Friday, September 30, 2005

How Involved will Syria become in Iraq? More Mehlis

Will Iraq succumb to civil war? This question at the center of an important debate now being waged in Washington, Iraq and an on the blogs. Jim Lobe has an excellent summary of the main arguments (copied below). Central to the debate is the question of whether the US troops in Iraq are making things better or worse and when they should be withdrawn. Juan Cole has been addressing the issue and recently hit his tipping point. Last week he changed his assessment from arguing that they must stay, to arguing "Why we have to get troops out of Iraq."

This opens the debate about what Syria's role will be in each of the possible outcomes: if there is civil war, if Iraq divides into three states or two states, or, if the constitutional process comes together and a unified, but loose, federation emerges. Washington is now trying to come to grips with these possible outcomes. Scott Lasensky, a Senior Researcher at the United States Institute of Peace is working on a report explaining how Iraq's neighbors will respond. He recently called. Christopher Dickey at Newsweek is working on something similar for his magazine. International Crisis Group needs a report on the same thing. Now that everyone is coming to grips with the fact that the situation in Iraq is not going to improve anytime soon, the new neighborhood must be imagined. Out with the democracy dominoes and in with war dominoes.

Can the US Military Presence Avert Civil War?
Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 26 (IPS) - The growing spectre of a full-scale civil war in Iraq -- and the likelihood that such a conflict will draw in neighbouring states -- has intensified a summer-long debate here over whether and how to withdraw U.S. troops.

Some analysts believe that an immediate U.S. withdrawal would make an all-out conflict less likely, while others insist that the U.S. military presence at this point is virtually all there is to prevent the current violence from blowing sky-high, destabilising the region, and sending oil prices into the stratosphere.

The Bush administration continues to insist it will "stay the course" until Iraqi security forces can by themselves contain, if not crush, the ongoing insurgency. But an increasing number of analysts, including some who favoured the 2003 invasion, believe Washington will begin drawing down its 140,000 troops beginning in the first half of next year, if for no other reason than the Republican Party needs to show voters a "light at the end of the tunnel" before the November 2006 elections.

Indeed, reports in the British press over the weekend strongly suggested that London is already planning a major drawdown next May, although Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted Sunday that "no arbitrary date has been set".

Even these plans, however, could be rendered irrelevant if the current slide towards civil war in Iraq accelerates, as a growing number of experts believe it will.

In fact, some of these analysts believe that a civil war -- pitting Sunnis against the Kurdish and Shia populations -- has already begun. "A year ago, it was possible to write about the potential for civil war in Iraq," wrote Iraq-war booster Niall Ferguson in the Los Angeles Times. "Today that civil war is well underway," he asserted.

While that remains a minority view, the likelihood and imminence of civil war in Iraq is no longer questioned by analysts outside the administration.

Ferguson blames the situation on Washington's failure to deploy a sufficient number of troops in Iraq to crush any insurgency. But a report released Monday by the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed the finger at the U.S.-sponsored constitutional process, which will culminate in a national plebiscite Oct. 15, as having further alienated Sunnis from the two other major sectarian groups.

Barring a major U.S. intervention to ensure that Sunni interests are addressed, according to the report, "Unmaking Iraq: A Constitutional Process Gone Awry", "Iraq is likely to slide toward full-scale civil war and the break-up of the country."

Similarly, no one outside the administration doubts the under-reported judgment made here just last week by visiting Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

"Iraq is a very dangerous situation and a very threatening situation," he said. "The impression is (that it is) gradually going toward disintegration. There seems to be no dynamic now that is pulling the country together."

"All the dynamics there are pushing the (Iraqi) people away from each other," he said, adding that, if current trends persist, "It will draw the countries of the region into the conflict..."

This view was shared by members of a high-powered panel of Iraq and Iran specialists at the quasi-governmental U.S. Institute for Peace earlier this month.

Amid these gloomy, not to say apocalyptic, warnings, a public debate over U.S. withdrawal -- and specifically whether the U.S. military presence is making all-out war more or less likely -- has intensified outside the administration.

The mainstream position still sees the U.S. forces as a bulwark that is preventing, or at least braking, the trend toward war. According to Ferguson, who was a war-booster, the current situation, as bad as it is, is just "a little local difficulty" compared to the alternative of all-out civil war and its regionalisation.

"The kind of violence that we could see in Iraq if we quit now, leaving full-scale civil war to rage, would dwarf all that has happened since 2003," he predicted.

But others argue that, in the words of sociologist Michael Schwartz, "the U.S. presence doesn't deter, but contributes to, a thickening civil-war-like atmosphere in Iraq", and that if the U.S. were leave Iraq quickly, "it is far more reasonable to assume ...that the level of violence would be reduced, possibly drastically, not heightened."

In a widely-read essay posted on, Schwartz argued that the U.S. military is already killing more civilians than would likely die in a threatened civil war (he estimates more than 25,000 civilian deaths a year).

He said that the U.S. presence is actually aggravating terrorist violence, rather than suppressing it, and that much of the current terrorist violence, particularly that associated with the radical Islamist group of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, would be likely to subside if the U.S. left.

"The longer we wait to withdraw, the worse the situation is likely to get -- for the U.S. and for the Iraqis," he wrote.

Schwartz, who is situated on the left side of the political spectrum, did not explicitly embrace some of the more cold-hearted arguments made recently by conservative critics of Iraq policy, in particular Andrew Bacevich, a decorated Vietnam veteran who teaches international relations at Boston University, and retired Lt. Gen. William Odom of the Hudson Institute, who have called for the earliest possible withdrawal..

"We created the civil war when we invaded (Iraq); we can't prevent a civil war by staying," Odom wrote last month in an essay entitled "What's Wrong with Cutting and Running?"

He and Bacevich both argued that, instead of creating a vacuum in Iraq that would draw in neighbouring powers, Washington's withdrawal would force neighbours and other great powers -- who have been relegated to the sidelines by the Bush administration's high-handedness -- to form a coalition to ensure a conflict would not get out of hand.

Some of the administration's critics, however, argue that an immediate withdrawal will indeed make things far worse, particularly for Iraqis.

"I just cannot understand this sort of argument," wrote University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole on his much-read blog (

"The U.S. military is killing a lot of Iraqis, but whether it is killing more than would die in a civil war would depend on how many died in a civil war," he wrote. "A million or two could die in a civil war, and that's if the war stays limited to Iraq, which is unlikely."

"A U.S. withdrawal would not cause the Sunnis suddenly to want to give up their major demands; indeed, they might well be emboldened to hit the Shiites harder," wrote Cole, who favours both the withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops and, in the absence of NATO or U.N. peacekeepers, the maintenance of Special Forces and U.S. airpower in the region precisely to prevent sectarian forces from escalating the conflict into a conventional civil war, as in Afghanistan. (END/2005)

The Syrian press condemns the lack of global reaction to Israeli remarks on the Golan (Translation thanks to

Syrian newspapers on September 29 reject Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mufaz's statements in which he said that the Golan Heights would remain forever under Israeli control. The newspapers stress that the Golan will sooner or later return to Syria.

Syrian newspaper Al-Ba'th newspaper website says Mufaz's statement "shows Israel's expansionist intentions and exposes its hostile tendencies." In a 400-word article by the "political editor," the paper says this "provocative" Israeli position "increases tension in the region, pushes it towards further collapses and chaos, and once again proves that Israel is determined to continue its destructive approach against the peace process."

The paper says: "Israel and its protectors are ignoring the eloquent lessons of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the past six decades. The most important lesson is that Israel, for all its military superiority, is absolutely unable to impose the fait accompli and force the Arabs to submit to its will."

The paper adds: "The experiences of the liberation of south Lebanon and the withdrawal from Gaza prove that Israel might be able to achieve military victories and occupy Arab territories, but its inevitable end will be a retreat in the face of people's steadfastness and a withdrawal under the blows of the resistance. What happened in south Lebanon and Gaza will definitely happen in the Golan, the West Bank, and Jerusalem sooner or later. And contrary to Mufaz's allegations, the Golan will always remain Syrian Arab territory, and its return to the motherland is inevitable, no matter how long it takes and how huge the sacrifice."

Al-Thawrah newspaper website says in an unsigned front-page article that Mufaz, through his statement and call for the intensification of settlement activity in the Golan, is "challenging international law and defying Security Council resolutions, which call on Israel to withdraw from the occupied Syrian Golan to the June 4, 1967 border and consider all the Israeli measures there null and void."

The paper says Israel has proved that it is not willing to achieve peace in the region and that "it cannot hide its aggressive nature."

It adds: "Mufaz's statements should have provoked the United Nations and all the international forces that talk much these days about the need to implement international resolutions that were adopted only a few months ago, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1614 on the Lebanese resistance. Where is the reaction of the countries that claim to be concerned about international law and its resolutions to Israel's rejection of resolutions that were adopted decades ago and Israel is yet to implement?"

The paper blames American "hegemony" over the world for the absence of any international comment on Mufaz's statements, but it says the failure to take a position against the statements "damages the credibility of any demand to implement resolutions here or ignite wars there under feeble excuses, as happened in Iraq."

The paper says: "Mufaz's statements about the Golan were not the first of their kind, and will not be the last. But Mufaz and his ilk should carefully read the history of the Golan in particular. No matter how long it lasts, the occupation will inevitably disappear. The occupier must learn the lesson from the history of the Golan. The regional and international situation is not unchangeable, and the Syrian people will not relinquish a single inch of the Golan. Right will definitely return to its owners, and the invalid Israeli measures will not stop this."

The paper concludes by saying: "A few years ago the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was a Palestinian dream. But through the Palestinian people's steadfastness and resistance, Israel withdrew from the strip. The same thing happened in south Lebanon. Our kinsfolk in the Golan will not hesitate to make every dear sacrifice to remove the occupation, no matter how different their situation is from the situations of south Lebanon and Gaza." - Agencies, Middle East.
Secretary of State Assistant for the Middle East Affairs David Welch, in an exclusive interview with Al-Hayat newspaper, denied that “there is an American decision to overthrow the Syrian regime.” He said that “holding meetings with non-violent Syrian opposition members did not mean that the United States is seeking to change the regime.”

A National Security Council member said the same thing according to this article:

U.S. considering options on Syria
Military action on the table, but not likely, one official says
Knight Ridder Tribune News
Sept. 30, 2005, 9:41PM

WASHINGTON - President Bush and his top aides are weighing new steps against Syria, according to U.S. officials involved in Middle East policy.

Bush's national security team is due to meet today to review policy toward Syria, the officials said. Options range from tougher economic sanctions to limited military action. One official involved in the deliberations said military action is unlikely for now.

The meeting comes as a U.N. investigator nears completion of a report that's expected to provide evidence that Syrian security agencies were involved in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, is drawing on debriefings from one or more defectors from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The defectors have provided evidence of Syrian government complicity in Hariri's death, according to two American officials.

The U.S. government also has accused Syria of allowing insurgents to cross its territory and enter Iraq and recently has ratcheted up its demands that the traffic be halted.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad warned in mid-September that "our patience is running out."

Syria represents a complex challenge for Bush and his national security team as they wrestle with the war in Iraq.

There's disagreement within the Bush administration over the extent of the Syrian regime's backing of the Iraqi insurgency, support that Syria denies.

The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency have reported that the evidence is inconclusive, one official said.

Others argue that military action could destabilize or even topple Assad's government, with no good replacement at hand.

Since Hariri's assassination, Bush has pursued a policy of increasing pressure on Syria, with backing from the international community.

"It's an undeclared posture of 'regime change' on the cheap," said Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst and author of a recent book on Assad. The administration hopes to topple Assad without resorting to a costly invasion as in Iraq, Leverett said.

The options on the table for today's high-level White House meeting include imposing more sanctions on Syria, authorized under the 2003 Syria Accountability Act; reaching out to Syrian opposition groups; and taking limited military action, such as the use of U.S. special forces, to stop the flow of insurgents, according to an official involved in the deliberations.

The Bush administration, he said, calculates that the Mehlis investigation is putting significant pressure on Assad and is helping to build an international consensus to isolate Syria. Another official said that U.S. ally Israel also is counseling restraint, arguing that any successor to Assad, a member of Syria's Alawite minority, would likely be worse — perhaps even ushering in a militantly Islamic regime.

Mehlis is due to make his findings public in late October, although U.S. officials say they expect any final report will be delayed until next year.
David Hirst writes in the Guardian, "A mixture of excitement and fear stalks the land in Syria." Here is the conclusion:
President Bashar Assad faces an unenviable choice - between cooperating with Mehlis or defying him - and he seems to be veering bemusedly between the two. By suddenly welcoming him to Syria, he was ceding what, on grounds of national sovereignty, he had hitherto effectively opposed. But if Mehlis goes on to demand the arraignment of suspects as high-ranking as their Lebanese counterparts - and, if Syria is indeed guilty, the trail will indubitably lead to the innermost circles of power - will he cede that too? For the weak head of a regime built around clan solidarity and the consensus of rival power fiefdoms, an attempt to save himself and a chosen part of it through the sacrifice of another part is, Syrians say, a red line he simply dare not cross. It is a recipe for the internal explosion which, in the absence of an effective opposition, has long been seen as the likeliest manner of the Ba'athists' eventual undoing.

But to defy Mehlis, as he hints at eventually doing, and portraying him and all his works as an American-led conspiracy against Syria itself, would seem almost as suicidal in the end. It would turn Syria into an international pariah, align Europe behind economic sanctions and, far from rousing an already disaffected and restive people in patriotic defence, further persuade most of them that their government is the prime source of their deepening woes, with the Hariri murder as a crowning blunder for which they pay the price.

The people's, especially the opposition's, excitement stems from the prospect of seeing at least some of their rulers get their come-uppance before an international tribunal. Their fear, even amongst this self-same opposition, stems from the belief that, thanks to the legacy of Ba'athist rule, a regime crisis would automatically degenerate into a national one, even civil war.

So serious is this fear that "après moi le deluge" is seen as Bashar's last great card, his only chance of clinching a grand bargain - yielding up all the strategic assets, in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, that always furnished the means to impede or assist American purposes in return for survival - and continued mastery - in his own house. If the Syrians themselves are so worried, shouldn't the world be too? Would it really like its "good" intervention, undeservingly, to go the grim way of its "bad" one - and risk a second Iraq? If, in the era of Bush's "freedom and democracy", it was cynical enough to strike such a bargain with a minor player such as Colonel Gaddafi, mightn't it do the same with an embattled Bashar, for much greater reward, at the strategic and emotional heart of the Arab world?
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora said illegal routes between Lebanon and Syria have been closed as party of a security plan to curb terrorism.

Here is the conclusion of Lee Smith's article in the Weekly Standard. He believes that civil strife in Syria is likely if Asad should fall. All the same, he argues that it is probably better to remove Asad and push Syria toward civil war than to allow Syria to continue exporting strife to its neighbors. This is the "tough luck" scenario that some regime-changers are now advocating. It is tough luck for Syria if Asad has successfully wiped out civil society and eliminated the possibility of a replacement to him emerging. The lack of an alternative to Asad should not stop us from deposing him, Smith argues, because civil war in Syria is preferable for America and the region than Asad's present control of Syria. I don't think many will buy this line of argument because it is based on the notion that a Syria in civil war will export less violence than Bashar does today. It invokes the old Bush adage: "better to take the battle to them and fight them over there than let them come to America." Even if one disregards what is good for Syrians, Smith's math doesn't add up. Syria in war would export more.
Assad State of Affairs
Arab nationalism dies in Syria.
by Lee Smith in The Weekly Standard
10/10/2005, Volume 011, Issue 04

Washington may hope there is some plausible alternative to the Assads, but none is in evidence--not a secular, democratic opposition, not a reform movement in exile, not moderate Islamists. (Not even Islamist extremists, whose organizational capacity the regime has invariably exaggerated for its own purposes.) Thus, the regime has effectively booby-trapped Syria, and if it falls it is quite likely Syrians will shed each other's blood.

Would a Syria in free fall cause trouble in the region and for the United States? Well, it's unclear whether a failed state exports more violence than one already determined to export violence, especially if it is going to take that failed state a long time to exhaust its own sectarian furies. Moreover, the fact is that Syria's intercommunal violence has already spilled over into Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Eventually, Syrians will have to learn how to construct a positive national identity out of a multisectarian, multiethnic society without dispatching their demons abroad or sweeping them under an Arab nationalist rug.
There has been a steady buildup of U.S. and Iraqi forces along the insurgents' two main transit corridors -- one in northwestern Iraq between the border and Mosul, the other in the far western reaches of the Euphrates River valley. U.S. figures show some success in curbing infiltration. Zahner said the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq, which had started to approach 200 a month in June, appeared to drop to 100 a month or fewer by the end of August. More than 315 foreign fighters have been killed since March and nearly 330 detained. Suicide attacks fell about 50 percent from May to August.

The U.S. has Launched an offensive against five Iraqi villages near the Syrian border and al-Qaim Saturday in an offensive aimed at rooting out fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq.

Inhabitants are flooding out of the region. U.S. warplanes and helicopters launched strikes on targets in Sadah, sending smoke billowing into the sky.

The force -- made up mostly of Marines, but also with soldiers and Navy sailors -- rolled into the village in the morning and gunfire was heard, said a correspondent for CNN embedded with the troops. Helicopters fired on three suspicious vehicles along the way, two of which turned out to be carrying suicide bombers and the third was being loaded with weapons, CNN reported.

Sadah is a village of about 2,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates River about eight miles from the Syrian border in Iraq's western province of Anbar. The isolated community has one main road and about 200 houses cattered over a rural area.

It also aimed to stop foreign fighters from entering the country from Syria and improving security in the region before Iraq's Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution, the military said. Sunni insurgents have vowed to derail the referendum and have launched a surge of violence that has killed at least 200 people -- including 13 U.S. service members -- in the past six days.

The dual over whether Mehlis has nailed the Syrians or not is still being fought out in the press with the Syrians maintaining that they are inoccent and Mehlis has nothing on them and the Lebanese insisting Syria will be nailed. This article in the Khaleed Times quotes one Lebanese official as saying, “The work of the investigators is almost done. They have broken the case. Mehlis will go all the way and charge Syrian officials."

As-Safir writes: Mehlis didn't get much from the Syrians?
As Safir, a privately owned Lebanese newspaper, wrote on September 30 in its front page: “The sources said that the hearing of Syrian security personnel that were conducted in the area of Zabdani was a failure" and that “Mehlis aims to ask for the questioning of some Syrian security chiefs outside Syria.” - As Safir, Lebanon

Al Hayat reports,

"another Syrian source revealed to Al Hayat yesterday night that head of the [UN] investigation team, Detlev Mehlis, focused his questions for seven of the current and former Syrian security chiefs ... on three fields, which were: replying to the confession of the secret witness Mohammed Sadeeq, detailing the hierarchy of the Syrian security apparatus and its relations with the Syrian forces who worked previously in Lebanon, and an understanding of the political stand between Damascus and Beirut before Hariri’s assassination.” The newspaper said that until yesterday, it was still unknown if Mehlis would revisit Damascus, saying “the sources said: Nothing is certain.” Al Hayat said that “western diplomatic sources did not rule out the possibility that Mehlis might suddenly head from Vienna to Damascus.”

Al Hayat said that between October 21-25, Mehlis’ report could be leaked by UN Security Council member states, each according to its interests, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will distribute the report to the members after receiving it on October 19. “The Syrian official,” the newspaper added, “said that the investigation that was conducted last week with seven Syrian leaders, points out that the investigation team does not have any suspect in Syria, adding that what Mehlis said to Lebanese Justice Minister Charles Rizk (two days before) was that the investigation team did not reach any final results.”

The official added: “Unfortunately, some [in Lebanon] understood the Syrian patience and its forgiveness and non-reply to what was stated against her as a proof of powerlessness and as lacking justifications, and not because Syria already knows the dimension of the civil disturbance that is being prepared for Lebanon and the region.” - Al Hayat, United Kingdom

Top government officials in Damascus believe that no tangible evidence of wrongdoing by Syrians in Hariri's assassination exists and that international pressure against Syria is largely based on suspicion rather than proof.

The Daily Star editorializes that there is "A surfeit of red herrings," when it comes to the Mehlis investigation and that Mehlis should tell everyone what to expect from his findings.

The Syrian government is on the verge of launching a diplomatic campaign to try to stave off mounting Western-led international pressure on the country following indications that some of its security officials may have been involved in the murder of former Lebanese premier, Rafik Hariri.
Well-placed government sources in Damascus have told Adnkronos International (AKI) that the campaign aims to win support from Russia, China and India, as well as some other key international players.

Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, will spearhead the campaign by personally visiting some of the targeted countries while he will dispatch high-level delegations to others, according to the sources who spoke to AKI on condition of anonymity.

Part of this campaign includes Egypt, to which Asad just turned over video tapes of the Mehlis interviews with top Syrians. I presume in order to prove that they hadn't said anything incriminating.

I had lunch with a bunch of wealthy Damascene businessmen yesterday and naturally the Mehlis report came up. One Christian, who owns an engineering and construction firm, said he had recently spoken with one of the people Mehlis had interviewed. The person said that he had told Mehlis, "You know the Umayyad circle construction project?" (A big traffic tunnel being completed at one of Damascus' biggest interchanges.) Well that was supposed to be completed in six months. It has taken three years." (It is famous for having caved in and for having other major engineering problems, which caused it to be torn down and rebuild at least once.)

The point was obvious. The Syrian government is too stupid to undertake something like killing Hariri. Everyone at the table laughed. I doubt people were convinced by the story, but it was meant to reassure the table that the people Mehlis interviewed gave nothing. Many Syrians still do not believe that their government was involved in killing Hariri. If Mehlis proves that it was, it will take a toll on the government’s legitimacy.

Can Rifaat make a Come Back?

Sami Moubayed has written an excellent article profiling the main Syrians who have turned to Bin Laden and his brand of extremist Islam. The article, The Syrians who cried wolf, argues that the world should not underestimate the Islamist threat in Syria and neither should the Syrian government. Sami believes that Syria should recognize Islamic political parties in order to draw them into the political process and keep the masses from radicalizing as Jordan has done.

Rifaat al-Asad is once again trying to make a come back. This time he has actually got a few American backers!

On Monday, the former director of the congressional task force on terrorism and unconventional warfare, Yossef Bodansky, virtually announced Rifaat's candidacy to head Syria. Sitting across from Rifaat at a Paris restaurant, Mr. Bodansky said on the John Batchelor program on ABC Radio that his dinner companion enjoyed support from America and Saudi Arabia as the heir apparent to the crumbling Baathist regime in Damascus.

Meanwhile, in Washington over the weekend Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick told an audience at an off-the-record retreat for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that America was indifferent to the fate of Syria's rulers. "The United States is interested in behavior change, but if regime change would occur, so be it," he said, according to three people in the room for his comment.

Rifaat al-Assad has been angling for a way to take over Syria since 1983, when his brother first exiled him after he amassed a militia in the streets of Damascus with rumors circulating that the leader was deathly ill. Over the years, the Assad family's black sheep has had intermittent meetings with Western and Arab intelligence services and claimed, according to one former CIA official, that he could foment a military coup with his contacts in the military and security services in Syria. The deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson, said yesterday, "Rifaat at various times in the last decade has tried to propose himself as a more reasonable alternative to other members of his family."

One of Rifaat's possible selling points to the Americans is also one of his liabilities. In 1982, he led the military campaign that crushed the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, a massacre that claimed as many as 40,000 lives. In this respect, he can claim experience that will serve him in putting down the jihadist movement in Syria at war with Iraq's first representative government. Yet at the same time, because he is both an Assad and a Baathist with blood on his hands, support for him would severely undermine America's public case that it is supporting the transition to democracy in the Arab world.
I take this as a last ditch effort by the "regime change" crowd in Washington to produce an alternative to Bashar. If they are grabbing at Rifaat, they are grabbing at straws. Rifaat!? I agree with Robert Rabil on this one, who denounced Rifaat in clear language, unlike his superiors at the Washington Institute. He said flatly,
"Rifaat is not going to work in Syria." He said that Rifaat al-Assad has too many enemies in the country ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to loyalists to his brother. "He has a terrible past and is accused of corruption throughout Syria,"
Even Farid Ghadry said Rifaat was not a democrat.

"France opposes using UN probe to destabilize Syria." Leila Hatoum writes in the Daily Star, September 30, 2005.
BEIRUT: French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy expressed Paris' opposition yesterday to destabilizing Syria through the UN probe into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. After meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Douste-Blazy said that it would be a "mistake" to take punitive measures against Damascus before the UN team completes its investigations.
Meanwhile, Mehlis is wrapping up his investigation by interviewing more Lebanese security people and taking in three engineers who work for Lebanon's cellphone company because they erased recordings of certain phone conversations germane to the investigation.

Syria has been calling on its allies for help. The Indian Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed, who is visiting Syria, announced "that Syria has an important pivotal role in establishing just and permanent peace in the Middle East.
Ahamed expressed his country’s worry about escalation of the U.S. accusations against Syria following the war on Iraq.

“Despite of all pressures, Syria was and still remains strong and steadfast on all its firm principles and it works for achieving peace and stability in the region.” Ahamed said in statement to the Syrian newspaper of al-Baath.

“We hope that the U.S. will realize that there is no peace or stability in the region without Syria ……We believe that Syria has an important role to play in Iraq's future.” he Added.
Turkey rejects American demand to interfere in Syria's affairs
Yesterday Turk's Foreign Minister Abdulla Gol announced that Ankara will not interfere in any country's affairs. "Prime Minister Rajab Tayeb Erdogan warned Washington that playing with Syria will be very dangerous because Syria will be worst than Iraq" Turkish sources said.

Concerning discussions with US National Security Advisor Steven Hadley and other American officials held recently in Ankara on a scenario to change the Syrian regime, Gol said in a press conference that "Turkey can not interfere in the affairs of other countries" adding that Ankara has good bilateral ties with many countries in the region and simultaneously supports democracy and transparency in these countries".

Turkish sources said that Hadley and Secretary of State aid for Public Diplomacy Karin Hughes, who were in Anqara two days ago, conveyed an American demand to Turkey as regards a scenario to change the regime in Syria.

Turkish sources also said that Erdogan and Gol warned Hadley not to interfere in changing of the Syrian regime affirming that "ِAnqara knows very well the characteristics of the Syrian regime .In addition Anqara always advice Syrians to realize democracy."

Regarding the mission of the International Investigation Committee on the assassination of the late president Rafik Hariri, Gol said "the concerned independent committee did not reach a conclusion yet, so no comment from Turkey".
Syria Asks Russia for More Weapons

Chief of the Syrian General Staff General de corps Ali Habib was received yesterday by Russian Chief of the General Staff Yury Baluevsky in Moscow. Although the meeting went on behind closed doors, Kommersant was able to discover certain details from it. In particular, that Habib delivered two lists, one of military equipment that needs repairs and modernization, and the other of new-model weapons that Damascus is inquiring about.

This is the first visit by Gen. Habib since two significant events in relations between Moscow and Damascus. At the beginning of this year, Israel expressed its concern over Russian deliveries of Iskander-E missile complexes to Syria. Russian President blocked the deal. Moscow at the same time announced the forgiveness of more than 70 percent of Syria's debt to Russia for previous weapons shipments (more than $10 billion). That enabled Syria to make orders for more Russian weapons, which, under the new rules, were to be paid for in hard currency immediately.
The scoop on the "American academics" who visited Bashar al-Asad was sent to me by Andrea at Columbia University.

Al-Assad discuss Syria- U.S. ties with anti-war academics
Syria-USA, Politics, 9/21/2005

"The aim of our delegation visit is to reach a suitable situation to
hold dialogue between the Syrian and U.S. sides... as well as convey
a message to the U.S. people saying that we should be fair with
Syria, and don't take quick decisions on different issues between
both countries." Jennings, president of "Conscience International,"
a humanitarian aid organization told SANA.

The organization says that Jennings, Conscience International's Founder and President, led a delegation of "US Academics Against the War" to Baghdad in January, 2003, a few weeks prior to the US-UK invasion. Thirty-seven professors from twenty-eight US universities joined with academics from several Iraqi Universities to warn against the humanitarian costs and political consequences of launching a preemptive war against Iraq.
Anwar al-Bunni and other Syrian activists have announced the need for a new social contract and constitution in Syria. They are proposing one, which is described by as-Seyassah. Here is another article about it, send by Tony Badran. Thanks Tony, and thanks Nick sending the best article on it by Sham Press (also in Arabic.)

Here is an interesting article Nibras Kazimi just sent on:
Who Killed Hariri?

Nibras Kazimi on a Lebanese murder mystery
The New York Sun; Date:2005 Sep 28; Section:Editorial & Opinion; Page 8

In February, a couple of weeks after Rafiq Hariri’s assassination in Beirut, I pegged the blame for the murder on the Syrian leadership, who I claimed had acted through their acolytes, Hezbollah. My reasoning at the time was that the Syrians had the motive and the means, and that the only terrorist team that could pull off such a delicate operation was the one headed by the Lebanese terrorist Imad Mughniyeh.

A couple of months later, while visiting Lebanon, I surveyed the site of the blast and changed my mind: the bombing that killed Hariri along the waterfront was too big and too flashy and thus did not bear Mughniyeh’s signature. Would the Syrians do such a thing on their own? Unlikely; too high a risk of being caught. No, this job was done by a Lebanese network, but which one if not Mughniyah’s “A-Team”? The likely suspects were the Syrian loyalists in charge of the Lebanese security apparatus.

Yes, blaming the heads of the Lebanese security apparatus seemed the rational thing to do, and a little too easy. At the top of the list was the much-feared director of General Security, General Jamil Al-Sayyid. I went to visit him in May at his home, but was much disappointed: instead of finding a nefarious and evil spymaster, I found a vain and very proper military officer. Al-Sayyid seemed genuinely stung by the accusation that drove him to volunteer his resignation after decades of service to the Lebanese state. He had an “I’ll show them” attitude that involved setting-up his own think-tank and publishing a liberal newspaper: he would launch a political career and avenge his sullied name and track record. He did not strike me as a man that would be smartly sinister enough, or gullibly dumb enough, to be involved in the Hariri murder.

Since resigning, Al-Sayyid had managed to regain some respectability through a long interview that was serialized over several days in a leading Arabic newspaper. He was even seen about town dining with the American ambassador at an Italian restaurant in downtown Beirut.

But Al-Sayyid, along with three other top officers, was arrested last month by the Lebanese authorities on the recommendation of the German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is running the United Nations-mandated investigation into the assassination. Mehlis is supposed to hand in his final report by Oct. 25. A lot is riding on Mr. Mehlis, including the culpability of the Syrian regime in ex-Prime Minister Hariri’s murder. His report could amount to a casus belli against the Assad dynasty by the international community. The only problem is that I think that Mr. Mehlis has very little by way of a smoking gun, but rather can only establish motive and some circumstantial evidence.

There was talk of a defector, who in the first account leaked by Saudi intelligence was supposed to be Major Zuheir S., a Syrian intelligence officer with direct oversight of activities in Lebanon.The Saudis had helped him defect and then took him to Paris (where he was debriefed by the French and then Mr. Mehlis) and to Cairo (where the Egyptian spooks figured out that he was lying) and then to Spain (where he met Rifa’at Assad, an exiled claimant to the throne of his nephew, Bashar, and a chum of the Saudis).

The Syrians countered by leaking a brief biography of Zuheir Siddique, who turns out to be in their account a colorful con man with seven wives and a checkered career in the annals of fraud all over Syria and Lebanon. He had somehow snookered the Saudis, the French and Mr. Mehlis into believing that he was credible and could prove Syrian blameworthiness. Sources keep telling me that this guy was Mr. Mehlis’s trump card and that the Syrians had found it easy to discredit his testimony. Other information that Mr. Mehlis had acted on and that found its way into the Lebanese press is also turning out to be wrong.

One theory talks about a cover-up at the scene of the crime, but making that work would require the Lebanese bureaucracy to be more efficient than it is. The supposed coverup could be explained away as fumbling rather than malice. Moreover, the four top suspects — who headed four rival security and military branches — loathe each other, and it is very hard to envision them working together to kill Hariri.

Even the handling of the investigation by Mehlis seems sloppy and is “operating on ad hoc law” that is in contravention of what the U.N. set down in its related resolution and would not hold up in court, according to Al-Sayyid’s lawyer, Akram Azzouri, speaking in a telephone interview on Monday.

Accepting Mr. Mehlis’s thesis would make one hesitant to entertain yet another suspect entity: a Sunni fundamentalist group with the “previously unknown” tag. Sunni fanatics in carefree Beirut? The mental image just does not seem to fit, but I am slowly getting used to it. Omar Bakri, the militant fundamentalist who was recently kicked out of Britain after spending 20 years there and heralding the day when the Islamic flag shall flutter triumphantly over 10 Downing Street, is now beseeching his followers to join him in Beirut. An appendage of Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq is branching out under the name of Jund al-Sham into both Syria and the northern Lebanese town of Trablous. Shia-Sunni tensions across Lebanon are also surfacing and creating a political atmosphere that harks back to the civil war days.

The Syrian regime is nasty and horrible: they are a relic of a defunct Ba’athist totalitarian ideology that rules through vicious sectarian domination. There are plenty of reasons for undermining and overthrowing them, but on the current evidence, Hariri’s murder should not be one of these reasons. Given what I know after following this story for a while, I am less certain today that they or their acolytes — whether Hizbullah or Al-Sayyid — are indeed guilty of this particular foul deed.

The Mehlis investigation could be barking up the wrong tree, and this would have immense repercussions. There seems to be a frenzy of wishful thinking in Washington and Beirut that Herr Sherlock Holmes would nobly and irrefutably expose just how evil the Syrians really are, but everyone may be in for a major disappointment. The Egyptians have already figured out that the whole affair is going in the wrong direction and seem to be jumping ship.The Syrians are having a field day by poking holes in the supposed “evidence” against them and their Lebanese lackeys, and they have dispatched their smug No. 2 intelligence man to Paris with a big dossier to bolster the argument of their “innocence.”

But the question remains: who killed Hariri? Whoever did it has wedded terrorism to long-term strategic planning. In the old days, regimes like Assad’s or Saddam’s or the Iranian mullahs, had mastered this dark art. But what if al-Qaeda is planning to use Lebanon as a launch pad to bring down the regime in Syria? There is more to this bigger picture, and scapegoating the Syrians may be easy but dangerous if it serves other interested parties skulking in the shadows.

Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer based in Washington D.C., and currently traveling around the Middle East. He can be reached at

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Robert Rabil Responds to my Op-Ed: Carrots or only Sticks?

Robert Rabil, director of graduate studies at Florida Atlantic University, who has written much of the most intelligent and interesting analysis on Lebanon and Syria for the influential think tank, the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, has commented on my op-ed with his own article in the "Daily Star." I will write a comment below. Here is his article.

The real message of U.S. pressure on Syria - Robert G. Rabil
Since the adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolution 1559, which authorized an independent commission to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, ironically a debate has raged more over the role played by Washington in issuing the resolution than over the possible implication of Damascus in the assassination. In fact, the Resolution was issued upon the recommendation of a UN fact-finding mission, which concluded that "the government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination."

Some scholars and analysts perceive Washington's interest in pursuing the investigation as part of an overall effort to overthrow the Syrian regime. They argue that Washington is pursuing a policy of regime change on the cheap in Damascus, Syria's liberal opposition groups are not prepared to govern, Syria's deep religious animosities and ethnic hatred could easily tear the country apart if the government falls and would thus result in bringing to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq, and that Damascus and Washington have a mutual interest in subduing jihadism and stabilizing Iraq.

They criticize Washington's erratic policy and assert that the U.S. must choose between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq. Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomed a group of American academics who, according to the Arab media, opposed the Iraq war. Their meeting with Assad could be interpreted as a message critical of Washington.

This line of thinking is confused and misguided on both strategic and tactical levels. From a strategic standpoint Washington and Damascus have different objectives in the region. Washington's invasion of Iraq and promotion of democracy in the Middle East have not only shattered the regional status quo, around which Syria built its reputation as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, but have also threatened the very survival of the Syrian Baath regime. Consequently, Damascus has a strategic interest in undermining U.S. policies in the Middle East in general and in Iraq in particular.

This is borne out by Syria's policy until very recently of turning a blind eye to jihadi infiltration into Iraq. Even, Iraq's Defense Minister Saadoun al-Doulaimi recently lambasted Syria for allowing insurgents to sneak into Iraq. But Syria has set itself into a dangerous trap. The very jihadists it allowed into Iraq are coming back into Syria and fomenting trouble. Admittedly, Damascus may consider helping bring stability to Iraq only if it would have a say in formulating Iraq's political future, something Washington has been adamantly against.

On the other hand, the Hariri assassination cannot be looked at in isolation of the regional developments. It is no less associated with Syria's attempts at undermining U.S. regional efforts than with preventing the mobilization of Lebanon's political and confessional groups against Syria's occupation of the country. Not only did Hariri project domestic and universal influence but also reflected a central aspect of Washington's policies by insisting on economic and political reform. Liquidating Hariri could thus be perceived as removing a domestic obstacle in Lebanon and undercutting a "leg" of Washington's diplomacy.

Similarly, it is not apt to consider pressure on Syria as an attempt to remove the Syrian regime on the cheap. On the one hand, international pressure on Syria, led by the U.S. and France, has accomplished significant results, freeing Lebanon after almost three decades of Syrian occupation and leading to the collapse of Beirut's security regime. Four senior security officials are now under arrest facing charges of complicity in murder. Something of this magnitude has rarely occurred in the Arab world. Lebanon could become a catalyst of political change in the region.
On the other hand, one could argue that pressure on the regime has reinforced the hands of Bashar vis-a-vis the "old guard." Bashar has used the regime change pretext to try to consolidate his rule. Close members and supporters of the Assad Alawite clan have taken control of almost all military and security apparatus while at the same time nearly all the old-timers of the regime were led to retirement.

Significantly, by affirming the inviolability of the Baath Party during the recent tenth Baath Regional Congress, being the vanguard party in society, Bashar sent a message to the opposition as well as to Washington that his Baath regime was "here to stay."

Historically, the regime survived the aftershocks of the defeat in the 1967 war at a time when it was extremely weak. Nor has the regime had any qualms using whatever means at its disposal to suppress internal opposition. Thousands of Muslim brothers and supporters were killed and jailed in 1982 when they rebelled against the regime. What partly saved the day was the support of the regime by the Damascene merchant class. Although this influential class has called for reforms, it is more concerned with stability than unchecked change.

