Wednesday, May 31, 2006

More Economic Pressure on Syria (May 31, 2006)

Has France placed the Commercial Bank of Syria on the black list?

In its May 30 edition, An Nahar, an anti-Syrian daily, reported that: “Sources from both the Commercial Bank of Syria and the French Embassy in Damascus, have denied knowing about a French decision to cut all relations with the aforementioned bank. However, Al Jamal website reported that according to ‘well-informed’ sources, Syrians [living in France] had tried to transfer money to their parents in Syria via French banks in Paris and that the banks that had been dealing with the Commercial Bank of Syria for a very long time had refused to transfer the money.

“The bank told the Syrian emigrants that a decision was issued by the French Central Bank a few days ago banning all relations with the Syrian Commercial Bank and placing it on the black list. A French source in Damascus told An Nahar that: ‘We haven’t received any information in the last few days regarding such a decision’, and a source in the Commercial Bank of Syria stated that: ‘We haven’t received official information regarding this issue, and have never heard of a French inclination to cease all dealings with the bank’.” - An Nahar, Lebanon
Largest U.S. oil investor in Syria to quit
DAMASCUS, Syria, May 31 (UPI) -- The largest U.S. company investing in the oil and gas sector in Syria will soon quit after selling its shares, fearing further U.S. sanctions against Damascus.

A Western oil source told United Press International Wednesday that Marathon, the first and oldest investor in Syrian oil and gas "will leave the country after selling its shares and contract to PetroCanada."

"The decision was sparked by fears from additional sanctions that U.S. President George Bush is seeking to impose on Damascus in addition to problems between the U.S. company and the Syrian government," said the source who requested anonymity.

"At any moment President Bush can increase sanctions on Syria to cover investments as a further move following the Syria Accountability Act which he ratified in 2004," he said.

"It is true that the Syria Accountability Act which was endorsed by the Congress does not include U.S. investments, medical and food exports," he continued, "but the American president can at any moment increase sanctions in line with the same law."

The source said big companies have been investing between $100 million and $300 million "which constitute big investments no one can risk."

Marathon has been working in Syria since 1978 and the total value of its contract is $125 million.

The company faced many problems with the Syrian government, especially when it discovered gas, forcing the Syrian government at the end to agree on signing a new contract with Marathon giving it prospecting rights.

"But in view of the accumulating problems with the Syrian government we have reached an agreement under which we will relinquish our shares and contact to another oil company," the source said without identifying the buyer.

Western diplomatic sources, however, said PetroCanada will buy Marathon's shares.
(MENAFN) Syria announced that it has started works on a border free-trade zone between Syria and Iraq, Azzaman reported.

According to Syrian officials, the cost for the construction of facilities in the zone is expected to reach $20 million.

The 60,000 square meter zone signals improved trade ties despite strained political relations.

The zone will be the largest for Syria with a neighboring country.

Syrian officials said it will drastically improve conditions at the poorly developed eastern parts of the country.

But relations improved by the end of 1998 when the countries put their ideological differences aside and concentrated on boosting bilateral trade.

At the present, Syria is a main gateway for Iraq's trade and Iraqi nationals willing to leave the country amid spiraling violence.

Monday, May 29, 2006

opposition News (May 31, 2006)

The Khaddam people sent out the following circular yesterday advertising their London meeting on June 4 and 5 with the Muslim Brothers and other groups of the National Salvation Front. They will get some press coverage this way. I have written to see if they will give advance notice of who is coming and whether Junblatt or possibly Saad al-Hariri will make guest appearances at the close of the conference to endorse their efforts.

It would certainly be a coup for Bayanouni if Khaddam can pull in the big guns from Lebanon to perform a laying on of hands. Such Lebanese patronage would help them get the blessing of Washington. Washington is flirting with the Salvation Front in order to raise the pressure on Damascus. All the same, Bashar al-Assad is counting on the fact that each time Washington has moved from flirtation to full body embrace of fundamentalist parties, it wakes up the next morning regretting its promiscuous actions. Such has been the case in Iraq and Palestine. According to Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, it looks like Bush has been spooked by Egypt's Muslim Brothers as well. Stephens' article yesterday was entitled: "Bush Betrays Egypt's Democrats. For What?"

Here is the Salvation Front Circular:

For the attention of the Chief Editor,

This is to inform you that the National Salvation Front (NSF) will be holding its convention to evaluate current events in Syria. The NSF will discuss and put in place an executive plan for the liberation & democratization of Syria.

The NSF convention will be attended by more than 50 persons of various political backgrounds and movements. It will be held on the 4th & 5th of June in London, United Kingdom.

In case you are interested in covering this event or to do personal interviews you are invited to write us to:
You can as well call +33631992006.

Simon Tisdall writing for the Guardian has a good analysis of the ongoing crackdown in Syria in his article, "Syria's silent purge." Rime Allaf is quoted. She is upbeat about the National Salvation Front and believes it could be the beginning of the end for Assad. She says: "This is the first time in four decades that we've seen significant organised opposition to the regime. They've gone out on a limb to draw in other exiles and groups from around the world." If the NSF proved a serious proposition, she said, all Mr Assad's machinations could count for nought.

Meanwhile Farid Ghadry's Reform Party has been melting down. He has accused one of his main party members of being a regime spy. It would seem that Ghadry believes that Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar's renegade uncle, has penetrated his party on orders from the Syrian regime.

Tyler Golson, a Georgetown student, translated a recent Ghadry circular about it that was only sent out in Arabic. Here is Tyler's backgrounder with the translation:

A note of context: as of early May 2006, I was receiving two emails a week from Ali al-Hajj Hussein, the Arabic language spokesperson of the Reform Party of Syria, having signed up for their newsletter. They were typical party rhetoric and announcements stuff, sometimes translated in the accompanying English language newsletter, although usually not (it's unclear why the Arabic and English language newsletters normally address totally different subjects...Based on my own interview with al-Ghadry and discourse analysis of party literature conducted last semester for a Grad class at Georgetown, I understand this to be indicative of the US-based Syrian reform movement's crippling schizophrenia: it wants to be all things to all people, unashamedly altering its message in order to suit different audiences, but ultimately it is unpalatable to both Syrian and foreign audiences because neither can trust it...)

Anyway, Ali al-Hajj Hussein normally sends out short memos on behalf of the Reform Party. But on May 4th I received a surprising announcement condemning Mr. Hussein as a regime spy and agent provocateur. Here's my (Tyler's) translation:

Declaration of the expulsion of a party member

Following the unanimous vote of the majority of the members of the executive committee of the Reform Party of Syria in Syria and America and Europe, the party decided to terminate Mr. Ali al-Hajj Hussein's membership permanently.

The party expressed its shock at Mr. Ali al-Hajj Hussein's latest actions in which he appeared without the authorization of the party on one of the satellite channels that opposes democratic change in Syria. He tried to split the party on the orders of a well known personality. He also denigrated the reputation of the party and cast doubt on its leadership, in addition to recording the voices of everyone who called the party without their knowledge and repeatedly threatened to use the recordings for his own interests.

The Reform Party apologizes to all party members whose voices were recorded by Mr. Ali al-Hajj Hussein without their knowledge. We in the leadership of the party condemn all of these secretive security practices carried out by any member regardless of his rank. And we also apologize to the members and friends of the Reform Party for Mr. Ali al-Hajj Hussein’s attempt to suggest that the Reform Party and its President Mr. Farid al-Ghadry are connected to the owner of the satellite channel on which Mr. Hussein appeared.

And the President of the Reform Party stresses that the Party protects its members and emphasizes that the party will not enter into disputes that divert us from our primary objective that is to work for the Syrian people in choosing the democratic life which they deserve. He asserts the right of the Party's members, friends and allies, domestic and foreign, to know that when Mr. Ali al-Hajj Hussein failed to split the party, he turned to personal threats and insults with the objective of weakening the Reform Party's continuing mission to topple the Syrian regime.

We hope that everyone will communicate with the leadership of the party in the future at this interim address until we return to our beloved homeland.
1700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW - Suite 400
Washington DC 20004 - USA

Ghadry's English language circular had this to say:

RPS Elects New Leadership
Washington DC, May 12, 2006/RPS/ -- In the last few days, RPS has conducted new secret balloted elections, that saw new and younger leadership become more visible chosen from the ranks of our loyal members. The elections were held in response to new threats by the Syrian intelligence to penetrate RPS ranks.

Ten new members were chosen to the Executive Committee with an average age of 33. Four either resigned their posts or were forced out. Farid Ghadry's mandate as president of RPS was extended for another 2 years in accordance with RPS by-laws. The votes were delivered to an anonymous email set-up for that purpose and tallied by an RPS leadership in Paris.

RPS new blood is generating a buzz in Syria amongst the youth. These extraordinary people represent the future of Syria with all its mosaic of multi-ethnicity and multi-cultural backgrounds. Their names shall remain anonymous to protect their well being but their voices will be heard in and throughout.
Getting news out of Damascus about the opposition is getting difficult these days. Ferry Biedermann has long been a pro at getting the Damascus story.

Jailed dissident defiant after attack on Damascus conduct in Lebanon
By Ferry Biedermannin Damascus
Financial Times May 29 2006
Akram Bunni is a stocky, bespectacled 51-year old with grey hair and an easy laugh that he maintains even when he discusses his brother Anwar, a prominent human rights lawyer who now languishes in jail and who is on a hunger strike.

"Don't worry, eat, eat," he urges while gesticulating toward the well-decked table in a fashionable Damascus café. "Anwar would like us to enjoy ourselves."

His brother is among the most prominent of the 10 people who were arrested two weeks ago after having signed a declaration criticising Syria's conduct in Lebanon.

This "Beirut-Damascus" joint statement with Lebanese intellectuals and activists has either infuriated the government, possibly because it was co-signed by the banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, or has provided it with a pretext to expand a crackdown on some of its most outspoken critics.

Anwar Bunni was among a group of dissidents particularly scathing about what they saw as their government's mishandling of its relations with Lebanon when the world's attention was focused on the issue in the months after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, in February 2005.

When it comes to prison, the Bunni family has had more than its share. Akram, two other brothers but not Anwar, his sister and brother-in-law have all served lengthy jail terms starting in the 1990s, for membership of a banned communist organisation.

"At one point only my mother and Anwar were free," says Akram Bunni. "They kept up a busy schedule of visiting us in different jails because we were split up."

He has just returned from seeing Anwar in prison and says that the lawyer is in good spirits but Akram has not been able to convince Anwar to give up the hunger strike that he started on the day he was arrested. "You would not recognise him now. He is pale and even skinnier than usual."

As he recounts his own tales of mistreatment in the notorious Palmyra prison, he becomes angry at his brother's fate. "When I was arrested, at least I knew why; I had been a member of a forbidden group. But Anwar has done nothing wrong, except speak his mind."

Akram Bunni says he is convinced that the Beirut-Damascus statement was just a pretext for the government to arrest his brother. The week before, Anwar had been stripped of his licence to practise law and in March the authorities closed down his recently opened human rights centre that was largely funded by the EU.

One of the few others in Syria who are as outspoken as Mr Bunni, is human rights lawyer Haitham Maleh. He has also recently felt increased pressure from the government. Lately he has not been allowed to leave the country and last Thursday was sentenced to 10 days in jail by a military court "for having insulted the president"....

Jihad's Architect Of New War On West
Writings Lay Out Post-9/11 Strategy of Isolated Cells Joined in Jihad

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; Page A01
From secret hideouts in South Asia, the Spanish-Syrian al-Qaeda strategist published thousands of pages of Internet tracts on how small teams of Islamic extremists could wage a decentralized global war against the United States and its allies.
With the Afghanistan base lost, he argued, radicals would need to shift their approach and work primarily on their own, though sometimes with guidance from roving operatives acting on behalf of the broader movement.

Last October, the writing career of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar came to an abrupt end when Pakistani agents seized him in a friend's house in the border city of Quetta and turned him over to U.S. intelligence operatives, according to two senior Pakistani intelligence officials.

With Spanish, British and Syrian interrogators lining up with requests to question him, he has turned out to be a prize catch, a man who is not a bombmaker or operational planner but one of the jihad movement's prime theorists for the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world.

Counterterrorism officials and analysts see Nasar's theories in action in major terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. In each case, the perpetrators organized themselves into local, self-sustaining cells that acted on their own but also likely accepted guidance from visiting emissaries of the global movement.

Nasar's masterwork, a 1,600-page volume titled "The Call for a Global Islamic Resistance," has been circulating on Websites for 18 months. The treatise, written under the pen name Abu Musab al-Suri, draws heavily on lessons from past conflicts.

Nasar, 47, outlines a strategy for a truly global conflict on as many fronts as possible and in the form of resistance by small cells or individuals, rather than traditional guerrilla warfare. To avoid penetration and defeat by security services, he says, organizational links should be kept to an absolute minimum.

"The enemy is strong and powerful, we are weak and poor, the war duration is going to be long and the best way to fight it is in a revolutionary jihad way for the sake of Allah," he said in one paper. "The preparations better be deliberate, comprehensive and properly planned, taking into account past experiences and lessons."

Intelligence officials said Nasar's doctrine has made waves in radical Islamic chat rooms and on Websites about jihad - holy war or struggle - over the past two years. His capture, they added, has only added to his mystique.

"He is probably the first to spell out a doctrine for a decentralized global jihad," said Brynjar Lia, a senior counterterrorism researcher at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, who is writing a book on Nasar. "In my humble opinion, he is the best theoretician among the jihadi ideologues and strategists out there. Nobody is as systematic and comprehensive in their analysis as he is. His brutal honesty and self-criticism is unique in jihadi circles."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Democracy of Fear

Rami Khouri, mild mannered and polite, normally balances his criticism of the West with equal doses of vitriol for Arab leaders and their lieutenants. Not today; he minces no words.

America talks about building democracy in the Middle East. In fact, it fosters mainly violence and failed states.

By Rami G. Khouri
Newsweek International

June 5, 2006 issue - Many of us in the Middle East instinctively hold our breath in fear when American and British leaders get together to discuss our region and its evolving politics and nations, as U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did last week in Washington. They heaped accolades on the new Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and proclaimed yet another beacon of hope and change for the entire Arab world. Bush applauded the "watershed event." Blair, during a fleeting visit to Baghdad, called it "a new beginning" that will let Iraqis take charge of their own destiny.

Say what?

The view from the Arab world is rather different, based on our own history rather than imagined futures. Since Napoleon's conquest of Egypt two centuries ago, most of us have doubted the sincerity, legitimacy and efficacy of the Western armies that regularly march into our lands to deliver modernity through the muzzle of a French musket or the barrel of an M-1 tank. While Anglo-American politicians proclaim historic strides to replace Arab despotism and darkness with freedom and democracy, people who actually live here and know something about the Middle East shudder. For they witness Iraq and other Arab countries descending into an ever more fractious maelstrom of ethnic, religious and tribal violence. The link with U.S. and British policies is as clear and consistent as it is dangerous and destructive.
One can contrast Rami's angry article with Bush's speach at West Point "Bush to West Point grads: The message has spread from Damascus to Tehran that the future belongs to freedom." Or with the well crafted article by Massoud Darhally, reporting from the World Economic Forum in Egypt: One step forward, two steps back.

"The Democracy of Fear" explains Nir Rosen, writing in the Washington Post, is the only democracy he is seeing in Iraq.
Iraq Is the Republic of Fear
By Nir Rosen
Sunday, May 28, 2006; Page B01

Every morning the streets of Baghdad are littered with dozens of bodies, bruised, torn, mutilated, executed only because they are Sunni or because they are Shiite. Power drills are an especially popular torture device.

