Thoughts on Syrian politics, history and religion.
Monday, June 27, 2005
Conspiracies, Regime-Change, and Jihadists
I will travel to London for a week beginning today, so I will not be able to post until I return to Damascus. Best to all, Joshua
Claude Salhani, the Washington Bureau Chief of UPI, has a new angle on the Assassinations in Lebanon. Based on the counter-terrorism expertise of Fred Burton, he points the finger at Rifaat al-Asad, Iran and possible Israel. In Damascus, such notions are popular. Here is his article:
Fred Burton, vice president of counter-terrorism with Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based outfit specializing in intelligence and counter-terrorism analysis, issued a report on June 22 describing the remotely detonated charge that killed George Hawi, the former Lebanese Communist Part chief, as "so sophisticated that few in the world could have done it."
The counter-terrorism expert believes that the "complex nature of the Hawi attack narrows down the list of culprits to a few." Among the countries possessing that level of expertise are the United States, Britain, France, Israel and Russia. "This type of technology is only available to government agencies," Burton told United Press International.
Burton, who spent 15 years in U.S. counter-terrorism, told UPI that the "surgical nature of the charge" and the skill set that went into these bombings are "not available for your average terrorist organization."
Burton has investigated almost every bombing against American embassies over the past two decades and is familiar with the modus operandi used by various terrorist groups.
"Even al-Qaida and Hezbollah would not have this capability. Hezbollah are good bomb makers but their expertise is in truck bombs," Burton told UPI.
Stratfor's analyst also believes the same technology was used in the killing of Lebanese journalist, Samir Kassir on June 2. Kassir, a front-page political columnist with Beirut's leading An-Nahar newspaper was known for his opposition to Syria's involvement in Lebanese politics. The Lebanese opposition blamed the bombing on Syrian agents.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Syria to "knock it off" after George Hawi was killed in an assassination that closely resembles that of journalist Samir Kassir's.
Syria, however, says Burton, "lacks the finesse" to carry out such a job. Burton said he has investigated "a number of Syrian attacks. "This is not their style."
Stratfor's analysts point out that although Washington was quick to point a very prominent finger at Damascus for the killings, it is difficult to believe that the Syrian regime actually would have ordered Hawi's death.
"Not only are we picking up indications from Syria that the military there is baffled by what has happened, but there is a great deal of irritation that the attacks have occurred at all, since the killings are creating inconveniences for Damascus," states the report.
According to the Stratfor report, "Hawi may have been best-known as a 'prominent anti-Syrian' figure in Lebanon, but sources close to the Assad regime refer to him privately as a 'well-behaved friend.'
That raises the question: What exactly would Syria gain from eliminating a couple of Lebanese opposition figures when the regime itself is in a particularly vulnerable position following the forced military withdrawal from Lebanon?
Damascus, in this In this case, stands to lose more than it would gain from ordering the assassinations, simply to show that Lebanon risks falling back into a political abyss without Syrian protection.
"Whoever did this needed to have the capability to access Hawi's schedule. This is not your run-off-the-mill terrorist." Burton explains that the perpetrators of the attacks needed to have "eyes on." This means that someone had to be within eyesight to see the 'targets' enter their vehicles before pressing the remote control button that would detonate the explosive. Or at least passing on the message to the one holding the detonator.
The explosive charge that took Hawi's life was so precise that it injured his driver who was sitting next to him, but did not kill him. Hawi, 65, was killed instantly when the bomb blew up in his car as he was getting into it.
Hawi is the third prominent anti-Syrian to be killed this year.
Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in a Feb. 14 bombing. Popular outrage over his assassination led to the April 26 withdrawal of Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation.
If Burton's analysis is correct - and everything leads one to believe it is - it would indicate that some very powerful and dark forces are at work in Lebanon.
Clare Lopez, executive director of the Iran Policy Committee and a former operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency told UPI "my instincts tells me to look to Tehran. They are the terror masters.
Burton agrees that Iran has the capability, "and they could show Hezbollah how to do it. It could be a contract hit." The question remains, why? What has any group to gain in killing a former politician?
The list of suspects runs high, admits Burton, adding that those who killed Hawi clearly wanted to send a message. The trouble is the message is not all that clear. Unless....
Unless you consider a pertinent questions asked by the Stratfor analyst: Suppose that these bombings were "merely collateral?" That the true target in the plot is the Syrian regime itself? If Damascus were being framed, who then would be the likely suspect?
Israel comes to mind. In fact the Lebanese Communist Party immediately accused Israel. But that is simply illogical. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is too tied up in the planned withdrawal from the Gaza settlements to risk such a venture. And renewed mayhem in Lebanon is not necessarily good news for Israel.
But as Stratfor states, there is "another possibility. "Someone closer to Damascus with a motive, and cloaked within the Assad name."
President Bashar's uncle, Rifaat Assad, who has been exiled from Syria by his brother Hafez, the former president, has recently been trying for a comeback to Syrian politics. In so doing, he has initiated talks with Syrian opposition groups, including, strangely enough, the Muslim Brotherhood. Rifaat has called for the removal of his nephew Bashar.
Before his fallout with his brother, Rifaat, long considered the black sheep of the family, commanded an elite military brigade, which under his command helped put down a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1983, in one of modern Syria's bloodiest chapters. It was not a pretty picture, with entire neighborhoods razed to the ground, compliments of Rifaat.
As the Stratfor paper points out, "The case remains open and the list of suspects is a long one. Rifaat Assad's name cannot yet be crossed off the suspect list just yet. -- (Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)
Most Lebanese and Americans are not buying this story; however, and news of a "hit list" of Lebanese opponents of Syria is the talk of the town. An-Nahar is reporting that
Jumblat has publicly ascertained that he is on Syria's 'death list,' calling on the population of the Druze Hinterland to stay "sensible and calm" if he is assassinated.
"This is my last will and testament," he said, warning the Druze community against repeating the blood bath of 1977, when some 200 Christian villagers were cut-throated in the aftermath of the assassination of Walid's father, Kamal Jumblat.
Jumblat urged to be given a public funeral similar to the million-strong procession that carried Rafik Hariri to his downtown Beirut grave.
The Bush administration was reported Saturday to be in favor of President Lahoud's departure from power and against Berri's reelection as Speaker of Lebanon's newly elected parliament, but would readily change its stance if Berri's removal could bring in a Hizbullah Speaker.
"The devil you know is better than a devil you do not know," one American administration source was quoted as saying by An Nahar's Washington correspondent Hisham Milhem. "A Hizbullah replacement is absolutely undesirable for the United States."
Lahoud's exit is desirable on the grounds that the United States and France had sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution objecting to the extension of his term in power in September, which Syria nevertheless had strong-armed the Beirut parliament to endorse, Milhem quoted Bush administration officials as saying.
"No one supports any of those two persons," one official was quoted as saying, referring to Lahoud and Berri. "They have represented a government and security system that harmed Lebanon and the time has come to get rid of them."
The official, however, said this was an American desire "the translation of which into reality is something left to the new Lebanese parliament to do. It's not going to be an easy mission to accomplish."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iraq style regime change was not appropriate for Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted in remarks published Friday that an Iraq-style regime change was not appropriate for Syria, but said that Damascus must change its policies.
"What we want is to send the Syrians a clear message from everybody that their behaviour must change. This means that they should not be in a position to cause instability in Lebanon," the London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted her as saying in an interview given to three Arabic-language newspapers.
When asked whether the U.S. administration would go as far as toppling President Bashar al-Assad's government, she said: "Every situation is different from the other. Syria is not Iraq and Iraq is not Syria.
"Iraq was a special case where there was a problem of weapons of mass destruction, backing "terrorism" and UN (Security Council) resolutions. We were also in a state of war with Iraq.
"The Syrian regime is capable of changing itself, its policies and its behaviour with its neighbours. This is the path we hope they will take," she said.
The Iraq border situation has become the main topic of American complaint. Syrian authorities are doing what they can to counter US accusations that they are allowing foreign fighters to stream into Iraq from Syria. Recently, the Foreign Ministry organized a trip of Damascus based Military Attaches and reporters to visit the border. Foreign Minister Sharaa has denied US claims and insists that Syria is turning a new page with Iraq and is ready to open a Syrian embassy in Baghdad. He demands proof of Syrian complicity, rather than allegations. The Big Eight governments are meeting next month and it is believed Syria will be a leading topic of their discussions. Syria must nip any talk of sanctions in the bud. The following BBC article is describes the propaganda war now being waged in anticipation of the G8 meeting.
Mr Shara says Syria wants to check the accuracy of the claims.
Syria says it will ask Baghdad for evidence of foreign fighters crossing its borders adding that it wants to open a "new page" with Iraq.
Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara also says Damascus hoped to reopen its embassy in Baghdad "very soon".
Washington has frequently accused Syria of allowing militants to cross into Iraq to join the insurgency there.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated the warning on Thursday, calling for less words and more action.
"This is a government that can take action on its border to prevent these cross-border activities which are really contributing dramatically to insecurity in Iraq," she said after a meeting of G8 foreign ministers in London.
"So, if they are prepared to do it, they should just do it."
Mr Shara told reporters Syria wanted evidence of Washington's claims of cross-border activity.
"We will be contacting officials in Baghdad very soon to know the source and truth of these allegations," he said, adding that they would ask for documents and evidence.
He said Syria was "ready to co-operate and open a new page with Iraq".
"But we are not ready to hear every now and then accusations that may not have a basis of truth," he added.
"We want to confirm by words and deeds how accurate these accusations are and what solutions could be found."
He told reporters Syria hoped to send a delegation soon to Baghdad soon to discuss re-opening its embassy there.
US and Iraqi forces carried out a major offensive against militants in western Iraq's restive Anbar province, on the border with Syria, last week.
The US military said it had killed 50 rebels and arrested 100 others during Operation Spear.
The Sunday times has a long article giving details of how Jihadists travel through Syria. June 25, 2005
IN A garden café on the airport road into Damascus clusters of young men gather to drink coffee, smoke shisha and hear some awe-inspiring accounts of death and glory that will lead many on a journey to certain death in the battle raging across the border in Iraq.
The owner, a former Mujahidin fighter, openly boasts of his exploits and those of his comrades still fighting the war against US forces. Like many veterans he is eager to recount his adventures in the hope of persuading others to join the cause.
A Syrian mother said that her son, a taxi driver, had succumbed to the call to arms last month and set off with a friend on the trail to Iraq, never to be heard of again.
Like thousands of other young men, drawn from across the Arab world and from Muslim communities as far away as Spain, France and even Sheffield, his final point of departure was Syria.
“It’s an individual decision. Once you’ve decided, you go to a mosque to make the initial contact. Then you are sent to a private home and from there for a week’s intensive training inside Syria,” she said. According to former fighters who spoke to The Times in Damascus, volunteers are given a crash course in using Kalashnikov rifles, firing rocket-propelled grenades and the use of remote detonators. The training takes place at secret camps in the Syrian desert, near the Iraqi border. Some attacks are even planned in advance in Damascus and Aleppo. Once the team is ready, a guide leads them across the rugged border into Iraq where they are taken to a safe house.
Most are filtered down the Euphrates river valley to join the insurgency’s combat cells, others crossing in the north head for the town of Tal Afar and the northern capital, Mosul.
Once dismissed as a small and insignificant part of the insurgency in Iraq, the US military now concedes that the threat posed by foreign fighters is one of the most dangerous they face.
If the might of the US military was humbled in South East Asia thanks in large part to the Ho Chi Min Trail, the jungle supply route that fed insurgents in South Vietnam, then American forces in Iraq today face no less a challenge from the fanatics who cross into Iraq from Syria.
Over the past few weeks US Marines have carried out a series of offensives in the western Iraqi province of Anbar to try to smash the Euphrates supply line, yet most of the towns along the river valley remain in rebel hands. The main border town of al-Qaim is even nicknamed the “jihad superbowl” by US forces.
“The way ahead is not going to be easy,” President Bush conceded yesterday, after meeting Ibrahim al- Jaafari, the visiting Iraqi Prime Minister, at the White House. “The enemy’s goal is to drive us out of Iraq before the Iraqis have established a secure, democratic government. They will not succeed.” General John Abizaid, the commander of the US Central Command, which is responsible for Iraq, told Congress on Thursday that he believed that more foreign fighters were entering the country now than six months ago.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is believed that several thousand fighters are in the country. Some are remnants of the thousands who poured in during the US-led invasion of Iraq. According to Lieutenant-General JohnVines, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, 150 foreign volunteers now cross into the country from Syria every month.
This week US forces raiding a hideout near the Syrian border found passports from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. There was even a return airline ticket from Tripoli to Damascus.
They represent only a fraction of the estimated 20,000-strong insurgent force and it is the most potent weapon in the rebel arsenal. Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian fugitive who heads al-Qaeda in Iraq, most of the foreigners are used as volunteers for suicide car bomb attacks. Since the handover of sovereignty in Iraq a year ago, there have been 479 car bombers killing 2,174 people and wounding 5,520. In the latest incident, 6 US soldiers were killed and 13 Marines were wounded yesterday in a suicide attack in Fallujah, a town that was supposed to be under complete US military control.
Instead of confronting the foreign fighters inside Iraq, the Bush Administration is now turning up the pressure on Syria to stop the Mujahidin trail passing through its country.
“It is a fact that terrorists come across the Syrian border. It is also a fact that Syria is a dictatorship with a very large intelligence community. And one has to assume they know it is going on in their country,” Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said. (continue article click above.)
Lebanon and Syria were the “guests”, at the first meeting between Philippe Douste-Blazy, the new French Foreign Minister and his American counterpart Condoleeza Rice. The new French minister is an outspoken politician who speaks directly in sensitive issues.
Rice strived at comforting her European colleagues that the U.S. Administration has no intention to change the regime in Syria. The matter comforts France, the country that does not seek to take any risks in changing the regime of any country, regardless of its behavior. The French Minister stressed the need to toughen the international firm stand against Syria. Moreover, France underlined sharing with the U.S. administration the necessity to see that Syria does not undermine the stability of its neighbors, specifically Lebanon and Iraq. Primarily, France is highly concerned for Lebanon’s stability and attempt to recover, while the U.S. Administration is contemplating further strict measures against Syria. Both countries are very serious about reprimanding Syria, should the International community find that the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus is involved in the previous and current assassinations in Lebanon. The investigations are ongoing, although away from the media hype. The U.S. Secretary of State has confirmed to her European colleagues that any new assassination in Lebanon will have some very serious consequences on Syria, since the latter is responsible for implementing UN resolution 1559 provisions. Furthermore, Rice informed several European Ministers that the Syrian regime still has not fully grasped all the messages and signs “repeatedly addressed by the United States”.
The French experience with the Syrian “respond” regarding the European messages has so far been similar to the American one. The Syrian negativity became a reconciliation point between Paris and Washington. At the beginning of French President Jacques Chirac’s presidential term and following the French attempts to set a dialogue approach with both Syrian presidents, Hafez Assad and his heir Bashar Assad; France reached a conclusion that the Syrian regime is at an ailing condition and incapable of listening any message or advice, let alone figure them out.
Several demands to resume the dialogue between Syria and France have emerged from the UN Secretary General Representative, Terje Roed-Larsen, and earlier from Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, who had advised during his meeting with Chirac, to resume the dialogue with Damascus. However, France has lost trust, since it exerted great efforts during the past four years, to open up to Syria and its President. However, Damascus’s persistence to extend Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term in office, as the breach of all Syrian promises and commitments highly disappointed France.
There are times when I must go off topic. Torture is one of them. Anthony Lewis, who has long been a voice of conscience in America, is correct when he writes:
Over many years the United States has worked to persuade and compel governments around the world to abide by the rules. By spurning our own rules, we put that effort at risk. What Justice Louis Brandeis said about law at home applies internationally as well: "If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law."
Boston WHEN Vice President Dick Cheney said last week that detainees at the American prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were treated better than they would be "by virtually any other government on the face of the earth," he was carrying on what has become a campaign to whitewash the record of abuses at Guantánamo. Right-wing commentators have been sounding the theme. Columnist Charles Krauthammer said the treatment of the Guantánamo prisoners had been "remarkably humane and tolerant." Yes, and there is no elephant in the room.
Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation observed what went on in Guantánamo. One reported on July 29, 2004: "On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18, 24 hours or more." Time magazine published an extended article last week on an official log of interrogations of one Guantánamo detainee over 50 days from November 2002 to January 2003. The detainee was Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi who is suspected of being the planned 20th hijacker on Sept. 11, 2001, but who was unable to enter the United States. Mr. Kahtani was interrogated for as long as 20 hours at a stretch, according to the detailed log. At one point he was put on an intravenous drip and given 3½ bags of fluid. When he asked to urinate, guards told him that he must first answer questions. He answered them. The interrogator, not satisfied with the answers, told him to urinate in his pants, which he did. Thirty minutes later, the log noted, Mr. Kahtani was "beginning to understand the futility of his situation."
F.B.I. agents, reporting earlier on the treatment of Mr. Kahtani, said a dog was used "in an aggressive manner to intimidate" him. At one point, according to the log, Mr. Kahtani's interrogator told him that he needed to learn, like a dog, to show respect: "Began teaching detainee lessons such as stay, come and bark to elevate his social status to that of a dog. Detainee became very agitated." At a minimum, the treatment of Mr. Kahtani was an exercise in degradation and humiliation.
Such treatment is forbidden by three sources of law that the United States respected for decades - until the administration of George W. Bush. The Geneva Conventions, which protect people captured in conflict, prohibit "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." The scope of that clause's legal obligation has been debated, but previous American governments abided by it.
President Bush decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members who are detained at Guantánamo. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, also ratified by the United States, requires signatories to "prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction ... cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." The Bush administration declared that this provision did not apply to the treatment of non-Americans held outside the United States. Finally, there is the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It makes cruelty, oppression or "maltreatment" of prisoners a crime.
Armed services lawyers worried that some methods of interrogation might violate the Uniform Code and federal criminal statutes, exposing interrogators to prosecution. A Pentagon memorandum obtained by ABC News said a meeting of top military lawyers on March 8, 2003, concluded that "we need a presidential letter" approving controversial methods, to give interrogators immunity.
The idea that a president can legalize the unlawful evidently came from a series of memorandums written by Justice Department officials. They argued, among other things, that President Bush's authority as commander in chief to set interrogation methods could trump treaties and federal law. Although President Bush decided to deny detainees at Guantánamo the protection of the Geneva Conventions, he did order that they must be treated "humanely."
The Pentagon, responding to the Time magazine article on the treatment of Mr. Kahtani, said, "The Department of Defense remains committed to the unequivocal standard of humane treatment for all detainees, and Kahtani's interrogation plan was guided by that strict standard." In the view of the administration, then, it is "humane" to give a detainee 3½ bags of I.V. fluid and then make him urinate on himself, force him to bark like a dog, or chain him to the floor for 18 hours.
No one can seriously doubt now that cruelties and indignities have been inflicted on prisoners at Guantánamo. Nor is there any doubt that worse has happened elsewhere - prisoners beaten to death by American soldiers, untold others held in secret locations by the Central Intelligence Agency, others rendered to be tortured by governments such as Uzbekistan's.
Since the widespread outrage over the photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Americans have seemingly ceased to care. It was reported yesterday that Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former American commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal, is being considered for promotion. Many people would say the mistreatment of Mohamed al-Kahtani, or of suspects who might well be innocent, is justified in a war with terrorists. Morality is outweighed by necessity.
The moral cost is not so easily put aside. We Americans have a sense of ourselves as a moral people. We have led the way in the fight for human rights in the world. Mistreating prisoners makes the world see our moral claims as hypocrisy. Beyond morality, there is the essential role of law in a democracy, especially in American democracy.
This country has no ancient mythology to hold it together, no kings or queens. We have had the law to revere. No government, we tell ourselves, is above the law. Over many years the United States has worked to persuade and compel governments around the world to abide by the rules. By spurning our own rules, we put that effort at risk. What Justice Louis Brandeis said about law at home applies internationally as well: "If the government becomes a law-breaker, it breeds contempt for law."
Anthony Lewis is a former Times columnist.
Here are two other article recently published on the subject. (I thank Paul at War in Context for them.)
Military doctors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have aided interrogators in conducting and refining coercive interrogations of detainees, including providing advice on how to increase stress levels and exploit fears, according to new, detailed accounts given by former interrogators.
The accounts, in interviews with The New York Times, come as mental health professionals are debating whether psychiatrists and psychologists at the prison camp have violated professional ethics codes. The Pentagon and mental health professionals have been examining the ethical issues involved.
The former interrogators said the military doctors' role was to advise them and their fellow interrogators on ways of increasing psychological duress on detainees, sometimes by exploiting their fears, in the hopes of making them more cooperative and willing to provide information. In one example, interrogators were told that a detainee's medical files showed he had a severe phobia of the dark and suggested ways in which that could be manipulated to induce him to cooperate.
In addition, the authors of an article published by The New England Journal of Medicine this week said their interviews with doctors who helped devise and supervise the interrogation regimen at Guantanamo showed that the program was explicitly designed to increase fear and distress among detainees as a means to obtaining intelligence. [complete article]
U.N. human rights experts said Thursday they have reliable accounts of detainees being tortured at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The experts also said Washington had not responded to their latest request to check on the conditions of terror suspects at the facility in eastern Cuba. That request was made in April.U.S. officials so far have allowed only the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Guantanamo detainees. The U.N. human rights investigators have been trying to visit since 2002. [complete article]
while I am no longer talking about Syrian, but US hypocracy, let me add this article by Avi Shlaim of Oxford. He points out how Israel's plan to destroy the 8,000 settler homes in Gaza before handing the region over to the Palestinians is a symbol for what is wrong with the US and Israel policies toward Arabs.
US hypocrisy is not new but Condi Rice has taken it beyond chutzpah
Avi Shlaim Wednesday June 22, 2005 Guardian
Condoleezza Rice hailed the understanding between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the need to destroy the homes of the 8,000 Jewish settlers in Gaza as a historic step on the road to peace. This is a fatuous statement by one of the most vacuous US secretaries of state of the postwar era.
American foreign policy has habitually displayed double standards towards the Middle East: one standard towards Israel and one towards the Arabs. To give just one example, the US effected regime change in Baghdad in three weeks but has failed to dismantle a single Jewish settlement in the occupied territories in 38 years.
The two main items on America's current agenda for the region are democracy for the Arabs and a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. America, however, insists on democracy only for its Arab opponents, not for its friends. As for the peace process, it is essentially a mechanism by which Israel and America try to impose a solution on the Palestinians. American hypocrisy is nothing new. But with Dr Rice it has gone beyond chutzpah.
With Ariel Sharon, by contrast, what you see is what you get. He has always been in the destruction business, not the construction business. As minister of defence in 1982, Sharon preferred to destroy the settlement town of Yamit in Sinai rather than hand it to Egypt as a reward for signing a peace treaty with Israel. George Bush once described his friend Sharon as "a man of peace". In truth, Sharon is a brutal thug and land-grabber.
Sharon is also the unilateralist par excellence. The road map issued by the quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) in the aftermath of the Iraq war envisaged three stages leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. Sharon wrecked the road map, notably by continuing to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank and building an illegal wall that cuts deep into Palestinian territory.
He presented his plan for disengagement from Gaza as a contribution to the road map; in fact it is almost the exact opposite. The road map calls for negotiations between the two sides, leading to a two-state solution. Sharon refuses to negotiate and acts to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel. As he told rightwing supporters: "My plan is difficult for the Palestinians, a fatal blow. There's no Palestinian state in a unilateral move." The real purpose of the move is to derail the road map and kill the comatose peace process. For Sharon, withdrawal from Gaza is the prelude not to a permanent settlement but to the annexation of substantial sections of the West Bank.
Sharon decided to cut his losses in Gaza when he realised that the cost of occupation is not sustainable. Gaza is home to 8,000 Israeli settlers and 1.3 million Palestinians. The settlers control 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and most of the water. This is a hopeless colonial enterprise, accompanied by one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times. Bush publicly endorsed Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and retain the four main settlement blocks on the West Bank without consulting the quartet - a reversal of the US position since 1967 that viewed the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Last year Sharon proposed handing the remaining Israeli assets in Gaza to an international body. Now he proposes to destroy the homes and farms.
The change of plan is prompted by Israeli fear that Hamas will claim credit for the withdrawal and raise its flag over the buildings vacated by the settlers. This is inevitable both because Hamas, not the PA, is the liberator of Gaza and because Israel is refusing to coordinate its moves with the PA. Another fear is that Hamas, supported by 35-40% of the Palestinian population, will emerge as a serious electoral challenger to Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.
This is Condi's conundrum. If she is serious about spreading democracy in the Arab world she must accept the outcome of free elections; in most of the Arab world they would produce Islamist, anti-US governments. Israel has contributed more than any other country to this sorry state of affairs. Condi and the American right regard Israel as a strategic asset in the war on terror. In fact Israel is America's biggest liability. For most Arabs and Muslims the real issue in the Middle East is not Iraq, Iran or democracy but Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people and America's blind support for Israel.
America's policy towards the Middle East is myopic, muddled and mistaken. Only a negotiated settlement can bring lasting peace and stability to the area. And only America has the power to push Israel into such a settlement. It is high time the US got tough with Israel, the intransigent party and main obstacle to peace. Colluding in Sharon's selfish, uncivilised plan to destroy the Jewish homes in Gaza is not a historic step on the road to peace.
· Avi Shlaim is a British Academy research professor at St Antony's College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, called yesterday for a more inclusive, democratic process in Egypt, but sidestepped the continuing ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's biggest Islamic opposition group.
Speaking in Cairo, Ms Rice said President Hosni Mubarak's decision to allow an unprecedented, multi-party presidential election in September was an "important first step", but stressed the need for a more open, competitive contest."
President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change. Now, the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people," she said. "It must fulfil the promise it has made to its people, and to the entire world, by giving its citizens the freedom to choose."
Her silence on the Muslim Brotherhood's lack of free choices reflected the strong official Egyptian resistance to legalising the organisation. But it also illustrated Washington's larger dilemma in calling for greater Arab democracy while opposing Islamic groups such as Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon with proven electoral appeal. [complete article]
"Unveiling Iraq's Teenage Prostitutes in Syria," by Phillips
Unveiling Iraq's teenage prostitutes Fleeing their war-torn homes, Iraqi girls are selling their bodies in Syria to support their families.
Joshua E. S. Phillips June 24, 2005 Salon.com (Thanks to Jefferson Gray for sending me this copy)
DAMASCUS, Syria -- You might not even notice the Manara nightclub if it weren't for the gradual flow of cars leading right to it. Just behind the Mosque of President Hafez Assad, the club's parking lot is crammed with cars, many bearing plates from neighboring gulf states. Inside, disco lights pierce the smoky air.
Patrons pack the seats as they sip beer and lazily gaze at the dance floor. They watch teenage girls dressed in snug, revealing clothes awkwardly shuffling to thumping Arabic music. Many girls wear stilettos so steep they can barely walk. Some dance in pairs, often tightly pressed together, fingers entwined. Most seem bored and some, noticeably, are uneasy.
Male customers summon waitstaff to inquire about the availability and age of select girls. A Syrian journalist and I, posing as patrons, consult the staff ourselves. Farah, a 15-year-old, is brought to our table, dressed in camouflage pants and heavy makeup.
Farah sits, swings her long dark hair, shakes hands all around, then pointedly asks, "Who am I speaking to?" I'm taken aback by her businesslike tone and point to the Syrian reporter. Farah pleasantly chats with him, negotiating how much time she'll share, and if a "next step" will be taken. Farah locks eyes with the waiter, nods, and a bottle of champagne is brought to our table. "That'll be 7,000 Syrian pounds," says the waiter. That's $140. The champagne signals the beginning of the process. Conversation is next, and "anything else" will cost more.
As we empty our bottle of champagne, Farah tells us her story. Like most of the girls at the Manara disco, she is an Iraqi, a Sunni from Fallujah, one of Iraq's most war-torn areas. She got married in the United Arab Emirates, divorced four months afterward, and found work at the disco through a cousin. She says she's working "just to make some money for my family," who also now live in Syria. Farah says she's the family's breadwinner.
The story of a Sunni girl from Fallujah selling herself in a Damascus nightclub represents startling new fallout from the Iraq war, one human rights organizations and experts are only beginning to address. An increasing number of young Iraqi women and girls who fled Iraq during the turmoil are turning to prostitution in Syria, although there are no reliable statistics on how many girls are involved.
That might partly explain why so little reporting has been done on the topic. For journalists and human rights workers, securing contact with Iraqi sex workers in Syria is difficult and dangerous because the topic is taboo.
"It's a serious problem because there are young girls doing this -- 11, 12, 13 years old," says Abdelhamid El Ouali, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who's based in Damascus. "It's amazing at first. But when you fight for your life, what are you going to do?"
The Syrian government and UNHCR put the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria at roughly 700,000. Syrian police either lack data or won't release any figures on prostitution, which isn't surprising considering the closed government. The U.S. State Department's 2005 "Trafficking in Persons Report" acknowledges the problem, but officials have no clear sense of its magnitude. According to the report, "There have been some reports that indicate Iraqi women may be subjected to sexual exploitation in prostitution in Syria at the hands of Iraqi criminal networks, but those reports have not been confirmed."
Of course, nearly every conflict breeds prostitution. Despair leads to desperation, which can often lead to sex work. Whether Iraqi girls have actually been "trafficked" is hard to determine for myriad reasons, not the least of which is that coercion is difficult to gauge. "You could say this situation isn't triggered by trafficking -- trafficking just takes advantage of the situation," El Ouali says.
That Iraqi girls and women are selling sex may not seem shocking, but prostitution is especially taboo for Arab women.
"In this culture, to allow your daughter to become a prostitute means you've hit dirt bottom," says Joshua Landis, an American professor from the University of Oklahoma, presently living in Syria. "None of your sisters can get married if it's known that one of them is a prostitute. If there's any public knowledge of this, it's a shame on the whole family." The shame can even lead to "honor killings," in which women are slain by their husbands or relatives for tainting the family name.
Hustling has a particularly violent legacy in Iraq. In 2000, Saddam Hussein publicly executed 200 women convicted of prostitution. Prostitution would be especially shameful in Farah's hometown, as Fallujah is considered one of Iraq's more tribal, religiously conservative cities. "Yes, even Sunnis from Fallujah are doing this kind of work, and it reflects the drama of the situation," El Ouali says. "It's provoked by misery and precariousness."
Syria has traditionally allowed relaxed entry to its Arab neighbors. Many arrived because of rampant, indiscriminate violence back home, while others, like thousands of Iraqi Christians, had been targeted by opposing ethnic or religious sects. Some feared they were "marked" for working with foreigners, mainly Americans, either in the Coalition Provisional Authority or the military, as translators or interrogators.
But with the exception of Palestinians, refugees are not officially allowed to hold jobs in Syria. For the most part, Iraqi refugees are living off their savings, which are drained by daily expenses. Many are stuck in Syria, as few Western embassies are now granting visas, claiming that Iraq has become a liberated country following the fall of Saddam. With economic conditions worsening all the time for refugees, officials say, it's no surprise that Syria is seeing a rise in child exploitation and prostitution.
Koumay Mulhem, a young Syrian journalist, has been researching Iraqi prostitution in Syria for a year as a reporter for an online women's magazine, and is preparing to make a documentary about it. Mulhem serves as my tour guide of sorts one recent Friday night as I try to get a sense of how widespread Iraqi prostitution is here.
Our first stop is Martyrs' Square, the center of Damascus. With theDamascene charm of Middle Eastern nut and juice shops, Al-Merjeh, asit is locally known, is somewhat reminiscent of New York's Times Square of the 1980s: seedy side streets, a plethora of one-star hotels, and pimps. Within minutes, Mulhem locates a pimp, a shoeshine boy, and quickly begins bartering with him.
"I have farfourd," says the pimp, using the slang for very young girls. "Fifteen years old."
"I need younger," Mulhem says.
"Yes, we can find them. Iraqi girls. The cleanest you can find. You'll never see anything like these girls. They'll make you very happy."
"Since you're more than one -- 1,500 Syrian pounds [$30]."
Mulhem balks. The demonstration is over, and so he breaks the deal and walks away. "Two minutes," he says, a terse commentary on how easy it was to transact a deal.
Mulhem says that Al-Merjeh has long been a place to find pimps, even before the influx of Iraqis. It's a transit point for taxi drivers, who transport men to prostitutes in suburban apartments in Jeramana, Berze and Sayeda Zainab (these districts house many Iraqi Christians, Kurds and Shiites, respectively). "Prostitution is flourishing in these areas," Mulhem says. "I'm a resident of Jeramana and there's a new place for prostitution within my own building."
He notes that Russian and Moroccan sex workers operated in Syria during the mid-1990s. A comparatively smaller influx of Iraqi prostitution came after Operation Desert Storm, but "since the last Gulf War, there has been a flood that everybody has felt."
At the square we hop into a taxi. Just after we state our destination, the cab driver begins soliciting us. He tells us about girls in "furnished apartments" in the suburbs and offers us a room "with a 16 year-old maid. You will see something you'll never believe," he says.
We decline and head to Rabwah, a neighborhood with about 20 clubs -- mostly with Syrian and Moroccan sex workers, but now with more Iraqis, Mulhem says. Before entering one, Mulhem pulls me aside. "These places are dangerous," he says. "Don't speak English. You're Turkish now, OK?" An American presence would arouse too much suspicion, he says, as locals are the expected patrons.
In one club, girls in low-cut halter tops walk hand in hand along a fashion runway-like platform. Blaring music makes conversation impossible and so we decide to leave. As we do, a man joins us to help us find "the right club." We hail a cab and head to the upscale neighborhood Mezza. We end up at the Manara nightclub, where I met Farah weeks ago. This is the place, our companion says, where the best Iraqi girls are found, and their youth is a premium.
This time the girls are more aggressive. As soon as we sit down, four instantly arrive at our table, squeezing in tightly, knitting their hands into ours. Alia and Noura sit beside our Syrian photographer, who turns to them and asks why two are presenting themselves to him.
"She's my sister," says Alia, who says she's 18 but looks much more like 14. "We always go together."
"Where are you from?"
"Did you bring your sister here?"
"No, my mother brought us," says Alia, suddenly looking a bit sullen.
"Do you like your mother?" our photographer asks.
"Of course," she answers, slightly defensive. "Now you have to choose between me and my sister."
Sitting beside Mulhem is Dana, who says she's from the "jihad neighborhood of Baghdad," but doesn't name the district. He's trying to negotiate a way to spend time with her to talk about her experience and how she landed the work.
"How much time would you spend with me? What are you going to do?" he asks.
"I'll make you happy in any way you want," Dana says. But first she has to check with her brother, seated just behind Mulhem, about prices and availability. They agree on $100 and a rendezvous tomorrow afternoon (Mulhem doesn't show up). The deal is closed and our evening winds down -- unless we decide to do more business. We decline. The girls are disappointed and we head out in the night.
As we stroll alongside the Mosque of President Hafez Assad, Mulhem tries to calculate the number of prostitutes in Damascus. There were about 40 girls in the Manara nightclub, he says. Now multiple that number by approximately 120 clubs and you have a pretty good estimate. Streetwalkers constitute a smaller number, and who knows how many prostitutes operate in "furnished apartments." As we continue walking down the windy street, Mulhem grows reflective. Referring to Dana, he says, "She's just a child. They're all just children."
One outreach organization for refugee children is the Good Shepherd Nunnery in Damascus' crumbling Old City. The nuns' observations of Syrian prostitution mirror Mulhem's, but they have also met a few Iraqi women in local prisons who've been sold into bondage by their husbands. Mostly, says Sister Mary Claude Naoldaf, "the girls tell me they don't like it but have to do it to support their families."
She adds that in the past year, many of the children that attended nunnery's learning center have "suddenly disappeared" -- most likely taken out of school, she believes, to earn for their families. Her colleague, Sister Therese Mosalam, explains that "to help prevent girls from turning to prostitution, the center offers them computer training courses and helps find them jobs in sewing and gold-
manufacturing factories." But pay is usually about $50 a month --$100 in the best case -- compared with the $40 to $60 sex workers can make per night. "And the job opportunities are very rare," she adds. "I had one girl who waited for three years for the factory job."
The sisters' voices drop as they quietly recall visits to refugee families' homes. Empty refrigerators are common. Some kids have yellowish skin and many look gaunt. Malnutrition, they say, is starting to take hold.
Mouna Kurdy, general manager of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which works in affiliation with the UNHCR, acknowledges that among Iraqi refugees, "parents don't have enough to eat, so they encourage their children to take these jobs."
She grows testy at recent inquiries by the press and humanitarian groups about Iraqi prostitutes in Syria. "And now people are asking about this issue? [The international community] was preparing this war for months. Now that Saddam Hussein isn't here anymore, the problems are supposed to be finished. No. They have been here before the war, during the war, and after the war."
"Somalian and Sudanese worked as prostitutes in Syria, but nobody cared about that," says Abdul Aziz Taha, who's in change of a Red Crescent health clinic in the Damascus suburbs.
Both Taha and Kurdy says that prostitution is a comparatively small worry in light of the basic health problems that Iraqi refugees face, including hepatitis C, diabetes and serious cardiac conditions. Major medical procedures cost on average $2,000, but the Red Crescent is only given a budget of $200 per family, Kurdy says.
Still, given the growing awareness of the problems facing Iraqi refugees -- violence, restricted mobility, diminishing finances -- one wonders why child prostitution in Syria hasn't garnered more attention. The answer might depend on whom you ask. To Mulhem, it's profitable for Syria as a tourist attraction. He believes "there's active collaboration between the club owners and police who turn a blind eye for payoffs." Landis, the American professor in Syria, says that if Syria publicly acknowledged prostitution, that would "mean sanctioning its existence" and expose the country to the sort of shame that an individual family would face.
In fact, Syria newspapers typically replace the word "prostitution" with the euphemistic " act against decency." Talk of drugs, HIV and religion is actively discouraged -- some would say censored -- by the Syrian authorities. And despite numerous inquires, no Iraqi women's organization would respond to questions about this issue.
But the emergence of Iraqi prostitution in Syria, especially among young girls, reflects the dire conditions of the local Iraqi refugee community. One U.N. official, who asked to remain anonymous, admits that the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding prostitution underscores the international community's larger failure to recognize the dire conditions of Iraqi refugees and provide them with a safe haven.
"Every social convention is splitting at the seams because of the implosion of Iraqi society," Landis says. "That place has been blown apart, so all the social barriers have collapsed." ______
About the writer Joshua E. S. Phillips is a freelance journalist presently based in the Middle East.
The Jordan Times has an opinion piece by Michael Jansen, which argues the Baath Party Conference in Syria created the opening for "major economic reforms." It also argues that the United States is "stirring up trouble in Lebanon with the aim of blaming it on Syria and calling for regime change in Damascus." Thanks to "dsp," a "Syria Comment" reader, for sending it along.
The Syrian government is engaged in an existential struggle on two fronts. On the domestic front, it is trying to transform its command economy into a social market economy and its Baath Party-dominated political system into a pluralistic democracy where the party will remain a leading player. On the external front, the government is under serious threat from the neoconservatives in the Bush administration who want to effect regime change in Damascus. Their aim, of course, is to bring in a new government which would be prepared to deal with Israel without demanding the return of Syrian land occupied by the Jewish state in 1967.
The neocons are preparing the way for regime change in Syria in much the same way they did in Iraq. They are using the world media to demonise the Syrian Baath Party regime and are trying to embroil the UN in Syrian affairs. Ultimately, the US can be expected to create a crisis between Syria and Lebanon or between Syria and Iraq, with the aim of providing a pretext to sanction or intervene militarily in Syria.
Damascus is attempting to counter the US campaign in several ways: focusing on its own affairs rather than the Arab scene, instituting major domestic reforms, reaching out to Arab and other external investors, and playing a positive role in the region. To save itself and defend Arab nationalism, or “Arabism”, the Syrian government, the last remaining proponent of “Arabism”, must create clearly observable momentum for political and economic change within its own society. Syria is now running a race with the neocons who are determined to use the political and economic failings of the Baath to topple the regime.
Although President Bashar Assad has been gradually moving towards major economic and political changes since he assumed power in 2000, upon the death of his father, the real push for reform is just beginning. His reform agenda was endorsed during the Baath Party regional congress held from June 6 to 9. Syrians I interviewed this week during a visit to Damascus agreed that the president is seriously pursuing reform and that he has launched the process which will take place gradually, over some months and years. Analysts argue that this process is clearly observable for anyone prepared to see what is happening. The problem is that Western officials and media remain blind to change in Syria.
Dr Nabil Sukkar, an independent economic analyst, said that the president had elicited from the party congress endorsement for a social market economy and major changes in the political system. This amounts to a dramatic shift from the party's command economy ideology, Sukkar observed. The goal is a “market economy with social justice”, rather than rampant capitalism. The congress agreed to allow other parties to function and has accepted multiparty or multicandidate elections in 2007. The president has also replaced veteran party figures with younger men, close to him, and begun reform of the security services with the aim of consolidating the multiple agencies created by his father. In Sukkar's view, an important “threshold” has been crossed. “The next step is implementation.” He expects this to be done on a step-by-step basis. Sukkar, one of Syria's most consulted analysts, said: “I am optimistic.”
Dr Buthaina Shaaban, minister of expatriates, agreed. The congress produced a “major change, not merely in persons but in strategies, policies, approach, goals. There is a determination to fight corruption, put the right person in the right place, bring technical expertise to establish the rule of law, pass a new law for political parties, amend the emergency law, and provide for private media. These decisions will take a year or two to implement.... There is determination to build the country.”
Shaaban, who served as spokeswoman for the congress, revealed that “everything was discussed frankly, nothing was taboo. It was a four-day workshop. The president gave a short speech at the opening because he did not want to dictate, he wanted dialogue. The Baath Party has to gain people's confidence”, which has waned over its 35 years in power.
Other independent commentators said the president himself is taking decisions. They argued that he is strongly committed to reform. One remarked that the “exodus” of Syrian troops and intelligence operatives from Lebanon did not “tarnish” the president's image. “He is very popular. He is accessible to the people. He goes to restaurants, concerts, other functions, talks to people. He took his children to the bumper cars.... Hafez Assad wanted to be feared, Bashar wants to be loved.”
This analyst also made the point that the opposition largely consists of old men who have no constituencies — early Baathists and Nasserites. “Exiled parties do not count for much.” The commentator said the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties should be legalised because they are more of a threat if they go underground. Finally, he argued that there is no real challenge to the party because it is well entrenched and the people have no experience of any other rulers.
One sign of the dramatic change that has taken place was the appointment of Dr Abdullah Dardari, a non-party member who is a Sunni from Damascus, to the post of deputy premier for economic affairs. He is the first figure who does not belong to the party command to take up this post. Furthermore, the choice of Damascene Dardari means that the capital, which has been excluded from power for decades, is now involved in building Syria. Western-educated Dardari also heads the Planning Bureau which has been drawing up the country's economic strategy.
Dardari met this correspondent in his new office in the building housing the Council of Ministers. “The party congress was better than I expected. It took courageous decisions at a time when Syria is under strong pressure [from both domestic and external forces] to change its economic and social system and declare multiparty political elections, freedom and democracy,” he asserted.
My interview with Dardari took place shortly after he chaired for the first time a meeting of the Economic Committee. “I felt that an ideological barrier has been lifted,” he stated. The committee's job is to lay down detailed steps for economic reform till the end of the year.
He revealed that chicken-and-egg discussions over whether economic or political reform should come first are “no longer an issue. They are interrelated, walk hand-in-hand. We are going to recreate the middle class which provides the foundation for a healthy political life.
“By instituting a more participatory system [of government], we will encourage people to invest. Arab and Syrian money is already coming here. We have billions of dollars in projects. There is a boom due to high oil prices and Arabs know the risks of investing in the West.”
He made the point that the Arabs are “concerned for Syria” and know that its “stability is in their own interest... Syria is the only country which is secular enough or modern enough [to assert leadership]. If Syria is prosperous and stable, it will quell fundamentalism and extremism. If Syria is prosperous, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq will be prosperous. Syria is a trendsetter in the region. If Syria adopts reforms, others will do the same.... We want the Arabs to be nationalists, liberal, socially conscious and to respect freedom and democracy”.
Reform in Syria is precisely what the neocons and their Israeli ally do not want. Someone is stirring up trouble in Lebanon with the aim of blaming it on Syria and calling for regime change in Damascus.
The New York Times is reporting US officials saying that a "consensus" is building between Europe and the US that Syria is stirring up trouble in both Lebanon and Iraq. Only one French official is quoted, and he did not suggest a consensus is building. All the same, the meeting in London of foreign ministers of the Group of 8 industrialized nations was mostly about Syria. The US is trying to build a consensus. President Bashar must do what he can to stop targeted killings of anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon.
Even if there were consensus between France and the US about Syria being the instigator of violence, this would not necessarily lead to determined anti-Syrian action.
The West has few good options to pressure Syria. Europe could place sanctions on Syria. This would impoverish the Syrian masses, as happened to the people of Iraq. If sanctions fail, and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan trans-shipped the embargoed goods to Syria, it would just turn into another bad policy ensuring a long and fruitless battle between East and West. All the cost would be born by Europe and Syrians, not the US, which already enforces an ineffective embargo.
It won't happen. First, Europe still believes Bashar is Syria's best hope. Second, Europeans don't care whether Americans are killed in Iraq. Third, Bashar is smart enough not to place Syria in such a silly position. But everyone is counting killings. They are inexcusable, and in the world's eyes, Syria remains their most likely author.
LONDON, June 23 - Bush administration officials asserted Thursday that an international consensus had emerged that Syria had been stoking the violence in Lebanon and Iraq and against Israelis, and they said they were now certain that Syrian agents had been operating in Lebanon.
Skip to next paragraph The comments represented an escalation of the campaign by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to isolate Syria diplomatically as the administration has faced mounting violence against its interests throughout the Middle East. Ms. Rice has not said what other forms of pressure might be applied.
A senior State Department official, briefing reporters under ground rules that he not be identified, said there was "widespread agreement" at a meeting of leading foreign ministers on Thursday in London, and among the delegates at a conference on Iraq in Brussels on Wednesday, that Syria bore major responsibility for instability in the region.
Ms. Rice, at the end of the foreign ministers' meeting, accused Syria of supporting the Iraq insurgency.
"Let's not have more words about what they are prepared to do," she said of Syrian promises to help Iraq with security on their mutual border. "Let's have action. If they're prepared to do it, they should just do it."
The foreign ministers were briefed by James D. Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, on his three-year $3 billion proposal for the economic reconstruction of Palestinian areas, contingent on Israel's planned pullout from Gaza and the northern part of the West Bank.
The package, which would effectively double levels of outside aid for the Palestinians, is tied to a variety of projects, including building facilities to help move goods and people into and out of Palestinian areas.
The renewed pressure on Syria comes as an anti-Syrian majority in the Lebanese Parliament is set to form a government in Beirut and a series of assassinations have been carried out in Lebanon against anti-Syrian politicians and journalists.
In the past, administration officials have said that Syria had a "hit list" for assassination in Lebanon, and they have recently suggested strongly that despite the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon, it appeared that intelligence operatives had remained behind.
A Western diplomat close to the Syrian situation, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to be seen characterizing the positions of other countries, said the consensus about Syria was propelled by European concerns about Lebanon and American concerns about Iraq.
"There's a lot of international pressure on the Syrians to cease and desist, and that's just not the United States," a senior State Department official said. The official said there was intelligence information that made clear that Syrian intelligence operatives remained in Lebanon.
That conclusion was not fully endorsed by the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy. "The withdrawal of Syrian troops has been observed," he said, but there is concern that Syrian intelligence agents might still operate in Lebanon. The meeting in London was of foreign ministers of the Group of 8 industrialized nations, which will hold a summit meeting to be attended by President Bush in July at Gleneagles, Scotland. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain said the ministers also discussed Iran, the Balkans, the war and genocide in Sudan, efforts to resume talks with North Korea and negotiations over China.
But the focus on Syria appeared to be the most intense part of the meetings here and in Brussels, suggesting that world pressure could increase. Syria and Iran sent delegates to the Brussels conference, but Ms. Rice declined to meet with them.
Whither Syria? Glasnost? Comments and an article by Moubayed
As usual, Sami Moubayed has written one of the smartest analyses of the Baath Party Conference. It is a must read. He also answers readers’ questions about Nabil Fayyad returning to Damascus and tries to put the many changes in leadership positions in context.
Sami captures the Baath's contradictory message well. On the one hand, the Baath Conference was meant to be a show of strength and unity; on the other hand, Bashar does have a reform program that many within the Party and security forces must believe will endanger the regime's grip on power. How can he do both - reform and preserve power? Bashar's challenge was to reassure the regime faithful that he is not jeopardizing their future, while simultaneously reassuring Syrians that he will push ahead with reforms and will not be held captive by the Baath Party. The Party acts both as a shadow government in Syria and as a roadblock on the road to change. Proclaiming that Syria will not change and that it will change is not an easy message to convey. It is an even harder policy to enact.
Sami’s comparison to Glasnost in the Soviet Union is apt. Many people are wondering how the president can open up the system without destroying the foundations of the regime. It is clear that Syria is no China. Its economy cannot grow fast enough under present conditions to prolong the one party state into the distant future. Syria will not produce a miracle. The Soviet Union and Glasnost is the obvious alternative path for Syria. Bashar promises that he can find a third way to ensure stability and a freer economy - some sort of darb al-Akhdar. Most third ways in the Middle East have not been a success.
Everyone in Damascus is asking "wither Syria?" There is great insecurity about the future. A number of smart analysts, unable to see how the regime will break out of its present paralysis, are predicting total collapse in several years. This would manifest itself in the outbreak of scattered sectarian and tribal violence as economic pressure grows. They see the reassertion of sub-national loyalties and the renewed formation of politically active Islamist groups. Ammar Abdulhamid is but one of these analysts. See his recent editorial, "Flexibility allows for hope, rigidity precipitates mayhem."
The readers of "Syria Comment" have also been discussing the future of Syria in the comment section of the last 5 posts or so. It is quite clear that people are perplexed. Many are democrats, but one can also see in the insults, a high level of sectarian hatred and desire for vengeance. I don't know what other words to use.
A week after the Ba'ath Party conference in Syria, which many people believed could mark significant change in the country, it's clear that it was foolish to think the Ba'athists would willingly abandon their status in government. On the contrary, the conference came out with a very strong message to Syrians and the world: the Ba'ath is here, as it has always been since 1963, and plans to stay around for a whole lot longer.
The majority of Syrians were misinformed about what the conference would bring. Some talked about a general amnesty. Some said that law 49, which says that membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offense, punishable by death, would be abrogated. Others dreamt of a pardon for all political exiles. Many believed that article 8 of the constitution, which says that the Ba'ath Party is the leading party of state and society, would be amended.
None of the above happened, yet the conference came out with the advice to the Syrian leadership that the Ba'ath Party's role in daily decision-making had come to an end. The party will supervise, but not interfere in, the mechanisms of government. According to the London-based daily al-Hayat, the number of cabinet seats allocated to the Ba'ath will be reduced from 17 to 10.
The Ba'ath still had a lot to offer Syria, its assembled leaders said. If anything, the conference showed that President Bashar Assad is totally in control of domestic affairs, despite what many people have speculated in the Arab and Western press.
Number one on the reform list was the retirement of many members of the Ba'ath Party, some of whom had been in office since 1963. With a few exceptions, these were the same men whom the press had accused of hampering reforms since 2000, claiming that Assad had been unable to get rid of them.
Among those to lose their jobs were ex-chief of staff Ali Aslan, his deputy Abd al-Rahman Sayyad, ex-chief of Military Intelligence Hassan Khalil, ex-director of political security Adnan Bader Hasan, ex-vice presidents Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Zuhayr Masharka, ex-premier Mohammad Mustapha Miro, ex-defense minister Mustapha Tlas, ex-assistant secretary generals of the Ba'ath Abdullah al-Ahmar and Sulayman Qaddah, ex-speaker of parliament Abd al-Qadir Qaddura, and two generals, Shafiq al-Fayyad and Ibrahim al-Safi.
Many in Syria were unimpressed, claiming that retiring officials who had been in the Ba'ath for 40 years, and replacing them with those who have been around for 20 years, cannot be called real reform. On June 16, Assad launched a security shake-up to further make his point that matters were changing in the country. The president replaced Bahjat Sulayman, the strong director of internal security at General Intelligence, with Fouad Nasif, an officer from Military Intelligence.
Mohammad Sa'id Bukhaytan, an "enlightened" Ba'athist, has replaced the aged and ailing Abdullah al-Ahmar as deputy secretary general of the party, while Hisham Ikhtiyar, a retired officer from Damascus, has replaced Bukhaytan as national security adviser. Ali Maamlouk, another Damascene officer in his mid-50s, has become the new director of General Intelligence. He has promised, according to a popular online news bulletin, to minimize interaction between the intelligence offices and Syrian citizens, emphasizing that intelligence officers had a duty to monitor the security of Syria, not the affairs of its citizens.
He also said he would tolerate political dissent and not persecute citizens for views that were opposed to the Ba'ath Party. This might explain why, coinciding with his appointment, was the arrival to Syria, from the US, of US-based opposition member Nabil Fayyad, who joined the Party of Syrian Reform earlier in the year. Fayyad, a one-time ally of the Syrian regime, fled to join US-based opposition leader Farid al-Ghadry. Surprisingly, although he called for "regime change" while based in America, and promoted himself as "president of the Reform Party-Syrian branch", Fayyad has not been touched by the Syrians.
Abdullah al-Dardari, a non-Ba'athist and highly respected man in Syria who studied in Great Britain, worked at the United Nations Development Program, and had been director of the State Planning Bureau since 2003, became deputy prime minister for economic affairs. Walid al-Moualim is tipped to become minister of foreign affairs. Moualim's appointment is due to his good relations with Washington, where he served as ambassador from 1990 to 2000. He is expected to mend relations with the White House and end Syria's isolation after the Lebanon debacle, which he recently handled until Syria withdrew its troops after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February.
This is the biggest shake-up in Ba'athist history since late president Hafez Assad came to power in November 1970. The changes put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the Syrian president. For five years, Syrians have believed their president was a reformer, but that those around him were not. Overnight, Assad got rid of them all. True, this pleases Syrians for today, but it also leaves no excuse for delayed reforms from now on. The people also believed that Ba'athist interference in day-to-day affairs of the state was a damper on reforms, since whenever the Ba'athists wished they could arrest or fire people, or delay legislation, claiming that it "contradicted the principals of the revolution". At the conference, this revolutionary term has been dropped and the Ba'athists recommended that the party be separated from government affairs, echoing a law issued by the Ba'ath in 2003.
Another noted reform was the Ba'ath conference recommendation that Syria authorize the creation of political parties, not necessarily affiliated with the Ba'ath. Effectively, this breaks the Ba'ath Party's monopolization of power since 1963. A law is yet to be issued, yet a group of activists has already taken matters into its own hands and issued a declaration to create the Movement of Free Patriots, in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.
Its main founder and spokesman is Samir Nashar, a 60-year-old businessman and political activist who belongs to the mercantile class of Aleppo and who has been active in civil society movements since 2000, being a co-founder of the Abd al-Rahman Kawakbi Salon for Political Debate in Aleppo. Two of the founders, Dr Talal Kayyali and Mustapha al-Jabiri, are part of the political establishment that ruled Syria, academically known as the "urban notables", before the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1963.
The Soviet model With all these events taking place in Syria, many are starting to draw a parallel between the Ba'ath Party conference of 2005 and the Communist Party conference in the USSR in 1986. Syria must read the details of Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 conference because they were the cornerstone that created the new Russia that exists today.
Gorbachev attacked the recent past, pointing out that mistakes had been made, but individuals were responsible for them, and not the Communist Party. The Soviet conference called for a more flexible system of economic management, the loosening of outdated bureaucratic laws, encouraging greater openness, less interaction between Soviet citizens and the secret police, and more publicity about the shortcomings of the regime. This was called glasnost. It unwillingly exposed the weakness of the Soviet system and the much-needed reforms in all sectors of life. Censorship eroded, taboos were lifted, banned works were published, and writers were permitted to explore forbidden themes. Through glasnost, Gorbachev attempted to mobilize the intelligentsia to his side, in addition to the Soviet youth, something that Assad has been trying to do since 2000.
The Soviet press became more transparent, and people were allowed to learn of the mistakes of the past. When the reality of failure became so clear to everyone, Gorbachev abolished high school exams in 1988. History books in the USSR had been used to glorify the Communist Party and its role in Russian history. It was pointless to maintain these exams in 1988, since so many of these myths had been challenged or destroyed completely by the openness and transparency of glasnost. Will this take place in Syria? Syria's curriculum, after all, has concentrated on glorifying the post-1963 era and describing everything that preceded it as "regressive" and "wrong".
As the world watched in admiration, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, just like Assad has withdrawn his troops from Lebanon. Assad does not want to dismantle the regime of the Ba'ath Party. He wants to reform Syria from within, yet maintain the status quo. There is a general consensus in Syria of him being a true president if he succeeds in implementing glasnost.
Assad wants to restore the confidence of the Syrian people in Syria. In June 1988, at the Communist Party's 19th conference, Gorbachev dictated that party committees could no longer issue instructions to the state, or enforce (and hamper) economic legislation. The Communist Party was not above the law, he added, and should cease its role as administrator of the whole country. The USSR should democratize, he added, on the basis of multiple candidates, and this was echoed by Assad in an interview with Spanish journalists in March when he said that "the future will be for political parties in Syria".
Thousands of prisoners were released by Gorbachev, again, as Assad is doing in Syria. In March alone, Assad released 312 Kurdish dissidents arrested for creating disturbances in 2004, and since coming to power in 2000, has released over 1,000 political prisoners. Still, many remain behind bars, including parliamentarians Riyad Sayf and Maamoun al-Homsi, economist Arif Dalilah, and Ali al-Abdullah, an activist arrested last month for reading a declaration on the behalf of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet this past week, a European Union parliamentary delegation visiting Syria received assurances from the authorities that all political dissidents, including Sayf and Homsi, would be released within a week. With regard to the Kurds, Assad has also promised to grant 225,000 of them Syrian citizenship, which they were deprived in 1962, before the Ba'athist regime came to power.
As the press became more open in the USSR, the Soviets, just like the Syrians today, began to understand why the truth had been kept away from them for so long. The truth is that the USSR was in a mess, and for the first time since 1917, the people were demanding answers to the question: what went wrong, and why? The same mood prevails in Damascus today: Syria is in a mess, and the people want answers.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. Asia Times (July 21, 2005).
George Hawi, a former Communist Party chief who was a harsh critic of Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs, was killed in a bomb as he rode in his car Tuesday, police said, the second slaying of an anti-Syrian figure this month.
The explosion -- which police said went off in the car as it was moving -- came a day after Lebanon concluded parliamentary elections, in which the anti-Syrian opposition won a majority in parliament.
Hawi's Mercedes was cracked and buckled from the explosion. His face was visible and recognizable as his bloodied body was taken out of the car on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance by firemen and rescuers.
Hawi, a Christian, frequently spoke out against Syrian intelligence and interference in Lebanese affairs.
"We are stunned," Prime Minister Najib Mikati said after hearing of the explosion. He blamed "conspirators" against Lebanon, pointing out that every time Lebanon moves a step forward something comes to attempt to destabilize it.
I watched an hour-long interview with Hawi rebroadcast on al-Jazeera today. He was delightful, smart, and humorous. A big loss.
Here are are the words of one reader:
Georges Hawi, former Communist party leader and heavy critic of Syrian interference in Lebanon has been assassinated this morning in a car bomb.
May Allah rest his soul in peace
He was brave. It's a big loss for syrian and lebanese democrats.
On a hill overlooking Iraq in the bleak Syrian desert, government officials on Monday pointed out new security measures including taller sand berms that they've taken to keep foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq.
But Western diplomats say Syria still could do more. And, the diplomats added, the Syrians need both better intelligence and better night-vision equipment to keep insurgents from infiltrating into Iraq after dark.
The Syrian authorities gave journalists the rare tour of border areas Monday to highlight improvements in security measures as U.S. forces on the other side waged the latest offensives against insurgents believed to have entered from Syria.
Damascus is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous border.
A giant picture of President Bashar Assad looked over the bleak desert landscape as several hundred trucks waited to cross into Iraq at Tanaf, one of the main posts along the 360-mile frontier with Iraq.
On a hill nearby overlooking Iraq, a Syrian border officer pointed to the tall sand barrier that runs along the border, saying the government has increased the height of such berms to 12 feet as a measure against infiltrators and smugglers.
The officer, who would not give his name because of the sensitivity of the border issue, said the Syrian government has deployed 7,000 troops along the border.
The journalists, who were driven for 120 miles along the berm north from Tanaf, could see small outposts set along the way, each staffed with about a half-dozen Syrian solders who snapped to attention and saluted as the trucks drove by.
There is an outpost every 400 meters or 3 kilometers, depending on how sensitive the area is, said the officer and about 540 outposts altogether.
The government also has filled up desert storm water valleys, or wadis, with cement blocks and barbed wire to prevent smugglers and infiltrators, the officer said. During the day, there are patrols and at night, they set ambushes for infiltrators, he said.
But the region shown to journalists was not the most vulnerable to insurgent crossings, said Col. Julian Lyne-Pirkis, a defense attache from the British Embassy in Damascus who has surveyed the entire length of the border.
More insurgents cross further to the northwest, at the border town of Abu Kamal, across from the Iraqi town of Qaim, where they can move among the people without drawing suspicion, said Lyne-Pirkis, who accompanied Monday's trip.
The Syrians did increase their work along the border starting nine months ago, he said, nevertheless, the border remains "very difficult" to control especially at night.
"They are making progress, but they can still do more on the border to improve it," he said.
He said security measures remained "fairly basic," relying on Syrian troops who have "mostly just their eyes to survey the border, and that is not enough."
The Syrians have asked the British for night-vision equipment, and British officials have promised 700 pieces, Lyne-Pirkis said. But he said the deal was awaiting approval at a higher level in the government.
Such equipment is expensive, and would be difficult for Syria to obtain because of restrictions on the types of military equipment that western countries will sell to Syria.
The Syrians also need to improve patrols and get better intelligence to understand how the insurgency works, Lyne-Pirkis said.
Another Syrian border official acknowledged that it is difficult to keep insurgents from crossing at night, although he said such crossings are generally prevented during the day.
That official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the border issue, said 15 border guards had been killed either by outlaws crossing the border or by fire from U.S. troops who apparently mistook the Syrians for infiltrators. He did not provide more details.
On the Iraqi side, some 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are carrying out two military campaigns, code-named Spear and Dagger, aimed at destroying militant networks near the Syrian border and north of Baghdad. About 60 insurgents have been killed and 100 captured since the campaigns began at the end of last week.
Troops said they found numerous foreign passports and one roundtrip air ticket from Tripoli, Libya, to Damascus, Syria.
Intelligence officials believe Anbar province, which borders Syria, is a gateway for extremist groups, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq, to smuggle in foreign fighters.
The following remarks made by Imam Muhammad Habash, the principal "reformist Imam" of Damascus and member of Parliament, and Imam Mahmoud Abolhuda al-Hussainy, the principal reformist Imam of Aleppo, were sent to me by Karim Moudarres, a businessman and friend who lives in Aleppo. Karim attended a meeting of European parliamentarians and Syrian religious figures, recently convened at the monastery Mar-Moussa. Dayr Mar-Moussa is run by an Italian priest who promotes inter-faith dialogue. Karim also includes the sermon that al-Hussainy gave at his mosque in Aleppo, after returning from Dayr Mar-Moussa.
This is worth reading, particularly for the words of Imam Mahmoud Abolhuda al-Hussainy, because he addresses the question of democracy and Islam quite forthrightly. Not only does he explain to the European statesmen that most Syrians view their approach to democracy as hypocritical because they insist on strict separation of church and state and seek to exclude Muslim parties, but he also criticizes Syria for excluding Muslim parties. The questions he asks are important to the West and Syria in their present predicament.
Here is Karim Moudarres' letter:
I was present at Mar-Moussa Monastery when the European Parliamentarians met with Syrian Religious Figures to carry a discussion on Democracy from the Syrian religious point of view. Among many Christian and Muslim figures, Mr. Mohamad Habash and Mr. Mahmoud Abolhuda Elhussainy, M.D. were present. One side would ask the other side a question; they would answer and then ask a question in return.
The Europeans stressed that the European experience is specific to Europe and should not be exported as a model to other regions of the world. Syria should make use of its experience to develop its own system of democracy. Some European members were concerned whether Islam allowed such practices and if separation of church and state, as the foundation of a democratic system, is possible in Syria.
Mr. Mohamad Habash was asked the following: "We don’t understand the Christian / Muslim relationship which has worked very well in Syria, and we don’t understand the Jewish / Muslim relationship.
Answer: (Spoken in English): "Welcome to Syria the blessed land. Muslims call Syria 'al-sham al-sharif' meaning 'noble land'. Christians consider Syria the 'Holy Land'. Welcome to Syria.
According to the clash of civilizations, it is important to note that the Prophet called for cooperation among the people of scriptures. He introduced himself as a prophet who came after Jesus, Moses and Abraham. You read in the holy book 14 times: 'Oh Mohamad we sent you to confirm what came before'. I agree that there are some radical directions in the Islamic World, but we can also find radicals in Europe and America. The description of the clash of civilizations did not come from the Islamic world but from Mr. Huntington in the United States. He called for the clash of civilizations and the end of history. We in the Islamic World refuse this idea and call for the dialogue of civilizations. Mr. Khatemi as the president of Iran and OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) proposed to the UN in 2001 to call it the Year of Dialogue of Civilizations on behalf of 55 Muslim countries. I personally go further and call for the unity of civilizations in accordance with the profit who said: 'the profits before me are like a beautiful house and I am the last brick in the house. I am the seal of prophets.'
You can not consider yourself a Muslim without having faith that Jesus was the prophet of God, the messenger of God, the word of God and the spirit of God. We believe that Jesus is still alive until now and will return to the White minaret in Damascus where you can see it today built with no mosque waiting for his return. The Grand Mufti of Syria was asked once by the Canadian Ambassador about the number of Christians in Syria and he replied as 17 Millions since all Muslims have to have faith in Jesus.
We believe the number of radicals in Syria and the Middle East is on the rise for two reasons. First is the presence of some radical culture and second is injustice. I believe the way to arrive at Democracy is by supporting the peace process win the Middle East and getting some balance between Arabs and Israel. If we can find such balance then we will arrive at more tolerance, more cooperation, more brotherhood and more fraternity."
Mr. Habash did not ask a question.
Mr. M. Abolhuda El-Hussainy, M.D. was asked the following: "Is there hope? And how can we make hope our incentive forward?"
Answer (translated to English): "I believe nations without hope will die because desperation is the first step to extinction. As a practicing physician, I know from my clinic that people with advanced degrees of depression have suicidal tendencies. At the same time I don’t want this hope to be expressed here as mere exchange of good wishes among the members of this respected congress. I only heard some words of compliments from my brothers on the Syrian. I don’t think you are here to hear compliments but rather help get to the bottom of the problem.
First: Syrian society fully respects European societies and considers it a promising hope in the unipolar world we all know so well.
Second: Civil society must be heard in our country. You should not listen only to points of views representing the official word of the State. For the sake of being honest I say civil society is not about secular parties only but is also composed of an important majority with an Islamic focus - not to be ignored. I strongly stress that Syrian society is religiously moderate. Mr. Patrick Louis (European MP on the panel) described our society as one conforming submissively to religious law. In order to reach a better understanding of each other, I would like to emphasize the following: in separating the church from the state, Europeans have developed a secular system for regulating their governments, politics and economies. On the other hand, the church continues to preach Christian values to society.
I was happy to hear from Mrs. Patrie (European MP) how the European Society has its own individuality and uniqueness. We too are unique. In order for you to have a better understanding of the Syrian society with its Muslim majority, you have to learn that Islam is divided into two important parts: 1- A legal part focusing on government, economy, politics, and human relations. 2- Another part focusing ethics, ideology, and metaphysics.
In other word, with our part of Islamic law dealing with government, economics and politics we are capable of debating current European laws freely on the table because this part of Islamic law is very resilient and highly discussable.
As for means of worshipping God, we go to Churches to hear directives to God and you go to Mosques to hear directives to God.
This is not our problem for I would like to get to the bottom of the problem and say: hearing people like Mr. Patrick Louis calling for strong separation of church and state without knowing the nature of Islam is the main problem between the two Islamic and European societies.
It is very true to say the Islamic World is split two ways: 1- One way made the fatal mistake by calling for the implementation of Islamic laws on the rest of the world using forceful means. Such a mistake could not be farther from the heart of Islam. 2- The other way represents the majority of Muslims in calling for moderation, democracy and debate. It could not be farther away from extremism and violence. This represents the majority of Muslims around the world and in Syria.
Therefore we should not focus on the eccentric part misrepresenting the heart of Islam and generalize about the entire Muslim society without making the distinction between the eccentrics and the majority believing in "No subjugation in religion" as stated in the Qoran. Our title from the Qoran is "We honored the children of Adam" goes in line with the call to embrace the "culture of honoring humanity" as called for by the lady from Italy who spoke before me.
Now the question I would like to put forward to the European MP's: "Why do we talk about democracy while we breach democracy?" Let us be honest. The veto in the Security Council breaches democracy. Some practices against veiled women in Europe go against the heart of democracy. The European support of oppressive governments is undemocratic by itself. Banning those who would like to discuss Islamic laws from political forums is undemocratic. This is my question for I would appreciate an honest answer since we do very much believe in democracy with no exceptions of any kind.
Then on Friday, June 17, M. AbolHoda Elhussainy gave his Friday sermon from the historic Adliya mosque with a strong connection to the debate in Mar Moussa with the European MP's. Some of his sermon is interesting: It can be read here.
"Today we hear all over our Muslim World and in our country repeatedly the word democracy and promises of democracy (with an exception I should add)." "The exception says: democracy is for the seculars who declare publicly that their minds are pure from the word of God! I say from here: as long as the doors of democracy are opening we are obliged to express the spirit of Islam. It is true that there are those who misunderstand Islam and misunderstand the course of Islam for our Islam teaches us to recognize the other. Those who deviated and want to force Islamic culture on the world are no different from the enforcers of globalization, although with a different agenda. Haven't these deviators ever heard of the message of the profit to the Christian Emperor of Byzantium stating: 'Oh people of the book let us come to a word of agreement between us!' This is the culture of Islam which teaches us to be kind to those who oppose our religion and opposed our culture. God is ordering us to be kind to the opposite when he chooses not to fight us."
"Why should the followers of this culture be banned from expressing their views through official democratic means?" "We are hearing nowadays that parties will be licensed and muti-partism will start. Why did they exclude from this plan those who have their minds affected with Islamic culture? Are they a menace to be avoided? What should they do to purify themselves from this menace? Is this the cross road to future democracy? Truthfully Islam is the Imam of democracy if they only knew. We are ready to stand hand in hand with them against the extremists who do not represent Islam because we believe the extremists are distorting our image and the image of Islam."
"We don’t know if the secularists' offer is restricting us because of their ignorance of Islam or trying to irrationally intimidate our youth." "If you would like to ban those who are in favor of embracing Islamic culture from establishing Islamic parties, why don’t you at least permit the establishment of civil society committees?" "Let there be some publicly elected committees of dialogue with only an advisory role without any executive or legislative powers" "Let us discuss with each others freely, amicably, and peacefully while we try to build our new society together. Don’t perceive us as enemies but rather as partners trying to build our country together. "
"Another idea: why not establish an Islamic advisory committee to be elected by Islamic scholars for the sole purpose of discussing and advising with no members appointed by the government so it does not loose its legitimacy and independence?"
"One more idea: if those who subscribe to Islamic culture are banned altogether from forming licensed parties, why not open the door for the establishment of social reform committees: civil society committees to include scholars, scientists, and the educated elite. These social reform committees in a civil society will be kept away from power yet in touch with the people and we can expect good results. Our society needs reforming since current laws are not reforming bribery, corruption and dishonesty. Reform can be achieved by the people of reform. There are many good members of society currently working on reform using individual means yet are banned from congregating to maximize and unite their efforts. They are told: you can not gather; you can not form parties; you can not form committees. What is next?"
"Our enemy is not overseas but our enemy is ourselves, for, unfortunately, we don’t know how to build a civilization and how to initiate our renaissance."
The UN and Syrian government recently signed a deal to help Syrian Imams with training courses and booklets. This rather innocuous program has stirred considerable controversy in Syria. Jordan already subscribes to the program. UNICEF provides Imams with short booklets that deal with topics such as water conservation, the environment and AIDs. The pamphlets provide Quranic suras that relate to these issues.
One friend explained to me that Syrian Imams are paid badly. Until recently they received $60 a month from the state. Muhammad Habash, the liberal Imam and parliamentarian recently helped pass a bill that raised their salary to $80. Because Syrian Imams are not paid higher salaries if they have advanced degrees, many Imams merely get a certificate from Islamic institutes, which qualify them to become an Imam. They have no incentive to pursue higher education.
This means that assistance from the UN can be helpful in broadening the education and awareness of Imams. Of course, it also brings with it the fear of Western "brain-washing," which the following article by Islam on Line raises.
DAMASCUS, June 15, 2005 (IslamOnline.net) – The Syrian government’s religious training program deal with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) aims to fight rising extremism and fanaticism in the country, sources close to the government said Wednesday, June 15.
“The expanding Salafist, Jihadist and extremist currents are now ringing the alarm bells in the government,” the sources told IslamOnline.net on condition of anonymity.
The government is also concerned that the chaos and sectarian tension in neighboring Iraq could spill over to its territories, they added.
The agreement was signed Monday, June 13, following a meeting between President Bashar Al-Assad and UNDP Regional Director Rima Khalaf Hunaidi.
“It is aimed at qualifying scholars and religious institutions, and polishing up their skills,” UND Regional Coordinator Ali Al-Zatari, who inked the deal on behalf of the UNDP, told IOL Wednesday.
He said the training will be based on media, up-to-date technologies and seminars.
The sources also told IOL that the government was "determined to stand up firmly to extremists and violence before spreading like wildfire in the country as it is the case in some Arab and Muslim countries".
They cited last week’s Damascus raid by Syrian troops on a cell calling itself the Levant Soldiers for Jihad, which led to the killing of two cell members and the seizure of weapons, hand grenades, violence-inciting leaflets and walky-talkies.
But Islamist MP Mohammad Habash said the UNDP religious training program is predestined to fail because “developing religious discourse is a purely Islamic affair.”
He suggested setting up a “National Religious Guidance Council” to rein in fanaticism.
“The idea, however, was roundly rejected by the ruling party,” he told IOL.
Other Islamists, who requested anonymity, said Muslims are in no need of foreigners to teach them their religion
They charged that the program was designed to implicitly change curricula under the war on fanaticism and UN cloak.
Analysts believe that poverty and ignorance are breeding ground for rising fanaticism and violence in Arab and Muslim countries.
They also blamed the phenomenon on the government's heavy-handed approach, the absence of freedom of expression and democracy, the crackdown on political parties and movements and the strict secular agenda of the state.
They further said that the governments should lift its hands off religious institutions and stop exploiting them as tool to serve its political interests.
The ruling Baath Party, which concluded on June 9 four days of brainstorming sessions on its future, has ruled out the possibility of forming religious parties, closing the door to key groups like the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
The Baath congress, which analysts said only came up with modest reforms, was preceded by a series of arrests of political opponents and Muslim Brotherhood activists.
IslamOnline.net, 16 June 2005.
Ibrahim Hamidi recently published this article in al-Hayat on the UNDP-Syrian agreement.
كشفت مصادر دولية لـ«الحياة» امس ان الحكومة السورية وقعت اتفاقا مع «البرنامج الانمائي للامم المتحدة» يهدف الى تحويل دور «رجال الدين والمؤسسات الدينية الى اتجاه تنموي يحد من التعصب»، بالاعتماد على وسائل اعلام حديثة والمناهج المدرسية وتوفير كتب ومنشورات وعقد ندوات.
تزامن هذا مع اعلان السلطات السورية عن تفكيك «خلية ارهابية» تابعة لـ«تنظيم جند الشام للجهاد والتوحيد» بعد اكتشاف عمليات تعصب مشابهة في مناطق اخرى في سورية.
وكان المنسق المقيم لـ«البرنامج الانمائي» علي الزعتري وقع الاتفاق مع وزير الاوقاف السوري انس الايوبي. وجاء في مسودة اولية للاتفاق ان «البرنامج سيقدم لرجال الدين والمؤسسات الدينية برنامجا للتأهيل ولتطوير وتعزيز قدرات المؤسسة الدينية ومهارات العاملين فيها».
وكانت الحكومة السورية رفضت توقيع هذا الاتفاق، لكن الموافقة السورية جاءت بعد لقاء جرى بين الرئيس بشار الاسد ومدير المكتب الإقليمي للدول العربية في «البرنامج الإنمائي» ريما خلف هنيدي، بسبب توفر قناعة سورية بـ«ضرورة التركيز على الدور التنموي للدين».
وبحسب مسودة البرنامج التي تخضع حاليا لمراجعة من قبل خبراء الامم المتحدة، فان الخطة تتضمن «منهجا متكاملا يستعين بوسائل الاعلام والاعلان والكتب والمناهج المدرسية ودورات التأهيل والتطوير وتكنولوجيا المعلومات واللقاءات والندوات العلمية والشعبية، التي تستهدف رجال الدين والمؤسسات الدينية».
وفي سورية نحو ثمانية الاف جامع و120 معهدا لتحفيظ القرآن الكريم واكثر من 22 معهدا لتدريس علوم الدين ودراسات عليا في الشريعة الاسلامية.
ولاحظ خبراء الامم المتحدة ان الاحصاءات الرسمية «تكشف وجود مشكلات وسلوكيات تعاني منها المجتمعات العربية عامة (والمجتمع السوري) وتزداد هذه المشكلات حدة يوما بعد يوم ما يشكل عائقا حقيقيا في وجه التنمية والتطوير الاجتماعي والاداري والاقتصادي ويعيق كثيرا برامج التطوير الرسمية وغير الرسمية».
وكان النائب الاسلامي محمد حبش قال لـ«الحياة» انه اقترح على الحكومة السورية تأسيس «مجلس وطني للتوجيه الديني» بما يساهم من «الحد من ظاهرة التعصب الديني التي بدأت تظهر في البلاد»، قبل ان يشير الى ان القيادة القطرية السابقة لحزب «البعث» رفضت هذا الاقتراح.
The following article, denying that madrassas, or Islamic schools, are a source of 9-11 terrorism, is interesting.
The Madrassa Myth By PETER BERGEN and SWATI PANDEY Published: June 14, 2005 Washington
IT is one of the widespread assumptions of the war on terrorism that the Muslim religious schools known as madrassas, catering to families that are often poor, are graduating students who become terrorists. Last year, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell denounced madrassas in Pakistan and several other countries as breeding grounds for "fundamentalists and terrorists." A year earlier, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had queried in a leaked memorandum, "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
While madrassas may breed fundamentalists who have learned to recite the Koran in Arabic by rote, such schools do not teach the technical or linguistic skills necessary to be an effective terrorist. Indeed, there is little or no evidence that madrassas produce terrorists capable of attacking the West. And as a matter of national security, the United States doesn't need to worry about Muslim fundamentalists with whom we may disagree, but about terrorists who want to attack us.
We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators' educational levels is available - the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002 - 53 percent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52 percent of Americans have been to college. The terrorists in our study thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.
The 1993 World Trade Center attack involved 12 men, all of whom had a college education. The 9/11 pilots, as well as the secondary planners identified by the 9/11 commission, all attended Western universities, a prestigious and elite endeavor for anyone from the Middle East. Indeed, the lead 9/11 pilot, Mohamed Atta, had a degree from a German university in, of all things, urban preservation, while the operational planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, studied engineering in North Carolina. We also found that two-thirds of the 25 hijackers and planners involved in 9/11 had attended college.
Of the 75 terrorists we investigated, only nine had attended madrassas, and all of those played a role in one attack - the Bali bombing. Even in this instance, however, five college-educated "masterminds" - including two university lecturers - helped to shape the Bali plot.
Like the view that poverty drives terrorism - a notion that countless studies have debunked - the idea that madrassas are incubating the next generation of terrorists offers the soothing illusion that desperate, ignorant automatons are attacking us rather than college graduates, as is often the case. In fact, two of the terrorists in our study had doctorates from Western universities, and two others were working toward their Ph.D.
A World Bank-financed study that was published in April raises further doubts about the influence of madrassas in Pakistan, the country where the schools were thought to be the most influential and the most virulently anti-American. Contrary to the numbers cited in the report of the 9/11 commission, and to a blizzard of newspaper reports that 10 percent of Pakistani students study in madrassas, the study's authors found that fewer than 1 percent do so. If correct, this estimate would suggest that there are far more American children being home-schooled than Pakistani boys attending madrassas.
While madrassas are an important issue in education and development in the Muslim world, they are not and should not be considered a threat to the United States. The tens of millions of dollars spent every year by the United States through the State Department, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and the Agency for International Development to improve education and literacy in the Middle East and South Asia should be applauded as the development aid it is and not as the counterterrorism effort it cannot be.
Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War Inc.," is a fellow at the New America Foundation. Swati Pandey is a research associate there.
I am posting three recent articles which sum up the policy dilemma of the West as it struggles to develop a united Syria policy. Very possibly Europe and Washington will never see eye to eye on Syria, giving Bashar room to maneuver and time to carry out his very slow reform policy, which he hopes will preserve government structures, while allowing for economic growth.
The first article is by Ian Bremmer who recommends that the US resume its policy of using carrots along with pressure. He argues that "Assad's presidency is Syria's best hope for reform."
The second article is by William Harris, who suggests that Damascus is irredemable and was dependent on Lebanon to such and extent that "its loss may mark a psychological tipping point toward overall erosion of [Asad's] authority." This is the arguement being put forward by Washington hawks and which captured the imagination of Chirac and Bush both, when they stated right after Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon that they expected the government in Damascus to collapse within the year. I don't think we will hear anyone repeating those projections again soon, but the general outlook described by Harris will not be abandoned so easily.
The third report is by Oxford Business Group. It explains how the EU delegation that recently visited Syria made it clear "that the EU wants to pursue a softer policy approach than the US, based on incentives rather than pressure. Contrary to indications given by the US, the EU has made it clear that it had no interest in seeing a full regime change in Damascus and that Syria instead needs support for its reforms."
It would seem that the EU has taken the advice to use carrots given by analysts such as Ian Bremmer. Thus we have come full circle and are seeing the resumption of pre-1559 diplomacy, where Washington plays bad-cop and Europe plays good-cop. All the same, Washington is counting Syria's mistakes as loudly as possible in order to build up the rap-sheet against Damascus, such as Condi Rice's recent reaction to George Hawi's murder, when she warned: "Syria, knock it off." Here are the 3 articles:
NEW YORK The United States is once again angry at Syria - and with good reason. Syrian radicals are crossing the border to join the insurgency in Iraq in increasing numbers. Damascus has cut back on intelligence cooperation with Washington. The Syrian government is once again demonstrating its disproportionate ability to frustrate progress in the Middle East.
Why then should the Bush administration cut Bashar Assad's government a little slack? Because, in the long run, Assad's presidency is Syria's best hope for reform, and because a nuanced approach to U.S.-Syrian relations gives Washington its best chance at achieving the outcomes it wants in the region.
When Bashar Assad assumed power after his father's death in 2000, Washington hoped Syria would move steadily toward political and economic reform. Assad, then 34, lacked the military background that trained so many Syrians in the management of his father's police state. (He instead studied ophthalmology in Britain.) The younger Assad seemed an intelligent, reform-minded technocrat whose chief title, before he became president, was head of the Syrian Computer Service. Assad is widely credited with overseeing the introduction of the Internet to Syria in 1999 - albeit with censored content - and with founding Syria's first mobile-phone network.
The Bush administration initially adopted a good-cop, bad-cop approach to dealing with Assad's new government. As the Iraq war began, Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton took turns threatening Syria with dire consequences if it did not renounce its alleged program for chemical and biological weapons and turn its back on Saddam's loyalists in Iraq. But not long after, Colin Powell, then secretary of state, demonstrated the administration's willingness to work with Assad by visiting Damascus.
The two-track strategy yielded results. Syria offered valuable intelligence cooperation in the war on terror. Assad freed large numbers of political prisoners. His government helped the U.S. military monitor Syria's border with Iraq and passed a number of fugitive Saddam loyalists into U.S. custody. Unlike Iran, Syria has negotiated with European states, largely in good faith, toward a resolution of questions surrounding its weapons programs. Syria's border with Israel remained quiet. Hezbollah, Syria's armed proxy in Lebanon, curtailed rocket attacks on Israelis.
Crucially, Syria ended its three-decade occupation of Lebanon. After February's assassination, possibly by Syrian security forces, of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and in response to strong international pressure, Assad pledged to remove Syria's 14,000 troops. And suspending judgment for the moment on U.S. charges that Syrian intelligence operatives are flowing back into Lebanon to carry out assassinations and other hostile operations, Assad kept his promise. In the process, he purged the senior ranks of the security services of several hard-line holdovers from the days of his father's repressive rule.
That's why Assad is now scrambling to contain the damage he's done to his standing with powerful members of the old guard. It's ironic that two of his most welcome reforms, the Lebanon retreat and the security service purge, have now pushed the Syrian president toward actions that anger the White House.
Several factors limit Assad's domestic political capital. Like his father, Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose political dominance is deeply resented by Syria's majority Sunnis. Second, Assad lacks his father's talent for inspiring both admiration and fear among the elite and the general population. Finally, many older-generation officials have never fully trusted him to protect their privileges or to maintain a hard-line approach to Israel and the West. Assad has gotten rid of some of them, but not all.
As a result, Assad has moved to appease those among Syria's governing circle most suspicious of his intentions. Hence less cooperation with U.S. intelligence and the Syrian Sunni radicals filtering into Iraq. It's a calculated move. Beyond appeasement of his domestic critics, Assad believes Sunni radicals are less threat to him in Iraq than they would be at home.
In response, President George W. Bush has sidelined his good cops and dispatched the bad cops to intimidate Assad into greater cooperation. Last month, Bush renewed sanctions that halt most U.S. exports to Syria and sharply limit transactions between U.S. banks and Syria's national bank.
There is no question the United States should respond sharply to any Syrian moves to aid Iraq's insurgency. But what's needed is the more nuanced approach of Bush's first term - some carrots as well as sticks.
There is reason to hope political and economic reform in Syria will continue and even intensify. On June 6, at the opening of the 10th Baath Party Congress in Damascus, Syria's vice president, Abdul Halim Khaddam, offered his resignation. Over the course of his 30-year career as a senior Baath Party leader, Khaddam has fiercely defended Syria's single-party system and was the senior official most directly responsible for Syria's day-to-day management of Lebanese politics. For a party congress expected to focus on reform, his offer of resignation is a hopeful sign.
Assad has, so far, made only limited progress in political and economic reform, but that is certainly preferable to what lies ahead for U.S.-Syria relations if Assad is shoved aside by the hard-liners.
A more nuanced and patient U.S. approach has produced progress over the last four years. If administration hawks enable the hard-liners to unseat Assad, the long-term result will be bad for Iraq, for Israel, and for Syria - and it will be bad for the United States.
(Ian Bremmer is president of the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.)
Internally, Syria is weak. The Syrian people have lower per capita income than their neighbors—US$1,130 per capita in 2002 compared with $1,760 in Jordan, $3,900 in Lebanon, $2,500 in Turkey, and over $16,000 in Israel. Occupying Lebanon allowed the Syrian regime a way to bypass reforms it may not be able to make. For Assad to trim the bloated public sector would undercut the regime's support base. Opening the Syrian economy would erode authoritarian controls. But failure to do so will leave Syria poorly placed to handle demographic, social, and environmental challenges. Syrian leaders have no idea how to handle their dilemma. The dismal outlook has fortified the prevailing siege mentality in both domestic and foreign policy.
Bashar al-Assad's regime flirted with reform soon after June 2000 but quickly ended the Damascus Spring when dissent grew too bold. Hope for Syria to make good on its stated desire for Arab-Israeli peace evaporated when, during the May 2001 papal visit to Damascus, Bashar launched into an anti-Semitic tirade. At the March 2002 Arab summit in Beirut, he endorsed suicide bombings within Israel.
Bashar's early promises of reform in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship also proved fleeting. He promised the Lebanese a more equal relationship on taking office, and in his inauguration speech, highlighted Lebanese-Syrian relations as "a model of the relationship between two Arab countries" albeit one where the "model is not yet perfected and needs a lot of effort to become ideal and achieve joint interests in a way that answers the aspirations of the two countries." Just four years later, he overrode Lebanon's constitution to extend the term of his client, Lebanese president Emile Lahoud whose single permissible six-year term ended in November 2004.
Belief in Syrian prestige also undercuts the Syrian ability to consider Lebanon equal. For today's Syrian leaders, Damascus is as much the pan-Arab citadel of steadfastness (qil`at as-sumud wa't-tasaddi) against Israel and the West as it was in the 1960s. The Syrian regime, which officially subscribes to the pan-Arab chauvinism of Baathism, looks back through the centuries to the glory days of Damascus under the Umayyads (661-750) and Salah ad-Din (d. 1193), claims moral leadership in promoting Arab causes, and parades a self-righteousness that even Islamists struggle to match. Within the Levant, Syrian Baathists find Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian autonomy barely tolerable. From the late Ottoman period onward, Syrian Arab nationalists have viewed Lebanon and Palestine as part of a Bilad ash-sham (Greater Syria). Syrian leaders considered the western side of the Fertile Crescent to be the Syrian backyard and Damascus, the region's rightful political center. On this basis, Syria refused to exchange embassies with Lebanon, a curious situation given the supposed friendship between the two neighbors.
Finally, here is the Oxford Business Group report:
Syria: A Matter of Trust 22 June 2005
Last week's visit to Syria by delegations from the European Commission and European Parliament brought a sense of relief to government circles in Damascus, as the EU reiterated its supportive stance for domestic reforms in the economic, technological, logistical and administrative fields. The trip also ended several months of tense diplomatic exchanges following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last February in Beirut.
Yet, despite sending positive signals to the Syrians and shedding some light on the future of EU-Syrian relations, the visit stopped short of removing the many lingering obstacles between Brussels and Damascus. These relate to disputes over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and sponsorship of terrorism, amongst others, all of which have been barriers on the road to the conclusion of the EU-Syrian Association Agreement, which both sides hope to have settled before the end of 2005.
Nonetheless, on June 14, during a press conference with Speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash of the People's Assembly, Beatrice Patri, the head of the EU parliamentary delegation, said she noticed a serious and strong desire for reform during her meeting with President Bashar Assad.
We now seek to pursue an honest dialogue, she said, particularly following the Baath [Party's] Tenth Regional Congress.
The next morning, at the opening ceremony of an EU informatics centre in the northern city of Aleppo, Frank Hesske, the head of the European Commission delegation in Syria, expressed his will to create an economic environment that would supply job opportunities for a considerable part of Syrian society, while simultaneously providing technical help to a much needed administrative reform programme.
Although rather cursory in substance, these statements are likely to be of great significance for Syria in the short term. Bearing in mind the questionable framework of reforms proposed by Assad at the end of the Baath Party congress held early this month, these comments do show a willingness nonetheless to support change.
This is also evidence that the EU wants to pursue a softer policy approach than the US, based on incentives rather than pressure. Contrary to indications given by the US, the EU has made it clear that it had no interest in seeing a full regime change in Damascus and that Syria instead needs support for its reforms.
To be certain, much still depends on how Syria further complies with Resolution 1559 as well as on the investigations currently being carried out in Lebanon into the deaths of Hariri and Samir Kassir. Sadly enough a third victim - George Hawi, a member of the anti-Syrian opposition and secretary general of the Lebanese communist party - was also killed on June 21 in a car bomb while driving in a west Beirut neighbourhood.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, most observers agree that reform must speed up, for Syria is facing severe demographic pressure as its population expands at close to 3% per year, with severe employment problems already showing.
Boosting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on top of encouraging larger investment ventures is a strategy Syria should put particular emphasis on achieving. In this regard, the EU can provide considerable expertise and help, as it has with the Aleppo informatics centre.
At the same time, many are closely watching for any sign of change within the ruling political power structures. Significantly, last week saw the replacement of the important intelligence chief, Hisham Ikhtiar, by Ali Mamluk. The move was widely interpreted as part of steps to loosen the role of the Mukhabarat - the security services - on society and to instead focus the organisation on a different definition of state security.
As part of this change, 67 permits formerly licensed by the Mukhabarat and needed to open anything ranging from a billiard salon to a barbershop, are no longer necessary. This reflects a growing awareness in higher circles that the pervasive role of the secret services in society should be curtailed, thereby reducing corruption and facilitating the creation of small businesses.
Overall, the structural and institutional framework for a successful market economy to operate is also slowly coming together. Thanks to the opening of the financial and insurance markets to private entities, and to the gradual liberalisation of the exchange rates regime, Syria is gradually developing substantial tools to allow and guarantee investment flows.
In a much-noted move, President Assad also endorsed Law No. 22 on June 19, which prepares the ground for the establishment of a Syrian securities and stock market commission. Minister of Finance Mohammad al-Hussein told state news agency SANA on the same day that this law removed the last obstacle to the formation of a local stock market. The founding of publicly listed companies might therefore be just a short step ahead - adding another important component to the financial system.
The challenge is now to harmonise all these legal and institutional changes in a meaningful way and then to translate them to the public through a coherent promotional campaign so that the people understand the relevance of the transformation, Rateb Shallah, president of the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Commerce, recently told OBG.
Indeed, Syria has not only so far proved unable to attract a substantial amount of foreign direct investment in productive ventures, but has also failed to convince its own nationals to put their money in domestic projects.
The major obstacle to reform and growth could be summed up in three words: lack of trust. In this regard, last week's various EU statements not only came as a blessing for the government, but might actually help it to sail through its legitimacy crisis. After all, what many Syrians desperately want is their leadership to keep its promises on reforms and not throw away its opportunities.
"Arab states urge more cautious US policy on Syria" Arab governments are urging a more cautious US policy towards Syria, warning that undermining the regime of Bashar al-Assad could also destabilise Lebanon and exacerbate the insurgency in Iraq.
The opposition Syrian Islah party (reform party), Fareed al-Ghadiri, said on Wednesday that he is currently visiting Iraq for talks aiming at supporting activities his party carries out against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. He admitted recently he had got American financial support to activate his party's activities against Damascus.
He told reporters in Baghdad that he held "meetings with Iraqi officials in the interim Iraqi government and several leaders opponents to Damascus." Al-Ghadiri added that he had discussed with Iraqi officials "opening offices for Islah party in Iraq in order to reactivate its opposition political activity as from the Iraqi territories in collaboration with officials in the interim government and the Syrian opposition, unifying foreign pressure between Arab, European countries and the USA aiming at destabilizing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and enhancing the democratic process in Syria."
He said "the Iraqi people suffer today from the Syrian terrorism, the same way the Syrian people suffered from this same terrorism, as well as the Lebanese people. It is time the ruling regime in Damascus to leave the authority." Al-Ghadiri established strong ties with certain American circles. He admitted recently he had got American financial support to activate his party's activities against Damascus.
Al-Ghadiri is described by some as "Syria's Chalabi", citing the example of Ahmad Chalabi, the current Iraqi deputy prime minister who maintains close relations with the so-called "new conservatives" in the American administration.
Here is Secretary of State Rice's press conference:
* * * QUESTION: (Inaudible) LBC. Secretary of State, you have mentioned today Syria is one of the neighboring countries you are sending a message to cooperate on the issue of terrorism. Did you have any evidence that Syria is supporting terrorism? And what about the dialogue the United States have established at some stage with Damascus to get somewhere?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, on the first issue, we have forces that are near that border. We know what's coming across that border and that border is a real problem for the Iraqi people. And I think you've heard that also from the Iraqi Government and from the Iraqi Defense Minister. And so something needs to be done about that. Now, we have had numerous interactions with the Syrian Government about a number of concerns, going all the way back to Secretary Powell's visit to Damascus a couple of years ago. Rich Armitage was there.
The Syrian Government knows what it needs to do and I would just make a broader point, which is that I would hope that the Syrian Government would decide to associate itself with the progress that is being made in the Middle East, rather than being a place that appears to be resistant to that progress. Whether you are talking about the situation in Lebanon, where, while transparent Syrian forces have been withdrawn, there continues to be instability in Lebanon that has led to the assassination of now, at least three figures of the opposition. And we are concerned that there could be others and we call upon the Syrian Government to do everything that it can to deal with the instability that it is helping to create there.
Secondly, that out of Damascus there operate a number of Palestinian rejectionist groups, Palestinian Islamic Jihad for instance, which has decided to be outside of the consensus that Mahmoud Abbas is trying to arrange so that there can be calm in the Palestinian territories, so that they can make progress with Israel. But most importantly, in the context of today's conference, it is really the responsibility of all of Iraq's neighbors to do everything they can, actively, to resist and to frustrate the efforts of those who are trying to destroy the progress that is being made in Iraq.
And I mean, not just what is happening to coalition forces, but of course that is -- people are undertaking violent acts against coalition forces. But when you have violent acts also against Iraqi children who are standing at school or Iraqi patriots who are joining the police forces or the army and they're standing in line, Iraqi intellectuals, ordinary Iraqis along the street -- it's time for Iraqi's neighbors and especially Syria to live up to its responsibilities.
It might be worth mentioning that Bahjat's replacement Nassif is the son of Muhammad Nassif, who remains a very powerful member of the inner core, and who I believe was formerly the head of the General Intelligence department, or at least the domestic affairs department.
Al-Balad newspaper in Lebanon notes other changes and appointments from its Damascus correspondent:
The head of the Damascus branch of the Political Security directorate, Gen. (Amid) Rafik Shehadeh, was set to a military posing at the presidential palace. Soon expected is the appointment of Brig. (Liwaa) Ali Younes as head of the Air Force intelligence service, in lieu of Brig. Ezzeddine Ismail. Younes had been head of the 293 section of Military Intelligence.
I'm not sure how to interpret this, though it does seem clear that Assef has placed his man at Air Force intelligence. Was Shehadeh kicked upstairs? Dunno. Also, the article cites sources in Syria as saying Farouq Sharaa will not be appointed a new vice-president; instead he will receive a new role in the National Progressive Front, which sounds pretty much like he's being sidelined.
DAMASCUS, June 14 (Reuters) - Syria has appointed a new intelligence chief as part of steps to loosen the ruling Baath's party's tight grip on political life, diplomats and analysts said on Tuesday.
Ali Mamluk, deputy head of intelligence of the air force, replaces Hisham Ikhtiar, who was elevated to a top level post as head of a newly set up national security bureau within the Baath party, they said.
"He took up his post yesterday," said a Syrian political analyst with ties to members of the ruling Baath party.
The choice of Mamluk, in his mid-fifties and born in Damascus, was part of efforts to streamline the "mukhabarat" security service, focus it on domestic state security and downsize its pervasive role in society, other analysts said.
Damascus has come under growing international pressure amid a wave of agitation for democratic reforms in the Arab world.
And three U.N. military officers are checking reports Syria may still have intelligence agents in Lebanon after Damascus pulled its 14,000 troops out of its smaller neighbour in April.
"The timing of the new appointment and the credentials of the man is more than coincidental. The regime wants to send a message that it understands what is going on around it and wants to move forward," said one Western diplomat.
The Baath party circulated a directive last week abolishing 67 permits that ordinary Syrians normally need from the mukhabarat to license anything from a wedding to a billiard hall, a barber shop to a local grocer.
"There has been a growing feeling amongst Baath reformers that the role of the mukhabarat must be curtailed under a security reform plan that has been discussed to limit excesses," a diplomatic source said.
The new head of intelligence was expected to curb the agency's overt political role and heavy-handed tactics against political dissidents, a semi-official source said.
"The move is in line with efforts to push ahead with wider political reforms," said the source, who requested anonymity.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made on Thursday important changes in the structure of the leadership of certain Syrian security forces.
He issued several decrees, one of them transfers Lt. Gen. Bahjat Suleiman from his post as a chief for the internal security forces in the general intelligence department ( state security ) to the general headquarters, seven years after assuming this post. For most of the Syrians, Suleiman's removal from this post is a big relief because he used to be personally responsible for nominating irresponsible candidates as ambassadors and chief of executive posts.
In place of Suleiman, al-Assad appointed Lt. Gen. Nasif Kheir Bek (the chairman of the technical branch in the military intelligence branch).
He also appointed Lt. Gen. Hassan Khallouf (chairman of Palestine Branch of the military intelligence branch ) as a deputy director for the general intelligence Lt. Gen. Ali Mamlouk who had replaced Lt. Gen. Hisham al-Ikhtiar after the latter (Ikhtiar) assumed his post as a chairman for the national security bureau in the Baath party regional leadership.
He also appointed Lt. Gen. Saeed Sammour ( chairman of the region's branch in the military intelligence department) as a deputy chairman for the military intelligence branch which is led by Lt. Gen. Asef Ahawkat since February 14, this year.
General Bahjat Suleiman (61), head of branch 251 of the intelligence and the strongest person in this apparatus. He enjoys significant authority and privileges that exceed those of the head of the same apparatus, General Hisham Bekhtyar. Suleiman’s position has more than one aspect that makes him different from all the other figures in this small circle of authority. He is, from one side, the godfather of the inheritance of office vision as he was the first to call for Bashar to succeed his father just a few hours after Hafez’ death. He is also the authority’s right hand when it comes to controlling intellectuals, writers, and artists, penetrating their associations, and threatening them, thus making sure that their projects that call for democratic change fail. He would resort sometimes to convey the authority’s opinion in important issues indirectly via political commentaries that he either signs with his own name or with a pen name. The article published in the Lebanese As-safir newspaper in mid-2003 is one example where he was the first to warn of a demographic earthquake in Lebanon should Syria withdraw its forces.
Robert Rabil of WINEP wrote on May 9, 2005 of the top power-brokers in the country:
The country’s informal levers of power remain in the hands of Alawi officials. Bashar’s brother, Maher, has emerged as the strongman of the Republican Guards, whose main function is to protect the presidential palace and the capital. Ghazi Kenaan, former chief of intelligence in Lebanon and confidant of Bashar’s father, was appointed minister of interior in October 2004. Kenaan developed a reputation for his shrewd manner and brutal tactics, though he has come to advocate gradual reform. Bashar’s brother in-law, Asef Shawkat, was recently appointed chief of military intelligence; he is considered a hardliner.
Bahjat Suleiman, another hardliner, heads the internal security division of the General Intelligence Directorate, and his influence surpasses that of organization chief Hisham Bakhtiar. (It should be noted that, according to the rumor mill in Damascus and Beirut, Maher, Shawkat, and Suleiman supported the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri while Bashar and Kenaan opposed it.) Gen. Muhammad Mansoura replaced Kenaan as head of the Political Security Directorate, and his power is reportedly on the rise. Gen. Zoul Himma Chaliche, Bashar’s cousin, is in charge of protecting the president. Gen. Ali Habib replaced Hasan Turkmani as chief of staff in May 2004, while Turkmani replaced Mustafa Tlas as defense minister. All of these officials, with the exception of Turkmani, are Alawis with tribal and/or familial connection to Bashar (as his last name connotes, Turkmani is a Turkman). The only Sunni official with significant power is Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, whose hardline policies are infamous.
Since Bashar himself has so little experience running the system, members of the New Guard have been given a great deal of autonomy. An excellent illustration of this is the dramatic chain of events that led to the exile of former chief-of-staff Hikmat Shihabi in June and his return to Syria last month. In early June, as the late Syrian President Hafez Assad lay on his deathbed, the daily Al-Hayat published leaks by "official" Syrian sources indicating that Shihabi would soon be indicted on corruption charges. Shihabi, who was in Beirut at the time, promptly boarded a plane and took off for exile in California. At the time, it was assumed that Shihabi was simply the latest target in Bashar's anti-corruption drive. Last month, however, Shihabi suddenly returned to Syria and officially met with Bashar at the presidential palace in Damascus. Most observers assumed that the new Syrian president had changed his mind for some reason and decided to "rehabilitate" Shihabi.
However, according to informed sources, Bashar had nothing to do with Shihabi's departure in the first place. The entire scheme to facilitate Shihabi's exit by making the leaks to Al-Hayat was undertaken independently by Bahjat Suleiman, the head of internal affairs at the General Security Directorate and one of Bashar's closest advisors. Suleiman, like many other members of the minority Alawite establishment, apparently feared that Shihabi (a Sunni Muslim) might cause trouble after the Syrian president's death. In any case, a source close to former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri (a close friend of Shihabi who saw him off at the airport) told MEIB that Bashar discovered the plot and phoned Hariri to explain, but by then the plane had already taken off. Only after repeated assurances during the next month did Shihabi agree to return.
Two new articles of interest have appeared, which treat the thorny question of the Kurds and what is going on in the Jazira. The first (copied below) is from the Economist. It claims that 50,000 Kurds demonstrated in Qamishli following the murder of Khasnawi, rather than 10,000, as Blanford and other sources stated in the first weeks after the demonstration took place. This higher number seems like an exaggeration, but we aren't sure. In other respects the Economist article is close to Blanford's. Notice the poetic image of "hot winds, twirling genies, and golden stubble of wheat" used to capture the feel and look of the Jazira in both articles! A good image is a good image.
Here is the Economist:
Hot winds scour the open plains of north-east Syria, whisking the chaff from a record wheat harvest into twirling genies and churning up dust clouds that seem to swallow whole villages of squat mud houses.
Here is Blanford's earlier article:
The main road between Hasake and Qamishli cuts across a barren terrain of harvested wheat fields,... which have been part of this ancient steppe for more than 4,000 years. The hot wind creates spinning columns of dust which pirouette and sway gracefully across the fields of golden stubble.
The economist claims that youth from the Bagara and Tayy tribes are itching to fight Americans. This seems reasonable. I wrote about this last week after talking to a member of the Bagara.
The economist adds an important detail about how the Syrian government used "Baathist youth groups" "to attack the Kurds and distributed pamphlets accusing "the Kurds of being “agents of Bush and Mossad”. But in the same paragraph it states that those who "pillaged the Kurdish-owned shops" were "a rabble of slum-dwelling Arabs." One wonders if "slum-dwellers" or "Baathist youth groups" attacked the Kurds? Maybe the "slum-dwelling" Arabs are Baathist youth groups? Maybe there was a division of labor? Not clear.
The Economist states that "Syria has no Kurdish ministers, generals, senior judges or Baath party officials." Can my readers confirm this fact? It is a bad sign if it is true. One has always pointed to the late Grand Mufti Kaftaro as the highest "government Kurd" and as proof that the government was solicitous of Kurds in general, but if there are no highly placed Kurds in the Government or regime today, it is significant.
Syria under Bashar Assad: One of the last survivors of a dying breed Jun 16th 2005 ALEPPO, DAMASCUS AND QAMISHLI From The Economist print edition - (Thanks to Jefferson Gray of the University of Virginia for sending this article to me.)
The regime shows no sign of collapse but under the surface all is not well. Hot winds scour the open plains of north-east Syria, whisking the chaff from a record wheat harvest into twirling genies and churning up dust clouds that seem to swallow whole villages of squat mud houses. Giant lorries ferry herd-loads of sheep to Iraq for sale, passing a returning stream of greasy tankers hauling smuggled petrol.
Away from the crush and intrigue of Damascus, Syria seems a peaceful and ruddily self-reliant if not prosperous place. Yet the appearance, like the cheap Iraqi fuel that tends to be diluted with engine-killing water, is deceptive.
Here in the north-east, a sense of ferment extends not only to the large and much-oppressed Kurdish population. Poor native Arab tribes complain of perks, jobs and guns granted to tribeless Arab outsiders, settled here under the ruling Baath party's policy of diluting the mistrusted Kurds. Youthful Bagara and Tayy tribesmen, who have cousins in Iraq, are restive for a different reason. Fired by stories of jihad, and with the livelihood of smuggling threatened by shoot-first American patrolling of the border, they are said to chafe at being kept from fighting the infidel intruder.
Such tensions do boil over. Earlier this month, some 50,000 Kurds gathered in the dusty centre of Qamishli, the main (largely Kurdish) town of the north-east, to protest against the mysterious murder of a popular reformist preacher, Sheikh Mashuq Khaznawi. When a smaller group tried to join, say the Kurds, police beat them back before parting ranks to allow a rabble of slum-dwelling Arabs to pillage Kurdish-owned shops. Pamphlets had earlier been distributed that accused the Kurds of being “agents of Bush and Mossad”. Kurdish activists say most of the looters appeared to be from Baathist youth groups.
Syria's Kurds, 10% of the country's 18m people, are used to such things. Forty years ago, 100,000 of them were stripped of Syrian nationality. They and their descendants still have no right to passports, official employment or property ownership. In the 1970s, thousands more lost their lands when the state “Arabised” a 10km (six-mile) strip along the long Turkish border. Syria has no Kurdish ministers, generals, senior judges or Baath party officials. The country's dozen Kurdish parties that demand such things as language rights and fair parliamentary representation, are officially banned. Amnesty International lists Sheikh Khaznawi as the sixth Syrian Kurd to have died as a result of police ill-treatment in the past 15months alone.
Obviously, Kurds share the general scepticism with which other Syrians greet the talk of reform coming now from Damascus. Such talk grew loud in advance of the Baath party congress earlier this month. In the event, the rhetoric sounded musty as ever, and the announced changes looked puny. These included, among other things, a review of the emergency laws that have been applied since the Baathists took power in 1963, moves to disentangle the party from the state, and laws to lift some restrictions on the press and on the formation of political parties.
Many foreign commentators described Syria's government as having missed a last chance to improve its image at the congress. Noting mounting troubles, from Syria's recent humiliating exit from Lebanon, to American sanctions, to anger over Syria's alleged failure to stop jihadis crossing the border into Iraq, to falling oil sales, soaring unemployment and stirring unrest among Kurds, Sunni Islamists and liberal intellectuals, some predicted an early end to Baathist rule. The latest rumblings from Washington, moreover, indicate that the Americans, after some hesitation, have opted to isolate the Baathist government still more. They will blame Syria for any political violence in Lebanon. And they have hinted at plans to impose a no-fly zone or perhaps a security corridor on Syria's side of the Iraqi border.
Yet, perhaps because they are used to being governed very badly, knowledgeable Syrians seem less edgy than might be expected. Five years after he succeeded his ruthless father, President Bashar Assad, aged 39, has certainly not lived up to initial hopes for change. The early release of hundreds of political prisoners was followed by the rounding up of dozens more. Moves to liberalise the economy became mired in corruption and red tape. Often, Mr Assad seemed to have little control over fiefs carved out by his father's cronies.
But there is no sign that the younger Assad's grip is weakening. In some respects it may be growing stronger. This is not only because opposition to Baathist rule has failed to coalesce: witness the Kurds' 12 rival parties. Nor is it only because middle-class Syrians, wary of the messiness of their similarly sectarian neighbours, Iraq and Lebanon, tend to prefer the devil they know to ones they don't. (“Of course we all want change,” says a Damascus trader. “But when you ask at what cost, most of us shut up.”) Mr Assad remains peculiarly popular. This is hard for anyone who did not live under his father's regime to imagine. But simple things like allowing satellite dishes, letting the internet spread and cutting import duties have won him a great deal of goodwill.
Mr Assad has also, slowly but with increasing urgency, drawn the levers of power into his own hands. The Baath congress was less notable for action it failed to take than for Mr Assad's sweeping changes in his ruling circle. Sixteen of 21 members of the Regional Command, the party's governing body, got sacked. The new command, cut to 15 members, is dominated by younger types directly loyal to the president. Similar changes have overtaken the army and security forces. Even in private business, Mr Assad's close kin and friends, many from his Alawite sect that makes up a bare tenth of Syria's population, have elbowed themselves into dominance.
And there are signs that the president, despite speechifying over the glories of the Baath, will ignore the party if necessary. The recent appointment of a respected non-Baathist, Abdullah Dardari, as deputy prime minister with broad oversight of economic policy, suggests a will to push the limits of the party's new-found commitment to what it calls a “social market economy”. About time. Forty years ago, Syria was the second richest of 22 Arab countries. Now its ranking has dived.
Yet if Mr Assad has given himself better means to effect rapid change, he must act quickly. The world is watching closely. He has been humiliated in Lebanon. His people are disillusioned, restless and tired of isolation. The Americans want him out. Despite his grip on the organs of repression, his long-term prospects for turning his country round—and staying on top of it—look increasingly bleak.
BY HANNAH ALLAM Knight Ridder Newspapers: Posted on Fri, Jun. 17, 2005
DAMASCUS, Syria - (KRT) - Sheik Mohammed Khaznawi, one of Syria's most prominent Kurdish activists, had become so concerned about the plainclothes intelligence agents who shadowed his every move that he began to call his sons every half-hour, just to let them know he hadn't been arrested.
When he didn't check in on May 10, his sons feared the worst. They were right.
Three weeks later, Khaznawi's body turned up in a shallow grave near the Turkish border - bruised, with broken teeth and a dislodged nose. The authorities didn't allow an autopsy, so the cause of death is unknown.
The Syrian government blamed Khaznawi's killing on a criminal gang, and quickly produced two suspects whose confessions aired on national television.
But to Syria's 1.7 million Kurds, the country's largest minority and an important component of the opposition to President Bashar Assad, Khaznawi's murder was no whodunit. In massive protests that Syrian authorities quashed, Kurds accused the government of silencing one of their most vocal advocates.
"One of the security reports against him called him a symbol of unrest that needed to be removed," said Mourad Khaznawi, the sheik's oldest son. "These `suspects' are security agents, working for the government."
Khaznawi's death was the latest spark in the incendiary relationship between the Syrian government and the nation's Kurds, who for decades have been denied political participation and cultural expression.
Emboldened by the rise of Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq, where the president is Kurdish, Syrian Kurds say they'll no longer stay silent in the face of governmental transgressions against their community.
"The sheik's death made us want to explode," said Feisal Badr, a Damascus-based leader of the Kurdish Yekiti party, which operates underground because it's banned in Syria. "It made us realize how very deep our oppression is."
A report that the Human Rights Association in Syria issued in 2003 detailed the "gross denials" of most basic rights to Kurds, especially the estimated 300,000 who are effectively stateless because the Syrian government refuses to recognize them as citizens. The Syrian government puts the number of stateless Kurds at about 150,000, but there hasn't been a reliable census in years.
Kurds without Syrian nationality can't vote, travel outside the country, own property or hold government jobs. Many are refused treatment in public hospitals, attorneys and human rights activists say, forcing them to use expensive private clinics.
Khaznawi had angered the regime by playing host to foreign diplomats in the mostly Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. Many here say the sheik's fate was sealed in February, when he traveled to Belgium and met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that's the archenemy of the Syrian regime. He'd been working to bring Islamists and secular dissidents together for a unified opposition front.
Fayez al-Sayegh, the editor of the state-run newspaper Al Thawra, said Kurds were just using the sheik's death to air their oft-repeated demands and were ignoring evidence that Islamic militants targeted Khaznawi because of his tirades against extremism. One of the sheik's last sermons condemned suicide bombings as a means of resistance.
"There were confessions. There was evidence. That's it," al-Sayegh said, displaying the photos his paper ran of the suspects. "We lost a good sheik, a peaceful man. He was conveying positive messages that the government supported."
The Damascus regime, under international scrutiny and feeling the pressure of Kurdish power in Iraq, has promised a solution to "the Kurdish problem." The regime "is scared of the Kurdish movement now," said Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who represents 110 jailed Kurdish dissidents.
But he and other observers were disappointed this month when the ruling Baath Party's national conference ended with no definite measures for stateless Kurds and no solid plans for expanding Kurdish rights.
"A certain number of them are going to have the Syrian nationality, but are we hearing something specific? No," said Riad al-Daoudi, an adviser to the foreign affairs minister. "It's a very volatile situation that could go in any direction."
In a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of the Syrian capital, residents said they'd noticed small improvements to their lives in the past two years. They're now able to assert their identity with Kurdish music blaring from car stereos and Kurdish-language signs on storefronts. And there's less governmental interference when they celebrate cultural holidays.
But these small victories are a long way from ending what they described as four decades of oppression.
"We're foreigners here. I work hard at my studies, but for what? I'm not going to find a job," said Hindareen Abdulrahman, 18, a stateless Kurd who spoke to a reporter even after her mother warned her not to criticize the government in public. "Look at Sheik Khaznawi, who was killed for asking for the rights of the Kurdish people. If he can be assassinated, what about me?"
Capture of Jund al-Islam Terrorist Group Raises Questions
The arrest and killing of several Jihadists belonging to "Jund al-Sham" in the Daf al-Shawk district outside of Damascus has raised many questions in Syria.
A number of Syrian parliamentarians and moderate Islamist politicians have used the incident to demand the legalization of "moderate" Islamic parties. "If the state doesn't allow moderate Muslims to organize legally, the only Muslims emerge in the political arena will be radical Salafists," they argue, because radicals are willing to break the law. Dr. Muhammad Habash has been leading the charge on this issue. (The full article is included in the comment section two posts ago.)
أجمع عدة باحثين إسلاميين سوريين على " مطالبة السلطات بالسماح بقيام أحزاب إسلامية معتدلة " حتى من كان يرفض منهم سابقا " احتكار اسم الإسلام في حزب بعينه " معلنين " دق ناقوس الخطر للسلطة إذا لم تسمح للمعتدلين بممارسة نشاط سياسي حر , يعمل على نشر الفكر الإسلامي المعتدل لمواجهة التطرف , بدل الاكتفاء بالحل الأمني الذي يؤجل المشاكل فقط و لا يحلها نهائيا ".
Ibrahim Hamidi has a fantastic article in al-Hayat explaining the many reasons that Syrians are turning to Islam. They are accepting the principle that "Islam is the Solution." Having been ruled by secular regimes for 50 years, Syrians have only seen Muslims growing weaker. They don't have jobs, American and Israel are occupying more Arab land than ever, and the future is dark. Secular nationalism has failed. No alternatives are allowed in Syria. America and the West are seen as the enemies. What is left for the average Syrian but to turn toward Islam?
Hamidi describes how most of the Damascus book stores that once sold Russian books about communism and materialism have been converted into Islamic bookstores, especially the store across the street from the Russian Cultural Center!
He also gives the numbers on the growth of Islamic Institutes (600 new institutes for memorizing the Quran) and training centers. 72,751 families get assistance from Muslim charitable associations. See the following section of the article.
تتداخل مجموعة من الاسباب الداخلية والخارجية وراء هذا التحول الى الاسلامية والفشل في التحول الجذري الى العلمانية بمعناها الجوهري. فبعد القضاء على»الاخوان المسلمين» الذين قاموا بعمليات اغتيال مثقفين ومدنيين، بدأت الحكومة السورية سياسة تشجيع الاسلام المعتدل لخلق قاعدة شعبية واسعة ضمن المجتمع، فشجعت بناء المساجد التي وصل عددها حالياً الى نحو ثمانية آلاف في جميع انحاء البلاد. كما أوجدت ما يسمى «مدارس الأسد لتحفيظ القرآن» التي وصل عددها الى 120 معهداً في جميع المحافظات والمدن، اضافة الى معاهد عالية لتدريس علوم الدين بحيث بلغ عددها اكثر من 22 معهداً لا تستقطب طلاب الدراسات العليا من سورية وحسب، بل من اكثر من ستين دولة عربية وأجنبية.
ويتحدث النائب حبش عن وجود نحو 600 معهد لتحفيظ القرآن موجودة في شكل مستقل أو ملحقة بمساجد. كما ان هناك نحو 40 مدرسة تابعة للشيخة منيرة القبيسي (75 سنة( من أصل نحو 80 مدرسة تنتشر في جميع الاحياء الدمشقية، تدور في فلكها أكثر من 75 الف امرأة ومربية لآلاف الاسر. ويقول حبش: «القبيسيات ينشطن في اطار دعوة البنات الى التزام الشريعة الاسلامية. هن لا يمثلن تياراً، بل عبارة عن مدارس لتعليم الاطفال». يضاف الى ذلك ان كلية الشريعة الاسلامية تضم نحو 7603 طلاب (3337 طالبة) في السنوات الاربع من اصل 48 الف طالب في جامعة دمشق. وتخرج كلية الشريعة سنوياً اكثر من 650 طالباً. ويقول أحد المتابعين: «ان وظيفة التدريس الديني محصورة بالدولة التي لديها نحو مئة شخص «يقومون بدور التدريس الديني من دون اشتراط ان يكونوا بعثيين».
وفي موازاة الكلية الجامعية جرى تشجيع وجود مدارس تشريعية مناطقية ففي الجزيرة السورية شمال شرقي البلاد هناك «مدرسة الخزنوي» شقيق الشيخ معشوق، وفي حلب هناك مدارس الشيخ احمد حسون، وفي دمشق هناك «مجمع ابي النور» وحلقات الشيخ العلامة المنفتح محمد سعيد رمضان البوطي الذي يعطي دروساً اسبوعية في جامع «دينكز» وعلى شاشة التلفزيون الرسمي.
ونما في ظل هذه التجمعات «مجتمع اهلي» فمن اصل 584 جمعية هناك 290 جمعية خيرية. وقال الدكتور جمعة حجازي ان عدد الاسر المستفيدة من الجمعيات يبلغ نحو 72751 أسرة وان قيمة المساعدات المقدمة لها في العام 2003، بلغت اكثر من 842 مليون ليرة سورية (الدولار يساوي نحو 54 ليرة)، ذلك ان هذه الجمعيات تقدم مساعدات عبر تخصيص رواتب شهرية أو مساعدات علاجية أو غذائية الى الفقراء والمحتاجين. كما انها كانت تقدم خدمات عقائدية سواء عبر الدروس اليومية أو عبر خطبة يوم الجمعة.
في المدن والارياف، هناك منبران: المساجد التي يبلغ عددها نحو ثمانية آلاف وتشهد على الاقل نحو 416 الف درس اسبوعي في يوم الجمعة (عدا الدروس الاستثنائية) ويرتادها ملايين المصلين خصوصاً من الشباب، أو المراكز الثقافية البالغ عددها 79 معهداً (بينها 17 في دمشق وريفها و11 في حلب)، واربعة مسارح رسمية قدمت في العام ذاته 27 مسرحية لا يتجاوز عدد مرتاديها بضعة آلاف، ووسائل الاعلام الرسمية التي تشمل بيع نحو 60 الف نسخة من الصحف الرسمية الثلاث وخدمات الاذاعة والتلفزيون المتواضعة مهنياً والتي تقهقرت امام تقدم الفضائيات العربية.
One of my readers posted this article "Lebanese paper considers links between Syrian Jund al-Sham, militant groups" to the comment section on a previous post. (Thanks for adding these interesting articles to our continuing coverage. Readers should open the comment section, which is often more interesting and educational than my posts. I wish I had time to respond to everything.)
By BBC Jun 16, 2005, 19:00 GMT
The following is the text of a report by Sha'ban Abbud in Damascus headlined "What is the connection between the 'Jund al-Sham' organizations? A dangerous band of Salafis that accuses everyone of being an unbeliever", published by Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar website on 15 June
We the correspondents of Arab and foreign newspapers wish we were treated the way the correspondents of the Syrian Arab News Agency-SANA and the reporters of the Al-Thawrah newspaper are treated with regards to having access to information - even at a press conference - on the details of what happened in the Daf al-Shawk district. What took place was that the security organs waged an armed confrontation with a jihadist-Salafi-takfiri group that called itself "Jund al-Sham li al-Jihad wa al-Tawhid". We are making this point because it is our right to know and because we have several questions.
Is there some sort of connection between this group and another group with the same name in Lebanon and, specifically, in the Ayn al-Hulwah camp? Or is it a local group? Does this group have any external connections and with whom? What is the form of this connection? Is it with states or Islamic organizations or intelligence services that wish to harm Syria? How many members does this group have? Are there non-Syrians among them and where are they located, other than in Damascus? Are there more weapons than those that were photographed? What equipment was confiscated? Did this equipment include computers, fax machines, telephones or answer machines? Did any member of this group go to Iraq and wage "jihad" there? Why were the planned targets of the group - based on the confessions of some of them - civilian targets like the Palace of Justice and a "bus" as we read in the newspaper Al-Thawrah? Why were their targets not western embassies or other positions and centres? There are many other questions that arouse our curiosity and it does not seem that Al-Thawrah or SANA is about to give us the answers.
Such a situation drives a journalist to search for answers using his own methods and from various sources. This is what we did in order to better understand what had happened. Sources that monitor the affairs of the principal Islamic groups, especially the jihadist and takfiri groups, told us that it is unlikely that there is a connection between the "Jund al-Sham" in Lebanon and the "Jund al-Sham" in Syria. The first organization has almost disbanded after its emir, Usamah al-Shihabi, gave up his leadership in protest at some internal practices and also due to weak financial resources. The sources told us that the Emir Al-Shihabi himself sometimes resorted to physical labour to make a living. Furthermore, most of the members of this group are wanted by the Lebanese and other security services. Therefore, their presence and activities were mostly confined to the Ayn al-Hulwah camp in southern Lebanon. But some argue that the "Jund al-Sham" group in Lebanon has sent pamphlets to some Islamists in Syria to explain its stances on certain matters, especially on what the press has been reporting about it.
Regarding the emir of the group, who was killed by the Syrian authorities in the Daf al-Shawk neighbourhood in Damascus, the sources say that "Abu-Umar" is of "Druze" origin and that he opted for the takfiri-jihadist-Salafi ideology a few years ago. He was married twice. His first wife is from Lebanon and his second from Syria, and he divorced his second wife about three months ago. "Abu-Umar" was active in the village of Madaya in the Al-Zabadani region and owned a vegetable shop. He recently fell out with the "Al-Jama'ah al-Islamiyah" that he led in Madaya. The security authorities arrested about 17 members of this group about a year ago. After that, "Abu-Umar" separated from that group and met with another group that agreed on the idea of forming the "Jund al-Sham" organization in Syria. This group is a small one that does not exceed 10 members. The security authorities were watching them closely in connection with incidents that took place in Madaya and the Al-Zabadani area.
The sources asserted that this group "is a dangerous band of Salafis that accuse everyone and everything of being unbelievers and are bound by one ideology. However, they lack a clear vision and organizational experience. It became clear that they were planning something big but only on paper. What the official press has published about their plans and papers is correct." The sources said it is unlikely that this group has external relations, especially with a Salafi and takfiri group like Al-Qa'idah or another organization, because such incidents give the regime in Syria the opportunity to strike at all Islamic currents and to be more harsh against them.
Furthermore, Syria is not part of Al-Qa'idah's programme or that of other similar Islamic groups. They believe that the priority these days is Iraq, and that the arenas that have not been decisively in favour of the Muslims and that still are open are Afghanistan and Chechnya in addition to Iraq. Furthermore, they believe that their first enemy is the United States and Syria is coming under US pressure. So why would they attack Syria, even though the Syrian regime is a secular one, is not on good terms with the Islamists, and fought and dealt harsh blows to them. The sources said that there are no organized groups in Syria but that there are sympathizers. Although their eyes are on other arenas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya, their presence is extremely dangerous for they are indeed sleeper cells.
Syria and Iraq Discuss Placing UN Troops in Border Zone
The US is developing alternative intelligence sources on Jihadists now that Syrian-US security cooperation has been totally severed. This al-Hayat article says that Washington is counting on increased cooperation from Pakistan and an increased US intelligence presence in Lebanon.
بغداد : «الشرق الأوسط» والوكالات كشف رئيس الوزراء العراقي السابق، الدكتور إياد علاوي، أن الرئيس السوري بشار الأسد الذي التقاه أخيرا أبدى تجاوبا مع فكرة إقامة منطقة فاصلة على الحدود السورية ـ العراقية تحت إشراف الأمم المتحدة لمنع تدفق المتسللين الى العراق.
If Syria were to do what American wants of it and to establish a real policy against Jihadists traveling into Iraq, it will be a costly enterprise.
To really stop insurgents, the Damascus government would have to demand that all Arab visitors to Syria file for a visa and undergo a background security check before entering the country, as the United States now demands of its Arab visitors. There are over 4 million Arab visitors and tourists who come to Syria every year; every one of them would have to be investigated and a security file established for them. This would not be a small undertaking, either monetarily or politically. It would mean banks of computers, centrally organized. It would mean hiring many more personnel, and it would mean angering tourists, many of whom would chose not to spend their money in Syria as a result.
It would mean treating Arabs as foreigners and potential villains much as the United States has done since 9-11. There would be a price to pay for this. Syrians can now travel to Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt without visas or security checks. Other countries would establish reciprocal security requirements and demand visa's of Syrians. It runs counter to Baathist logic to treat other Arabs as foreigners on the same scale as Western visitors to Syria.
TAL AFAR, Iraq Nine months ago the U.S. military laid siege to this city in northwestern Iraq and proclaimed it freed from the grip of insurgents. Last month, the Americans returned in force to reclaim it once again.
After the battle here in September, the military left behind fewer than 500 troops to patrol a huge region. With so few soldiers and the local police force in shambles, insurgents came back and turned Tal Afar, a dusty, agrarian city of about 200,000 people, into a way station for the trafficking of weapons and fighters from nearby Syria and a ghost town of terrorized residents afraid to open their stores, walk the streets or send their children to school.
It is a cycle that has been repeated in rebellious cities throughout Iraq, and particularly those in the Sunni Arab regions west and north of Baghdad, where the insurgency's roots run deepest.
"We have a finite number of troops," said Major Chris Kennedy, executive officer of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which arrived in Tal Afar several weeks ago. "But if you pull out of an area and don't leave security forces in it, all you're going to do is leave the door open for them to come back.
"This is what our lack of combat power has done to us throughout the country. In the past, the problem has been we haven't been able to leave sufficient forces in towns where we've cleared the insurgents out."....
"As far as foreign fighters coming in from the border control point, I can't say we've had any impact on that," said Captain Jason Whitten, the company commander whose troops oversee the Rabiah crossing.
In its first weeks here, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment pressed sweeps deep into desert areas that had not seen a large American presence since the 101st Airborne Division left in early 2004. Instead, many areas had witnessed, at best, only sporadic patrols that had done little to deter insurgents, commanders say.
"Resources are everything in combat, and when you don't have enough manpower to move around you have to pick the places," said Major John Wilwerding, executive officer of Sabre Squadron, a 1,000-strong unit that now oversees Tal Afar.
Two weeks ago more than 1,000 troops from the new regiment poured into Biaj, a town of 15,000 about 65 kilometers, or 40 miles, southwest of Tal Afar, where insurgents had destroyed the police station, and the mayor and the police fled last autumn. Soldiers eventually searched every house in the town, capturing more than a dozen suspected insurgents without a shot being fired.
Biaj faces a severe water shortage, and streets are filled with trash and sewage. But the markets and neighborhoods teem with children who give passing American patrols waves and a thumbs-up. Indeed, the town appears to be an example of what happens if there are enough troops to pacify an area and police it effectively afterward.
But commanders plan to withdraw all except 150 American troops and leave a battalion of about 500 Iraqi soldiers, and 200 police, in Biaj. The real test, of course, as an American officer stationed there noted, will come once most of the American troops leave.
U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen on Sunday delivered to President Assad a message reportedly containing a U.N. and U.S. joint ultimatum that Syria will be taken to severe international reckoning if another political assassination occurs in Lebanon.
So the Kassir whack was a freebie. France was not going to make a federal case over Kassir. One doesn't go to war over a journalist. The US got the Roed-Larsen visit from Annan, because Annan is a lamb duck, but Larsen is shooting blanks. He even said his talk with President Asad was "constructive." Not what Washington hoped for, on doubt. Resolution 1559 has no legs left. It accomplished its main mission, which was Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. The US will need another UN resolution to hurt Syria further.
Ideally, Washington would inspire a 1559-like resolution for the Syrian-Iraqi border, which would give the US international legitimacy and multi-lateral support for taking a tough line on Damascus over Jihadist infiltration into Iraq. Such a resolution would be infinitely more effective than the unilateral threat to take land along the border for a "security zone" or to create a no-fly zone over Kurdish areas. America will do neither of these two things. They are hot air.
First, Syria's Kurds could not and would not replicate the sort of independent bridge-head that Iraq's Kurds did in northern Iraq.
Second, an occupied border strip would have to be filled up with American and Iraqi forces to fight off what would surely be a major Syrian insurgency. Those troops don't exist. If they did, America would already have placed them along the border. Washington is trying to wind down its Iraq involvement, not wind it up. Anyway, by taking Syrian land, America would only inspire the formation of a Hizbullah-like insurgency from the Arab tribes of the region. "The Bagara kick Butt" - I can already see the headlines. (The Bagara are the biggest Arab tribe in the North-east. A member of the tribe told me yesterday that tribal members are already itching to fight in Iraq. If their land were taken by US troops, there would be no holding them back.)
The point of this digression is to say that the US is powerless on the Iraqi border issue. Now that resolution 1559 is useless as a political weapon with which to beat Syria, Washington is searching for a new fulcrum with which to bend Syria to its will. If it had not acted unilaterally in Iraq, the UN might be disposed today to help put pressure on Syria to take more vigorous measures on the border. Because the US stiff-armed the UN and Europeans in declaring war on Iraq, most Europeans are secretly happy to see American screwing up in Iraq today. They will not lend a hand by squeezing Syria on the issue. Lebanon was one thing. Iraq is another. There will be no 1559 for the Iraq border.
When President Bush and Erdoghan met this weekend, they discussed strategic differences over Cyprus and Iraq, but when the subject of Syria came up, both leaders discovered they had such profound disagreements that conversation ceased. The silence extended for over a minute! Turkey will not isolate Syria. Here is the Hayat article:
وفي ما يتعلق بالملف السوري، أكد جميع من حضر لقاء الرئيسين انه شكل نقطة الخلاف الرئيسية بينهما، إلى حدّ جعل الحوار ينتهي إلى صمت عميق استغرق قرابة دقيقة كاملة.
وقال أحد المسؤولين الأتراك المقربين من أردوغان لـ«الحياة»: «أكدت واشنطن لأردوغان ضرورة فرض عزلة كاملة على سورية لأنها لا تزال تدعم المقاومين في العراق وتتدخل في شؤون لبنان، إلا أن أردوغان الذي لم يلمس وجود أي إستراتيجية أميركية واضحة تجاه سورية أو نية لتغيير النظام هناك أو للقيام بعمل عسكري ضد دمشق، أصر على موقفه في شأن ضرورة دعم جهود الرئيس السوري بشار الأسد الإصلاحية».
وفي ما يتعلق في الشأن السوري، تبدو حكومة حزب «العدالة والتنمية» مقتنعة تماماً بوجود فرصة أمام الرئيس الأسد لتنفيذ مشروع إصلاحي سياسي في سورية، على رغم قناعة الحكومة تلك «بوجود عناصر استخباراتية سورية تعمل لمصلحة عدد من القيادات السورية في لبنان من دون علم الرئيس الأسد».
Is Aoun pro-Syrian or anti-Syrian? This is the wrong question. Aoun's triumphal win with formerly pro-Syrian allies on his list in the heavily Christian and anti-Syrian Lebanon Mountain only goes to show how unimportant Syria has become in Lebanon today.
If the first two rounds of Lebanon's elections were about Syria, this round was not. By staggering the elections, as Lebanon does over 4 successive weekends, results in a very different outcome than staging elections on one big day, as do most countries. The electorate and issues evolve with each round.
The fact that this round was not about Syria was wonderfully elucidated during a recent US press conference. Sean McCormack, Bush's spokesman, told reporters there was evidence of Syrian meddling in the elections. They gave him good ribbing in this exchange:
REPORTER: Last week, you expressed some concerns about Syrian interference. Are those concerns - do those concerns have a basis in fact where these elections are concerned? So far, have you been able to observe any Syrian interference in the elections?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think our concerns are based on fact. I think it would be a little odd to have concerns not based on fact. In terms of a -
QUESTION: It's happened. [Having concerns with no facts.] (Laughter.)
QUESTION: WMD in Iraq?
Aoun's win demonstrates that Lebanese have local Lebanese issues on their mind now, which is a good sign. Christians believed that Hariri, Jumblatt, and Berri were getting greedy and cutting the Christians out of a future Lebanon. Yes, they had patched in a few Christians on the Hariri list, but once Christians saw Hariri and Jumblatt bring Berri into their coalition, promising him another term as Speaker of Parliament, they understood that Christians would be cut out of any real decision making in the future. Hence the Aoun Tsunami.
Michael Young figured this out before the rest of us. Some commentators try to chip away at Michael's reputation for being smart - and more than smart, correct - by calling him the "Lebanese Neo-con," or the "Oriental Orientalist," or even the "Christian Curmudgeon," but this is sour grapes. He gets it right consistently.
The proof is the long opinion piece he wrote over a week ago, which was featured by "Syria Comment," predicting a sharp Christian reaction to Jumblatt's machinations. He warned us that the Christians were angry that Hariri was following Jumblatt into an alliance with Nabih Berri.
Christians understood only too well that their interests were being jettisoned by the Muslims. They were not chosing their candidates, Hariri and Jumblatt were. They would have no real say over Lebanon's future if the Muslims ganged up to rid the country of Lahoud in the name of taking revenge for Hariri's assassination and being "anti-Syrian."
Christians realized that the growing Muslim coalition was no longer primarily about punishing Syria, it was really about taking power from Christians and running Lebanon on their own. That is why Aoun reached out to the erstwhile Syria supporters in the Metn and is now doing the same in the north. They are no longer defined as "pro-Syrians," because the game in Lebanon is no longer about Syria. When Jumblatt tried to cast Aoun as a "small Syrian tool" yesterday in the wake of his defeat, he was blowing smoke. The same logic applies to Jumblatt. He is not a "small Syria tool" because of his alliance with Hizbullah and Amal in the last round of elections; he is trying to win control of Lebanon for himself. That is what politicians do and must do.
Lebanese stability depends on a strong understanding between Sunnis and Maronites. Christians played a key role, if not "the" key role in driving Syria out. No matter how much some hate to admit it, the Christians have been the real policemen of Lebanon's independence ever since they laid the foundations of the present Lebanese nation using French troops. Many Muslims viewed this effort as treason against the "greater Arab nation," which was to have its capital in Damascus. (Admittedly this is a grand simplification, but Muslims have been of two minds about their separate and distinct identity as Lebanese. Sure, we can blame this on the Christians for pressing Phoenicianism to absurd extremes. It takes two to tango. But Muslim "dual" identity has been at the heart of Lebanon's weakness.)
Perhaps the biggest change brought about by the Hariri murder and recent Lebanese Intifada is that Muslims finally said "no" to Syria and unification Arabism, just as they said "yes" to Lebanonism. They did this in a loud and clear voice standing side by side with fellow Christian Lebanese and raising the red and white flag emblasoned with a cross and crescent. Keeping the focus on maintaining and building the Christian-Muslim alliance is what will build a better and more stable Lebanon.
To Young's credit, his opinion piece in today’s Daily Star hereis not hate mail directed at Jumblatt. It is not an "I-told-you-so," gloat-piece about how he was right about Christian anger leading to Aoun's victory. It is really a warning shot at Aoun. He is praying that Aoun will not be the military ramrod of old who will press his victory too far. Michael warns his fellow Christians not to get greedy and not to seek revenge or do anything that will irremediably hurt the Christian-Muslim alliance that must be the foundation of Lebanon. Michael is not a sectarian (He is also not a Maronite as I erroneously stated earlier). Nor is he a neo-con. The proof is that he is an equal opportunity za`im basher when the interests of Lebanon, as he sees them, are being placed in jeopardy.
The Jihadist story is a serious one, however. Many analysts in the West, Israel, and here in Syria too, will be tempted to say it was a Syrian plot, much as Buthaina called it an American plot. Why? Because it is good for the government. They accuse the government of fabricating the Islamist threat in order to win popular support for the Baath and to puncture US arguments that regime-change will lead to democracy and not extremism is Syria.
This conspiracy logic is stupid no matter who is doing it. (Unless, of course, there is proof of conspiracy - they do happen.) There is no reason to believe that Syria would not have militants thinking about blowing up government buildings. In fact, it is crazy to believe that it does not. Syria has been very lucky not to have a terrorism problem as other Arab countries have these past 20 years. The US invasion of Iraq will inevitably inspire more Syrians to find the answer to their local political problems in extremism and fundamentalism. There will be blowback. Syria has played with fire by not sealing its border tighter. We are probably seeing blowback in the recent arrests, although there is no evidence any of the fundamentalists trained in Iraq or traveled there. There is a Saudi connection. Here is the story.
A jihadist group was allegedly plotting bomb attacks and targeting Middle East regimes.
DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian forces raided a suspected insurgent hide-out near the capital, killing two men, arresting a third and foiling bombing plots that targeted the nation's Justice Palace, the country's official news agency said.
A member of Syria's security forces was killed and another was wounded in the clash Thursday in the Daff al-Shouk suburb of Damascus, according to a report late Friday by the SANA news agency.
The group's leader, identified as Abu Omar, and an accomplice were killed and another suspect was arrested, SANA said. Identity cards were found next to the bodies bearing the names Omar Barakat and Arfan Yassin, both Syrian. It was not clear whether the cards belonged to the dead men.
State-run TV showed footage from the scene of the confrontation. The bloodied bodies of two men lay on the apartment floor, one partially covered by a blanket. Machine guns, pistols, jihadist documents and mobile phones were scattered about.
A picture on a Saudi driver's license apparently belonging to Yassin showed a bespectacled man with a black, bushy beard. Next to it lay U.S. dollars and Syrian pounds.
One document reportedly described the group's hierarchy, including emirs in charge of fighters, explosives, missiles and military training. Another said the group's holy war should start with countries in the region ruled by "despotic regimes," naming Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
Attention then should be directed to "dictators" in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq, whose "people have been afflicted with the Crusaders," the document said.
SANA said security forces received information several months ago that the group was planning bombings. The government began surveillance of the group after receiving the tips. A bomb was discovered and detonated on the road between Damascus and Zabadani.
Ibrahim Hamidireports in Al-Hayat that now Islamist MP Muhammad Habash is claiming to have received threats from a Salafist group on his cell "right before the kidnapping of Sheikh Muhammad Maashouq al-Khaznawi." Habash also tied that group with other incidents in Syria, such as the killing of a police officer in Homs, at the beginning of the year. Hamidi also runs through the various names of this group. An-Nahar has more details. The film of the operation that ran on Syrian TV showed that one of the killed Islamists, both of whom were Syrian, held a Saudi driver's license. They also showed a document with the hierarchical structure of the group, with the various functions of each one laid out. (This para is stolen from Tony - thanks T.)
Middle East's real problem: The Mafia - Biedermann
Ferry Biedermann, one of the hardest working reporters covering the Lebanon-Syria beat who normally writes for the Financial Times, has this interesting story in Salon.com. Paul Woodward at The War in Context sent it to me. (I don't have a subscription, but here goes robbery.)
BEIRUT, Lebanon, and DAMASCUS, Syria -- From Syria to Egypt, from Lebanon to Iraq, along the length and breadth of the Arab world the presumed drive toward greater democracy and openness is lurching along, often coming to sudden halts. Whether brazenly blocked by a ruling party and an elite determined to preserve their hold on power, as in Syria, or stealthily undermined by the same old political bosses, as in Lebanon, progress is patchy, to say the least. And the causes are remarkably similar across the region: a mixture of deep sectarian, regional and tribal divisions, a lack of neutral central institutions, and a clientele system that creates powerful mafias and capi di tutti capi that look after their own in a winner-take-all environment.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration, undeterred by the bloody chaos in Iraq, still seems intent on spreading its ill-fitting idea of democracy in the region, with Syria its possible next target. A well-informed analyst in Damascus told me that the United States is preparing an "Iraq scenario" for the country, including possibly imposing a no-fly zone in the Kurdish-dominated north. The United States' rumored plans are likely to backfire, slowing down reform or halting it altogether. Worse, they could plunge Syria and Lebanon into violent chaos.
The Syrian Baath Party, whose right to rule is inscribed in the constitution, gathered this week in Damascus to discuss reforms. But instead of the "great leap forward" that had been promised by the country's president, Bashar Assad, the congress merely shuffled along, as could be expected from a party that has been in power for more than 40 years. The Baath will for the foreseeable future remain a tool for the continued rule of the Assad family and its allies, even if a few more superficial freedoms are allowed. The big internal question, say some in Damascus, is whether the lack of progress will cause the current low-level grumbling in the country to explode into open rebellion. Others point out that there is no alternative to the regime. There is no effective and organized opposition, except perhaps the banned and persecuted Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood (whose members were slaughtered by the thousands by Assad's father, Hafez, in 1982), and nobody wants Syria to descend to the level of chaos now seen in Iraq.
As the congress wound down, statements by the Bush administration and the United Nations made it clear that the United States and the international community will continue to put pressure on Syria. But Syrian government minister Buthaina Shaaban dismissed suggestions that the Baath Party's deliberations had been influenced by external considerations. "All that has been discussed and decided has been discussed because of our national needs," she said.
As for Lebanon, optimism about a Cedar Revolution has so far proved to be greatly overblown. Following the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year presence, it is still in the midst of its complicated, and arguably undemocratic, election cycle, one that is unaccountably spread out over four regional rounds. "If Ethiopia can have elections in one go, why not Lebanon?" one EU election monitor wondered. In the first two rounds, in Beirut and the south, the outcome was largely predetermined by deals between powerful political bosses, to the disgust of many voters who were left with very little to vote on. The next two rounds may be more competitive, mainly because personal rivalries have split the opposition. Nobody has a program that people can vote on, and parties barely exist. Many of the young Lebanese who turned out for the massive anti-Syrian demonstrations after the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri said they were disgusted by the first two rounds and that this was not the change they had pushed for.
Two keen observers of the situation, one in Beirut and the other in Damascus, recently offered similar explanations for what's going on. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political analyst and author, and Joshua Landis, an American expert on Syria who lives in Damascus, where he publishes the respected blog SyriaComment.com, both remarked that the rule of the "Zaïm," the old-style political boss, is still very much alive in both countries, despite the one-party state in Syria and the chaotic Lebanese appearance of democracy. The bosses dispense money, contracts, jobs, educational opportunities, sometimes even permission to marry. They skim off the wealth of the state, award themselves the most lucrative concessions, and block competition. Their power base is often a large family or tribe, a village or region, a religious allegiance, the army, or all of these combined. They may found parties, such as the Progressive Socialist Party, controlled by the Druze Jumblatt family, or the Christian Phalange Party founded by the Gemayels in Lebanon, that serve as fronts and tools. This "rule of the bosses" also holds true in other parts of the region, including Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories.
In Syria, Landis said, the Zaïm system has simply been extended to include the Baath Party. The Baath, in the eyes of many in Syria, nowadays merely serves to legitimize this rule of the "mafias," as they call it. Endemic and deeply entrenched corruption is one of the hallmarks of the Zaïm system, and Syria has it by the bucketload.
"There is a marriage between power and money in Syria," said Marwan Kabalan of the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University. Kabalan noted that this is one of the main reasons that the country has not been able to reform itself, even if it seriously wanted to. "You have to keep the pillars of the leadership happy," Kabalan said. "Especially if you rule, as the government does here, without the consent of the people." According to Landis, Syria is still deeply divided along regional and sectarian lines. Although the government, dominated by the minority Allawite sect, tries hard to downplay this, the divided nature of the country is what allows the Zaïm system to continue. The only groups that pose a real challenge to the authorities are the Kurds in the northeast and the persecuted (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, which has members across the country. The nonsectarian liberal opposition is given much more freedom to speak out, probably because its ideas barely resonate among the population.
In Lebanon, the anti-Israeli, Shiite Islamist Hezbollah movement has been the one of the few parties widely considered to remain free of the taint of the system. It is not known to be corrupt, as many of the other political groupings are said to be, and until recently it did not engage in the political horse-trading that is the Lebanese system of government. This time around that image has been tainted, said Saad-Ghorayeb, who is an expert on Hebzollah. "The party has finally been forced to play by the rules of the Zaïm system," Saad-Ghorayeb said. She is referring to the many political deals Hezbollah was forced to make in an attempt to stave off pressure to disarm following the withdrawal of its Syrian protectors.
Hezbollah is the only Lebanese group that retained its arms after the end of the country's 15-year civil war in 1990 and the Israeli army's withdrawal from the south in 2000. It has been able to do this by marketing itself as the "resistance" to Israel, which gives it the legitimacy to retain its arms and run a state-within-a-state in the south.
But Saad-Ghorayeb said that the party has now become just one of Lebanon's many regional and sectarian political players, which base their strength on a captive bloc vote and use it to skim off income from the state and businesses. In Hezbollah's case, the corruption is not thought to be direct. Rather, it has been tainted by its newfound alliance with the more moderate Shiite Amal movement, which many regard as deeply corrupt.
Syria and Lebanon have been very much in the eye of the international community, particularly since Hariri was killed by a huge car bomb in the center of Beirut on Valentine's Day. The common assumption both in Lebanon and abroad was that Syria was responsible, a charge that Damascus denies. Even before the assassination, the Syrians had been under increasing pressure to withdraw from the country that it regards as its backyard, if not part of "Greater Syria." In August last year, they forced the Lebanese Parliament to amend the constitution to allow for the extension of the mandate of the unpopular but pro-Syrian Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. This move was a serious diplomatic blunder by Damascus: It turned the French against Syria, paving the way for the passage of the American- and French-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which demanded the departure of all foreign troops from the country and the disarming of militias, that is, Hezbollah.
The end to this saga is not yet in sight, despite Syrian hopes that the withdrawal would placate the international community. First of all, the United Nations is not yet satisfied that resolution 1559 has been fully implemented. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urgently dispatched his Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, back to the region, and announced that he is going to send a verification team to check reports that Syrian intelligence agents are still active in Lebanon. The U.N. moves followed the assassination of prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir in Beirut, which reopened the wounds of the Hariri killing. Many automatically pointed the finger at Damascus. Syria has denied involvement, but Lebanese commentators say that even if Syria was not behind it, the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies have created an atmosphere in which such acts could take place. There are also allegations that many pro-Syrian agents are still at work in Lebanon and are being encouraged by Damascus.
The United States has asked for the Kassir killing to be investigated by the same U.N. team that is already in Beirut to look into the Hariri assassination. Reports in U.S. newspapers on Friday quote an unnamed senior administration official as saying that Syrian intelligence officers still in Lebanon have drawn up a "hit list" of anti-Syrian figures. Of course this may be propaganda, part of the Bush administration's strategy of waging a media war of attrition against Damascus. An example of this propaganda campaign came last month, when another unnamed official said that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Iraqi al-Qaida network, had visited Syria to consult with other militants on the recent insurgent offensive in Iraq. Later the administration said it actually had no information on such a visit.
The Hariri investigation is hanging over the Syrian government's head like a sword of Damocles, said one Western diplomat in Damascus. The European Union, for example, is unlikely to take action on signing the important trade, social and cultural Association Agreement with Syria until the results of the Hariri investigation are known, several diplomats said. The agreement is important because it would allow the government to show that it is not isolated internationally. The United States has reportedly asked the EU not to go ahead with the deal for now, but a European diplomat in Damascus said that the EU has its own reasons not to sign the deal.
Another direct challenge to the implementation of resolution 1559 is Hezbollah's defiant stance. The "party of God" was bolstered by a solid election victory in its southern fiefdom last Sunday. Hezbollah itself, as well as Lebanese newspapers and analysts, explained the result as an emphatic rejection by voters in the south of the demand to disarm. "They gave a clear message to the foreigners, particularly to the Americans, that the people of Lebanon are unified over the resistance and the independence," said Hezbollah's second in command, Naim Qassem. Even though most political groups in Lebanon publicly deny that they will push for the disarmament of Hezbollah, the movement and its allies fear that this is about to happen following the recent departure of its Syrian allies from the country. "The Americans and the French and others will push the expanded anti-Syrian bloc in the next Parliament to disarm Hezbollah. And that will lead to disaster," said pro-Syrian member of Parliament Adnan Arakji.
The White House has already made clear that it regards the victory of Hezbollah, which it regards as a terrorist group, with unease. "These elections are ongoing and in terms of Hezbollah, I think our views are well known and they remain unchanged," said press secretary Scott McClellan. "You have a Security Council resolution that calls for the disarming of groups like Hezbollah, and that remains our view. Hezbollah, as you are well aware, is a terrorist organization." The State Department, too, said it viewed Hezbollah's continued strength with concern. "There should be no role for an armed militia" in a democratic government, said one official. (Not surprisingly, the U.S. official said nothing about the recent statement by Iraqi president Talabani defending the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shiite Badr Brigade militias.) So there seems very little chance that the United States will let up on the pressure to implement resolution 1559. Lebanese and Syrian supporters of Hezbollah hope that the Europeans, who have not put Hezbollah on the list of terrorist organizations, will be less focused on disarming the group. But Western diplomats in Damascus say there is very little that divides the U.S. and the EU at the moment on 1559 and that there is little prospect that international pressure on Syria will ease.
In fact, one analyst in Damascus said he had indications that the Bush administration, which has long wanted to topple the Syrian regime, is readying an "Iraq scenario" for the country. The United States is hoping to use the Kurds as it has done in northern Iraq. Tensions in the northeastern region of Syria have reportedly reached the boiling point after Kurds blamed the killing of Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi, one of their important sheiks, on the Syrian authorities. The government emphatically denies the charge and has arrested "criminals" who it says are responsible. But clashes have already taken place in the main town, Qamishli, and people who have visited the area expect worse to come. The Kurds are certainly furious, judging by statements issued by their banned political parties. Earlier this week in Damascus, one Kurdish taxi driver even dared shout, "Come in Bush, please come in," with his windows closed.
If the situation in the Kurdish region gets out of hand, said the analyst in Damascus, the United States may impose a no-fly zone over the region, just as it did after the 1990 Gulf War in northern and southern Iraq. The U.S. is also trying to unite the fractured opposition by encouraging the Kurds, the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals to work together. This is supposed to address the perceived lack of an alternative to the Baath government.
If this is true, it raises the obvious question of how the Bush administration could seriously contemplate another Iraq-type adventure when Iraq is in worsening chaos, with U.S. troops and Iraqis dying daily and no end in sight. Bush strategists may dream that regime change in Syria would magically solve all the region's problems at once. In fact, it might make them worse.
Toppling the Assad regime will not solve the problem of Iraq, because even if Syria is substantially involved in the fighting there, which is doubtful, the basic fuel for the insurgency remains the internal Iraqi situation. The majority of insurgents are Sunnis, mostly former Baathists, with access to the huge stockpiles of weapons that the Americans failed to safeguard after the invasion. It may be true that most of the suicide bombers are foreign, and that a new regime would be able to secure the long Syria-Iraq border across which many foreign jihadis slip into Iraq. But it is highly unlikely that a stable new regime would emerge in Syria -- or that if it did, it would be friendly to the United States. The political and social structures in Syria and Iraq are quite similar: What did not work in Iraq will almost certainly not work in Syria, either.
Nor would toppling the Syrian regime make the Palestinians cry uncle. A major reason that Bush administration neocons have long pushed for regime change in Syria, Iraq and Iran is their enmity to Israel. It's true that the backing of the "rejectionist states" gave the Palestinians some strategic depth -- support for the families of suicide bombers, for Hamas, for arms shipments. But the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is within Palestine: What happens at a regional level is secondary. In any case, any new regime in Syria (or any other Arab state, for that matter) would almost certainly have a hostile stance toward Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved. In the case of Syria, there is the added issue of the Golan Heights: No Syrian government will normalize relations with Israel until it returns the Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.
As for Lebanon, it was chaotic and venal long before the Syrians started meddling. A U.S-backed regime in Syria might upset the delicate power balance in Lebanon and make things even worse. (It could also have a spillover into Iraq: The Shiites in Iraq would not take happily to a U.S. campaign to marginalize the Hezbollah-supporting Shiite majority in Lebanon.)
Above all, a U.S.-backed campaign to remove the Syrian regime would be folly because especially post-Iraq, any stamp of American approval means a death knell for opposition parties in the Middle East. The United States thus faces a paradoxical situation: In order to encourage reform, it cannot appear to back it.
An analyst who is not given to idle talk and has contacts at the highest levels of the U.S. administration agreed that the idea of U.S.-backed regime change was a bad one. "Yes, the Americans are stupid," the analyst said. "Unfortunately the Syrians are even more stupid."
Under these circumstances, the tepid call for a "constructive dialogue with the U.S. and the EU" by delegates at the Baath Party's 10th congress, which ended earlier this week in Damascus, looks laughably out of touch. One reformist-minded Baathist, Ayman Abdel Nour, said after the congress finished that more reforms were soon to follow, because the leadership realized that "we don't have time to go slow-motion because of the international and regional situation." But many observers and analysts in the Syrian capital say that the leadership is merely trying to toss the international community a few bones now and then to see if it can be placated. If one doesn't work, it will try tossing another. Many in Damascus fear the United States will run out of patience before the leadership runs out of bones.
In the end, no big decisions were taken, but a lot of "recommendations" were thoughtfully drafted by the over 1,200 party delegates to help run the government run the country. How considerate of them. Calling this "reform," however, would be stretching things a bit.
The emergency law in place since 1963 will be "modified" (it remains to be clarified how) and some parties will be allowed, as long as they are not based on religious, sectarian or regional basis. (But isn't the Baath party a regional one?) No "Christian Democrats" or their Muslim equivalent, in other words.
There is a brand new, reduced regional command with nine new comrades, including a woman (apparently one area where there are no glass ceiling issues). As for the proposals regarding media laws (including a "higher council" whose bearing I am simply dreading), it remains to be seen how exactly that will help Syria's communication problems. What was needed was a completely new approach, not more of the same.
"Social Market Economy" - that is the turn of phrase the Baath Conference chose to characterize their new economic path. It is ripped from the Chinese Communist Party handbook, Andrew Tabler explains. Now for the 10% growth rate.
The conference also promised movement on giving citizenship to many of the stateless Kurds in Syria.
Gunfire was reported on the outskirts of Damascus between police and Islamists. This was on TV. No details yet.
A sign of the profound difficulties faced by US and Iraqi forces in Anbar province and their inability to seal the porous desert border with Syria despite major ...
The militants showed no mercy. They blindfolded 18 men, shot them in the head and decapitated three others in what has become a trademark of Iraq's often savage insurgency.
Five U.S. Marines were killed in the same arid western region in a roadside bombing while conducting combat operations near a volatile Sunni town.
Marines carried out two major operations in the area last month, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and 14 in the second, Operation New Market. Eleven Marines were killed in the actions, designed to scatter and eradicate insurgents using the road from Damascus to Baghdad.
"It's like the Mexican-American border there. There are attempts being made to seal it," a senior U.S. military intelligence official said on condition he remain unnamed for security reasons.
QAMISHLI, SYRIA – At a meeting of Syrian political-intelligence officers in late April in the Kurdish northeast, the only item on the agenda was Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi. He was becoming a problem for Syria, says a Western diplomat familiar with the meeting.
Photo: FATHER AND SON: A photo of the late Sheikh Mohammed Mashouq al-Khaznawi, whose body was found in June, held by his son, Morshed.
A moderate Islamic cleric who once worked with the Syrian government to temper extremism, Sheikh Khaznawi was emerging as one of its most outspoken critics. He advocated Kurdish rights and democracy, galvanizing many of the 1.7 million Kurds against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Kurds were gaining political power in Iraq, Lebanon was casting Syrian troops out, and the US was criticizing Syria's government.
"[Syrian intelligence] wrote a report saying he ... should be stopped. They said he would start a revolution," says Sheikh Murad Khaznawi, the eldest of Sheikh Mohammed's eight sons.
On May 10, the cleric disappeared in Damascus. Three weeks later, he was found dead. His murder sent shock waves through Syria's marginalized Kurdish community, sparking mass demonstrations earlier this month and mobilizing a community that represents the most potent domestic threat to President Assad.
"The sheikh was a symbol for the Kurdish people and he wanted all the people to unite and struggle peacefully," says Hassan Saleh, secretary-general of Yakiti Party, a banned Kurdish group.
The Syrian authorities deny involvement in Khaznawi's killing. But analysts and diplomats note that the cleric's death coincides with a crackdown by Damascus against internal political dissent.
"The stability of Syria is in the hands of the Kurds," says Ibrahim Hamidi, correspondent of the Arabic Al Hayat daily. "They have a unique position. They are organized, they have an Islamic identity, regional support through the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, international support with some European countries lobbying for them, and political status because of [the Kurdish empowerment in] Iraq."
Syria's 1.7 million Kurds comprise the largest non-Arab group in Syria, making up about 9 percent of the population. Most Kurds live in the Hasake province. The area's economic importance and the Baath Party's Arab nationalist ideology have ensured that the province has long been under firm state control.
In 1962, a year before the Baath Party took power, a census stripped around 120,000 Kurdish Syrians of their citizenship, reclassifying them as "foreigners," who carry red identity cards rather than passports. Today, some 300,000 Kurds live here.
In the early 1970s, thousands of Arabs were resettled on confiscated Kurdish property along a 200-mile strip on the Turkish border as part of an Arabization policy that included banning Kurds from schools.
Preaching individual rights
It was in this milieu that Sheikh Khaznawi was raised. He was born into a respected religious family that followed the Sufi branch of Islam, a movement of organized brotherhoods, known as Tariqas, each one headed by a sheikh. But the young Khaznawi broke with Sufi tradition and began preaching individual freedom and self-responsibility rather than collective obedience to a single leader.
"The sheikh used to speak against the majority of Sufi ways. He said it was like drugging the mind," says his son Murad.
A father of 16 children, he cut a distinguished figure in his traditional garb of gray tunic and tightly wrapped white turban. He possessed a good sense of humor and, unlike most Islamic clerics, was happy to shake hands with women. Khaznawi's moderate ideas, which included support for secularism and tolerance of other faiths, won him a growing number of followers and endeared him initially to the Syrian government, which views Islamic extremism with hostility.
The Kurds' Status in Syria • Population: 1.7 million. As Syria's largest non-Arab group, Kurds account for approximately 9 percent of the country's total population.
• Stateless Kurds: In 1962, more than 120,000 Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship. Today the number of Kurds without Syrian passports has swelled to more than 300,000.
• Hasake Province, where most Kurds live, is the main source of Syria's oil and gas reserves and a major center of cotton and wheat production.
In March 2004, simmering tensions in the Kurdish northeast exploded into bloody clashes between Kurds, Syrian security forces, and Arab tribesmen. The government asked Khaznawi to travel to Qamishli to help ease tensions. His mediation helped calm the situation, but he grew increasingly active in advocating Kurdish rights. When 312 Kurdish detainees were released in March, Khaznawi was there to greet them. In April, on the anniversary of the death of a Kurd in last year's riots, he publicly denounced the government's treatment of Kurds.
"After that he was warned by the security [agents] that what he was doing was dangerous," says Mr. Saleh. Then, Khaznawi traveled to Brussels in February and met with the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization which fought a terrorist campaign against the government in the early 1980s. The meeting earned him another warning from state security.
In April, he gave an interview with the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper in which he was quoted as saying, "Either the regime will change or the regime must go.... The reason I can speak out is because the Americans are trying get rid of dictators and help the oppressed."
Khaznawi began receiving death threats from Islamic extremists who abhorred his moderation and his criticism of suicide bombings in Iraq. Also threatened was his colleague Mohammed Habash, director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, an institution that advocates moderate Islam.
"They warned me and Khaznawi that we were playing with fire," says Mr. Habash. "I'm afraid. I think there's a clear plan of the fundamentalists to fight the renewal [moderation] of Islam."
Early last month, Khaznawi received a call from people claiming to be followers of his father, who died in 1992. They told the cleric that their father was ill and wanted to see him. Could he come to their house for breakfast? He was suspicious, but he accepted. He left the Islamic Studies Center on the morning of May 10 and was not seen again. "He said he would go to breakfast, but unfortunately he went to his death instead," Habash says.
Khaznawi's disappearance spurred some 10,000 Kurds to demonstrate in Qamishli on May 21, calling on the government to reveal his whereabouts. But the government denied any knowledge of the kidnapping.
On June 1, Khaznawi's family was informed that their father had been found dead in Deir ez-Zor. His body, which was buried in a cemetery on the edge of town, showed signs of torture. "The security told us he had been buried for 12 days," says Sheikh Morshed Khaznawi, another of Khaznawi's sons. "We didn't believe them because the depth of the grave was only 70 centimeters [two feet] and Deir ez-Zor is very hot. He should have decayed very badly."
The Syrian authorities blamed the cleric's murder on a "criminal gang." Two gang members were arrested and were shown confessing on television.
Tens of thousands of mourners attended Khaznawi's burial and some 10,000 (mostly Kurd) protesters took to the streets of Qamishli on June 5. The demonstration turned violent when police and Arab tribesmen beat the protesters, including women, then looted dozens of Kurdish-owned shops.
"We have exceeded the culture of fear that the regime planted in us," says Machal Tammo, of the Tayyar Mustaqbal, a Kurdish Party. "For this very reason, the regime does not want us to ask for our demands peacefully."
More rights for Kurds?
The main road between Hasake and Qamishli cuts across a barren terrain of harvested wheat fields, the monotony of the featureless plain occasionally broken by small man-made hills, known as tells, which have been part of this ancient steppe for more than 4,000 years. The hot wind creates spinning columns of dust which pirouette and sway gracefully across the fields of golden stubble.
At the entrance to Qamishli today, plainclothes Syrian intelligence officers with rifles keep an eye on passing traffic. More intelligence officers sit on stools beside their vehicle at a roundabout. Security has grown tighter since Khaznawi's kidnapping and murder.
Morshed Khaznawi, who bears a striking resemblance to his slain father, demands an international investigation into his father's death. "We think the Syrian authorities have complete and total responsibility," he says.
But Mr. Habash and some analysts doubt that the regime was behind Khaznawi's death, pointing to a long-running family dispute and the enmity he aroused among Islamic extremists.
"I believe the children of Mashouq are in the eye of the storm and have a desire to accuse the government," Habash says. "Mashouq had good contacts with the regime, government, army, and intelligence. His political activities were not enough to get him killed."
Following the March 2004 riots in Qamishli, Abdullah Derdary, the Syrian planning minister, traveled to Hasake province and reassured the Kurds that economic assistance was on its way.
"Nothing happened and this time no one believes them," says a Western diplomat familiar with Kurdish affairs. "They are looking at Iraq and thinking we can organize ourselves and the regime knows it."
During the 1990s, Syrian Kurds were permitted to fulfill their military service with the PKK, the Kurdish armed separatist group that was fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey. Damascus and Ankara signed a security pact in 1998 which ended Syria's support for the PKK. But, according to the diplomat, many Syrian Kurds have slipped into northern Iraq to continue fighting with a newly resurgent PKK, which could have alarming implications for Damascus.
Still, there are indications that the government is taking the Kurdish dilemma more seriously. The government recently appointed Major General Mohammed Mansoura as head of Syria's powerful political security department. General Mansoura has extensive experience with the Kurds having headed the Hasake branch of military intelligence from 1982 to 2002.
Regardless of who killed Khaznawi, the death of the respected cleric has refocused attention on Syria's Kurds. Last week's Baath Party Congress referred to unspecified steps to help the Kurds - widely reported to involve granting citizenship to the 300,000 stateless Kurds.
But for many Kurds such government measures are too little too late. "The Kurds are really fed up. They don't care anymore," says Maan Abdelsalam, a Syrian civil rights activist.
Nick also sent this story on Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa that he wrote back in 3 October 2003 for the Monitor.
In secular Syria, an Islamic revival
A state with a history of quashing rebellious Islamic groups is seeing an upswing in religious faith ALEPPO, SYRIA – Turmoil in the Middle East and the sluggish pace of domestic political reform is fuelling an Islamic resurgence here. Although the regime is deeply hostile to extremist Islam, analysts and diplomats believe that Islamic groups could play an increasingly influential role if the state's hold on the country weakens.
Young Syrians are filling mosques, many women have taken to wearing the head scarf known as the hijab, and underground women's religious discussion groups are increasingly popular despite being banned. The austere Wahhabi brand of Islam practiced by Osama bin Laden is preached in some small towns in northern Syria. Even longtime Baath partisans are embracing religion.
"The Islamic awakening dominates conservative neighborhoods in cities and small Sunni towns," says Samir al-Taqi, a Syrian political analyst. "In Damascus, through a network of mosques, they dominate between 60 to 65 percent of pious Muslims.... I see many secular people, including Communists, turning to religion."
Analysts say the Islamic resurgence is a reaction to the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the faltering domestic reform program. The Syrian authorities are closely monitoring the Islamic resurgence, buying off some clerics as a means of controlling them, analysts say.
But diplomats and analysts believe that the regime's control over Islamism could slip in the face of mounting frustration with rampant corruption and the failure to implement promised reforms.
"A constituency is being created for Islamic leaders who might emerge if there is instability or the regime falls," says a diplomat in Damascus.
The Islamic resurgence in Syria also resonates with thousands of foreign Muslims who study Islam and Arabic in Damascus.
Islamic educational institutions are closely watched, not only by the Syrian authorities but also by Western intelligence agencies concerned that they may become recruiting grounds for militant Islamic groups. Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, studied urban planning during the 1990s in this conservative Sunni Muslim city in northern Syria.
In April, Asif Mohammed Hanif, a British Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up in a Tel Aviv pub. He had studied Arabic at Damascus University in 2000 where it is speculated - although unproven - that he was recruited by Hamas. Captain James Yee, a Muslim military chaplain at the Guantánamo Bay detention center who was arrested two weeks ago after being caught with classified documents, studied Islam and Arabic in Damascus for four years in the mid-1990s.
Diplomats say there are no indications that radical Islam is being preached in the schools, as they are closely supervised by the Syrian authorities. Indeed, one diplomatic source believed that the number of foreign students visiting Damascus had probably not increased significantly. "It's just that we are paying much closer attention to who is here now," the source says.
Sheikh Saleh Kuftaro, the son of Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, said that only moderate Islam was taught in Damascus.
"We are ensuring that the Islamic awakening among our youth is kept clear of extremism," he says. "We know that our mosques are full of young people. Thank God we do not have extremism here. But we are always afraid that it might prevail in countries around us."
Sheikh Kuftaro runs the Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro Islamic Foundation, a Damascus-based group for religious education which caters to some 5,000 students, 20 percent of them foreigners. "As an Islamic thinker, I am for a moderate secular state working for the religious beliefs of all.... There is no room for political Islam on our agenda," he adds.
Such sentiments sit well with the views of the Baathist regime in Syria. Syria has a long and bloody history combating radical Islamist movements. A violent campaign against the regime by the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s was ruthlessly suppressed with tens of thousands of people killed and imprisoned.
But a stronger brand of Islam than that espoused by Sheikh Kuftaro is beginning to emerge in some of the more conservative towns. Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa, who preaches at the As Sahour mosque in the outskirts of Aleppo, has gained a popular following through his fiery anti-American sermons.
"Our hearts are filled with joy when we hear about any resistance operations in Iraq against the American invaders. We ask people to keep praying to God to help achieve victory for Iraq against the US," Sheikh Qaqa says.
Qaqa's Islamic values go far beyond vocal - and popular - hostility toward US Mideast policy. For example, he openly calls for an Islamic state based on sharia law in Syria, the antithesis of established Baath Party ideology.
"Yes, I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria and that's what we are working for," Qaqa says. There are even indications that Qaqa's support base is becoming organized. His followers hold meetings in a building that serves as an office and library. Several of his followers wear camouflage military trousers.
"It's a symbol," he says, "of our readiness to protect ourselves from any foreign invasion."
But this is still Syria and the sheikh is careful not to portray himself at odds with the authorities.
"We are calling for, and working with, the government to cooperate together to prevent a clash and achieve national unity in an Islamic manner," he says.
And despite his support for the Iraqi resistance, he says that he is constantly dissuading Syrians who seek his advice from crossing into Iraq as volunteer fighters. Furthermore, on one wall of the As Sahour Mosque is an inscription in Arabic reading "No to Explosions" beside a cartoon depiction of a bomb with a red line through it. It is Qaqa's symbol of reassurance to the regime that he and his followers do not support violence.
Syria's deep secular roots and its broad confessional and ethnic composition - with Christians, Kurds and Bedouins - is likely to weigh heavily against the creation of an Islamic state, says Mr. Taqi, the political analyst.
"But it's now becoming a more militant populist Islam here," he says. "They are more ready to act but it's still a time of gathering forces." Photo: Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa (left) and a supporter, in Aleppo. Qaqa has called for an Islamic state in Syria, and for the defeat of US forces in Iraq. NICHOLAS BLANFORD. Nick adds:
Hassan Fatah told me he met with Qaqa in February 2005 in Damascus. The beard had gone and he was wearing a leather jacket. Very strange.
US Thinking of Taking Syrian Land - Baath Conclusions
Mamoun Fandy writes in al-Sharq al-Awsat that "Matters are on course for a showdown," between Syria and the US. (Thanks to Camille-Alexandre, a faithful reader in Canada, for bringing this article to my attention. He has written some smart comments at the bottom of the al-Sharq al-Awsat article.)
I wrote that Syria and the US are heading for a major clash soon in an article for "Syria Today," just this morning. There is no other conclusion one can come to. But Fandy gets the real scoop on American planning. We will have to see if America really follows through on its threats. Only today President Bush upped the heat by stating that Syria had not withdrawn its intelligence people from Lebanon. He also accuses the Syrians of having drawn up a hit list of Lebanese. Here's the Fandy article:
"An American Corridor in Syria", 07/06/2005
"I have no information about a strip to separate Syria and Iraq, but I can confirm that US troops have been engaged in combat operations inside Syrian territory for months." This is what an official from the United States State Department told me, in response to a question I asked on rumors of the imminent creation of a separation strip between Iraq and its Western neighbor which will extend 10km wide into Syrian land. With regard to this subject, three scenarios seem to be under discussion.
In the first instance, the US military will create a strip of land to be modeled after that used by Israel in South Lebanon to enable it to wage preemptive strikes against the Lebanese resistance. Supporters of this view see the current relationship between Syria and Iraq resembling the past relationship between Beirut and Tel Aviv. They speak of host centers in Syria that assist Arab fighters to crossing the border and join the resistance against US military presence. As such, they argue, in order to eliminate the resistance, the American military should penetrate into Syria territory, for a distance of 10 km, and eradicate these centers offering logistical support. This perspective is presented as a pre-emptive security measure that doesn't aim to destabilize Syria, but rather, to abolish support for the fighters.
The second scenario sees a return to the situation in Iraq before the last Gulf War when the country was divided into three zones, the Northern Zone, where Iraqi planes were banned from flying, ...
The US government has already held discussions with a number of Arab governments to look into establishing a corridor or a separation passageway between Syria and Iraq. In this third scenario, according to a senior Arab official, the width of corridor will be less than the 10km proposed in the first instance...
ill the Assad regime defend itself by drumming up support for the resistance in Iraq to exhaust the US military before it enters Syria? Or will Damascus grudgingly accept the new situation which will undoubtedly harm its powerful image internally and in the region, and empower the country's opposition.
The proposed border strip is also an Iraqi request...
Some observers judge the new plan for the Syrian-Iraqi border to be yet another proof of US intentions to split up the region and reconstruct according to its wishes, which might be true from an indigenous perspective.
But, from the US administration's point of view, it is faced with continuing violence in Iraq and growing evidence that Arab fighters, especially from the Persian Gulf, are crossing the border from Syria and receiving support and finds from inside the country's borders....
Is this an indication of an intention to truly distance, besiege, and destabilize Syria? It seems events are quickly moving in this direction.
Comment: A friend wrote: "This plan evokes Israel's security zone in Southern Lebanon. questions to consider: whether Iraqis will accept to play the role of the southern Lebanon Army (SLA), location of zone, legal status etc... "
If the US does grab a border strip, it will never be able to leave before regime-change. It would mean a life and death struggle for the Syrian regime and greatly increase regional instability. It would give the Mujahidiin increased legitimacy. I can't imagine Washington would really want to go down that road.
The reaction of the international press to the Baath Congress has been scathing.
So the Baath Party Congress is over. Can you feel the change!? This has to be the most pathetic show this side of Baghdad Bob. The reactions in the Arabic papers were highly critical, especially in the London-based dailies Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (see, e.g., here and here), and Al-Hayat (see, e.g., here), but also in the Lebanese An-Nahar (see, e.g., here, and this dissection of Bashar's horrible, horrible speech by Jihad Zein), and the Kuwaiti As-Siyassah (see this editorial by the feisty Ahmad al-Jarallah).
The story of Syrian engineer Khaled Mustafa Rahal can explain why the convention of the national Baath Party Congress does not impress the citizens of the country. Rahal was appointed to be the head of the Aleppo branch of the government bakeries corporation. Within a year, he managed to produce a profit of about $2 million - almost twice that of his predecessor in the job, with similar means at his disposal. He didn't increase the manpower or the means of production. He only streamlined the work of the bakeries. In December 2004, Rahal was fired....
Rob Satloff, at the influential think-tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is scathing as well. He uses the conference to repeat his call for regime-change, no doubt something others are doing in Washington. This is what he wrote in the New Republic Online, June 8, 2005:
President Bashar al Assad of Syria has lately seemed to be doing everything possible to make himself an ex-dictator... This week, Assad's mistake was doing nothing at all. To paraphrase the courageous Syrian reformer Ammar Abdulhamid, if the Assads were the modern-day Corleones, Hafez dreamed of having Michael succeed him but was stuck with Fredo.
This week's Baath Party Congress was supposed to give Bashar the opportunity to make a fresh start. Rumors were rampant that the young leader would finally announce real change... But Assad, a world-class underachiever, fooled us again... He did nothing.
So there it was: Assad's answer to calls for reform was not less Baathism, but more. In offering a ringing defense of an ideology whose only other champion these days is a jailed Saddam Hussein, Assad once again showed that his regime is one in whose survival the United States -- and the West, more generally -- simply has no interest...
Meanwhile, Assad has been so offensive that usually restrained observers have begun calling for more assertive measures to isolate the regime and trigger change. This week, for example, The Financial Times of London editorialized that Syria is caught in a "time warp, ostensibly oblivious to the consequences of its own behavior." It suggested tightening the noose on Assad and his cronies through targeted sanctions, to be implemented by the U.N. Security Council, that would restrict the ability of this small group to travel or to transfer and access their assets.
Washington should embrace these ideas and push for more. For decades, America has been reluctant to classify Syria as a full-blown rogue regime because of its potential role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. That policy should be jettisoned. In its place, Washington should search for a third way between the bad option of a more effective Baathist dictatorship and the worse option of helping to empower Syria's radical Sunni Islamist militants. This will mean publicly encouraging the small, hardy band of domestic liberals that is routinely hounded by the regime and thrown in jail. Today, this group has little popularity, poor visibility, and virtually no organization; but if it becomes clear that the West will no longer throw lifelines to the Assad regime, the ranks and confidence of reformers may grow. Given how brittle Assad's government has become, Syria is one country in which a battle of ideas may itself be enough to trigger fundamental change. If so, Fredo Corleone's days in power are numbered.
There were two moments of excitement reported during the last day of the conference. One was a fight between Khaddam, who resigned, and Ali Jamalo. The other was the dust up between Khaddam and Foreign Minister Sharaa. Both were about who is to blame for losing Lebanon. Here is how Tony reads it.
Indeed Bashar may be thinking that he can fool people again by removing some of the "old guard" like VP Khaddam, who actually resigned in a theatrical fashion, including a -- almost certainly staged -- confrontation with a pro-regime journalist, Ali Jamalo, who attacked him on the Lebanon file (an episode that was mocked by Ghassan Tueni, which leads me to believe that it was indeed staged!
Khaddam had a fight with Sharaa on the Lebanon file, and blamed the mistakes on him (perhaps not just him, wink wink!). Although I have zero sympathy for Khaddam, he is in fact right, as he was sidelined a long time ago from the Lebanon file. This fact didn't escape commentators in the Arabic papers, such as Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, and Shaaban Abboud. This is but a theatrical move, perhaps aimed at scapegoating Khaddam for Lebanon, milking that "old guard" theory that everyone seems to buy around here.
Sharaahas been scapegoated for the Lebanon fiasco from the beginning. Several people told me that he assured President Asad that there would never be a resolution 1559. When Bashar was contemplating extending Lahoud's presidency, he evidently gave the President the go ahead to change Lebanon's constitution, declaring that both Russia and Algeria would veto the UN resolution in the Security Council. Should we believe this? Then why hasn't he been fired? Perhaps it was a convenient allegation for a decision taken at the top, similar to Bush blaming the CIA for giving him wrong intelligence on Iraq's WMD?
Many sources also claimed that Khaddam advised the president not to extend Lahoud's presidency - the move, which started the Lebanon snowball rolling. But even this "leak" has been brought into doubt. A normally well informed citizen, told me recently, that when the top leadership met to discuss the Lahoud extension - and many advised the President against it - Khaddam conveniently absented himself by flying off to France for medical treatment, allowing him to play a double game: pretending to be against it, while not actually being against it. How can we ever know if any of these allegations are true? There is such a lack of transparency that wild speculation must substitute for news. The result is no one is held responsible and mistakes repeat themselves.
وعلمت «الحياة» ان تغييراً حكومياً سيحصل بعد شهر من انتهاء المؤتمر، وان الوزراء «البعثيين» لن يتجاوز عددهم عشرة وزراء، ما يساعد على تفسير اسباب عدم ترشيح عشرة وزراء انفسهم الى عضوية المؤتمر، كان بينهم وزراء الاعلام مهدي دخل الله والاقتصاد عامر لطفي والادارة المحلية هلال الاطرش، اضافة الى نائب وزير الخارجية وليد المعلم ورئيس البرلمان محمود الابرش.
I am voting for Ayman Abdul Nour. But hope it won't be Ministry of Information. What a tough position. He did a valiant job on al-Jazira tonight, explaining why the government had made a "leap forward." He was up against Burhan Ghalioun of the Sorbonne, who was very good.
Ibrahim's excellent al-Hayat article in two parts, explaining what he learned from government leaders in Washington, is a must read for those who know Arabic. It is one of the best explanations of Washington think. He recently traveled there to speak to an impressive list of decision makers and influence peddlers. Here is part one. Here is part two.
In promoting democratic institutions in Arab countries, we should bear in mind that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable. Our goal should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution....
Washington should support the participation of any group or party that has made a credible commitment to abide by the rules of democracy, including nonviolence and respect for constitutional procedures. It would be a mistake to exclude Islamist parties on the assumption that they are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence. The best way to marginalize violent extremists is to make room for as broad a range of nonviolent perspectives as possible....
Washington should also review its visa policies to ensure that, while those from Arab countries who may be dangerous are kept out, those who are not (the overwhelming majority) are allowed in without having to endure humiliating delays.
The Force of Islam: Nabil Fayyad, who used to write bravely for "An-naqed" about how Islamic extremism was over-taking Syrian society and institutions, has now reversed himself. Following his temporary arrest six months ago, he left Syria for the States and is now working with Farid Ghadry. He writes in alseyassah that the Muslim Brothers and fundamentalists are really very small in number, won't come to power, and are a myth spread by the Asad regime. (He states the Alawites are 18% of the Syrian population and the Murshidiyun a further 2%. Druze and Ismailis are another 7%.) There are enough people in the government making up figures. Nabil, don't do it too.
Bludgeoned by 40 years of authoritarian rule and riven by internal bickering, Syria's diverse and often fractious opposition is in a poor state to confront a Baathist regime undergoing a process of consolidation.
For those who are truly sober, the upcoming congress promises to present just another opportunity for Syria's "wise leaders" to commit a major screw up. After all, it has been months since they have committed such a faux pas and they are not in the habit of making us wait for long.
The disappointing absence of the promised "great leap" forward could obscure more gradualist steps. Several non-binding measures debated at the conference, which ended last night, may lead to what Ms Allaf called "calculated reform".
They included the partial relaxation of media controls, privatisation plans, and the possible legalisation of more approved opposition parties - while still excluding the Kurds and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such moves would be consistent with Mr. Assad's cautious, almost stealthy approach to change.
"He will keep the lid on any substantial or radical reform," Ms Allaf predicted. Emergency laws in force since 1963 would largely remain, for example. But even modest shifts might allow Mr. Assad to claim progress.
So too will the de-emphasising of the Ba'ath party's leading role and a concomitant reinforcement of executive power bolstered by Assad appointees...
said on Monday he had no doubt Syria was behind the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri, according to intelligence he had seen.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, made the comments to reporters after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on a variety of issues and offering him support.
"I have seen enough of the evidence on Hariri to know that they (Syrians) were behind it," Leahy said without elaborating. "I don't think there is a single person in Lebanon and probably no one in Syria who doesn't believe they were behind it."
"There is no question -- no question in my mind -- that they were behind the assassination," the senator said.
The article also explains that Kofi Annan is sending its evoy Larson to Syria to dress down the Syrians.
He explains that State Department officials recently called a meeting of all Arab ambassadors in Washington to get them up the pressure on the Syrian regime to "change its politics". Imad Mustafa, the Syrian embassador was not invited.
One Arab diplomate said that the US administration is talking about "changing the old Syrian regime."
هناك إحاديث واضحة داخل أروقة الإدارة الأميركية، تتحدث الآن عن «تغيير النظام السوري القديم»
That means "retire" as one official interpreted it.
This is one step away from actually and officially calling for regime change in Syria. But the upsot is that Washington is clearly looking for complete international cooperation in isolating Syria and placing the squeeze on Bashar. The Arab regimes are just one side of the story.
State Department officials are meeting with their French counterparts to look for a way to tie the Kassir murder into the overarching investiagation into the Hariri murder dnd to figure out how they can revive a Syrian element of UN resolution 1559, which was so effective in driving Syria out of Lebanon.
According to Washington, Kofi Annon prematurely announced that Syria had withdrawn from Lebanon two weeks ago. It has denied that Syria pulled out and is no doubt behind the Larson visit to Damascus.
Annahar reports that indications are that that the new UN German investigation team may switch back to the "under the road" bomb theory and reject the Irish UN team's assertion that it was a car bomb which killed Harriri. Many believe that if the bomb was planted under the road, this would prove that Syria and the Lebanese state secret service under Syrian control would have to be responsible.
Farid Ghadry, the head of the "American" Syrian opposition is trying to spin the story that Washington has announced "Regime Change." He sent out this email circular: State Department Wants "Regime Change" in Syria
Washington DC, June 7, 2005/RPS/ -- For the first time ever the U.S. State Department said yesterday that "regime Change" in Syria of the "Old Guard and the new one" has become a necessity.
Saudi owned al-Sharq al-Awsat reported this morning that David Welsh is spearheading a new strategy to gain the support of the Arab countries to put pressure on Syria in regard to Hezbollah, Iraq, and Lebanon. Towards that goal, a meeting of all the Arab Ambassadors took place at the US State Department without the presence of the Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustapha to seek that support. Excluding the Syrian Ambassador has isolated Syria, even amongst the Arab countries, for the final blow.
Syrian Expatriates Minister and congress spokesperson Buthaina Shaaban accused the U.S. of seeking to undermine Arab identity by fostering religious and ethnic divisions.
"If we are not Arabs what could we be? Do we want to be Sunnis and Shiites and Christians? Or do we want to be Arabs? I think I can speak in the name of million of Arabs that we want to be Arabs," she said. "If the Baath Party was not there I think we would have to invent it."
What happened to Syrian national identity? It has been suppressed by the Baath Party. Ever since the Baath took revenge on the Syrian Social Nationalist Party for the killing of Adnan Malki in 1955, Syrianism has been effectively banned and taken out of Syria's curriculum and national textbooks. I write about this in my article: "Islamic Education in Syria" Also Translated into Arabic here .
The word "Syria" or "Syrian nation" does not appear in any of the text books used in the twelve years of Islamic education in Syrian schools. Only the Arab Nation and Islamic Nation are referred to. The Syrian government has suppressed Syrianism in favor of Arabism.
One of the great hopes of this conference was that the government would begin to back away from Arabism and begin to define a more practical Syrian national identity which could protect the country and its citizens should there be regime collapse or dramatic change in the future. How else will Syrians learn not to revert to their sectarian loyalties, if they aren't educated to give their loyalty to Syria, their actual nation? Arabism, everyone admits, is no longer a practical national identity. Yes, it has a role in binding together the Arab people who share a common culture and history. But it is no substitute for a Syrian national identity, just as being a member of the common European federation is no substitute for being French, Spanish, or Italian.
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a courageous Iraqi journalist and photographer who stayed in Falouja with Mujahidiin until hours before the US invasion, came to Syria with his fiancé, Wendell Steavenson for several weeks. They said Baghdad had become too dangerous. While here Ghaith traveled to Aleppo in search of the mujahidiin story he has been covering since the beginning of the war. In this story, brought to my attention by a faithful reader from Canada, Ghaith tells the amazing story of one Syrian jihadi. It is worth reading the whole thing.
Islamist insurgents have turned the aftermath of the war in Iraq into a seemingly endless holy war, and are still pouring into the country to fight the 'American devil'. En route, many of them pass through Syria.
Aleppo, Syria. Ten brothers were sitting in the courtyard of their house in one of Aleppo's myriad lanes, with a plastic bag full of small pieces of paper, from which they drew lots. Five of them would stay in Syria and look after all 10 families. The others, the winning five, would enjoy the ultimate prize: a jihadi trip to Baghdad. It was March 2003, the Americans had just started bombing Baghdad and, like the 10 brothers, hundreds of young men were eagerly making their way in cramped buses towards the Iraqi border. Most of them were Syrians, but there were many, too, from other Arab and Muslim nations, all driven by a religious fervour fuelled by the cries of jihad from Muslim scholars.
"Each neighbourhood [of Aleppo] started sending buses loaded with mujahideen into Iraq," says Abu Ibrahim, the second eldest of the 10 brothers, describing those early days of the war. "If someone was unable to go, he would support the jihad by giving his money."
The call to jihad was openly encouraged by the Syrian government, says Abu Ibrahim (a nom de guerre); it also arranged for buses to ferry fighters, speeded up the issuing of documentation and even gave prospective jihadis a discount on passport fees. Meanwhile, the Syrian media were banging the drum for jihad. (The US has repeatedly accused Syria of involvement in terrorism in Iraq; the Syrian government vehemently denies this.) Eyewitnesses recall Syrian border police waving to the jihadi buses as they crossed into Iraq. From the Grand Mufti of Syria, a man known for his religious tolerance for more than 50 years but who issued a fatwa legitimising suicide bombing just before the outbreak of the Iraq war, to a 16-year-old Christian boy from Damascus whom Abu Ibrahim remembers volunteering to fight alongside radical Muslims in Iraq, much of Syria was galvanised to resist the American invasion next door.
Abu Ibrahim, the most radical of his family, was not one of the lucky five of his brothers and had to stay in Syria, which did not go down well with his Bedouin wife. "My wife accused me of being a coward. She accused me of being happy that I didn't have to go."
But a few months later, he and a group of Syrian and Saudi jihadis crossed the border just as the Iraqi insurgency was getting into full swing. Fifty fighters went in total, Abu Ibrahim says now, but after a few months he returned to Syria with three others - the only surviving members of the group.
Two years after Syria first encouraged resistance to American troops in Iraq, the country claims to have cracked down on Islamic networks and cross-border activity. But many of these claims have fallen short of expectations, a fact that regional analysts attribute to two different factors. The first is that Syria is dominated by many and sometimes competing security apparatuses, which often behave quasi-independently, according to the leadership and specific agenda of each. The second is that while the Syrians, publicly at least, have considerably reduced the amount of support given to the insurgents and have put hundreds in jail, they are happy to keep the jihadi networks alive for a day when they might be useful again.
Abu Ibrahim was born in 1973 in a village north of Aleppo, close to the Turkish border. His father was a Sufi, a member of a mystical Islamic sect that is reviled by some ultra-conservative Muslims, but Abu Ibrahim never shared his father's tolerant views. "I was born to be a Salafi!" he says, referring to the fundamentalist Sunni school of Islam also called Wahhabism. "Even when I was a child of 10, I would refuse to shake the hands of the Sufi sheikhs who visited my father."
Abu Ibrahim's face is lined from time spent in Syrian and Saudi prisons. He looks older than his years, and has a short, scrubby beard, his larger beard having been shaved off by Syrian security officers during one of his detentions. (My conversations with Abu Ibrahim were conducted under extremely close monitoring by the Syrian security services.) He is small and slight, but says he can fight five men alone. He keeps repeating that pride and honour are the most important things in life.
Abu Ibrahim is furious at American imperialism, outraged by Palestine, repelled by the secular Syrian regime. He is angry, as many Arab young men are, and like many of his generation, has grown to see the holy war of jihad championed by Osama bin Laden as the only way to salvation.
Abu Ibrahim's goal is to re-establish the Islamic caliphate, and he sees the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan as one of the few true Islamic governments since the time of the Prophet. He thinks the Qur'an is "a constitution, a law to govern the world". His views are severe, narrowly defined and impractical. But it is important to understand his anger and his contradictions, because Abu Ibrahim is as close to al-Qaida as it is possible to get.
At the age of 22, Abu Ibrahim's rebellious ideas against his father's Sufism were nurtured by a group of radical Salafis who flourished in the villages around Aleppo, in Syria's Sunni heartland. "I met a group of young men through my wife's family who spoke to me the true words of Islam; they told me Sufism was forbidden and that the Shia are infidels."
A year later, he decided to go to Saudi Arabia, taking some of Aleppo's famous textiles from his family's workshop and trading them in Riyadh. His seven years in Riyadh were prosperous ones; at times he was sending home $12,000 a month. But while he was there, he also met other young men with whom he started learning the Qur'an. "God provided for us," he says. "We were banned from preaching publicly. We read the mother of all books and then we started to know the truth. Everything was done in people's homes."
Young Saudis, he felt, were educated and worldly and they had what he considered a better understanding of the truth. But he also saw that they had the money and resources to put into practice what they were talking about. "When they went to fight in Afghanistan, they got a government salary, and they also had the resources to fight in Chechnya, the Balkans and now in Iraq."
In 1999 Abu Qaqaa, a charismatic Syrian religious sheikh, was preaching a radical version of Islam in Aleppo. In Saudi Arabia, Abu Ibrahim heard about the sheikh, who wore a salwar kameez, a relic of his time spent with Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan, and was impressed. "We were Wahhabis. Abu Qaqaa was preaching what we believed in. There he was saying these things: people with beards, come together. I was so impressed."
Returning to Aleppo, he became Abu Qaqaa's right-hand man. While in Saudi Arabia, Abu Ibrahim had been given training in video montage and digital photography at a private Saudi production company that specialised in the dissemination of radical Islamic propaganda. Now he helped to tape and copy Abu Qaqaa's sermons and to distribute CDs. They would travel to Damascus and to Saudi Arabia together. By 2001, Abu Qaqaa had attracted about 1,000 young men to his cause, though everything at this stage was underground and secret. "No one knew about us. But September 11 gave us the media coverage. It was a great day. America was defeated. We knew they would target either Syria or Iraq and we took a vow that if something happened to either countries, we would fight."
Two weeks after September 11 they decided to have a celebration. They called it "the Festival of America the Wounded Wolf". They made a video of martial arts fighting, including hand-to-hand combat and training exercises in which they jumped off 8m-high walls. During this time, Abu Qaqaa was arrested by the Syrian authorities, but was released within hours. "We thought, 'Oh, how strong our sheikh is that they do not touch us,' " Abu Ibrahim remembers. "How stupid we were."
By 2002 they were organising anti-American "festivals" twice a week. Food and CDs of sermons were distributed freely and the group, now calling itself "the Strangers of Cham [the Levant]", grew more popular. One festival was called "the people of Cham will now defeat the Jews and kill them all".
"Officials used to come to these festivals, security chiefs, advisers to the Syrian president. We had Palestinian flags and scarves saying, 'Down America'. It was very well organised - we tried to inspire young men and encourage them. We even had a website." The group grew bigger and stronger, its reputation and CDs reached other Arab countries, and young men from Ramadi, Salahuddin and Mosul provinces in Iraq came to seek them out. Meanwhile, money started pouring in from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Abu Ibrahim and his friends were tough, and created a phalanx cadre around Abu Qaqaa. They would raid houses and throw people out of their beds if they heard that they had said bad things about him. "We were exactly like the Amen [the state security services]," he says. "Everyone knew us. We all had big beards. We became thugs."
But slowly they began to suspect that their charismatic leader was a stooge for the state security and had long been an agent for them. "In the 80s, thousands of Muslim men died in Syria for much less than we were saying. We asked the sheikh why we weren't being arrested. He would tell us it was because we weren't saying anything against the government, that we were focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel."
Their suspicions hardened when they discovered that Abu Qaqaa had provided the state security with a list of all the Wahhabis in Syria. They had begun to split from him and were thinking of taking their revenge when the Americans invaded Iraq.
With the beginning of the Iraq war came the jihad frenzy, and the busloads of mujahideen. Saddam's government considered them manna from heaven; as the Americans rapidly advanced, they branded them Arab Saddam Fedayeen, and gave them weapons and basic training. But when Baghdad fell, the stories the Syrians brought home were bad. Often the Iraqis shot at them or handed them over to the Americans.
Abu Ibrahim, who had his own group of jihadis and was actively ferrying people across the border during this time, said that his Iraqi contacts "asked us to stop sending people, they said, 'There are Shia everywhere, Americans,' and they couldn't do anything." According to Abu Ibrahim and other sources in the insurgency, the quick American invasion of Baghdad and the collapse of the Iraqi army shocked the religious leaders and a debate started as to whether they should start a jihad against the Americans or whether this would only bring Saddam back to power, an option that was as bad for the Islamists as the US occupation.
But the Syrian authorities didn't want cross-border traffic in fighters to stop. The security services pressured them to keep sending people. "Why were they so keen for us to go and fight in Iraq?" asks Abu Ibrahim. "So we would die there?"
In the summer of 2003, the insurgency in Iraq began to organise itself and there was a further call for men. Places to stay and a network of routes, weapons and safe houses had been established. "We had specific meeting places for Iraqi smugglers. They wouldn't do the trip if we had less than 15 fighters. We would drive across the border and then into villages on the Iraqi side; and from there the Iraqi contacts would take the mujahideen to training camps." Syrian recruits could usually skip the training given to others, as every young Syrian man has to do two years of military service."It is mostly the Saudis who need the training," says Abu Ibrahim.
The main bulk of the insurgency at that time was led and organised by Iraqis who functioned in cells, often with no coordination. They focused mainly on ambushes and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks. "Our brothers in Iraq worked in small groups. In each area men would come together organised by religious leaders or tribal sheikhs and would attack the Americans. It was often us who brought them all together, when we met them in Syria or in Iraq. We would tell them, 'But there is another brother who is doing the same thing - why don't you coordinate together?' Syria became the hub.
"Young men are fighting with zeal and passion, there are Saudi officers, Syrians, Iraqis, but not those who fought for Saddam. The man who is leading it for the most part", says Abu Ibrahim, "is Zarqawi."
The emergence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the big breakthrough for the insurgency, especially after he was endorsed by Bin Laden late last year. Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born radical Islamist, then changed the name of his disparate group of insurgents to al-Qaida of Jihad in Mesopotamia, and funds started pouring in from Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, many different factions of the insurgency placed themselves under Zarqawi's banner and a joint treasury of jihad, called Bayt al-Mal, was founded.
"Until six months ago, Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden were different: Osama did not legitimise the killing of Shia. Zarqawi did that. Six months ago, Zarqawi gave the beyaa [allegiance] to Bin Laden. Anyone, Christian Jew, Sunni, Shia, who cooperates with the Americans, can be killed. It's a holy war." (Our conversation took place before Zarqawi was supposedly injured near Ramadi last month.)
By January 2004, Syria was coming under increasing pressure from the US to halt the jihadi traffic into Iraq. Jihadi cell leaders in Syria were summoned to Amen [internal security] headquarters and told that it could not continue. Passports were confiscated; some were detained for a few days.
It may not be terribly significant in halting the violence, however. According to Abu Ibrahim, insurgents in Iraq are not presently in need of fighters, but funds - which usually come from wealthy Saudi young men.
"Our brothers in Iraq are asking for Saudis. The Saudis go with enough money to support themselves and their Iraqi brothers. A week ago we sent a Saudi to the jihad; he went with 100,000 Saudi riyals [$27,000]. There was a celebration among his brothers there!"
Four weeks ago, US troops in Iraq launched an operation just inside the border with Syria, aimed at disrupting the route of foreign fighters; the US army claimed that 100 fighters were killed. Abu Ibrahim is unmoved to learn of the assault. "They think jihad will stop if they kill hundreds of us in Iraq. They don't know what they are facing. Every day, more and more young men from around the Muslim world are awaking and coming to the jihad. Now the Americans are facing thousands, but one day soon they will have to face whole nations."
The next fascinating story dug up by Damascus' very own Katherine Zeopf for the New York Times is also an example of excellent reporting on one lost part of the Iraqi story in Syria.
DAMASCUS, Syria, June 4 - Nashwan Hassan Ahmed's belief in the American mission in Iraq never wavered.
Hired fresh out of Baghdad University, he served for 18 months as an interpreter for American forces in Mosul. Former colleagues recall him working bravely and tirelessly, side by side with troops on dangerous nighttime hunts for insurgents, and in the offices and conference rooms where the details of reconstruction projects were hammered out.
The days were long, but Mr. Ahmed, now 24, said he did not care, "because I felt that I was trying to help Iraq stand up again, and because I felt I was like a brother to them."
By "them," Mr. Ahmed meant the American soldiers he lived with, and who came to call him Nash. He spent mornings with them at the shooting range and evenings playing video games. He learned to like lasagna and root for the Atlanta Braves.
Then the threats started. Because of his work with American troops, some Iraqis saw Mr. Ahmed as a collaborator. Mr. Ahmed said his family was harassed and abused, and they moved three times in an effort to hide from insurgents. When Mr. Ahmed begged his American bosses for help, he was told they could do nothing. He said he finally realized that for his family's safety, he would have to leave Iraq.
Alone, he crossed the border into Syria in January.
Mr. Ahmed is one of a growing group of Iraqis who used to work as interpreters, drivers or cooks for American forces in Iraq but have fled to Syria because the insurgency branded them as traitors. In recent months, Iraqis who are known to have worked with American troops have been killed and kidnapped in large numbers.
They were once among the most enthusiastic Iraqi supporters of the American-led invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. But now, they say, they feel confused and abandoned in a society that, with its ubiquitous banners bearing Syrian Baath Party slogans and huge portraits of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his family, reminds them at least superficially of Mr. Hussein's Iraq.
Ajmal Khybari, an official in Damascus with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that though their numbers, in relative terms, are small - perhaps no more than a few hundred - these former American employees represented a highly visible subgroup of the Iraqi refugees who continued to arrive in Syria and Jordan.
They bombard American consular officials with their visa requests but, despite their idiomatic English and their reference letters from American commanders, without relatives in the United States, their chances of being admitted are slim.
The United States Embassy in Syria often suggests that they apply to the United Nations for refugee status and resettlement, but only a small fraction of Iraqi refugees complete the long registration process.
"We've processed 16,600 Iraqi refugees in Syria," Mr. Khybari said. "But let me speak from the heart here. We are really talking about a million refugees living between Syria and Jordan, and the donor community isn't paying any attention to them. The problem is growing, because Iraq continues to be a refugee-producing country."
At the time of the Iraqi election in late January, officials with the International Organization for Migration estimated that there were about 400,000 Iraqi refugees living in Syria. The Syrian government now puts the figure at closer to 700,000.
The Iraqis, for their part, say they continue to hope that Syria is a temporary stop. Some of them seem bewildered to learn that, no matter how good their relationships with their American bosses were, there is no mechanism to help them.
Binyamin Shamoon, 36, who came to Damascus in August 2004, said he quit his job as a laundry worker at an American base in Baghdad after he received an anonymous letter that contained a threat to bomb his house. The letter demanded only that he give up his job, but Mr. Shamoon said he did not feel safe until he brought his family to Syria.
"We would like to go to the U.S.," he said. "But there is no program that helps us. This seems strange to me. It's because of our work with the Americans that we had to flee our country."
American soldiers returning from Iraq say they often worry about the safety of their Iraqi colleagues, but have no way to help them.
Erik Schiemann, 27, a former infantry captain with the 101st Airborne Division, said he had been sending e-mail to Mr. Ahmed, his interpreter in Mosul, with information about community colleges in the United States, in the hopes that Nash might one day get a student visa.
"There's no other way for us to really bring him to the States, or help him with visas," Mr. Schiemann said. "I think the best thing I can do is to keep in touch with him and to try to help him on his future path."
"He's just a great guy," Mr. Schiemann said of Mr. Ahmed. "Everyone in our company knew him as Nash. Sometimes we'd have missions at night, very dangerous stuff, and our troops are out there with body armor. And Nash would be right there with the guys, totally unarmed, but working side by side with them."
At least twice in the past, the United States has made special arrangements to assist Iraqis whose American affiliations have brought them into danger. During the 1990's, more than 12,000 Iraqis, many of them former soldiers, were brought to the United States as refugees.
Separately, in 1996, several thousand Iraqis, mainly Kurds who had worked for American aid groups in Iraq were airlifted to Guam and then resettled in the United States.
The situation is different now, said a State Department official in Washington who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
"We never had anything to do with governing Iraq in the past," the official said, explaining that Mr. Hussein's government presented such a certain danger that special measures were required then to protect Iraqis with American connections.
The official added that while the department has not specifically studied the issue of Iraqi contractors who have become refugees, in the normal course of events, the United Nations would likely refer some of them for resettlement in the United States. However, the process can take several years.
Though the total number of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan may be approaching a million, as Mr. Khybari suggested, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many used to work with American forces.
Samer Zora Borka, 28, who worked as an interpreter for the American military in Baghdad, said he knew at least 15 former employees who were living in a Damascus suburb.
Mr. Borka said many Iraqis in his situation felt anger and disappointment at their former employers, but that he tried to avoid such feelings.
"The American soldiers love to use the word family," he said. "They kept saying it. About the unit, I mean. They'd say, 'We're family, we work as a family.' "
Mr. Borka smiled and added, "And I guess we used to believe them."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opened a highly anticipated three-day Baath Party Congress Monday.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA – When Bashar al-Assad in March vowed a "great leap forward" for Syria at the Baath Party Congress, many said the young president would finally display his reformist credentials.
Perhaps he would launch a market economy to the replace the moribund statist system. Or maybe he would free all political prisoners and allow exiles to return.
But after an address that lasted barely 10 minutes, reformers' hopes were dashed.
President Assad steered clear of specifying any broad and imminent reforms that could help lower international pressure and appease rising domestic frustration. He told some 1,250 delegates that they should reform the economy and tackle corruption, but he avoided typical rants against Israel and the United States.
"The economic situation and improving living standards represent a priority for us," he said.
For the six Syrian opposition activists - a group of middle-aged businessmen, engineers, and former Army officers - who had gathered in a smoke-filled office to watch the speech live on television, Assad's address was disappointing.
"The president has no vision ... and said nothing about the suffering of the Syrian people," says one man, who, like his peers, declined to be named. "I'm not optimistic that this Congress will produce anything."
Under pressure internationally and at home, Assad said in March that the Congress, the first in five years, would be a "great leap forward" for Syria. That remark fueled expectation among the increasingly disillusioned Syrians that he would use the three-day assembly to prove that he is a reformist at heart.
But other figures have played down its impact. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa told a European delegation last week that expectations should be "neither high nor low but realistic."
Flanked by gray-haired party officials, Syria's president looked out of place as the aging delegates took to the rostrum. The Congress delegates greeted each speech with polite applause; the opposition activists watching on TV reacted with catcalls.
"This is not a Congress; it's a game, a movie," says one man.
"I have seen two people [among the delegates] asleep already," says a man in a light green suit, to loud laughter.
"I think we need to get our blankets ready - we are all going to go to prison," jokes another, to even louder laughter.
Despite dampened hopes of meaningful changes, the delegates to the Congress are debating four reports recommending reforms in foreign policy, domestic policy, the economy, and the Baath Party.
The Baath Party's pan-Arab ideology, which regards the Arab world as one nation, is likely to diminish in favor of a more overt Syrian nationalism. For example, the Regional Command of the Baath Party, which refers to Syria, is expected to be renamed the Syrian Command. It will be reduced in size from 21 to 15 seats and its current membership replaced. The Baath Party's National Command, which covers the entire Arab world, may be abolished, as it has not met in 20 years.
Other political parties are permitted to join the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF), an alliance of socialist parties headed by the Baath, so long as they are not based on ethnicity or religion.
That would exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist party which remains banned in Syria and membership in which is punishable by death. Indeed, in May, several leading opposition activists were jailed briefly for publicly reading out a statement from the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood. But other past enemies of the Baath are being allowed to join the NPF, including the Syrian Social Nationalist Party which has been banned in Syria since 1955. Analysts say that by broadening participation in the NPF to anti-Western Arab nationalist parties, President Assad is attempting to bolster his domestic position against unstinting pressure from the United States.
"This is a show of national unity for the people, says Joshua Landis, a history professor and Syria specialist living in Damascus. "Bashar is showing them that they are all in the same trench."
Still, some key demands of the Syrian opposition are not expected to be answered. They include repealing Article 8 of the Constitution, which defines the Baath Party as the leader of state and society. The Emergency Law, effectively martial law in place since 1963, is not expected to end, although it may become more focused on national security.
"These people are only capable of delivering disappointment," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst and coordinator of the Tharwa project, which seeks to raise awareness of minority groups in the Middle East.
But reformists within the Baath Party say that the Congress is an important first step.
"The Congress is not the final step after which Syria will sleep," says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Baath Party reformist and editor of the influential All4Syria Internet newsletter. "It's a major step, but the process of modernizing will continue."
Indeed, whatever reformist measures the Congress decides upon will be in no small part due to an unprecedented lobbying campaign undertaken by the irrepressible Baathist reformer.
Although party reformists wrote the reports which are being discussed at the Congress, none of them were elected by the Baath Party to attend the event.
"If the members of the Congress wanted to discuss or ask any questions about the reports, who would answer them?" Mr. Abdel-Nour says.
Abdel-Nour used his newsletter to distribute a petition demanding their inclusion in the Congress. He secured just under a thousand names of prominent party members - a figure, he says, that would have been considerably higher if more Baathists used the Internet and had e-mail addresses.
"We published every day the list and they [the authorities] realized that the people signing were not just taxi drivers. They were important people, so they had to respond," he says. By the end of the campaign, the Baath Party had grudgingly accepted 150 reformist delegates, including women, intellectuals, economists, and law professors.
This experience shows the Baath Party can reform, he says, "but first we must have reformers."
[Comment: Glad to see that Nick got the Ayman Abdulnour story. ]
The 10th Congress of the Syrian Baath Party opened yesterday in Damascus. It may turn out to be another ritual in the annals of the Soviet-style, single-party system over which the Baath has presided for 42 years. And, even if it does accommodate more self-criticism than usual, it will probably end up with a re-endorsement of the basic "correctness" of the party line, and the need to go on following it until the next congress five years hence.
But the congress is attracting more than ordinary interest because of the anything but ordinary conditions, regional as well as Syrian, in which it is taking place. Indeed these conditions present such a challenge to the regime that few, outside it, would dispute the often-heard judgment that it "must reform or die." A minority inside it might not dispute this either. The conference may clinch the all-important, yet unanswered question whether President Bashar Assad is one of them. He has spoken of a "significant leap forward." So many expectations have been raised by the congress that any signs of real achievement would rally people behind a young president who, despite five years of steadily eroding promise, still enjoys a good deal of latent goodwill. Failure would go far to persuading Syrians that Baathism really has nothing useful to offer but its own demise.
Lip-service or serious, the reformist rhetoric is a grudging response to the unprecedented confluence of external, mainly American, and domestic pressures to which this most stubbornly inflexible of regimes has been subjected. Democratization is the overarching ideal on which the pressures now converge.
Hitherto, America's fluctuating attitudes to Damascus have always been strategic, not idealistic. Its hostility is now clearly growing: it calls the regime a "major disruptive force" in the region. But it is still not clear - even, one senses, to American diplomats in Damascus - whether all the Bush administration wants is unconditional changes in Syrian behavior, or full-scale regime change. "It's certainly the first," commented a European diplomat, "but [the United States] wouldn't mind if, by an inexorable logic, this led to the second."
The Syrian people may be more authentically anti-American than its leadership, believing as many do that the Assad regime's time-honored "anti-imperialist" stance is empty rhetoric contradicted by a patent readiness to collaborate with the U.S. in the interest of its own survival. However, in their day-to-day existence, Syrians dislike their own government even more....
"After Lebanon," observed the London-based daily Al-Hayat, "a quiet and invisible storm is blowing through the leadership." Will anyone in Syria be able to master the storm? This is a vital question for the whole region, given the country's central position in its affairs. (continue)
DAMASCUS, Syria, June 6 - President Bashar al-Assad opened a landmark Baath Party congress on Monday, promising modest political reform and calling for a renewed focus on the economy. But the most dramatic change likely to come out of the meeting is the transformation of the party from a pan-Arab movement to a Syrian one.
The changes are likely to emphasize a loose Arab federation and trade connections, delegates said, as well as raise the Syrian character of the party. Instead of creating a single government, the party will seek something more akin to the European Union, said George Jabbour, a member of Parliament.
Mr. Assad announced the meeting in March as he pledged to withdraw from Lebanon, promising Syrians major changes in an effort win back support.
"The president had to promise people something in March, and now he's got to oblige," said Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The larger promise is that he will get the Baath out of the nation, and people have understood that as getting corruption and graft out."
The 1,200 delegates went into the closed-door meetings with an agenda that included clearing the way for political parties to operate, loosening the Baath Party's grip on the economy and bringing in new blood....
Mr. Assad reiterated many party themes, including the threat to fundamental Arab identity, but he also emphasized the new focus on Syria.
"Every decision you take and every recommendation you make should express only our internal needs," he said, "regardless of any considerations that aim at pushing us in directions that harm our national interests and threaten our stability."
Mr. Hajj Ali said, "The Arab nationalism will remain in the party, but it will become a cultural and economic connection with others."
Mr. Landis's reading was: "They are graduating away from the romantic vision of Arab nationalism to a more constitutionally and federative Arabism. They are trying to update to a 21st century EU model, rather than a 19th century Bismarkian model."
[Comment: I added the last sentence to the quote to clarify. Of course, it is a muddle transformation, but Syria is struggling to move away from the old revolutionary unionist Arabism of Nasser and Saddam and trying to back into a "Syrian" identity without abandoning Arabism. It is difficult to do, but Asad has normalized all its borders save the border with Israel.]
At his Baath Party congress, Bashar Assad avoids mention of political change and calls technology a threat to the identity of Arabs.
DAMASCUS, Syria — Buffeted by criticism and demands for reform, Syrian President Bashar Assad opened his party congress Monday by sidestepping all mention of political change, pledging continued devotion to pan-Arab nationalism and calling modern technology a threat to Arab identity.
The 39-year-old president had touted this week's Baath Party gathering as a turning point for a nation under pressure. Analysts had predicted the sessions could lay the groundwork to ease emergency laws, remove obstacles to opposition parties, weed out some of Syria's aging functionaries and extend citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds.
Yet only a few hints of change emerged Monday. Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam — a stalwart of the "old guard" and a key backer of Syria's now-defunct political control over Lebanon — reportedly announced his resignation. Assad did call for overhauling Syria's largely state-run economy.
But on the whole, Assad's brief speech made it plain that old Baathist principles would remain very much intact.
"We believe that the ideas and teachings of the party are still relevant and current and respond to the interests of the people and the nation," Assad told more than 1,200 Baath regional commanders. "Where their implementation has fallen short, it is individuals who bear responsibility, not the idea or ideology."
The three-day congress, the first of its kind in five years, is a forum for ruling party officials throughout the country to confer on Baathist policies. It comes at a time when Syria is staggering under massive international and domestic pressure. ....
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been accusing Damascus of undermining stability in Iraq by allowing insurgents to use Syria as a transit point.
At home, Assad is weathering criticism from a persistent, albeit fractious, opposition movement.
"This month is make-or-break for the regime," said Ammar Abdel Hamid, an outspoken dissident. "After the [Lebanon] pullout, the only way for the regime to retain legitimacy was to produce something internally.".....
Even before the withdrawal from Lebanon, Assad was quietly consolidating power by moving family members and close associates into key posts. Analysts predict he will use this week's conference to cut back on the Baath Party's regional command, downsizing a powerful cadre elected from the party ranks rather than appointed by Assad.
Assad, a seemingly reluctant ruler, inherited the presidency in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad. He is expected to demote some of his father's cronies, with whom his relations are reportedly strained. His mention of corruption and individual responsibility Monday seemed to hint at a political purge.
Assad's tirade against technology came as a surprise. The president is a founder of the Syrian Computer Society, and one of his most prominent public projects has been the modernization of Internet services. On Monday, he described the Internet revolution as an enemy force.
Computers and technology, he said, had "overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity, which has increased the doubts and skepticism in the mind of young Arabs."
It was unclear whether Assad was heralding an impending online crackdown, but he described the Internet as nothing less than an existential threat.
"The ultimate objective of all this is the destruction of Arab identity, for the enemies of the Arab nation are opposed to our possessing any identity or upholding any creed that could protect our existence and cohesion," Assad said. "They simply aim at transforming us into a negative reactive mass which absorbs everything that is thrown at it.".......
Now that Syria's regional influence has been curtailed, Assad's domain is strictly domestic. Speculation has been running rampant: Will the regime loosen up to gain in popularity, or clamp down to maintain control?
Whatever optimism might have been blooming has been severely undercut in recent weeks by a rash of arrests, disappearances and clashes.
Dissidents and activists who had been pushing for democratization have been detained in the weeks leading up to the party congress.
Some analysts read the recent crackdown as a sign that Syria, having left Lebanon, is beginning to relax — and lapse back into old habits.
"The government had been cowering for three or four months" since Hariri's assassination, said Joshua M. Landis, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Oklahoma who lives in Damascus. "But they can breathe now. They can go back to thuggish behavior."
[Comment: What a quote! Megan, are you trying to send me back to Oklahoma? You can still come to dinner on Wednesday, but you better bring a bottle of wine.]
DAMASCUS: Promises that major internal reforms could be announced at a Baath Party conference, set to begin today in Damascus, have Syrians waiting to see whether democratic changes may finally be on the horizon after five years of stalled reforms. "Expectations are down," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who runs Syriacomment.com, a Weblog on Syrian affairs. "The president promised there was going to be a big leap. Everybody began hoping that this would be the break that would change the country and set it on a different course. Then the president was the leading person trying to bring down expectations."....
BBC Monitoring service translates bits from the Syrian official Press in its story:
As the ruling Baath party meets for a congress in Damascus, Syria's pro-government press urges delegates to meet the many challenges Syria is facing.
[Many papers are now focusing on Vice President Khaddam's resignation and on the fact that the President is bringing up his own people and cleaning out another layer of his father's loyalists. Here is an example.
Assad stopped short of setting out clear initiatives in his speech, however, other than to indicate the ruling Baath Party, which has been in power for more than 40 years, aims to remain at the helm.
As the saying goes, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." (The more it changes, the more it stays the same.)
"Westerners will have to see this conference opener as a statement that Syria will maintain its rhetoric and is not making any big shifts in policy," writes Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who runs the Web log Syriacomment.com, and who is in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar.
It is clear Syria, says Landis, "will not abandon Arabism or Baathism."
Syria "will not abandon its steadfast stand against 'foreign plots' and Israel. It will not abandon the one-party state, despite having been forced out of Lebanon and despite its being under intense pressure from Washington and the West to redefine its role in the region."
The policy emerging from the conference appears to be the line long adopted by the current president's father, Hafez Assad, that "Syria is standing firm." But, adds Landis, "although Syria will not give up the rhetoric of confrontation, it is trying to give up the reality of confrontation.".....
The Party Conference - Opening Day: "We Stand United"
The Baath Conference has begun and the President gave the openning speach. The conference is not about change, it would seem, so much as about showing a united front to the Syrian people.
The President's address took no more than 10 minutes. It was followed by the leaders of the various parties of the Progressive National Front giving 20 minute speeches in praise of the president and the roll of the Baath Party.
Most foreign journalists did not attend the conference because they were not allowed to film or enter the main hall to interview politicians. A special room was set up for them some distance away. It included 4 computers and small TV screnes. There was no water, coffee or tea. Many Arab journalists did not attend as well. Syrian journalists felt compelled to attend, despite the bad conditions, in order not to be conspicuous in their abscence. Nicholas Blandford sat with an opposition member to watch on TV. Hassan Fatah and Katherine Zoepf came to my house to watch. Andrew Tabler watched from home. BBC TV was desperate to get a visual of something. They asked if there was anything that would show "nationalism," like a footfall tournament in town. "What can we film?" they asked. Brent Sadler of CNN, planned to come to town with his crew but decided to stay in Beirut to film the more exciting demonstration for Kassir.
This was not done for the foreign press or foreign consumption. It was done to show a united front. Most of the talking was done by the party leaders who didn't belong to the Baath; They praised the Baath and its leadership. Wasal Farha, speaking for the Communist Party, spoke about how they had stood by the Baath in its "thousands of battles" against foreign plots, such as the Baghdad Pact, Suez,......
The President spoke quickly. He openned by defending Arabism. He mentioned that some people called it chauvanistic or racist. "It is neither," he insisted. It is an expression of the broad sentiment of the masses and emerges from their feelings and hopes for the future. The Baath and Arabism is a vehical of popular sentiment.
He than said that foreign affairs would not be discussed at the conference, only internal affairs, and proceeded to talk only about the economy and how Syria needed to up its growth rate and realize the ambitions of the people for a better future. The message is that Syria will not be repositioning itself in the Arab World or getting rid of Arabism. Many people had hoped or discussed the posibility that the Baath would somehow burry itself or carry out its own funeral. The president made clear that was not going to happen.
He did not discuss, the much talked about new party law. The clear message is that democracy in Syria will be confined to the National Progressive Front, whose leaders spoke more than the President. They each attacked the West, foreign pressure and Israel. The President left that task to them.
Westerners will have to see this conference opener as a statement that Syria will maintain its rhetoric and is not making any big shifts in policy. It will not abandon Arabism or Baathism. It will not abandon its steadfast stand against foreign plots and Israel. It will not abandon the one Party state, despite having been forced out of Lebanon and dispite its being under intense pressure from Washignton and the West to redefine its role in the region. Syria is standing firm.
On the other hand, Asad only discussed economic reforms and did not talk about foreign policy. Western Powers can see this as a compormise position. Although Syria will not give up the rhetoric of confrontation, it is trying to give up the reality of confrontation. The government will focus on internal affairs and economic development. National energy is to be directed on internal matters, not on foreign adventures or Arab unity, as it has in the past.
The President hopes to convince his nation that the government is strong and united. It is not about to collapse and the regime is not in disarray, as foreign analysts have been repeating. He also was telling Syrians that he understands the need to fill peoples' pocket books.
It must be remembered that the President already has the Party position papers on his desk. They were written and amended some time ago. The working committees work authrized way back in 2000 at the Party's last epecial congress, convened to nominat Bashar as its leader. What is more, the Party conference lasts only three days. Day one was ceremonial. Day two will be business, and day three will be about wrapping things up and announcing a new leadership, I presume. No real business will actual be done at the conference.
In summation then, The 10the Regional Conference of the Baath Party was called for only in March, when the president addressed the Parliament in order to announce Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. He needed to throw a bone to the nation to boost moral, so he added the one liner at the end of his address about how he was planning for a "great leep forward" at the soon-to-be-assembled, Baath congress. That is how the idea started.
Then he jammed through the Baath Party elections in one short month and set the meeting for June 6-9. It so happened that UN resolution 1559 was effectively over for Syria two weeks ago. This happened when Kofi Annan stated that the Syrian Army, and apparently, the intelligence agencies had withdrawn completely. Washington was quite upset by the UN's clean bill of health for Syria, and Secretary of State Rice promtly denied that Syria had withdrawn in an effort to preserve 1559 as an instrument of international torture for Syria.
In the mean time, Chirac and Bush had both been repeating that Bashar and his regime had been mortally wounded by the withdrawal and international pressure. They predicted Syrian collapse within a year. Wolfowitz stated that Bashar was not in control of Syria.
Bashar is now putting a strong face forward. He is showing the world that he is in control, that the the government is united and strong, and that the Baath regime will be standing tall next year and the year following.
The message for the West is, "We are not giving up or going away. We have the opposition under control. If you want to deal with us, you must bargain and negotiate. You must offer carrots. If you think we are on the verge of collapse, think again. You are deluding yourself. Hope is not a plan. Syria is not a charitable association."
"If you want full cooperation on the Iraq border, if you want Syria to stay out of Palestinian affaires or Lebanese affairs, you must find a new Syria policy. 1559 is over. America cannot crush us, or isoltate us, or cow us. Above all, it must not plan on our collapse."
Randa Taqi ad-Din writes in al-Hayat (thanks Tony) that France and the US are trying to come up with a new mechanism for punishing Syria following the Kassir murder. Chirac was particularly upset. Kassir had French citizenship, and the foreign services of both countries seem to understand that ever since Resolution 1559 played itself out, Syria may be feeling more confident of its ability to punish opponents. "Official sources" claimed that ""1559 was not finished," but that seems to be wishful thinking. All the same, top officials from both governments are due to meet soon to discuss an appropriate reply to the Kassir assassination.
ON Monday, Syria's Baath Party will begin its 10th party congress, the second since President Bashar al-Assad took power in June 2000 and the first since the only other Baathist regime, that one in Iraq, was overthrown by American forces. In many respects the outcome of the gathering will determine whether Syria's leadership can ever reform itself.
Constitutionally, the Baath Party, which has been in power since 1963, is considered "the leader party of state and society." Yet this leadership is unsettled. Under international pressure, the Syrian Army and intelligence services have been forced to pull out of Lebanon. This was a severe blow to the regime, which lost a key strategic asset, a profitable satellite and much prestige - all vital commodities to an authoritarian government that must constantly prove its power to its subjects.
However, since it completed its Lebanon withdrawal, the Assad government has partly regained its composure. And the stronger it feels, the fewer concessions it will make to its own people and the less willing it will be to engage in much needed political and economic reform.
In March, the ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, promised there would be no political prisoners left in Syrian jails by this July. I suspect he would hesitate to make that claim now. On May 15, the political security directorate arrested Ali al-Abdullah, a human rights activist, for having read in public an e-mail message written by the exiled head of the Islamic dissident group the Muslim Brotherhood. This was followed by the arrest, on May 22, of Mohammad Radun, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria. Human rights groups estimate that about 1,500 political prisoners remain in Syria's jails, and at least 40 people have been arrested since the end of March. As someone who spent 16 years in prison for political reasons, including a year in the infamous and brutal Palmyra prison, I am skeptical about the regime's intentions.
So what will next week's congress decide? Some have suggested the Baathists will finally announce that they will allow other political parties to operate freely. Perhaps, but even so, the nation's Constitution ensures the supremacy of the Baath - any changes the congress makes will be cosmetic, simply modernizing the regime's authoritarianism. Of course no one expects the "emergency laws," in place since the Baathists took power, to be lifted. And the murder on Thursday of the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir, a prominent critic of the Syrian regime, will make things harder for reformers, though official sources vehemently denied any Syrian involvement in that act of terrorism. News of violence is always good for the hard-liners.
Paradoxically, outside pressure has weakened the government as a whole but strengthened President Assad and his "young guard" in its internal clash with the older followers of his father, the former strongman Hafez al-Assad. The president will probably use this congress to remove many of his father's associates, but he cannot do so without entering into a Faustian bargain - namely committing himself to Syria's archaic one-party system, to the omnipotent and omnipresent security services, to a continued state monopoly over all media and, most important, to a ruling political elite that continues to hoard Syria's national wealth. These interests, not the members of the "old guard," are the most unyielding obstacles to reform.
As for average Syrians, many want to see real change, but the events in Iraq over the last two years have convinced them that direct outside intervention would be a disaster. The approach that the United States adopted in Iraq - first dissolving the Iraqi state and then engaging in a "nation-building" social engineering program - is the one thing that all Syrians wish to avoid.
Rather, when it comes to international pressure, an alternative approach is preferable: one based on multilateral efforts by the global powers and international organizations; financial penalties directed specifically against the businesses and foreign assets of the Syrian elites who have helped themselves to public money; constant moral demands from the international community for domestic political and economic change; and, most important, progress in negotiations with Israel. Until the occupied Golan Heights are returned to Syria, there will be a strong tendency toward the militarization of politics here. And America has an unrivaled role in speeding that transfer.
As we have seen in Iraq, "regime change" is easy but ensuring stability afterwards is very difficult. Despite the authoritarian nature of the Syrian leadership, gradual change is preferable to abrupt change. A slower pace would not only provide a better chance at avoiding bloodshed, but would give a larger number of Syrians a chance to gain some experience in public affairs, as many have started doing recently by more openly criticizing the regime. True democracy requires a maturation process with respect to participation.
For how long will the Baathist regime survive? This depends to a great degree on the solutions and compromises it offers. There is certainly a role to be played by the global powers. But in the end, the regime will have to answer to 18 million Syrians, most of whom want to see freedom, justice and the rule of law in their country.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a writer, was imprisoned in Syria from 1980 to 1996.
Thanks to the reader who brought out attention to the An-Nahar interview with Ali al-Atassi at www.qantara.de. It is interesting and gives us a good compliment to Yassin's op-ed, revealing how the Syrian opposition is thinking. Ali says that all Syrian parties are trying to create a broad opposition front to include the Muslim Brothers. Michel Kilo and most others are on reacord, calling for the formation of a broad front. Ali implies that an understanding is being worked out. If a common front is officially established between securlar and Muslim groups in Syria, it would be big news.
The Syrian regime is trying to show its strength in the only way it knows how: by firing off scud missiles, strategic arrests among the Kurdish, human rights, and opposition communities, by refusing to give America what it wants on the Iraq border, by playing host (May 22) to Farouk Kaddoumi (PLO leader) and the leaders of the militant Palestinian factions in order to derail Abu Mazen and get the Palestinians to keep shooting.
Syrian leaders are angry. For four months the government has cowered under the raised stick of UN resolution 1559. It let the opposition in Syria speak freely and criticize with abandon. It promised the country reforms at the Baath Party Congress, it withdrew its military from Lebanon. All of this to please America - at least that is how many government officials see it.
What happened? What did the government get for playing the game? Nothing. Zero. Not one word of thanks. Not one gesture of gratitude. Secretary Rice stated Syria had not withdrawn from Lebanon even as the UN gave the country a clean bill of health.
Of course, Washington's view is that Syria is bad and deserves thanks for nothing it does. How can one thank evil for being less evil? Washington big wheels have stated that they believe President Asad is weak and not in control of his country and that the regime will collapse within the year. President Chirac has repeated the same analysis. They have him on the run, they believe, and must press the offense. "Pressure works" is their mantra - so let's lay it on and squeeze until Syria is dry or pops.
This is just the kind of logic President Bashar and his men are determined to stop. They believe they must turn it around and show that "pressure doesn't work", that Syria is not a "charitable institution" that gives and will keep on giving, but rather that Syria is a "normal country" that must be dealt with like any other - through engagement and give and take - in short, by deal making. Hence Sharaa has renewed calls this past week for Israel to open peace negotiations on the Golan, for the EU to jump start the Madrid process, and for the US to deal over the Iraq border, for discussions about lifting US economic sanctions and the return of Syria's ambassador. This is what Syria is asking of the West in return for having withdrawn from Lebanon and for future cooperation on Iraq - all to no avail.
As many Syrians point out, however, "how can Syria expect to be treated as a 'normal country' if it acts like a thug." What is this "strong man" posturing? Washington is counting Syrian mistakes. Scud missiles test-fired, Khasnawi dead, Kassir dead, the Attasi 8 harassed, and the border with Iraq a sieve. "This is the old Syria, not the new Syria that Bashar promised us," they complain. People are pulling their hair out with frustration. They feel trapped between a bad government and a Washington they don't trust.
Now that 1559 is finished, the US no longer has a big stick to wield over Syria. Bashar is exploiting the temporary confusion and weakness of Western policy to reposition himself and the country. He will show the West that the Syrian government is not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, nor is it weak - at least not internally. "If the West wants satisfaction from Syria," logic dictates, "it must deal, not dictate," that is the message from Damascus.
After all, what can Washington do? Bomb Syria? Strategic strikes? That won't do any good. It didn't work in Iraq after 1991. Provoke the Kurds to revolt? Khasnawi got killed for suggesting the Kurds could act as the West's cat's paw. Use Lebanon as a big "Free Syria" radio station to up psychological pressure? Kassir was terminated for doing just that. Just sit tight and wait for Bashar to implode on his own because of growing Syrian unemployment and falling oil exports? Wishful thinking.
Syrians are being asked to choose between a thuggish government that kills the odd opponent while promising slow and tinkering reform, and chaos, Islamism, or civil war. It is an easy choice for most Syrians. They will choose their government, which, in the greater scheme of things and given the available alternatives, isn't so bad. The West doesn't have a plan. It doesn't have an alternative - not one the Syrians find attractive.
Bashar will exploit this weakness. He is doing just that. America is screwed in Iraq, and so long as it continues to be screwed in Iraq, Bashar will tickle the US, blow hot air in Washington's ear, and wait for the clock to run out. He is betting he can outlast Bush.
Lebanon and the Kassir Assassination Samir Kassir, one of Lebanon's most anti-Syrian reporters who blamed Syria for Hariri's murder, was blown up in his car two days ago.
"The attack on Mr. Kassir was interpreted by many in Lebanon as a warning to other anti-Syrian figures and raised fears of a wider campaign of assassinations."
"It's going to elicit the same kind of anger and rage among Lebanese" as the assassination of Mr. Hariri did, said Rami Khouri, editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. "But the anger this time is going to be focused on Émile Lahoud."
In a second and very smart article, Michael explains why Lebanese anger should not be taken out on Lahoud, even if Jumblatt will try to exploit Lebanon's rage to unseat the pro-Syrian president. Michael lays out, in the most persuasive road map of Lebanese political psychology I have yet to read, why the young Hariri must not get drawn into the web of Jumblatt's game.
The Christian-Sunni alliance is the true measure of Lebanon at this delicate turning point in the country's history. If Hariri forsakes that alliance to honey in the mercurial embrace of the Druze warlord and to take misdirected revenge for his murdered father, Michael argues, Hariri will be lost. Lebanon will be lost. Hariri as Hamlet.
Baath Conference and Reform Here are two good articles on what to expect from the Baath Party Congress, one by Ziad Haydar, As-Safir's excellent reporter in Damascus, and another by Rober Rabil of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who gives good background on the Baath Party.
Three scenarios have been discussed in Syria of late, ranging from the optimistic to the pessimistic, from rumors to more substantiated information.
The first scenario spoke of a "white coup," an idea promoted by foreign newspapers. This scenario provided that Assad, in the few days preceding the congress, would change officials controlling economic and political affairs. It contemplated that he would initiate a campaign against corruption and plan substantial changes in the security apparatus, removing well-known figures and paving the way for a smooth Assad leadership.
The second scenario sees the Baath congress as a basis for discussion about the future of Syria. In that way, it may decide on economic openness, the introduction of a market economy, and discuss a new law that allows other parties to participate in the leadership. Proponents of this view suggest Assad will introduce organizational changes in the party structure that will lead toward greater flexibility and a more independent relation vis-ˆ-vis political authority. As for the third scenario, it is a pessimistic one. It is subscribed to by the Syrian opposition, who see in the congress an occasion for cosmetic changes in order to enhance the Baath's grip on power, rather than weaken it. Opposition figures believe that the congress will not abolish the past nor build for the future.
Among the three scenarios, the second is considered the more realistic...
It is safe to expect that Asad may further separate the Baath Party from the state, while continuing to rejuvenate Baathism, by replacing the old guard with less ideological, more pragmatic party members with an interest in reform. Correspondingly, the Regional Command may be purged of senior political figures, who will be replaced by younger Asad loyalists. This will complement Asad's attempts to open up the public sector by pursuing a kind of soft privatization and introducing gradual economic reforms to integrate Syria into the global economy.
Other issues that may be taken up at the congress include:
•Ending martial law, which has been in effect since 1963; •Granting a general amnesty for political prisoners and allowing political exiles to return -- the regime has already allowed some political exiles, such as former president Amin al-Hafiz, to return; •Suspending Law 49, which makes membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death; and •Granting citizenship to approximately 100,000 Kurds who are permanent residents of Syria.
It appears that Asad sees the upcoming Baath Party Congress as an opportunity to unite a broad spectrum of Syrians to fend off American pressure. Asad also hopes to prevent the creation of a U.S.-supported opposition like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi Nationals Congress. In this respect, Asad is trying to create a pluralistic nationalist political front that can satisfy some demands for political and economic reform without endangering his rule. Moreover, recent arrests (including the head of the Arab Human Rights Organization), and the alleged murder by government of Muhammad al-Khaznawi, a Kurd and a prominent Muslim religious leader who had spoken for Kurdish political rights, the regime has marked a red line for the reformers that they should not cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood or with Western institutions and governments, especially the United States.
Paradoxically, though Washington's relations with Damascus remain tense, U.S. pressure on Syria seems to be paying off by forcing Damascus to undertake overdue reforms.
Zarqawi Fadi Zown sent me the following: "I borrowed this from Laura's (Rosen) "War & Piece" ... Cheers, Fadi" (Laura Rozen covers foreign policy and national security from Washington, D.C. as a journalist for the American Prospect and for her weblog, War and Piece.) -----
The latest subject of Bush administration inter-agency squabbling over intelligence manipulation and politicization? Syria, and the mystified reactions from professional US intelligence sources over the apparently dubious claim by an anonymous US military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi had planned recent Iraq attacks while being sheltered in Syria. Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay report:
"..U.S. intelligence has no evidence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq, and experts don't believe the widely publicized meeting ever happened, according to U.S. officials.
Two weeks ago, a top U.S. military official in Baghdad, Iraq, told reporters that Zarqawi had traveled to Syria in April and met with leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to plan the recent wave of bombings against American troops and the Iraqi government. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the following days, top Bush administration and Iraqi officials increased their threats against Syria.
The reassessment comes amid a debate within the U.S. intelligence community over how to fight the insurgency and over Syria's role in it, the officials said.
Some analysts argue that, while Damascus has been unhelpful in stopping terrorists crossing its border, its importance is being exaggerated and that the key to defeating the insurgency is in Iraq, not in Syria or Iran.
Three officials who said that the reports of Zarqawi's travels were apparently bogus spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified and because discussing the mistaken report could embarrass the White House and trigger retaliation against them.
The allegation by the U.S. military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi and his lieutenants met in Syria suggests that, despite the controversy over the Bush administration's use of flimsy and bogus intelligence to make its case for war in Iraq, some officials are still quick to embrace dubious intelligence when it supports the administration's case _ this time against Damascus.
One of the U.S. officials said the initial report was based on a single human source, who's since changed his story significantly. Another official said the source and his information were quickly dismissed as unreliable by intelligence officials but caught the attention of some political appointees.
These officials and two others said that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were mystified by the reports of Zarqawi's visit because they had no such information..."
To get the best view into just how bad screwed up US intelligence on Syria has been, read Laura Rosen's excellent piece: The Bolton Endgame Laura Rozen, May 11, 2005
On the eve of the Bolton vote, a dizzying stream of new information continued to wash in, filling in the portrait of Bolton and his loyalists as a kind of rogue political force engaged in all-but-open warfare against their bureaucratic enemies in the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and openly working to undermine the president's policies of supporting multilateral negotiations on North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs.
Will the Baath Party Congress be the "great turning point" that President Asad said it would be in his March speech to the Parliament? That is the question all journalists must answer. The migration has begun, and the three Damascus hotels - the Sham Palace, the Meridien, and the Sheraton - have turned into aviaries for our blessed birds of information.
The first round of stories will have to be all guesswork, local color and conjecture.
Some of the best color should come from Ayman Abdulnour, the Party member and editor of the influential newsletter all4Syria. After becoming enraged by the travesty of the election process in early May, during which the 2 million-plus party members selected the members of the congress, he launched a petition complaining about how many of the reformers had not been elected to the congress. His own election campaign was cut short when party leaders forbade him from passing out his bio and short program. The reformers are essential to the congress, many insisted, because they had been involved in writing up the working reports that will form the basis of discussion during June 6-9. "Who would be there to speak for, explain, and defend the proposed reforms," the Baathists complained, if the authors of the reforms are kept out of the congress? Many influential Party members signed the petition and demanded that 100 reform-minded Baathists be directly appointed to the congress to make up for the tainted election process which returned largely party hacks.
Ayman's efforts have born fruit. 150 new members have been appointed to the conference, including authors of the working papers, qualified economists and legal experts, as well as all the women members of the Party.
Ayman and the others, who put their energy and zeal behind this effort, should be congratulated. They did not give up on the system or the Party as so many have here. Their hard work paid off. Does this mean that the Party is reformable? I don't know, but thank God there are people like Ayman who are working for reform and Syria. The first person to get that story will have a golden nugget.
One of the main stories will be about how Syria is backing away from its uniquely Arab Nationalist identity and toward an articulation of a "Syrian nationalism" and identity. Syrian nationalism was outlawed in 1955, with the suppression of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) begun by Antoun Saade. The Party was just legalized by Asad two weeks ago and has taken a place in the National Progressive Front.
Bashar al-Asad is a SSNP sympathizer "in his heart" is what many here say. He was quoted along these lines in a 2001 interview carried by a Jordanian paper, which was banned in Syria. The Makhlouf (mother's) side of the Asad family was staunchly pro-Greater Syria, and Bashar is said to have taken after his mother and uncle in his sympathies and not his Baathist father, with whom he had strained and somewhat distant relations.
Other aspects to the story are Syria's making peace with its borders: giving up the lingering Syrian claim to Alexandretta to Turkey, building the sand wall on the Iraqi border, giving up the sliver of Jordanian land that Syria occupied in 1970, and now, most dramatically, pulling out of Lebanon. Only Syria's border with Israel remains unresolved, and that, many say, is not due to Asad's refusal to re-open negotiations and get it settled, but to Sharon's and Bush's desire to punish Syria. Pan-Arabism at Syria's borders is gone.
There is also an indication that Kurds will be given citizenship following the Baath Conference. Of the 200,000 and something Kurds that live in Syria but don't have citizenship, it seems somewhat less than 100,000 will be granted Syrian citizenship, thereby signaling another dilution, or partial dilution, of the "Arab nationalist" orthodoxy.
De-Baathification of the schools, making peace with Syria's pre-Baath history, and pardoning past coup-makers and presidents (Alwan and Amin Hafiz) are also indications of the step-down from Baathist orthodoxy of the last 40 years.
Re-naming The "Regional Command" of the Party is going to be renamed the "Syrian Command." The "National Command" or "Pan-Arab Command" of the Party, which hasn't met for 20 years, may well be abolished. Ibrahim Hamidi's article in al-Hayat of 9 May 2005 is a useful key to understanding the reforms. Also see Ayman Abdulnour's all4Syria newsletter of Sunday May 29. Both lay out the clearest picture we have for what to expect.
The 21 member Syrian Command will be reduced to 15 members: one member from each Muhafaza or governorate and the president.
There is some debate about whether "Socialism" will be changed to "Democracy" in the party slogan.
Market economy will be embraced, but with the caveat that the poor be taken care of and economic security guaranteed. The phrase "free markets" will not be used; rather, the language will be "market economy mechanisms." Hamidi writes that the word socialism will not be cancelled for the Party creed and the party slogan: "Arab Nation with an eternal message" will be retained, as will that of "Continual struggle for the unity and issues of the nation." This means that Arab unity and the Palestine issue will remain central tenets of the Party and national ethos. The debate over these issues was evidently quite heated within the upper ranks of the government.
A new information law will be quite revolutionary. All punishments with imprisonment will be replaced by monetary fines. An exception to this rule will remain for those that compromise "state security," which we all know has very broad applications. Ibrahim Hamidi was jailed for 6 months under the "state security" clause, so it is hard to know what the exact impact of the law will be. The law will also cover TV and the internet, which is not covered by Syrian law yet.
The congress will present four reports or recommendations for reform. They will cover - Foreign policy, internal policy, Economy, and Party organization. These reports were written up by the working committees organized as a result of the last Party Conference in 2000, when the President was named the Party leader and made president. The reports have been amended during the last few months and are reportedly sitting on the President's desk. The congress will largely be a formality, but the discussions of the reports will be an important opportunity for party members to map out how they see the future of reform. We may get a clearer picture of how the government and its factions think.
Hamidi wrote that the economic report includes a recommendation that Public sector controlled industries that are in the red be privatized. There are important qualifications though. "No workers" can be fired and the public companies, which will become private, will still be owned by the government and sign contracts with the government. Most of Dardari's recommendations (Ministry of Planning - non-Baathist) have been pushed forward with slight modifications.
Party Law Article 8 of the constitution, which establishes the Baath as the ruling party, will not be eliminated. There will be a new party law recommendation, permitting the legalization of parties so long as they don't have a religious or ethnic basis, have branches in all 14 governorates (are nation wide), and can get 1,000 signatures. Many have pointed out the "no ethnicity" clause is hypocritical because the Baath Party is the "Arab" Baath Party and thus is expressly ethnic itself. Oh Well.
Law 49, outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and declaring membership in the Party a crime punishable by death, will not be lifted. All the same some Baath leaders say that because the law is "secret" it can also be secretly eliminated. They point out that Muslim Brothers have not actually been executed for years and the law is no longer enforced. The MB will not be legalized though because it is explicitly religious in nature.
Emergency law will not be eliminated either, but the government has been looking for ways to narrow its application to certain questions of national security. Evidently authorities have asked European nations for legal advice on how this might be done.
Trade unions and professional organizations will be slowly "de-baathified" or allowed to become more independent and allowed to become "plural." Perhaps more than one for each profession will be allowed.
Decentralization will be another recommendation. There is great demand to allow the governorates to have greater autonomy from central planning and control over their own budgets. Investment and development in the poorer governates will be called for.
Of course the Baath is not a law making branch of the government and all its proposals will be "recommendations" to the government.
Perhaps the biggest change will be in personnel. Almost all the 21 members of the Syrian Command are expected to be changed.
Then a new government will be formed. Already it is rumored that Khaddam will not present himself for further office. Foreign Minister Sharaa will become V.P. in his place. Walid Mualim will become Foreign Minister. Buthaina Shabaan will become Information Minister. Some speculate Dardari will become P.M. but he has just undergone double by-pass surgery after suffering, what was said to be, a minor heart attack. The Prime Ministership is slated for an independent economist, according to most betters.
Conclusion All in all, it is hard to tell how important these recommendations will be. The economic recommendations will be the most important for many. Everyone wants to see foreign investment boosted by eliminating bureaucracy and rationalizing the financial sector and giving greater legal guarantees to capital. There is strong sentiment in favor of Dardari being given greater power to push through his economic reforms.
De-Baathification and a reduction in the powers of the security forces are also looked for. All of these essentials are included in the recommendations of the Congress. So far there has been absolute silence around the question of granting greater independence to the judiciary, eliminating corruption, etc.
The proof will be in how the Baath's recommendations are put into law and acted on. Like everything in Syria, chances are it will be a piece meal affaire that proceeds with a snail's pace. The Baath is not a legislative organ, although it does represent a broad spectrum of Syrians, rich and poor, north and south, as well as the various religious and ethnic communities.
The Embassy of Austria and Le Pont Gallery cordially invite Everyone to a photography exhibition:
Syria - Austria Mirror Images By Issa Touma and Heinz Cibulka
Opening : June 5, 2005, 7:00 PM, Le Meridien Damascus The exhibition will remain open in Le Meridien until June 15, 2005
Austrian Embassy Tel : 61380100
I have been following the unusual story of Issa Touma for over a year now. A Photographer and gallery owner from Aleppo, Issa has waged a courageous one man war with the Baath Party and local officials of Aleppo to gain a free hand in showing daring work of foreign and local artists. This show is a personal triumph for Issa and an important breakthrough for Syrian artists and free expression in the country.
America is making a muddle of its policy along the border with Syria. It insists on Syria solving the problem in Western Iraq as it pulls out its troops from the region, leaving foreign fighters a free hand in the border region. What is going on?
The US has insisted that Syria arrest a list of Iraqis living in Syria who they suspect of working with the Iraqi opposition. Syria handed over several Iraqis to the Iraqi authorities over a month ago but refuses to turn over the entire list Washington demands. Instead, Syria says it is not a "charitable organization" and Imaad Mustafa has called for a tripartite committee of Americans, Iraqis and Syrians to meet regularly to manage relations. Mustafa says the Americans won't meet him and don't want to open the door of mutual cooperation and political deal making. This is where relations have come to a stand still.
Salim Abraham, one of Syria's best reporters, has written an excellent article in the L.A. Times about the current tug of war going on across the border with Iraq. He tries to explain why the United States has selected Syria as its whipping post even though Iraq has six borders over which foreign fighters pass into the country and even though the US admits that most of the foreign fighters come from Saudi Arabia. To be fair to the US, however, the Syrian border does seem to be quite porous and Syria is not sure how to respond.
Syria government officials are now discussing the possibility of imposing entry visa requirements on foreign Arabs to safeguard Syrian security.
All the same Syria has announced that it has arrested 1,200 foreigners trying to infiltrate across its border into Iraq and Saudi has confirmed that at least 30 of its nationals have been sent by the Syrians to Riyadh.
Meanwhile, The US seems to be abandoning the west of Iraq to foreign fighters. There are approximately 2,100 Marines there now, compared with about 3,600 last year. Despite launching operation Matador in the region a month ago, in which nine Marines were killed and 40 were wounded, the US is withdrawing troops and ceding the ground to the foreign fighters that have congregated there.
Here is a very interesting article from the L.A. Times
WASHINGTON — The U.S. military's plan to pacify Iraq has run into trouble in a place where it urgently needs to succeed.
U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad agree that Al Anbar province — the vast desert badlands stretching west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the lawless region abutting the Syrian border — remains the epicenter of the country's deadly insurgency.
Yet U.S. troops and military officials in the embattled province said in recent interviews that they have neither enough combat power nor enough Iraqi military support to mount an effective counterinsurgency against an increasingly sophisticated enemy.
"You can't get all the Marines and train them on a single objective, because usually the objective is bigger than you are," said Maj. Mark Lister, a senior Marine air officer in Al Anbar province. "Basically, we've got all the toys, but not enough boys."
The Pentagon has made training Iraqi troops its top priority since Iraq's national election in late January. But in Al Anbar province, that objective is overshadowed by the more basic mission of trying to keep much of the region out of insurgent hands.
Just three battalions of Marines are stationed in the western part of the province, down from four a few months ago. Marine officials in western Al Anbar say that each of those battalions is smaller by one company than last year, meaning there are approximately 2,100 Marines there now, compared with about 3,600 last year.
Some U.S. military officers in Al Anbar province say that commanders in Baghdad and the Pentagon have denied their repeated requests for more troops.
"[Commanders] can't use the word, but we're withdrawing," said one U.S. military official in Al Anbar province, who asked not to be identified because it is the Pentagon that usually speaks publicly about troop levels. "Slowly, that's what we're doing."
Such reductions are especially problematic because U.S. commanders have determined that it is the western part of the province to which the insurgency's "center of resistance" has shifted. The insurgency's base of operations was once the eastern corridor between Fallouja and Ramadi. Now, Pentagon officials say, it is in villages and cities closer to the Syrian border.
Commanders also believe the insurgency is now made up of a larger percentage of foreign jihadists than the U.S. military previously believed, an indication that there are not enough U.S. and Iraqi troops to patrol miles of desert border.
Some Pentagon officials and experts in counterinsurgency warfare say the troop shortage has hamstrung the U.S. military's ability to effectively fight Iraqi insurgents.
This was evident during this month's Operation Matador, the U.S. offensive near the Syrian border designed to stem the flow of foreign fighters and their weapons into Iraq. For seven days, Marines rumbled through desert villages and fought pitched battles against a surprisingly well-coordinated enemy.
On the first day of the operation, insurgents appeared to be willing to stand their ground and fight the Marines, but U.S. military officials now believe that may have been a tactic to delay U.S. troops from crossing into the Ramana region north of the Euphrates River. This delay, officials said, could have given many of the insurgents time to escape into Syria.
"It's an extremely frustrating fight," said Maj. Steve White, operations director for the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment. "Fighting these guys is like picking up water. You're going to lose some every time."
A military news release declared the mission a success, saying that U.S. troops had killed more than 125 insurgents. Nine Marines were killed and 40 were wounded during the operation.
Yet as soon as the operation concluded, the Marines crossed back over the Euphrates River and left no U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the region — generally considered a major mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.
"It's classically the wrong thing to do," said Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who last fall was a counterinsurgency advisor to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. "Sending 1,000 men north of the Euphrates does what? Sometimes these things can be counterproductive, because you just end up shooting things up and then leaving the area."
Military officials in Iraq and Washington said there was little reason to expect that insurgent fighters would not return to the villages....
All of this begs the question of whether the US has a larger game plan for the border with Syria. Many US officers insist that the Syrian border and foreign fighters are a big problem. They want Syria to police the border, but won't give them anything in return for their help and cooperation. At the same time, the US is unwilling to commit itself to policing the Iraqi side of the border and is drawing down its troops. The result is that no one is doing the job and western Iraq has become a staging ground and free zone for mujahidiin of all types.
Washington threatens Syria with regime-change, or more accurately, implied regime change. But who will take Washington seriously. Regime change will surely create more chaos in Syria and hence along the border. It is daydreaming.
Now that Syria is out of Lebanon, it does not have to bend to the US game of threats. The world has little interest in punishing Syria for an unruly Iraqi border that it largely blames on the US. Because Europe and the UN are not invested in the success of Iraq as the US is, they will not put the squeeze on Syria to make it follow US policy - especially since most Europeans secretly believe Washington is wrong not to offer Bashar al-Asad a carrot from time to time. They all grumble about the way Washington has taken the Golan off the table, won’t offer to end economic sanctions, and refuses to assist Syria’s economic reforms.
Because the Europeans believe US policies are stubbornly fixated on the stick, Bashar al-Asad will walk the delicate line between them. Europeans cannot see the end-game of US policy. Bashar is trying to convince Washington that should no longer count on a policy of pure pressure with nothing given in return. This will lead to a clash of wills in the next month or so as Washington and Damascus play chicken.
The temporary arrest of the Atassi 8, the death of the outspoken Kurdish Muslim religious leader Sheikh Mohammed Maashuq al-Khaznawi while under investigation (see comments on last post), and the arrest of other human rights leaders and opposition members has cast a chill over Damascus.
Reporters are now pouring into Damascus for the Baath Party conference to be held on 6 June and everyone is spinning.