Washington's policy toward Syria, by error or trial, has the effect of neutralizing Syria by forcing it to stop hedging its diplomacy ranging from promoting terror to seeking regional power. The international investigation is more a signal to Syria and other rogue states that the language of violence is nearing its end. In this respect, it is foolish to consider that Washington's choice is between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq.

Robert G. Rabil is director of graduate studies at Florida Atlantic University and author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003). He wrote this article for The Daily Star.

Comment: Robert does not dispute my primary thesis - that regime change on the cheap will lead to chaos or worse in Syria and backfire against American interests. (By the way, I believe that faced with a sudden government collapse, Syria would likely slip into chaos and possible civil war, rather than produce a stable government run by Islamists. I don't think Extremists have the ability, organization, or popularity among Syrians to take power. Maybe at the end of a brutal civil war they would emerge victorious once everyone has been radicalized, but not before.) Anyway, Robert doesn't dispute that something worse for American interests would likely happen in Syria should the government collapse.

What he does say is that US foreign policy, which he admits has been "erratic" and thus inscrutable, is not directed at regime change. To suggest that people in Washington have been hoping for regime change, Rabil insists - "is not apt."

OK, let's agree with Rabil for the sake of discussion. Washington agrees on a Syria policy and does not want regime change. Most likely, Washington has sobered up on the regime-change issue now that it must decide what to do with the Hariri investigation. The possibility of pushing Syria until it "pops" is a real concern, which Washington probably does not welcome at this point.

Robert argues that pressure works and is a good tool for forcing Syria to conform to American and Lebanese interests. Here again, we agree. I believe pressure has worked and will continue to work. The greatest evidence of this is Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, as Robert says.

Where we disagree, is over the issue of whether the US should also offer Syria carrots to shape its policy. I think, "Yes," the US should do this. The main reason Rabil doesn't think carrots are a good idea, he writes, is because:

Damascus may consider helping bring stability to Iraq only if it would have a say in formulating Iraq's political future, something Washington has been adamantly against.

What Rabil is saying, if I read him correctly, is that Washington cannot draw Asad into a deal on Iraq because it will not accept Asad having "a say in formulating Iraq's political future."

Why not? Syria's main connection to Iraq is with the tribal confederations that populate Syria’s eastern provinces and Iraq’s western provinces. Syria has allowed the tribal leaders to meet openly in the Sham hotel. Most of the Iraqi leaders I have spoken to in Damascus - the Dulaimi types - are against the Shiite Imams taking over, they don't want Iran to have too much influence in Iraq, and they support former PM Allawi, and want a "secular" coalition of Sunnis and Shiites to rule in Baghdad. Everyone of them I talked to told me, “We don’t want the United States to leave Iraq now. We want them to pursue a smarter policy and listen to the Sunnis.”

This is not so far from what the US says its goals are. The United States supported Prime Minister Allawi in the last elections and were disappointed when he lost at the polls. America says it wants a balance of Sunni and other groups in Iraq, rather than the lop-sided Shiite control that is now emerging. Why not use Syria to counter-balance Iran? This would be wise policy. It needs to bring in the Sunni tribes, which Bashar has been cultivating. There are grounds for dialogue on this.

As I explained the other day, the last paragraph of my original op-ed (which was cut) suggested that the US ask Bashar to use its influence with the Sunni tribes to protect the oil pipeline that runs from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Banyas on the Syria coast. It is the most efficient means of getting Iraq's northern oil out of the country, but was closed by the US when it invaded Iraq in order to punish Syria. Washington has not permitted it to be reopened. Iraq's northern oil has not been exploitable for the last year because the Iraqi resistance has been blowing up the pipelines to Turkey. Let Asad try to work with the Iraqi tribes to get the oil flowing. What does America have to lose? Syria was making 1.5 billion dollars a year out of this oil before the American invasion of Iraq. It has a large incentive to help stabilize Iraq if it can get this revenue back. So long as America refuses to let Iraq run its oil out through Syria, Damascus has an incentive to try to push America out of Iraq as quickly as possible in order to get the pipeline turned back on. America should exploit Syria’s interest in opening the pipeline to get Syria on the side of stabilizing Iraq. It would be to everyone’s benefit.
Using such a carrot does not mean America must forgo the Hariri investigation or its other sticks. It can do both. Asad will be more likely to cooperate, and Syrians will see a real interest in siding with the American program in Iraq - and perhaps elsewhere. If Asad behaves, he gets more carrots and less sticks. It would also convince Damascus that the United States does not want regime-change. What Asad fears now is that even if he cooperates with America, he will be driven to the wall. Under these conditions, he will not cooperate. It is a matter of regime survival.

Take away the regime-survival question and show Syria that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and Asad will head for the light. It is natural human behavior. It is not rocket science. Hence, I continue to believe that the question is between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq. Show Asad that America does not want regime change and that there is a possibility of cooperation, and he will respond.

One more point, Rabil struck a low blow, when he wrote:

[US academics who]criticize Washington's erratic policy and assert that the U.S. must choose between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq. Recently, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad welcomed a group of American academics who, according to the Arab media, opposed the Iraq war. Their meeting with Assad could be interpreted as a message critical of Washington.
I take it that Robert is trying to imply that I joined some "group of American academics" who oppose the Iraq war and wanted to express their opposition by meeting with Bashar al-Asad. I did no such thing and would not do it. If I opposed the Iraq war, I certainly wouldn't meet with Asad in order to announce it.

I do not know of any America scholars who are in Damascus who met with Asad because of their opposition to the Iraq war. I did read this report in the local press, though, and it confused me as it has Rabil. What I think happened is this: A conference on Syrian history is being held this week in Damascus. A few American scholars, who work on 19th century Syrian history, are participating. I am not. Probably the local press used their presence in Damascus to write that they opposed the war. Maybe Bashar al-Asad turned up at the opening session of the conference to welcome them - but I do not know if this is true. I will find out.

Anyway, for Robert to suggest that my article, which argued that America must choose between stabilizing Iraq and destabilizing Syria, has anything to do with American academics who oppose the war and give allegiance to Bashar over George is just mendacity. There is no connection between the two. This is not a question about which president is better or whose side one is on. To reduce this discussion to such a level of national allegiance should be left to Campus Watch. Rabil should not stoop so low.

There is a real debate going on about what America should do in Syria to stabilize Iraq. I think Washington can be smarter. Robert thinks Washington is on the right track and doing the best it can. He doesn't think carrots will work. I do. We agree that pressure is effective. We agree that sudden regime change is dangerous. It is not a question of whose side one is on but what policy will help stabilize Iraq.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

News Round Up: Sept. 28, 05

It was a bad day in Syria yesterday. May Chidiac was nearly killed the previous day in her car. She is one of Lebanon’s most respected regional broadcasters – a Diane Sawyer - who was much loved in Syria even though she was a courageous advocate of Lebanese independence. Everyone admired her. She is alive, but has lost an arm and leg. The Lebanese organized demonstrations to protest the string of killings. Everyone has accused Syria of ordering the assassination attempt. This cowardly job has reignited worries that Syria is playing for keeps and will seriously up the ante in Lebanon, if the Mehlis report corners the Asad family. Syria continues to deny that it is involved.

Today, Elias Murr, Lebanon's Defense Minister explained on LBC that Syrian intelligence officials in Lebanon threatened him months before an attempt on his life in a similar July car bombing. The FBI are now investigating the Chidiac bombing.

There are also reports that members of Ahmad Jabril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which maintains border bases in Deir Al Ashaer and Sultan Yacoub in the Bekaa as well as the Naameh hills south of Beirut, have been caught trying to smuggle weapons from Syria into Lebanon. Haaretz claims that "Assad gave Hamas and Islamic Jihad the green light for terrorism in order to divert attention and pressure from Syria. All of this suggests that Syria is to attempting to develop its regional “cards,” rather than giving them up, as the West insists it do.

Ali Habib, the Syrian Chief of Staff, has gone to Moscow for several days and everyone here is speculating about his visit - whether he has gone to purchase Strella and Alexander missile systems or to look for help against an American push to get Syrian taken to the UN Security Council.

Inside Syria security forces raided a house where pro-democracy activists were meeting on Monday, destroying documents and ordering the gathering's participants to disperse.

The broken-up meeting had been organised by the Commission for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights and was being held in Khan al-Shaykh, some 20 kilometres south of Damascus.

Human rights organisations in the country condemned the authorities' action. The president of the Syrian Centre for Judicial Research, Anwar al-Bunni joined the criticism, denouncing what he said was "the excessive means with which the Syrian government imposes its iron fist on Syrian society and uses force against human rights and civil society activists.

""Syria is showing the world it has two faces, one: Islamic extremism, the other: the regime of the government," Bunni told Adnkronos International (AKI).
A bit of welcome news comes from Cairo, from where Asad has just returned from a short visit. Mubarak’s spokesman said:
"The Egyptian proposal rejects isolating Syria and calls for achieving stability in the region and not opening a new focus of tension that adds to an already complicated situation. (Mubarak) is calling upon Syria to go on cooperating with Mr. Mehlis. He is against any finger pointing at Syria before Mr. Mehlis's report is made available to the United Nations," Egyptian presidential spokesman Suleiman Awad said.
A number of other Arab leaders and opinion makers have come out against isolating Syria. If both Egypt and Saudi reject the notion of isolating Syria, at least until the results of the Hariri investigation are revealed in October, they will play an important role in mitigating the full force of American wrath and hindering its ability to build a seamless coalition against it.

Even in the US administration, there seems to be division over how the US should apply the screws to Damascus.

Christopher Dickey of Newsweek, who also keeps an excellent blog, "The Shadowland Journal," wrote to me yesterday:
There seems to be genuine concern among some members of the US administration that the Syrian regime will, one day soon, crumble into chaos. But, as in Iraq, there is no known or credible scenario for the day after. In its newly cautious post-Iraq, post-Katrina, post-plunging-polls mood, Washington may actually be thinking as much about how to save Bashar as about how to bring him down. And the Saudi role in all this? Hmmmm. - Chris
It looks like Mehlis will not visit Syria again, which has led many in Damascus to speculate that the report will not be a clear indictment. One independent Syrian journalist told me today that the "buzz" around town is that it will be "inconclusive." That is where politics begin.

The reticence to topple Asad is shared by Iraqi president Jalal Al Talabani who said he could not see any alternative to the Asad regime in Syria and had not lost hope in it. As al-Sharq al-Awsat reports, he said,
"Yes, there are disputes but I shall not utter a word against Syria as it is the Country that Harbored us During the Opposition Days.” He pointed out that he has witnessed an American worry towards Iran and so much strictness against Syria. "I said to them: what is the alternative in Syria? Their response was that they do not desire to change the regime in Syria but to change the approach, "he said. He pointed out that he received promises from Syrian officials and said, "I have not lost hope until now. We need to improve relations with Syria, Turkey and Iran. We are in favor of calm and friendly discussions." The Iraqi president said, "We would not become under the influence of anyone. Nevertheless, there are worries in the Arab world of the increase of the Iranian influence. Even Collin Powell said that we have not ended the regime of Saddam Hussein in the past for fear of the Iranian influence.”
All of this can only be cold comfort to Syria, which is fighting a growing tide of world anger.

George Bush on 26 September 2005 said:
"Coalition and Iraqi troops are now focusing their efforts in western Iraq where we're trying to stop foreign terrorists from entering through Syria and prevent al Qaida from establishing a safe haven in the Anbar province."

Mr. Bush says the infiltration of foreign terrorists from Syria remains a problem:

"It takes a while to secure the border with Syria because it is a long border that has had smuggling routes in existence for decades. In order to secure a border, it requires cooperation on both sides of the border, and we're getting limited cooperation from Syria. We've made it clear to Syria we expect them to help us secure their border and to stop the transit of suiciders coming from other countries through Syria into Iraq. Their response hasn't been very satisfactory to date. I continue to remind them of their obligation."
Oxford Business Group explains how Syria has been shoring up the Syrian pound in its efforts to combated public fears that have caused a run on the local currency. (This is one way to get currency reform enacted.)
Syria: Tackling the Jitters
26 September 2005
Debate has been intensifying on Damascus's latest moves to shore up its currency and introduce reforms in the financial sector. Yet while many have welcomed the recent easing of foreign exchange controls and hike in interest rates, others see the package as too little, too late.

On September 21, Syrian central bank Governor Adib Mayyaleh announced to reporters that the bank's base rate had been raised from 6.5 to 7%. At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari also announced that certificates of deposit were finally to be allowed, at a rate of 9%, with the specific aim of encouraging people to save in Syrian pounds.

Dardari added that banks would now sell currency at a rate of $1 to S£54, slightly under the black market rate of S£55 but above the S£50-52 prevalent a few months ago.

This came after foreign exchange controls that had been in place since the 1960s were eased, with Syrians enabled to open bank accounts in foreign currencies and to trade in foreign denominations. Banks are also now allowed to set their exchange rates within a band around the central bank figure.

The deputy prime minister also announced that Syrian nationals traveling abroad would be able to purchase $3000 per trip, compared with a previous ceiling of $2000. This ruling would not apply to those making the trip over the border to Jordan or Lebanon, however, where the maximum amount that can be purchased would be $1000.

At the same time, local banks will now also be allowed to issue letters of credit for the export and import of some 950 different items - a list accounting for about a quarter of Syria's total trade.

These steps are good, we back them and hope they continue, Rateb Shallah, head of the Syrian Chamber of Commerce, told reporters on September 26.

As a financial package, the moves announced by the government are clearly designed to bolster the pound and bring more dollars into the country and into its banks, boosting hard currency reserves. Estimates vary as to the current status of Syria's forex reserves, but on September 21, AFP claimed that these now stood at around $10bn.

At the same time, the hope is that the freeing up of the forex market and the introduction of letters of credit will also draw Syrians away from the black market - many people's traditional supplier of hard currency. Private currency exchange shops will also be able to operate, further bringing the forex market in from the backstreets.

Dardari also presented the moves as part of the country's broader economic reform programme.

The process of reform and economic liberalisation is heading in the right direction, he said on announcing the introduction of certificates of deposit, based on significant foreign currency reserves and production capacity.

Yet not all analysts were entirely convinced that the package was really going far enough and fast enough.

A lot more needs to be done, Nabil Sukkar, managing director of the Syrian Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment, told the Beirut-based Daily Star in its September 26 edition. The government is working on reforms, to give them due credit, but Syria only moved into the modern banking system a year and a half ago so there is much to be done.

With current pressures on Damascus from Washington over alleged failures to prevent militants from using Syria as a base for operations in Iraq, and from the UN inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri earlier this year, there is a genuine concern that the pound needs some heftier defences. The recent reprise of US claims over Iraqi militants saw the pound slip 2% in a matter of days as dollar demand surged.

Yet critics argue that while there is clearly a need for some measures to be enacted, what the recent package amounts to is a response mainly to the pressures of recent days, rather than a coherent strategy.

Such critics point to the fact that while certificates of deposit are now allowed, there has been no suggestion so far that the central bank itself will be issuing any. It will be up to the clutch of private banks - all joint ventures between Syrian and Lebanese lenders - to start this up.

At the same time, the move on letters of credit also recognises a reality since Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, which had historically been the place for Syrian exporters to access such instruments. With relations not what they were, it makes sense for Syrian companies to be able to gain letters of credit back home.

There are, however, rumours that the government may be about to expand its financial toolbox still further by beginning issuing treasury bonds. This would substantially expand the range of investment instruments available and, advocates argue, give the government a valuable tool in tackling inflationary pressures. However, few expect any rapid moves in this direction to take place. Yet the signs are that there is a growing recognition of the necessity not just for reform in the financial sector, but for the creation of a much more multi-faceted one.
The following opinion piece in Al-Quds Al Arabi is fairly typical of one broad current on the region. People worry that the US is trying to do in Arab nationalism by crushing Syria.

Syria’s Arab isolation
“The quick visit of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Cairo, and his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reflect the state of isolation that the Syrian regime is living in Arab wise under pressures from the US.”

“It is noted that Cairo has now become almost the only Arab country where the plane of President Assad can land after all the Arab countries have closed the doors in his face.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was the main rib in the Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi triangle ruling the region and setting its policies for the past 30 years, is no longer welcoming the Syrian partner after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, especially after what has been leaked about the quick and final meeting between young Syrian President with the current Saudi King Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz.

“President Mubarak, through his spokesperson, announced yesterday that he is against any attempts to isolate Syria, just like he opposes that accusation be made that it stands behind the assassination of Hariri, until the UN report about this topic be released.

“Maybe the Egyptian president is the only one among his Arab counterparts who expressed this supportive position with Syria in the fact of the increasing American pressures to isolate it Arab wise after its international isolation, in preparation of forcing economic sanctions over it. Everyone has maintained silence and most of the Arab leaders have left Syria face its own fate alone.

“The problems of Syria with the US did not begin with the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri. They began with the American preparations to invade Iraq and occupy it. And it may be helpful to remind that the US accused Syria more than once of housing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in addition to large numbers of the old Iraqi regime.

“What the US currently wants from Syria is clear to the eye and needs no further effort to discover. The whole matter is about Iraq and the lack of cooperation of the Syrian regime with the plans to occupy Iraq and end the national resistance on its land…

“President Bush’s administration which conceded that its military and political plans in Iraq reached a dead end wants the Syrian government to throw the last life jacket by sending its troops to Iraq to launch a war against the resistance and invest its effective and expert security apparatuses in this field.

“The Syrian government, despite our differences with it because of its internal matters like breaching human rights and crushing liberties, has rejected all American pressures and has stood against facing the resistance, and it is a respected national position which deserves the support of the Arabs, governments and people.

“Any Syrian cooperation with the American occupation project in Iraq would have led to the staying of the Syrian forces in Lebanon for decades to come. It would have also removed Syria’s name from the list of countries that support terror, and opened the doors of the White House in front of President Bashar al-Assad.

“Significant Lebanese figures have been assassinated in Lebanon starting with former President Bashir Gemayel, who signed a cooperation agreement with Israel sponsored by the US, going through Kamal Jumblatt, the most notable national figure, and ending with President Renee Mouawad. And despite all that, Washington never dared to point one finger at Syria in these assassination attempts because it cooperated in ending the civil war in Lebanon and supported liberating Kuwait. And the Syrian forces remained in Lebanon ruling the country just like it wanted and without any opposition from Washington or Paris.

“Syria gambled on the Arabism of Iraq and its unity, and this is the secret behind its isolation and the American war being waged against it. And now after two years of withstanding this war and the American pressures, we are starting to hear other Arab voices, the latest of which is of the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, accusing the American policies of breaking down Iraq, erasing its Arabism, and handing it as a gift to Iran and its allies. This assures that the Syrian compass is usually right when it comes to Arab or national issues. What is hoped for, is that it keeps pointing in the right direction.” - Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom

Monday, September 26, 2005

Iraqi Tribes in Syria - "Saddam's Revenge," by Joe Kline

Time Magazine has published a devastating article about how America has mishandled the war in Iraq. Their is a very interesting part "Mishandling the Tribes" which explains Syria's role in welcoming the Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq. I will publish an article by Abdullah Taa'i, who writes that "Because the influence the tribal sheikhs in Iraq used to enjoy has been taken from them," their counter-parts in Syria have now become much more powerful as the Iraqi tribal members look to them for succor. They are appealing to the Syrian government for help for their Iraqi confreres. "This will move the central block of tribes towards Syria," Abdullah writes.

Whereas American leaders in Iraq looked on the tribes as "a vestige of the past [with]no place in the new democratic Iraq," according to a former intelligence officer Joe Kline interviewed, and refused to draw them onto America's side by paying them subsidies, Bashar al-Asad has been cultivating them. This has been a dangerous gamble on Asad's part. America has demanded his help in crushing them, and Asad has refused. In the coming months, America will likely force him to crack down on them as a result of his mistakes in Lebanon. The US has outmaneuvered Asad on the regional chessboard. The tribes can hurt Asad and make trouble in Syria, but America can hurt him much more. The tribes are not going away, however, and are masters at revenge and survival. The Syrian government will not abandon them entirely because all of Eastern Syria is tribal.

They will remain Syrian, when the Americans have quit Iraq. Also, should Iraq split into three, Syria will inherit the Sunni tribes, who will have no where to turn for help but to Damascus.

The original draft of my op-ed, the last paragraph which was eliminated, read:

A first step toward [testing Syrian willingness to improve relations with the US and Iraq] is to reopen the oil pipeline running from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Banyas on the Syria coast. If Syria can use its influence with the Sunni tribes that span both sides of its border to move oil from Iraq to global markets, everyone would be the richer.
It would have been a way to draw all sides into trying to cooperate.

Saddam's Revenge
The secret history of U.S. mistakes, misjudgments and intelligence failures that let the Iraqi dictator and his allies launch an insurgency now ripping Iraq apart
Sunday, Sep. 18, 2005

Five men met in an automobile in a baghdad park a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in April 2003, according to U.S. intelligence sources. One of the five was Saddam. The other four were among his closest advisers. The agenda: how to fight back against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. A representative of Saddam's former No. 2, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, was there. But the most intriguing man in the car may have been a retired general named Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, who had been a senior member of the Military Bureau, a secret Baath Party spy service. The bureau's job had been to keep an eye on the Iraqi military—and to organize Baathist resistance in the event of a coup. Now a U.S. coup had taken place, and Saddam turned to al-Ahmed and the others and told them to start "rebuilding your networks."

The 45-minute meeting was pieced together months later by U.S. military intelligence. It represents a rare moment of clarity in the dust storm of violence that swirls through central Iraq. The insurgency has grown well beyond its initial Baathist core to include religious extremist and Iraqi nationalist organizations, and plain old civilians who are angry at the American occupation. But Saddam's message of "rebuilding your networks" remains the central organizing principle.

More than two years into the war, U.S. intelligence sources concede that they still don't know enough about the nearly impenetrable web of what Iraqis call ahl al-thiqa (trust networks), which are at the heart of the insurgency. It's an inchoate movement without a single inspirational leader like Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh—a movement whose primary goal is perhaps even more improbable than the U.S. dream of creating an Iraqi democracy: restoring Sunni control in a country where Sunnis represent just 20% of the population. Intelligence experts can't credibly estimate the rebels' numbers but say most are Iraqis. Foreigners account for perhaps 2% of the suspected guerrillas who have been captured or killed, although they represent the vast majority of suicide bombers. ("They are ordnance," a U.S. intelligence official says.) The level of violence has been growing steadily. There have been roughly 80 attacks a day in recent weeks.

Suicide bombs killed more than 200 people, mostly in Baghdad, during four days of carnage last week, among the deadliest since Saddam's fall.

More than a dozen current and former intelligence officers knowledgeable about Iraq spoke with TIME in recent weeks to share details about the conflict. They voiced their growing frustration with a war that they feel was not properly anticipated by the Bush Administration, a war fought with insufficient resources, a war that almost all of them now believe is not winnable militarily. "We're good at fighting armies, but we don't know how to do this," says a recently retired four-star general with Middle East experience. "We don't have enough intelligence analysts working on this problem. The Defense Intelligence Agency [dia] puts most of its emphasis and its assets on Iran, North Korea and China. The Iraqi insurgency is simply not top priority, and that's a damn shame."

The intelligence officers stressed these points: They believe that Saddam's inner circle—especially those from the Military Bureau—initially organized the insurgency's support structure and that networks led by former Saddam associates like al-Ahmed and al-Duri still provide money and logistical help.

The Bush Administration's fixation on finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2003 diverted precious intelligence resources that could have helped thwart the fledgling insurgency.

From the beginning of the insurgency, U.S. military officers have tried to contact and negotiate with rebel leaders, including, as a senior Iraq expert puts it, "some of the people with blood on their hands."

The frequent replacement of U.S. military and administrative teams in Baghdad has made it difficult to develop a counterinsurgency strategy.

The accumulation of blunders has led a Pentagon guerrilla-warfare expert to conclude, "We are repeating every mistake we made in Vietnam."

The Wrong Focus

it is no secret that General Tommy Franks didn't want to hang around Iraq very long. As Franks led the U.S. assault on Baghdad in April 2003, his goal—and that of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—was to get to the capital as quickly as possible with a minimal number of troops. Franks succeeded brilliantly at that task. But military-intelligence officers contend that he did not seem interested in what would come next. "He never once asked us for a briefing about what happened once we got to Baghdad," says a former Army intelligence officer attached to the invasion force. "He said, 'It's not my job.' We figured all he wanted to do was get in, get out and write his book." (Franks, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article.)

The rush to Baghdad, critics say, laid the groundwork for trouble to come. In one prewar briefing, for example, Lieut. General David McKiernan—who commanded the land component of the coalition forces—asked Franks what should be done if his troops found Iraqi arms caches on the way to Baghdad. "Just put a lock on 'em and go, Dave," Franks replied, according to a former U.S. Central Command (Centcom) officer. Of course, you couldn't simply put a lock on ammunition dumps that stretched for several square miles—dumps that would soon be stripped and provide a steady source of weaponry for the insurgency.

U.S. troops entered Baghdad on April 5. There was euphoria in the Pentagon. The looting in the streets of Baghdad and the continuing attacks on coalition troops were considered temporary phenomena that would soon subside. On May 1, President George W. Bush announced, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," on the deck of an aircraft carrier, near a banner that read mission accomplished.

Shortly thereafter, Franks moved his headquarters from Qatar back to Florida. He was followed there in June by McKiernan, whose Baghdad operation included several hundred intelligence officers who had been keeping track of the situation on the ground. "Allowing McKiernan to leave was the worst decision of the war," says one of his superiors.

(The decision, he says, was Franks'.) "We replaced an operational force with a tactical force, which meant generals were replaced by colonels." Major General Ricardo Sanchez, a relatively junior commander and a recent arrival in Iraq, was put in charge. "After McKiernan left, we had fewer than 30 intelligence officers trying to figure who the enemy was," says a top-ranking military official who was in Iraq at the time. "We were starting from scratch, with practically no resources."

On May 23, the U.S. made what is generally regarded as a colossal mistake. L. Paul Bremer—the newly arrived administrator of the U.S. government presence, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)—disbanded the Iraqi army and civil service on Rumsfeld's orders. "We made hundreds of thousands of people very angry at us," says a Western diplomat attached to the CPA, "and they happened to be the people in the country best acquainted with the use of arms."

Thousands moved directly into the insurgency—not just soldiers but also civil servants who took with them useful knowledge of Iraq's electrical grid and water and sewage systems. Bremer says he doesn't regret that decision, according to his spokesman Dan Senor. "The Kurds and Shi'ites didn't want Saddam's army in business," says Senor, "and the army had gone home. We had bombed their barracks. How were we supposed to bring them back and separate out the bad guys? We didn't even have enough troops to stop the looting in Baghdad."

A third decision in the spring of 2003—to make the search for WMD the highest intelligence priority—also hampered the U.S. ability to fight the insurgents. In June, former weapons inspector David Kay arrived in Baghdad to lead the Iraq Survey Group (isg), which had 1,200 intelligence officers and support staff members assigned to search for WMD. They had exclusive access to literally tons of documents collected from Saddam's office, intelligence services and ministries after the regime fell. Kay clashed repeatedly with U.S. military leaders who wanted access not only to the documents but also to some of the resources—analysts, translators, field agents—at his disposal. "I was in meetings where [General John] Abizaid was pounding on the table trying to get some help," says a senior military officer. "But Kay wouldn't budge."

Indeed, a covert-intelligence officer working for the isg told TIME correspondent Brian Bennett that he had been ordered in August 2003 to "terminate" contact with Iraqi sources not working on WMD. As a result, the officer says, he stopped meeting with a dozen Iraqis who were providing information—maps, photographs and addresses of former Baathist militants, safe houses and stockpiles of explosives—about the insurgency in the Mosul area. "The President's priority—and my mission—was to focus on WMD," Kay told TIME. "Abizaid needed help with the counterinsurgency. He said, 'You have the only organization in this country that's working.' But military guys are not used to people telling them no, and so, yes, there was friction."

Sanchez learned that autumn that there were 38 boxes of documents specifically related to the city of Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni rebellion. Months later, when military-intelligence officers finally were able to review some of the documents, many of which had been marked no intelligence value, the officers found information that they now say could have helped the U.S. stop the insurgency's spread.

Among the papers were detailed civil-defense plans for cities like Fallujah, Samarra and Ramadi and rosters of leaders and local Baathist militia who would later prove to be the backbone of the insurgency in those cities.

U.S. military-intelligence sources say many of the documents still have not been translated or thoroughly analyzed. "You should see the warehouse in Qatar where we have this stuff," said a high-ranking former U.S. intelligence official. "We'll never be able to get through it all. Who knows?" he added, with a laugh. "We may even find the VX [nerve gas] in one of those boxes."

Misjudging The Enemy
As early as June 2003, the CIA told bush in a briefing that he faced a "classic insurgency" in Iraq. But the White House didn't fully trust the CIA, and on June 30, Rumsfeld told reporters, "I guess the reason I don't use the term guerrilla war is that it isn't ... anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance." The opposition, he claimed, was composed of "looters, criminals, remnants of the Baathist regime" and a few foreign fighters. Indeed, Rumsfeld could claim progress in finding and capturing most of the 55 top members of Saddam's regime—the famous Iraqi deck of cards. (To date, 44 of the 55 have been captured or killed.) Two weeks after Rumsfeld's comment, the Secretary of Defense was publicly contradicted by Centcom commander Abizaid, who said the U.S. indeed faced "a classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq.

In a sense, both Rumsfeld and Abizaid were right. The backbone of the insurgency was thousands of Baathist remnants organizing a guerrilla war against the Americans. According to documents later seized by the U.S. military, Saddam—who had been changing locations frequently until his capture in December 2003—tried to stay in charge of the rebellion. He fired off frequent letters filled with instructions for his subordinates. Some were pathetic. In one, he explained guerrilla tradecraft to his inner circle—how to keep in touch with one another, how to establish new contacts, how to remain clandestine. Of course, the people doing the actual fighting needed no such advice, and decisions about whom to attack when and where were made by the cells. Saddam's minions, including al-Duri and al-Ahmed, were away from the front lines, providing money, arms and logistical support for the cells.

But Saddam did make one strategic decision that helped alter the course of the insurgency. In early autumn he sent a letter to associates ordering them to change the target focus from coalition forces to Iraqi "collaborators"—that is, to attack Iraqi police stations. The insurgency had already announced its seriousness and lethal intent with a summer bombing campaign. On Aug. 7, a bomb went off outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing 19 people. Far more ominous was the Aug. 19 blast that destroyed the U.N.'s headquarters in Baghdad, killing U.N. representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others. Although al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack, U.S. intelligence officials believe that remnants of Saddam's Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) carried it out. "It was a pure Baathist operation," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "The Iraqis who served as U.N. security guards simply didn't show up for work that day. It wasn't a suicide bomb. The truck driver left the scene. Our [explosives] team found that the bomb had the distinctive forensics of Saddam's IIS."

On Oct. 27, 2003, the assaults on "collaborators" that Saddam had requested began with attacks on four Iraqi police stations—and on International Red Cross headquarters—in Baghdad, killing 40 people.

The assaults revealed a deadly new alliance between the Baathists and the jihadi insurgents. U.S. intelligence agents later concluded, after interviewing one of the suicide bombers, a Sudanese who failed in his attempt, that the operation had been a collaboration between former Baathists and al-Zarqawi. The Baathists had helped move the suicide bombers into the country, according to the U.S. sources, and then provided shelter, support (including automobiles) and coordination for the attacks.

Mishandling The Tribes
By almost every account, sanchez and bremer did not get along. The conflict was predictable—the soldiers tended to be realists fighting a nasty war; the civilians, idealists trying to create a new Iraq—but it was troubling nonetheless. The soldiers wanted to try diplomacy and began reaching out to the less extreme elements of the insurgency to bring them into negotiations over Iraq's political future. The diplomats took a harder line, refusing to negotiate with the enemy.

Military-intelligence officers presented the CPA with a plan to make a deal with 19 subtribes of the enormous Dulaimi clan, located in al-Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni triangle. The tribes "had agreed to disarm and keep us informed of traffic going through their territories," says a former Army intelligence officer. "All it would have required from the CPA was formal recognition that the tribes existed—and $3 million." The money would go toward establishing tribal security forces. "It was a foot in the door, but we couldn't get the CPA to move." Bremer's spokesman Senor says a significant effort was made to reach out to the tribes. But several military officials dispute that. "The standard answer we got from Bremer's people was that tribes are a vestige of the past, that they have no place in the new democratic Iraq," says the former intelligence officer. "Eventually they paid some lip service and set up a tribal office, but it was grudging."

The Baathists, on the other hand, were more active in courting the tribes. Starting in November 2003, tribal sheiks and Baathist expatriates held a series of monthly meetings at the Cham Palace hotel in Damascus. They were public events, supposedly meetings to express solidarity with the Iraqi opposition to the U.S. occupation.

(The January 2004 gathering was attended by Syrian President Bashar Assad.) Behind the scenes, however, the meetings provided a convenient cover for leaders of the insurgency, including Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed, the former Military Bureau director, to meet, plan and distribute money. A senior military officer told TIME that U.S. intelligence had an informant—a mid-level Baathist official who belonged to the Dulaimi tribe—attending the meetings and keeping the Americans informed about the insurgents' growing cohesion. But the increased flow of information did not produce a coherent strategy for fighting the growing rebellion.

The Dealmaking Goes Nowhere
Saddam was captured on Dec. 13, 2003, in a spider hole on a farm near Tikrit. His briefcase was filled with documents identifying many of the former Baathists running support networks for the insurgency. It was the first major victory of what the U.S. called the postcombat phase of the war: in early 2004, 188 insurgents were captured, many of whom had been mentioned in the seized documents. Although Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Saddam's former No. 2, narrowly evaded capture, much of his Mosul and Kirkuk apparatus was rolled up. Baathist financial networks were disrupted in several provinces. The CIA, in fact, believes that Saddam's capture permanently crippled the Baathist wing of the insurgency. "A guy like al-Duri is more symbol than substance at this point," a U.S. intelligence official says. "The parade has passed him by."

Military-intelligence officers who were in Iraq at the time, however, saw evidence that the Baathists regrouped in the spring of 2004, when the U.S. was preoccupied with battling a rebellion led by Shi'ite extremist Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq's south and with the fight for the rebel-held city of Fallujah in the Sunni triangle. And the U.S. intelligence officials believe that some former regime loyalists began to be absorbed by other rebel groups, including those made up of religious extremists and Iraqi nationalists.

Al-Ahmed, say U.S. intelligence officials, is still running the support network he began building after the meeting with Saddam in the car. In May 2004 al-Ahmed set off on one of his periodic tours of the combat zone, meeting with local insurgent leaders, distributing money and passing along news—a trip later pieced together by U.S. intelligence analysts wading through the mountain of data and intelligence provided by low-level local informants. Al-Ahmed started in his hometown of Mosul, where he had been supervising—from a distance—the rebuilding of the local insurgent network disrupted after Saddam's capture. He moved on to Hawija, where he met a man thought to be a senior financier of the insurgency in north-central Iraq. After a brief stay at a farmhouse near Samarra, he met with military leaders of religious and nationalist rebel groups in Baghdad and with Rashid Taan Kazim, one of the few faces from the deck of cards (al-Duri is another) still at large, who is thought to be running a support network for the insurgency in the north and west of Iraq. Al-Ahmed's final stop was Ramadi, where he distributed $500,000 to local insurgency leaders.

What is remarkable is the extent to which the U.S. is aware of al-Ahmed's activities. "We know where Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed lives in Damascus," says a U.S. intelligence official. "We know his phone number. He believes he has the protection of the Syrian government, and that certainly seems to be the case." But he hasn't been aggressively pursued by the U.S. either—in part because there has been a persistent and forlorn hope that al-Ahmed might be willing to help negotiate an end to the Baathist part of the insurgency. A senior U.S. intelligence officer says that al-Ahmed was called at least twice by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi—an old acquaintance—and that a representative of an "other government agency," a military euphemism that usually means the CIA, "knocked on his door in 2004 and asked if he was willing to talk. He wasn't."

Starting Over Again
In the middle of 2004, the U.S. again changed its team in Baghdad. Bremer and Sanchez left, replaced by Ambassador John Negroponte and General George Casey. At the same time, there was a new transitional Iraqi government, led by Iyad Allawi. Negroponte set up a joint military-diplomatic team to review the situation in the country. The consensus was that things were a mess, that little had been accomplished on either the civilian or the military side and that there was no effective plan for dealing with the insurgency. The new team quickly concluded that the insurgency could not be defeated militarily—but that it might be divided. The attempts to engage potential allies like al-Ahmed became the unstated policy as U.S. and Iraqi officials sought ways to isolate foreign terrorists like al-Zarqawi.

But progress in the effort to defuse the insurgency through dealmaking has been slow—and in some cases has led the U.S. to ease pressure on individuals tied to rebel groups. Consider the careful handling of Harith al-Dhari, chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars and one of Iraq's most important Sunni leaders. In late 2003, several insurgent groups began to meet regularly in the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, over which al-Dhari presides. According to U.S. intelligence reports, al-Dhari—who has said he might encourage his organization to take part in the democratic process—did not attend the meetings. But his son Muthanna—who is thought to be an important link between the nationalist and religious strains of the insurgency—did. In August 2004, the son was arrested after his car scanned positive for explosives residue. But he was quickly released, a retired dia analyst says, under pressure from Iraq's government, to keep channels open to his father. "It would be difficult to lure Harith into the tent if Muthanna were in jail," says the former officer.

By April 2004, U.S. military-intelligence officers were also holding face-to-face talks with Abdullah al-Janabi, a rebel leader from Fallujah. The meetings ended after al-Zarqawi—who had taken up residence in Fallujah—threatened to kill al-Janabi if the talks continued, according to U.S. and Iraqi sources. But attempts to negotiate with other insurgents are continuing, including with Saddam's former religious adviser. So far, the effort has been futile. "We keep hoping they'll come up with a Gerry Adams," says a U.S. intelligence official, referring to the leader of the Irish Republican Army's political wing. "But it just hasn't happened."