I have spent nearly two of the three years since Baghdad fell in Iraq. On my last trip, a few weeks back, I flew out of the city overcome with fatalism. Over the course of six weeks, I worked with three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. One morning 14 bodies were found, all with ID cards in their front pockets, all called Omar. Omar is a Sunni name. In Baghdad these days, nobody is more insecure than men called Omar. On another day a group of bodies was found with hands folded on their abdomens, right hand over left, the way Sunnis pray. It was a message. These days many Sunnis are obtaining false papers with neutral names. Sunni militias are retaliating, stopping buses and demanding the jinsiya , or ID cards, of all passengers. Individuals belonging to Shiite tribes are executed.

Under the reign of Saddam Hussein, dissidents called Iraq "the republic of fear" and hoped it would end when Hussein was toppled. But the war, it turns out, has spread the fear democratically.
We won't even speak of Palestine. But if you want to, read David Hirst this week in the Guardian: Punishment of Palestinians will create a crucible of trouble for the world. George Bush's policies helped build Hamas; now a dangerous linkage with Iran and Iraq threatens a mega-crisis.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Does Syria's President Have The Will Or ConvictionTo Reform? By EHSANI2

Does Syria’s President have the Will or conviction to reform?
May 26, 2006

Since the think tank members at Creative Syria have already tackled the issue of reforms, I was not sure whether there was any value added in writing further about this subject.

By coincidence, a friend had already asked me to comment about this subject last night. Having already written back to him, I decided to post my thoughts below:

Syrian political reforms are unlikely to take place anytime soon. The President has recently listed security as first on his agenda. Some people think that this is a direct result of the recent events in Iraq. To be sure, however, security has always been Syria’s top priority under this regime. Indeed, it is only when one fully understands how much this leadership is preoccupied with security that one can fully appreciate what Syria is all about. Against many odds, this regime has been able to stay in power for close to 40 years. The longer it has been able to stay in power, the more convinced it has become that its preoccupation with security in not only warranted but a prerequisite for survival. All calls for political reform is viewed with great suspicion. Pushing for such reforms is seen as a prelude to weakening the grip of regime, which will ultimately lead to its downfall. The regime is unlikely therefore to want to tinker with a survival formula that has served it very well over four decades. Since the Moslem Brothers attempted to overthrow it back in the early 1980’s this regime has been very wary about loosening its tight fisted control. Behind the scenes, it has adopted an “us against them attitude” which has implicitly recognized the fact that the majority Sunni population would choose to get rid of the regime at the first opportunity that gets presented.

Issues relating to the economy are also best understood with the above background in mind. The regime is convinced that the majority of its citizens would like them gone at the first opportunity. They also know that reaching the highest office in the land is a historic opportunity that may never get repeated again. So long as they are in power, they feel the need to stash as much money as they possibly can in their Swiss and Dubai accounts. Leaders of the Middle East know that they will never get their chance again. They feel the need to accumulate as much wealth as possible before their time is up. What is surprising is that they never feel that what they have accumulated is enough. Perhaps we would have done the same had we been in their shoes. Checks and balances are totally absent. Power is so absolute and greed is so hard to avoid that the regime leadership feels that it is just too easy to accumulate wealth and if they don’t do it, someone else will.

Some may argue that fixing the Syrian economy is a very hard exercise. I actually think that it is relatively straightforward. It does not take a genius to figure out what is wrong with the current system and therefore what is needed to fix it. The only question, however, is does the will exist to fix it?

The Syrian economy is in trouble for two reasons:

An overbearing public sector that acts as a tremendous burden on the country’s resources.

An incredibly complex set of laws and regulations that stifle the progress of the weak private sector and the entrepreneurship spirit.

There is no conceivable way for the Syrian economy to improve so long as the state share of the Gross Domestic Product is as high as it is. The Government has no business running businesses.

In Syria, the state is in involved in nearly every sector of the economy. It fills, bottles and distributes mineral water and beer to the exclusion of the private sector. It manufactures tires, glass, cement and sugar. It owns hotels. It has consistently provided the worst products and services to its own consumers. It has lost massive sums of money every year. It has created breeding grounds for corruption, mismanagement, fraud and outright theft. The misallocation of resources has been massive. The bleeding of the state treasury to keep these businesses afloat has been staggering. Year after year, promises have been made that mangers at these state enterprises will become more accountable and skilful. Year after year, the losses keep piling. All measures to fix this problem have failed and will continue to fail in the future. Only by completely getting out of the business of running businesses would the Syrian government help its people and economy. Wholesale dismantling and privatizing the state enterprises is the only solution. Pakistan suffered from the same problem. Their solution was direct and bold. They have successfully embarked on one of the most aggressive privatization efforts in the world. As the state gets out of business, the private sector will fill in the vacuum. Syrian officials have been very reluctant to follow suit. They have publicly raised their concerns about the social repercussions that may follow such privatization schemes. Where would the state employees go and who would hire them they ask. How can the country manage this transition they wonder. While it is true that there will be inevitable dislocations and losers, doing otherwise is postponing the inevitable.

But before one recommends the outright closing and selling of state enterprises, critical decisions have to be made on taxation and regulatory matters which is the second point highlighted above. The current laws and regulations are so complex that it is next to impossible to find a Syrian citizen who has never broken them. Indeed, some think that the government has refused to simplify or abandon these regulatory hurdles so that every citizen can be accused of having broken a law at some stage in their lives. Importing a product into the country forces you into a maze of bureaucracy and corruption that may involve scores of documents and some 47 signature that you will need to obtain before you have satisfied all the regulatory requirements. This forces the importers to bribe and the state employees to be corrupt. Such examples can be found in every facet of the Syrian business world. Corruption has become and will continue to be a way of life. It is inevitable in an economy that is overburdened with arcane set of laws and taxation. No foreign businesses will entertain thoughts of investing in a country like this. Niether would Syrian expatriates.

Syria’s only solution is to emulate Dubai. The ruler of that Emirate runs a one-man show. His signature is the only thing needed to advance the interests of the business sector and the economy as a whole. Whatever is needed to make it easier for international and domestic businesses to come and invest, the ruler is willing to do. It is this will to act that is missing in Syria. Bashar needs to tell Mr. Makhlouf and the rest of his family that enough is enough. He needs to encourage his family and others that the days of exclusive dealings have to stop. They now have to compete with the rest of the citizens for business in a fair, transparent and competitive manner.

Dubai has to import its labor resources from the Indian subcontinent. Syria does not. Just like Vietnam has recently positioned itself as the new low cost-manufacturing center in Asia, Syria must do the same in the Middle East. It must set up massive Free Zones similar to Dubai’s Jebel Ali. It must do everything it can to attract foreign investors to set up shop in these tax free zones. These companies will hire Syrian workers and help bring down the alarmingly high unemployment rate. Attracting these companies or the Syrian expatriates to come and invest needs to take the form of a Presidential decree. The country can start doing this through the free zones first and then the domestic economy later. There is no reason why Syria cannot become the new manufacturing low cost producer in the region. In the next 10 years, the country will border the EU when Turkey enters the union. The country should be working feverishly at making full use of this opportunity.

Syria’s leadership feels that tight and draconian security measures are a prerequisite for them to stay in power. The experience of the early 1980’s has convinced them that political reforms is nothing but a trap and a slippery slope that will ultimately be used by their opponents to topple the regime.

On the economic front, the government has been reluctant if not paranoid about the consequences that will follow if it were to privatize its economy and dismantle its state enterprises. The longer the state keeps the subsidies and the artificial employment of their labor force, the harder it will become to stop this vicious circle.

The President has to order his immediate family and others to stop the outlandish accumulation of wealth through patronage and corruption. Billions have been made. Enough is enough has to be Bashar’s new message.

Before a wholesale dismantling of the state sector takes place, a Presidential order has to take place to set up massive free zones for foreign investors and expatriate Syrians. This can then be followed by systematic domestic reforms of all the insane taxes and regulatory hurdles that have strangled the private business community. As these laws are amended and abolished and as corporate taxes are lowered and simplified, the private sector will start to participate in the economy. As this sector expands and invests, hiring will follow. But to do this, the President has to have the conviction and will to stay the course. He needs to articulate to his nation that socialism is dead. The private sector will from this point on carry the torch at the expense of the public sector that was never equipped to run a business in the first place. The losses that are currently incurred by every single state enterprise will save the state treasury billions. These funds can now be earmarked to revamp the education system and worker training to better prepare the national labor force for the global economy that has eluded Syria thus far.

On the surface, Syria’s problems seem insurmountable. In reality, Syria’s solutions are clear. What is missing, however, is a bold leadership that will admit the mistakes of the past and articulate the road for the future. Dubai’s massive success is an example to emulate. It has taken the mere signature of one man to turn that dream into reality. Bashar can do the same and turn this great nation around if he so wishes. His country sure needs it but does this President have the will or conviction to carry out these sorely needed changes?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Have There Been Reforms? Yes, Some.

"Six years into his administration, how significant are the reforms Bashar Assad put in place?"

This is the question asked at the Syrian Think Tank established by the inimitable Camill-Alexandre Otrakji. Five contributors have posted essays in response to this question. They are: Rime Allaf, Ammar Abdulhamid, Sami Moubayed, Murhaf Jouejati, and me. Please go to the Creative Syria to read and rank the essays.

By Joshua Landis
May 26, 2006

All of the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East have been resistant to structural reform. This explains why long term growth rates among the MENA countries have lagged behind all other regions of the globe save sub-Sahara Africa. All the same, Middle Eastern governments are plastic, within limits that do not threaten regime collapse, and have been evolving. The political structure of the Syrian regime has not undergone important change; any changes that have occurred are still percolating underground and have not found outward expression. In the economic field, however, Syria has been evolving. One cannot speak about whole-scale reform, but it is correct to speak about “modernization.” Curiously enough, many of the most meaningful changes have come about due to foreign pressure.

The financial sector has seen the most important changes. Private sector banks have proliferated; although they a minority share of the market, they are growing rapidly. The foreign currency regime has been liberalized. Private currency trading has been legalized and will help eliminate the black market. Central bank director, Mayaleh said recently that the foreign ownership ceiling on private banks will rise from 49% to 60-70% in months. Minimum capital requirements will more than double from $30mn. “Expanding foreign ownership will encourage more international banks,” he asserted. Building a new currency regime, despite being on the books for years, has be spurred forward by Washington’s recent efforts to forbid US banks to deal with the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria, which dominates the local market. If foreign banks can provide a healthy alternative to the Commercial Bank, Syria will establish greater protection from US manipulation.

Evidently, the US has been trying to trump Syria’s move toward private banking by getting European and Gulf banks to join in the ban on providing lines of credit to Syria, in particular, its oil business. Two Swiss banks agreed to follow the US Treasury guidelines on proscribing dealings with Syria. I am told this maneuver was nearly accepted. Here is the quote from a European source: “After everybody said “we are not providing any lines of credit”, one bank refused to do it, Gulf International Bank. Initially they had said they would not continue to support Syrian oil business, in accordance with US Treasury guidelines.”

I do not have a second source for this information, but it is in line with Washington’s “successful” Palestine policy, and its parallel efforts to pressure banks dealing with Iran, as revealed in this May 22, N.Y. Times article, “U.S. Pressure Yields Curbs on Iran in Europe.” By diversifying away from the Stone Age Commercial Bank, Syria can help ensure that it will not go the way of the dinosaurs in facing Western pressure. Even the Assads are catching onto the lessons of Darwin as the cold winds of Washington blow down on Damascus.

Education is another sector that has undergone significant changes. By breaking the monopoly of state universities and high schools on the education system, Syria is moving once again toward developing elite educational institutions. In the long run, this may be more important than other reforms, because an important obstacle to change - whether economic, administrative, or political - is the abysmal state of Syrian education. The lack of skilled staff, both in the private sector (in particular at the managerial level) and in the higher echelons of the state is severe. The Syrian educational system is broken, and the state seems unable to fix it. Only by providing the competition of private institutions will state schools move forward and win the legal changes necessary to adapt to a globalizing world. I have spoken to a number of university administrators in Syria. All were smart and ambitious, but they admitted to being hamstrung by the existing legal system, which legislates educational guidelines and curriculum to the minutest detail. They all confessed that the growth of private schools is the main engine for change, even within the state system. Several pointed out to me that they have been able to raise salaries only because the private universities are buying away their professors.

Finance and Education are the two main sectors that have seen positive changes. They are a beginning. One should also add to this the change in language and thinking about reform. Beginning with the President and Abdullah Dardari, Syrian government officials are talking about modernization and reform in the right language. The shift to a “social market economy” from socialism is big, even if it will take years for Syrians to begin thinking in new ways. I have spoken to a few World Bank officials who were intimately involved in drawing up the present five-year plan; they all gave it a thumbs-up. Of course, it must be carried out. One of the most positive new developments that provide some hope that changes will be enacted is the emergence of new pressure groups within Syria. Samir Aita, in his most recent report for the Arab Reform Initiative, argues that important elements of the business community are beginning to demand the break-up of the stultifying system of crony capitalism that predominates in Syria. With the captive Lebanese market gone and trade with Iraq disrupted, rich Syrians are demanding a piece of the domestic pie and the relaxation of the old socialist rules of the game.

"The saga of France and Syria Relations" by Marwan Kabalan

Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian Political Scientist, has written an important article about France's break with Syria in "Gulf News." He argues it came well before the extention of Lahoud's presidency or the Hariri murder.

The saga of France and Syria relations by Marwan Kabalan

Last week, the UN Security Council passed a new resolution concerning Syrian-Lebanese relations. Resolution 1680 called upon Syria to respect "Lebanese sovereignty, cease interference in Lebanon's internal affairs and demarcate the borders between the two countries".

The resolution was jointly sponsored by the US and France. While the US position is easy to understand in the light of the many problems between Damascus and Washington, for most Syrians France's position is still hard to comprehend.

For most of the 1990s and up until the US invasion of Iraq, Syrian-French relations were at their best. On the personal level, president Chirac was the only western head of state to attend the funeral of the late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad in 2000.

He pledged to provide all sort of support to help the new Syrian leader Bashar to proceed with his reform project. Politically, Syria and France were in agreement on almost every single issue in the Middle East.

In 2002, Syria joined forces with France, Russia, Germany and China in the UN Security Council to prevent the US and Britain from passing a resolution to legalise the use of force against Iraq. A year later, however, this whole picture was turned upside down.

Syrian-French relations started to deteriorate at an incredible pace. Friendship turned into enmity and sorrow replaced trust. So, what had exactly happened?

It all started in November 2003 when president Chirac sent his political advisor, Maurice Gourdeau-Montagne, to Damascus to meet president Bashar Al Assad. At the time tension between Washington and Paris could not be cut with a knife thanks to Chirac's strong opposition to the Iraq war.

Montagne told Al Assad that the Iraq war has changed the political map of the Middle East and that Syria may subsequently need to reconsider its anti-war policy. Having realised that what has been done in Iraq could not be undone, the French wanted to mend relations with the US.

Montagne told his Syrian hosts that that was also the position of Germany and Russia. Syria disagreed.

In June 2004, Chirac took advantage of his meeting with US President George W. Bush in Paris to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, to persuade him to move beyond Iraq and towards agreement over Syria and Lebanon.

Chirac, through his close ties to former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, was the one who initially brought the US into Lebanon. Until Hariri's murder, the Bush administration had no independent Lebanon policy.

Normandy talks
In August 2004, Montagne paid a secret visit to Washington to follow up on the Normandy talks between Chirac and Bush. He and Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor to President Bush, agreed to turn a new page in their relations and to co-ordinate their policies in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon.

Syria sensed a shift in policy by the great powers. The natural Syrian reaction was to consolidate its influence in Lebanon. Damascus felt that Lebanon should not be lost under any conditions. It hence supported the extension to its loyal ally, President Emile Lahoud.

The shift in French policy did not affect Lebanon only but other issues in the Middle East as well. France and Israel set aside their animosity for the sake of a rapprochement. This was accompanied by a tilt towards US and Israeli priorities for isolation and destabilisation of the Syrian regime.

