Thoughts on Syrian politics, history and religion.
Thursday, September 30, 2004
Can the US control Syria?
Moshe Maoz, perhaps Israel's top Syrian affairs expert, said the Khalil killing in Damascus may have been "done deliberately" by Sharon "to undermine" mounting pressure by Israel's military establishment to restart peace negotiations with Syria.
Ofer Shelah, writing in the Forward, explains:
the assassination comes amid a flurry of contradictory signals. Syria has indicated repeatedly in the past year that it is ready to renew peace talks with Israel, which collapsed in February 2000. Israel refuses, accusing Syria of harboring and sponsoring Palestinian terrorism. Israel heated up its rhetoric last month, after the deadly August 31 double bus bombing in Beersheva, which Jerusalem blames on Syria.
At the same time, the Khalil assassination punctuates an escalating war of words within Israel's political and security leadership over how to respond to the Syrian peace feelers. On one side is the top army command, much of which favors sitting down with Damascus and has been unusually open about saying so. On the other side are Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his top political allies, who call the Syrian offers a ploy to win favor with Washington. In a reflection of the intensity of the debate, some figures close to the defense establishment were hinting this week that the Khalil assassination might have been carried out by the Mossad secret service, which answers directly to the prime minister, as a way to sabotage the Syrian peace opening.
Syria, for its part, has declined to take the bait, pointedly refraining from criticizing Israel directly for its presumed role in the assassination. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and attacked Israel for a host of sins, but killing a Hamas leader in Damascus was not among them.
Now all eyes are on Kofi Annan's UN report evaluating Syria's compliance with resolution 1559 passed last month. Powell has stated: "I hope it's a tough report," demanding respect for Lebanese sovereignty that says Damascus must do more to meet the world body's demands. Powell said Washington did not think Damascus had done enough to meet the requirements of the resolution which calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. "I'll wait for the secretary general's report before characterizing what score the Syrians get on their compliance with the resolution."
Michael Young in the Daily Star is not holding his breath for a tough report. "We'll be looking out for the Annan report tomorrow. The only definite thing one can say about it is that, unless it clearly recognizes, identifies and warns against the many ruses now being deployed by the Syrian and Lebanese authorities to undercut Resolution 1559, then it will be terribly deficient," he writes. All the same, he suspects that the UN officials responsible for drafting the report are too sympathetic to Syria's problems and may listen to Prime Minister Hariri, who has been lobbying them not to give the US too much latitude to stick their boot into the affairs of the new government he must construct. He is now in Paris to trying to get Jacques Chirac to "alleviate negative French input into the report," Young surmises.
A recent al-Nahar article suggests that the Security Council is bent on forming a 4-nation committee to monitor a total withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, the disarmament of Hizbullah, and any other armed militia operating on Lebanese territory, Lebanon's Vice Premier Issam Fares has warned. "The Security Council effectively wants to hold a sword permanently hanging over the necks of Lebanon and Syria by forming this committee," Fares told President Lahoud and Premier Hariri upon returning from the U.N. in New York, the Beirut media reported on Friday. The Security Council is determined to "place Lebanon under permanent international surveillance even before Secretary-General Kofi Annan submits his report Friday on Lebanon and Syria's disobedience to resolution 1559."
As-Safir said the monitoring committee, which the Security Council is bent on setting up, will be made up of the United States, France, Lebanon and Syria. Fares says the Council is inclined to ask Syria by name to withdraw its entire army troops from Lebanon without delay, overruling the two countries' linkage of the withdrawal to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Will Hariri's new government include Hizbullah? That is the subject of Celina Nasser's Daily Star article. Hizbullah MP Mohammed Raad, who heads Hizbullah's 12-member Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, senior party officials believe that taking part in the next government will reinforce the legitimacy of the resistance even more. All the same, Raad said, "We don't want to lose our credibility," by joining a government that is ineffective. "We are still in the evaluation process."
Raad said his party - along with Lebanon and Syria - is willing to fully implement resolution 1559, but only after Israel complies with all UN resolutions calling for it to pull out from occupied Arab land. "UN Resolution 1559 could have been dispensable if Israel had implemented previous resolutions adopted a long time ago," he said.
Raad was referring to resolutions such as 446 of March 1979, 465 of March 1980, 471 of June 1980, 497 of December 1981 and others that called on the Jewish state to end its occupation of Arab territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.
Despite growing international pressure on Syria to stop supporting Hizbullah, which is on Washington's list of terrorist organizations, the Hizbullah official did not seem to be worried about his party's relations with Damascus.
"The resistance seeks to liberate (land), and it constitutes a pressure card on Israel, and is a factor that keeps vital the issue of the occupied Golan Heights. ... There is a common interest between Lebanon and Syria to keep the resistance as is."
Asked if Hizbullah was considering retaliation following the assassination of Hamas activist Izzedine Sheikh Khalil, which took place in Syria, Raad said: "Our duty is to condemn these Israeli actions and declare our solidarity with Syria and the Palestinian intifada."
Unlike repeated rhetoric in support of the Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories, Hizbullah remained silent throughout the clashes between followers of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr and U.S.-led troops in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf that ended in a peace deal last month. Raad said Hizbullah "rejects American occupation in principle, but we do not interfere in the details of the Iraqi performance when dealing with this occupation."
Just as important to Syrian-US relations as 1559 are the negotiations about border security with Iraq, where things are going better. On US Embassy official stated that negotiations were "constructive and positive." In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged Damascus to implement these actions, adding that the United States "will measure the Syrian commitment to the stability of Iraq by the concrete steps that it takes." However, American officials have not set the specifics of the Syrian border security commitments.
But Boucher said there are "fairly concrete understandings, particularly between the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, on things like communications activities, how they can deploy forces, how they can move together to cut off the border traffic."
National Public Radio's Steven Kenyon is doing a series of reports on the Iraqi-Syrian border that explain why it remains a "Byway for Insurgents Entering Iraq" All Things Considered audio. Although salaries for Iraqi border guards have been raised to $300 from the $20 a month they used to be, corruption is still rife and old habits die hard. One Syrian truck driver explained that he still has to tip everyone as he goes through and he has no clue who they are.
Moral amongst the Iraqis is terrible. In this mornings report, Kenyon interviewed a number of Iraqi border guards at a new "fort" the Americans had established. The only thing the soldiers wanted to talk about was how they were all wearing plastic slippers because the boots they had been promised failed to be issued. They had no showers, no proper weapons and complained that their pay was well below that of police in Baghdad. "Why would we work hard for nothing?" one officer asked? So much for the new national spirit being instilled in the new army. Obviously, the US is more interested in complaining about Syrian non-compliance than doing anything about it.
For Syria, it will be imperative to get high level American military officers on the ground in Syria. Damascus will have failed to take advantage of the new military mission if they allow the US to staff the new agreed boarder liaison with Iraqis and international staff. The only assurance that it will be effective from a political point of view is if top American brass are directly responsible for it. Then if Israel bombs Syria or Washington alienates Syrians, they will feel the drop in moral at the border and hostility from their Syrian counterparts. Only American officers will have the clout to shape Pentagon policy.
I have been to Iraq's border with Syria a number of times and seen how easy it is to cross. Once I went with a Syrian-Kurdish friend who fought with Barzani forces for 3 years in Iraq during the 1980s. He explained to me how he had crossed back and forth easily, either by taking a boat across the Tigris - every night people cross the river - or by going through the desert, where there is no fence or surveillance of any kind. Syria had never tried to control the border. It depended on the secret police to intimidate those it suspected of illegal activities. My friend was ultimately arrested by the mukhabarat for six months. It was not an experience he will forget.
Bashar al-Asad's head must be spinning. Just when he thought he had smoothed the waters after imposing the Lahoud extension on Lebanon and provoking France and the US to gang up on him in the UN, he is discovering that a tsunami is headed his way. The US is not offering any carrots. Quite the contrary. This morning, he is looking at a forest of cudgels held at the ready. Bashar may have thought that Under Secretary of State Burns' visit and Powell's soothing remarks about the "positive" role Syria is playing meant he had successfully negotiated the rapids of his Lebanon gambit, but everything has changed since the Israeli assassination of the Hamas official in Damascus on Sunday - an attack which everyone believes had a US green light. Some even speculated that with the neocons embarrassed by their Iraq miscalculations and President Bush distracted by his election campaign, Powell would be back at the helm of the US foreign policy ship. This was assumed to mean that Syria could look forward to at least a few months of "positive engagement" from the US. This does not seem to be the case.
Syria is so weak and Washington emboldened by French support, that it is pressing its advantage wherever it can. With Iraq and Libya pacified, at least temporarily, Syria is the low hanging fruit ripe for the plucking many believe.
al-Hayat claims (09/26/04) to have gotten hold of a Pentagon report on American-Israeli planning for Lebanon and Syria. It says that Israel has identified 64 military and civilian sites to bomb in Syria.
40 Palestinians are identified for assassination outside of the territories.
Hamas was compared to the Mahdi Army of Muqtadda al-Sadr. Its headquarters and bases needed to be destroyed. The report argues that Hizballah has been active in Iraq, where it works hand in glove with the Iranians. For this reason, the report concludes that it is imperative to destroy the effectiveness of Hizballah in order to deny it influence in Iraq. 1559 may be the instrument for this increased pressure and possible action. If Kofi Annan prepares a condemning report October 1 and the US continues to win France over to its side, it may have the diplomatic cover to take action in Lebanon.
It is not clear, how significant this pentagon report is or whether it is just one possible proposal.
Christian Henderson writing in al-Jazeera in an article entitled, "Syria in Washington's, crosshairs" Quotes both Murhaf Jouejati of the Middle East Institute in Washington and Rim Allaf, associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, to say that: "The Syrians have bent over backwards and the Americans still don't pay attention."
Both Jouejati and Allaf poured cold water on Israeli and US claims that Hamas and Islamic Jihad's wings in Syria direct operations inside the Palestinian territories. They don't believe that its the way Hamas works and they think the US and Israel know this. Their interest is to use Syria's protection of the groups as an excuse to slam Syria. "Israel is trying to embarrass Syria by portraying Damascus as a safe haven for terrorists at a time when Syria appears to be inclined to meet US demands on several issues including support for Palestinian groups," one Arab diplomate concluded.
Michael Young of the Daily Star claimed that, "There is a feeling in Israel and in some places in Washington that Syria is so weak that it is possible to narrow Damascus' margin of maneuver with little chance of backlash."
In conclusion Allaf said the Syrians had miscalculated the international reaction to its support for an extension for a renewed term for Lahud. "I think they are a bit surprised that Europe and the US are coming towards one line," she said. Allaf suggested that despite its concessions, Syria's support for Hizb Allah was risky given the realities of the post-September 11 world. "Three years later the Syrians don't understand. It's not the same game any more. Israel left Lebanon and Hizb Allah is still active," she said. "The Syrians have a lot of just causes but they are getting lost."
Hamas is accusing Jordan of assisting Israeli intelligence in the Khalil assassination.
"This is the work of the Jordanian mukhabart [intelligence]," a Hamas official told Palestinian reporters. "We have been warned in the past that Jordan was stepping up its security coordination with Israel not only against Hamas, but also against other Palestinian groups. Hamas will find a way to punish the traitors." Another Hamas official claimed that initial investigations have indicated that the Mossad agents who allegedly carried out the assassination entered Syria from Iraq. "The Mossad is very active these days in Iraq and has many agents working there," he said. "They had no difficulty smuggling the explosives from Iraq."
Kim Ghattas of the BBC in Damascus writes an interesting article - Syria feels pressure to reform - recording the opinions of Damascenes about the government's on-going problems, which gives a good sense of the mood on the ground. She describes a popular play, "The Night Baghdad Fell," that has been showing in Damascus for almost a year. "Syrian state television is ridiculed on stage for the way it dealt with the war in Iraq. While statues were being brought down in Baghdad, Syrian TV was showing cultural documentaries. Humam el-Hout, the playwright, says that without rocking the boat too much, he is trying to send a message to Arab leaders: that they need to wake up and heed the fate of Saddam Hussein's regime. He says Syria might be the next target, and leaders of the country need to gain the support of their people to confront the threat."
I am copying a Washington Post article by ScottWilson in its entirety because it is important and reflects a rare glimps into the inner debate amongst leading Baathists about the future role of the party.
Syria's Baathists Under Siege: Party Reformists Seek to Reduced Size, Influence
As editor of the Baath Party newspaper, Mehdi Dakhlallah has risen to a position of rare power within the institution that has dominated most elements of public life here for more than four decades. Now the balding, rotund intellectual is trying to tear his party apart.
In sober editorials, Dakhlallah has argued that the party is too big, too meddlesome and too removed from its founding principles of social justice, socialist economics and Arab nationalism.
The young people who are joining today, he laments, are drawn only by the promise of preferential treatment in university admissions and lucrative jobs in Syria's largely state-controlled economy. He wants the party to return to its ideological roots by becoming smaller, more democratic and, most controversial to his colleagues, less influential in government.
"The Baath Party is not going to change the world," said Dakhlallah, 57, who joined amid the revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s. "Right now we're fighting to separate the party from government. This is an essential step in changing and developing this country."
A year and a half after Iraq's Baath Party vanished with the U.S. invasion, Syria's branch is under siege from within its own ranks. Dakhlallah is among a vanguard of intellectuals trying to reduce the party's influence with the blessing of President Bashar Assad, who during four years in power has grown frustrated with the opposition many of its members are putting up to his plans for economic reform.
Since the revolution that brought it to power 41 years ago, the nearly 2 million-member party has grown into a parallel government, monitoring education, political and economic policy through a network of committees from the national to the village level. Assad is slowly dismantling the system of privileges the party has accumulated, allowing him to set the pace and extent of change at a time when Syria is in the cross hairs of the Bush administration's push to bring democratic reforms to the Middle East.
Assad, the party's titular head, has selected more than a quarter of his cabinet from outside party ranks since inheriting the presidency on the death of his father, Hafez Assad, four years ago. He is purging the Baath-dominated military of senior officers by enforcing for the first time regulations on mandatory retirement age, and he may push to remove the article of the Syrian constitution that guarantees his party "the leading role in society and in the state." At the same time, fewer young people are joining the party.
But as Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, works to remove the party as an obstacle to reform, he is also trying not to upset the political base that sustained his father for three decades. He is facing strong resistance from a group of septuagenarian holdovers from his father's administration and from provincial party leaders accustomed to influencing everything from teacher promotions to the price of vegetables in the market.
Those pushing hardest for reform within the party are primarily political ideologues, such as Dakhlallah, who do not hold posts with influence over state industry or the powerful intelligence services, where most of the opposition to change is coming from. A smaller party might be more amenable to Assad's economic reforms, and a new set of leaders could emerge from among those pushing hardest for change.
"Assad encouraged introspection within the party, and it is having a big conversation with itself that is not yet resolved," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador here. "But as of now you still can't ignore the party. You must work with it."
Hani Murtada, a soft-spoken pediatrician, is fighting the party from the outside at the president's direction. A year ago, Assad appointed Murtada minister of higher education, making him one of seven members of his 25-person cabinet who is not a party member.
Murtada was given control of a system comprising four public universities and 225,000 students but with a shortage of qualified teachers, classrooms and curricula. Since then, he has licensed Syria's first private universities, created e-learning programs in a country that still blocks certain Web sites, and dismantled the privileges extended to teachers and students who belong to the party. Soon, he said, "all 17 million people in this country will be treated the same."
In the past, 25 percent of university admissions went to party members whose test scores did not meet minimum standards, usually by only a few points. Murtada said he cut that to 10 percent this year and will eliminate it altogether for the next school year. A knowledge of English, he said, is a better ticket to promotion than party membership. He allows the party's education committees to comment on appointments but not to dictate them as in the past.
"Many look at the party now as an important symbol. But as something that controls the country, that is over," Murtada said in a recent interview. "The general vision of the country has changed completely in the last three years. They once thought the state should manage everything, and we have seen this is nonsense."
Assad, according to Syrian officials and Western diplomats, is increasingly concerned by the demographic challenge facing the country. Each year 300,000 young Syrians enter the labor market, while the economy grows at only 3 percent a year, not nearly fast enough to absorb the new job seekers.
So far the most notable economic change has been the recent licensing of three private banks, a step Assad proposed three years ago. Party leaders, many of whom have substantial stakes in the state-run banks and other government-controlled entities, resisted the move until party doctrine was amended to allow Assad to proceed.
Many opposing the changes are in their seventies; the president, a generation younger, is waiting them out. He is also enforcing mandatory retirement, commonly waived for powerful military officers in the past. Western diplomats here say several hundred party members in the officer corps will be out over the next eight months, including the directors of four intelligence services.
"The end result will be to get the Baath Party out of the government and, particularly, out of making economic policy," said Waddah Abdrabbo, editor of the Economist, an independent weekly newspaper. "These people know that change is coming. They can fight it for a year or two, but in the end they will not be able to do anything about it."
Damascus University was once fertile ground for party recruiting when Soviet-style socialism and Arab nationalism captured the imaginations of many students across the Middle East. Today a broader range of political opinion is reflected in its sunny courtyards.
Dima Bawadikji, 18, said she joined the party in high school because she believed "any party member would have an easy life." A freshman studying library science, Bawadikji was the only one among five children in her family who joined the party, which in high school meant special picnics and sports days for members.
Sitting next to her on the shady steps of the journalism building, Amer Hassan, a 24-year-old student of English literature, said he joined the party a decade ago even though he "didn't know anything about it." Only a few people from his high school class in the southern province of Daraa didn't join, and he said he feared that failing to do so would hinder his ability to travel abroad, which he hopes to do some day.
"This party has been around for more than 30 years, and it's done nothing for us," Hassan said. "This president is a good one, and I respect him. But he can do nothing against these people because they run everything."
On the streets of Daraa, 70 miles southeast of Damascus, Yasseen Damara's smoky waiting room fills with men in military uniform and in the red-checked kaffiyehs of Bedouin farmers. He is the province party boss, and he is a busy man.
His calendar is filled with the weddings and funerals of provincial notables, and he is in constant contact with the provincial governor, another party member, for consultations ranging from the status of medicine in the hospital to problems with the electricity grid. Assad, father and son, look down on him from his wall as he works through committee reports on youth, economics, politics and education.