Civil War?
The leadership in Baghdad changed yet again this year. Negroponte left Baghdad in March to become director of national intelligence. He was replaced by Zalmay Khalilzad. But the turnover in the Iraqi government was far more important: religious Shi'ites, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, took charge, a severe irritant to many Sunnis. "The insurgents see al-Jaafari as a traitor, a man who spent the Iran-Iraq war in Iran," says a senior military officer. "And many of the best officers we have trained in the new Iraqi army—Sunnis and secular Shi'ites who served in Saddam's army—feel the same way."

Al-Jaafari did not help matters by opening diplomatic ties with Iran, apologizing for Iraq's behavior in the Iran-Iraq war and cutting economic deals with the Iranians.

In fact, some Iraq experts in the U.S. intelligence community have come to the conclusion that Iraqis' courageous recent steps toward democracy—the elections in January and the writing of a constitution that empowers the religious Shi'ites and the Kurds (though it is resoundingly opposed by the Sunnis)—have left the country in a more precarious position. "The big conversation in our shop these days," says a military-intelligence officer, "is whether it would be a good thing if the new constitution is voted down [in the public referendum] next month."

Iraq experts in the intelligence community believe that the proposed constitution, which creates autonomous regions for the Kurds and Shi'ites in the oil-rich north and south, could heighten the chances of an outright civil war. "A lot of us who have followed this thing have come to the conclusion that the Sunnis are the wolves—the real warriors—and the religious Shi'ites are the sheep," says an intelligence officer. "The Sunnis have the power to maintain this violence indefinitely."

Another hot debate in the intelligence community is whether to make a major change in the counterinsurgency strategy—to stop the aggressive sweeps through insurgent-riddled areas, like the recent offensive in Tall 'Afar, and try to concentrate troops and resources with the aim of improving security and living conditions in population centers like Baghdad. "We've taken Samarra four times, and we've lost it four times," says an intelligence officer. "We need a new strategy."

But the Pentagon leadership is unlikely to support a strategy that concedes broad swaths of territory to the enemy. In fact, none of the intelligence officers who spoke with TIME or their ranking superiors could provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq. It is quite possible that the occupation of Iraq was an unwise proposition from the start, as many U.S. allies in the region warned before the invasion. Yet, despite their gloom, every one of the officers favors continuing—indeed, augmenting—the war effort. If the U.S. leaves, they say, the chaos in central Iraq could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. And al-Qaeda operatives like al-Zarqawi could have a relatively safe base of operations in the Sunni triangle. "We have never taken this operation seriously enough," says a retired senior military official with experience in Iraq. "We have never provided enough troops. We have never provided enough equipment, or the right kind of equipment. We have never worked the intelligence part of the war in a serious, sustained fashion. We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

"Long Walk" by Chris Ellery

Here is a poem by Chris Ellery, a wonderful poet I chanced upon in Damascus this summer. His poem, "Long Walk" is a good tonic after all the politics.

Chris Ellery
2661 Yale Ave.
San Angelo, TX 76909

Long Walk

When you walk all day with someone
and neither knows the other’s language,
you will find much to talk about.
Rafik is Arab. His letters are sun and moon.
On the maseer, the “long walk,”
where we meet, we pass
through orange groves, olive groves,
through the ancient rugged country, up
and down a twisting way.
Taking my arm, he says a hundred times,
“Hello.” His only word of English.
“Hello”—again and again until it becomes
HOL-low, hilloh, HAY-L-O-O-O-O—
just to break the silence
with a bright, round nimbus of speech.
He gives me cigarettes, food, plucks
oranges from the trees to sweeten my walk.
When we come to a village, I am
the first to drink the cold well water. When dark comes
to “Hyena Heaven,” and I am
so tired, he points his torch
before my feet
to light the treacherous path.
Without light,
without food or smokes,
how can I reciprocate?
“Shukran.” Thanks. That is my one word.
Well, that was years ago.
Rafik has learned a little English,
I a little Arabic.
Meeting half way like this, we find
more and more to say,
more and more in the wordless quiet
our footsteps leave.

Apologies to Ambassador Ford

I must apologize for misquoting the British Ambassador in Damascus, Peter Ford, the other day. I quoted Ambassador Ford telling a Syrian friend that President Assad was weak and expected to fall. Ambassador Ford wrote:


In case silence is taken as consent, please note that I definitely did not say what I am quoted as saying here and it's not what I think. I'd be glad if you'd circulate this denial.

Peter Ford

Unfortunately, our mutual friend misunderstood the Ambassador, a lesson to us all.
Apologies, Joshua

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"The Case for Border Co-operation" by James Denselow

James Denselow has contributed an important article below. He recently returned from a conference held in Jordan on Iraq's borders. It was attended by high security officials from Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, the UK and US. Syria and Iran were excluded. Syria was eager to send a high level committee to the conference, but was excluded by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself. This leads James to ask how many US soldiers and Iraqi citizens will be killed as a result of the West's policy of isolating Syria.

The Case for Border Co-Operation
by James Denselow, King's College, London, and Researcher at Chatham House
September 24, 2005
Written for "Syria Comment."

Flint Leverett described the mechanisms of a US policy of regime change on the cheap in Syria; its cornerstone is the twisting of indirect pressure points to further isolate and weaken the regime. Such pressure points include WMD proliferation and the support of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Lebanese Hizbullah (what the US administration describe as the ‘A’ team of terrorism). However today the greatest threats to the Syrian regime come from accusations of direct involvement in the assassination of Hariri (initial verdict out on the 25th of October) and US accusations of ‘allowing forces’ to cross the border into Iraq to fuel the continued insurgency that plagues the country.

Several commentaries have argued (includes this blogs much featured Michael Young) that Syria’s ephemeral control of its border with Iraq represents its last remaining ‘card’ before an ‘insignificance ensuing from absolute concession’. It is this argument that US policy makers are seemingly pursuing too. Its faith lies in the effectiveness of pressure; as far as the administration sees it, further isolation leads to further pressure which is the only form of politics that will succeed in forcing the Syrians to take increased action on its border and stop ‘bleeding’ the US in Iraq. At its most simple, this policy ignores the fact that the heart of the insurgency is Iraqi, the Centre for Strategic International Studies estimating that the foreign elements of the insurgency as ‘vastly overblown’, and that there are only 550 Syrian fighters in an insurgency over 30,000 strong.

Yet the heat that the Syrians are feeling over the border issue has been steadily increasing since the 2003 invasion. Syria has found itself at the epicenter of the 'Iraqi blame game'. In 2003, in line with both Syria's public opinion and geo-strategic interests at the time, President Assad was the regions biggest critic of the US invasion. This lack of support led to the country being labeled a junior member of the axis of evil and having direct links to support of the Iraqi insurgency. In December 2004 President Bush urged Syria to 'stop the flow' of jihaid's across the border. In January 2005 the then Iraqi Minister of National Security accused Iran and Syria of being 'two naughty boy's' in being directly involved in assisting fighters transit into Iraq. The 2005 February 14th assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri simply turned up the heat of these accusations.

In Condoleezza Rice's June tour of the region this year, she accused Syria of 'directly supporting groups committed to violence in Iraq'; while a state department official warned that Syria 'was in the worlds crosshairs'. Meanwhile President Assad has consistently argued that it is impossible to completely control its border. Assad has also emphasized Syria's potential role as being 'key to the solution of Iraq's problems', saying that the country has done 'everything within their capacity which could preserve the stability of Iraq'.

Despite Secretary Rice's persistent accusations of Syria being 'out of step' with where the region is going, it has been cleared of a number of accusations. In April this year the Iraqi Survey group cleared Syria of possessing Iraqi WMD and in May the spokesman for Iraqi PM al-Jaafari admitted that Iraq 'doesn't think that Syria actively supports the transit of fighters', but instead is 'not doing enough to make sure there is effective control there'. This theme is now used regularly against the Syrians, as Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in late May: "there are responsibilities of the Syrian government to hamper and prevent the flow of terrorists from coming across".

So this is the situation we come to today. The Syrian regime has gone from allowing the border to stay open in 2003, as reports in Damascus emerged of large numbers of fighters being transferred from the Iraqi consulate, to reacting to seal the border under relentless US pressure. The timing of the actual shift can be traced to the June 10th Ba'ath Party conference, where it is believed there was a change in personnel responsible for the Iraq file and that while official rhetoric would continue to highlight the legitimacy of resistance to an occupation, all possible measures were taken to fundamentally alter the identity of the borderland, to change it from a line in the sand to a manifestation of actual sovereignty. Yet time is running out, this month US Ambassador to Iraq Khalilzad threatened that ‘US patience is running out and that ‘all options are on the table’.

One option that is not on the table is co-operation with the Syrians in securing the border. This raises the question ‘is Syria is being set up to fail?’ and is the price of this set-up Iraqi and US casualties?

The Iraqi-Syrian border is a difficult and harsh environment, 376 miles in length stretching from the Turkish to the Jordanian tripoints. Since the borders creation it has never existed as a zone of separation despite the woeful relations between the two states. As Abdullah Taa’i reported on “Syria Comment”, 97% of residents in Syria’s Eastern provinces have relatives in Iraq. Before the 2003 invasion a black market economy across the border set up a network that’s worth was estimated at $2bn annually. Although today’s illegal trade is a fraction of pre-war times it still keeps afloat a desperately poor local economy, where people earning 10$ a month are easily tempted into smuggling people across into Iraq (CSIS estimated Saudis crossing the border to be willing to pay thousands of dollars). To fundamentally alter the dynamics of such a border requires a long-term policy with a cornerstone of communication between the respective sides.

Such communication is glaring in its absence. At a recent conference in Jordan concerning Iraqi border security, Donald Rumsfeld personally vetoed the attendance of the Syrian delegation. At a tactical level there is a complete absence of communication between the Syrian and US/Iraqi border patrol. Syrians bemoan this fact, as President Assad has asked 'who to cooperate with? 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'. Certainly the Iraqi's it seems are another one and 1/2 to two years away from total border guard deployment following Paul Bremmers ill-fatted decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces including a 35,000 strong border guard.

A simple incident highlights the absence of communication. When US forces closed al-Qaim crossing last year after taking fire from both sides of the border, they communicated the borders closure by using a catapult to send the message to the Syrian side of the border. What is more, it seems that a decision has made banning local level communication from Syrian border guard until state-to-state relations are improved.

Such an absence of communication has inevitably led to failures of joint-intelligence. The Syrians claim that over 100 incidents have been recorded of US/Iraqi border guards targeting Syrian forces by accident. In such incidents the Syrian report 6 killed and 17 injured, it is difficult to put precise estimates on the deaths caused by foreign fighters in Iraq, but surely the number is enough to warrant a tempering of ideological animosity in favor of technical realism.

If the US hopes to fully stabilize Iraq it needs to isolate the battlefield and cooperate with the country’s neighbors. This means formulating a coherent policy that can prove to the Syrians that all the US is seeking is ‘a change in behavior and not regime’ (C,Rice). The Syrian regime has neither the means nor the know-how to unilaterally secure its border with Iraq. What is required is a systems-approach to border security between Syria and Iraq/US, this encompasses regular meetings, exchanges, technical (night-vision ?) and consultative working groups based on the bedrock of a mutuality of interest. However for such a process to begin both sides must stop catapulting rhetoric at each other and come to recognize the primacy of negotiations.

The US Wants to Get Bashar by the throat and Shake Him Hard to See What Change Falls out of his Pockets

My interview with Bernard Gwertzman for the Council on Foreign Relations has now been posted on their webpage.

Syrian Expert Landis: Damascus Rife With Rumors on Whether UN’s Lebanese Investigation Implicates Syrian Leadership
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman
Author: Joshua Landis

September 21, 2005

Joshua M. Landis, a Syrian specialist on a Fulbright fellowship in Damascus, says the ongoing UN investigation led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis into the possible involvement of the Syrian government in the assassination last February of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Harriri, has produced “great speculation” in Damascus on whether the top leadership of the Syrian government will become embroiled.

Noting that the United States is bringing great pressure on Syria to do more to stop infiltration of insurgents into Iraq, Landis said there is no real dialogue going on now between the two countries. He says, “People here feel there is nothing they can do to satisfy Washington—that Washington, constitutionally, is anti-dialogue with Syria.” He adds that the question everyone is asking is, “Are there some terms that they could actually offer the United States” to satisfy Washington?

Landis, who is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and who publishes a blog called Syria Comment, was interviewed by phone from Damascus by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

On Monday in New York, there was a meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a group of Western and Arab leaders involved with the situation in Lebanon, in which Syria has been accused of having a role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri. After the meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “We’re interested in only the following with Syria: First of all, that there be full and complete cooperation with the Mehlis [UN] investigation and that the truth be found—whatever that truth is.” And of course, the special UN investigator Detlev Mehli has apparently arrived in Syria today, so what’s apt to happen? Is he going to have a real investigation in Syria?

Yes, I think he is. He’s scheduled talks with some people that are high up in the government, including Ghazi Kanaan, the interior minister, and with the person who was the head of intelligence in Lebanon [Rustom Ghazali]. He has a slate of some very important people that he’s going to talk to, and that’s just the beginning. He’s going to ask for more. He has forty more days to do his investigation.

So the big speculation in town is where this is all going to lead, and obviously, it’s going to lead to the Syrian government. How far up the line is he going to go? One question is, Will the president [Bashar Assad] be implicated somehow? Will Mehlis implicate someone in the president’s family, like Assef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of the president, or even Maher Assad, the president’s brother and the head of the presidential guard? If it was somebody in the immediate family, this would be a real crisis, because obviously the president could not sacrifice somebody like that. That’s the kind of talk that goes around Damascus. If it’s not somebody in the immediate family, then maybe that person could be sacrificed. The foreign diplomats here believe there’s not going to be complete conclusiveness in the end—that [opinion is] just based on other investigations in the past—and that this is going to leave the door open for wrangling.

Under what legal obligation do Syrian officials have to speak to Mehlis? Can’t they just take the equivalent of the U.S. Fifth Amendment, which protects witnesses from having to testify to anything that will incriminate him/herself?

Yes, I suppose they can just say, “We don’t do this; this is our sovereignty.” If an international court came to the United States, I’m sure the United States would do something similar. Many governments do not like to have international courts coming into their sovereignty. On the other hand, Syria wants to go along with the process. The Syrians have maintained they are innocent from the beginning and that the assassination of Rafik Hariri was not devised by them. In a sense, they need to come clean. Also, they do not want to be completely isolated. Clearly, America is going to put pressure on them. Since Syria was the major Arab country opposed to America’s involvement in Iraq, relations have gone from bad to worse.

Bashar [Assad] is not with the Americans; he stood against them. He said it was a big mistake for Americans to invade Iraq and he compares it with the Balfour Declaration [The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British foreign secretary during World War I, offered Jews a homeland in Palestine], with the design of taking over a chunk of land in the Middle East. He believes that to have a foreign power take a big chunk of the Middle East was something Arabs could not stand by.

So now the U.S. is pressing Bashar to stop the foreign insurgents from going into Iraq. And Syria officially says they’ve done all they can, but no one believes them in the United States.

Syria has done the easy things: It has put several thousand troops on the 350-mile border with Iraq; it has built this big sand dune so that vehicles cannot cross the border, but people are smuggled in. And Syria does not have any night-vision goggles or night equipment; it has asked the United States for them. There are of course, no American guards on the other side of the border or Iraqi guards along the 350 miles. So Syrians are doing the complete job of guarding this border. And America wants them to do it and doesn’t want to pay them for it. They want them to do it for free, as part of their duty as an international player.

What I think is more important is the issue of visas. The United States wants Syria, in effect, to establish a homeland security department. Syria is now the one Arab state allows every Arab into its country without a visa. They show their passport at the border and they can come in. There are 5 million Arab tourists a year to Syria.

Of course, if the Syrians really wanted to, they could crack down inside Syria on the people running the insurgent program, right?

This is what America wants. The major way to do that is by seeing who the people are who are coming in here, because Syria says it doesn’t know. There are five million Arabs coming to this country every year. Syria doesn’t know who they are. The United States wants the Syrians to do what America does to the Arabs coming in to the United States—do backgrounds, get the mother and father, and post this information back to Saudi Arabia, because we believe about 80 percent of these mujahadeen are coming from the Gulf. If you could get the information back to Saudi Arabia and get good coordination with the Americans and Saudis and so forth, then you could find out if these mujahadeens are bad guys or businessmen or whatever they are. Theoretically, Saudi Arabia could issue some kind of exit visas, because Syria gives exit visas. And that way the Saudis would know who is leaving their country and they could do a background check and share it with the Syrians.

The question about how people are getting through Syria is one of the toughest to answer. America says that there are training camps. The Syrians deny this. We really don’t know the truth of this, but the United States has not put anybody on TV from the Iraqi side to say, “Yes, that is the truth.” We really don’t have the evidence on that. It is easy, on the other hand, to sneak into Iraq. If I wanted to get into Iraq, I could do it. I know many people from Arab tribes, who are here in Damascus, who make their living by smuggling. And the tribes here really see themselves as Iraqis in many ways. A major tribal district is in Ramadi; the big tribes in the east, like the Shammar and Agebap, are really Iraqi tribes. The center of these tribes is in Iraq, but they’ve washed over the Syrian border into Syria.

And those people really feel Iraqi—they speak the same dialect, they have the same customs, and so forth, and they feel connected to Saddam Hussein. In 1991, when Syria sided with George H.W. Bush against Iraq, there was a little intifada in Abu Kamal, which is the major city along the border. And the people went out on the streets and demonstrated saying, “Long live Saddam Hussein; long live Iraq.” The Syrian army sent out some divisions out there and arrested a whole bunch of people for doing this. This was the situation in 1991, and I’ve asked many people who I’ve met from Abu Kamal if the people are sending fighters to help [the insurgency] and they say, “Of course we are, because these are our people, these are our tribes, and they’re being killed.”

Let’s go to a question you discussed in your op-ed in the New York Times last week: How do develop a relationship that’s satisfactory to both Syria and the United States? What should the United States do that it’s not doing now?

There’s a big clash. The Syrians feel America should not be in Iraq and that they’ve been pushed out of Lebanon—the government of course feels like it lost a big asset being pushed out. And of course, you can see the result of that today. The Lebanese have turned very anti-Syrian and they’re helping with the Mehlis report. The Christians in Lebanon are talking about how Israel would be a much better partner than Syria and that they should make peace with Israel, run their commerce through Israel and into Jordan, and then sell all their all trans-Arab trade to the Gulf through Israel.

It’s hard to imagine Hezbollah and the other Muslim groups would allow that.

Hezbollah is the major roadblock. And here we have Resolution 1559 that aims to disarm Hezbollah and make the Lebanese army the only force in the land. And if that were accomplished, then what would keep Lebanon from signing a deal with Israel?

Israel and Lebanon were ready to sign a peace treaty in 1983 after the 1982 Israeli invasion, which Syria blocked Beirut from signing?

Yes, they were about to sign in 1983. The Christians that were pushing for that then are still pushing now. That’s something that could happen. The Lebanese have said that they won’t go off and sign an independent deal without Syria and a resolution of the Golan Heights issue with Israel, but they could change their tune.

Syria has nothing going on with Israel right now, right?

Nothing. Syria is totally isolated. Bashar Assad had visits lined up to go to Austria and to go to Brazil, but both of those were stopped several months ago because of U.S. pressure on those two countries to not greet him. The Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] was supposed to come here a few months ago and he ultimately had to apologize and not come, but all the papers were saying it was because of U.S. pressure. The Europeans are not opening their doors to the Syrians.

How does Syria get out of this?

I don’t think they can get out of this in the short term. What I think America wants to do is get Syria by the throat; they have to wait for the Mehlis report to be thoroughly investigated and for the court case to begin. I think the United States will try and get European partners to do what they did in Libya, which is direct sanctions not against the people—they won’t turn him into Saddam Hussein or Arafat. What they’ll do is they’ll turn him into [Libyan leader Muammar] el-Qaddafi. Instead of putting sanctions against the people, they’ll stop all international flights—I think this is what they’re moving towards—and pull all the European ambassadors so there really isn’t anyone for Bashar to talk to.

I think they’re going to try and get him by the throat and shake him really hard and see what kind of change falls out of his pocket. Pressure has worked so far; they’ve gotten Syria to withdraw all their forces from Lebanon. That’s a major achievement. They’ve gotten Syria to work with the United States, or at least to not make trouble in Palestine. The whole [Israeli] Gaza withdrawal went very smoothly and there weren’t any attacks by any of the extremist groups. And that’s because Bashar met with all the Palestinian [Authority] leaders and he backed them. He said, “You have my blessings.”

Bashar asked them not to cause trouble in Gaza?

Yes. He met with [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen and [Prime Minister Ahmed] Qurei and brought the heads of the local, more extreme groups, like Islamic Jihad and so forth that have representatives in Damascus, all together in a room and he made an understanding between them in order to show that he was willing to work with them. Of course, he has not kicked those people out of Damascus, which is something that America wants him to do. For Americans, that’s provocation. But he could use his power there further down the line if there are withdrawals in the West Bank; all that could be reactivated.

From the outside, you wonder why Bashar doesn’t make a bigger effort to really improve relations with the United States instead of antagonizing Washington.

I think he thinks he is. He’s maintained that he wants dialogue; he’s maintained that he wants peace with Israel; he’s pulled out of Lebanon; he’s said that he will go along with policing. I think he feels he is making these concessions. Now of course, the dialogue has not always been warm. But the people here feel there is nothing they can do to satisfy Washington—that Washington, constitutionally, is anti-dialogue with Syria. And this is the question that everybody is debating: Are there some terms that they could actually offer the United States that would be the equivalent to Qaddafi’s?

On the other hand, the Americans have left the door open for bargaining. Because if we look what Rice is saying—she said about two months ago, “We want to change the regime’s behavior, not change the regime”—those were very important words that we hadn’t heard clearly from the American administration. Rice has taken a very cautious line. She’s given every indication that they don’t necessarily want to change the regime here. And it would be very frightening, I think, for them to contemplate that because they have absolutely zero alternatives. The Americans know almost nothing about Syria and they don’t have any clue what would happen here should the regime collapse.

Has the American ambassador returned to Damascus?

Nobody is expecting the ambassador anytime soon. We’re looking forward to another half year—it could be more than that—of isolation. There is no dialogue.

No Deal for Syria: The US Feels this is a Chance to Get Rid of the Regime

Robin Wright of the Washington Post explains that Syria is looking for a deal with Washington to protect it from the worst aspects of the Mehlis investigation. The Americans and French are not willing to make such a deal, she explains.

Michael Young, quoted in the Guardian, explains that there will be no deal because, "I think the Americans and French basically feel this is a chance to get rid of the Syrian regime."

Here are the articles:

Syria Seeking Deal In U.N. Hariri Probe
Investigation Into Killing Deepens

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005; Page A15

Syria is trying to negotiate a deal to prevent punitive action by the United Nations if, as is widely expected, the Damascus government is linked to the Feb. 14 assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, according to U.S. and European officials.

Over the past month, the government of President Bashar Assad has been inquiring about the potential for a deal, roughly equivalent to what Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi did to end tough international sanctions imposed for his country's role in the 1988 midair bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the officials said. Gaddafi eventually agreed to hand over two intelligence officials linked to the bombing for an international trial, a move that began Libya's political rehabilitation.

But the United States, France and U.N. officials have all recently signaled to Syria that they will not compromise on the completion of a full investigation into the slaying of Lebanese reformer Rafiq Hariri -- or subsequent legal steps, wherever the probe leads, the officials said.

The U.N. investigation moved this week to Syria, where Detlev Mehlis, the chief investigator, interviewed the two most recent Syrian intelligence chiefs in Lebanon and their aides in the probe into the bombing that killed Hariri and 19 others as they drove through Beirut, the capital.

Since the arrest last month of four top Lebanese security officials with close ties to Damascus, Syria has been concerned, said a U.S. official familiar with the overtures. Mehlis, who has taken the investigation far deeper, far faster than initially expected, "is coming up with stuff that is making people in Damascus nervous," the official said. Like others, the official would discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity involved.

Overtures from Damascus have included vague suggestions of a willingness to hand over certain unidentified security individuals in exchange for guarantees that any subsequent trial would not try to point fingers any higher in Syria, according to several Western officials familiar with Syria's moves.

On Monday, a senior State Department official said there was "universal support" for a fully independent investigation "unfettered by any attempt to influence the result. The outcome must follow the facts where they lead." He spoke after the first meeting at the United Nations of a core group of nations working to help Lebanon end years of political domination by Syria.

The investigation has been facilitated by an unexpected flow of information from Lebanese security sources as well as at least two well-placed Syrian officials, according to Western sources familiar with the probe. Some have been moved to Europe, the sources said.

For Assad, a former ophthalmologist who inherited power after the death of his father in 2000, the stakes of the U.N. investigation are high -- and extend well beyond the probe of the Hariri killing.

"Bashar is moving toward the moment of truth, the defining moment of his presidency," said a senior European diplomat familiar with the U.N. probe. "The Mehlis report is due on October 25, and if he reports that this goes all the way to the top of Damascus, there will be a political earthquake."

If the U.N. investigation does name Syrian officials, Assad will be under pressure to arrest and try the alleged perpetrators -- or face international condemnation and punitive actions such as economic or diplomatic sanctions, say U.S. and European officials.

U.S. and European officials are already discussing a new U.N. resolution to ensure that anyone cited or indicted as a result of the U.N. investigation is formally held to account. "If the investigations lead to evidence of the involvement of a high-ranking official, [he] should pay for it, no matter how high-ranking," the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in an interview published yesterday in the Arabic daily al-Hayat.

Solana, who participated in the core group talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday, also said it would be "very bad news" if Syria were implicated. "We will have to seriously consider the repercussions of such conclusions," he said.

But turning over some of his own officials could also jeopardize Assad's tenuous hold on power and risk his security staff taking action against him, say U.S. and European officials.

One European official said Assad might have avoided some of the focus and pressure on his government if he had acted shortly after the Hariri assassination, which sparked a political upheaval inside Lebanon and forced Syria to end its 29-year military occupation of its smaller neighbor.

In a further step in the investigation, Lebanon arrested four more men yesterday accused of facilitating communication in the assassination plot, the Associated Press reported. Court officials said the four are accused of withholding information, forgery and providing cell phone access to people involved in the attack. The investigation has studied thousands of calls made before and after the assassination. Six other Lebanese underwent formal questioning this week, the Associated Press reported.

Here is what Michael Young has to say about the article at Hit and Run

Saving Bashar's Bacon
According to several sources, the latest being the Washington Post, Syria's Bashar Assad is trying to cut a deal to save his regime, which is likely to be blamed in an end-of-October United Nations report for the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This would involve caving in to virtually every American demand on Syrian behavior in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the fate of the Golan Heights, and more. Yesterday, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Balad noted that a Saudi-Egyptian plan is in the works to reduce pressure on the Syrians.

Two thoughts come to mind: one, such a scheme will likely fail, since neither the U.S. nor France is willing to bail Bashar out, and the German investigator looking into the Hariri murder, Detlev Mehlis, is not someone likely to make deals (though U.S. sources suggest senior UN bureaucrats may be more willing to tone down his final report); and two, the Saudi-Egyptian plan (apparently presented to the Syrians by the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Bandar bin Sultan) is more likely an effort to engineer a peaceful transition away from Assad rule than an effort to save the president's skin.

Here is the Guardian's Story

Middle East tension rises as UN prepares to accuse Syria of Hariri assassination

· Defector claims to have heard plot being discussed
· Investigator to interview senior figures in regime

Ewen MacAskill, Rory McCarthy in Beirut and Brian Whitaker
Friday September 23, 2005
The Guardian

UN investigators will next month directly implicate the Syrian government in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, potentially igniting a new Middle East crisis.

According to a source close to the investigation, evidence pointing to Syrian involvement in the murder has grown - in particular, from a Syrian defector, who claims he was in the room when Hariri's assassination was discussed. "The defector is singing," the source said.

Evidence recovered by a team of six British divers off the Beirut coast, where Hariri's motorcade was blown apart, had also played an important part in the inquiry, the source added. The scene of the explosion was quickly covered over after the murder and much evidence lost, but the divers recovered human remains and car and truck parts from the seafloor.

Detlev Mehlis, who is leading the UN inquiry, is scheduled to present his final report on October 25. Four Lebanese generals have been arrested so far on suspicion of murder. But Mr Mehlis, a former German state prosecutor, will also name several influential figures in the regime as suspects in the killing, the source said.

The report will almost certainly lead to a showdown between the UN security council and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. The security council is likely to demand that Mr Assad - whose hold on government is fragile - hands over Syrians accused of involvement.

Mr Assad is virtually isolated internationally, with little support even among his fellow Arab leaders, so action from the security council could be swift, unlike its approach to countries such as Iran.

In the months before his death, Hariri angered the Syrian government by working to try to end two decades of Syrian occupation. Syria pulled out its troops after Hariri's death in the face of international pressure.

Mr Mehlis, who is described by colleagues at the UN as thorough, had been due to hand his report to the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, this month but postponed it so he could visit Damascus to speak to witnesses. He is expected to begin writing the final report early next month.

This week Mr Mehlis visited Damascus where, according to a diplomatic source in Beirut, he interviewed Rustom Ghazali, Syria's former intelligence chief in Lebanon, and Walid al-Mouallem, the deputy foreign minister, who has been given responsibility for Lebanese affairs since Hariri's death.

A team of four investigators has been sent to Damascus to interview Asef Shawkat, the head of military intelligence and Mr Assad's brother-in-law, and nine other Syrian officials. All those being interviewed were, at this stage, classified as "witnesses", the diplomatic source said. Mr Mehlis would decide who, if any, should be reclassified from "witness" to "suspect", he added.

Much rests now on how high up the Syrian regime the investigation reaches. The source close to the investigation said he did not know if there was any evidence to suggest Mr Assad had knowledge of the assassination plot.

Most of the important decisions in the running of the country are made by a small group around the president, including his brother Mahir, who heads the Republican Guard, and Mr Shawkat.

"If it reaches up to a high level, even if they don't accuse Bashar himself, it will destabilise the Syrian regime tremendously," said Michael Young, the opinion editor at Lebanon's English-language newspaper the Daily Star. "I think the Americans and French basically feel this is a chance to get rid of the Syrian regime."

A Lebanese judge issued arrest warrants this week for four mobile phone dealers. The men, who are accused of withholding information, are thought to have sold telephone lines used at the time of the assassination.

Last week Lebanon's central bank agreed to waive strict secrecy laws to allow the investigators to examine the bank accounts of senior Syrian security officers, including Mr Ghazali and the interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, who was Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon before Mr Ghazali. Bank accounts used by the men's wives and families will also be inspected. The Syrian regime is known to have siphoned millions of pounds from the Lebanese economy during their years of occupation following the civil war.

There is also this story in al-Hayat in Arabic by Raghida Dargham on Iran and Syria.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Is the Regime Capable of Reform?

Here is my response to Rime Allaf's rebuttle to yesterday's post.
Dear Rime,
I don't see where we differ very much. I propose that the West support the very small group of liberal opposition members in Syria, as you do. Our main difference is that I don't believe they have much authority. This necessitates also backing the reformers in the regime, i.e. Dardari, et. al., which means the regime cannot be toppled, because to support regime reformers means, at the end of the day, supporting the regime. You do not advocate this (or do you?) because you believe Asad will never let them really reform and just has them there for show.

I don't believe this. I believe there is a real struggle going on within the regime and Syrian society about how to develop. With a smart Western policy toward Syria, I believe the reformers can be given more leverage to win the struggle. I also believe that if the US were able to take a back seat on the issue, they would probably also win out, because reform is the only option for Syria - it is on a train that cannot be stopped – unless, of course, sanctions kill economic growth and lead to eventual collapse and failed nationhood. That is also an option. Because the West, and particularly the US, has a high stake in the region, it is not going to take a back seat, so one must advocate something. Not proposing a way forward for western policy is just abandoning the field. You are paid by the Royal Institute to come up with viable options. Why not try your hand?

It sounds, that in the name of purity, you want to only support the 20 or so civil society leaders in Syria, who admit they have no real purchase on the Syrian youth, no following on the street, and no impact on Syrian policy. Yes, the West should help empower them so they will have greater authority in the future and be part of the solution here. Hopefully, they will be able to point the way out of Syria’s national crisis and not the extremists.

Anwar al-Bunni, the civil rights lawyer here and one of your civil society 20, argued to me not long ago that the best way forward for the opposition was to make common cause with the reformers in the Syrian government. He believed that for the liberals to try to gain power by allying with the extremist Islamic currents such as the Muslim Brothers is a worse option and could lead to an Iranian type let down at the end of the day. He does believe that there are elements of the Islamic current that can be relied on for a better solution to Syria, but didn’t say which. (Perhaps he is thinking of the liberal imams such as Habbash, Hasouni, etc. who the regime is also trying to enlist?)

My understanding of the situation comes from conversations with people like Bunni, who still believe it is wisest to make common cause with regime reformers. I know this is messy, slow and requires moral compromise. But I believe people like Bunni understand the situation on the ground and the real options better than most. You and Asad accuse me of speaking from on high. I think I am trying to be faithful to what I hear from wise people here who have thought about this problem.

As for your objection to my speaking about sectarianism and claiming that Asad must clamp down on Sunni extremists. I don't see a way around it.

Iraq is exporting its sectarian war. In the crudest terms, America has lost its battle to create a constitutional Iraq, built on sectarian and ethnic deal-making and political agreement. What is going on now is that the US is empowering and arming ethnic militias - Kurds and Shiites - to overpower the Sunni population. That is what the battle at Tel Afar was all about. America is going to force Asad to hold down Sunnis in Syria, while America and its Iraqi allies rape Iraq's Sunnis across the border. This is going to upset Sunnis in Syria - and not just the extremist Sunnis. Others will get upset as well because they will see that Asad is supporting America and joining in its effort to hurt Sunni Arabs. They will be right.

Asad wants to keep out of this game, but he cannot. He will be forced to chose whose side he is on. He will choose to crack down on the tribes of eastern Syria who are smuggling and aiding the foreign fighters and Iraqi-Sunni resistance. He will have to restrict the free flow of Arabs into Syria and tighten the screws on anyone who helps them make their way to the border. He will be forced to hand over Iraqi Baathists, resident in Syria, who have friends here among Syrian Baathists. These are primarily Sunni Syrians. By cracking down, the regime will excite greater sectarian opposition and look more sectarian itself. This is just common sense. I am not trying to insult Sunnis and advocate sectarianism. But this is going to happen. The invasion of Iraq ignited a sectarian war there. It is being exported to the rest of the Middle East. That is why Sunni leaders are worrying about the "evil Shiite crescent." Bashar is being forced to enter into this war. His being an Alawite will make his actions seem sectarian when they are really about staying in power and giving in to Western superior power.

He does not want to do this. His domestic policy toward Sunnis has been to try to heal the wounds of Hama and mobilize Sunni help for his regime by pushing Sunni non-Baathists like Dardari up the ladder. All the same, he is going to be forced to take sides in what is turning out to be a very nasty sectarian battle in Iraq. He cannot stay out of it as you propose.

Best, Joshua

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Landis Defends: Young, Allaf, Abu Khalil Attack

My NYT op-ed, "Don't Push Syria Away," was criticised by Asad Abu Khalil, the Angry Arab, and Rime Allaf of Chatham House, the old Royal Institute for Foreign Affairs, in London. Michael Young of the Daily Star also critiqued my article. I will answer Asad first, because his remarks are just barking. Rime, however, has a substantive dispute with my argument, which will help me to explain my argument in more depth. Michael Young, I answer last.

The Angry Arab, Asad Abu Khalil, honors me with some of his exquisite invective.
Here is Abu Khalil:

Saturday, September 17, 2005
Here JOSHUA LANDIS pontificates about Syrian-US relations. But notice that here he wants to "inform" you that authoritarianism is NOT merely a governmental structure but that it "extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques." It must be in their genes, I guess. And notice this old trick which we knew from colonial times: when you want to make a racist point about the natives, or a generalization about "all of them" as this one makes, always cite the "authority" of a native you know. Or here he cites: "most Syrians." Imagine if I generalize about "most Americans" without having to cite polls.

He accuses me of colonialist attitudes and racism. Here he falls into the same trench with Bush -anyone who says Syria is not ready for democracy is a racist. I guess he believes, as Bush does, that God wants every country to be a democracy tomorrow? This is the ultimate neocon trap and `Asad has fallen into it. So America was right to have tried to export democracy to Iraq. Its only mistake was how it did it, disbanding the army, purging all Baathists, etc. If the Iraqis were ready for democracy then Bush's idea was sound - only the execution was faulty. The Angry Arab is blinded by his bile. Anyone who has taken democracy 101 knows it has nothing to do with blood, race, or DNA. Nurturing democracy has everything to do with institutions and culture, which are ever changing. Syria's institutions and culture are far from democratic. The argument that a liberal culture and proper institutions need to be cultivated before elections are carried out, especially in newly formed nations and deeply segmented societies like those of the Levant, are not new.

I wish Asad would describe one democratic institution in Syria. He certainly wouldn't choose the schools, where memorization of authorities is the key to any exam. There are no essay exams in Syria - only memorization - often from the text written by the professor. Here is one example. I was once given a stack of 500 blue books by a professor of English literature at the University of Damascus. It was the final exam and the only grade the students would received for the course. Every answer on every exam, save six exams, were verbatim regurgitations of the professor's lectures. Some enterprising student had recorded, transcribed and Xeroxed the notes of the professor's lectures and sold them to the rest of the class. The students memorized the lectures, including the copious misspellings and grammar mistakes of the transcriber. They then down-loaded them onto the blue book from memory. That is not the foundation of free thinking. The professor explained that the students passed if they memorized adequately. This is the standard practice in Syrian universities. It is not only my definition of an authoritarian education, however.

Abdullah Dardari, Syria's deputy Prime Minister recently released the "National Human Development Report - 2005: Education and Human Development in Syria." It is scathing attack on the authoritarian methods used in the Syrian schools. He used the word democracy at least four times in the executive summary and argued that only introducing critical thinking and promoting a real clash of ideas would develop the true potential of the Syrian people. But I am quoting a "native" informant, an old colonialist trick. The goofy Arab won't like that. He wants me to quote opinion surveys. But they don't exist in Syria - why don't they exist? Because Syria is authoritarian.