France believed that its interests in the Middle East are no longer served by supporting the status quo in Syria. For France, the death of Yasser Arafat and the collapse of the Saddam regime marked the end of an era Pan-Arabism.

Chirac decided, hence, to embrace a different policy line in the Middle East, one that takes into account the occupation of Iraq, the end of the Intifada, the collapse of the Arab state system, and the failure of the reform process in Syria.

Economic drift

The official French position was that France is disappointed with the political and economic drift of Syria.

"A state seriously out of step with the military and economic realities of the Middle East and unable to reinvent itself through vigorous leadership and judicious reform, it is terribly vulnerable and a weak reed for France to lean on."

The assassination of Rafik Hariri gave Chirac a strong reason to break with the past, abandon Syria, ally himself with the US, and pursue a new Middle East policy.

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria
Gulf News

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Amnesty International Incorrectly Suggests Syria Executed 80,000 in 1980s

Could the Syrian regime have executed 78,000 political opponents in the 1980s?

Amnesty International's new report on Syria says as much. It quotes former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas to this effect.

Here is the exact quote from Amnesty:

In an interview published in August, former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas claimed that he had authorized the hanging of 150 political opponents a week throughout the 1980s and that he had signed execution orders for thousands of detainees whose families were not notified.
The problem is this is a misquote. I went into a tizzy when I read this because I had just written an article giving Syria credit for killing, or causing the deaths, of fewer of its subjects than neighboring states since 1970, except Jordan.

If Amnesty International was quoting Tlas correctly, it would mean that he signed the execution orders for 7,821 a year or more than78,000 over the decade.

This turns out to be a misquote. The actual interview, written up by Susanne Koelbl, a leading correspondent for Der Spiegel, to whom I spoke on several occasions last year, says this:
Tlass no longer knows exactly how many death sentences he has signed personally, and he speaks quietly as he explains why these horrific acts were unavoidable, even the many who died by hanging. At times in the 1980s, he says, 150 death sentences a week were carried out by hanging in Damascus alone. "We used weapons to assume power, and we wanted to hold onto it. Anyone who wants power will have to take it from us with weapons," says the general, smiling.
Koelbl, who gets the money quote here, catches Tlass revealing the brutal face of the regime. But this does not add up to 78,000 dead over the 1980s. It does add up to thousands, but how many exactly, we still don't know.

Riad al-Turk explained to me last year that some 15,000 or so prisoners from the 1980s are still not accounted for. I asked him if they had been killed. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "We don't know." He said that the number of deaths at Hama were likely 15 to 20 thousand, although the Muslim Brothers claimed they were 48,000.

The regime's nastiness in the 1980s was unprecedented in modern Syrian history - that is known. All the same, Amnesty International, which does a wonderful service for us all, should quote properly. When Koelbl writes, "At times in the 1980s, he says, 150 death sentences a week were carried out," she is not quoting Tlass verbatim and does not use quotation marks. Tlass may not have actually said "at times in the 1980s”; he may have said, "at one point" or "there were times..." The point is that this is all very vague, as Koelbl makes clear by beginning her paragraph with the proviso that "Tlass no longer knows exactly how many death sentences he has signed personally."

When Amnesty revises Koelbl's account of Tlass' words to be: "former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas claimed that he had authorized the hanging of 150 political opponents a week throughout the 1980s," this is not what Koelbl reported. The difference could be 60,000 dead.

The lesson from all this confusion is that Syria should come clean on the number of people it has executed and give some account to the victims' families.

Phil Weiss on Syria II

Phil Weiss of the "New York Observer" has posted on his blog, "MondoWeiss" his second installment of "My Trip to Evil Syria." I am quoted at some length. The last part is the most important. Syria is a dictatorship. The arrests this past month remind us again. Yassin Hajj Salih, one of the most eloquent opposition writers, who spent 16 years in jail, spoke out to defend Michel Kilo, Bunni, and the others today. His words, recorded by Christine Spolar in the Chicago Tribune are reminders of just how bruttal Syria's jailers can be. Yassin explained:

"In 1996, when I was in the prison near Palmyra, they would flog people with whips, the kind of whips made of electric cable that could crush muscle and skin.

"Islamists were flogged up to 500 times. People like us, Communists, whoever, only got 100. Me, it was less, I think," he said with a tiny smile. "I lost consciousness after 72."

"It's not right for a man of 19 to spend 16 years of his life in jail."

Al-Haj Saleh's experiences have made him wary of authority, particularly those who paint themselves as the good guys. Washington is as distrusted as Damascus by those who care about real reform, he said.

"However opposed Syrians are to the regime, they distrust the Americans more," al-Haj Saleh said. "The way the Bush administration has handled Iraq. The way it deals with the Hamas victory in Palestine . . .

"We don't want you talking about democracy or giving us $500 million. Democracy would be helped greatly in Syria if the United States would pressure the Israelis, rather than always the Arabs.

"This is our tragedy. We want democracy, but we can't identify with the West because it does such terrible things to Arabs."

Lee Smith wrote after the last Weiss post:
Hi Josh,
I tried to post this on your site without much luck, re. the Weiss blog, I'd just note that the ritual stoning of Paul Berman is pretty telling. I don't believe Berman has anything in Terror and Liberalism on Syria or has ever written on it, though of course he writes extensively on the Baathists in there, which I know you largely disagree with. In any case, I seriously doubt Berman thinks Syria is evil, or that part of the country that most tourists would get to see, which is largely ordinary Syrians going about their business. So, who has ever made a blanket statement that ordinary Syrians are evil?

On the other hand, you've noted that ordinary Syrians are not ready for democracy, which you make a good case for and I might be inclined to agree with, but that case partly rests on your reading of an educational system that has ill-prepared its citizens to observe liberal democratic principles especially insofar as it indoctrinates students into Baathist ideology and incites a fair amount of hatred, especially toward Jews. (A little off topic, but I'm curious to read Weiss' blog to see if for the purposes of proving all those neocons wrong he told the ordinary Syrians he met if he was a Jew and what their responses were.)

Anyway, Berman and the neocons aren't the ones who have detailed the issues of ordinary Syrians, but certainly many neocons have a problem with the regime, which they would explain, incorrectly as I think we would both agree watching Iraq the last two years, that once the bad regime goes then Syria will fall back to its natural state of democracy. But this isn't even a debate that Weiss or most of his leftist brethren, as he identifies himself, have chosen to engage. They are involved in an intramural debate, which weirdly isn't even that much about Bush, rather it is about the left, and insofar as it has to do with Berman it has to do with their anger at him over his position on Latin America, and insofar as places like The Nation and others have attacked him over that it goes back to their very old fight dating back to the 30s over the USSR. That is, the left is engaged in a big family fight and for most of them, the Arabs are merely a proxy force. Most US leftists, certainly those under 30, have no idea what's going on; others do, as does Berman, whom they've chosen to attack, and it's to his great credit that he is actually trying to look at the issues rather than keep waging a war where you can interminably substitute Michel 'Aflaq for the Sandinistas for Stalin because none of that really matters, and neither does it matter that others far from New York have to find some way to go about their ordinary business; and because what really does matter is what side you're on in NY politics (in the old days it was the City College cafeteria) and the only constant is the US is worse than anyone it is facing down.

I am writing in hope that Syrian readers or others, regardless of how much they might despise the US and be inclined to agree with the US/NY leftist perspective, they have few allies on the US left and should recognize what this battle is about, and it is not about the Arabs. I think some Lebanese started to understand that after Professor Chomsky's recent visit here and found him woefully mis- or un-informed about Hizbullah. But why should he care that so many Lebanese want Hizbullah to disarm so they can move on with their own lives? That's not Chomsky's fight; the Lebanese are merely a proxy force for him to wage his real fight, which is in the US.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Opposition News and Michel Kilo Quotes from Wieland

Over at Levantine Dreamhouse, there is a nice write up by Abu Kareem of Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni. Evidently Anwar al-Bunni has begun a hunger strick, according to a few sources. Kamal Lubwani's hearing, which should have taken place two days ago, was postponed until May 29th.

Abu Kareem also has an interesting review of the first Annual Meeting of the Syrian American Congress (SAC) , which was held in Chicago this Saturday, May 20th. A number of headline speakers did not show up, such as Riad al-Saif, Ambassador Imad Mustapha, and Minister Buthaina Shaaban. But others did show up. The organization is off to a bumpy start, according to Abu Kareem, but we must praise SAC for beginning such an organization. Syrian Americans need to organize and articulate their views.

Former Political Enemies Join in Exile to Push for Change in Syrian Leadership

Hassan Fattah has a good article on the Muslim Brotherhood - Khaddam link-up in the New York Times of May 23, 2006, "Former Political Enemies Join in Exile to Push for Change in Syrian Leadership." They have planned a general meeting in early June to gather opposition figures and outline their charter.

On the subject of Michel Kilo, the recently arrested civil society leader in Damascus, Carsten Wieland, has an excellent book coming out with Cune Press this July, 2006. It is titled: Syria - Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant

The advertising description reads:

Will Syria emerge as a democracy based on its own internal development and the desire of its people? Or will Syria fail under pressure from the US and descend into the chaos that has engulfed neighboring Iraq?
Here are some of the Kilo quotes and commentary included in Carsten's book:

For the time being, only a pluralization of authoritarian power has taken place, coupled with some economic reforms, and a new and more open political atmosphere. “It isn’t anymore the Syria of Hafez al‑Asad,” concludes Kilo. The deep-rooted fear people used to have during the elder Asad’s time has disappeared, or at least diminished. Political discussions have become freer and criticism has become more open. Increasing numbers of people are professing to support the Civil Society Movement.

“The small Asad is a small step towards the great transition,” hopes Kilo.


Michel Kilo of the Civil Society Movement complains that “Bashar has allied himself with the corrupt forces. Thus he has basically renounced reform. […] Bashar is not only unable to act, he does not want to act either.” The president, he laments, wants to circumvent the issue of democracy. “He only wants a reform of power, not of the system.” The regime cannot be reformed in Kilo’s view.

This is true for all authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, says Kilo. “They are not in a situation of stability but in a stable crisis.” The Syrian government has lost the connection to its own ideology. “It does not have the same flexibility or the same unity anymore.” The authorities know that they have to change, but they do not have the means to do it. “This is part of the drama of these regimes,” says Kilo. “When the regime in the Soviet Union wanted to reform itself, the regime was gone. It will happen the same way with the regimes in the Arab world.”i

In September 2000, Syrian opposition members wrote the “Manifesto of the 99” under Michel Kilo’s lead, followed in December by the “Manifesto of the 1000.”

Michel Kilo remains pessimistic all the same. Dakhlalah was very bold, he concedes. But after encouraging the journalists to write freely, he soon called them traitors, criticizing their bluntness and saying that they should write in the Washington Post, but not at home. “I don’t believe that Dakhlalah’s words mean real reforms. They [those in power] utter such diverging statements in order to confuse the opposition. I think Dakhlalah tries to wrap the existing reality in different catchphrases.”ii Moreover, his ministry is a hotspot where the Mukhabarat chiefs reign alongside the conservative Foreign Minister Faruq as-Shar’a and, until his resignation, Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.

Alluding to the events in Lebanon, Michel Kilo quotes Fadil as having said that “Bashar is a man who does not need advisors, who takes the most dangerous decisions within five minutes, who leads a presidency in which nobody really knows what his responsibilities are.”iii

The opposition journalist Michel Kilo accuses the government of buying entrepreneurs and sectors of the middle class as an “alternative to reform.” Without this strategy, Kilo says, there would be a risk that young members of the bourgeoisie in particular would dissociate themselves from the regime. “This is exactly the reason why the rulers need Iraq and Lebanon as sources of money,” Kilo adds.iv

Bashar had a Mr. Clean image when he took office and put the fight against corruption on his agenda. But as with many other previous initiatives, his promise came to nothing. The resistance inherent in the system is too strong. After the Iraq war, a group of French experts was invited to Syria to inspect the system and make suggestions for improvements. There is little hope that this new attempt will bear fruit. According to Michel Kilo, the chairman of the new institute for administrative reform is himself “one of the most corrupt officials of the Syrian state,” with a counterfeit degree and a record of embezzlement.

Recently, during the Iraq war, pan-Arab ideology has gained support from an unexpected corner. In search of a direction for his foreign policy, Bashar has used the Anglo-American attack on Syria’s neighbor to revive pan-Arab rhetoric. It is debateable whether this has helped or hindered him. Many people wonder how Hafez al‑Asad would have acted in this situation. Many consider Bashar’s policy to be even more ideological than his father’s in this respect, for in the end, most Syrians were glad that Saddam was Why should Syria have suddenly lent support to its Baathist archrival? <> add Saddam Michel Kilo is convinced that “Hafez al‑Asad would have avoided the conflict with the United States. Now this can only mean the last battle.”vii

Michel Kilo usually fills the role of the Civil Society’s spokesman. A Christian, Kilo studied several years in the northern German town of Münster and speaks fluent German. His philosophy of a grassroots democracy stems from that time, and he prefers a plethora of small initiatives to a large party. This idea of de-localization makes its persecution by the state machinery more difficult. The former communist describes himself as a humanist. “The regime has to accept that freedom is the greatest principle in life,” he says. “In a modern society you can no longer separate state and society because the free human being is the central principle.” Kilo is convinced that every ideological party in power will enter a period of crisis because real life is much more complicated than any Weltanschauung.

Hardly had Baghdad fallen when the members of the Civil Society Movement saw their opportunity to turn up the heat in Damascus. Their first action was a petition, designed by Kilo, and presented to the president in May 2003. The text emphasized the new strategic “challenges and perils” for Syria following the occupation of Iraq. As a common denominator with the regime in Damascus, the opposition figures mentioned the “aggressive, racist, egotistical, and evil policies and ideology” of the Bush administration and Israel. “Honorable President,” the petition continues, “our country faces this looming danger without being prepared for it. [Syria] must strengthen itself against [this danger] and enhance its ability to confront it, after having been weakened by cumulative mistakes that distanced the nation from public issues, exhausted the country and society, and exposed them like never before.”

The regime blows hot and cold. At the moment when everybody is holding their breath, the opposition is suddenly given encouragement by the government. Michel Kilo has experienced this several times. In February 2004, a member of the regime close to the president called upon Kilo to publish his critical articles not only in Lebanese newspapers but also in Syrian ones. “He promised me that not a single word would be left out,” rejoiced Kilo. In March 2004, he was allowed to appear on a talk show on Syrian television for the first time. He was filmed live as he criticized the delay in reforms in the presence of a government representative, saying among other things that “Syria needs a different beginning than that of March 8,” referring to the day in 1963 when the Baathists staged the coup and took power.

After the broadcast, Kilo was given a tumultuous welcome in the popular Café Rawda opposite the parliament building in the modern business quarter of Damascus. During countless evenings, the journalist meets there with various acquaintances and whiles away the hours with them at the small tables with the apple-tobacco scent of the waterpipes and the clicking of chess and backgammon pieces on wooden, mosaic game boards. The noise level is so high in the large, covered inner courtyard that a spy could scarcely eavesdrop. “People hugged me, clapped me on the shoulder, and kissed me when I came into the café,” Kilo remembers. “They told me: ‘You said exactly what we think. We would never have thought that one day we would see this on Syrian television.’” The program was not broadcast live, but nothing was cut. Then-Minister of Information Ahmed Hassan had taken full responsibility for the experiment. Kilo was pleased that afterward the state newspapers also jumped on the bandwagon and praised the critical discussion that had taken place on the talk show.

Kilo gets angry when he speaks of the US-based Syrian opposition. “They want the same as we do, only under American patronage,” he says tersely. Kilo would have preferred it if the Europeans had adopted this role.

