Thoughts on Syrian politics, history and religion.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Islamism in Syria
Islamism in Syria has been the topic of three excellent articles recently. Scott Wilson of the Washington Post writes about the tug of war taking place within the Baath Party over how much the regime should harness Islam to the state. I met with Scott while he was in Damascus and he has used the outline of my story, published two months ago, "Bashar's Alawi Dilemma," (Click here to read.) in which I laid out the struggle between V.P Khaddam, who represents the pro-Islamists within the regime and the new Minister of Information Dakhlallah, who is a pro-secularist. Wilson adds a number of new elements. At least for the time being, it looks like the secularists are in the driver's seat here. Khaddam has been spending much time out of the country and is keeping a low profile for the moment; however, he has not retired despite several announcements that he would. His contacts to Iran must be too important to let him go. Also, he was the authority in Lebanon until Bashar took over from him in the nineties. Possibly his experience and contacts are still valuable in this time of Lebanese upheaval. No doubt he has many backers in the regime.
Nicholas Blanford's article on Mohammed Habash describes how an important alternative to conservative Islam has been emerging in Syria. Ever since the Wahhabism began to wash up from the shores of the Arabian dessert, the Syrian Islamic establishment has sought to defend the more liberal strains of Islamic thought that have traditionally flurished here. So the Habash movement is not a new phenomenon or unique here.
Finally, Ibrahim al-Hamidi writing in the Daily Star, gives the grand sweep of the religious revival going on in Syria. An important piece that will be valuable for researchers trying to understand how religious institutions are changing the social landscape here, and quite possibly the political landscape in the future. He bolsters the argument that the alternative the present regime would be something much more religious and fundamentalist. Nevertheless, we can conclude from his article that the old days of Muslim Brother strength and unity among the fundamentalists is gone. Today the religious currents are diverse, although building strong institutional foundations that did not exist in the 1980s. Bashar's more liberal policies have aided religious minded civil society as much if not more than secular NGOs.
Religious Surge Alarms Secular Syrians
Islam's Clout Among Frustrated Youth Challenging Governments Across Mideast
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A21
NASIRIYAH, Syria -- A religious revival is sweeping Syria, challenging the secular, ruling Baath Party to allow more Muslim influence in government and frightening many Syrians schooled for decades to fear political Islam.
Growing religious feeling can be seen across the landscape, from the proliferation of head scarves worn by young women in Damascus to an enormous privately funded mosque nearing completion in downtown Aleppo, Syria's second city. Muslim clerics, meanwhile, are growing increasingly bold in asking for democratic political reforms that could give them a larger role in government.
Alarmed by the trend, some within Syria's secular intelligentsia and middle class have begun writing and organizing against it. From his airy home in Nasiriyah, a town 35 miles northeast of Damascus, Nabil Fayyad, a secular writer, accused the government in print last September of softening its stand against the increasingly popular Islamic movement, its chief rival for power, amid pressure from the United States to reform.
"It's a temporary cooperation," said Fayyad, 49, a thin, excitable Sunni Muslim who was arrested by government agents and held for a month soon after his columns appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper to which he frequently contributes. "Nowadays, they have the same enemy: the United States. But once the U.S. soldiers leave Iraq, what happens to us?"
Islam's growing political clout is challenging governments across the Middle East, even those built on Islamic principles, as religious sentiment intensifies among young, frustrated populations. Syria's ruling Baath Party, an Arab nationalist movement, has been at odds with Islamists for more than 35 years.
A military coup in 1970 brought to power a clique of officers, led by Hafez Assad, who were members of the Alawite sect, a secretive branch of Shiite Islam that comprises about 10 percent of Syria's 18 million people. Many Sunni Muslims, who account for more than 70 percent of the population, do not consider Alawites true Muslims, and Assad's legitimacy was always suspect among Syria's Islamists. In the late 1970s and early '80s, Assad's government staged a crackdown on a militant Islamic movement that killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Now, however, some senior government officials have suggested that the Baath Party endorse Islam to shore up its own declining popularity among the country's youth. Those proposals have exposed schisms inside the 4 1/2-year-old administration of Assad's son and successor, President Bashar Assad, who is trying to limit the party's decisive role in shaping political and economic policy.
"The basic attitude of the Baath Party is totally secular and against religious interference," said Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah, a party member who has been an outspoken proponent of reducing its size and clout to allow deeper reforms. "There may be some Baath members who have made such alliances. But that is not the prevailing idea among the Baath or among Syrian government officials."
Since Syria's Baath Party was established in 1963, domestic Islamic movements have shifted between militancy and moderation. After years of quiet, a small group of Islamic militants, some of them refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, shot up an empty U.N. building in a wealthy Damascus neighborhood last April. The bizarre attack, which Dakhlallah described as a "byproduct of fundamentalism," killed two people. Two of the men arrested have been sentenced to death.
Salah Kuftaro, a Sunni cleric and son of the late grand mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kaftaro, preaches to 10,000 people who gather each Friday at the Son of Light Mosque in Damascus. Kuftaro runs the country's largest Islamic education and charitable foundation, and in the past three years, enrollment has jumped from 5,000 to 7,000 students.
"The revival we are witnessing has nothing to do with September 11, but the total failure of secular Arab governments," said Kuftaro, 47, a large, good-natured man who in daily life favors a suit and tie to religious robes. "This has forced our young people to look for alternatives."
Only a few years ago, Kuftaro acknowledged, such talk would likely have brought Syrian police to his spacious office in the foundation's gleaming marble headquarters. But in recent months, he has become more public in his calls for an "Islamic democracy" in Syria, modeled on the system in neighboring Turkey.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the group behind the 1982 uprising in the city of Hama that was brutally put down by government troops, appealed last year for its imprisoned members to be granted amnesty. The government declined the request but agreed to review individual cases. Hundreds of prisoners were released, almost all of them jailed for their alleged connection to Islamic movements, Western diplomats said. In addition, Kuftaro and others say that clerics have more leeway to discuss politics in the mosques, although the unwritten rule is that criticism must be restricted to the United States and Israel.
Sadiq Azm, a leading Syrian writer who has criticized Arab nationalism and political Islam for decades, said religion will inevitably exert more influence here as pressure builds for the government to reform a largely stagnant economy and closed political institutions. But Syria's Islamic community is fractured, he said, with opinions ranging from militant to "good-for-business Islam" that takes into account the rights of religious minorities.
"This is an evolution that Syria will go through," Azm said. "The question is, what role will it play? And will it be the moderate middle-class version?"
The profusion of head scarves in even the most upscale neighborhoods of Damascus is a sign of both piety and silent protest against the Alawites in power, those who wear them say. Shops along the Old City's alleys now display mannequin heads wrapped in scarves next to revealing lingerie.
"When I see all of these symbols, I see the people have left behind education, learning and progress," said Ghada Dassouky, 53, who along with a friend hosts weekly women-only meetings that offer eclectic interpretations of Islam. "I feel terror, really, because we are worrying about whether or not a woman can show her toes and the Americans are researching deep space. How far away are we?"
Rabab Kuzbari, 60, who has an economics degree from Damascus University, said she has worn a head scarf for two decades. On a recent day, a scarf with cheerful red and gray swirls tightly covered her head, not the conservative black one she favored years ago and that is most common on the streets today.
"It's only a symbol, not the center of my religious conviction," she said. "When I see all these head scarves today, it raises a big question mark for me about what is happening."
Here in Nasiriyah, a town of 7,000 people on a high plain rimmed by barren hills, winding, narrow lanes are lined with low houses of mud and cement. The twilight call of the muezzin floats into the chilly home of Fayyad, the writer who was detained last year.
