Saturday, March 26, 2005

Can Syria Survive the Lebanon Debacle?

Can Syria survive the Lebanon Debacle?

Syria still hopes for a deal with the opposition in Lebanon, according to Muhammad Shuqayr, of al-Hayat. Under the title: “The Syrian Loyalists do not see a Solution without Syrian - American Negotiations,” Shuqayr explained that Syria’s loyalists in Lebanon are insisting on a government of national unity as a pretext for delaying the May elections.

The pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon is trying to consolidate its position and staunch the flow of parliamentary deputies out of its ranks. Syria does not believe that its position in Lebanon is untenable; rather, it sees its present control of the parliament as its first line of defense.

If the opposition refuses to enter into serious negotiations with the present pro-Syrian government, then elections will be delayed. The Syrians insist that the local struggle for control of the Lebanese government is but a mirror of the larger tug of war over Lebanon between Syria and the US. “The US is now of the opinion that Syria should just give up the ghost in Lebanon,” claimed one Syrian loyalist. “Washington assumes that Syria will act as a charitable foundation to organize the May elections without demanding anything in return or any price for its good deeds.”

Bashar has told the Americans on a number of occasions that Syria is not a charitable foundation; it expects something in return for its concessions. Damascus continues to insist on a dialogue with Washington as surely as its loyalists in Lebanon insist on a dialogue with the opposition. This is the meaning of the Nassrallah-Sfeir talks and the Jumblatt-Karami talks.

What the Syrians want is the formation of a national unity government that will ultimately agree on the selection of a president to replace Lahoud. If they don’t get it, they will delay the elections and deepen the present crises. At the very least, Damascus and its Lebanese loyalists calculate, they can paralyze government and freeze the political process, which will lead in turn to further chaos and costs. Who will the Lebanese people blame for this? Damascus believes it has the stronger hand and can paint the opposition as unreasonable, unwilling to compromise, and, ultimately, as too dependent on Washington and Paris if it continues to refuse a deal.

Damascus is counting on this pressure and its control over the interim government and election process to convince Washington to come to terms. If the government crisis persists, Lebanon’s economy may collapse. Only a week ago the head of the Central Bank said he would not be surprised to see the collapse of the pound as foreign currency reserves ran out.

Is Damascus’ hope for a deal with Washington realistic given the enmity between Bush and Bashar?

Not likely, although, much will depend on the position of France. President Chirac is really in charge of the Western position. Without a military solution to the Lebanese problem, Washington is confined to multilateral politics. The only real stick it possesses will come from future UN resolutions and the willingness of the European powers to place economic pressure on Syria. That is one reason why the Fitzgerald report recently delivered by the UN was so important to Washington. By including a section on the history of the crisis and the deterioration of relations between Hariri and Bashar that preceded the Prime Minister’s assassination, the authors of the report sought to establish the motive – one that points to Syria. So far, that is the most damning part of the opposition’s case against Syria.

The other day, I spoke with a member of the Baath Party and prominent analyst here in Damascus who told me that Syria and its supporters in the Lebanese parliament could still win a majority in the May elections.

Other analysts here, who have good contacts in Lebanon, no longer believe it is possible for Syria to maintain its authority in Beirut. They recognize that the Lebanese have undergone a true revolution of thought and that Syria’s position has been damaged beyond repair by the Hariri murder. Not even Hizbullah can save Syria in Lebanon now, they suggest. The Sunnis have really gone over to the Christian and Druze side. Damascus can still hope to pick off a handful of Christian and Sunni deputies, but not enough to assure success in the elections and preserve its command of parliament.

But if they cannot win the elections, they can delay them. Several well placed Syrian friends have explained that officials in Syria are convinced that Washington is out to get them one way or the other. “Ultimately, the US will go after the president,” they insist. Thus Syria has nothing to gain by a rapid withdrawal from Lebanon or by relinquishing what influence remains to it without a struggle. Better to delay and throw up as many obstacles in front of the enemy while Syria still has influence with the Lebanese Prime Minister and President, they argue, than to concede too much ground too rapidly. If Washington is going in for the kill, Syria must be serious about defense. It has nothing to lose.

Is this a reasonable assumption on Damascus’s part? Is George Bush intent on bringing down the house of Asad?

I think it is. Bashar has become the anti-Bush in the Middle East, despite his early intentions to be a reformer. He champions stability; Bush champions revolution. He champions authoritarianism, Bush democracy and elections. Bashar argues Levantine society is too tribal and religiously divided for radical experiments and large doses of freedom; Washington says anything is better than the status quo and the evil of Baathism. “Stuff happens,” but the end result will be a new Middle Eastern consensus, one that will end terrorism. The Greater Middle East is prepared for democracy and will prove liberal, Bush insists. Bashar insists that Bush’s polities will lead to the death of many Arabs, increased terrorism, increased instability, and the loss of more Arab land in Palestine. Bush increasingly sees Bashar as the problem, standing in the way of the fourth wave of democratization. Bashar says Bush is the problem.
There will be no compromise deals or true dialogue between Syria and the US so long as the neo-conservatives hold sway in the White House and Bashar refuses to insist on radical internal reform. Bashar’s miscalculations in Lebanon have done great harm to his position in the Arab world and perhaps, more importantly, at home.

Syria’s Baath leadership is correct to assume that sooner or later president Bush will embrace the notion of regime-change in Damascus. It is not Washington’s official position to date, but all signs suggest preparations are being made to adopt it down the road. New bills put to the house spearhead this change of policy by insisting on the “democratization” of Syria. They will work their way up the policy chain without significant opposition. Who in Washington will now defend Bashar?

Reformers here believe that Syria’s only winning strategy is to get out of Lebanon as quickly as possible, thereby reversing the increasing momentum of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon and the international community.

Most importantly, they argue, Bashar must jump start internal reform by calling the Baath Party Congress as soon as possible and insisting on real changes to each element of the party slogan – “Unity, Socialism, Freedom.” He can still exploit the crisis to his end, they suggest, if he openly appeals to the nation in this moment of challenge with a clear vision of reform and forward movement. The people will rally around him and a reform vision, many believe, because Syrians are extremely worried about their country’s present isolation. They feel unjustly attacked by the West. They blame the West and not Bashar for Syria’s present predicament. They are ready to sacrifice if they believe the president has a plan to see them through this onslaught.

Only by changing course can the present regime save itself, reformers argue. If Bashar continues to present himself as the anti-Bush, he will be isolated and eventually squashed. Four years is a long time, they insist, and Bashar will not be able to retrench and delay until the end of the second Bush term. Anyway, they ask, “will the next US president really be different?”

What are the chances of Bashar changing course and throwing his weight behind reform?

They don’t look good. Pessimists argue that Bashar has taken no strong initiatives in the past to suggest he might do so in the future. They point out that he has a track record of making blunders and misjudgments and will continue to do so in the future. He is a product of his education, etc. Dictators don’t learn.

I don’t believe this – at least, not the part about dictators being incapable of change. Dictators can learn and strike out in new directions. We have seen it many times. Saddat, Gorbachev, and Pinochet did it. Admittedly such dramatic reversals are not easy. The minority status of the Alawites makes it even more difficult for Bashar to liberalize. Syria is not Chile, where the erstwhile dictator and generals can retire to secure senate seats. Syria more closely resembles Egypt, where the dictator ended up dead. Even if Syria’s leaders didn’t end up dead, the fear of revenge is real. One only needs look at the present predicament of the Baathists in Iraq. Of course, Syria’s Baath government is very different than Iraq’s was. Some say there will not be revenge.

Most discouraging, perhaps, is to witness how the old guard is being brought back into Bashar’s circle, now that he is embattled. Vice President Khaddam went with Bashar to the Arab League. Mustafa Tlass, the recently replaced defense minister, was nominated recently to head a committee to investigate General Ali, head of the People’s Army, who recently called for the dismissal of the national leadership of the Baath Party.

When President al-Asad moved to extend the presidency of Emile Lahoud five months ago, he effectively shoved aside the old guard (see earlier post), who counseled against the move. It was a way for Bashar to consolidate his authority around his family members and his new group of foreign policy advisors. As I argued at the time, this was a mistake.

The president is now resurrecting the old guard. On the one hand, this may signal the beginning of a new consensus and an important reevaluation of his policies over the last months; on the other hand, it may just be a sign of his present weakness and need to bring all the pillars of the regime – past and present – back into the tent.

It is too early to tell how Bashar will respond to Syria’s failure in Lebanon. The reformers here are still counting on him to move decisively on domestic issues. They believe it is Syria’s best option for long term stability. The pessimists keep repeating, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Many believe that the chance of Bashar pushing for reform in the present atmosphere are very small indeed. Others say he never wanted reform in the first place. They believe that the chances of his surviving more than five years are slight.

Bush Administration Probes Syria's Future With Assad's Opposition

The following Post article is interesting for what it tells us about Washington's desire to turn up the psychological pressure on Syria. Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria has no authority in Syria. Murhaf Jouejati is right to say, "It's almost unheard-of in Syria."

The RPS has sent around an email note with the Post article. The add:

The reference in the article "Its membership is extremely thin and is not taken
seriously. It's almost unheard-of in Syria" has been quoted by a Syrian whose
father served as Syrian Ambassador to the United States under Hafez al-Assad.
Amb. Jouejati was known for fairness and intellect. His son has never talked to
RPS, probed RPS membership, or attempted to analyze our popularity inside Syria
as far as we know. All the same, the Syrian newspaper Tishreen two days ago ran
an interview that Ghadry gave an Israeli paper not long ago. Such stories are
part of the Syrian press' new policy of writing about the bad news as well as
the good. The EU invited Ghadry to address it as well.

Clearly France and Washington will turn up the heat. Washington knows very little about the internal workings of Syria, however, as I explain in an earlier post, From 1559 to Regime Change in Washington Think. The suggestion that the Syrian regime is about to collapse or Chirac's statement "that the Damascus government was unlikely to survive the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon," are either spin or pure ignorance. Probably the former.

Here is the post article:

Bush Administration Probes Syria's Future With Assad's Opposition
Washington Post
By Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler
March 26, 2005

The Bush administration is reaching out to the Syrian opposition because of growing concerns that unrest in Lebanon could spill over and suddenly destabilize Syria, which borders four countries pivotal to U.S. Middle East policy -- Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, U.S. and Syrian sources said.

In an interview, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States is talking to "as many people as we possibly can" about the situation in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, to ensure that Washington is prepared in the event of yet another abrupt political upheaval.

"What we're trying to do is to assess the situation so that nobody is blindsided, because events are moving so fast and in such unpredictable directions that it is only prudent at this point to know what's going on," Rice told Washington Post editors and reporters, citing "the possibility for what I often call discontinuous events, meaning that you were expecting them to go along like this and all of a sudden they go off in this direction, in periods of change like this. So we're going to look at all the possibilities and talk to as many people as we possibly can."

A meeting Thursday, hosted by new State Department "democracy czar" Elizabeth Cheney, brought together senior administration officials from Vice President Cheney's office, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and about a dozen prominent Syrian Americans, including political activists, community leaders, academics and an opposition group, a senior State Department official said.

The opposition group comes from the Syria Reform Party, a small U.S.-based Syrian organization often compared to the Iraqi National Congress led by former exile Ahmed Chalabi. The INC, which led the campaign to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, had widespread U.S. financial and political support from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, as well as Congress.

U.S. officials, however, yesterday denied that the meeting was intended to coordinate efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

"That would be a monumental distortion," a senior State Department official said. "But it was a discussion about supporting reform and change in the region and specifically Syria -- and how we can help that and work with people in the region and Syria to support that process."

The U.S. outreach is a direct result of President Bush's discussion last month with French President Jacques Chirac, said U.S and European officials. Advising against any discussion of "regime change," Chirac told Bush that the Damascus government was unlikely to survive the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The French president predicted that free elections in Lebanon would in turn force change inside Syria, possibly unraveling Assad's government, U.S. sources said.

Since that Feb. 21 meeting, the Bush administration has begun looking at possible political options in Syria, said analysts familiar with the U.S. thinking. "They're taking seriously that a consequence of getting out of Lebanon will be the collapse of the Assad regime, and they're looking around for alternatives," said Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council under Bush.

The Syrian Americans who attended the meeting urged the administration to take tentative steps to pressure Damascus, such as having Bush call for greater freedoms and release of political prisoners, said Farid Ghadry, president of the Syrian Reform Party.

The delegation also sought support for lawsuits in U.S. courts against Syrian officials engaged in human rights abuses, an option available under the Alien Tort Claims Act, Ghadry said. The 1789 law grants jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts over "any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."

Ghadry said the Syrian opposition was encouraged by the "open and constructive" meeting, which was attended by key players in the administration's democracy policy such as John Hannah from Cheney's office, Robert Danin from the National Security Council and the Pentagon's David Schenker.

"They wanted to hear from us how they can help in extending the message of freedom and democracy in Syria," said Ghadry, who left his homeland 30 years ago, when he was 10, and formed his party after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "They listened and took a lot of notes. We felt from the responses that they understand these are important issues."

Some U.S. analysts and other Syrian Americans warned that the Syrian Reform Party and its allies are unrepresentative and too small to have any impact.

"Its membership is extremely thin and is not taken seriously. It's almost unheard-of in Syria," said Murhaf Jouejati, director of George Washington University's Middle East Studies Program.

On Lebanon, Rice said the United States is waiting to hear recommendations from U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen on how to support spring elections there. "The main thing is just to help the Lebanese opposition and others, the entire Lebanese political space [and] people to get organized so that they can have a competitive, free and fair election," she said.

"I would suspect that if the U.N. comes back and says [do election] monitoring, people will be very supportive of that," Rice added. "Perhaps if there's need for nongovernmental organizations to do training or the kind of things that have been done in other places, I'm quite sure that people would be prepared to do that."

Friday, March 25, 2005

UN Fitzgerald Report Damns Syria

The Fitzgerald report of the UN is damning. Warren Hoge of the New York Times quotes the following bits from the United Nations report on the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri:
U.N. Cites Syria as Factor in Lebanese Assassination

Published: March 25, 2005

The mission said it had been told by a number of people close to Mr. Hariri that he had reported that in his last meeting with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the Syrian leader had threatened him with physical harm if he continued his campaign to assert Lebanese independence from Syria. The report said the Syrians had refused to discuss the meeting with the mission's investigators.

"It is clear that the assassination took place in a political and security context marked by an acute polarization around the Syrian influence in Lebanon and a failure of the Lebanese state to provide adequate protection for its citizens," it said....

The report said the explosion had been caused by a ton of TNT, detonated most likely above ground.

It said Mr. Hariri was unanimously described to investigators as the most important figure in Lebanese public life and his assassination was therefore an indictment of the poor protection offered by Lebanese security services. It said the security services ignored threats on the life of Mr. Hariri and other political figures. In what it called a case of "stark negligence," it noted that Mr. Hariri's security detail was cut to 8 people from 40 after he left office.

The report provided a breakdown of the security offices and said that, contrary to the assurances of its leaders, the Syrian services played a commanding role in the management of security affairs in Lebanon.

In a section detailing repeated errors and breakdowns in policing, the report said the investigation was deeply flawed, noting that the crime scene was not properly managed; the crater created by the bomb was allowed to fill with water from a broken main, destroying evidence; people were permitted to move freely in and out of the crime scene and remove objects; and vehicles involved in the blast were removed, preventing proper ballistic analysis.

It's your turn to pull out, Syria tells US: Syria's ambassador to Washington, in an attempt to underline that Syria is not the only occupation force in the region, said on Wednesday he hoped the United States and Israel would follow his country's example and withdraw from Iraq.

Husni Mubarak says Syria will announce its pullout timetable shortly

The BBC reports on the state of media reforms and how the new permissiveness cannot be turned back in Hoping for media freedom in Syria. Despire Syrian government promises of even greater reform, however, censorship is still widespread. (Not of this blog, however)

George Thomas of CBN quotes me at some length in his article, Losing His Grip: Syrian President Struggles to Retain Power

Bashar al-Assad is the public face of the Syrian regime. But how much control the 39-year-old has over his country has always remained a mystery.

The question of Assad's grip on Syria has dogged him ever since he took over from his father, the late president Hafez Assad.

U.S. intelligence believes that since taking power shortly after his father's death in 2000, President Bashar al-Assad has been an ineffective leader. The reality is that the generals and the secret service are in total control of the country.

Five years later, most experts agree that the young Assad still lacks the killer instincts that his father was once famous for. But the question of control has taken on greater importance today, in light of the unfolding events in the region.

Like most Syria-watchers, Joshua Landis, an American professor living in Damascus, believes that authority in Syria is increasingly turning into a family affair.

Landis said, “The Assad family is very much in control, and what we have seen over the last four months is a consolidation of power within the family.”

But the family firepower has done little to shield the young and inexperienced leader from facing the toughest test of his presidency. Some speculate that the tensions between Lebanon and Syria have weakened the House of Assad and diminished Syria's influence in the region.

Landis stated, “It has always punched above its weight in the Middle East, in Lebanon, in Palestine issues; this is going to reduce its geo-strategic interest quite significantly.”

Those around him with entrenched agendas may view the crisis as a danger to their country and are liable to act against him. The daily images of tens of thousands of Lebanese people demanding freedom are not helping the man and his regime either.

Experts say some of that Lebanese "people power" could spill over into Syria.

There's no doubt that there's a large effect,” Landis remarked. “Every Syrian has been saying, 'Look, here are people overthrowing government.' There is a clear desire for reform in the country and many Syrians are dissatisfied.”

Syria's crumbling international support has left the country isolated. And experts warn that the impeding loss of Lebanon will be a huge economic loss for Syria. But supporters of the regime feel this whole ordeal is part of a U.S. conspiracy to blacken Syria's image around the world.

Edward Awabdeh is a dentist who lives on the west side of Damascus.

“I feel hurt, commented Awabdeh, “I feel the pressure is not fair on Syria and the Syrian government, and nothing is satisfying the West, and in particular, the U.S.”

The uprising in Lebanon and the uncertainty in Syria comes at a time when the Bush administration is pushing hard to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East.

The Syrian regime has been under fire for its occupation of Lebanon, its support for terrorism and its role in sending insurgents to fight American soldiers in Iraq.

And according to U.S. intelligence reports, Syria has an active chemical and biological weapons program, and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Some experts also believe that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction have a found a home in Syria or Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Bottom line: the U.S. regards Syria as a rogue state, and it has been put on notice.

Landis stated, “The Syrians are very aware that they have become a key particle in this greater Middle East. They know that there's a battle going on between reform in the Middle East and the status quo.”

