News Round Up (26 April 2007)

From "Friday Lunch Club":  Chirac will move into an apartment belonging to the Hariri family. Now Chirac and Khaddam can be neighbors in Hariri supplied residences.
Jacques et Bernadette Chirac vont habiter provisoirement dans un appartement appartenant à la famille Hariri
- La nouvelle résidence des Chirac, quai Voltaire -
La nouvelle résidence des Chirac, quai Voltaire
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From IraqSlogger, "the new UN report on human rights criticized Coalition authorities for indefinitely holding detainees without charge or trial, charging, "The current legal arrangements at the detention facilities do not fulfill the requirement to grant detainees due process." 
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"Egypt, Saudi Arabia Edge Away From Bush as Mideast Chill Grows," By Janine Zacharia, April 26 (Bloomberg)

President George W. Bush's top Arab allies, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah, are edging away from him, skeptical about his ability to end bloodshed in Baghdad, make progress on Palestinian statehood and contain Iran's nuclear program. Saudi Arabia, the third-biggest exporter of crude oil to the U.S., is cutting a foreign-policy path sometimes contrary to American interests, diplomats and analysts say.  "In the last quarter-century, never has America's standing with its core Arab allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, been as low as it is in this administration,'' said Bruce Riedel, a Middle East adviser to President Bill Clinton and to Bush in his first term. "They have come to the conclusion that Bush and his team are not part of the solution to their concerns, they are the problem.''

"The president of Yemen is coming here the beginning of May; they're friends of the United States,'' David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in an interview. "I know they're not as big as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but it would be a little unfair to say we have a problem in the region across the board.''

"What you've got is a rather large gap between the way that the Saudis, or the way that Abdullah, wants to do business in the new environment and the way Bush wants to do business,'' Indyk said.

Two years ago, largely at the urging of the Bush administration, the first elections in Saudi history were held for municipal councils in a small number of cities, including Jidda, Riyadh and Mecca. Only men could vote and only half the members were elected, but still the elections were hailed as emblems of change.

"Two years after being forced out, Syria continues to be key to Lebanon stability" (AP)

"Two Openings March 14 Might Consider" By: Michael Young | The Daily Star

It's never easy to discern movement in the midst of glacial stalemate, but the ice has definitely budged in the past 10 days in Lebanon. The Hariri tribunal is almost certain to be established, whether through Lebanese institutions or through the United Nations Security Council; and the heat is building up on the opposition to agree to a presidential election amid a widening consensus that Emile Lahoud, whatever else happens, will not remain in office beyond the end of his term…
It was Russia's deputy foreign minister, Alexander Sultanov, who lowered the knife on Syria by indicating that Moscow would not veto recourse to Chapter 7 in the event the tribunal remained blocked in Lebanon. Sultanov's message to Syrian President Bashar Assad probably went like this: Accept the tribunal through the Lebanese constitutional process, since you can then influence what happens; but once it reaches the UN, there's little we can do to help you. There are no signs, however, that Assad intends to change direction.
In order to maintain the initiative, but also to block any outside effort to sow domestic conflict over the Hariri tribunal, March 14 needs to do more. It should open up in two directions: toward the Shiite community…; and toward Aoun…
With respect to the Shiites, the majority might want to think of putting on the table a quid pro quo: a timetable to discuss constitutional reforms and a redistribution of political power among all communities, in particular the Shiites, in exchange for Hizbullah's willingness to accept a timetable for its disarmament.

Danerous Delusion on the Golan By: Aluf Benn | Haaretz

There is a new idea dominating public discourse: Israel will recognize Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights and hold the territory under a long-term lease agreement. But those in the know and who are familiar with the detailed history of the negotiations with Syria say Damascus will not agree to such a proposal.

Al Qaeda Strikes Back By: Bruce Reidel | Foreign Affairs

By rushing into Iraq instead of finishing off the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Washington has unwittingly helped its enemies: al Qaeda has more bases, more partners, and more followers today than it did on the eve of 9/11. Now the group is working to set up networks in the Middle East and Africa — and may even try to lure the United States into a war with Iran. Washington must focus on attacking al Qaeda's leaders and ideas and altering the local conditions in which they thrive.