Fayyad has degrees in pharmacology and theology and has published books ranging from a study of the American poet Ezra Pound to German religious scholars. But he made a name for himself a decade ago by challenging a conservative Sunni cleric, Sheik Mohammad Sayid Bouti , who has his own weekly television show in Syria. Fayyad's work has been banned for more than a decade in Syria.
In his columns last September, Fayyad criticized Abdul Halim Khaddam, the first vice president, for suggesting that Arab nationalist parties "harness Islamic beliefs" to improve their political standing. Fayyad followed up with a broadside against Ahmad Hassan, the longtime Syrian ambassador to Iran who was then information minister, calling him "a fundamentalist."
Plainclothes police agents arrested Fayyad at his pharmacy here a week later and took him to a jail in downtown Damascus. His blood pressure fell to perilously low levels, and he spent most of his 32-day detention in a hospital on the capital's outskirts.
During his time in jail, though, his columns appeared to have had an effect. Hassan was replaced in a cabinet shuffle, and when Fayyad was released, he was invited to dinner with Dakhlallah, the new information minister. He told Fayyad to consider him "a student" of his ideas. But Fayyad has not written since.
Syrian Islamic scholar preaches moderation
Mohammed Habash offers alternative to rising Islamic conservatism
By Nicholas Blanford
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
DAMASCUS: Islamic scholar Mohammed Habash faces a daunting task preaching a moderate brand of Islam in Syria, where conservative Islamic sentiment is on the rise. But after being denied entry to the U.S. on arriving in Washington last month, he says that his message of tolerance equally applies to the U.S. government. Although Habash had a valid entry visa issued by the American Embassy in Damascus, he was informed upon arrival at Dulles International Airport on Dec. 13 that according to new regulations all Syrians have to obtain permission from the U.S. secretary of state to visit the U.S. "The Americans are not making any distinction between (Islamic) conservatives and the path of renewal (moderates) which I follow," he told The Daily Star in an interview. "Unfortunately, they treat us all the same, as if we are all followers of Osama bin Laden." Habash, 44, director of the Center of Islamic Studies in Damascus, is leading a campaign of Islamic "renewal," encouraging Muslims to recognize ideas from the West, including secular systems of government, and reject what he calls the "monopoly of salvation," the belief that Islam is the only true religion. "We have to accept other religions," he said. "Islam has to confirm what came before (Judaism and Christianity) and not cancel them out. Also it is not wrong to absorb new ideas from the West and East." Habash, a member of the Syrian Parliament, is from the conservative tradition of Islam and was educated only in religious schools. By the age of 15, he had earned an international reputation for Koranic recitation. But his interpretation of Islam is anything but conservative. Women, he says, are permitted by Islam to receive the same level of education as men and to fully participate in public life, even as religious, political and business leaders. He has introduced legislation in the Syrian Parliament to improve the standard of religious preaching to counteract extremist sermons which help fuel radicalism. He advocates peaceful resistance to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, in contrast to some firebrand clerics in Syria's Sunni heartland who have encouraged young Muslims to join the insurgency.
Even the late Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria who was a mentor to Habash, a fellow moderate and the grandfather of his wife, released a statement condemning some of his protege's ideas when Habash was campaigning in Syria's 2003 parliamentary election. Habash was subsequently elected with the highest number of votes after the ruling Baath party candidates. In recent years, the Sunni heartland of Syria has witnessed a growth in conservative Islamist values, partly in reaction against poor economic opportunities. About 20 percent of the Syrian workforce is unemployed and 20 percent of the expanding population of 17 million falls below the poverty line. Continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence and U.S. Middle East policies, particularly the invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq, has further radicalized Muslims, many of whom feel their religion is under attack from the West.
"They are protecting themselves with Islam because other slogans (ideologies) have failed," said Sheikh Wehbi Zuleimi, a conservative Islamist cleric, referring to the Arab world's adoption of nationalist and socialist ideologies in the 1950s and 1960s. "It is a reaction to the flagrant European and American policies that challenge the existence of Islam and try to rid Islam from the region." But it is not just the military danger posed by the West that spurs Muslims into action, but also the spreading influence of Western ideas, such as globalization and secularism, which threaten to marginalize Islam, said Sadeq al-Azm, a Syrian professor of philosophy. "Fundamentalists believe this is the final confrontation," he said. "If the modernization of states continues like this what is there to prevent Islam from eventually becoming like Christianity in Europe? They feel that if they don't stand up now and draw a line, that's it." The internal debate among Muslims in Syria comes amid signs the government is slowly shedding its secular nature as Islam grows more influential.
"The government is on its way to abandoning secularism," Zubeidi said. "They raised this slogan (in the past) just to establish national unity ... but secularism was not accepted by the Syrians because we are very religious." The violent approach favored by the Islamists two decades ago during the confrontation between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood has been replaced by a more subtle "Gramshian" strategy, Al-Azm said, referring to the Italian communist Antonio Gramshi who advocated toppling capitalism through infiltrating institutions rather than a direct attack. Some analysts say the Islamist penetration of the machinery of the state is well under way. They point to the arrest of Nabil Fayyad, an intellectual who has written of the growing power of Islamists in Syria. They said his arrest by the intelligence services and month-long detention came at the urging of Islamist elements in the government. "Islamists are spreading like wildfire," said a Syrian human rights activist who asked not to be named. "People are rejecting the ideology of the Baath party but they are not rejecting Islam." Some Syrians fear that the intense pressure applied by the U.S. could lead to regime change in Damascus, paving the way for Islamist rule and the imposition of Islamic Sharia law. For Sheikh Zuleimi and other conservative Islamists, that outcome would be welcome. "We would like to live under Sharia law 100 percent. It's part of our ideology ... We want the application of Sharia in all Arab countries," he said. Habash says it is American policies that help fuel the growth of the Islamic militancy that U.S. troops are forced to confront in Iraq. "If I am watching television and see the U.S. agenda in Iraq ... how can I put people in prison for speaking out against it?" he said. Which makes his task of persuading Muslims to open up to the West all that much harder. "Believe me we are suffering a lot here for being friends of the West," he said.
Can Syria keep its Islamist genie in the bottle?
By Ibrahim Hamidi
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Islamism is growing in Syria, whether at the grassroots level of Damascene society or in the provinces of northern Syria. The ink has faded on the slogan: "We will annihilate the Muslim Brotherhood, lackeys of imperialism and Zionism," scribbled on a wall in the town of Murat al-Naaman, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold during the group's confrontation with the Syrian authorities in the early 1980's. New slogans now bear Islamist messages, and the number of mosques on both sides of highways crisscrossing Syrian cities and villages are not only increasing in number, but also in size and splendor.
If we venture into the depths of villages, individual stories show what has happened. In Orm al-Jawz, a village in an area that was also once a Muslim Brotherhood redoubt, Mohammed used to boast about being a communist, even an atheist. He defied local tradition, not unlike other rebellious youths in Syria who were searching for new tenets and values on which to build a future. He was not alone in this in his village, but was part of a group of young people who liked to provoke their elders. During Ramadan they would openly demonstrate they were not fasting by smoking cigarettes in broad daylight. However, today, 20 years on, Mohammed is a conservative who believes in upholding traditional values and who says: "Islam is the alternative." Where there was once a desire to chip away at the wall of traditional beliefs, there is now a return to religious fervor. The onetime rebel has recently taken to spending almost all his time in a newly built mosque that divides Orm al-Jawz into two. Mohammed's four grandchildren hardly ever leave the mosque and fast during Ramadan, in spite of their young age; two of the granddaughters, who are not yet 10, wear the hijab. Mohammed's transformation illustrates well what lies behind Syria's move away from a secular state and society.