All President al-Assad can do now is fight to preserve that status quo.

Landis said, “In many ways, President Assad is the anti-Bush in the region. Bush stands for revolution in the region, democracy and freedom, Assad says the Middle East is not ready for freedom. The Middle East is a complicated place, riven with tribal and sectarian differences. If we shake it, there's going to be war, there's going to violence, and there's going to be death.”

In Assad's world, America and Israel are the problem. In Bush's world, Syria is just one of several bad actors in the region.

Landis commented, “Bush says, no, revolution! We are going to kick down these doors of these regimes and we are going to bring democracy! That's the struggle going on.”

And so far, that struggle has yielded some dramatic changes across the political landscape of the Muslim world, changes that President Assad is keenly aware of.

Back on the streets of Damascus, Syrians watch daily as thousands of Lebanese continue to light the fuse of democracy. President Assad's main challenge now will be to keep those flames from spreading over into his country, while trying to get a better grip on Syria. The question is, can he do both and still survive?

Monday, March 21, 2005

Lebanon Upheaval, 2 Men's Fateful Clash

This article by MacFarquhar yesterday is a must read. It adds meat to the bones of the emerging story. Hariri was getting too big. The Lahoud extension was not about Lahoud, but about Hariri, who was already beginning to push for sovereignty - or Hariri's Lebanon. As one insider here told me a few weeks ago. The extension of Lahoud was made because if he had stepped down, Hariri was on his way to becoming the effective president of Lebanon. His ambitions were already clear. He wanted Lebanon for himself - or for the Lebanese, whichever suits your outlook.

It still doesn't explain how Syria hopes to retain influence. How hard is Syria willing to fight? How hard is the US willing to push back? There seems to be no possibility of deal making now between the US and Syria.

Behind Lebanon Upheaval, 2 Men's Fateful Clash
March 20, 2005
The assassination of Rafik Hariri eliminated the one man potentially able to pressure Syria to release its grip on Lebanon.

"Bashar told him, 'Lahoud is me,' " Mr. Jumblatt recalled in an interview. "Bashar told Hariri: 'If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon.' " He was referring to the French president, Jacques Chirac.

In the month since Mr. Hariri was assassinated, members of Lebanon's anti-Syrian opposition have pointed to that Aug. 26 encounter in Damascus as fateful. Although opposition leaders acknowledge that they lack firm evidence tying Syria or its Lebanese agents directly to Mr. Hariri's assassination, they link that day to his slaying on Feb. 14.

"To tell you the truth, when I heard him telling us those words, I knew that it was his condemnation of death," Mr. Jumblatt said. (Read it all here without subscription)

Juan Cole argues the opposite of MacFarquhar. He writes: "The question of who killed Hariri is highly significant and it is important not to let our prejudices affect our judgment.

To the state of the case so far: 1) It seems likely that Hariri was killed by a powerful car bomb that pulled alongside his vehicle. 2) It seems likely that he was assassinated by a Palestinian radical Muslim fundamentalist named Ahmed Tayseer Abu Adas, even if someone else was driving the car. Mixing planners and "muscle" is an al-Qaeda modus operandi. 3) If Abu Adas was behind it, he made his motivation clear. He was striking at what he considered a major agent of Saudi influence in the Middle East.

Karfan Exposes Syria: A New Voice in the Blogosphere

A new magical blog has appeared written by Karfan, whose name in Arabic means disgusted. It is called "Syria Exposed," but is really the rant of a very funny and painfully honest radical sensibility.

Many will criticize Karfan for being a self-hating Arab? Syrian? Alawi? Shawi? Or perhaps Third Worlder? In fact, Karfan does not have a self to hate. That is why he is so huggable. Or perhaps he has too many selves to hate properly and that is why we love him.

Anyone who has wrestled with identity or sought to resist the pull of monotheisim will find a companion in Karfan.

Saeid the Pessoptomist, the wonderfully tortured hero of Emile Habiby, has nothing on Karfan for his twisted and ultimately winning self-mockery. Perhaps the biggest difference between Saeid and Karfan is the anger.

Take a look at this passage: (Karfan is all the rage see Charles Freund at "Reason Magazine, or see Tony at Across the Bay.

Myth No.2: We have an Identity
Not a single person below 40 years old who lives in Syria has a national identity of whatever sort!! Maybe our dick-head fathers who invented the Arab Identity that we have been hammered with all our lives pretended to believe in it, but we never did, we never even bothered to pretend. WE, here, means the vast majority of the generations of Syria who were borne after the Fucking Happy Revolution in 1963. That is what they call it: A Revolution. Karfan always thought when he was growing up that "The Revolution of 8th of March" was something like the French Revolution, where masses of poor people rose against the awful King. Only later in his youth, he learned that there was no king and no masses; just a group of gangster army officers who forcefully stole the lead from a group of gangster entrepreneurs.

Karfan never met a single young Syrian who actually believed in Arabism, in term of believing that we should respect other citizens from what is called Arab World just for the sake that they are Arabs. People who live in Syria never respected each other to begin with for them to respect outsiders. We have been conditioned to say that we want to be united with Arab countries in the Gulf, but call Gulf Arabs Dickheads and have the lowest esteem towards them. We have been conditioned to say that we want to liberate Palestine, but call Palestinians Manayek (Assholes) and treat them like shit in Syria most of the time or speak behind their back as if they are invaders from another planets. Ever visited the Palestinian Camp in Latakia or Aleppo?

Karfan is an Alawi, but an ignorant one. Up until the end of high school, Karfan was a geek who never really knew what the hell is going around him. That is why Karfan's best friend at high school in Damascus was a Sunni Damascene geek, who also did not know what the hell is going around him. When at university, Karfan tried to hang out with the only person he knew from before, a Christian friend from Tartous. But this did not go beyond the first couple of months. Karfan soon noticed a definite pattern of friendship groups' formation taking shape around him: Alawis, Sunnis from Daraa, Druuz from Sueida, Sunnis from Damascus, Christians. Students from each group would only hang out with each other and rarely have anything to do with the others besides formality greetings. Soon after, he learned that this pattern is actually a mere reflection of the society in whole.

The part about university life made me laugh as it so true. I lived in the dormitories of the University of Damascus in 1981-1982. They were a microcosm of rural Syria. Damascenes live at home and don’t take rooms at the University City. Every room was a village, where sects and students from different regions rarely intersected. Druze gathered in the Druze rooms, Hamawis in the Hama rooms, Dairis in the Dair az-Zor rooms, and so on throughout the dormitory. When the odd “other” did drop in, the conversation was transformed. It became stiff, polite and filled with banalities. Only when the foreigners left would it return to the ribald and free discourse of companions. Somehow, as a total alien from another galaxy, I didn’t impinge on the planetary action of my floor and hallway. After a time, I was accepted in the various rooms, each its own little planet.

It continues:

We live all our lives with sub-national identities that range across the
spectrum of whatever religions, sects, tribes, and gangs that existed in that land. All real-believer Sunnis have an Islamic Identity that does not have the "Syria" word in it and only has the "Arab" word in it as long as that Arab = Sunni. All real-believer Christians, Alawis, Smaeelis, or Murshdis have a Christian, Alawi, Smaeeli, or Murshdi identities, whatever the fuck is that. Kurds, Druuz, Bedouins, and all other weirdo groups in this land have their own identities. All the rest, that is non-real-believers of all the above, have absolutely no sense of identity that exceeds the sense of identity of bears. You want a proof: go ask any embassy of first-world countries in Damascus how many immigration applications they have. Actually, Karfan thinks he owes bears an apology, they do have more sense of identity since they usually don't try to get out of their area nor out of their fur as Syrians try to do.
Or this:

Karfan is convinced that all those dickheads preaching about the Dying of Arabism in Syria, obviously never lived in Syria. Or as he puts it, never took a stinky microbus from a stinky half-built-house in Eishh Elwarar (an area that is the perfectly precise opposite to Beverly Hills) to a stinky governemental Istehlakya (An ingeniously fucked-up Syrian version of supermarkets, or like..., forget it, you need to see it in order to know what the hell that thing is) and wait for an hour to get a stinky 2kg of rice from a stinky employer yelling in your face. Now, only then tell me if they can find a trace of Arabism in people. They assumed that there was Arabism and they are making a living out of writing bullshit on how it is dying. In light of the absence of the above-mentioned inspirational experience, they base their wicked revelation on two wicked sources:

1. The writings of some Syrian dickheads intellectuals from the "Failure Generation", that is our fathers'. Those people want to give meaning to their failed lives in which they could not achieve what others achieved in even Burkina Faso, not mentioning Asia and elsewhere, so they write shit saying that they ""succeeded"" in: Leaving us the Legacy of Arabism. Yes in deed, they have left us that in books; we have tons of those for lucky falafel makers to wrap their sandwiches.

2. The interviewing of people in the streets by journalists and academics, which goes like this:

Happy western journalist: What identity do you believe in?

Miserable fucked Syrian: I believe in Arabic identity. Oh, and by the way, we ALL love our president.

What the fuck do you expect us to say we believe in?

"Kurds in Syria are joining the Baath party": what does Happy western academic 1 make of that? That Arabism is sooo convincing it would make people change their skin and blood.

"Kurds in Syria are revolting": what does Happy western academic 2 make of that? That Arabism is dying.

Karfan never met a single so called "Arab" that has a sense of unity or brotherhood with any other inhabitant of the other so called "Arab Countries". People who really want to fight Israelis are driven by religious animosity toward Jews not by Arabic enthusiasm. People who really want to unite with Gulf countries are driven by the wealth they think they can share not by Arabic enthusiasm. Didn't Iraqi soldiers rape and fuck every Kuwaiti woman and man while still ""saying"" that they were doing the glorious deed of Arabic Unification? (Unless they were taking that word literally). Still, Happy western journalists and academics ignored the deeds, looked at the words, and interpreted that Kuwaiti Fiesta as a product of Arabism. But wait, good news is coming: Arabism is now dying.

Who said that only Hollywood makes stories out of nothing?

It is true that we have been drummed up day and night continuously with Arabism shit, but the only successful result of this policy is that we became conditioned to speak about it. We are Arabs, we love Arabs, Arab World, Urubaa, Blablabla, Just wards! In reality, a person from Tunisia might as well be from Honolulu and it wouldn't make a damn difference for us. Syrians will tell you that they are Arab because:

1. It is the only thing we were taught to say we are. What else is to say? We never been taught or allowed to learn anything else, we never knew any other vocabularies to say.

2. It is the only thing we were allowed to say. We all know that we are just Sunnis, Alawis, Murshdees, Druuz, etc to the end of the glorious list, but we are not allowed to utter that. It is the existing truth that no one is permitted to voice.
We were not even taught or allowed to say that we are Syrians, as this would be considered a deviation from the Holy Message of our Holy Arab Homeland-to-come. Only recently under the rule of "King Lion the 2nd", God Bless His Dynasty, people were allowed to say that they are Syrians!!

This Arabism might have had its glorious days back at the time of the big idiot Shareef Hussein and his clueless sons, or back in the days of Naser Don Kichote, maybe. But for us, the Happy Generations of Syria who were borne after the Happy Revolution of 1963, it existed in words in books and is now dying in blogs. Poor Arabism!

What can one say to this, but “Arabism is Dieing!!!”

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Commander of People's Army demands End to Baath Pan Arab Leadership

New bits added at end (21 March 2005)
Andrew Tabler of Syria Today, just alterted me to this interesting new development announced by Ayman Abdulnour's "All for Syria," newsletter.

Syria: an investigation committee with leader of the people's armySyria, Politics, 3/19/2005

The Syrian "all for Syria" website said that the regional leadership of the Baath party has formed a committee to investigate the leader of the People's Army lt. gen. Ibrahim al-Ali. General al-Ali, during an interview on Syrian TV, called for the abrogation of the Baath Party Pan Arab national leadership of the Baath Party, which has two leaderships: the Regional and National.

The website said on Friday that "the Regional Leadership of the Baath Arab Socialist Party issued a decision to form an investigative committee to look into the remarks of Lt. gen. Ibrahim al-Ali (the commander of the people's army, who also has the rank of Minister, a title confered on the position when the Baath party assumed power in Syria in 1963). Al-Ali's statement was made during an interview on the popular TV show, "Madarat" ( circles), a program hosted by Nidal Zaghbour who is also a secretary for the Baath party group in the Syria Radio and TV station.

The news bulletin "all for Syria" added that the investigative committee is composed of the chairman of the party's military committee Lt. Gen. Mustafa Tlass, chairman of the party regional party preparatory committee Ahmad Dargham and the chairman of the regional organizational office Ghayyath Barakat.

Al-Ali, who is also member of the Party's central committee, not only demanded the abrogation of the party's pan Arab Leadership, but also accused the party's regional leadership of being frozen.

It is not clear whether this is important. The People's Army is some militia group of doubious importance. We shall see if this is a tempest in a tea pot or more.

Ibrahim Hamidi writes in Al-Hayat (20 March 2005) that the exicitement caused al-Ali is a sign of tension caused by the Lebanon debacle. He points out that the substance of al-Ali's remarks are nothing new. Information Minister Dakhlallah called for the elimination of the "National Leadership" of the Baath before he became minister. some thought his remarks would lead to his being removed as editor-in-chief of the Baath newspaper, his position at the time. Instead he was appointed Minister.

Evidently, the Baath Party confress is still due to be held in June, according to Hamidi's article. Party elections should begin "next month." As I reported in an earlier article, the Baath Party hold two tiers of free elections, each of which takes aproximately three weeks to complete, before the new Regional Baath Leadership Council is appointed from the winners, by the President.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Bashar Consolidates His Power

Hassan Fattah of the New York Times has an interesting article on how "Syria's Leader Moves to Consolidate His Power". He quotes yours truly.

"Bashar is learning that his father did things for a reason," says Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma and the Web site, who is spending 2005 in Damascus. "If you're going to be a dictator you're going to have to act like one."

Beginning last summer, analysts and diplomats here say, Mr. Assad purged the ranks of the military, sidelined prospective opponents and wrested control of foreign policy, especially the "Lebanon file," from his vice president.

It was clearly a gamble. When Mr. Assad decided last fall to push the Parliament of Lebanon to extend the term of Émile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian president, tensions rose. Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's longtime prime minister, quit and began to ally himself more solidly with the growing anti-Syrian opposition.

The assassination of Mr. Hariri last month produced a political explosion in Lebanon, with opposition forces blaming Syria and with governments throughout the Western and Arab worlds demanding that Syria withdraw its armed forces and intelligence officials from Lebanon.

Mr. Assad has promised to do so and has begun the withdrawal. Whether he will complete it and whether Syria will simply maintain its control through other means remain matters of keen debate here.

It is widely felt that maintaining control is central to his long-term survival, because of Lebanon's importance to Syria's economy. At the same time, there is no real challenge to Mr. Assad from the opposition.

In his five years in office he has worked to balance the security, military and business elements that make up the government against some new blood he has brought in. Though seen as weak, he has stood unchallenged against a fragmented opposition made up of intellectuals, Islamists and businessmen.

"The problem with the opposition is it's not changing with the times," said Riad al-Turk, widely regarded as the grandfather of the opposition movement. "Ultimately both sides are weak - the regime and the opposition. That means there's a vacuum and outside forces will enter to solve the problem."

More recently Mr. Assad's vulnerability became a point of discussion in Syrian back rooms, diplomats say, and that was cause for alarm.

So last July Mr. Assad reached for power. He began enforcing a longstanding age limit in the military, sending some 440 senior officers into retirement. He also managed to push out his army chief of staff, Gen. Imad Ali Aslan. He kept his confidants and young friends on the margins of the government, awaiting an entry, while actively playing the last remnants of the old guard against the new guard.

The result, many say, is a more inward-looking stance, less focused on the strategic implications of foreign policy. This is a change from his father, who viewed Syria as the most important frontline Arab state standing up to Israel.

"We are a generation that doesn't feel we have to justify what is happening in the entire Middle East," said one prominent government insider. "But there are still forces in Syria who don't understand what is happening in the world and don't know how to read the situation."

That misreading, analysts say, has led to numerous errors in judgment, epitomized by events in Lebanon beginning last August with the push to extend Mr. Lahoud's term as president.

In the latest crisis, the government here has shown signs of a siege mentality, cracking down on hard-won freedoms, censoring publications and communicating in words that kept much of the international community wondering what its real intentions are.

Behind the scenes, though, the crisis appears to have helped Mr. Assad frame his campaign more clearly.

In fact, despite his foot-dragging, the pullout - if it occurs - may end up being one of his less fraught decisions. Mr. Assad and his advisers are betting that Mr. Lahoud and Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite party nurtured by Syria, will oversee Syria's interests even after it withdraws. Meanwhile, Damascus will have staved off international sanctions, pinning responsibility for disarming Hezbollah on the United Nations.

In his speech announcing Syria's eventual pullout from Lebanon, Mr. Assad aimed a few barbs at his advisers, blaming them for some of his mistakes and pointedly announcing plans for a new regional conference of the governing Baath Party, which some analysts say signals the start of a shake-up.

In effect, Syrian analysts say, he must devise a split between the party and the government, cutting the party's decades-old cronyism and control over the government. But since the party is now his prime base of support, Mr. Assad must tread carefully and invent a new loyalty mechanism outside the party.

Ultimately, several prominent Syrians say, he must build his personal leadership and strengthen his rule enough to be ready for negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights.

"There's simply no more room for mistakes now," said Samir al-Taqi, a researcher at the Damascus Center for Strategic Studies.

Nicholas Blanford and others have also written an important study of the events surrounding Hariri's murder and the subsequent investigation, which all but places the blame at Syria's feet.

'Something was going to happen - it was going to be me or him'

Days before Rafik Hariri's assassination last month, the Lebanese politician had played host to Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, at his mansion in west Beirut. Mr Hariri had a warning for his old friend: the Syrians were after them. (Thanks to Paul at War in Context)

"He told me that in the next two weeks it was either going to be me or him," Mr Jumblatt told The Times. "Clearly he thought something was going to happen."

Something did. On February 14 Mr Hariri was killed when 600lb of explosives apparently buried in the road outside St George’s Hotel in Beirut blew up beneath his car.

The blast has echoed round the world. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have demonstrated in Beirut, the world has united in demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and the drive for democracy in the Middle East has been given a huge boost.