Here is a quote from Dardari's summary of findings:

"[This report] describes [the need] to shift from traditional, spoon-fed and authoritarian education, which presupposes the scarcity of information, to the concept of participatory, active and democratic education that is based on the abundance, access to and ownership of information.... Teaching methods, class interaction and evaluations remain authoritarian and based on memorization, which distorts the construction of the free and critical mind and autonomous student personality... [The teacher's role], especially in the basic education level, is still that of a dominant instructor.... The structure and orientation of the curriculum is still centrally mandated."
In Short, Dardari describes how authoritarianism, inadequate resources, centralized rote learning, and no libraries promote stunted human development in Syria, ever growing drop-out and decreasing graduation rates at every level of Syrian education. It produces an education that does not serve the needs of the economy or the human desire to be free and creative. In his concluding lines he calls for greater freedom as the key for Syrian development. He writes, "Education is the cornerstone of human development in Syria. Fundamentally, it produces choices in people's lives. Human development, it would seem, is nothing if not the freedom of opportunity."

Dardari's no-nonsense criticism of Syria's failing education system was an extraordinary breath of fresh air. I went to the public introduction of the report, which was attended by the relevant ministers and Asma al-Asad, among others. You could have heard a pin drop in the audience during the long and technical, power-point presentation of the main body of the report. Syrians are not used to hearing real criticism of their country by government officials. Jamal Barout, the author and presenter of the main findings stunned everyone when he projected a chart on the wall showing the comparison of Syrian and Israeli educational spending in order to drive home Syria's inadequacies. It was a refreshing and new honesty. Everyone loved it, even though the facts about the deterioration of Syrian education over the last decade were depressing. Better to say the truth than hid behind the usual anodyne blah blah that the Angry Arab and Rime Allaf would have us consume. Their desire to hide, or cover up, the truth because it is “insulting” stands in the way of real progress and the development of democratic institutions. I don’t think we should dispute that Syrian institutions and culture suffer from too little liberalism and democracy.

Reem Allaf writes:

"it will be news to all Syrians to hear Josh's shocking explanation for this: "because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques." What a ridiculous, insulting, and completely wrong statement on its own."
Here again we get a whiff of wounded ethnic pride, but Reem does not actually present a counter argument. She just says I am "insulting and completely wrong" about authoritarianism in Syrian society.

Evidence for this lack of liberalism in Syrian mosques and religious education can be found in my recent survey of the main ideas contained in the school textbooks that all Syrian school children must read and memorize as part of their state education. Here is the essay: "Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism," Also Translated into Arabic here. It begins:

Islamic education in Syrian schools is traditional, rigid, and Sunni. The Ministry of Education makes no attempt to inculcate notions of tolerance or respect for religious traditions other than Sunni Islam. Christianity is the one exception to this rule. Indeed, all religious groups other than Christians are seen to be enemies of Islam, who must be converted or fought against. The Syrian government teaches school children that over half of the world’s six billion inhabitants will go to hell and must be actively fought by Muslims.
If fact, there is not one mention of Shiite, Alawi, Druze or other Islamic traditions in Syria's religious curriculum. This is not liberalism and does not prepare Syrians to understand "the other" or get along in a world where religious tolerance is not "enforced by the government." Also see the section on the ideal Islamic government recommended for Syria. It is not very democratic. I include plenty of quotes from the school texts, so you don't have to take my word for it.

The next disagreement Rime has with me is over the effectiveness of the liberal Syrian opposition and how its members feel about regime collapse in Syria and the nature of Syrian society. These are important questions and deserve debate. Michael Young also disputes me on this. Let me quote Rime at some length.

I will limit my comments to the article's most ridiculous and insulting assertions. Josh is under the impression that the regime's "most hard-bitten enemies" do not want to see it collapse. That will be news to them, and it will be news to all Syrians to hear Josh's shocking explanation for this: "because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques." What a ridiculous, insulting, and completely wrong statement on its own, let alone when used to explain why enemies of the regime want it to stay! Do Syrians, enemies of the regime included, have an inherently authoritarian culture (and consequently don't want to see the regime collapse)?

He continues with another fantastic proposition: "Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern." That will be news to them, as it is to me. I don't recall critics of the regime claiming they had no other alternatives; on the contrary, numerous members of the opposition have readily discussed their plans for the new phase that would come when "reform" of some sort happens. But Josh thinks that "like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls." In other words, this regime is keeping the peace amongst a savage population that can't wait to attack people of other ethnicities or religious denominations? What an insult. And what a complete disregard for the thousands of years of tolerance in Syria, where people didn't need to wait for the Baathist regime to live peacefully.
First: Rime claims that Syria’s opposition members believe that they are prepared to govern, but she does not quote anyone.

Let me quote the dean of the Syria opposition, Riad al-Turk, who is often called the “Mandela” of the Syrian opposition. I interviewed him at length earlier this year. You can search for it on "Syria Comment." But here is a paragraph from an interview that Joe Pace did with Riad al-Turk only two weeks ago. The entire interview will be posted soon by Joe on Syria comment. Here is Riad al-Turk’s reply to Joe’s question about whether the opposition is ready to govern.
Riad al-Turk: “The opposition today is suffering from an intellectual crisis. It is intellectually backwards and incapable of communicating with the populace. If you examined the membership of the opposition parties you’d discover that the younger members are in their mid-40s. They are not attracting the youth. These parties are totally detached from the younger generations… Anyone who tells you that the opposition is effective or doing a good job is lying to you.”

Joe Pace: I mentioned Farid Ghadry's claim that in six months, the foreign based opposition would be capable of governing the country as a replacement for the current regime. He responds:

Riad al-Turk: “That is nonsense. We have been working for more than 30 years and we are still being imprisoned. Work in Syria is still extremely difficult and there is no mobilized, politicized street. This is the difficult task ahead of us.”
Here is how Yasin Hajj Salih answered the same questions. (Yasin is one of the smartest and most respected members of civil society here. He spent many years in prison for his support of the Communist Party. I must thank Joe Pace for sending me his interview with Hajj Salih and choosing Syria Comment as the place to publish. This interview is all transcribed and waiting to be published as soon as Yasin gives it the OK. I asked Yasin similar questions during a meeting a week ago. He was excited to see the regime in the docket, because he had been tortured in prison, as so many have been. All the same, he was very concerned and fearful about the future of the country.)
Joe Pace: What’s your reading on why the opposition is so weak and ineffective?

Hajj Salih: In my mind, there are three reasons. The first is the intense oppression that has continued from the 1970s until today, and in the last three months there has been a heightened degree of oppression. They arrested and killed thousands of people from the opposition beginning in the 1970s.

The second problem is the nature of Syrian society. The Syrians today fear each other more than they fear from the authorities. Syria is a society that features a plurality of religions and ethnicities, including larger groups like Muslims, Christians, and Druze and smaller groups like the Armenians and Circassians. In the past thirty years there has developed a crisis of trust between them. The Arabs fear the Kurds and the Kurds don’t trust the Arabs. The Christians are afraid of the Muslims and the Muslims are apathetic or sometimes antagonistic toward the Kurds. The secularists are afraid of the Islamists and the Islamists hate the secularists. Many people fear the other more than they fear the regime. On the contrary, the regime under these circumstances becomes the solution in the sense that it is the only thing that prevents the eruption of ethnic conflict.

There have always been Kurds, Alawis, and Sunnis and in our history, but there has never been such a crisis of trust as has developed in the last thirty years. The responsibility lies with the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime was responsible because it reified sectarianism through its nepotism. It dispensed all the most important jobs to the Alawis. The Muslim Brotherhood was also responsible: in 1979 they killed some 80 officers in the Defense School of Aleppo, almost all of whom were Alawi. The simple fact that someone was Alawi warranted his targeting among the Brotherhood and this enhanced the regime’s status in the eyes of minorities. Alawis, Christians, and Druze began to look to the regime to protect them from the Sunni majority, to ensure that they wouldn’t become second class citizens or ahal ath-thimma. Maybe the elite in those minority groups didn’t accept this outlook, but they didn’t deviate too much from their people.

You could call it a crisis of national confidence. And this sectarianism has weakened the prospects of an ethnically cross-cutting, political opposition from emerging in Syria. It’s very important that parties emerge in which Christians, Sunnis, Kurds, and Alawis can meet. The Communist party fulfilled that function in the past, but it has suffered a crisis of its own. Now Christians, Sunnis, and Alawis participate in the party but the Kurds have left. Some Kurds still participate in an opportunist way, but that’s it.

When the regime cracked down on the organizations of the opposition, the parties were the solution that society stumbled upon. When you repress the parties, for all practical purposes you are imprisoning the people in a framework of traditional or family-centric membership. If I’m prohibited from being Nasserist or Baathist or Communist, I will be Sunni or Alawi or Kurdish. The crushing of independent, free political life in Syria has fostered a rebirth of sectarianism and this has created this crisis.

[The third reason is economic – in short, Syrians are too poor to get involved in politics.]
I don’t have to add very much to these statements by two of the smartest and most experienced leaders of the Syrian opposition. Riad al-Turk contradicts Rime’s assertion that the opposition believes it is ready to rule or has mobilized more than 200 followers. After all, he says: “Anyone who tells you that the opposition is effective or doing a good job is lying to you.”

Hajj Salih argues that the reemergence of sectarian identity and the debilitating ethnic and communal divisions in Syrian society have made the regime the one stabilizing factor in the minds of the people and that the opposition is divided and weak. He argues: "sectarianism has weakened the prospects of an ethnically cross-cutting, political opposition from emerging in Syria." He adds, "the regime under these circumstances becomes the solution in the sense that it is the only thing that prevents the eruption of ethnic conflict."

Everyone believes that the Asad regime has played a vital role in impeding the emergence of an effective civil society and democratic opposition. This is why many Americans and Lebanese,and a few Syrians, argue that America and France should destroy the regime in Syria.

I believe, and argued in my op-ed, that this solution is too dangerous because it is likely to open Pandora’s box and let out the furies of chaos and war. I believe the West should have engaged with Bashar to use its considerable might and economic leverage to support the liberalization of Syrian society. I believe Bashar could have been part of the solution. The West should have allied itself with those regime members - such as Dardari and many others, who are struggling for reform within the present system. It must also support the democratic opposition, which it has not done. This is a long and tedious solution to Syria’s and America’s problems. It is much harder than imposing more sanctions on Syria.

America is now locking the West into a sanctions regime that will only impoverish Syrians without toppling the regime. This is how sanctions worked in Iran, Serbia, Iraq, Cuba, Palestine… This will only lead to the Gaza syndrome. When the regime does finally fall, perhaps in a decade, Syrian society will be so abused, uneducated and radicalized that the situation will be infinitely worse and Syrians will be less able to find a peaceful solution to their problems. If the West would work with the regime to provide economic growth and administrative reform, etc. -- these are things I believe Bashar is capable of delivering in small doses – Syria would develop in a more positive direction. Were the West to support reform rather than revolution in Syria, or just simply leave it along, I believe things would be better in the long run and Syrians would find a way out of their present impasse and Baathist quagmire. I do not mean the West should or could provide financial support on the level of Jordan or Egypt, but merely modest technical support. After all, look how long it took Egypt to improve its economic situation and begin realizing the effects of the infitah? It has been 30 years since Sadat began opening up Egypt. Only in the last 5 years have we begun to see real positive results and increased growth rates. Sadat was assassinated and Mubarak has had tremendous western help. It is not easy transforming a society. That is the lesson of Egypt and Jordan. The fragility of the Middle Eastern state and the dangers of breaking it are everywhere to see - Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, and Iran to name a few. There are no good options for the West in Syria - there are only less bad ones. I think supporting the present regime to reform rather than setting it up to fail is the wisest option. Opponents of this view say Bashar has had five years and failed - no more chances. I think this is a foolish time line.

It has belatedly come to my attention that Michael Young of the Daily Star has critiqued my argument in an opinion piece. I don't have time to do it justice with a proper response right now, though I think I have answered many of his arguments above. I have the greatest respect for Michael and have found his arguments and analysis the most challenging and difficult to contend with.

Like many who are fed up with Bashar and the Baathist regime, Michael believes I am too optimistic about Syria. I would argue that I am more pessimistic than Michael is. He is a real believer that the Middle East is ready for democracy. I am not. He believes that if the evil regimes in the region are eliminated, good societies will find a better and happier solution to governance. I do not believe Syrian society has an answer right now to how to govern Syria. Unlike Michael, I believe that the turmoil likely to be produced in the wake of government collapse will destroy the most positive aspects of Syrian society - its fun loving conviviality and peacefulness. I think things would radicalize quickly here. I believe the great majority of peaceful and tolerant people would be overwhelmed quickly by those with guns, who are willing to use them and kill. I think we would see Syrian Zarqawis emerge. They would find followers, and, with a few killings, radicalize the many peaceful Syrians, who cannot see themselves bearing malice toward fellow Syrians today. Hate would spread and everyone would be forced to take the side of their religious or ethnic community. This is what we saw happen in Lebanon in the 1970s. This is what is happening in Iraq today. It can happen in Syria. It is not an insult to good liberal Syrians to say so. It is the unfortunate reality. They want to find a way out of the Baathist trap - but I don't suspect most will like what America is cooking up, as Michael thinks they will. Also, Michael wants justice for Lebanon and for the death of Hariri. That is a good thing. I don't think Lebanon will get it through regime-change in Syria. I think a broken Syria will hurt Lebanon's prospects for binding its own society together, growing its economy, and producing a better Middle East.

Michael, Rime and `Asad must be able to reasure us about what will come after Asad and regime collapse here. If they can convince me that positive things will happen, I am ready to conceed. As my mother-in-law always asks me: "shoo al-badiil? What is the alternative." When they can answer that question in a way that convinces me that Bashar is worse than than their scenario, I will be happy. I just cannot go with a faith-based scenario: "trust America - Syria is prepared to produce something better than it has today."

Also read Tony Badran's fun post: "Bash Josh Fest" in which he takes on Rime and `Asad, while giving me a good black eye - or trying to. He also has an earlier post criticising my article. It is similar to Michael's, and he promises further debate, which I look forward to. Tony has some good chops.

Here are more comments I received:

Mr. Landis: Syria was a flourishing democracy with plenty of democratic institutions prior to March 8-1963. It was chaos but it was democracy nevertheless!!!??? Let me tell you a story, when I was a little child, I went with my mother to the polling place with tears in her eyes...she was voting for the first time in her life for the president of Syria. Few months later, we all had tears in our eyes when the Soviet-Made Baathists tanks were rolling down the streets of Damascus. The tanks tracks destroying the wonderful streets of Damascus became etched in my mind to this day. That is despite the fact that I have lived most of my life in the USA. Sir, I will never, ever forget the insults and other shameful expressions being hurled at my community and my neighbors by the Baathists hooligans and their armed thugs passing through the peaceful streets of my area.

You need to realize that Syria has over than 10,000 years of social evolution, many do's and don’ts...a true problem for the Syrians, but not insurmountable. To say who is going to replace the current orders of things in that poor country, my answer is plenty. Plenty of people with good will toward their own people and the country at large. You also need to realize, as you may already know, that Syria was one of the most progressive country of the world prior to that dark curse of March 8-1963. Today, Syria today is in the bottom of the abyss, ruled by dungeons, basements, lonely incarceration cells and mass murders. Finally, I would like the say that the 9/11 attack on my beloved city NYC, has awakened all Americans from Syrian decent, new immigrants, first generations, second generations and so forth...
I do not know how things will turn out, but you must seriously realize that things will never, ever be the same....
Syria, eventually will return to its roots, civil, liberal, free and democratic.
Best regards,
Houston, TX.

Dear Professor, I would first like to start by saying, on behalf of all the people that really know the Syrian way of life, thank you for posting that article. I'm a first generation Syrian American. My father and mother came to this country after the 1967 arab-Israeli war. I have been to that country over 12 times in my 30 years of life, and it's the most peaceful place on earth. It really upsets me when comments are made about Syria not doing enough to stop terrorism. The world condemned Hafez-Al Assad in early 80's when he crushed an armed rebellion of the radical Muslim Brotherhood , which at the time had members like Ayman Al-Zawhiri Bin Laden right hand man. I sometimes think had he not done that, Sunni extremism would have a different meaning today ,(Sunni ultra-extremism). I can truly say that your comments hit the nail right on the head. Peace in the middle east can only go through Damascus, even now on the eastern front in Iraq. As for the Lebanese ingratitude towards Syria, really makes me sick. Syria was the only country that brought stability in the region. A multi force that included the U.S. and France, weren’t able to achieve that objective. Most of the comments that replied to your article were mostly from racist and ignorant people. I applaud you sir, your have courage that I wish our politicians have. It's written in the Bible that Damascus will be the last city standing.

Dear Joshua,
I understood the following: As long as the Sunnis make the majority Syria does not deserve a democracy. So either we kill the majority of Sunnis and make them a minority or remain under the Assad Junta. This is your advice to the US government.
How about allowing and pressuring the establishment of a moderate religious parties who do not advocate the killing of innocents? Why don’t you see this as an option.

Joshua, I really enjoy reading your website. I am a Christian Syrian and have family which live there, our family biggest concerns in the region is Assad family is pressured out of power. The Sunni had confronted many of our family members and had threaten to have them killed if the Assad family is overthrown. So being able to get your daily comments and others which contribute to your reports have been very helpful.

Meanwhile, David Yuhas has this novel solution:

"Look to the spine for the source of many an ailment" said some old Greek...& in Iraq we have a case in point. The natural Syrian-Iraqi border is not the current Percy Cox Line of 1923, which is nothing but a relic of the British Empire, but, the Tigris-44 Line. Iraq does not have a "Sunni Triangle", but a "Syrian West". The proper name for "Anbar Province" is "The Syrian Desert". The Baath Party is not an Iraqi party, but a Syrian party, founded in Damascus in the 1930s. Saddam Hussein, ne "al Tikriti" is an ethnic Syrian, & only an Iraqi citizen because, in the aftermath of WWI, Britain imagined it could rule Iraq through Syrian proxies if it put the Syrian Desert on the Iraqi side of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

With this proposal, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia would be neutralized...& Iraq would be free to rebuild its infrastructure & get back on its feet.

I read your article with great interest. This is exactly the type of analysis one would expect from a Professor at an institution known for being such a center of Middle East expertise as the University of Oklahoma.



Dear Professor, I would first like to start by saying, on behalf of all the people that really know the Syrian way of life, thank you for posting that article. I'm a first generation Syrian American. My father and mother came to this country after the 1967 arab-Israeli war. I have been to that country over 12 times in my 30 years of life, and it's the most peaceful place on earth. It really upsets me when comments are made about Syria not doing enough to stop terrorism. The world condemned Hafez-Al Assad in early 80's when he crushed an armed rebellion of the radical Muslim Brotherhood , which at the time had members like Ayman Al-Zawhiri Bin Laden right hand man. I sometimes think had he not done that, Sunni extremism would have a different meaning today ,(Sunni ultra-extremism). I can truly say that your comments hit the nail right on the head. Peace in the middle east can only go through Damascus, even now on the eastern front in Iraq. As for the Lebanese ingratitude towards Syria, really makes me sick. Syria was the only country that brought stability in the region. A multi force that included the U.S. and France, weren’t able to achieve that objective. Most of the comments that replied to your article were mostly from racist and ignorant people. I applaud you sir, your have courage that I wish our politicians have. It's written in the Bible that Damascus will be the last city standing.

Dear Joshua,
I understood the following: As long as the Sunnis make the majority Syria does not deserve a democracy. So either we kill the majority of Sunnis and make them a minority or remain under the Assad Junta. This is your advice to the US government.
How about allowing and pressuring the establishment of a moderate religious parties who do not advocate the killing of innocents? Why don’t you see this as an option.


Joshua, I really enjoy reading your website. I am a Christian Syrian and have family which live there, our family biggest concerns in the region is Assad family is pressured out of power. The Sunni had confronted many of our family members and had threaten to have them killed if the Assad family is overthrown. So being able to get your daily comments and others which contribute to your reports have been very helpful.
Meanwhile, David Yuhas has this novel solution:

"Look to the spine for the source of many an ailment" said some old Greek...& in Iraq we have a case in point. The natural Syrian-Iraqi border is not the current Percy Cox Line of 1923, which is nothing but a relic of the British Empire, but, the Tigris-44 Line. Iraq does not have a "Sunni Triangle", but a "Syrian West". The proper name for "Anbar Province" is "The Syrian Desert". The Baath Party is not an Iraqi party, but a Syrian party, founded in Damascus in the 1930s. Saddam Hussein, ne "al Tikriti" is an ethnic Syrian, & only an Iraqi citizen because, in the aftermath of WWI, Britain imagined it could rule Iraq through Syrian proxies if it put the Syrian Desert on the Iraqi side of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

With this proposal, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia would be neutralized...& Iraq would be free to rebuild its infrastructure & get back on its feet.

-- ---

I read your article with great interest. This is exactly the type of analysis one would expect from a Professor at an institution known for being such a center of Middle East expertise as the University of Oklahoma.



Dear Professor Landis,

Ihave red with great interest of one of the rare articles concerning Syria written by a competent and clear-sighted analyst.

Your article in the NYH of September 20,2005 is brilliant this a shout in the desert?

I am a Swiss lawyer following closely events in the Middle East for over 40 years and travelled there often, including Syria acbout 6 years ago. I am devastated by the lack of understanding by the current US Administration about this area of the world, its ignorance of the true historical and religious background, One blunder after another has now placed the US in the position of the hated invader instead of the "liberator".

Your article is a breath of fesh air.Please continue,perhaps one day it will be heard in Washington DC.
Best regards,

Pierre R.Monney

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Syria Gets a New Government Tomorrow?

New Syrian Government
The latest gossip is that Syria's government has resigned and that a new government will be announced tomorrow. Abdullah Dardari will be Prime Minister and not Husseini. Dardari was in meetings all day with ministers trying to solidify the cabinet. Ghazi Kanaan, the controversial interior minister is out. One reason for changing the government now is because Mehlis plans to interview Kanaan. With Kanaan out, Mehlis will no longer be questioning a minister, which will be less of an insult to the sovereignty of the government.

Kate Seelye interviewed Kamal Labwani about the prospect of reform a few weeks ago when he had unsuccessfully attempted to launch his new political party. It aired on BBC's program, "The World," several weeks ago. She just sent it to me.

Last June, Syrian president Bashar al Assad promised major political and economic reforms. He made his pledge at a highly publicized conference of his ruling B aath party. But two months later, the Syrian government has launched yet another crackdown on political organizations. Kate Seelye visited Damascus and filed this report.


TRACK 1: Syrian dissident Kamal Labwani recalls his plan to launch an independent political party in Syria…right in his own backyard.


TRACK 2: He says he invited more than 500 activists several weeks ago to his lush garden in the mountain resort of Zabadani. It’s about an hour outside of Damascus. He planned to call for more political freedoms and human rights here. . But independent parties are illegal in this one party state. And Labwani’s hopes for a political gathering in his leafy backyard were dashed.


TRACK 3: Labwani is a doctor by training and a longtime political activist, He has spent time in prison for his political views.. He says Syrians are beginning to doubt President Bashar al Assad’s commitment to reform. At a recent conference of the ruling Baath party, Assad promised to allow the formation of new political parties and to grant more press freedoms. He removed some longtime members of the Baath party opposed to reform and consolidated power. But since then, the regime has cracked down on Syrian opposition groups, like Labwani’s. It has closed down political gatherings and interrogated activists. Labwani says it's clear that Assad is reluctant to democratize his totalitarian state.


TRACK 4: Joshua Landis is a professor at the University of Oklahoma. He currently lives in Damascus. He says the crackdown is a reaction to Syria’s humiliating retreat from Lebanon. Landis says President Assad is seeking to reassert his power.


TRACK 5: But Landis says the muscle flexing has undermined the president’s credibility. He says when Assad pulled out of Lebanon, he made a promise to his people, which he hasn’t kept…so far.


TRACK 6: Disappointment over the lack of reforms is emboldening Syrians in unprecedented ways. Taxi drivers long fearful of the secret police, speak openly to strangers about their frustration with the state. A university student, inspired by recent protests in Lebanon, admits she is ready to demonstrate for change. A former chief of police calls for an American military strike to bring down the regime. Ayman Abdel Noor is a reformist in Syria’s ruling Baath party. He admits Bashar al Assad’s popularity is slipping.


TRCK 7: But Abdel Noor insists political reforms are on the horizon.



TRACK 8: But 2007 is a long ways away and trust in the government is diminishing. Professor Joshua Landis says most activists in Syria have BEEN WORKING PEACEFULLY TO REFORM THE REGIME FROM WITHIN…SO FAR AT LEAST.


TRACK 9:. But Landis doesn’t see a viable alternative to the current Syrian regime. . He says the opposition both inside and outside Syria remains weak and divided. Syrian dissidents challenge that view. They say a powerful coalition of Syrian Islamists, leftists, and liberals is coordinating in Europe. The dissidents say the coalition is planning for a future, democratic Syria. For the World, Kate Seelye, Damascus.

Here is a good profile of Mehlis by Hassan Fattah of the NY Times.
Solving Terrorism Cases With a Detective's Flair
BEIRUT, Lebanon

WHEN Detlev Mehlis faced reporters earlier this month with a progress report on his investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, he had a clear message: we're winning.

How much did Canada Benefit from and Encourage the Torture of Four Canadian Syrians?

Evidence Grows That Canada Aided in Having Terrorism Suspects Interrogated in Syria
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS in New York Times
September 17, 2005
OTTAWA, Sept. 14 - A judicial inquiry here is turning up evidence that Canadian police and intelligence agencies solicited and used information that was obtained from at least four Canadian citizens under torture by foreign intelligence agencies.

The main purpose of the inquiry is to explore the Canadian role in the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who has emerged as perhaps the most infamous example of the United States policy of rendition, the transfer of terrorism suspects to other nations for interrogations.

Mr. Arar was detained while changing planes in New York and was flown in an American government plane to Jordan and Syria. But three other Canadians whose cases are now coming to light were apparently handled entirely by Canadian authorities.

As part of their investigation of suspected operations of Al Qaeda in Toronto and Ottawa, according to government documents and public testimony by officials, Canadian security agents sought notes from, or suggested questions for, interrogations that Syrian and Egyptian intelligence agencies conducted between 2001 and 2004 with the three other Canadians, who say they were tortured.

The information-sharing came at a time when Ottawa was trying to tighten security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Leading rights campaigners say they are dismayed by evidence of what they characterize as a Canadian policy of condoning the torture of citizens while pressing for human rights in other countries.

"The evidence raises all sorts of troubling questions," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. "The concern is, do we have a Canadian version of the notorious American practice of extraordinary rendition?"

Mr. Neve and other campaigners and opposition leaders are calling on Prime Minister Paul Martin to broaden the Arar inquiry, but so far the government has resisted the request.

"There is no government policy of subcontracting torture, as has been alleged," said Alex Swann, spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, who oversees security operations. But he added: "Some of these issues are going to be examined. When people make allegations like this, of course we're concerned."

A State Department human rights report released earlier this year identified Egypt and Syria among a number of countries that practice torture in their prisons.

Documentary evidence and some comments by government officials at the Arar inquiry support the claims of two of the Canadians that their Syrian and Egyptian interrogators were fed questions by Canadian officials. The two men, interviewed separately, said several interrogators told them they were using information given to them by Canadian officials. Both men, Abdullah Almalki and Ahmad Abou el-Maati, had for years been identified by the Canadian police as primary terrorism suspects, because of their backgrounds of doing aid work or fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The third reported victim, Muayyed Nureddin, has said Syrian interrogators asked him the same questions that Canadian agents asked him at the Toronto airport during his departure.

In a heavily edited memorandum dated Oct. 30, 2002, and stamped "Secret," Dan Livermore, director general of the Foreign Ministry's security and intelligence branch, wrote that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police "are seeking either to directly interview [words deleted] or to send their Syrian counterparts a request that [words deleted] be asked questions provided by the R.C.M.P."

That same month Jim Gould, Mr. Livermore's deputy, spoke with Michel Cabana, then head of the Mounties' task force that investigated the suspected Qaeda cell, about Mr. Arar and Mr. Almalki, also Syrian-born Canadians then held in Syria.

From his notes of the conversation that Mr. Gould read to the inquiry, he recalled that Mr. Cabana had told him, "We would be prepared to share with Syrian authorities if they felt it could be of assistance to their investigation, this in light of their sharing info with us in the past."

From transcripts of public testimony, it is not clear how much information the Mounties sent to the Syrians, but Mr. Gould said his notes of his conversation with Mr. Cabana referred to information "possibly already transmitted to them."

When he testified before the inquiry, Mr. Cabana said, "As appalling as it may sound to you, part of our duties in Canada in trying to protect the Canadian public means that from time to time we deal with countries that don't necessarily have the same record as we do and don't necessarily treat their prisoners the same way we do."

In November 2002, Franco D. Pillarella, then the Canadian Ambassador to Syria, asked for and received from the Syrian government a report on the results of interrogations of Mr. Arar. The Foreign Affairs Ministry handed the report to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the primary spy agency, according to an official report released to the Arar inquiry.

That same month, documents and testimony show, Canadian intelligence agents traveled to Syria, where they discussed Mr. Arar's case with Syrian intelligence.

Also, Mr. Pillarella testified before the inquiry that he "opened the door" for a Mounties officer to discuss investigations with the head of Syrian intelligence.

The government's written brief to the Arar inquiry, which will deliver a report next year, admitted that Canada will at times use information gathered through torture. Referring to the government's top spy agency, the brief said "C.S.I.S. will take intelligence from all sources. If information it suspects has been obtained by torture can be independently corroborated and is important to an investigation of a threat to Canada, the information would be used."

A cable from the Foreign Affairs Ministry dated July 17, 2002, notes that the Mounties requested that Egyptian security give them access to Mr. Maati, a Kuwaiti-born Canadian, "in order to further a major investigation in Canada." Mr. Maati, 40, joined the mujahedeen in Afghanistan as a young man and took flying lessons for a short time in Canada.

In an interview, Mr. Maati accused Canadian officials of being responsible for his arrest in Syria in November 2001. He said he was traveling to Damascus for a second wedding ceremony with his new wife when Canadian police officers followed his car to the Toronto airport and interrogated him about his travel plans at the airport. Police officers escorted him to his gate.

When he arrived in Syria, he said, he was arrested, hooded and hauled away for torture. "All the context of the questions was related to Canada," he said, adding that interrogators knew where he lived in Toronto and even the color and make of his car. While he was held in Syria, Canadian police and intelligence agents questioned his family members in Canada.

On Jan. 22, 2002, the Mounties searched Mr. Maati's home in Toronto and seized his trucking travel log books, computer and other personal records. Three days later, the Syrians transferred Mr. Maati to Egypt, where, he said, he was tortured for the next two years.

At one point the Egyptians asked him about his will and about a television remote control he bought in Canada, information he said they must have obtained from the Canadians' search of his home.

In an interview in his house on the outskirts of Ottawa, Mr. Almalki, who Canadian officials thought was the leader of the suspected Qaeda cell, said he went to Syria in May 2002 to visit his ailing grandmother but was seized at the airport. In two years of countless torture sessions, he said, he was repeatedly asked about phone calls he made from Canada, his friends in Canada and how he conducted his Canadian-based business.

He said the questions were almost identical to those from Canadian investigators in 2000. He was presented with detailed information about his electronics components business that he said could only have come from the Mounties' search of his basement home office.

Testimony in the inquiry revealed that the Mounties regularly shared information with American intelligence agencies, so much of the information theoretically could have come to Syria from Washington. But Mr. Almalki said his interrogators repeatedly told him that it was Canada that was interested in him.

He quoted one interrogator as telling him: " 'We have not found anything about you but what we are getting from Canada is different.' He didn't mention the United States. He said Canada."

Mr. Almalki and Mr. Maati say they never worked for Al Qaeda or sympathized with the group. Neither has been charged with a crime, although the Canadian investigation of both of them was never officially closed.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

"Don't Push Syria Away," NY Times op-ed by Landis

My op-ed ran today in the New York Times. It went through numerous drafts and incarnations. I would have prefered the title: "Squeeze but Don't Break," but stupidly forgot to push the idea. Carmel McCoubrey, the op-ed editor, did a wonderful job of cutting the original draft of 1,100 words down to 800. We were on the internet until 2:00pm last night. Anyone coming to "Syria Comment" for the first time should definately read this article, which explains why Syria is having such a hard time keeping fighters from infiltrating into Iraq. US forces estimate about 150 get in a month.

Don't Push Syria Away

Op-Ed Contributor
Published: September 17, 2005
Damascus, Syria

BASHAR AL-ASSAD would have been the first Syrian president in 40 years to visit the United States had he attended the United Nations summit meeting in New York this week as planned. And it could have been an opportunity for two countries that have notably tense relations to talk. Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed his visa, excluded him from a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Lebanon and Syria, and had a United Nations investigator arrive in Damascus at the time of his departure. Boxed in, Mr. Assad canceled his plans.

Ms. Rice's actions were in keeping with what Bush administration officials say their goal is toward Syria, to "continue trying to isolate it." Many in Washington argue that Syria is the "low-hanging fruit" in the Middle East, and that the United States should send it down the path to "creative instability," resulting in more democracy in the region and greater stability in Iraq. But this is a dangerous fantasy that will end up hurting American goals.

Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls.

Nonetheless, Washington seems to be pursuing a policy of regime change on the cheap in Syria. The United States has halved Syria's economic growth by stopping Iraqi oil exports through Syria's pipeline, imposing strict economic sanctions and blocking European trade agreements. Regular reports that the United States is considering bombing Syria, and freezing transactions by the central bank have driven investors away. Next week, United Nations investigators will begin interviewing top officials in Damascus about the bombing death of the anti-Syrian politician Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, a matter that many expect the United States will bring before the Security Council. Politicians and businessmen alike here are convinced that Washington wants to bring down the regime, not merely change its behavior.

Nonetheless, the two countries have much to talk about: both are trying to solve their Iraq problems. They share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability. But instead of helping Syria help the United States, Washington prefers to make demands. The Bush administration believes it will be an easy matter for Mr. Assad to crack down on the Syrian Sunnis, who are giving comfort and assistance to mostly Arab fighters traveling though Syria.

On the contrary, it would be extremely costly for Mr. Assad. Sunni Arabs make up 65 percent of the population and keeping them content is crucial for any Syrian leader.

Syria has already taken the easy steps. It has built a large sand wall and placed thousands of extra troops along its 350-mile border with Iraq. Foreign diplomats here dismiss the American claims that the Syrian government is helping jihadists infiltrate Iraq. All the same, Syria has not undertaken the more painful internal measures required to stop jihadists before they get to the border, nor has it openly backed America's occupation of Iraq.

Nor is Mr. Assad - who inherited his job from his father, Hafez, in 2000 - willing to make a wholesale change in his authoritarian policies. But he has worked hard to repair sectarian relations in Syria. He has freed most political prisoners. He has tolerated a much greater level of criticism than his father did. The religious tolerance enforced by the government has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region. Washington is asking Mr. Assad to jeopardize this domestic peace.

Worse, if Mr. Assad's government collapsed, chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq. Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, a Shiite offshoot that fought a bloody battle against Sunni extremists in the 1980's. For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority. It would be suicide for him to provoke Sunnis and extremists while Washington seeks his downfall.

Those in Washington who insist on fighting Mr. Assad because he is not democratic are hurting Iraq's chances for a peaceful future. The United States needs Syrian cooperation in Iraq. This will require real dialogue and support, not snubs and threats. Washington must choose between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq.

Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, is a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who writes the blog

Two similar op-eds have appeared in the last few days. One by David Ignatius in the Washington Post: "For Washington, fear is now in Bashar Assad's camp." And another by David Hirst in the LA Times: "Truth and consequences in Syria"

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Latest on the Hariri Investigation

Claud Salhani of UPI has a good piece laying out where we stand in the Hariri investigation. He suggests we should expect the President's brother, Maher, will be fingered, but it is too early to know anything for sure. Much speculation has already turned out to be false.

Arab diplomatic circles in Damascus are talking about a possible deal being brokered between the West and Damascus to protect the President's family from the investigation. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are said to be preparing a face-saving deal that would preclude an all out war between the President and the Western powers behind the Mehlis investigation. This is all speculation, but no one believes the US would be silly enough to want to destabilize Syria now. Perhaps in the future, but not now. What the US needs is greater Syrian cooperation on the border. This will mean keeping Maher or Asef out of Mehlis' direct line of fire. Perhaps smaller fish will be offered up to justice. Both French and US officials have said this will not happen and that justice will be pursued to Platonic perfection, whatever that means.

David Ingatius also has a good op-ed on the situation: "For Washington, fear is now in Bashar Assad's camp," Thursday, September 15, 2005.

Syria criticises threats AP[ WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2005]

DAMASCUS: A state-run Syrian newspaper on Tuesday criticised the US ambassador to Iraq for trying to intimidate Syria and said his “baseless” accusations of aid to foreign fighters are an attempt to detract from US failures. Tishrin’s front-page editorial referred to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s statement that Syria has become a hub for terrorists who want to stop Iraq’s democratic progress and that US patience is “running out”.

“It is strange that the ambassador of a superpower uses the language of intimidation instead of being more committed to the traditions of international relations,” Tishrin said. “Threatening with aggression is a style that reminds us of colonisation and cold wars.”

The newspaper rejected the terrorism accusations as being baseless. “They are an expression of the same well known old policy of exporting crises and putting the blame on others to cover up failure in preserving security and stability in Iraq,” the editorial said. Tishrin reasserted that Damascus has exerted all efforts to safeguard the borders. On Sunday, Iraq closed a northern crossing point on Syrian-Iraq border.
In Paris, French L'Humanite Newspaper said that the escalation of US pressure and accusations against Syria are associated with the increasing number of public rejection of the US occupation of Iraq from one side and the deterioration of George W. Bush's popularity at home from the other side.

In Iraq, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the chief American military spokesman,
said the joint force killed 145 insurgents and captured 361 in the second operation in a year to rid Tal Afar of militants, including foreign fighters crossing from Syria.

Now, he said, U.S. forces along with the Iraqis were fighting to regain control of the Syrian border, near the western insurgent stronghold of Qaim well to the south of Tal Afar.

``The focus is ... to restore control of the border and in this particular case the border with Syria,'' he said. ``We believe that the terrorists and foreign fighters are entering Iraq across the Syrian border, down the Euphrates River Valley into Baghdad.'' ...

