Thoughts on Syrian politics, history and religion.
Sunday, July 31, 2005
The Economy and Iraq Border
"Tensions have led to clashes between the Syrian Alawites and the Ismailis, according to often unreliable al-Seyassah, a Kuwaiti paper. The clashes led "to two dead and 30 injured citizens from both sides in the city of al-Salamiyya."
If two people were killed in the Salamiyya clashes, these will be the first deaths produced by the growing tensions among Alawis and Ismailis and marks a worrying escalation in previous clashes in both Masyaf and Qadmous earlier this summer.
The al Watan newspaper claims that there are "Expectations that Assad is to issue a full amnesty for all intellectual prisoners." In fact rumours have been circulating that Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan has been visiting some of the Damascus Spring prisoners in an attempt to make a deal with them for an early release. The word is that they are not cooperating.
New investments in Syria amount to $2.39 billion in 2005
On July 28, the independent Al Wasat newspaper reported that a Syrian economic official stated: “We are witnessing great investments in Syria, which amounted to $2.39 billion during the first quarter of 2005 and included 348 projects distributed all over Syria and mainly in Aleppo. These investments provided 23,000 new job opportunities, especially in the industrial and agricultural sectors where they constituted 88% of the total investments, while the transport sector got 12%. Aleppo had the biggest share of the projects with 48; Damascus had 34; Homs 20; Dara’a and Idleb had nine each.” - Al Wasat, Bahrain
Syrian authorities break into the house of a member in Atassi Forum
On July 28, the independent Al Wasat newspaper reported that the Arab Syrian Human Rights Organization stated that on July 27 the Syrian authorities broke into the house of the detained writer and member of the Atassi Forum, Ali al-Abdullah, and arrested his son, Mohammad, who is a law student because he is in contact with the family committee of political detainees. Al Wasat noted that the families of some detainees had formed, on July 25, a committee to support the political prisoners.
Mohammad participated in the committee and announced to the press that his father, who was arrested four months ago because he read an announcement for ‘al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun’ group, was abused in prison and was put in a solitary cell; which is a violation of his basic human rights, Al Wasat said. The organization added that the Syrian intelligence services also arrested Yassin Hamoui from Daria village on July 26 for having contacts with the same committee, Al Wasat concluded. - Al Wasat, Bahrain
"174 Lebanese kicked out of Syria"
Al Seyassah, an independent Kuwaiti newspaper, reported on July 28 that “security services in Damascus, Syria have called upon 174 Lebanese citizens working in the Syrian capital, warning them to leave the country within 24 hours. This is under the pretext that they do not carry official work permits.”
Syria: Pressure does not help democracy
On July 26, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Farouk al-Sharra, stated that his country wants better relations with the US but this does not mean that Washington should exploit these relations by making endless demands because this will not insure stability for the region, the privately owned, opposition Al Ayyam newspaper reported on July 27. Al-Sharra said: “Pressures provoke hardships for people, induce changes in development plans and reduce economic prosperity but they do not bend the people’s will for freedom and democracy,” Al Ayyam added.
When asked about Washington’s unwillingness to negotiate with Syria, he said: “What can Syria do; I sincerely tell you that I liked the new Iranian president’s statement, Mahmoud Ahmadi Najad, who said that we do not urgently need to have relations with the US. Nevertheless, we are ready for dialogue. If they want dialogue, we are ready and if they want stability in Iraq, we also favor that and if they want to establish relationships, so do we." Al-Sharra continued by asking: “Does having good relations with the US make the other country safe and secure? I do not see that in some of the Arab countries,” Al Ayyam noted that he might be insinuating that the countries are Saudi Arabia and Egypt who are facing terrorist attacks. - Al Ayyam Yemen, Yemen
Just the other day Sharaa was quoted in the "Daily Star" arguing that Syria was correct to oppose the Iraq war considering that the United States was failing to bring stability to the country. Many Syrians worry that Sharaa's needlessly confrontational statements act as a red flag to the American Defense Department. Some suggest that he will be replaced as Foreign Minsiter in the next government reshuffle. “Travelers are waiting two days on the Syrian borders to get to Baghdad”
Al Quds Al Arabi, an independent pan Arab newspaper, reported July 27, that, “Iraqis coming from Syria, are waiting more than 48 hours on the borders between the two countries to enter into Iraq. This is because of the restraints that the American forces and the Iraqi border force are imposing on Iraqis, Arabs, or foreigners who are undergoing extremely thorough searches to get an approval for entering. The health conditions of most of the travelers are very difficult since they are having to spend all this time in the desert in the heat of the day and the cold of the night with a lack of water.”
Al Quds Al Arabi reported that travelers are going through a one lane narrow road where thousands of cars and trucks are waiting to enter while border patrols inspect the documents of the passengers. Many new cars that are to be delivered to Iraq got ruined because they were in the sun for too long. Also, many truck drivers said that their luggage of fruit and vegetables has been ruined because of the desert sun’s heat. The passengers have to sleep in their cars, because the American forces have banned traveling by night.
Iraqi security sources are claiming, the newspaper continued, that, “The searches on the Iraqi Syrian borders have unveiled 1,200 insurgents in one month carrying, Saudi, Yemeni, Sudanese, Egyptian, Pakistani and other nationalities.” The newspaper concluded by saying, “Most of the insurgents are coming from Afghanistan and Kashmir, where they are receiving training on armed assaults.” - Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom
Zeina Bu Rizk of the The Daily explains that Washington is pressing Israel to withdraw from Shebaa Farms and seems to have accepted France's policy toward Hizbullah, "which is, as reportedly put by Hariri himself, "to have the Lebanese solve the Hizbullah question at their own pace." According to Hariri, "there are two main reasons for the growing U.S. interest in Lebanon: first, using Lebanon to pressure Syria; and second, furthering the American agenda of promoting democracy in the Middle East."
Among the most important elements of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to the region and to Lebanon last week was the revelation that the Americans are fully committed to convincing Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Shebaa Farms.
Members of the American delegation accompanying the U.S. secretary of state on her visit to Beirut last Friday said Rice raised this issue with Sharon in Tel Aviv just before coming to Lebanon.
The same sources said Washington considers an Israeli withdrawal from the Shebaa Farms as an increasingly urgent matter, adding that the Americans are committed to talking the Israelis into taking such a step.
For the time being, Rice and the U.S. delegation have not gotten a positive reaction from Sharon, who seemed too concerned with Israel's internal problems, particularly regarding the planned disengagement from the Gaza Strip, to concentrate on the Lebanese-Israeli border issue. However, the U.S. will intensify efforts in this direction, said the sources.
The Americans' interest in an Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms is understandable, especially in light of the long-standing U.S. demand for the deployment of the Lebanese Army along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Washington may believe that an Israeli withdrawal from Shebaa Farms would leave the Lebanese authorities with no excuse to avoid deploying the Lebanese Army at the frontier; eventually, such a step would also reduce the reasons for Hizbullah' existence as an armed faction and would facilitate the integration of the Lebanese resistance into the military.
In the meantime, the "leniency" Lebanese officials who met with Rice said she displayed in her approach to the Hizbullah issue is both surprising and reassuring.
There is a strong belief within the circles of Beirut MP Saad Hariri that the Americans have actually adopted the French position on the issue, which is, as reportedly put by Hariri himself, "to have the Lebanese solve the Hizbullah question at their own pace," on the basis of a constructive internal dialogue that would avoid clashes among the Lebanese on this delicate subject.
Although the Americans remain committed to the full implementation of UN Resolution 1559, especially when it comes to the disarmament of what the resolution refers to as "militias," no strict deadlines have been set.
Among Hariri's associates, a belief prevails that the American's unsuccessful experience in Iraq may have convinced the U.S. that a secure and stable Lebanon in which Hizbullah remains armed, yet "inactive" - at least temporarily - is preferable to an unsafe and chaotic Lebanon that could come as a result forcibly disarming Hizbullah now.
Even if they do not intend on cooperating directly with Hizbullah ministers, the Americans are closely monitoring Hizbullah's participation in the government. Hizbullah's experience in this role may serve as a prelude to its ultimate conversion into an unarmed political party.
As put by Hariri's visitors, the head of the Future Movement believes there are two main reasons for the growing U.S. interest in Lebanon: first, using Lebanon to pressure Syria; and second, furthering the American agenda of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Rice's visit to Lebanon helped serve both goals. By paying such an exceptional visit to Beirut and excluding Damascus from Rice's itinerary, Washington further isolated Syria, thus increasing the pressure against Damascus.
In this context, Hariri's visitors said the MP was convinced that Rice's visit to Lebanon was primarily a message to Syria. Not only did it show that the U.S. was now establishing new networks of relations with a free and independent Lebanon in which Syria has no say, but Syria's exclusion from the U.S. agenda also illustrated the extent to which Washington was determined to isolate Damascus.
The special attention and enthusiasm with which Rice approached the reform issue is linked to the second aspect of America's interest in Lebanon. The achievement of wide-ranging and effective reform is a prerequisite for strengthening the Lebanese democratic system. This is why Rice insisted on the need for reform and expressed full U.S. readiness to assist Lebanon in this respect.
Hariri, according to his visitors, strongly believes in the need to start reforming the security system in Lebanon; dealing with the precarious security situation should be the government's first priority, the young leader says.
At this stage, these sources report, he is looking to the Americans to help make an initial assessment of Lebanon's security equipment requirements. He also sees a possible role for the U.S. to contribute to satisfying these military equipment needs once identified.
Although Hariri believes in the necessity of restoring friendly Lebanese-Syrian relations and strongly encourages Premier Fouad Siniora to prioritize this issue, individuals who have spoken with Hariri report that he is relieved about not being premier at this point. The current arrangement spares him the delicate mission of having to restore relations himself, at a time when his personal ties with Syrian leaders are still strained.
As long as the results of the ongoing international investigation into the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, are not yet released, Hariri seems to have reservations about cooperating with certain political factions. However, he will be ready to work with all those that are cleared by the investigation's results.
Hariri is convinced that certain alliances must be made to keep the country stable and secure. This is one of the reasons why he has cooperated closely with Shiite groups.
This is also one of the reasons why Hariri insists on the need to work with former Prime Minister Michel Aoun, despite the fact that the Kesrouan MP will be in the opposition.
Collaboration between Hariri's Future Movement and Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, Hariri's visitors say, has already begun with the parliamentary committee elections two weeks ago and is expected to continue.
Alawi-Ismaili Confrontation in Qadmous - What does it Mean?
Confessional Violence: Alawites Attack Ismaili stores in Qadmous
27 stores and several homes were burnt or destroyed last week in Qadmous. All of them belonged to Ismailis. “I blame the government and the state 100% for failing to stop this violence,” said Samir, an Alawi villager, whose home is only a few kilometers from Qadmous. “Where was the Baath Party? Where were the police,” he asked? “There were a hundred signs that something was going to happen, but no one did anything,” he lamented. “Now what will happen to our town? It will never return to what it was.”
When I got off the bus in the center of Qadmous yesterday, I didn’t notice anything wrong. Not at first. On the contrary, Qadmous is a handsome town and prosperous compared to the forlorn and dusty villages that hug the main road along the hot dessert plain leading from Homs up to feet of the mountain region shared by Syria’s minority sects. The greenery and cool mountain air of Qadmous is so refreshing and welcome to the traveler who arrives from the plains that he breaths deeply and rejoices.
But everything was not alright in Qadmous. The bus deposited me in front of the police station in the center of town – a stately building of neatly cut stone set three meters in from the street. It’s imposing size and calm authority, meant to symbolize the steady hand of the state, belied the fact that on the night of the riots, the six police stationed there did not venture out and did nothing to stop the marauding crowds. Perhaps they didn't know what to do in the face of such multitudes and disorder, except to call for help? The Alawite district president, originally from Latakia, is now fired, accused of being interested only in illicit gain. He failed completely, either to stop the violence when it began, or, more importantly, to take measures that might have prevented it before it started.
No sooner had I deposited my bags on the sidewalk and begun to take my bearings, than my brother-in-law, Firas, appeared. He jumped out of his car and threw his arms around me in greeting. We kissed on both cheeks and then bowed to kiss the other’s shoulder in the customary salutation of the mountain area. Once settled into his passenger seat, I began to take a better look around. Firas, in a hushed voice, began to point out the long black tongues of soot that reached up above many of the shop doorways like angry cobras ready to strick. Every third or fourth store along the main street had been burned. Each had a gaping hole torn into the corrugated mettle sheeting, which the shop owners roll down over their entrances. Some doors had been ripped completely off the stores, leaving the black interiors exposed and allowing the charred contents to come tumbling out on the sidewalk. Had the attackers used pickaxes, I wondered? How had they ripped through the mettle? Firas murmured something about gasoline.
It was Friday, the weekend, and down-town Qadmous was deserted, the unaffected stores shut tight and mute, their tin faces expressionless in their guilty survival. They were all Alawite stores. Only police and security men stood about lazily at the street corners. The quite exacerbated the sense of violence that must have overtaken Qadmous on the July evening. It lent the town an eerie sense of mourning. Evidently, the rampage had begun around nine in the evening and not abated until three in the morning.
As one Alawi observed, “the more modern we become, the more savage.” He was referring to the use of cell phones, which have become ubiquitous over the last two years. “The bad people who started the violence began to call their brothers and cousins on their phones and everyone from the villages surrounding Qadmous hurried to the town center to take part in the revenge against the Ismailis. It happened so quickly. No one expected such a thing.” At 3:00 o’clock in the morning, two battalions [Katiybatayn] of solders finally arrived from nearby military bases to shut off the surrounding roads and staunch the inflow of villagers looking for trouble or merely coming to gawk. Five hundred people have been detained by security and are being questioned.
“We now call our town Falouja,” Firas joked, when we reached the outskirts of the town. He wanted to break the somber mood. “Do you think the Americans ordered this?” He laughed thinly. It is the only time I have heard this question when I knew it wasn’t serious. I laughed more heartily than did Firas.
“So how did it start?” I asked my father-in-law, when I was alone with him that evening and my wife was putting our child to bed? He had been troubled all day long, knowing this question was coming and being unsure how to answer so an American could understand.
Abu Firas is proud of his town and region. I knew whatever explanation he gave could not satisfy him. His pride in Qadmous and in Syria had been dealt a serious blow by the sectarian violence. He is forever telling me how he organized and oversaw the building of the first secondary school in his village. It now serves the 10 surrounding villages. He had the first paved road built to his town – Bayt al-Murj or Bayt Qashqa’ur, in which every house is filled with a family member. Before the road was paved, only a donkey track connected the village to the main road, which had been paved only years earlier. Today the village is only a short 10 kilometer drive to Qadmous. When my father-in-law was a child it took hours to get there. The first time he set eyes on Qadmous was at the age of eight.
His grandfather, Ali Ahmed, the great family patriarch, had bought the entire valley from the Ismailis in 1920 for a hundred gold lira and built the town single-handedly, clearing the trees and underbrush, terracing the stony hillside, building five water-driven grain mills, the only ones for miles around. He prospered and built the first one-room school house in 1948 to provide primary education to his kids and those of the nearby villages. It was only the third school built in the entire region including Qadmous all the way down the mountains to the edge of Baniyas. He raising twelve children, ten of whom survived to built their own houses in town.
Abu Firas measures himself by his grandfather’s accomplishments; last weak he found himself wanting. He was powerless to stop the violence and unable to keep the region on the road to progress established by his forefathers.
“There are no longer any wujha’ [literally “faces” or community elders] of consequence in the region that could step into the void to assume authority and restrain the baser instincts of hot heads and the mob,” he explained. “The younger generation listens to no one. There is no chamber of commerce in Qadmous, no community organizations or leaders of the town able to stop this sort of confessional nonsense and repair relations between the communities before they ignite,” Abu Firas lamented. “Why is this so? Because the government doesn’t permit it. It must control everything and appoint its people. There is only the Party. That is why no one does anything. We sit on our verandas drinking tea and visiting their relatives. It is a waste.” Not knowing whether to blame himself or his government, Abu Firas blamed his government, but he was not happy doing so. He once loved the Baath Party.
My father-in-law was the most successful of his generation of Qasha`urs, rising to be general and second-in-command in the Navy, but his ambitions and steady rise in the military was cut short at the age of 58. Having served 10 years at the rank of “liwa’,” or general, it was up or out according to Syrian law. He was forced to retire. His boss and commander stayed on as head of the Navy well into his 70s because he was related to someone. Even as he grew deaf and unable to carry out his full duties, the commander hung on, forcing able and rising stars like Abu Firas to retire early just as they were reaching their prime.
The living-room to Abu Firas’ village house has a large photo prominently displayed of him shaking hands with Gamal Abdul Nasser on graduation day from the Naval Academy in Alexandria, Egypt in 1960. He was part of the Syrian generation that believed in Arabism and which felt certain the military and Baath Party would lead the way to overcoming sectarianism and building a united and strong society. His faith has not survived well.
He was the first to say that the government and Baath Party had failed to head off the violence which overtook Qadmous. By preventing the emergence of civil society in the region and undermining potential wujha’ (local figures of authority), such as himself, the government has created a social wasteland, in which normal mechanisms for healing old sectarian wounds cannot emerge, and in which people like Abu Firas are spectators, unable to contribute. The young learn to be selfish, looking after their own families and leaving local affairs in the hands of the government administrators who are sent to the district from somewhere else. They have few role models.
Abu Firas explained how there were long and short-term reasons for the violence. For the long-term reasons, he recounted the long history of sectarian competition in the region – how Ismaili Emirs had ruled the mountains when the Alawites began to spread into the area hundreds of years ago, especially after the Ottomans expelled the Shi’a from Aleppo and its surrounding regions in the 16th century. Alawites were the peasants, treated like serfs and indentured servants. The Ismailis, according to local Alawi lore, grew fat and forgot how to work, slowly selling off their land, but they never forgot their arrogance – at least that is what the many Alawis claimed whom I spoke with. Wars broke out and the Alawite peasantry grew stronger and won battle after battle. They bought up more land and prospered because they are an "ambitious, hardworking, and open-minded people." That is how Alawis explain their success.
The Ismailis for the last 200 years have been moving off the mountain. Salamiyya, the Ismaili town on the outskirts of Hama is a product of this recent migration and loss of Ismaili power in the mountains. In short, the long history of communal animosity lives on. As one Alawi in his 20s insisted to me, “Ismaili merchants and bosses still treat us with disrespect. They are “haqiriin” or of base character. They are jealous because we have been successful and now have the state behind us. They have not learned.” Unfortunately, I did not speak with Ismailis, who, I am sure, would tell a very different story.
The short-term reasons for the violence began with a confrontation between Alawi and Ismaili youth over girls. A group of young Alawi men had come to a family entertainment spot and flirted with Ismaili girls. A scuffle broke out. Later the Ismailis led a noisy delegation to the local police station to protest the behavior of the Alawi youth and demand an apology be made and steps be taken to punish the offenders. The police director did nothing. Perhaps he thought the dispute would blow over soon enough and required no action? Perhaps he didn't want to offend the local Alawis, or perhaps, being an Alawi himself, he was not sympathetic to the plight of the Ismailis? Maybe, as some people claimed, he was only interested in collecting small bribes for issuing local liscences and did not care about anyone in the region?
In revenge, the Alawi community enforced a boycott of Ismaili merchants in town. There has always been a reluctance to buy at the store of an Ismaili, but it had been half-hazard. Most importantly, Ismailis, who make up perhaps 50% of Qadmous proper, monopolize certain businesses, most importantly the sweetshops and furniture stores. In order to take advantage of the boycott, several enterprising Alawis began to import sweets from a local market and sell them in Qadmous to satisfy local demand and make a profit.
This enraged the local Ismaili merchants whose businesses were suffering terribly. The surrounding villages and customer base of Qadmous is almost uniquely Alawi. Seeing their livelihoods being destroyed, the Ismailis stoned the store fronts of their competitors. Then all hell broke lose. That evening Ismaili stores were attacked and burnt, causing an estimated 10 million Syrian Pounds of damage.
The outbreak of sectarian violence in Qadmous comes only a few months after similar clashes tore apart Misyaf, a mountain town some 20 minutes by car from Qadmous. Though less violent, those clashes, which began with a dispute among taxi drivers, inflamed communal tensions between the two Shiite communities who have shared the mountains for 100s of years. Today Qadmous has a new district president, a Christian, who is known for his even-handedness and discipline. He has replaced the Alawi who came from Latakia.
Syria’s Baath regime has suffered a terrible blow in the high peeks of the Coastal Mountains. Since 1970, the main legitimizing slogan and proudest accomplishment of the state is that it has brought stability and security to Syrians. That legitimacy was badly frayed on the July night that sectarian violence burned through Qadmous. Few people express open devotion to the Baath Party. Most no longer believe that it is helping them to modernize as it once did. On the contrary, they complain that the regime’s efforts to dismantle and wipe away all traditional forms of authority have deprived them of any shield against the darker passions of sectarian and ethnic hatred that still simmer below the surface of village life.
As one local resident said to me, “What happened in Qadmous, could happen anywhere in Syria. If the state were lifted off this society, who knows what would happen to our country? Maybe we would become Iraq?” Ironically, the absence of civil society, has created an ever greater need for state authority. Even as people criticize the corruption of local officials, they insist on ever more vigilant state intervention. The absence of alternative sources of authority and leadership in Syria, means that the authoritarian state is needed more than ever. What would be the alternative? Qadmous? Iraq?
On July 26, the Syrian Arab News Agency said that Syria had extradited 12 extremists linked to the death of a Tunisian extremist who was going to establish a training camp for fundamentalists on Lebanese territories, the privately owned, opposition Al Ayyam newspaper reported. The agency said: “The Syrian authorities started to deliver some extremists who are of different Arab nationalities to their home countries. The men were suspected of being responsible for a gun fight along the Syrian-Lebanese border on June 22 which led to the murder of a Tunisian man, called Majdi Bin Mohammad Bin Said al-Zraibi,” Al Ayyam noted. Al-Manar Lebanese TV Station had stated back then that the extremists were arrested when they were crossing the borders from Iraq to Lebanon, Al Ayyam concluded. - Al Ayyam Yemen, Yemen
"Three Syrian judges taken to 'political security' on corruption charges"
Al Seyassah, an independent Kuwaiti newspaper, reported on July 26 that "Syrian Judge Mahmoud Suleyman, head of the Revocation Court in Syria, and his deputies, Judge Ali Agha and Judge Mufaq Shamu have been taken into custody. All three were then transferred to the political security apparatus where they are being interrogated. They are being charged with several corruption cases linked to their involvement with Syrian oil companies." - Al Seyassah, Kuwait
Syrian sources deny Saddam Hussein's relatives in Damascus
On July 25, the Elaph website reported that "Syrian sources in Al-Zabadani, a rural area on the outskirts of Damascus, have denied recently circulated reports that a number of Saddam's relatives are attending schools in Al-Zabadani. The sources noted that like other districts in Syria, a number of Iraqis are living in Al-Zabadani; however, according to official records, they are not related to Saddam. "In a statement issued by the US Department of the Treasury, the United States accused Syria of sheltering the sons of Sab'awi Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, half brother of ousted president Saddam Husayni in the Al-Zabadani area. Sab'awi, who was arrested and handed over by Syria, is currently being detained by US forces in Iraq. Damascus believes "that the United States is launching a continuous campaign of accusations against Syria in the wake of security setbacks faced by the US forces in Iraq.
"In the meantime, Iraqi officials have accused Syria of sheltering terrorists and announced that they possess their pictures and addresses in Damascus. However, the Syrian side confirmed that despite the demand by the Syrian security delegation that has visited Baghdad recently, no evidence or documents regarding the presence of terrorists in Syria were presented by the Iraqis," the website wrote. - Elaph, United Kingdom
Syria to extradite 21 Tunisian extremists to TunisKuwait News Agency, Kuwait - 2 hours agoDAMASCUS, July 26 (KUNA) -- Syria will extradite 21 Tunsian extremists captured after armed confrontations with an extremist group sprearheaded by Tunisian. SYRIA: RELATIVES OF POLITICAL PRISONERS ORDERED NOT TO MEET
Damascus, 25 July (AKI) - Syrian police have ordered members of a newly-formed support group made up of relatives of political prisoners not to meet, without first obtaining official permission to do so. The Commission of Relatives of Prisoners of Opinion and of Conscience (CRPOC) was holding its inaugural meeting on Monday when police surrounded the building where the launch was being held, in the town of Dariya near the capital Damascus. The police then peacefully broke up the meeting, but first warned one of the group's leaders, Abu Haytham al-Hamawi, not to organise another one without the authorities' consent.
Syria's interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, recently stated that there are no political prisoners held in Syrian jails, a claim disputed by the CRPOC, which says its members represent more than 500 such detainees.
According to the support group, some 600 political prisoners are held in Syria. Of these, 200 were arrested this year alone, "only for having exercised their basic rights, such as freedom of opinion and expression," the group said in a statement, in which authorities are accused of "preventing relatives from visiting the detainees, denying them access to lawyers and even refusing to disclose where they are being jailed."
At its launch, the CRPOC released a list containing the names of 533 people it says are political prisoners.
Interview with Ayman Abdel Nour - Editor-in-Chief of "All4Syria" and Member of the Baath Party By Joe Pace 21 July 2005
Many analysts were disappointed by the results of the Ba’th conference and pointed to it as evidence that Bashar is not committed to reform. Why do you think that the conference did not result in more substantial changes?
You have to take into consideration that you are speaking about a party that has 2 million members and you want to keep it united as one body. Second, you have to understand that Bashar’s speech was addressed to both the Syrians and the West, so it contains different messages. I think that now that the Regional Command has only 14 members, it will be able to enact change much faster than the old 21 member Command.
The Bath Party is not a party; it is a movement. It contains all the elements of Syrian society, from the illiterate to the most highly educated teacher who wins international prizes. You find secular people and conservative people. What unites them is that they want to build Syria and a better future. Everything is big and vague and general, especially in the application. If you read the literature in the 1960s, its all out of date and nobody is applying it because it is against imperialism and for Marxism and such.
They gather and they discuss the agenda and then they tell the government what to do and what to say.
Now they have a new definition of socialism: social justice and equality under the law. The right to have a job. Sadat did the same in Egypt and it split his party into three parts.
For the conference, this was the biggest recommendation they could make and still stay united. If they had taken a more reformist stance they would split and fracture.
What are the lines on which they would fracture?
The fracture lines are in the labor rights. There was a huge debate for the last nine months to adapt a new definition instead of this social, directed economy. The debate was about the market economy, they saw that it would jeopardize the rights of the worker and labor unions and privilege the private sector. So they adopted the name, the social market economy.
The president wants to say that they are separating the Bath from the government. This is important for the business community because we are heading for a market economy. Third, this is a message to the Damascene business community, since he brought an independent (Abdullah al-Dardari—deputy prime minister for economic affairs) to help economic reform and he has orders to do anything for the businessmen. They want to absorb and buy the business community. For the first time, the president met with the Damascus Chamber of Commerce.
It was opposed by all the peasants and labor unions.
How would you describe the new members of the regional command? Do you consider them reformists?
It depends on what you mean by reformists. You have to have a vision and an understanding about what has happened in other countries. You have to know languages and follow the western media and understand international relations. You have to visit other countries and study the experiment of reforms there and met officials and diplomats. According to these criteria, you will find only two or three in the regional command who fit into this category. The others want to develop, to reform, but they don’t have any plans or agenda. But at least, they will not stop reform initiatives like the previous Command.
What sort of things did the previous one stop?
It stopped the economic reform plan twice. It stopped the draft law, suggested by the government, to reduce the steps to give licenses for NGOs. The new government is preparing the draft and will send it to the parliament and regional command soon. In 2003 the president ordered the Bath to stop interfering with the daily work of the government, but the command paralyzed the decision after a few months from passing it. [Decision 408, 21 June 2003]. But these guys are new and poor so they don’t have an economic interest to defend like the older generation.
In the constitution, the Bath regional command sets the agenda. And the government implements the policy. This was the reality.
We have to let the Bath Party work as a political party, as any ruling party, and the government should work as the government of the nation. Right now the Bath interferes in every small issue. Now they are separated.
Why was All4Syria — a website Ayman created in 2004 that compiles articles mostly written by regime critics — banned when several oppositional websites are permitted in Syria?
For a simple reason: let us assume now that we have a PC and we surf the internet. We go to those opposition cites and what do we see? The Assad family is very corrupt and we have to change them or kill them. The Alawites are running Syria and we should finish them off. We need freedom of speech and to free political prisoners. The corruption in Syria must end. The Bath is very bad—we should abolish it. You go to my website and you see: this is the official, this is his name, he did this, made this decision, which is wrong because of this, and because of his wrong decision he will impact this sector in this way. The president sent this delegation, and they are under-qualified and should be changed an replaced the following people, and I list them. The Baath Congress lacks reformists, I wrote following elections in June; the government should appoint 150 reformists into the Party to make up for their absence, I recommended.
If the average person reads the opposition websites, they think “we will not endanger our lives with these Utopianists.” But the regular citizen reads my news…. There is no concrete or useable information against the officials in the opposition websites. “All4Syria,” is actually much more scandalous because those in the government who employ these idiots will see how badly qualified they are and figure out with whom they should be replaced.
The purpose of “All4Syria” is to launch dialogue. It’s the first sanctioned newsletter to cross all the red lines and all the taboos in Syria. It was the first to criticize the intelligence apparatus, the National Bath Command, the Regional Command, even employees in the presidential palace. So we were the first to promote the sense of freedom of speech, to open dialogue. It strengthens the community. When people see that they can participate in the dialogue, they will defend their society.
What is the impetus for reform?
There is a genuine need from inside. They cannot continue in the same way with the same people with the same slogans in the 21st century. First, a socialist, directed economy cannot attract foreign investors or even the Syrian ex-pats. Investment is very badly needed to create jobs for the labor market. The unemployment rate is increasing and this will cause a huge problem for the regime in the future, which will not be able to control the streets.
Second, Syria needs to improve its trade balance. Oil and raw materials account for more than 80% of the total exports. In 2011 consumption will match production, so Syria will start paying for its energy balance. So it needs hard currency; unless it changes the structure of its export to be finished material, it won’t be able to cover the trade deficit and to bring in hard currency. This is even more pressing because of the high growth rate and because of the need for technology and equipment to replace the old generation that was used in the public sector in the 80s—all imported from the USSR.
Third, there are the bourgeois and the new businessman and some high officials – this layer needs an open market to prosper and grow, so it pushed for changing the economy thoroughly and the tools used by the government and Bath party.
They cannot continue with the one party system because of this new class, the rise of conservative Muslims. They need associations and entities to defend their interests. Unless these associations are controlled by laws that require transparence and allow them to work above the table, they will work under the table, risking the stability of the regime.
Are they going to get rid of the one-party system?
Yes, they cannot keep on like this. Especially after the fall of Iraq. Now everyone is saying that the one party dictatorship only exists in North Korea, Cuba and Syria. It’s become a joke. So they need a new system. But that doesn’t mean they would compromise their interests.
How do they do that without compromising their interests?
There are a lot of systems: there is the Turkish model in which the National Security Council controls everything and defends the constitution and secularism. Or the Chinese system: one party, but they can absorb the businessmen. There is also the experiment of Jordan, in which the parties fight inside the parliament but under the head of the regime who is the king.
What sort of party law do you expect?
I expect it after a year or a year and a half; it will forbid explicitly ethnic or religiously based parties. They will have to be nationwide, having offices and members in all 14 governorates, and to gain a licence, parties will have to surpass a certain minimal threshold of members—a few thousand.
What do you say to those who contend that the party law is window-dressing; specifically, that it will mandate impossible conditions for parties to obtain licenses? Such as there have to be supporters in every district, there have to be several thousand members, etc.
Does the Democratic party in the US not have supporters in every state? Is any state not represented by the German parties? How can you have a national party and not have representatives in every part of the country? This is not a big issue.
Regarding numbers, I think that it will be a few thousand, but there is a difference between members and supporters through signature. Until now it is unclear because you can gather one million signatures of people who agree with your objectives and slogans, but it doesn’t mean that they are members. It’s unclear whether they want signatures or members. The party must be serious, not like Jordan where there are 35 parties and only two succeed in electing people to parliament, so the others are like a political salon, not a party.
Then is the Party Law going to be accompanied by a Press Law that enables prospective parties to disseminate their platform in order to get the prerequisite number of members?
If the leadership does not have a clear vision towards the transfer of democracy, this will fail. The most important thing is not the Party Law by itself. More important is the election law which could undo the accomplishments of the party law. We need a new information law. We need a new law for syndicates. We need a new law for private associations and NGOs. We need a new law for the right to access information. Unless those laws are completed and have a vision, we have a problem; it will bring more problems. We have a lot of new laws in different sectors that bring more problems than they solve because they are miswritten. Then the government forms a committee to explain the law and explain how to implement the law, then in the end, they end up rewriting the law and it just creates more confusion.