If vegetable prices in the market are too high, a party member will tell the vendor they should come down. The education committee recommends teachers for promotion, though Damara insists ability is the deciding factor. Despite his post, he said, two of his children were recently denied admission to the highly competitive local nursing school.
The changes being proposed by the intellectuals in Damascus make little sense to Damara, 51, a beneficiary of the party for decades. Land reform that followed the 1963 Baath revolution quadrupled the size of his father's tiny wheat, barley and garbanzo fields in the village of Maarea, making the farm profitable enough to sustain his family of eight. He joined the party in high school and never left.
"The party is still close to its principles, even though some individual members have made mistakes," said Damara. "It will always be the leading party. Why? Because its goals will always be supported by the people."
A contrary view of the Baath is given by the Washington-based Syria Reform Party. It writes that President of Syrian Parliament confirms one-party system.
The president of the Syrian parliament Mahmoud al-Abrash, confirmed, in a meeting he made with the Syrian press, that the Ba’ath party is the only party that will be allowed to rule Syria and that Clause 8 of the Syrian constitution, which provides the Ba’ath Socialist Party with absolute power, will not be amended nor changed. What amounted to a rebuff to all political parties that have been pressuring the regime for pluralism in Syrian politics, the latest salvo confirms that the Ba’athists are unwilling to reform the country or allow voices of dissent to participate in the political process. In reference to other parties, Al-Abrash said: "Parties made up of 10 people will not be allowed to change this regime. They were born to subvert this nation".
It is believed he was referring to the Reform Party following many past accusations that RPS is made up of "few" people. "Anyone who wishes to participate in the political process (under the Ba’ath umbrella) is welcome to Syria" he added. He also reiterated that the Ba’ath Party owns the Syrian street and that the party enjoys the support of the majority of Syrians. The last election won by Assad gave him 99.99% of the votes. In February of last year, al-Abrash forbade any Syrian parliamentarian to address the media in any form or shape setting a new precedent in unilateral dictatorship. This new attack on political parties comes at the heels of a new initiative by William Burns of the U.S. State Department that is providing the Ba’athists with political cover. Analysts expect that the Syrian regime will become bolder in the weeks to come and will revert back to methods and tactics of oppression that will, in one way or the other, provide Syrians with excuses to support terrorism.
A Syrian-made documentary critical of the Damascus regime has been applauded on its first showing in Lebanon - a country still dominated by its powerful neighbor - but attacked elsewhere in the Arab world as part of a Zionist plot. Omar Amiralay's "A Flood in Baath Country" is a harsh indictment of the regime, portraying the devastating effects of 35 years of rigid Baath Party rule on Syrian society.
The New York Times reported Israel blew up Mr Khalil, a mid-level official of the militant organization Hamas, on Sunday. His sport utility vehicle exploded in Damascus in a neighborhood heavily populated by Palestinian refugees. Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that "just because Hamas leaders are operating from Damascus, this does not grant them immunity.''
Zeev Shiff explains that the direct rational for the killing was that Khalil helped financed the Hebron terror cell whose members carried out the double suicide bombing in Be'er Sheva. But he also placed the strike in the longer term Israeli strategy of stepped up pressure on Syria, a policy begun at the outset of the US invasion of Iraq. Israel killed Ghalib Awali, a Hizbullah leader in Beirut earlier this year. In one case, the Israel Air Force destroyed a Syrian radar station in Lebanon. In another, a training camp not far from Damascus, known to be uninhabited, was bombarded from the air. There were also unarmed responses in the form of IAF flyovers that broke the sound barrier over the Assad family home in Latakia. The strike on Khalil raises the anti because it took place in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
For its part, Syria interprets the killing as an Israeli attempt to halt the growing cooperation between Damascus and Washington over Iraq. Foreign Minister Sharaa claimed that U.S.-Syrian relations "are complicated, with Israel being a constant source of negativity, giving false facts about the region and fabricating Syria's reputation in it." He explained Israel's continuing campaign against Syria as an effort to scuttle Damascus' efforts to restart peace negotiations in the region or to keep Syria out of the terrorism headlines. SANA, the official Syrian news agency, stated that "This terrorist operation reaffirms Israel's intentions to destabilize security and stability in the region at a time that both international and regional efforts are being exerted to ease that tension."
Washington will most likely try to exploit its unusual position in this affaire. Both Israel and Damascus are eager to win Washington's favor. Israel is worried about Powel's recent remarks that Syria is being cooperative and positive. Israel must fear that any rapprochement between Syria and the US will inevitably lead to increased US pressure on Israel to give up the Golan and restart regional peace talks.
Damascus is eager to rehabilitate its image in the West. With pressure being placed on Syria by UN resolution 1559 ordering it out of Lebanon, US economic sanctions, and constant Washington assertions that Syria is a rogue state, President Asad is willing to make important concessions to the US, to avoid further sanctions. Damascus made a major concession to the US last week when it ordered the top Hamas leaders, Khaled Mashal and Imad al-Alami, to leave Damascus. This is something Washington has been demanding of Syria for well over a year. The fact that Israel would strike Damascus only days after Asad made this concession, is a sign that the US will keep the pressure on. Washington of course needs Syrian help at the Iraqi border and is sending a further military mission to Damascus this week. But by using its Lebanon card and continuing to sanction Israeli strikes, Washington is able to begin a dialogue with Syria without seeming to make any real concessions. Damascus, although furious at the Israeli strikes, has been careful not to blame the US, as it ordinarily would, for fear of jeopardizing the talks and playing into Israel's hand. In this way, Washington is sitting pretty. It can squeeze Syria in Lebanon, demand cooperation in Iraq, and still allow Israel to strike it at will. Damascus, which claimed the Burns visit as an important diplomatic victory, must be wondering what it really gained.
Israel's ability to infiltrate the Hamas leadership in Damascus is likely to further rattle the group after Israel killed Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor as Gaza leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in missile strikes earlier this year. "They (Hamas leaders) have to take more precautions than they are doing now," said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political science professor. "[The Israelis] are trying to reach Hamas everywhere."Last week, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that in response to a request by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, an Arab intelligence service gave Israel information on Hamas leaders abroad, including where they live, what their hobbies were and even what food they eat.
Syria ordered top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, and another senior official, Imad al-Alami, to leave Damascus, their longtime base, according to a Palestinian close to the group. Syrian officials told Mashal and al-Alami they should find safer territory, and Alami reportedly went to Iran while Mashal surfaced briefly in Cairo and then disappeared. But Israeli analysts say the killing of Khalil was more than retribution. Operationally, it deprives Hamas of a key military leader, they say, while sending a strong signal to Syria that Israel will not tolerate its hosting of Hamas and other radical groups in Damascus. "Also, this attack inside Syria’s capital shows the authorities in Damascus that it cannot be used as a hiding place. This is a blow to the prestige of the regime."
Michael B. Oren, a historian at the Shalem Center, a research institute in Jerusalem, said he believed that Israel would become more active in Syria. "I think this is something we'll see more of because there is a paucity of Hamas targets in the West Bank and Gaza."
Another item reported recently is that Syria is brokering a secret deal to send atomic weapons scientists to Iran, the Sunday Telegraph reports. A group of about 12 middle-ranking Iraqi nuclear technicians and their families were transported to Syria before the collapse of Saddam's regime, the Telegraph claims. The transfer was arranged under a combined operation by Saddam's now defunct Special Security Organisation and Syrian Military Security, which is headed by Arif Shawqat, the Syrian president's brother-in-law. Western intelligence officials believe that President Asad is desperate to get the Iraqi scientists out of his country before their presence is used by Washington as a further reason to target Syria as part of the war on terrorism.
I would prefer to be "a garbage collector in New York rather than an Arab leader," Walid Jumblatt stated on Lebanese national TV yesterday. The Druze za`im has reached new rhetorical heights in his campaign against recognition of the Lahoud presidential extension and Damascus meddling in Syrian constitutional affairs. To al-Nahar, he has called the Syrians the "Janjaweed" of the region and promised to fight their meddling "on land and in the air." Verily, he is the Shakespeare of the Lebanese opposition. He has promised not to join in any cabinet so long as Lahoud is president.
The opposition groups met recently at the Bristol Hotel in Beirut. About 200 prominent opposition politicians, including members of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, the Progressive Socialist Party, Metn MP Nassib Lahoud's Democratic Renewal Movement, the Democratic Leftist Movement, Jumblatt's Democratic Gathering parliamentary bloc, the National Bloc and others looked for common ground in denouncing the extension of Lahoud's presidency. They hope to give France and the US something to work with in their efforts to pressure Kofi Annan to denounce Syria on October 3rd when Annan must file his follow-up report on resolution 1559.
The opposition called their meeting "Carlton II" referring to a meeting held three years ago at the Carlton Hotel in Beirut to denounce the mass roundup of anti-Syrian activists and students on Aug. 7, 2001.
Pro-Syrian politicians were quick to react in an attempt to undercut the opposition. The next day, they met at the Meridien-Commodore Hotel to issue an unexpected call on Jumblatt and the opposition groups to join them in dialogue, unity and reform.
Despite his rhetoric, Jumblatt is keeping a toe in the Syrian camp. Beirut MP Beshara Merhej, who attended the Commodore meeting, said: "We will not stop calling on the opposition to join our position." He said that Jumblatt's stance on Thursday was not the step they had hoped for, but indeed it was a step in the right direction, as although Jumblatt's opposition regarding the extension of Lahoud's term did not change, "he did not break the ties with Syria, and has shown a will for discussion." Jumblatt has not come out in favor of dismantling Hizballah, as his Christian allies would like him too. He still believes the "resistance" is legitimate. He will not get into a fight with Hizballah while tangling with Damascus. Moreover, Jumblatt asserts that he is not against Syria, but only against the extension of President Emile Lahoud's term and Syrian interference in the intricacies of Lebanese affairs?
In the old days, Syria would have knee caped Jumblatt for his outspoken opposition - or just offed him, as they presumably did to his father Kamal in the 1977. Today, however, under the glair of international attention and under the leadership of the less iron-fisted Bashar, Damascus is determined to woo him back with emoluments and threats. Some of Jumblatt's supporters were arrested last week after his 17-member parliamentary bloc voted against the constitutional amendment that allowed the extension of Lahoud's term. One of Jumblatt's supporters, Baabda MP Bassem Sabaa, said that "the history of Kamal Jumblatt forbids us to be listed on the black lists" of those who have given up on democracy and who did not vote against the Lahoud extension. Damascus needs Jumblatt on its side in order to smooth over the Lahoud affaire. It is quite possible the Druze leader will be able to exact a hefty price for his neutrality, doing well for himself at the same time as demonstrating to Syria that they will have pay for pushing Lebanon around.
Nicholas Blanford writes that Hizbullah is not dismissing Resolution 1559 with the same initial bravado of some Syrian officials. He explains two deals American officials have recently offered Syria in an effort to curtail Hizballah.
The former U.S. official Martin Indyk reportedly relayed one suggestion two weeks ago to Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to reports, Indyk proposed that Israel withdraw from the Shebaa Farms and retreat from the Golan Heights by 5 kilometers in exchange for Hizbullah's pulling back from the Blue Line by 25 kilometers.
Another proposal, reputedly floated by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, is for Lebanese soldiers to jointly patrol the Blue Line with UN peacekeepers, a move that could be considered a confidence-building measure in lieu of a full deployment of Lebanese troops along the border.
He concludes that: "Unless Syria is offered some very tasty carrots along with the diplomatic beatings it has endured in the past two years, it is difficult to see a significant alteration in Hizbullah's status, Resolution 1559 notwithstanding."
Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday praised Syria for its willingness to do more to control its border with Iraq and its apparent redeployment of some troops in Lebanon, the first significant easing of tensions between Washington and Damascus in months. Powell spoke after a rare meeting with Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Shara, whose country is under growing international pressure to change its behavior toward Lebanon and end its tolerance of terrorism. The outcome of the meeting, which Powell called ''a rather positive development,'' is important because Syria has been mentioned by some hawkish advisors to the Pentagon as a possible next target for ''regime change'' by the United States.
A senior State Department official briefing reporters said Syria has redeployed 3,000 to 4,000 of its roughly 20,000 troops in Lebanon away from their positions south of Beirut. ''They're talking about redeploying troops out of Lebanon'' altogether, he said. 'We're very much in a `we'll see' kind of attitude.''
"It's a tough military mission and a tough political mission, but I sense a new attitude from the Syrians, but of course, it all depends on actions, not just attitudes," Powell said. A US delegation is expected in Damascus later this month to discuss concrete ways of securing the border, across which Washington alleges militants are crossing to destabilise the interim Iraqi administration.
He said his conversation with Shara was "a good, open, candid" and "rather positive discussion" that focused on a range of US concerns about Syrian policy on Iraq, Lebanon and its support for alleged terrorist groups. ''I think the Syrians are anxious to do more,'' Powell said.
Italy also expressed appreciation over Syria's efforts in combating terrorism, pointing to its important role in foiling a terrorist attack that was targeting the Italian and Western interests in Lebanon. In a statement issued Wednesday, Italian Defence Minister Antonio Martino underlined the importance of Syria's role in cooperation with the Lebanese and Italian authorities to thwart an attempt to blow up the Italian embassy in Beirut, and its cooperation to foil a series of other attacks on the Western interests in Lebanon and other states.
'Top Al Qaida Operative Captured in Lebanon
Lebanon said Wednesday it had arrested 10 members of a Qaeda-linked group planning to blow up the Italian Embassy in Beirut using a car packed with 300 kilograms of the explosive TNT. Interior Minister Elias Murr told a news conference that Ismail Mohammed al-Khatib, a Lebanese man whom he described as "the head of a network linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist movement," had been arrested Friday in the predominantly Sunni Muslim area of western Bekaa. "It is the first time Lebanon has arrested an Al Qaeda network," he said, adding that Khatib's role was "to recruit fundamentalist youth to carry out operations against coalition forces in Iraq."
Michael Young writing in the Daily Star explains why he thinks Syria has overplayed its hand in Lebanon and may be sent packing home, if America and France continue to put the squeeze on him. He writes:
Assad's mistake may be in assuming that American necessity can, somehow, be translated into strategic sympathy. His stalling may work for a few months, but it won't do away with the myriad other problems the U.S. has with Syria. Even the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks only brought Damascus some respite, as the Bush administration blended cooperation and threats. A Syrian redeployment in Lebanon does nothing about Hizbullah, about Syrian support for Palestinian groups the U.S. considers terrorist, or (and Resolution 1559 cannot simply be filed away) about Lebanese sovereignty and independence.
Another Assad mistake would be to assume that his redeployment of forces will arrest the steady disintegration of Syria's position in Lebanon. While nothing may soon change with regard to Syrian domination, in time, assuming serious redeployments take place in the coming days, a Syrian Army replaced successfully by Lebanese units will imply that a full withdrawal won't lead to carnage. The Syrians risk marginalizing themselves on Lebanese security, even as their continued presence means they will still be held responsible for Hizbullah's actions.
Using the logic of Taif, since that is what Lebanese and Syrian officials have held up as the rationale for the pullbacks, the Syrians must move to another stage. Taif specifies that after a withdrawal to the ridges of the Bekaa (or anywhere else they and the Lebanese decide), "the two governments shall also agree on the size and duration of the deployment of the Syrian forces in the locations mentioned above..." In the Syrian mind this terminology is hazy enough to allow an open-ended stay; but in the context of a significant shift in Syrian forces, it can easily be turned into an instrument mandating talks on a full withdrawal.
Reportedly, when Assad met with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, last week, he was told the game was up on the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Mubarak is said to have proposed that the matter be "Arabized," so it could be taken out of the hands of the UN and the U.S. In that way Damascus could maintain a hold on things, if less solidly than before. The redeployment is surely Assad's way of saying, "No thanks." He is keeping Lebanon entirely in his own pocket.
Okay, but that means Syria alone will have to navigate through the long-term repercussions of Resolution 1559. If Assad is too clever by half in Lebanon, his adversaries will be tempted to push him off the edge. The redeployment, no matter how limited or broad now, may turn into a sprawling one-way ticket home.
I don't see the weakness of Asad's position in Lebanon. The government and military officials that count have gone along with Asad. Should they stop cooperating, that would be a severe blow to Syria's position, but there is no indication they will.
Morally, Syria's position has been eroded. But so has America's. The two cancel each other out to a large degree. When most of the leading government officials cast the struggle to be one between American and Syrian interests in Lebanon, many Lebanese continue to chose Syria over America, even if they are fed up with foreign intervention and occupation. The tense situation throughout the Middle East, created by the US occupation of Iraq, does not help America's moral purchase on the conscience of most Lebanese.
What is more, America has no military muscle to flex so long as it has yet to break through the wall of its Iraqi marathon. On the contrary, it is seeking US help on Iraq's border. Should Europe seriously consider joining America in the imposition of economic sanctions, Syria would be doomed, but Europe is unlikely to embrace US policy with such zeal. I think Bashar has calculated correctly on that score. To see if resolution 1559 has real meaning, we will have to await Kofi Annan's follow up report in a month's time. Maybe Michael is right? Maybe Annan will slam Syria. I am not sure who is responsible or the mechanism in place for assessing the degree of Syrian compliance, or what sort of measures will be recommended should it be found wanting. My suspicion is that Annan will be hesitant to embroil the UN in another confrontation in the neighborhood.
Israel is the one state that could effectively pull the rug out from under Bashar's feet. By engaging in talks with Syria and agreeing to quit the Golan, it could accomplish the sort of revolution many in the region dream about. Every Lebanese official has justified his pro-Syria stand by pointing to continued Israeli occupation and threat. So has every Syrian official. Without that justification, the moral calculus of Syria's occupation would be completely thrown off. There would be no more excuses, no more talk of a Syrian "presence" or of "cards" to be played. The notion that Syria was somehow protecting Lebanese or Arab honor and its own territorial integrity against the depredations of the "West" would evaporate. The occupation would be just that - an occupation in all of its nasty detail and ugliness. It could be caste as nothing else. Without a regional settlement, Syria may continue to win the sympathies of many Lebanese - and even a few Europeans - for sometime to come.