How did this happen, and why? Several domestic and external factors coincided to push Syria in this direction. After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian government sought to encourage a moderate form of Islam, against the extremists. It encouraged the building of some 80,000 new mosques. It also established the Assad Institute for Memorizing the Koran in various cities and governorates, and over 22 higher-education institutions for teaching Islam. These are attended not only by Syrian university students but also by students from 60 other Arab and foreign countries. The government also encouraged the setting up of regional Sharia schools. In the governorate of Al-Jazeera, in Syria's northeast, it founded the Al-Khaznawi school; in Aleppo the Sheikh Ahmed Hassan and Sheikh Abu al-Qaaqaa schools; in Damascus the Abu al-Nour complex and the Sheikh Mohammed Said Ramadan Hassoun and Sheikh Mohammed Habash study circles. Also in Damascus, the government created the Sheika Munira al-Qaisi complex, named after a famous Damascene lady, in which about 25,000 girls are enrolled.
These religious institutions, which total 584 in number, used to provide health care and food assistance to the public, and 280 of them offered comprehensive daily services to about a million people - and to about two million during the holy month of Ramadan. They also offered public religious instruction, either through daily lessons or through Friday prayer sermons. In order to bolster its Muslim credentials, the regime also made life difficult for secular leftist groups, in order to uphold the Baath Party as the only organization worthy of that description in Syria. There are only two pulpits in the cities and the countryside: the mosque and government-run cultural centers and media. The public, therefore, was offered a simple choice: Islam or the official ideology. Youths began turning en masse to religious schools and mosques, both as a reaction against official policies and as a means of coming to grips with the economic and social problems besetting them. The annual population growth rate in Syria has dropped from around 3.4 percent a decade ago to around 2.4 percent today. However, those born during the population boom of two decades ago are the youths of today. Some 220,000 individuals are entering the labor market every year, and the government is incapable of providing work for them. According to official statistics, there are a million unemployed in Syria, about 500,000 of whom are registered at the government's employment bureaus. The danger, however, lies in the fact that 80 percent of these are between the ages of 15 and 24. What are these young people to do when their political horizons are limited to a single political doctrine? They will turn to religion, which, at least, offers an afterlife that all are waiting to enter. External regional and international factors, however, also contributed to bringing about the growth of Islamism in Syria, since during each of the past three decades major events helped further entrench Islamic dogma. The fight against the Muslim Brotherhood coincided with the onset of the Islamic revolution in Iran at the end of the 1970's, and, subsequently, the Syrian government allied itself with Tehran against an Iraqi regime with which, in theory, it shared the same secular nationalist Baathist doctrine. Later on, at the end of the 1980's, the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc, which supported the Syrian regime, collapsed. This not only weakened Syria's strategic alliances, but also helped undermine the credibility of socialism and its achievements. The end of communism, the failure of socialist regimes to offer solutions to the economic and social ills of their own societies, and the failure of powerful ruling parties to accomplish much externally or internally, coincided with the mounting successes of Islamic parties. The Syrian public, in particular youths, watched closely the achievements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the two Palestinian intifadas. This not only helped bolster Islam in Syrian society but also acceptance of suicide bombings as a legitimate means of jihad. The role played by Hizbullah in ousting Israel from Southern Lebanon also helped entrench a belief that "Islam is the solution."
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were terrorism in every sense of the word, but is this the opinion of ordinary Syrian citizens? That seems doubtful, since many youths, again, saw the attacks as proof that a small organization with limited means could face up to a superpower thanks to Islam. In stark contrast, to their minds Arab regimes that devote large portions of their budgets to defense have failed to achieve any victories against the U.S. or Israel. Events in Iraq have only reinforced such attitudes. Many can see that Saddam Hussein, before he was ousted, adopted Islam as an alternative slogan. More recently, former Baathists have allied themselves with extreme Islamist groups to fight the Americans. What was most astonishing, perhaps, was how widespread Islamism proved to be in Iraq, though the former Baath regime thought it had managed to impose a largely secular order on the country. The genie of Islamic extremism was released from its bottle. The question now is: Will the Syrian regime manage to keep its own Islamist genie in the bottle forever?
Ibrahim Hamidi is a journalist living in Damascus and an expert on Syrian affairs. He wrote this article for THE DAILY STAR
"Iraqs alleged WMD were not taken to Syria," reports Al-Jazira today.
An intelligence report on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction is to be released next month. The theory that the weapons may have been transported to other countries is also addressed in the final report.
American intelligence personnel and U.S. congressional officials have admitted that no hard evidence has been found to support the U.S.'s claims of there being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, hence invalidating the justification of invading Iraq.
Furthermore, the American administration's public declarations that the weapons may have been smuggled to Jordan, Syria or any other country have not been supported by any proof of evidence.
Intelligence and the Congress officials said they have not seen any information which indicated that WMD's or significant amounts of components and equipment were transferred out of Iraq.
President Bush and top-ranking officials within his administration have used the existence of WMD in Iraq as the main justification for going to war. They then raised the theory that the weapons had been transferred to another country.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated time and again, "It's possible that WMD's did exist, but were transferred, in whole or in part, to one or more other countries. We see that theory put forward," a theory backed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
However the Iraq Survey Group's chief, Charles Duelfer told a Senate panel last October that it remained unclear whether banned weapons could have been moved from Iraq.
"What I can tell you is that I believe we know a lot of materials left Iraq and went to Syria. There was certainly a lot of traffic across the border points," he said. "But whether in fact in any of these trucks there was WMD-related materials, I cannot say."
An official with the Congress backed Duelfer's statement saying suggestions that weapons or components were sent from Iraq were simply based on speculation stemming from uncorroborated information.
This interesting report by UPI's Intelligence Correspondent, Richard Sale, gives a very different perspective on Syria. As usual he saves the qualifying statements for the end. There is certainly an intimidation campaign going on, as one intelligence officer put it.
01/11/05 -- New York, NY (UPI) -- Bush administration hard-liners have been considering launching selected military strikes at insurgent training camps in Syria and border-crossing points used by Islamist guerrillas to enter Iraq in an effort to bolster security for the upcoming elections, according to former and current administration officials.
Pressure for some form of military action is also coming from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, these sources said.
Some former and serving U.S. intelligence officials who have usually been opposed to any expansion of U.S. military activities in the region are expressing support for such strikes.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official told United Press International, "I don't usually find myself in sympathy with the Bush neo-cons, but I think there is enough fire under this smoke to justify such action."
Referring to the escalating attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq by Iraqi insurgents, he added, "Syria is complicit in the (anti-U.S.) insurgency up to its eyeballs."
"Syria is the No. 1 crossing point" for guerrillas entering Iraq," Gary Gambill, editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, said. He added that Damascus "does nothing about it."
An administration official said Syria has "camps in which Syrians are training Iraqis for the insurgency and others where Iraqis are training Syrians for the same purpose" which could be hit by U.S. air strikes. Gal Luft, a former Israeli military official with ties to Israeli and U.S. intelligence, said, "I have heard of the same thing about the camps."
Recently, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that senior Baath Party officials from Iraq are operating from Syria where they provide financing and direction to the cells of Iraqi insurgents killing Americans, sparking new discussions within the administration about possible measures against Syria.
"There are all sorts of discussions going on, the White House, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs," said former CIA counterterrorism chief, Vince Cannistraro.
He felt the talk of strikes "is part of a general plan of intimidation." The White House did not return phone calls. U.S. officials told United Press International that money, direction, weapons and personnel are flowing into Iraq from Syria, ending up in Iraqi cities such as Iskanderiya, Baqouba, Latafiya and Fallujah.
Damascus is also home to associates of a top insurgency commander now affiliated with al-Qaida, Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, who is responsible for many major suicide bombing attacks in Iraq, U.S. officials said.
The presence of a Zarqawi branch in Damascus, discovered last summer, was said to have acted as a major spur in uniting France and the United States in supporting U.N. Resolution 1559 that demanded Syria withdraw from Lebanon and that elections be held in April 2005, U.S. officials said.