The new information law—there are many changes from the publication law. It adds many chapters to enable giving licenses to television, radio stations and websites. They replace the jail penalty with a fine. It takes away the power of the prime minister to close a publication and gives it to all government members. So if the government wants to close a publication they will study it in a report written by a committee of three members (including minister of justice) to justify this position, then send it to the whole government to vote.
This regime has tried human rights activists in the High National Security Court for "disseminating false information" and issued prison sentences. Under this new law, could someone—say, from a political party or a human rights organization—be imprisoned on similar grounds under the new law?
The new law covers journalists. You will still need the names from the security apparatus before getting approval so no political newspapers will be accepted.
A lot of Western analysts speculate on competing power centers within the government; to what extent do you think power is truly centralized in the hand of President Bashar?
The president is 100% in control of the government. That was very clear when he changed all the high officials in the army and the intelligence apparatuses.
What role do you think the opposition will play in these reformist initiatives?
There is no opposition. At the congress, it gave the government a good image that there is a democratic opposition. A lot of websites are opened which highly criticized the regime and the president. The government considers this good because it shows the Syrian citizens how idiotic and immature the opposition is, so they will stick with the regime. But when it begins to become a problem, they will ban it.
What are the circumstances under which the government would begin to fear the opposition?
The government fears that they will be united. If some of them had an agreement with foreign powers to interfere. And if the government fails to deliver to citizens a better level of life and job opportunities, the people will be able to be mobilized. Even if they don’t agree with the slogans or the objectives of the opposition, they will move against the regime. So the regime is trying right now to finish and tackle the tension points that concern the average citizen and to solve them. This is why the government has taken a lot of popular decisions in the last 3 months, like reducing the car customs, new ISPs and reducing costs of the internet fees, buying the industrial businessmen through launching the first industrial conference, and signing all the requests from the industrialists. For the first time in his 5 years, the president met with the board of the Chambers of Commerce in Damascus and Aleppo.
Will the effect of these decisions trickle down to the lower classes or are there new government initiatives to appease that segment?
There is a set of issues they will do soon to buy all the people. They will have the new law for the NGOs and they will start to formulate a social safety net to give loan and aid to the poor people and also they will have a plan to develop areas in the northeast of Syria.
How threatened does the regime feel from US pressures and how do you think it is likely to respond?
It fears instability. All the same, the government is very sure that it cannot be changed. The US will not interfere militarily, and there are is no other way to change the regime. There is no real opposition that could mobilize the street. And also, there isn’t a clear cause which would make people rise up and go to the street because the regime is also solving direct points of tension. This is the difference between this regime and Saddam’s regime.
Here the regime is very clever. It doesn’t ignore even the smallest point of tension that an outside power might take advantage of. You cannot name any single problems that would mobilize the people. They directly solve the problem. This is their strategy, which they inherited from Hafez. Do not let anything spiral out of control; finish it when it is small. Kill it or solve it.
How is this regime likely to respond to increasing international isolation?
It has an exit strategy; walking towards democracy like the announcements after the congress, bringing a new independent deputy prime minister - Abdullah al-Dardari - and trying to build bridges to the EU and to enhance the relationship with Turkey and the Arab world.
How did the withdrawal from Lebanon impact internal stability? Did the regime loose face in the eyes of the people?
It would have had a greater impact if it weren’t accompanied with those harsh, awful slogans used by the Lebanese opposition against Syrian people. But those slogans keep the street with the regime because it has touched them, not the Syrian officials who took the money or the Syrians who mistreated the Lebanese. The mistake of the Lebanese is that they attacked the Syrian people and the Syrians—the average citizen felt humiliated and insulted. So he is now backing the procedures taken by the government, like arresting the fisherman and raising lawsuits against the Lebanese for the killing of the Syrian laborers and for the border inspections of Lebanese trucks.
It damaged the prestige of the regime a little, but this move on the Lebanese part killed everything. Economically, Lebanon will be more affected than the Syrians.
The Free Democratic Assembly, a new political party headed by a women, has just been announced. Bara'a Yaghi of Syria-news covers the story. The party has a number of prominent Damascene family names in it as well as representatives from different "currents" of Syrian society. Rihab al-Biytar heads the party and claims it is neither fully in opposition or fully loyal to the government. It will stand for the preeminence of the individual, supremacy of the law, and separation of church and state. (Thanks to Haisam for sending the link)
“Syria: Taxes are increasing and hurting the limited income population” Elaph, United Kingdom
The private pan Arab newspaper Elaph reported that Syrians are suffering from an increase in taxes over the last few years. “The government has increased the taxes even on the limited income employees something that affected their standard of living,” Elaph reported. The VAT in Syria has reached 11% which is a large figure compared to the living standard in the country. Human Rights activist lawyer Anwar Al Boni was quoted as saying: “The Syrian people are not only suffering from political oppression and a lack of freedom in the society, but also from an economic oppression and [an inability] to find job opportunities." On the other hand, the Syrian government has refused to admit that it is implementing new taxes but the government claimed it is reforming the tax system in Syria. “The government wants to reform the tax system in order to be able to collect taxes efficiently since it loses around 4 million US dollars annually from people not ! paying their taxes,” Elaph added. Critics of the government said the main reason for the economic failure in Syria is corruption, the newspaper concluded.
Syria prosecutes a number of judges for misconduct July 25,
The independent Al Wasat newspaper reported that the Syrian Minister of Justice, Mohammad al-Ghafri, declared: “I am going to prosecute some judges who have breached the law and exploited their positions by acting in a biased way concerning some trials.” Al-Ghafri added that the judicial authorities have formed a new judicial inspection board to monitor the actions of judges and stated that the actual number of convicted judges is small relative to the actual corrupt judges at work. The newspaper also stated that the ministry of foreign affairs relocated some staff from the central administration to embassies and Syrian consulates and transferred a lot of ambassadors to other capitals as an administrative and routine step.
Syria's state-run media has demanded a public apology from Beirut for alleged insults unleashed against the Assad regime in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri's assassination, saying even this apology may virtually not be enough to normalize relations and call off Syria's ongoing trade war against Lebanon....
Recent rumors that Ghazi Kanaan, Shalish, and Shara'a - the last of the "old guard" - will step down before the announcement of the new government, which is due shortly, has been written up by Akhbar al-Sharq. I copy the Arabic version. (Thanks to a commentator)
* قرار متوقع بتسريح ذي الهمة شاليش .. وغازي كنعان يستعد لمغادرة وزارة الداخلية دمشق - أخبار الشرق (خاص)
علمت أخبار الشرق أن الرئيس بشار الأسد قد يصدر قريباً قراراً بتسريح قائد حرسه الشخصي اللواء ذي الهمة شاليش. وذكرت مصادر وثيقة الاطلاع في العاصمة السورية دمشق لأخبار الشرق أن شاليش أُبعد عن مهمة حراسة الرئيس الأسد، وهناك قرار بتسريحه، ولا يُعرف إن كان سيُعلن أم لا.
ويعود هذا التسريح إلى قرار الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية قررت في 9 حزيران/ يونيو 2005 معاقبة شركة "إس إي إس إنترناشنال كوربورايشن" التي يملكها اللواء ذو الهمة شاليش (ابن عمة الرئيس بشار الأسد)، ويديرها ابن أخيه آصف عيسى شاليش، إذ صنفت وزارة المالية الأمريكية المذكورين "كداعمين للنظام العراقي السابق"، وقررت معاقبتهما في إطار سعيها لتجميد ممتلكات نظام صدام حسين وكبار مسؤوليه وأفراد أسرهم ووكلائهم والعاملين لحسابهم.
وورد اسم اللواء ذي الهمة شاليش (49 عاماً) في القرار الأمريكي على أنه "الجنرال زهير شاليش"، الذي قال القرار إنه يملك الشركة المقصودة والتي يقع مقرها على طريق حرستا حمص الرئيسي شمال دمشق. وأورد بيان وزارة المالية الأمريكية اسم "ذو الهمة شاليش" كأحد الأسماء التي يُعرف بها "الجنرال زهير"، كما سمته.
وحسب نصر القرار الأمريكي فقد "كانت إس إي إس، التي يملكها (ذو الهمة) ويديرها آصف، بمثابة "مستخدم نهائي مزيف" للعراق، يساعد في الحصول على سلع مرتبطة بالدفاع للقوات المسلحة العراقية. وبوصفها شركة سورية، تمكنت إس إي إس من تزويد المصدّرين في دول متعددة بوثائق تنص على أنها المستخدم النهائي، مشيرة إلى أن سوريا لا العراق هي المقصد النهائي للسلع المصدَرة. وكانت إس إي إس تقوم بعد ذلك بإعداد الترتيبات لنقل السلع إلى وسيلة شحن أخرى وشحنها إلى العراق، مما أتاح للنظام العراقي الحصول على سلع عسكرية - مما يتعارض مع العقوبات التي فرضتها عليه الأمم المتحدة".
كما اتهم القرار اللواء ذا الهمة وآصف شاليش بالعمل "لصالح النظام العراقي السابق وعدد من كبار مسؤوليه. وقدم زهير وآصف مساعدة شخصية لابن صدام حسين البكر، عدي صدام حسين، ولسكرتير الرئيس السابق، عبد الحميد محمود التكريتي (..). وتظهر المعلومات المتوفرة أن عُدي استفاد كثيراً من علاقته مع (ذي الهمة) وآصف وإس إي إس. وبشكل خاص، يُقال إن (ذا الهمة) وآصف عملا بناء على طلب من عُدي على إعادة أديب شعبان، مساعد عُدي، إلى العراق بعد أن كان أديب قد فر منه".
ويمضي القرار الأمريكي إلى القول "تشير المعلومات المتوفرة للحكومة الأميركية إلى أن (ذا الهمة) كان ضالعاً في الجهود الرامية إلى مساعدة عبد الحميد محمود التكريتي في الهرب من العراق أثناء عملية "الحرية العراقية" (الحرب الأمريكية على العراق). وهناك من الأسباب ما يدعو إلى الاعتقاد بأنه عرض مساعدة ابن صدام حسين الأصغر، قصي صدام حسين، على مغادرة العراق".
كما يتهم اللواء ذا الهمة شاليش بأنه خصص مبلغاً من المال كمكافأة شهرية لأسرة عبد الحمد محمود التكريتي، الذي كان حول مبلغاً كبيراً إليه. ويقول البيان "تشير المعلومات المتوفرة لدى الحكومة الأميركية إلى أن شركة إس إي إس قامت، منذ سقوط النظام العراقي السابق، بتوظيف أو مساعدة عدد من مسؤولي النظام السابق، وخاصة منير ممدوح عوض الكبيسي، مدير شركة البشائر التجارية. وقد كانت شركة البشائر من أكبر الشركات التي استخدمها العراق كواجهة للحصول على الأسلحة"، علماً أن كلاً من منير والبشائر تشملهما العقوبات الأمريكية على النظام العراقي السابق.
ومعروف أن اسم اللواء ذي الهمة شاليش وشقيقه رياض شاليش مدير مؤسسة الإسكان العسكري السورية الحكومية يرتبط كثيراً بقضايا الفساد الضالعة فيها المؤسسة المذكورة في داخل البلاد.
غازي كنعان: من جهة ثانية؛ أكدت مصادر مطلعة لأخبار الشرق أن أيام اللواء المتقاعد غازي كنعان في وزارة الداخلية باتت معدودة، بل وأنه بدأ يستعد شخصياً لمغادرة منصبه و"ضب أغراضه".
وحسب معلومات متداولة في بعض الأوساط بدمشق؛ فإن ثمة مرشحين اثنين أكثر حظاً من غيرهما في خلافة كنعان في وزارة الداخلية، هما نواف الفارس محافظ القنيطرة الحالي والذي كان رئيساً لفرع الأمن السياسي في اللاذقية أيام أزمة إغلاق ميناء رفعت الأسد وكان قائد عملية الهجوم على الميناء، وصقر خير بك وهو ضابط كبير في وزارة الداخلية.
وكانت الولايات المتحدة اتخذت أيضاً في ختام شهر حزيران/ يونيو 2005 قراراً بتجميد أموال غازي كنعان الذي كان يرأس جهاز الأمن والاستطلاع التابع للمخابرات العسكرية السورية في لبنان قبل أن ينتقل إلى رئاسة جهاز الأمن السياسي بدمشق ويصبح لاحقاً وزيراً للداخلية. كما جمدت واشنطن أموال العميد رستم غزالة الذي خلف كنعان في لبنان عام 2002. * وزير الخارجية السوري يرغب في الاستقالة من منصبه دمشق - أخبار الشرق (خاص)
تشير مصادر في دمشق إلى أن وزير الخارجية السوري فاروق الشرع قد يعتزل منصبه هذا الذي يتولاه منذ 21 عاماً، خلال الفترة القريبة القادمة. وتوقعت المصادر أن تُساق أسباب صحية لهذا الخروج من المنصب، لا سيما وأن الوزير الشرع عانى في الأعوام القليلة الماضية من مشكلات في القلب. وكانت توقعات كثيرة راجت في دمشق بشأن تولي وليد المعلم، نائب الوزير، منصب وزير الخارجية في أول تعديل وزاري مقبل. واختير فاروق الشرع عضواً في القيادة القطرية الجديدة لحزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي، وكان المؤتمر القطري العاشر الذي تم اختيار القيادة خلاله في 6 - 9 حزيران/ يونيو 2005 قد أوصى بعدم تعيين أعضاء القيادة في مناصب تنفيذية، ما عدا رئيس الوزراء الذي هو عضو في القيادة بحكم منصبه. علماً أن القيادة الحالية فيها أكثر من وزير واحد، إذ تضم أيضاً الدكتور محمد الحسين وزير المالية. وحسب مصادر مطلعة، فإن وزير الخارجية فاروق الشرع لم يُخفِ لمقربين منه شعوره بنوع من الكآبة وخيبة الأمل، من الحملة الصحفية التي شنتها جهات سورية داخلية لتحميله مسؤولية الفشل الدبلوماسي في إدارة السياسة الخارجية السورية، ووصول دمشق إلى عزلة إقليمية ودولية. وتقول المصادر إن الشرع يميل إلى طلب عدم التجديد له، وعدم تولي أي منصب تنفيذي آخر، على أن يبقى في القيادة القطرية لحزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي الحاكم. وكان نائب الرئيس السابق عبد الحليم خدام، الذي تولى وزارة الخارجية بين عامي 1970 و1984، قبل الشرع؛ قد وجه انتقادات صريحة للسياسة الخارجية السورية في لبنان أثناء مناقشات اللجنة السياسية للمؤتمر القطري لحزب البعث، واحتد النقاش بينه وبين الشرع، الذي رد بدوره بانتقاد خدام لغيابه عن البلاد أثناء صدور قرار مجلس الأمن الدولي رقم 1559. .
Will America carry out Punitive Stikes against Syria?
A friend in Washington just wrote me this email:
I just spoke briefly yesterday with a fellow who has many contacts in the Pentagon, military and civilian: he says the Pentagon is 100% certain that Syria is a haven for organizers of insurgency and is likely to get whacked, not to bring about regime change, just to punish. There's no point to challenge the 100% certainty piece...this is what they believe...just like they were 100% certain about wmd's in Iraq.
This only means that the Defense Department is angry. It has accused Syria of operating several foreign-Jihadist training camps near Aleppo. It is hard to believe that State and other departments would want to open another front by punitive bombings of Syria, but one never knows.
[Addition July 25] Nur-al-Cubicle adds to this in the comments below:...
From what I read, France, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia oppose any idea of US punative strikes against Syria.
The new Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Turki al-Faisal, publically warned Washington that Iraq's border security problem must be resolved on the Iraqi side of the frontier. Lebanon's Prime Minister Siniora interrupted remarks by Condoleeza Rice when she attempted to lash out at Syria during her recent unannounced 7-hour visit to Beirut.
Daily Press Briefing Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman Washington, DC July 21, 2005 QUESTION: Today, Syria hit back at the accusations about their borders, the militants crossing their borders, saying that so far they had detained thousands of would-be insurgents.
MR. ERELI: Syria?
QUESTION: Yes, Syria. And they speak about 1,200 foreign extremists and more than 4,000 Syrians. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. ERELI: (A) It's a number that, I guess, hard to verify but; (b) and I think this is the important point, the really important point is that there's no indication, whether or not they detained 1,400 people and whether or not those 1,400 people are really as problematic as they might suggest, there's still no indication, frankly, that the problem of support for the insurgency from Syria has ended. And that's the bottom line. The Iraqis are telling us that Syria is a problem. Other evidence indicates that Syria's a problem. So regardless of what's happened with these 1,400, there are serious issues that remain in terms of insurgency activity in Iraq that is being conducted because of support and other facilitation from inside Syria.
And it remains an issue that we continue to press the Syrian Government about, that the Iraqis, more importantly, continue to press the Syrian Government about, and that frankly continues to undermine stability in Iraq, in which therefore is a problem not just for Iraq, but for the whole neighborhood.
The European Union is scheduled to hold a working session on the growing crisis in Lebanon on Monday in Brussels. Washington is consulting with the international community for a solution to put an end to Syria's domination over Lebanon.
U.S. and European officials also charged that Syria continues to maintain presence in Lebanon through intelligence agents, who were supposed to be removed by the end of April, according to U.N Resolution 1559.
The White House blamed Damascus explicitly for blocking the three attempts by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to form a cabinet of Ministers. Lahoud vetoed all three, despite the support of the majority of Parliament for the last iteration.
EU foreign ministers called on Syria to improve relations with neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. It also warned Damascus to cut support to groups that oppose stability in the region in order to ensure future EU aid and trade.
The ministers said: "A positive Syrian contribution to regional stability would contribute to deepening the EU-Syria relationship."
The EU has stalled the full implementation of a billion dollar cooperation agreement that offers Syria aid and better trade access because of its refusal to live up to EU demands to fight terrorism and cooperate in fostering peace in the Middle East.
Commenting on the Lebanese-Syrian border crisis, EU ministers urged Syria to "support the legitimate and sovereign new government of Lebanon allowing for smooth circulation of goods between the two countries."
But it looks like the government crisis in Lebanon may be coming to an end. Siniora and President Lahoud promise an announcement this afternoon.
Sana news agency is now reporting that the border is open, but we will have to see what that means.
Al-Dabbusiyah, 17 July: Syrian and Lebanese ordinary people and drivers stressed that they crossed Al-Dabbusiyah border point with the sisterly Lebanon to and from Lebanon, adding that the Syrian authorities provide them with all possible facilities and deal in a flexible way with all arriving and departing passengers.
SANA staff reporters who visited the Al-Dabbusiyah area several times said there was an ordinary crossing traffic on both sides, and all the personnel there were working very hard to alleviate traffic jams on the borders with Lebanon, particularly the trucks coming from Lebanon.
Director of the Syrian Customs in the area Abd-al-Hadi Darwish said the main reason for the jam is the bridge used for the two-way border crossing is narrow and was originally built under the French mandate on Syrian and Lebanon.
He added that there are ongoing preparations on the Syrian side of Al-Dabbusiyah to expand and modernize this crossing point.
Syria has prevented Lebanese goods from passing through the Lebanese-Syrian border, where Beirut averaged 300 export shipments per day prior to Syria's withdrawal, over the past two weeks the number has dropped to a staggering zero. Jones said Syria is now trying to "undermine the Lebanese economy by blocking Lebanese exports so that millions of dollars of produce rots" at the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Damascus blames the delays on increased checks to prevent weapons and explosives being smuggled into Syria. Many Lebanese however believe Syria is being revengeful, after enduring a humbling withdrawal as a result of the Valentines Day assassination, which targeted and killed Rafik Hariri.
The economic crisis is threatening 50,000 jobs in Lebanon, and is estimated to be costing $300,000 a day in lost business.
"This is an obvious attempt to create an economic stranglehold on the most vulnerable sector of Lebanon's economy -- farmers and small merchants," a State Department official said. "Syria has historically been the gate through which Lebanese produce and products go to the rest of the region. Syria is now pulling out every dirty trick from its importation guide to have maximum dilatory effect."
These an-Nahar headlines paint the grissly picture of Lebanese-Syrian relations over the last few weeks.
Opposition Report: Hazim an-Nahar interviewed by Joe Pace
Joe Pace of Harvard University has agreed to write up interviews with opposition figures in Syria for publication on "Syria Comment." This week he has interviewed Hazim an-Nahar a member of the Arab Workers Revolutionary Party, who also serves on the administrative committee for the Jamal al-Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue.
Joe is doing research on the effects of US Foreign Policy in Syria. He is a research fellow at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. I am very grateful to him for agreeing to share some of his research with us. Hopefully other researchers will do the same. It is a great service to us all and will help researchers get feed-back on their work and perhaps even some notice for themselves and their work.
Joe Pace can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Here is Joe Pace's interview with Hazim an-Hahar *****************
Hazim an-Nahar has an interesting perspective on US foreign policy; while he remains skeptical of US motives, he told me that the opposition is hypocritical for not recognizing the ways in which it has benefited from US pressure.
There are six communist parties (Hazim was insistent that I not include socialist-Nasser parties in that category) in Syria, two of which are in the National Progressive Front. Given how few communists there are running around Syria, the first question I asked him was,
Why the abundance of communist parties?
“Because the parties splinter. The parties usually don’t split for doctrinal reasons; they split for personal reasons. In fact, there are no substantive differences between the parties. The Front doesn’t allow elections, so splitting is the only way to resolve internal disputes. It’s a deliberate tactic on the part of the regime to keep the parties small and weak."
If there are no substantive differences between the parties, how does the party base choose which of the two new parties to join?
"The parties are totally backwards and undeveloped. Its like the Bedouins—they follow whatever leader they have personal allegiance to."
I asked him about the National Coordination Committee (for which he represents his party), which was formed in the beginning of 2005 to coordinate oppositional efforts. He took a dim view of the Committee's contribution to a more unified opposition.
“The committee is a mixture of all the parties and organizations of the opposition. But its ineffective. It just publishes shared statements for protests and sit-ins. Before the creation of the committee, coordination was very basic and shallow. Unfortunately, even after its creation, coordination remains very basic and the situation hardly differs from before. The main difference is that we have a place and a specific time to meet, but it doesn’t amount to real coordination.” (For that matter, no one I've spoken to in the opposition is optimistic about the coordination committee. Most of the political parties view it as a forum emasculated by the insistence of human rights organizations that its work be confined to human rights issues, not political ones. Many of the Arabs doubt that its Kurdish participants are sincere in their desire to be part of the Syrian opposition, accusing them of dual allegiances. Several Kurdish members have accused the Arab members of backtracking on the committee's charter to find a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue, and they are discussing ceasing their participation).
There was very little coordination especially between the Kurds and Arabs prior to the committee's inception. What suddenly motivated the idea of coordination?
“The political changes inside of Syria including the release of political prisoners and the relative increase in freedoms encouraged us to coordinate. Until that point, we thought of coordination and cooperation between the Kurds and Arabs as a red line. The changes in the region encouraged us to start dialoguing. For example, the Iraq war: the presence of the occupation weakened the regime’s capacity for internal control, relatively speaking. Before, they could arrest 100 people and no one listened or cared. Now they arrest one person and the world listens. We’ve also benefited from the role of the media and the internet. It has really emboldened us to meet more.
“When Bush started to talk about the Greater Middle East and reform in the region, it forced the regimes to start talking about reform. Before they used to say the situation was great. Of course, now they say reform must come from within, but at least they are talking about the need for reform. And of course, reform will occur on their terms. But American policy inspired much of the conversation about reform. It indirectly encouraged the opposition to be bolder and speak out. But at the same time, most of the opposition is strongly opposed to the American project. This is the great irony.
“America doesn’t want to reform the region for the benefit of its people. It has its own interests. Before, its interests lay in the continuation of despots. But now its interests are in line with relatively democratization of the region.”
If the opposition is benefiting from American pressure, why are they so insistent in their opposition a continuation of pressure?
“They oppose the American project vocally to prove their nationalist credentials. The regime accuses them of being treasonous supporters of America, and it’s a strategy that has been somewhat successful.
“Everyone in the opposition admits that the US has spurred talk of reform, but only between themselves. The opposition has gotten stronger in part because of foreign pressure, but they say they stand firmly against America. Its contradictory. Any pressure on the regime contributes to its weakening, which makes our work easier.”
But in spite of international pressure and scrutiny, the government has increased its oppression of civil society activists. How do you explain the new crackdown?
“There are two theories. One is that the regime and the US struck a deal. Syria helps the US deal with the terrorists in exchange for US silence on the human rights and democracy issue. This is a very popular explanation among opposition figures.
The second is that they are trying to display strength to obscure their growing weakness. They’re cracking down to ensure that they don’t have to face pressure from both the internal and external front.” Has the crackdown worked?
“Absolutely. People are very frightened. In the months between the assassination of Hariri and the national conference, there was more bold talk on the streets about reform. People felt encouraged and the opposition grew. Mind you, we don’t define growth in terms of the number of people who join parties, but the number of people who are sympathetic. But after the national conference, the fear returned. Six people were arrested in Homs for discussing emigration from the Jazeera region—despite the fact they were Ba’thists.”
What are the necessary conditions for the opposition to grow in strength?
“The growth of the opposition has been extremely slow because of the lingering fear imprinted by 30 years of despotism. There are three conditions. First, the different tiers of the opposition must unite. Second, we need to arrive at a clear program for implementing democratic changes in Syria. Third, the opposition needs to renew its political platform, especially as it pertains to the outside world. There is no future for the opposition without a new platform—the current platform is ill. We can no longer afford to be afraid of the outside world. But that does not mean we should depend on the foreign powers to realize all of our demands as some of the Kurds do.”
How do you plan on attracting people to the opposition?
“We cant attract followers until we are united. When the average Syrian sees a divided, enfeebled opposition, no one is inspired to participate. The second thing we need to do is overcome the fear and that is likely to be achieved through one of two ways: foreign pressure or an economic crisis that compels people to demand more from their government."
Do you expect any positive changes from this regime?
“I expect that the changes will be trivial and aimed at beautifying the regime’s image to the international community.”
Niqash - An Iraqi Civil Society Experiment on the Web
An interesting new civil society experiment is running on the web called Niqash A friend, Matthias Klein, is editor of the English section. It will be interesting to see how such experiments develop and is well worth supporting. Here is their blurb.
*niqash* is a space for Iraqi citizens to exchange views on the current political process and to debate the processes that are shaping the Iraqi society. Its main focus is on issues relevant to the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution. Its main goal is to facilitate a public and popular debate on the current political process in Iraq. In order to do so, *niqash* provides background information, organizes expert exchanges on current topics, and offers every visitor the possibility to participate in discussions or even create a personal web-diary (blog). A newsletter keeps registered users updated. There is also a Niqash Radio Station, the broadcasts of which are downloadable.
*niqash* is produced by an Arab-German-Kurdish team in Berlin & Amman. It is published in English, Arabic, and Kurdish.
The project is funded by the German Foreign Ministry and supported by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation.
The following roundtable Discussion between Israeli and US academics and ex-government officials about Syria carried out on March 31 is a bit dated, but still very interesting, especially as we try to understand how thinking about Syria during the pullout process from Lebanon evolved. It is important to remember that this discussion took place in March when some analysts were pushing the idea that Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon would so weaken Syria that the regime would collapse. This has turned out to be wrong.
I believe that some of the Israeli academics misread the present climate of the regional and international scene.
Barry Rubin sums up the beliefs of many when he says that:
First, Asad won't be able to deliver the necessary "economic benefits" to his people, which will cause eventual economic collapse.
Second, "On top of this are all the foreign policy problems, which his behavior--supporting Hizballah, backing the insurgents in Iraq, encouraging Palestinian terrorism against Israel, destabilizing and then retreating from Lebanon, provoking the United States and so on--has exacerbated."
Dr. Paul Jureidini says, "I really believe [Bashar] to be a hardliner with a not very good understanding of the world around him."
Dr. Hillel Frisch says:
When you have a country under international pressure as indeed was the case in Eastern Europe, you have revolution. When you don't have that international relations' pressure, you might be able to continue the regime. I think that the United States is aiming for revolution in Syria. It's aiming for revolution in Syria for two reasons.
One, as a first step in isolating Iran and its nuclear policy and the future showdown that is inevitable between the United States and Iran, and the second reason is that it jibes well with the promotion of democracy.
I don't think that Bashar Assad in the near future has a fighting chance. I think that Syria just has to go the Eastern Europe, Russian route. Any kind of opening will not be an opening, but a deluge and he has very little possibility of extricating himself from the situation.
Joshua Landis' comments: This overall analysis relies on the assumption that the US is winning in the Middle East and has changed the basic international context such that a soviet-style, top-down, one-party state with a backward economy, such as Syria, cannot continue to survive.
This analysis may have looked correct a year ago, or even after the temporary success of the Iraqi elections, but it doesn't look correct today. Principally, because America is losing in Iraq and probably in Afghanistan as well. At least, it isn't winning, and Sunni militants are gaining confidence that they can drive the Americans out. See this New York Times article, "Iraq's Rush to Failure" By J ALEXANDER THIER, Published: July 14, 2005. The title says it all.
The chaos and increased militancy the US has produced in the Middle East since its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq is going to get worse in the short to medium term. This will produce greater regional and international legitimacy for Bashar, rather than less. Syria will look like an island of stability, which few will want to submerge. We cannot use the Eastern European model, as Dr. Hirsch does, to gauge the pressures on Syria. A forth wave of democratization is not going to take place in the Middle East - at least it doesn't look likely in the next few years.
Some evidence for this is that the EU countries are revamping and funding their "civil society" programs for Syria. This indicates that they believe in the "slow reform" that Bashar is arguing for. They do not believe that "revolution" or "collapse" in Syria will produce anything but chaos and more headaches. Syria's institutions and opposition figures are not ready to stand alone or to take advantage of radical change.
This all adds up to support for Bashar. No one today wants to see a failed state in Syria, such as we have in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bashar has read the regional trends and mood better than the American administration or Israelis. His legitimacy is growing in Europe because they are very worried about the refugees and militants pouring out of Iraq, which may end up in Europe. They share this worry with Syria.
Bashar has begun to crack down on militants crossing through Syria into and out of Iraq. This has become the "top" priority for the US and Europeans and regional Arab powers. They will have to work with Bashar on this and overlook Syria's infractions in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. Alternatives to Bashar are rapidly becoming too bleak to consider.
Bashar has gained greater legitimacy within Syria for the same reason. Syrians are feeling threatened by the deteriorating regional situation and rapid rise of militancy in Iraq and the region, which they fear may overtake Syria. Bashar is their only hope for forestalling chaos in their streets. Most Syrians don't trust America.
Last night I had dinner with Syrian friends who work with Iraqi refugees and human rights issues in Syria. They are extremely anxious about failure in Iraq and said,
We cannot face failure in Iraq. It will be a disaster for Syria. In the last decades we have seen the rise of militant Islam in the region and collapse of the old "secular" order - Iran, Algeria, Hizbullah, Iraq, Hamas. Even Turkey, in some aspects, has been growing more religious. There are troubles in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Syria is an island of "secularism" trying to hang on. I predict that in a few years there will be no more Christians in Iraq. The division of the country into three basic blocs - Kurdish, Sunni and Shi'i is very destructive. the mosaic is being destroyed. I fear our mosaic in Syria will be destroyed too."
When I suggested that America was winning and that Lebanon could be seen as an example of this, they were not impressed. They responded:
There were always elections in Lebanon. The elections which just took place are the same elections with the same results that have been taking place in Lebanon for decades. They are not new or "American." The Lebanese are too divided to carry out their revolution. Yes, the Syrians are out, but not much has changed otherwise.
I don't think Lebanon is going to be the engine of change in the Middle East that America says it will. People are not gaining faith in America and its democracy message. They are losing faith. The Arab view of America is much worse today than it was before the invasion of Iraq. The one area where America has some control and could do something, which is Palestine, it refuses to do anything. I fear the situation in the region is going to get worse and not better.
This bleak picture may just be temporary. Iraqi Shiites may yet pull themselves together and stand up an army which can bring order to their country. However, many people are beginning to predict a Somalia type destiny for Iraq with no central state and the country breaking up into emulous militias and continued chaos. Hopefully that will not be the case, but more and more people are beginning to factor such a possibility into their calculations.
Bashar may not turn out to be part of the solution. The hawks may be right that he is implacably set against American goals, but this does not mean he will fail. Many Lebanese believe that Syria wants Siniora to fail in Lebanon so that the more pro-Syrian Mikati is named as the next Prime Minister. They point to the closing of the border between Lebanon and Syria as proof of Syria's pressure in this direction. Others say that Syria is not cracking down on militants, but only pretending to, while it continues to fan the flames of Sunni militancy in Iraq.