Middle East analysts are still trying to assess the reasons behind Syria's insistence on having Lahoud's term extended, and regional politicians are positioning themselves to either make the most of or deflect the impact of the resulting UN resolution.
Scott Wilson of The Washington Post reports that the British ambassador in Damascus believed that in the final jokeying for position in Lebanon between Washington and Damascus, it came down to a question of za`ama. Wilson writes: "Several Western diplomats here expressed dismay over the heavy-handed approach taken by Assad, who several weeks earlier had told a delegation of U.S. members of Congress that several other candidates would be acceptable to Syria. "It became a matter of arm-wrestling over who was calling the shots in Lebanon: Syria or the United States," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador here. "Once it became that issue, Syria couldn't back down, even if it wanted to."
Are peace talks getting started between Israel and Syria?Gabriel Ben-Dor, director of the University of Haifa's National Security Studies Center, speculates that "despite the predominantly cosmetic nature of the Syrian troop redeployment in Lebanon, he did not rule out the possibility of a connection with the plethora of reports of a pending resumption of peace talks with Israel."
There have been persistent rumors that negotiations are going to be renewed, that the groundwork is being prepared very meticulously, or that talks might already have started surreptitiously," he said. "There could be a link between the Syrian moves and the possible renewal of serious contacts with Israel, although this is unlikely to happen until after the US elections. "If the administration of President Bush survives, it is conceivable there might be a turn to the Syrian track because the situation with the Palestinians is a mess and the Americans, to counter criticism over Iraq, would probably like to demonstrate they have not given up on trying to bring peace and stability to the Middle East," said Ben-Dor.
Farid Khazen, chairman of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, said the fact that this redeployment is occurring under U.N. scrutiny is more significant than its size. Although Syria has redeployed its forces in Lebanon several times in recent years, Khazen said that doing so under international pressure made Tuesday's pullback the most significant to date. "Of course, this should have happened back in 1992," Khazen said. "Even though there were partial deployments before, today they come under completely different circumstances. This is no longer a Lebanese issue or a Syrian issue, but an international issue."
Syria first sent troops to Lebanon in 1976 in an unsuccessful attempt to calm mounting sectarian violence, and at times had as many as 35,000 troops in the country. The 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war gave Syria two years to withdraw its troops from the time Lebanon incorporated the terms of the accord in its constitution, a deadline that lapsed in September 1992.
About 15,000 Syrian troops will remain in Lebanon. Mahmud Hammud, the Lebanese defense minister, said a full pullout would occur only after an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands. (AP, AFP)
Randa Takieddine of Al-Hayat has a thoughtful article on the consequences of Asad's Lebanon stumble. She writes that Syria has now signed the EU's WMD clause without any modifications and will be subject to continued Foreign Pressure now that it has united France and the US against it. She asks: "Will Syria continue in the same conduct of letting by the diplomatic opportunities which will ultimately subjugate Syria to further international pressure?"
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, while contacting the Arab leaders, found out that not a single Arab leader agreed with what Syria is doing in Lebanon, and not a single Arab leader agreed with what Syria ventured lately in Lebanon, especially concerning the amendment of the Lebanese constitution.
About 15,000 Syrian troops will remain in Lebanon, said Mahmud Hammud, the Lebanese defense minister. A full pullout would occur only after an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands, he added. Troops are to move out of the towns of Aramoun, Chouiefat, Damour, Doha and Khaldeh, south of Beirut, and Dhour El Choueir to the north. The troops' destination is thought to be the Bekaa, an area near Syria's border, where a majority of Syrian forces are deployed.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, said: "We remain deeply concerned about Syrian intervention in Lebanon and reiterate that, in accordance with Security Council Resolution 1559, Syria withdraw all of its forces from Lebanon."
In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cast doubt on the value of the Syrian pullback. "We don't at this point see a change in Syria's position," Sharon told Israel Radio. "Syria is under U.S. pressure these days because it is helping Iraqi terrorists. They have an interest in taking steps that will take off or weaken the pressure."
BBC news monitor writes that in Israel, a commentator in the leading daily Yediot Aharonot sees the Syrian move as a cynical ploy "aimed mainly at easing US pressure". " President Assad can allow himself to reduce the number of his soldiers and officers in order to con President Bush."
Writing in Lebanon's Al-Safir, Sami Kalib asks: "Is Syria's redeployment the beginning of a Syrian-US deal? What Washington is asking Syria entails much more than just the Lebanese problem," he believes.
Saudi Arabia's Al-Jazirah writes, "The redeployment should have coincided with an Israeli withdrawal from the Shabaa farms region. Syria is not occupying Lebanon!", reads the headline of an editorial, which feels that Israel should have matched the move.
Omar of "IRAQ THE MODEL" blog, writes (September 21, 2004) that 6 Syrian terrorists were arrested in Iraq just as they were preparing to set off a bomb.
Some good news!
A group of Iraqi citizens in Al Karkh/ Khidr Al Yas arrested 6 Syrian terrorists after placing a land mine at the gate of Bab Al Mu’a dam bridge from Al Karkh side. According to New Sabah newspaper, after a road side bomb exploded missing an American convoy that was patrolling in the area, a group of citizens who happened to be there noticed a bunch of young men who looked foreigners (turned out to be Syrians) that were gathering near the place and that looked suspicious. The citizens found their atittude very suspicious and they were not from the area, so they jumped on them and kicked them until some of them started to bleed and then turned them on to the American forces. Eyewitnesses said that the citizens were shouting “Terrorists. You are targeting our children and families. You are killing our youths” This incident that took place near Haifa street comes after many attacks that terrorist Arabs were accused of carrying against American forces and Iraqi police stations.
I have selected a few emails I received criticizing my za`im posts. The original posts are 1 here and 2 here. (I will try to answer some of these in a follow up za`im article soon.)
Nicola Migliorino writes:
Dear Dr. Landis,
I wish to thank you for your website and comments - it is very useful indeed for all of us interested in Syria (and Lebanon). I have been trying, as many others, to understand the whole Lahoud-1559 affair, and I read with interest your views. Although I agree with the importance of the za'ama factor, I believe it leaves questions unanswered.
In particular, if I understand the argument correctly, I wonder why the affirmation of za'ama had to be done necessarily by confirming Lahoud. Why not affirming authority in a way that could be similarly forceful, but at the same time save the face of Lebanon? Why not electing another pro-Syrian figure, making it strongly clear that it was Bashar's decision, but at the same time avoiding the "rape" of the Lebanese political system in full daylight? A lebanese friend has an opinion on the matter: he thinks that the Syrians (or Bashar) did not want to take risks: they were ready to place someone else on the chair, but they were afraid of surprises (iani that the guy could at some point fail in a loyalty test, particularly during these troubled times). This view seems to present the Syrian regime in a much more defensive position.
On another note, can we assume that the decision on how to proceed was fully Bashar's decision? Or was it perhaps the result of a mediation with other figures of the Syrian regime? in this latter case, isn't this undermining the whole "affirmation of za'ama" argument (or leading to another question: who's the za'im)?
many thanks again,
P.S.: A short note on me: I am an Italian national, I have just earned my PhD at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter (UK) with a political science thesis on the Armenian community and the state in Lebanon and Syria (1920-to date, supervisor Prof. Tim Niblock, external Prof. Ray Hinnebusch); I have lived in Syria Oct.1998- Dec 2000, where I was in charge of the Italian NGO Movimondo (working with Palestine refugees and UNRWA, but also with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour). I am currently looking for a job and working on developing my thesis for publication.
Rayyan Souki writes:
I've read a lot of your posts on your news blog and I found that your views tend to be sympathetic and apologetic towards the current Syrian Regime. You always try to highlight the "good benefits" of stability that the Alawi Minority has achieved in Syria without looking at the consequences that will arise from that artificial stability which was built on tyranny, oppression, and fear.
In order to have a more "balanced" approach to the matter, I believe that you should keep these following points present in your analysis when discussing the contemporary Syrian political scene.
1-Syria has never been a "real” nation state. For 400 years of Sunni Ottoman Occupation, it was divided into several Vilayets: Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Tripoli, Akka, etc...There was NEVER a unified Syria.
2-The French drew the present political boundaries of Syria by sewing up 4 distinct regions: Aleppo, Damascus, Jabal Al-Nusyaria, and Jabal El-Duruz.
3-The population of Syria is a funny mixture of competing ethnic and religious groups:
63% are Sunni Arabs or Arabized Sunnis.(A lot of Sunni Syrians are the remnants of Turks and Mamluks who adopted over the years the Arabic language). The Sunnis in Syria are also divided between rural Bedouins and urban settlers.
10% are Kurds. These live in the Al-Hasaka Mouhafaza and aspire to join their brothers in Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.
11% are Nusayris or Alawis. These people live mainly in the Latakia Muhafaza. They are the current rulers of Syria and the Sunni's most hated and despised group.
10% are Christians. Syrian Christians belong to more than ten different churches. Of the Christian, between 3-4 percent are Armenians.
3% are Druzes and they reside mainly in the Swayda Province.
1.5% are Ismailis.
1.5% are other minorities.
4-The presence of the Alawi Minority on the top of the political pyramid in Syria is awkward and, in my honest opinion, temporary. They represent ONLY 11% of the population. Daniel Pipes, the prominent American Scholar, has described this very clearly when he said: "For an Alawi to be president of Syria is the same as a Jew becoming the Czar of Russia or an Untouchable becoming a Maharaja in India.”
5-The Alawis are considered by the Sunnis as Non-Muslim Heretics whose blood and property ought to be "fair game.” These convictions are based on centuries old religious "fatwas" and on antiquated social traditions which the Sunnis Still recall.(For example, the Wealthy Sunni landlords of Aleppo, Homs, and Hama still remember the days when the Alawis used to work as farmers in their Farms and when Nusayri Women used to work as maids --and sex servants-- in their homes).
6- The Strategy of the Alawi Regime to remain in power is three fold: a-Buy time and hold to power as long as possible by using tactics such as: terror, oppression, massacres, torture, bribes, etc...
b- Try to appease the Americans and Israelis by convincing them that they are a more docile alternative to a Sunni-Dominated Syria. The Israelis and Americans are buying this argument FOR THE TIME BEING, but will eventually ditch the Alawis once they see that they are of no more use.
c-Occupy Lebanon and divert the attention of the Sunni majority from the internal and domestic problems they are facing . By Doing That, the Alawis hope to take advantage of Lebanon's economic potentials and to correct the historical mistake that many Sunni Syrians believed was made when parts of Syria were "annexed" by the French and added to Mount Lebanon.
7-The Alawi ruling elite resemble a Mafia more than they resemble a ruling class. Most of the top shots in the regime are related to the Assad Family.
8-The Greatest catastrophe the Alawis fear is to lose power and to face a brutal and bloody Sunni retaliation on the crimes they committed..(Tadmour Prison Massacre, Hama Massacre, Torture, Detention...).
As for " Stability" you are speaking about, Well it’s all based on weak foundations. A slight push by the Americans will cause a "Domino effect" and put the Alawis face to face with the dark days that they will eventually encounter.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO BET???????
A final Note:
On the long run I believe, it is in the Strategic interest of Israel and the US to DIVIDE Syria. A recent report by the Israeli Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya said that in the next 25 years, the population of Syria will double to 35 million. 5 million Syrians will be living in the region between Damascus and the Israeli Border. This demographic element in itself, will create huge difficulties for the advancing Israeli armored divisions that might push into Syria incase of an all-out war.(These war lessons were learned by the Israelis during the 1982 Lebanon invasion in which they were forced to advance in high population density areas. This made their armored division more susceptible to guerilla warfare.)
In addition to that, the Jewish State WILL NEVER relinquishes the Golan Heights that control 30% of the Jordan's River water.
Also, Israel would like to see a "castrated" Syrian Army. Despite the military weakness of the Syrians, they still pose an important threat to the security of Israel. Their Scud surface-to-surface missiles can't be dismissed. Nor can their relatively antiquated chemical warfare capabilities and their obsolete armored divisions.
After the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, the dissolution of Iraq, and the destruction of the Palestinian authority, Israel has only Syria, on its Northern Border, to deal with.
It should be noted also that the American Neo-cons in their Famous "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" policy paper said that "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria."
Gibreel Gibreel, a Lebanese businessman working in the United Kingdom, holds degrees from Buckingham and Edinburgh universities. He writes:
I read your piece entitled ‘Was Lebanon Bashar's mini 1973 War?’ (Sunday, September 12, 2004). Who are you? Are you genuinely a professor in a real university? Are you published?
I'm not convinced you know what you’re talking about; your entire view is so obviously constructed by the writings of people like Robert Fisk and Jonathan Randall, rather than any proper academic works. Your mistaken views are exactly why US administration after US
administration gets it wrong in the Middle East. Living in Syria for a couple of years or so, or uttering a few choice words in Arabic doesn’t mean anything.
Once you remove your prejudices from your writings you may actually start to know your subject. I apologise in advance if you feel I have offended you; I don’t mean too, but I have met so many people like you in my time. You get it wrong time and time again and then use the phrase "I’m not convinced of this, or not convinced of that" to cover up your lack of knowledge.
I will make two points.
First, how anyone can possibly be so optimistic about the Ba’ath dictatorship is beyond me. You would have thought that history would have taught the Americans, academics and governments, not to expect too much from the regime. I won’t labour this point because I am quite tired of trying to understand how seemingly educated and intelligent people ignore the behavioral history of the Ba’ath regime, the late Hafez el Assad, and now his son to argue that they are “misunderstood” and that the West should make an effort to try to see their point of view. You claim to have lived in Syria; did you ever bother to ask any Syrian not associated or benefiting from the Ba’ath regime whether he thinks they are misunderstood?
Second, to address your point about the Christians of Lebanon, particularly the Maronites, with whom you seem to have an axe to grind. Take a look at the position of Christians in countries across the Middle East. Are they treated equally? Do they enjoy the same status as Muslims in those countries?
For a Muslim being Arab is being Muslim, one cannot be separated from the other, no matter how westerners like you try to fudge the issue. In the opinion of Muslim / Arabs, Christians can’t be Arabs; even Muslims in Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. have to abandon their history and culture and adopt Arab history and culture in order to be a proper Muslim.
So can you blame the Christians of Lebanon for not wanting to be treated as second-class citizens? (Please see my analysis of the centrality of religion to Muslims in their public and private life at http://www.meforum.org/article/105.) I’m sure that if Lebanon’s Christians were able to believe that Muslims can separate their religion from politics, one man one vote would be welcomed, but the example of the surrounding countries don’t set a good example.
My definition of democracy is not just a system of one man one vote, but a system in which every citizen is equal and his or her rights are protected. Therefore, Lebanon is a democracy; all its citizens are equal and their rights are protected under a constitution and legal system that was constructed by men for men, not by “god” for men and under which only those
who adhere to a particular faith are considered equal beings. Sharia law would soon become the basis of a constitution and the dominant legal system in Lebanon if the president was a Sunni or a Shi’, a system under which non-Muslims are considered inferior and subject to the whims of Muslims.
Under “Christian” rule in Lebanon, Muslims are equal and have more rights than their co-religionists in the surrounding Islamic or self-styled “secular” states. Sufficed to say that when a Muslim defendant is brought before a court in Lebanon he or she does not require two Muslim witnesses to challenge the evidence of one Christian or non-Muslim plaintiff.
Under “Christian” rule in Lebanon at least a Muslim is permitted to walk up to the ballot box and cast his vote for a representative who is of the same faith as he or she, knowing full well that people of his or her faith can become government ministers, prime minister or speaker of the house and be involved in the decision making process. Where else do you see this in the Middle East?
No, Mr. Landis, Lebanon is a democracy, however you choose to define democracy, and I’m sorry to say that it’s your prejudices that cause you to be so anti-Christian.
Will Washington abandon Lebanon for a stable Iraq?
Will Washington abandon Lebanon for a stable Iraqi border with Syria? That is the question raised by Adam Zagorin of Time Magazinein his Sept. 19 article, entitled: "Cozying up to Syria."
President Bush has always made it clear where he stands on the matter of terrorism: "You're either with us or against us." But the Administration is showing a surprisingly nuanced attitude toward one country long designated a state sponsor of terrorism: Syria. Desperate to stop the terrorists, money and weapons that the U.S. says are crossing Syria's border into Iraq and fueling the insurgency there, the U.S. has initiated talks with Syria to join in controlling the frontier.
A senior U.S. official tells Time the talks are aimed at creating a "military-to-military" relationship and that "joint border patrols" involving U.S. and Syrian troops "cannot be ruled out." Senior officials from the State Department and Pentagon met with Syrian President Bashar Assad for several hours in his grand palace in Damascus last week. Assad was "interested in cooperating" with military proposals under study by the U.S. Central Command, a State Department official tells Time, and more talks in Damascus will probably take place in a few weeks. Obtaining Syrian cooperation in stemming the insurgency in Iraq has been a priority for Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who will visit Washington this week and who held his own discussions with Assad on the matter over the summer.
Syria has in the past drawn criticism from the U.S. for everything from human-rights abuses to developing weapons of mass destruction and acting as a conduit for Iranian support of Hizballah, the radical terrorist group. Earlier this year, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Syria, and a few weeks ago it backed a U.N. resolution condemning Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Damascus is looking for U.S. "leniency" on these issues, a senior State Department official says. A deal could depend on whether the U.S. is willing to look the other way in exchange for fuller Syrian cooperation to help stabilize Iraq.
Although friends in Damascus say the US did not give any carrots during the Burns visit. It is hard not to see the request by Burns and his crew for military cooperation on the Syrian border as a carrot. Perhaps, it is not a carrot and only a calling card? Nevertheless, opening a direct dialogue with Washington is something Bashar has been asking for over a year now. The Daily Star editorial today puts it like this:
The United States has directly engaged Syria via the visit to Damascus last week of Assistant Under Secretary of State William Burns and his extensive delegation; they have now been followed up by an American technical team that is in Damascus to promote Syrian-American collaboration on closing the Syrian-Iraqi border to the passage of undesirable men and materials. The Americans are not tourists in Syria; they are testing its commitment to work with the U.S. on important Iraq-related issues.