Playing Safe The Economist

The selection of Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister, as the candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for next month's presidential election has taken much of the heat out of the issue.

Comments (82)


Pages: « 1 [2] Show All

51. Bakri said:

Aussama,the syrian regime and those who backed the iraqi constitution are close friends …those have offices in Syria.

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April 28th, 2007, 9:50 am

 

52. bilal said:

Ugarit,

The MB as per NSF statements clearly says that the new president religion should not be specified.
The NSF in their publications proposed to go back to the 1951 constitution as it is more democratic than what we have now. Then new legistaltive elections will take place to elect a new people assembly which will create to a new government based on this assembly. During 2 years this people assembly will write a new constitution and new legislative election laws and will dismiss itselft to create a new people assembly.

To Ausamaa,

Please be logical and don’t just claim rumors. As Bakri has said, whoever wrote the Iraqi constitution are much closer to the Syrian Regime than the NSF.

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April 28th, 2007, 12:06 pm

 

53. ugarit said:

Bilal:

Is there a link to the 1951 constitution that we can read?

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April 28th, 2007, 3:41 pm

 

54. ausamaa said:

Bilal

In case you have any illusions, the Big Boss of the MB & Co. is the same Big Boss of the Al Maliki.

And I would urge you to forget about any possibility of ever having some one like the Moslim Brotherhood rule us in Syria. We have seen of them in Hamma, Algeires and Afghanistan.

If Syria has to move up, it should move up to something more Modern, more Civilized, more Open and more Democratic, and who Must offer much mor than a Muslim Brotherhood or a nonexisting so-called NSF are offering.

Who the hell are they anyway?

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April 28th, 2007, 5:24 pm

 

55. majedkhaldoun said:

NSF is not supported by the majority of syrians,because of two reasons,mainly.
first they do not trust Abdulhalim Khaddam, second the Kurds represent a large segment in it, Kurds who want to seperate as independent state,mostly from northeast,(not the kurds from Damascus), we should never allow kurdish state, it will be another Isreal,in my opinion it is treason, if the kurds do not understand this, they will pay dearly for their ambition, in the USA we have people from different ethnic background, no one ask to seperate, they need to learn to co-exist.
As america realize they lost the war in Iraq, and they pull out, Iraq have very good chance to be with Syria,and the kurds will have to apply for syrian-iraqi citizeship, by then ,I hope the lebanese syrian crisis will be over,we will have new leaders in the arab world,since the new leaders are old,and may die.

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April 28th, 2007, 6:45 pm

 

56. Bilal said:

To Ugarit,
I am not sure about the link to the 1951 constitution but I will try and let you know.

To Ausamaa,

I am sorry but I did not realize who is the boss of AlMaliki?
I agree with you to hope that the MB does not rule Syria but I would definitely respect the decision of the majority of Syrians as neither one of us does not OWN Syria. You have to learn to be a true democratic and accept other people ideas. If you are going to open the Hamma issue you have to open it in an open mind way. Until there is a true unbiased investigation about what really happened we couldn’t reach judgments. It is almost impossible to conduct such an investigation after such a long time so it could be better not to bring the whole issue. I can tell you about a massacre that was committed again a whole neighborhood in Hamma just because they suspected a person living in that neighborhood. If it was your neighborhood I am sure your sentiments will be different. Anyway we will never know what really happened in Hamma so it is better to let it go but at least we are sure that BOTH sides were Extremely violent & bloody & committed a lot of massacres against innocent civilians but we do not know who started it. Who came first the chicken or the egg?
Yes we should move up from this regime. Maybe the MB or the NSF are not the best to have but they are all of what we got in addition to the Damascus Declaration of course. So we have to encourage them and others to move ahead and help us get ride of this corrupt family regime of ours. The NSF was successful in getting recognition from a lot of regional and international countries. This is a great achievement. Also the Damascus Declaration has won the trust of many. The great thing is that they are both cooperating and helping each other. That is a great thing for Free Syria.