My own sense is that Syria is not the engine of US failure in the region as some want to make it out to be. The Lebanese should be pulling together; they have yet to do this. The Iraqis should be pulling together; they are as divided as ever. Syria cannot force either population to agree on their future. Neither can the US. These are battles that can only be won by the citizens of Lebanon and Iraq. Syria can play a minor disruptive role in each country, but not a decisive one. More importantly, I do not believe Bashar is a "hardliner" who fails to understand local realities. I think he is looking after HIS Syrian interests and that he is neither the angel nor devil that he is often made out to be. I believe he will weather the difficult period he is going through and that Washington will be forced to deal with him, even if it has to hold its nose as it does.
This is because the Bush project is not going well. Washington will need Syria's assistance as the US departs from Iraq, and Bashar will give that assistance. As the US demonstrates that it is serious about drawing down its troops in Iraq and withdrawing from the country, Bashar will move aggressively to crack down on militants. It is what Bashar says he will do. He has repeated time and again that Syria wants an independent Iraq. This means an Iraq with no foreign troops. It also wants a stable Iraq. Syria and the US will be able to agree on measures to help stabilize Iraq once Syria sees that America is serious about leaving the country. Neither country wants Sunni militants washing around the Middle East, but they will only be able to agree on the measures to stop militants once Syria believes America has given up its grasp of Iraq.
Many Americans will say that such as Syrian stance is suicidal, because American failure in Iraq will necessarily mean bad news for Alawites in Syria. This is not how the Syrian regime sees it, however. It sees a heavy American presence in the Middle East as its number one enemy. Number two is Sunni militants. So far Syria has not had a Sunni militancy problem in Syria for over twenty years. It has had an American problem. When the threat equation changes, the Syrian government will change its policy.
Anyway, here is the roundtable discussion:
SYRIA UNDER BASHAR; LEBANON AFTER SYRIAN WITHDRAWAL A GLORIA CENTER ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION
On March 31, 2005, the U.S. Department of State's InternationalInformation Programs in Washington D.C., the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, and the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center jointly held an international videoconference seminar, focusing on events in Syria and Lebanon. The seminar's central purpose was to assess the Syrian regime's direction and implications of the Syrian army's withdrawal from Lebanon.
The purpose of this seminar was not to make policy recommendations or reflect any political agenda, but to present the individual views of several scholars studying the region, thinking out loud in trying to develop their own understanding of these issues.
Brief biographies of the participants can be found at the end of the article.
This seminar is part of the GLORIA Center's Experts Forum series. The GLORIA Center wishes to thank the Bradley Foundation for its support of this series.
Dr. Paul Jureidini: I think the time has come to ask the real Bashar Assad to step forward. A lot of us, myself included, initially had hoped he would be the reformer that everybody hoped for. I have begun to believe that Bashar Assad is a hardliner, who may be for some time was able to hide his hard line.
There is no question. Bashar Assad was unknown. There was opposition to him from the clique around Hafiz Assad, the people we call the Emirs. The army didn't know him. The security people didn't know him. The party didn't know him although he was a member. When he was in London he was really concentrating on ophthalmology and not on trying to understand the West. When he came back, he had six years on the job training with his father and the last year of his pre-presidency was pretty much Bashar running Syria.
The opposition was fairly tough and Hafiz Assad began removing those who constituted a threat. He pushed into retirement his most powerful advisors and supporters leaving Bashar with a second tier which was loyal but not of the best quality. This group basically had no idea of what was going on in the world. They refused to believe after September 11 that the United States would go Afghanistan and then Iraq. And they refused to believe that they would be subjected to a lot of pressure if they didn't behave. They always insisted that fear of an Islamist takeover would insulate them from a serious international challenge. And now this miscalculation has come back to haunt them.
I am convinced that Bashar is a hardliner. He is not the captive of the hardliners. He really believes in the ideology and the balderdash that comes out of the Ba'th party, however upset he may be by the regime's corruption and other problems.
Now he is in the process of promoting his own people who are holding key positions including in the army and security agencies. These choices show that he is not changing Syria's policies or governmental practices.
Dr. Mordecai Kedar: What Bashar Assad really lacks is "the killer instinct", which his father had in excessive quantities. And when you lack the killer instinct in such a regime, you cannot be the head of the regime even if you hold that title. Bashar did allow "clubs" (muntadayat) to discuss the country's society and state in late 2000 and early 2001 but closed them down when they began to get out of control and threaten the regime.
Dr. Flynt Leverett: I don't agree with an assessment that Bashar is really a closet hardliner. I think Bashar does have genuine reformist impulses. I think Dr. Jordini is right that it is easy to overstate the impact of his relatively limited time in the West. He himself told me, in an interview about a year ago that basically in his time in London he learned the route between the flat where he lived and the hospital where he worked. He did not come to office with a well-elaborated vision for pursuing change inside Syria, but I think he does have a genuine sense that things need to be different in Syria.
I think he wants to give primacy to economic reform; social reform would come alongside that and then political reform is kind of the last piece of how you change Syria. He is a gradualist. His approach to doing this would probably require years to bear fruit and there is an interesting question given his strategic situation, does he really have the kind of time to allow that sort of strategy to play out, but I think that is his long-term strategy. I think he is building up a network of Western- trained technocrats in second-tier positions of influence in the system, people with PhDs in economics, management, and computer science. People who've had experience in international financial institutions or in the Western private sector. And he's trying to develop this network as almost a kind of alternative regime to the old guard. He's not had much success in moving these people into top ministerial positions yet, but again, I think this is part of his long-term gradualist strategy for reform.
One thing that I take as an indicator-a confirmation of his reformist impulses--is the woman he married. Asma’ Assad is the daughter of a Sunni expatriate from a notable family in Homs, a man who has made a career as a world-class interventional cardiologist in London. She was born and raised and educated entirely in the UK; graduated from the University of London with a degree in computer science; went through the investment banker training program at JP Morgan; worked as an investment banker at Deutschebank; and, at the time that Bashar proposed to her, had been accepted to the MBA program at Harvard Business School. We can ask what turning down Harvard Business School to marry Bashar says about her judgment, but I think that the fact that Bashar proposed to someone like that, over his family's objections, says something about where his impulses lie.
I think that this is someone who has a reformist outlook, but as I said, his own personal vision is attenuated and even though he is developing this alternative network around him, I think--and he will acknowledge this in conversation--he lacks the kind of technocratic expertise around him in sufficient quantities and in kind of administrative structure, that will let him develop really systematic approaches for reform. In other words, I think that Bashar is ultimately engageable, but he is someone who is going to require a lot of help and a lot of empowerment along the way.
Prof. Barry Rubin: I really do not believe that Bashar is a reformer and am doubtful that we have seen much evidence of that. One symbolic detail is that much was made of his being the head of the Syrian Internet Society. Only a little research is needed to find out that his late brother, who had no interest in Internet, was the previous president of that group. Bashar inherited that job as he did the job of president.
Even if he were so inclined, the massive problems he faces--and the way he responds to them--would foreclose such an outcome. To pick just one example, there are the Islamist and ethnic issues. He knows that there is a Sunni Muslim majority and the more he opens up the system the more powerful he makes that sector. Economic liberalization would also give them proportionately more power to Sunnis. We also see the problem he's had with the Kurds--their riots and his repression.
There is also the difficulty of his delivering economic benefits or changing the regime's basic structure of the regime, challenging the privileges which the current governing elite gets, which doesn't want to be deprived of the privileges. On top of this are all the foreign policy problems, which his behavior--supporting Hizballah, backing the insurgents in Iraq, encouraging Palestinian terrorism against Israel, destabilizing and then retreating from Lebanon, provoking the United States and so on--has exacerbated.
Assuming that he wants to make change, even in the long run, he certainly has gone about it a strange way. And the objective conditions are also difficult, even if compared to the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes. This is true even if we restrict ourselves to limited reforms to make Syria more competitive. We should also mention the economic costs to Syria of the pull-out from Lebanon. Are hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers going to come back unemployed. Is the Syrian elite going to lose the privileges it obtains from such things as counterfeiting, drug smuggling, other smuggling, and regular business in Lebanon? So he has a very heavy burden in fact on his rule and regime.
Martha Neff Kessler: Well I would certainly second the points that Barry has made. But I also think there are some very eerie parallels between what this young man faces and what his father faced back in the early 1970s when he came to power. And that is nearly the most compelling truth about Syria: that regional and international politics have constrained what is possible in that country in a way that is more dramatic than virtually any place else. Yet Bashar's strategic problem is also bigger than almost anything his father faced. That will be what will preoccupy him and any reform effort will be of secondary concern and probably motivated at this point more by foreign policy considerations, that is placating or accommodating or acquiescing to whatever is foisted upon him from the outside rather than things genuinely instigated from his own agenda.
Prof. Amatzia Baram: It's extremely difficult for me to imagine a moderating Ba'th regime. It is possible, but it is near impossible. What a Ba'th regime can do with relative ease is economic liberalization. Like China. It would have happened in Iraq--at least on a small scale--had Iraq not gone through such huge crisis, had Saddam Hussein not pushed such horrible adventures. The balance to this change is the continued power of the secret police. When Saddam started to liberalize economically, and he really meant to do that--no political liberalization, only economic-he found very quickly that the security agencies stymied this whole project as they started breathing down the necks of entrepreneurs.
But, had he had more time he would have been able to do something. So I can see it happening in Syria, and I can see happening not only because it's possible but because it's unavoidable. Because when 1 million Syrian workers go back from Lebanon to Syria he'll have to do something and the Iraqi oil revenues are no longer streaming into Assad's pockets.
So he will have to do it I would say there is a reasonable chance he will do it. Very slowly, but he'll do it. When it comes to political liberalization, this would be very difficult. Maybe in very small steps maybe over many years, so much so that we won't even fell it very much. Is Assad really a hardliner or he is a would-be reformer who cannot deliver? It is very difficult to tell. I don't know. But I do know that the memory of what happened to the rulers of the USSR, Romania, and Yugoslavia is very much in the minds of the Syrian elite. And he will be very worried of similar developments. So, again, I see a hardline leader in practice with some economic changes liberalization but what he truly is I don't know. I think he is working according to constraints. I agree 100% with Martha; I don't know when Assad, the father, was under such stress. And Bashar is now under huge pressure – from almost every direction.
Dr. Kedar: I think that one point should be added here-that many people in the political arena in Syria accuse Bashar of personal responsibilities for the failures of the policies of Syria during the last 5 years. He started gambling on Iraq-he renewed the connections between Iraq and Syria--and it exploded in his face. He is losing Lebanon, after he was given this state by his father as a gift. And now, he is having his relations with Europe, which traditionally was behind him, in a very problematic stage, not to mention what he is going through with the United States. I think that everybody there accuses him for what he did or for what he didn't do. This also doesn't ease his situation vis-a-vis his own people.
Dr. Flynt Leverett: His father didn't really become the uncontested master of Syria, perceived as this very astute player of the regional game, until he had passed through a series of defining challenges. He established Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. He defended that hegemony against both the United States and Israel. He put down a significant challenge to the regime from the Muslim Brotherhood, and he put down a challenge to his own authority from his brother. After he had passed through all of these challenges, he was the lion of Damascus, he was the uncontested ruler of Syria, and he was perceived as this master of regional diplomacy. Bashar has not passed through those kinds of defining challenges almost five years into his presidency. I think Martha's right that he's in the middle of such a challenge now. And in contrast to Kr. Kedar, I would at least like to throw out a scenario in which Bashar could emerge from this situation, actually maybe stronger than he is right now. If four months from now, six months from now, a year from now, he is seen as being able to maintain the ability to influence the most important strategic decisions-in Lebanon, through Hizballah, through other pro-Syrian actors, through other connections that he has to Lebanese power structure--if he can still set he outer limits of Lebanese policy, in the face of all the pressure that's been put on him, I think he will be seen domestically and regionally as a stronger figure than he is today.
He may end up being seen as someone who lost Lebanon, who blew it in Iraq, who squandered an important part of his father's legacy, and if that it is the way he is seen six months from now, a year from now, I think that could have serious consequences for him at home. But I don't think it's inevitable that that's the way things come out. He could still emerge as effectively a winner.
Dr. Paul Jureidini: There are some other factors to be considered. First, as we know, minorities in the Middle East are mistrusted and minorities in power are hated. The Alawites in Syria are a minority in power and the Sunnis don't like it. This regime, like Hafiz Assad's regime, will never share power. Because sharing power means the dissolution of the present set-up. I don't think political reform will ever come because it may mean the end of the Alawites.
Two, when they talk about economic reform, it's always from above. It's always the state guiding that process. Even with the few reforms he's done, economic reforms, they don't amount to anything. If we want an example of Assad the hardliner, take a look at Lebanon. He could have gotten rid of the openly pro-Syrian cabinet and appointed other friendly but respected figures without creating a crisis in Lebanon. Yet he insisted on extending the term extending the term of Emil Lahoud's presidency by three years, which brought on a crisis when the Lebanese demanded a change. I really believe him to be a hardliner with a not very good understanding of the world around him.
Dr. Hillel Frisch: When you have a country under international pressure as indeed was the case in Eastern Europe, you have revolution. When you don't have that international relations' pressure, you might be able to continue the regime. I think that the United States is aiming for revolution in Syria. It's aiming for revolution in Syria for two reasons.
One, as a first step in isolating Iran and its nuclear policy and the future showdown that is inevitable between the United States and Iran, and the second reason is that it jibes well with the promotion of democracy. Iraq was never since the downfall of the Hashemite kingdom, really a respectable Arab state. Syria was different. Syria was always perceived in the Arab world as responsible. And the impact, of creating of a democratic opportunity and moment in Syria, will be even much greater than Iraq.
I don't think that Bashar Assad in the near future has a fighting chance. I agree with Flynt's remarks that if he does pass this stage he might become the Lion of Damascus as his father was. But I think that the very, very dramatic international and regional changes make the situation in his father's day in the 1970s and the situation today totally different. I think that Syria just has to go the Eastern Europe, Russian route. Any kind of opening will not be an opening, but a deluge and he has very little possibility of extricating himself from the situation.
Dr. Flynt Leverett: I think I would largely agree with Dr. Frisch's characterization of the emerging American strategy toward Syria and I think this administration is increasingly implying, even though it's not made a formal change in its declaratory posture, to say that it's seeking regime change in Syria. I think increasingly that is the animating vision for our posture towards Syria. And I say that as someone who has written a book that argues that we can actually achieve our objectives toward Syria more efficiently by engaging Bashar in a kind of conditional carrots-and-sticks approach. But I think that the voices who might argue for that kind of force within this administration are getting fewer and fewer in number, weaker and weaker in influence, and the voices of those who say really it's time for this regime to go are getting stronger.
We'll see if that really proves to be a fruitful course for U.S. policy. I have my doubts. Even if it does work I think it's problematic, but I'm really not sure that it's going to work. As I indicated, I think that Bashar could end up emerging as something of a winner in this situation. I at least take seriously that possibility.
In terms of the way Bashar has played the regional game, approached the conduct of Syrian foreign policy, I think there you can really talk about a legacy of continuity with his father. The way I like to characterize it is that Bashar inherited a script for Syrian foreign policy from his father, and one of the challenges of his time in office so far has been to adapt that script to circumstances which have changed in some very important ways from the past.
For example, you've had the collapse of the Syrian-Israel peace process with basically no meaningful diplomacy between Israel and Syria during the time that Bashar has been in office. You have had the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon which created an initial challenge on how to refigure Syria's position in Lebanon and Hizballah's role in the region. That was an early challenge for Bashar.
You've had of course the September 11 attacks and the launch of a U.S.–led war on terror focusing on the Middle East; U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and, from a Syrian perspective more problematically, in Iraq. The Iraq intervention, in particular, created some strains between Syria and Iran, and Bashar has to recalibrate that relationship. So I think that Bashar has faced a number of foreign policy challenges and I think it really does boil down to how do you adapt his father's script for stalling Syria's encirclement?
These are what I see as the major challenges on the foreign policy front, on the regional front, for Bashar. This is, what I think, has occupied him in his foreign policy during the time in office. But now you have this added layer of challenge and difficulty in that in order to do a lot of these things he obviously would like to have a better relationship with the United States that he has at the present, or I think is going to have for the foreseeable future. And I think this is going to be a real challenge for him, moving forward. It is part of that defining challenge that I think he is going through right now.
Prof. Barry Rubin: I don't think that Bashar will emerge as a winner. The way that I would define the issue is will he emerge as a survivor, and I think that that is likely. In the 1990's, his father faced a situation which was easier, but had a lot of parallels. And I'll list four things Hafiz Assad did to manage that situation.
--Number one he worked hard to get close to the United States, by being cooperative on Iraq during the Kuwait crisis and by saying he was ready to make peace with Israel. One of his goals in this strategy was to get the United State to support his continued position in Lebanon. In the end, though, he gave Washington very little.
--Secondly of all, toward Israel he negotiated about peace though, again, in the end he gave nothing.
--Thirdly of all, on an Iraq crisis, as I've said, he cooperated with the West and especially the United States and
--Fourthly of all, he stayed close to the Egyptians and what might be called the Arab consensus.
Now the problem is that on each of these points his father played his cards very well. He avoided confrontation, often pretending to be cooperative while giving up nothing. In contrast, Bashar is openly confrontational. In Iraq, he's basically supporting a proxy war against the United States; he is giving safe haven to high Saddam-era officials; he very possibly has Iraqi WMD equipment; he has lots of Saddam's money in the country; and is allowing the recruiting, training people, and arming of Iraqi terrorists on Syrian soil. By his adventurism in Iraq and Lebanon, he forfeited U.S. and European acceptance of Syria's role there. Although there have been some half-hearted gestures towards negotiating with Israel, they're not likely to go anywhere, partly because Israel isn't going to fall for it and also since the United States probably doesn't want it.
So his strategy is very different from the strategy his father used successfully in the 1990s. The problem is not that Bashar is weaker than his father--which would be bad enough--but that he is acting as if he is far stronger.
Why do I say nevertheless that I think that Bashar is much more likely to survive--not as a big winner but at least to survive--than to fall? One reason is however much U.S. policymakers want the regime to fall they are not going to do--or be able to do--much to make that happen. Short of an all-out U.S. attack or really major campaign of subversion, the regime should remain in place. Of course, he does have the option to change his Iraq policy if he's smart enough to do it, lowering the heat both with the United States and with the emerging Iraqi government.
Perhaps the most important card he could play is that of national patriotic appeal. Syria is under threat by all these forces, he can say using traditional rhetoric. We all have to stick together as lovers of Syria and Syrian patriots. What's happening in Lebanon is anti-Syrian, it's against us, it's hurting us, so we all have to rally together and rally behind the regime. And I think he could do that to a fair degree of success.
One of the elements that he is using--that may have long-run dangers--is the Islamist element. Bashar is showing much more permissiveness toward Islamist movements, letting them organize and speak; cooperating with them on the war in Iraq and in opposition to an Arab-Israeli peace process. So in the short run, I think that will let him survive though in the long run it's very dangerous to him. But I don't think he will survive as one of the strongest figures in the Middle East. For him, survival is that he will continue to govern Syria. But watch that Islamist-Sunni factor in the future because over the course of ten years it might be the real mortal threat to the regime.
Dr. Mordecai Kedar: President Bush keeps talking about democratizing the Middle East. I do agree with this, but I would change the terminology. I would use human rights instead of democracy, which is far more real when you talk about those regimes in the Middle East. In Syria's case this means abolishing martial law, which has been there ever since 1963, more than 40 years, and it's really time to get rid of it.
A second reasonable demand on Syria is the releasing of political prisoners. There are some 600 people like this. A third demand would be abolishing the censorship, including that on the Internet, and opening newspapers free of censorship. Insisting that Syria open an embassy in Lebanon is also a very legitimate demand, as a symbol that Syria really recognizes that country's sovereignty. Even small gestures, like the official publication of a pack of cards showing Syrian officials most involved in violating human rights -- as was done in Iraq -- would be effective as a psychological measure.
The idea is to have demands that maintain pressure on the regime, but that which it could conceivably meet, without directly making demands that would force the regime's downfall. In a sense, this would constitute a kind of tax on the regime for doing business.
Dr. Hillel Frisch: I think this discussion is underestimating some very basic and important changes in the region that will lead to Bashar being crushed. Many of the structures that supported his father--the USSR, Ba'thist Iraq (despite the differences between those two neighbors), and key forces in Lebanon--are gone. Today, Syria, Bashar, and the Ba'th are hated by everyone. Everyone! I mean almost every force almost in the world is out there, both internally and externally, trying to get this regime destroyed.
I mean we have to change course. After thirty years of analyzing Arab politics through personalities, we just have to come to grips with these tremendous structural changes. The most important structure is a unipolar world. I don't know for how long it will continue, but the United States is under a presidency that is just bent on destroying this regime.
Prof. Barry Rubin: The problem though, Hillel, is that change only takes place if the internal factors are there to bring it about, That's also true of Iraq. The internal factors in Syria may be building but they're a long way from building enough to overthrow the regime. And if Bashar and his colleagues can inspire in people a sense of national patriotism--Syria is under attack--then I think he can rally most of them. But the price may be to build up the Islamic factor in the future. There are also real limits to how far the United States is going to go, or can go, to bring down the regime.
Martha Neff Kessler: There needs to be more emphasis on the strategic change of enormous proportions of the United States being embedded in Iraq and being to the east of Syria. The entire Arab world is grappling with that new reality, that unipolar world with the United States as the sole real superpower. They have been unbalanced by it but are beginning to pull themselves together and I'm not quite sure how they are going to ultimately manage this situation. A great deal will depend on how long the United States is in Iraq. There is an attitude among Arab leaders of waiting out the clock, the next three years of this administration, and wondering what the United States is going to throw out there next. They're acutely aware of how thinly spread, how stressed the United States military establishment is in Iraq.
I think that the triangle between Iran, Hizballah and Syria has actually been strengthened. My understanding of Turkey, for example, is that it's been very uncooperative with moving in any meaningful way against the Syrian regime. I'm not so sure that the Syrian regime faces such a bleak outlook in terms of allies and institutions in support of it. I would also point out that the Syrian government has a good deal of bench strength, both in terms of its ruling family's members and in terms of what I would call the ten key individuals that Bashar Assad relies on. That group is evenly split between Sunnis and Alawites. Finally, the pressures on Syria have had an enormously galvanizing effect on a population that is deeply suspicious of the United States… I think those factors have to be taken into account.
Dr. Paul Jureidini: The fact that the January 2005 voting in Iraq was seen across the Middle East is of major importance. No Arab leader now can claim a 99% vote support. The upsurge in Lebanon, also reported in the Arab media, has had a major impact on Syria itself internally. For change to take place in Syria doesn't require a military coup. The only way for change in Syria is if you can convince the Alawite community that Bashar is endangering their survival. Go back to 1969, when President Salah Jadid began to put the Alawites in a difficult situation. Overnight the majority of the Alawite officers supported Hafiz Assad against Salah Jadid and the regime was gone.
So we may see a palace coup. The Ba'th party is meaningless. Nobody in Syria wants to be a member of a party unless it gets them a job. Even the sons of the high officials try to avoid being a member of the party. The ideology is meaningless. Nobody believes in it. The fact that Syria is an orphan--no Iraqi Ba'th in power, no support from Saudi Arabia or Egypt, the trouble in Lebanon--is not going to give Syrians a lot of confidence in Bashar Assad. He created a crisis that he did not have to create and the results are still echoing in Syria.
So I would look more toward something akin to a palace coup than to a revolution from outside the regime. The Sunnis tolerate the Alawite regime for one simple reason: they don't want another Lebanon in Syria because they know there will be blood in the streets and the Alawites will fight to the last man. They are willing to wait. But a palace coup is very likely if the Alawites can be convinced that Basher is in fact endangering their survival as the rulers of Syria and even perhaps as a community.
Martha Neff Kessler: I agree with Paul that the spectacle of Syria being basically pushed out of Lebanon in part by the United States is one that they will pay a high price for. However, I don't think that we should be misled into thinking that 50 years of influence in Lebanon can be dismantled overnight. There are still longstanding personal, family and economic relationships, Syria has assets throughout every Lebanese institution and there is the reality of geographic interconnections and common strategic interests in many ways. So, Syrian influence is in my view going to continue no matter how fully there is a withdrawal of Syria's army.
I think Syria will be able to protect its interests in Lebanon even with the formal withdrawal of all of its military forces and at least the most obvious of its intelligence components. These interests include controlling the Baka valley as it goes into Syria and blocking Lebanon from negotiating a peace agreement with Israel independent of Syria, I think they will be able to achieve these things. The key question is whether Syria can prevent instability in Lebanon from generating similar instability inside Syria.
The irony of course now is that Hizballah, which has goals of Islamist revolution which are antithetical to those of secular Syria, is now a key factor for Syrian influence in Lebanon. How Syria manages Hizballah and its continued relationship with Hizballah within the triangle of the relationship between Damascus, Tehran and Hizballah is very important. What will Hizballah become inside Lebanon, and if it remains under pressure from the United States and is not able to fulfill its mission as it sees it will it be inclined to reengage in terrorism on an international level?
Prof. Amatzia Baram: Until early 2005 there were one million Syrian workers working in Lebanon. When Syria's army gets out of Lebanon, Damascus won't be able to keep them there and the Lebanese will get rid of most of them. It's a huge loss to the Syrian economy and the Syrian economy is already in dire straits. Moreover, Syria may no longer be able to control the poppy fields that produce so much in drug revenues for the Syrian elite and won't be able to smuggle goods into Syria, which has also provided great compensation for the officers who can't be paid very high salaries by Bashar Assad.
On the economic level I think Bashar and the regime are going to be facing a huge problem. Huge. And the Ba'th system has always rested on money and gifts. If you cannot provide these things you are in big trouble. So that's an important destabilizing factor.
Today you see Sunni Arab Islamists everywhere in Syria. You see them even in the government. This is partly due to the regime's policy but also due to a strategy by the Islamists themselves to infiltrate the system rather than engage in a head-on clash with it.
When the situation is getting very bad economically, Bashar and the regime will come again under great pressure. It is in this context we have to understand Syrian support for the Iraq insurrection. There is no love lost between Assad and the Sunni Arab Islamists-that is obvious. But in order to compensate for this problem, to somehow play up to the Sunni Arab majority in Syria, I believe Assad needs to show that he is doing something to help the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, even though they are Islamists. And in fact it doesn't matter to him because they are in Iraq.
So this is a very interesting crisis situation. Less money, less employment, and more frustration inside Syria; less money to use to bribe people combined with a drive to send people cross the border into Iraq and do mischief there in order to placate his Sunni Arab audience at home. I am not sure what is going to happen -Within Iraq itself, it should be noted, the alliance of Shias which won the January 2005 election are historically on very close, very intimate, terms, with the Syrian regime. They were there for many years as political refugees. Their affinity with the Alawite leadership is quite close and suddenly they are facing a situation in which this very regime with whom they were friendly and which gave them refuge is helping people cross the border and murder Shiites, murder their own people.
I've never seen such ambivalence in Iraq before. They are at a total loss about what to do. Ironically, for the defectors from the old Ba'th party, who were anti-Syrian after all, it is easy to talk of confrontation. But for the Shia Islamists it is very difficult and an Iraqi government they head may not show a tough stand toward Syria.And so the Americans are going to have a problem now because of this ambivalence within the new Iraqi government.
Prof. Barry Rubin: If Iraq's leaders perceive that the Syrians are going to keep up the war against them, they'll have to defend themselves at some point. But let me address the Lebanon issue. If we ask what is the main source of instability in Lebanon right now the answer is that it is Syria. The Syrians want to show, in part by covertly sponsoring terrorism, that if they leave Lebanon will be in crisis. The Lebanese know that instability in their country serves Syrian interests.
Two factors have emerged in Lebanon in recent months. One of these is massive--possibly temporary--involvement of the population. This is the first time this is happened in the region on behalf of a moderate cause. The second factor is Lebanon's nation-state patriotism which is very rare in the Arab world, though Lebanon is the only place where it has really been seen before.
This movement is a very good thing involving many courageous people. But the main goal, quite understandably, is a nationalist not a democratic one. It has been to get Syria out and to reestablish what mainly amounts to the traditional Lebanese system under the traditional Lebanese political leadership. The fact that Walid Jumblatt was the most important single leader of this movement shows that it is being steered by all the old, traditional politicians who basically want to be in power.
So it is a movement not to establish a democratic liberal revolution within Lebanon--which is an outcome, it should be added, that might end up putting Hizballah into power as Lebanon's ruler--but to restore a sovereign Lebanon under the system of pluralist deal making. Under these conditions, the Lebanese leadership wants to get along with Syria; they just don't want Syria to be running the county.
Clearly Hizballah wants to be a strong factor in Lebanon. Clearly Hizballah views its claim to be continuing the war on Israel as a main factor to its advantage, its unique service to Lebanon. But I think that the new situation would tend to restrain them from doing much more than talking. The vast majority of Lebanese do not want trouble on the border. They want investment, reconstruction, they want to prove that they will maintain a stable country and do not need the Syrian army there. The number of Hizballah's cross-border attacks on Israel has fallen dramatically over the last four years.
So I think that there will be a tendency in practice--not in rhetoric--but in practice, in which Hizballah will be restrained. They will talk their talk their hardline militant rhetoric, to show why they are so important and why people should vote for them, but I think they're going to ease off. Where Hizballah is doing things is secretly, to establish its own networks and those among Palestinians it controls in Gaza and the West Bank. Remember, there is no Hamas in southern Lebanon. Hizballah has kept Hamas from organizing among the Palestinians there. It has an imperialist attitude towards Palestinian Islamists.
Martha Neff Kessler: I agree that the issue of the economic effect on Syria is a terribly important one but I would suggest that there are closer to 500,000 than to one million Syrian workers in Lebanon. It is still a serious problem but not quite the magnitude. And it's not clear to me they are all going to be ejected and the Syrians might still be able to take advantage of narcotics production in the Baka Valley. I think that the network of interrelationships are there and have certainly been strengthened over the years that Syria has been present in Lebanon. It's not clear that the economic impact is quite as dire as has been suggested.
In terms of Barry's remarks about Lebanon, I wholeheartedly agree with that. I do not believe that this is a transformative effort. I think the coalition between the Druze and the Christians is one that could very easily fall apart. I think that the actions by Jumblatt now suggest that his Pan-Arab sentiments are coming to the fore and I'm not exactly sure where that's going to go and whether they are able to make it through elections putting together a stronger democratic front. I think is very problematic. As for Syrians wanting the appearance of instability inside Lebanon right now to prove that they are the only ones that can really manage the problem, however, I think that they fully understand that trouble in Lebanon is trouble for them. Still, my personal estimate is that there is going to be some serious trouble in Lebanon and therefore it may be the major destabilizing challenge for Syria.
Dr. Jourdini: One reason why the Syrians wanted to eliminate Hariri is that he was always seen as a threat to Syria by the Syrians. I have a feeling that now that he's gone, the Sunnis basically are leaderless and the Syrians can lead. What disturbs me here is the emphasis on Hizballah as if Hizballah is the Shiite community. Hizballah is not the Shiite community of Lebanon. It's a faction, it's an important faction. The Shiites of the Baka, especially the farmers and those who raise chickens and what not, hate the Sunnis because they've destroyed their agriculture. The Shia of the south is where Hizballah recruits, not the middle Baka or the north where the tribes are located.
Hizballah gained a lot under the Syrians. Before, they were the low man on the totem pole. Right now, they've become-- because of the Syrians and the Iranians and because of their numbers--an important factor in Lebanon. But the Shia cannot remain as Syria's watch dog in Lebanon. With all the Lebanese opposed to a Syrian presence, they can't stay there as the only sycophant sect because the Lebanese are going to target them in the end. Also, a change or weakening in the regime in Syria would force the Shia to distance themselves.
But I also think that the traditional political system is basically gone in Lebanon. What you have is three communities trying to come to a new arrangement in Lebanon, even if the Shia are the majority. I suspect, and the discussions are going on, Lebanon will change its system to give one-third representation each to the Shia, Sunni, and Christians. This will affect parliament, the presidency, and the prime minister. Everybody in Lebanon fears that if things continue this way and if the Shia's high birthrate continues, within twenty years they'll dominate Lebanon completely. So everybody has an interest in this political rearrangement where everyone gets rights and the Shia get the protection they've never had, except when Syria was there.
Also there's something else. Will Ayatollah Sistani, the leading figure in Iraq, and Najaf, as the religious center for Shia there, challenge Qom and Iran as inspiration for Lebanese Shia? My point is that the relationship between the Lebanese Shia and the Syrian Alawites was a marriage of convenience. It might be more attractive for Lebanese Shia to ally themselves with other communities in Lebanon rather than with Syria, and with Iraqi Shia rather than Iranian Shia.
All communities in Lebanon see security for themselves. There are continuously shifting alliances in pursuit of this goal. The Shia of Lebanon also want to make sure that if Syria leaves, Syria weakens, or if the regime is overthrown and the Sunnis take over, they will retain the advantages they have gained since the 1970s. This can only be done by making deals with their fellow Lebanese.
Flynt Leverett: I think that one of the consequences of the course that the United States has embarked on with the cooperation of France or the European Union will be the empowerment and the strengthening of Hizballah as a force in Lebanon and as a force in the region. I find it very curious that the Bush administration, the declarer of a global war on terror in the aftermath of the Sep. 11 attacks, has put pressure on Syria, a regime that it's identified as a state sponsor of terror, to the advantage of Hizballah, the terrorist group that before September 11 killed more Americans than any terrorist group in the world and that maintains an international capability to harm American interests, that exceeds that of al-Qa'ida.
Make no mistake about it: Hizballah will emerge as a stronger political force in Lebanon. The notion that Hizballah is somehow now going to have to choose between its identity as a Lebanese political party and its identity as an Islamist resistance movement, I think is folly. That argument has been out there since the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hizballah has not had to make that choice so far. I think Hizballah's leadership is very adroit at making sure it is not put in a position where it is pressured to make that choice and Hizballah's popular standing in Lebanon has not suffered as a result of it's not making that choice. I don't think its popularity will suffer over the coming year. What the United States is doing is setting in place a dynamic which is going to lead to a more powerful, more influential Hizballah with greater political standing, and believe me, that will still have its guns. And I really don't see why that's a good thing for U.S. interests.
I thought Resolution 1559, demanding Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, was a good thing because it gave the United States leverage over something that Syria cares about. But rather than use it as leverage to pursue a range of objectives that we have with Syria--in Iraq, on anti-Israeli terrorism, on a number of other fronts--we've made pushing Syria out of Lebanon the be all and end all of our policy toward Syria. I think there's a real risk of unintended consequences here. There is no way that you can constitute a new political order in Lebanon without Hizballah playing a much more important and central role in that order than it plays even now. It will not be sustainable or truly representative without Hizballah playing that role.
Prof. Amatzia Baram- Professor Amatzia Baram is head of the Jewish-Arab Center and the Gustav Von Heinemann Middle East Institute, Haifa University. His books include Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba'thist Iraq, 1968-1989 and Building Toward Crisis: Saddam Husayn's Strategy for Survival. He is co-editor of Iraq's Road to War.
Dr. Hillel Frisch- Dr. Hillel Frisch is a Senior Research Associate at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University. He specializes in Arab and Palestinian politics, regional economic issues and military and Security affairs in the Arab world.
Dr. Paul A. Jureidini- Dr. Paul A Jureidini is a consultant to a number of corporations and private business enterprises as well as beingdirector and senior associate of Jureidini & McLaurin. From 1975-1995 Dr. Jureidini was Vice President at Abbott Associates. From 1961 to 1975, he was at the American Institutes for Research where he filled the positions of director of the Middle East Center in the Center for Research in Social Systems, and branch chief of the Middle East/Africa Branch in the Cultural Information Analysis Center. In addition to articles and research studies, Dr. Jureidini has authored seven books on the Middle East and has been a substantial contributor to six others.
Dr. Mordecai Kedar- Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a research associate of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and a lecturer at the Department of Arabic, Bar-Ilan University. His book - Asad in Search of Legitimacy: Message and Rhetoric in the Syrian Press under Hafiz and Bashar was recently published by Sussex Academic Press. Kedar's research ranges includes mass media in the Arab world, Islamic movements and gender issues in today's Islamic societies.
Martha Neff Kessler- Martha Neff Kessler was an intelligence officer with the CIA from 1970 until her retirement in 2000. She was the Assistant and the Acting National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for the Near East and South Asia as well as the author of numerous national intelligence estimates (NIEs) on Middle East issues. She headed the Directorate's efforts on the Arab-Israeli area for six years. She has also been a research scholar at the National War College and Brookings Institute, and is author of a book on Syria.
Dr. Flynt Leverett- Flynt Leverett worked in the CIA, where he was senior analyst on Syria, at the State Department's Policy Planning Staff where he worked on the Middle East and counterterrorism as senior director for Middle East Affairs. He is now at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution as a visiting fellow and has just published a book on Syria.
Prof. Barry Rubin- Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research for International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. He is editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs MERIA) Journal and of Turkish Studies Journal. His books include Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, The Tragedy of the Middle East, and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East.
There's a certain familiarity to the scenario: A Baathist regime is clinging to power in a key Arab country that has a history of making trouble for its neighbors. The ruler of this country comes from a religious minority that imposes its will through control of the military and the intelligence service. The people in the country want change, but they fear instability.
So what does the United States do about it? Three years ago with Iraq, the answer was to prepare a military invasion. As we can see from the daily newspaper headlines, that approach hasn't worked out too well.
The Bush administration is now trying a different approach in Syria. But it's hard to sort out from public statements just what that policy is. So, over the past several weeks, I have been asking senior administration officials privately to explain their game plan. It's fair to say that it's a "work in progress" but one that offers some promise -- especially for Syrians who would like to see a peaceful process of democratic change.
Administration officials say their goal is to change Syrian behavior rather than the regime itself. They argue that President Bashar Assad has been supporting violent extremists in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories and most of all in Iraq. That's "unacceptable," says a senior administration official, and Assad must show he's serious about change. "We are not trying to destabilize Syria, but we are trying to change the conduct of the regime," he says.
A second senior administration official notes: "Assad needs to make a strategic choice for change. That's the only way he saves himself. Otherwise he's isolated." The officials say they're unimpressed by arguments that a post-Assad Syria could be as bloody and chaotic as post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has become. As for Assad's claims that he's fostering internal reform, administration officials are underwhelmed. They say the regime's pressure on dissidents has actually increased in recent weeks.
The administration's true goal is "regime change on the cheap," according to former CIA analyst Flynt Leverett, now at the Brookings Institution. That may be right; certainly there are some officials who would be happy if a coup toppled Assad.
The problem with U.S. policy is actually that it's too blase about the future of Syria. Here's an arena where the administration could be more aggressive -- not in the sense of threatening military action or a coup but in the sense of engaging reform elements in Syria and encouraging change more openly and directly. Syrians are sophisticated and secular people, and they're tired of being poor. They see the world changing, and they want to be part of that process. As for Assad, the reality is that internal reform may be the only way for him to save his ruling Alawite Muslim minority from an eventual bloodbath.
The right goal in Syria is, in fact, a peaceful process of regime change -- led by Assad if he has the political will, or by someone else if he doesn't. The Syrian leader consolidated power last month at a congress of the ruling Baath Party. In the following days, he purged most of the Old Guard that was seen as blocking reform. That means Assad now has nobody to blame but himself.
America's best approach is the one that has worked in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon. That is to foster strong civil society groups that can gradually open a process of internal debate. As in post-communist societies, the challenge is to provide resources to democratic activists -- scholarships, fellowships, conferences, grants. The web of change should be spun from all directions -- Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Europe, America.
Another reason to be ambitious about change in Syria is that the effort has an international mandate. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, provides a legal framework for monitoring Syria. The administration also has a powerful partnership with France, which wants to maintain the pressure on Damascus. When French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy visited Washington last week, he mentioned the possibility that the Lebanese army might move to the Syrian border in a show of force to stop Syria from infiltrating intelligence agents into Lebanon and smuggling weapons to Hezbollah. That's a good idea.
History doesn't often present second opportunities to get it right. But the United States and its allies now have a chance to prod a Baathist regime into a peaceful transition toward democratic reforms, under the mandate of a U.N. resolution. America needs some successes in the Arab world, amid the Iraq fiasco. Working to replicate Lebanon's reform intifada in neighboring Syria makes good sense. [end]
"Syria's next 5-year Plan," by Oxford Business Group
Syria: Making Plans Oxford Business Group 13 July 2005
Dominating debate in Damascus this week has been the country's 10th 5-year plan, which is being finalised in the face of mounting challenges.
Looking ahead to the 2006-2010 period, state planners have been trying to fresh a new approach to boost the reform process, integrate local businesses and sharpen their competitive edges.
Yet, as holistic as the new approach hopes to be, critics of the plan range from those concerned about injecting more efficiency and flexibility into the system to those labelling the whole process as outmoded.
The government line is, however, somewhat different - and stresses the usefulness of the plan to conducting reform.
Recently interviewed by the local press, Abdullah Dardari, minister of state for planning affairs and head of the State Planning Committee (SPC), said that the rationale behind the plan was to co-ordinate the various strategies currently developed at ministerial levels with the ultimate goal of establishing a market economy. These include strategies in economic reform, export promotion, investment, agriculture and industry - as well as in social policy.
Also called the National Indicative Plan (NIP), the 5-year scheme is the result of 15 months of negotiations. The inclusion of the private and public sectors, as well as civil society, in the drafting of the plan this time also constitutes a major novelty.
To co-ordinate these efforts, 14 different sectoral workshops are to be set up, each of them with a clear and specified programme. These channels will hopefully maintain dialogue and ensure synergies.
The private-sector's role in developing the plan stands as a testimony to its growing influence over the economy. Private business now accounts for 60% of total GDP, and there is no doubt it has become the major driving force of the economy. In society at large too, some 1m Syrians are widely believed to fully depend on private charitable institutions for their living, making them partners to be reckoned with.
Also boosting the private sector's importance has been the shift in government revenue streams over the last five years. In the past, oil revenues meant taxation was only rarely enforced. But with Syria likely to start importing major quantities of crude oil in the next few years, government revenues will have to come more from taxes.
Reform of the tax system has therefore been a recent priority. But many argue that one issue the government must also concentrate on is its outdated productive assets.
Bearing in mind that privatisation is still off the agenda, the government wants to bring private investment and management into loss-making firms - mainly food-processing industries - through build-operate-transfer (BOT) contracts. This process, also named corporatisation, might actually mean little more than applying trade laws to these companies, making them private only in form, but not in substance. Yet as none of the country's many loss-making industries have actually gone through this process, it is hard to predict how successful it might be.
For the small number of textile, engineering and chemical firms which do break even, however, the government seems resolute to pump in extra cash and modernise them. But in case of failure, there would be little other option than to call for external help. As far as the few profitable businesses are concerned, the state has made it clear it will remove any protectionist measures assisting them within two years. They would then have to compete on an equal basis with other companies.
Elsewhere, the government has committed to applying the principles set by the Euromed Charter for Enterprises endorsed in October 2004. The charter aims to facilitate access to both financing and new markets, streamline administrative procedures, upgrade the education and training for entrepreneurship and improve quality control and transparency.
To boost awareness of the charter, on July 13, the second Industrial Forum session, organised by the Syrian-European Business Centre (SEBC), will be held in Damascus. Dardari will be there, along with a wide spectrum of public officials and EU delegation Ambassador Frank Hesske.
Promoting this charter is also another way to support small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), whose contribution to the economy is increasing.
Part of the reason for this heightened role is the dominance of SMEs in rapidly developing sectors such as IT. These businesses are taking on more outsourcing, a niche market in which some local IT firms, such as Inana Group or Syriacomm, have already secured a place. As Syria is lagging behind in technology, the government has significantly deregulated the framework in which service companies operate.
The Syrian economic landscape appears therefore to be becoming more polarised. On one side, IT firms are becoming models to emulate by setting new demanding operating standards at all levels. But on the other, the state is engaged in a race to dismantle and/or upgrade its inefficient assets. Attempting to bridge these two extremes has become the difficult task entrusted to the hands of the SPC.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has this to say about freezing the assets of Syrian Officials. It's hard to see how this will make for an effective policy. With the growing number of executive orders, embargo restrictions, no ambassador in Syria, and the designation of Syria as a terrorist state, the US and Syria are carrying out low grade, economic and legal battles on an ever expanding front.
The Treasury Department's ability to freeze the assets of any individual believed to pose a threat to U.S. national security is a result of EO 13224, issued on December 20, 2002. While designations at the outset affect only those financial accounts registered in the United States, EO 13224 also authorizes the department to impose sanctions on any individual, organization, or foreign bank that provides services to SDNs. Furthermore, SDNs and their representatives can be and often are banned from entering the United States.
Kanaan and Ghazali: Supporting Terrorism
Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow explained that the designations of Kanaan and Ghazali as SDNs were "intended to financially isolate bad actors supporting Syria's efforts to destabilize its neighbors." Indeed, the designations referred in detail to the role these individuals played in Lebanon. In August 2001, the Syrian government feared that an alliance was forming between Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanese speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, and a Lebanese sectarian leader. To discourage the formation of an anti-Syrian alliance, Damascus sent Kanaan as its representative to impress Syrian interests on Berri. Berri was then asked to convey these interests to all members of the Lebanese parliament. Kanaan also oversaw the entire 2000 Lebanese parliamentary electoral process. In 2002, Ghazali replaced Kanaan as head of Syrian military intelligence, and Ghazali continued the policies of his predecessor by ensuring that the Lebanese political atmosphere matched the interests of the Syrian government.
The current designation statement also makes reference to support by Kanaan and Ghazali for foreign terrorist organizations, including Hizballah. According to the Treasury Department, Kanaan met with Hizballah leaders in May 2001 and obtained their agreement not to execute any military operations without first notifying Syria, but to continue their casing and reconnaissance operations. In 2002, Kanaan is alleged to have personally escorted the delivery of three rockets to Hizballah as part of a convoy that crossed over the Syria-Lebanon border. Kanaan's influence over Lebanon's military and security services was extensive as well. In 2001, for example, a commander in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) reported that any weapon and security permits for LAF personnel would need to be signed by Kanaan himself to be considered valid. Ghazali maintained similar influence; U.S. authorities believe that he instructed the commanders of the LAF Directorate of Intelligence, Internal Security Forces, and Directorate of General Security to report to him on a daily basis. Innovative Designation
The U.S. government's action in the case of Kanaan and Ghazali is both atypical and innovative. Although several senior Middle Eastern government officials have in the past been connected to terrorism and other illicit dealings, not one has been designated as an SDN until now. Consider these examples:
--According to U.S. intelligence, Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Khouli and his aide, Col. Haytham Said of Syria's Air Force Security Directorate, were directly linked to the 1986 Nizar Hindawi affair. These two officials promised Jordanian national Hindawi 250,000 British pounds in exchange for placing a bag of explosives on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv and took part in the planning, financing, training, and recruiting for the operation. The case led Britain to suspend diplomatic relations with Syria. Hindawi, the bomber, was ultimately sentenced to forty-five years in prison by the British High Court.
--Ali Fallahian, then–Iranian minister of intelligence and security, played an active role in the execution of terrorist attacks in several countries, including the infamous 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center (also known as the AMIA building) in Buenos Aires.
--In April 1993, Iraqi intelligence operatives attempted to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush during his trip to Kuwait. Two suspects, Raiad Asadi and Wali Abdulhadi Ghazali, both Iraqi nationals, admitted to FBI agents that they had participated in the plot under the leadership of senior Iraqi officials. The two informed U.S. intelligence that on April 12, 1993, they met in Basra with "individuals they believed to be associated with the Iraqi Intelligence Service" and received instructions on how to carry out the assassination.
--In 1992, U.S. and UN sanctions were imposed on Libya following that country's implication in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. While Libya was subject to sanctions, the accounts of specific individuals were not frozen. On September 12, 2003, the sanctions were finally lifted as the country officially accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and compensated victims' families. Two men suspected of carrying out the bombing were tried before a Scottish court. One suspect, Lamen Khalifa Fhimah, was acquitted of all charges. The other, Abdul Basset Ali al-Merahi, was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Neither man was designated on any Treasury Department list, nor were any senior-level Libyan intelligence officials who likely played a direct role in plotting and financing the attack. Conclusion
Despite the fact that neither Ghazi Kanaan nor Rustum Ghazali is likely to hold a U.S. bank account, their designation is a clear shot across the bow of the Syrian government. The ratcheting up of U.S. pressure on Syria should be seen in the light of that country's continued interference in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism. In June, White House spokesman Scott McClellan warned of reports that Syria had developed a "hit list targeting key Lebanese public figures of various political and religious persuasions for assassination." And, speaking at the July G-8 meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice challenged Damascus to take more action to prevent cross-border activities that contribute to insecurity in Iraq.
Focusing on individual officials is a creative measure that strongly signals Washington's continued concern with Syria's disruptive activities. But on their own, such designations are more symbolic than substantive. If Syrian behavior with regard to Lebanon, Iraq, terror, and proliferation does not change significantly, additional designations and further measures may well need to be considered.
Matthew Levitt is director of The Washington Institute's Terrorism Studies Program. Jamie Chosak is a research assistant with the program.
Richard Norton-Taylor and Michael Howard in Irbil Monday July 11, 2005 The Guardian
Britain and the US are privately planning to withdraw most of their forces from Iraq by early next year, according to a secret memo written by John Reid, the UK defence secretary.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said on Tuesday that some Iraqi cities were secure enough so that US and Coalition troops could withdraw from them soon. He defended, however, a US military presence in the short term, and opposed a precise timetable for US withdrawal.
Al-Hayat says that its sources say the US will begin withdrawing troops at the end of 2005 from provinces where the Iraqi military and security forces can keep the peace. The withdrawal is dependent on the Iraqis being able to finalize a constitution and adopt it through a national referendum, however. (Nicked from Informed Comment)
Juan Cole also writes:
Al-Hayat says that the parliamentary committee in Iraq charged with writing a constitution by August 15 is increasingly split. The Sunni Arabs on it are saying they fear a loose federalism will lead to a partition of the country into statelets. The Kurds reply that the Sunni objections are "illegitimate."
The dispute concerns the first sentence in the constitution, a draft of which defines Iraq as "federal."
Over the weekend, a Shiite representative of Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for Iraq to be formally termed "the Islamic Republic of Iraq" in the Constitution.
Sunni Arabs are also insisting that Iraq be termed "an indivisible part of the Arab nation," whereas the Kurds object that Iraq is a multicultural society. A special subcommittee has been formed to try to iron out these fundamental differences.
What does this news mean for Syria? For some time I have written about how America's dual policies: 1. Stabilizing Iraq, and 2. Democratizing the Greater Middle East, are largely contradictory, at least in the short term.
Policy 1 suggests the US must make friends with, or work closely with Iraq's neighboring authoritarian regimes, such as Syria and Iran, in order to stop the flow of insurgents into Iraq. The US seems to be doing just this and has made it clear it no longer seeks regime-change in Syria, if in fact there ever was such a consensus in Washington, which I doubt.
Policy 2 is taking a back seat in Washington right now, which means that democratization, cannot be advanced with vigor, hence the new honeymoon between Bush and Bashar. President Bashar is helping this dialogue along with his recent arrests of foreign militants in Syria. This does not mean that America abandons democracy in the region. It means that it must stabilize Iraq first and help consolidate some semblance of pluralism and a working state in Baghdad before it takes on the whole Middle East. Bush will use his bully-pulpit to cajole and urge Arab government toward Democracy, but he will not threaten to upend them, as he did so blithely several years ago.
The confusion among Iraqis over the nature of its constitution and the identity of its people is not unique to Iraq. Syria suffers the same identity disputes and sectarian intolerance that underpin Iraq's troubles.
Were the constitutional question to be opened up in Syria, as it has been in Iraq, we would see similar disputes over its Islamic-Arab-Syrian identity. This dispute springs from divided nature of Syria's sectarian and ethnic communities. To see evidence of the plentiful misunderstandings, read the comment section on this earlier post "Syria: a Monopoly on Democracy," by Aita from Le Monde Dipl., or the on the two posts that precede it.
Here is the moving note I received Samir Aita, the author of the article I posted, which elicited the sectarian battle among commentators. It reads:
I woke up this morning and found that you have posted the article on your blog. Thank you for that and for your appreciation. I also read the comments, which made me very sad. You can not imagine how sad. The gentlemen making the comments did not discuss the article, they develop hatred between each other. I got so sad reading what they wrote, that I even regretted for a moment why I wrote the whole article.
Then I remembered that this article resulted from discussions made with young Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia, looking to know their history and searching to build something different from "the constructive instability" and authoritarianism. They all shared the "Jasmin" hope, as a democratic and secular one. They all refused exactly the type of hatred that are in the comments. They all liked my "I have a dream" (for Syria) published last year.
I hope that your commentators could share their strength, dreams and respect of differences.
One Syrian commentator wrote: "I always hope to read an intelligent dialoged but after what I have read today I feel Syria is not ready for democracy."
Another commentator suggested that agents of the Baath Party were posting the divisive sectarian comments in order to prove that Syria is not ready for democracy and provide an argument for the perpetuation of dictatorship.
I doubt anyone in the government has the creativity, or daring, or even real interest in doing this. Sectarian misunderstanding is real in Syria, as it is in Iraq and Lebanon. Why should we doubt its existence or underestimate it? Better to confront it head on before it rears its ugly head at some future crisis. The policy of taboos about honest airing of sectarian grievances put in place by successive Syrian governments has not worked to produce social harmony or to erase the subnational fault lines that divide Syrians. Only honest dialogue can do that.
Once again, Sami Moubayed nails the Syrian scene. Here is his latest article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is a real honor to be asked to write for them. Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Institute is the driving force behind its Middle East activities. Read this article by her. It is about the smartest out there: Can Its Middle East Policy Serve Democracy? By Marina Ottaway.
When the Baath Party held its conference in Damascus on June 6-9, it had no intention to reform Syria. It wanted to repair Syria. This distinction is critical to interpreting what is going on. The Arabic word for either reform or repair is “islah,” which means literally “to restore to sound condition after damage or injury.” Reform, on the other hand, means to form again, which in Syria 's case would mean to begin a non-Baathist political era.
Before the conference, speculation was rife about a “jasmine revolution,” in which President Bashar Al Asad would launch a peaceful coup against everyone and everything Baathist, akin to what President Anwar Al Sadat of Egypt did after coming to power in 1970. Among other things, Syrians were hoping for a general amnesty, pardon for political exiles, creation of a multi-party system, retirement of the so-called old guard of the Baath, and abolishing article 8 of the Syrian Constitution, which enshrines the Baath as the ruling party. Instead, the message that emerged from the conference was that the Baath would do what it took to survive, and was here to stay.
Among the major announcements of the conference was that a law authorizing independent political parties would be issued soon, thereby apparently ending the 40-year Baath monopoly. While in itself a positive step, there were two catches. First, there was never any intention of amending the constitutional article on Baath supremacy. Second, the law would prevent the emergence of any Islamic party. The two conditions for licensing are that new parties must be neither Islamic nor based on sub-Syrian nationalism (Kurdish for example). The Baath regime was threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood twice, in 1964 and 1982. Since then, Islamists have been rooted out of public political life in Syria, moving underground. The continued refusal to allow Islamists legitimate political participation will only lead to increased militancy.
The other significant result of the conference was the retirement of nearly all the old-timers in the regime, a move warmly received by the Syrian people. Among those to lose their jobs were former chief of staff Ali Aslan, former chief of military intelligence Hassan Khalil, former director of political security Adnan Bader Hasan, former vice president Abd Al Halim Khaddam, former prime minister Muhammad Mustapha Miro, former defense minister Mustapha Tlas, former assistant secretary generals of the Baath Party Abdullah Al Ahmar and Sulayman Qaddah, former speaker of parliament Abd Al Qadir Qaddura, and generals Shafiq Al Fayyad and Ibrahim Al Safi. The average age gap between the young president and these retired officials is 30 years. The other major change came one week after the conference when Al Asad replaced Bahjat Sulayman, the powerful director of interior security, with Fouad Nassif, an officer from military intelligence. With the exception of Foreign Minister Farouk Al Shara, the only ones to stay behind in the Baath Party are relatively new faces who emerged under Bashar such as Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al Otari, Speaker of Parliament Mahmud Al Abrash, Defense Minister Hasan Turkmani, Finance Minister Muhammad Husayn, and Minister of Expatriate Affairs Buthaina Shaaban.
This shake-up puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the Syrian president. It also suggests that perhaps he has been in control all along. Many Syrians have believed that their president truly wanted reform but was prevented from carrying it out by aged politicians who did not want to upset the status quo or share power. Whether that was true or not, President Al Asad now clearly is free to surround himself with reform-minded officials and create the sort of Syria he wishes. The majority of the Syrians are still waiting and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The Syrian regime has decided to reform, marginally, and used the party conference —intended to increase Al Asad's popularity and restore disgruntled Syrians' confidence in the party and the state—to create a united front and ward off U.S. pressure. In any case, democratic reform in Syria has not generally been a priority for the United States. With the exception of Secretary of State Rice's June 20 remarks in Cairo, not one senior U.S. official has come out to harangue Syria for its one-party regime. On the contrary, the United States generally criticizes Syria about foreign affairs issues (the resistance in Palestine, Hezbollah operations in south Lebanon, and Iraq) on which there happens to be a consensus between President Al Asad and the Syrian people. Al Asad has now dealt handily with U.S. pressure and shown Syrians and the world that the Baath may indeed repair itself, but it will not step down, and sees no need to “re-form” Syria.
Dr Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is the author of Damascus Between Democracy and Dictatorship 1948-1958 (University Press of America 2000) and Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005).
Mideastwire.com - An extraordinary service. Thank Nicholas Noe
Nicholas Noe, the Editor in Chief of Mideastwire.com based in Lebanon has just written to ask if I would help get the word out about "MideastWire.com." I get many requests like this and often hem and haw over whether it is worth boring my readers with another advertisement.
But this is the real deal. Mideast Wire aggregates all the news about the Middle East from major papers - translating the Arabic papers into English - in an easy and accessible format. WOW! This is what we have all dreamed of. For those of us who don't have the thousands of dollars to subscribe to FBIS, the Foreign Broadcasting Information Service, here is the answer to our dreams.
Nicholas Noe and his team, backers, and whomever else have invested the gobs of money and time that this service obviously requires, are to be thanked and loved! For now the service is free. God knows how they plan to make money - but I hope it is trough advertising and not future subscriptions. All the same, this is an amazing new source that should put blogs like "Syria Comment" out of business.
God Bless Mideastwire.com. Here is their section on Syria for today, in which we learn that Syria’s new policy to be part of “the war on terrorism” has led to many arrests of foreigners suspected of terrorism or wanting to join the Iraqi mujahidiin. This news supports the notion that Bashar - who claims to now "be in power" in Damascus after consolidating his leadership during early June - is caring out a dialogue with Washington, which in turn has moderated its stand toward Syria. The two are testing each other to see how serious each is about delivering on promises and rebuilding a working relationship.
Syria "Assad: I am preparing for the day when Syrians may vote for someone else" (Ahsharq Alawsat)
Terror arrests in Syria near Iraq border
Asharq Alawsat, a Saudi owned, pan Arab newspaper, reported on July 12 that
“security forces in Syria arrested yesterday a terrorist group of 11 members, from different Arab nationalities, among whom are Saudis, Yemenis, Libyans and Tunisians, while they were attempting to head to Iraq.” The information Asharq Alawsat received indicated that the chase occurred in the Abu Shamat desert, on the route to Iraq. The security forces said that the whole group was captured at once, and they turned out to be extremists who were planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Asharq Alawsat reported that a Syrian source said that Iraqi officials did not provide a Syrian diplomatic delegation with any proof or documents showing that terrorists are crossing from Syria. The newspaper said the Iraqi discussions, “were marked with generalities and the usual talk about the necessity to control the borders and arrest members of the old regime.” The source said that the Syrian delegation “explained to the Iraqi side that Syria put in a lot of effort to control the borders with Iraq by setting more than 500 checkpoints along these borders.” - Asharq Al Awsat, Pan Arab
A campaign of random arrests hits Syria; targets include Jordanian students
Al Quds Al Arabi, an independent pan Arab newspaper based in London, reported on July 12,
that “human rights organizations in Syria said that security forces in Homs arrested 50 people on July 6.” The organization said that the security forces were looking for Jordanian students and that most of the arrested were between the ages of 16 and 20. The NGOs called on the security forces to stop random arrests and to free all political prisoners held in its jails, lift the state of emergency and reform the judicial system.
The newspaper reported that other organizations also have loged complaints about people being randomly arrested such as the 150 Algerians that were deported for their suspected links with armed groups. The newspapers claimed that, “the Syrian government in collaboration with the Algerian ministry of interior has adopted a new policy whereby it will deport anyone it suspects of having ties with armed groups, or those attempting to get to Iraq to join the Iraqi armed resistance.”
Lebanese officials confirmed that up to 1,300 people from the Arab Gulf and Africa have been deported back to their countries from Syria. This is part of a campaign where raids have been conducted all over the capital Damascus, targeting alleged terrorists, Al Quds Al Arabi said. Political analysts say that this maybe part of Syria’s new policy to be part of “the war on terrorism” to ease the pressures that the US is exerting on Syria. - Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom
Morning Edition, July 11, 2005 • Contact with some political groups is illegal in Syria. Officials have cracked down on meetings and arrested several dissidents. But two leaders from different groups are challenging the Syrian government by publicly meeting in London.
Hello Joshua, I wish you would dig deeper than that. Islamists control the SNC we invited everyone to and that is why RPS pulled out. They used the State Dept. to grandfather the meetings we invited them to show they are supported. Best, Farid
This goes some way to explaining what is going on among the foreign opposition, but it is still rather unclear to me.
Here is the transcript of the Amos radio report:
FOR THE FIRST TIME, A LEADING SYRIAN DISSIDENT HAS CHALLENGED THE REGIME OF SYRIAN PRESIDENT BASHAR AL ASSAD BY MEETING PUBLICLY WITH THE LEADER OF AN OUTLAWED ISLAMIST GROUP…THE MOSLEM BROTHERHOOD.
MEMBERSHIP IN THE BROTHERHOOD, EVEN COLLABORATION WITH THE GROUP, IS A CAPITAL OFFENSE IN SYRIA. THE MEETING TOOK PLACE IN LONDON.
BOTH THE SYRIAN DISSIDENT, AND THE ISLAMISTS AGREED THAT DEMOCRACY IS THE WAY TO SOLVE SYRIA’S PROBLEMS AS NPR’S DEBORAH AMOS REPORTS FROM DAMASCUS.
(Music of opening of the program)
IN A CRAMPED LIVING ROOM POLITICAL DISSIDENTS GATHERED FOR A SATELLITE TV BROADCAST ON AN ARAB NEWS CHANNEL FROM LONDON. THE PROGRAM OPENED WITH A QUOTE FROM THE KORAN, THEN A TITLE: “DEMOCRACY” WRITTEN IN BOLD ENGLISH AND ARABIC LETTERS.
ON THE SCREEN, TWO MEN, FROM OPPOSITE SIDES OF THE POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS SPECTRUM, SAT SIDE BY SIDE.
Riad al Turk speaking in Arabic – just use this for pacing – a second or two)
RIAD AL TURK SPENT 17 YEARS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT FOR MEMBERSHIP IN SYRIA’S COMMUNIST PARTY. HE WAS INTENSE AND RUMPLED….BUT STILL THE MOST RESPECTED MEMBER OF SYRIA’S POLITICAL OPPOSITION.
(ambience of Sadr al Deen Bayanouni in Arabic)
SADR AL DEEN BAYANOUNI LEADS SYRIA’S MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, BANNED IN SYRIA – EXILED IN LONDON.
IN HIS WELL- CUT WESTERN SUIT AND NEAT BEARD, BAYANOUNI SEEMED MORE LIKE A POLITICAL SCIENCE PROFESSOR THAN THE LEADER OF AN OUTLAWED ISLAMIST MOVEMENT. THE UNUSUAL BROADCAST WAS A MESSAGE THAT ANY GROUP, EVEN ISLAMISTS, WHO SUPPORT IN DEMOCRACY, ARE WELCOME TO CHALLENGE THE RULING POWER IN SYRIA SAYS A MEMBER OF THE DOMESTIC OPPOSITION.
“We need democracy by any way, we need gatherings, and we need demonstrations to invent political life. We need time.”
KEMEL LABOUNI, WHO SPENT THREE YEARS IN PRISON, ADMITS THIS NEW DIALOUGE WITH THE BANNED MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IS A RISK. BUT OPPOSITION GROUPS ARE ALREADY UNDER THREAT. IN THE PAST FEW WEEKS SOME OPPOSTION MEMBERS HAVE BEEN JAILED. MARWAN KABALAN, A PROFESSOR AT DAMASCUS UNIVERSITY, SAYS THE REGIME IS CRACKING DOWN.
“ I feel like they are so much afraid to change.”
KABALAN SAYS WHILE SYRIA’S PRESIDENT SUPPORTS POLITICAL REFORMS, SOME PARTS OF THE REGIME STILL WILL NOT TOLERATE DISSENT.
‘It’s better for every body, for Syria, for the government for the opposition, to just talk.”
BUT NO ONE IS TALKING TO SYRIA’S OPPOSITION…NOT THE SYRIAN REGIME, OR THE US GOVERNMENT.
JOSH LANDIS, AN AMERICAN ACADEMIC LIVING IN DAMASCUS, SAYS SYRIA HAS BEEN LEFT OUT OF WASHINGTON’S POLICY TO PROMOTE DEMOCRATIC CHANGE IN THE MIDDLE EAST. THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION’S DEMANDS ARE AIMED AT CHANGING SYRIA’S EXTERNAL BEHAVIOR. WASHINGTON WANTS AN END THE FLOW OF ARAB MILITANTS INTO NEIGHBORING IRAQ, AND TO STOP INTERFERING IN NEIGHBORING LEBANON.
“None of those things concern democracy in Syria and this leaves the opposition high and dry. They realize they have no ally in America.”
LANDIS SAYS IT IS UNLIKELY WASHINGTON WILL PROMOTE DEMOCRACY IN SYRIA, OR PRESSURE FOR INTERNAL REFORM.
“Because that means when you ask Bashar to treat the democrats responsibly, then you have to reward him when he does it, and that means dialogue, carrots not just the stick. It’s completely antithetical to the present policy.”
FOR MARWAN KALABAN, WASHINGTON’S POLICY OF ALL STICKS AND NO CARROTS HAS UNDERMINED HOPE FOR SYRIA’S POLITICAL REFORMERS.
“The Americans are not willing to talk to the Syrian regime, the Syrian regime is not willing to talk to the opposition and the opposition cannot talk to any of them. So how are we going to resolve this? It’s a very complicated and difficult situation.”
SYRIA’S MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD IS WILLING TO TALK – ABOUT DEMOCRACY – AND REFORM…AND SYRIA’S POLITICAL DISSIDENTS ARE LISTENING. DEBORAH AMOS NPR NEWS DAMASCUS.
"Syria: a Monopoly on Democracy," by Aita from Le Monde Dipl.
The following article by Samir Aita in Le Monde Diplomatique is excellent. The same issue of Le Monde Diplo also has an interesting article, entitled, "Constructive instability," by Walid Charara that puts Syria into over-arching US policy. The lead sentence of the article is:
The United States seems stubbornly determined to extend its current high-risk strategy of democratic destabilisation to the entire Middle East.
One comment on Walid Charara's article: I think even the neo-conservatives are beginning to trim their sails on "regime change" in Syria. They do not want more Islamism in the region. The Iraq example has scared them, and they seem to be backing away from an early propensity to promote regime-change at any cost, even if it meant a period of chaos. Their "damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead," mentality is giving way to a more cautious "change Syria's behavior" approach. This is in line with Secretary Rice's formulation.
After 40 years the dominant role played by Syria's Ba’ath party is under threat. The crisis has been aggravated by events in neighbouring Lebanon from which Damascus has had to withdraw its troops, but its real causes are internal.
It is a long time since political debate in Syria has been so open. Everything is up for discussion — particularly the United States’ invasion of Iraq and the resistance it has met; and the promised post-Saddam democracy, now bogged down in ethnic and religious complexities. Syrians want more political rights, freedom and reform, but without US-inspired “constructive instability”. They understand that before there can be democracy there must be a state; but they want a state that isn’t dominated by a corrupt government or by US tanks. The mood in the country has become sombre, particularly since the collapse of the French alliance and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
It is worth recalling how Syria was built upon a democratic compromise after the first world war. France wanted to divide the country into separate states along religious and regional lines (Damascus, Aleppo, the Alawites, the Druze). The various political elites joined to achieve total unification (1936-42). They overrode popular opposition and conceded the creation of an independent Lebanon, including four districts that had previously depended on Damascus, to avoid the creation of an intractable confessional Lebanese state, with a Maronite majority, on Syria's borders. The democratic compromise took into account the strong regionalism that existed, particularly around Damascus and Aleppo, and opened the way to a range of political parties which, though populist, had no religious or regional ideology. The Ba'ath party emerged from this process.
Throughout the six decades since independence, the people of Syria experienced only a dozen years of real political freedom. This period was broken by a series of coups (1949-1953) that resulted from the struggle for influence among western powers, and by the union with Nasser’s Egypt (1958-1961), forced through by Syria’s leaders. Syria's awakening democratic tradition had proved itself capable of energy and originality: Syria's political parties and some members of the armed forces had assembled at Homs in 1953 to “thank” the dictator Adib Shishakli (1949-53) and, uniquely for an Arab country at the time, to organise free elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the communists each secured a seat. But the young democracy was not immune from anti-colonial and social unrest, external cold war rivalries and particularly from the politicisation of the army.
However, despite these problems, the period saw the creation of the main institutions of the Syrian state (in 1953 it was the first Arab country to establish a central bank), high rates of economic growth and the democratisation of education and health.
Few Syrians today, particularly the young, know much about this period. They grew up in the shadow of Hafez al-Assad, who established a stable and authoritarian regime in 1970 when his “correction movement” ousted a rival Ba'athist military regime that had taken power through a military coup six years earlier. Assad used part of the country’s Alawite community to assert his domination (1).
Stability under Assad came at a price. At first the regime allowed some latitude to the urban bourgeoisie and included a few political parties in a National Progressive Front. Then came the 1973 October war with Israel (also known as the Ramadan or Yom Kippur war). Syria came through this ordeal in a spirit of national unity, but that unity fractured in 1976 with Assad's intervention in Lebanon against the Palestinian resistance and its leftwing allies. The regime harshly repressed demands to end the state of emergency (2) that came from a movement rooted in civil society, including professional unions (lawyers, engineers, etc) and political parties outside the front, whose members rotted for decades in prison.
The situation deteriorated further when Syria was shaken by a wave of attacks by radical Islamists, supported by the rival Iraqi Ba'ath party under Saddam Hussein. Syria came close to civil war with the massacres at Palmyra (1980) and Hama (1982). The Sunni bourgeoisie went on strike but then, in Damascus, decided to compromise rather than destroy the nation.
Syria was plunged into darkness. The long black years were marked by family rivalries within the Assad clan, particularly involving the president’s brother Rifaat, and by confrontations with the US, France and Britain. Syria supported the Iranian revolution of 1979 and built an alliance with the Soviet Union. Despite a unanimous Arab boycott of Egypt, which had unilaterally made peace with Israel at Camp David in 1979, Syria remained isolated from its neighbours. But the regime survived, even after the defeat of the army when Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982 and managed to establish itself as a leading player in Lebanese politics.
A first turning point came in 1986. Bankruptcy forced the government to promote agricultural production, even offering financial support to former landowners damaged by agrarian reform. Private companies benefited from the liberalisation of foreign trade. The regime secured the country’s food supply and restored its relationship with the middle classes. At the same time, although formally rejecting any assistance from international financial institutions, the regime voluntarily introduced a structural adjustment programme of the sort favoured by the International Monetary Fund. Soon all that remained of Syrian socialism was its single party and its state bureaucracy.
There was another turning point in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin wall, when Syria made an unpopular U-turn by joining the coalition against Saddam. It seemed a glorious new dawn. The 1989 Taif accord brought peace to Lebanon and international acceptance of Syrian control. Negotiations began with Israel for the return to Syrian sovereignty of the Golan Heights, which Israel had occupied since the Six Day war of 1967. Thanks to the first liberalisation reforms and oil exports, economic growth accelerated.
But this slight improvement did not last. Syrian agencies in Lebanon and a section of the nomenklatura got involved in the questionable business deals on which the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri built his reconstruction policy. And the Middle East peace process stalled when Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Barak, went back on a deal that Assad had hoped to make his lasting legacy: Assad had gone to Geneva in March 2000 in a final determined attempt to reach a deal with US president Bill Clinton. The failure of that meeting came as a huge shock. Maybe the US and Israel had decided that the “lion” of Damascus was too old to make peace; or maybe they reckoned that the perpetuation of instability served their interests better.
Assad died soon after, in June 2000. A quick rewrite of the constitution allowed his son, Bashar, to succeed him as president, despite his youth. The international community turned a blind eye. US secretary of state Madeleine Albright attended Assad's funeral and approved the succession; the French president, Jacques Chirac, did the same. Bashar's inaugural speech roused hopes, particularly among Syrians and Lebanese, that things were finally about to change for the better. People began to dream of restored freedoms, of economic reforms bringing work and prosperity, and of a new international image.
But, five years on, nothing much has changed. The new president had to deal with the fall-out from 9/11. The Syrian regime, which escaped the Islamist jihadism experienced by its neighbours, regarded the US conquest of Iraq less as the removal of a rival than as the destruction of one of its few secular Arab neighbours. Like other states bordering Iraq, Syria profited from sanctions-busting. It joined France, Belgium and Germany in opposing the United Nations Security Council endorsement of the US war. Faced with the fait accompli, it hoped, like France and Germany, to take a stabilising role in Baghdad, particularly since it had maintained links with Iraq’s Ba'athist, as well as tribal and religious, leaders.
But the Bush administration wasn’t interested. Its battle was ideological. It increased pressure on Syria, particularly with the adoption by Congress in November 2003 of the Syria Accountability Act (3). In May 2003 Colin Powell had said that the Syrian regime had its fingers in three different pies — Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine — and the US would cut them off. In reality the US didn’t much care about democracy in Syria and never applied the sanctions the act provided against members of the regime. Instead, the Syrian state and economy were destabilised when President Bush imposed commercial sanctions, and accused the principal public bank, which held most of Syria's currency reserves, of money-laundering. The Syrian government remained convinced that the US was mainly interested in the rise of Islamist hostility in Iraq and among the populations of its allies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, origin of the 9/11 attackers. It vainly offered the US a series of proposals and goodwill gestures in areas that included security.
The real shock came when Bashar al-Assad’s ally, France, made a spectacular reversal in its Lebanon policy. In June 2004 Chirac made a suggestion to Bush: a Security Council resolution demanding the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. This brought events in Lebanon to a head, precipitating this year's “cedar revolution” and the departure of the Syrian army.
It is still difficult to be certain of the reasons for the French change of policy. Was it the result of a reassessment of developments in Iraq? Or a commercial dispute with the Syrian power system over a gas contract? Was it to do with some special relationship with Rafik Hariri? Or did Chirac have deeper reservations about his protégé?
Chirac may initially have dreamed of emulating the role played by François Mitterand in post-Franco Spain, by mentoring Syria’s economic and democratic transformation. He had greeted Bashar with great ceremony in 1999, long before he became president. There were further visits in 2001 and 2002. Chirac had also lent explicit support to administrative and legal reforms and to the EU-Syria Association Agreement (Syria is the last Mediterranean country to sign such a free trade agreement with Europe).
But this reform deal was doomed from the start: by excluding the political arena, it ignored the fundamental nature of the regime. For in Syria, as in almost all Arab countries, the power system has become a separate institution from the state. Centred on the presidency and intelligence chiefs, it can only function by weakening the state and leaving ministers and administration a limited margin for manoeuvre. Political life is reduced to a single party, used by the regime as an instrument of hegemony in its internal struggles. Reform remains impossible while this fundamental dichotomy persists. In Syria, it was the power system that put Bashar in place and continues to hold him hostage. Unwittingly, Hafez al-Assad had set a trap for his son.
Withdrawal from Lebanon has been a major blow to Syria’s position in the region, and it has exposed the system to public scrutiny: people at all levels of Syrian society are now openly questioning the entire system. Bashar al-Assad’s investiture has reopened political debate, although that may not have been his intention. In 2001 there was a short-lived “Damascus spring”, with calls to lift the state of emergency and restore freedoms. But the government soon cracked down, particularly when the Ba'ath party itself joined the criticism.
The next three years ended hopes that economic reform might accelerate, in the absence of meaningful political and institutional changes (the famous Chinese model). In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Bashar al-Assad called a party congress this June, promising a qualitative leap forward in reform. There was a renewed sense of hope. For constitutional change is a necessary precondition for ending both the Ba'ath monopoly over "the state and society” (article 8) and the “socialist” character of the economy, commonly understood as state capitalism (article 13). Opposition groups have sought to create alliances within the Ba'ath party and also within the Muslim Brotherhood, provided that both are prepared to accept secularism and democracy and acknowledge past mistakes, so that things can move forward from the sombre past. National reconciliation is crucial.
The party congress had mixed results. It was preceded by a symbolic crackdown on Syria's last democratic discussion group, the Atassi Forum (named after a former Ba'ath political personality who refused to play along with Hafez al-Assad) and serious attempts to seduce the business community. Discussions inside the congress dealt with most of the points raised by Syria's internal debate: the state of emergency, public freedoms, the separation of powers between state institutions, the nature of the economy, the status of Syria's Kurds. The congress also sacked the party’s old guard. But it disappointed expectations on three essential points: the principle of alternation of the political system, the reform of the state and the process of national reconciliation. Worse, the heads of the security services were brought into the party leadership and any dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood was ruled out of question.
It is still too early to analyse the long-term effects of this process, especially since the US has an interest in keeping the current, much-weakened regime in power. Any rapid democratic and secular transformation would go against US interests and be at odds with the confessional and ethnic concept of stateless “democracy” emerging in Iraq and Lebanon. Even so, many Syrians continue to believe that such a transformation remains possible. It already has a symbol: jasmine.
Samir Aita is an economist and chairman of A Concept mafhoum, http://www.mafhoum.com
Translated by Donald Hounam
Notes: (1) The Alawites, to which the Assad family belong, are a Muslim sect, an offshoot of Twelver Shi'ism; they are 11% of Syria’s population and mostly live in the mountains of the same name. (2) The state of emergency, which is still in force, dates to 1962. It was reactivated by order no 2 of the coup of 8 March 1963. (3) This act enabled the US president, should he feel it necessary, to introduce sanctions to meet any danger that Syria continued to present in the administration’s eyes. (4) Since 1980 membership of the Muslim Brotherhood has been punishable under Syrian law by death.
James Bennet of the NY Times has written an excellent article about Bashar and Syria in the Sunday magazine section. (It has already been translated into Arabic by Syria-news.com here) Bennet came to Syria during the week of the Baath Party Conference on the promise that he would be able to interview the President and his wife, but it was only during the last days of this stay that his appointment was confirmed.
In the meantime, he began gathering a story about Syrian versus Arab national identity in Syria. It is a big story, and one that is hard to tell, but Bennet does a nice job here of weaving it into his interview with the first family. Needless to say, President Bashar would not cooperate with him by talking about these larger identity questions. To mention Syrianism is a touchy issue and one the President cannot touch. Everyone in Syria is an "official" Arab nationalist, even though, Syria is rapidly developing a "Syrian" national identity.
Bashar's drive to open Syria up economically necessitates Syria backing into its borders. It must have good relations with its neighbors if it wants to trade, build superhighways that cross the Middle East, build pipelines and attract foreign investment. Old irredentist claims - such as Alexandretta, the province Turkey took in 1939, or the sliver of land Syria grabbed from Jordan in 1970, when it sent its troops across the border to aid Palestinians during Black September, have had to be abandoned. In fact Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon was aided by Bashar's over-arching policy to normalize its relations with its neighbors in the interests of the Syrian economy and boosting employment. If Bashar is to produce jobs in Syria, he must stop fighting his neighbors. It means a general regional retreat. Of course, Bashar will not talk about it in this way, because it flies in the face of Arabism and Syria's stated Baathist goal of "strengthening its regional role." To grow Syria's economy means embracing its borders and trashing old-style romantic Arab nationalism.
Once Syria accepts its modern borders and abandons the dream of Bismarkian unification for the stated and clear goal of Arab federalism on the European model, Syria will have taken a great step toward liberalism and constitutionalism. Law and reality will be raised above Volkism and dreams of being greater than it is. Bennet captures this relationship in a nice way, giving the big picture and explaining the many challenges Bashar faces as he backs Syria towards a place in the changing Middle East.
The United States should encourage Bashar in carrying out this transformation. Naturally, the Washington hawks will insist that they are doing just that by forcing Syria out of Lebanon and smacking it around until it abandons super-national projections of Syria power, such as supporting Hamas, Hizbullah and other militant groups. And they will be right, up to a point.
But by placing an economic embargo on Syria, trying to impoverish its people, and thwarting Bashar's efforts to grow the Syrian economy, the US is undermining this process of integration and normalization. Just as importantly, by squandering this opportunity to solve the Golan issue and settle Syria's differences with Israel, Washington is stepping on its own toes. By being too mean and relying on force alone, George Bush is keeping old hatreds alive. By adding toads eyes and newts' tongues to the boiling cauldron of Arab anger, the US is feeding the black spirit of Arab irredentism and ethnic discontent that this region has supped on for too long. He needs to offering some "rahma" or forgiveness as well. A little economic carrot would sweeten the pot.
The opera house in Damascus was a long time coming. Hafez al-Assad, the iron-willed military man who ruled Syria for three decades, was in power just a few years when he laid the cornerstone. But lack of materials and equipment, hard economic times and a devastating fire delayed the project year after year. It fell to Assad's son and successor, Bashar, to finish the job. He opened Al Assad opera house with his wife, Asma, last year. Decorated with paintings and sculptures by Syrian artists, offering up classical concerts and works by Arab playwrights, the building expresses something of the elder Assad's vision of Damascus as the Arab capital of cultural, if not political, enlightenment. The name of his controlling party, Baath, means resurrection, and nothing could better reflect an Arab renaissance than achievement in the arts.
Taryn Simon for The New York Times President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, at their private office overlooking Damascus.
Omar Amiralay, a Syrian director. His latest film criticizes the regime. For a dance performance one evening last month, a mixed crowd streamed through the doors. Women with showy hairstyles mingled with others in head scarves; men came in suits or jeans. One teenage boy wore a T-shirt that admonished in English, ''Your game is still as ugly as your girl.'' As curtain time approached, Syria's power couple walked in.
President Assad wore a black suit and a charcoal shirt without a tie; Mrs. Assad, a sea-foam green sweater over a sheer top and a white skirt. Her long, honey-colored hair was uncovered. Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor-turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J. P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.
For the Bush administration, many European leaders and many reform-minded Syrians, this is a mirage. Some of them had hopes for this Assad when he came to power after his father's death five years ago. But since then, what they have seen as a pattern of empty promises, nasty oratory and bloody tactics has turned them against the Syrian regime. Since Saddam Hussein's rule ended in Iraq, no other Arab government has come in for as much pressure and disdain from the Bush administration. In December 2003, President Bush imposed economic sanctions on Syria. This February, the administration recalled its ambassador, who has not returned to Damascus. It acted after a powerful bomb in Beirut killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and a critic of the Syrian regime. International pressure soon forced Syria to end its military occupation of Lebanon, which began in 1976 during Lebanon's civil war.
By ideology, inclination and geography, Bashar al-Assad's regime looms as a rock in the road to fulfillment of the Bush administration's foreign policy, if not its philosophy. It is the one government in the Middle East that has not recognized that Bush is serious about comprehensive reform, a senior administration official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. To the administration, Assad is a murderous proxy warrior, permitting or even encouraging jihadists to stream eastward into Iraq, and allowing Iranian weapons to stream westward to the guerrilla group Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Bush administration accuses him also of encouraging terrorism to the south, against Israel, by permitting militant Palestinian leaders to operate in Damascus. It sees him as a dictator interrupting a new expansion of democracy from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. If, as Bush has said, ''in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,'' then Syria's relative stability, after 35 years, may be due to run out.
or Assad, however, it is the Bush administration that is sowing chaos in the region and reaping new extremists who menace Syria as well as its neighbors. Assad contends that he is opening his economy and preparing for a day he can be peacefully voted out. Although he is viewed in Washington as possibly a mere figurehead, he says he is just at the point of consolidating control by removing the so-called old guard of his father's government and installing change-minded technocrats. While his Syrian critics see him as trapped in the system created by his father, or complicit in it, or simply uncertain what to do, Assad insists he has a plan but is implementing it at a rate that Syria can manage, given its turbulent past and social divides. In any event, he is acting like a man with plenty of time. His unhurried pace may be a sign of a self-assurance that his critics insist he lacks, or else of a dangerous complacency, or possibly of both.
When he paused on his way through the opera house to say hello, I asked if he was concerned about a report that American troops were again operating in western Iraq, near the Syrian border. The report had renewed rumors in Damascus of an imminent American invasion. Assad shrugged. ''The United States is a very powerful country,'' he said -- one that could strike as easily from the Mediterranean as from Iraq. ''It's not a matter of where they are,'' he said. ''It's a matter of how they behave.''
Well, was he worried that they may indeed strike from somewhere? ''No,'' he said, as a wry smile formed on his lips. ''I think the experience in Iraq has not'' -- he hesitated for a beat -- ''worked out.'' His wife flashed a warm smile and deftly flicked me away. ''We're off duty,'' she said in her plummy English.
The show proved not to be the ballet I anticipated but a kind of Orientalist pageant, with jingling Bedouin headdresses, flashing scimitars and barefoot women. It was a story of good versus evil, the good led by an elderly sheik and his strapping son in a black-and-gold robe, the evil led by a sinewy man with a shaved head and a snake tattooed over his left shoulder blade. He wore a sort of leather singlet studded with chrome buttons, and he brandished the biggest sword onstage.
Like Big Macs or a fully convertible currency, news of the end of history and the triumph of liberal capitalism has not reached Syria. Although Assad has begun to update it, the ideology of the Arab Socialist Baath Party -- less a vehicle for political participation than a far-reaching instrument of state control -- pulls at the economy, politics and society. The dance evoked the romantic pan-Arab dream that still burns in Syria, and in the Baath Party, long after it has faded through most of the Arab world. This once-revolutionary dream of a border-erasing, secular-leaning Arab union, promoted by the Assads and historically centered on Damascus, is now being squeezed between two more dynamic movements: its longtime, bloody Islamist rival, the vision of a renewed, border-defying caliphate; and the countering demand by Bush and Arab democrats for a Middle East of defined borders and democratic governments.
During the performance, the bad guys at first had the good guys on the ropes, stealing their women and abusing them. But then the Arab tribes united and stood up to the villains. Clearly enchanted, the man in the seat next to me leaned over and whispered, ''This is our history.''
''Syrian history?'' I asked.
''Arabic history,'' he replied.
The audience burst into applause and whoops when a chorus figure lip-synched a warning: ''Do not make peace with them, for they are truly evil!'' In the ensuing battle, Snake Tattoo killed the sheik's son by stabbing him in the back. Then came despair and a funeral, followed by the happy arrival of a handsome stranger from another tribe to marry the sheik's daughter. The performance ended with the wedding, a tableau of celebration and Arab unity despite the evil that remained unvanquished. Nobody mentioned Israel.
The Assads' applause never ventured beyond the perfunctory. After the bows, the actor who portrayed the sheik began the inevitable chant -- ''In our blood, in our souls, we sacrifice for you, Bashar'' -- but Assad did not pause in his exit from the theater, and the chant quickly died. Once outside the hall, the couple stopped to shake hands and chat. Scores of audience members clustered by the president's Audi sedan. Some held high their cellular telephones -- legalized by Assad only three years ago -- to snap digital photographs. ''God protect you!'' one woman called. Then Asma al-Assad climbed into the passenger's seat, Bashar al-Assad slipped behind the wheel, and they drove off alone into the jostling traffic and the balmy Damascus night.
The next day, when I asked Asma al-Assad what she thought of the dance, she winced. ''I think there was a lot of talent,'' she said carefully. But, she added, ''I don't think it portrayed what Syria is, in any era.''
Yet what Syria is -- what it means to be Syrian -- is at the center of the debate over the country's future. To the extent that Syria has had a national identity, it has been based on the dismissal of a local Syrian identity in favor of its grander claim, to be ''the beating heart of Arabism.'' Along with the presidency, Arab socialism, the occupation of Lebanon, a network of corruption and the security state, Hafez al-Assad bequeathed that perplexing legacy, and the question of what, if anything, to do about it, to his son, who had expected to be an eye doctor.
I spoke with the Assads on successive days in the same setting, their private office in a small, sand-colored villa on the western hills overlooking Damascus. On the first occasion, Assad was waiting alone in the doorway. He ducked his head slightly as we shook hands. Perched atop that attenuated body, his head and features seem small; his deep- and close-set eyes make his default expression one of worry. That morning, his mustache, the essential accessory of the Baathist male, was shaved to a bar of stubble above his lip. He led me to the office, where he sat on a black leather sofa. An interpreter sat across from him, but Assad, who spoke in English with a slight lisp, would turn to him for a word only a handful of times over the next two hours. Hafez al-Assad was notorious for lecturing visitors for hours on end, testing their patience and their bladders. His son waited politely for my first question.
I began by noting that there was a debate in Washington over whether he was in control of his government. I asked his view. He laughed. ''That was before our conference,'' he said, referring to the Baath Party congress that had just ended. Several senior figures had stepped down; Assad had now replaced all but 6 of the 21 members of the Syrian Baath Party's top panel, its Regional Command, and in replacing them, he had whittled their total number to 15.
Assad said he had been following the Washington debate. ''There are maybe two different articles,'' he said. '' 'He is not in control' -- but in the other article, 'He is a dictator.' So there is a contradiction.'' Neither description fit, he said. ''By law and by constitution, the president of Syria has a lot of authority. But if you take a decision by yourself -- it doesn't matter if it's a big decision, an important decision or a normal decision -- you do a lot of mistakes. You must consult everybody. This is my way. Second, they say, 'He's reluctant, not in control,' because I take my time. I'm not hasty.'' He pointed to another change made at the Baath congress, the substitution among the party's goals of a social-market economy for socialism. That change was 18 months in the works, he said. I knew that, in the past, Assad had asked for patience from Americans by indicating that the old guard -- remnants of his father's regime -- were thwarting him. But now he brought up the members of the old guard only to dismiss their influence. ''Now they're gone,'' he said. ''We made that change.''
Under Bashar al-Assad, Syria is more isolated in the world than it has ever been. Hafez al-Assad made his share of mistakes; he did not fully emerge as the ''lion of Damascus'' until years after taking control. Yet the father had the Soviet Union and cold-war gamesmanship to fall back on. He also had on-again-off-again peace talks with Israel, which gave him a framework for talking with the United States. Bashar al-Assad has had neither of these tools. He came into power after talks collapsed in 2000 over the return to Syria of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967, in the Six-Day War. Soon a new Palestinian intifada was raging. And then came Sept. 11, 2001. In the eyes of the Bush administration, Assad set about digging himself a deeper hole. His father supported the Persian Gulf war, but Bashar al-Assad opposed the war with Iraq in 2003. He pushed the Lebanese to change their constitution to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, an Assad loyalist. Then, on Feb. 14, 2005, Rafik Hariri and 19 other people died in the Beirut bombing.
Assad denies having anything to do with the Hariri assassination. He told me that allies of Syria had also been killed in Lebanon, and no one had figured out who was responsible. ''There are always assassinations in Lebanon,'' he said. ''Hariri was an international businessman. We don't know anything about his relations.'' I asked if he agreed with a recent op-ed column in the Arabic press by one of his ministers, Buthaina Shaaban, suggesting that American or Israeli intelligence was responsible. ''Even if I want to blame any other international or regional party, I can't say it as president,'' he said. ''That's why we supported the international investigation.''
Responding to claims made in Washington, Assad said Syria had complied completely with a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on it to withdraw its soldiers and intelligence agents. When I asked if he would help the United Nations fulfill another component of that resolution -- the disarming of Hezbollah -- he shrugged. ''They asked Syria not to interfere in Lebanon, so it is not our issue.'' What did he think the Bush administration wanted from him? ''I don't know,'' he said. ''This is the problem.'' He said that all he heard from the Americans was about sealing the Iraqi border, which runs more than 300 miles through the desert. ''They say, 'You do not do enough,' but we ask what is the meaning of 'enough'?'' American officials have acknowledged that the Syrian government provided valuable intelligence in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But they said Assad repeatedly dragged his heels when it came to combating the insurgency in Iraq. They said that in January, when Richard L. Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, gave him a list of former Iraqi officials hiding in Syria, Assad did nothing. The Syrian version is quite different. A senior Syrian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that after the Armitage visit, Syria arrested and turned over a suspected insurgent leader, Saddam Hussein's half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, and more than 20 others. But he said that the Syrians, while seeking nothing in return, asked to keep their cooperation quiet for fear of alienating Arab opinion and angering extremists. The arrest by Syria made headlines worldwide, and the disclosure was seen in Damascus as double-dealing. Syria immediately denied any involvement.
The senior Bush administration official, by contrast, characterized the Syrian arrest of Hassan as one more attempt by Assad to play his father's hedging game, trading a chit sought by the Americans for the freedom to work against Bush policies elsewhere. Assad simply did not realize that the Bush administration would not play this game, the official said.
Assad told me he had arrested more than 1,500 extremists who tried to cross the border, to or from Iraq. He said his repeated offers of border cooperation with the Bush administration had gone ignored. ''First of all, who to cooperate with?'' he asked. ''If you go to the border, there are only Syrian guards on our side. But if you look at the Iraqi side, there is nobody. No Iraqi guards, no American guards. Nobody.''
I asked if he considered the violence in Iraq to be legitimate resistance. He sidestepped, saying he had put the same question to Iraqis. ''Of course, about suicide bombers and killing tens every day, nobody considers it legitimate resistance anywhere in this region,'' he said. ''But at the same time, they talk about Iraqis attacking allied forces -- they consider it resistance.'' Despite their shared ideology of Arab unity, the Baathists of Iraq and Syria were always trying to kill each other off, plotting coups and countercoups. Hafez al-Assad supported Iran in its war with Iraq, a decision that Bashar al-Assad listed for me as an instance of his father's farsightedness. Assad told me he did not regret his own opposition to the latest war with Iraq. He said he was against war on principle, and that he knew that Syria would ''pay the price of any side effects of this war in Iraq.'' He said Syria was now paying that price. Days before our interview, the Syrian government announced that it had arrested one man and killed two others who had been planning an attack in Damascus on behalf of an organization called Soldiers of Al Sham, a reference to a ''greater Syria'' that would include Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Assad now provided new details. He said that the group intended to send a 3-year-old girl laden with explosives into the crowded Ministry of Justice. He also said that the Syrians had foiled a planned attack last year on the American Embassy by a man ''with a bomb and machine gun.'' Assad said the Americans did not understand what he called their common enemy, the forces of religious extremism and intolerance he said Syria had been fighting since the 1950's. ''This state of mind is dangerous for everybody, for East and West, for everybody,'' he said, and as he talked he laid out what amounted to a three-step formula for his governance. He said that his top priority was stability. To achieve that, to dispel rising extremism, he needed to achieve a new prosperity. To achieve prosperity, he needed democracy. The adjectives he used throughout our conversation were ''open-minded'' and ''closed-minded.'' Emphasizing the former, he said, was his key to prosperity. ''When you talk about upgrading society, you talk about open-minded,'' he said. ''When you talk about open-minded, you mean freedom. Freedom of thinking.''
Bashar al-Assad was a spare, not the heir. His elder brother, Basil, was groomed to lead. Growing up under their own Baathist father, the Assad brothers of Syria were never like the wilding Hussein boys of Iraq. Neither had a reputation for personal corruption or cruelty. Yet they were very different from each other. Old friends and teachers of the Assad children remember Basil as charismatic and commanding, Bashar as self-effacing. Bashar had fewer, though long-lasting, friends. Basil was a champion equestrian and followed his father's path into the military. Bashar chose medicine, the profession his austere father had dreamed of pursuing as a boy. When Basil died in a car accident in 1994, Hafez al-Assad summoned his second son home from his studies in London, dispatched him to the army and began promoting him through the ranks. As president, Assad has chosen to decorate his office with paintings and sculptures of horses drawn from his brother's collection. Bearded, eyes blanked by aviator sunglasses, Basil's face still haunts many walls in Damascus.
When asked about himself, Assad tends to drift into using the second person -- a kind of grammatical step away from oneself, the opposite of the embracing royal we. When I asked if he sometimes wished he was pursuing his chosen profession, ophthalmology, he replied that he was accustomed to Syrians turning to him, as his father's son, for help. ''You're maybe just an ordinary person, but they don't consider you as ordinary,'' he said. ''They want you to help them. So this is since you are young. So you get attached to the problems of the general people.'' Assad seems to draw a line between himself as a person and his attempt to perform his father's self-designated job of Arab spokesman. In May 2001, while greeting Pope John Paul II in Damascus, Assad suggested that Christians and Muslims make common cause against those ''who try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ.'' Yet in the crowd at the funeral of that pope this year, Assad reached out to shake the hand of Israel's president, Moshe Katsav. Even when they were negotiating with Israelis during the Clinton presidency, Syrian officials resisted any public handshakes. ''God made him,'' Assad said of Katsav when I asked him about the handshake. ''Anybody God made should be recognized.
''As Syrians,'' he added, ''we have never been closed-minded.''
Assad told me he had moved to open general debate in Syria, permitting new criticism of the regime. When I asked if he really believed that people felt free to speak their minds now, he said: ''No, we don't say that we achieved democracy. We don't allege that. It's a long way. But we are going this way. The situation today, the question that we should ask, Is the situation today like the situation, say, 10 years ago? It's definitely not the same. So it's a road. You should walk the road.'' He added, ''They want us to jump.'' But, he said, ''if you jump, you will fall on your head.'' I said that some Syrian reformers, after watching him for five years, concluded he was not serious about political change. He said that his priority had to be economics, and he grew impatient: ''What should I feed them? Statements? Or paper? They want to eat food.'' He had to act against corruption immediately, he said. ''If we don't have a new party today, we can have it two years later, nobody will die. But if you don't have the food today, they will die tomorrow.''
The next day, when I sat in the same seat across from Asma al-Assad, she seized the initiative. What had I expected from my visit to Syria? What had I found? My first, vague response was met with polite impatience. ''Away from the cosmetic,'' she emphasized. ''I mean underneath.'' She went on to surprise me -- and to flatter my line of work -- by describing the difficulty of promoting development in a nation without a free press or, as she put it, ''in a country like Syria, where the media hasn't reached its full potential.''
She went on to say, ''The employee will give you his perspective as a government employee -- he wants modernization, but he doesn't want the government to be able to fire him.'' The businessman, she added, ''wants development, but he wants the market to remain closed, because he's benefiting.'' So ''everybody's looking at development from within his own aspect, rather than seeing a country's development.'' The media ''gives it a national perspective, rather than a community perspective.''
So could Syrians expect to see a free press soon? ''Absolutely.'' How soon? She hesitated, then smiled to acknowledge the impending evasion. ''Let me start by telling you a bit about myself.''
The daughter of a Syrian cardiologist, Asma al-Akhras grew up in London and graduated from the University of London. She did stints as a banker in New York, first with Deutsche Bank and then with J.P. Morgan, where she worked in mergers and acquisitions. She loved New York, and while she lived in a corporate apartment uptown, she wants it to be understood that she preferred to hang out downtown. She also worked in Paris, and she speaks French and Spanish. She has relatives in Houston. She had been accepted to Harvard's M.B.A. program when she chose to return to Syria and marry Assad, less than a year after he succeeded his father. The couple have two boys and a girl; the eldest, Hafez, is 3 1/2. The Assads had just begun speaking English with Hafez, having focused on his Arabic first. They have no professional day care and rely instead on the extended family. Asma al-Assad is 29 years old, 10 years younger than her husband.
But all that came later in the conversation. It turned out that in saying she wanted to talk about herself, she had a particular aspect in mind, one that seemed meant as a caution to an outsider asking about change, and maybe to an American administration hoping to reshape the Middle East. ''I came to live in Syria for the first time five years ago,'' she said, ''and I haven't even touched the surface. The fact that I speak the same language means nothing. The fact that I understand the culture means nothing. Because I didn't know what the mechanics of the society were.''
She was accustomed to working in a large bank with a clear objective, where ''the system doesn't allow you to go away from that objective or go out of that focus.'' Syria lacked institutions, she said, and even basic habits like ''absence of leave'' forms: ''Here, in Syria, if somebody wants to take a day off -- 'Where is he? Don't know, hold on, let me find out. Where is his contact number? Oh, let's ask admin.' And they've got a number that's 20 years old.'' Every ministry, she said a few minutes later, was ''a one-man show.'' The dearth of competent administrators was a refrain for both Assads.
Asma al-Assad has given almost no interviews; yet it was hard to imagine the wife of any other head of state in the region speaking with such easy assertiveness. Like an American first lady, she has focused on family issues, particularly economic empowerment and education. She said she gathered complaints and ideas and studied those around her to see, for example, if Syrians were following a new seat-belt law (they were not, she said). She presented herself as a full partner to her husband. When I asked if she passed this information on to him, she said: ''Of course. We exchange it, not only pass it on.''
She said that she initially approached Syria's problems as a businesswoman but added, with a laugh to drain the pomposity, that Assad ''gave me back my humanity.'' Cutting state jobs, however necessary it was, meant hurting families. ''We've got to make sure there's opportunity someplace else,'' she said. ''It's about finding the right balance between creating opportunity and managing risk. And that's for me what Syria is about today, and that's the transition process we're going through.''
As the sentences paraded smartly by, I thought of Syrians I had met who spent years in prison for opposing Hafez al-Assad, of the stories of torture I had heard. I thought of accusations of murderous policies pursued under Bashar al-Assad, of corruption among his relatives. It made for a jarring juxtaposition with this earnest talk of bureaucratic reform. You grew up in a capitalist democracy, I said at last. Didn't Syria seem kind of crazy to you when you moved here?
''Um,'' she said, momentarily searching. When she began again, she spoke more slowly. ''It's a process. And I know. I've seen the end of the process, if you like, and we are moving toward that objective.''
What did she say to Syrians who considered this a repressive government that jailed political opponents? ''How many political prisoners and how many have been released?'' she shot back. Assad has released hundreds of people imprisoned by his father, though he has also jailed some of his own. ''How many prisoners do you have in the U.S., political or otherwise? It doesn't mean you're a repressive society either. But just by focusing on one, you skew the picture.''
I noted that in Washington her husband was called a dictator who did terrible things. What was it Americans did not understand about him? Leaning forward on the sofa with her hands clasped in front of her, she sat silently for 13 seconds. ''I don't know which angle to take it from,'' she said at last. Another pause. ''I think people need to see the man behind the presidency,'' she said at last. ''They need to see what values he has. What his work ethics are. What his personal characteristics are. And then they can understand more about who he is and what he's trying to do.'' As I left the villa, I thought her initial inquiry was still the most important. What was, in fact, cosmetic, and what might be underneath?
ime has not forgotten Damascus, but it seems to have remembered it only on special occasions -- the invention of the tail fin, for example, or of the Soviet-style apartment block or, more recently, the rediscovery of the latte. But as Assad's stop-and-go changes open cracks in the socialist economy, money and modernity are trickling in. A few Internet cafes have opened their doors. People can now use credit cards. ''Kingdom of Heaven'' was playing downtown. One afternoon, a man in a Spider-Man suit was hawking Tweety Bird balloons outside the Scuzzi Café. ''Hi,'' he said, when he caught me staring.
Culturally, the atmosphere is far more open than it is in much of the Arab world. Lovers hold hands and cuddle in the parks. Over a sushi lunch one day, I watched the Syrian couple at the next table suck down six Scotches between them. It is a dissonant environment, of a policed liberalism confined to religious and cultural life and banned from politics. White-gloved policemen are everywhere directing the clogged traffic. They are obeyed. Syria's state of emergency, dating to 1963, gives them the power to arrest anyone with no stated cause. Some reformers hoped Assad would cancel the emergency law, but he told me he planned to change it ''to have more security, less abuse of the people.'' He cited as a model the Patriot Act.
The poverty is stark. Unemployment is said to stand at 20 percent. Maybe even more dangerous to the regime than American pressure is that the oil is running out. Nabil Sukkar, an economist and business consultant in Damascus, told me that Syria may become a net importer of oil by 2008. Sukkar said that he used to believe the regime could separate political and economic reform, but that it had now run out of time and had to do both over the next two or three years. ''You can't have the party monopolizing decision making,'' he said. Sukkar said that gulf investors were eager to build in Syria, but the Baathist ideology was scaring them off.
In his documentary ''A Flood in Baath Country,'' the Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay gives a chilling look at a society stunted by Baathism. As his camera stares, children in uniform in the barren classroom of a rural village mouth their slogans: ''We the Vanguards of Light salute our leader, Bashar.'' Together, the children chant: ''We are the voice of the proletariat. In sacrifice, we eat little.'' The film is banned in Syria. Like everyone else there, I watched it on DVD.
I met Amiralay at a Damascus coffeehouse with walls banded in black and white marble. As a fountain splashed nearby, backgammon pieces clicked and Madonna warbled, he told me his story of long-term cultural resistance. He came to politics after the Arab defeat in 1967, and to filmmaking and Marxism on the barricades in Paris in 1968. His first film was a celebration of a giant dam that Hafez al-Assad built across the Euphrates. ''As a Marxist, I found it something to honor,'' he said wryly, in French-accented English. For the new film, he visited villagers relocated to make room for Lake Assad.
Amiralay said that one of the Arab satellite networks had bought ''A Flood in Baath Country'' Since Bashar al-Assad had permitted satellite television, this meant the movie would be shown in Syria after all. Amiralay said he had asked the network to include a dedication to a friend, Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist and critic of the Syrian regime who was killed on June 2 by a bomb hidden in his car. The dedication seemed tantamount to accusing the regime of the murder, and I asked Amiralay how he could be sure he was not going too far. He touched his right index finger to his nose. ''It's an animal sense,'' he said. But he also said that times had changed: ''There was a demystification after the death of Hafez al-Assad of the fear, because he personified this power, this charisma and this capacity of violence. There was a psychological release, because the people felt the state was not controlled as before, and because the state is confused.''
The journalistic shorthand for Syrian critics of the regime is the ''opposition.'' It is the wrong word. It suggests coherence, organization and political leverage that do not exist. It suggests the existence of leaders with followers. A better word might be ''dissidents,'' with its connotations of moral authority and solitude. They are a mix of Baathist reformers, communists, Islamists and even one or two Syrian-style neoconservatives. In Arabic and English, they have seized the tools of communication that Assad has permitted: the Internet and satellite television. Assad told me he had hoped to foster a productive conversation about reform and that he kept track ''from time to time'' of the Internet chatter. ''Some people, they just talk because they want to talk,'' he said. ''Some people, they just hate. And some people, they want to criticize because they need a better country. That's what you want.''
Ayman Abdel Nour, 40, puts himself in the last category. A Baathist, he issues an e-mail bulletin bird-dogging corruption and promoting change within the movement. He attacks senior Baath figures by name. He sees himself as strengthening Assad's hand. When I visited him at his apartment, he was enthusiastic about the sacking of Baath leaders during the party congress. Now, he said, ''we expect that the decisions will be more radical, and faster.'' He said that Assad was now in ''100 percent full control,'' which meant he also had complete responsibility for delivering and no more excuses. Abdel Nour told me there would certainly be multiparty elections by 2007, when Assad is to run for a second term. (Assad did not commit to this when I asked him about it. He said he would need a year or two to build consensus for a new multiparty law. ''We should give it time,'' he said.) There may be limits even to Abdel Nour's faith. When I asked if he believed that Assad had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, the brazen reformer gave his response in baby talk, and addressed it to the infant son he was cradling in his arms. ''This is a question,'' he told the baby. ''I don't know.''
Some Syrian intellectuals have a darker view. ''I think the Arab regimes will live a very long life, and a prosperous life,'' said Mohamad Shahrour, an engineer who writes about Islam. ''Because freedom as a value does not exist in our consciousness.'' He blamed this on ''Islamic culture.'' In Syria and some other Arab nations, he said, regimes should fear only religious uprisings. ''The government could arrest 5,000 people now in one day, and it will not be afraid of an uprising. But if in any city they will take the veil, the hijab, from 1,000 women, they will be afraid of an uprising.''
Given focus by the chaos in Iraq, that is a vision of the end days of this regime that many Syrians fear. A green-domed mosque in the hills above Damascus marks the spot where Cain is said to have slain Abel. The city took its name from the stream of blood that ran down. There are those who think that a time of violent reckoning with sectarian hatreds may be necessary. Ammar Abdulhamid, 39, runs the Tharwa Project, which tracks treatment of minorities in the region. He had a fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington last fall, and he has decorated his Damascus office with photographs from his walk to work along Connecticut Avenue. One shows the American flag through the bare limbs of trees. When I stopped by, he called the regime ''defunct'' and the Baathists ''idiots'' and ''morons'' while we were still settling into our seats. He saw no alternative in civil society either. ''They all want a leader or a messiah,'' he said. He did not advocate ''bloody revolution,'' he said. But he also said that the civil strife accompanying regime change in Iraq might be the only way forward in the region. ''Stagnation is killing our souls and our minds,'' he said. ''Hopefully, this baptism by blood and mayhem will teach us to cherish the liberties.''
A few days before I spoke with Assad, I received an e-mail message from Joshua Landis, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies from the University of Oklahoma who is living for the year in Damascus. Landis writes an indispensable blog about Syria, Syriacomment.com. He is married to a Syrian woman who is a member of the same esoteric Islamic sect as the Assads, the Alawites, who believe in the divinity of Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. Alawites were oppressed as infidels for centuries by other Muslims.
Landis's e-mail message recapitulated a remarkable petition he came across while researching his dissertation, which is to be published next year as a book, ''Democracy in Syria.'' In 1936, as the French were debating how to carve up their League of Nations mandate in the region, a group of Alawite notables urged that their northern mountainous redoubt not be annexed to Syria, which would surely be dominated by Muslims. ''The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion,'' the petition read. ''Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.'' According to Landis, one of the six signers was Suleiman al-Assad, Bashar's grandfather.
Before I had the chance to bring up the petition, Assad volunteered that his grandfather had petitioned the French with other Alawite leaders to ''go back to our mother country, which is Syria.'' He said: ''They knew that if we divide the country we would have wars. So it's better to be, to mingle, with the others.'' I had the spooky feeling that someone else was reading my e-mail.
I said that I had heard the petition proposed separation. ''No, no, no, no, no,'' Assad replied. ''It's the opposite.'' Setting aside that question, the petition in favor of separation helps explain the profound appeal of Baathism, with its message of an embracing Arab unity, to a man like Hafez al-Assad, a member of a brutalized minority. Baathism could be the way to bring together all religions and races -- or else the means for minority domination. It could also be the bandage beneath which sectarian wounds healed or festered. As to which effect it has had in Syria, no one can know unless the bandage is pulled off, as it has been in Iraq.
The Syrian Baathists have dealt with sectarian differences through official denial. The education system teaches one vanilla brand of Islam. Yet sectarianism is never far from the surface. Within Syria, some who blame the regime for the killing of Hariri see it as a sectarian play that cost Assad international support but strengthened him internally. Hariri, a Sunni, had money, influence and contacts with Syria's Sunnis to potentially foster an alternate power structure. (Others dismiss this theory as crediting Assad with a cunning he has not otherwise displayed.) Unlike Lebanon, Syria has a clear majority -- Sunnis -- and some view them as the potential foundation of a stable democracy. Farid Ghadry, who has set himself up in Washington as a regime opponent and has been invited in for discussions by the State Department, presents a candidly sectarian vision of Syria's future. He speaks of a state with minority rights but also argues, ''We need to give Muslim Sunnis a country -- a legitimate country -- from which to launch the war on ideology,'' meaning extremism. Yet the new mosques that have sprung up across Syria in recent years -- another kind of patient resistance -- may well be preparing believers for a different war. They just happen to be fighting it now in Iraq.
Hafez al-Assad maneuvered endlessly to co-opt Syria's Sunnis. He reserved top posts in his government for Sunnis. Land reform helped ally him with rural Sunnis against the urban Sunni elite. Through intricate sectarian balancing, he created what Landis calls a supertribe. ''You're substituting party ideology for blood,'' Landis told me over coffee, ''but it's very similar.'' When this method broke down -- when the Muslim Brothers, Sunni extremists, rose against him in the 1970's -- Hafez al-Assad used his Alawite-dominated security forces to crush them. In 1982, he leveled the old town of Hama, the city where their resistance was based.
Anwar al-Bounni, a 46-year-old lawyer in Damascus, was living in Hama in 1981, when Syrian forces first moved in. Bounni is a Christian, but he was bearded, and soldiers grabbed him as a suspected Muslim Brother. As the soldiers began beating him, Bounni said, neighbors ran up to identify him. Pinning Bounni's hands behind his back, the soldiers set his beard on fire, then let him go. Bounni now does the Sisyphean work of representing political prisoners. To finance his work, he was preparing to sell his office; he had already sold his car. As we talked among his packed boxes, a beaming young man with a bouquet of flowers entered. He was Abdel Nasser Kahlous, a 33-year-old accountant for General Motors in Syria. He had just been released after a week in prison. He and eight other members of a dialogue group called the Atassi Forum were arrested after one of them read a statement by the Muslim Brothers, e-mailed by their leadership in exile, during a meeting. It is a capital offense in Syria to belong to the Muslim Brothers. ''We thought it was open and modern,'' Kahlous said of the statement. He said that, once arrested, he expected to get at least three years in prison. But he took heart when, at the initial detention center, he glimpsed Bounni on satellite TV speaking about the case.
When I raised the Atassi Forum arrests with Assad, I thought he might call them a mistake. He did not yield an inch. ''When you know in the United States that somebody has a relationship with Al Qaeda, what do you do?'' he asked. ''You arrest him.'' The Muslim Brothers, he said, ''are terrorists. They killed more than 15,000 in Syria.'' (That is the official number. It is believed to be lower than the number killed in the regime's crackdown.) He said that Atassi group members were released after they said ''they wouldn't do it again.'' As of this writing, the member of the Atassi Forum who actually read the e-mail message aloud, Ali al-Abdullah, is still in jail.
The subject of sectarianism creates a bind for the regime. On the one hand, it would like to argue that it has succeeded in easing sectarian tensions; on the other hand, it would like to argue that these tensions are a terrible threat. In the interview, Assad did both. When I cited the historic oppression of the Alawites and asked if he believed that such wounds ever healed, he responded with a rather airless tautology. ''The proof is that I am in power,'' he said. He did not mention it, but in another way he clearly is evidence of assimilation: his wife is a Sunni. Yet Assad also argued that sectarian tensions in the Middle East recognized no borders. ''There is a domino effect, not only in Syria but in the region in general,'' he said. ''This domino effect will start from the Mediterranean -- Syria and Lebanon -- and go south to the gulf region and the Red Sea and east to Middle Asia and north to the southern borders of Russia. All these societies are linked with one another. So the answer is yes, very clearly yes. We always worry about the effect of this conflict.''
ou could blame bad intelligence for it all. In 1915, a member of a Damascus secret society opposed to the rule of the dying Ottoman Empire made his way to British intelligence headquarters in Cairo. As recounted in David Fromkin's history, ''A Peace to End All Peace,'' claims by this young man persuaded the British officers that Arabs would rise in revolt against the Turks in exchange for commitments about the postwar Middle East. Not much of a revolt materialized, but the commitments and the borders that they led the Western powers to demarcate helped create the crisis of legitimacy that Middle Eastern regimes are still facing. Nowhere is this crisis greater than in Syria, where those postwar borders have always been scorned as imperialist artifacts. Syria has such a weak commitment to its own national identity that it once willingly surrendered its sovereignty, giving itself away in 1958 to Gamal Abdel Nasser's short-lived United Arab Republic. ''What constitutes a nation?'' asked Georges Jabbour, a Baathist parliamentarian. ''Is it modern Syria, now? Or is it Greater Syria? Or is it the Arab nation, as the Baath Party says? Or is it the Islamic nation, as the Muslim Brotherhood says?''
Throughout the region, the struggle to clarify and legitimize borders is reaching a new pitch. The Israelis and Palestinians are edging toward another division of historic Palestine. In Iraq, the Bush administration is trying to create a government with the legitimacy to resist sectarian fragmentation and preserve the postcolonial boundaries. In Lebanon this spring, there were hints of a national patriotism that transcended ethnic and religious divisions. And in Syria, by default, design or desperation, Assad is taking steps as well. He has withdrawn his soldiers from Lebanon and moved to clarify Syria's borders with Jordan and Turkey. He has erected a berm that for the first time defines the border with Iraq.
Assad defended the pan-Arabism that his father relied on, though he described it today as more a feeling of connectedness than a desire for shared government. ''The practice is more, now, open-minded,'' he said. Some who watch him most closely say they have detected a significant change. ''There is a sort of transformation within the party,'' argues Jabbour, a onetime aide to Hafez al-Assad. Referring to a speech by Bashar al-Assad before the party congress, he told me: ''President Assad did not talk about Arab unity. He talked about Arabism in general, the Arab identity.'' Ayman Abdel Nour, the Baath reformer, made a similar argument. '' 'Unity' doesn't mean that you have to conquer all the Arab countries and absorb them and occupy them,'' he said. ''No. It means to raise the standards of cooperation, of economic cooperation.'' Amiralay, the filmmaker and opponent of Baathism, says he also sees a change. ''I think this is absolutely the end of this sorrowful page in the Syrian history,'' he told me. ''I think that with the new era in which we are entering today, there is a redefining of the borders. They will be definite for the first time.'' He added, ''It will be a mercy killing of Arab nationalism.''
Yet if Assad sees this, he has yet to spell it out. ''It's a crab-walk,'' Landis says. ''They're backing toward this. It's not an articulated, conscious thing.'' It looks, much like his moves on reform or on Lebanon, more improvised than strategic. A defined Syrian nationalism could be a bulwark against sectarian chaos, a source of legitimacy and regional stability. It could also help bring home the skilled expatriates whom Assad is trying to woo, the ambitious Syrians who fled the smothering state to seek fulfillment abroad. But to achieve it, Syrians would need something to be proud of besides a threadbare pan-Arabism and their periodically glorious history.
The crab-walk is certainly not impressing the Bush administration. Bashar al-Assad is in a box. If he makes what the administration would consider concessions, he would confirm its view that only pressure can move him. ''If you give, you convince them that pressure works,'' argues Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, which is closely monitoring Syria. ''If you don't give, you convince them they need to put more pressure on.'' Flynt Leverett, a former C.I.A. analyst and Bush official and the author of a new book on Assad, ''Inheriting Syria,'' told me that this approach was carrying the Bush administration along a fixed path. ''I think this administration is basically moving in the direction of a regime-change policy in Syria,'' he said. Yet while some administration officials see the regime as ultimately doomed -- unable to reform because to do so would be to surrender the privileges of the ruling clique -- they also see no alternative now for governing Syria. Outside of the Baath Party and the security apparatus, Syria, like Iraq before the war, has no institutions for sustaining national coherence and channeling political expression. If he wants to build a modern Syria, Assad must -- like the American president he confronts -- develop a strategy that breaks radically with his father's.
James Bennet is a staff writer for the magazine. His most recent article was about Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.
The Syrian Opposition tries to Remake Itself but Falls Flat
The Syrian opposition is going through a difficult period of transition as it thrashes about to remake itself into a more effective force.
The local Syrian opposition has always been extremely fragmented and made of extremist groups on the left (read ex-Communist grouplets) and right (Islamists). Most of the effective voices of the opposition are individuals without a grass roots base. they get an airing on local satellite channels, are permitted to operate in Syria, and recommend something other than revolution, which scares the Syrian public. They are looking for ways to create a "broad national front." The erstwhile extremist parties are reworking their programs to advocate democracy and inclusion rather than to champion violence and avant-gardism.
It is in this context that we can understand the recent meeting of ex-Communist leader Riad al-Turk and The Muslim Brother leader Ali Sadereddine al-Bayanouni, who were guests on the London-based "Al-Mustaqilla" and not the Lebanese Al-Musatqbal, as I previously reported. The interviewer was Mohideen al-Lathiqani who used to work for Rifaat al-Asad's ANN satellite station, and he is a regular contributor to Asharq Al-Awsat."
It seems, from the reports of very few people who actually saw the program, that they did not form a "national front" as was promised. Rather the two opposition leaders flirted with each other and were coy about any common goals, using the announcement that they would form a common front as a means for both to get on TV. They both said that they support democracy and a national dialogue and are working for common goals, but were unable to really come together.
Here is what Joe Pace wrote me. He actually saw the program:
About the Bayanouni-al-Turk interview. The reception on my TV was utter crap, but i did catch a few important points.
1) Riad al-Turk said he wanted to ally with the muslim brotherhood, but didn't elaborate on the specifics of that alliance.
2) He criticized some segments of the opposition for being totalitarian in their outlook.
3) He referenced a speech he gave at the jamal al-attasi forum in 2001 calling for dialogue with the regime, in which he said that despite the regime's lipservice to include a multitude of perspectives, cooperation and dialogue with the regime is no longer possible.
4) Bayanuni condemned the london attacks, spent a lot of time empahsizing his committment to democracy, plurality, free elections.
This says a lot about the state of the opposition. It is still very divided and weak. Almost no one in Syria saw the interview and it had no, or little impact, in Syria. There has been no subsequent news coverage of the program that I can find. Foreign embassies are looking into it - but more out of a sense of academic obligation than because they believe it is important. Who were Bayanouni and Turk trying to impress? Not Syrians, it would seem. Perhaps they are trying to convince the West that there is an alternative to the Syrian regime and that the opposition is really democratic. I doubt they succeeded.
The American based opposition, led by Farid Ghadry up until this point, has also imploded, and is trying to reconstitute itself. As reported a few posts ago, Ghadry's group just split along confessional lines, it would seem. Ghadry insists all confessions should be under one umbrella. The break away group is primarily Muslim. This is what Deborah Amos of NPR told me, but I have seen no confirmation of it.
Other issues which undoubtedly come into play are Ghadry's open support for Israel and strategy of using the pro-Israel lobby in Washington as a tool for access to Defense, State and particularly Congress. While this is good US politics, it is terrible Syrian politics, and kept him from winning much sympathy among the Syrian public who don't want instability. Clearly, Ghadry made the choice that only Washington can help him overthrow the Baath regime, much as Chalabi did for Iraq. Chalabi turned out to be the smarter of the two. He gambled correctly that Washington would help him get into Iraq. Washington is in no mood to play that game again. As President Bush has said, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Joseph Braude wrote an interesting article in the April 1, 2005 issue of the New Republic, in which he tries to make Ghadry's case to the Washington crowd by comparing him favorably to Chalabi. Clearly he failed. Nobody wanted to be a fool a second time, even if Braude was arguing that Ghadry was the real deal. Now the State Department seems to be sponsoring a new crowd. Only Richard Perle came to Ghadry's last meeting, which attracted less than 20 participants.
It would seem that the State Department was not pleased with Ghadry, who tended to be alarmist and egotistical. The State Dept. is now supporting, at least they seem to be supporting, a new National Council, that some have compared to the INC, in the place of Ghadry's Reform Party. Here is the article on it.
07 July 2005 By Mercedes L. Suarez Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- Five Syrian dissidents residing in the United States have announced the formation of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group dedicated to regime change and the establishment of a democratic government in Damascus. “We are not looking for reform in Syria. We want a complete change in the regime in Syria,” Mohammed Aljbaili said at a press conference June 6. He described the Syrian regime under President Bashar Assad as “one of the most totalitarian rules in the world.”
The Washington-based council will coordinate with opposition groups inside and outside Syria to promote democratic change in the country, according to a statement issued by the council's executive committee. In addition to Aljbaili, the other members of the executive committee are Najib Alghadban, Hussam Aldairi, Mohammed Alkhawam and Abd Almuhaymen Alsibai.
"A democratic government in Syria is likely to preserve the national interest of Syria better than any other regime," said Alghadban.
The dissidents created the council after a convention of Syrians living in the United States took place in Washington June 18-19. The full list of founding members was not made public because many members feared for their safety.
The council's ultimate goal is to build a new state characterized by a multi-party democratic system with free and fair elections, the rule of law, a guarantee of human rights and the separation of powers, according to the statement. In the near term, the council is going to press for “lifting emergency laws, freeing political prisoners, and conducting elections,” the statement said.
Emphasizing that it is an umbrella group, not a political party, the council will seek to bring together opposition groups, “use the media to speed up democratic change” and “initiate a public relations campaign targeting international organizations and democratic forces worldwide,” according to the statement.
The council plans to organize a convention in the fall in Washington to broaden its reach and bring together opposition groups based inside and outside Syria.
“Our goal is to work with every organization and administration that seeks democracy,” said committee member Hussam Aldairi in response to a question about whether the council would work with the U.S. government.
The executive committee members said they had already met twice with officials at the U.S. State Department, initially in March and then around the time of their convention in June. Alghadban described the meetings as informative and “very positive.”
State Department officials said they had met with several nongovernmental Syrian groups in March, though they could not confirm meeting with any specific individuals from the newly formed council. The council members said they hope to continue to build contacts with the State Department and they plan to get in touch with members of the U.S. Congress.
“The American administration is interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East,” said Alghadban. The council’s aim is to “bring the goal of democracy to Syria, to make it at the heart of U.S. policy towards Syria,” he continued. He also said that the council is encouraged by the recent action of the U.S. Treasury freezing the assets of two Syrian intelligence officers.
The council’s agenda resembles that of the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi, which, before the fall of Saddam Hussein, worked for regime change in Baghdad. However, the members of the Syrian National Council were quick to say that there is “a lot of difference between Syria and Iraq.”
“We believe that there are all kinds of means to bring about democratic change in Syria short of military action,” Alghadban said.
The council’s executive committee members were asked whether they are working with Farid Ghadry, whose Syrian Reform Party calls for the overthrow of Bashar Assad and advocates democratic government. Aljbaili said the council had been in contact with Ghadry and had invited him to their June conference but that he had decided not to be involved with the council. The State Department confirmed that Ghadry met with officials there in March.
The council also said it does not have any official contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood, though Alghadban said, “we extend our willingness to work with all groups” that promote democracy.
The Syrian National Council leaders said they expect the council to be incorporated in Washington by mid-July.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
This news bit suggesting that the State Department is behind the creation of the new National Council.
The Bush administration has provided support to Syrian dissidents to organize into a credible pro-democracy opposition group. Officials said the dissidents have been encouraged to form an umbrella group similar to that established by Iraqi opposition activists before the U.S. war against Baghdad in 2003.
"We're working with a range of dissidents," an official said. "We're keeping all options open."
The State Department has been selected to help organize the pro-democracy Syrian opposition, currently based on Syrians who live in the United States. Dissidents have met several times for strategy sessions with State Department and White House officials.
"Asad Knows What He is Doing" by Braude with comment
Joseph Braude, has written a very interesting and provocative article in this week's issue of the New Republic, (copied below) which Harvard's Joe Pace, presently a researcher in Syria, kindly sent me. The main thrust of the article is that Bashar is winning and should not be underestimated as a modern day Fredo Corleone. He is succeeding in dividing Europe from the US. He is pursuing a smart Iraq policy - buying off the new Iraqi government with economic deals it badly needs in order to thwart US pressure on the border issue. And he is wiggling out of the US economic embargo because scads of economically advanced countries want to do business with Syria even as Washington tries ineffectively to stop them.
I have two gripes with the article. One is that he takes my quotes completely out of context by trying to lump me in with Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Fuad Ajami. (Though I respect both, I disagree with them.) Braude does this hack job in order to create a straw man so he can then argue, "But these views underestimate the staying power of the present regime in Syria."
Surely, Braude has read "Syria Comment" closely enough to know that I have argued consistently that Bashar's regime has staying power and will be ruling Damascus in six years, long after President Bush has returned to Texas and Washington has forgotten Syria and "Reforming the Greater Middle East". Moreover, I have also written frequently about how Syria is successfully dividing Europe from the US. In fact, most of the evidence Braude marshals in his article has already been catalogued here on "Syria Comment." Something Braude has made careful use of, which is to his credit.
The second, and more important, gripe is that Braude gets the real story wrong. He wants to blame Europe for being stupid, naive, or invidious in its support for Bashar's reformism and by going after Syrian contracts.
This is the same line that the Washington hawks used against Europe in the run up to the Iraq war. Braude refuses to learn from the Iraq experience. Europe did not want to invade Iraq alongside Washington because it did not believe the result would be advantageous to it. Europe, I would submit, was correct. Perhaps it is too early to determine whether invading Iraq was in the best interests of the United States - many Americans continue to argue that it was the right thing to do for long-term American interests - but Europe called its interests as it saw them. America went it alone in Iraq, which was its choice. This time around Washington must listen to Europe, and Europe is saying loud and clear: "Bashar is our best bet."
Braude doesn't like that message. He advises Washington to send "a clear message of solidarity with the 1.5 million-strong [Kurdish] community [in Syria]. He claims dividing Kurd from Arab in Syria would
send shock waves throughout the country. Such bold measures are necessary precisely because Assad seems less and less likely to self-destruct.
Braude wants to send Washington on a fool’s errand, all the while accusing Europe of being the fool for not joining in such a policy. He also argues that Farid Ghadry is the man Washington should support to carry out regime-change in Syria (see my last post and link to Braude's previous TNR article on Ghadry).
Ghadry completely overestimates the Syrian opposition. It is not ready to do any heavy lifting and is in complete disarray. Braude is giving bad advice. The US should listen to Europe for a change. Perhaps it is correct this time?
Here is Braude's article:
BASHAR ASSAD KNOWS WHAT HE'S DOING. SERIOUSLY. Nobody's Fool by Joseph Braude New Republic Online
Syria's leader, according to numerous Middle East experts, is a bumbling fool. "President Bashar al Assad of Syria has lately been doing everything possible to make himself an ex-dictator," wrote Robert Satloff at TNR Online last month. "No one is taking Bashar seriously," argued Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist now on a Fulbright in Damascus and Beirut. "He has no credibility and is locked into a dialogue of the deaf with Washington." By permitting foreign fighters to flow across Syria into Iraq and supporting militant groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, say observers, he has earned the Bush administration's contempt. And in cracking down on anti-Syria politicians in Lebanon this spring to the point of allegedly assassinating billionaire ex-president Rafik al-Hariri, Assad caused the United States and France to unite against him--setting in motion a chain of events that led to Syria's humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon.
The result, according to Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami, is that "the current Syrian regime is truly alone in the world," lacking even a friendly Arab autocrat to throw Assad a line. Meanwhile, the June congress of Syria's ruling Baath Party, which Assad also leads, did little to placate domestic dissidents--who some observers believe are now emboldened to stick it to the regime from within. Farid Ghadry, Washington-based president of the Reform Party of Syria, argued last week that Assad's Damascus opponents are expressing a "crescendo of criticism," and that "[g]iven the dynamics of Syrian society today, this Syrian regime will not last another six months." Perhaps Satloff summed up the prevailing impression of Assad best when he paraphrased a Damascus-based refusenik as saying, "[I]f the Assads were the modern-day Corleones, Hafez dreamed of having Michael succeed him but was stuck with Fredo."
But these views underestimate the staying power of the present regime in Syria. To be sure, its brutal tactics in Beirut this spring were a crippling miscalculation. But more recent moves by Damascus suggest that Assad and his brain trust are learning from their mistakes in a manner that serves their narrow interests. Assad is harnessing the country's modest economic leverage and tweaking its policies in the region with the likely aim of driving a new wedge between Europe and the United States. He has reached out to some of his neighbors in an attempt to ease their misgivings about his rule. And shifting attitudes toward the regime outside Syria, coupled with a new wave of crackdowns inside Syria, have had the effect of demoralizing the country's dissidents--dimming prospects for a serious challenge to Assad from within.
All of which is to say that Assad may yet outsmart his fiercest opponents in Washington--not by confronting them and winning but by dodging them and surviving. It would certainly be easier for America if Bashar Assad were a fool. Unfortunately, he may be cannier than we think.
Assad's chances of holding onto power stand to increase if there's trans-Atlantic disunity on the question of whether to isolate him. So it's good news for Assad that contrary to American policy, a June 15 statement by the Paris-based Interparliamentary European Security and Defense Assembly finds "that it is in the interests of peace in the region not to isolate Syria, a 'country on the axis of evil,' which is being threatened by the United States." Apparently, this past spring's trend of Assad-bashing in Europe--French President Jacques Chirac famously predicted that the Syrian regime would not survive a withdrawal from Lebanon--is now over. The continent's leaders are looking for reasons to do business with the Syrian chief again now that he has withdrawn from Lebanon. And Assad has been providing them with reasons--both economic and political.
On the economic front, the Syrian government has been vigorously courting Europe's private sector--from the top down as well as the bottom up. Last week Syria won an "association agreement" with the European Union valued at a billion dollars--defeating an effort by pro-American Syrian exiles to derail it. The regime had made commitments to a visiting EU parliamentary delegation earlier in the month, including the release of political prisoners and granting of citizenship to 200,000 dispossessed Syrian Kurds. The agreement, a component of the EU's Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, puts Syria on track to join a free-trade zone envisioned for 2010. Not only is it a boon to Syria, it comes none too soon for European entrepreneurs who are clamoring to do business with the Assad regime. In Germany, for example, the construction company Plabis GmbH recently submitted a proposal to build a new railway connecting Syria's west coast to the eastern provinces. A smaller company from the economically beleaguered former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt aspires to build a new beltway around Damascus to help solve the city's traffic problems. Meanwhile, in Cyprus earlier this week, Syria's trade minister courted his counterpart and won agreements to promote commerce, solar energy, and joint investment projects. To argue that Syria is "truly alone in the world" is to underestimate the allure of Syrian money on a continent that's increasingly interdependent with the Middle East.
On the political front, Assad has moved, in effect, to check off a few boxes on a longstanding list of Western demands. This week, for example, he met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Syrian relations have historically been strained because Syria opposes the PLO's recognition of Israel. Assad reportedly broke with tradition and offered to help coax some of the militant Palestinian factions--long sheltered by Damascus--to go back to Palestine and join a new "national unity government." To accusations that Syria turns a blind eye to anti-American militants as they cross the Syrian-Iraqi border, Assad offered concrete responses this week: The Syrian government claims it clashed with a group of militants near Damascus, including former bodyguards of Saddam Hussein. The country's official news agency also reported that Syrian forces arrested 34 militants and killed another near the Lebanese border Sunday.
Some skeptics in Washington are likely to interpret these official Syrian news items as nonsense--and perhaps rightly so. For European governments, on the other hand, the stories may offer justification for a change in policy they are already predisposed to make. These developments, then, could easily spark a split in American and European stances towards Syria--which is, of course, exactly what Assad wants. Pretty shrewd work for a modern-day Fredo Corleone.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Assad and his team are working hard to mend historic neighborhood rifts--and building on what friendships the regime already has. These diplomatic moves, which similarly fuse economic and political leverage, are making it harder for Washington to isolate Syria in the region.
Consider Iraq, where an elderly former Syrian ambassador to the country led talks last week on reopening an embassy in Baghdad--after 25 years without one. The old man is not on a fool's errand; his initiative stands to be bolstered by several other projects involving Syria that the Iraqi government values highly. First, since mid-June, Syria has generously channeled 670 million cubic meters of water down the Euphrates into Iraq--well in excess of its required quota under the prevailing accord. Iraqis need this water badly given the poor state of the country's irrigation channels and reservoir. Second, Iraq is committed to a valuable oil pipeline project now underway between Iran and Syria--part of the Europe-backed pipeline deal that aims to use the three countries to deliver fuel from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.
With these and other ventures on tap, you'd almost forget that Iraq is supposed to be at odds with Syria over its alleged track record of letting insurgents cross the border. Forgive and forget, apparently. "It is unfair," said a former Iraqi interior minister at a press conference in Damascus this week, "to hold Syria responsible for both borders' security. ... Syria has offered every possible help and support to preserve Iraq's security, stability, and unity." These sentiments were echoed by no less an enemy of the Iraqi insurgency than former Iraqi premier Ayad Allawi. At a news conference in Cairo last week, he called for the two countries to set up a buffer zone together along the border, and made a point of taking the heat off Syria for the crimes of insurgents it has hosted. "There are gunmen who are infiltrating the Iraqi-Syrian border," he said, "but this does not necessarily mean that they are doing so with the support of the Syrian government. Many are abusing Syrian hospitality to work against Iraq."
In Washington, where the burden of policing Iraq has been hammering away at Bush's approval ratings, there's less and less desire to obstruct this détente between Iraq and Syria--even if it amounts to a major asset for the Assad regime. Some analysts, in fact, see a possibility that Assad may be a potential part of the solution to the Iraq problem--a problem, of course, which Syria is widely believed to have had a hand in causing. At the Brookings Institution last month, Washington Post associate editor David Ignatius observed:
I think that the strategy the Syrians have decided on is to go first to Baghdad, if you will. The route to America is through Baghdad. If they can establish a bilateral security relationship with the Al-Ja'fari government that begins to produce some results on the ground that the Americans see, that that may change people's minds in Washington.
The Bush administration, for its part, appears to be hedging its bets. In response to a question during her recent overseas trip, Condoleezza Rice declined to use the term "regime change" to characterize White House hopes for Syria, saying instead that Syrian "behavior must change." On both sides of the Atlantic, therefore, Assad's alleged incompetence has somehow not earned him the abject pariah status that is commonly imputed to him.
Barring a foreign invasion and occupation of Syria, then, hopes for a new government in Damascus rest on the courage of the Syrian people to bring about change from within. As I noted back in April, Syria under the Assad clan's Baath Party differs from Iraq under Saddam's Baath Party in that Syrians are vastly better informed of events outside their country: Satellite television is prevalent in the cities, and Internet use is common among the wealthy and the educated. Yet the availability of information is a double-edged sword: Just as Syrians may be emboldened by outside claims that their ruler is weak, so too may they be demoralized by outside vindications of their ruler's strength. Thus Europe's easing of tensions with Assad, Rice's eschewing of the term "regime change," and the Syrian government's increasingly normalized relations with Iraq might all contribute to a dashing of Syrian hopes that the Assad clan is on its way out. Add to these outside developments a new wave of crackdowns by the regime on domestic opposition--as Annia Ciezadlo described in the most recent issue of TNR--and an unhappy picture emerges: a summer of defeatism and despair for Syrian reformers.
You can hear it in the very dissident voices so often hailed as standard bearers by people in Washington. Take Ammar Abdulhamid, Satloff's source for the quip comparing Assad to Fredo Corleone. His blog entires following the Baath Party congress in June reflect a higher estimation of Assad's faculties--a notion that the young leader has come into his own. In a play on words--Assad means "lion" in Arabic--Abdulhamid writes, "No longer a lion cub, ours is now the real grown thing." The blog, written in English, also conveys his personal sense of impending doom:
[I]f I should get jailed one day for these blog entries, for my newspaper articles or for my activities with the Tharwa Project, among other things, there should be no doubt that I will have earned it. Whether I deserve it or not, in the moral sense, is a different matter. ... [T]here is something ominous in the air, I am not really sure what to make of it, I mean there is nothing really concrete, just a vague feeling that something bad is about to happen... [italics in original]
Nor is Abdulhamid alone in his anticipation of harsh treatment. Another Damascus blogger, writing in Arabic in mid-June, referred to a BBC report that Microsoft in China had begun blocking the use of terms like "democracy," "freedom," and "human rights" in its MSN blogging software on behalf of the Chinese government. The blogger anticipated that Assad's regime would soon make similar arrangements:
I can imagine the words that will be filtered by the Syrian MSN: democracy, freedom, free elections ... emergency law, state security court, intelligence, political security, prisons, arrests, human rights ... prisoners of conscience, Damascus spring ... corruption, change, dream, hope, nation.
In contrast to dissident Egyptian blogs these days, which increasingly serve as a medium to enhance coordination among anti-government activists, Syrian blogs are serving less as a revolutionary tool and more as a coping mechanism--a valve for the anonymous release of feelings that can't be expressed anywhere else. They are at times deeply sad and moving--but not, at least for now, signals of a feisty opposition movement.
Syria, in short, is no picnic, and its ruler is not the fool many believe him to be. The cause of deposing Baath rule there would be well served by an injection of realism on this score--because exuberant claims that dramatic change is imminent evidently have not served to embolden a people that knows otherwise.
True, there are portions of the country where a spirit of restlessness looms large--and where Assad has much to worry about. Last year, for instance, riots that broke out in a Kurdish region of the country claimed 36 lives. Syria's dispossessed Kurds understand that a massive uprising against the regime--should they manage to organize it--could well unite much of the world against Assad again, as it did in Lebanon a few months ago. If the United States sends a clear message of solidarity with this 1.5 million-strong community, it could send shock waves throughout the country. Such bold measures are necessary precisely because Assad seems less and less likely to self-destruct. And if Western leaders believe otherwise, then it's they who will be playing the fool.
If Anyone saw the Mustaqbil TV program last night with Riad al-Turk of the Social Syrian Democratic Party and Bayanouni of the Moslem Brotherhood broadcast from London, I would love to get a description of it with your reaction. I missed it. A number of journalists in town would also like to hear public reaction.
Nassim Yaziji has begun a blog, entitled "Middle East Policy," which looks like it should be interesting. Nassim is a Syrian, I believe, who studied political science at the Lebanese University in Beirut and is now living in London. It is worth taking a look at. Nassim says he will, "debate Middle East policy issues, convey Middle Eastern viewpoints, and serve as a bridge among scholars, researchers and politicians of the western and Middle East."
Moderating "Syria Comment". A number of people have asked me to moderate the comment section of "Syria Comment," in order to censor remarks by those who use abusive language, "scream" constantly, and generally inhibit discussion. I don't want to do this for the obvious reasons. One never knows where to draw the line on censorship. It is a slippery slope and even some of the worst screamers are sometimes interesting and have points worth considering. I would ask, however, that commenters try to be observe basic norms of politeness in order to keep this forum open to those who prefer not to be screamed at. Syria Comment is more interesting when everyone contributes. Thanks, Joshua
Syria Reaches out to Palestine and Punishes Lebanon
The Daily Star published French President Jacques Chirac's speech at the G8 Summit at Gleneagles concerning Lebanon and Syria on July 7, 2005. It indirectly blames Syria for the murders in Lebanon. Chirac calls for Syria to embrace the changes going on in the region - both economic and political. He also states that "Peace in the Near East, to be more precise, must be comprehensive. A zone of Syria's territories remain occupied. The settlement of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors therefore concerns the leading nation Syria which as a consequence must contribute in it."
In this context, Bashar's announcement last Thursday, in which he "assured visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of his country's support for Palestinian unity," demonstrates that Syria is ready to cooperate on Palestine.
The Syrian News Agency, SANA, said "President Assad assured his guest of Syria support of the Palestinian people's struggle and rightful aspirations of ending Israeli occupation and ensuring the return of refugees to an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," SANA said.
Assad stressed that Palestinian unity is the basic guarantee for recovering occupied national land and confronting current challenges.
"Syria encouraged and backed inter-Palestinian dialogue between all the Palestinian factions and is ready to continue on doing so," Assad was quoted as telling Abbas.
Four months after the assassination of [former Premier Rafik] Hariri, it is possible to make a first assessment regarding the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559:
Thanks to an unprecedented internal mobilization, coupled with an exemplary regional and international action, Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon, which allowed transparent parliamentary elections. The Lebanese people were finally allowed freedom of expression.
These elections led to a true renewal. If the elections confirmed the necessity of reforming the electoral law, defects of which were highlighted by the European Union's observation mission, Lebanon enjoys today a Parliament that represents the majority of political factions.
Henceforth, the old opposition enjoys the absolute majority. Its officials own the necessary political and parliamentary means to introduce an emergency reform program. They should assume their task and we will judge them by their acts.
If the conditions necessary for success are available, the international community will voice their demands. It accompanied Lebanon through its battle for freedom. It must be at its side, tomorrow, to proceed in the path of renewal. The international community will continue to help Lebanon until an international conference can be held to determine how Lebanon can help itself.
But, a word of caution: it is not our task to take the decision in Lebanon's place. We will not help the authorities unless they help themselves. We will not accompany their reforms unless these reforms fall within the framework of a credible and reasonable scenario, conceived by Lebanon and set by the officials ruling fairly and proving their will to fight corruption.
A page of Lebanon's history is turned. But all liabilities have not been totally discharged.
The truth behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri has not been unraveled so far. The culprits have not been identified yet. We believe in the capacity of the Mehlis Commission to carry out the investigations with which it was entrusted.
Furthermore, the assassination attempt against Marwan Hamade and the murders of Samir Kassir and George Hawi have not been cleared up yet.
All these heinous crimes, part of an epoch thought to be gone a long time ago, targeted men known for their independence of spirit and their vision of a Lebanon free of foreign interference. They seek to intimidate and persuade the people and their rulers that it is in their best interest to accept a foreign protector.
So many signs that show that Resolution 1559 has not been fully implemented so far. Doubts linger as to the effective departure of all Syrian elements from Lebanon. This is why the international team entrusted with verifying the withdrawal of the pullout remains operational. This is also why the mission of [UN Envoy] Roed-Larsen is far from being terminated and must go on.
Furthermore, Hizbullah did not disarm yet. The international community demands it in Resolution 1559 that it must be fully implemented. It is up to the Lebanese government to spread its full sovereignty across the territories. Personally, the solution lies in Hizbullah's full and entire participation, as well as the Shiite community, in the political, economic and social life of the country. This participation should be the result of a dialogue process between the acting forces of Lebanon. The process, which should be launched without further delay, should also take into consideration the necessity of economic and social development of South Lebanon.
The developments that I mentioned have influenced Syria. It is an occasion for Syria to open up to its regional environment and to adapt to the evolution currently under way in the world. In the immediate present, we wish that Syria would establish a relation based on equality and respect with Lebanon. This would serve the interests of both countries because each of the two knows what brings it closer to the other.
Besides, it is in Syria's interest to return to the normal game of international relations. It can start now by ceasing support to forces that seek to destabilize Lebanon and the region.
Furthermore, the Syrian government should prove that it is ready to make a choice of freedom and democracy for its people. Syria must contribute in the national and regional economic development. The Middle East needs it.
In this perspective, it is in Syria's interest to take into consideration the evolution of the Near East and the world. Its reticence vis-a-vis change should not end up exhausting the international community. It is not in its interest. Time is of essence.
Of course, we understand that Syria must serve its legitimate security interests. Peace in the Near East, to be more precise, must be comprehensive. A zone of Syria's territories remain occupied. The settlement of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors therefore concerns the leading nation Syria which as a consequence must contribute in it.
The British are joining the French in putting pressure on the US and Israel to open up peace talks with Syria again.
"No one can ignore Syria's effective role in the region... how will we talk about a Middle East that enjoys security and stability without Syria.." Minister Howells added during a meeting with the Syrian Media Center in London.
On the Syrian- British relations, Howells underlined that, "his country will not turn its back on Syria."
The three billion promised to the Palestinian Authority at the G8 Summit at Gleneagles will add to this pressure.
The best article on Syrian-Lebanese trade comes from the Daily Star, which provides good economic statistics for the last several years of trade. It is worth noting that not all news about the Lebanese-Syrian relationship is bad for the two countries just signed a contract to have a Lebanese firm build a new railroad line linking Damascus' Hijaz railway with the Damascus airport worth US$ 54 million. Here is the Daily Star article by Osama Habib.
BEIRUT: Lebanese trucks are still unable to cross the Lebanese-Syrian border despite efforts to relax tough inspection procedures, reflecting the tense political situation between the two countries.
Hundreds of trucks carrying tons of perishable goods are still queuing up at the Syrian checkpoint along the border, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of Lebanese families.
Adnan Qassar, the president of the Beirut Chamber of Commerce, told The Daily Star that talks to end the crisis did not yield any result so far.
Qassar attributed the stand- off along border to political tension between the two countries.
Observers said that Syria apparently wants to demonstrate to the Lebanese that the anti-Syrian sentiments following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon will not go unnoticed.
"We must have candid talks with Syrian officials because Lebanon and Syria have much to lose if tension continues," Qassar said.
He added that the Lebanese government must review trade agreements with Syria for the benefit of both parties.
Syria is the only land outlet for Lebanese-made goods to the outside world.
Most of the Lebanese trucks stranded along the border were heading to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries.
"Syrian authorities are reluctant to facilitate the movement of Lebanese trucks," one trader said, adding that many of the tuck drivers are forced to throw away tons of fruits and vegetables on the road after spending days waiting near the checkpoint.
Lebanese trucks are spending between four and five days at the Syrian checkpoint while Syrian trucks crossing to Lebanon are cleared in less an hour, according to merchants.
But merchants admitted that very few Syrian trucks are actually coming to Lebanon these days.
Lebanon and Syrian signed a free-trade agreement more than five years ago but Lebanese traders and farmers complained that the Syrians never respected the agreement.
Lebanese farmers were also furious at Syrian smuggling into Lebanon, flooding the local market with cheap agricultural products.
In 1997 the volume of bilateral trade between both countries stood at $76.8 million, for which Syrian exports to Lebanon accounted for 92.7 percent.
As more agreements were signed, Lebanon gradually began tipping the trade balance in its favor. In 2000, for example, bilateral trade volume stood at $190.1 million, with Syrian exports making up 87.8 percent. By 2003, trade volume stood at $277.2 million, but Syria's share of the pie had slipped to 74 percent. In the first half of 2004, total trade volume stood at $136.95 million, of which Syrian trade accounted for only 63 percent.
While such figures are susceptible to fluctuations in energy prices (almost half of Syrian exports to Lebanon are oil products), Lebanese exports to Syria more than doubled between 2001 and 2003, and Lebanon's share of the official trade volume continued to grow. But economists stress that the figures do not include the goods smuggled into Lebanon, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Traders hope that the newly appointed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora will be able to renegotiate trade agreements with Syrian authorities once he forms his Cabinet.
Rami Khouri, also of the Daily Star, recently returned from GSTAAD, Switzerland, where he discussed "the increasingly violent, fractured and fragmenting Middle East" with 20 colleagues at an annual gathering sponsored by major American and European research centers. His summation of the conference is a worthwhile read for its wide ranging survey of recent developments in the area and thoughts about the future, which Rami says "paints a rather depressing picture."
"There will a televised announcement tonight from London uniting ALL the strands of the opposition."
This is what Deborah Amos of National Public Radio in the United States told me this morning. Deborah is in Damascus to report on the opposition; She was told this by "one of the chief "Damascus Spring" guys." As Deborah remarked, "If true, it should cause a huge stir here." Deborah has been following this story like a hawk. She was in London last week talking to Syrians.
If this story is true, it will go so some way to explain the recent crack down on the opposition: the inexplicable closing of the Attasi forum last Saturday, the killing of Khasnawi, the hushing up of several noted opposition members, etc.
Opposition members of every stripe have been calling for the formation of a "broad national front" for months now. This means bringing together the secular opposition with the Islamic currents, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood in London.
Ever since President Bashar extended the Presidential term of Emile Lahoud in Lebanon, Syria has been going through a second Damascus Spring that was only halted a few weeks ago.
The opposition has been growing in numbers and in confident since UN resolution 1559 was passed and the debacle in Lebanon. Bashar opened up debate while US pressure was used to squeeze Syria out of Lebanon. More people were getting educated by the opposition members who were speaking out. The Lebanese press was important in educating people and riling them up, especially after it broke its silence over Syrian affairs, following the Hariri murder and Cedar uprising.
Everyone in Damascus has been visiting everyone else and speaking more frankly about things than they ever have before. Some parties, such as Riad al-Turk's, renamed themselves and tried to snaz up their programs to get in fighting trim. New parties have formed, most notably the old "Peoples Party" of Aleppo, which relaunched itself after having been closed in 1963.
The Kurdish Parties formed a unified committee that brought together four of the 12? 13? Kurdish parties in order to better coordinate their efforts. Khaznawi held talks with diplomats and Islamists in Europe.
The Muslim Brotherhood, based in London, has been revamping its program to align itself with the secular opposition. It has softened the purely "Islamic" nature of its program and reached out to secular opposition members by insisting it is for democracy and free elections. It now calls for the lifting of emergency rule, the legalization of all political parties, and the respect for human rights and separation of the judicial and executive branches of government. This retreat from a revolutionary program to one of republicanism and reform by the Muslim Brothers has been matched by most other parties. By becoming more "responsible" and less threatening to the general public, Syria's political parties are creating new possibilities and a general respect for liberal dialogue.
The readership of Syria's alternative press (all new in the last two years) and internet sites have been playing a growing role in educating and connecting people. Syria had only 5 bloggers in January - It now has over 60. It had no Arab bloggers last year. It now has many.
These are some signs of the growing activities of the "opposition," and growing political consciousness of Syrians in general as they discover that they can actually talk about politics openly after 40 years of repression and seek to reach out to each other in order to organize and play a larger roll in society.
If there is an announcement tonight that "all strands of the opposition have been united," it will only be a first step in building effective alternatives in Syria. The opposition will remain fragmented because they disagree about the future direction of Syria. It will remain weak because there are not many organized groups to unite.
All the same, the intellectual atmosphere in Syria has been going through a real tectonic shift. People are beginning to think differently about their future and about their own ability to change things. Bashar al-Asad has played a great roll in this. His basic belief that hearing different opinions and arguments from Syrians is good for the country - a point of view he expressed clearly when he first came to power - has shifted the ground under the Syrian state.
Regional and international events have also added to this intellectual watershed. The rapid collapse of the Baath regime in Iraq changed Syrian perceptions about the power of their own state and frightened them. Everyone has been saying that it is the duty of the state to engage with the opposition to rebuild trust between the citizenry and rulers in order to avoid a similar catastrophe in Syria. No longer do Syrians believe that silence is a form of strength, or that blind unity produces power. Only if citizens begin taking responsibility for the future of their country will things improve and governmental mistakes be corrected, rather than repeated.
The Cedar revolution in Lebanon has also played an important roll, as well as Syria's desire to engage in world markets and grow its economy. The Ministry of Planning's steady campaign to educate Syrians about the economic dangers they face in the future has also alerted Syrians to the need to get organized and press ahead with reform.
Ultimately, the emergence of an effective and responsible opposition will strengthen Syria. If the government can respond to it properly, it can also be good for those in power today.
Once again Sami Moubayed gives us an insightful view of Lebanese Politics as seen by a Damascene Liberal. He doesn't explore how Lebanon's new Prime Minister will regularize Syrian-Lebanese relations, particularly since Syria has been squeezing Lebanon of late by delaying Lebanese trucks for up to five days as they bring perishable exports into Lebanon. Perhaps he will in a future article.
A lot of political maturity and good faith is coming out of Beirut following the appointment of Fouad al-Siniora (62) as premier of Lebanon. He was voted into office by 126 of the 128 deputies in the Lebanese parliament.
Tested in economics and politics, Siniora is believed to be the perfect man to end Lebanon's numerous woes, especially after the assassination of ex-premier Rafik Hariri and the exodus of the Syrian army from Lebanon.
The new parliament is unlike any since the end of the civil war in 1990 as it includes many ground-breaking newcomers, such as General Michel Aoun, who returned to the country after 15 years in exile; Saad Hariri, the son of the slain prime minister; Solang Gemayel, the widow of slain president Bashir Gemayel; and Strida Gagegea, the wife of arrested warlord Samir Gagegea.
Many traditional faces were defeated in the recent multi-phased elections, including ex-interior minister Sulayman Franjiyyieh, Druze leader Talal Arslan, Maronite leader Nassib Lahhoud and Beirut politician Najah Wakim. Other previously influential leaders did not run for office, such as Beirut chief Tammam Salam, ex-deputy prime minister Issam Fares, and former prime minister Omar Karameh, leaving parliament, for the first time in 50 years, without a member of the Karameh family, the scions of Sunni power in Tripoli.
New man in the job Siniora was born in 1943, grew up in the coastal city of Sidon, and studied at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the institution that molded many of Lebanon's greatest leaders throughout the 20th century. Siniora lectured at AUB in the 1970s, and served in the auditing committee at the Central Bank of Lebanon from 1977 to 1982.
He then joined the vast business empire of Rafik Hariri, and is currently chairman and managing director of Groupe Mediterranee, encompassing four Hariri-owned banks (Banque de la Mediterranee, Saudi Lebanese Bank, Allied Bank and Banque de la Mediterranee Suisse). He is also a board member of the Arab Bank, one of the largest in the Arab world.
When Hariri came to power in 1992, he brought Siniora with him, first as minister of state and then as minister of finance, a post he held in all the Hariri cabinets from 1992 to 2004. The Western media have depicted him as an anti-Syrian statesman who has been opposed to Syria since 1990. That is not true. Like Hariri, who was his childhood friend, mentor and employer, Siniora was one of the most prominent figures to rule Lebanon during the heyday of Syrian hegemony in the 1990s.
A pragmatic politician, he was pro-Syrian when it was correct to be working with Damascus, and softened his allegiance when it became politically incorrect to be an ally of Damascus. He was never anti-Syrian.
He was never Aoun, Amin Gemayel or Raymond Edde, three politicians who opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon from day one and continued to speak out against Syria until the Syrian army evacuated in April. These men refused to join the political system when Syria was around, whereas Siniora and Hariri joined, created and legitimized the last 15 years of Syria's control in Lebanon by working closely with the Syrians and taking part in consecutive governments created by Damascus since 1990.
Siniora and Hariri would have continued to work with the Syrians had Damascus not mistakenly abandoned them and empowered their yes-man, President Emile Lahhoud, at their expense in 1998. They grew disenchanted with the Syrians from then, and the frustration increased tremendously when Syria renewed the mandate of Lahhoud in 2004, forcing both men into the opposition.
Pro-Syrian or not, Siniora was elected prime minister with a majority vote from Syria's enemies and allies. He was backed primarily by Saad al-Hariri, who came out with a majority vote in parliament and could have, had he wished, assumed the premiership because he commands a parliamentary majority. Hariri declined, however, preferring instead to test the waters through Siniora due to his age and experience, and to avoid a head-on-clash with Lahhoud, who had obstructed his father's economic and political reforms in 2000-2004.
Instead, he designated Siniora to lead the battle for him. Currently, consultations are under way to create Siniora's cabinet. Not many deputies boycotted consultations with Lahhoud, sending a positive signal that the opposition wants to cooperate with the president, whom they had earlier promised to eject, in creating a new Lebanon. The president is eager to cooperate, fearing that a parliament packed with his opponents would veto the constitutional amendment created by Syria for renewing his term in 2004 and vote him out of office.
Deputy Strida Gagegea, who has been waiting for an audience for six years with Lahhoud to request a presidential pardon for her arrested husband Samir, triumphantly entered Baabda Palace and voted for Siniora. She had allied herself during the elections with Walid Jumblatt, the traditional ally of Hariri and Siniora, who repeatedly had vowed to topple Lahhoud.
Another triumphant entry into Baabda Palace was that of Aoun, who had also called for Lahhoud's removal, and now met the president face-to-face for the first time in 15 years. It was Lahhoud, when serving as army commander, who ejected Aoun from Baabda Palace in 1990. He, too, voted for Siniora and the prime minister was grateful, calling on Aoun during his protocol meetings with former prime ministers for consultations.
For 15 years, the Muslims of Lebanon had refused to recognize Aoun's legality as prime minister in 1988-1990, claiming that it was illegal for a Maronite to assume a job traditionally reserved for a Muslim. By meeting him, along with former prime ministers Salim al-Hoss, Amin al-Hafez, Rashid al-Sulh, Omar Karameh and Najib Mikati, Siniora was saying: "Yes, we recognize that you, too, were prime minister of Lebanon once."
Aoun has declared that he will not join Siniora's cabinet because the prime minister refused to give Aoun's allies the Ministry of Justice. By stepping down, he also abandons the portfolios of education and administrative reforms, which had been allocated to his Free Patriotic Movement. Aoun had demanded the justice portfolio for his ally, the judge Yusuf Khury, wanting to use it to wage his anti-corruption campaign and strike back at the traditional leaders of Lebanon who have used the judiciary against him since 1990, preventing his return to Lebanon on charges of corruption, from which he was declared innocent in May.
Siniora knows only too well how strong a political machine the judiciary can be since it was used against him from 1998 to 2000 by Lahhoud and his prime minister Salim al-Hoss, who accused him of corruption while serving as minister of finance under Hariri in 1992-1998. He, too, was declared innocent of the charges in 2003.
Saad Hariri has demanded that the portfolio of justice remains in the hands of his allies, most probably current minister Khalid Qabbani, to keep it under his strict control during the investigations into the murder of his father earlier this year.
Hezbollah, which has decided to enter the political arena, swept into parliament with 14 seats out of 128 seats and has demanded that it be given two ministries in the Siniora cabinet, which are yet to be decided. Siniora has promised to work with them, not against them, and is unlikely to use pressure do disarm Hezbollah, something that not even Hariri, with his immense power and influence, dared to try.
Siniora has stated that as far as he is concerned, UN Resolution 1559 calling for Hezbollah to disarm is redundant as the disarming of Hezbollah is a domestic Lebanese matter to be decided by the Lebanese themselves, and not by the international community.
The way ahead The tasks awaiting Siniora are colossal. Prime among them is security. Over the past five months, four political figures have been assassinated; Hariri, ex-economy minister Basil Fulayhan, journalist Samir al-Kassir and Communist Party leader George Hawi. Siniora is expected to consolidate security, reform the security establishments widely blamed for the chaos, and prevent the re-occurrence of such crimes.
Another challenge is the economy. Siniora is accredited for having combated waste and encouraged privatization to reduce government spending in the 1990s, having, for example, closed down the Ministry of the Displaced and other government agencies accused of draining the treasury.
He introduced value-added tax (VAT), which became the primary money generator in Hariri's Lebanon. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have welcomed the election of Siniora, knowing that he will continue what Hariri began and reduce public debt, which amounts to more than $35 billion (a staggering 185% of Lebanon's gross domestic product.
Siniora is expected to use his skills to encourage the US, France, Saudi Arabia and the World Bank to grant more donations to Lebanon to help end its snowballing economic crisis. Saad Hariri has already left for Saudi Arabia, where he will drum up support for the new prime minister.
On the other hand, Siniora has to prove himself by combating corruption and expanding tax collection. His critics blame him for much of the public debt, which he and Hariri created in the 1990s, and for over-taxing the middle class through VAT.
Hariri and Siniora were the architects of Paris I, an international donors conference held at the Elyse Palace on February 27, 2001, where $500 million was drummed up from the World Bank and the European Investment Bank.
On November 23, 2002, they held Paris II, getting $10.1 million in grants, along with $2.4 billion from lending countries, $3.6 billion from commercial banks operating in Lebanon and $4.1 billion from the Central Bank of Lebanon.
These amounts now challenge the new prime minister. He needed them to rebuild Lebanon in the 1990s, yet if not dealt with in an effective manner, they could blow up in his face and ruin his premiership.
It is unlikely that Siniora will be able to tackle these sensitive issues or create miracles before the end of 2005. His appointment, however, has sent positive vibes throughout Lebanon, reassuring investors and tourists that a strong man with talent, will and character is now in power in Beirut.
He is the man people hope will right the many wrongs done in Lebanon since the election of Lahhoud in 1998 and the assassination of Hariri. He is not Hariri, but from all the Muslim politicians in Lebanon, Siniora becoming prime minister is the closest thing to having re-elected Hariri. He raises people's confidence in the government, something that Lebanon sorely needs.
100 Kurdish prisoners have also begun a hunger strike to object to their prison conditions and the denial of the government that they be allowed to meet with their lawyer. Farid Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria, the US based opposition group announces on its webpage that "Syrian prisons house approximately 600 Prisoners of Conscience." Several different diplomats estimate that only around 25 Lebanese prisoners are still alive or being held in Syrian prisons.
However one counts, Syria has perhaps the smallest number of political prisoners of any Arab country. It should trumpet this fact and team up with the Red Cross to allow for regular prison visits to all detention centers. By introducing transparency to the prison system, President Bashar would make a great advance for his country, for his citizens, and for the reputation of Arabs in general. It is basic humanity. The Syrian fear of accountability is counter-productive; it undermines the legitimacy of President Bashar's promise of reform more than anything else.
Why America doesn't make this issue central is beyond comprehension. It would be the single most useful policy in assisting democrats in Syria. Perhaps America's own refusal to allow for open and quick trials at Guantanamo is the reason for its muddled policy toward human rights in Syria, and why it only insists Syria reform on foreign policy and not internal issues? Perhaps the main issue is that Washington does not want to engage with Syria. Establishing a dialogue about internal reform would mean offering carrots.
There is not transparency or accountability in Syrian security prisons, so these numbers are estimates. The British embassy says there could be up to 1,000 political prisoners. The US embassy says maybe 2 to 3 thousand.
Farid Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria is having troubles organizing Syrians across sectarian lines much as the Iraqi exiles did, only in Ghadry's case the troubles are in uniting pro-Islamists with Christians and ethnic minorities. The RPS writes: RPS Withdraws from the Syrian National Council
Washington DC, July 7, 2005/RPS/ -- RPS has withdrawn from the leadership of the Syrian National Council (SNC) because it felt that SNC did not represent all the Syrians equitably and truthfully.
RPS was instrumental in calling for the meeting of Syrian-Americans opposition figures for June 18-19 at the Jury's Hotel in Washington DC. The meeting culminated in the gathering of about 20 people.
Mr. Richard Perle, by invitation, attended the meeting for one hour on June 19 and answered questions from some of the participants.
RPS believes that real Syrian opposition must include ALL Syrians including minorities be it religious or otherwise such as the one the Syrian Democratic Coalition built with Kurdish and Arabs, Assyrians and Muslims.
Ibrahim Hamidi gets to the bottom of story about the Jordanian terrorists captured on Mount Cassioun the other day in this article in al-Hayat: دمشق: تبادل اطلاق نار ينتهي باعتقال 2 من مجموعة «طواحين العدوان» الاردنية Initially Syrian officials claimed they were terrorists, based on the confessions of the Jordanians and Syrian woman they captured, who explained that they had worked with Saddam's body guards. The Information Ministry explained that security forces were still pursuing other members of what it called a "terror and armed robbery group."
According to Ibrahim, the father of the captured Jordanian had been connected to the 1970s Black September Palestinian group and later trained in Lebanon. This family connection led to additional confusion about the supposed "terrorist" connection. Now everyone agrees that they are just a criminal group, the members of which have been in and out of jail on various criminal charges.
, said those arrested by Syria were Jordanian nationals who belong to a criminal gang, not a terror organization like al Qaeda, Hizbollah or Hamas.
"They're thieves, jewelry thieves (who steal) gold and stuff like that. Your good old regular criminals," said the official, who put the total number of Syrian arrests at six. Once again Ibrahim has gotten the dirt and proves why he is "the man in Sham."
The following two articles, sent to me Tarek Barakat (thanks Tarek) explain why Syria cares whether it captures terrorists or not. In one Rice thanks Syria for stopping terrorists and in the other an un-named official accusing Damascus of stepping up help for terrorists.
US Secretary of State praises Syria for battling militants trying to slip over its border into Iraq.
WASHINGTON - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered rare praise for Syria Tuesday for battling militants trying to slip over its border into Iraq but said more such action was necessary.
Syrian forces captured two "terrorists" Monday in a dawn clash with extremists who included former bodyguards of Saddam Hussein, official media in Damascus had reported.
The gunbattle on Mount Qassioun overlooking the Syrian capital was the second such firefight with extremists in recent days and comes amid intense US pressure on Syria to stop militants slipping over its border into Iraq.
Rice, speaking to reporters at the State Department after talks with her French counterpart Philippe Douste-Blazy, said: "I, too, have been reading the reports of clashes between Syrian forces and Iraqi insurgents or Saddam Hussein's bodyguards.
"If that's the case, then that would be a good thing," she said.
But she said in the same breath, "It's been the case in the past that Syria has done as little as possible. I hope that this time Syria will do as much as possible to deal with that border."
By Rowan Scarborough THE WASHINGTON TIMES, July 6, 2005
Syrians are increasing assistance to foreign fighters preparing to enter Iraq and kill civilians and U.S. troops, despite months of pressure on Damascus from Washington to crack down on the jihadists.
A U.S. official said recent intelligence shows that Syria is the home to Web sites that exhort militants to come to the country for preparation to fight and die in Iraq.
Syrians also are providing barracks-like housing as the recruits from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco and other Muslim countries prepare for a jihad, or holy war. The fighters also receive weapons, training and money in Syria.
The Syrian government denies that it is helping the terrorists. American commanders in Iraq have refrained from publicly saying the Ba'athist regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is actively assisting the insurgency.
The Web sites and housing are why U.S. commanders, in hearings last month, referred to Syria's capital of Damascus as the "hub" for foreigners entering Iraq and carrying out daily suicide car bombings.
Previously, officials have said that terrorists receive phony identification cards and passports in Syria and that they use the papers to cross Iraq's porous border. But fresh intelligence reports show that the staging in Syria is becoming more elaborate, the official said.
U.S. officials say privately that they think it is impossible for hundreds of jihadists to move in and out of Syria on a weekly basis without the government's approval.
Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, testified on Capitol Hill last month that the flow of foreign terrorists from Syria is increasing, despite Washington's sending high-powered delegations to Damascus to warn of serious consequences and its imposing economic sanctions.
Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, said "We are trying to tell the United States: 'We are willing to engage with you constructively. We want a good relationship with you, but you have to stop this unfair media campaign against Syria, because we think it is unfair and it is unconstructive.'?"
Speculating about Internal Power Plays: Tony corrects my last post. As always there is considerable speculation about rivalries within the Syrian power elite. Al-Seyassah has published a lot of junk in the past, so I would take it with a grain of salt, but you never know. Here is Tony's correction:
Josh, what you wrote about al-seyassah's reaction was wrong. They're saying it's an internal fight between Rifaat's folks and Maher/Asef. They added that khaddam and bahjat sleimen aren't allowed to leave, whereas tlass will be headed for france. They feel that khaddam can hurt them from france so they want him around. They're saying asef is basically on the rise and may very well do a coup.
Now i'm not sure how true all this is, but it's likely to have a bit of truth in it on all points. Asef doesn't need to make a coup. He can work behind the scenes as he's been doing.
The Oxford Business Group has just issued another report on Syria:
Syria: The Ties Not Yet Binding 7 July 2005
Despite a recent series of raids and shootouts aimed at countering US claims that Syria is soft on terrorism, pressure from Washington has continued - obliging Damascus to look to other international players to break its isolation.
On July 4, state news agency SANA reported that Syrian police had clashed with an armed group on Mount Qassioun, overlooking Damascus. The group included former bodyguards of toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. One Syrian security guard was killed, while two members of the group were arrested.
SANA also reported that two Syrian security personnel and a militant had been killed in a gunfight along the Lebanese border on July 3, while earlier, 34 alleged foreign fighters had been arrested and one killed near the city of Homs.
But while Damascus seems willing to co-operate with the US in this regard, officials are also saying that they need logistical and technological assistance from Washington in order to do so effectively. However, this seems unlikely to arrive any time soon.
Instead, pressure from the US has continued to mount. The US Treasury Department announced on June 30 that it was freezing the assets of Ghazi Kanaan, Syria's interior minister, and Rustom Ghazali, who served as the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon until the withdrawal of troops in April this year.
In the face of this continuing tension, Syria has been trying to avoid international isolation. In this regard, the end of June saw Damascus rally both China and Russia around its cause when both countries' deputy foreign affairs ministers met with Syrian officials. They pledged to develop economic ties with Syria and called for Israel and Lebanon to abide by their international responsibilities, including restoring full sovereignty to Syria over the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 war.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) also expressed its concern over rising tension on June 30, calling on the US to reconsider the Syrian Accountability Act. It urged the US administration to enter a dialogue with Syria in good faith to settle issues hindering Syrian-US relations.
At the same time, the government has also been very active in furthering economic ties abroad. In a short visit to Doha on June 29, President Bashar al-Assad signed a series of scientific and technical agreements with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar. The signed agreements also include an accord on facilitating the use of Syrian labour in the emirate.
This accord is particularly important at present for Damascus, as unemployment has grown by almost half in the last 10 years, reaching 12.3% in 2004, according to Central Bureau of Statistics' figures. Encouraging labour to work abroad has thus become a major employment policy, with Syria needing to create a minimum of 300,000 jobs a year just to absorb the new workforce. At the same time, the withdrawal from Lebanon has also had a knock-on effect on the labour market, as many Syrian labourers have returned home with the troops, bolstering the ranks of the unemployed.
There was also agreement in Qatar on promoting mutual investments and avoiding double taxation. This is also more important to Damascus than Doha, as investments in Syria from Arab countries have fallen considerably since a $333.5m yearly peak back in 1995. Arab investments in Syria stood at just $61.1m last year - 44.1% up on 2003, but still a meagre sum. At the same time, Syrian investments in Arab countries stood at $275m, a massive growth from the $14.88m of 2003. As for Qatari investments in Syria, in 2004 they were non-existent.
At the same time, Syria has also been pushing for greater economic co-operation with Ukraine. SANA reported on June 30 that a delegation led by Finance Minister Mohammed al-Hussein had travelled to Kiev to discuss possibilities for fostering trade and bank exchanges between the two countries.
During the meeting, al-Hussein called for Ukrainian businessmen to start investing in Syria while Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh suggested the establishment of a joint Ukrainian-Syrian bank in the near future.
Meanwhile, Economy and Trade Minister Amer Hosni Lotfi is currently in Nicosia, where he met with his Cypriot counterpart George Lillikas on July 4, in a move also aimed at boosting trade and investment. Syria is now very keen on deepening economic ties with Cyprus, now that it is a full member of the European Union.
Last but not least, the country has also embarked on a campaign to show a more positive image to foreigners. On July 5, a two-day international conference opened in Damascus to promote tourism investment in the country. The Forum on Tourism Horizons is meant to act as a platform for both the government and foreign investors to discuss how to better improve the investment climate in order to develop this historically rich country.
More than ever, Syria has understood that it should engage in constructive dialogue with the international community to end its political isolation and boost its economy. By co-operating against militants, Damascus is not only showing its goodwill, but is also sending a message to Western capitals that it still has a significant amount of regional influence. The suggestion is that it might be time to consider bringing Syria back to the diplomatic table.
From what I understand, again, Chirac holds many of the cards concerning Lebanon and Syria.
I read three items of interest:
1) France is providing financing to Syria for the purchase of 6 to 8 Airbus passenger planes.
2) France and the EU did not follow Washington's lead in freezing Syrian bank accounts.
3) France and the EU do not observe Washington's boycott imposed through the Syria Accountability Act.
I appreciate that Josh has spoken with British experts, but it would be good to know what is happening in Paris. I cannot foresee a scenario in which France would give up on Syria.
I agree with you that France won't give up on Syria. The competition for influence in Syria between the European states is heating up and will undermine US efforts to isolate Damascus. Although the French were cut out of their oil deal months before the Lahoud affaire, which contributed to Chirac's decision to "punish" Syria and stand with Bush, Syria seems to be trying to repair the damage with the Airbus deal.
The differences between France and the US on Syria and Middle East policy were no where to be seen in Sec. of State Rice's most recent news conference about Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy's visit to the United States and State Dept. Notice that Iraq was not mentioned. Here is the quote:
Secretary Condoleezza Rice Benjamin Franklin Room Washington, DC July 5, 2005
SECRETARY RICE: Good afternoon. I'm very pleased to welcome Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy to the United States and to the State Department... We had an opportunity today to review a number of the issues on that agenda. Of course, we talked about Lebanon and the need for there to be continued progress toward the complete fulfillment of Resolution 1559.
FOREIGN MINISTER DOUSTE-BLAZY: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much, Condi, for your words of welcome. I must say that I'm very pleased to have come to the United States. I have the impression that I now know you very well because, indeed, we have worked together in London, Brussels, and now here. And I have come to the United States to tell you that with the United States we are not dealing with just any other counterpart; we are dealing with friends, allies and partners. And we cannot see the United States as anything else, anything other than being friends. And to friends you speak frankly and you don't necessarily always agree, but you always speak as friends.
And we have worked a great deal. We have shown that the United States and France can work together on very concrete subjects, as you said: Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, as well as questions of nonproliferation; Iran, of course; and other major subjects such as Kosovo and the Balkans.
A British firm has also signed a 7 million pound contract, which has the promise of becoming much larger, to sort out Syria's municipal organization in anticipation of the 2007 municipal elections which Bashar is promising will be free. Such deals will help draw Britain into the reform process.
Also witness the Anglo-French competition over a large defense contract in Saudi Arabia, given as a reason for Blair's recent pop-in visit to Saudi.
Syria has become a strategic prize now that Iraq is a black hole. It's location at the center of the Middle East, making it a hub of communications and transport between the Gulf, Turkey and Europe, adds to its importance. Clearly, the Europeans are counting on Bashar's reform program to open the economy and bring in foreign investment. They all want to be there at the creation, even if it is a rocky start.
That also goes for the Gulf countries. So far Saudi Arabia has very few big investments in Syria, and the Hariri affaire damaged relations between the two countries badly. But one can only presume that the Saudi Royals will have to forgive Syria its trespasses and get on with business, before the UAE scoops up the prizes.
Hassan Fattah of the NY Times sent me this notice:
Damascus, July 4 (SANA)- President Bashar al-Assad received at al-Rawda Palace on Monday a delegation of Emmar Real Estate Company headed by Chairman of the company board of directors, Mohamed Ali Alabbar. Talks during the meeting dealt with the available investment projects in Syria.
Emaar will become the No1 real estate company in the world in terms of market capitalization when its present re-capitalization campaign is completed. Syria has passed a new law that guarantees the supply of new land for housing construction and is seeking $2 billion in foreign investments.
About Rami Makhlouf's move to the Emirates, an anonymous commentator writes:
I think you are reading too much into the Al Hayat piece on Rami Makhlouf. It wasn't an interview, and it basically boiled down to speculation about why RM was holidaying in Dubai -- subsequent reports indicate that he is thinking of listing Syriatel on the Dubai stock market after last year's IPO in Syria; Dubai's Majed AL Futtaim group is also looking at a big mall project that is sure to interest RM. Another clue about RM's intentions is provided in the shareholder list of Bank Byblos Syria ahead of its IPO: RM and brother Ehab each have 5% founding stakes. On the Majed al-Futtaim group, it has already purchased a square kilometer of land along the road to Beirut and has committed 300 million dollars to a multi-hotel-mall project that may expand to 1 billion dollars, if it succeeds in attracting Saudi and Lebanese tourists.
One cannot forget the plans to set up a Syrian stock exchange.
On the recent clashes with Iraqi Baathists and mujahidun, Al-Seyassah suggests they may have been smugglers bringing weapons into Syria. Tony Badran writes that:
In terms of details, no one can tell for sure what is happening in the country at this stage. The regime continues to arrest and clash with militants. Or, are they just glorified smugglers? Or is the regime turning against its erstwhile protégés because they outlived their usefulness? Or is there an internal clash and settling of old and new scores within the ranks of the regime? Or are all these things happening together and at the same time? No one really knows.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed writing in as-Sarq al-Awsat believes that these events signal the "Arrival of "Al Qaeda" in Syria." He concludes, "The latest clashes with these terrorists means that Al Qaeda has officially begun its war against Syria after previously paying Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco a visit."
I will add the interesting article by David Hirst.
"The Americans won't control their side of the border, accept our offers of collaboration, or allow us the surveillance equipment we need. Then they accuse us of aiding a resistance which, they know, is basically Iraqi, even if some foreign fighters do get across our frontiers, which - they also know - are impossible to seal without an investment of resources way beyond our means."
The hilltop outpost at which an anonymous Syrian commander made this lament was only a few meters high, but it was located in a desert landscape so flat and featureless that, from it, you could look deep into Iraq, across some of the obstacles - berms, barbed wire, concrete blocks in vehicle-friendly wadis, hundreds of observation posts manned by 7,000 soldiers - which Syria has put up along the most desolate, uninhabited, central stretch of its 600-kilometer eastern border.
This wasn't proof that Syria is doing its utmost to stop the passage of foreign jihadists into Iraq; the best places for infiltration are the inhabited regions to the north; but it surely meant it was doing something. However, among the diplomats agreeing to go on an unprecedented public relations tour of the border area, the Americans were conspicuously absent. And that, for Syria's Baathist regime, was yet another instance of Washington's "not wanting to know."
The United States may say, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did recently, that all it wants is a change in Syrian behavior. A senior Syrian official responds to this: "We have concluded in recent months that they really want to bring us down." European diplomats tend to agree that the apparently systematic refusal to engage the Syrian regime at any level reflects the influence of the Bush administration's neoconservative hawks, for whom the regime of President Bashar Assad is a prime candidate in a grand design for regime change throughout the Middle East.
Even if President George W. Bush himself isn't ready to openly embark on such a policy, the neocons are strong enough to block any inclination in the opposite direction. Very few people expect that Syria will be a new Iraq. Rather, it is, to use a Washington adage, "low-hanging fruit" harvestable by political means. For the Syrian leadership, the U.S., already in a mess in Iraq, wouldn't be mad enough to engage in an adventure against them. But American pressure can take many forms, Syrians believe, sufficient to put an already decrepit and discredited regime's survival at stake.
Until recently, the U.S. treated Syria as a strategic adversary, but one, nonetheless with which it could still do business in a give-and-take process whose end, if successful, would have presumably restored the Baathists' "right to exist" - a la Libya - in any new American-sponsored Middle East order. But now Washington spurns the strategic dialogue Assad proffers, and is bent, it would appear, on stripping the Syrian president of all his regional cards. When he concedes (thereby proving, as American commentators put it, that "pressure works"), it leads to yet more demands, with nothing offered in return.
When, Syria's armed forces withdrew from Lebanon in April, the U.S. remained insistent that Assad continued to play a disruptive role there, while doing little or nothing to seal the jihadist trail into Iraq. Whatever the truth, the U.S. is clearly accumulating ammunition for new assaults in a diplomatic war of attrition against Syria whose end, says a European diplomat, is to "bring Bashar naked to the negotiating table."
Weakening Syria externally weakens it at home. For a despotic regime, regional influence was always a vital adjunct of internal repression. "And now," says a Syrian dissident, "the U.S. is becoming the internal as well as the external player in our affairs which, before the debacle in Lebanon, it couldn't be."
Faced with this double assault, what does Assad do? Does he cede ground internally, as he already has externally, in the hope (one that has proven unsuccessful so far) of appeasing both the U.S. and a still-weak, but steadily growing domestic opposition? Whatever choice he does make will, for the first time, be very much his own, for he has just wrought greater changes inside his ruling apparatus than any since his father, Hafiz Assad, consolidated his personal power in the 1970s.
Reform, cries Syria's opposition, and we shall rally to you against the U.S. The opposition mistrusts Washington perhaps more than the Syrian regime itself does. Not that it belittles the impetus which American actions, even the otherwise abhorrent invasion of Iraq, has given to their cause.
But the Syrians' yearning for change is deeply tempered by fear of the way it might come about. That is why the opposition's dominant orthodoxy is gradualism. As opposition figures see it, they must reach out to reformists within the system and, as both gain depth and cohesion, reassure the ultimate, maleficent power-holders and their increasingly frightened entourage that their eventual departure will not be the terrible reckoning, for years of misrule, that it would otherwise have been.
"If the Americans muscle in," says a Syrian human rights activist, "the shock will disrupt this process, delicate enough as it is, unleash the latent forces of chaos, of sectarian, ethnic and class conflict in our society, even create another Iraq without invading it. We must handle this on our own."
Set against the initial high expectations, the results of the recent, supposedly make-or-break Baathist congress were puny. Still, a sort of Syrian glasnost is underway. There is little doubt that Assad encourages it. Little doubt, too, that, fearing loss of control, he is simultaneously being pulled in the opposition direction. The congress that promised change was also a classical show of strength and solidarity, Soviet-style, of the single-party state. Directed at the U.S. and the opposition, it said: "The Baath is here to stay." As a Baath reformist put it: "Bashar's new new guard might actually have to be tougher than the old."
If rigidity and repression do win the day, some in the opposition will be inclined to forsake the gradualist, Syrian-only orthodoxy. Of the opposition's three still very separate components - the secular intelligentsia, the Islamists and the Kurdish minority of the northeast - only the Kurds have emerged, after decades of obscure, unequal struggle against Arabization and ethnic discrimination, as a key internal player, due to their own suddenly revealed intrinsic strength and the example of their brethren's achievements in northern Iraq.
"So long as the regime gives nothing," says a Kurdish politician, "it's our right to profit from international conditions. If America knocks on our door, we'll open it."
The fear in Damascus is that the U.S., in desperation, might do something military across the Syrian border, such as creating a "security zone,"as Israel did in the South Lebanon border area during the 1980s and 1990s. It wouldn't work, experts insist, and would merely add local, tribally-linked Syrian resistance to the Iraqi one. On the other hand, it could have a profoundly destabilizing impact on Syria as a whole, exacerbating those Kurdish-led centrifugal forces whose original impetus, and disastrous potentialities, stem, as in Iraq, from decades of Baathist despotism.
David Hirst was for a long time Middle East correspondent for London's The Guardian. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
I have just returned from London, where I was able to talk to some government officials and many who were not about what European policy is toward Syria and where they think the country is headed.
European officials put out the solid line that "Syria has friends in Europe if it wants to have friends." This message was followed by stern warnings: Syria must comply with a clear list of demands to preserve Western friendship. First it must get out of Lebanon, i.e. stop the killings. The Europeans believe Syria was behind the recent assassinations in one context or another. Syria must support Abu Mazen in Palestine by convincing the hardliners to support him.
Most important, perhaps, were demands about the Iraqi border. "Don't play games with the Americans in Iraq." It is quite clear that the Americans are putting great pressure on the Europeans not to play ball with Bashar if Syria continues to ignore US demands on Iraq. This means Syria must carry out a decisive crack down on the mujahidun traffic through Syria and it must allay American worries that ex-Iraqi Baathists living in Syria are assisting in the direction and financing of the Iraqi opposition.
The Americans are counting Syrian mistakes and the Europeans are counting Bashar's successes. The former are counting mistakes to prove to the Europeans that Syria is bad and to keep the Europeans from getting too soft on Syria. The latter are counting successes to prove to the Americans that Bashar is the best and only option for Syria at the present time. They are worried least Washington drag the Europeans down a dead-end street of confrontation with Bashar al-Asad. Of course there is most likely a bit of the good cop - bad cop routine to this, but the Europeans seem genuinely worried that Bashar will not get the message and screw up, leaving them with no option but to give up on Syria.
There are signs that Syria and Washington are communicating again and that Syria is acting on the Iraq issue to placate the United States. Syria will claim that it is acting to improve relations with Baghdad and that Washington is not the intended audience, but we can imagine that Washington means much more to Damascus than Baghdad.
Samir al-Taqqi, according to one journalist I recently spoke with, just returned from Washington, where he spoke to “important people.” Taqqi reported on his discussions to Bashar, he said. US-Syrian relations are improving, he insists, and messages are getting through.
It is tempting to view the recent Syrian crackdown on Muslim extremists during the last week as message being sent by Damascus to Washington, that it is willing to get tougher with militants. The first confrontation between Syrian authorities and mujahidun was three days ago near the Lebanese border.
Mount Qassioun is a popular scenic spot overlooking Damascus A Syrian security officer has died in a shootout with an armed group that includes former bodyguards of Iraq's ex-leader Saddam Hussein, reports say.
The clash erupted early in the morning on Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus, the Sana news agency reports.
Two members of the group are said to have been arrested in the fighting, in which four policemen were also hurt.
Syria has been accused by the US of backing the Iraqi rebellion and giving a safe haven to insurgency supporters.
Damascus claims it is cracking down on militancy.
Whether these two incidents add up to a new Syrian policy of cracking down on Mujahidun remains to be seen.
A week ago, Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin and Syria's wealthiest businessman gave an interview to Ibrahim Hamidi of al-Hayat in which he said he and his family were moving to the Arab Emirates. Everyone read this story as an attempt by Bashar to signal to Western Governments and international investors that the President is distancing himself from his cousin and turning a new page on economic reform. Is it just window dressing? Makhlouf will not relinquish any of his business interests in Syria and continues to run the free zone on the border with Lebanon. All the same, one informed observer insisted that cigarettes brought in from the free zone are now being taxed on entry to Syria.
Do all these events add up to a change in Syrian policy? We will see.
Since the Baath Party congress, the US has been signaling that it willing to climb down from its threat of regime-change. Secretary of State Rice's clear statements that the US does not support regime-change but is looking for a "change in behavior" is significant. It would seem a that a reassessment by both sides has begun.
Bashar has cleaned the slate of the older generation that owed loyalty to his father. None of the top leaders in the military, Baath Party, or security forces belongs to the older generation. They are all Bashar's appointments. This means that Bashar is in firm control. Syria is once again a dictatorship with a dictator. The West now expects change. The Syrian president no longer has an excuse not to deliver.
President George W. Bush gave U.S. authorities new powers on Wednesday to block assets of companies believed to be helping North Korea, Iran and Syria pursue nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
The executive order did not mention specific countries, instead saying it applied to "any person or foreign country of proliferation concern." A U.S. official said that, for now, the administration is targeting four entities from Iran, three from North Korea and one from Syria.
Meanwhile Syria is playing a tough game of denying that it has been permissive along the border. Syria has gotten backing for its stand from none other than Allawi:
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Allawi said "there are gunmen who are infiltrating the Iraqi-Syrian border, but this does not necessarily mean they are doing so with the support of the Syrian government."
"Many are abusing Syrian hospitality to work against Iraq and we have to cooperate with Syria on the political and security levels in order to control this issue," Allawi added.
He noted discussions are under way with the Syrian government to create a security buffer zone on the Iraqi-Syrian border to curb the crossing of fighters.
Syria seems to be making a concerted effort to woo the Iraqi government and has promised to open its embassy in Baghdad as soon as possible as this report suggests:
BAGHDAD, June 30 (Reuters) - Syria plans to re-open its embassy in Baghdad for the first time since Damascus sided with Iran in its 1980-88 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iraq's foreign ministry said on Thursday.
Syria also pledged to stem the flow of foreign guerrillas into Iraq and said it had already stopped 70,000 of them, it said.
Deputy FM Walid al-Mua'llem said in his speech before the Organization of the Islamic Conference Foreign Ministers Meeting in the Yemeni Capital of Sana'a that "Syria is looking for the best of relations with brotherly Iraq in all fields," pointing out that Syria has expressed readiness for security cooperation with Iraq saying "Iraq's stability is part of Syria's and the region's stability as well."
"Syria took the initiative to send a diplomatic and security mission to Baghdad to figure out what our brethren's worries are," he added.
Although many in Washington are pretending that they are in favor of "creative instability," in Syria, it is becoming increasingly clear that Europe is warning them away from such a foolish policy.
They deserve the attention, but as Bunni is the first to tell you, they don't add up to any kind of an organized opposition. They are small in number, their open supporters are few and demonstrations are extremely rare. Organized Islamist opposition groups are banned.
''For decades we have had no political life,'' Bunni says. ''All civil society and political movements have been killed.'' He is describing a country where the Assad family has ruled for 35 years.
If the Baath-party regime of Bashar Assad collapsed suddenly, there would be nothing to replace it. No movement, no party, no likely leaders, certainly no liberal democrats in the wings. Every single opposition intellectual to whom I spoke predicted chaos.
Many feared the biggest beneficiaries would be the adherents of hard-line Islam.
There seems to be little interest in Washington in the survival of the Assad regime, even for a few years, during which the weak opposition might gain experience and traction. After Assad, the deluge; let the Syrians pick up the pieces. Sound familiar?
The new catchphrase in Washington for Mideast chaos is constructive instability -- out of which democracy will supposedly bloom. But does the administration know any more about Syria's religious and ethnic complexities than it did about Iraq's?
Syria is a country where power is held by the minority Alawites -- an offshoot of Shia Islam -- who are despised by the majority Sunnis. Officially, the country is the most secular of any Arab nation. Young women can be seen at Damascus nightclubs in midriff-baring blouses and tight Capri pants.
But strict Islamic practice is on the rise. Visit poor Damascus neighborhoods, and you will see every woman wearing a long, enveloping coat, called a manteau, and a head scarf. In the ancient city of Aleppo, women drift through its maze of covered markets and alleys in full black robes with their faces fully or partly covered by black veils.
The satellite dishes that cover every Damascus roof and the Internet cafes that have emerged in the past five years spread all kinds of new ideas -- from liberal to pornographic to Islamic. A bookstore across from the Russian Cultural Center that once sold Marxist tracts now displays a window full of digitalized Korans from palm-held size to wide computer screen.
So even though Syria is a tolerant society, and even though the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, a sudden regime collapse could produce a surge of Islamic groups trying to take power. Many worry about a Sunni burst of vengeance against the despised Alawite minority that now rules. Members of Syria's many Christian churches worry that fundamentalists will threaten them. And every Syrian Arab, even the handful of liberals, worries that the Syrian Kurds will try to emulate their Iraqi cousins and secede in all but name.
A sudden collapse of the Assad regime could tear Syria's complex social fabric apart, unless it occurs after a transition that allows Syria's tiny opposition to develop. That regime will collapse soon enough, unless it reforms. But does America want to push Syria toward reform or toward the chaotic Iraqi model?
Every Syrian intellectual I met asked me that question. I had no good answer.
My sense is that Washington understands the bleak choices it faces in Syria and would never risk chaos. The US is losing in Iraq and may be losing in Afghanistan as well. The US public is fed up with the war; the US military has a decreasing supply of troops to rotate into either theater and the skill level of fresh military recruits is falling rapidly. If Washington sought to broaden the theater of war by bombing Syria, Americans would never forgive the Bush administration. The American public has no stomach for such adventurism right now. Within a year the new election season will begin to rev up in the States and the Republican party will demand a time-table for withdrawal from the President. He cannot afford to open new fronts. Already the Bush legacy is beginning to look disastrous.
On my flight back from London, I was seated next to a young Iraqi engineer named Marwan Qubaysi. He works for a telecom company in Britain, but his family is from Falouja. Most now live in Baghdad, but Marwan was on his way to visit cousins temporarily living in Damascus. He was very up-beat about the mujahidun fighting in Iraq and believed they were winning.
All this means that Syria is in quite a strong position. Bashar is strong internally. America may talk tough about smashing Syria if it doesn't behave, but it cannot. Ultimately it must come around to the notion of paying the Syrian army to policy the border with Iraq and crack down on mujahidun traveling through the country. This runs contrary to Washington’s "Transformation of the Greater Middle East" policy, but it is hard to see a way around coming to terms with Syria.
Already the word is going around that Washington has agreed to supply night-vision goggles to the Syrian army free of charge. This carrot and signs that Syria is cracking down on the mujahidun suggest that both powers are backing down from the tough posturing of the last several months. Let's hope so.