Iraqi authorities have taken pains in recent days to convince the population that the insurgency is overwhelmingly foreign, claiming, for example, that they arrested a Palestinian and a Libyan in the Kazimiyah attack. The bomber was a Syrian, the government said without detailing evidence.

The Americans have quietly contradicted that government line, saying the insurgency is only about 20 percent foreign.
Here is what President Bush said about Syria on September 13, 2005. President's Remarks
THE PRESIDENT: I'm not sure if I agree, or not, but
-- (laughter.) The Ambassador did speak strongly about Syria because he
understands that the Syrian government can do a lot more to prevent the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. These people are coming from Syria into Iraq and killing a lot of innocent people. They're killing -- they're trying to kill our folks, as well. And so, of course, he's speaking strongly about that.

And the Syrian leader must understand we take his lack of action seriously. And the government is going to become more and more isolated as a result of two things: one, not being cooperative with the Iraqi government, in terms of securing Iraq; and two, not being fully transparent about what they did in Lebanon.

And so we're going to work with our friends. And this is a subject of conversation, of course, I'll have with allies in places like New York and other times I communicate with our allies, that Syria must be a focus of getting them to change their behavior, particularly as it regards to democracy and trying to prevent democracies from emerging.
Here is Secretary Condoleezza Rice's: Interview With the CBS News Editorial Board
September 12, 2005
SECRETARY RICE: The Syrians need to account for how it is that Lebanese -- high-ranking Lebanese security officials with well known ties and links to Syrian security officials got entangled in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri. And what does he think about that and do the Syrians really claim that they knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in Lebanon, given their extensive security networks and given their extensive ties to the Lebanese security people who are now being questioned by Mehlis?

Because I think the issue of what Syria did or did not know about the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri is probably the most important issue right now.

QUESTION: Why is it?

SECRETARY RICE: Because the Resolution 1559 insists that the Syrians be completely out of Lebanon. We know their military forces are out of Lebanon. A lot of people suspect that they maintain intelligence presence there. And we need to know that Syria is carrying through on its obligations to get out of there and stay out of there. And it shouldn't be that an external power somehow was involved in the assassination of the prime minister of another country -- of the former prime minister, then a candidate for prime minister. So I think this whole Mehlis investigation is extremely important, extremely important.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Syrian Government falls apart if the security system falls apart and what are the consequences?

SECRETARY RICE: I don't know because, you know, it is a very opaque system in Syria. I do know that Syria should be fully and completely out of Lebanon, that they ought to recognize Lebanon as an independent state. For instance, it would be very good if they actually had an embassy and an ambassador in Lebanon, which would be a signal that they don't think of Lebanon as some kind of Syrian --

QUESTION: Outpost.

SECRETARY RICE: Outpost. Exactly. And then we'll see. But the Syrians need to cooperate with this investigation because there are a lot of questions about what Syria did and did not know.

QUESTION: We're satisfied with what they're doing so far?

SECRETARY RICE: We have not been and the UN had not been satisfied. We'll see. They've said now they're going to offer cooperation. I don't know what Mehlis has been able to get.

Elaph Press, claims to have discovered the truth of Shawkat Asef's visit to Paris. He is there for a short visit to discuss the Hariri murder with the French foreign ministry, which wouldn't give any information on the visit. He wants to make sure the Mehlis investigation will not be used for political ends and to straighten out false accusations.

An-Nahar says Assef Shawkat is Handling Inheritance Affair in Paris.

The Washington Post explains that the U.S. Agenda on Iran is Lacking Key Support.
Russia, China and India either publicly or privately turned down U.S. requests to help report Iran's case next week to the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose economic sanctions or an oil embargo.

The administration has the reluctant support of the European Union for the first time in more than two years, but that will not be enough. Without backing from one of the three others, U.S. officials indicated they were preparing to abandon, for now, a quest to move the matter into the council.
It will be interesting to see if one of these three will support an European-US attempt to report the Syrian case to the Security Council should the Hariri investigation lead to a serious wrangle between Damascus and the Western capitals. Iran, with all its oil, is much more important than Syria. This could mean that one of the three would compromise by throwing Syria to the Security Council as red meat. On the other hand, none of the three will want to allow the US to extend its destabilizing policies further. Even the Europeans did not want to take the Iran question to the Security Council, the Post wrote. "Our aim all the way through in this when we started these negotiations was to keep the matter out of the Security Council," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters.

I spent a delightful evening a few nights ago at a reception for some Indian ministers who were visiting Damascus. One Indian businessman who runs a company dealing in oil equipment explained to me how Chinese firms are moving into the oil market like gang busters. They are replacing the America firms which are refusing to market their goods to Syria through Dubai and Abu Dhabi and underselling them by 30%, he said. Even European firms are ordering special parts from China manufacturers, which can mill them with great precision in little time. It was quite clear that India looks at this Chinese prowess with jealousy and hopes to be able to compete in these high-tech markets soon. Several people spoke about the outside possibility of India getting the contract for the Damascus subway. They believed they could do a good job and for much less than a French or European firm. Another official spoke about a recent visit to a town mosque with a Syrian friend. He said how much fun it was and how the Imam and villagers all came up to him at the end of the sermon to welcome him and ask questions. "The friendly atmosphere was like it was in India when I was a child," he said. "Today it is not like that. There is so much destruct between the religions in India. In the old days everyone in the villages used to look out for each other and have close relations regardless of religion. It would be a shame if that is destroyed," he added. We had been talking about the possibility of further American sanctions and possible regime-change.

“Lebanon: a US priority”
In the September 15 edition of An Nahar, a privately-owned newspaper, Sarkis Naoum said that Lebanon is now a priority for the United States, but that such US concern should be accompanied by a Lebanese readiness to face their internal problems and deal with outside threats.

"Some analysts [believe] that what happened in Lebanon, rather its sudden 'salvation' from Syrian control..., was perhaps the result of an accumulation of many Lebanese, regional and international conditions, most notably Syrian incompetence. But this 'salvation' continues [to be]. And Lebanon has become... a US priority. And that's why it [the US] helps Lebanon and will keep on helping it. But despite the importance of [such help]... this is not enough. For the Lebanese should, in parallel, help themselves to allow their country to stand up again and confront the internal challenges which the Syrians had previously benefited from to implement their plots in Lebanon...

"However, if Syria tries to 'mess things up' again in Lebanon and … if it continues to 'mess things up' with the United States, then the United States and its regional and international allies will deal with [Damascus] in an organized manner by using a ‘policy of [the] hammer.’”

Naoum said that the US experts also believe that “Syria is not able to offer anything to the United States," whether on the Palestinian level, the Iraqi level or the Lebanese level. He said: “Those same experts are currently saying that Syria is facing two choices, no more, no less. The first is by becoming a ‘failed state,’ isolated from the international community and subject to economic and non-economic sanctions. The second is to stop being a state and to become a scene for chaos, strife or civil wars … All this will pave the way to the fall of the Syrian regime.”

Naoum said that in this case “the United States would not be responsible for the fall of the Syrian regime and will not push it to fall; but it will not prevent it from falling.” - An Nahar, Lebanon
“The pressure is in Washington and Paris and not in Beirut”
As Safir, a privately owned newspaper, said on September 15 that “the bitter truth is that the future of Lebanon is being decided in Paris, New York and Washington… and not in Beirut and therefore, the forces that were created after the parliamentary elections do not form any strength in the Lebanese decision-making.” As Safir added that what concerns the forces now is not to know who designed, performed and financed the assassination of Rafik Hariri, but to know how to deal with the repercussions of the assassination, or even how to invest those repercussions to serve political interests related to the future of the country.”

The newspaper said that the invitation of Saadeddine Harriri to New York aims to “draw the new map of Lebanon” that should be implemented after the end of the investigation. As Safir said that an Arab ambassador in New York asks: “Where are the other Lebanese forces in the Paris meetings? Is the United States starting to implement the Iraqi model in Lebanon by limiting the decision-making in the hands of a section of Lebanese and removing it from others under the slogan of democracy? Where is the place of Hizbullah and Amal from all that is happening?...” The ambassador said that “when questions increase and when answers start to decrease, it means that the decision-making is in external hands, the reason why Lebanese- or most of them- are rushing abroad.” - As Safir, Lebanon
“Bush’s threats to Syria”
Al Quds Al Arabi, a Palestinian-owned, independent pan-Arab newspaper, reported on September 14 that: “Syria, and not just its regime, is being subjected to an intensive American terrorizing campaign for not cooperating with the American project in Iraq. It reached its peak yesterday [Tuesday] when President George Bush threatened in a press release that Syria may expose itself to more isolation because of its incapability to control its borders to stop extremist insurgents from infiltrating into Iraq.”

“One day before President Bush’s statements which he made while hosting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the American Ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalil did not dispute the possibility of using force against Syria for the same reason saying that the US’s patience has run out. The Syrian Government denied the accusations officially by its information minister saying that it exerted huge efforts to prevent the insurgents from infiltrating into its borders, and has cooperated fully in this regard with the Iraqi Government because the stability of Iraq is in the interest in Syria. But these declarations found no interest at the US administration.”

“The American threats aim at exerting pressure on the Syrian Government to fully and effectively cooperate, militarily and intelligence wise, with the American forces and their allies to end the national resistance in Iraq by all means, just like what neighboring countries ... are doing. The American plans in Iraq entered the level of total collapse. The political process, which was supposed to achieve Washington’s goals of pulling out of the Iraq’s bloody swamps, has reached a dead end after the failure of the battles of the constitution and after the inability of the government in Baghdad of achieving security, stability and winning the confidence of the Iraqis.

"Because of these failures which is the subject of unanimity of Western analysts, especially Americans, the US administration began looking for excuses and scapegoats and found no one but Syria to throw its blame and threats at including giving it the biggest responsibility of its failure.

“The new Iraq did not turn into an oasis of democracy and stability, like Bush promised more than once. It also did not provide the model of peace, liberty, and respect for human rights which can be exported to neighboring countries. What happened was the complete opposite. Iraq became a breakdown and a safe haven to all extremists wishing to resist the American domination, and seeking revenge against its unjust policies against the Arabs and Muslims.

“The new Iraq did not export democracy, but exported violence and terror and instability to its neighbors and the reason for that is the American occupation and its negativities and massacres which led to the killing of at least 100,000 Iraqis. Syria cannot protect the Iraqi borders which are over 800 kilometers long. And thus it cannot stop insurgency. And by the way why can’t the American forces and its allied Iraqi forces take this duty on their side of the border? There are always two sides to every border, and each country is responsible for its side. It is illogical to throw this large responsibility on the Syrian government alone when it does not possess the financial, military or technological means for this mission.

“Even if Syria had these means, it is not its duty to provide protection to the America’s loser, bloody project in Iraq. The American administration did not consult Syria before it sent its troops and bombers and soldiers to occupy Iraq, so it cannot blame it for not cooperating with it to face the resistance. Syria cooperated with Bush’s administration in the war against terror, and protected the lives of Americans, as admitted by this administration. But cooperating with the war on terror is one thing, and cooperating to stop a legitimate resistance against an illegitimate and immoral occupation is another thing.” - Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom
“Mehlis watch out: you are in Syria,” by Iman Abbas
On September 15, Al Wasat newspaper carried an opinion piece that stated: “It can be concluded that the Syrian delay in cooperating with the investigation committee in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was not a result of the slow decision making process in Syria, but due to the fact that Syria wanted to have a special kind of understanding with the president of the committee, Detlev Mehlis. This is an indicator that Mehlis's mission in Syria is not going to be easy….

"When the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, came in an unofficial visit to Damascus, President Bashar Assad told him that yielding to American demands did not benefit Egypt, and the Egyptian system is still facing lots of pressures. Therefore, Assad is fully aware that the pressure that his country is facing will not go away by yielding,” Al Wasat reported.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Anti-Alawite Leaflets Distributed: The President's Family in the Line of Fire

As-Seyassah claims Maher Assad, the President's brother who leads the Presidential Guard, is top on Mehlis' list for questioning. It is not clear whether Bashar will allow him to be questioned. The president's legal council, Mr. Daoudi, has claimed that this would undermine the sovereignty of the presidency, but they are discussing it.

An-Nahar writes that Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law, and his wife and children have flown to France.

Assad's Brother-in-Law and Overall Intelligence Chief may be in Paris

Syria's overall intelligence chief Gen. Assef Shawkat may be in Paris while U.N. chief investigator Detlev Mehlis is preparing his probe in Syria over Rafik Hariri's assassination, An Nahar reported Wednesday.
Shawkat, who is President Assad's brother-in-law, may have arrived in the French capital Tuesday night along with his wife Boushra and their children, An Nahar said.

There were media reports that Shawkat is among the Syrian security officials Mehlis wanted to interrogate during his second trip to Damascus late next week. But this report could not be officially or independently verified.

Al-Seyassah reported that its sources had said a conflict is ongoing between Assad and his brother Maher, with Shawkat. Al-Seyassah said that Shawkat has addressed letters to Paris and Washington revealing "the truth" behind the assassination of Hariri, in return for guarantees of holding a position in the new Syrian regime.

All of this seems to be wild speculation. al-Seyassah in particular has no history of fact-checking and often repeats gossip, which we later find out to be untrue. So reader be ware.

The Lebanese paper, al-Balad writes that Junblat has been told in Paris that the French government is adamant about applying all UN resolutions to Lebanon, which means Hizbullah must disarm. The French are also claiming that the Mehlis investigation must be pursued to its just conclusion without regard to politics, which means there will be no protection for the Asad family.

An-Nahar writes that the: U.S. Cracks the Whip, Accusing Syria of Involvement in Hariri's Assassination.

The United Sates is cracking the whip hard on Syria with President Bush threatening it with tighter sanctions and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying the Assad regime may not be innocent of involvement in ex-Premier Hariri's assassination.

"The (Syrian) government is going to become more and more isolated as a result of two things; one, not being cooperative with the Iraqi government in terms of securing Iraq and, two, not being fully transparent about what they did in Lebanon," Bush told reporters following a meeting at the White House with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Bush did not specify what Syrian actions in Lebanon he was referring to but Damascus and its allies in the then-Lebanese government have been widely blamed for Hariri's murder in Beirut. His words came a day after his ambassador to Iraq said military action against Syria was an option on the table.

Bush said he would discuss getting Syria to "change their behavior, particularly as it regards to democracy and trying to prevent democracies from emerging" with U.S. allies at this week's summit in New York.

"This is a subject of conversation, of course, I'll have with allies in places like New York and on the other times I communicate with our allies," he said.

Rice aired out her suspicions about Syria's involvement in the Hariri murder in an interview with the editorial board of the CBS.

"Syrian security officials got entangled in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri," she said, wondering how President Assad would explain Syria's unawareness of the occurrence of such a massive assassination operation.

"The Syrians need to account for how it is that Lebanese -- high-ranking Lebanese security officials with well known ties and links to Syrian security officials got entangled in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri."

She was referring to Gen. Jamil Sayyed of the Surete Generale, Gen. Mustafa Hamdan of the Presidential Guard Brigade, Gen. Raymond Azar of the army's intelligence service and Gen. Ali Hajj who headed the overall internal security forces when Hariri was murdered. All four are under arrest at the behest of U.N. chief investigator Detlev Mehlis.

Rice raised doubt about Syria's complete evacuation of Lebanon. "We know their military forces are out of Lebanon. A lot of people suspect that they maintain intelligence presence there. And we need to know that Syria is carrying through on its obligations to get out of there and stay out of there. And it shouldn't be that an external power somehow was involved in the assassination of the prime minister of another country -- of the former prime minister, then a candidate for prime minister. So I think this whole Mehlis investigation is extremely important, extremely important."

Rice charged that Syria was still out to strangle Lebanon economically.

She was asked: Do you think that the Syrian government falls apart if the security system falls apart and what are the consequences?

"I don't know because, you know, it is a very opaque system in Syria. I do know that Syria should be fully and completely out of Lebanon, that they ought to recognize Lebanon as an independent state. For instance, it would be very good if they actually had an embassy and an ambassador in Lebanon, which would be a signal that they don't think of Lebanon as some kind of Syrian outpost."

Rice said neither the U.S. nor the U.N. were satisfied with Syria's cooperation with the Mehlis probe.

"We have not been and the U.N. had not been satisfied. We'll see. They've said now they're going to offer cooperation. I don't know what Mehlis has been able to get."
Syria Hits Back at U.S., Asserting it is Out of Lebanon Altogether

Syria has rejected a spiraling U.S. campaign against the Assad regime, asserting it was properly guarding its border with Iraq against terrorist infiltrations and has gotten out from Lebanon altogether. Syria recalled that it had signed an agreement with the Iraqi and U.S. governments for joint patrols along the border and taken other steps to prevent infiltrations.
Nizar Nayouf's new newsletter "al-Haqiqa," which is sent out from France, claims that Syria's president is trying to get a deal like Qadhafi's.

الأسد يسعى إلى " لوكربي سورية " تساويه بالقذافي !

باريس ، خاص بـ " الحقيقة " : أفادت معلومات متداولة في أروقة الديبلوماسية الفرنسية بأن الرئيس بشار الأسد يسعى جاهدا إلى إبرام " اتفاق جنتلمان " مع العواصم الغربية المعنية مياشرة بقضية التحقيق في اغتيال الحريري . وطبقا لهذه المعلومات فإن الأسد قبل مبادرة سعودية ـ مصرية تقوم على عدة نقاط مقابل استثنائه وشقيقه ماهر من تحقيقات ميليس والحصول على تعهد من هذه العواصم بعدم المساس بـ " مؤسسة الرئاسة وما يتبع لها " . وهو ما يعني ضمنا الحرس الجمهوري . وعلم أن هذه النقاط تشمل :
ـ استعداده لإطلاق سراح جميع المعتقلين السياسيين وإحداث تحولات ديمقراطية سريعة خلال ستة أشهر ؛
ـ مساهمة فعالة في عملية التحقيق الدولية الجارية بشأن جريمة اغتيال الحريري ، مع استعداد لتسليم جميع المشتبه بهم إلى أي محكمة تكلف بالقضية ؛
ـ مساهمة فعالة في مكافحة الإرهاب في العراق ؛
ـ وضع سلاح حزب الله الثقيل في مستودعات خاصة بالجيش اللبناني ؛
ـ حظر مطلق على نشاط المنظمات الفلسطينية المتواجدة في دمشق .
وأشارت هذه المعلومات إلى أن الرئيس السوري ، الذي سلم فعلا هذه المقترحات إلى كل من العربية السعودية ومصر خلال الساعات القليلة الماضية ، طالب بمساواته بالقذافي ، وتساءل عن المبررات التي تجعل واشنطن وباريس تعاملانه بأقل مما عاملتا به " إرهابيا دوليا لم يتورع عن قتل المدنيين في السماء " ، في إشارة إلى تفجير الطائرة الأميركية فوق بلدة لوكربي . وأضافت هذه المعلومات أن " ردود الفعل الأميركية على مقترحات الأسد أظهرت بعض الليونة والتراخي ، فيما أصر الرئيس شيراك على المضي في التحقيق حتى نهاياته القصوى مهما كان مستوى الشخصيات التي قد يطالها " . وختمت هذه المصادر بالتأكيد على أن " مبعوثا مصريا رفيع المستوى ، وربما سعوديا أيضا ، سيصل إلى دمشق خلال الساعات القليلة القادمة لبحث هذه المقترحات وتطويرها " .

Anti-Alawite leaflets:
"al-Haqiqa" also claims that leaflets have recently been distributed in neighborhoods throughout Syria's major cities, which state that منشورات مجهولة المصدر تنذر " العلويين الكفار " بدنو ساعة الحساب !

They warn the "Alawite unbelievers" that "their judgment day is imminent." According to "al-Haqiqa," the authors of this report are not a small handful of activists, but a large network, because they were distributed on the same day in Damascus, Banyas, Tartous, Lattakia, Homs, etc. This would be the first time such leaflets have been widely distributed in over two decades.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Syria and the US campaign to Subdue Western Iraq

US forces are moving to take the Sunni towns that sit along the Syrian border. They are backed by much stronger Iraqi forces than we have previously seen. Tel Afar is the first city to fall. It has been largely emptied of its inhabitants. Kurdish pesh merga forces are the main Iraqi troops being used to combat the Turkmen and Arab towns. Local inhabitants are vowing revenge and fleeing. Most of the Sunni fighters fled the city to find other safe havens. Many will undoubtedly took to towns in Syria for refuge as the campaign continues, just as new fighters and supporter will come across the Syrian border to help. It is in this context that Zalmay Khalilzad and Iraqi's foreign minister have both lashed out at Syria for not stopping the flow of men across the border. (See the quotes below.)

Abdullah Taa'i, writing for Syria Comment, described how the inhabitants of his town, Abu Kamal, and the Syrian border region more generally, sympathize with and support their fellow tribal members in Iraq. The Syrian government has only the most tenuous control over the Jazira region of north-eastern Syria, whether in the north where Kurdish tribes predominate or in the south were Arabs tribes preside. It will take a supreme effort by the Syrians to staunch the flow of fighters across the border. Few of the local inhabitants can be counted on to help or sympathize with the Syrian effort. Most will work to undermine it, whether by joining the many smugglers that operate along the border or by protecting and hiding those fighters that try to cross it. Abdullah believes that the US and Syria must work with the Arab tribal leaders of the region, not try to destroy them. This is not the policy that the US and Iraqi governments are pursuing. Their policy is to subdue the Sunnis with overwhelming force.


One key other factor that links to the initial point that I made with regard to security, is the role of external players, particularly Syria. People are coming out from Syria to Iraq. People are coming from other parts of the region to Syria, whether it's to Damascus or whether it's to Lattakia, whether it's to Aleppo, and then from there they come to Iraq to kill Iraqis. The vision of these people, the Zarqawi people, for Iraq is not a democratic, unified, self-reliant, successful Iraq, it's an Iraq that's very much what we saw in Afghanistan under the Taliban - an Islamic caliphate with a dark vision to take the region back; where women will not have the right to vote, where there will be no democracy, where there will be a center of international terror in a rich, powerful country. That's their vision. And Syria is allowing forces who advocate that, who want to prevent Iraq from succeeding, to come across.

Our patience is running out with Syria. They need to decide, are they going to be with a successful Iraq or are they going to be an obstacle to the success of Iraq? Iraq will succeed. Iraq will succeed. Syria has to decide what price it's willing to pay in making Iraq's success difficult. And time is running out for Damascus to decide on this issue.
U.S. troops sweep into empty insurgent haven in Iraq
By Jonathan Finer, Washington Post, September 11, 2005
The moment the Iraqi troops launched their attack just after 7 a.m. Saturday, the bullets began to fly. Gunfire echoed off centuries-old stone buildings in the insurgent-controlled neighborhood of Sarai: machine-gun bursts, booming tank rounds and an incessant crackle of AK-47s that lasted for most of an hour.

But the shooting spree was only going in one direction.

"So far, Iraqi army reporting no enemy contact," came the word over the radio, 45 minutes after the first shots were fired, to U.S. troops waiting to join the assault.

By the time the Americans entered Sarai -- in a rare supporting role to an Iraqi battalion comprising mostly the Kurdish pesh merga militiamen, who led the charge -- the labyrinthine warren of close-packed structures and streets too narrow for armored vehicles was eerily deserted.
Meanwhile the New York Times reports, September 12, 2005
Under Pressure, Rebels Abandon an Iraqi Stronghold
The American military said Tal Afar had held up to 500 insurgents, most operating out of Sarai, a 120-acre neighborhood of tightly packed homes on the eastern edge of the city. But after entering Sarai, troops found the neighborhood abandoned and discovered tunnels intended to allow insurgents to escape an assault that had been telegraphed months ahead of time.

The two tunnel complexes were "clearly designed for terrorists to escape from Sarai," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the senior American military spokesman in Iraq. "They had seen this coming over the last four months."

He said troops had captured some insurgents who had used the tunnels but were caught at checkpoints, some wearing wigs and dressed as women. "The rats know we're closing in on them," he said.

The commanding officer of the American regiment in Tal Afar, Col. H. R. McMaster, told The Associated Press that Sarai was nearly deserted by late Saturday. "The enemy decided to bail out," he said. A report late Sunday from an A.P. correspondent embedded with American troops described a "classic guerrilla retreat" with insurgents "melting into the countryside."

The assault has brought a new vigor to the administration of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who has been eager to demonstrate to Iraqis that officials are working to fight terrorism. The state-run Iraqiya television channel showed repeated images of what it said were Iraqi troops conducting house-to-house searches.

Mr. Dulaimi, the normally soft-spoken defense minister, lashed out in a news conference on Sunday and warned insurgents and those who harbor them that Iraqi forces would "cut their heads and cut out their tongues."

"We will not back down," he said.

Mr. Dulaimi emphasized how the failure in the past to garrison reasonable numbers of troops in cities after military assaults had hurt the war effort. "This will not happen again," he said. "After we clean the city we are not going to leave the city open for terrorists."

He said future offensives would follow the same pattern as in Tal Afar. Assaults are likely in Sinjar and Rabia, west of Tal Afar, he said, and south to the Euphrates, where insurgents hold sway in towns along the river leading west to Syria.

In recent days, tens of thousands of residents scrambled to leave Tal Afar as troops readied for the offensive. Ferdos al-Badi, an Iraqi Red Crescent official, said the camps included more than 2,000 families about three miles outside the city and as many as 2,500 families relocated to Mosul.
This looks like a classic "Hama rules" endgame for the Sunnis - "Hama rules" being the term Thomas Freedman coined to describe how Hafiz al-Asad subdued the Sunni fundamentalists in Syria by trashing their stronghold in the city of Hama. Iraq will be done on a much larger scale. The Kurds and Shiites will trash the Sunnis, letting them know that there is no escape for them. They must live under the heel of the Shiites or be killed. Unfortunately, the sectarian game in the Levant seems to remain zero-sum. Little possibility of deal-making and liberal coexistence seems to exist.

This sectarian endgame will exact a heavy price on Syria, which is being asked to assist in subduing Iraq's Sunna community. The US and Iraq want Syria to clamp down on the Eastern tribal regions of Syria, holding down its own Sunni population, while Iraqi and US forces wreck havoc in Western Iraq. The death rattles of Iraq's Sunni community will elicit cries of pain throughout Syria, but nowhere more than among the eastern tribes. Bashar al-Asad has sought to alleviate the sectarian imbalances in Syria over the last five years in an effort to repair the damage done by his father at Hama. The present campaign in Iraq will reopen those wounds.

Success in Iraq will depend on whether its Shiite community can stick together to defeat the Sunnis. The following September 11, 2005 New York Times article by Craig Smith explains why this may not happen.

The Man Who Would Set Shiite Against Shiite
In the last year, the so-called quietists of the clerical establishment banded together in a coalition blessed by Iraq's most influential ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, and used electoral politics to vault Iraq's Shiite faithful into a commanding position. Followers of Mr. Sadr worked alongside them, but now he is pushing a distinctly different brand of politics. Rather than an autonomous Shiite region in the south, he wants a far more centralized Iraq; rather than face down the Sunni-led insurrection, he suggests making common cause with resentful Sunnis against the American presence.

Those are not illogical positions for him. Two years ago, he was accused of murdering a rival Shiite cleric sympathetic to the American invasion. Twice his militia rose up against the Americans, and twice the Americans subdued it in battle, the last time crushing his forces in Najaf and forcing him into hiding in the summer of 2004.

But since giving up some of his heavy weapons late last year, Mr. Sadr has been back in view in Najaf, gradually rebuilding his strength. He says he is only seeking to hold Iraq together. "The role of the Mahdi Army is not to stoke sectarian violence but rather to reconcile Iraqis and correct the situation in which they live," he said during a brief encounter in the room one day in August, referring to his militia.

In fact, though, few people believe that Mr. Sadr and his army are focused on reconciliation.

Within days of his comments, clashes with a rival Shiite militia broke out, and tens of thousands of Mr. Sadr's followers took to streets across Iraq to protest official corruption and the loose federalism outlined in the draft constitution.

The unrest was a reminder that the longtime divisions among the Shiites were only covered over by the coalition that competed in the national elections last winter.

Now, many predict Mr. Sadr will break away before new elections in December. His main complaint is over the push for a largely autonomous Shiite region in southern Iraq. His supporters say that they accept a degree of decentralization, but that allowing autonomy would divide the country.

David L. Phillips of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of "Losing Iraq," says that what Mr. Sadr really wants is a say in enforcing Islamic law through the central government's constitutional court - and that his supporters in Baghdad could be the key to voting down the draft constitution when it is put before voters in October. "He could be the swing vote," Mr. Phillips said.

Many analysts who follow Mr. Sadr's evolving role say that he still envisions a Shiite theocracy over all of the country. "He sees himself as the Khomeini of Iraq," said Amatzia Baram, an expert on Iraqi Shiite politics who is at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Mr. Sadr's followers play down that goal but don't deny it. "Religion is higher than everything," said an aide, Sahib al-Ameri, at Mr. Sadr's home on a recent Saturday. "The most important thing is the dominance of religion."
Washington will want to fix this problem quickly. New links seem to be emerging between the violence in Iraq and terrorism in the rest of the world.

Terrorist had plans for London attacks
By Pam Hess, UPI (via Washington Times), September 7, 2005

A terrorist captured near the Syrian border last month had a computer "thumb drive" that contained planning information about the July 7 suicide bombings in London, according to a U.S. military officer.

Col. Robert Brown, commander of the 1st Brigade 25th Infantry Division in Mosul, said that the man was captured north of Qaim in western Iraq and that authorities had connected him to the al Qaeda terrorist network.

It is the first evidence of a link between the London bombs and terrorists in Iraq, but fits with other evidence of a growing presence in Iraq by al Qaeda, which has taken responsibility for the British attacks....

Saturday, September 10, 2005

"How to Solve Syria's Border Problem with Iraq" by Abdullah Taa'i

The following article was sent to me by Abdullah Taa'i, a resident of Abu Kamal, a large Syrian town situated on the Eurphrates on the border with Iraq and on the main highway connecting the Governorate of Deir az-Zur to eastern Iraq. It is a short distance from al-Qaim in Iraq, where American forces are presently leading a major campaign against the Iraq resistance of Anbar province. Abdullah explains why the people of Eastern Syria, and especially Bou Kamal (It is written Abu Kamal but pronounced Bou Kamal), sympathize with the Iraqi resistance and Sunni tribes of eastern Iraq. Bou Kamal is considered one of the major infiltration points for men and arms across the border. (The original Arabic version is copied below as well.)

"How to Solve Syria's Border Problem with Iraq:"
Notes on the Geography and Society of Abu Kamal

By Abdullah Taa'i - email:
September 9, 2005
Written for "Syria Comment"
Rough translation and summary by Joshua Landis (I have left out the introductory paragraphs)

The people of the Bou Kamal region make their living in two ways, though agriculture and remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf. Most of the families of the region have at least one member working in the Gulf. Socially, they have become influenced by the culture and customs of the Gulf: in the way they dress, their behavior, and even in their accent. They see the Gulf to be part of a brighter future for themselves.

Historically and geographically, the people of the region are out of tune with Syrians because of the Sykes-Pico treaty, which divided the two provinces of Deir az-Zur and Mosul from each other, giving the first to Syria and second to Iraq. Dividing these two areas was unnatural. In 1975 at a conference held in Algeria, Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Asad met. Saddam said to Hafiz, “I bet if you held free elections in the East of Syria and I were a candidate, I would be elected." Saddam believed that Eastern Syrian was closer to Iraq. On another occasion Saddam said that the border of Iraq extends to Abu Jahash, a village in Raqqa. Saddam used to call Bou Kamal “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Great” because at the time of the 1990 Gulf War the people of the region organized demonstrations and an intifada in Bou Kamal, demanding military action to support Iraq. People shouted the slogan: “Long live Saddam Hussein and Iraq.”

The Syrian authorities were angered by this and arrested many. They sent military troops to control the situation, which was very serious. People in the East considered Saddam’s regime the only real and honest regime in the region. They idealized and honored Saddam Hussein. This respect increased at the end of the Gulf War, once Saddam rebuilt Iraq. They considered him the “iron man in the region,” And always believed loyalty to Saddam was natural, for he was the exemplar of Arab pride. Saddam belonged to a tribe and was familiar with the culture and language of eastern Syria.

There are other reasons for this loyalty and love of Saddam. The education and behavior of Eastern Syrians is the same as that of Iraqis. Politically, the majority of Baathists in Bou Kamal were rightists at the time of the Party’s founding. Their wing of the party was eventually exiled to Iraq. Geographically, Bou Kamal is closer to Baghdad than Damascus. People in Bou Kamal know much more about Iraq than they know about Syria. The people of Deir az-Zur governorate are considered foreigners in Syria, but not in Iraq. Iraqis see the people of eastern Syria to be their brothers and part of themselves, in contrast to Syrians, who see them as strangers.

The most important feature of regional society is tribalism. The al-Agedat confederation is the largest in Bou Kamal, but the Shammar confederation is also well represented. The tribal connections between the people on both sides of the border are strong and close. Almost every family has relatives in Iraq. Perhaps a mere 3% of families in the region do not have members in Iraq. The big tribes of Iraq extend into Eastern Syria, especially in the Deir az-Zur region. The leadership and strength of the tribes are centered in Iraq and not Syria, thus people took to Iraq and not Syria as their real home. Saddam had personal and strong relations with many tribal leaders in Bou Kamal and Deir ez-Zor, which made the Syrian government worry a great deal, especially when relations between the two countries deteriorated.

Most of the people in Eastern Syria often say that “our government has offered us nothing since it came to power in 1970.” All of these realities are painful but real. When you get to know these people you get to know just how confused they are about their identity. They are lost and confused by the border and divisions between the two countries. They don’t know where they belong.

Because Bou Kamal is a border region, it is now important because there is war in the region. Unfortunately this was not the case previously, causing the region to be ignored by the Syrian government. Recently, Syria has tried to control the region by placing many border guards there to stop the flow of fighters across the border. Despite this effort, the United States continues to use threatening language with the Syrians.

Bou Kamal is an extension of the Ramadi governorate in Iraq, where the Iraqi opposition is centered. [Everyone here believes that] America is trying to fuel the Iraqi resistance. Thus, if Syria tries to stop the flow of goods and men into Iraq from Syria, it will put it at odds with America.

Finally, I conclude that a realistic appreciation of the geographical, social, and historical realities of this region will serve the security situation in Iraq and bring together Syrian and American policies, because the two countries ultimately share the same interests.

1. Most important, Syria and the United States must dealing with the security situation in Iraq by creating better joint US - Syrian cooperation. Syria has already started showing its willingness for serious cooperation.

2. Both powers must control all fundamentalist Islamic parties before they organize to the point of becoming violent and produce an effective cell structure. This should be done soon to take advantage of the current religious mood among the vast majority of religious people in the region, who realize the dangers of these movements.