Syria would seem to be in a tight place, with the U.S., UN, France, EU and others monitoring it closely, even threatening it mildly over its Lebanon policy, Iraq ties and alleged support for terrorism and plans to develop weapons of mass destruction. Damascus also faces pressures on many other fronts, including economics, demographics, political reform, and the stalemated negotiations with Israel. The world's scrutiny that it has generated because of its Lebanon actions adds to the pressure.
Yet, this is also an opportunity for Damascus, which suddenly has legitimate levers and tools that it can use to engage the world and its neighbors, and offer both compliance and trade-offs on issues of common importance. The Syrian leadership must find the ability to move constructively and in a linear manner on Lebanon and all other issues it faces, or else it is likely to suffer long-term pressure, problems and isolation in its increasingly problematic ties with the world.
Syria is making noises that it understands. Emile El-Hokayem of the Stimson Center sent me two bits of encouraging news. Al-Mustaqbal reports that the EU and Syria have agreed "in principle" on the wording of WMD clause that was holding up the Madrid Agreement. Now the EU ministers must vote on it. The second is that Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Mustafa, insists that Syria will carry out a "major redeployment" of its troops in Lebanon now "that the situation is more secure." He wouldn't give any numbers or explain further.
This sort of troop reshuffling will not impress Washington very much. It wants action on Hizballah and the deployment of Lebanese army troops along the Israeli border, which Lahoud said would not happen. "Lebanon will not ask for a Syrian withdrawal and will not send its army to the Israeli borders," Lahoud insisted, "unless the Arab-Israeli conflict is settled." When several opposition MPs wondered whether Lahoud's presidential extension would disrupt Lebanon's stability for decades to come, Lahoud replied that Lebanon's stability was due to the national and "strategic policies," he has enforced - i.e. close relations with Syria.
Washington cannot afford to drop the Lebanon issue from its agenda, even if Syria is hoping it will do just that and is willing to work effectively with Washington to seal its border with Iraq. It would make a mockery of Resolution 1559.
There is every sign that Syria has actually turned the corner in its Iraq policy. After the US invasion, Syria saw its interests to be aligned with the Iraqi resistance. Damascus wanted, at the very least, to contain the US military field of action to Iraq. At most, it hope for to see the US withdraw from the region without a permanent presence in Iraq or permanent base rights. But now that the US seems to have given up its more expansive ambitions in Baghdad and merely seeks to stabilize the situation, Syria is inclined to lend a hand. Al-Hayat newspaper reported in early September that Damascus played a role in helping end the fighting in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in which the Mahdi Army of maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with US and Iraqi forces. There can be little doubt that Syria shares a common interest with the US in keeping Iraq from descending into chaos. Should the Iraqi situation deteriorate further, Syria will be first in line to be hit by Jihadist blow back, not to mention a refugee problem that will overwhelm its exhausted economy.
Syria needs a vital and economically viable Iraq more than the US does. Recent studies demonstrate that Syria needs $50 billion in investment over the next 10 years in order to jump start its economy and soak up growing unemployment. Updated studies show that 4 million of those able to work in Syria do not have productive employment. This is 45 percent of Syria's manpower. The estimated value of investments made since 1991 under law No. 10 amount to a paltry 30 percent of the $8 billion, which was anticipated. If Iraq should implode, Syria's economic goose will be cooked. Damascus has been counting on expanding trade with Iraq to entice much of that $50 billion into the country.
The question of who would disarm Hizballah and the Palestinian militias in Southern Lebanon, if Syria were to withdraw, is explored by Timur Goksel, who was senior adviser and spokesman of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon for 24 years. He writes:
Resolution 1559 calls for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," without saying who would be doing this. Translated, it means disarming Hizbullah and Palestinian militias. The resolution also seeks the "extension of the control of the Government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory." That means the Lebanese Army must replace Hizbullah along the border with Israel. The reaction of Syria's envoy to the UN, who reportedly asked: "Who would disband Hizbullah? Who would send the Lebanese governmental forces to the South?" sums up the complexity of the issue.
The thorny matter of disarmament also has regional implications. Today, the Lebanese Army, if given political backing, is capable of disarming the Palestinian militias. Militarily, those gunmen who are not in the refugee camps can be handled with relative ease. But they are a minority. The bulk of Palestinian armed groups are in densely populated refugee camps, and this is not limited to the largest camp of Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon. Any large-scale operation by the Lebanese would mean not only heavy casualties among combatants on both sides, but also many civilian deaths. Can Lebanon today afford a bloodbath that would be universally condemned and, worse, that would put Lebanon in the same column as Israel?
Nicholas Blanford carefully and judiciously examines Hizballah's recent strategy and posturing in an excellent report on the group. He assesses the claims of both Hizballah's detractors, who claim it is the "A" Team of international terrorists, and its apologists, who claim that the organization has abandoned its anti-Western militancy of the 1980s, having evolved into a pragmatic mainstream Lebanese political party beholden to the interests of its Shiite constituency.
He also explains the strategy Syria may follow in trying to finess the Hizballah issue with the United States. He writes:
Damascus appears to be planning countermeasures prior to the planned convention of the Security Council at the close of September to consider its degree of compliance with Resolution 1559. One includes a limited redeployment of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Another, according to the September 3 edition of Lebanon's al-Safir newspaper, is for the Lebanese government to formally incorporate Hizballah's military wing into the national defense structure.
Nasrallah addressed this theme the same day. "Today, in Lebanon there is an official
Lebanese institution called the Lebanese army and a popular resistance organization called the resistance," he said in a speech aired on the party's al-Manar television station. "Within one strategy, these two complement each other. They cooperate and share the roles in protecting and forming a fence around the homeland." Establishing Hizballah formally, if not practically, as an adjunct of the Lebanese army would be an attempt to deflect the repeated calls of the US and UN Security Council for Beirut to deploy Lebanese troops along the border with Israel. It could also help to mollify Arab chanceries while allowing Syria and Hizballah to retain credibility as keepers of the Arabist flame in public opinion.
This would clearly be an elegant solution to Damascus' problem, but it is hard to imagine how it would be welcomed by either the Lebanese army or public. The best way to test Damascus' seriousness about withdrawing from Lebanon would be to pressure Israel to negotiate a Golan resolution. Such negotiations are unlikely, however, so long as Sharron remains Prime Minister and the Gaza issue preoccupies Israel's political agenda. As Sharron stated recently. There is "no possibility" of talks anytime soon. In the meantime, Washington must stabilize Iraq, which may require fudging its message in Lebanon for the time being.
I have been following the story of Issa Touma, a Syrian artist and gallery owner who has been battling the Baath Party, for some time in Syria Comment. After I printed the first story about him some months ago, I received a very kind email from Issa inviting me to Aleppo. I look forward to meeting him. In the meantime, I hope he will have gotten permission for his festival from the Baath Party. I noticed this article by Mr. Touma the other day published in (All4syria) : 16/9/2004. It is worth reprinting here because it speaks worlds about the courage of Syrians as they try to combat social and political conservatism.
We Still have some Hopes
Director of the Photo festival, Aleppo, Syria
On Feb 2, 2003, as founder and director of the Le Pont Gallery in Aleppo, Syria and director of two highly successful annual international art festivals in Aleppo I received a written order and directive from the Baath Party of Syria, signed by one of the Board of Directors Baath Party in Damascus. The order stated that I was to cease all my cultural programs activities and forthwith submit all planned activities for the express approval of the Baath Party.
This bureaucratic act has for over a year enmeshed me as an artist and curator, in a time consuming and dispiriting bureaucratic battle with faceless officials who fear, above all else, change in society and feel the knee jerk need to control the natural impulses and growth of the artistic community. Although this incident is specific to my life as an artist and curator in Syria, it symbolizes the artist’s predicament in the Middle East. If I may say so, my personal artistic history and problems I faced, in very general way, apply to the wider Arab world. By this I mean that my fellow artists across the Arab world, in all fields including photography are affected by and indeed constrained by the attitudes and responses to the modern world prevalent in Arab society and political life.
I was born in Syria in 1962. My mother is a bilingual ethnic Armenian and my father is a Syrian Arabic speaker. Our family was by Syrian standards middle class. Although my mother’s family has a long history of important political activism, I did not follow in their footsteps and chose instead art. I started in jewelry design, painting and an early age began organizing small-scale art activities. My life changed forever when I discovered photography 1988 and found that it provided deep satisfaction and later provided challenges that formed my character and informed my beliefs. After some training I began my professional life in photography in 1992. In the beginning my professional development as an artist was impeded because despite the fact I was able to acquire the technical skills required in photography, as an artist I lived in an art milieu that was underdeveloped and isolated from the main stream of the art world in the West.
I soon arrived at an understanding that I needed to have more contact with artists and intellectuals in the wider art world. At that time it was not possible for me travel and so my response was to find a way to bring foreign artists to Syria. I started a second career as a curator and gallery owner. I started with a small gallery that showed the work of local artists and began bringing in foreign artists. This eventually led to my founding the Aleppo International Photography Gathering and the Aleppo International Women’s Art Festival. These two annual events have over the years brought to Aleppo hundreds of photographers, painters, and sculptors from all over the world.
The response from the public to this opportunity to see and meet foreign artist was overwhelming enthusiastic if not somewhat puzzled. The result was that not only was my life profoundly affected and influenced but the face of cultural life in Aleppo changed forever (for better or worse depending on who you talk to). The public in general was then engaged as I was in a learning process exploring and acquiring the language of art required for an appreciation of the trends in the art of modern photography and integrating these influences into our own experience.
However change brings resistance and sometimes conflict. In my case the incomprehension and fear of change as expressed by the actions of Baath Party of Syria lead to my time and work being compromised almost daily by discussions and meetings of various representatives of authority in Syria. My position is clear, that is to say, I am an artist and curator not a political activist or public critic of the political authority in Syria and wish only to be free to create art and bring art and the artists from outside of Syria here for the benefit of the Syrian public, free from the interference of hostile, fearful and ignorant political officials.
As for the public response, we have witnessed an evolving and maturing attitude. In the very beginning the public expressed a great curiosity tempered by a skepticism acquired by years of living in a deeply conservative society that lacks many freedoms. Over the years as we demonstrated our consistency and the public became more accustomed to the newness of modern photography and accordingly the general response has grown into one of solid support and indeed, expectations of more.
In these exhibitions and festivals we not only showed the work of foreign artists but Syrian photographers and encouraged a free exchange of ideas and cultural experiences. The results have been fruitful and productive for both sides but more importantly it exposed Syrian artists and other Arab artists like me to an unprecedented number of foreign artists and the attendant influences.
As I indicated earlier, artists in the Middle East have been insulated against the influences of the modern trends in photography outside the Arab world. The primary source of influence on photography has generally emanated from an earlier European influence sometimes described as Orientalism. Across the region in photography clubs and studios photographers produced and still in many cases produce technically proficient work depicting semi documentary scenes, landscapes and portraits. The artists who wished to move past this anachronistic work, found themselves on the fringe of society, few in number, without a support system and confronted with resistance born out two essentially traditionalist societal norms, namely religion and politics.
The Islamic religion with its ancient prohibitions on the reproduction of human imagery still plays an important part in the daily lives and current attitudes of many Arab people. As a result the branches of the arts that are revered are traditional calligraphy and traditional painting. The person who pursues artistic endeavors through photography encounters indifference because the attitude is that in order to produce good photography all one needs is a good camera not an artistic approach.
As for the political pressures on the population and the related effects on artists, there are a small number of photographers throughout the Middle East who have absorbed the influences from the west and exploring the creative potential of photography. Many of these artists however stay within the realm of what might be described as abstract art, an area of creativity that is firmly connected the current European forms and to large extent incomprehensible to their viewers in Arab world. Unfortunately few artists are willing to take the risks involved in producing images that are explicitly linked to the day-to-day realities of life in the region including political or social oppression. At this point in time hijab covered ladies conditions are far too intimidating for significant number of artists to face the consequences. These photographers are in this respect in the same boat as the other intellectuals and artists who in essence are unable to freely speak their minds or express their concerns in an open and free atmosphere.
In 1996 the Le Pont Photography gallery opened to the public and was followed in 1997 by the first International Photography Gathering in Aleppo. Our aim was to bring to the public the art photographic imagery and the new ideas connected with it. In doing so we wished to reach a complete cross section of society disregarding ethnic, religious and differences of social classes. The cultural experience of viewing photographic art and meeting the artists was on this scale was something new for the people of Aleppo and I witnessed documented it happening in a situation where workers, ministry officials, hijab covered ladies and intellectuals all rubbed shoulders as they appreciated art. We have no difficulty reaching the public in Syria because the language of art crosses all social barriers and speaks to everyone. Photography is a unique and an accessible way to communicate. We ask only that the government of Syria communicate to the public clearly their intentions concerning artists and the right of the public to explore the art of photography by explicitly acknowledging their support and refrain from interfering in the world of culture and art.
Abdulhamid: The Syrian Opposition's Woeful Irrelevance
Ammar Abdulhamid, the director of the al-Tharwa Project in Damascus, who is presently a visiting scholar at the Bookings Institute, wrote this plea to Syrians to take action.
Friday, September 17, 2004
The Syrian opposition's woeful irrelevance
By Ammar Abdulhamid Special to The Daily Star
One of the major problems of the nascent opposition movement in Syria is its adoption of attitudes and modes of discourse very much reminiscent of the regime it is supposedly opposing.
The Syrian opposition does not seek to justify itself to the Syrian people or gain their support, and it fails to provide a vision for change in the country, be it political, social or economic. No wonder, then, that Syrians continue to be politically apathetic and inclined to pinning their hopes on the ability of President Bashar Assad to deliver on his long-promised reforms.
The state, and behind it the regime, remains Syria's largest service provider. All important sectors in the country, including oil, agriculture, industry, communications and education, are under the regime's control. Despite a change in leadership in mid-2000, when Assad took power, the regime has so far failed to deliver a vision for change. The Syrian people are well aware that very little progress has been achieved in the last four years. They tend to blame the coterie surrounding the president for that, and have grown weary and dubious regarding positive developments in the future.
So long as the opposition fails to fill the leadership gap in Syria, the people, though they may not rally behind the regime, will not do so behind the opposition, either. Apathy and obscurantism are the victors in this situation. If it is to have any future, therefore, the Syrian opposition needs to organize so that it can draw out the principles, specific programs and young voices capable of galvanizing popular support. In other words, the opposition needs to seize the initiative.
By merely making demands on the regime to cancel the state of emergency and expand the sphere of political participation, opposition groups are ceding the initiative to a regime and state that have clearly shown themselves neither capable of introducing change nor really interested in doing so. Nothing could be more damaging to the opposition than this minimalist approach.
This gap between words and deeds cannot be filled, and the opposition in Syria will not be worthy of the name, unless certain concrete steps are taken. Holding a national conference on reform, for instance, is one long-overdue step. Opposition parties need to get their act together, and there is no other way but through a process of mutual dialogue, culminating in such an event.
The purpose of a conference would be to facilitate the adoption of a specific platform and a vision for change and reform, one that can satisfy the aspirations of all social strata. Furthermore, this reformist vision needs to be packaged in such a way that it can be understood and accepted by the Syrian people in their religious, ethnic and political diversity.
More importantly, the conference should provide a platform for new leaders to emerge, young leaders armed with specific strategies meant to help them reach out to the Syrian people and build up a following. As is the case in all other countries, and as has been the case throughout history, people do not rally behind ghosts, but behind specific issues, promises and personalities.
As things stand today, the only voices being heard and the only faces visible belong to a generation that is no longer credible or relevant in the eyes of a great majority of Syrians. This is another reason why people prefer to give the regime the leeway and excuses it needs, rather than risk anything by supporting an opposition that does not seem to offer something new or really different.
By continuing to neglect its responsibility to explain and justify itself to the Syrian people, the opposition risks perpetuating its irrelevance. If it continues to take its cues, as it seems, from the existing political establishment, this will only consecrate the opposition's continued political insignificance.
However, if the opposition wishes to outgrow these limitations, it should be the one reaching out to exiled Syrian communities abroad; it should be the one providing ideas and proposals for specific reforms and policies that could be adopted by the Syrian government or civil society; and it should be the one that shows it can slowly but surely take charge of the country and lead it to a better tomorrow. This is how credibility and popular support are cultivated. This is what democratization is all about. If the opposition is unwilling to take the risks involved in this process, then it is, in fact, not an opposition at all.
But then, perhaps this is why opposition figures are today tolerated by Syria's regime. Indeed, perhaps this is what the opposition strategy is all about - grandstanding from a safe distance.
Ammar Abdulhamid is a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in
Damascus, and is the coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a program that seeks to bring greater awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Arab world. He wrote this
commentary for THE DAILY STAR
Copyright (c) 2004 The Daily Star
I recently recieved two comments on my za`ama article about Bashar and Lahoud. One suggesting that I "really understand the area," and the other that I "have an outsider's view" and get it wrong. I will comment after copying them below.
Fares Bagh writes:
Your article provides deep analysis that only a person that really understands the area can provide. Hafez had a big stick but also a lot of carrots for the people in terms of taking pride in Syria, opening the economy, allowing non political Islam to flourish, at least in comparison to Salah Jedid days. Our good ol boys forget these facts and focus only on Hama.
Salutation from Austin.
Thanks , Fares BaghRami does not agree. He writes:Professor Landis,With respect I take issue with several aspects of your message. It is clear to me that you have an outsider’s view and subsequent description of Middle Eastern habits and traditions. Moreover you tend to paint the whole region with one brush and one color. As the Lebanese proverb says “la’ita min danaba”, or “holding it by its tail”.In particular is your use and conceptualization of the term “za’im”. Although your definitions might apply in authoritarian settings such as Saddam’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria it definitely does not in Lebanon. As I understand it your concept of “za’aama” is a form of leadership that is widespread in the “Levant” and quite acceptable in such settings because of its apparent balance between ruthlessness and subsequent mercy.In Lebanon governmental office was only reached constitutionally (even during some periods of the war). Before the war leaders did not resort to “force” or “intimidation” to quell the opposition, which rendered that opposition the most effective method of policy change in Lebanon bringing presidencies to crashing halts most memorable of which are Khouri’s in 1952 and Chamoun’s in 1958. So the people of the Levant are not generally predisposed to only respond and be governed by the laws of “za’aama”. Secondly your examples of Assad’s “mercy”, “justice”, “generosity” and “wisdom” are laughable. (See the rest of Rami's comment in the comment section of the last post.)