Pragmatism is nothing new for the Muslim Brothers. In the struggle against Hafez al Asad, the Islamists had already displayed contradictions and breaches in their ideology, although Asad himself was no more consistent. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood sympathized with socialist ideas, even with secular elements of socialism, and later with a capitalist economic system coupled with the call for political liberties and human rights. It had the quite worldly objective of getting rid of a dictatorship in the interest of the bourgeoisie. Their arguments were influenced by the overall political mood of the time, and for strategic considerations. Nowadays, the Muslim Brothers, not only in Syria but in almost all authoritarian Arab states, have discovered popular issues, most of which are commonly associated with Western-style democracy. They converge with the secularist opposition movements on four key issues: the call for human rights, emphasis on encompassing humanist elements in Islam, respect for an ideological and political pluralism, and the guarantee of freedom of speech.

This pragmatism has made the new Islamists acceptable to the rest of the opposition. The Christian Kilo even compares some of them to European Christian Democrats, or the ruling moderate Islamist party in Turkey, AKP (Party for Justice and Development), under Prime Minister Erdogan. “I believe they are a moderate force with a strong democratic tendency,” says Kilo. “Therefore we won’t give the regime the chance to play us off against each other.” The readiness for dialogue “is a basis for the time being to challenge the power of these people [the rulers].” Political change is the first priority. “If my opinion is the expression of a civil and secular democracy and theirs is an Islamic one, this is all right as long as we have democracy as a common denominator. We will accept the Muslims coming to power through elections, provided that they accept the democratic system.”

Islamic currents in Syria have traditionally rejected the radicals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Kilo is convinced that “Saudi Arabia has no more credibility in the Islamic world.” Sadiq al Azm agrees. “Radical Islam has been in decline worldwide since September 11.” This holds true for Syria as well. “If there were a regime change, a moderate Islam of the merchant middle class would prevail,” Azm says. But only a strong civil society could act as a “shock-absorber” against conservative Islam and dampen the possible fears of religious minorities against oppression by the Islamic majority.

The pragmatist lawyer Anwar al Bounni shares this view. “Of course, there is a danger when Islamists are allowed to return to the country. But the Syrians will not put up with a second dictatorship, with a transition from a nationalist to an Islamist one. Syrians don’t want to become a second Afghanistan. I’m not afraid of the Muslim Brothers. Syrians have always had a loyal relationship among each other. Even if the Muslim Brothers came to power, they would not be as radical as in Egypt.”

Naturally, there is also disagreement within the Civil Society Movement about the question of how to assess the Muslim Brothers. Not everybody follows Kilo’s strategy of chumming up with them.

Of course, Syria hopes to appease the United States with this stance. It is unclear whether Washington will recognize these signals. Interestingly, the government in Damascus has adopted a less ideological stance than some of the opposition, who wrote a letter of protest over Allawi’s first visit to Syria, saying that Iraq was the tool of an occupying power, controlled by the Americans, the Israelis, and foreign secret services. Michel Kilo and Haitham Maleh were among the signatories.

Apart from tightening the screws on this front, the United States has also used Lebanon as a tool for eroding the regime in Damascus. For a long time, the Syrian regime underestimated the seriousness of the situation, failing to recognize the U-turn in US policy. The demand to withdraw from Lebanon could have been made years ago. At times, a Syrian military presence in this fragile state has been in American and even Israel’s interests. “Better a politically administered Lebanon than an unhindered point of crystallization for terrorists,” as the opposition figure Kilo puts the argument (although he and other Civil Society activists were in favor of a withdrawal and reiterated this stand in a press communiqué about one week after Hariri’s assassination).

Instead of supporting Islamic moderates, secularists, and reformists, a surprising new development is emerging. Of all the groups, the United States is entertaining contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a dangerous déjà vu. “The Americans want to build on popularity,” says a confidant of Bashar’s. “Good people who have clever ideas, such as Michel Kilo, don’t serve their purpose because they have no mass basis.” Other people outside the government have also observed that the Washington-London-Damascus triangle is beginning to work. It remains to be seen if the Baathist call for national unity against an American agenda will appeal more strongly to the courted Muslim Brothers than Washington’s effort to rope them in as a counterbalance to the Baathists. This could also cause a rift between the two wings within the Brotherhood itself. Apart from the Islamists, Washington bets on shady opposition figures in exile like Farid al Ghadry.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

EU Statement Regarding Arrests in Syria

Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the European Union regarding the recent arrests in Syria

Recalling the Presidency’s statement of 19th January, the European Union expresses regret that the positive steps taken in January 2006 regarding the human rights situation in Syria have not been continued. On the contrary, the situation has substantially deteriorated. The EU expresses its deep concern about the recent widespread harassment of human rights defenders, their families and peaceful political activists, in particular arbitrary arrests and repeated incommunicado detention. The European Union calls on the Syrian government to fully respect freedom of expression and assembly as laid down in the Syrian Constitution and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ratified by Syria in 1969, which should be fully in force in light of the recent limitation of the emergency law to matters strictly concerning state security.

The European Union urges the Syrian authorities to reconsider all cases of political prisoners and immediately release all prisoners of conscience.
The detention of prominent dissidents has dealt a blow to hopes of political change in Syria, writes Rory McCarthy in the Guardian: Arrested development. He explains how the recent crackdown is motivated by a combination of fear on the part of the Syrian regime, as the Hariri investigation comes to another peek in June and Western pressure has been wratched up to exploit the issue Bramertz' first report, as well as Syrian confidence in its strength following the collapse of the Lebanese national dialogue and victory of Hamas.

Claude Salhani of UPI gives analysis in "Damascus` spring cools further." Warning: Landis quotes included.

UPI wrotes:
Five human rights activists who were arrested by Syrian authorities last week were charged Sunday with inciting sectarian conflict and disrespecting the state,' a national human rights group confirmed.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria (NOHR), told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa in a telephone call that the prosecutor had questioned the five in the presence of NOHR lawyers and charged them with disrespect of state and inciting sectarian conflict, and dispraising officials and state institutions.'

The five were named as Anwar al-Bunni, Mahmoud Issa, Khalil Hussein, Suleiman Al-Shammar and Mohammed Mahfoud. They were among nine activists arrested last week after signing a declaration that called for an improvement in relations between Syria and Lebanon, urged the exchange of diplomatic representation and the demarcation of borders. All but one of the nine had signed the petition. No date has been set for their prosecution, Qurabi added.
Erdogan: Turkey Is Working On Nuclear Energy To Have A Competitive ...
In response to a question on Syria, Erdogan reiterated that dialogue between the people and government of Syria has increased recently. ''Women's movement is rapidly developing in Syria,'' stated Erdogan.
Adel Safty, President of the School of Government and Leadership, Bahcesehir University, Istanbul, explains how many Turks see the War on Terror in "The roots of Bush's confrontation strategy."

Phil Weiss of New York Observer

Phil Weiss of the New York Observer keeps a blog, MondoWeiss. He recently traveled to Syria as a tourist and recorded his opinions, "My Trip to Evil Syria, Some Impressions." His views are those of a smart and well traveled observer. Syria is a country where first impressions are often deceiving, because so that is political or personal is kept under wraps, but Phil is not easily fooled. It begins:

A few months ago I went to Syria as a tourist, to visit my wife's cousin, who is teaching in Damascus. I had a very good time (in stark contrast to an unpleasant trip to Morocco) and since then I've been trying to sort out my experience. What have I to say about that most controversial of matters—the Arab world, and an Arab dictatorship—based on my personal experience as a tourist? What does my truly enjoyable trip mean, compared, say to the neoconservative view that Syria is evil (put forth by Paul Berman in Terror and Liberalism, and by David Frum and Richard Perle in An End to Evil)?

Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to post an entry now on my impressions of Syria. Then I'm going to post an entry in which I talk to Josh Landis, a professor at Oklahoma U. who is on my side (the left, though more centrist than me) and one of the leading experts on Syria, having lived there and married a Syrian.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Landis Responds to Michael Young

My dear sparing partner, Michael Young, has taken on my article grading the Syrian state and its neighboring counterparts on their ability to protect their subjects from death. He doesn't like it. His most apt criticism is that I use what I call "the dead body count" as a basis for comparison. This method leads to Syria being ranked much higher than Lebanon, which annoys Michael. The Lebanese government allowed 1 in 27 of its citizens to be killed, not to mention all the displaced since 1970. Syria's numbers are somewhere in the vicinity of 1 in 500 and it has become a haven for refugees, Lebanon's traditional role.

Michael is right to suggest that the dead body count is a crude measure that cannot include the general economic welfare of the population or freedom quotient. He is, of course, right about this. But the dead body count is part of the picture. For the purposes of a short opinion piece, it must stand on its own. Readers can factor in the rest, as they have done in the comment section. Let Michael argue that Lebanon has done better than Syria, given its higher per capita GDP and greater level of political freedom. Perhaps he would like to make such an argument; he insinuates it, but doesn't seem to be comfortable in coming right out to say it. His life is no doubt better as a citizen of Lebanon than it would be if he were Syrian, but that is because he is one of the lucky 26 out of 27 Lebanese who was not killed in the war. Maybe he feels that the improved life-style of the 26 was worth the sacrifice of the 27th? He might be right. It is a legitimate debate. How many Americans would come out and say they would like to go back in time to undo the American civil war, leaving blacks in slavery and allowing Confederacy to become an independent country, in order to prevent the sacrifice of 1 in every 64 Americans, who gave their lives during the war. But what did Lebanon accomplish in its war? I guess it switched from 6 to 5 Christian deputies to equality that is something.

But, where Michael and I really differ is on the policy implications of the article. He writes:

This broader message here is important for the United States as it tries to figure out how to address despots in the Middle East, including many who are its allies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got it when she observed in Cairo in June 2005, "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East--and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Bashar Assad is no paragon of stability, no matter what Landis thinks. Giving him an "A" on security at a time when the regime is arresting prominent opposition figures because they signed onto a petition the regime didn't like, because they seek to express their views freely in a Lebanese press that is not controlled, is incredible, particularly when Landis' subtext is that, comparatively speaking, Syria has been a better place than elsewhere.
We all agree that the US should support democracy, defend civil liberties, and pressure the Syrian regime to respect civil society and the rule of law. To suggest that I do not support such a policy is just peevishness and irresponsible journalism on Michael's part

The question is how the US should pursue this goal. Michael was a cheerleader for regime-change in Iraq and continues to be an advocate of teh "creative instability" school of US foreign policy, advanced by the neo-conservative school. Unchastened by the human catastrophe of Washington’s misbegotten democracy experiment in Iraq, Michael called for regime-change in Damascus in his articles this past fall. He believes that the US must tighten the screws on Damascus to the point that the regime collapses or internal rebellion is sparked.

In my opinion, such a policy is lunacy and motivated by irrational impulse and anger. We have learned that using violence as a policy tool can backfire. We have also learned that the democracy deficit in the Middle East is not simply a question of bad government or evil tyrants, its goes much deeper into political culture, national institutions, and the nature of education. Simply ripping off dictatorial regimes or smashing states will not solve the democracy deficit, it will only engender whole-scale slaughter, civil war, and national collapse. The problems of the Middle East do not stop at the authoritarian regimes. When Michael suggests that Hama was not a Syrian problem, but the problem of a regime trying to hold power for its own narrow interests, he simplifies the problem. If American policy makers listen to his advice, they will mess up Syria as they did Iraq. The promotion of democracy in Syria must be a long-term project. It cannot be accomplished through the present policy of trying to nail the Syrian regime, destroy Hizbullah, and bring them to their knees. This confrontational policy will only lead to exacerbating the cycle of violence and producing ever more extremism on both sides. This is my dispute with Michael.

If I remind readers that the Syrian regime has not completely failed in comparison to other regional states, it is to make the point that much worse things could happen to Syria, if present policy makers are pursuaded that only confrontation and victory should be tollerated in relations with Syria.

Iraqis Keep Flooding into Syria

Christine Spolar of the Chicago Tribune explains the sad story of Iraqis heading to Syria, which has shown extraordinary hospitality to Iraqis. Unlike Jordan, Syria offers free education and what medical services it can.

Three-month visas are routinely issued to Iraqis, and so are multiple extensions. Iraqis cannot receive work permits, but they can receive free health care and schooling.

"It's a shifting population--people come and people go--but it's amazing that Syria has been able to absorb them all," said a Western diplomat who has watched the war.

Even Human Rights Watch, which criticizes Syria's treatment of reform advocates, has praised the country's openness. In recent weeks in particular, Syria has shown empathy for Palestinian refugees as well.

"Middle East governments should follow Syria's example in accepting refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence in Iraq," the organization said in a statement.

Syria is run by an autocratic regime, like many Arab countries, but it offers comforts to those in search of a peaceful way station. Battling economic woes, Syria still supports a broad middle class. Restaurants and cafes in Damascus are full. Streets are lively. Mosques and churches are open to the newcomers. And Syrians generally listen sympathetically to those in need from Iraq.

For the war-weary, the road to Damascus is cheap. One-way flights to Damascus cost $240, about half the price of a flight to Amman, Jordan. Taxi rides cost $30; bus trips are $15. But getting to Damascus by land has become another battle in the war. The main highway is a crapshoot, drivers said.

Robbers are a constant problem, and so are shootings on the highway. Fathy said he hits the gas pedal on the Iraqi highway and stops for no one.

"Everyday you hear stories. Lots of people are kidnapped on that road. Most people are staying for a little bit and then trying to decide what to do next," Fathy said.

Ahmed Kareem is a 34-year-old engineer who rode a bus this month from his home in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad. The bus was stopped about a hour from Baghdad. Three men were forced from the bus and were shot dead, he believes, by Iraqi soldiers.

"I saw it," he said. "We didn't know what was happening or why."

"I wanted Saddam gone, but I thought things were going to be good," Kareem added. "I am so sad. My parents--they're 74 and 64 years old--they're sad. I love my country. My country means so much to me. And it is in so much trouble."

Where does he hope to live?

"I want to move everyone to Cairo," he said.

An emigre's fears

Laith Arawa left Mosul nearly two years ago. He first went to Amman, but he couldn't survive. The government gives nothing to Iraqis, he said, no health care or education. So he made his way to Damascus last year.

"I don't want to go back. The minute I see an American soldier, I feel something bad will happen," the 32-year-old said. "And the Iraqis? They aren't even trained properly." Khamed Suwadi, a doctor who was opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, has been living in Damascus, on and off, for years.

"Two months ago, a friend of mine in Baghdad was kidnapped. They paid a ransom for him, but who knows what can happen," Suwadi said. "You just don't know who is going to kill you there or why."
This story follows Sabrina Tavernise's excellent article in the NYTimes: As death stalks Iraq, middle-class exodus begins

Ken Silverstein in “Fairy Tales
The (lack of) intelligence underpinning Bush's Iraq policy tells of how two CIA station chiefs in Baghdad got sacked for telling the truth. The most recent station chief has written positive reports.
Now, on the subject of Iraq the Bush administration has roughly the same credibility as Baghdad Bob, and for similar reasons: the administration covers its ears when it gets bad news and anyone bold enough to deliver it is sent to face the firing squad. Continued...

Friday, May 19, 2006

"The Attempt to Disarm Hizbullah is Ruining Chances for Reform in Lebanon," by Reinoud Leenders

Reinoud Leenders has asked me to publish and push a brilliant policy article he has written on Lebanon. Reinoud was the International Crisis Group analyst based in Beirut until last year, who wrote on both Lebanese and Syrian affairs. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. The entire article is posted on his website. It is due to be posted by MERIP in the future. Here are the first several pages, but you should read the entire report here. It is a must read. He explains how the Western powers are dooming any chances for Lebanese reform, either economic or political, by their narrow minded insistance on fighting Hizbullah and Syria. Brilliant stuff.

By Lebanon’s Twisted Logic: How calls for disarming Hizbullah block urgent reforms
By Reinoud Leenders
May 17, 2006

When the last Syrian soldier left Lebanese territory in April 2005, jubilant crowds gathered at Beirut’s Martyr Square to celebrate the coming of a new era. Adding to the festive mood were American and French statements praising Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” as the first in what was to inevitably be a series of popularly led regime changes and reforms awaiting the region at large. Discussing an expected upsurge of democratic aspirations in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated confidently, Lebanon’s “supporters of democracy [were] demanding independence from foreign masters [and] called for change. It is not only the Lebanese people who desire freedom [..].” Yet one year has now passed and the once joyous atmosphere in Lebanon has turned unmistakably sour. Gone are the Lebanese flags draped over Beirut’s balconies in the midst of last year’s dazzling events. Gone, too, is the widespread optimism over comprehensive political and economic reforms. Instead of national unity, sectarian tension is currently running high. Moreover, exasperation over perpetual political bickering and socio-economic malaise is now common. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators are taking to the streets of Beirut to protest against the government’s economic reform plans. Yet the international community seems undeterred. On 17 May the UN Security Council adopted yet another forceful resolution amplifying an already daunting list of demands laid down in Resolution 1559 (2 September 2004).

One can make two preliminary observations regarding Lebanon’s still young post-Syria epoch. First, Lebanon’s political settlement, shaped by the 1989 Ta’if peace accord and its reading by Lebanon’s political class, is in need of a major revision. Without such modifications, it continues to hinder the country’s ability to reach at and implement any sort of effective government policy, let alone one anchored in a spirit of reform. Second, European and American support for much-needed Lebanese economic and political reforms has shown to be incompatible with their simultaneous and unsuccessful efforts to disarm Hizbullah. Against this background, both domestic gridlock and the approach taken by primarily the US and France will largely determine whether Lebanon is going to achieve any progress on reforms and Hizbullah’s weapons in the foreseeable future.

Goodbye Syria, hello reform abyss

During its three-decade presence in the country, the Syrian mukhabarat certainly had a negative impact on governance and political life in Lebanon. However, it has now become abundantly clear that homegrown Lebanese factors were also at play in perpetuating the country’s political malaise. When asked in an opinion poll held in May last year what they expected from a newly elected government, a majority of Lebanese stated it ought to devise radically new policies to boost the economy, create jobs, and fight corruption. Yet nothing of the sort has materialized. Until last January, the current government led by Fu’ad Siniora even failed to adopt a national budget for the preceding year while one for 2006 is still to be discussed and voted on in Parliament. A public debate on the future of Lebanon’s ailing economy, loudly trumpeted last year by former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, never took place. Even more seriously, it took the government until last month to produce a plan for economic reforms. The full plan is yet to be made public. Yet Sami Atallah, a Lebanese economist who was briefed on the government’s reform proposals, described them as vague on reducing and streamlining spending, awash with lofty but ambiguous goals such as “improving social services” and lacking any reference to institutional reforms. The plan’s only concrete proposal –hiring public servants on 5-year contracts instead of offering them open-ended employment—has already been withdrawn, as soon as labour unions indicated their discontent.

This stands in stark contrast to the economy’s dire need for vision and assertive action. With official debt amounting to 180 percent of the country’s GDP, or about USD 10,000 per capita, payments on debts and interest are strangling economic growth (currently standing at zero percent). Furthermore, there are strong indications that Lebanon’s distribution of income is worsening as a result. Elites in control of Lebanon’s private banks are making magnificent returns by subscribing to state bonds while salaried lower-middle class employees effectively pick up the bill by paying for increased VAT rates on essential goods. As a result, only the country’s banking sector is undergoing a boom while virtually all other economic sectors –and their employees-- are stuck in a grave recession. It is under these dire conditions that more Lebanese than ever decide to leave the country, thereby perpetuating a brain drain that has dwindled Lebanon’s human resources since the mid-1970s.

Fighting corruption would be one obvious strategy, both to reduce government spending and to mobilise public understanding and support for fiscal austerity measures. Even a cursory look at Lebanon’s crippled public institutions would easily spot candidates for a serious anti-corruption campaign. For example, both the state-run electricity company and the National Social Security Fund are riddled with corruption, offer lousy services and are running mounting deficits depleting the state’s coffers. Yet the government’s only remedy has so far been a highly publicized decision to hire international auditing firms to “review the accounts of private and public figures” and expose rampant corruption of the last 16 years. Less publicized has been the fact that, in this same period, most expenditures by the government’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (which managed some 80 percent of the state’s capital investments) were already screened by such international auditors –without causing even one crooked Lebanese politician to lose any sleep. Other such foreign inspections, like a World Bank study into corruption at Lebanese customs in 1999 and a review of road building contracts in 1996, did unearth corruption –but without prompting any measures to curb it. In effect, therefore, Lebanon’s anti-corruption drive has made little or no progress ever since a 1998 government led by Salim al-Hoss proclaimed graft as the nation’s public enemy.

Lebanon’s voters are also still waiting for a new electoral law to replace the seriously flawed 2000 law then designed to ensure victory for pro-Syrian candidates in Parliamentary elections. The electoral law’s numerous pitfalls include effectively disqualifying candidates who gather a significant number of votes but nevertheless fail to be granted even one seat. Moreover, many Christian candidates only make their way into Parliament by relying disproportionately on non-Christian votes. One of its results is that elections turn into sectarian plebiscites as was amply illustrated in May-June 2005 when each of Lebanon’s confessional groups rallied behind ‘their’ one strong leader simply because the electoral law defeated the chances of less influential, non-sectarian candidates even before they had begun their campaign. Sure enough, virtually all of Lebanon’s political leaders vowed they would strive for amending the electoral law immediately after they got elected. A special commission was established to study proposals to this effect. However, two of the commission’s academic members recently resigned in protest against attempts by politicians to gerrymander future election results in their own favour. Promising suggestions put forward by others, including a sophisticated blueprint for a more balanced electoral system based on the principle of proportionality, failed to in this climate even reach the commission’s attention.

A similar lack of reform cripples the country’s judiciary. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri has led to the launch of a UN investigation that is likely to soon evolve into a tribunal containing both foreign and Lebanese judges to bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet the fact that many Lebanese called for such an international intervention in the first place is testament to a profound and justified lack of trust in their own judiciary. Apart from dismissing a few exponents of the worst judicial excesses of the past, this lack of trust remains today unaddressed. As a result, the judiciary’s independence still fails to be upheld, judges are still being bribed, and political favouritism and lack of professionalism carry on casting a shadow on this institution’s performance. Moreover, parallel military and state security courts, once viewed as outlets of Syria’s security chief Rostom Ghazali, still overstep their military jurisdiction by issuing indictments against civilians. Last April a military court finally dropped its highly politicized and trumped up charges against human rights lawyer Muhamad Mugraby. However, this was only when an army of foreign attorneys arrived to Beirut to defend him and after behind-the-scene pressures by the EU had started to embarrass the Lebanese government.

Finally, and despite all the talk in the spring of 2005 about dismantling “Syria’s security state in Lebanon”, the country’s security- and intelligence agencies have yet to undergo a major overhaul. Reforms have been limited to the sacking of a few security chiefs and to arresting four figureheads who were allegedly involved in Hariri’s assassination. Lebanon’s politicians failed to agree on suitable candidates to fill all ensuing vacancies. Last April, the Lebanese government informed UN-envoy Terje Roed Larsen that “the process of transition and re-organization in the Lebanese security forces is ongoing, and that it has not yet established full control over all services”. Against this background it is hardly surprising that the security services failed to make any headway in finding the perpetrators of 13 car bombs and attacks that followed Hariri’s assassination, the latest one killing Lebanese journalist Gebran Tueni on 12 December 2005.

Hizbullah’s reliance on political gridlock....

Against this background, Hizbullah’s strategy has become crystal clear. While its supporters were preparing a nation-wide strike purportedly to protest the government’s economic plans, the party’s deputy chief Na’im Qassem offered further clarifications to those who had not yet received the hint: “Over the past few days, we heard statements that force numerous question marks upon us –statements by some of those who openly declare their goal is to disarm Hizbullah. I will be extremely clear. Hizbullah’s disarmament is not up for discussion, not around the dialogue table or anywhere else.”

Are the US and France abandoning the reform agenda?...

Even though foreign pressures on Hizbullah are helping Lebanon to once again slide into political chaos, the US and France –the two main sponsors of Resolution 1559—show little inclination to change course. Both countries are now preparing yet another resolution that, regardless of its exact wording, will be viewed in Lebanon as one more sign that the world is after Hizbullah’s arms. In response, Hizbullah is likely to perpetuate the country’s political gridlock even more... (continue here)

Reinoud Leenders is assistant professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam and was analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Beirut.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Syria Gets an "A" on Security

Camille-Alexandre Otrakji has started an on-line think Tank at his site: Creative Syria. He has asked a number of Syrianists to contribute articles. His stable of contributors include Ambassador Imad Mustapha, Reem Allaf of Chatham House, Ammar Abdulhamid - Syrian oppositionist and novelist extraordinaire, and me, who will be writing this week on the topic:

Compare the Assads' achievements to those of their neighbors. Consider the following areas: economics, international relations, security, national pride, human rights.
Other Syrianists who have accepted to write in the future are: Sami Moubayed, Ibrahim Hamidi, Murhaf Jouejati, and Patrick Seale. Go to his site to read the short essays. You may also grade them the essays to show who is up and who is down.

My contribution this the following:

Syria Gets an "A" on Security
by Joshua Landis
May 18, 2006
“Syria Comment”

If the Assad regime has prided itself on anything, it has been security. Many Syrian social goals have been sacrificed on the alter of security – economic growth, freedom of speech and assembly, and openness to the rest of the world – to name just a few. Most recently, Bashar al-Asad announced during an interview on Sky TV that considering the conditions Syria finds itself in, his number one goal was security and that reform would have to come second. In retrospect, this was clearly a warning to Syria’s reformers that Syria’s policy toward the opposition had changed. It presaged the crackdown we are now witnessing. It is worth evaluating, then, how well the Asad regime has done in comparison to its neighbors in protecting Syria and Syrians.

The first measure we might use is the dead body count. Although crude, it is instructive. Here Syria gets a “B”. The question is: since 1970, has the government killed or allowed to be killed more of its own citizens than its neighbors have?

Syria is part of the Levant, which is distinguished in the larger Middle East by its ethnic and religious diversity. This diversity, although potentially an asset, has presented the Levant states with serious challenges during the course of nation building, which is far from complete. At one end of the spectrum, we have Lebanon, the central government of which was too weak and underdeveloped to withstand the intense pressures that overcame it. The government could not hold its competing sectarian communities together. In 1975, the government failed, leading to the long civil war and the death of at least 150,000 of Lebanon’s 4 million inhabitants. Many more were displaced and millions left the country. In total, roughly 1 out of ever 27 Lebanese was killed during the war. Lebanon gets an “F”.

The Baathist regime of Iraq stands at the other end of the Levant spectrum. It became so muscle bound in its attempt to destroy sectarianism that it became totalitarian and produced an extreme form of fascism or nationalist intolerance. Both Kurds and many Shiites were ultimately labeled foreign and subversive elements. They were slated for elimination. Saddam killed hundreds of thousands in his drive to hold the country together under his intolerant rule. It is hard to quantify the number he killed, but let’s say 300,000 were killed in the war with Iraq, 200,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal campaign and other massacres. Perhaps and equal number of Shiites were killed in the elimination of al-Dawa and the suppression of the southern uprising in 1991. One can add to these numbers: the Iraqis killed during the period of foreign sanctions, the suppression of the Marsh Arabs, the routine killings in his prisons, etc. Should one also blame him for the US invasion and subsequent deaths in the ongoing civil war? Let us put the conservative number of 700,000 on the Iraqi deaths caused by Saddam. The real number must be higher, but if we stick with 700,000 out of 24 million Iraqis, Saddam’s government killed 1 out of ever 34 Iraqis. Iraq gets an “F”.

Israel also does not do as well as Syria. The main ethnic division is between Arabs and Jews. Since 1967, the Jews have ruled over Palestine’s Arab population, acquiring juridical responsibility for them. Although some will say it is not fair to include the Arab population of the occupied territories in Israel’s body count, I think we must. The Israeli government is the master of Palestine, and Arab Palestinians are the subjects of the Israeli government not unlike the Iraqi Kurds who have been the subjects of Saddam’s government. I don’t know the number of Palestinians killed by Israel and will not hazard a guess because it will only provoke an unproductive argument, all the same, as a proportion of total dead it is significantly lower than the proportion killed in Lebanon or Iraq. But if one adds to it the number of displaced Palestinians and those who have been wounded or fled their homes, the trauma of nation building in Palestine is high, certainly much higher than in Syria. Israeli nationalism is exclusionary and cannot provide equality for its religious minorities. By expanding over the largely Arab inhabited regions of Palestine, the Jewish state has created a problem of nation building that it will not easily solve and is bound to lead to many more deaths.

Turkey is not technically a Levantine state. It has been spared some of the trauma of nation-building because of the ethnic cleansing that took place during WWI and its aftermath, when the entire Armenian community of 1.5 to 2 million was wiped out or expelled and 1.5 million Anatolian Christians were transferred to Greece. We also cannot hold the present state responsible for the devastation caused by the Young Turks’ mishandling of WWI. The population of Anatolia declined 25% during the war years, dropping from 13 million in 1914 to 10 million in 1922, when the war with Greece ended. The problems of nation-building faced by the modern Turkish state have been diminished by the unprecedented scale of killing and ethnic cleansing that took place during the final years of Ottoman rule. We also cannot include the large numbers of Kurds killed during the first decades of Atatürk’s regime, when the Shaykh Said rebellion and other largely Kurdish rebellions were suppressed, but it is worth remembering that seventeen of the eighteen military engagements in which Turkish military fought from 1924 to 1938 occurred in Kurdistan. We will also not count the 60,000 or so mainly Christian and Alawi refugees from the Hatay, or Alexandretta, who fled their homes for refuge in Syria, when that province was annexed to Turkey in 1938. It can also be added that in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, Turkish forces entered Iraq in order to suppress and contain Kurdish nationalist and guerilla groups. In the last 20 years alone, some 30,000 Turks, mainly Kurds, have been killed in ethnic fighting in the East of the country. The many Armenians, Orthodox and Syriac Christians, and Kurds expelled to Syria by Turkey during the first decades of the 20th century have found a home in Syria that has been, by and large, tolerant and welcoming. On the whole, the Arabism of the Syrian state, even that of the Baathist regime under the Assad family has been more tolerant of its ethnic minorities than has the Turkish nationalism of Ankara. The death toll in Turkey over the last 35 years as a proportion of Turkey’s large population is small when compared to its Levantine neighbors, all the same, Turkish nationalism has been ethnically blinkered and integralist. According to the last count of Turkish political prisoners by Amnesty international in 2001, Turkish prisons held over 10,000 prisoners of conscience, a number more than 5 times as high that held in Syrian prisons. If one considers the sweep of 20th century history, Syria comes off better than Turkey on the dead body count, whether in absolute numbers or as a proportion of its population.

Finally, we arrive at Jordan, the one state that has clearly done as well as Syria in the neighborhood at protecting its own subjects from death. One might argue that Jordan has had less to contend with in nation-building because its is a large Muslim country with few ethnic or religious minorities. But this would be to ignore the difficulties of integrating the majority Palestinian population. During the Black September incident in 1970, when Palestinians tried to assassinate King Hussein and overthrow the Hashemite state, some 3,500 were killed out of a total population of 1,7 million, a mere 1 out of 486 Jordanians, much less than its other Levantine neighbors, save for Syria. Jordan is the only state in the region to get an undisputed “A”.

Syria has managed its nation-building process with few deaths in comparison to its neighbors and with very little ethnic cleansing. The Jewish population of Syria has cleared out and underwent serious discrimination. Anti-Jewish sentiment in Syria is high. Other minorities have faired quite well. Kurds, most particularly those who were denied nationality under the Qudsi government of 1962, have been most subject to unfair treatment, but even then, it must be said that Syria, in comparison to the other countries that have large Kurdish populations – Turkey, Iraq, and Iran – has treated its Kurds with the least amount of discrimination or persecution.

Hama and the mini-civil war of the early 1980s between Sunni extremists and the Alawi dominated state stands out as the great blemish of Asad rule. Some where between 10,000 and 20,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed during this period. If we take the higher estimate and divide it into the total population in 1982 of 10 million, we get 1 out of 500 Syrians killed. This is on a par with Jordan’s 1 out of 486. We can bring Syria’s numbers down if we add in Syrian deaths in Lebanon, but the number will remain on a par with Jordan’s. It is also worth mentioning that Syria has one of the smaller ratios of political prisoners to total population in the entire Middle East. I have already given estimates of these on Syria Comment.

Syria’s brand of Arabism, although chauvinistic in its privileging of Arabs over other ethnic groups, has been much less bigoted or discriminatory than the nationalism of most of its neighbors. Armenians, who made up 4% of the Syrian population in 1948 were treated well and allowed to have their own schools and teach in Armenian. Minorities of almost every stripe have been protected – sometimes privileged – under Syria’s Baathist state, in large measure because the dominant Alawis are themselves a religious minority in the region; enforcing tolerance in a region that is not known for its religious and ethnic tolerance during the modern nation-building era, is in their own best interest. Syria is now home to many different refugee groups, chased from neighboring countries. We have already mentioned the Armenians, Orthodox Christians, Alawis, and Kurds who fled Anatolia, but we can add to them the Iraq Assyrians, the half-million recent Iraqi refugees, the 400,000 Palestinians, Iraqi Shiites of the 1980s, all of whom have found a home in Syria.

In conclusion, it is fair to state that Syria over the last 35 years has done as well as or better than all its neighbors at protecting its own subjects. The state has not collapsed into civil war. By preserving a stable central government without allowing it to become overly muscle bound and fascist, it has also minimized the number who have been killed or been displace due to state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. This is something that Syrians can be very proud of. It is something worth protecting.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Movies II

Bill Spindle of the Wall Street Journal beat the movie buffs to the punch with this great story of May 5, 2005:

Addendum (May 18 2006): Sami Moubayed just wrote me with this correction to Spindle's story:

Dear Josh,
The Bill Spindle piece looks good and is an interesting read, but it has two mistakes. "Men Behind Bars" (Rijal Khalf al-Qudban) was filmed one year ago, not now, and aired last Ramadan. My fiance Nadine was a co-star in it. [Sami, the Spindle story was published in 2005. Joshua]

The Maraya series is by Yasser al-Azma, and not his prime rival over Syrian comedy, Duraid Lahham. Big difference between the two and for two decades, Lahham and Azma tried to knock each other off the throne of Syrian satire.

On TV in Syria: Satire, Corruption, Religious Tensions --- With Government's Blessing, New Shows Get Edgier; A Spoof on `Spotlight'
By Bill Spindle
5 May 2005
The Wall Street Journal

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Layth Hajo, a 33-year-old TV director, leaned forward, straining to hear the sound of apple juice.

An actress poured the juice, which substituted for liquor in the scene, into a glass filled with ice. "That's an apple-juice sound, not a whiskey sound," Mr. Hajo declared. Too fizzy, he said. Aides scrambled to replace the juice with tea, hoping that tea would sound more like the hard stuff.

Spring is the season for shooting Syrian television dramas for broadcast during the critical Ramadan holiday viewing season in October. That's when the Arab world rolls out its best new shows, and many Middle Easterners indulge in a month-long TV binge. In a major market like Egypt, as many as eight in 10 households with TV sets watch them nightly during Ramadan. "This is prime time," says Hussein Amin, head of the media and communications department at American University of Cairo.

From Morocco to Mecca, Syrian dramas are capturing a growing share of that audience. They offer exacting portrayals of real life in the Middle East, including slightly racy scenes of women drinking alone at home and some uncomfortable truths about government. This season, Syrian writers, actors and directors like Mr. Hajo say they are pushing further than ever before to explore issues rarely broached in the conservative Middle East because of social pressures and government censorship.

Mr. Hajo's new drama, whose working title is "The Men Behind Bars," deals with government corruption, political dissidence, religious and sectarian tensions, prostitution and rape -- as it follows the lives of several male characters. A sympathetic character who becomes a government opponent, gets jailed. Others, seemingly deserving of punishment, flourish. "I try to tell the truth about society," the director says.

Mr. Hajo has plenty of company this season. Surveying the dim prospects for free expression in Syria's public arts and professions, many Syrian artists who want to take on serious subjects have concluded that TV is the only place to be. "We don't have theater, we don't have newspapers," says Khaled Khalifeh, 41, who writes TV scripts. "The only way for political expression is through television programs."

Despite a series of amnesties in recent years, hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars. A burst of opposition activity after President Bashar Assad came to power in 2000 ended a year later with arrests of activists, restrictions on political gatherings and threats by senior officials of harsher measures.

Some government critics suggest the relative openness tolerated on television is a calculated strategy to distract Syrians from their lack of broader freedoms and real political choice. "It lets the people breathe," one actor conjectures.

Others, however, say the government realizes that greater latitude is needed if the country's television industry, which brings both regional prestige and money to Syria from abroad, is going to succeed.

Whatever the reason, the Syrian government has encouraged the push toward the provocative on TV. President Assad himself met with a group of directors last November, telling them to keep pushing the envelope, says Mr. Hajo, who was part of the group.

That doesn't mean the censorship offices have closed down. Suheil Saleh, head of the government's Television Evaluation and Selection Directorate, says his staff is as busy as ever evaluating scripts. Programs dealing with religion, sex and criticism of other societies still get careful scrutiny, he says. He also boasts that his in-house staff translates foreign programs shown on Syrian TV, including "Seinfeld."

Still, he says that encouraging programs to delve into previously untouchable topics is part of his job. He says he can't remember the last time anything was disallowed on political grounds -- though he still expects responsible writers and directors to "practice self-censorship."

Mr. Saleh attributes the greater latitude to "a political opening in the country," started by the president. Satellite television, which became legal in Syria after the younger Mr. Assad took over, has also changed the censorship game, Mr. Saleh acknowledges. Syrians could tune into satellite broadcasts for uncensored version of shows if Syrian censors cut things out of local broadcasts. "Why remove things if everyone has satellite?" he says.

Few directors have exploited this gradual opening as well as Mr. Hajo, whose big break came a few years back with a satirical program called "Baqa Ad-Dou" in Arabic, "Spotlight" in English.

Syrian viewers had long been fans of another satirical show of his, known as "Maraya," or "Mirrors." Maraya frequently made light of government inefficiency and corruption. Even the former president, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand for three decades, liked the program and socialized with its star, Dureid Lahham.

In the new atmosphere of openness that accompanied the arrival of the younger Mr. Assad, who is now 39, to the presidency in 2000, "Spotlight" built a loyal following by poking fun at the government and Syrian society. In one skit that seemed to spoof the presidential handoff from father to son, an elementary-school teacher asks her students what they want to be when they grow up. One child says "president" -- throwing the teacher into such a panic that she tells the principal, who races to inform the parents. Before long, the entire community is trying to figure out what to do.

"Spotlight opened up a lot of doors," Mr. Hajo says.

After four years of directing "Spotlight," Mr. Hajo, like many in the industry, is now turning his attention to serious social issues. "The writers are always trying to get deeper into issues, about religion and young people and others," said Sulafa Memar, a 27-year-old actress on the set of Mr. Hajo's current production.

Mr. Hajo's producer, Wael Swedani, is responsible for submitting scripts to the censors. But with the production nearly half-taped, he said he hadn't even bothered to do it yet this year. "There's not really very much they can do," said Mr. Swedani. "If Syrian television doesn't want it, they'll want it at some other channel."

Durry Atassi wrote from California to say:

Professor Landis,
This is Durry Atassi in California (one of your subscribers in the US). Regarding the piece on the Syrian Cinema in the US, the showing in NY is part of a tour that was put together by Arte East. This tour started in NY City and it runs through September. For more information on this please, check the following link.

Syrian Cinema and TV Serials

Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker has written a fine article about Syrian filmmakers. There is also an on-line slide show produced by Matt Dellinger with Wright which gives a nice overview of the directors and their work. It is well worth looking at. Watch the slide show. (7:30 minutes).

Also on Syrian media, read the fine piece written by Marwan M. Kraidy on the success of Syrian TV serials, which have been tackling politically sensitive topics such as AIDS and terrorism. The new serials were the talk of the town this past year. Everyone watched them rather than the thin gruel served up by the Egyptians at Ramadan. The edginess and lively state of Syrian TV series stands in welcome contrast to the moribund state of Syrian cinema - or the nightly news, for that matter.

Also, the Lincoln Center has been running a retrospective of Syrian cinema in NYC. Here is the link to the program which ends tomorrow. (I thank Damian Quinn of "World Tonight," BBC Radio 4 for bringing these to my attention.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Qubaysi Women's Islamic Movement by Ibrahim Hamidi

Ibrahim Hamidi wrote a fine article on the Qubaysi women preachers who are spreading the word of Islam with government support in Syria. The article which originally apeared in al-Hayat on May 3, has now been translated by BBC Monitoring online:

Syrian Islamic women preachers get government nod - Arab paper

"The Qubaysi ladies take up Islamic preaching in Syria with government approval"

The followers of Miss Munirah al-Qubaysi are not confined to Syria and the Arab states. Indeed, the "Sisters" salons are to be found in Paris, Vienna, and the United States. The Qubaysis are Islamic women preachers who triggered controversies and divisions within Islamic circles in Syria. With the expansion of areas in which Qubaysi women are active in Syrian, Arab, and foreign homes, streets, and schools, tales and myths about this movement became more exciting. The controversy over the "Sisters" has finally reached the Internet where some accuse them of forming a serious secret organization, whereas others praise these women preachers as having been capable of doing what men were unable to do.

Despite the guardedness of clergymen and experts when speaking about the "Qubaysi Sisters," there is an attempt to understand their ideas, the organization to which they belong, and the organizing form that connects the preachers of all ages together.

The Qubaysi Movement created a big problem within Syrian religious circles. Some hold it to be an infidel movement and some are interested in many details of the lives of its activists. Kamal Shahin (?) writes on the Zargar Internet site [] that the Qubaysis consider that "the good woman is created for the home". Other critical internet articles are based on a study by Usamah al-Sayyid, who is very close to the "Al-Ahbash" group, entitled "A serious women secret organization". He discusses some of the thoughts of Munirah al-Qubaysia and Amirah Jibril, Sahar Harbi in Lebanon, and Fadiyah al-Tabba in Jordan.

In the "Muntada al-Saqifah" site [], one of the "Sisters" published a long article based on this study, saying that this group was a Sophist group named after a Syrian woman."

The study points out that the Qubaysis rely on secrecy in their Islamic call and that they do not explain the facts about their creed and ideas until the new member has spent a long time "in the field of the Islamic call." The study reveals that the "Sisters" are always eager to win over women with high positions, rich women, and daughters of big families to add them to the group. Then the member reaches the stage at which she can be trusted, they reveal further secrets to her. According to this study, they hold Ibn-Arabi and Al-Hallaj [ancient Arab Sophists] in high esteem. They stress that one should not argue with the Shaykhah [female shaykh] and loving her is part of the love for the Messenger of God [Muhammad]. The member is just a body created by God for the love of and devotion to "The Miss" [Al-Anisah, alluding to Munirah al-Qubaysi].

One of their tenets is: "No knowledge can be attained and no way to reach God without a mentor." The visit to Syria is considered a duty or a dream for anyone who is permitted to do so. The study says that the group is based on both covert and overt knowledge. The covert knowledge is called Al-Laduni [sophism: knowledge imparted directly by God through mystic intuition]." In Kuwait, a number of fatwas [Islamic religious rulings] were issued against them. The Qubaysis believe that they contributed to liberating Kuwait through prayers.

Those who oppose the Qubaysis are also of the opinion that the movement is based on the "unity of existence, the holiness of the Shaykhah, and the kissing of her hands and sometimes her feet." They believe that "everything that you aspire for exists in God," something which Shaykhah Nawal emphasizes in her book "Selections of good religious songs." She says: "Existence is your [God's] good presence." The first book says that "Our shaykhah is with us wherever we go," and that "her order is obeyed", and that "this obedience is better than obeying the father, husband, or the guardian." This is based on their tenet: "No knowledge of or way to God without an educator," and: "Who asks a shaykhah why will never succeed."

However, the Islamic deputy Habash presents a different description. He says: "It all begins with the Shaykhah. The benefit can be attained by coming closer to her and not only learning from her." Thus, the vertical structure is based on the arrangement of levels, and the more important the preacher, the higher her level will be, and she will approach the status of 'The Miss.'" However, he adds that the phenomenon is "good and it prevents immorality and extremism among women," and that Miss Munirah "imparted the spirit, which made the movement spread like mushrooms. It did not spread in a ceremonial manner but in a vertical manner. [sentence as published] It is a model for the conservative trend that endeavours to serve Islamic morals in traditional ways," which includes schools, institutions, and house meetings.

For his part, and in a recent press interview, Syrian Awqaf Minister Dr Ziyad-al-Din al-Ayyubi objected to calling Munirah's followers Qubaysis, denying that she is teaching wives of officials and the rich in Syria with the aim of realizing power, ensuring influence, and as a protective umbrella permitting her to acquire teaching licenses in schools and mosques and solving problems as they appear. However, Al-Buti holds a different view of Qubaysis. He says: "Syrian women are playing a distinctive role in the Islamic call and I hope men would do the same," pointing out the success of the Qubaysis has been possible for many reasons, such as "avoiding political currents, avoiding controversial areas and issues, and concentrating on Islamic unity and the spiritual side of Islam without neglecting the side of knowledge."

It was impossible to arrange for an interview with "The Miss" because many senior women preachers have never seen Munirah al-Qubaysi in their lives. The most that Al-Hayat could get was a description of "The Miss" by shaykhs who had seen her years ago and women preachers who saw her recently.

Two clergymen described to Al-Hayat the face of Munirah al-Qubaysi as looking like the Mona Lisa. Kiftaru says that she is dark and tall and she was rarely seen without a black veil. She lives in an area located between the Al-Sha'lan and Al-Rawdah Streets in Damascus, with a number of Misses and preachers who are close to her. It was said that she suffers from certain illnesses. She is called the "Biggest Shaykhah," the "Younger Miss," or the "Mother Miss." However, the most popular name is "The Miss."

At the forefront of the Qubaysis, there are a number of unmarried Misses, like Munirah. And although the frontline preachers include Amirah Jibril, sister of Ahmad Jibril, the secretary general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, who was known for his leftist ideology decades ago, the other preachers are from the rich class in Damascus, including Misses Khayr juha, Muna Quwaydir, Dalal al-Shishakli (died some time ago), Nahidah taraqji, Fa'izah al-Tabba, Fatimah Ghabbaz, Nabilah al-Kuzbari, Raja Tsabihji, and Dr Sariyah al-Zayid, who was very famous for her vast knowledge, having authored a 10-volume book called "Al-Jami on the Prophet's life," and an abridged version of Al-Jami in two parts in the mid 1990's. There is also Su'ad Maybar, who teaches at the Islamic Fath [conquest] Institute and author of the book "Monotheism in the Koran and the Prophet's Tradition."

It is noteworthy that Dr Al-Buti wrote the introduction of the first edition of the Al-Jami in 1994. He said: "I congratulate the Miss who wrote this book in accordance with the ideal scientific methods in promoting the Prophet's life, the Prophet's tradition, and the Islamic jurisprudence and culture, an effort in which she surpassed men in this age."

Despite the fact that many single women are among the women preachers, nobody offered an explanation. While some of the critics of the group attribute this to the fact that "they do not want to divide their attention between a husband and The Miss," and that they prefer the after life to this mundane life, Kiftaru found this strange because "Islam rejects celibacy." However, others belittled the importance of this. They indeed think the contrary to be true, saying that the Qubaysis are active in arranging marriages and this perhaps was one of the reasons why the movement spread and attained influence through marriages between the preachers on the one hand and businessmen, influential people, and expatriates on the other. Marriages with young expatriates and expatriate businessmen helped convene Qubaysi's salons in France, Austria, and the United States.

The second degree preachers graduated from the Qubaysi schools and established elementary schools. Showing a degree of intelligence, Munirah combined the desire for investment with the desire to spread the Islamic call. She encouraged women to invest in elementary schools. According to available information, there are many elementary schools belonging to the Qubaysis. These schools are mostly called "houses," such as the Al-Farah House, which is run by Muna Quwaydir in Al-Muhajirin Neighbourhood, the Al-Na'im House, the Umar Bin-al-Khattab school in Al-Mazzah Neighbourhood, the Umar Ain-Abd-al-Aziz school in Al-Hamah Neighbourhood, and Dawhat al-Majd in Al-Maliki Neighbourhood, Al-Basha'ir in Al-Mazzah Neighbourhood, and Al-Bawadir in Kfar Susah Neighbourhood. The Al-Bawadir school headmistress says that her school is just like other private schools. It uses the Syrian Education Ministry's curricula and teaches the same syllabus. However, additional lessons are represented by religious lessons to practice religion and hold social activities outside official working hours in addition to organizing religious competitions. However, the most important element is that most of the teachers wear the hijab. The headmistress, who declined to reveal her name, said: "We teach the child good manners, truthfulness, honesty, morality, and respect for their parents."

This seems to be a representative story because it sheds light on the spreading of the Qubaysi schools. Al-Bawadir school was established in 1977. It was an ordinary school. However, Al-Mallah family had a small school in the Al-Mazzah Neighbourhood and it was always successful because of its emphasis on religion and its efforts to protect people's traditions. The headmistress says: "In 1999, my brothers bought this school. We added many classrooms because it became very popular."

The middle class families preferred these schools to others because the fees of other private schools amount to several thousands of dollars compared to a few tens of dollars in Al-Bawadir and other similar schools. Thus, the economic dimension is combined with the moral dimension in making these schools successful and spreading them in large numbers in Damascus and other towns. A secular parent said: "I used to send my children to a Christian private school but my son once asked me whether he was a Christian or Muslim. I then decided to transfer him to the Umar Bin-al-Khattab School in the Al-Mazzah neighbourhood."

The Qubaysis supervise the teaching of hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren from an early age and in a conservative manner. This continues in later phases through religious lessons and mosque lectures. They also take care of them through charity and people's contributions, offering some medical services in the Salamah Hospital, which is situated behind the American Embassy and which is affiliated with it. The Qubaysis also provide some books on their thought in bookshops they own such as the Al-Salam bookshop in the Al-Baramikah Neighbourhood in the centre of Damascus.

A girl from the Al-Qanawat Neighbourhood in old Damascus say that most of the teachers were pretty and from the Qubaysis and that the mathematics schoolteacher tried to convince her to wear the hijab. She says: "The Miss used to wear the black blue overcoat and the dark blue headdress. Under the overcoat, she wore a blue skirt and a white blouse and thick stockings and heelless black shoes." She adds: "She once asked me if I would withstand the heat of summer in such clothes? I said: No. Then she said: What about the fire of hell? When she failed to convince me of wearing the hijab, a number of hijab-wearing women invited me to a birthday party for one of them but I was surprised to find that the entire discussion was on the need to wear the hijab."

The home activities of the Qubaysis depend on the surroundings in terms of security, politics, and religion in the country and in the region. The latest three decades have seen them move from open activities, giving lessons in mosques and schools, to confining their activities to private homes. Habash says that their most prominent characteristic was "their keeping away from politics, whether in support of or against the regime. The group has not been involved in any act against the country." We must understand that this period witnessed fierce armed struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood organization and the authorities in the late 1970's and in the early 1980's.

While independent experts think that the Qubaysis constitute the female shadow of political Islam, Habash says: "They have no political project. They resorted to secret activities because of Syria's circumstances in the 1980's. This means that they are not an organization but cells that grow in a spiral and mushrooming manner.

What is meant by secrecy is that in the previous years, the Qubaysis were cautious while moving about or gathering in private homes to give religious lessons periodically. They were careful not to come out in large numbers after the end of the class and that the class should not be attended by more than six students, except on public holidays such as the Prophet's birthday or the Laylat al-Qadr. It is believed that religious and social occasions provided an opportunity to win over new members. It is said that the rank of the Qubaysi woman is characterized by the colour of her attire. The darker the colour the closer the preacher becomes to Miss Munirah. However, it is certain that the unified and official uniform is the dark blue coat with a dark blue headdress under which the Qubaysi woman wears a piece of cloth to pull her hair together. Some of the Qubaysis wear a black veil, thick stockings, and heelless black shoes. The preachers emphasize that the eyebrows should not be plucked and no makeup should be placed on the face.

Al-Buti says: "They wear dark blue hijab to distinguish themselves from others. The veil is not compulsory. There is no compulsion until the girl is confirmed in religion and then she can wear the veil if she likes."

It was no coincidence that Miss Munirah should have chosen the dark blue colour because there was a widespread belief that this colour was a middle ground between black and white, between extremism and moderation. Al-Buti says: "They have intellectual and scientific approaches because most of them are graduates from universities as well as medical and engineering schools. They are open to ideas and are far from being extremist."

It is obvious that recently, the authorities encouraged the Qubaysis not to give lessons at homes by giving them licenses for open instead of secret classes. Salah-al-Din Kiftaru says: "Holding classes in private homes is terrifying. The national regime must reach these places with its tools and monitoring equipment. Therefore, the state has the right to prevent classes in private homes but not in mosques. Recently, the authorities allowed the Qubaysis to give lectures in the mosques of Al-Muhammadi, Badr, and Sa'd in Al-Maliki Neighbourhood. Al-Buti says that a number of shaykhs informed the authorities that it would be "in our interest to approve their working in the open. Give them documents enabling them to work in the open because their work is upright and nationalist. It is flawless and has nothing to do with politics."

The sons of Kiftaru and Al-Buti agree that the Qubaysi sisters always mention President Bashar al-Asad in their prayers without referring to politics. Al-Buti says: "Their loyalty to the homeland is immense."

Munirah was born in Damascus in 1933. She is one of a 10-member family: six boys - Bahjat, Walid, Muwaffaq, Mahir, Mumtaz, and Radwan - and they work in trade and in professions requiring high qualifications; and four girls, who are all housewives. Munirah studied in Damascus schools until she graduated in natural sciences. She used her degree to teach at the Al-Muhajirin Neighbourhood schools and other Damascus areas.

In the early 1960's she began to combine preaching with teaching because of her closeness to the Abu-al-Nur mosque, which belonged to the late Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Kiftaru. His son Hasan said: "As a result of her preaching activities, she was prevented from teaching in schools. This prevention by the then leftist government resulted in two things: The first was that Munirah resided at the Abu-al-Nur Mosque and started to learn at the hand of Kiftaru; and the second was her attending the Islamic Shari'ah College at the Damascus University.

Observers differ over what happened later. A researcher wrote that The rise of Wafa, the daughter of the late mufti Kiftaru, as a preacher at the Al-Nur Mosque and the sharp rivalry between the two women forced Munirah to leave the mosque and establish her own path and gather her followers independently, in terms of thought and finance.

Dr Mahmud Kiftaru, the second son of the late Mufti, said: "On the contrary, Wafa was a student of Miss Munirah and there was a difference in age, exceeding 20 years between the two, and this rules out any rivalry." Over the past two decades, Munirah al-Qubaysi's activities were either open or secret but by combining both kinds of activity, she was able to expand her work in Syrian governorates before her thoughts crossed the borders of Syria at first and then spread to the Arab world with the result that her followers exceeded 75,000 girls, according to estimates by observers and shaykhs.

Deputy Muhammad Habash says: "One of the reasons for Miss Munirah's success was her refusal to clash with any other group." She had good relations with Kuftaru and attended his intellectual meetings and learned his Sophist methods. Indeed, his son Salah-al-Din, director of the Abu-al-Nur complex, remembers how she asked him to be left alone with the body of Mufti Kiftaru at the Dar-al-Shifa Hospital after he died in the late 2004. He said that she remained by his side for over one and half hours."

Salah-al-Din adds: "Her relations with our family are old because her uncle Abu-al-Khayr al-Qubaysi was a companion of my grandfather Shaykh Amin." However, she also had intellectual, religious, and personal relations with the great thinker Muhammad Sa'id Ramadan al-Buti. Indeed, he was very enthusiastic in his support for "the sisters who were a model in culture, religion, nationalism, and high ideals." She also had good relations with the followers of Shaykh Abd-al-Karim al-Rifa'i whose school is run by his daughter Sariyah and his son Usamah in the Kfar Susah Neighbourhood.

Munirah has never been distant from the Islamic Fath Institute, which is affiliated with the Al-Azhar University, and his rector the Damascus Mufti Shaykh Abd-al-Fattah al-Bazim and one of the institute's great figures Shaykh Hasan Farfur. She also had relations with the followers of Shaykh Badr-al-Din al-Hasani and the man who held an important position at the institute, Shaykh Abu-al-Khayr Shukri. Habash says: "Each of the religious groups in the country claims that she belongs to it or is close to it." Perhaps her success is attributed to the fact that most, if not all, of the wives or daughters of the senior shaykhs are from the Qubaysi preachers.

Source: Al-Hayat website, London, in Arabic 3 May 06

Monday, May 15, 2006

Michel Kilo the Patriot

Michel Kilo has been arrested - this time for more than the usual several hours. Mr Kilo’s family told news agencies that he was called in for questioning by the security services on Sunday around noon and that he had not returned 24 hours later. He has been questioned regularly in recent months but never for more than a few hours.

Ferry Beiderman of the Financial Times explains that Michel Kilo had been instrumental in a petition drive by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, calling for Syria to demarcate its border with Lebanon and establish embassies. The petition appeared on the eve of the introduction last Friday by the US, France and Britain of a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling on Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Kilo was one of the most respected members of Syria's internal opposition and his arrest marks a new low for the regime in its present crackdown on dissidents and reformers. Michel Kilo had always been extremely careful to separate his opposition efforts from US backed plans to destabilize the regime. In fact, he had been so outspoken about keeping the US at arm's length that US based opposition leaders such as Farid Ghadry had gotten used to labeling Kilo a regime spy and apparatchik.

There has never been any doubt about Kilo's bonafides. In the spring of 2005, he was the star of a three part al-Arabiyya series on Syrian reform. His voice emerged out of the various panels of Syrian opposition members and reformers as the clearest and most compelling. When Mahdi Dakhlallah, the information minister, tried to silence Kilo with the charge of being disloyal and anti-Syrian, Kilo trounced him, insisting that the true nationalist is one who wants the best for his country even if it means telling painful truths. Kilo would take none of Dakhlala's nonsense and Dakhlallah had the good sense to know he was in the wrong; he fell silent. Kilo earned every Syrian's gratitude that evening.

I had the honor of appearing on al-Jazeera's "Open Dialogue" show with Michel Kilo last year. We arranged to take a cab over to Beirut and back that same evening, which gave us many hours to chat. Kilo grew up in Latakia on the coast. He studied in West Germany and didn't speak any English, which severely limited his ability to get his message out to a foreign audience. German journalists relied on him extensively, but English-speaking journalists rarely used him, which is a great loss, for he is one of Syria's most articulate and forceful analysts. He makes is living as a journalist. He wrote for as-Safir, the Lebanese independent paper for many years, but left them and began to write for an-Nahar more recently, not only because as-Safir shied away from his more forceful attacks on Syria, but also because an-Nahar paid more and was eager to give prominence to new and outspoken Syrians.

As a Latakian Christian, who came from the secular left, Kilo is particularly well placed to pressure the Asad regime where it hurts. He speaks its language of Arabism and socialism and appeals to the same Syrians who are considered most likely to be regime supporters. He passed my Mother-in-law test with flying colors. An Alawite mother of four, Um Firas has an advanced degree and fears the Moslem Brotherhood, a member of which tried to assassinate her husband in 1982. She is not easily attracted to regime opponents; nevertheless, she admired Michel Kilo and always watched him on those rare occasions when satellite TV did a special on Syria. Each time she heard him, she would praise his reasonableness and wonder why the government didn't listen to him. Unlike Bayanouni of the Muslim right or Riyad al-Turk, the fearless leader of Syria's most important communist movement, Michel Kilo calibrated his attack on the regime to appeal to the Um Firases of Syria. No one could accuse him of being an ideologue or unrealistic. He was practical and had an innate sense of what was doable. He is the kind of opposition-reformer that Syria needs many more of.

The fact that Michel Kilo was a central figure in the Damascus Declaration last year ensured its success. By endorsing the notion that secular Syrians must join up with the Muslim Brotherhood to demand change, he helped give respectability to the alliance. Like all Arabs, Syrians are painfully aware that their divisions and internal fragmentation are the source of their weakness and the foundation of authoritarianism. Not until they can agree on the basic outlines of who should rule and how they should rule will hope for change be kindled. Everyone understands that Syrians have miles to go before reaching the threshold of consensus for peaceful change. Michel Kilo, more than most Syrians, did his part in convincing Syrians that they can produce consensus and peaceful change. So long as all sides cling to civil discourse and religious tollerance, violence can be avoided.

One can only hope that Michel Kilo, a true patriot, will be free soon.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Kamal al-Labwani's Trial

I have received three notes from Maureen Thomas of England, who has been a tireless defender and advocate of Kamal al-Labwani's. You may remember that Kamal was one of the Damascus Spring members who were arrested in 2001. Last year he flew to Washington, where he met with US officials to speak about opposition matters. On his return to Syria he was arrested. He gained particular notoriety because President Bush mentioned his arrest in a speech and asked for his release by name. This was the first time the US had given particular attention to a member of the Syrian opposition. Labwani was an odd choice for such attention. He was not well known in Syria and had not made a prominent name for himself among members of the Syrian opposition. His arrest went unnoticed by most Syrians as did President Bush's remarks.

The episode demonstrated how little Washington understands about Syria's internal affairs and how much it must learn before it can effectively exploit the Syrian opposition to pressure President Bashar al-Asad.

Unfortunately, Kamal al-Labwani is paying for the terrible state of affairs between the two countries. One can only hope that his sacrifices will pay off someday.

Here are Maureen's notes.

The first is from May 6, 2006: Maureen wrote:

Dear Prof. Landis,

I expect you know the current situation regarding my dear friend Dr Kamal al-Labwani: that he has now been formally charged with "inciting a foreign nation to occupy Syria" and that he faces life imprisonment or execution if any attack on Syria does take place. This is bitterly ironic because, all the time he was in UK, Europe and US last year, he told everyone who would listen to him that any attack or sanctions imposed on Syria would be totally wrong because it would be the ordinary people who would suffer and they had endured enough hardship. No date has been set for his trial.

Best wishes,
Maureen Thomas (Basildon, England)
The second note came on May 10, 2006
Dear Professor Landis,

I copy below a message received from Dr Kamal al-Labwani's family very late on Wednesday night.

Best wishes,
Maureen Thomas

"......... I have very bad news to tell you about.

The trial will start tomorrow and it will be the first session. It will be at nine o’clock in the morning (7 am British Summer Time). It is not in public. It is like an investigation: the judge will ask him about the things he talked about (while he was in Europe and US last year) and he will face him with the new charge, and they will say when the second session is.

This time is the hardest time, and he needs now support and pressures to release him more than any other time.

Please, if you can, help us by talking about his case and the unfair charges against him in public like on channels. And try to get media cover for his trial and the unfair charges and ask the members of European Parliament and the British Parliament which our father met when he was in the UK and Europe to be witnesses on media and deny the charge because they heard his opinion and they know it is not true.

And please maybe you as Amnesty International members which our father lived with for more than one month and know him and his ideas very well, say that it is not true.

These things will help our father and it will be a very good thing to do specially at this time. Making public his case or leading the Amnesty press release campaigns specially on the media or channels will move the public opinion against the authority inside and outside Syria.

Any way thank you very much. Maybe we are pushing you too hard but please do what you can do.

Sorry for these lots of requests and with our best wishes

Kamal family"
The last note came today - May 14, 2006
Dear Prof. Landis,

This afternoon I received the following e-mail from Kamal's family, and his wife and daughter have just telephoned me to make sure I got the message and that I will do everything I can to publicise the fact of the hearing.

Best wishes,
Maureen Thomas

The date for the next session of our father’s trial is on the 22nd of this month, so it is not this Monday it is the next Monday. We hope that members from the European Commission in Damascus and members from European Embassies in Damascus will attend the hearing.

Thank you a lot and is there any new news ?

From Kamal's family

Friday, May 12, 2006

Comparing the two paths of Syria’s Bashar and Pakistan’s Musharaff. Has Bashar erred? By EHASNI2

Comparing the two paths of Syria's Bashar and Pakistan's Musharraf. Has Bashar erred?

12 May 2006,

In October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf, a former commando, assumed power in Pakistan. Seven months later, Bashar Assad, an aspiring ophthalmologist, came to power one week after the death of his father. When Pakistan and the world awoke to the news of a new military coup in October 1999, the consensus opinion was: “Another coup, another general”. In contrast, when Syria and the world glimpsed their new leader, many hoped that his training in London and his facility with English and his British-born wife would make him a different kind of dictator than his iconic and Soviet era father. Syria could now look forward to a new breed of leadership free of ideological demagoguery and endemic corruption.

How did the two leaders and their countries do since then? Let us now recap:

Pakistan’s Musharraf:

When the general assumed power, Pakistan was being described as a failing state sinking in a debt quagmire and kept afloat by the IMF and World Bank as several times during the decades the country was near default and bankruptcy. On the political front, there were economic sanctions following the 1998 nuclear tests. The coup, of course, brought its new political sanctions. The country was in effect a political and economic pariah.

As soon as he took power, Musharraf’s first move was to ask his senior advisors to identify for him the most qualified incorruptible Pakistani national whom he could task with turning the economy around. Once that person was identified, the General personally called him the next morning. Shaukat Aziz was a hugely successful senior executive at Citibank in New York. General Musharraf pleaded with Mr. Aziz to leave his immensely powerful and lucrative job, move to Pakistan and help put the country’s economic house in order. Mr. Aziz was promised a free hand in designing his own policies with the full support of the new leader.

The economic plan that Mr. Aziz designed had to address the following problems:

Increase foreign reserves from the equivalent of only two weeks of imports at the end of 1999.

Reorganize the country’s debt by lowering the 11% rates paid on mostly short term loans.

Cut the budget deficit from 8% to 4% of GDP.

Lower inflation from double digits.

Undertake a massive structural reform

Sell public sector enterprises and embark on a fast-track approach to privatizing the state’s biggest companies.

As the economic plan went into its implementation stage, Mr. Bin Laden and his Jihadists struck on that infamous September 11th. Mr. Musharraf of course had his own Islamist elements in his midst. His military and secret service were taken over by Islamists during the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq. But Musharraf recognized the world-changing significance of 9/11, withdrew recognition from the Taliban, and began helping the CIA. As Pakistan found itself on the frontline and under the microscope of the world, the canny general made full use of the opportunity presented to him and his country. He knew that he could now get all the aid that his county needed from the U.S. and the west if he chose to fight alongside them. Sure enough, the enormous handouts poured in. The economy was already on an upswing and the reform process was already in full force but the new American sure helped. A huge portion of the country’s debt was forgiven. The results have been nothing short of spectacular. The country’s stock market is up 806% since 2002 alone, property markets in key cities are on a tear as interest rates were lowered and housing finance boomed. Last year alone, overseas Pakistanis sent close to $ 4 billion home. Foreign capital has also been attracted due to the massive privatization effort. Since 2003, the country raised $5 billion through the auction of its state enterprises. This year, it has plans to raise another $ 3 Billion by selling off its oil, gas and steel assets.

In sum, President Musharraf knew from day one that his success hinged on tackling his country’s economy. In order to do so, he relied on incorruptible technocrats and gave them free reign to plan and execute their strategies. In the wake of 09/11, he had the foresight to take full advantage of the opportunity presented to him and his country. Here was an opportunity to appear like he was helping America and a chance to reap huge financial benefits as a result. He masterfully and opportunistically made full use of it. Some may argue that his move towards the west was merely cosmetic. How could Musharraf not have known about his country’s nuclear smuggling ring headed by A.Q. Khan they ask? How did Musharraf pardon the man and allow him to live peacefully in the country after the devastating news became public? Nonetheless, this President convinced America that he had made the decision to fight the Islamic elements within his society and side with the U.S. The result was that financial aid started to pour in. The country’s foreign reserves went from the lowest to the highest in its history. In the meantime, the country has become one of the world’s most aggressive sellers of state companies. It has overhauled its tax system. The country’s strategy has been to maintain rapid growth, in part to encourage a prosperous middle class, which might pre-empt the appeal of the radical Islamist movement and put the country on a more politically moderate path.

But significant challenges remain. Per Capita GDP is still only close to $600. Nearly 30% of the population still lives below the poverty line. More state funds are needed for education and infrastructure. The country is still ruled by the same army general who has resisted calls for free elections. But, given the hand that he was dealt, this astute and opportunistic general has arguably done an outstanding job steering his troubled country.

Syria’s Bashar:

Though Bashar inherited a socialist-based economy riddled with corruption, the expectations surrounding his ascension to the Presidency run high. Here was a western-educated young President who was an ophthalmologist in training and a surfer of the Internet in his spare time. His marriage to his British-born wife with her Chanel look, fancy education and banking experience bolstered hopes and pride even further. Add promises of reform to the mix, and it was easy to see why 20 million Syrians had nothing but hope for a better future that would involve more freedoms and higher standards of living. Western capitals were at least as hopeful. Bashar and his elegant wife had now become on the “A “ list of invitees to meet the world’s Kings, Queens and Heads of State.

As the clock ticked, Bashar’s promises of reforms were slow in coming. The conventional thinking then, as it still is now, was that the young President “wants to reform but his father’s old guard cronies were blocking him”. This has helped the leadership shift the blame of any delays in the implementation of reforms to this phantom group of old guard. Note how Bashar did nothing to find Syria’s equivalent of Shaukat Aziz. Those technocrats that were identified were not empowered to exert any personal influence of their own. Key decisions were exclusively entrusted to the regional command of the Baath party and the Presidential Palace. To this day, the economic polices of his administration have been shameful. Without a clear vision to guide him, he has stumbled at every turn when it comes to turning his economy around. Economic growth continues to languish. Youth Unemployment continues to soar. The state continues to dominate the economy at the expense of the private sector. Insane economic subsidies continue to bleed the state treasury. The Price of heating oil (Mazot) is at Syp 7 when the neighboring countries sell it for 29 and 70 in Lebanon and Turkey respectively. As a result, corruption is rampant. Every time, talk surfaced that these subsidies were going to be lifted, there was uproar from an already struggling populace.

Just as Sep 11th presented President Musharraf with an opportunity to forge closer ties with the U.S., Bashar’s first instincts were similar. In the months that followed, the CIA was granted an office in one of Aleppo’ security headquarters. Information about Al-Qaeda operatives was constantly passed along in the ensuing months. As this healthy cooperation continued, Bashar was busy making overtures to Saddam’s regime in the months leading to his collapse from power. One has to assume that Bashar and his enterprising clique saw a huge opportunity to make outrageous sums of money from the dictator next door. With the U.N. oil for food corruption in high gear, the opportunities were too attractive to pass up. Saddam also needed to hide his cash. His new brotherly neighbors were more than happy to oblige.

As Saddam’s regime suffered its military collapse, Bashar was about to make his biggest geopolitical blunder yet. What I will argue below is going to be very controversial and is likely to elicit a lot of angry responses.

Bashar was understandably threatened by the American army’s massive military success next door. The conventional thinking at the time was Syria’s Baath was next on the menu. As soon as the American army was done in Iraq, they were surely heading west to Damascus to topple the Syrian regime. Bashar and his advisors went to work. Their model was presumably the American Marine’s experience in Lebanon in 1983. Were the American army to suffer enough casualties in Iraq, they may cut and run just like Reagan’s America did. Or so the thinking went.

This was a major strategic blunder by the young President.

If Bashar did not want to be a U.S. ally, he at least should have been a non-aggressor. By foolishly providing moral and material support to the insurgency in Iraq and by harboring high-ranking Iraqi officials, he has made himself a marked man at the White House. It was widely reported that Secretary of State Colin Powel repeatedly tried to change the young leaders’ tactics. All reported promises were not kept.

In this writer’s opinion, Bashar should have imitated Musharraf’s canny use of the opportunity presented to him. His country had already lost its Soviet patronage. His economy is saddled with inefficiencies and corruption. His natural resources are running out fast. His population is increasing at double the rate of the country’s economic growth rate. His people’s standards of living are stagnant if not falling. His Baath party is on the wrong side of history. Most importantly, his late father and regime have credible credentials in fighting Islamic Fundamentalists.

Here was a historic chance to edge Syria towards the west and reform. Here was the chance to break away from the past and the so-called Stalinist era old guard. Here was the chance to ask for massive amounts of financial aid and turn around his economy. Here was the chance to sign a peace treaty with Israel in return for the Golan Heights. Regrettably, Bashar chose not to grab the opportunity. Rather than do all or some of the above, he finds himself and his regime implicated in the murder of his neighbor’s Prime Minister. His army was humiliatingly ordered to leave Lebanon. His country faces a list of economic and political sanctions. His nation has become a regional and national pariah.

Gone are the days of visiting the western capitals with his elegant wife. Gone are the days when foreign leaders and Kings visited.

Thanks to Bashar’s strategic blunders, the Syria of today can only count “Bearded Men” as its friends.

Both Bashar and Musharraf were faced with the same fork on the road during their Presidency. Musharraf had the foresight and courage to at least seem to stand up to the Islamists within his society and make a break with the past. He was able to convince America that he was their new friend. His genuine efforts to fix his economy and reform it from day one has had an enormous benefit for his people. Bashar, of course, took the other road at the fork. Presumably, he did not feel that he had the credibility that his father may have had to make such a geopolitical decision and edge his country to the west. Regrettably, niether did he have a vision or a plan to turn his languishing economy around.

Even though both their countries are still ruled by dictators, it is the opinion of this writer that Bashar and the Syrian people lost this contest.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Beirut Bombshell," by Prothero

The assassination of a former Prime Minister may have been linked to the collapse of Lebanon's Bank al-Madina.

15 May 2006
U.S. Edition

LAST YEAR, WHEN SYRIAN intelligence operatives were implicated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, their motive seemed clear: to neutralize a political opponent of Syria's three-decade occupation of Lebanon. But United Nations investigators and other sources have told FORTUNE there may have been an additional reason for the hit. The February 2005 car bombing in Beirut, the sources say, may have been partly intended to cover up a corruption and bank fraud scandal that siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars to top Syrian and Lebanese officials.

Bank documents, court filings, and interviews with investigators and other sources show that some of the officials were deeply involved from the late 1990s until early 2003 in a kickback scheme that supplied them with cash, real estate, cars, and jewelry in exchange for protecting and facilitating a multibillion-dollar money- laundering operation at Lebanon's Bank al-Madina that allowed terrorist organizations, peddlers of West African "blood diamonds," Saddam Hussein, and Russian gangsters to hide income and convert hot money into legitimate bank accounts around the world. Despite efforts to cover up the details surrounding the bank's collapse in early 2003, these sources say, the Syrian and Lebanese officials allegedly involved in the fraud feared that Hariri could return to power and reveal their role in one of the biggest illegal banking operations in the Middle East since the Bank of Credit & Commerce International scandal in the early 1990s.

"Was the scandal part of the reason Hariri was killed?" asks Marwan Hamade, Lebanon's Minister of Telecommunications and a Hariri confidant who was himself the target of a car-bomb assassination attempt. "Absolutely. It was certainly one of the cumulative reasons. If he had been reelected, Hariri would have reopened the file, which we know goes directly to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad through the [Lebanese] presidential palace in Baabda." ....

Addendum: A Syria Comment reader suggested that Prothro's story had been largely taken from an earlier article by Benny Avni in the New York Sun. Actually Prothro has been working on the al-Madina story for a year now. In the October 27, 2005 issue of Time, Prothero wrote this story: The Money Scandal Behind the Hariri Assassination.

Prothro also suggested to me in a recent conversation that he certainly didn't want to suggest in his story that the al-Madina affair was the only, or even, main reason for Hariri's murder.

Monday, May 01, 2006

"Highly Unlikely" that Bashar al-Asad is involved in Hariri Assassination plot writes t_desco

T_desco wrote the following in the comment section. I will respond with my own reasoning soon.

Regarding the question of Bashar al-Asad's possible involvement in any assassination plot, I still think that this is highly unlikely for several reasons:

He was warned personally by Richard Armitage not to harm Hariri:

"After the assassination attempt, Paris and Washington sent messages to Damascus warning the Syrians not to harm opposition leaders, specifically Mr Hariri and Mr Jumblatt. Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State, reiterated that warning during a meeting with Mr Assad in Damascus on January 2."
The Times

You sometimes hear the argument that Asad believed the Americans were too occupied with Iraq and that they had given him a free reign in Lebanon. In my opinion, this claim never had much credibility in light of the Security Council resolution regarding Lebanon, but even if we assume for a moment that it is true, a direct intervention by the Deputy Secretary of State certainly would have sufficed to change such a wrong perception.

Secondly, I think that it is safe to assume that plotting is normally done in secret. Suppose that your enemy tells you to your face that he has become aware of your plot. What are you going to do? Continue with it regardless? How likely is that?

Khaddam argues that Asad is "impulsive" and that therefore his decisions are not fully rational:

"I am convinced that the order came from Assad. He is a highly impulsive man who often loses his temper." Der Spiegel

It is well known that Khaddam wanted to become president himself and that he has now formed a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to topple Asad. Thus, anything he says about the Syrian president could be severely biased.

Khaddam's characterization of Asad is in direct contradiction to many other accounts, for example those quoted by David Lesch in his book on Asad:

"Bashar, on the other hand, is more of a cool person, maybe because of his medical background - he is very calm. In ten years I have never seen him lose his temper - I have seen him upset but he would never lose his temper. He has a very solid personality. He has a very solid mood and is not the kind of person who shows his ups and downs. He might be in a very serious matter but you cannot tell - he handles these situations in a very calm fashion - lots of equanimity." (David W. Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, Yale University Press 2005, p.17)

In his television interviews he also comes across as a very calm person.

In the same sense, Edward Walker said that the killing of Hariri was "certainly not his style":

"Most agreed that the sensational attack did not suit the style of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"Bashar? It's certainly not his style," said Edward Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "I don't think it's something he would do." "
The Jerusalem Post, February 15, 2005

Khaddam's argument is in itself very silly, as he suggests a rush decision made in a fit of temper, but a plot takes months to prepare, plenty of time for cool-headedness and rational thought.

For all those reasons I don't believe that Asad had anything to do with the plot to kill Hariri.