3. Solving the border issue should be a priority for it will help secure Iraq, much as Pakistan’s help in securing the southern border of Afghanistan has helped stabilize the new government there. [end]

- Abdullah Mehjem is 23 years old and a graduate of the Journalism School at the University of Damascus. He was brought up in Kuwait where his father worked until the Gulf War of 1990, at which time his family was forced to return to Bou Kamal. Following the war, they were unable to get Kuwaiti visas and remained in Bou Kamal. Abdullah is now looking for work. Unfortunately, I was not able to pay him for this very interesting article.
Here is the original Arabic version:

شيئان مقدسان في ضمير الشعوب بعيداً عن الدين ولا يمكن التخلي عنهما . فإن فقد احد هاذين المقدسين يبقى الثاني مصيريا.ً ولا يمكن الاستغناء عنه ...هما التاريخ و الجغرافيا, فالدول الحديثة اليوم تقوم على هذين المكونين ومعظم صراعات القرن الحالي والماضي هي في جوهرها تاريخية وجغرافية وهي صراعات ونزاعات دولية مثل نزاع ((الهند- باكستان )) ((إسرائيل والعرب )) . فلا بد أن نولي اهتماماً واسعاً لتلك القضايا.
وتحكم الجغرافيا عدّة اعتبارات ثقافية ودينية فالجغرافيا تتكلم بمفردات ثقافية واجتماعية .
وفي حديثنا عن الجغرافيا نوسع مضمار الحديث لنتناول مناطق حدودية استراتيجية. على الرغم أنها صغيرة ،لكنها كبيرة المضاعفات و التأثيرا ت في دول الجوار :

مدينة البوكمال :

تقع في أقصى الطرف الشرقي من سوريا, تعيش على ضفاف نهر الفرات ( درّة الفرات ) . يعيش أهالي المنطقة على الزراعة أولاً وعلى أموال الهجرة ثانياً ، فمعظم أهاليها يعملون في الخليج ( الكويت – السعودية.. ) ، فيكاد لا يوجد بيت يخلو من مغترب في الخليج . حتى ثقافتهم بدأت تتأثر بالخليج في معظم النواحي في الزي واللهجة . فهم يرون في دول الخليج قبلتهم ومستقبلهم الوردي نظراً لكثرة العاملين فيها .
عندما يتكلم التاريخ وكذلك الجغرافيا في البوكمال سيكون نشازاً على سوريا. ويعود ذلك لاتفاقية (سايكس بيكو) التي أصبحت فيها( دير الزور) لسوريا و الموصل للعراق . لكن هذا أمر غير مهم وغير مقبول في هذا القرن . بل الأخطر من ذلك عندما تتكلم الشعوب ( حاملة التاريخ والجغرافيا). ولنقترب من التاريخ الحديث لأنطلق في حديثي هذا عن مستقبل المنطقة وأهميتها في ظل ا لتوتر الحدودي, ففي عام (1975) (مؤتمر الجزائر ) التقى الرئيس السوري حافظ الأسد وكان الرئيس العراقي صدام حسين آنذاك .
عندما قال صدّام للأسد : (( أنا أتحداك أن تجري انتخابات حرّة في المنطقة الشرقية من سوريا وأكون أنا مرشحاً فيها ... الحديث لصدام )) وفي حديث آخر لصدّام مع عدد من ضباطه يقول فيه أن حدودي مع سوريا حتى أبو جحش ( قرية في الرقة ) وكان صدام يسمي مدينة البوكمال مدينة (الله أكبر ) إثر انتفاضة عام (1990) أثناء الحرب على العراق . فقامت انتفاضة في البوكمال مطالبة بالوقوف العسكري لجانب العراق وهتفوا هتافات عراقية تنادي بصدام حسين . الأمر الذي أثار سخط وغضب السلطات وجرت حملات اعتقالات واسعة . واضطرت السلطات إرسال تعزيزات عسكرية لخطورة الوضع .
هنا لي أن أتوقف لقراءة انتفاضة (1990) . التي وصلت حد الهتاف بصدّام وهو باعتقادي ردّة فعل ليس عربية فحسب بل أن الشعب هناك كان يعتبر نظام صدام حسين هو النظام الفعلي و الشريف في المنطقة . إنهم يمجدون ويقدسون صدام لدرجة لا تعقل وزاد هذا التقديس و الاحترام بعد عودة العراق وخروجه من الحرب سيّما أن صدّام أعاد تعمير العراق من جسور ومدن وغيره فاعتبروه الرجل القوي الخارق في المنطقة, ودائماً كانوا يؤمنون أن الولاء لصّدام هو أمر طبيعي بحكم كثير من الاعتبارات نظراً كون صدّام حامل للنخوة ( الشيمة ) العربية وكون صدّام ابن عشيرة وريف ويعيش في ثقافة مشابهة لثقافتهم ويتحدث بلغة قريبة منهم . وهناك أسباب أخرى سأسرد ماهو واضح ومهم منها :

1- التقارب الثقافي و الاجتماعي و السلوكي بين هذه أهل المنطقة و العراقيين .
2- العامل السياسي : كثير من الحزبين في البوكمال أثناء نشأة حزب البعث كانوا من البعث العراقي ( اليميني ) لضعف تأثير اليساريين عليهم .
3- البعد والانعزال الجغرافي و الديمغرافي الذي يصيب هذه المدينة فهي معزولة عن معظم محافظات سوريا بصحراء واسعة غير مسكونة . فسكان هذه المنطقة يعرفون عن العراق أكثر مما يعرفون عن بلدهم فالمسافة بين البوكمال وبغداد هي ذاتها وأقرب بقليل من المسافة بين البوكمال ودمشق . حتى أن محافظة دير الزور ككل يعتبرون كالغرباء بالنسبة للمواطن السوري من المحافظات الأخرى على العكس بإحساسه بالنسبة للعراق . حتى أن العراقيين أنفسهم يعتبرون ابن هذه المنطقة ليس كغيره من السوريين .
4- العامل الرابع وباعتقادي هو الأهم . التقارب العشائري فأنت لا تستطيع أن تجد بيتاً في هذه المنطقة ليس له أقارب في العراق .وإن وجدت عائلات لا علاقة اجتماعية لها في العراق فهي لا تتجاوز ( 3% ) فالعشائر الكبرى في العراق ممتدة في كل در الزور خاصة دير الزور . فالثقل العشائري و المركز العشائري موجود في العراق ليس في سوريا . ويذكر بعض الشخصيات أن صدام حسين كانت تربطه علاقات جيدة وقوية مع الكثير من زعماء العشائر في دير الزور خاصة في البوكمال الأمر الذي دعا الحكومة في سوريا أن تنظر بعين الريبة إلى المنطقة كان هذا في فترة توتر العلاقات السورية العراقية .
5- وهو عامل سأختصره بعبارة صغيرة يرددها كثير من أبناء المنطقة ((لم تقدم لنا حكومتنا شيئاً أبداً منذ استقرارها (1970) ))
كل هذه المعطيات السابقة هي مؤلمة حقيقية . فأنت عندما تقترب من الواقع لا يساورك شك في أن هذه الشعوب تعاني من خلل واضطراب في الانتماء . فهي ضائعة بن التقسيم الجغرافي والسياسي الذي جعل منها سوريا بين الانتماء الثقافي و التاريخي و الاجتماعي وحتى النفسي للعراق .

لماذا نتحدث عن منطقة في أقصى الشرق السوري وما أهميتها :

تعتبر البوكمال المعبر السوري العراقي الأكبر . كذلك المنطقة الأكثر تجمعاً سكانياً بين المناطق الحدودية . وعادة ما تكون مناطق الحدود في الحروب ذات أهمية أمنية كبرى وعالية المستوى لكن هذا للأسف لا نلاحظه ولا نلمسه . على الرغم من أن السلطات السورية حاولت فرض سيطرتها الأمنية كحرس حدود ولم تغير الولايات المتحدة من لهجة التهديد لسوريا .

- البوكمال هي امتداد لمحافظة الرمادي العراقية . وهي المحافظة التي لا تزال حركات المقاومة فيها ( الإرهاب ) تعمل بكامل سيطرتها وحريتها في المناطق العراقية المجاورة لسوريا . فإن أحكام ضبط المنطقة السورية سوف يخنق المقاومة ويجعلها على حافة المواجهة في قوات الاحتلال . وهذا باعتقادي ما لا تريده القوات الأمريكية .
هناك أمر آخر باعتقادي له مضاعفات سيئة على العراق وهو انتشار بعض الجماعات السلفية و الجهادية في المنطقة و التي تدعم بشكل مطلق المقاومة ( الجهاد ) في العراق . هذه الجماعات ازدادت انتشاراً على المستوى الشعبي خاصة بعد احتلال العراق وسبب آخر لازدياد هذا الفكر ، هو ارتباط سكان هذه المنطقة بالخليج الحامل الأساسي في الشرق الأوسط للمفاهيم السلفية الجهادية .

نهاية أختم هذا العرض برؤية نابعة من دراسة واقع هذه المنطقة جغرافيا واجتماعياً وتاريخياً تخدم الوضع الأمني في العراق ويقرب وجهات النظر السورية الأمريكية لأن المصلحة النهائية مشتركة بين الاثنين

1- معالجة أمنية من الدرجة الأولى بتنسيق سوري أمريكي واعتقد أن سوريا أبدت استعدادها لأي تعاون أمني جاد .
2- الأخذ بعين الاعتبار الواقع الاجتماعي ومحاولة احتواءه و السيطرة عليه وهذا يترافق ولا ينفصل مع العمل الأمني ويسير بشكل متوازي معه .
3- الاقتراب من أي حركة إسلامية متطرفة وتطويقها قبل أن تصل إلى مستوى الخلية الفاعلة القادرة على العمل بشكل واقعي عنيف . ويجب أن يكون ذلك سريعاً لاستغلال الوضع الديني ( المذهبي ) الرافض لهذه الحركات ( الجماعات السلفية ) لأن الكثير من المتدينين يرفضون ويخشون خطورة هذا الفكر .

قضايا الحدود في غاية الأهمية وحلها وضمانها يلعب دور كبير وفعال في العراق الجديد (إن وجد) وهناك تجارب حديثة العهد حققت نجاحا بامتياز(الدور الامني الباكستاني على الحدود الافغانية) بعد الحرب الامريكية على أفغانستان.

Friday, September 09, 2005

No New York: the Mood in Damascus

Yesterday was a very disappointing day for many officials in Syria. Conversely, it was a day of some celebration for opponents of the regime. President al-Asad finally cancelled his trip to New York, as it had been rumored he would for some days. According to An-Nahar, US sources are saying that suspicion goes all the way to the top in Syria, meaning the President. For this reason he has cancelled the trip. Mehlis is due to arrive in Damascus on Monday.

I ran into Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari at the going-away party for my Brother-in-law (`Adil), Mohamed el-Kouhene, the head of the UN's World Food Program in Syria who is moving to Yemen to head the program there. He said he had read and liked my article on the President's trip to New York, which I posted two weeks ago. I mentioned that the New York Times had accepted a version of it for an Op-Ed article, but that it wouldn't run now that the trip was canceled. Buthaina Shaaban had set up numerous interviews for the President and first lady in the States, all of which are gone. It was the President's chance to break out of his box, put Syria on the front pages, and defend his country. No one can defend Syria if the President doesn't. Dardari threw his arms up above his head and shrugged, with a look of dismay mixed with a "what can I do." His gesture said it all. The government is in the depths of despond.

Everyone calculates his own interests in times of crisis, even as he considers the larger implications. Much of the country has its hopes pinned on Dardari's reform proposals. Several days ago in Dara'a, Dardari presented the outlines of his Five Year Initiative, speaking about how the gap between rich and poor had widened in Syria over the last decade. He explained how he hoped to address this problem even as he opened up the economy to global markets and foreign investment. BUT, and it was a big but, he said "for all this to work, we need economic growth." That growth looks further away than ever right now. In the back of everyone's mind, as Mehlis comes to Damascus, is the threat of additional economic sanctions from Europe or the UN. Syria has been stumbling from one crisis to another these past two years. Economic growth has fallen by half and there is no end in sight to troubles. More than ever people are worried about the fate of their country.

Not everyone is gloomy though. Here is a note I got from a friend:

I just had dinner with some 10 civil society people. It was fascinating... most of the conversation centered around the mehlis report and how excited they are to see regime figures marched in front of international tribunals. A couple gallons of araq later they were talking coupes, the Muslim Brotherhood, Rifaat al-Assad in boisterous voices and trading jokes. In vino veritas.
Now that President Bashar has bowed out of the New York meeting, pressure is mountain on Lebanon's president Lahoud to do the same.

General Aoun, after meeting with Cardinal Sfeir, told Lahoud not to go to the UN meeting, which means even Lebanon's Christians have abandoned him. As An-Nahar wrote today:
The White House has announced it has withdrawn an invitation to Lahoud to attend the traditional reception President Bush throws to the heads of delegations attending the annual session of the U.N. General Assembly every September.

"We believe the constitutional amendment that led to the 3-year extension of President Lahoud's term had been the result of excessive and illegitimate Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs," said U.S. National Security Council member Frederick Jones. "Meeting Lahoud will give a wrong impression about the U.S. policy towards Lebanon."
Diplomat discusses how to present international ruling in Hariri case

Ali Hamade wrote from Paris for An Nahar, an opposition Lebanese newspaper, that
ongoing research is being conducted by the main superpowers interested in
Lebanon on how to deal with the phase that will follow the presentation of the
final report from Detlev Mehlis.

Hamade said that “a European diplomat told An Nahar about the presence of several studies ... to draft the best method for finalizing the ruling ... as the Lebanese court might be subject to significant pressures.”

The diplomat told An Nahar that four methods have been drawn up by Paris, London, Washington, Berlin and the UN: To refer the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague; to establish an ad hoc court; to form a mixed court by Lebanese and international judges; or to relocate the Lebanese court in another country. But the diplomat said the "best choice mentioned until today" might be to combine the plans for moving the Lebanese court and constructing a mixed court. - An Nahar, Lebanon
Parliament is the natural place for electing presidential candidates
Emile Khoury wrote in An Nahar, an opposition Lebanese newspaper, on September 8, that according to a former Lebanese politician: “Walid Jumblatt's argument that the existing majority in Parliament can bring the next president is not applicable in the country.”

The former politician argues that Jumblatt’s belief is not applicable because of “the country’s conditions and its sensitive structure that necessitates taking the opinion of the minority.” The politician also said that since the Independence Day, “neither the Christians can force a president on the Muslims, nor can the Muslims force a president on the Christians, but a consensus was reached” between both sects.

But Khoury writes that the current Parliament should be the place where the next president is elected. He said: “Let every parliamentary bloc have its candidate as was the case in the past.” Khoury said: “It is possible now to apply such system after the end of the Syrian tutelage that was selecting the presidents, ministers and MPs.” - An Nahar, Lebanon
Mehlis close to finishing his investigation
Al Seyassah, a Kuwaiti independent newspaper, reported on September 7 that private sources confirmed that Detlev Mehlis, head of the UN probe team into the assassination of late Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, is now in full possession of the truth behind the assassination, and that the international investigation has reached a circle of guilt that is very close to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

According to the newspaper, the private sources added that Asaf Shawkat, the Syrian military intelligence chief, as well as the previous chief of the Syrian Internal Security Forces, Bahgat Suleiman, supervised the execution of the assassination operation, acting upon orders issued by a higher authority. The newspaper added that Lebanese former head of General Security, Jamil Al Sayyed, made important confessions in front of Mehlis and Lebanese magistrate Elias Eid in return of protection promises. The paper said Sayyed confessed that he granted ordinary Lebanese and diplomatic passports to about 170 Syrian intelligence members, who Asaf Shawkat commands. The newspaper added that the private sources said that Rami Makhlouf, the cousine of Syrian president Assad, is now staying in Paris - accompanied with his manager Nader Moahmad Al Qolei - in an attempt to open bank accounts and purchase real estate in order to guarantee his future, as he senses the demise of the current regime. - Al Seyassah, Kuwait

"Presidential response to Elaph tops Lebanese newspaper headlines"
Elaph, a pan-Arab newspaper, said on September 8, that it “received a phone call from the media office of the presidential palace asking about the source of the 'irrelevant information'” it published late Wednesday about President Emile Lahoud.

Elaph said on Wednesday night that “President Emile Lahoud was ready to leave his post in case he received assurances and clear guarantees that he would not be pursued in the case of the assassination of Premier Rafik Hariri.” The presidential media office issued a statement on Wednesday night - published by the National News Agency - denying the “false” information written by Elaph that was was published in many Arab and Lebanese newspapers, excluding Syrian news outlets. - Elaph, United Kingdom
Perpetrators rehearsed their crime before actual assassination
German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis and Lebanese Investigating Magistrate Elias Eid - the investigators of the Hariri assassination - want to investigate information they have received that suggests the perpetrators "rehearsed" their crime just a short time before the actual assassination, Al Watan reported on September 8. An empty truck was brought in to Ain el-Mreisse [the crime scene] while the crime was plotted in complete secrecy, the private, government-influenced newspaper reported.

Al Watan learned from sources that, during their rehearsal, mobile phone transmission and telecommunications networks were cut off, for unknown reasons. And when the transmission was cut off again during the blast on February 14, the two transmission cut-offs were linked to one another. The perpetrators used high-interference devices to interfere with the waves from the electronic devices installed in Hariri’s convoy. These devices are available at only a few international companies that are now being contacted in order to discover who purchased them.

Mehlis has been discreet about the evidence collected up until now, but people who have met with the German prosecutor say that Mehlis knows the identity of the suicide bomber, but refuses to disclose any further information for the safety of the investigation. He confirmed that the suicide bomber is not the Palestinian Ahmad Abu Adas, who turned up in a pre-recorded videotape after the assassination claiming responsibility in the name of the “Victory and Jihad Brigades in Al Sham Countries.” - Al Watan, Saudi Arabia
Talabani speaks out on Syrian media, Iraq's place in the "Arab nation"
On September 6, Al Iraqiyah TV carried an interview with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Asked about his "harsh" statements about Arab countries, Talbani criticized the "unresponsive" Arab stand, saying that their collective stand has neither been "brotherly" nor "friendly." Asked how he would describe Arab countries' "reservations" about the new Iraqi constitution, he said that such attitudes are tantamount to "interference in Iraq's internal affairs. They have no right to do so. Did we interfere in Sudan's affairs when it drafted its constitution and resolved the conflict in the south?"

He added: "If our Arab brothers have some reservations, they should relay them to us in a friendly manner and not through the media." He noted that the constitution is the "mission of the Iraqi people. The constitution has been drafted by a specialized committee. It will then be presented to the people in a referendum. If the people reject it, we will start over. If they accept it, it will be adopted, and the Arab brothers have to respect the will of the Iraqi people."

Talabani said that the Iraqi people are comprised of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldo-Assyrians, and other groups. "When we say that Iraq is part of the Islamic world, this means that it is part of the Arab world .... Iraq is not part of the Arab nation." He added: "Iraq has never been part of the Arab nation throughout its history, except when the Baathists assumed power."

Later in the interview, the president said: "I hear the Syrian media glorify the so-called resistance and ... not care about the victims among the Iraqi people. Hundreds of Iraqis get killed and you hear nothing, but if two criminal terrorists get killed, the Syrian media would say that two heroes of the Iraqi resistance got killed. This is a hostile stand on the part of the Syrian media against the Iraqi people. This is not a friendly gesture. How do we solve it? In an amicable manner because Syria, which we have problems with, offered valuable aid to the Iraqi opposition during and after the rule of Hafez Assad. ...

"Solving problems with friends is different from solving them with enemies. ... The solution is to sit with our brothers in Syria, relay our concerns to them, backed by evidence and documents, and ask them to support the democratic process in Iraq. We should ask them to oppose terrorism and help us conquer it rather than trade accusations and indulge in altercations." - Al Iraqiyah TV, Iraq
Saudi prisoners tortured in Syrian jails
In its September 9 issue, Al Watan reported how two young Saudi men were tortured in Syrian jails where they were being detained. The two Saudis, 23 and 24 years old, and whose names were not revealed, told the private government-influenced newspaper about how they were caught while trying to infiltrate into Iraq to perform jihad.

The 23-year-old Saudi, a civil servant in Saudi Arabia, who was arrested on the Syrian-Iraqi border, said he did not know the jihad in Iraq wasn’t an obligation - and that the fatwas against jihad in Iraq for non-Iraqis came out late. “The reasons for wanting to go to Iraq was because of the human rights violations in Abu Ghraib prison and the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (Hamas’s spiritual leader) by the Israelis,” he explained. On his way to Iraq, he stayed in a hotel in Damascus, where he contacted a Syrian smuggler to take him with other fighters to Iraq, and agreed on a certain price for the smuggler.

But the Saudi fighter said he didn’t agree with the Syrian on which area he was to be dropped off, expecting to arrive in Mosul or Fallujah. The next day, he was surprised when a group of people knocked on his hotel door and asked him to accompany them to a police station in Qameshli. He was interrogated about why he came to Syria, and was accused of belonging to Al-Qaeda, and with having designs on carrying out terrorist activities in Syria.

Al Watan also learned from the young Saudi that he was taken to prison for one year, where he was tortured by the prison guards daily for carrying out dawn prayers. His parents paid about 40 thousand Saudi Riyals ($11,000) to unidentified Syrians, after which he was finally released.

The 24-year-old Saudi who was also arrested said he wanted to go to Iraq after Baghdad fell. En route to Iraq, he went to Damascus and rented a hotel room for a week until he was asked to go with seven other Saudis in a bus to the borders with Iraq. “US forces bombed the location next to the border,” he said. So, they weren’t able to enter Iraq and returned to Damascus. Getting ready to go back to Saudi Arabia, he was arrested and apprehended by Syrian intelligence and accused of several charges, such as spying for a foreign country. He was also tortured daily by investigators and beaten with metal cables in a room filled with water. He spent about a year in the Syrian jail as well. - Al Watan, Saudi Arabia
Syrians kill one, arrest two gunmen in northeast

Al Jazeera reported on Septemer 8 that Syrian security forces killed an armed
man and arrested two others following a noon-hour clash in one of the suburbs of
Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria. The Syrian authorities said the gunmen belong
to Jund al-Sham Organization. - Al Jazeera, Qatar

"Mehlis' mission from a Syrian point of view"
Bahiya Mardini wrote on Elaph, a pan-Arab electronic newspaper, on September 8, that in Syria, “there are talks that the higher leadership was not aware about [Hariri’s] assassination, but was informed about it at a critical time, when it was impossible to stop it. Therefore, the crime should be placed in its natural status where criminals are punished and not the whole country.
Syrian, Lebanese sources quoted on progress of Hariri probe
Al Hayat reported on September 8 that informed sources said Syria has proposed that Detlev Mehlis meet Syrian witnesses "in a neutral Syrian location and not at the Foreign Ministry or the officials' offices." The same sources added that Mehlis would start his visit by meeting Riyad al-Dawudi, legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry, "to agree on the procedures for his meetings with the Syrian witnesses, which will probably involve more than one visit to Damascus, should Mehlis extend his mission."

The sources reiterated Damascus's desire "to cooperate fully with Mehlis" and the "importance of keeping the investigations non-politicized," after lauding "the professionalism and objectivity he demonstrated at his recent press conference."

Meanwhile, Al Hayat's sources stated that reserve Col. Muhammad Zuhayr Safi - rumored to have fled abroad in order to give Mehlis information that has helped the progress of the investigation - left Syria in May. But they denied that he was the director of the office of any of the security officials. The Syrian sources said: "He is a reserve officer who worked in Lebanon and was prosecuted on forgery charges and given a three-month sentence. He left for Marbella in May to join Rif'at al-Asad's [Syrian president's uncle who lives in exile] group before arriving in Paris and asking for political asylum." - Al Hayat, United Kingdom

New Comment Section Soon: Reactions to Closing the Comment Section

Dear Syria Comment Readers,
I am happy to announce that Syria Comment will open a new comment section in several days. It will be open to all registered members and will be managed by the indomitable Joe Pace, who has contributed so many wonderful interviews to Syria Comment this summer. He is returning to Harvard in a few days and has kindly agreed to oversee and manage the comment section from there. It will be a bit of an experiment.

Many readers regretted the closing of the Comment Section, as I did. It had been taken over by a small group of people, who had adopted a very combative style, effectively pushing out many commentators who didn't have the stomach for raunchy fisticuffs. The new forum will hopefully open up debate to a wider group of people by encouraging some semblance of decorum.

Here are the reactions I got about the closing of the comment section. There are additional comments on the last post that accepted comments.

The move was overdue. You were far more patient than I would have been.

Once things settle down, I wonder if there is a way in the software you
use to require anyone who wants to post a comment to register using his
or her real name. One board I read does that, and it changes the tone
incredibly. Keep up the great work.

the closing of this section is the only way the Regime's side can silence the opponents, for you(it, they) have tried to use fool language, insults, chasse away those opponents, and when that was not successful, they let Josh use their dirty tactic as the cause to close the comment section. If Josh had any eyes, he would see who are the people who copme here to insult and use bad language, but he went ahead to insult the all posters, very politely, I must add.

Much as I initially enjoyed reading the comments posted in response
to your blog, I think that you have made the best decision in
removing the comments page. Over the summer I have noticed the
quality and thoughtfulness of the comments degenerate into total
drivel, with the exception of a few serious holdouts. I wonder
whether you might be able to contact those people and suggest that
they start blogs of their own, or appear on syriacomment as guest
posters from time to time.

In any case, I am still a great fan of your site and look forward to
each new post.

Dear Joshua,
Sorry to read that you put an end to the Comment. I enjoyed it and learnt much from it, even though I did not always agree with what was published. Still I think that it is an important stage for everyone to challenge his own views. We - Westerners - always blame Arabs and Muslims for being closed-minded; how many of us are REALLY open-minded?
Hope you find a way to continue with it.

Hi Joshua,
As a regular visitor of your, I sympathize and applaude your
decision to pull the plug on your comment section. I personally wanted to
register and share some of my thoughts but was dismayed by the nature of some
of the commentary. I want to thank you for your interest in Syria.

Josh - this is a good move on your part.

Hi Joshua

It is very bad to hear that, but what can you do?

Hey Josh,

Not a shocker by any means but quiet disappointing. I am not sure how's your Arabic but i feel your action is "ya tokho ya kseir mekho" which is basically switching from one extreme to the other. I know like anyone what a mess the comment section was and god knows i had my share of curses from these guys. But i had advised you several times to allow only registered persons to comment as to avoid anons spamming the blog. Some of the abusers have (like me) become addicted to your site and will probably mind their manners eventually if they know they would be punished for any abuse.

Anyways i urge you to reconsider and listen to my advise. I know it would be hard to come back on you decision soon but maybe in the mid-term you can reconsider re-evaluate. Your blog is what got me blogging and i saw the number of comments in your site increase exponentially ever since. i also noticed that you had more viewers than any other mid-eastern blog i have visited.

Un ouf de soulagement; vraiment Josh si ces gens doivent prendre le pouvoir j'aime encore mieux les actuels.


I wanted to congratulate you on the painful decision to take out the comments section from

I know that you had it there with intention of promoting dialogue, but it was highjacked, as we have said numerous times in our diner discussions.

Its better this way, I believe.

Hello Professor Landis.

I am sorry you have closed down the comment section.

Very sorry to read this Joshua, but totally understandable. I belatedly subscribed to the Comment Section but can see already what you suffered as well as what the Section could have offered.
If there's anyway that a different discussion group can be set up - even just if it's a known group of people simply cc-ing each other - please count me in.

Your site is still fantastic, and please pass on my respect to Joe Pace if you get the chance.

A sad fact, Josh , but for the better. Continue with
the exellent reporting, hope to see you in Damascus
next spring.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More on Ghadry and His New Blog

Personal matters:
I received two letters today:

1. The first wondering if I was "Jewish," a "Zionist spokesman," a "neocon," and "trying to stir up trouble between Christians and Muslims in Syria."

Here is the note, which is actually put as gracefully as possible:

One of my confused Leftist colleagues, who has been drifting into anti-Semitism, insists that you are Jewish. I Googled you and found no evidence. Furthermore, the name is Swiss and German and you look awfully "Aryan" to me. Your family comes from a moneyed New England background, apparently Protestant, and you went to Yale.

Nevertheless, this woman insists that I ask you if you are Jewish. It's pretty embarrassing of me to ask you such a thing, and I hope you don't take offense. Anyway, I don't care if you are, though I would say 95% odds you are not. She insists that you must be Jewish because of the way you write, that you are Zionized, a Zionist spokesman, a liberal Jew, a neocon, trying to stir up trouble between Christians and Muslims in Syria, on and on. You get the picture. None of which is true, anyway, if you ask me.

Anyway, she insists that I ask you this miserable question, so here I am, Josh, at your service.
Anyone wishing to know about my background, religious or otherwise, can find it here on Syria Comment. I would be proud to claim Jewish decent, but cannot. I wasn't educated at Yale, alas, and don’t come from money.

2. The second was posted on Farid Ghadry's blog suggesting I am "an American Ba’athists in Damascus," whose "prose and rhetoric smack of allegiances more to Syria’s Assad because of inter-marriages than to their native country." I guess it is only fair that he should call me a traitor and un-American because I criticized him in yesterday's post. But to assume that to criticize the SRP is to be anti-American is a bit rich. When did the SRP become an "American" organization? It would be useful to have something besides an attack against my Syrian wife.

The most useful thing the Syrian Reform Party could do to reassure people in Syria about how they would rule the country would be to lay out their conception of how a democratic government would actually work. Would they have guarantees for minorities by dividing parliament up between sects and national groups, as Lebanon does? Would they choose federalism, as Iraq did? I wonder how much thought they have given this crucial question. Perhaps, like the Americans in Iraq, they will just shoot from the hip and make it up as they go on the presumption that "democracy is messy?"

A party which claims it will be back in Syria in six months surely has given these questions some thought. How deep will their purges of Ba`thists go? Will they allow the army to remain as it is and only change the top officers? What criteria will they use in trying Ba`thists in the courts? Syrians would like to know these things before signing on.

Here is another note I received from a Turkish friend about yesterday's post.
Dear Dr. LANDIS,

The remarks you made about Farid Ghadry in today's "Syria Comment" reminds me of an interview published in the Turkish daily Aksham (Evening: 20 June 2005).

F. Ghadry was in Turkey at that time to attend an international conference held by a leading Turkish liberal political initiative called Ari Grubu (Bee Group: A branch of Anavatan Partisi or the Motherland Party).

In this interview Ghadry talked so pompously that one could easily see he had some "evaluation problems about his own country". He named the would-be-revolution in Syria as "Freedom" and its color as "White". And he claimed that this revolution would bring Syria a "secular regime" as Turkey has. The revolution would take place in 6 to 8 months, he insisted.

To a question about whether he and his party were ready for revolution and its aftermath, he replied: "The people of Syria are ready for revolution. We will organize a meeting in September and we are going to establish a council for a care-taker government".
Of course Turkey required decades of stern dictatorship under Atatürk and another several decades of quasi-military rule to instill and stabilize traditions of Ataturkism and secularism into government. How does Ghadry propose instilling the same values and traditions in Syria? I guess he believes that Syrian society is as prepared for democracy as Turkey's?

This is indicative of his willful ignorance, which is on a par with his frequent statements that Syria does not have to fear Islamic fundamentalism because most Muslims in Syria are Sufis. Anyone who has lived in Syria knows this is way off the mark. There are Sufis in Syria, but they have been an embattled minority since the second half of the 19th century. There is no Sufi revival going on in Syria, which might merit such a statement, even as an exaggeration.

On the contrary, Syrians have become ever more scriptural and literalist since the beginning of the Salafist movement, much like the rest of the Islamic world. Syria does indeed have a long and proud tradition of suffering heterodox groups and accepting Sufi tariqas. This past, which had real periods of tolerance, will make it easier for Syria to rise above the religious rigidity of countries such as Saudi Arabia, but it is not something that has captured the imagination of most Imams or Sunnis today.

That is why the government has built up liberal imams such as the Grand Mufti Hassoun or Habash. Their task is to promote tolerance and fight Wahhabism. Promoting tolerance is why President Bashar personally interceded to get the deal signed between the UNDP and Ministry of Awqaf, under which the Ministry holds monthly workshops with hundreds of Imams to promote inter-religious understanding, knowledge about AIDs and to promote notions such as protection of the environment, etc. Few among the Syria elite, whether in the government or not, want to see the spread of intolerance. All fear it because it is real. Anyone who mistakes Syria for Turkey is blowing smoke at the rest of us and wishing away Syria's real challenges.

I have one further gripe with Farid Ghadry's Reform Party. They have established a new website, which is a good thing. It is actually an interesting site, usually hosted by Oubai Shahbandar, who seems smart and measured. They have named it "Syria Comment PLUS," which is not a good thing. I have frequently been told that plagiarism is the highest form of praise. Perhaps it is? All the same, it doesn't say much for the Party's imaginative powers or political savvy. I suppose they will pick up a few extra readers by acting as a pilot fish on "Syria Comment." I don't begrudge them this. We all try sneaky ways to boost our readership. All the same - really!

I was the first person to write a comment on their site, congratulating them. I got a nice note back from Oubai. But I did write to Oubai asking that he change the name so as not to have people confuse the two sites. I did not get a reply. I have spent considerable time and energy building up a readership and developing name recognition for "Syria Comment" as an independent source of news and commentary. To have my name taken by a party advocating the overthrow of the government will not add to my independence or reputation.

I would prefer not to be married to the Syrian Reform Party. Farid Ghadry has already explained that because of my "inter-marriage" to an Alawite, I am suspect. If my loyalties are going to become suspect because of whom I marry, I would prefer to fall in love first and choose who takes my name. To have Farid Ghadry appropriate my name is something I welcome. It will lead to confusion. It was a silly choice of name by Ghadry. He should have the decency to change it. One marriage is enough, al-hamdulillah.

Ghadry’s site has some interesting articles. Perhaps the most interesting is this one on the troubles which have recently led to the break-up of the nascent Syria National Council recently formed in Washington. It reads:

The Syrian National Council is Splitting

News from Washington is that the Syrian National Council formed as an opposition group is splitting. We are told that those who are leaving are doing so because they sensed a direction in the Council that did not please them. In fact, the main reasons, we are told, are:

The Executive Committee was stacked with Islamists loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. Those individuals took control and used the Council as a form of dictatorship. It is not who you are but how you behave. The Syrian opposition still does not get that one unfortunately.

Inter-manipulations by some members created an atmosphere of mistrust amongst the different people involved. Some of the stories are too horrifying to even mention. Dr. Mohammad Aljbeili is one of the most patient democratic Syrians I have met.

This is too bad because the Council got off the right foot. In fact, many of the members went with me to the State Department and were well received. Now State is disenchanted with the direction of the Council and has expressed concerns about the Syrian opposition represented in the Council.

State is not interested in inter-fighting amongst opposition groups. Because it is the organization that meets with everyone, it has a pretty good sense who is capable and who is not. The moment you start attacking other oppositions, you are indicating that 1) You really do not have your priorities in the right order and 2) Your democratic values leave something to be desired.

One of the most harmful acts the Council did was to vote to forbid the Council Members to “speak” to another opposition figure. Officials in this administration interested in cultivating the Syrian dissident movement got wind of this and one can imagine the reaction. Forbiding people to speak to other people is the ultimate test of tolerance and co-existence. This Ba’athist mentality still prevails at the Executive Committee level. Wiser minds prevailed later and froze that decision but the damage was done.

The group that is splitting is discussing with us, the Syrian Democratic Coalition, ways to cooperate together in the future. We welcome dialogue with all the opposition groups.

But unlike the vision of other oppositions scrambling to call for unity, we believe this is an unreachable goal. Expanding energy on uniting opposition groups is a waste of time and resources. In fact, we believe it is undemocratic. The concept of pluralism in a society must exist at all levels and we believe it must also exist within the dissident community. It is a check and balance process in the beginning but more importantly, it is an evolutionary step to a democratic society. No one opposition group should lead the opposition. This is an early process in democratization and anything less should be viewed with skepticism and alarm.

Here is the text of an article published on “CNN Arabic” centered on an interview w/Dr. Mohammad Aljbeili. The link to the article can be found here.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Farid Ghadry Instills Confidence

Journalists are battling over the question of whether President Asad will cancel his New York trip. Elaph and al-Seyassa - both notorious for being gossip rags - started the conjecture a few days ago. Elaph's account was copied by al-Mustaqbal today, presumably giving it more credibility. But Sami al-Khaymi, the smart Syrian ambassador in London, says it is still on in this story:


Beirut, 5 Sept. (AKI) - There are conflicting reports regarding the planned visit of Syria's president Bashar al-Assad to New York in mid-September to represent his country at a crucial summit on United Nations reform. Syrian sources have told Adnkronos International (AKI) that the president would not be attending the meeting in New York, but did not give reasons for the decision. However, Syria's ambassador to London, Sami al-Khaymi, interviewed by Lebanese television network LBC, said the "the visit is confirmed even if there could be last minute changes".
The following story gives us a small glimpse into the moral quandaries of Arab militants who go to join the fighting in Iraq. It also suggests that it isn't hard to get to Iraq though Syria, despite the growing number of Syrian arrests.


Rabat, 5 Sept. (AKI) - The Syria authorities have arrested and deported a Moroccan militant, Izzedine al-Nuwail. The man had already crossed from Syria into neighbouring Iraq to join the insurgency, but his career as an insurgent was cut short when he reportedly refused to carry out a suicide attack on a busy Baghdad market and returned to Syria.

During his stay in Damascus, Izzedine said he had behaved "normally, often going to the grand Omayyade mosque". Taking minor Syrian roads, he managed to slip across the border into northwestern Iraq. However, he refused to drive a vehicle packed with explosives into a market in Baghdad where many women shopped with their children. He returned to Syria, where he was arrested and handed over to Moroccan police in Rabat.

Izzedine had allegedly traveled to Damascus with two other men from the Moroccan city of Casablanca, where the group allegedly recruited a Syrian and a Jordanian. The Syrian border is believed to be one of the main entry points for militants to cross into Iraq, where the northwestern part of the country has become one of the main war zones for United States troops battling the insurgency.
This opinion piece by the Saudi journalist Wafaa al-Rasheed, expresses the way many feel in Syria. Sectarianism remains one of the most difficult problems throughout the region. The Syrian government does little diffuse its true source - intolerance and scriptural rigidity. Although Syrian schoolbooks teach that Christians will go to heaven after the Muslims and are a protected people, they do not teach equality. The Christians are blamed for the existence of sectarianism in the Middle East because they refused to accept the Koran as revelation. Syrian school books do not mention the existence of different Muslim sects. Instead they continue to teach that there is only one way to follow Islam, which is to follow Sunni customs and traditions.

"The graves which we dig for ourselves," by Wafaa Al Rasheed
Wafaa Al Rasheed, a Saudi writer, wrote in Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper, on September 5: "Poor Iraq, and poor are its libraries, museums, and streets, for Arab people and statues have become bereft of all feeling… History has never witnessed a country whose own people seem to be conspiring against it to tear it apart." Iraq is a country that is occupied by those who claimed they are liberating it, while its own people are writing a constitution that will result in Shiite control over the country, something which will give Americans the excuse to divide Iraq, Al Rasheed said.

"This is how we were raised, to live in constant fear of the Shiite crescent 'boogeyman' in the region and the implementation of the non-integration policy which we apply on those whom we consider minorities," Al Rasheed wrote.

Believing this perspective to be "one of the most dangerous factors facing reform in political Arab thought," Al Rasheed said: "Yes, there are Sunnis and yes there are Shiites among us .... And there are Arabs, Kurds, and Berbers, and with their differences, they all have their rights as we do ours. And no, it does not involve a war over who rules whom, as the foreigners wish to impose on us, unless we make it so. The neo-colonialist is bringing us up on division and there are people among us that are feeding this division, with their ... programmed ideologies that are meant to sow divisions among our Muslims, [in a racist manner]."

Those who ruled Iraq failed to integrate the Iraqis under one political equation because the Iraqi ruler was marketing an American political equation based on sectarianism, claiming that this sectarian equation will confront the ideology of the Iranian revolution. The political sectarianism in Iraq was booming in the 1980s and it is booming again today. "If we don’t solve this sectarian conflict in Iraq, we will be digging our own graves," Al Rasheed concluded. - Al Hayat, United Kingdom
One of the indications for how "tribal" and clannish Middle East societies remain is the practice of marrying cousins. There are no good statistics on this practice in Syria. At the outset of the Iraq War, a New York Times journalist wrote that over 50% of Iraqis marry cousins. He used the statistic to explain how difficult it would be to bring democracy to Iraq, as it is commonly believed that "tribalism" is a detriment to democracy because it causes people to respond to political demands not as individuals but members of a proscriptive group. I wasn't sure whether to believe the high statistic because no source was cited. But this article from Kuwait based on a good study, claims that over 50% of Kuwaitis marry cousins. Most Syrians say the number is probably much smaller for Syria, but their conjecture is anecdotal.

Marriage between cousins remains popular, despite Kuwait's development
“The wheels of development that have altered and improved the Kuwaiti social life in the past four decades have failed to revolutionize the practice of marrying into families. Kuwaiti people still prefer to wed their relations as certified by current statistics, which reveal that 55.7 percent of marriages take place between relatives. Researcher Yacoub Al Kindry went on to clarify that marriage to first cousins from either the mother or the father’s side is the most widespread kind and constitutes 18 percent of all marriages that occur in Kuwait,” Sayidaty, a weekly Saudi women’s magazine, reported in its August 27 publication.
Qatar will invest nearly $10 billion in Syria in the next few year
On September 5, the independent Al Wasat newspaper reported that Syrian sources revealed that some Qatari banks are planning to invest $10 billion in Syria over the next ten years, and that there is a preliminary agreement between Syria and a Qatari insurance company to start working in Syria. The sources confirmed that the launching of the Syrian-Qatari Holding Insurance Company will be set soon after the ratification of the agreement by Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad II, with a capital of $200 million, Al Wasat stated.