First, Fares, Thank you for your kind words. Second, Rami, thank you for your disagreement. I agree with the notion that there are important differences in the level of constitutionality and democratic political process observed in Lebanon and Syria. I don't agree that "za`ama" is not a useful concept for understanding Lebanese politics. To the contrary, it is central.
Lebanon is the Noah's arch of za`ims (zu`ama pl. Arabic). The concept of "za`imism" in modern political science and anthropology has been hammered out using the Lebanese example. Arnold Hottinger, in his seminal article, "'Zu'ama' in Historical Perspective," (in Leonard Binder, ed. Politics in Lebanon, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966.) defines a za`im like this:
A za`im in the specifically Lebanese and contemporary sense is a political leader who possesses the support of a locally circumscribed community and who retains the support by fostering and appearing to foster the interests of as many as possible from amongst his clientele. The za`im usually belongs to a family outstanding though its fortune. His position of leadership is frequently passed on to some of his descendents. Finally, the za`im is not purely a political leader -- for he does not promise his followers betterment only by the use of political means -- nor is he simply a successful business operator, fostering the economic well being of his associates and clients by gaining employment for them. Instead he combines the two functions in one person and tends to mix them intimately. He exchanges the betterment of his client group in all ways, economic, social, and political, for their political support."
Za'ims are many in Lebanon. The most famous families are known to all: Salam, Solh, As`ad, Gemayel, Frangieh, Chamoun, Arslan, Junblat, etc. These families have been operating in Lebanon for 100 years, some many more. They pass communal and local authority down from son to grandson. The Lebanese confessional system is their support and anchor, reinforcing their za`ama, clientele groups, business dealings, and power. The political parties they support often do not have programs. Followers support and vote for them in order to get jobs, economic advantage, and because of communal and sectarian loyalty. Their political attitudes and ideology has to conform to the general communal outlook of the group they represent.
Edward Shils of Chicago University explained how the system of za`ims and communalism in Lebanon precluded “The Prospect for Lebanese Civility,” in an article of that name. Shils came to the conclusion that the first and most general factor behind the breakdown of Lebanese polity is “the deficient civility of Lebanese society”. “Lebanon”, he argued, “is not a civil society”. He added:
Lebanese society revolves around an empty center. It has representative institutions, and these representative institutions are able to conduct debates but they are precluded from making decisions. The Chamber of Deputies cannot institute changes. It can only serve to prevent changes which would alter the present balance of interests among the communities of belief and primordial attachment.”
No parliament has ever brought down a Prime Minister through a vote of no confidence. The same is true of Syria during its democratic experiment from 1943 to 1958. The absence of political parties (It is important to distinguish between a real party and a coalition of za`ims) and political discipline among the deputies, most of whom were independents without party affiliation, made it easy for the President to "buy" off his opposition through favors. Shil continues:
Because of the deeply rooted communalism of Lebanese society, it is not an integrated civil society in the modern sense of the term. It lacks that attachment to the national society as a whole, that sense of identity, the consensus that should embrace much of the population on issues that touch seriously upon the interests of the communities which make it up.
As a result of this situation, the Lebanese polity suffers from various shortcomings and handicaps. Shils described some of them. First, he contended that: "the National Pact limits efficiency in the civil service by making communal membership [i.e., confessionalism] a major criterion for recruitment”.
According to Ralph E. Crow, confessionalism affects not only the recruitment process, but the operation of the Public Service in general. As he puts it: “Confessionalism manifests itself at several points in the administrative process, three of which are: recruitment and promotion, performance and control, and effect on the stability of the political regime.”Albert Hourani described how za`imism was rooted in the "Politics of the Notables," in his now famous 1968 article entitled, “Ottoman Reform and the Politics of the Notables.” Politics of the Notables is a nicer, less offensive term, to explain the politics of za`ama in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire, in which za`ims mediated between the Sultan and local constituencies, which were based on traditional loyalties of confession, neighborhood, and family. In the cities, neighborhood constituencies were policed by "qabadayat" or neighborhood enforcers or strongmen. In the countryside, tribal or confessional za`ims could use village headmen and tight clan culture to achieve the same result.
For Lebanon Hourani explains how a "new system" of government based on za`ims and the "communal principle" emerged after the collapse of the Shihabi Imarah in 1842. This new communal system, he writes, "has since been the basis of the legislature." "The underlying assumption of the new system was that the different communities could live together but the Maronites were dominant. Although it was "ostensibly based on religious equality," there "was no institution to express or police this equality." (See Hourani's article, "Lebanon, the Development of a Political Society," in Binder, Politics in Lebanon.)
Who was left to police the new confessional system which had no center? "Foreign consuls," Hourani writes. "The new system of government could only be assured by a foreign presence." The Mutassarrif of Lebanon during the later Ottoman period was to be a Christian chosen from outside Lebanon by the Ottoman government. Both foreign consuls and to a lesser extent Istanbul had to police the shaky system. To minimize confessional tensions, the frontiers of the Mutasarrifiyya excluded Sunni cities such as Beirut and Tripoli, which rejected both the idea of local autonomy under the control of the European powers and the principle of communal equality, especially because it was only ostensible, but actually promoted Maronite dominance.
In many respects the persistence of communalism and za`imism in post 1943 National Pact Lebanon has meant that Lebanon cannot rule itself constitutionally. It needs a foreign power to arbitrate between the communities. Yes the two concepts of "Lebanon" and the "Maronite Nation" seemed to coalesce in the National Pact, but they were always in conflict and lived side by side uncomfortably. Communalism always seemed to trump "Lebanon" when push came to shove.
Edward Shils, in arguing that Lebanon had no center, points to the fragility of the Lebanese system despite the vaunted success of the National Pact. First, there was the violent 1949 coup attempt by the SSNP. In 1952, the constitutional process of succession broke down when President Bishara al-Khuri tried to extend his term in office. Again in 1958, there was a similar breakdown in the constitutional process when Chamoun tried to do the same which led, with other factors, to a civil war. Anyone who has read Wilbur Eveland's tell-all CIA book, the "Ropes of Sand," knows how the US was crucial as a police man of Lebanon's Maronite supremacy during this "Golden Age" period of Lebanese politics. By spending millions of dollars buying votes and za`ims and by landing troops in Beirut, it was able to push back the Nasserist and Syrian-assisted challenge to Maronite supremacy in Lebanon. Indeed the US tried to do for Chamoun what Syria just did for Lahoud.
In 1957 President Camille Chamoun received CIA money to help support candidates running for the Chamber of Deputies. The CIA also assisted in planning the campaigns of conservative politicians. With conservative members of the chamber backing their president, Chamoun was able to amend the constitution so that in 1958 he could seek another six year term.
Unfortunately for Washington, the CIA was not as skilful as Bashar at policing Lebanon, despite Bashar's "bumbling diplomacy." The Chamoun effort failed, and Washington turned to Shihab to clean up the mess.
The Sunni cities which had been swept into Greater Lebanon embraced Arabism and rejected Phoenicianism. They always looked at the notion of Lebanon as "A Refuge of Minorities," a notion first articulated by Michel Chiha, as a sneaky strategy for the Maronites to justify their primacy rather than to share power equitably. (Why else would Maronites insist on a Maronite President with the lion's share of power and a 6-5 distribution of deputies in parliament?) In all fairness, it must be said that the Sunni notables believed they were "the natural leaders" of Lebanon and undoubtedly believed in the superiority of the Sunni world-view as ardently as did the Maronites in their (Mediterranean-Phoenician-Western-modern-etc.) world-view.
The magical age of Lebanese "stability," which lasted a short 16 years between 1958 and 1975, cannot be used as proof that Lebanon's confessional system had an effective political center or that its za`ims did not need to be policed by an outside power. It should be seen as a small breathing space between French and Syrian rule, in which US power and Chihabism were able to carry the day. Chihab maintained this stability by letting the PLO build up its forces in the camps and by depending on the army. These policies, though temporarily sufficient to co-opt za`ims and buy time, could not keep the country from its next crisis. Muslims wanted one man, one vote, because they were the majority and believed that fact should be reflected in the legislature and distribution of offices. They turned to foreign capitals for assitance, just as the Maronites had so effectively done. Arabism (Muslims) faced off against Westernism (Christians) to define the essential character of the nation.
Today Syria polices Lebanon's za`ims and decides on the president and foreign policy. Yes, Many Muslim Lebanese, if not most, resent the roll Syria plays, especially when it is so obvious and humiliating as in the Lahoud extension. All the same, they sided with Arabism against the alternative, which many read as a US-Israeli-Christian nexus out to screw Arabs and Muslims. Christians would protest this is a completely unfair and false reading of the situation. They look at it as liberty (West-Bush) versus tyranny (Arabism-Bashar). But this difference in views and loyalties only serves to underline how fragile or non-existent real "Lebanonism" is.
Is Lebanon a nation today?
Many commentators believe that Lebanon has changed and has acquired a greater sense of national identity. They believe it is a nation today that can rebuild and stand on its two feet if only the US will push out Syria. Michael Young and Tony Badran, two esteemed and valued friends, often express this view on these pages. They point to recent polls which suggested that 70% of Lebanese identify first as Lebanese and secondly as sectarians. It is one thing to say it, it is another to act on it.
The Lahoud affair was depressing from this point of view, though I admit, it is far from over. A number of people have assured me that many Muslim politicians reached out to their Christian counterparts and French and American diplomats to say how horrified they were at Syria's intervention even as they went ahead and gave it their blessings. But this doesn't prove much. It is the normal "triangulating" of za`im politics. Christian politicians did this at the time of Bashir Gemayel's election to the presidency in the early 1980s, which was sponsored by Israel and Washington. They secretly expressed their outrage to the Syrians. Michael Young writes about this in his recent review of the new book by the French reporter, which is the "must" reading in Lebanon today (I forget its name).
I am not as optimistic about Lebanon's conversion to a full-blown national identity as Michael Young and Tony Badran are, just as they believe I am overly optimistic about Syria under Bashar becoming a kinder and more open society.
In the pages of the Daily Star (03/11/04), Doctor Adnan Kaddaha, president of the Lebanese Business Council in Dubai, recently wrote:
"No country in history has grown without the loyalty, the national loyalty, of its people, but in Lebanon loyalty is to a sect,” he said. “The constitutional structure of Lebanon is based on this.” He said that the country was a coalition of these sects. “It has never worked anywhere in the world, so why should it work in Lebanon?” he asked.
Talal Selman writing in As-Safir, May 28, 1998 had this to say about the municipal elections of that year.
The results of the municipal and mayoral elections in Mount Lebanon (...) revealed dangerous flaws in our political system (...). In our fragmented country, the electoral process has become a democratic veneer covering the cancer of confessionalism [ta`ifiyya] which has now spread to become a deadly epidemic of sectarianism [mazhabiyya].
Like Talal Selman, many Lebanese believe that sectarianism and za`imism are as entrenched as ever today, if not a lot worse than they used to be. Many friends have told me that they were forced to leave Lebanon in order to secure a proper future for themselves because they did not have "wasta" and were not connected to a za`im, who could help them get a job. Christians in the south, where the Shiite lords rule, have given up hope of advancement because of merit or qualifications. The Shiite za`ims, they complain, must reward their Shiite clients first and be SEEN as good sectarians to reassure their followers. Christian southerners only get the crumbs that fall off the table, if that. I imagine the same works in the north in reverse. Most complain that za`imism is worse than ever.
I do not wish to say that the Lebanese do not deserve or should not have the liberty to try to stand on their own two feet and piece together a Nation. They should. But I am not optimistic. There has always been a "Sultan" or policeman to arbitrate between the za`ims and sects. This does not mean it always has to be so, but it does tell us something about the weakness of the present system. It is why I am pessimistic about President Bush's "Forward Strategy of Democracy" thoughout the region.
The Ta`if agreement did not solve Lebanon's problem. The 1989 agreement that was brokered by Washington and Damascus in the Saudi city of Ta`if is deceptive. The Christians feel like they gave up the ramparts of the Lebanese state by allowing the power of the Maronite presidency to be watered down and largely assumed by the Sunni Prime Minister. They also conceded to an even 50-50 split between the deputies in parliament. No longer are there 6 Christians to every 5 Muslims as there were in the good old days. Many Christians say, "Look, we compromised at Ta`if and gave away the store. Are the Muslims happy. No, they go to Syria and want more. We get nothing but insults. Why should we give up more?"
For their part, the Muslims felt like they did not get the representation they deserve. No one knows the sectarian balance in the country today, but let's say it is 70% Muslim and 30% Christian. (The Druze are the wild card, depending whether Junblat feels Christian or Muslim or Druze on any given day. If only the rest of the Lebanese were so flexible and, indeed, Lebanese!)
The only reason the Muslims accept the Christians keeping 50% of the constitutional power in Lebanon is because the constitution does not rule. Syria slips teh Muslims extra bonus power under the table. Hizballah gets to rule the south and have a militia. The Sunnis get to suck down a monster share of the economic goodies through the good offices of the Prime Minister and they all get to wink at the Christian 50% in parliament. And of course, they don't really have a Sectarian minded president either. If the Syrians were to really leave Lebanon, and Hizballah were shut down, the Muslims would demand, and would deserve, a much greater share of legislative power. Are the Christians prepared for one man, one vote? Are they prepared to give up the Presidency and office of Chief of Staff of the army? Who will protect Mediterraneanism from the much-feared scimitar of Arabism? I am not convinced Christians have absorbed the true meaning of democracy in Lebanon or the significance of losing the civil war.
Maybe they have. They certainly deserve to find out. Muslims also deserve their full portion of legislative power. In the meantime, the za`ims will decide, and Damascus will police. Perhaps in time, confessional identities and politics will fade to the extent that the different sects will have nothing to fear from each other's culture and power so that merit can be placed above `asabiyya. The problem is that the confessional system reproduces itself. Confessionalism has not faded away or been erroded into a folkloric museum piece by nationalism. Syria has the same problem. That is why it is rulled by a Sultan, who can act like the Ottoman Emperor, policing Syria's (and Lebanon's) za`ims.
No basis to Allegation of Syrian use of Chemical Weapons
A number of people have written me to ask about the allegations made by the German Die Welt newspaper that Syria is testing chemical weapons on civilians in Darfur "and killed dozens of people." The story was pushed by the Washington Times here in the states and has subsequently been picked up by a number of papers.
Both German intelligence and US State Department officials say they are unaware of any intelligence from Western or Eastern sources indicating that these claims are based on anything but mistaken information or malicious intent. Unfortunately Die Welt does not specify which Western intelligence source informed them of the use of WMD in Darfur.
Deutsche Presse-Agentur put out this warning:
German intelligence sources said Wednesday they had no information, which could confirm a report claiming Syria had tested chemical weapons in cooperation with the government of Sudan on black Africans in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.
Germany’s Die Welt newspaper - citing “Western intelligence reports” - said dozens of people were killed in the tests carried out from last May. Frozen corpses were brought to a Khartoum hospital after the tests and examined by Syrian doctors, said the report. The report did not identify what type of chemicals were allegedly used in Darfur but said five airplanes from Syrian Arab Airlines flew in the chemical weapons and specialists from Damascus.
“We find the details very surprising and would have evaluated them differently,” said a German intelligence source speaking on the condition of anonymity. Asked to comment on the report, a spokesman for Syria’s embassy in Berlin said: “We have nothing to say on this - the newspaper can write whatever it wants.” He refused any further comment.
In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman said the U.S. was ”not aware of any corroboration of the transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Sudan”. In a statement, the official said the U.S. would follow up on the allegations, adding: “There have been reports for several years alleging use of chemical weapons in Sudan. None of these have been corroborated.”
Lesch: Bashar is Recasting Syria’s Operational Philosophy
David Lesch is guest contributor today. He is writing a biography of Bashar al-Asad which will appear this coming spring with Yale University Press. He recently interviewed Bashar for many hours in Damascus as well as his wife Asma and many top government officials.
He is the author of two important books on the Middle East, one of which is on Syria and the United States. The other is 1979: The Year that Shaped the Modern Middle East. His edited book, The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment, has become a standard in classes on US foreign policy in the region.
Bashar is Recasting Syria’s Operational Philosophy
By David W. Lesch
San Antonio, TX
Over the last few years Syria has been criticized—even ridiculed—for the apparent slow pace of reform after what appeared to be a promising start following the death of long-time President Hafiz al-Asad in 2000. Case in point were the derisive comments in a host of columns for passing a law that eliminated military style uniforms in what is the equivalent of our high schools. It was portrayed as a sad attempt at educational reform, with the implication that the Syrian government was either unwilling or unable to enact serious measures.
After spending three weeks in Syria recently, having numerous discussions with leading figures in the country, visiting Syrian schools from the elementary to university levels, and at the ruling Ba`th Party’s Regional Command HQs actually going through line by line the official document outlining specific measures on higher education, I can categorically state that the Syrian government is serious about educational reform. Just at the university level, whether through raising fees for students, increasing teacher salaries, opening up four private universities (with ten more on the board), establishing Open Learning Centers (akin to continuing ed programs), increasing the number of computers and internet accessibility by a factor of almost 2000, and creating a Syrian Virtual University that enables Syrians to take classes online, the government is taking tangible steps to shift from a free quantity-based to a more competitive quality-based system.
Behind it all is the vision of Syria’s 38-year old president, Bashar al-Asad, with whom I spent 8-9 hours of vigorous and enlightening conversation during my stay. Toward the end of one of our meetings I asked him what he considered to be his major accomplishments as president in his four years in office; he hesitated for a moment, and then he indicated that he had yet to really achieve anything significant. Frankly my first thought was that this would not work at all in a US election cycle, but it also engendered two important observations: 1) that this was a refreshingly honest statement; and 2) that he had his eyes set on the big picture. There have been achievements, such as the establishment of private banks, the aforementioned private universities, administrative adjustment, etc., and considering the ossified structure he inherited these are no mean feats. He has also brought in experts from Britain and France to help reform the financial sector and the judiciary system, looking to the outside world for assistance much more so than his father did.