Syria has repeatedly protested its innocence and no irrefutable evidence of its involvement has yet emerged. But a reconstruction of events leading to Mr Hariri's murder, and interviews with at least a dozen Western, Lebanese and even Syrian officials, leave not the slightest doubt that the plot was hatched in Damascus. [complete article]

Riad al-Turk Interview: 11 March 2005

I interviewed Riad al-Turk in Homs 11 March 2005, the day after he protested with the Syrian opposition in central Damascus. Hassan al-Fattah and Katherine Zoeph of the New York Times and Salim Abraham of A.P. and I drove up to Homs to speak to him at his family house. Hassan organized the trip and he and Katherine were kind enough to invite me along. They wanted to find out how organized and strong the opposition is.

I was happy to get the chance to meet al-Turk, who is the Amin al-`Amm (Secretary General) of the Syrian Communist Party - Political Office. He has been a fixture in the enlightened opposition for 55 years and is respected for his fearlessness and humanity. Although he has spent over 20 years in prison, Riad is still hail and sharp at 75. His first stint in jail was under Adib Shishakli in 1954. He spent another 15 months in jail under Nasser in 1960, then under Assad from 1980 to 1998, and finally under Bashar for another year and three months. He has recently undergone heart surgery, but he still smokes on occasion and is surrounded by a loving wife, beautiful daughters and grandchildren. He greeted us in his comfortable apartment in the center of Homs.

When asked if the opposition in Syria is weak:

He was quite frank about admitting to the weakness of the opposition, but insisted that most people are against the government. "The terrorism of the Asad regime over the last three decades," he said, "has turned the country into a prison of the mute."

Since the late 1990s, the opposition has been growing. The government hasn’t been able to govern well. The weakness goes back to the government terrorism of the 1980s.

“Yes, the opposition is in a terrible state,” he confessed, “but the future is on the side of the opposition.”

“The flames are under the cinders. Can I tell you when the earthquake will hit? No. Look at Lebanon. Could anyone tell when that would break out? Our resistance and opposition began well before that in Lebanon. You never know. This mute society wants to get rid of this government. Look at what happened to Saddam Hussein. The army didn’t fight and the people wanted a divorce.”

When asked what proof there was that the people wanted a divorce in Syria, he said:

You will find in every city and town sadness and horror at what happened in the past. Go into the houses of the people and close the doors and ask them. They will laugh at the slogans of the regime.

Look at our incomes. The average household earns seven or eight thousand pounds ($140-$160) a month. These are the complaints of the people. The system doesn’t offer them the ability to realize their dreams and capabilities. Everyone hurt by the system is considered part of the opposition.

On Lebanon:

The Lebanese opposition is not over. The Hizbullah demonstration was made to intimidate the Lebanese. If Nasrallah was aware and smart, he would change his political direction. Hizbullah would know that the role of the Syrians has ended in spirit and not just in terms of the troops. Who is Nasrallah trying to show his muscle to? Jumblatt, Gemayel, the followers of Hariri? If so, it is because he wants civil war.

The Sunnis and Druze came out of the civil war in Lebanon the losers – that is why they accepted the Ta`if Accords. Syria is following the politics of a child. Taif no longer has any meaning. It is broken. Syria broke it when it didn’t pull out in 1992. Syria wanted to make Lebanon into a Syrian province.

The question of Lebanon is the essence of the regional problem and the Syrian internal problem. Syria made every side the loser so it could rule in Lebanon. The government has done the same here. The government lives on the divisions of the people. It must divide the people in order to stay in power.

We asked about the Damascus Spring – the brief opening that followed Bashar’s coming to power in 2000.

He denied there had been a spring. “It was always winter,” he joked. “And that was before the coming of the American winter.”

I asked about the protest organized by the opposition last Thursday, the day after the large pro-government protest, which brought several hundred thousand people onto the streets of Damascus.

He explained that the security did not allow the protesters to gather in one place in front of the Hijaz Rail Road Station, as they had planned. “That is why most observers believed there were only one or two hundred protesters,” he explained. “Instead they were divided in two groups behind the station and at Marje square. Also we were not very organized. Many people came late and dribbled in at different times.” He insisted that 1,000 people turned up over all. “The organs of the state were ordered to suppress the peaceful demonstration. They hit several of its leaders and tried to force one to announce into his microphone,"With my soul and blood, I sacrifice for you, Oh Asad."

He did not speak of "incredible brutality." But he did say that the regime has learned nothing and will collapse on its own from internal contradictions and trying to suppress the opposition rather than taking their demands seriously, lifting emergency rule, defending human rights, and opening the way to democracy.

He compared the Syrian regime to Saddam Hussein's, which learned nothing after the 1991 War. "Rather than fix its mistakes, it persisted in its bad ways and ultimately weakened the country such that the US invaded and conquered it without a real struggle. The Iraqi people and army, as we saw, did not stand by the regime," he explained. "This is why I blame Saddam, first and foremost for the American invasion. It is his duty to protect the nation." He warns that the same could happen in Syria, but does not believe that the US government really wants regime change in Damascus. "The question [of what America wants] is foggy," he said.

I asked him if he sides with George Bush and if he agrees with the American president that the Middle East is ready for democracy.

“Hey Brother,” he responded, “We were there before him. In 1979, we formed the tajummm`a al-dimuqrati or Democratic Association. Our main slogan was al-taghayyur al-demuqrati al-jazri or “radical democratic change.” But we were a sick organ because of the terrorism. The terrorism of the state killed any political instinct in the people, and we had no support from the West.

When Asad came to power in 1970, we opposed him. We didn’t side with the dictator. But the USSR was on Asad’s side because he promised to fulfill 242 (the UN resolution demanding “land for peace” as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict). Salah Jadid did not want 242. He wanted revolution. Asad’s coup came with international support.

We wanted democracy. We had had enough of military coups. We recreated our politics. We didn’t want the demagoguery – “unity, Arabism, and Baathism.” We face it with the demand for democracy. Asad played the conflict between the USSR and America and the Baath party of Asad was the winner.

We considered Asad and not the Muslim Brothers the #1 terrorist organization in the country. Israel and the US have weakened the opposition to a terrible point. We need to get rid of dictatorship.

The US protest against Hama was very small and completely inadequate. Now, Bush protests in a very loud voice.

I recognize that countries change their politics. At that time, the US was allied with the state and happy with the government. If the US administration were really democratic it would have condemned the government for Hama.

But if Bush attacks, I will hold Bashar the number one person responsible. All the same, democracy must come from the inside, not from traitors working with the outside, like Chalabi. Democracy cannot be brought on the back of a tank. The stick is used by those who want to provoke and not by those who wish good things for their people.”

“Yes I believe the Middle East is ready to go down the road toward democracy. We are ready to reject dictatorship. We agree with the Americans on this.”

“Nowhere in the Middle East has the acceptance of democracy been greater than in Syrian and Lebanon. The enlightened classes from the beginning of the last century studied in Europe and brought back ideas of democracy. We have been at this for a long time now.

I mentioned the recent free elections in the Engineers’ Syndicate, which resulted in only Sunni candidates being elected to leadership positions, despite a high percentage of Christians in the profession. Sunnis wouldn’t vote for Christians. I asked if Syria needed a confessional system as in Lebanon in order to protect minorities. (Riad al-Turk is a Kurd, so I was interested in his take on minority rights in a country where religious and ethnic identity is so paramount.

Confessionalism has gotten worse under this system. Yes, there is a reaction among Sunnis against Alawites. When the Alawites came to power they took many of the good jobs in the state and privileged their coreligionists.

In order to weaken the religious factor, we have to build a stronger sense of national identity, reinforce national instruction, and uphold the constitution.

A state of law must be our goal. Law treats everyone the same way – Sunnis and Alawis, the rich and the poor. Only the law can solve this problem.

If the regime fell, is there any power or organization that could rule? Is there an alternative?

The crisis is one of slaves and masters just as in ancient Rome. The problem was that when the slaves took over, they reproduced the same system and just became masters themselves. You can’t see the opposition here as you would in the West. No one is getting trained in the opposition while one party is in power. This regime of slaves can’t allow anything to grow.

Also, many of the opposition parties are selfish. The leaders look after their own interests and those of their party to the exclusion of the national interest or the opposition goals in general. This has come about for several reasons: one is because of the oppression of the government, the second because of the parties’ own corruption, (most of the opposition parties entered into the Progressive Front, becoming “loyal opposition” groups with seats in parliament and no followers.) and the third is because of the opposition’s inability to grow and change with the times. The country has changed over the years and their slogans are the same.

All the same, the government will collapse of its own contradictions and the future is on the side of the opposition. The state has no power to reform and open up to the people. Bashar has not learned the lesson of Iraq. He is like Saddam who had 11 years from 1991 to 2002 to change, but couldn’t. The US would not have entered Iraq if Saddam had been capable of change.

Why did the Byzantine and Persian empires collapse in front of the Arab invasions in the seventh century? Because they were weak and incapable of reform.

Before getting up to go, I had to ask Riad about his famous remark on being let out of jail this last time under Bashar. In his first interview after his release, he had said that the jails under Bashar were like a “five star hotel.” So I asked him, “Were they really five stars?”

He laughed and so did his daughters and son-in-law, who were sitting at the edge of the room. “Yes, it is true,” he said. The people who went to jail this last time had no clue how bad things were under Hafiz. The rooms were big with windows on both sides. We had mattresses and regular food.

During Hafiz’s time, the cells were two meters by two meters with no windows. You were beaten, there was nothing to read, and the food was miserable. You could hardly breath in the summer. I never saw the sun for 10 years. You can’t imagine what it was like.

Yes, it is five stars now. I got into a lot of trouble for that remark. All the opposition members wanted me to lie and say that it was hell, but it is important to tell the truth. I upset two organizations with that remark – the opposition and the jailers of Hafiz’s time.

So does that mean that Bashar is more human than his father?
No. No. Things are not better because Bashar is more human or wants to reform. It is because the regime is weak.

After thanking his family for tea and coffee and for being so kind to us, we started down the stairs. Riad insisted on showing us out to the street and making sure that we headed back in the right direction. I wanted to ask a few more questions that have always troubled me. How many prisoners are there left in Syria’s jails?
There are 300 to 500 hundred. Most are Muslim Brothers.

What about the Kurds?
Yes, there are Kurds too, but most have been let out.

Is that all?
Those are the ones that we can visit. Maybe there are 15,000 others unaccounted for.

Do you think most of those are dead?
Maybe. We don’t know.

How many were killed at Hama?
The Muslim Brothers said 48,000. But if you subtract the wounded, perhaps 15,000 to 20,000.

We thanked Riad again and set out on our return trip to Damascus. We didn’t arrive until 2:00 in the morning as our old Lada taxi overheated six or seven times and our two hour trip turned into a six hour odyssey. The driver was greatly embarrassed, but none of us seemed to mind, as we told stories and laughed most of the way back.

Several people have asked how badly the opposition protesters were intimidated:
Here are three articles from an-Nahar in Arabic sent to me by Tony at Across The Bay who wrote:

by the way, you didn't post any of this. You should. It involves Riyadh al-Turk and the opposition demos in Syria that were crushed by the youths and the security forces with incredible brutality beating up women and children.
(One - Two - and Three)

(Tony has complained bitterly for the last several days that I have hidden news about the opposition - supposedly because I have gone over to the dark side. Not so Tony, yee of little faith. Have patience man. I beat you to the punch and headed up to Homs to do some hard reporting – just needed time to write up the interview. I still have a life to attend to.)

The Reform Party of Syria - Farid Ghadry's group in the US, writes:
Peaceful Demonstration in Syria is Met with Beatings
Washington DC, March 10, 2005/RPS/ -- The Arab Human Rights Committee in Syria, led by Dr. Ammar Qurabi, called for Syrians to peacefully march to the Ministry of Justice today to object the lack of freedom and expression and to free prisoners of conscience in Syria.
Upon arrival to the Ministry of Justice, about 100 marchers were met by intelligence and security personnel who used sticks and batons to beat the marchers back and to disperse them. Some people sustained injuries.

Friday, March 18, 2005

False Reports of a Coup in Syria and Analysis

"I spent most of my day trying to deny that a coup had taken place in Syria." That is how one diplomat, accounted for himself yesterday when he came to dinner with a lively crowd. I was gratified he didn't bring his bullet-proof vest.

If anyone is interested in how a blogger's hoax can cause a stir, the Syrian coup alarm is a good starting place. Here is the email that greeted me as I began my morning rituals following my first thimble-full of Turkish coffee.

Hi everyone,
Some of you may know me, some of you may not. I'm Robert Mayer from the blog Publius Pundit. I am emailing you all because you are either inside Syria, within the region, or are experts on the region. There are reports on this side of the Atlantic that there has been a possible military coup in Syria, but it is not hitting the newswires. Can any of you confirm this and send me additional information and observations? Everyone here is watching and is desperate to know. This would be a big help if any of you can confirm or deny this. Thank you all,

Robert Mayer

The Lebanese Foundation for Peace is reporting that a military coup has swept Assad’s regime because of disputes over the withdrawal from Lebanon.

A Coup d’ Etat took place in Damascus late last night. Intelligence reports coming from within the Syrian Military Command indicate the following:

A rebellion split The Syrian Army in two factions.

Since yesterday , Damascus is under the de facto control of the Syrian Army, under the command of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, and supported by Syrian Intelligence General Rustom Ghazaleh, Syrian military General Ali Safi, and Firas Tlass son of former Minister of Defence, Mustafa Tlass. The group rebelled against the decision of President Bashar el Assad to withdraw from Lebanon and seized the Damascus military yesterday.

Around 3 am, Damascus time, the Syrian Air Force bombarded two military airfields around Damascus, the Air force base of Dumair, and the Air force base of Katana. Also, late night around 3 am, the Syrian Air force bombarded military positions of the Syrian Army west of the city of Homs.

President Bachar el Assad retreated secretly to the city of Aleppo where he is temporarily holding ground. He is massing special forces troops loyal to him and preparing himself to take back Damascus by force .

The Syrian President left in Damascus his brother in Law, Syrian Military Intelligence Chief General Assef Shawkat to negotiate a settlement with the dissidents. The situation within the Syrian military was very tense for a week and exploded yesterday. The dissident group took control of Damascus as they were very upset at the Lebanon withdrawal for they left behind a billion dollar industry.


I wrote back:

Dear Robert,
Someone has a rich imagination. All is normal here as far as I can tell. Sunny spring day and everyone is bustling about happily. One diplomat just emailed about what he should wear to dinner tonight - casual or formal? Didn't suggest bullet proof vest, so I assume all is normal.
Best to you from Damascus.
All the same emails kept coming my way - from Stratfor intelligence unit, local reporters, and other bloggers asking me for information about the "coup" and The Lebanese Foundation for Peace, which turns out to be a LFP site. Sasa from The Syrian News Wire, explained that "they are the post-Phalange group (the Israeli army’s proxy in Lebanon during the Civil War) presently in exile in Israel.

To follow how the story unrolled and how Nagi Najjar, who maintains the LFP site responded, read the post and particularly the comments at Robert's site.

Najjar defended his coup information by writing:

If the shooting didn’t started yet or Joshua Landis was invited at a dinner
party with the Military Attache there without a bulletproof vest doesn’t mean
that the situation is “normal” within the Syrian Regime.

There are things happening they are not aware and the Baath Regime is
not going to tell a US journalist nor brief the Embassy and the CIA station
there what is going on within. We are expected to receive additional information
soon, we will publish it.

We believe our “sources” are good and never betrayed us before…
A comment by "blue" reads:

Josh Landis may have been right about this, but he often appears to be
nothing but an apologist for Assad’s regime. Sad, really, that an academic in
the US turns to propaganda for an authoritarian ruler.

Another added:

Josh Landis’s agenda would seem to be to maintain this myth that the brutal Syrian regime is good for the Syrian people.

News flash: it’s not! It’s killing innocent Syrian people.

Quite frankly I don’t believe news that comes out of Syria, whether from LFP, The New York Times, or SNW; the country’s too tightly controlled.
This morning Robert wrote me another email:

Hi everyone,

Just following up with you all. Thanks to all of your emails, this story has effectively gotten around the whole blogosphere and has been debunked.

The original offending information, which is STILL being propogated, is located here:

Thank you all very much for helping dispel the rumors. If any of you in particular know about the Lebanese Foundation for Peace, it's purpose, etc.... as they are the ones dispensing this information, please let me know. I am very interested to learn about them.

All the best,
Robert Mayer


Najjar and a few others will be disappointed to learn that information does get out of Syria fairly easily, despite ham-fisted attempts by the government to control the news flow. Bashar liberalized the control of information in Syria and promoted much freer debate He will have a hard time restricting it even if he wants to.

Bashar seems to have consolidated his grip on power internally, even as Syria took a beating on the Lebanon front. In fact, by undoing Hariri in Lebanon and shunting aside his supporters here in Syria, the president has been tightening his control over the internal situation.

This strategy may back-fire in the long run because the president will have narrowed his social base around his family. But in the short run, he is firmly in control.

Yes, there are members of the military who are upset that the president didn't get out of Lebanon five years ago. Most were not upset that they had to withdraw. They complain that business interests kept Syria in Lebanon too long and set the military up for this humiliating withdrawal. They are not about to make a coup over it, however.

The Sunni business elite of Damascus is clearly upset at how Hariri was undone. Many had connections to him and to those around him who were doing well in Beirut. He was a towering example of Sunni business and political success, not only for the Lebanese, but also for the Syrians. Even people who had no connection to him viewed his success as a symbol of what can be accomplished with good leadership and economic acumen.

Whether his murder will have "confessional" fallout in Syria, as it has in Lebanon, has yet to be seen. I suspect it will harden the wall of distrust that has always divided the Alawite ruling elite from the Damascene business community, which largely controls the economy in Syria. There are some signs of that already.

All the same, the Sunni business elite is not organized for formal opposition. Damascene business leaders will sulk in their tents. Many must be worried that Bashar is becoming more like his father and less like the reformer they were hoping for. Some will resent the fact that he has strengthened himself and his family. Perhaps they saw in Hariri's rise to power in Beirut an example which they hoped to follow in Damascus?

Much will depend on how Bashar treats reform going forward. So far, his record is one of little dramatic achievement. If he does not become his father, content to hold power tightly and rely on stability to keep him in power, but rather uses his newly won authority to make so important changes, the Hariri affair may actually turn to his advantage.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

From 1559 to Regime Change in Washington Think

A number of readers took exception with my 1559 is Finished - The Game is Up post of two days ago.

The struggle between Syria and the US is far from finished. Syria's role in 1559 is largely finished. The word from many western embassies here, the day Syria confirmed to Larsen that it was moving out its security forces completely and quickly from Lebanon, was that 1559 was over as far as Syria was concerned.

The only real leverage 1559 offered the US was European sanctions. When Bush went to Bruxelles, he got the European powers to agree to support 1559 to the extent that it required the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon - that meant sanctions, a big club.

With Syria's withdrawal, the club is gone. Europe does not support forcing Hizbullah to disarm in the immediate future or naming it a terrorist organization, which would require Europe to move with the US to shut it down. Europe has always been reluctant to join the US in the use of sanctions against Syria. Chirac's about face following the Lahoud extension shifted the balance of the EU against Syria. Now that Syria is withdrawing, Europe is returning to its former anti-sanctions position.

From the point of view of the embassies in Damascus, their leading role in Lebanon is over. The foreign reporters will eventually pack their bags and leave the Meridian and Sheraton hotels in down town Damascus and return to their main postings. Some will go to Beirut and follow the ins and outs of Lebanese politics. But the Syrian action is largely over. The spotlight moves from Damascus to Beirut. Many in Washington, however, will struggle to keep the focus on Damascus.

Washington must find another club. It will not forget Damascus and the Syrian regime, far from it. But 1559 and Lebanon will not be the principal weapons to use against Syria.

Everyone in Washington is now cooking up next-steps and other instruments to finish off president Bashar al-Asad. Those who want to continue the campaign against dictatorship, Baathism, the enemies of Israel, Arabism, or the "unfree" will now have to begin to address the question of regime-change and internal Syrian politics directly, something Washington has not done up to this point. They will have to convince President Bush and his policy people that it is in US interests to attack Bashar, not for his foreign policy, for occupying Lebanon, or for troublemaking in the region, but because he treats his people "egregiously" in the words of some Washington wonks.

To see how this shift is already taking place look at the recent publications of the WASHINGTON INSTITUTE for Near East Policy. It is perhaps the most influential Middle East think tank in Washington. Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton, largely farmed out Middle East policy making - in particular the peace-process - to the Washington Institute. Dennis Ross is its head.

By Robert Satloff, the executive director of The Washington Institute.
March 15, 2005

One of its main policy recommendations is for Washington to "Start talking about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law inside Syria. Once the Syrians depart Lebanon, Washington should turn the spotlight on Syria's egregious behavior toward its own citizens."

The Syria section of the report begins:

As the administration works through the daily diplomacy on Lebanon, it needs to keep one eye on events in Damascus. The Asad regime is probably the most brittle in the Middle East; while the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, for example, may bristle at U.S. pro-democracy efforts, there are built-in brakes on U.S. pressure as well as deep reservoirs of institutional support in both countries. Syria, however, is different. The United States has no interest in the survival of the Asad regime, which itself is a minoritarian regime built on the fragile edifice of fear and intimidation. Cracks in the Syrian regime may quickly become fissures and then earthquakes, in a way that the same cracks in other countries could be contained.

Given how remarkably puerile Syrian foreign policy has been under Bashar al-Asad, it would be useful for U.S. planners to dust off old studies of possible sources of domestic instability and their likely implications.

Its main policy recommendations and subtitles are:

1. Invest in intelligence about the dynamics of political, social, economic and ethnic life inside Syria.

2. Start talking about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law inside Syria.

3. Offer no lifelines to this regime.

Another interesting article recently published by WINEP is one on the Muslim Brothers by Michael Jacobson. It is interesting more for what it tells us about the debate in Washington over the question of regime change in Syria than for its content about the Muslim Brotherhood, which is minimal.

The major reason that regime-change for Syria has failed to catch on in the Bush administration is that everyone fears that the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power. Washington’s fear of the M.B. is Bashar al-Asad’s principal protector.

Farid Ghadry, the leader of the small Syrian opposition in Washington, understands this. Consequently he has been arguing for some time that the White House should not fear the MB. He insists that Syrian Muslims are more Sufi than severe and more liberal than extremist. The MB threat, he proposes, has been made up and marketed by the Asad regime in order to secure the friendship of the West.

Hence the concern at WINEP over whether the MB would come to power if there is regime change. It should be remembered that a number of fellows at WINEP, such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, have argued that Washington should not open a dialog with “moderate” Muslim organizations in the hope of isolating more extreme groups. They argue that most, if not all, Muslim associations drink from the same cup of intolerance and illiberalism. “There is nothing to discuss,” they suggest.

Michael Jacobson points out that since the murder of Hariri, there is an emerging alliance between some Syrian opposition liberals and the Muslim Brothers. For the time being it seems to be only a tacit alliance, but the question for Washington is whether to encourage and back such an alliance, much as it did with Chalabi and the Shiite religious groups in Iraq, or whether to stick with the Alawites and the present order in Syria. Perhaps the Muslim Brothers are weak and would not come to power if there is instability in Syria?

By Michael Jacobson

In calling for a demonstration in Damascus on March 10, Haitham Maleh, an opposition figure with close connections to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, proclaimed, "We are 85 percent of the country" -- an apparent gesture of solidarity against Syria's ruling Alawite minority. The group of about 100 demonstrators who answered his call was reportedly dispersed by several hundred progovernment demonstrators. Along with President George W. Bush's rejection of Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's ambiguous proposal for a phased or partial withdrawal from Lebanon, the incident fed speculation on whether Asad's regime will survive the current tumult. Although few would mourn the regime's collapse, many are concerned that such a development would allow an Islamist group such as the Muslim Brotherhood to take control, which might be even less appealing to the United States than the current regime.

Will the Brotherhood Take Over?

Several factors have sparked concern about the prospect of Islamist groups such as the Brotherhood taking power in Syria following a regime collapse. Many jihadists are traveling from and through Syria on their way to Iraq, raising the question of how active Islamist extremists are inside Syria and how much Damascus tolerates or encourages their activities.

Syria's basic demographics are a key factor as well. As mentioned previously, much of the Syrian leadership, including Asad, hails from the Shiite Alawite sect. Alawites represent only 15 percent of the Syrian population, however, while Sunnis comprise more than 70 percent. Many Sunnis do not regard the Alawites as true Muslims and would prefer not to live under Alawite control.

Muslim clerics are demanding an increased role in the political process. In fact, Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, a Sunni, recently issued a statement urging citizens to act more in accordance with Muslim laws and traditions. Given these factors, some have speculated that a religious Sunni organization such as the Muslim Brotherhood may be well positioned to take power if the regime falls.

Moreover, the Brotherhood recently released a statement that may indicate a reversal of the group's engagement strategy, though it is far too early to tell whether the move demonstrates an increased willingness to confront the regime. Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the Brotherhood faxed a statement to the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper calling for an investigation into the murder and lamenting the sharp deterioration of relations between Syria and the "Lebanese people," who could be heard "shouting in unison 'Syria, get out.'" The statement noted that "Hariri's death might be the straw that will break the camel's back as far as Syrian-Lebanese relations are concerned," and that "no one can absolve the Syrian leadership from guilt."

The idea of the group taking power in Syria has generated considerable unease among Western observers, with some citing recent reports that Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members in Europe have been linked to al-Qaeda and the global jihad. Although it is certainly plausible that individual group members have joined the global jihad, this is not necessarily reflective of the views of the organization as a whole. By and large, members in Europe do not maintain close ties to the main organization in Syria. Moreover, the Brotherhood may realize that Western pressure on Asad will be helpful to their cause, making the organization unlikely to embrace the anti-Western jihad.

Not Well Positioned to Take Over

Despite all of the above factors, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood or any other Sunni Islamist group would have great difficulty filling the vacuum if Asad's regime collapsed.... In comparison to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian Brotherhood has a far less educated membership, boasts a far less wealthy constituency (which is drawn primarily from the lower middle class), and poses a much less potent political threat. Other Sunni Islamist groups in Syria are even less well equipped to assume control.
Some Syrian liberals remain wary of a potential Brotherhood takeover. Yet, Kamal Labwani, an opposition leader released from prison five months ago, emphasized that the opposition is fighting on two fronts, and that "the fight against the government has . . . priority" over the fight "against the fundamentalists."

How Little We Know

Any speculation on succession in Syria must include the caveat that it is largely guesswork. In reality, little reliable information about such developments is available to researchers and analysts. Gauging the strength of Islamists in Syria is a particularly difficult challenge. The regime forbids any research on the topic, and Muslim Brotherhood members are reluctant to speak with outsiders. Increased understanding of such groups in Syria is vital for U.S. policy in the region.

Michael Jacobson, a Soref fellow at The Washington Institute, served as counsel on both the congressional and independent commissions investigating the September 11 attacks.

Copyright 2005 THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE for Near East Policy

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

New US Sanctions Bill Introduced

Just when you think it is all over something new happens. The opposition demonstration in Beirut yesterday, which gathered an estimated million participants, has thrown momentum back on the side of the anti-Syrian forces.

The opposition had some doubts about the extent of its appeal after the Hezbollah demonstration in a nearby square in Beirut on Tuesday. There have been rallies in the city center every Monday since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated Feb. 14, a Monday, but organizers were determined to make this one especially large in response to the pro-Syrian march.

"This will counterbalance last Tuesday, and now we can sit and talk," said Mazen al-Zain, a 30-year-old financial analyst, noting that he himself was a member of an illustrious Shiite clan from southern Lebanon. "What is really important after today's gathering is that we all sit down at the same table."

The presence of such a large number of Lebanese put added pressure on the government of Syria to announce a serious timetable for the withdrawal of both its thousands of troops and its secret police officers in the country. Although President Bashar al-Assad has promised a withdrawal into the Bekaa region by the end of March and a further discussion with a joint Lebanese-Syrian commission in early April, there is still no clear timetable for a complete withdrawal.

A number of dangers still lurk for Syria.

One is the introduction of "H.R.1141 Lebanon and Syria Liberation Act" (Introduced in House, which is designed "To strengthen sanctions against the Government of Syria, to establish a program to support a transition to a democratically elected government in Syria and the restoration of sovereignty and democratic rule in Lebanon, and for other purposes."

March 8, 2005
Ms. ROS-LEHTINEN (for herself, Mr. ENGEL, Mr. CHABOT, Mr. MACK, Mrs. JO ANN DAVIS of Virginia, Mr. BOOZMAN, and Ms. BERKLEY) introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on International Relations, and in addition to the Committees on Financial Services, Ways and Means, and Government Reform, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned.
One of the new features of the bill is:

(a) Authorization- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the President is authorized to provide assistance and other support for individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations to support a transition to a freely-elected, internationally recognized democratic government in Syria and the restoration of sovereign, democratic rule in Lebanon.

(b) Activities Supported- Assistance provided under subsection (a) shall, to the maximum extent practicable, be used to carry out the following activities:

(1) Democracy-building and civil society efforts in Syria and Lebanon, including the provision of assistance to organizations certified by the President to be independent democratic organizations, victims of political repression and their families, and prisoners of conscience and their families.

(2) Radio and television broadcasting to Syria and Lebanon to support democracy-building and civil society efforts in Syria and Lebanon.

(c) Authorization of Appropriations- There are authorized to be appropriated to the President to carry out this section such sums as may be necessary for fiscal year 2006 and each subsequent fiscal year.
There are other additional aspects to the bill, such as placing sanctions on foreign countries that sell Syria weapons, but the democracy section, if the bill is passed and accepted by the President, would signify an new strategy toward Syria - one that clearly moves toward regime change.

Another danger lurks in the Hariri murder investigation.
Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk reported that President George W. Bush "is expected to announce on Wednesday that Syrian - and perhaps Lebanese - military intelligence officers were involved" in the killing.

In his article, Fisk said the report of the United Nations inquiry team "will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of 'Mr. Lebanon' and his entourage, perhaps reaching to the higher echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese governments."

Speaking from New York, a UN spokesperson told The Daily Star that whatever President Bush would announce would not be based on the UN team's findings as the investigation is still ongoing.

He said: "We can neither confirm nor deny anything until the team returns to New York and presents its findings to the secretary general."

According to The Independent, The UN team, made up of Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigators and recently joined by Swiss bomb experts, has discovered that many of the vehicles from Hariri's convoy "were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours afterward - and before there was time for an independent investigation."
Syria seems to be decided to move troops out before the May elections in Lebanon, which should eliminate the threat of sanctions. Russia and Germany have suggested they are happy with Syrian progress so far.

The European Parliament on Thursday did not put Hizbullah on a European list of terror organizations, after a proposal to do so that was pushed by the US was dropped.

Syria's strong leverage in Lebanon still remains. The two armed groups in Lebanon - Hizbullah and the Lebanese army, the Commander-in-Chief of which I presume is President Lahoud, are both in Syria's camp. No opposition groups are armed or have malitias.
Secondly, the opposition must cooperate with Prime Minister Karami and President Lahoud to construct an interim government if it wants to get the election laws passed in time for May elections to be carried out.

It is still too early to calculate who controls Lebanon or who has "won" due to the recent crisis. The dust has not settled.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

1559 is Finished - The Game is Up

"It's all over." That is how one reporter described the situation in Lebanon after touching base with Western Embassies in Damascus. "There is no more threat of sanctions. No use of force," he was told. Now that the Syrians have agreed to withdraw their troops, UN Resolution 1559 is dead."

The resolution demanding the disarming of Lebanese parties cannot be carried out. France and Russia have opposed it. Hizbullah demonstrated that it is much too strong.

In the American embassy in Damascus, the view is that the game is finished. Now everyone is trying to understand who won.

Did the US win because Syria pulled out its troops? Or, did it lose because it got too greedy with 1559 and insisted on stuffing in the articles on Hizbullah and local "terrorist groups," which no one else will now support.

Perhaps Syria won? Yes, it pulled out its troops, but they weren't really necessary to preserve its influence in Lebanon. Syria proved that it has plenty of local supporters in Lebanon. It is not out of the game by a long shot. All the chest pounding by Rice and US diplomats may be premature.

In many ways the struggle over Lebanon has been a classic battle between Syria and the US over who gets to own Lebanon. For 30 years it has been in Syria's sphere of influence and viewed as Syria's front door in the region. Israel and the US tried to take it back in 1982 but failed. Now they have tried to take it back again.

Bashar has been right about a few things, he would surely say. He claimed all along that Syria is not the source of Lebanon's problems. Rather, he explained that everyone blames Syria for Lebanon's problems, but in reality, he claims, "It is the Lebanese who keep demanding that we settle their disputes and who drag us into their local battles."

Perhaps he was telling the truth? We are now seeing that Lebanon is divided and that many more people that the opposition thought support Syria's influence and oppose American influence.

Lebanon has no strong or effective central government. In many ways it is made up of battling tribes, as Bashar insisted. Syria acted as the referee for 30 years. Only if the Lebanese can agree on how to build an effective central state will that job of referee become redundant. Right now Condalesa Rice is talking about a UN and Western mechanism to fill the "power vacuum." But maybe Syria will continue to play referee from a greater distance if its supporters in Lebanon prove stronger than America's. We shall see.

It is in Lebanon's hands now. The national debate has begun in earnest and it is exciting. Hizbullah made its statement in Riad al-Sulh square. "We are here. We are not just in the South." Unlike the Sunnis of Iraq, who didn't vote, the Shiites will vote. They want a place in society and won't repeat the mistake of the Iraqi Sunnis. They have been emboldened by the Iraqi example, where the Shiites have come to power, to get into the political arena and demand their share.

The Lebanese opposition is listening, too. It is very refreshing and will have a monster effect on Syria. If the Lebanese can work out at happy balance, Syrians will take heart. Minority fears keep Syria's dictatorship in place. Once they ease, things will begin to change rapidly.

Syria Reported to Accept Demand to Pull All Forces From Lebanon
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria agreed to carry out a resolution calling for a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, and offered to set a timetable for the pullout.

Lebanon Needs to Act First for Syria to Exit, Envoy Says
Published: March 14, 2005

In their television interviews, Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley repeated administration statements that the United States' priority was to get Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon, and that they were willing to defer the issue of dismantling or disarming Hezbollah, which the United States lists as a terrorist group.

"First things first," Ms. Rice said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." "When the Syrians go, you will see what the balance of forces really looks like in Lebanon. The Lebanese will be able to deal with their differences."

Ms. Rice said it was not clear what steps the United States might support in the event of a Syrian pullout, but she left open the possibility that an international force could fill the ensuing security vacuum and prevent the kind of sectarian fighting in Lebanon that Syria used to justify its military deployment there.

"I'm quite certain that the Lebanese people may need some help in what is going to be a period of getting ready for elections, and then we will see what is needed after elections," Ms. Rice said on "This Week." "But I can be certain that the international community is ready to provide an international framework, if that is what is needed."

Protests have been frequent since Mr. Hariri's assassination. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people gathered for a pro-Hezbollah rally in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, while in Beirut, a few thousand opposition demonstrators held a vigil in Martyrs' Square, Reuters reported. They held candles that spelled "Truth."
Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria

U.S. Pressure May Pose Problems for Assad
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: March 14, 2005
Filed at 2:12 a.m. ET

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Even if Syria does in the end fully withdraw from Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad may not be off the hook. Instead, U.S. pressure is expected to shift to issues of reform, cross-border infiltration into Iraq and Syrian links to militant Arab groups.

Squeezing Assad further could present the young Syrian leader with serious domestic problems at a time when some question the extent of control he has over his Arab nation.

``The pressure will continue until Syria achieves every U.S. goal,'' said Ayman Abdel-Nour, a prominent member of Assad's ruling Baath party. ``Syria will be left alone only when it no longer has a regional role, its influence in Iraq is gone, it severs links with Hamas, Jihad, Iran and Hezbollah,'' he said from Damascus. ...

However, there are signs that Washington may be looking for much more from Syria than just pulling out its troops.

``The sequence needs to be: Get Syrian troops out of Lebanon, get free and fair elections, get a democratic government in place,'' U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on Sunday. Aside from its military role in Lebanon, Syria has maintained a strong influence over Lebanese politics.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Syria was ``out of step'' with what she called the growing desire for democracy in the Middle East, suggesting that Assad needed to introduce economic and political reforms at home.

``If the pressure grows and the Americans begin to hint at regime change, some here may be tempted to think they are the substitute the United States is looking for,'' George Jabour, a member of Syria's parliament and an eminent political scientist, said from Damascus.

``But this may not happen for some time yet,'' he said. ...

``Syria will lose its traditional regional role when the withdrawal from Lebanon is complete,'' said Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian writer and a government critic. ``Now, reforms at home must be a top priority.''

Kilo, like many Syrians, is hopeful the ruling Baath party will announce a comprehensive reform plan when its much-heralded national conference takes place later this year. The gathering was scheduled to take place late last year, but it was postponed, giving rise to intense speculation in Damascus that differences existed within the party leadership.

``The meeting will be decisive if it happens,'' said Kilo. ``Bashar must produce a profound and comprehensive reform plan.''

Signs of impatience with the lack of progress in reform are beginning to show, albeit rarely. On Saturday, Mohammed Ibrahim al-Ali, commander of the Popular Army -- a paramilitary force with a mandate to protect cities in the case of war -- called on state Syrian television for the dismissal of Baath party leaders known to be opposed to reform.

Zisser on Asad

A number of people have asked me what they might read on Bashar's Syria in English. Here is an article by

Eyal Zisser, "Bashar al-Asad and his Regime - Between Continuity and Change," Orient, Vol. 45, No. 2 (June 2004), pp. 239-256.
which I have put on the web. It is good and touches on a number of things, like Baath Party elections, not discussed elsewhere.

News Round-up

Russia says Hizbullah should play role in Lebanese politics
By Nayla Assaf, Daily Star, March 12, 2005 (Thanks to Paul at War in Context for articles.)

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Hizbullah should be allowed a role in the country's politics. His statements came at a time when sources close to the party told The Daily Star that they were holding ongoing meetings with representatives of Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir to defuse the mounting political tension in the country.

Lavrov's comments came one day after unprecedented statements by Washington that it would reluctantly acknowledge Hizbullah's political role if the party disarms.

Also on Friday, Hizbullah's number two official told reporters that the party intends to "become more active in entering internal political life," without, however, surrendering its arms.After meeting with leading Lebanese opposition member, Walid Jumblatt, Lavrov said: "It is in the interests of Lebanon, and the whole Middle East, for Hizbullah's political role to be taken into account." [complete article]

U.S. would accept Hizbollah role if it disarms
Reuters, March 10, 2005

The Bush administration would accept a political role for the Lebanese group Hizbollah if it disarmed, U.S. officials said on Thursday, a stance they said was not new but reflected recognition of the political clout of the militant Shi'ite Muslim organization.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice carefully avoided the stock U.S. phrase that Hizbollah is a terrorist organization in remarks to reporters, two days after Hizbollah showed its political power by drawing hundreds of thousands of people to central Beirut for a pro-Syria rally. [...]

"Obviously we'd like to see them disarmed as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 requires. Once disarmed they could undertake any political role in Lebanon that they can win democratically at the polls. This doesn't constitute any change in the U.S. position," a senior Bush administration official said.

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said there was a recognition among U.S. officials of Hizbollah's political power but denied any policy change.

"We do have to live in the real world and unfortunately in that world people we really don't like do sometimes get into elected office. Hizbollah -- just like Hamas in the Palestinian territories -- is a political force. But just because we recognize -- as we always have -- that reality does not mean we have changed our policy toward them," the official said. [complete article]

Top U.N. envoy to present Syria with ultimatum
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 11, 2005

A top U.N. envoy will tell President Bashar Assad that Syria will face political and economic isolation if he does not completely and quickly withdraw from Lebanon, U.N. and U.S. officials said yesterday.In a meeting set for tomorrow, Terje Roed-Larsen plans to inform Syria that the international community is united in insisting that Damascus comply with U.N. Resolution 1559 -- and is prepared to impose wide punitive sanctions if it does not act quickly, the officials said."If he doesn't deliver, there will be total political and economic isolation of his country. There is a steel-hard consensus in the international community," a senior U.N. official said. [complete article]

Which way will Lebanon go next?
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2005
Since Hariri's assassination, the Central Bank has spent some $4 to $5 billion of its $13.8 billion in foreign currency reserves to help prop up the Lebanese pound at its current rate of 1,500 to the US dollar. But in another month, the Central Bank will have to stop spending and the Lebanese pound will go into freefall, says Nicholas Photiades, a financial consultant in Beirut.

"This is the most serious crisis since the end of the civil war," he says. "If the current crisis continues and there is no solution in sight, it could be a similar situation to the civil war in the 1980s when the currency collapsed. You could see the 3,000 pounds to the dollar pretty quickly.". [complete article]

David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post what he believes "Lebanon's Next Steps" should be:

Wednesday brought one of those absurd rent-a-crowd demonstrations in Damascus, like the ones Saddam Hussein used to stage in Baghdad. A crowd of Syrians "spontaneously" marched on the president's palace and called on the beloved leader to speak. To me, it only underlined Assad's weakness. Another sign of Assad's weak hand was his restoration of the Lebanese puppet government of Prime Minister Omar Karami. That government was deeply unpopular, and trying to push it back into power is just "the old, old, old Syrian game of trying to buy time," as a Lebanese democracy leader put it to me.

So here's a simple agenda for Lebanese democrats and their supporters around the world: First, Syrian troops must leave Lebanon, and Assad must set a clear and unambiguous timetable for their withdrawal. Second, negotiations should begin on finding ways to adapt the Lebanese political formula to the reality of Hezbollah's power. That agenda puts the issue squarely to Nasrallah: Is he a Lebanese patriot or a Syrian stooge? Is he a man of the future or the past? It's time to find out.
Yes, Syria has been weakened by having its regional stature reduced and by isolating itself so completely. All the same, Bashar is suprisingly strong internally. The oppositon is very weak, causing many to cling to the president in the absence of any better alternative. Stability remains at a high premium for many Syrians even if they understand that it comes at the price of economic stagnation and continued poverty. Syrians feel stuck, but they do not see a way out of their present dilemma. If the Lebanese economy takes a nose dive, as Nicholas Blanford suggests it might, the Syrians will cling even more to the stability Bashar promises.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

500,000 Marched in Damascus Last Wednesday

"400,000 at least, and probably 500,000" attended last Wednesday’s demonstration in Damascus said the DCM of the Indian Embassy in Damascus, D.M. Mulay and his wife Sadhna Shanker. They stood at Malki Square for two and a half hours as a steady stream of participants came up the hill from Umayyad circle and proceeded down past the President's office, where Bashar al-Asad stood on the second floor balcony and waved at the passing crowd. There can be little doubt that many, if not most, of the participants chose to join the pro-Syria rally in support of the president's decision to withdraw from Lebanon. Some may have been coerced into going, but most joined voluntarily. Many from my neighborhood went off happily with no urging from officials. They were angry at the bad press Syria is getting and inspired by the rally in Lebanon the day before.

Is Syria Ready for Democracy?

Democracy in Syria

Democratic and free elections were recently held by the engineers’ syndicate of Syria. “Guess what?” my Christian friend asked me. “Not one Christian was voted into the national board of directors,” he said raising his eyebrows as high as they would go and throwing out his arm in a gesture of horror. “Even worse,” he added, “in Aleppo, where there are 2,000 Christian engineers out of a total of 15,000 – that is 14% - guess how many Christians were elected to the regional board? He paused for effect. “Zero!” To drive home his point, he added, “In not one of the governorates was a Christian elected to the regional board. It was a scandal and everyone complained to the government. But it was done, and they cannot undo the elections.”

“We cannot have democracy like that,” he insisted

I said, “So you need a ‘ta’ifi’ or sectarian system like in Lebanon?” My question was half teasing because everyone knows how forbidden it is here to even mention the word ‘ta’ifi’ or to discuss sectarian differences openly. Syria has always prided itself on being based on “national” as opposed to “sectarian” principles. Syrians look down on the Lebanese for being trapped in their sectarian apportionments and mentality – a system and way of thinking that Syrians believe was at the root of the fifteen year civil war that tore the country apart and the continuing inability of the Lebanese to develop a strong and effective central government.

The conversation quickly turned to the much anticipated meeting of the Regional Baath Party Conference. My friend asked. “Can you imagine if they had the same sort of elections for the Regional Command Council? It would be entirely Sunni.” He laughed. Everyone knows that the Alawites would rather lose their oldest child than let such a thing happen.

I asked him how many minorities served on the Regional Command. He said there are 21 members of the Command and almost half are minorities. He then began to count them. “There are two Christians, one Melkite and one `Ashouri (Asyrian – Aramean); there is one Alawite, one Ismaili, and one Druze.” Then he stopped and was unable to name more than those five. I asked if there wasn’t a Greek Orthodox. “No,” he said. “The Greek Orthodox always have either a Governor or a Minister. Now there is a Governor of Idlib, I believe.”

We could have gone on playing the sectarian game all evening. It is clear that at every level of government in Syria, as at every level of the army, sectarian apportionment of office has been very carefully worked out over the years. Any change to the balance and traditional divisions causes great concern and discontent from those communities that have been hurt or short-changed.

“So what is the answer,” I asked my friend? He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “But it is clear that George Bush doesn’t have the answer for us. We must solve it ourselves,” he added. Everyone here is taking sides in the battle of ideas begun with the invasion of Iraq. Most Syrians are sticking by their president.

One Syrian who takes a different view on democracy is Ammar Abdul Hamid, the head of al-Tharwa Project who just returned from 6 months at the Brookings institute.

“What are we so frightened of?” he demanded the other evening, when the question was raised at the dinner table. “Democracy can work here. We just need to have a little faith and abandon our fears.”

When I asked how Syria would combat the distrust between sects, he asked:

Why do you think the Sunni majority would be against the minorities? Sunnis are only 70% of the country. But of the Sunnis, only 60% are Arab. Ten per cent of Syrians are Kurds. They would side with the religious minorities to gain minority rights. Anyway, why would anyone imagine that Sunnis would vote as a block? They would have to make deals. They are divided like everyone else; there are Hawranis, tribal Sunnis from the Jazira, and everyone knows that the Aleppines are always competing with the Damascenes. The Sunnis are not a bloc. The Aleppines would make common cause with the minorities in order to balance out the Damascenes. We are seeing this in Iraq. The Shiites are 60%, but they have to make deals with the Kurds in order to rule effectively. Why is everyone so frightened of the majority? There is no majority here. We should give it a try. It will work. You will see. It is better than living in distrust and fear. Why should we accept dictatorship?
His optimism was refreshing, but my Alawite family members were not so readily convinced. My mother and sister-in-law, charmed by having dinner with the son of Mona Wasif and smitten by the handsome and eloquent Ammar, looked down at their plates. Finally my sister shook her head. “You ask us to take a very big risk. And if things do not happen as you say, it could be a big disaster. Look at Iraq,” she advised, using Ammar’s same example for her counter-argument. “Look at the Lebanese. They are more developed than we are and still they killed each other for fifteen years. I am not ready to take this risk.” I think Bashar has the interests of the country at heart. He is trying. We Syrians don’t trust the Americans. Our society is not like theirs and what do they really understand of our history and traditions.”

Then she added: “Look, I can go out drinking with my friends after work as a single woman. We can stay out to 11:00 or 12:00 at night in Bab Touma or the old city and when I come back, I go take a Taxi on my own. If the driver looks at me funny, as if to say I shouldn’t be out and should dress differently, I can tell him to go to hell. We are free to do what we want here. It is not like Iran. I don’t want the Mullahs to tell us what to do and how to dress.” We were back to the religion question and the realistic fear that any change of regime would bring greater influence from the Mullahs.

Later, as we were cleaning up and after Ammar had gone home, my sister tried to explain. “Our country is very young. We have only had an independent government for 60 years. This is not America, where you have been dealing with such questions for 400 years. We are making progress. We are working for our country and doing what we can to help it. I think we will find our way. Bashar is much different from his father. Already we are much freer. Yes, we take one stop forward and one step back, but we can’t be rushed and must find our own way.

The democracy question is on everyone’s mind now.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

March Meanings

THOMAS FRIEDMAN writes: "The spreading virus that "things can change and I can make a difference" is the most important thing happening in the Arab world today. The fact that Hezbollah had to resort to a mass rally, just like the Lebanese democracy movement's, is itself a victory for the democrats."

"President Bush should stay in the background and keep focused on defusing the Arab-Israeli conflict, which will deprive Hezbollah of all its excuses to remain armed."

-- I think Friedman has got it right. The demonstrations we have witnessed in both Beirut and Damascus are part of the spreading impact of a new political sensibility. Syria has not had a mass demonstration on the scale of yesterday's for 40 years and it was not all staged. Bashar needs popular support and Syrians may be waking up to that knowledge. They do not have to be sheep. Syria is waking up. Perhaps only one eye is open, but it is open.

In the midst of the demonstration coverage on Syria TV yesterday, the programers cut away to a prerecorded interview with a Baath Party hack intellectual about the significance of the March 8th Baath Revolution of 1963. It was quite extraordinary. The Syrian interviewer asked the Baathist analyst, "Why do we celebrate March 8th if it was really a military coup?" The Baathist had to explain that even though the military took over, the Baath was helped to power too. Then the interviewer asked if democracy had really been established in Syria as the Baath Party insists. The Baathist had to deliver a tortured explanation about how Syria is like a ship in a storm. Due to outside pressures, the ship needs a strong captain, etc. "Mistakes have been made," he ultimately confessed. It was qutie extraordinary to see a Syrian TV moderator press a Baathist like this. His answers were convincing to few, to be sure.

Baathism is largely dead here. Although demonstrators still expressed their anti-Americanism and some chanted old slogans about giving their "souls and blood" for the president, there were no banners proclaiming the tried and true Baathist slogans, such as "Unity, Freedom and Socialism." Everyone wants to see Bashar pull the country out of its current mess in Lebanon, but what they are really waiting for is to see if he will reinvigorate internal reforms. They are counting on him to assemble the Baath Party Congress later this year and prove that he is serious about putting some fire under the reform process.

If he fails to do that, things will go badly for him. People are still clinging to the faith that he wants real reform and will bring it once he consolidates his grip on power. There are many signs that the President has consolidated his grip on power over the last several months. Whether he will use that power to push through reform, however, remains to be seen. There are a growing number of doubters.

Finally, The Palestine issue remains central. Some of my friends, such as Tony Badran and Michael Doran, argue that it is not central to the regional order and that Washington should keep it on the back burner until Arab regimes are democratic. I don't agree. The Golan issue and the crappy treatment of the Palestinians are real sticking points. As we saw in both Nasrallah's and Bashar al-Asad's speeches, it is the issue of occupied territories that keeps their struggle alive. People are still willing to buy into the resistance rhetoric because justice has not been done. End the land disputes and both Baathism and Hizbullah defiance will sputter out. There will be nothing left for them to debate but democracy and developing their own countries. All the new banners up in Damascus bear the slogan: "We support you (Bashar) in your attempt to strengthen Arab nationalism and Syria's roll in the region." Once basic UN resolutions concerning the remaining occupied territories are applied, the power of this last slogan of Baathism will drain away.

JAD MOUAWAD writing in the NY Times explains that "The decision to reappoint Mr. Karami is partly a reflection of the political void among Sunni politicians left by the death of Mr. Hariri."

-- The rise of Hizbullah and collapse of the Sunnis after the murder of Hariri demonstrates once again how important Za`ims are in this part of the world. Without a charismatic and powerful leader, religious communities cannot fight at their weight, political parties crumble, and democracy limps along. It is a major weakness of sectarian politics, or the "politics of za`ims," as I have written elsewhere. Without strong and unified Sunni leadership, (The Prime Minister must be a Sunni according to Lebanon's confessional arrangement) the Lebanese system will have real troubles creating a political center.

STEVEN WEISMAN in a N.Y. Times article entitled: "U.S. Called Ready to See Hezbollah in Lebanon Role," writes, "France has argued that Hezbollah ought to be encouraged to concentrate on politics. Our language on this has been since Hariri's death not to go too far beating up on Hezbollah," a French official said. "It might hurt, and it won't help. We could be a turning point now, with Hezbollah maybe turning to politics and politics alone. The United States is no longer making a case of using this issue to disarm Hezbollah and brutally crush them."

-- This is an important shift for the US, if it is true. Israel is still pressing to see Hizbullah disarm, but how do you do it? The US does not want more UN troops in Lebanon and must follow France's lead on strategy toward Syria and Lebanon. Should the US lose European support for its Lebanon strategy, it will be powerless.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Forgive me for not reporting on all the exciting events here. My computer has gone to the shop and I must take refuge in the computer café’s. The demonstration in Beirut yesterday turned the world on its head here. The spirit of Syrians was lifted out of the gutter and sent soaring. All the Lebanese are not against Syria and with George Bush. The crowds that gathered in Riad Al-Solh Square were estimated by al-Jazeera to be 1.5 million. BBC reported them to be 200,000. Whoever was counting they were big, much bigger than the crowds that came out in favor of “the opposition.”

Lebanon is divided. All the same, Nasrallah’s followers sought to appropriate the same symbols as the opposition, which is very healthy. The placards held up by the demonstrators bore the same cross and crescent seen at previous demonstrations. The great symbol of the event was the Lebanese flag; red and white were everywhere. Nasrallah spoke about Lebanon for the Lebanese, united against all foreign influence.

Of course, the thrust of his speech was diametrically opposed to that of the opposition. He painted the opposition as unpatriotic and as agents of the West and Israel who do not have the best interests of the region at heart. They do not stand on the side of Arabism and the struggle against Lebanon’s enemy, Israel.

The relationship with Syria was handled with great skill and care. When he finished his speech with the words, “Long live Syria.” Everyone here went wild with joy. After weeks of feeling like crap and as if the whole world – even the Arabs – hated them, Syrians saw and heard the gratitude they believe they deserve for ending the civil war and protecting Lebanon. They know they are not alone. The Arabist rhetoric of the Baath Party and Bashar al-Asad still resonates in the hearts of millions. Nasrallah was careful not to suggest that Lebanon needed Syrian forces on its soil or that it could not stand alone. Quite the contrary, “Lebanon has proven that it is the strongest Arab country,” Nasrallah said.

The Lebanese resistance is the only resistance that has won against Israel and driven it from Arab soil. The clear implication is that Lebanon does not need Syria. It can defend Lebanese soil on its own as it had proven in the struggle against Israel. “The Arabs will not concede to Israel and the West through diplomacy what it has not conceded on the battle-field,” he said. “Israel will not win through diplomatic pressure what it could not win on the battle field,” he promised. Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Hizbullah fought for Arabism, the honor of the Arab world, and against Israeli and Zionist domination. Syria helped in the struggle and has been a corner stone of assistance and succor, he explained; Lebanon will not turn its back on Syria today or in the future. No amount of international pressure or diplomatic maneuvering will defeat the noble stand of the resistance, which liberated Lebanon form Israeli occupation. History, blood, and inclination tie the Syrian and Lebanese people together.. “They are one people.” This last slogan is redolent with meaning. It is the slogan used by Syria and rejected by the Lebanese opposition.

Nasrallah rejected 1559 as the latest installment of the struggle and upheld Ta’if. The resistance has not lost its meaning or purpose, Nasrallah argued. After all, the battle now being waged on the streets of Lebanon is part of the greater struggle over who rules the Arab World – the Arabs or the Great Powers and Israel. Hizbullah and the Lebanese people will ensure that the Arabs win. He said that Syria would withdraw from Lebanon with honor and had the gratitude of all Lebanese, but its role in the region and assistance would continue. The crowd went wild and this last sentiment brought tears to Syrian eyes and relief to their hearts.

Family members called me from Latakia to ask me what I though and to tell me how proud they were and what a great man Nasrallah is. I was out doing errands much of the day and all the shops had the TV on. Store owners and errand boys alike were leaning over their counters watching the demonstration with amazement and gratification. “This was the true Lebanon,” they insisted. “People from every part and every religion,” they intoned, repeating the line that the Lebanese opposition has been using for the last two weeks to insist that it expresses the true Lebanon. “George Bush asked for democracy. This is the true democracy," I was told repeatedly.

Today, Syrians will demonstrate. Many have told me they will go. The school in which my wife teaches has closed for the day because it is in Mezze, the section of town where the demonstration is to begin; the director fears that the kids will not be able to get home because of the crowds. The UN offices are only opening for half the day. It would seem that all of central Damascus will be closing early today.

This is the first demonstration of its kind that most Syrians can remember and they are excited. Perhaps the government will learn that it needs the people and their support? Perhaps the people will learn that the government needs them? The Lebanon example is bearing its first fruit here.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Syrian Commentary on Asad Speech

A number of interesting comments came from readers about President Asad's speech. They are worth reading because they give an overview of local and not so local reaction.

At 1:55 PM, Kafka said...
I think that Bachar gave a realistic speech; it shows a serious shift in policy. But I tend to agree with Joshua that it left several questions open, which explains the swift comments from the USA and France saying that the speech did not go far enough in the shift of policy required.

Formally it is difficult to argue against the proposed meeting tomorrow between the two presidents, scheduled to organise in Damascus the elements of the withdrawal. In reality the meeting leaves the door open to the pro-Syrian Lebanese president and his caretaker government to play for more time and political gains via a continued presence of the Syrian intelligence and army units in the Bekaa until after the elections. The meeting takes place on Monday.

On Tuesday Hezbollah and other Shiites organise a mass meeting in Beirut to say loud and clear that they are against the UN resolution 1559, which stipulates disarming Hezbollah and the departure of the Syrian army and intelligence units from Lebanon before the end of April hence before the Lebanese parliamentary elections in May (since Kofi Annan has to present in April a report to the Security Council on the application of this resolution).

On Wednesday the Lebanese president goes into consultations prior to nominating a new Prime Minister and cabinet.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday constitute the line of defence of the pro-Syrian Lebanese current to conserve a certain political status quo, namely: a pro-Syrian Lebanese government which will supervise the elections, an armed Hezbollah, and the beginning of an era where Syria would continue to be a major Lebanese player yet pleading that it respects the Taef agreement and the UN resolution 1559.
By the way I believe that Israelis are very mistaken to think the Lebanese would sign a separate peace agreement before the Syrians do.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous said...
As a Syrian, I have a few comments to make regarding the gullibility of the Syrian people. unfortunately and after seeing the image of Syria getting shattered day in and day out on TV all over the world, and realizing how much we are being perceived as a menace to the rest of the world, we were feeling the extremely unjust verdict we are doomed to suffer. Needing a voice to defend our position, we had no loud voice to reach far except this speech given yesterday. Explaining to the world that we are not bad and are being victimized by the US made the Syrian people give appreciation and approval for his speech.

We were so desperate to be heard we overlooked the many wrongs imposed on us on daily basis by this same Bashar. We forgot that Bashar never cared to give a damp about us since he came to power and never cared to address the nation except when the shit hit the fan. Just like in 1967 when the Baath lost Golan, they declared victory claiming that the Israeli objective of overturning the Syrian system was not achieved, Bashar today tried to repair the national pride by emphasizing that we are not getting kicked out of Lebanon because but we are rather leaving for after stabilizing the country. How easily Syrians forgot the iron fist and incarceration of liberties we are forced to endure for the past 42 years. The same iron fist which has been spreading havoc across Lebanon. I just wish the people of Lebanon after the Syria pullout would start exposing the crimes committed by Syrian officials and taking them to International tribunals. Only then would the Syrian people understand the atrocities committed under their name knowing very well that these same people committed similar atrocities in Syria against Syrian. I wish the Lebanese people would start such a wave of change to sweep both countries.

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous said...
I was there with my friends by own will and with no request by anyone and I would imagine this applies to many others but I can't confirm the gathering to be totally spontaneous.

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous said...
To anon 2:49, I get your message loud and clear. You are NOT a fan of the president. That is fine and it is your personal opinion. I think Bashar did mention that Syria has made some mistakes when it comes to lebanon. Although he did not go into specific, it was a way of acknowldging that Syrian presence was not perfect. You claim that there is an "iron fist" running havoc through lebanon, What are you talking about? freedoms? or corruption. And if you are talking about both please do not attempt to equate it to what the syrians endured in the 70s and 80s! Since Bashar became president, I feel alot freeier in my daily life and do have the sence that it is the new era. I am with Joshua's mother in law in her liking of Bashar, I just hope we give him the benefit of the doubt to get rid of the corrupt element in the ruling circle.

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous said...
I agree with Joshua that there was a focus on Syria's Arabic identity in Bashar's speech but it was in the context of national security and with relation to the regional interests: This was clear when he explained the objectives of the Saudi visit and Egyptian contacts as merely explaining Syria's decision to withdraw rather than seeking support or assistance (no comments came out from these countries).

Personally, I didn't expect him to elaborate on the withdrawal plan or to explain on a map where & how the Syrian troops will withdraw. It seemed fair enough to make the announced and vow to withdraw and implement Taif & 1559.

The only disappointment I had in his speech was the total dedication to foreign affairs, we were expecting him to address internal affairs. He only spoke in a few sentences and referred to the national conference that will be held soon and hinted on dramatic changes.

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous said...
Dear Anon 4:17,
I hope you keep liking Bashar and his cousin Rami until they finish owning the country while you and I become their official slaves. Surely they will introduce some measures of democracy then while they sign peace with the Jews and then forget about the past without holding anyone responsible and accountable for all the "mistakes" committed in Syria and Lebanon during the rule of the Assad dynasty. Just remember how Bashar inherited power and hold him accountable for bringing justice to these people hurt by his butcher father and uncle (when they were still friends with the uncle). I personally think it is just disgusting when someone says they are OK with Bashar from their own heart of their naiveness (provided they are not part of his instruments of cheering crowds)

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous said...
It is astonishing that the Bush administration doesn't understand that they are actually providing Bashar's government with support by their attacks on Lebanon. These report merely confirm that inflaming Syrian nationalism is not likely to bring about spontaneous regime change very soon. The U.S. government has had a completely irrational belief for many decades that if America makes things uncomfortable enough for people in a country whose government Washington disapproves of, then the people will spontaneously rise up and throw over their leaders. This is one of the dumbest ideas in all of political history, and it is even dumber because it has never worked. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again with no change and always getting the same negative results.

At 6:08 PM, Tony said...
>>Explaining to the world that we are not bad and are being victimized by the US made the Syrian people give appreciation and approval for his speech.<<

Ah yes, the indelible toxin of victimhood. The most reliable, soothing, and effective, weapon/balm the ME has ever produced and milked for the last 100 years.

Victimhood of course then morphs into passsive-aggressiveness, and that, my friends, is the gripping conscience collective of the region.

That's why your chains will remain.

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous said...
Dear Toni,

I am the guy you quoted. I wish more people share my view of reality

At 7:40 PM, GK said
I think that Asad must realize that Lebanese will not accept the Syrian occupation anymore! The Syrian mukhabart are interfering in almost every aspect of the Lebanese life. By admitting the mistakes in Lebanon, Asad must direct his mukhabart to get out of Lebanon!

At 11:26 PM, Anonymous said...
Monday's New York Times reports that Hezbollah, after a long period of wary silence, is siding four square with Syria and has called for a mass counter-demonstration on Tuesday near Martyrs Square in central Beirut. The Times notes that Hezbollah "maintains a well-armed, 25,000-man militia in Lebanon."

I will be very interested in Josh's thoughts on this development. (They are coming soon. JL)

At 12:09 AM, Robert Lindsay said...
Ah yes, the indelible toxin of victimhood. It's not a "ME" thing Tony, or an "Arab" thing, or an "Arabist" thing, and it's been going on for far more than 100 years. It's a *human* thing. Victomhood and the resulting passive aggression are characteristics of *homo sapiens*, Tony, got it?

What is especially rich is one of the worst practitioners of this vicimhood -> passive aggression are the Christian fascists - death squads, Israeli fascists, and US neoconservative fascists that Tony swoons over so much.

Hizbollah Supports Syria

Hezbollah declares full support for Syria (Again I thank Paul of War in Context for article summaries)
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, March 7, 2005

The Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah declared its full support for Syria today, presenting a direct challenge to opposition groups after Syria promised to gradually withdraw troops from Lebanon.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, spoke to reporters today in his stronghold in southern Beirut, breaking weeks of relative silence over the crisis concerning Syria's presence in Lebanon. He called for Lebanese to "express their gratitude" to Syria by joining a demonstration on Tuesday against United Nations Resolution 1559, which calls for Syria's withdrawal and Hezbollah's disarmament.

"I invite all Lebanese to this meeting to refuse foreign interference," he said.

Although he acknowledged that a Syrian pullout was a reality, he stressed that Syria must be able to leave with honor - a reaction to repeated statements by the Bush administration and Lebanese opposition groups calling for a quick and complete pullout of Syrian forces.


Stark choice for militant Hizbullah
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2005

Syria's stated intention to begin disengaging its military forces from this Mediterranean country poses the most serious challenge to the militant Shiite Hizbullah organization since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

A Syrian withdrawal threatens to deprive Hizbullah of its Damascus-sanctioned political cover to pursue an aggressive anti-Israel agenda. "What is at stake is Hizbullah's future as a militia, as an armed force, and also as a pan-Islamic movement," says Samir Kassir, columnist for Lebanon's leading An Nahar newspaper.

The choices facing the powerful organization are stark. If it chooses to adapt to the new realities in Lebanon, it is likely to face the isolation and eventual dismantling of its military wing, the Islamic Resistance, which drove Israeli occupation forces from south Lebanon in May 2000 and is now deployed along Israel's northern border. The Islamic Resistance has about 300-400 full-time guerrilla fighters and several thousand reservists.

Guest commentary on Hizbullah

I have copied the comments of a number of friends below who are trying to figure out Hizbullah's stand vis a vis Syria and the Lebanese opposition. The real question is whether Hizbullah is fence sitting or is firmly on Syria's side. Will it join with the Lebanese opposition eventually or stick by Syria? The views are those of several smart academics and journalists: Nicholas Blanford of the C.S. Monitor, Michael Young or the Daily Star, Tony Badran of NYU, Michael Doran of Princeton, and Martin Kramer of WINEP and Lee Smith of Reason Magazine. My own comments will be coming soon.

From: "Tony Badran" NYU
so it seems that Bashar is going to manage to contain the Lebanese
interior, as Nasrallah is calling for a pro-Syrian demonstration. This I think is another way of intimidation, following all the staged pro-Syrian stuff and Lahoud's claim threat that he will smother the opposition and demonstrators. So, perhaps, the compromise now is to work with Lahoud and a "conciliatory" government.

Bashar is not pulling out, and he will consolidate a tight grip inside Syria, and dig his heals in Lebanon.

Michael Young
wrote: (Daily Star)
I'm not sure I agree with this scenario. It's certainly possible, but it is equally likely that the Syrians will soon lose control of all this; in the end, the real deterrence factor Syria has is Hizbullah, and the party is not keen to be turned into Syria's goons, particularly if the Syrians are sure to be booted out. It is a difficult time (an 18-year-old was shot just now by pro-Syrian thugs), but I think it can be weathered if all remain calm.

From Nicholas Blanford (Christian Science Monitor)
I agree with Michael Young's comments below. This is not the end of the story by a long shot. What we are seeing now is political manouvering. So Hizbullah has called for a demonstration. Big deal. Let's face it. Hizbullah stands to lose a great deal if/once the Syrians disengage from Lebanon. One shouldn't underestimate the importance to Hizb of the Islamic Resistance. They will do what they can within their limited means to retain the resistance.

If the Syrians are serious about leaving and begin to do so in earnest then we will see Hizb's stance changing gradually. Bottom line is that Hizb has no choice if it wants to survive as a viable political entity.
best, Nick Blanford

From Lee Smith (Reason Magazine)
I don't know how the US or anyone in the international community is going to enforce this--and in the meantime, Bashar is going to make things hard for the US in Iraq and hell in Israel and show everyone he's not stupid. By the way, I'm confused by these comparisons to Hafez, as though that guy was a genius. Is there any doubt that had the US deposed Saddam in 91 and occupied Iraq that Hafez would've made life hard on US troops? He did it in Lebanon in 83, why not Iraq in 91? Bashar is following in his dad's footsteps--solid regime-thinking. And I'd even argue he's tougher than his dad. After all, James Baker was only too happy to roll over for Hafez; now that Colin
Powell's gone, young Bush and his crowd are calling Bashar an egregiously miserable human being and still Bashar is telling them to bugger off.

From Michael Doran (Princeton)
I have to say that if I were Asad, I would never leave Lebanon without a fight. The reason being that the struggle for Lebanon is the struggle for the Baath regime in Syria. If they pull out and the Lebanese establish a stable multiparty system of some sort, then the days of the Asad regime would certainly be numbered. The Syrians themselves would ask ever more vociferously why they have to live like this when their neighbors do not. So the choice is to fight now with all of the allies --

Iran, Hizballah, Russia? -- helping out, or fight later in an arena where the allies won't be of any service at all.

From: Tony Badran
Martin Kramer tells me that he never bought into the Lebanonization of Hizbullah. I still disagree with him up to point, but I don't see how else people on the streets are going to perceive this move, other than Hizbullah being Syrian proxies.

BTW. Was the 18 year old who got shot, killed? Who is he, where was he? How did this happen?

But how do you explain Hizbullah's demonstration? They won't get violent, but it's clearly an intimidation factor, which along with less restrained elements like the pitbulls Asim Qanso, Nasser Qandil, Sleiman Franjieh, these guys and Lahoud's people, the mukhabarat, those guys will get nasty. The whole cumulative effect is the intimidation of the opposition and the emasculation of the crowds.

It will all be used to push the opposition to either split, or work with the Lahoud government, and essentially accept the fact that the redeployment is all that Bashar is willing to do, and he will not risk appearing any weaker. I think he told as much to the Arabs which is why their reaction to the speech has been a lot more muzzled than say the US or France. I think they'll be telling jumblat just as much as well. Basically, that you have a choice of him incinerating the country, or working with him and not pushing him, or humiliating him any further.

Here's where the opposition's role ends, in the sense that they will be limited now. Here's where the US and France should really step up. How, as Lee Smith said, is the question. Crippling sanctions? Strikes? What can they do? That is of course assuming that they too won't split now seeing that the opposition and the crowds will be silenced (unless the crowds decide to actually duke it out, which will be a spectacle that reflects badly on Syria, not that that guarantees more pressure, as opposed to say, appeasement). So if the crowds are silenced, the opposition limited, the question will be whether Europe will say, ok we'll just have to "engage" now.

I don't know. Let's hope the US and France really put the squeeze on now.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Comment on Asad Speech

Round up of President Bashar al-Asad’s speech (in Arabic)this evening.
(I had to repost because of a link problem and lost one commment. Sorry to the commenter.)

The atmosphere: The president’s motorcade drove up to the front of the parliament building right at 6:00 and the crowd parted and the president stepped out of his car surrounded by several body guards and security. He waived to the cheering well-wishers and strode into the elegant Ottoman style building, where the deputies were waiting for him.

The crowd outside the parliament was small in comparison to that demonstrating in Beirut, but they waved Syrian flags in a mirror image of the Lebanese effort in Martyrs square. The Syrian crowd was not a spontaneous gather one must presume. It was managed; as such crowds are for all presidential photo opportunities these days. There would have been no problem finding willing participants. Syria is anxious and nationalistic these days. Everyone has been praying that their president would speak to the world and somehow explain that Syria is not a bad country. As one Syrian woman journalist said to me, “Syria’s face has been blackened in front of the world. It is a false face and a wrong image that the world has. The president must explain that we are not like that. We just want what is right.”

The president began his speech by explaining that Syria’s foreign policy is directed toward two goals. “One is to protect our national interests, our nation, and its identity, and the other is to protect our stability and internal calm and social peace.” In short – Arabism and stability – those are the foundations of Syrian policy.

The first half of the speech dealt with the peace process and Iraq. The president explained that Syria was serious about beginning the peace process without conditions, but that it expected to resume from the point where previous discussion had left off. He accused Israel of dishonoring the agreements of previous governments and wanting to start from ground zero.

On the Iraq situation, he insisted that Syria had done what it could to limit the uncontrolled flow fighters across the border and cooperate with the US. He accused Washington of making false claims about WMD and Syrian fighters.

In the second half of the speech, the president dealt with Lebanon. He addressed both 1559 and Ta’if, saying that Syria would withdraw its troops first to the Bekaa and then to the border in compliance with both agreements. He did not give a timetable for the withdrawal, claiming that a higher council of Syrian and Lebanese government officials would decide the matter in the next week. Nor did he speak about the mukhabarat (secret police).

All Syrians I have spoken to from shop keepers to intellectuals say they were pleased with the speech. My mother-in-law, who likes Bashar, was enthusiastic and wanted me to know how everyone feels he is a good person and will deal with the situation and bring reform to the country. She reiterated that Syria must withdraw, but insited that the President was correct to refer to the Lebanese opposition as “merchants,” who sell their opinions and support. Of course, everyone understood that the president was referring to Jumblatt in particular. She also believes that the Syrian mukhabarat have been sucked into affairs in Lebanon by the demands of Lebanese politicians more than they have thrust themselves into local politics. She also believes that the Lebanese will turn their country into a mess without Syria. Many Syrians agree with the President on this. How much of this sentiment is a product of hurt national pride and how much stems from a knowledge of Lebanon or fear that Syria would itself be vulnerable to civil strife if the government collapsed, I don't know.

Many Syrians were divided over the wisdom of the President addressing the parliament rather than using the traditional format: addressing the Baath Party, youth groups and cadres in a larger forum. The more westernized one is, the more the parliamentary forum seemed appropriate, largely because it resembles the western tradition of addressing the people, even if the parliament is not elected.

Most Syrians appreciated the president’s rhetoric about Arabism and how Syria is protecting its identity and that of the Arabs more generally. They see the recent events as he does – a battle between the forces of imperialism and Zionism against those of the embattled Arabs and Syrians.

My own sensibilities led me to see the speech from a Western perspective and, in particular, to wonder how Washington hawks will interpret it. They will find much to criticize. The president gave no time table for withdrawal. He accepted none of the blame for Syria’s isolation and explained the sudden consolidation of the Lebanese opposition only in terms of foreign influence and manipulation. He continued to describe the world from a Baathist perspective, as a battle between the forces of good and evil, pitting himself and Syria against George Bush and his nefarious plans for the region. Rather than laying out a vision for Syria’s future by announcing an agenda for reforms, he dwelt on old battles and history. He is carving an ever clearer image of himself as the anti-Bush.

In doing this, he may rally some domestic support, but he will only drive Syria’s conflict with the West forward. He cannot win this battle, and Washington hawks will push forward their arguments for regime change, claiming that the Syrian regime is irremediable even if it is flexible. The more Bashar resists, the more the US will focus on him as the source of the region’s evil. They will say, “He doesn’t get it. The world has changed, but not Syria.” There will be no relief for Bashar al-Asad so long as he digs in his heals and proclaims George Bush’s plan for the Middle East a failure. Washington will come after him whether he is flexible or not. No amount of tactical retreat will relieve the pressure. To truly get Washington off his back, he must “flee by advancing,” as Napoleon would say, and that means reforms. Some analysts here, argue that if he truly reforms, the regime will be undermined. Perhaps it is a catch twenty two?

Have to add a link to Hassan Fattah's excellent article in the NY Times: Saudis Join Call for Syrian Force to Quit Lebanon He quotes me, but it isn't just a vanity plug.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Bashar, the Anti-Bush

Everyone in Damascus is waiting for the President’s 6:00 speech to the People’s Assembly with baited breath. The country is not only in a regional struggle for control of Lebanon, but it is part of a much larger philosophical struggle over the nature of the Middle East. Little Syria has, despite itself, become the axis on which larger world questions revolve. Are the neoconservatives right? Has President Bush’s revolutionary foreign policy, based as it is on the use of force to create the liniments of democracy, been vindicated? Is his strategy for remaking the larger Middle East on the verge of fulfillment?

President Bashar has become the Anti-Bush. Where the US President preaches revolution and claims that military force must be used to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East, Asad stands for preserving the status-quo. The Middle East is not ready for democracy and freedom, he argues. Its tribal and religious divisions make it “a volcano ready to erupt,” as he once said. Syria has offered stability to the region for 35 years by managing the tribal conflicts that threaten civil war and social chaos, Asad insists. If Syria pulls out of Lebanon, it will return to civil war. If Syria reforms too quickly, there will be social strife. America’s invasion of Iraq brought nothing but chaos and death to Iraqi. It has failed, he argues. America and Israel are the problem, he maintains. George Bush insists Syria is the problem.

Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon may be about the alteration of the balance of power in a small corner of the Middle East, but it is also about a much greater alteration in the larger Middle East as well as an alteration in the way foreign policy will be carried out in the 21st century.

Syria is the last leg holding up the increasingly wobbly edifice of Arab nationalism. Many in America would like to kick out this last pedestal and bring down the house that Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Baath built.

Every Arab country has adopted a policy of me first. King Abdullah has been the loudest and most open in proclaiming a policy of Jordan first. But as one Arab country after another has fallen in step with America’s diplomacy, they too have adopted the me first strategy. Saddat, of course, did it first, leading to Egypt’s isolation and his assassination, decades before Hariri’s. But all the other Arab leaders have followed suit, some quietly and others with more fanfare, such as Muammar Qadhafi.

If Syria pulls out of Lebanon swiftly and completely, as it should, it will have given up on Arab nationalism – at least, in everything but name. The constitution will still trumpet that Syria is only “a region of the Arab nation,” and the Baath Party will still claim it stands for “Arab Unity,” but they will be nothing but folkloric relics of a rapidly disappearing creed. Syria claims that it will “protect the Arabism of Lebanon.” But without a military presence in Lebanon, only the Lebanese will be able to decide their identity.

Syria will be left no choice but to join the “me first” generation of Arab states. Many reformists here are gambling that Bashar will do just that – quite possibly even announcing an ambitious and reinvigorated agenda of internal reforms to deflect his foreign embarrassments and turn the recent struggle inward. There is no telling if he will do this. I doubt he will. It would require a revolution.

Could George Bush be right? Is the use of American might and pressure going to transform the Middle East? The end of the road in Iraq, or even Lebanon, is not in sight. As yet, we don’t know if things will settle into a new and freer rhythm or if Bashar’s warnings are more than bluff. In the meantime, even the doubters – and I count myself amongst them – must give President Bush a winning score at half-time.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Velvet Revolution? End of Arab Nationalism?

I thank Paul Woodward, editor of the very useful War in Context, for bringing these articles to my attention.

The shadow of another Iraq
By David Hirst, The Guardian, March 4, 2005

A velvet revolution, Ukrainian style, that will set an example for the whole Middle East? That is how Lebanon's so far peaceful "democratic uprising" likes to see itself. Certainly, something new and profound is under way.Lebanon's strength - and weakness - was always the multiplicity of religious sects on which its whole political system is based. When the system worked, it did so far better than any of its neighbours'; when it broke down, it did so disastrously.

During its 16-year civil war Walid Jumblatt, the same Druze chieftain who now leads the opposition, warned the interfering Arabs: "One day the fire will spread to you." It didn't. What he leads today has a better chance of doing so.

It is, if anything, a triumph over confessionalism. Not complete, not invulnerable. Thanks in part to Hizbullah, Syrian-backed but domestically popular, it is the country's Shias who are chiefly reticent. Yet, in impressive measure, the people now stand in one trench, the regime in another. And that, not sectarian antagonism, is the faultline that will principally define the course of events. If assassinations sometimes accelerate history, Rafiq Hariri's brutal, spectacular but popularly unifying demise is surely one of those.

Many Syrians just don't believe their government was behind it: it couldn't be so stupid. But diabolical plot, or massive self-inflicted injury, the outcome is the same. For the Lebanese, their Syrian overlord was instantly guilty until it proved itself innocent. ...

It is a fundamental blow to all that historic Syria, as the "beating heart" of Arabism, and all that Ba'athism and its pan-Arab nationalist credo have ever stood for. For the leading Lebanese columnist Samir Qassir, it means that "the Arab nationalist cause has shrunk into the single aim of getting rid of the regimes of terrorism and coups, and regaining the people's freedom as a prelude to the new Arab renaissance. It buries the lie that despotic systems can be the shield of nationalism. Beirut has become the beating heart of a new Arab nationalism".

The Syrians aren't going to rise up like the Lebanese - not yet anyway. Long repressed, they don't have the organised opposition, the strong residue of democratic traditions that the "Syrianisation" of Lebanon was gradually stifling. [complete article]

The buzz on the Syrian street: Let's leave Lebanon
By Rhonda Roumani, Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 2005 (Rhonda quotes me. I'm partial.)

One week ago, Hind Aboud took the two-hour drive from Damascus to Beirut to pay her respects to Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated last month. On his grave she placed photos of two of Syria's most sacred monuments - the Umayyid mosque and St. Paul's church - and left what she called a letter from all Syrians.

"Hariri is not only for the Lebanese, but he is for the Syrians as well," says Ms. Aboud, a Syrian lawyer who works in Damascus and considers Mr. Hariri a role model for all Arabs.Syrians share a special affinity to the Lebanese because of strong historical, family, and business ties: a large portion of the Syrian and Lebanese population have relatives living across the border.

But many Lebanese blame Syria for Mr. Hariri's murder, and many of the Syrians interviewed say they are feeling resentful, isolated, and fearful of the growing anti-Syrian sentiment. As the international pressure mounts for Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, many here agree that it's time for their troops to go. [complete article]

Lebanon: future shock for Arab leaders?
Dennis Ross, former US envoy to the Middle East, writes in the CS Monitor

Certainly the more George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac maintain their drumbeat of support, and the more they insist on the Security Council fulfilling its call in resolution 1559, the more the Lebanese are likely to believe they can succeed.

The future of the Middle East may now be played out on the streets of Beirut even more than it is in Baghdad - which, after all, will still face an insurgency and the less than pristine reality of coalition politics. If the Lebanese succeed, which Middle Eastern leader will sleep easily knowing that his people are no longer afraid? Indeed - should it become clear that "velvet" or "orange" revolutions are possible not only in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union but in the Middle East as well - will we soon see Arab leaders embracing reforms for real?

Britain's Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has ruled out Western military action if Syria does not comply with the withdrawal demands.

But in an interview with the New York Post published today, Mr Bush says his "last option is military" if necessary.

Mr Bush made special mention of Saudi Arabia's support of the US and United Nations on the matter. "I was pleased that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has sent the very same message. The world is beginning to speak with one voice."

Lebanese Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Murad suggested Syria wants to keep some troops in the country on a long-term basis, saying a complete removal of the troops would have to be negotiated between Syria and Lebanon's governments as called for in an 1989 agreement.

Under the Taif Accord, he said, "the governments of Lebanon and Syria will meet to discuss the number of troops required to stay and outline the areas where they would be stationed until the (Arab-Israeli) issue is settled."

In the speech to the People's Assembly in Damascus, "we expect President Assad to announce a redeployment to the Bekaa region" in eastern Lebanon, Murad a member of the pro-Syrian government in Beirut told The Associated Press.

He answered "No" when asked whether the redeployment meant a full withdrawal.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said Syrian and Lebanese leaders have agreed on an action plan for carrying out the Taif Accord, but he would not comment on a timetable.

Syria has said in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Arab nations this week that it wants to keep 3,000 troops and early-warning stations in Lebanon, according to an Arab diplomat in Cairo.

Syria is possibly fashioning its negotiating stance to mirror that of the Israelis during the Golan talks. Israel demanded to retain early warning radar stations on the Golan Heights, manned by Israeli troops. Syria seems to be making the same request. Even if Syria fails to get such a deal in Lebanon, when and if it resumes negotiations with the Israelis, it will be able to claim that because it did not get early warning stations in Lebanon, Israel should not get them in Golan.

Saudi Arabia and Russia want Syria Out

The Russians and Germans have now called for a swift Syrian pull out from Lebanon. Washington is preparing the ground for European unity on the issue. As one European ambassador said to me recently, "the common denominator of the Bruxelles meeting was that we would all support 1559 and the UN. Even though top Baathists here continued to believe Europe would not climb on board an American led economic embargo, they may now be seeing that Washington has lined up its troops. Russia will not veto new UN resolutions that will be coming down the pike if Syria doesn't pull out completely.

The ambiguity in President Asad's interviews about whether Syria would pull out "completely" or leave troops on the Lebanese side of the border is driving the effort to make sure Syria has no escape hatch or wiggle room.

Bashar's trip to Saudi Arabia is an effort to find an Arab back door out of the closing European trap. Saudi can talk to the US and perhaps pave the way for a Syrian-Lebanese deal. But that looks unlikely now that Riyadh is taking a firm line of Syria’s withdrawal. Also the issue of the next Lebanese government is surely on the table in Riyadh. Saudi money helped build Hariri and keeps Lebanon solvent. The Royal family will surely play a roll in configuring the next government and the question of Lahoud's future. For all these reasons, Saudi Arabia is key to Syria's future in Lebanon and explains why Bashar has gone their first. With Egypt also calling for a quick and complete Syrian withdrawal, it looks like the Arab League will not be willing to come to Bashar's aid.

Kofi Annan will be issuing the UN’s report card on resolution 1559 in April. Washington and Paris want a complete Syrian withdrawal by then. If there isn’t one, they want Europe and the Arab states lined up behind them for further UN action. Bashar said he wasn’t feeling isolated in his recent interviews, but that may just be whistling past the graveyard.

Thu Mar 3, 2005 07:17 PM ET
By Dominic Evans

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia added a key Arab voice on Thursday to mounting demands that Syria withdraw its troops swiftly from Lebanon, with Washington raising the threat of punishment if it didn't.

For decades Syrian troops have helped Damascus secure influence over its small neighbour. The United States has long called for them to leave but the pressure has soared since a former Lebanese premier was assassinated last month.

"If you believe in democracy, why not let the democracy in Lebanon flourish and grow," said U.S. President George W. Bush, who backed a U.N. resolution in September that called on Syria's troops to withdraw. "It's time for Syria to get out."

U.S. officials said Washington and European allies wanted to be ready to act quickly, maybe with unspecified sanctions and a tougher U.N. resolution, if Syria failed to pull out.

Earlier, Saudi Arabia also told Damascus to leave Lebanon when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew to Riyadh for crisis talks with Crown Prince Abdullah.

A regional U.S. ally, Abdullah told Assad that "Syria must start withdrawing soon, otherwise Saudi-Syrian relations will go through difficulties", one Saudi official said.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said the Saudi comments lacked credibility, adding: "The talks were...constructive and fruitful and were conducted in an extremely amicable fashion."

Another Arab heavyweight, Egypt, also wants Assad to pull out his 14,000 troops in compliance with the resolution and the Taif Accord that ended Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

But Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo refrained from joining in the increasingly public pullout campaign, saying they were opting for quiet diplomacy by individual Arab states.

Syria's military presence dates from a 1976 intervention. Troop numbers have declined in recent years.

It has faced growing calls to end military and political dominance of its neighbour since former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last month in a Beirut bombing.

Lebanon's opposition blamed Syria, which denies involvement, and organised protests which toppled Beirut's pro-Syrian government this week. Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family, took Saudi citizenship and spent two decades there forging construction deals that turned him into one of the world's richest men.

"They should withdraw immediately," another Saudi source said of the Syrians. "This is what we told them and this is what the whole world is telling them."

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who diplomats said attended the meeting in Riyadh, earlier told reporters in Egypt he had "no initiative" to resolve the Syria-Lebanon crisis.


Russia, long one of Syria's best friends, also said the troops should go.

"Syria should withdraw from Lebanon, but we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Moscow abstained when the Security Council adopted U.S.- and French- sponsored Resolution 1559 in September calling for foreign forces to leave Lebanon and militias to disarm. But Lavrov said the resolution, like any other Council measure, must be implemented.

Assad was quoted by Time magazine on Tuesday as saying he could pull out the remaining soldiers within months, but the United States has expressed scepticism.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said his special envoy on Syria and Lebanon would visit the region in the next few days.

"I will be sending back Terje Roed-Larsen to the region to discuss the issue of withdrawal with the two governments," he told reporters.

"My hope is that I will be able to report progress when I submit my
next report in April." He said everyone was aware of the need to avoid a situation that could destabilise Lebanon or cause tensions.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Special Relationship with Lebanon

Nicholas Blanford, writing in the Christian Science Monitor describes Syria's aims in Lebanon.

"Syria is going to disengage. I think they have no option.... Syria is looking for an honorable way out," says Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the weblog, who is currently living in Damascus.

"The ideal course is for Lahoud to resign, a compromise candidate to be elected and a new government to be formed. The new president and the new government would then ask the Syrians to leave before elections are held," says Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law at St. Joseph University.

A transparent electoral process, free of traditional Syrian-backed gerrymandering, could give the opposition the majority in parliament, which would make President Lahoud's position untenable.

However, analysts doubt that Lahoud will go quietly.....

While the prospects looks bleak for some of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon, analysts in Damascus say that the Syrian government is "optimistic" it can forge a new relationship with a future government in Beirut.

"The crucial time will be from now until the elections," says Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian political analyst and correspondent for the Arabic Al Hayat daily. "If the Syrians play the game cleverly, they can have good relations with any government in Beirut." ...

Analysts in Damascus say that senior members of the ruling Baath Party have accepted the necessity of withdrawing from Lebanon and regularizing relations between the two countries. But only up to a point.

Landis, the Damascus-based professor, says that in order of importance, the Syrians view retaining influence in Lebanon as second only to the survival of the regime. With the tentacles of Syrian influence removed from Lebanon, Damascus will sit back and watch from afar as the Lebanese adjust to the new realities, he says.

"They [the Lebanese] may be in the flush of freedom, but once the battleground for the future of Lebanon begins to take shape we are going to see all of those old confessional divisions line up, and Syria wants to be in a position where it's not the focus of attention, [but is a player] in the background," says Landis. "Syria's relationship with Lebanon is special and that's what Syria is trying to maintain throughout this whole thing."
When I asked a high ranking Ba'thist the other day if Syria would regularize relations with Lebanon to the extent of opening an embassy there, he said:
No. That is a very sensitive point. The relationship between Lebanon and Syria is special. It is like Monaco and France. France does not have an embassy in Monaco.
Of course, no country has an embassy in Monaco.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

"Don't Rush on the Road to Damascus" Flynt Leverett

Flynt Leverett of Brookings criticizes the rush to topple the Syrian government encouraged by some in the Bush government. (Article copied below my commentary)(See Michael Young's criticism of the Leverett article in Reason Magazine.)

I doubt that the US has the means or will to topple the Syrian government at this point. It acted unilaterally in Iraq because it could. The army was ready to go. No longer are there troops to spare for the chaos that will ensue in Syria if things go wrong with the toppling plan - and they surely would go wrong.

Pinpoint bombing strikes by Israel or the US will only rally local opinion to the government.

Bush must go multilateral on Lebanon and Syria; America has no choice but to use diplomacy and world pressure. Europe will not place real economic sanctions on Syria, as Washington urges it to, unless Damascus lingers in Lebanon and is so recalcitrant that forces Europe's hand. By declaring to parliament today that Syria would pull out of Lebanon in several months time, Bashar has already placed the possibility of European sanctions in deep freeze where they belong.

Most importantly, Bashar's government is much stronger than many think. There has been great speculation abroad -- and in Syria -- that the wheels are about to go flying off the regime, that the President is not really in charge, or even more darkly, that a shadowy subterranean power-struggle is taking place within the top ranks of the government, presaging a coup or possible collapse.

Yes, Syrians have been intensely worried for the last two weeks. The chilling silence that came from the Palace during the two weeks following the Hariri assassination led many to suspect the worst and to much nail biting.

Nevertheless, the pressure has been much relieved in the last two days. Bashar is back at the helm, giving interviews and taking a positive line on Lebanon. The decision making process is painfully slow here, like most things. What is more, the president should hire top flight image consultants and get a press-release team who know what they are doing.

Certainly, there are heated debates over who should be making policy and what it should be. We have seen the President’s family consolidating its power over the intelligence agencies, Lebanon and internal affairs. The old-guard Sunni triumvirate of Tlass at defense, Khaddam (V.P) with control over Lebanon and the Iranian connect, and Shara’a at the Foreign Minister has been seriously whittled down. Shara’a is the only one still head-lining and there are whispers that he should be a victim of the Lebanon fiasco.

Kanaan was given the Ministry of Interior some months ago with a mandate to consolidate internal affairs, Walid Mualem has officially taken over the Lebanon portfolio and Shawkat heads intelligence. This shift in power has taken place in tandum with the Lebanon events, but the exact meaning of this coincidence in timing has yet to reveal itself. (See my earlier article here.) There is much talk about moneyed interests and the clash between Lahoud and Hariri somehow being connected to this shift in power in Damascus, but this is all merely speculation and this point.

The President’s conciliatory gestures both to the Lebanese and West have been welcome and reassuring here in Damascus. He did not insist on a vote of confidence in the Lebanese parliament Tuesday – which most Lebanese analysts believed the government would have won. Karami resigned rather than escalate the clash between the opposition and pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon. Syria still has considerable clout in Lebanon, and it does not all derive from intimidation as the opposition would have us believe. The fact is Lebanon remains a divided country and many do not want to see Syria driven out ignominiously.

Don't Rush on the Road to Damascus
Published: March 2, 2005

THE assassination last month of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has given new life to an old idea: using the issue of Lebanese independence to undermine Syria's strategic position. Drawing on the language of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last summer, President Bush and senior officials are now calling on "the Syrian regime" to remove its military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon and cede any political role there.

Administration hawks like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who, as President Reagan's Middle East envoy, oversaw the collapse of America's foray into Lebanon's civil war) and the National Security Council's Elliott Abrams (whose previous involvement in Lebanon policy helped generate the Iran-contra scandal) believe that such a course would allow the establishment of a pro-Western government in Beirut that would accommodate Israel and help to project American influence. They also believe that it would set the stage for the Syrian regime's collapse, removing another Baathist "rogue state."

The turmoil unleashed in Lebanon by the Hariri assassination - which reached a high point this week with the resignation of the Syrian-backed prime minister, Omar Karami - may indeed represent a strategic opening, but not for the risky maximalist course that some in the administration seem intent on pursuing.

For starters, any effort to engineer a pro-Western Lebanese government would be resisted by Hezbollah, the largest party in Lebanon's Parliament, which because of its record of fighting Israel is at least as legitimate in Lebanese eyes as the anti-Syrian opposition. In the face of such resistance, efforts to establish a pro-Western government would fail, creating more instability in the region when the United States can ill afford it.

Does the Bush administration understand that for the foreseeable future, any political order in Lebanon that reflects, as the White House put it, the "country's diversity," will include an important role for Hezbollah? Does the administration feel confident about containing Hezbollah without on-the-ground Syrian management and with the group's sole external guide an increasingly hard-line Iran? Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national security adviser recently said that an overly precipitous Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could pose a threat to Israel.

Moreover, the sudden end of the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad would not necessarily advance American interests. Syrian society is at least as fractious as Iraq's or Lebanon's. The most likely near-term consequence of Mr. Assad's departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist. In the end, the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower Mr. Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him.

To exploit the current moment wisely, the Bush administration must abandon ideological attachments to a bygone era when Maronite Christian leaders dominated Lebanon or fantasies of a strategically neutered democratic state emerging in Syria over the next few months. We have been down this road before, during Lebanon's civil war; it ends with Americans killed or taken hostage in terrorist attacks, and our credibility damaged by our inability to undergird rhetoric with sustainable policy.

It's smart to take advantage of the current focus on Syria's position in Lebanon to obtain concrete improvements in Lebanon's political environment. With help from international partners and key Arab states, it should be possible to win the redeployment of the last Syrian troops in Lebanese cities either to Syria or to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, in accordance with the 1989 Taif accord that ended Lebanon's civil war. Mr. Assad's recent statements make clear that it should also be possible to induce the Lebanese and Syrian governments to negotiate a timetable for withdrawing all Syrian forces. During his four and a half years as president, Mr. Assad has already cut the number of Syrian troops in half, setting precedents for further reductions.

By taking up Mr. Assad's call for bilateral dialogue, the administration could also negotiate a freer Lebanese electoral process, monitored by international observers. The United States, however, should recognize that an expansion of political openness will unfold over years, rather than weeks or months; it will need to proceed cautiously to avoid a re-emergence of sectarian violence.

As Syria retrenches in Lebanon, the United States should use the issue to leverage improved Syrian behavior on issues that arguably matter more to American interests in the region, like Syrian support for insurgents in Iraq and for terrorist activity against Israel. Syria's decision to effect the turnover of Saddam Hussein's half brother and other Iraqi Baathists did not come primarily in response to American jawboning over Iraq. Rather, it was prompted by Syria's interest in deflecting the mounting criticism of its role in Lebanon.

The Bush administration can elicit more sustained improvements in Syrian behavior on Iraq and terrorism by using the threat of intensified criticism of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon - including Security Council action - as a badly needed stick in the repertoire of policy options toward Syria. Washington should also not be afraid to spell out for Mr. Assad the carrots it would offer in return for greater cooperation. In so doing, President Bush could more effectively pursue some of his most important objectives for the region while tangibly improving the lives of ordinary Lebanese.

Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle Eastern affairs at the National Security Council, issenior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy and author of the forthcoming "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."

Syria Today's New Issue

Syria Today is full of interesting stories this month. This is the third issue of the new Magazine put out in Syria in English. It is the only thing of its kind and offers in-depth analysis on many reform issues - particularly economic. Unlike "The Syria Report", run by Jihad Hijazi which also offers high quality articles and analysis to the business community, Syria Today comes at a modest price and so far all its issues are placed on the web several weeks after they appear in hardcover. Congratulations to the Syria Today team.

Andrew Tabler's article, "Balancing Act: Private Banking in Syria," was of particular interest to me because it explains the difficulties in opening up private banks here, which is at the center of the economic reform program. All the same, as BBSF's Hchaime advises his new competitors to remain upbeat. “Our friends in Beirut were waiting to see if we would burn our fingers or not,” said Hchaime. “Despite its problems, this is a profitable and promising market…. We were right to enter when we did.” Many new banks are lining up to get into Syria.

This is the table of contents:

Nabil Sukkar : Threats and Opportunities

Getting a foothold: Syria Today talks to Nabil Hchaime, General Manager of Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi

Private banks : Syria Today talks to Mohammad al Hussein, Minister of Finance

Can private sector performance improve through the expansion of private banking? Bassel Hamwi, Advisor to the CEO at Banque Audi SAL, ponders the future.

Risky business : Abdulkader Husrieh believes the success of banking reform hinges on implementing proper risk management procedures.

A Giant Stride into the Unknown: Iraqi elections

Turning Swords into T-Shirts: Syria-Turkey relations

Balancing Act: Private Banking in Syria

Serving the Nation : Military Service

Taking Aim : Hunting & Protecting Wildlife

Building bridges : Hewar Music Group

Asad Interview with Joe Klein - Time (teaser only)

Syria's President Bashar Assad talks with TIME Columnist Joe Klein about his plans to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon in a matter of months.

Tuesday, Mar. 01, 2005

TIME: Can you tell me when you will you be out of Lebanon?

ASSAD: Out completely?

TIME: Yes.

ASSAD: Actually, our discussion should be with Terji Roed-Larsen, United Nations envoy, who is coming back in March. It [withdrawal] should be very soon and maybe in the next few months. Not after that. I can't give you a technical answer. The point is the next few months.

TIME: Could you give me a timetable?

ASSAD: It's a technical issue, not political. I could not say we could do it in two months because I have not had the meeting with the army people. They may say it will take six months. You need to prepare when you bring your army back to your country. You need to prepare where you will put the troops.

There are two factors. The first is security in Lebanon. The security in Lebanon is much better than before. They have an army, they have a state, they have institutions. The second thing, which is related to Syria, is that after withdrawing we have to protect our border. We need to talk about our borders, because when Israel invaded in 1982, they reached that point. It was very close to Damascus. So we will need [fortifications for the troops] along the border with Lebanon.

President Assad also discussed relations with the U.S., the Iraqi insurgency, the presence of Palestinian groups in Syria and the prospect of internal reform in his country.

Read more about the interview in the upcoming issue of TIME and on

Comment: Notice that in the Kline interview Syria says it will be "completely" out of Lebanon in a few months, "not after that." They he says the Army may demand six months. In the Van Buren interview, Asad claims that the troops will remain on the Lebanese side of the border in the Baqaa. It would seem that negotiations are fluide and the situation is changing quickly.

Asad Interview with Alix Van Buren - Republica

Dr. Nicola Migliorino an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter has been kind enough to translate the Repubblica interview that Alix Van Buren did with President Bashar al-Asad 3 days ago.

Mr. President, the United States raise the level of the accusations, Israel threatens an attack. Your are at the helm of a country sometimes defined as ‘rogue state’. How do you feel?

In spite of what might appear, I don’t feel isolated at all. It’ true that the Euro-Atlantic relations are recovering at our expenses. Only at a first sight, though. In fact many differences remain in place [between Europe and the US], on some crucial points, for instance the international choices, stability. And Europe knows that our first interest is stability. Europe knows that we can co-operate in the war on terror, because we know how to do it: we have fought it during the 1970s and 1980s. Washington has imposed isolation and sanctions against us before. And each time, the circle drawn around us did not close. If you ask me if I expect a military attack, though, well I see it coming since the end of the war on Iraq. It is since then that the tension is mounting.

And now? Are we coming to the final showdown with Washington?

I don’t think. These are only preliminaries. Surely, the language that the White House is using, if read between lines, encourages to think [that this is] a campaign similar to that that preceded the attack against Iraq. They accuse us of being morally responsible for the death of the Lebanese former PM Hariri. But the discussion on the attack in Beirut has been highly blown up. One thing is undeniable: there has been an intelligence failure. But few remember that our [security] services have left the [Lebanese] capital long ago. If we had really killed Hariri, for us it would be a political suicide. In fact, besides ethical and human principles, the important question is: who benefits? Certainly not Syria.

Shall we list the suspects?

I do not want to indict anybody, nor express pre-emptive judgements. In the first places, in the Middle Eastern logic, there are Syria and Israel. But if you want I can tell you this: in Lebanon there are groups able to organise attacks of that type. We have seen this many times during the last few years: the assassination of Hobeika, the bomb against a Hamas official. Let’s wait for the results of the enquiry.

Bush said that the ball is now in your field. He prepared a list of requests: the full application of [UNSC] Res. 1559, that is the withdrawal of the Syrian troops and Security Forces from Lebanon, elections in Beirut without Syrian interference. President, how do you respond to this?

There are two replies. The first is that we refer to the United Nations, from which the Resolution was issued. We will respect it, as any other resolution, right or wrong. A mission is being implemented, there will be a report. The second answer is that our troops will be redeployed along the Syro-Lebanese borders, but on the Lebanese side of the border. Besides, the Washington ultimatum has been issued with bad timing: for the 60% of our troops started the withdrawal in 2000. You see, deploy [our troops] abroad is against our interest: it comes with a high price, both in economic terms, and politically. But what is at stake is very important: it touches the core of stability in Lebanon and at our borders.

That’s right. But the Lebanese opposition replies that this is too much: you were invited as guests, but you stayed too long…

No, please. It’s true. We stayed ten years longer than expected. But look at recent history. Civil war ended in 1990. [Lebanon] needed to reconstruct the army, to reconstruct the country on new, secular and non-confessional bases. This was required by the Ta’if agreement, with the clause that the two governments would later agree the final withdrawal at a later stage. What could not be foreseen was the continuation of the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, until 2000. And there was, at that time, hope for peace in the entire region. On the contrary, here we are, with war raging at our borders. You see those mountains outside the window? Well, in 1982 Israel got until there, a handful of kilometres from Damascus. Technically the withdrawal can be managed within a year. Strategically, however, it will only happen if we will obtain serious guarantees. In one word: peace.

The streets of Beirut have declared a peaceful intifada [against Syria]. President, don’t you fear a new Ukraine?

No. Those who expect Ukraine in the country of Cedars is under an illusion. You see, Lebanon is complex, one has to know how to interpret it. It is a society that, to many respects, is tribal, divided in communities that have often clashed against each other in history. The allies of today are the enemy of yesterday, and the alliances change from one season to the other, the more today during an electoral campaign. But if someone from outside wants to blow on fire, any slip could have disastrous consequences. Lebanon, however, is only a pretext. The true objective of Washington is another.

Which one?

It is Iraq. It’s a war that we have never accepted. Washington accuses us of scarce co-operation, of supporting the guerrilla. But, truly, they ask us to remedy to their many mistakes: the dissolution of the state, of the military forces. The problem is the absence of a global project. The only winning plan is the one that is coincident with the will of the Iraqis.

Concerning the hostility vis-à-vis the invasion of Iraq, there is an allegedly high number of young men from your country who cross the border to join the fight against the Americans. The White House accuses you of not controlling the border as you should.

No. That is not true. Those porous borders are a problem for us too. From there come armes, smugglers, and terror workforce. With our means, it is impossible to check 500 kilometers of sand without a road. If we could seal [those 500 km], we would have done it at the time of Saddam, when he smuggled trucks filled with TNT to blow them up in our squares. For this reason I have asked the help of the Americans.

To the Americans?

Yes. I have received an envoy of the Pentagon, I have spoken about it with the State Department. I have asked for night vision equipment and radar systems, more or less the same technology that they use at the border with Mexico. I have even proposed, in October, the creation of mixed Syro-American patrols.

What did they reply?

I am still waiting.

Then is the big obstacle of Hizbullah. You have never denied that you support an organisation that Washington defines terrorist. Israel indicates Hizbullah as the author of the terrorist attack of [last] Friday night in Tel Aviv. These are new very strong accusations against Damascus.

If we want to talk about terror, then we should start by saying that Hizbullah is a movement which emerged in Lebanon to fight the Israeli invasion of 1982. Its area of action is limited to the Lebanese territory. It does not hit in Israel, contrary to other groups, like the Islamic Jihad. It is also a political party, with 11 MPs in the Parliament. So one cannot simplify and throw it in the big bowl of ‘terror’. It is revealing that Europe is unwilling to include it in the list of terrorist organisations. Hariri himself was mediating with the EU to avoid the inclusion [of Hizbullah in the list].

The Islamic Jihad has claimed from Damascus the Tel Aviv attack. Israel considers [Syria] guilty.

It is an insulting accusation. Syria has nothing to do with it. The office of the Islamic Jihad here has been closed for years. What remains are some political figures, they have been expelled from Israel. Should we expel them too?

The new Palestinian government has hurriedly expressed its solidarity to Syria. Is it the sign of a new entente between Damascus and the Palestinian leadership? For twenty years, before you became president, Arafat was persona non grata in Syria. What has changed?

I wish I could have met [Arafat]. But then there was the Muqata siege, and he could not travel. Now we are working in close contact with the Palestinian president Abou Mazen. Shortly after being elected he came to Damascus. We have a priority: to bring unity among the various Palestinian factions, precisely to avoid the risk of dangerous slips. So, you see, it is out of place to indicate Syria as a factor of instability.

Prime Minister Sharon requires from you a proof of your willingness to make peace. And in the first interviews to an Arab newspapers has defined himself a man of peace.

Forgive me if I smile. But besides that, peace is for Syria a strategic choice. Sharon says that he does not believe in the sincerity of my offers, but then why not verify? The parameters of peace are well known. We only need to sit and negotiate.

Your father, President Hafiz Al Asad, used to say that he wanted to leave peace as a legacy. Recently it has been revealed that in 2000 the peace deal was nearly concluded. What happened?

This way: President Clinton called my father on the telephone. He call him to participate to an unexpected meeting. He told him: come, you will see, you will be happy. He had received reassurances from the Israeli PM Barak. Clinton met my father in Geneva. The agreement was on the restitution of the Golan heights, with the exception of a 100 meters strip along the Tiberias lake. At the last minute Barak pulled back. He was caught by doubts before getting on board of the plane that would take him to the meeting. He understood that Israel was not ready for peace, that he had no political support backing him up. Syria, on the contrary, was ready. We had come close to peace with Rabin too. Then he was killed, and with him all the hopes.

For Israel the re-start of negotiations has to take place without “preconditions”. Is it acceptable?

We have, before anything else, understand the meaning of the term “preconditions”. What does it mean? That we can start a dialogue but that we should disregard the results reached in 1994 and 2000? Well, if it is that way, what is this if not a “precondition”? For Syria, I repeat it, peace is a strategic choice. For Israel, on the contrary, it changes as government change.

The US blame you for being out of tempo, of not adapting to the democratic transformation of the Middle East.

Rapidity is a subjective concept. The truth is that we have taken important steps. Our problems are bureaucratic and administrative reform, modernising an enormous ‘rusty machine’, changing the mentality of people, substituting loyal obedience with creativity, eradicating deeply rooted corruption. But, as for any great revolution, we need years. At least one generation. We need the help of the international community. And more than anything I am concerned about the need of preserving the social and political stability of the country. Modernisation can come at a high price for vast layers of the population.

What is the situation of human rights?

I could reply that it is better than at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but it is only an easy joke. I could tell you of the one thousand and more political prisoners that we have freed, of the new periodicals. But I admit it: we have strict rules. In the last sixty years we have lived in a situation of constant danger, decades of war, of hostility of countries ready to topple our regimes, years of terror. We cannot afford normal laws. At least now.

You have an ambivalent relation with the [internal] opposition. You welcome them, but you control them.

Concerning the dissidents, I am an open minded man. But I cannot allow them to create troubles. I am not an employee here, I have to take care of my country. If in Hyde Park someone attacks the Queen, nothing happens. But if here someone in the street, for example, verbally attacks the Christians, the following day there could be a civil war. You can say: it is a question of freedom of speech. But in this way the country is driven on the rocks.

Mr. President, what do you fear most in these days?

The thought of this armed America that today behaves as a superpower without vision. None of the problems the in 2001 led to the attack against the twin towers and then to the war against Saddam has been solved. On the contrary, some have become more serious, and most of all the question of the stability. From Damascus to Jerusalem, to Islamabad and Kabul there is a front of recruitment of terror. The last attack in Syria took place a few weeks ago. On the mountains of Lebanon there are cells of Al-Qaeda. Even Italy was targeted.

But what can you do against terrorism?

I offered my help to Washington. Sooner of later they will understand that we are a key to the solution. We are essential to the peace process, for Iraq. You will see, maybe one day the Americans will come and knock on our door.

La Repubblica (Rome) 28 February 2005