progress on the other. However, what I cannot understand is what the Golan has to do with Lebanon. Why should we consider Bashar's linking of the two objectively legitimate? Until 1994, it was Lebanese policy to de-link the two - namely to de-link UNSC resolutions 242 and 425 (which governed an Israeli pullout from Lebanon), until the Syrians compelled Lebanon to eliminate the difference. Why should Bashar link withdrawal from Lebanon to an Israeli withdrawal from the other? What's the logic? If it's Syrian security, well rest assured the Golan has been the quietest of Arab-Israeli borders, barring none. If it's fear that an Israeli threat comes from Lebanon, then perhaps someone can explain to me why it is Syria that is the keenest to allow Hizbullah to continue attacking Israeli troops in south Lebanon, even though the UN had declared the 2000 Israeli withdrawal complete. Very simply because Lebanon gives Syria regional relevance. That's understandable in realist terms, but why should the Lebanese pay the price?
As for your suggestion, I'm not sure how the Lebanese can pressure Israel to do anything, but given the fact the Syrians were keen to keep the Israelis in Lebanon (to use as pressure points) for so long, it's really not up to us to get them out of the Golan. Hafiz had his chance in Geneva just before he died and basically blew it
Words and ideology make a difference: Just yesterday you wrote a fine article about how institutions, like the Lebanese constitution, make a difference. It is not easy for Syria or Lebanese friends of Lahoud to get him a second term as president because the law has weight and historical momentum. The word of the Syrian president is not much different than the law. (Probably more reliable) If Bashar says that Syria has "no territorial ambitions in Lebanon" often enough, people will begin to believe it and expect it to be true. Talking about Lebanese sovereignty is very different than Hafiz's "The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two countries." The latter is ingeniously ambiguous and very Baathist. It evokes to the notion of one Arab nation. Sovereignty is quite different. It means something in international law and in people's minds. A sovereign state implies that the people of that state are their own nation - at the very least it isn't a direct denial of Lebanon's distinct peoplehood as the old "one people" line is.
MY: All I can say here is that words mean far less when you have the power to transform them into action. Why should I praise Bashar for his intentions, when nothing prevents him from implementing them? The Syrians have been in Lebanon for 28 years, four of those under Bashar; the final decision-maker on the Lebanese presidency will be Bashar. He was the person who backed Emile Lahoud in 1998, while he was being groomed by his father to inherit Syria-s republican throne. This isn-t the behavior of someone who really has a desire to return Lebanon its full sovereignty. It-s the behavior of someone who perhaps senses that the increasingly resented old ways can-t continue, but who simultaneously seeks to maintain the status quo by offering tidbits to guarantee the continuity of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.
You pooh-pooh the notion that the demise of Baathism as an ideology and system of belief is important. I think you are wrong. The idea that the Arab people formed one nation with a sacred destiny was powerful, religious, and the single most important source of instability in the region last century. The Greaters - whether Greater Syria, Greater Arabistan, Greater Israel, the Fertile Crescent Plan, or even Greater Lebanon - have been the source of endless bloodshed and unhappiness. For Bashar to even begin to dilute Greater-Arabistan-think should not be underestimated. Such worldviews are like the proverbial aircraft carrier - they take a long time to turn around - but they have a lot of firepower.
MY: In theory you're right, but in fact you're wrong. Bashar is not leading on this, he's following; he's following increased skepticism in Syria on the Baath and what it stands for. Syrians have no illusions about the party. They see it little more than a network of patronage, not as the vessel for a sacred destiny, even though some of the most outspoken critics of the regime still adhere to Arab nationalism, or other 'isms. That is what has allowed Bashar to question the Baath's power, even as he's utterly failed to do anything about it. His father tried and failed too.
Corruption and greed are quite different forces than ideology. They are easier to negotiate. People may cry over losing money, but only ideology and the loss of nationhood and identity can turn one into a suicide bomber.
"I believe that the Baath is God, who has no partners, and Arabism is a religion with no peer." This line, written by a Baathist poet, was quoted by Thahir Ibrahim in al-Quds al-Arabi the other day. He invoked it to show how far Syrians went in "exaggerating their ideological commitment to the Baath in the 1960s and 1970s." He explains what an ideological opening Syria has seen recently only to decry the lack of any real political opening. It will be easier for the Lebanese to combat greed than nationalism.
MY: Agreed, which proves my point just above.
Lebanon is the problem: Finally, there is no doubt that Syrians will not quit Lebanon for the beauty of Lebanese eyes. Only when Lebanon acts like a distinct and unified nation, will it have the power to get rid of Syrian influence and troops. Your criticism turns on Syria's shortcomings, which admittedly are legion. But Lebanon's shortcomings are the real reason Syria occupies the country. Every country would like to decide what its neighbor does and to dip into its honey pot. All have tried. Syria is not unusual in this. What makes the relationship between Lebanon and Syria so unequal is not Syria's evilness or "oriental" cast of mind, but Lebanon's weakness and internecine bickering. Perhaps, the day that Lebanon agrees to carry out its first census since 1930 and overcomes its sectarian rivalry, will be the day it shows some unified backbone in just saying, "Get out." So long as every top political and military figure in Lebanon strokes Syria nicely everytime they want something, Lebanon will have a Syrian presence.
I would suggest that it is not I who makes "the mistake of reading one's desires and sympathies" into the region. It is easier to attribute dark forces to one's neighbor than to see them in one's own country.
MY: Alas, Josh, I feel you utterly miss the point here. Lebanon's real problem isn't that it is sectarian, and therefore divided. Lebanon is indeed sectarian (as is Syria), but our political model was always destined to embrace that reality while also permitting a fairly pluralistic system. We look around us and see that sectarian Arab states have chosen to dissolve sectarianism under often brutal autocratic rule where the state is strong: Assad's Syria; Saddam's Iraq - In fact, what these states have (or had in Iraq's case) is autocracy at the top and a sectarianism in society below. Lebanon's is a weak state, but one where democracy, or a considerable portion of it, survived a horrendous war, and still survives.
Yes indeed, our divisions did allow outsiders to take advantage of us over the years, particularly Syria. But don't be fooled: the Lebanese are united in being fed up with the Syrians. True, they don't express it in a united way, but that's in large part because of fear of Syrian retaliation. When our own prime minister was suspected of moving too closely to the US last year, rockets were fired on his TV station. Hariri very clearly implied who the perpetrators were, and I'll leave it to you to guess. I can count at least half a dozen Lebanese officials, politicians and senior religious officials who paid, or almost paid, the ultimate price for threatening Syrian interests. And over almost three decades, almost no one outside sought to challenge Syrian predominance in Lebanon.
We've been on our own for a long time. That's why many Lebanese "stroke" Syria, and why we should break out of the theory and look at the facts. There are 15,000-20,000 Syrian troops here, and there is a reason for that. In 28 years they have set up a complex apparatus of control (in which many Lebanese have collaborated, granted), but that is to be expected in a society that has enjoyed (greatly) more than a generation of an unquestioned foreign military presence. Surely, we're guilty, but those who rejected this have been marginalized or killed. In 14 years of peace, the Syrians have undermined our constitutional institutions in a way we Lebanese did not do during our war. We had four elections in the war years between 1975 and 1990. Since Syrian control has become absolute, we've fallen into uncertainty as to whether elections will even occur.
I think I'll stop here, as this is droning on. But it's easy to blame the victim; the problem is that the victim is often partly guilty. But let's not lose sight of reality here. We are a Syrian protectorate, and nothing suggests to me that the Syrian regime has any real intention of altering this system unless it is compelled to do so.
Thanks for allowing me the backhand; I look forward to more.
10,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to Syria, according to Emanuel Khoshaba, a representative of the Iraqi Assyrian Democratic Movement in Syria. 90 percent of them arrived after the Iraqi war began in March last year. Scores of Iraqi Christian families move to Syria and Jordan every day, but the exact figures cannot be confirmed with government officials as Syrian and Jordanian immigration forms do not ask a person's religion.
"I have run away because gangs kept on threatening me," said Adeeb Goga Matti, 48, who belongs to a wealthy Chaldean-Assyrian family in Baghdad. He said his 10-year-old nephew, Patrous Yakou, was kidnapped at the end of 2003 and released only after his family paid a ransom of $15,000 (U.S.). After the kidnapping, Matti stopped sending his four children to school.
"Chaldean-Assyrians are the easiest targets for gangsters because they don't belong to a tribal system like other Iraqis," Matti stressed. Muslim Iraqis tend to belong to clans who rally round and protect their members. Many are applying to emigrate to Australia, Canada, the United States and other Western countries.
Iraqi Christians are mostly Assyrians (sometimes called Syriacs or Chaldeans), a non-Arab ethnic group that pre-dated the 7th century Muslim-Arab conquests of the Middle East. A number of news reports have characterized life for Christians under Saddam as tranquil.
But according to Prof. Walid Phares, an expert on Christian minorities in the Middle East,
oppression of Assyrian Christians increased after the Ba'athists seized power in Iraq. Anti-Christian discrimination on the part of former regime included regulations forbidding Iraqis from giving newborn children any names other than Arab ones; a decision to place all church properties under the control of the government Ministry of Islamic Property; and a ruling that Christian churches publishing religious calendars had to include saying of Saddam alongside those of Jesus. Hermiz Shahen said Monday the Ba'athist regime deliberately classified Assyrians as Arabs.
Saddam's government razed hundreds of Assyrian villages in an attempt to assimilate the minority into Arab society. In the north, Assyrians also faced discrimination at the hands of the Kurds, who Shahen said had taken over "where Saddam failed." Assyrians had in general welcomed the liberation of Iraq and Saddam's departure. But maltreatment under the secular regime's "Arabization" policies has been replaced since the fall of Baghdad by attacks motivated by religious zealotry. "Hatred is now twice [as bad] as it was before."
The Syrian Baath never passed laws mandating the use of Arab names for Christians and has treated its Christians better than any other Arab country; nevertheless, many Syrians find the Christian use of European names obnoxious. Some even understand it to be a rejection of their Arab identity. In an article on religious education in Syria, I quoted one Muslim woman who complained bitterly about the recent fashion among Syrian Christians to name their children non-Arab names. Referring to the names of Christian children, she said: "They are all western: Joan, Andrew, Charles, Lara, George, Joel. None of these names are Arab. They used to name their kids Khalil, `Abdullah, Hasiiba, etc. This is an indication that they don't feel Arab. What is the meaning of these names? They have no meaning in Arabic. "
Issa Touma, a Syrian-Armenian photographer and curator, has been causing an uproar in his native Aleppo. Single handedly, he has declared "war" against Syria's Baath Party. "His boldness seems just enough to keep him out of jail," writes Megan Stack, in a delightful article in the LA Times. His ability to make the Baath look like the Keystone Cops is enough to make you fall in love with the Baath all over again.
It is a story about authoritarian rule and the improbable politicians it can create. Touma is a rare success story in a land where underdogs are traditionally crushed. "I know people would love to say it was Issa against the Baath Party, and in reality it was like that," Touma said. "But the politics I did the last two years, it was only to survive."
Touma adorns his galleries walls with all things scandalous - pieces by Jewish artists, portraits of nude men and women, videotaped performance art verging on the pornographic - none of it submitted to government censors for approval. His festivals lure artists from around the world to spill American jazz and African drums and Sufi dance into the chalky alleyways of this industrial town in the northern hills."
I hate people when they're like rabbits. Scared people, I can't even look at them," he said. "I know my work can help my country so much. If you haven't visited Syria, you don't know what is Syria. And I know the culture is stronger than any gun."
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian journalist, has a interesting and well balanced article on what was going on "behind the kisses" between Allawi and Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Utri during their meeting last week. He writes that the Syrian government had security concerns of its own and asked for a list of Syrian dissidents (mainly Islamists) living in Baghdad, and "Allawi inaugurated his new relationship of trust with his Baathist neighbors by handing them that list."
It appeared that while security topped the Iraqi government's agenda, economic concerns topped Syria's.
Gerald Butt writes in the Daily Star that Iraqi crude won't be flowing through the region any time soon.
Syria received Iraqi crude oil before the 2003 war, freeing up extra quantities of its own crude for export from Baniyas. But in the aftermath of the invasion, a major pumping station on the Iraqi side of the border was ransacked, putting the pipeline out of service as an export route.
Studies for a new pipeline linking Iraq with Syria's Mediterranean coast, which has been under consideration for some time, are nearing completion. At present, Syria imports only a small quantity of Iraqi heavy crude via a pipeline that runs from Ain Zalah to Rumailah, in exchange for gasoline. Also, under a barter agreement, Syrian petroleum products and electricity are being supplied to Mosul and Baghdad.
Energy cooperation was on the agenda again during Allawi's talks in Beirut. A joint statement said the two sides had agreed to "hold urgent discussions to review ways for Lebanon to buy oil from Iraq and to reach agreement on reactivating oil pipelines from Iraq to Lebanon and exporting Iraqi oil via Lebanese ports." Both parties also agreed to "study the possibility of establishing a modern refining facility in Lebanon for Iraqi crude, and reactivating the oil pipeline to Tripoli, with Syria's cooperation."
The pipeline to Tripoli is a spur, from Homs, on the Iraq-Syria (Kirkuk-Baniyas) pipeline, that has not been operational since 1982 - the year that exports from Iraq to Syria were stopped as a result of a political dispute between Baghdad and Damascus over the latter's support for Iran in the 1980-88 Gulf war.
Even when security is re-established in Iraq and neighborly relations are put on a strong footing, there will still be the need to agree on the structure of the country's oil sector. The assumption of the oil professionals is that the industry will remain centralized, with revenue collected and distributed by the Baghdad government.
But not all Iraqis agree with this arrangement. Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, said while Kurds were prepared to negotiate with the central authorities over the sharing of all revenues from existing oil fields in the Kirkuk area, "all income from future oil finds there should belong to the Kurds themselves ... The problem is that the people in Baghdad don't understand the reality on the ground here."
This statement, along with the news that a Norwegian oil company had entered into an agreement with the Kurds to search for oil and gas in northern Iraq, prompted the Allawi government to issue a stern warning to foreign firms. The Ministry of Oil said "companies that wish to be welcomed here in the future should not enter into or try to pursue the implementation of agreements with persons who are not empowered to represent the sovereign Government of Iraq." So there are formidable political as well as security battles to be won before the agreements reached during Allawi's regional tour can be implemented.
Joshka Wessels, who heads the Swiss funded qanat renovation project in Syria and is an applied anthropologist, has just joined the syriacomment.com's email list.
I have been following articles about the Qanat in Syria for some time, and this gives me an excuse to link to some of the fascinating work that has been put on line. A nice article about the restoration of “qanats” - underground tunnels that tap groundwater and direct it to towns and agricultural land - can be found here. The Swiss, Dutch and German project to restore the tunnels in Qara, a town of 20,000 people about an hour outside the capital, Damascus. “This is a very sustainable system of using groundwater because it doesn’t use mechanical means, and it basically relies on gravity and on the natural flow of water,” said Joshka Wessels, head of the qanat renovation project in Syria. There are hundreds of miles of qanats throughout the Middle East but many have fallen into disuse in recent years.
3,000 years old
The technology – which is believed to have originated in Iran more than 3,000 years ago – has been largely abandoned in favour of wells and the use of motor pumps to extract water. But pumping is a short-term solution that creates a long-term problem – the drying up of groundwater due to over-pumping. Here is a fine short history of the Qanat in Syria by Dale R. Lightfoot, a fellow Oklahoman! There are also wonderful photos of Qanat in Syria taken by Joshka and drawings of how they work, where they are and other good-to-know tid-bits. Welcome Joshka Wessels.
Response to Michael Young: Will Syria ever leave Lebanon?
Michael Young very kindly published my opinion piece, "Creating a Syrian Dream," He then did me the honor of writing a thoughtful e-mail critiquing it, which I posted two days ago. I here respond to him in what I hope will be seen to be in a spirit of happy jousting friendship. Any reader who is just stumbling on this exchange will do well to read first THIS and then THIS as background.
First, let me summarize Michael’s main points.
1. Asad is not serious about Lebanese sovereignty.
2. Syria will never leave Lebanon unless it is compelled to.
3. Bashar is a weak ruler, who can’t control those around him. He can’t settle for less than his father.
4. He will become expendable and at some stage be replaced.
5. That Bashar is no longer a Baathist means nothing because Baath ideology is dead. The party is only about patronage and power.
6. Bashar is not Western oriented; rather, he is a “second-class Oriental modernizer.”
7. To be ideologically close to the west, Bashar would have to be working for true democracy, and he is not.
8. Don’t read your desires and sympathies into Bashar’s actions.
Michael’s basic argument, as I understand it, is that nothing has changed in Syria. It doesn’t matter whether Syrians believe in Baathism; the country remains a corrupt and rapacious power. Only force will drive it from Lebanon. Bashar is window dressing. What he says means little because he doesn’t hold real power, and anyway, he is a cynical rhetorician, who would rather have Lebanon than the Golan. Syria remains controlled by dark oriental forces.
I agree with Michael that Syria will not withdraw from Lebanon without a struggle. Where we disagree, is how nasty that struggle will be and whether Bashar is making it less likely to be nasty.
What kind of state is Syria
Syria is an autocratic state that is trying to become a liberal autocratic state. The vast majority of Syrians – powerful and weak – wish to be more like Jordan or Egypt and less like the Syria of old. This means allowing for NGOs to form and civil society to operate, all be it, at a very unthreatening level. It means greater pluralism (minor party activity as in Egypt), freedoms of speech, a modicum of human rights, and hopefully a bit more due process. Most importantly, I believe, Bashar wants administrative reform so he can begin modernizing the country. Even if it is “oriental” modernization; it is modernization, which is better than nothing, even if not as good as democracy.
Bashar has to do this for regime stability and to control social pressures that will soon become intolerable at present anemic economic growth rates. He needs growth of at least 6% to begin employing the gobs of young people who are being dumped into the system. It is good for Lebanon that Syria is trying to become less autocratic.
The economic argument: (MacDonald’s for the Middle East or Crony capitalism will be better than crony socialism.
Unlike his father, who was content to keep his country in lonely and backward isolation and to cling to the dwindling number of “samud wa tuhaddi” states, Bashar has shown considerable flexibility and eagerness to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world and the larger capitalist world. Why? Not simply because he was educated in the West or because he grew up in an era in which old-school Arabism was not cool, but more importantly because he must feed his people. Only by increasing trade and foreign investment in Syria can he get the country out of its present stagnation trap. (Whether he can succeed is another question – but he is trying.) At no time in Syria’s history have relations with Turkey, Jordan, and perhaps now, also Iraq, been so congenial and free. 250,000 Iraqis came to Syria this summer, using only their identity cards!
If Bashar is responsible for this opening to the world, he has more power than Michael suggests. If he isn’t responsible for it, then the dark forces controlling Syria, that Michael hints at, are not so dark and backwards as he suggests. Even if Bashar is replaced some day (and we hope he will be before he reaches 70) the pressure for change will continue. Maybe it’s a good thing that Bashar does not have the power of his father and that power is pluralized.
Syria’s need for trade, economic growth, and its desire to open up to the world is good for Lebanon. It creates a dynamic of growth, which requires peace and security, rather than war and brutality. Once Syrians understand that their lives improve because the pie is getting bigger for everyone rather than because their share gets bigger at the expense of their neighbors, Lebanon’s chances of freedom rise. This is the old argument about countries with MacDonalds not going to war. Syrians have yet to get their first MacDonalds, (They still have to go to Beirut) but they are dying for it and much closer to having one than they were 5 years ago. They are joining the capitalist world slowly but surely. That is occidental of them even if they can do it without democracy.
It doesn’t shock me that Bashar would say he is willing to compromise over the Golan’s border and then let Buthaina Shaaban deny it. This is standard diplomatic ambiguity. It is no different from Powel saying, “Let’s talk” to Syria and Bolton saying, “Never!” The door is now open if the Israelis are willing to try it. More importantly, When Bashar stated that Syria would give up Lebanon when it gets Golan, he is signaling Israel that he is willing to link the two, although his father refused to. Hafiz tried to insist that Israel had no right to control Syria’s relationship with Lebanon. Negotiations on Golan were about the Golan and that was it. In contrast, Bashar suggests he is willing to talk about the whole nine yards. This is greater flexibility from Bashar than Hafiz showed. The Lebanese should see it as a good sign.
If Israelis still “prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan,” as you quote Rabin saying, that is a problem for Lebanon – but it is Israel’s fault, not Syria’s. Why not ask the Lebanese to pressure Israel to get out of the Golan and come to the bargaining table? Without Lebanon to sweeten the pot, Israel will never consider giving back the Golan, and Syria will have one more excuse to stay.
Words and ideology make a difference
Just yesterday you wrote a fine article about how institutions, like the Lebanese constitution, make a difference. It is not easy for Syria or Lebanese friends of Lahoud to get him a second term as president because the law has weight and historical momentum. The word of the Syrian president is not much different than the law. (Probably more reliable) If Bashar says that Syria has “no territorial ambitions in Lebanon” often enough, people will begin to believe it and expect it to be true. Talking about Lebanese sovereignty is very different than Hafiz’s “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two countries.” The latter is ingeniously ambiguous and very Baathist. It evokes to the notion of one Arab nation. Sovereignty is quite different. It means something in international law and in peoples’ minds. A sovereign state implies that the people of that state are their own nation – at the very least it isn’t a direct denial of Lebanon’s distinct peoplehood as the old “one people” line is.
You pooh-pooh the notion that the demise of Baathism as an ideology and system of belief is important. I think you are wrong. The idea that the Arab people formed one nation with a sacred destiny was powerful, religious, and the single most important source of instability in the region last century. The Greaters – whether Greater Syria, Greater Arabistan, Greater Israel, the Fertile Crescent Plan, or even Greater Lebanon – have been the source of endless bloodshed and unhappiness. For Bashar to even begin to dilute Greater-Arabistan-think should not be underestimated. Such worldviews are like the proverbial aircraft carrier – they take a long time to turn around – but they have a lot of firepower.
Corruption and greed are quite different forces than ideology. They are easier to negotiate. People may cry over losing money, but only ideology and the loss of nationhood and identity can turn one into a suicide bomber.
“I believe that the Baath is God, who has no partners, and Arabism is a religion with no peer.” This line, written by a Baathist poet, was quoted by Thahir Ibrahim in al-Quds al-Arabi the other day. He invoked it to show how far Syrians went in “exaggerating their ideological commitment to the Baath in the 1960s and 1970s.” He explains what an ideological opening Syria has seen recently only to decry the lack of any real political opening. It will be easier for the Lebanese to combat greed than nationalism.
Lebanon is the problem
Finally, there is no doubt that Syrians will not quit Lebanon for the beauty of Lebanese eyes. Only when Lebanon acts like a distinct and unified nation, will it have the power to get rid of Syrian influence and troops. Your criticism turns on Syria’s shortcomings, which admittedly are legion. But Lebanon’s shortcomings are the real reason Syria occupies the country. Every country would like to decide what its neighbor does and to dip into its honey pot. All have tried. Syria is not unusual in this. What makes the relationship between Lebanon and Syria so unequal is not Syria’s evilness or “oriental” cast of mind, but Lebanon’s weakness and internecine bickering. Perhaps, the day that Lebanon agrees to carry out its first census since 1930 and overcomes its sectarian rivalry, will be the day it shows some unified backbone in just saying, "Get out." So long as every top political and military figure in Lebanon strokes Syria nicely everytime they want something, Lebanon will have a Syrian presence.
I would suggest that it is not I who makes “the mistake of reading one’s desires and sympathies” into the region. It is easier to attribute dark forces to one's neighbor than to see them in one’s own country.