Gambill charged that a major Zarqawi deputy lives in Damascus. In addition to Syria being used as a rear area for insurgents, it is a key center of finance for former Saddam Hussein officials who are leading the insurgency, thanks to stashes of Iraqi cash that could run as high as $3 billion, which is all in the Syrian banking system,
according for former and serving administration officials.
There are also allegedly "many millions of dollars" from Palestinian groups flowing into Syria that are also being used to help finance anti-American guerrilla groups in Iraq, these sources said.
The Bush administration has applied increasing pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to halt the activities of militant groups inside Syria, and to arrest and extradite former Saddam Hussein officials who are the leading financiers, according to several U.S. government sources.
So far there has been no positive response, they said. What especially worries U.S. former and serving intelligence analysts is the seeming weakness of Assad to act against these groups. According to these sources, Assad is "well aware of the U.S. Army on its border to the east," and does not want to antagonize the United States, in the words of one.
In fact, Bashar's inner circle of key advisers consists of reformist, "smart, streetwise young technocrats" who are urging Bashar to yield to U.S. pressure and begin to shut down some of the anti-U.S. activity, one U.S. official said.
But Bashar is also surrounded by "the old guard" -- rogue members of the ruling circle, "various people who are making millions and millions of dollars" by allowing former Baath officials to shelter in Syria, this source said.
"If something goes wrong, they can pack up and go and live in Geneva," he said.
Because of the rogue elements, after the technocrats (who are also pro-reform) give Bashar their views, they often find themselves visited the next day by hard-line members of Syria's Mukhabarat, or secret police, who tell them to keep their mouths shut, according to this official.
"Bashar is trapped," this U.S. government official said. "He's the prisoner of Zenda." Luft agreed, saying, "The Mukhabarat and some of the old guard are known to be pressuring Bashar's senior confidents to ignore U.S. demands."
One former senior CIA official, usually an administration critic, said, "We should send a cruise missile into south-side Damascus and blow the Mukharbarat headquarters off the map. We should first make clear to them that they are the target."
But are the hawks likely to get their strikes? Former CIA Syria expert, Martha Kessler doesn't think so. "I don't think the administration can afford to destabilize another country in the region," she said.
Kessler pointed out that Syria has tried, often in vain, to cooperate with the United States, only to be either snubbed or ignored. According to Kesssler, Syria offered to station U.S. forces on its soil before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Syrians have also opened their intelligence books that identify assets in Europe, including front companies, to the administration in an attempt to help track down al-Qaida.
But Kessler said a chief reason for not moving against Damascus is that any strikes would "destabilize Lebanon," where the Lebanese Hezbollah movement awaits orders from Iran before launching retaliations against Israeli attacks.
"Damascus is not the heartbeat of this Iraqi insurgent movement," she said.
However, one administration official said, "We have got one hell of a problem."
Another interesting report from Reuters on "Female Hit Squads" in Iraq being coordinated by Iraqis in Syria also adds fat to the fire.
Female hit-squads on the loose 17jan05
A WOMAN pulled a pistol on Iraq's defence minister in his office -- but then broke down in tears in a failed assassination plot.
Hazim al-Shaalan said the woman, 40, had drawn the gun, loaded with poisoned bullets, during a meeting with him more than a week ago.
She had said she wanted to pass on some important security information to Mr Shaalan, the al-Hayat newspaper reported.
The woman, an Arab from Kirkuk, was the wife of a man jailed over a Baghdad car bombing. Mr Shaalan said the plan had been hatched by a Syria-based Iraqi group led by an Iraqi Baath party official. A half brother of Saddam Hussein was also involved, he said. Mr Shaalan said the woman had revealed a wider plot involving a group of 50 women chosen for terrorism and assassinations in Iraq.
They were wives or relatives of people jailed or killed by US-led forces. Mr Shaalan said they had been trained in Syria under the supervision of Iraqi terrorist elements.
The women had then been sent to different Iraqi ministries and state institutions, he said. Mr Shaalan has repeatedly accused Syria and Iran of backing rebels in Iraq. Damascus and Tehran deny the accusations.
How good is US and Iraqi evidence that Syria is and important center for coordinating the Iraqi resistance? On the surface, it looks very weak; although, anything we say about the resistance must be cautious. Everyone seems to be shooting in the dark.
I just had drinks with Scott Wilson, the excellent Washington Post journalist who is in town to do a story on Islamism in Syria. He is just back from spending much of December in Mosul and Baghdad and has as good a bead on what is going on in Iraq as anyone. He was quite frank to say that he doesn’t think Iraqi claims that Syria along with ex-Bathists in Syria are directing the action in Iraq holds water. He said so much of the proof rests on satellite coordinates for Syria found in one phone in Faluja. As Scott said, “I have Syrian coordinates in my satellite phone. What does that mean? Not much.”
To base such sweeping claims on Syrian coordinates found in one phone is irresponsible. So many of the top Iraqis in Syria, he also pointed out, came before the invasion. Is their money really running the thing? As Wilson pointed out, the real story is that thousands of regular Iraqis are picking up guns and shooting at Americans and Iraqi military and no one really knows how it all comes together. He said his time in Mosul following the collapse of Faluja was scary. Americans couldn’t stop anywhere in the Arab section of the city for more than 10 minutes before the resistance closed in on them and began shooting. Everyone was scared. In such an environment it is easy to blame things on outsiders.
The Iraqis are blaming everything on outsiders these days, just as the Lebanese used to during their civil war. I shared a taxi from Beirut to Damascus the other day with a very nice Iraqi gentleman who is the president of some association of judges. He had been at a meeting in Beirut and was returning to Baghdad by way of the Damascus airport. When I asked him about the Syrian roll in the resistance, he assured me it was central. His proof was to relate how Iraqis in their long and illustrious history had never been suicide bombers and had never engaged in such senseless killing in the name of Islam. Thus, for him, the killing in Iraq had to be committed and directed by foreigners who were importing their violent and twisted ways. This is the Iraqi equivalent to the widespread Syrian notion that Mosad or the Americans must be behind the killing of Iraqi intellectuals and its middle class, just as the Lebanese civil war was always blamed on the interests of foreign countries. The result is the same: "It can't be us."
Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara on Thursday rejected media misleading news against Syria over Iraq saying they are baseless. "Syria is interested in Iraq's future and security because it is part of Syria's security and what some media is saying of misinformation is fiction as it is baseless."
Even King Abdullah of Jordan thinks Syria working to stabalize the situation by backing the American plan and elections. His now famous Crescent of Shiism speach, which echoed Bush's "Evil Axis" metaphore is proof of this. The US plan for Iraq will result in a Shi'a takeover of Iraq - that may not have been the original "intent", but it will certainly be the result, especially as more Sunni parties retract their support for the elections. Abdullah thinks this is what Syria wants and by extension we can only conclude that he believes Syria is supporting American in this. He does not believe that Syria is trying to fire up the Sunni resistance so it can take over Iraq - that would not add up to a Shiite crescent.
It is quite clear that Syria is interested in stabilizing Iraq ever since Allawi's first visit, which went very well.
As Rhonda Roumani and Lina Sinjab wrote in the most January issue of Syria Today: "There have been few arrests on the frontier in recent months - with most of these smugglers, not foreign fighters." Syria has built its sand wall along the border to keep cars from crossing. It has also set up control and observation centers at regular intervals along the border. The American and Iraqis have done the same on their side. The Americans also have very sophisticated satallite and other monitoring technology. They are not catching people.
The whole story seems like it has been royally tarted up and overspun. Of course there is also the non-existent Iraqi photo, which I wrote about in my last entry.
In an Associated Press article picked up by the Jerusalem Post -- "Iraqi militant admits ties with Iran, Syria," a new line of non-proof is being spun.
A militant leader suspected of involvement in beheadings and bloody attacks in Iraq confessed to Iraqi authorities his group's links with Iran and Syria, according to footage aired by the US-based and funded Alhurra television.
Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, the leader of Jaish Muhammad, Arabic for Muhammad's Army, was shown in the program aired in Iraq Friday, nearly two months after his capture in Fallujah, the guerrilla stronghold west of Baghdad.
The Arabic-language station said the Iraq Ministry of Defense provided the tape, filmed on Dec. 24. The circumstances of his purported confession were unclear.
Yasseen, a former colonel in Saddam Hussein's army, said two former military officers were sent "to Iran in April or May, where they met a number of Iranian intelligence officials."
He said Iranian officials provided money, weapons "and as far as I know even car bombs" for the group. He said among the officials they met in Iran was its supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Yasseen also said he got permission from Saddam, while the former dictator was in hiding after his ouster during the US led invasion in 2003, to cross into Syria and meet a Syrian intelligence officer to ask for money and weapons. He didn't say if the request was granted.
This report, used to trumpet the connections between Syria and Iraq, actually does just the opposite. It demonstrates that there is no evidence of Syrian support for Jaish Muhammad. Let’s recap what the story does say. During the invasion of Faluja, the Americans captured the leader of Jaish Muhammad, believed to be one of the fiercest and most important of the Iraqi resistance groups. They interrogate him for two months. What do they get? He says that in 2003 Saddam authorized the group to send a mission to Syria seeking aid. Did Syria respond? Yasseen doesn’t know!
Moayad Yasseen was captured at the end of 2004, he had a year to get a response from the Syrians. He was clearly in a position to know whether they answered and whether other groups were getting Syrian support. Why don't the Americans supply his answers? There can be only two reasons. 1. He said the Syrians didn't respond and he had no knowledge of Syrian support. Or. 2. The US doesn’t want to embarrass the Syrians by airing the confession on al-Hurra TV.
The second possibility doesn’t make any sense. The Americans have been doing everything they can to cast blame on Syria. So have the Iraqis.
This broadcast can only make one conclude that the US cannot get hard evidence of Syrian plotting with resistance leaders in Iraq during 2004. Nevertheless the Syrian Reform Party and others have been using this interview as proof of Syrian complicity with Jaiysh Muhammad. This is very deceptive and it is surprising that Western journalists and Defense Department types allow it to go unquestioned.
Then there is Deputy Secretary Armitage's interview with Egyptian TV on his talks with the Syrians, which doesn't offer anything new.
MR. ELSETOUCHI: What did you get from him [Bashar]?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Oh, I didn't say I got anything from him, nor did
he get anything from me, other than an exchange of views. But I think it's
quite clear that the U.S. view is that Syria needs to do more on the
question of foreign regime elements who are using Syria as a base from which
to have operations into Iraq. I think I made it very clear that the whole
international community is watching to see that UN Security Council
Resolution 1559 is fulfilled and, among other things, it calls for an
elimination of foreign presence in Lebanon.
And finally, I hope that both of us would take advantage of the opportunity
presented by Sunday's elections, Palestinian elections, and move forward on
the peace process.
MR. ELSETOUCHI: But what the Syrians are saying is that you don't have
enough evidence or you don't provide us with accurate information. So what's
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: We had that discussion. In some cases, they're
right. In some cases, we don't have exact locations.
But our view is that they know these people, they've known them from the
previous regime, and with a good effort, they can find them. And we're
counting on Syria to help bring these fellows to justice and to stop their
MR. ELSETOUCHI: Is what you're saying now is that they know where they are
and they know them, but they allow them operate from Syria?
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yes. I don't know that they know where each and
every one are, but in general, they know where the foreign regime elements
are, and they have to crack down on them.
We're expecting them to do this and we're counting on them to do this and
we'll see if they do.
MR. ELSETOUCHI: What did they say, what do they tell you when --
DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I don't think it's up to me to give away
the internal discussions we had, but I made our points clear, and I think
they understand them, that they've done some things recently, and it has to
be acknowledged. They've made some improvements on the border; they've made
more barbed wire to make it a little more difficult to get across the
But we do believe that former regime elements are existing in Syria, and
that the Syrians know that they're there and they have to be stopped.
So what does this all add up to? The US does not know the particulars about Iraqis in Syria. It is swinging with it's eyes closed. Armitage admitted that the US does not have hard evidence about a number of Iraqi's thought to be leading the opposition from Syria.
I add the following Salon article kindly sent to me by Jefferson Gray of the University or Virginia: entitled:
Syria at the crossroads By Ferry Biedermann
Jan. 2, 2005 | The giant mobile-phone company ads that have replaced
the grandiose posters of the late president Hafez Assad in Damascus
cannot conceal the crumbling behind the country's newly commercialized
façade. Yet in its foreign policy Syria seems to be as assertive as
ever. Its ambiguous attitude toward the insurgency in Iraq has angered
Washington. Its meddling in Lebanon has drawn criticism even from
European sympathizers such as France. And both Europe and the United
States are irritated by Syria's oldest hobby, stoking the fires of
Palestinian militancy, at a time when the death of Yasser Arafat and
exhaustion with the intifada may mean another chance for a peace deal
between Israel and the Palestinians.
Many foreign diplomats and some Syrian analysts say the government of
Hafez's son Bashar can no longer afford those policies. And there are
reasons to believe that the Syrian leader himself is trying to move
away from his nation's traditional role as a bastion of Arab militancy.
Yet during a recent visit to Damascus, a wide range of observers --
including a senior Palestinian leader, Iraqi politicians and local
activists -- attested that the policies are continuing. Definitive
proof is hard to come by here, in one of the most closed and
controlling regimes in the world. Lebanon, which Damascus regards as
its own private fiefdom, is the only place where Syria makes no attempt
to hide its hand. But Syria still seems to be playing the games that
under Hafez Assad made it famous for "punching above its weight" in the
The problem for Damascus, diplomats say, is that times have changed
since 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- not to mention that the son
is just not as adept as the father.
At the same time, however, Damascus is also reaching out to the West
and its archenemy Israel. The young Assad is clearly interested in
kick-starting negotiations with Israel, and not only through the
official channels. Seated in the lobby of a posh Damascus hotel, one
highly regarded academic told me, on condition of anonymity, that he
was involved in setting up "second track" negotiations with the
Israelis, based on the model of the Oslo talks that led to the historic
1993 agreement between the Rabin government and Arafat's PLO. The man,
who is known to be reliable, provided names, dates and places and said
the feelers were sanctioned at the very highest level.
Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations special coordinator for the
Middle East peace process who was a key player in the Oslo talks,
believes that Assad is sincerely interested not only in making peace
with Israel but also in bringing Syria closer to the West. In the
latest issue of Bitterlemons International, a Middle East round table,
he wrote of "a very warm, creative and constructive" meeting with
Assad. "I came away convinced that the president is genuinely
interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to
reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the
international community," Roed-Larsen wrote. "All the indications are
that Syria has recognized the signs of the times, and is trying to make
some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a
broader redefinition of its role in the region."
Debate rages about Assad's motivations. Syria is clearly feeling heat
from Washington and Europe, and the academic involved in the
second-track talks admitted that Assad's peace feelers to Israel might
be partly a P.R. ploy. But, he said, Assad is genuinely interested in
making peace with Israel.
There can be no doubt that the United States, and now the United
Nations, are putting pressure on Syria. Neoconservatives in the Bush
administration who once boasted of making a "left turn" to Damascus
after defeating Iraq and Iran continue to talk ominously about dealing
with Syria. Although few expect the United States to actually invade
either Syria or Iran now that its Iraq adventure has soured, the
presence of American troops next door has clearly gotten Syria's
attention. A few months ago the U.S. adopted the Syria Accountability
Act, which imposed sanctions on Syria for allegedly seeking weapons of
mass destruction, a charge Syria denies. And the U.N. Security Council
in September agreed on Resolution 1559, which called on Syria to
withdraw from Lebanon and to stop supporting that country's Hezbollah
movement. To Syria's horror, France supported the resolution. But
Damascus is far more worried about the United States.
Last week President Bush and one of his officials, Deputy Secretary of
State Richard Armitage, demanded that Syria stop what they said was its
support for the insurgency in Iraq. "We have sent messages to the
Syrians in the past and will continue to do so. We have tools at our
disposal, a variety of tools, ranging from diplomatic tools to economic
pressure. Nothing's taken off the table," Bush said at a news
conference. He is said to be reviewing options that include freezing
the assets of high-ranking Syrian government officials. Armitage told
the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar that the administration would not let
the subject of Resolution 1559 rest, either. "I hope that our relations
with Syria do not worsen further, but it's entirely in the hands of
Damascus," he said. "Syria's failure to accept U.N. Security Council
Resolution 1559 is a defiance of the international community."
On Sunday, Armitage offered guarded praise for Syria's cooperation
after meeting with Assad and his foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa.
"Syria has made some real improvements in recent months on border
security. But we all need to do more, particularly on the question of
former regime elements participating in activities in Iraq, going back
and forth from Syria," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Syria has tried to compensate for some of the American pressure by
turning toward Europe. After nine years of glacial negotiations,
Damascus this year signed an "association agreement" with the European
Union. It was held up at the last moment when the EU insisted that its
new rules on human rights and weapons of mass destruction be
incorporated. But, says Frank Hesske, the EU's ambassador to Damascus,
the agreement "certainly does not" mean that the Syrians can play off
the EU against the United States.
The U.S. sanctions by themselves don't harm Syria's economy much.
Trade between the two countries is relatively minor. But the sanctions
do make it a lot harder to attract international investment, including
capital from European companies, which is desperately needed to revive
Syria's antiquated economy, says Hesske. Unable to provide jobs for
young people entering the labor market and faced with slowing growth,
Syria's economy may grind to a halt in two years' time. Partly as a
result, social unrest -- including renewed stirrings of Islamic
fundamentalism -- is growing. Fundamentalism was stomped out after
Assad launched a brutal assault on the city of Hama in 1982, a
stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing up to 20,000 people.
Political repression is still heavy, even though the government is now
steadily releasing small numbers of political prisoners. There have
been no more signs of a thaw after the authorities came down hard on a
nascent pro-democracy movement that sprang up after Bashar Assad took
over in 2000.
The seemingly logical way to avoid a crisis would be to give in to the
international pressure, get out of Lebanon, and stop meddling in Iraq
and Palestine. But for several reasons Syria may find it difficult to
do that. First of all, the regime survives by the grace of payoffs to
clans and factions, according to several analysts who wish to remain
anonymous. The money supposedly comes from Syria's involvement in
Lebanon. Then there is the traditional role that Syria has played as a
champion of Arab nationalism. It will not be easy for the government to
let go of those ambitions and maintain its credibility domestically,
among a public that has turned increasingly anti-Western after the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. And lastly there is a persistent feeling that the
good old ways still work.
Part of the riddle is the position of Bashar Assad. The
British-educated ophthalmologist inherited the presidency upon his
father's death, but many question the extent to which he is in control.
Some observers speak of competing factions within the governing clique,
which consists mainly of the extended Assad family, their minority
Alawite sect, Christian allies and a sprinkling of outsiders. One of
the factions is said to advocate business as usual, despite the 9/11
attacks and the presence of American troops in neighboring Iraq.
Business as usual in Syria means that the country will keep up its
support for hard-liners and militants wherever it can, in order to
The continuing ambiguity about Syria's role in Iraq may fit this
pattern. In Hiri, a desolate village about halfway along the
400-mile-long border, the Syrian security service, the Mukhabarat,
seems to be keeping an eye on any suspicious strangers. Journalists who
are not on a press tour organized by the country's Ministry of
Information are told to leave and then escorted for more than 45
minutes through the nearby town of Abu Qamal, just to make sure they're
really gone. But the regime's vigilance against people sneaking across
the border to join the Iraqi insurgents, or bring them money or
supplies, is said to be less sharp.
Indeed, as Syrian officials keep saying, the border is long and
difficult to patrol. Near Hiri, the Syrians have built an earthen ramp
to prevent cars from crossing, but everybody agrees that people get
through elsewhere. The tribes and families in Syria are the same as on
the Iraqi side, and people are used to moving back and forth. A sheik
of the large Duleimi clan in Abu Qamal said that he was in Iraq during
the war and that he knows that some people have since crossed to join
their family members in their fight against the Americans.
The United States appears to be worried less about such individual
crossings and much more about the possibility that the Syrian
government may either be turning a blind eye to Iraqi insurgents or be
actively assisting them. After initially complaining about the porous
border, the United States has shifted its attention to the presence in
Syria of members of the former Iraqi regime and its Baath party and
their alleged role in funding and supporting the insurgency.
The country officially hosts some 45,000 Iraqis, but wildly inflated
figures of up to a million refugees also circulate. One Iraqi Baathist
who has been in Damascus for some 30 years, a refugee from Saddam
Hussein, not an associate, is Mahdi al-Obeidi. "There are many people
here from the regime," said Obeidi, who styles himself a representative
of the "original Baath party, from before Saddam." In his shabby office
in Damascus, he claimed to have met with many new arrivals. He does not
make a distinction between those who have been "Saddam's men" and
others. Now is Iraq's hour of need, and everybody should unite to fight
the Americans, Obeidi said. "Even if I only have one dime left, I would
give it to the resistance," he declared. Most Iraqis who are in Syria
feel that way, he asserted, so it should not come as a surprise that
they try to support the "freedom fighters." It is no secret that the
Syrians are in "total sympathy with the resistance," Obeidi claimed.
Sadly, he added, the government has not done much to help.
On the surface, it seems that the claim is correct, at least since the
capture of Saddam Hussein about a year ago. Mahmoud Mohammed al Ghasi,
also known as Sheik Qa'aqa, was a fiery preacher until the invasion of
Iraq. Bearded and dressed as an Afghan veteran in a combination of
fatigues and traditional garb, he urged the faithful to oppose American
designs in the region. After the invasion he was told to tone it down.
Now he looks like a businessman, dressed in a blazer with a cropped
beard, and he has given up preaching in the local mosque. "The
government does not have a problem with me," maintained Qa'aqa, seated
behind his desk in his office in Aleppo. "I think some officials just
became worried because I attracted too many people."
One disappointed former associate who preferred to remain unnamed said
that he and a group of some 300 core supporters left Qa'aqa almost a
year ago because the sheik "turned out to be a fraud." He said that
before the war, Qa'aqa had called for a holy war against the Americans
if they invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, Qa'aqa made a U-turn.
"A lot of kids came to talk to him about going to Iraq and he swore
again and again that there is no jihad in Iraq." Qa'aqa's former
associate is closely watched by the Mukhabarat, and he has been
forbidden to meet with other former followers of the sheik. "They do
not want us to organize," he said. Nevertheless, he claimed that he and
others like him had "very good contacts" among the insurgents in Iraq
and that it was no problem to cross the border.
There is disagreement in Syria about what the government knows about
such supposed ties and what it is doing about it. One advisor to the
foreign ministry called it "inconceivable" that the government would
allow, let alone condone, support for the Iraqi insurgents. "Those
people may go and fight, be trained, learn all kinds of things, and
come back to make trouble," said Riad Daoudi, arguing that the
insurgency in Iraq is not in Syria's interest.
A prominent human rights lawyer, Anwar Al Bounni, agreed -- up to a
point. He said that the government was arresting fighters who returned
from Iraq, but not because it wanted the American vision of a
democratic Iraq to succeed. At the beginning of December he was visited
in his office in Damascus by one man who had been held for four months
after crossing back to Syria. He told Al Bounni that at least 50 former
fighters were languishing in the same jail. The lawyer thought that
there must be many more elsewhere, and said that the government has
indeed clamped down on some of the people who were calling for a jihad
in Iraq. In Hama, where fundamentalism is reviving after the elder
Assad's massacre, 16 preachers who had called on their followers to go
to Iraq were arrested in September, the lawyer said. This was done, he
claimed, not because the authorities wanted to stop the flow of
fighters but because they do not want such fighters to be "outside
Al Bounni said the government has no interest in a stable Iraq. "They
worry about Iraq being a really democratic and free country." This
presumably would set a bad example for Syria's own population. Another
analyst who has insight into the working of the government, slightly
adjusted that picture. Syria may still play a "passive" role in
allowing fighters and financial support to cross into Iraq, he said.
But the government would be willing to stop that "in exchange for a
role" in the affairs of its neighbor. He called it the Americans'
greatest failure that they have not made such an offer until now.
Syria's relationship with the Palestinians may face a similar problem.
Syria simply does not want to be the last country to make peace with
Israel. Its negotiating position over the Israeli-occupied Golan
Heights would suffer if the Palestinians cut a deal first, which now
seems possible, if only faintly. But both the Israeli government and
the Bush administration have made clear that they are in no hurry to
let Syria in on peace talks and thus evade international pressure over
its other actions. In mid-December, Bush said, "Assad needs to wait:
first peace between Israel and Palestine, and then we'll see what to do
So Syria may once again revert to its "spoiler" role in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The country hosts some of Palestinian
militant groups' leaders and offices, and senior Palestinian leaders
also say Damascus is trying to influence factions in the Palestinian
territories. This is shaping up as a concern in the run-up to the
elections on Jan. 9 for a new chairman of the Palestinian Authority to
replace Yasser Arafat. The new Palestinian leadership is worried about
the possibility that renewed fighting could disrupt the elections and
scupper their plans to restore a measure of stability and even to
restart negotiations with Israel. Over the last couple of weeks,
fighting in Gaza between the militants and the army once again
escalated after a period of relative calm in the wake of Arafat's
In Damascus, a veteran Palestinian leader, Naif Hawatmeh, earlier this
month said that Syria indirectly supports some of the militant factions
inside Fatah, the main PLO faction, through the Lebanese Hezbollah
movement. "Everybody knows Syria and Iran support Hezbollah. Well,
Hezbollah supports some of the groups in the Palestinian territories,
not only the Islamic ones but also some inside Fatah such as the Al
Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades," said Hawatmeh, who is the leader of the
Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and has been based in
Damascus for decades.
Persistent Israeli claims to the same effect may have been
exaggerated, but even Palestinian sources inside the West Bank, from
all the important factions, agree that Hezbollah is involved, and Syria
is blamed for instructing some factions to serve its own needs.
The Palestinian Islamic groups are also a concern for Mahmoud Abbas,
the new PLO leader and the leading candidate in the Palestinian
elections. He visited Damascus in December and met with the political
leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. A Hamas source said that the visit
yielded little agreement and that the elections for the leadership of
the Palestinian Authority were not even discussed. Meshaal rejected a
Hamas cease-fire. After the meeting between Abbas and Meshaal, Hamas
increased its attacks on Israeli targets in and around the Gaza strip.
At a press conference in Damascus -- after a meeting between President
Assad and the Palestinian leadership, led by Abbas -- Syria's foreign
minister, Farouk Shara'a, indicated where Syria's interests lay. He
said that coordination between the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon over
peace moves was a "demand" of all the Arab states. Abbas also said he
wanted coordination but did not make any firm commitments.
Syria is trying hard to prove that it is needed in the regional
equation, that it cannot be ignored. In Damascus, critics of the
government agree that Assad's government, even though it is reaching
out to the rest of the world, is up to its old tricks. Where they
differ is on the question of whether the regime will be prepared to
abandon its practices at a price, or whether it never will because its
very survival is bound up with them.
About the writer: Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Israel.
Israel won't lose by talking to Syria
By Terje Roed-Larsen
Wednesday, January 05, 2005: Daily Star
Terje Roed-Larsen, one of the architects of the Oslo channel who served as the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process from 1993-97, and again since 1999, is making a last effort to convice Israelis and Americans to take Syrian peace offers seriously. He is leaving his post at the end of the year to become president of the International Peace Academy in New York. This commentary first appeared in bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter.
In retrospect, historians will undoubtedly view the autumn of 2004 as a crucial juncture in the annals of Middle East peace diplomacy. The question is, Will they see this moment as a new beginning in the region, or as a missed opportunity?
A window of potential opportunity has opened up on the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace process. Syrian President Bashar Assad has stretched out a hand toward Israel. This outstretched hand should be grabbed, not refused.
During my recent visit to Damascus, Assad told me very clearly: Syria is willing to go back to peace negotiations with Israel without any preconditions and within the framework of the relevant Security Council resolutions and the fundamental principle of land for peace.
I am well aware that many in Israel are very skeptical as regards the sincerity of Assad's overtures. Many kinds of pressure characterize the region at the moment, and some observers have linked Assad's initiative with those changing dynamics. This may not be wrong - but I believe that the motivating factors behind Assad's outstretched hand are far less important than the fact that Syria is indeed reaching out to Israel. At the very least, I think, the offer should be explored. What does Israel stand to lose? If Assad were bluffing, Israel would not lose anything by exploring the sincerity of his initiative, and by calling the bluff.
My meeting with Assad took place in a very warm, creative and constructive atmosphere, including a lengthy private discussion. I came away convinced that the president is genuinely interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the international community. All the indications are that Syria has recognized the signs of the times and is trying to make some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a broader redefinition of its role in the region.
My impression was furthered in the other meetings I had in Damascus, where I also talked with Foreign
Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, and Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah. Two days after my departure, Dakhlallah reiterated the president's offer publicly in a press conference in Damascus: Syria was ready to negotiate with Israel, without any preconditions.
Since my initial public remarks about Assad's offer, a debate has raged in Israel and beyond regarding the potential and interest behind the Syrian peace overtures and the prospects for progress. I have had frank discussions with a number of key Israeli leaders and officials. Both Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Jordanian ruler, King Abdullah II, have offered to mediate between the two parties. Israel has so far refrained from taking up either offer, or from exploring the Syrian initiative. And I think this needs to be done before what may be a fleeting moment passes.
There are those in Israel who think that in the present situation, with promising prospects for movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track and with imminent implementation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan in Gaza and the northern West Bank, Israel should not engage in a parallel second track of the peace process. Of course, there are also some who would like to keep the entire Golan Heights, period. However, without the willingness to embrace the principle of land for peace, there are naturally few prospects for lasting peace in the region.
As regards the engagement on two parallel tracks of the peace process, I do not see a problem here. On the contrary, I would argue that engagement on two parallel tracks could actually consolidate the momentum toward peace. Progress on one track would fuel the overall momentum, and thus propel the other track forward, too. The recent talks between the Palestinian leadership and the Syrian government, and the agreement reached to coordinate their respective negotiating positions, only serve to illustrate and underline this point.
I am not arguing that the realization of a comprehensive peace deal in the region is imminent, or will be easy. But clearly, movement on the Israeli-Syrian track of the peace process will also prompt movement on the Israeli-Lebanese track. Perhaps it cannot be done at once - but momentum toward the realization of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East has already been created, also aided by the promising prospects on the Israeli-Palestinian track. And this momentum should be explored and if possible, exploited.
Syria's hand is outstretched toward Israel now. It should be grabbed. The opportunity is now, and may soon pass. And history will judge these days in retrospect for being full of missed opportunities, or for being the first days of a new beginning in the Middle East.
I think they can, and should, be remembered as the latter.
The Israeli press has been peppered with articles and opinion pieces that pour cold water either on Asad's sincerity or the notion that Israel could actually benefit from giving away the Golan. It is this last reason which seems to hold sway over Israeli opinion. Why give away such a wonderful hunk of territory, that actually causes Israel no hassles, for nothing - or as one Israeli journalist put it: "for an Israeli flag flying over one building in Damascus?" Syria is too week to get Israel's attention.
This leads many Israeli's to argue Asad must do a Saddat and fly into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and engage in a major charm offensive to melt the hardened hearts of his opponents. Of course no one suggests that he do a 1973 and try to hurt Israel before undertaking the charm campaign. But of course, Syria does not have the power for such a show of force and demand of credibility. This is Syria's real problem. It is not clear that charm will melt Sharon's heart, and Syria has no force. Without major American assistance and pressure, Syria will not retrieve the Golan.
Syria is quite eager to open up peace negotiations under almost any terms before Lebanon slips from its control. Once that happens, Syria will be that much less persuasive in the region and immeasurably less able to "punch above its weight."
I am in Beirut writing this and have met with many of my "neocon" Lebanese friends, who are ecstatic about Junblat's rebirth as a Syrian fighter. The Christians are in a state of extreme excitement about the number of Muslims coming over to the "Lebanese" national view.
Of course all eyes are on Hariri now, to see how his ever sentence may signal the slightest shift toward the opposition. They are convinced the Syrians are on the run and it is only a matter of time before the Shiites fall into line. Of course no one has a very clear concept of how this will actually take place.
Many were overjoyed by King Abdullah's "Evil Shiite Crescent" speech which sent Nasrallah into paroxysms of apology, insisting that the Shiites are only good Arabs trying to do their duty with loyalty and Arouba. They have no imperial plans, etc. Christians saw in these apologetic expressions the Shiites reflexive minority complex, something Christians can relate to. It gave them hope that Shiites will wake up to the realization that playing the consociational democracy game in the Lebanese fashion is ultimately in their best interest. Make deals with Christians because the Sunni will always see you as dangerous heretics, like Abdullah does.
To clear up the Khaddam photo misinformation, here are a few specifics. The Reform Party of Syria, Farid Ghadry's US-based, anti regime group, reported a few days ago that the Iraqi and American troops had confiscated photos from an insurgent which showed leading mujahidiin with Syria's VP Khaddam. As it so often does, the Syrian Reform Party was shooting from the hip and confused everyone with false information or at least half-truths, making it very hard to know what to believe from them.
Thanks to Nicholas Blandford of the Christian Science Monitor, who recently interviewed Iraqi offials in Damascus, we have gotten some real facts. The always smart and right-on N. Blandford writes:
By the way, on the photographs of a Syrian official, it wasn't Khaddam that was supposed to be in the picture with the Iraqi insurgent.
Also General Petraeus' role in the oil for electricity deal was somewhat overblown, perhaps because of the "King David" image that surrounded Petraeus' nation-building efforts in Mosul at the time. Petraeus himself told me the story when I had some one-on-one time with him last June while we were touring the Taji military base north of Baghdad where the Iraqi troops are trained. Apparently the idea arose between Syrians and Iraqis in Mosul. The Iraqis approached Petraeus and he relayed the request to Paul Bremer in Baghdad. It was Bremer who gave the green light for the deal to proceed (off his own back or w/ the approval of the State Dept/Pentagon I don't know. But interestingly, the deal went ahead at the same time Rumsfeld was spouting all manner of threats against Syria in the aftermath of the war.) There were no Iraqi ministers to make such a deal at the time because Iraq was being governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The arrangement was brokered between the Americans in Baghdad and Khaddam in Damascus, so I don't see why that should suggest the VeeP has nefarious contacts with Iraqis. Lots of Syrians have contacts with Iraqis - bizmen and intelligence officials included.
Also on the pics, the Iraqi ambassador (who gave me this info) explained that PM Allawi is hoping the Syrians will see the light and crack down on the Iraqi Baathists in Damascus w/o having to embarass their neighbor by publishing the photos. The ambassador said that Iraq hopes to play the role of interlocutor between the Arab world and the US, instead of Saudi Arabia or Jordan. He believes that Syria needs to be encouraged to cooperate (rather than threatened) by economic/trade incentives.
Now that I have finished cursing the Reform Party for being untrustworthy spinners, let me quote their latest info! They claim that Armitage, who is in Syria today, will lay out 8 demnads, which are:
1) End all Emergency Laws that have been in place inside Syria over the last 41 years.
2) Free permanently all Prisoners of Conscience and political prisoners
3) Free the Syrian press from all censorship
4) Institute immediately political reforms
5) Institute immediately economic reforms
6) Rupture all relations with Iran
7) Announce that the Shaba farms are Syrian owned to resolve all outstanding issues with Hezbollah.
8) The United States delivered to the Syrian regime a list of 55 Saddamists living in Syria that it wants delivered to the US Armed Forces or expulsed from Syria.
THE RPS adds: "The Bush administration gave the Syrians until the end of April to implement these requests. This is the first time that the United States interferes in Syria's own internal affairs for the benefit of helping democratic civil societies and the rule of law in Syria."
We will see if any of this is correct. If it is, it will mean a real showdown between Washington and Damascus. It is hard to believe Washington is truly contemplating regime-change for Syria and not just using it as a threat. No one here seems to believe that anything good could come of instability in Syria. There are no white princes or democratic masses who could save the day. Evidently the Oxford Analytica group has predicted as one of their New Year events that Bashar al-Asad will resign and the Syria People will rise up. This made me laugh. There is no opposition here.
John C.K. Daly and Martin Sieff of UPI write that worried Syrian leaders are worried that the United States is moving towards a military confrontation aimed at toppling their Baathist government, or giving Israel the go-ahead to make such an attempt. Thus "they are pulling more troops out of Lebanon and holding urgent talks with Iran and the Palestine Liberation Organization."
Syrian leaders fear that the Bush administration, facing a grimly escalating guerrilla insurgency in Iraq in the run-up to the Jan. 30 elections there for a new National Assembly, might seek to outflank and dishearten the insurgents by widening the conflict to strike at alleged insurgent bases across the border in Syria.
Syrian officials are anxiously monitoring the appointment process of the second Bush administration for clues as to whether neo-conservative hawks such as David Wurmser, the most influential Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and John Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, will get promoted to even more powerful positions, or whether incoming secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chooses officials regarded as more moderate or pragmatic, like current U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, for key slots. Negroponte and Burns have both been mentioned as possible contenders for deputy secretary of state.
Wurmser has been mentioned as a possible contender for the key position of assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. He has been a vocal proponent for many years for "dismembering" both Iraq and Syria as "failed" Baathist states. And in Syrian eyes, Iraq has already effectively been dismembered, and they fear they are going to be next on the list.
The interim Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has dramatically ratcheted up its rhetoric against Syria in recent days. On Dec. 22, Hassan Allawi, Iraq's newly appointed ambassador to Damascus, told The Times of London that Baghdad now had evidence that senior Syrian officials had been giving significant assistance to the insurgents in his country. And only a few days before that, Gen. George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, accused the Syrian government of "not going after the big fish" among the Iraqi Baathists who some U.S. and Iraqi officials claim are now running the insurgency from Damascus.
Ironically, Assad's government has cooperated closely with U.S. intelligence over the past three years in passing on much valuable intelligence about al-Qaida operations in the region. But Syrian policymakers fear that for U.S. decision-makers, blaming them for the Iraq mess has become the only game in town.