Similarly, the Yemeni Press Agency “Saba’” reported that the Islamic International Qatar Bank has completed all the legal requirements that will allow them to open a bank in Syria with a capital of $100 million, and that it is set to open soon. - Al Wasat, Bahrain
Farid Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria, ever willing to spin, is very excited about the prospect that the United States and Europe will bring down the Syrian government. He writes, "We strongly believe that the Syrian opposition will be ready within six months to provide a democratic alternative to Baschar al-Assad."

Some one needs to inform Ghadry that the National Fronts attempt to bring the various opposition groups together in Paris this summer has fallen apart, amidst widespread backbiting and distrust. Ghadry writes of the Mehlis investigation in a circular put out by RPS today:
Never again will we get another opportunity like this where all of Europe and the US are united against Assad and are backed, in any action they take, by the International Law. The international community has an obligation to help the Syrian people.

The Syrian opposition is getting stronger everyday. Ever since the Reform Party became public in 2003, there have been at least a dozen more such political organizations that have sprung-up to life; some secretly inside Syria. In the next six months, we know of at least three national conferences that will be held by the Syrian opposition in Europe. Behind the scene deals are being struck between the various strong groups to show unity and cohesiveness and more importantly a democratic alternative to Assad.

For Syria to avoid the fate of Iraq, the Syrian opposition must have a Transitional Parliament in place agreed upon by the various political powerhouses and smaller groups including the independent intellectuals that would show no clear majority by any one group over another. We also must have a vision in place of how we, the Syrian people, can control violence by making sure that all elements of our society are included in the political process and only the criminals and the corrupt are held responsible. Those two steps are "Work in Progress" and are being nurtured today prior to the liberation of our country. We strongly believe that the Syrian opposition will be ready within six months to provide a democratic alternative to Baschar al-Assad.

If Assad is accused by the Mehlis Report and subsequently indicted by an independent Lebanese government, it would certainly take few months to force the issue. The instability it will create in Syria will, in the short term, embolden the opposition to unite further knowing that the regime is in its final stages of being dismantled and, in the long term, help us focus on what comes "After Assad". The tool of dismantlement of the Syrian regime with the backing of the international community and the international law is within our grasp. Let us not waste this opportunity.

Copyrights © 2003-2005 - Reform Party of Syria (RPS) except where otherwise noted - all rights reserved.
By meeting with Ghadry the other day, the National Security Council people were surely happy to have him trumpet the success of his meeting, just as they must have been pleased with his attempt to associate his "government in exile" with the US government. The NSC hopes to increase psychological pressure on Syria. Their cynical deployment of Ghadry, like some energizer bunny that has an off and on switch, is presumably accompanied by much back-slapping and guffawing at the NSC. After all, it was Farid Ghadry who told us last April that all Washington had to do to overturn the Assad regime was to drop leaflets from planes over the city of Damascus, asking the people to rise up. I guess this tactic was culled from the successful technique used by Washington in Iraq in 1991? It was a smart suggestion that the NSC for some reason neglected to implement.

Kamal al-Lubwani, a respected leader of the internal Syrian opposition, said that Ghadry was "duplicitous" during his interview with Joe Pace, published by "Syria Comment" this Friday. He also said that Ghadry had no support "whatsoever" within Syria. Not a good write-up. Here are Lubwani's full comments to Joe Pace's questions:
What are you’re thoughts on the Syrian opposition in America, such as Farid Ghadry’s party [Syrian Reform Party]?

In politics, everyone tries to promote their own interests and they have a right to pursue their interests. But they are different from us — their circumstances and their demands differ. We are living inside the country so our demands are oriented towards internal affairs. They are interesting in being able to come and go freely and in investing. They may be duplicitous because they have two different loyalties—one to Syria and one to America. We might be able to work together and they might be able to help us, especially if they can influence US decision making and we would be willing to welcome them, but on the condition that the program comes from the inside.

Does Farid Ghadry’s party have any base or support in Syria?

None whatsoever. He doesn’t have anyone inside the country and anyone who did cooperate with him would be accused of treason and arrested. His party has called for military invasion of Syria, so nobody is going to work with him. Nabil Fayad joined his party because state security sent Nabil. They sent him to Washington to figure out what was going on and he succeeded—he infiltrated the party and the Americans. I tried to warn them but they didn’t listen to me. There is no doubt that Nabil is an agent of the regime—a cheap, petty man—and it was Ghadry’s mistake to cooperate with a man like that.
Another Ghadry story: two days ago Ghadry sent around a circular claiming that Syria was promoting Civil War in Lebanon by secretly sending Syrian Palestinians into Lebanon as fighters. Here is Farid's story. Compare it with the press account, which follows it:
"Assad Wants a Civil War in Lebanon"

Washington DC, September 4, 2005/RPS/ --
Back on February 25 of this year, RPS published a story entitled: "Syrian Intelligence Recruiting Old Fedayeen to Fight in Lebanon" in which RPS described the means by which recruitment was taking place by Syrian Intelligence for Palestinians living in the Neirab refugee camp outside Aleppo to "fight in Lebanon because the Palestinians are going to be butchered".

These efforts are bearing fruit today.

According to Lebanese sources, a fight took place today in Northern Lebanon between Palestinian elements living in the Badawi refugee camp and the Lebanese armed forces that lasted for two hours....

This may be the beginning of Syrian interference in Lebanon on a scale that would divert attention away from the Mehlis report and would sink Lebanon into another attempt at igniting a civil war...
Here is the press account:
Two Lebanese soldiers hurt in clashes with murder suspects in refugee camp From

Al-Jazeera reported on September 4 that clashes have taken place between Lebanese Army forces and armed men in the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Baddawi, in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. Eyewitnesses said the security tension occurred after the army forces tried to arrest suspects in a murder case. The suspects responded by hurling hand grenades, resulting in the wounding of two Lebanese soldiers. - Al Jazeera, Qatar

These are the Palestinian fighters that Ghadry tells us Syria is using to ignite the coming Lebanese civil war. Almost as good as the leaflet story. It instills confidence that the boys at the National Security Council are using Ghadry to develop Washington's Syria policy. Ghadry should make a healthy contribution to good governance in Syria.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Mahlis Coming to Damascus: Is a Deal in the Works?

Mehlis Sets Sept. 10 for his Syria Foray
German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who heads the U.N. investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination, has said he would go to Damascus Sept. 10 to interview five Syrian officials as witnesses in connection with the case.

Mehlis plans to interview Syria's Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan, former military intelligence chief in Lebanon Rustom Ghazaleh and his two top security aides in Beirut Mohammed Khallouf and Jameh Jameh. The fifth official hasn't been officially named.

Walid Jumblat, the Druze leader, has concluded that "a showdown to dethrone Lahoud is still premature," according to an article by an-Naharnet today. Only yesterday, many journalists had been speculating that the Lebanese parliament and cabinet members would boycott Lahoud and isolate him in Baabda Palace, as a precursor to throwing him out of office.

Walid Jumblat has suddenly applied the brakes, sending a drive to 'isolate then evict' President Lahoud from the Baabda palace screeching to a halt.

"The President of the Republic has not been accused, yet. So the President of the Republic exists," Jumblat said after an evening meeting with Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at his south Beirut command headquarters Sunday.

Jumblat's change of heart came hardly 24 hours after he had ruled that the formal charge of Lahoud's 4 major security generals with complicity in ex-Premier Hariri's assassination "spelled out the end of the president's extended term."

"There seems to be a political balance that dictates a brake on the fast-moving drift toward a power crisis," An Nahar said Monday in an apparent attempt to explain Jumblat's sudden switch.

Both the Shiite factions, Hizbullah and Amal, control 28 votes in the legislature, which is made up of 128 seats. Gen. Aoun controls a 21-strong bloc. With 49 deputies against an impeachment move, there is no two-thirds majority in parliament. Between them, they can stand against a termination of Lahoud's term before the outcome of the Hariri investigation is finalized.

Meanwhile, the four detained generals of President Lahoud's police regime have been formally charged with 'terrorism' and 'willful murder' that may lead them to death before firing squads if convicted of ex-Premier Hariri's assassination.

But perhaps the Lebanese system is so broken that they will not be accused. Leila Hatoum, writing in the Daily Star, explains that:
It is understood the accused will be tried under Lebanese law, meaning the case will be heard by a panel of judges rather than a jury. It would also mean that in the event of a guilty verdict President Emile Lahoud, who has publicly defended one of the suspects, Hamdan, would have to sign the death warrants, along with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Justice Minister Charles Rizk.
Because the Lebanese government and courts are divided and incapable of leading a fair trial, Hatoum further explains, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora favours the establishment of a special international tribunal to try the accused, even though it is not clear how the case could be tried in this way. The UN's interim report into Hariri's murder stated that few people in Lebanon had faith in the country's judicial system because of its lack of independence from the government.

All of this confusion has lead some to fear that the investigation will stall at Syria's doorstep. Worried that Syria may get off the hook yet, they are claiming that a deal is being hatched between the Americans and Asad to limit the results of the investigation. Their arguments are based on pure speculation, because both American and French officials have been adamant that the investigation must be pursued to its limits.

In this regard, Aaron Klein, a Jerusalem reporter for writes that "Senior Lebanese leaders claim 'back-door deal' may preserve Assad regime." He writes:
Several Lebanese leaders tell WND they have been made aware of a back-door deal that might result in the probe stopping short of blaming Assad and other key Syrian leaders.

"Assad is pleading for his life and offering things the U.S. and the U.N. are interested in," a senior Lebanese politician told WND on condition of anonymity. "Syria is offering to drop Lahoud and to stop interfering in Lebanese politics in exchange for letting them off for Hariri."

The senior politician pointed to what he called "troubling signs" Detlev Mehlis, head of UN international probe, is reluctant to blame Damascus.

The politician said he was "taken aback" when Mehlis last week released former Parliamentary Member Nasser Qandil, claiming Qandil was no longer a suspect. Qandil was strongly associated with Syria, and was many times referred to in the Lebanese media as "Damascus' Spokesman."

"We are aware of a lot of information that may link Qandil [to the assassination]. It doesn't make sense he was released so quickly," the senior politician told WND.

Also, several opposition leaders said they were upset Mehlis has been referring publicly to the four arrested generals and others questioned in the probe as Syrian "witnesses" and not Syrian "suspects."

And some opposition leaders have previously stated Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, may have been involved in the assassination. Rumors have persisted the booby-trapped truck that killed Hariri was prepared in one of the southern towns controlled by Hezbollah.

But none of the four arrested suspects has direct affiliations with Hizbullah, and Mehlis announced last week "there is no indication that Hizbullah has any part in the crime whatsoever."

Another Lebanese politician, speaking from a cell phone in Paris, told WND, "Of course I am aware of deals to ensure Assad is not blamed." This politician too spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he "fears for his life."

"Assad is coming to New York soon. He wouldn't step one foot on U.S. soil unless he already made a deal, or he knows he's coming to make one," said the politician.

Assad is scheduled to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York Sept. 14-16. U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N. Anne Peterson said American officials have no intention of meeting Assad during his trip.

Dr. Walid Phares, president of the Council on Foreign Affairs of the World Lebanese Cultural Union, told WND: "My guess is that the Syrians are sending messages about their readiness to cut a deal with the US. ... The ones who want the deal are the Syrians and some of their Arab allies. They want them to drop Lahoud, and back off Hezbollah."

"Bashar Assad has a very tough choice today," continued Phares. "Either he will let go of his allies and gain some more time for this regime, or draw a line in the sand and fight in Lebanon with Hizbollah and Lahoud."

Lahoud has come under repeated fire since the Hariri murder, with politicians as recently as yesterday calling for his resignation. Last week, the Lebanese cabinet canceled a meeting because it was to be presided over by Lahoud.
There can be little doubt that Syria would like to make a deal that would stop the investigation at Syria's doorstep. One could even argue that this would be good for Lebanon in the long run if it would guarantee a halt to Syrian meddling in Lebanon and preserve the country from a long and protracted struggle with their larger neighbor that Lebanon could hardly hope to win.

After all, Syria's influence in Lebanon is not primarily a result of its allies among Lebanon's secret service, but within parliament and large sections of the Lebanese population.

At any rate, it is too early for speculation of this type. No matter how much some people may want a deal to limit the extent of the probe, it would be very hard to control the outcome the investigation, the trials, the testimony of the detained, and the many other unknowns.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The ICRC, the Ticking Time Bomb, and Druze Shaykhs

The following small story (copied below) about 500 Druze religious shaykhs coming to Syria from the Golan in order to make the annual pilgrimage to the Habil shrine at Zabadani came to my attention today. Habil is the Arab name for Abel, Cain's brother. There is more traffic between the Israeli-occupied Golan and Syria than one imagines. Much of that communication is due to the ICRC or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The story behind the story is that of the ICRC, an extraordinary organization which opened up its doors in Syria at the time of the 1967 War to help the Golan refugees. It has remained here ever since. It is bridging the great divide between Israel and Syria over the Golanis. The ICRC organized the visit of the Druze Shaykhs. It also helps bring many students from the Golan to Damascus each year, where they get their university schooling free. The famous Golan apples - well, it was ICRC that arranged the many complicated details, permitting their sale in Syria this year. ICRC arranged for Swiss trucks, carrying Swiss license plates and driven by Kenyans, to go get the apples from the Golan and bring them to Syria. The Israelis didn't want Syrian trucks or Arab drivers and the Syrians didn't want Israeli trucks. It was a problem, but ICRC fixed it.

The ICRC is using its toe-hold in Syria on the Golan issue to press for many other important human rights issues.

Two days ago, I met the two foreign staff members of ICRC, Jean-Jacques Fresard (the chief of mission, 52, Swiss) and Irenee Herbet (the communications and field officer, 35, French), just before their trip to fetch the Druze Shaykhs. They represent the best international organizations have to offer. They are attractive, dynamic and smart. More importantly, both are passionate about their work. Jean-Jacques joined the ICRC in 1980 and has served in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Haiti, and the Palestinian Territories before coming to Syria. Irenee just joined the Damascus mission, following three years in Jordan. They both speak French, English, and some Arabic and probably several additional languages, which I am not competent to evaluate.

They have also been reading "Syria Comment" since I began it, so they have to be smart. That is why they welcomed me into their offices and plied me with delicious Turkish coffee. They want to get the word out about the many services they already offer Syria, and more importantly, the additional services they can offer.

Their big campaign now is prisoners - political prisoners. They want access to all Syria's prisons, and most specifically, the many informal holding and interrogation centers that are scattered about the country. They want to be able to keep track of everyone who goes in and out of detention. "Our mandate is to make sure that certain categories of people - the wounded, sick, prisoners, etc. - receive the protection and assistance they deserve under international law," said Fresard. "By the way," he added, "we have been teaching international humanitarian law to the Syrian Armed Forces for two years now, and this program is going very well."

But why would Syria do such a thing as to allow a humanitarian organization into the dark recesses of its security system? One immediately thinks, "Impossible! These do-gooders are total dreamers. Syria will never do such a thing. The security chiefs love their anonymity. Their business is secrecy and control. Why give it up? Anyway, it would be too embarrassing for Syria to allow a foreign organization into its prisons and would surely create scandal. Never in a hundred years!" I thought.

Jean-Jacques listened to me call him a fool, politely and with forbearance, as only someone with a good Swiss education can. "You don't understand," he said firmly, but with a smile as calm as Lake Geneva on a sunny day. "We have done this in scores of countries."

He continued, "you know, this problem - the prisoners - it will explode in Syria’s face." Do you think the international community will ignore it for ever? Do you think the Lebanese will remain quite? It is a time bomb. It will go off. It is only a matter of time. We can help fix this for the Syrians and for the prisoners. We are fixers, very discrete and professional."

"Fixers!" My mind reeled. I thought of Harvey Kaitel in the movie "Pulp Fiction," swooping in at midnight to clean up the dead bodies and whisk them away before the cops came. Call 1-800-ICRC for discrete problem removal!

Before I could blurt out, "Harvey Kaitel," Jean-Jacques put another thimble full of coffee in my hand and explained.

"We are not a human rights organization. We don't talk to the press. We don't try to embarrass our host countries, make scandals, or attract attention to ourselves. We just offer help solving difficult and pressing problems to facilitate the application of international law."

"Take the Lebanese prisoners that perhaps Syria is still detaining, for example. There is no reason for Syria to keep Lebanese prisoners any longer. The Lebanese have collected 440 files of the missing that they say are being held in Syria. Syria probably has very few remaining Lebanese prisoners. They say they have none. The problem is that no one knows, and no one believes them. They used to say they had none, but then in December 2000, fifty-four were released and returned to Lebanon. Every mother of a missing person in Lebanon, naturally, dreams that her son is being held in Syria, whether it is true or not.

This problem is only going to get bigger. If the Syrian authorities let us see them all and let us register them, we could begin to resolve the outstanding cases - little by little, slowly and discretely. We can be a neutral and trustworthy go-between, like the Kenyan drivers of the Swiss trucks on the Golan. We could fix this problem before it is used against Syria and becomes an international issue which will really embarrass and hurt Syria. It is not complicated. We do it all the time. We would be serving the interests of the Syrian government and the prisoners."

He made it all sound so simple. But before I could express my skepticism, Jean-Jacques preempted me.

"It really is simple,” he said. You have written in "Syria Comment" many times about how Syria is not the worst offender in the Middle East when it comes to numbers of political prisoners - not by a long shot, and yet the world thinks it is. It is being killed by the press. Much of it is political. It doesn't have to be that way."

I tried to press him about countries that were worse than Syria, but Jean-Jacques was being his inscrutable ICRC self. I mentioned Egypt. Egypt has many more political prisoners than Syria no matter how you count them. Saad Eddine Ibrahim wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last year that Egypt held 18,000 political prisoners. Syria probably has between 500 and 1000, but we aren't really sure because they don't let the ICRC into the prisons. Jean-Jacques was stone-faced when I tried to press him for the ICRC estimates for Syria, but he didn't contradict me either, which meant I was on the right track. ICRC's policy is not to give out numbers; no cajoling on my part could loosen him up.

He did say, "We are trying to visit prisons in Egypt just as we are in Syria." We already have agreements with Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Mauritania, to talk only about the Middle-East, but I cannot talk about Egypt, it a delicate issue and we are negotiating.

So I pressed him, "Why doesn't America or the international community complain about this with Egypt?" He reminded me that the US did complain when Saad Eddine Ibrahim was put into jail for taking money from the Americans; he was subsequently freed. So what about the other 17,999 I wondered? I know the ICRC has had "tough discussions" with the US administration about Abou Ghraib, Guantanamo and a few other issues, but I didn't ask about them, because I knew Jean-Jacques would only say, "Again they are confidential and we hate to engage governments publicly on such things."

Jean-Jacque is a realist, he didn't want to discuss hypocrisy in foreign relations. I guess all governments must be permitted a degree of hypocrisy. It is up to people like Jean-Jacques to take advantage of foreign pressure when it is available, and not to worry too much, when it is not.

He quickly got back on message, "If we were given access to the prisons and allowed to keep track of the prisoners and make sure they were treated according to international norms, Syria would be in a much better position than it is today."

"This problem is going to get bigger for Syria," he said. "It doesn't have to. It would be smart for them to work with us. We have made some progress on this issue with the Syrian authorities." He explained, "In the old days, no one would even talk to us in the government. Now, we have easy access to officials, who agree with us about getting a handle on this issue. The ones we talk to all know it is a problem and want it solved. But, for some reason, they can't do anything about it."

I thought of the security chiefs. How they must tell the government officials to take a hike when they raise the thorny issue of letting Jean-Jacques stumble around their detention centers asking the tough questions. It's just a matter of political will at the very top.

"It's not complicated," Jean-Jacques intoned again. "It is a simple human issue." I nodded and thought of the ticking time-bomb. The fuse must be very short.

Druse Clergymen Enter Syria for Pilgrimage
By Associated Press
September 1, 2005, 1:35 PM EDT

QUNEITRA, Syria -- Nearly 500 Druse clergymen living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights crossed into Syria on Thursday for an annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the Syrian countryside.

The 488 clerics walked 300 yards from the Israeli lines to a Syrian checkpoint at Quneitra, about 40 miles south of Damascus, where they received a warm welcome from waiting crowds.

"I'm overjoyed to be in Syria to see my relatives," said Sheik Suleiman Abu Jabal, 58, a Druse cleric from Mas'ada village who was among the group making the three-day trip.

The visit is "very important for keeping in contact with our relatives in the Golan," said Medhat Saleh, a former Syrian lawmaker waiting for the clergymen.

Israel seized the strategic Golan Heights during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory in 1981, but the move has not been recognized by the United Nations.

Some 17,000 Arabs who follow the Druse religion -- an offshoot of Islam -- live on the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan along with 15,000 Israeli settlers. Nearly all the Arabs have rejected Israeli citizenship and retain strong ties with Syria, which provides them with free university education.

Since 1988, Israeli authorities have allowed Druse to perform the pilgrimage to the Habil shrine at Zabadani, 28 miles west of Damascus.

Habil is the Arab name for Abel, Cain's brother. The two sons of Adam and Eve are mentioned, though not by these names, in the Quran, Islam's holy book, which tells the well-known biblical story of the first murder.

Irenee Herbet, the communications and field officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the clergymen's crossing went smoothly, adding Israel's permission for the group to stay in Syria for three days was "a positive signal."

Syrian-Israeli peace talks broke down in January 2000 after Syria wanted assurances that Israel would withdraw completely from the Golan Heights and all land captured in 1967. Israel refused and insisted the issues of security arrangements and normalization be spelled out first.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Lebanon-Syrian Dilemma

Al-Balad, a Lebanese paper, discusses rumors about the impending announcement of a new government in Syria. There is not much new here. Three names for the Prime Minister are mentioned - Deputy prime Minister for Economy, Abdullah Dardari, Finance Minister Muhammad al-Hussein, and ووزير القصر الجمهوري الدكتور غسان اللحام Dr. Ghassan al-Laham, Minister of the Presidential Palace.

There is also speculation about changes at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, where it is widely expected that Walid Mu'alim will take over from Sharaa, and Ministry of Information, where Buthaina Shaaban will take over from Mahdi Dakhlallah, and Interior, where Kanaan will go.

al-Mustaqbal, the Hariri paper, writes that the French and Americans are coordinating their Lebanon-Syria policy ever more carefully; French National Security advisors are in Washington to talk with Condoleezza Rice. The French say they are determined to take the truth wherever it leads. The French Foreign Minister says he will not say whether he will meet with Bashar in New York at the September UN meeting; to do so would decrease the pressure on him.

He also said that France is not the enemy of Syria, but wants the truth to come out and to make sure that Bashar lives up to his word that Syria will cooperate.

Some Lebanese are frightened that they will lose control of their relations with Syria and that France and the US will highjack their foreign policy. Others worry that Syria will take revenge on them and that they may not be safe to remain in the country. French officials said they are not worried about the Lebanese. Everything will be fine. They and the Americans have the situation well in hand.

I read this to mean that France wants to reassure the Lebanese and Syrians that they are not crazy and know how to limit their pressure on Syria, but will insist on pushing the Hariri investigation to its logical conclusions - whatever they are. It is a delicate balancing act.

Here in Syria many people worry that the West doesn't know what it is doing and may replicate the situation it created in Iraq, not by invading, but by turning Asad and his regime into Saddam Hussein, placing stiff economic sanctions on the country, which will hurt the people and not the regime. The result they fear is that Syria will eventually be turned into a waste land because of a pissing match between Asad and the West. They worry that the investigation may eventually point the finger at members of the Asad family, causing a showdown. It is a game of chicken again. What does the West want - to ensure that Syria is really out of Lebanon or to bring down the Syrian regime and strangle Syria? They also don't know how Bashar al-Asad will respond. Will he be stubborn and subject his country to further privations, or will he cooperate, as he says he will? How Bashar responds will largely depend on what the Hariri investigation demands of him. Those I have spoken to do not believe he will surrender a family member to the inquiry. That would seem to be the red-line, dividing the possible from the impossible. No one can answer either of these questions and it creates deep anxiety at every level of society. People fear the West will ask the impossible.

Many Lebanese fear the opposite. They worry that the West will not finish the job. Many Christians and anti-Syrians worry that the West will leave the Asad regime in place to seek revenge on Lebanon and those who speak out against Syria. They want security restored and an end to Syrian meddling in their affairs. They believe Syria is behind the murders and bombings in Lebanon and that these problems will continue so long as the Syrian regime is left on the loose.

How far should the Lebanese and Western powers go in fighting Syrian interference in Lebanon? That is the question the Lebanese cannot answer. They do not know if purging the Lebanese government of all Lebanese who have worked with Syria in the past or who are still suspected of working with Syria today is enough to return relations between the two countries to a semblance of normalcy. Some believe the answer to this question is no; they insist that the Asad regime has to be destroyed.

Is Lebanon's problem essentially Lebanese, or is it Syrian? That is the question that hangs over much of the debate about how to move forward. This question reopens many wounds of the civil war and long years of cooperating with Syrian occupation. The easiest way forward for the Lebanese is to leave such divisive problems in the hands of Paris and Washington, in the hope that they have the wisdom to solve them.

Syrians face their own dilemma. They cling to the security the Asad regime has offered them and distrust their ability to find a happy alternative to the authoritarianism they now live under. The local opposition is divided, immature, and led by personalities and not proper parties, according to the analysis of Syrian opposition figures themselves. They are not prepared to rule and have established few links with the people. They also don't know what they want from the West.

Most Syrians agree with President Asad that the country is not ready for radical change. This is why the Syrians are so quite and submissive. They grumble, but also do as they are told. They complain about the state, but also look to it for solutions. Forty years of dictatorship, preceded by 20 years of coups and instability, have left deep divisions and insecurities among Syrians. It has turned them into sheep, as every Syrian will tell you with a bitter smile. This is largely because they do not trust themselves to find a common acceptable solution to their problems. In the back of every Syrian mind is the fear that their country will follow its Iraqi and Lebanese neighbors on the path to civil war if there is regime-change.

The Syrians have a central government, as defective and abusive as it may be. It still remains an asset in the eyes of most Syrians, and they will give it up with great reluctance. What they don't have is the freedom to find solutions to their individual problems. The Asads have personalized that government to the point that most Syrians cannot distinguish between the two. Getting ride of the Asad dynasty, in the minds of many Syrians, will be tantamount to destroying their government. It is the sheep’s dilemma: get rid of the shepherd and then where are you when the wolves come down from the hills?

The Lebanese have yet to create an effective central government. What they have is the freedom to find individual and communal answers to problems the weak state cannot solve. They are frightened of creating a federal government that will restrict their freedoms. The cultural and political divide between Nasrallah and Geagea is tremendous. They don't want to look like Syria, but the Syrians also do not want to look like Lebanon. That is a big problem. Can the Hariri investigation help solve it? We will see.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Mehlis to Come to Damascus - Rice Gets Tough

Mehlis has been invited to Syria. It is not known who he will ask to talk to here. He stated last Thursday that there were no Syrian suspects, but that will probably only be a matter of time. He also said that he believed more people were involved in the bombing. U.N. investigators on Saturday searched the Beirut offices of the Baath Party, the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling party. Its investigators questioned Lebanese Baath Party leader Assem Qanso on Friday as a witness in the case.

Mehlis says he will need an extension of his three-month mandate, which expires on September 15, to wrap up the probe and report back to the U.N. Security Council that ordered it. He can ask for up to three extra months to conclude the inquiry.

In Washington, Secretary of State Rice is preparing to isolate Asad during his September visit to the UN by getting the other Arab states to meet with her to discuss Syria without Asad being there. It is covered by Reuters:

Rice Will Try to Rally Allies Vs. Syria

Saturday September 3, 2005 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration intends to step up pressure on Syria to steer clear of Lebanon in its drive for political independence and to crack down on Palestinian militants with headquarters in Damascus.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will try to rally support when she hosts a meeting of European and Middle Eastern leaders at the special session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in two weeks, two senior U.S. officials said Friday.

Syrian President Bashar Assad will not be invited even though he is expected to attend the assembly session along with more than 100 government leaders, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to announce Rice's plans.

It is a worldwide strategy being promoted in other capitals as well as by American diplomats, one of the officials said. And, he said, it ranges beyond defending Lebanon's rights.

Building on support for U.S. policy on Lebanon, the United States wants to move further and pressure Syria to clamp down on groups the State Department brands as terrorists and also to end Syrian help for insurgents in Iraq.

Working with France and the United Nations, the Bush administration has succeeded in forcing Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. But intelligence units are believed to still be operating the country Syria effectively controlled for some 16 years.

The assassination in February of Rafiq Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who sought to separate his country from Syrian domination, helped trigger the diplomatic drive against Syria.

Declaring the Lebanese people are owed an answer, the Bush administration has called on all parties to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the slaying.

The U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, said Thursday ``a form of cooperation is taking place, but not sufficient cooperation.''

In Beirut, Lebanese prosecutors filed preliminary criminal charges Thursday against four pro-Syrian generals in the assassination.

The charges were based on a United Nations investigation into the murder of Hariri.

The chief U.N. investigator, Detlev Mehlis, said he had not identified any Syrian suspects but said there had been problems with Syrian cooperation.
Syrian security forces have killed five militants belonging to Jund al-Sham in a clash in central Syria with an Islamist group plotting "terrorist" attacks, SANA claimed. "The anti-terror squad raided on Friday evening a hideout of a terrorist group in the Hama governorate," it said, quoting an Interior Ministry source. "A clash took place and resulted in the killing of all five members of the group," while two Syrian security officers were wounded."

"The Investigation is over…Mehlis knows the truth," by Raghda Dergham
“Detlev Mehlis is a name that will be [written] in the history of the Middle East. His report regarding the investigation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will cause an earthquake in the whole Arab region,” Dergham wrote in Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper, on September 2. According to Dergham, the report will reshape the whole political map in the Middle East because it will destroy political leaderships in the region. “Mehlis practically finished the investigation that the Security Council commissioned him with in UN resolution 1595,” Dergham wrote. She added that Mehlis has already collected all the information needed and reached certain conclusions. According to Dergham, Mehlis by now knows how the assassination took place, who ordered the plan, and who executed it.

“But Mehlis also knows that his life is in danger,” Dergham wrote. According to Dergham, the Security Council, which appointed Mehlis to be the International Investigator in this case, is the one responsible for the prosecutor’s security. Therefore, “if anything happens to him, the Lebanese-Syrian reality will be shaken” because the UN will interfere. Dergham also said that the trial, which will be held for those who are accused of killing Hariri, will represent a “drastic change in the political history of the region.” Dergham said: “This trial will represent a precedent. This would be the first time that the heads of security apparatus are arrested and presented to trial in the Arab world.” As a result, the writer concluded: “The message that can be understood from the investigation of the independent International Committee led by Detlev Mehlis is: The time of political assassinations is over in the Arab region.” - Al Hayat, United Kingdom
“Syrian opposition criticizes Baath Party recommendations”
Elaph, a pan Arab electronic newspaper, reported from Damascus on September 1 that Syrian opposition spokesman Hassan Abdul Azim criticized the Syrian ruling [Baath] party for not executing what was promised in its last conference. Elaph quoted Abdul Azim as saying that Article 8 of the constitution - which stipulates that the sole leader of the country be from the Baath Party - would “block the way ... of any peaceful periodical transfer of power in the country.” Abdul Azim was quoted as saying: “There is no way for a healthy political life that consists of ruling parties and opposition parties to work if Article 8 is not [withdrawn] from the constitution.”

According to Elaph, the opposition in Syria currently consists of five major political parties that are gathered under what is called “the National Democratic Gathering.” All five parties are officially banned by the regime. Elaph quoted Abdul Azim as saying that “the results and the recommendations of the last Baath Party conference did not satisfy the basic needs of the people, and were disappointing.” According to Elaph, the Baath conference had suggested amending several laws, including the emergency law, a move that was criticized by Abdul Azim. He was quoted as saying: “What we need is to cancel such laws, not amend them.” - Elaph, United Kingdom
The Oxford Business Group writes that analysts predict that the Lebanese economy will weather the Mehlis storm. There report continues:

Assem Safieddine, head of the Financial Department at the American University of Beirut, told the Daily Star after the detentions, There may be some implications in the shorter term on the economy as investors wait until the situation settles in. However, the government is quite capable of weathering any pressure on the pound.

He also said that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Finance Minister Jihad Azour were capable of handling the task and could guarantee that the monetary system would not be affected, as shown by the government's decision to build up foreign currency reserves, which currently stand at some $11.5bn, in order to counteract any negative outcome from the UN report on the Hariri assassination.

However, due to the sporadic violence and political uncertainty in the aftermath of Hariri's assassination, capital inflows and investments have dropped, and the tourism industry has suffered a 30% decline year-on-year. The deficit ratio stands at 27.2% for the first half of 2005, up from 25.5% for the same period last year. Private deposits have fallen by 3.1% and private-sector borrowing went up by 0.9% in the first half. The Beirut bourse also experienced a small decline in anticipation of the UN report, and according to many analysts, GDP will likely contract between 1 and 5% by the end of 2005.

Still, as the economy has not simply fallen into a downward spiral and continues to function, many remain optimistic.

The decline is a result of political instability - not fundamentals, Youma Assaf, manager of the financial advisory department at Bemo Bank, told the Daily Star. The outlook is positive, but not within the coming two months.

Regional stock markets are experiencing a surge and as Gulf Arab investors continue to gain capital from increasing oil revenues due to the rise in prices, they continue to invest in Lebanon's stock market and real estate sector.

As long as these investigations do not trigger some kind of confessional war... then the country can cope with any political development, Safieddine said.

According to security sources, the investigation could go higher, with some suggesting possibly to President Lahoud. Some analysts feel that if even powerful figures who seemed untouchable are punished, then the public and investors will take comfort in the knowledge that everyone is accountable. Figures in the Lebanese intelligence arm, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), are also likely to be questioned.

Economist Marwan Iskander saw the detainment of the men as a major step forward, saying that investments will start pouring into Lebanon by the beginning of 2006 at the latest. The Lebanese stock market has also made a strong recovery since February 14.

Even economist Elie Yashoui, who does not see much reason for optimism at present, told the Daily Star that as long as the government immediately makes much-needed economic reforms, the Lebanese can still live with the public debt, as it crept up over $35.6bn this year, equal to 180% of GDP.

Debt servicing increased in the second quarter but actually decreased in the first half of 2005 by 22.6%. A few reforms, such as a streamlining of the customs process for exports leaving Lebanon, have already been implemented. Other long-awaited and more vital reforms are expected to be made in the coming months as Prime Minister Siniora enjoys the backing of a majority in parliament, whereas previous attempts at reform were blocked during the period of Syrian political domination. The Siniora government has already approved $275m for land expropriation.

Aid to the beleaguered economy also continues to pour in, as the government seeks to reign in soaring energy costs and offset economic damage. The US, France and the World Bank are presently preparing a new economic package for Lebanon. The government Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) has secured 14 loans and grants totalling $425m for projects throughout Lebanon, mainly provided by Arab and international organisations.

The Lebanese economy is trudging on in the face of political uncertainty and the potential for greater conflict. Caution and patience, not panic, remain the rule of the day.

Kamal al-Labwani interview by Joe Pace

Dr. M. Kamal al-Labwani - Founder of the Liberal Democratic Union
Interviewed by Joe Pace
August (6, 16, 21) 2005
Zabidane, Syria

The interview is in three parts:
Part 1: Liberal Democratic Union (LDU)(al-tajammu'a al-librali al-dimuqrati)
Part 2: State of the Opposition
Part 3: Role of Foreign Pressure

Background info:

Kamal was a member of Riad Seif's civil society forum, which formed during the famous, but short lived, Damascus Spring (2000-2001). Both were arrested at the outset of the Damascus winter in 2001. He was released from prison last summer after completing his three year sentence and has recently started a new political party--or "union" as he calls it; parties are banned. In early August, some 200 people came to his house in Zebidane to discuss the founding charter, but the police closed down an entire neighborhood to prevent people from reaching his house and they stayed there for some 14 hours. According to Kamal, they warned him that Islamists who were displeased with his Liberal Democratic Union might murder him...and of course, Syrian security is in no position to prevent such a barberous act.

The founding document is an interesting read for those who can read Arabic. Go
to and click on "jideed." It is the most comprehensive, detailed charter of any opposition movement. I asked Kamal at one point why he went so far as to specify the structure of the bicameral legistlature, to which his response was, "we're preparing for the day when the regime falls. We're letting them know that we're thinking past their collapse and planning for the future. Its a type of pyschological warfare."

Interview with Kamal Lubwani


What did you do before the Damascus Spring?

I was born in Zebadani in 1957. I graduated from the medical school at Damascus University in 1981. During my college years I worked with Riad at-Turk’s Communist Party which was working in secret at that time. I left the party after four years for various reason, one of which was the lack of democracy within the party itself. During the time that I worked to establish my medical clinic, I continued studying and reading about political issues. I immediately became involved in the Damascus Spring and joined the Committees for the Defense of Human Rights, the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, and we established a forum for national dialogue with Riad Seif. I was arrested for those activities for three years. I was released last year and I immediately devoted myself to my political activities.

Could you give me the background on you’re new party? What are its guiding principles?

We have a union and not a party in the popular sense of the word. The union is based on three principles: democracy, liberalism, and secularism. The opposition is fractured and we are trying to unite it and the only thing that people are united on is those three principles. So we invited a large portion of activists to a meeting and most of them came, but the security wouldn’t let them enter the house. But it’s not a party: it’s a current, an alliance, an extensive assembly based on a new spirit and new political values. It’s larger than a party. It will contain all the parties and the smaller movements both internal and external and it will encourage the religious movements and even extremists to join and pursue political activism through peaceful, public means. We think that liberalism is a consensus-building philosophy.

Who was responsible for organizing the union’s platform?

Originally I was propositioned to be part of the assembly that Rihab al-Bitar was forming, but they stop short of being true opposition to the regime. They wait for permission from the authorities. So I told them that their behavior and their project cannot become the makings of a real opposition and I offered them an alternative platform. They were working on the union’s formation for three months. When I showed them the platform they got scared, so I left the group and presented the platform to people for a general discussion. I received a lot of responses and went through three different drafts of the platform until this one, which was supposed to be discussed at my house. Before drafting the final version I had visited a lot of people in all the provinces to discuss these ideas. Some hundred and fifty people agreed to come to Damascus and they agreed to help me.