To MajedKhaldoun,

That what you think but NO as a great deal of the Syrians trust and support the NSF but obviously cannot dare say it due to law 49 & they see what is happening. Khaddam was the most trusted Syrian Officials until 1996 when the regime itself started destroying his image by spreading rumors in order to kill any opportunity for him to compete against Bashar. Hafez was smart as he saw it happening so he made sure to instruct his security people to spread those rumors about Chemical wastes and others that was proved later to be just lies. To prove this, the regime is trying to find any corruption case against Khaddam for the past year and could not find any.
As for the Kurds I do not know from where you got your info that the Kurds within the NSF want to create an independent state. This was never and will never be accepted by the NSF. Read their statements as it all say that the Kurds are an important part of the Syrian people. Do not believe what the regime is spreading. Read the NSF statements and judge them on that and not on what the regime is saying about them.

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April 28th, 2007, 7:27 pm

 

57. Omar said:

The NSF is supported by the majority of Syrians, because of one reason Abdulhalim Khaddam is sunni and most Syrians are sunni.
Sunni always support each other for one reason they follow Prophet Mohammad legacy.

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April 28th, 2007, 7:34 pm

 

58. ausamaa said:

OMAR,

Go fly a kite. What Sunni and non-Suni BS are you talking about?

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April 28th, 2007, 7:48 pm

 

59. ausamaa said:

BILAL,

Please! You do not know what happened in Hamma? Fine. I know what happened in Hamma. A lot of people know what happened in Hamma. We lived through what happened in Hamma. And we lived through the MB’s bombs near the elementary schools and the bus stations in Damascuse and other places. We lived through the whole lot. We know what happened! A movement supported, financed, and used by outside countries tried to attack the establishment. It drew a harsh and very tough and sometimes an indiscremenate resoponse for sure. And the MB response to the government was not that clean or discrimenate niether. But without such a response from the authoreties then, I am sure that Syria would have gone through what Egypt anf Algeria went through. Remember what the salafies did in Algeria, and they arnt finished yet? That what would have happened to us in Syria. And thanks God it did not.

So let us not keep using that Qamees Othman Hamma Story !

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April 28th, 2007, 7:59 pm

 

60. ausamaa said:

I hope So!!!

Jumblat intends to launch a Political Initiative to resolve the Lebanon internal crisis.

Bahrain News Agency.

جنبلاط يعتزم إطلاق مبادرة سياسية لحل الأزمة اللبنانية
GMT 17:00:00 2007 السبت 28 أبريل
وكالة اأنباء البحرين – بنا

بيروت: أفادت صحيفة لبنانية أن رئيس اللقاء الديمقراطي في لبنان النائب وليد جنبلاط يعتزم إطلاق مبادرة سياسية حوارية بهدف حل الأزمة السياسية التي تعصف بلبنان منذ عدة أشهر.

وقالت صحيفة “الأخبار” اللبنانية الصادرة اليوم، إن مبادرة وليد جنبلاط تستند إلى المواقف الهادئة التي أطلقها يوم أمس في تشييع شابين من أنصاره عثر عليهما مقتولين أول أمس الخميس في جنوب بيروت.

وأوضحت الصحيفة إستنادًا إلى مصادر مطلعة على موقف جنبلاط الذي يعد من أبرز قادة الأغلبية النيابية في لبنان، أن ما شجعه على التفكير في إطلاق مبادرة سياسية هو الصدى الإيجابي الذي تلاقيه مواقفه الراهنة لدى الرأي العام اللبناني.

ونقلت هذه المصادر عن جنبلاط قوله أمس إن كل هذا الإجماع على إدانة الجريمة من جميع الأطراف لا قيمة له في السياسة إذا لم يبادر أحدنا إلى طرح مبادرة سياسية لأن هذا الإجماع يضمحل بعد 24 ساعة ونعود إلى التعبئة، مما قد يوفر أسبابًا لإرتكاب جرائم أخرى قد تكون أكبر وأفظع.

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April 28th, 2007, 8:31 pm

 

61. majedkhaldoun said:

Bilal;
I went to Syria and stayed there two months ,from may till july,last year, I talked to kurds, many car drivers were kurds, they want to have autonomy, and with Iraq kurds they want to have seperate state, ,my source was not the goverment, it was the kurds themself.

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April 28th, 2007, 8:32 pm

 

62. bilal said:

To Ausamaa,

This is what you think or heard happened in Hamma. I am not saying that this did not happen but a lot of other things happened as well even worse than this. You have to bare in mind that in 1982 a general strike was called and all of Syria except Damascus joined the strike. The regime exerted immense pressure so that Damascus does not strike. This shows you that there was a considerable support for the people of Hamma within the Syrian population. I said the people of Hamma and not the MB as the MB were forced to this struggle by the regime itself as it was proven later that the first bloody attack on the regime that was blamed by the regime as done by the MB was not. This is a proven fact that the Regime does not dare admits. Because they mistakenly accused the MB the regime started fighting and massacring them which forced them to fight back. They are both criminals against innocent civilians. Anyway whatever the regime has done or is doing is to protect itself and not Syria. Why? Because it is known that the Security forces are there to protect the regime & the army to protect the country. Look how preferential treatment, equipment, & support the security generals get where at the same time the army is very badly trained, equipped, & supported. Anyway we will never get anywhere if we discuss Hamma and what did what and who started and what if.

To MajedKhaldoun,

OK some Kurds have this dream but the Kurds that have joined the NSF does not. That is according to various NSF statements. As I told you read NSF statements and you will find that they always say that Kurds are an important factor of the Syrian people.

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April 28th, 2007, 10:00 pm

 

63. Ford Prefect said:

Ausamaa is right and his feelings are mine. I lived through the horrors of the MBs. I also was in Damascus in the late seventies when the MB’s went on a killing and bombing carnage. Their rage was directed not against the Ba’ath and its failing ideology, but at others who they considered not to be true Muslims, shamefully. I usually try to avoid any personal stories and anecdotes, but I can’t help telling this story – now that the MB’s are in focus.

In 1978, three misguided MBs, in the name of Allah, walked in broad daylight to the Science Faculty at Damascus University and shot the best professor ever – my dear late teacher and mentor, Professor Adnan Ghanem. Adnan was not an ordinary Syrian. He was a prodigy child- having earned his PhD with honors at the age of 23! Being a secular scholar, a world-renowned publisher of many papers, a talented artist, and a famous lecturer did not help spare him from the bullets of the MBs. His only fault in life was that he belonged to a sect that the MBs did not see as legitimate Islam. I don’t want to get into naming religions and sects, as I consider Syrians to be just that; but I can say that I am a Sunni from a family that produced the most muftis in the history of Syria. I cried when he was killed – more than I cried for loosing my own father.

All of his students, Muslims, Christians, Kurds, Armenians, Shia’s, and others felt the horror and the savagery of the MBs. How do I know it was the MBs? I really don’t know for sure as I am not a police investigator. But Adnan showed me the repeated threats he received from MBs. I have seen and read the notes left under his door in his one room basement apartment in 3arnoos, Damascus. I had him come and sleep in my house many times, sometimes for weeks, due to the threats he received from the MBs. These same criminals tried to recruit me at the time, saying it is my duty as a Muslim to kill the infidel. I remember the days. I have the evidence.

The MBs bullets went into my heart as well as of Adnan’s. I can still feel them and they immensely hurt. Have the MBs changed? I doubt it. They are just morphing from one sick color to another so they can reach power in Syria. Their message, they claim, is divine; from Allah directly and they have the responsibility of enforcing it. Now they have set up shop in Washington, begging the same people who gave us one million cluster bombs in southern Lebanon last July. What a shame to still have them around, now with a Ba’athist on board.

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April 28th, 2007, 10:24 pm

 

64. bilal said:

To Ford Perfect,

I fully agree with you and almost felt was you have gone thru. Yes their acts were criminals and for sure not justified under any circumstances. What I am trying to say is that the other side was as criminals and also the regime action is not justified as well. During that time a lot of crimes were committed and blamed on the other party which proved to be wrong. There is this famous crime against, if I remember right, the head of Damascus University that then was discovered to be committed by others.
We cannot blame one party and leave the other whether it is the regime or the MB. There are a lot of stories from both sides that can be told which make all of us cry.

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April 28th, 2007, 10:45 pm

 

65. bilal said:

To Ausamaa,
By the way, what Omar is saying have some truth whether we like it or not. Personally I don’t but this is a fact. Look how the Syrian people have fully supported Mr. Hassan Nassarallh during the July war. You can find his posters everywhere. Then when there were talks about Sunni Cheite conflict in Lebanon a lot of these posters disappeared and his popularity greatly decreased in Syria & the whole Arab region.
Mr. Khaddam was the most senior Sunni official in Syria and despite this he did not have any power over the internal security of Syria. He was excluded to foreign policy only. When they felt he could compete with them they started destroying his image in Syria by spreading lies & rumors. I
I know we should not look at it like this but this is exactly what happened. Yes?

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April 28th, 2007, 10:56 pm

 

66. Omar said:

To Aussama
You should fly a huge kite to take you to that new planet were you belong.

http://freesyria.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/syrian-regime-mentality/#comments

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April 28th, 2007, 10:58 pm

 

67. Ford Prefect said:

Bilal, indeed, I agree with you. Both sides were and still stand guilty of heinous crimes. Your argument that we cannot blame one and not the other makes perfect sense.

However, my argument is that while we cannot blame one over the other, we should not also allow one to be replaced with the other. Both have a record, and I would vote for neither of them (I am talking about the Ba’athists; as I refuse to discredit any religion or sect).

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April 28th, 2007, 11:03 pm

 

68. bilal said:

Yes you and I will not vote for either. This is a promise that I will respect. But I do not know about the other 18 Millions Syrians. True democracy will make sure these crimes will never happen again. But we should not keep the present regime at the same time.

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April 28th, 2007, 11:20 pm

 

69. norman said:

FP, i had a similar experience to the one you had , so did many of us who lived in Syria in the late seventies ,

You know now why we are concern about the MB.

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April 29th, 2007, 1:36 am

 

70. Bakri said:

If u are a pro dictature ,pro moukhabrat pro syrian people mass killing for sure you belong to one of the minorities which fear to see syria ruled by its own people …you have to accept that the overwhelming majority of the syrian people are not secular nor religiously indifferent.
This hatred towards the syrian people is not new ,some of the minorities as ,secular extremists,kurdish nationalists,the extremist alawites and some assyrians were the collaborators of the french occupation and it’s said that one of them was the grandfather of hafez who supplicated the french government to destroy Syrian unity.

If we are not secularist is that mean we will oppress the minorities and threaten what is left from syrian religious pluralism ?

I ask you to find the answer by yourself and read about the cosmopolitan character of the islamic cities as Aleppo,Hama,Stamboul,Izmir,Homs,Damascus,Cairo,Sarajevo ….or the medieval Cordoba and Sevilla in Al Andalus …. or even compare the religious coexistence in the syrian cities and the power of the christian community in all fields prior to hafez asad with today after 35 years of the minority sectarian rule.
Let me to give u some numeric facts….

In 1900 ,Aleppo population was 10 % jewish ,25 % christian …..
In the 1960’s prior to asad rule ,the christian community in Aleppo was 20 %
Today :less than 5%.
And if that regime remains more in few decades ,their percentage will be inconsiderable.
I’m not a secularist but what i say above is not far from Michel Kilo’s opinion developped in his last article before his imprisonment.

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April 29th, 2007, 2:29 am

 

71. Bakri said:

Again Aussama ,avoid us such baathi non sense.
The MB if they are the friends of the CIA ,they will be in power in most arab countries since long time ago.Who own the popularity ?
As for Malki or Talebani the actual leaders of occupied Iraq…from what i know they are sons of the syrian moukhabarat.

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April 29th, 2007, 2:47 am

 

72. Joshua said:

Thank you all for discussing this most important episode in Syrian history with such balance and humanity. It is important and it has divided Syria more than anything else.

I spent 1981-1982 at the University of Damascus, living at the University City in wahda al-uwla on the second floor. However, I spent most of my time on the first floor, where the blind students were given rooms. They were the students patient enough to listen to my bad Arabic and correct me, explaining the finer points of Arabic grammar and how `amiyya was constructed differently from fusHa. They always welcomed my intrusions with a warm welcome, pot of tea, and by hitting on the beds next to them so I would sit down for a gossip. Of course the blind students had few visitors and could not go out easily so conversation even with an American with only a small vocabulary and broken grammar was a diversion for them.

I became fast friends with many of the blind students living on the first floor and every Friday evening I would go out shopping in the stores of Mezzeh for lamb minced with parsley in order to make a big dish of meatballs cooked in several kilos of tomatoes with tons of lemon juice. It all had to be cooked in one pot over a small gas burner in some one’s dorm room. I was receiving a princely stipend of $400 a month. The blind students had to make do with 500 SP, which at the time was equivalent to little more than $80. They subsisted on bread, yoghurt, jam and sweet tea. In the evenings they would fry eggs, feeling the yokes ever so often to decide if they had begun to harden and were cooked. So the lamb on Fridays was a welcome change. When it was cooked and had filled the room with a savory smell, 1o to 15 of us would eat it from the pot with bread.

A student from Hama, Ahmed, who was studying at the Sharia College and who frequently ate with us, lost 21 members of his family in the bombardment of his city. None of use knew what to say to him or how to console him. It was a terrible time, full of whisperings and anxiety. Few students wanted to talk of what happened at Hama with an American. None of us really knew what went on until weeks later, when rumors and gossip began filling in where the news stations would not.

Some months after Hama, I went to Ahmed’s room to check in on him and discovered that his sheets were brown and filthy. Neither he nor his roommate could see how dirty they were. It was clear that Ahmed’s family was not visiting him. His life had been turned upside down. I mentioned it to some of his friends who arranged to have his bedding washed without embarrassing him. All the same, the scene sticks in my mind as a symbol of the stain of Hama.

Anyway, I have often wondered what happened to Ahmed. I never saw or heard from him again after leaving Wahda al-Uwla.

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April 29th, 2007, 3:19 am

 

73. Bakri said:

Ford Perfect,i respect your desire to behave as non sectarian syrian patriot but as i said we must call a spade a spade and the mass killing of syrian civilians is related to a deep sectarian hatred of asad familly towards the syrian cities dont deny this fact…Hafez asad was a sadistic criminal and is not representative of the alawite community,what threaten the community is asad familly behavior ..but i underline it again and again ,the alawite community is a authentic syrian community and one of the oldest syrian community and they gave heroes and theur blood to syria as Sheikh Saleh al Ali or the poet Badawi al Jabal and today amongst the most brave syrian patriots are from this community: Aref Dalila,Mahmoud Sarem ,Fateh Jamous ,Abdulaziz Al Khayer.

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April 29th, 2007, 3:40 am

 

74. norman said:

Joshua, That is a very touching story ,

Syria had peace since then.

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April 29th, 2007, 3:40 am

 

75. norman said:

Bakri , If you admire the Alawat that much can you tell us why only Alawat and christians were killed by the MB , Didn’t they find any corrupt Sunni Baathist who desereved to die?.

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April 29th, 2007, 3:46 am

 

76. Bakri said:

Dr Joshua Landis, thank you.

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April 29th, 2007, 3:48 am

 

77. Bakri said:

Norman stop your lies here …the only one who bombed christian quarters and churches was hafez asad.

The brotherhood exist in Syria since the 30’s and became a political in the 40’s ,they always respected the democratic rule and some of them called the prime minister Fares al Khoury our sheikh….. and no crimes of this kind were known in Syria prior to asad rule….

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April 29th, 2007, 3:52 am

 

78. norman said:

Histery is clear in the MB killing of the university teachers , the sun rises from the east , it is that clear what the MB did ,

this article will make you angry . I did not write it.

Catalytic Converters
Abbas

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By ANDREW TABLER
Published: April 29, 2007
The Middle East is abuzz with talk of “Shiitization.” Since the war in Lebanon last summer, newspapers, TV news channels and Web sites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have reported that Sunnis, taken with Hezbollah’s charismatic Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah and his group’s “resistance” to Israel, were converting to Shiite Islam. When I recently visited the semi-arid plains of eastern Syria, known as the Jazeera, Sunni tribal leaders whispered stories of Iranians roaming the Syrian countryside handing out bags of cash and macaroni to convert families and even entire villages to Shiite Islam.

Much of the buzz is surely propaganda from the region’s Sunni governments, which are known to whip up fears of Shiite plots when it suits them. But there are signs in Syria of a possible shift. Over time, could this predominantly Sunni country change its religious orientation — solidifying its ties to Iran and creating strong repercussions throughout the Middle East? Pinning down facts is complicated not just by Syria’s restrictions on the press but also by growing Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq, which has made normally hospitable Syrians wary of prying questions about sectarian issues. Furthermore, Syria is an authoritarian state that strictly enforces Ba’athism — a secular ideology that subsumes sect and religion under a pan-Arab identity. In most of the Arab world, meddling in sectarian issues is discouraged. In Syria, it is illegal.

Although the regime of President Bashar al-Assad hails from an obscure offshoot of Shiism — the Alawites — Syria is nearly three-quarters Sunni, with Alawites, members of other Muslim sects and a considerable number of Christians making up the rest. The country’s leading Islamic institutions reflect conventional Sunni beliefs and traditions. Over the last five years, however, Iranian donors have financed the restoration of half a dozen Shiite tombs and shrines in Syria and built at least one Shiite religious school near Damascus; the school is named after Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, Iran and the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq now sponsor a number of Arabic-language Internet portals as well as satellite TV stations broadcasting Shiite religious programming into Syria.

Direct inquiries into Shiite numbers in Syria raise more questions than answers, as the sensitive topic gives observers complex incentives to round up or down. When I asked Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, leader of Syria’s Shiite community, to estimate the size of his flock, he put it at less than 1 percent of the population of 19 million. Asked the same question, the leader of Syria’s Sunnis, Grand Mufti Sheik Ahmad Badr Eddin Hassoun, replied carefully; he said that 6 to 8 percent of Syrians now adhere to the “Jaafari school,” the school of Islamic jurisprudence followed by mainstream Shiites in Iran and Lebanon.

It was only when I met an actual convert that the mufti’s words began to make sense. Louay, a 28-year-old teacher in Damascus wearing jeans, a wool sweater and a close-cropped beard, seemed the epitome of the capital’s Sunni middle class. Yet within the last year, as Hezbollah rose to national prominence in the Lebanese government, he — along with his mother — began practicing Shiite Islam. He changed the wording of his prayers and his posture while praying, holding his arms at his sides instead of before him, and during Ramadan he followed Shiite customs on breaking the fast. In many Middle Eastern countries, his conversion wouldn’t be possible — it would be considered apostasy. The Syrian regime restricts its people’s political liberties, but unlike most other ruling dynasties in the Arab world, it allows freedom of religion. “In Saudi Arabia, they ban books on other faiths,” Louay said. “In Syria, I can buy whatever book on religion I want, and no one can say a word.”

Politics, it seems, is only one of the attractions of Shiism. In addition to Louay, I spoke with four other Syrian converts, who asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Sunni fundamentalists. Louay and the others all spoke of religious transformation as much as of Hezbollah. “Half the reason why I converted was because of Ijtihad,” Louay said, using the Arabic word for the independent interpretation of the Koran and the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. Suddenly the mufti’s enigmatic answer became clearer. Ijtihad is practiced more widely by Shiites of the Jaafari school than by Sunnis. These Shiites believe that, on all but the largest moral issues, Muslims should interpret their faith by reading holy texts and reasoning back and forth between them and current issues. Many Sunnis say they quietly practice Ijtihad in everyday life as well, but conservative Sunnis do not encourage individual interpretation of the Koran.

For Louay, the difference is immense. “Take the Internet. Some conservative Sunni sheiks say the Internet is haram,” or illegal, he said. “If I go back to Jaafar al-Sadiq” — the eighth-century founder of the Jaafari school — “I will not find a ruling on it. So instead I use my mind to sort it out. On the Internet, some things are positive, some negative. I choose the positive for myself.”

Americans might find it surprising that the man Louay looks to for more current and oftentimes liberal guidance on controversial issues is Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. For four decades, Syrians had to rely on advice from the local Sunni clerics who appeared in state-owned media. With the advent of satellite television and the Internet, however, Louay said he is now able to keep up with his favorite scholars across the Islamic world. You could easily draw a comparison with the way Protestants in Europe were able to follow the likes of Martin Luther after the introduction of movable type.

Even if Shiitization is at this point as much a rumor as a confirmed fact, the subject is highly charged. It is part of a much larger discussion among Washington’s Sunni allies about the rise of a “Shiite Crescent” — an Iranian-backed alliance stretching westward from Iran to Syria to Lebanon that could challenge the traditional power of Sunni elites. With its Sunni masses and minority Tehran-backed regime, Syria is the weak link in the chain. Many Syrians say they are worried Iraq’s sectarian strife might spread to Syria; the execution of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, infuriated many. The conversion of Syrians to Shiism could create still more conflict.

Meanwhile, the regional politics are becoming ever more delicate. Damascus is reportedly unhappy about Iran’s recent dialogue with Saudi Arabia over the future of Lebanon; Tehran, in turn, is rumored to be questioning Assad’s recent peace overtures toward Israel. Both sides denied a rift when Assad visited Tehran in February. But only days later, a group of Syrian intellectuals and parliamentarians loyal to Assad lambasted an Iranian deputy foreign minister in scripted fashion in a closed-door (but widely reported) session. The point of contention? Their unhappiness with what they saw as Iranian support for the Shiitization of Syria.

Andrew Tabler is a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs and the editor in chief of Syria Today magazine.

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April 29th, 2007, 4:14 am

 

79. Bakri said:

This attempt to spread Shi’ism in Syria is not new ,the initiator of this policy was hafez asad’s brother jamil,it’s said that he studied in Qom in Iran and founded an iranian backed militia called al Murtada whose aims was to propagate Iranian’s regime propaganda in Syria

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April 29th, 2007, 4:38 am

 

80. Joshua said:

Bakri, Jamil al-Asad did have delusions about playing a religious role. At one point in the 1980s he encourage people to see him as the Mahdi and entertained a much larger persona for himself. Hafiz had the wisdom to send him off to France, insisting that he return only when he had abandoned his ambition to become a Messiah.

Hafiz was smart enough not to try to cross the religious establishment, as both his brothers frequently did. He understood the delicacy of religion in Syria. Rather than try to convert Sunnis to Shiism, which would have inflamed the Syrian population even more than it was already inflamed by having an Alawite president, he encouraged Alawites to Sunnify and become more main stream. He set the example himself by going to mosque, admonishing leading Alawite shaykhs to renounce publicly any exaggerated devotion to Ali, and to observe the five pillars of Islam. Even if many Alawites understood Hafiz’s religious observance to be motivated by politics, so what? The point is that he was not trying to take Sunnis out of the fold. On the contrary, he sought to make Alawites behave more like Sunnis.

Tabler, whose article is published above, is a good journalist. He undoubtedly scoured the country looking for converts to Shiism and could only track down a few. The one person he was able to interview, converted for philosophical reasons. He does not sound like he was railroaded or did it out of ignorance. It is only natural that some small number of Syrians should change their confession. I am sure that one could also find Shiites or Christians who have converted to Sunni Islam, if one looked. In the Middle Ages there were many more Shiites and Christians living in Syria than there are today. Sunnis have clearly won the conversion game. There are no significant number of conversions going on in Syria today. It is hard enough to marry across religious lines in Syria, not to mention convert. Anyway, the freedom to chose one’s religion is perhaps a good thing.

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April 29th, 2007, 6:19 am

 

81. Ford Prefect said:

Has anyone noticed that conflicts between Shias and Sunnis have increased greatly since the invasion of Iraq?

Has anyone noticed that the Bush Administration and its mouthpieces everywhere are spending enormous time explaining to the world how Shia Islam is different than Sunni Islam and how the two are in deep conflict with one another?

Has anyone noticed that Israel can only speak about Arabs in terms of whether they are Druze, Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Kurds, Shias, or whatever?

Has anyone noticed that Syria is the ONLY remaining large country in the region where such divides do not exist? And now this country is bothering the US so much that it needs to “install” democracy in it?

Coincident?

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April 29th, 2007, 6:54 am

 

82. bilal said:

Bakri,
I fully support you when saying “alawite community is a authentic syrian community and one of the oldest syrian community and they gave heroes” because this is what really happened. Unfortunately the Assad Regime is using them as much as it is using the Baath party to cover their mistakes & corruption.

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April 29th, 2007, 10:03 am

 

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