But he is after something much bigger: a restructuring of Syria’s operational philosophy. Educational reform and human resource development are perhaps the two overarching immediate goals of the regime, which will pay dividends down the road but are barely perceptible to the casual observer now. Because of the stagnant nature of the Syrian system, rife with entrenched interests and inertia, maybe this is all he can do at the moment, peck away at the edges, plan for the long-term—but it is also doubtful anything else would work at the current time without serious societal disruption or sacrificing depth of reform for expediency. It may be a race against time before the spokes of the wheel start flying off, but as he stated, you cannot drive an old, broken-down car very fast.
A child of the information age and perfectly comfortable with it, Bashar is trying to do nothing less than to foment a revolution of the mind. It is a pains-taking and halting process, but unless you have the human resources, skilled workforce, individual empowerment to creatively make decisions, and a meritocracy rather than an oligarchy, the reform process will be stillborn. This is difficult even under ideal conditions, but he is attempting this in a regional environment that is anything but beneficent. I believe Bashar’s vision is serious, as is his willingness to implement it and his recognition of the obstacles he faces in doing so. Ultimately the Syrian system may be “unreformable” after so many years of statism and bonapartism, but I am thoroughly convinced that, yes, the son of Hafiz al-Asad, who left his study of ophthalmology in London to return to Syria after his elder brother died in 1994, is the right person, indeed maybe the only person in the country, for the job. The continued US pressure on Syria to change what Washington considers deleterious behavior, symbolized by the Syrian Accountability Act, is counter-productive, hindering rather than helping Bashar’s attempts to reform, something that has been generally acknowledged even with many of the pro-democracy opposition to the regime in and outside of Syria.
Perhaps Washington should embrace benevolent vision and good governance before instantaneous democracy. Some may say that a successful political and economic transition must be based on institutions rather than individuals in order to succeed over the long haul, but the problem is that in order to erect these institutions one must first have a critical mass of people in leadership positions who are willing to do so. Bashar al-Asad is definitely one of these people. Now to many it may seem anathema to support in any way, shape, or form someone named Asad, but this attitude emerges from a combination of misperception, deception, and reality—and it is also history. He is his father in some ways, but in many ways he is not—and this is abundantly clear to anyone who speaks with him. And Syria is certainly not Iraq. Sometimes he retreats into the cover of Arab-Israeli typology from which he, himself, is trying to emerge, producing some rather unfortunate comments on the subject at times. But he is a child of this conflict and approaches the situation from a completely different perspective and experience, so we need to inspect the entire package and not just isolated, conveniently disparaging moments.
In the strongest terms possible, I would recommend to any US administration to give this man a real chance—he still may fail, but Syria will most definitely fail without him. Yet if he is successful and establishes a working relationship with the US, then we may see those sought-after dominoes rising in the region. As opposed to Libya, Syria really could contribute to US interests in fighting terrorism, producing stability in Iraq, dealing with Iran, and finally putting to rest the Arab-Israeli conflict. After his brother, Basil, died there were posters throughout Syria depicting Hafiz, Basil, and Bashar together as the “leader,” the “example,” and the “hope” respectively. At least in the last case they are correct—Bashar is Syria’s hope for the future, one that must be seen and appreciated beyond the headlines.
What was the Lahoud trick all about? Last week, Lebanon's Parliament amended the Lebanese constitution to permit President Emile Lahoud, who is backed by Syria, to stay in office another three years, despite domestic and international objections.
But why did Syria do this? Scads of Lebanon and Syria watchers immediately concluded that Bashar had bumbled - that his sclerotic regime is blind and out of touch with international realities. (Ibrahim Hamidi, one of the smartest analysts of Syrian affairs, lays out an excellent arguement for this interpretation in his article, A 'victory' that looks suspiciously like a Syrian defeat.) Why else would Bashar drive President Chirac and President Bush together, causing them to coauthor and push through a UN resolution condemning Syria for its ham-fisted interference in Lebanon's constitutional affairs, they wondered.
What possible good could this do Syria? After all, Lebanon does not pose a threat to Syria. Sure, the Christian Lebanese are vocal critics of Syria, constantly complaining about how Syria has turned them into the unfree. But they had no Muslim allies in a land that has a crushing majority of Muslims, who could be counted on to choose Damascus over Juniyeh. Prime Minister Harriri plays Damascus's game, so does Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri. So does the largest parliamentary party, Hizbullah. In fact, so do most of the Christian politicians, despite occasional bitching and moaning. (See this link for humor on this subject. The cartoon is courtesy of Greg Marchese, political officer at the embassy in lebanon.)
Anyway, complaining Christians were good for Bashar. He could always point to them as exhibit "A" and say: "What me a dictator? Look at the indignities I suffer. Dictator schmictator. Benevolent den mother, perhaps."
Moreover, Lebanon is the land of a hundred Lahouds. Surely Bashar could have done a switcheroo happily and easily. He did not have to pretend that Lahoud was the only Lebanese politician happy to play Damascus' game. It was something else. He wanted to send a message.
So what was the message of the Lahoud trick?
At first I thought it was a simple matter of za`ama or leadership. One has to appreciate the peculiar form of leadership so characteristic of the Levant in order to get the full flavor of the Lahoud trick. Za`ims, or leaders, don't gain office through constitutional means or by hewing closely to the law. They must use force. They must intimidate and they must be seen not to shrink from using force and intimidation. The worst thing that can happen to a za`im is to be seen to be humiliated publicly or shamed by another za`im. This will destroy his aura of invincibility and power. He will be mocked. The pageantry of power and theater of za`ama is in many ways just as important as what goes on behind the scenes. Any good za`im must be SEEN to exercise his za`ama every so often in a very visible and awesome fashion in order to preserve the aura of invincibility. A successful za`im does not have to be violent. His credibility and aura alone will protect him. If he is feared, little gun-slingers will not challenge him. The red lines will be internalized by the public and order will prevail.
This is what Hafiz al-Asad did in Hama in 1982. He established the "Hama Rules" that Thomas Friedman wrote about so convincingly in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. The Muslim Brothers had been sapping Asad's za`ama for several years with their bombings and constant use of terror. Each attack emboldened the opposition and deflated Asad's aura of invincibility a bit further. But Asad showed them, and all of Syria, by utterly destroying old Hama. It was the theater of za`ama at its most macabre. That is why he allowed foreign journalists to come pouring into the city to inspect the devastation only days after the city's destruction, as Friedman observed.
I was living in Syria at the time and drove through Hama with a French friend a week after the end of the murderous campaign. There was not a road block or checkpoint in the town. We were free to gawk and drive about in horrified silence. The bodies were gone, but the bulldozers had not yet begun clearing out the rubble and pulverized houses from the old quarter of the city. Several weeks later, I again passed through the city, this time on a Karnak bus on my way to Aleppo. By that time the old-city, which straddled the Damascus-Aleppo highway, had been completely cleared and was just a great barren space in the midst of the newer neighborhoods, which were largely untouched. Before reaching the city, the bus driver turned off the blaring radio, and the 30 or 40 passengers fell silent as we crawled through the town. The bus driver slowed the vehicle down so everyone could look in stony silence. From the solemnity of the faces around me, it seemed that many were saying silent prayers. No one spoke for 15 or 20 minutes after that. We were well on our way to Aleppo before the first whispers punctured the funereal moan of the bus' engine.
Hama worked, though. Asad regained his za`ama and Syria has been surprisingly free of organized opposition ever since. That was 22 years ago. Only last month, Bashar pardoned most of the remaining prisoners of the era. The price of Hama for Syria has been high. The event, never talked about, still hovers over the Syrian conscience like an incubus. Any opponent of the regime must ponder the consequences of his words. Today, Bashar need only throw a few opposition members in jail to send a chill through Syrian society. The only consolation many Syrians find for the bloodletting, is that their suffering was mercifully contained, sudden, and short compared to that of their neighbors in Lebanon, Iraq, or Palestine, whose divisions have resulted in incomparably greater and more protracted sorrow over the last quarter century.
Of course, za`ama is not only Hama Rules. The use of force and exhibition of power is only one aspect of za`ama. That is where Friedman falls short in his description of Syria. A good za`im must also dispense justice, be generous, and have an open hand and good ear. Displays of generosity, Solomonic wisdom, and mercy are every bit as important to the aura of a successful za`im as their inverse. A good za`im must exhaust his energies in constant mushawarat or negotiations and consultation. He must tend to his flock and support his clients with the utmost care and attention. His madhafa or reception room must be festooned with gilded furniture and always be filled with visitors and supplicants. He must hold court often and for long hours. The cups of coffee, like the favors he bestows, must always flow. If he cannot provide a recognized form of justice for his people and give to each according to his rank and station, his za`ama will also lose its luster and eventually wither.
This kinder and gentler aspect of za`ama is what separates a Saddam Hussein from a Hafiz al-Asad. Asad always sought to tend the wounds opened by his iron fist. He applied the healing salve of mercy and favors as assiduously as he did the whip. Almost every Syrian can recount how Hafiz called them or a relative to his palace or offices for a consultation to ask their opinion in a ritualized ceremony and then to ask what favor he could do them. If this was not done by the president himself, then it was performed by one of his minions. His relations with his brother Rifaat epitomized this quality. How many times did Hafiz banish and then repatriate his troublesome and rebellious sibling? Unlike the psychopathic Hussein, Asad never spilled family blood and always kept the door open for reconciliation. In fact, Bashar just welcomed Rifaat back to Kardaha, his home town, after years of exile in Spain just this week. With this amnesty, Bashar is showing that he is in charge and rules Syria absolutely enough to welcome his ruthless uncle back into the bosom of the family, despite Rifaat's effort to elbow aside Bashar four years ago. Rifaat was also in charge of the Hama campaign. What message does that send Syrians?
Za`ama is crucial to leadership in Syria as it is in all patriarchal societies. But Syria is more patriarchal than most. Although tribalism in any kind of pristine form has disappeared from much of Syrian society, its forms and ingrained virtues remain very much alive. This disquisition on leadership in Syria, and indeed in Lebanon, can help explain the Lahoud affaire.
Since the US invasion of Iraq, Bashar's za`ama has been seriously challenged, not by internal forces, but by the new US profile in the region and the threat of Bush's "Forward Strategy of Democracy." Bashar went into a defensive crouch as American troops poured into Iraq. He ordered Hizbullah to refrain from its military activities, the radical Palestinian groups in Damascus had their offices shut, though not their homes, he followed every American threat with demands for dialogue. He ran after Europe to sign the Madrid process economic treaty. Bashar has been caught in the weakness trap.
He has violated the first rule of za`ama - which is to act strong and never flinch in the face of threats. Bashar was clearly flinching as American power grew with the presence of 120,000 troops and the toppling of Hussein's regime. He did nothing as Americans crossed the Syrian border from Iraq to kill alleged smugglers and collateral border guards. He could only issue denials as Washington officials accused him of taking in Iraq's WMD and of helping jihadists. He did nothing when Israel bombed Syria in contravention of long tradition and practice. The US imposed onerous economic sanctions, shut off the Iraqi oil pipeline and looked for every way in possible to strangle the Syrian economy and starve its society. Bashar looked weak and he was weak. Everybody saw it in plain daylight.
This has led the pundits in Washington to thump their chests and proclaim the language of threats and sanctions a success. Only through deprivation and humiliation can tyrants learn respect for the West, they say. Washington will play by "Hama Rules." Why has Asad behaved as he has?" one pundit asks rhetorically. He answers: "The main reason is that Assad's Ba'athist dictatorship is one of those regimes that respond only to the threat or the actual use of force." Arabs respect force. How many times have we heard that dreart phrase from Washington over the last three years?
So Bashar is caught in a deflationary za`ama cycle. Of course, za`im logic means force can be effective. But only if it is matched with graciousness and justice in the end. He must get justice, or at the very least, a good bargain for his people or they will abandon him. That is one reason the cowering za`ims of the region - Egypt, Tunisia, etc. are filling their jails with fundamentalists and opponents of various stripe. Their people say they are humiliated. Maybe they actually feel humiliated?
In the mean time, Bashar has been appealing to the West and to Israel for negotiations, primarily aimed at getting back the Golan. But his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Washington has adopted the mantra of preconditions. Bashar must shut down Hizbullah, get out of Lebanon, cough up the Palestinians, get rid of WMD, and seal the Iraq border to show good faith. In other words, he must say uncle and give up all his negotiating cards. Only then will Washington will look into the Golan issue - with no guarantees that it can pry it away from Sharon. From the Syrian point of view, this is a non-starter. Bashar would be a fool to falling for it. He would end up without the Golan. No one is taking Bashar seriously. He has no credibility and is locked into a dialogue of the deaf with Washington.
So Bashar must make a show of force. This is where the Sadat 1973 handbook comes in useful. Sadat planned the October War in order to get Washington and Israel's attention and respect. He did not believe he could win a war against Israel single handedly. Ever since Sadat came to power in 1970, following Nasser's death, no one took him seriously. He was considered a joke, not only by foreign statesmen but also by his own generals. He reached out to the US and Israel for negotiations on Sinai, but the Israelis considered themselves invincible after 1967 and the Americans were preoccupied in Vietnam. No one would listen. Hence, going to war was the only way to win back credibility and respect. Egypt threw out its Russian advisors in 1972, in advance of the campaign, in order to create the proper conditions for negotiations. The Suez crossing was a success in that it completely surprised the Israelis and destroyed the Bar Lev line of defenses. Egypt lost the war, but proved that it could hurt Israel, coordinate with another Arab power - Syria, and disturb the status quo to threaten a super power crisis. Sadat won za`ama and the attention of Washington and Tel Aviv. From that came the Sinai agreements and ultimately the Camp David Accord and the return of Sinai.
Bashar's Lebanon campaign is certainly nothing of the scale of 1973; nevertheless, it demonstrated to the US that Syria will not buckle under. It is brave enough and strong enough in Lebanon to thumb its nose at Washington. There is no effective Christian opposition on which Washington can build a counter attack. The Muslim politicians all went along with Bashar, despite many misgivings. Only Walid Jumblatt made a stand and ordered his party's ministers to resign - a small inconvenience to Damascus and Harriri.
Bashar knows that France cannot help with Washington. It couldn't stop Bush from attacking Iraq and it won't be able to deliver in Syria. It is a good ally, but no substitute for serious dialogue with the US. He was willing to sacrifice warm relations with Chirac in order to gain the respect of President Bush. This is not necessarily stupid. France will join the US for a gentle reprimand of Damascus in the UN. But it will never side with Washington on a policy of confrontation and regime change. France has based its foreign policy in the region on working with the present leaders, not overthrowing them or bullying them. This has been an effective policy for France. It is much loved by Arabs today. It will not bring rapid reform to Syria, however. At least France is in the thick of things in Damascus rather than completely marginalized.
The second parallel between Bashar's use of force in Lebanon and Sadat's use of force in 1973 is the post-war posturing of both sides. Sadat turned to America after the war, prepared to reverse many of Egypt's Nasserist policies. He understood that only the United States could get him the Sinai back and he was willing to pay a high price for it.
Bashar also turned to the United States following the Lebanon episode demanding real negotiations. It has made a number of peace offerings.
Assad made clear this desire for dialogue on Saturday, Sept. 5 while receiving visiting US Congressman Darel Issa and two US scholars. Edward Gabriel, vice chairman of the American Task Force for Lebanon and a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, and Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a former US ambassador to Israel and an assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs in the administration of Bill Clinton, met with Asad. They confirmed that Assad expressed willingness to resume unconditional peace negotiations with Israel. "President Assad was clear in stating his desire to pursue peace negotiations with Israel, without preconditions, although he was firm in stating that two requirements for negotiations were essential," Gabriel said.
Assad required "U.S. leadership, facilitation and involvement" as well as an "understanding of where such negotiations would lead," he said.
"In other words, not preconditions per se, but rather assurances - or an expectation - that such an effort would be serious and lead to a land-for-peace deal that included Syrian sovereignty to the 1967 border," Gabriel said, referring to the existing frontier before Israel launched its attacks on Egypt, Jordan and Syria on June 5, 1967.
Assad first signaled a desire to resume negotiations with Israel in an interview with the New York Times in December last year. A month later Assad told a visiting US senator that he was ready for peace talks without preconditions. Having met with Assad five times in the past two years, Gabriel said there was a "genuine consistency" in the Syrian president's offers to restart talks.
"Martin (Indyk) and I are convinced that this is a serious attempt ... He (Assad) sees it in his interest to settle many issues that are of concern to America once and for all, and the peace process will address a number of issues of concern to the United States as well," Gabriel said.
In a major charm offensive directed at Israel, Syria offered to resume peace talks with it, “if Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is prepared to do so,” the Al-Hayat newspaper quoted President Bashar Assad as telling U.S. officials.
Sharon responded by rejecting Asad's reported peace overtures on Wednesday, saying Syria had to crack down on Islamic militant groups under its control before negotiations that stalled in 2000 could resume.
Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom responded that "if Syria changes its policy and stops providing shelter for terror organizations and for the transfer of weapons and ammunition from Iran to Hizbullah, we can renew negotiations with it." Others said Syria was just trying to avoid a blow from Israel.
Damascus responded immediately to Sharon's demands by expelling two important Hamas leaders, political bureau chief Khaled Mishaal and his deputy Dr. Mousa Abu Marzouq, from Damascus. They left to an as yet unknown destination.
Damascus has reached out for support from surrounding heads of State in its efforts to woo Washington.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa and said: "I found a complete Syrian understanding for Egyptian efforts with all Palestinian factions."
Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib announced after a visit to Syria on Thursday that Syria and Iraq have achieved progress in efforts to tighten security along their common border: "We are constantly coordinating with our Syrian brothers (on security)," Naqib said. "We are in agreement on all issues, and a very positive development recently took place." Iraqi leaders have also temporarily down-played Syria's support for Jihadists. On several occasions, I have heard Iraqi ministers list the nationality of foreign fighters in Iraq this week. They neglected to blame Syria. Interesting.
Syria turned over a senior Kurdish militant and six other rebels to Turkey on Friday in a sign of closer security cooperation between the former rivals. Syrian police detained the PKK's Hamili Yildirim, who has evaded capture since 1996, and the others in July as they tried to cross into Turkey from Syria, a police official said.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Syria and said "we share similar views on regional issues." He added that Lebanon was able to run its own internal affairs in an independent way and the Lebanese-Syrian relations were well defined by bilateral agreements. He condemned the Franco-US resolution.
Syria's show of force in Lebanon followed by its charm offensive has gotten results from Washington - even if on a small scale.
The pay off?
Today, Sept. 12, William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said that American military experts might work alongside Syrians to stop militants crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border to fight coalition forces. Burns said Washington has suggested establishing "mechanisms that in practical terms might help Iraqis and Syrians with American military experts (to) see if we can make progress with regard to some of those border security concerns."
In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Ahmad al-Hassan described Burns' visit as a positive development and said Syria is ready to help any committee of US and Syrian experts to monitor the Syrian-Iraqi border and prevent militants from entering Iraq.
"Dialogue as a substitute for baseless accusations helps clarify positions and the required mechanisms for implementing" agreements, al-Hassan told reporters.
Syria is serious about dialogue with the United States. Martin Indik and the others are right. Force will only go so far with Syria. At a certain point all it will elicit from Damascus is more "rope a dope:" compliant words but no action. Bashar cannot afford to give into force. He must bring a modicum of justice to his people in order to cut a deal with the US or with Israel. Justice means the Golan. Bashar has said that the Golan is his main goal in opening talks with Israel. He has made clear that he considers Syria's presence in Lebanon a card - something that will go on the negotiating table if Golan is brought back into play. The US must take him at his word and find out if he is sincere. It has no other good option unless it is willing to invade Syria as it did Iraq, and that is not on. Bashar knows that the balance of power between the US and Syria is slowly shifting in his favor. Washington used to boast that its profile and threat had increased immeasurably because of its occupation of Iraq. Now it is Iraq that is occupying the US.
For over a year, Bashar has been asking Washington to coordinate on the Syrian-Iraqi border, but Washington, believing it had the upper hand, refused. Now that the US is getting sucked into the black hole of Baghdad, Washington is changing its tune and sucking up its pride. Syria knows that if it can have American military officers and intelligence working hand in hand with Syrian security to coordinate border patrols and the like, it has opened a visible and potent avenue of dialogue. This is just what the neocons were trying to avoid. With Syria, they believed they could be purists in their claim that Washington no longer accommodated dictators. That misguided policy is now deep-sixed. Bashar has his dialogue - even if it will be small. The CIA channel, shut down last year, has been replaced by a Defense Department channel. That is much better for Bashar, seeing that this Washington administration treats the CIA like a dish rag. Not so the DOD.
As a za`im, Bashar is perfectly capable of moderating his ways. He is not particularly ideological, but he needs respect and he needs to bring the lamb home to his people, just as every other za`im in the Middle East does. There is no reason for Washington to deny him this. Only ideology stands in the way. Bashar has made it very clear that he does not want to use the kind of force and fear that his father did in Hama. The notion that he will only respond to force and humiliation is absurd. He has bent over backwards to accommodate his opponents in Syria. His wife has been very active in reaching out to all kinds of people. He has befriended every one of his neighbors or is ready to. Bashar is not a heartless thug. Neither is he inconsequential. Washington should try taking him at his word. It has nothing to lose and much to gain.
BBC has done a brilliant job of spelling out the essential policy differences between France and the US on Syria. (Update: Sept 10 - BBC has published part of this radio program as an article provided below.)
Jaspreet Singh Oberai, the Broadcast Media Co-ordinator at the BBC sent me this link to the BBC Radio 4 series on "Chirac's New Backyard" on the French Arab relationship. He writes:
"The second programme in the series is on Syria with lots of interviews with senior figures in France & Syria. The link is http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/index.shtml?focuswin
scroll down to Chirac's New Backyard. It will be available till next Tuesday, September 14.
Hear it now before it goes off line. It spells out French attitudes on democracy, terrorism, reform, military might, self-determination, and much more. There are interviews with all the top players and a brilliant description of how politics really work in Syria as well as the frustration and successes of the reformers. A must hear. I have asked if a transcript is available and will post it if Jaspreet can get it to me. Thank you Jaspreet, and thanks to Presenter Allen Little and Producer Sue Davis, who have done an absolutely brilliant job.
Here is the published article without the interesting interviews:
France and Syria: A tangled history
By Allan Little BBC, Damascus
When Syria's old ruler Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 most western leaders stayed away from his funeral. The United States, after all, blames Syria for harbouring terrorist groups, and for failing to disclose stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. But not French President Jacques Chirac. He went to the funeral rites of the dead potentate.
It is said that, that day, the French president told the young son and heir, Bashar al-Assad: "I extended the hand of friendship to your father, and I extend it to you today."
France has been present in what used to be known as the Levant for a millennium. The landscape of Syria is dotted with the magnificent fortified castles that the Crusaders - the founders of the medieval Frankish kingdoms - left behind. France was the mandatory power in Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, from 1918-1946.
I went to Syria because I am interested in France; in what France stands for in the Arab world.
Invasion and democracy We all know what the Americans believe: they believe you can introduce democracy to an Arab country by invading it. That is the great experiment in the Gulf region, and Iraq is its laboratory.
But what about France?
Washington has given up on Bashar al-Assad - the Accountability Act makes it illegal for American businesses to do business in Syria.
America wants to topple anti-western dictators; France wants to work with them in the hope that they will become less anti-western. America believes it can introduce democracy to the Arab world; France is pleased when it manages to introduce ATMs to its banking system
France believes in him. Paris believes that the new president is not like his father. France believes Bashar wants change. And France wants to try to help him.
French aid to Syria is not financial. It is human. High level teams of French experts are seconded to Damascus to advise on restructuring of the state.
Syria is in a state of chronic paralysis. Its economy - part Soviet, part Chinese in its inspiration - cannot create the wealth needed to absorb the new generations coming onto the job market.
In a world in which unemployed and despairing young men turn to radical Islam for their inspiration, the need for reform is urgent.
But is it enough? Will it work? Syria - despite France's involvement - remains a dictatorship. It is still a security state. Its economy is still controlled by powerful, monopolistic vested interests which can be expected to resist moves to make Syria a more open, competitive and investment friendly place.
And if - as France believes - President Assad is interested in change, why, four years after he came to power, does Syria remain manifestly unchanged? It is part of the Gaullist world view that France has a special role in the world, even a destiny; a duty to stand for certain ideals.
France wraps its activities in the Arab world in the language of Gaullism. But it is also part of the condition of 21st Century France that it cannot match its lofty rhetoric - its lofty sense of itself - with real action, or real achievement.
Self-evidently, France could not stop the Anglo-American juggernaut in Iraq. Self-evidently, four decades of French support for the Palestinian cause has not advanced the cause of Palestinian statehood. Self-evidently, France's efforts to bring Syria in from the cold have done nothing - as yet - to change the reality of the Syrian regime.
Taking a stand
In a world defined by overwhelming American might, France can take a stand, knowing that in the end it will not be judged by its ability to turn rhetoric into action. It is enough to stand up to America; no-one expects France to be able to stop America.
And France, confronted by its own powerlessness, cannot resist taking solace in the misfortune of its mighty Anglo-Saxon rival. I came to Syria because I was interested in France. Because while France was saying "no" to America and Britain, no to the imposition of democracy by military force, I wanted to understand what it was the French were saying "yes" to. And the difference is the difference between idealism and pragmatism.
America wants to topple anti-western dictators; France wants to work with them in the hope that they will become less anti-western. America believes it can introduce democracy to the Arab world; France is pleased when it manages to introduce ATMs to its banking system.
Each - in separate ways - is trying to re-shape the Arab world in its own image - and bend the Arab world to its own needs.
The Arab world - you sense - has different plans altogether.
Chirac's New Backyard, presented by Allan Little, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 September, 2004 at 2000 BST.
I have been carrying on a debate on Arab nationalism with Tony Badran at his weblog, "Across the Bay." He asked me to respond to this post of his, in which he attacks Patrick Seale, the most knowledgeable journalist on Syria and author of two of the best books on the country. He asked if I had the courage to defend him. I do - even in the face of Tony's sharp sword play. After posting my essay, Tony sent me this email:
I took a quick glance at your post, and, as much as this pains me, I'm afraid that I have to grill you! I won't use expletives of course as I do with assholes, as you're a terrific guy, but that post deserves a bbq. yours as always!!
I don't know what a "bbq" is, but I am bracing myself. I am only grateful he won't use expletives, but I already feel his pain. Can't wait to see what he comes up with. In the meantime here is my post. (Take a look at his post on "Mediterraneanism," the identity he advocates for the peoples of the Middle East rather than Arabism. It is interesting.)
I am conflicted about Arabism, like many in the West and Middle East right now. It is at the heart of the identity crises the Middle East has been struggling with since the break up of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t think Seale is wrong, as you do. Seale's 1965 book, The Struggle for Syria, remains a masterpiece of historical interpretation. He may sympathize with Arabism more than I do or defend it in a different way, but we both understand it is a force and intima’ (belonging. T.) or `asabiyya (blood solidarity. T.) that has shaped the region and will continue to shape it in the future.
It will not disappear any time soon and should not be thought of like communism. Communism was an ideology that had wed itself to state power. Arabism is larger and more durable as all nationalisms are, a la Anderson’s imagined community. It is more akin to a religious worldview. Moreover, its intellectual architects put a lot of thought and effort into tailoring its most salient features to the contours of Islam. The two share the concept of an over-arching “umma” or community that must be united, of a sacred and eternal mission (risala al-khalida, of the chosenness of the Arabs, and the special role of Muhammad. That is why Arabism and Islam can coexist, even if uncomfortably at times, and why Arabism didn’t die after 1967, despite Ajami’s prediction and despite what common sense would dictate. Arabism would have died after 1948, had Ajami’s thesis that it was just a strategy been correct. But it is like the Hitchcock shower scene. It keeps coming back every time the West believes it has dealt it a mortal blow. Pan Germanism, pan Slavism, pan Turanism, you can argue, have all more or less died. But they fought for a long time.
If Arabism were just a national or ethnic feeling, it might go the way of Pan Turanism, but it is reinforced in an odd way by the anti-otherism of radical Islamism, which is very much alive. As we are seeing in Iraq, Arab nationalism and Islamism among the Sunnis has found a new synthesis. In Syria, Bashar has allied with Hizbullah and is winking at the recent 50 imams who called for struggle in Iraq. Yes, it is a dangerous game for an Alawite, who has sought to keep religion out of politics as much as possible, but he thinks he can ride it, or believes he must ride it, and he may very well be right. He is the only Arab leader who has let Islamists out of prison rather than put them in. Today, Syria holds very few Islamist prisoners – less than 200 according to Syrian human rights groups. Has there been a surge in violence? NO. On the contrary, the UN ranked Syria the third safest country in the world several months ago. Very few other Arab countries are any where close to that. No Islamic group has attacked the government in years. What a difference from Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which now holds over 18,000 political prisoners, most of them Islamists. By stressing Arab nationalism, using a light hand with Islamists, and resisting American policies, Bashar has bought Syria a measure of domestic peace and solidarity enviable by any regional standard.
To get Bashar and his people to convert to some sort of Syrian Nationalist Party or Greek Orthodox notion of Syrianism would be a major conversion and mean dumping everything they and their fathers stood by for 50 years. (The SNP allied itself with the US in the 1950s before it was crushed by the Ba`th Party and the Hashemites were allied with Britain. It would mean joining the West and declaring all that “sumud wa tahadi” --steadfastness and confrontation, T. -- stuff wrongheaded.) No easy undertaking, especially as the Israeli issue is always there threatening and keeping the struggle alive. (If only those border issues could be settled!) Now, of course, there is the added irritant of Iraq, which has added fuel to anti-imperialist fire of the old Ba`th, which had died down to ember form. For Syrians to convert to a smaller Syrian nationalism – which is what they will have to convert to if logic has its way, and they ever want to join the “community of liberal nations,” will take a long time, but there are many Syrians who hope that will happen.
Just because one doesn’t like Arab nationalism, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or make people respond in a predictable way to events and others around them. That is why Syria does so much of what it does. That is why the Arab League is so messed up. Why Amer Mousa can always go on Al-Jazira and blather and get an audience. That is why Al-Jazira is so popular. It is a worldview that most every Arab subscribes to in part or in whole – and Syria has always seen itself as its beating heart. Its legacy in Syria is large and it has been at the heart of every Syrian constitution whether under the “urban notables” of the French Mandate, the early independence period, the Nasserist experiment with the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, or under the Ba`th. Arab nationalism will not disappear with the Ba`th Party, as many believe. It predated it and will survive it.
It is instructive to recall that Shukri al-Quwwatli, the architect of Syrian independence whom many Syrians look back on today as the epitome of Syria’s liberal democratic experiment, was every bit as much an Arab nationalist as Hafiz al-Asad was. Syria does not celebrate an “Independence Day” because Quwwatli did not consider the withdrawal of French troops from Syrian soil in 1946 the equivalent of independence. He named it “Evacuation Day” instead, claiming Syria was only a region of the Arab nation and would not celebrate independence until all the Arab lands were free of foreign troops and presumably united. In the evacuation day speech he gave on April 17, 1946, President Quwwatli stated that he “would never raise the Syrian flag above that of the Arab nation.” It was the sound bite of the entire three-day proceedings and is still repeated with admiration by Syrians to this day.
The Ba`th Party is the spiritual heir of President Quwwatli’s Nationalist Party of the 1940s and 1950s. The two should not be seen as polar opposites, as they so often are. The Ba`thists, coming from the countryside, added socialism to Arab nationalism in order to push aside the urban notables, who they accused of being corrupt and feudalistic. Their success was guaranteed in part because they were able to steal the banner of Arabism from the older generation and make it their own, not because they were innovators when it came to nationalism. Of course they pumped it up with German and Sufi notions of the magical power of unity, but its basic tenets were already firmly in place before they came on the scene.
VP Khaddam’s recent interview about projected alterations to the Baath party, translated by MEMRI, went like this:
Question: "Will the socialist Arab Ba'th Party become a Syrian party?"
Khaddam: "Under no circumstances. Relinquishing the pan-Arab dimension of the party means relinquishing identity, history, and the future. What is to be discussed is the development of a pan-Arab work formula in the party, while adapting to the demands of the current stage in the pan-Arab area."
I think you have to take him at his word. He means it. Even if the Ba`th Party is demoted or fiddled with, Arab nationalism will remain at the heart of Syrian identity.
So then, if you accept this interpretation, how do you deal with it?
1. I would say, you live with it, all the while trying to diffuse its most virulent and fascistic aspects. What you don’t want to do is confront it with the Bush rhetoric. That only makes it stronger and validates its natural tendency to see the world in black and white. You definitely want to contain where you can – like in Lebanon. But at the same time you want to show a clear road forward for an alternative.
2. You want to make the “Syrian” option look good. You do this by settling the Golan issue – even if it means putting a gazillion American troops in place or paying the Israelis 20 billion dollars as they asked for last time around. A settlement of the border issues would defuse much of the confrontational and conspiratorial logic of Arabism. The Arabs have a right to feel screwed. They may not really understand why they keep getting screwed or what the best way to stop it is, but they do know they are getting screwed.
3. You let Syria build trading relationships with its neighbors so that it Lebanonizes and a class of good capitalists grows up to object to nasty talk and anything that may disturb the amassing of wealth. You let Syria join the Madrid process and trade with Europe on condition that it liberalizes. You encourage it to go the China route – if it is smart enough to do that. You help it expand financial services, build a postal service that can actually deliver a letter to a house, you help it spread the internet service, build a modern system of taxation, and develop a school system that teaches foreign languages competently.
You don’t try to throw every roadblock in the way of economic growth as we are now doing with sanctions and by pressuring Europe to do the same. Keeping Syria poor and ignorant will only reinforce Arabism, in its most blinkered and defensive form. Arabism is so much better that the many forms of radical Islamism abroad now. At least Arabism – in its best manifestation (secular – socialist) is west-oriented in ideology and intellectual borrowings.
Ultimately the xenophobia, paranoia, and confrontationalism that inspires what we don’t like about Arabism, has a cause. We may not see it as a sufficient cause or believe that the present form of Arabism is the correct response, but America must try to erase the cause. That is the only way illiberal Arabism will attenuate. I do not mean to suggest that Arabism was created by foreign forces or that America and the West is responsible for it. Arabism is primarily an attempt to unify the deeply fragmented people of Syria with a common identity. Nevertheless, like all nationalisms, it finds sustenance in resentment and a sense of victimization. The more America can do to reduce those feelings, the better off we will all be.
To get Sykes-Picot accepted as the best option and only realistic future for the Arab world means helping the existing states make something of themselves so they can see that smaller is better and accept their borders as they are and try to mold their national identities to them.
Arabism – the feeling of kinship – will never go away and may even find a form that we like and which can act as a positive, rather than as a negative force in the future – like Europeanism, which has produced peace in Europe, a free trade community, and a form of federalism that is founded on constitutions, law, and mutual respect and recognition. That is what most liberal Arabs want for themselves. They want to be like Europe and to exchange their Bismarkian or Cavourian Arabism that calls for immediate unification based on some mystical an organic notion of wholeness for a more federative Arabism based on liberal values and a gradual build up of trust and association. That kind of Arabist transformation can take place over time. It won’t happen quickly, probably not in our lifetime, but it needs economic growth, stability, and the sense that no monster is trying to eat them.
That is why I disagree with you and disagree with the neocons more generally. They think they can kill Arabism and MUST kill it because it is Hitler. Asad is not Hitler and never was. The neocon medicine is wrong – it will only sustain the xenophobes and promote the Us-Them think, which will fuel another vicious cycle of violence and extremism in the M.E.
Syria is also not Germany because it is not ready for democracy. Germany was at the heart of the enlightenment, liberal movement, nationalism and all the other good things of western development which let to democracy. Syria is only in the early phase of these. It is only beginning to deal with the religious question and getting a feel for secularism and positivism which were so central to promoting liberalism. The West could kill Hitler and destroy the fascist movement and Germany could revert to the developmental path it had been on for a long time. Its default mode was in the modern western trajectory. Destroy the Syrian state and you will get Iraq or Lebanon circa 1976 – a reversion to tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and caliphism. It will revert to a failed Ottoman situation. That is another reason kicking Middle East states to the breaking point is counterproductive and wrongheaded. There is a lot worse lurking under the Asad regime should it be destroyed.
State building in the Middle East has been a very tricky business. It is common for Westerners to regard the Asads and the politicians they surround themselves with as peasant bumblers, ophthalmologists who can’t see, and the like, but I dare say they read the pulse of their people quite carefully and accurately. They have patched together a system of balancing the various communities and interests of Syrians that could easily be destroyed and could be rebuilt only with the greatest difficulty.
The men in power in Syria today admire much about the West. I would wager that every one of them has sent or will send his kids to study in the West if they can. They want to be cultured like the Lebanese, whom they admire for their mastery of European culture and savoir vivre, at one and the same time that they disdain them for their rejection of Arabism. They have zero interest in the Saudi or Iranian examples. Others in Syria do - but not the ruling class.
The Syrians can be proud of their stability. By using Arabism as the central ideology of nation building and centralization, they have avoided civil war and internal collapse as experienced in Lebanon, yet at the same time they have avoided the excessive tyranny and repression of neighboring Iraq. They have kept Arabism’s worst elements in check. It is worth pointing out, once again, that the Syrian government has killed fewer of its own subjects over the last 50 years than any of its five neighbors, except little blessed Jordan. This is an achievement.
If Bashar al-Asad can actual maneuver his country toward capitalism and economic growth in the next ten years so that it doesn’t get trapped in the Cuba syndrome, Syrians will be able to look back at the 20thcentury with an element of pride and sense of success. They have paid a high price for stability and state building with curtailed civil liberties and economic stagnation – and we shouldn’t forget Hama – but there has been a lot worse in the neighborhood.
The West should assist Bashar in his effort to transform Syria from being an autocracy to becoming a liberal dictatorship, more on a par with Jordan or Egypt. That is his stated goal. He does not aim for democracy, nor does he intend to abandon the Arabism that has guided Syria from its earliest foundation. For America to expect Syria to embrace democracy and abandon Arabism any time soon is folly. To try to bring down the present Syrian state in the belief that something more liberal and pro-Western will naturally emerge is lunacy.
The US and Syria are playing a game of chicken in Lebanon, which neither side is likely to win. The US sees a chance to bring Europe to its side against Damascus. This time, it believes it can isolate Syria and possible convince the EU to join the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, if not push it out of Lebanon. For its part, Damascus believes that Washington has few cards to play in the Levant. It sees the sand is running out of the US clock in Iraq. Added to the fact the Arab world hates America, Damascus also believes it can dig in its heals with little risk of being punished.
Bashar has blundered, everyone seems to agree. His father would have found someone beside Lahoud to serve Syria's purposes and prepared a plan B and C to avoid being forced into a confrontation that can bring little benefit to Damascus. Ammar Abdulhamid insists that "we cannot be of two minds about the fact that Syria's decision-making process is flawed; the process is definitely flawed." Damascus has demonstrated that little has changed within the halls of power despite all the language of reform. The top honchos still don't know how to play the game. They don't read, and they don't rub shoulders in Washington.
But this is nothing new. Every one knows that Syria is wedded to its Arabism. Bashar has been consistent in claiming he will not give it up and doesn't believe the region is ready for a political opening. The problem for Washington is that Bashar remains the only voice of reason and stability in Syria no matter how flawed from a liberal western perspective. America has no plan B either when it comes to Syria or Lebanon.
Imad Shuaibi, a Damascus-based analyst, said it best, when he ridiculed the UN draft resolution written up by the French and US, which the Americans say will pass in the security council. He said: "Who can guarantee stability in the region if Syria takes its hand out of the peace solution with Israel, and who guarantees that there will not be 100 Hizbullahs springing up?" He is right. Syria can create havoc if truly pressed to the wall. Lebanon was the site of America's greatest defeat in the Middle East since the Iranian revolution. Why? Because the US sought to isolate Syria. Some argue the presence of US troops in Iraq changes the calculus of 1983 today. It doesn't. If anything it has weakened the US morally and physically.
Even in its international weakness, Syria has a strong domestic hand. The Syrian regime has never had fewer opponents at home. There is no organized domestic opposition. No one in Syria is protesting Bashar's Lebanon action. Ammar Abdulhamid, the liberal director of the Tharwa Project, explained in a recent article how difficult life is becoming for liberal's in Syria as national consensus has fallen in line with the regime, which is convinced that the West is out to get it. He writes that "Arab liberals are currently caught between regimes whose grip on power is still strong and societies where religious extremism is making deep inroads and developing a more "romantic" popular appeal. Arab liberals are indeed under siege, and that's putting it mildly."
Nothing punctuates Abdulhamid's observation better than the recent admission of Aktham Naise's - the Syrian Human rights activist recently released from prison on bail - who said that "only the regime can reform Syria, and we have to bet on this." "There is a reform current within the regime that is working, albeit slowly, and we must encourage it." Naise is the courageous head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights. "I don't see how the opposition can move it forward," he added. Naise, did not elaborate how he might find a political place in the Syrian ruling establishment, but he confessed that he may soon quit his human rights group. He still believes "it is a moral duty to work for human rights," but he will do it at home and in the Syrian way, betting on Bashar.
As Tishreen, one of Damascus' government dailys, editorialized: "No one can believe that the United States can possibly be concerned about Lebanon or any other Arab country. American policies confirm just the opposite and point out that the present US administration relies on a clear method of antagonism to Arabs." Damascus sees it's struggle in broad civilizational terms. It believes that its core values - Arabism, Islam, and anti-imperialism - are under attack by a Washington that is seeking hegemony in the region and is in thrall to Israel's narrow interests.
Most Westerners believe that the Syrian government has manipulated the public into believing its propaganda, which is no doubt true. But it is also true that the public in Syria has been beside itself with rage and indignation since Janin. Many Syrians have turned from watching al-Jazira to watching al-Manar, Hizbullah's station. In many respects, Bashar has been swept along by public opinion and by a deep-seated public belief that Syria must stay true to its "historic" legacy of acting as the torch-bearer of Arab nationalism. For many in the West, this is incomprehensible. But one only need refer to the language of Washington, which insists that "history" has thrust the heavy burden of defending democracy and freedom on its shoulders. Damascus don't buy this and neither do most Syrians. Bashar has stated that the region's tribalism and conservative society does not make it a candidate for democracy. He may be right.
The lesson Damascus learned from Iraq is that when the chips are down, Europe can do little to protect it. European opposition to the US invasion of Iraq did not dissuade the US from taking action in Iraq.
Emile El-Hokayem, a smart analyst at the Stimpson Center in Washington, says the Europeans are furious at Bashar for stiffing them in Lebanon and seriously contemplating imposing some sort of sanctions on Syria. France has been embarrased by Iran and
"some in Paris are ready to examine more hawkish options. In my opinion, the Elysee itself is more prone to believing that the Iranians are just buying time and are not serious about stopping their nuclear program. However, the French are tied up by what the IAEA report will say - and the leaks seem to suggest that no clear-cut evidence emerges from what the inspectors have collected.
Will France become more hawkish on Syria too? Having been embarrassed by Iran and Syria, France finds itself in a fix and must question its present policy. El-Hokayem says:
France's huge political capital in the Middle East requires France to be a positive force in the region in terms of development and political reforms. The problem for the French is that they are closing their eyes on Tunisia while pressuring Assad. They have yet to develop a consistent policy, and this is rendered more difficult because pushing for change will diminish their capital, as they might be seen to be siding with the US.
This episode illustrates how the US and the EU can work together, but also the limitations of this approach. The EU has good relations with most Arab countries and does not believe in regime change. But to be proven right, they have to deliver, and what better place to do so than Lebanon, at least for the French?
I think that the French were a driving force behind the resolution. It is this coalition of interests that is the real story, not the US willingness to increase the pressure on Syria. That has been the case for a long time: Lebanese American organizations have been very effective in their advocacy efforts, some in the administration were waiting for a pretext to move on Syria. Ultimately, the unanimous European endorsement of the resolution is the most significant element of the story.
This is Bashar's blunder. He has depended in the past on dividing Europe and America. US sanctions on Syria earlier this year had few teeth because the EU was unwilling to join the US. From 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union to 2001, the EU's share of Syrian exports grew from 30% to approximately 60%. In terms of bilateral assistance, Japan, Germany and France provide the bulk of Syria's grants and loans. Should Europe lower the boom on Syria, it could hurt it badly. Any hopes Bashar has of increasing trade and growing its way out of Syria's deepening economic crisis will be dashed.
But no one in Washington should be smug about Bashar's ham fisted diplomacy. I don't believe France will really side with the US. Yes, it is coauthoring this ambiguous resolution. But it will not cooperate with Holland and Britain to impose sanctions. If it does, Paris will be Washington's hostage. Once France joins the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, it will not be able to lift them, unless Washington says it can. Moreover, Paris doesn't trust Washington enough to have Bush making its foreign policy toward the Levant. Look what happened to Tony Blair. Paris will not abandon its independent Middle East foreign policy.
The neocon authors of confrontation may be on the outs right now in Washington and have plenty of mud on their faces, but the logic of their confrontational policy rules. There are a hundred analysts now speaking in the idiom of the president's "Forward Strategy of Freedom in the Middle East." They have embraced the notion that the US must confront the fascist ideology of Arab nationalism and terrorist-supporting states. As Tishriin stated: "the present US administration relies on a clear method of antagonism to Arabs." Syria has decided that it has no choice but to oppose American demands, which it is convinced are unreasonable and designed to be unattainable.
Can Lebanon win from this confrontation? Two views are prevalent in Lebanon. Michael Young argues that the Lebanese will find unity in the face of Syria's blundering diplomacy, which is no diplomacy at all. He takes heart from the union of Franco-American policy to write: "One can now imagine Syria blundering its way into an eventual pullout from Lebanon. That may take much time, but any regime that makes so flagrant the mistakes that Syria did in recent weeks isn't long for this country." Chibli Mallat, a Beirut lawyer and human rights activist who has been largely supportive of American aims in the region, writing in An-Nahar and also the Daily Star shares none of Young's optimism. He writes:
With Syria put on notice...we shall be entering a fight to the end which will rip the fabric of Lebanon apart, undermine any hope of gradual and non-violent reform within Syria, and end with an increase of Syria's isolation internationally, as well as regionally... Even more gravely, the UN Security Council Resolution will poise the Lebanese communities against each other...[and prompt] calls of extremism from the worst fringes of Lebanese society.
(I have stolen this quote from Tim Cavanaugh's insightful article on this issue in Reason Magazine, which Tony Badran brought to my attention.)
Mallat still hopes that reason can prevail, and that Bashar can head off this confrontation by asking Lahoud to withdraw from the presidential contest. He ends his article with an appeal:
Decent Lebanese democrats, who wish to avoid more blood being shed in the Middle East, can help devise an alternative resolution if Lebanon's constitutional process is reinstated. Bashar Assad must change direction and persuade Lahoud, at this strategically key moment for Syria and Lebanon, to stop his unconstitutional, undemocratic bid for an extended mandate.
There is little chance that Bashar will back down now. It would undermine his za'ama. and, like Bush, he wants very much for his people to see him as a man who means what he says and sticks to his policies, no mater how damaging.
Washington really has no choice but to live with Bashar and his antiquated regime, just as Lebanon must live with it. Isolation did not work in the past. It is less likely to work today. The US is more vulnerable and exposed in Iraq today than it was in Lebanon in 1983. Lebanon is a deeply divided country even though it enjoys a degree of liberty far beyond that of other Arab countries. It is a thin reed on which to build a strategy of confrontation. What is more, Damascus is not so bad. It has curtailed Hizbullah, kept its rhetoric in check, build solid relations with most of its neighbors and tried to keep its head down in the face of American threats. It is not the ally American wants, but it is also not the enemy Washington could have, not unless Washington pushes it to the wall.
The United States is calling for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, according to a a draft resolution circulated in the U.N. Security Council late Tuesday. It also calls for elections under the current Lebanese constitution, which would rule out a second term for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. France is cosponsoring the resolution with Washington, which calls on the council "to consider additional measures,'' which are not specified, if the Syrians and Lebanese don't comply. This week, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that "the upcoming elections should be conducted according to the Constitution, which stipulates that the Parliament elects a new Lebanese president every six years."
Pro-Syrian ministers in the Lebanese government are attempting to minimize the damage. Lebanon's Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said Lebanese-Syrian relations are a matter for both countries to decide. He said Lebanon "completely separates between dealing with our internal affairs and international attempts at blackmail with the aim of fomenting a dispute between us and our brothers (in Syria).'' He also accused the United States and France of trying to "blackmail'' it and Syria, and create trouble between Beirut and Damascus.
The US is rushing to get the resolution passed today (Thursday), U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Anne Patterson told reporters in New York. It wants to beat the Lebanese parliament to the punch, which is sceduled to vote of the presidential term extension on Friday. Syria's allies will try to stall the UN vote, allowing Syria and the Lebanese government to hand the US a fait accompli.
The draft in the UN is almost certain to face opposition from Algeria, the only Arab nation on the council, and probably from Russia and China, which traditionally oppose council interference in a country's internal affairs. In Washington, the Bush administration sharply criticized Syria for meddling in Lebanon's politics, and a senior U.S. diplomat was likely to go to Damascus for high-level talks.
A second problem is that the French are worried that their efforts to push through quick council action could jeopardize the lives of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq whose captors have threatened to kill them unless Paris scraps a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools, U.S. officials said.
Patriarch Sfeir, the Maronite leader, created a considerable political stir last Sunday when he declared in a sermon that changing the Constitution would be "wiping out completely and definitively the shy and poor democracy that we still brag about." Lebanese newspapers have also been filled with articles by intellectuals brave enough to express the widespread Lebanese resentment at Syrian intervention in their affairs.
Hussein Ibish gives important background to the downward spiral in affairs between Washington and Damascus in his Daily Star article. He quotes me as saying:
"The neocons have got Syria clearly in their crosshairs and want to take down the regime," Landis said. "They established the line early on that Bashar Assad and the Baathist regime are irrational and cannot be dealt with." Landis said he thinks this is "the worst possible policy" for the US to follow.
"I don't think anything is going to stop the deterioration right now; Syria has dug in its heels and the US has set terms that the Syrians can't possibly meet." Landis said that Syria was creating serious problems for itself, because the Lahoud issue would "force many fence-sitters in Lebanon to choose between Lebanese nationalism and some sort of Arab identification."
"I think Syria is going to lose from this," he said. "Syria has nothing to gain from driving this fight internationally and in Lebanon." On the other hand, the regime has never been stronger domestically and has been able to make peace with a large array of domestic opponents," Landis added.
"Washington right now is very divided - there are many people who don't want to repeat what we did in Iraq in Syria, and who want to deal with Bashar, who has many promising qualities and who is trying to take Syria from being an autocratic state to being a liberal dictatorship, like America's best friends in the Middle East - many realists are ready to embrace this under their traditional mantra of stability."
Washington and Damascus have gotten themselves into a vicious circle of escalating hostility. It is to neither side's advantage. Murhaf Jouejati points out in the same article that with the CIA in such disarray, Syria has few defenders in Washington and the neoconservatives have a much freer hand to squeeze Syria.
Israel is coordinating with Washington to wratchet up the heat of Syria. Israel is now blaming the double suicide boming in Be'er Sheva on Damascus, which Israeli Chief of Staff called "the terrorist command." He wearned that Israel would "take care of those who support terror," singling out the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Hezbollah. "I don't want to get into the question of what we will do, but everyone who is responsible for terrorism against us will not sleep soundly." He also suggested Israel could resume its campaign to assassinate Hamas chiefs, both in the Palestinian territories and abroad. Israeli operatives sought to assassinate Palestinian militants in Damascus earlier this year.
The exile Syrian Reform Party based in Washington is also hoping to revive its fortunes and get back into the picture. It is calling for President Bush to meet with its leaders in order to show Damascus how serious Washington is. "Nothing will be more effective than President Bush meeting with the Syrian opposition publicly," they state on their website.
Eyal Zisser, a fine Israeli analyst of Syrian affairs, has written a smart analysis of how he interprets Bashar's actions over the last four years for the Syrian Reform Party website. It is worth a look for it gives a view widely held in Washington and Jerusalem.
Damascus has been trying to meet with high level US officials for some time in order to work out an agenda for settling their differences and regional problems. As the Reform Party states:
An unofficial emissary from President Baschar Assad to Washington last week
proposed a rendezvous between Powell and Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Shara
somewhere in Europe to discuss a deal. The answer he received was: Tell Assad to
show some tangible action first, before we talk. American doors stay shut to
dialogue because the Syrian ruler’s actions tell a completely different story
from the messages he keeps on sending. Every time they meet secretly, the
Ba'athists lecture Washington.
Unfortunately both sides have been reduced to lecturing the other. Washington has set the bar much too high for Bashar. They have asked him to throw Palestinian radicals out of Syria, move out of Lebanon, and close down Lebanon's biggest party, Hizbullah, get ride of WMD, and seal its border with Iraq, before negotiations can begin. Syria is demanding a US commitment to rekindle peace talks with Israel. Syria wants to know that it will get back the Golan from Israel before it will move ahead with any of Washington's demands, particularly in Lebanon which is its only leverage with Israel for a Golan deal. Neither side believes the other is serious about its offers.
As a backdrop to this strategic maneuvering is the larger ideological question of Arabism. Many in Washington, Israel and Lebanon are hoping to scuttle any substantive negotiations with Damascus because they believe this is Washington's chance to destroy Arabism as an ideology. Damascus is the last Arab capital holding up the Arabist flag now that the US has carried out regime change in Iraq. Damascus, however, has shown clear signs that it is committed to change - both economic and, to a degree, political.
In a recent interview with the independent critical Syrian weekly Abyadh Wa-Aswad (Black and White), whose editor is the son of Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, the Syrian vice president and a long-time pillar of the Syrian Ba'th Party, discussed possible changes in the role of the Ba'th Party in Syria. He didn't promise a great deal. But he made it clear that Syria is on the path toward a much larger degree of capitalism. It also wants to open up dialog on questions of Arabism and greater political freedoms. Washington would be wise to allow this internal debate, which is already very lively in the many new Syrian websites, to run its course.