The purpose of the meeting was to approve the founding document as a theoretical basis for the organization. The second purpose was to announce our project and demand that the government license us if they are willing to publish a new party law. But we all know that the authorities lie and it won’t permit anyone to speak out because the authority is corrupt and dictatorial and corruption and dictatorship fundamentally contradict transparency and freedom of opinion because the first opinion that anyone would express would be opposition to the corruption and tyranny and the crimes the authorities have committed. And then they’ll face arrest, interrogation, and a trial.

They say we enact a party law, we’ll implement reform but its all lies because these authorities are incapable of it. Based on their history, they couldn’t stand up to a child because he would scandalize them.

You mentioned that you wanted you’re project to include all of the parties. How much of the opposition and the Syrian public are committed or receptive to liberalism?

I was probing society in order to determine the true magnitude of support, but it’s difficult because there is no freedom of discussion. But from my discussions, I can say that about 70% of Syrians are receptive to liberalism and maybe from a background that would make them receptive to liberalism. At the very least, 70% would be receptive and accepting of these ideas if we are able to convey them, if we are able to reach the people and dialogue with them. The political forces that exist today are ancient inheritances… They have not produced anything new. During Damascus Spring we tried to form new currents like the movement for civil society and the forums but they were crushed. The state planted its supporters in the movements and they failed.

But even among those forces that exist today, 50% are willing to leave their organizations and work with us in a new environment. And this is what’s encouraging us—getting two hundred people on board is no easy task. In a country dominated by oppression, many organizations have only five or ten real members. But we began with two hundred and hopefully we can hold several meetings and become a thousand by the end of the month. And from what I have seen from all the different social segments that have shown interest, I am confident that we will attract new people that were not previously politicized.

So in short, I can say that 50% of the opposition and 70% of the people would be willing to participate in this project?

The entire project? The founding document calls for civil marriages, complete equality for women including equal inheritance, and separation of religion and state. Don’t you think those points might meet with opposition amongst the religious masses?

I think that 50% of society—i.e. the women—will endorse these ideas because they have a direct interest. No one refuses a right that is offered to them. None of them are going to refuse equal inheritance. I’m speaking about the women because they are oppressed; you’re speaking about the men. Nonetheless, I suspect half the men would endorse these ideas and if half the men and all the women do, we have 75% support.

In terms of the secular component, everybody is beginning to recognize the need for a separation of religion and state after witnessing the terrible events in Iraq and Lebanon. Otherwise we will be divided along sectarian lines because we are a country of many sects and ethnicities.

And when we say that the religious figures shouldn’t be in power we don’t want to promote atheism or undermine religion. Our definition of secularism is that religious injunctions should not determine the country’s politics. We are not going to wait for Sistani or Al-Azhar or other religious authorities to make the political decisions for us. Let the religious man stay religious. And those who want to participate are welcome. But for politics, there will be an elected assembly that issues law regardless of religious injunctions. At any rate, this has been the reality in Syria since the fifties. Secularism is not something alien or new in Syrian society. Of course, today there are fundamentalist and terrorist groups that are demanding the reestablishment of religious rule, but this hasn’t existed since the time of the Ottomans.

They talk about returning to the past. But we refuse to return to the past. We do not want to replace a dictatorial, fascist, totalitarian regime with a theocratic regime. We want secularism to continue—we want its continuation, development, and penetration throughout society.

You say that people recognize the need for secularism. How do you reconcile that with what appears to be an Islamic resurgence in Syria?

The Islamic resurgence is happening for several reasons. One part of the resurgence is a protest to despotism. Another is a protest to sectarian discrimination because the regime is sectarian. Another is a response to the failure of Marxist and Nasserist ideologies. But this resurgence is not antagonistic to our project. We are not the antithesis of the resurgence; on the contrary, we want to absorb it into our project. We are able to do this—we have met with many devout people and they accepted the project. I think that a lot of those people that you are talking about consider religion a source of morals and values. They will be with us, not on the other side. It was originally part of my idea to bring them into this project, to find mutual interests and find the values shared by Islam and modern liberalism. This political and cultural project is extremely important and I will focus much of my efforts on this point.

Without this project it will never be possible to rid ourselves of cultural and intellectual backwardness that constitutes the groundwork for terrorism and extremism. This is the essence of the project: bringing these sorts of groups into the political arena where they are part of civilization and respect other viewpoints. Even Europe couldn’t advance until Christianity underwent a transformative reformation. In Europe, the Christians were responsible for the Inquisition and countless executions prior to the advent of liberalism. If we can reconcile Islam and liberalism, Islam will be more urbane, tolerant, and averse to violence.

We’ve been unjustly frightened by them. They are ready to endorse these acceptable things. Those who are extremists stake out a radical position because they have been wronged and deprived of everything.

What sort of complaints, apprehensions, or demands have the religious groups you’ve met with displayed in response to the founding charter?

They have accepted that the government should not be religious in character and that the president be elected irrespective of his religion. They have accepted that the parliament will be the source of legislation, not the Qur’an. They have deep convictions about the authority of the Qur’an, but they don’t want to impose it on people because we have other religions in Syria like Christianity. Even the Muslim Brotherhood—its leader, Bayanuni said that the Qur’an is to them the source of legislation, but they would not impose it in any constitution.

Of course, there are people who oppose secularism. This secular regime has brutally oppressed those sorts of people, so they are against secularism as part of their opposition to the current regime. But once we achieve a secular democracy that ensures the right of expression, the right to participate in politics, civil rights, provides work opportunities, etc—I think that they will defend this system, not fight it. The greatest mistake was the marriage of despotism and secularism because opposition to this regime—to many people, at least—entails opposition to secularism. But when we merge democracy, liberalism, and secularism, they’ll find that it is in their interest to defend it. Here is the barter: when we can lift the oppression that has been foisted on them and they begin to realize their rights, they will mellow and it will be easier to cooperate with them.

What about the economic platform? How is your advocacy of capitalism received by the communist and socialist groups?

All of the parties, from the communists to the authority are advancing the idea of the “market economy,” but this phrasing is an attempt to avoid the word capitalism. But the market economy is capitalism and they can call it a market economy or a social economy, but all of those are phrases designed to avoid calling it what it is. None of the parties, including the Ba’th party are advancing an agenda for which capitalism doesn’t play a part.

Capitalism is the solution to our problems, not this idea of a social economy. They don’t want to use the word capitalism because they can’t simply reverse forty years of oppression in the name of socialism. They nationalized property, committed theft, and robbed the country of its resources in the name of socialism. They can’t just say they were wrong. They have to say “we’ll reform, develop, and modernize,” but all of the procedures being undertaken to that end are movements towards capitalism.

I’ve challenged people to give me one example of a party platform that doesn’t discuss opening markets, attracting foreign investment, etc. No one is talking about nationalizing properties—everyone is talking about privatization and free markets.

What is the most prominent form of opposition you’re facing from those that you are trying to court?

I’m facing the greatest opposition from the qawmiyiin (nationalists) and to an extent, the Marxists because they suffer from ideological stagnancy. They think that liberalism serves on a small segment of society and not an idea that embraces freedom for all. In the totalitarian state, liberal thought has become a popular demand. We are not trying to build Syria in the 17th or 18th century when only the bourgeoisie excelled. ِِThe whole of society is facing a new kind of political feudalism, which is the state. The state today possesses feudalist characteristics and we need liberalism to rid society of that sort of state.

That’s what is happening in Eastern Europe which is working day and night to transform its people into students of freedom and democracy. And there was no carrier of the liberal ideal because there was no bourgeoisie—only communists. Nonetheless, that society was able to create a new condition for itself. It was quickly able to build a liberal project.

I am orienting this project towards all people. Those who are resisting it suffer from intellectual stagnancy, claiming that liberalism from a historical standpoint was ushered in by the bourgeoisie and that new liberalism is another form of monopoly. I don’t think that’s correct. Liberalism is for the impoverished. Today people suffer from unemployment, hunger, and homelessness—what’s the reason? It’s not capitalism. The reason is the state, the totalitarian state that promised social services and didn’t deliver on anything. The state that monopolized every aspect of society and apportioned its riches only to the children of the authorities. So today, even the poor, the deprived, the hungry—they are liberals and even though they are not bourgeoisie. Socialism is the cause of poverty. You can’t solve their problems by re-implementing the source of their problems—you can only do that with new ideas. You can only counter the idea of totalitarianism with liberalism.

What inspired you to found this assembly at this time?

The regime had the intention of creating its own liberal current to change the instruments of power—from the Ba’th party to another assembly, but the same authority figures would remain in power. They would host elections and emerge as another political trend. After they robbed the country they had the economic keys to the country, they had the capacity to buy all of the votes—without real political reform, of course—and they would replace the Bath party with a liberal party that would carry them to the next stage, like what Hosni Mubarak did. That is what compelled me to be opposition. I felt that this was a real danger for Syrian society and it meant that economic reform wouldn’t produce anything because the children of the current authorities would take over for them. And the people wouldn’t enjoy any benefits from those changes and it would only further strengthen extremist currents. So I tried to pull the rug from under them and create a true liberal party, not for the sake of corruption and not to be a mere transition mechanism, but for the sake of the citizen who has been harmed by despotism.

If you are prohibited from publishing, assembling, and speaking publicly, how do you plan on promoting you’re assembly and attracting new members?

We’re prohibited from assembling, but I still publish on the internet and my articles are distributed to a large number of people. There is a prohibition on writing but it isn’t a total prohibition. At the very least, we can try to convey the ideas and engage in dialogue verbally. They try to prohibit everything but they can’t because we continue to contest. They closed the Jamal al-Atassi forum so we founded a new party, the founding statement of which contains things that no individual was discussing, namely what to do after the collapse of this regime.

There is a popular theory that capitalism necessarily results in democracy and democracy cannot be realized without capitalism. What do you think about this idea? Do you think one has to come first?

You’re speaking about two ideas. Yes, capitalism will result in democracy if it is free capitalism. Capitalism isn’t just a market philosophy, it is also a set of values. If it is distorted capitalism, corrupt capitalism, monopolistic capitalism, it won’t produce democracy—it will produce political feudalism. The idea that economic reform necessarily leads to political reform is contradicted by experience. What is economic reform anyways? The government is moving towards a free market but its efforts are hemmed in by its own interests. Certain personalities are opening up banks and companies solely for their sons.

Economic reform prior to political reform will lead to corruption and it will produce a corrupt democracy if democracy ever emerges. This is exactly what the authorities are trying to do. Political reform must come first because a corrupt regime cannot be trusted to undertake economic reform. The corrupt don’t reform just like criminals don’t become saints. The only solution is the ballot box whereby the people can elect a government that is willing to represent the will of the people and engage in true reform. The government is running from political reform and talking about economic reform. There was a bidding for a contract to build optic cables and they returned all of the bids, saying that the contract had already been given to Rami Makhlouf. That’s not reform, that’s an economic monopoly.

The first step in reform is confiscating the riches of the corrupt. As soon as we see an index of the president’s expenses among others, then we will know that real reform has begun.

How do plan on attracting the Kurdish groups to your assembly?

If we succeed in our democratic project, the Kurdish issue will become a secondary concern. If it fails and Syria remains a poor, backwards country, then the Kurdish issue will get worse. People want to live, so when you provide them with the means to do so, they will forget some of their particular concerns. But if they continue to live in a society dominated by poverty and oppression the tensions will explode. The Kurdish issue is a problem for the entire region—the situation is worse in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. This issue crosses over several state boundaries, so if the international community were—with the consent of those states—to carve out a separate independent state, I wouldn’t have an objection. I’m for Kurdish self-determination. But that state would have to be realized through negotiations and not through war.

The most important thing is that we improve the economic situation and ensure that they enjoy their rights and only then will the situation solve itself.


What is the future of the opposition in your mind? Is it a more unified version of the present oppositional figures and parties or does the future lie in a new generation?

The problem is that there is no politically mobilized street. When that happens, everything will change. Today, the opposition is purely symbolic and this sort of opposition is incapable of uniting because it is based on personalities, on the capability of single individuals to confront the authorities. I distributed the founding document for this organization in my name and invited people to my house. The project was to a large extent personal and it couldn’t have been otherwise because if I had used someone else’s house there are no guarantees. Perhaps he would cancel the entire thing and people would abandon it because of the pressure from the security. But when I invite people to my house, I ensure that I will not backtrack. If I publish these documents in my name, they can imprison me but I will stand steadfast behind them, but there is no guarantee that someone else would.

You are forced to rely on the strength on one’s character because you will be entering combat together. Group work cannot be flexible unless it is secretive and we are absolutely against that. For this reason we are trying to create symbols and combating the authorities symbolically. What we need today are new symbols and a new strategy of dueling with the government. The society is watching and when the masses begin to move, they will move behind those who represent them. It’s like how people get riled up at soccer games and express allegiance to the best players on their team. Our ability to combine the symbols and the masses depends on our activism in the political arena. That arena is very small right now, but as soon as people become active they will begin looking for symbols. So right now, we are reserving space in that arena so that when the day comes that people move to the street—either because of foreign or internal pressures—we will be ready.

So why is the opposition so weak and personalized, why is it incapable of garnering more popular support?

The first reason is fear. People say, “I don’t want to work in politics just to serve 25 years in prison or maybe die.” They don’t want to loose their work. The first reason for the weakness of the opposition is its isolation from the people. The second reason is the interference of state apparatuses that frighten and torment. The third reason is absence of a new, mature political consciousness—people are still trapped in the texts of the 1950s, like Marxism and qawmiya. The people are isolated from political culture. They are not acquainted with new ideas because nobody reads—book consumption is trifling. For that reason, a new mentality has not developed. The fourth reason, like I said, is that the opposition is overly dependent on individual personalities and the culture elite, which is dangerous. It makes the opposition fractious. This is counter to the principle of politics which must be collective in nature.

Why isn’t there a politically mobilized street in Syria? Fear cannot be the only reason—Egypt, Iran, even Uzbekistan all suffer from oppressive regimes, but at least based on the number of people who attend demonstrations, the street is more politically active in those countries. Why is Syria different?

You can’t say that the Syrian street isn’t politicized. Basically, there are no politics in Syria. Even the Ba’th party isn’t political and you won’t find a single real politician inside the regime. The regime is run by the military and security branch, not by politicians. Our society is totally dispossessed of politics. The fundamental problem is that this regime is a militaristic, security-obsessed, police state. One moment they are arresting people for muttering a word, then they tell us we can’t meet in our own houses, and so people have stopped speaking out. They are just waiting for the regime to fall.

The second problem stems from the opposition itself. They have permitted the regime to penetrate them with secret police, slander them, and enfeeble them. And nobody trusts them—we haven’t reached a stage where the parties are able to mobilize the street. If we presented a real program and behaved like real opposition, maybe people would be convinced by us.

For forty years, we didn’t hear a single word from any media outlet about what was happening in Syria. The events in Hama were not mentioned by the BBC even once. The city was besieged and 24,000 people were massacred and the battle lasted a month—the media didn’t say a word. That was evidence that the regime was supported from the outside, especially by Europe and Russia. People were afraid to go to prison for twenty years when only one in ten came out alive—they starved or died from torture. All of those factors contributed to the silence of the street. If the street felt like there was any hope—even one in a hundred—they would begin to mobilize.

What are you’re thoughts on Rihab al-Bitar’s new party, "The Free Democratic Coalition?"

Rihab al-Bitar is never far from the authorities and they are the ones who pushed her to form the party just like they pushed others to form human rights organizations. The secret police are running 70% of the opposition and we are struggling to preserve that 30%.

How do you know who is real opposition and who are the infiltrators?

First, their history and their relationships: there are lots of long and complicated processes that we use to make sure that someone is truly independent from the security branches, so he has to undergo long and complicated tests.

Rihab says that she wants to oppose the opposition and oppose the authorities. But that’s not opposition to the authorities and she even admits that.

Another liberal union was established in Aleppo last month. What’s the difference between your two assemblies and what is the nature of the relationship between the two?

I’m not sure exactly why Samir Nashar started his project, but it’s his right to do so. He tried to convince Riad Seif to be part of his project but Riad refused. So he started the project with eight people, one of whom pulled out, and none of whom except Samir have any political history. And his political history is very recent—only after the Damascus Spring did he become involved. He doesn’t have any political experience; he’s a trader and he’s hoping to hide that. A trader can be part of a political movement and he can be a member, but he cannot lead a political movement. Political work is professional work—it’s exhausting, it requires a lot of culture, a lot of experience with people, the authorities, and the opposition.

I tried hard to convince him to be part of our project, but he was insistent that he wanted a project that was his own. It’s his right to want something distinguished and to represent a certain segment of society and hopefully he will succeed.

Is there any disagreement over ideology or the party platform between the two of you?

There is a disagreement regarding the social segment that we want to direct out efforts towards. I want to direct it towards everyone who has been harmed by despotism, whereas, he wants to direct it towards the ownership class. He wants to incorporate the rich into his party, whereas, I want to represent the widest segment of society possible. I think that the style of our work differs on a fundamental level, but not the goals—we both want a free market, a democratic country, and a secular government.

Is there any sort of competition between your parties?

No. But we are ready to cooperate with them and there is a close friendship between us.

Other than you and Samir Nashar, who else is working to establish liberal parties?

There is Rihab Al-Bitar and there was another group of people working with me, including Nabil Fayyad and Jihad Nasra. They broke off from my group immediately after the first meeting at the behest of the security apparatus. They will continue to work as a liberal assembly, but it’s ultimately a sectarian assembly. Samir was very clear in his intention to focus on the Sunni majority. I am against that. We should be orienting ourselves to all social segments regardless of sect. Their projects are very because they will partition what must be a national project and they contradict liberalism.


Having an assembly is one thing, but how can you pressure the regime to even listen to your demands? Does foreign pressure have a role in implementing your agenda?

The strategy is to dislodge the regime. The regime is very weak, but the power of society is even weaker. Our confrontation with the authorities will be symbolic: we will violate every taboo and cross every red line that they have drawn. We have recently reached a stage in which we can expand the opposition’s activities and speak about almost whatever we wish with the press without fear. We have surpassed that prohibition, at least. We’re trying to reach the street, but on that issue they are still playing games with us.

We are trying to create a framework for a new form of government and the regime is afraid of this; this is why it has returned to its use of oppressive tactics like refusing to let people meet in their own houses. It will cease to be effective in the foreseeable future because we expect one of the following: either a spontaneous, violent reaction from the street like what happened in Qamashli, or international pressures, or even events within the regime. This is the sort of regime where if you apply pressure on it, its inner elements will prove incapable of cooperating with one another and it will implode. So the combination of foreign pressure and social pressure along with the internal congestion this regime suffers from will open up an avenue for change. We can’t say exactly where the avenue will open up; it’s like putting pressure on a water bottle. A weakness will develop, but you can’t predict exactly where. That is why we have to combine all of our forces and collectively pressure this regime which is likely to collapse in any circumstance.

My strategy is without limits. I have a strategy of applying pressure by raising new demands, by producing symbols, by creating a new social movement, by encouraging people to take initiative and participate in politics. This is useful but insufficient. There are social crises that will push people to act. There is a crisis in foreign relations in response to Syria’s deviant behavior. The infrastructure of the regime is also based on conflicting and competing gangs and this will weaken it as well.

What’s the role of foreign powers in assisting reform?

The foreign role is very important. We cannot overcome this crisis peacefully without international guarantees. Foreign pressure is decisive—it will determine whether Syria is marred by chaos or whether it undergoes a peaceful transition of power. And this role will be important for at least ten years to come because at present we are incapable of forming a complete awareness that incorporates all of the movements. So I think that the sincere Syrians internally should work with sincere external powers to help Syria transition from despotism to democracy. The absence of either side will doom this project.

Specifically, what sort of foreign pressures do you advocate?

All sorts of pressures. Unfortunately, economic pressures would be felt by the people because the regime is shielded by its corruption. Military pressure is dangerous but possible if it focused solely on the symbols of the regime. The most important thing is that the pressure be applied directly to those in power.

How do you apply pressure on the regime without negatively impacting the people?

The names of every person who violates human rights, like officers, should be put on a blacklist along with the symbols of corruption. And their assets should be tracked down. This is legal, natural, and part of the job of the international community. Any person who violates human rights should be tried in an international court, which we should be able to appeal to. The United Nations is entitled by law to interfere with a country’s internal affairs to combat oppression and servitude. Dictatorship is the last form of servitude.

Diplomatic isolation is another option; diplomatic relations should be conditioned on respect for human rights. The European Union is trying to get its economic agreement passed with Syria in order to save this regime from American pressures and they have not stipulated clear conditions regarding human rights. So perhaps the international community can place enough moral pressure on the regime to prompt change. Everyone saw in Lebanon how the United Nations managed to quickly achieve an agenda that the Lebanese themselves were incapable of for years. The Syrian army immediately withdrew and they held elections. But right now there isn’t any real pressure being placed on Syria, especially from the European front.

There’s a difference between pressures placed on the regime—i.e. penalties imposed when it violates human rights—and direct assistance to the opposition—i.e. material or organizational support. What sort of the latter do you want from the international community?

The first thing is monitoring the regime’s behavior and highlighting its infractions in the press. The press would provide us a forum to reach the people which is very important because the oppression here prohibits us from transmitting our ideas to the street. The foreign press is much more capable and its use will strengthen us.

The second form of assistance is material support—relationships with the embassies, with international organizations, help in publishing and disseminating, etc. Maybe we could reach a stage where we received financial support, though this is dangerous because it could corrupt the organizations. If we did accept money it would have to be public, transparent, and with the knowledge of the regime.

I think those three things—the pressure, the press support, and material support—would be enough to turn the opposition into a significant force in society. And the combination of those three would drastically facilitate the dislodging of this regime.

What are you’re thoughts on the Syrian opposition in America, such as Farid Ghadry’s party [Syrian Reform Party]?

In politics, everyone tried to preserve their own interests and they have a right to pursue their interests. But they are different from us—their circumstances and their demands differ. We are living inside the country so our demands are oriented towards internal affairs. They are interesting in being able to come and go freely and in investing. They may be duplicitous because they have two different loyalties—one to Syria and one to America. We might be able to work together and they might be able to help us, especially if they can influence US decision making and we would be willing to welcome them, but on the condition that the program comes from the inside.

Does Farid Ghadry’s party have any base or support in Syria?

None whatsoever. He doesn’t have anyone inside the country and anyone who did cooperate with him would be accused of treason and arrested. His party has called for military invasion of Syria, so nobody is going to work with him. Nabil Fayad joined his party because state security sent Nabil. They sent him to Washington to figure out what was going on and he succeeded—he infiltrated the party and the Americans. I tried to warn them but they didn’t listen to me. There is no doubt that Nabil is an agent of the regime—a cheap, petty man—and it was Ghadry’s mistake to cooperate with a man like that.

What do you think is the real purpose of America’s project to remake the region?

I think that America wants to make important changes in the region, especially towards democracy. But they are no longer able to present any evidence to convince people that they are serious in their desire to promote democracy.

If America wants to convince people that it’s serious about its desire to promote democracy, democracy needs to be its first priority. Their first demand cannot be Iraq, followed by Israel, followed by Lebanon when 18 million people are suffering inside of Syria. The US presents 15 demands and not a single one has anything to do with the internal situation. The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth demands need to be directed towards internal politics.

You cannot expect the people to be allies in your efforts to fight terrorism when you are supported the foul acts of the regimes that you have supported for 40 years. I cannot forget who America counts as its allies—Mubarak’s regime, the Hashemites in Jordan, and even the Syria regime, which, in many regards, is an ally of America. If American doesn’t change its policy, people are going to remain skeptical.

The only way for America to regain its credibility is to change its policy and to demonstrate that it is interested in and cognizant of the afflictions that the Syrians are suffering from. Syrians need to see official statements to this end.

Is the US embassy doing anything to support civil society or dissidents in Syria?

Not at all. The group that is working on that agenda is extremely weak. They deal with us through a single person who barely speaks Arabic and is incapable of initiating anything. Basically, all they do is jot down notes on the latest news of the opposition, the sort of news that they could just as easily obtain from a newspaper. They have demonstrated no willingness to coordinate or cooperate with the elements of civil society. The US is not counting on the opposition to play any internal role.

Syria has been left out of the US’s agenda to promote democracy in the region—the US hasn’t exerted pressure on the regime to respect human rights nor has it given any funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to Syrian civil society. Why do you think Syria is the exception?

Maybe they are afraid that if they give people money, they will expose them to danger. There is a law that sentences people to a minimum of three years for accepting foreign money and the emergency law imposes the death penalty for such an offense. Maybe the Americans are afraid of subjecting someone to that sort of punishment.

Some opposition figures say that moral support from America would actually undermine their credibility by enabling the regime to dismiss them as traitors. Do you think moral support from America is potentially counter-productive?

It would make sense to call me a traitor if I was from the outside, but I spent my entire life here and I don’t need a certificate of good behavior. If I was to cooperate with the Americans and benefited from its pressures it would be for the popular interest and no one would accuse me of being an American agent. I want the American pressures to increase because we profit from them. It’s only natural that we would look to the superpowers of our day to help motivate change.

We cannot deny that American foreign policy has undergone tremendous changes in the aftermath of September 11. We have recognized those changes but the people still have not. I am prepared to work with the international community for the sake of bringing democracy to America and this is not something that warrants accusations—on the contrary, it will enhance our power to serve the people’s interests.

How did the Lebanon withdrawal impact the opposition and the credibility of the regime? Did it encourage people to mobilize?

The withdrawal influenced people morally but that wasn’t reflected materially because the regime began to clamp down even more internally to compensate for its loss of Lebanon. Those who were pillaging Lebanon came back to rob the Syrian people. At best it boosted people’s morale and encouraged them that some day they could mobilize and expel these authorities from Syria as well.

How did the Iraq war impact the opposition?

There were two divergent effects. In the beginning, the fall of Saddam had a huge effect and gave people hope. But when the situation in Iraq deteriorated, it had the opposite effect: people began to fear for the future. Even when the greatest powers intervened in Iraq they were unable to achieve stability, which indicates a real problem.

This society doesn’t understand that there is another force intent on ensuring instability in Iraq. The whole world is conspiring against the Iraqi people to foster instability so that the American project fails—all of Iraq’s neighbors and even some of America’s allies. Even the Europeans are contributing to this. For this reason, the Iraqi people are paying a tremendous price. And this left a negative mark on the Syrian opposition.

Some people contend that the West has much to fear from democracy in the Arab world because the Islamists would win. How do you address this concern?

That concern is exaggerated because elections aren’t going to occur tomorrow. Elections are the last, not the first step, in the transition to democracy. The first step is freedom of speech and political parties and only when there is an informed public opinion will there be elections. But that requires a year or two. In that time period, the Islamist parties will not dominate; if you give us freedom, you have nothing to fear from the ballot box.

Do you think that there are any figures in this regime committed to reform?

The reformists within the government are committed to changing the mechanisms of the regime and not the people in authority. So they can say that bribes, corruption, and despotism should no longer be the means to enrichment because those people already have a fortune and they want to invest their money in the market. It is in their interest to change the economic mechanisms so they can further enrich themselves, but the very people who are pushing for this reform are the same ones that were former symbols of corruption.

What do you expect from the new party and press laws?

No law that has been promulgated by this regime in the last forty years has been a real law. They have been hindrances, they have constrained our freedom. There will not be a law that freely permits parties. The only permitted parties will be those that cooperate with the security apparatuses. I don’t expect anything from these authorities and anything they do will be without substance and dangerous.

U.S. to Put New Pressure on Syria

I am copying several articles on the latest Mehlis report developments. Four top Lebanese military officials allied with Syria, arrested in Lebanon, have been charged preliminarily by Lebanese authorities in the Hariri murder. Mehlis, the German investigator, says the four are suspected of planning the murder. More suspects are likely to be arrested in the coming weeks. Links to Syria are being made, and President Asad seems to have his head in the sand, claiming he is cooperating with the investigation even when the head of the investigation says he is not.

France and Washington are determined to work together. Their combined energies can go a long way in the UN Security Council to enacting new sanctions on Damascus. Only Russia has demonstrated any inclination to protect Syria in the past, and this has been mostly symbolic. It did not veto UN resolution 1559, as Syria hoped it would.

The big question will be how Syria responds to the growing pressure. Past Syrian crisis management habits suggests that it will go into a defensive tuck, remain silent, denying all wrong-doing, and wait to see what the world comes up with in the way of punishment, then it will figure out the least costly way to respond.

Syria responds this way for two reasons. 1. Its diplomacy is based on intimidation and not legal norms from the beginning, so it doesn't have legal procedures to fall back on. 2. It has only the weakest understanding of how foreign governments and international agencies really work. This means it cannot develop quick strategies of response. 3. There are so few decision makers at the top, that the foreign policy establishment, if it can be called that, has no plan B's ready and waiting. Because decisions from the top are considered infallible, options in case of failure are not developed.

Will this lead to a downfall of the regime, as many in the West say or hope it will? I don't think so. The Asad regime has weathered many bad crises without showing signs of serious division. The only real split under Hafiz al-Asad was in 1984 when it seemed that he was dieing, which provoked a premature succession crisis. We have seen no indications of failed coup attempts in the past, which would indicate serious rifts within the leadership. Syria's successful history of keeping its leadership together contrasts sharply with Iraq's history of periodic leadership purges.

Much will depend on how Washington and Paris apply increased pressure on Syria. Whether the sanctions which are developed broadly focused on the economy, or narrowly focused on individuals.

U.S. to Put New Pressure on Syria

Initiative Also Has Goal of Helping Lebanon Rebuild Politically

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005; Page A06

The Bush administration plans to launch a new effort at the United Nations this month to tighten the squeeze on Syria and to help Lebanon rebuild politically, according to senior U.S. officials. The U.S. initiative, backed by France, comes as Lebanon filed preliminary criminal charges yesterday against four pro-Syrian generals in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The plan's two steps are part of parallel international efforts to hold the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria to account for its current and past meddling in Lebanon, and are bolstered as the U.N.-led investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination narrows its focus on Syria's allies and agents in Lebanon. The goal is to "juxtapose" greater pressure on Syria with international help for Lebanon as it works to regain sovereignty, particularly because the Syrians have not pulled out all of their intelligence agents, said a senior administration official.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held an unpublicized meeting Tuesday at the White House with the U.N. envoy for Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, French national security adviser Maurice Gourdault-Montagne and U.S. national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley to discuss Lebanon and Syria, according to U.S. officials and European diplomatic sources. The French and U.N. envoys flew in specifically for the meeting.

Rice is now planning to host a meeting with European and Middle East allies to discuss new joint efforts when she attends the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in two weeks. Deliberately excluded will be Assad, who will be visiting the United Nations for the first time as head of state, U.S. officials said.

"We're creating a context that will have a supportive position for Lebanon and for Syria not to be comfortable," said a senior administration official, who, like others, requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy involved.

"If I were in Bashar's shoes, I'd look again about coming to New York. It's not going to be the spotlight he expected," he added.

U.S. and European officials say they have been pleased and surprised by the boldness of the German U.N investigator, Detlev Mehlis, in unraveling the Hariri assassination, which rocked Lebanon, unleashed a new political movement and forced Syria to end its 29-year military occupation of Lebanon in April. The investigative team has developed "rock-solid evidence," said a well-placed source familiar with the investigation.

Mehlis is due to submit his report by Sept. 17, as the U.N. General Assembly opens. Although he is expected to request an extension, sources say the arrests this week are only the first of developments based on information obtained so far.

As a result of information uncovered by the U.N. investigation, Lebanese prosecutors filed preliminary charges yesterday against four top military officials allied with Syria, according to the Associated Press. The four will appear in front of a magistrate for further questions today, a session that will determine whether formal charges are filed.

The four generals are Brig. Gen. Jamil Sayyid, former head of General Security; Brig. Gen. Ali Hajj, former director general of the Internal Security Forces; Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, former director general of military intelligence; and Brig Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, head of the presidential guards.

The State Department called on Syria yesterday to cooperate, after its early balking. "We have made it very clear that it is essential that all parties cooperate with Mr. Mehlis's investigation," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "The Lebanese people are owed an answer, they deserve an answer as to who was responsible for the assassination of Mr. Hariri. Mr. Mehlis is making good progress in his investigation."

If Damascus is found to be involved in the car bombing that killed Hariri, a billionaire who led a campaign against Syria's domination of Lebanon before his death, then the Syrians "are in trouble," warned the senior administration official.

As the investigation deepens, U.S., European and U.N. officials are talking about the next steps, including how a potential trial would unfold and whether it should be held in Lebanon, according to U.S. and European officials. Although some want Lebanon to be able to confront its past as a step toward securing its future, others fear that Lebanon's judicial system is not strong or sufficiently free from Syrian control to conduct a fair and independent trial, U.S. and European officials said.

Damascus may face international sanctions following arrests of pro-Syrian elements over Hariri murder Roee Nahmias
Yedioth Ahronoth reported Wednesday that the United States and France are planning to slap sanctions on Syria in the coming days, particularly against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

There are reports of direct links between Assad’s regime on the murder of former al-Hariri, following information obtained through the questioning of the commander of the Lebanese Presidential Guard, and three former intelligence chiefs.

In addition, Larsen and European Union Secretary-General Javier Solana decided to push off a visit to Beirut following the "dramatic and surprising developments," in the international investigation currently underway in Lebanon.

U.S. and U.N. officials declined to divulge details of the meeting.

'Syria failing to cooperate'

Last week, a U.N. Security Council session saw a German judge present a report on the al-Harir slaying, in which Syria was accused of failing to cooperate with the investigation. Israel and Jordan were praised in the report for their forthcoming help with the investigation.

A short time after the report, the American and French ambassadors went on a media offensive, and accused Syria of attempting to sabotage the investigation.

In Jerusalem, diplomatic sources told Ynet that sanctions on Syria were certainly a possibility, but said that such a move would not happen immediately. The U.N. Security Council was not fond of sanctions, using the measure only when faced with no choice, said one source.

Resistance to sanctions by the Arab bloc of U.N. members, who would try to torpedo such a step and help Syria to escape punishment, were also a factor in the timing of the sanctions.

A potential flashpoint between Syria and U.N. member states may take place during the U.N.’s annual convention in New York in two week’s time. Assad had planned on arriving at the convention, but recent developments have thrown such an appearance in doubt, a diplomat in Jerusalem said.

Hariri killing suspects charged
BBC: Thursday, 1 September 2005,
Hariri supporters have celebrated news of the generals' arrest.

A Lebanese prosecutor has charged four pro-Syrian generals detained earlier this week in connection with the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The head of an international inquiry into the killing - who ordered the arrests - said the four were suspected of planning the murder.

But Detlev Mehlis said that they were only part of the picture, and that more investigation was needed.

Hariri's supporters blamed the murder on Syria, but Damascus denies this.

Lebanon's political landscape was transformed by his death and the event led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country.

Those charged are:

Maj Gen Jamil al-Sayyad, former head of General Security

Maj Gen Ali Hajj, former chief of police

Brig Gen Raymond Azar, former military intelligence chief

Mustafa Hamdan, Republican Guard commander.

Detlev Mehlis wants his UN mandate to be extended

The once powerful and feared generals will be questioned by a Lebanese investigative judge on Friday, says the BBC's Kim Ghattas.

According to Mr Mehlis, the four are suspected of involvement in planning the assassination of the former prime minister on the basis of testimonies and material evidence.

Mr Mehlis' mandate from the UN Security Council ends on 15 September.

The German prosecutor has indicated that this may be extended for the completion of his investigation.
Endgame on Hariri
Editorial Comment
Financial Times
Published: September 2 2005 03:00

The spectacle of four generals in an Arab country's security services being hauled in for questioning over the assassination of a politician is not just unusual. It is unique. Yet that is what happened in Beirut this week, as a United Nations-mandated investigation into February's murder of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, enters its final days. Every bit as much as the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon this spring, this is a moment to savour.

The arrests suggest to the Arab public that the national security states and intelligence services that dominate them can be held accountable, for all the impunity with which they exercise their tyranny. That idea is profoundly subversive of the region's autocracies - and altogether welcome.

The security chiefs, moreover, are part of the chain of command through which Syria exercised its smothering occupation of Lebanon. That formally ended when the Ba'athist regime in Damascus was forced to withdraw its troops after the Hariri assassination led to a civic uprising and the fall of Syria's puppet government in Beirut.

Yet a string of assassinations since then, alongside threats against leaders of the anti-Syrian alliance now in government, suggests that the local satraps of Damascus are still in business. It was unsurpising, therefore, that Detlev Mehlis, the UN investigator, said yesterday that the suspects being held were "only part of the picture", and demanded co-operation from Syria.

In the same way Syria was obliged by UN Security Council resolution 1559 to withdraw troops and secret police from Lebanon, it has been ordered to help the UN investigation by the later resolution 1595. Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president, says his government is co-operating but so far it has not.

If that continues, Syria should itself be held to account by the Security Council. Whether or not the Assad regime is ultimately found responsible for Hariri's murder, the facts remain that the suspects being held are all hand-picked Syrian agents and the UN has already documented Mr Assad's personal threats to Hariri, although the Syrian president denies them.

One of the suspects, moreover, is Mustafa Hamdan, commander of Lebanon's presidential guard and confidant of Emile Lahoud, the president, whose imposition by Damascus sparked the crisis. Mr Lahoud's reaction to the arrests was to vow to stay in office but his position is fast becoming untenable.

While Lebanese nervously anticipate a violent reaction to the latest turn in the Hariri investigation, its progress so far is exhilarating. Their own willingness to mobilise against Syrian intimidation, coupled with a rare alliance in the Security Council between France and the US to keep the pressure on Damascus, has brought Lebanon closer to freedom. It is vital for that Franco-American alliance to stay together now if Lebanon is finally to emerge from the shadow of occupation.
Syria Arrests 70 Arabs Attempting to Infiltrate Iraq
Arab News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur
DAMASCUS, 2 September 2005 —

A Syrian official source said yesterday that Syrian authorities have arrested 70 infiltrators of various Arab nationalities, who tried to cross into neighboring Iraq.

The source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the detainees were from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait.