“Syria could be softening stance on dissidents,” Phil Sands

Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman Briefs on Meetings With Syrian
QUESTION: Hisham Melham.
AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: Hi, Hisham.
QUESTION: What would you expect the Syrians to do as a prelude for higher-level meetings and a return of the American ambassador to Damascus?
AMBASSADOR FELTMAN: You know, Hisham, this was not a meeting where the Syrians set up benchmarks for us or we set up benchmarks for the Syrians……

Syria could be softening stance on dissidents, Phil Sands, The National, March 7, 2009 (Thanks: Jefferson Gray)

Dr Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights

Dr Ammar Qurabi, head of the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights

There are indications that Damascus may be loosening – ever so slightly – its iron grip on political dissent….

“There have been minor changes, small signs of improvements in certain areas,” Ammar Qurabi, the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (NOHRS), said in an interview. “They are subtle things and they may mean that a new approach is coming. Or they may mean nothing.” Last week there was a demonstration by Kurds in Syria’s northern border region. Whereas in the past such events have resulted in rioting, shootings and widespread arrests, this one apparently ended in a peaceful and unusual way.

“About 50 people were rounded up and taken to see the area security chief,” said Mr Qurabi, who has contacts with opposition and pro-democracy groups across the country. “He was respectful and told them, ‘None of you are under arrest, I am meeting you as a delegation, tell me what you want and I will move your statement up to the president’. “All of the demonstrators were released after two hours.”….

“Some of the opposition didn’t want the EU to sign agreements with Syria until activists were released from prison,” Mr Qurabi said. “My opinion is that good ties with the US and Europe will positively affect Syrian domestic life.

“After 2005, when relations were bad, Syria was dealing with the political opposition and domestic issues in a hard way. The regime thinks, ‘We are already on the blacklist so we have nothing to lose if we crack down.’

“When there are better ties, the regime is more comfortable and doesn’t feel under threat it will be softer, even if only as a decoration. They won’t make the improvements I want, but it will maybe be something. They will count to 10 before arresting dissidents, they will put people through the courts, rather than just into prison.”

See this earlier story by Human Rights Watch: Syrian authorities should abolish the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), a special court that exists outside the ordinary …

Comments (21)


1. Alex said:

I think Feltman was the one sent to Damascus in order to ease the fears of M14 leaders in Lebanon who are worried that Washington will sell Lebanon to Syria.

They trust Feltman.

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March 8th, 2009, 1:41 am

 

2. Alex said:

“Some of the opposition didn’t want the EU to sign agreements with Syria until activists were released from prison,” Mr Qurabi said. “My opinion is that good ties with the US and Europe will positively affect Syrian domestic life.”

Not exactly … European (French and other) NGOs used Syrian opposition figures and their democracy cause as a tool to pressure and discredit the Syrian regime … This did not do that in Saudi Arabia which needed much more reforms than Syria.

Now Europe and the US do not seem to be in the business of discrediting Bashar … which is a good thing for Syrian reformers and the decent figures among the regime critics.

The more the US and Europe take a hands off approach to internal Syrian affairs, the more freedoms (still considerably limited of course) we can expect.

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March 8th, 2009, 5:49 am

 
 

4. Joe M. said:

I just want to point out this article from Eliot Abrams:

http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000%5C000%5C016%5C177aimud.asp

He is an absolute fanatic, and borders on the insane. But we should read his views to understand what we are dealing with. I know that he is no longer in power, but I do think the ideology of those like him is still strong. Also, I do not think Obama and his staff have transcended this logic.

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March 8th, 2009, 9:04 am

 

5. Enlightened said:

1. Alex said:

I think Feltman was the one sent to Damascus in order to ease the fears of M14 leaders in Lebanon who are worried that Washington will sell Lebanon to Syria.

They trust Feltman.
————————————————————–

I think that you are mis- reading things here regarding the administrations intentions. In the greater scheme of things what M14 and its politicians are apprehensive about does not really register high on the scale of problems the Obama administration has to tackle regarding the Middle East.

On Josh’s previous post Why Syria will not back the Golan, I stated that first sign of a thaw in relations will be to get Syria’s involvement and help in the American Army’s withdrawal from Iraq, that being intelligence gathering, and shutting the infiltration of insurgents across the border.

I don’t think sending Feltman and shapiro to Syria was to reassure M14, rather it was a preliminary meeting as it is too soon to be sending Hillary or any higher administration figure, the Syrian government would have seen this as a victory, if this happened quickly.

Just a reminder, when one negotiates, he puts all his ambit offers on the table, and never shows his true hands first.

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March 8th, 2009, 11:44 am

 

6. Shai said:

Joe M.,

Abrams is a fool who, like many a fools, is too stupid to understand how his own “wisdom” today is the perfect testament to the great failures of the Bush administration and, hence, to him directly. After 8 effective and insightful years in office, he “knows” what should be done in Palestine. But why is it that the strongest nation on earth was unable to positively influence ANY of the changes he demands upon the Palestinian people, for an entire 8 years, is another story.

But what I love most about such fools, is that as they speak, they realize that they have to continuously make up more and more ridiculous preconditions, and they have no shame doing so, live. For instance, he starts out saying “A Palestinian state will never be created by terror.” Then he realizes that’s a pretty vague term, that might be arguable, so he adds “… It will be built through reform.” Then he notices that perhaps he’s stated something that’s already taking place, so he adds “… And reform must be more than cosmetic change or a veiled attempt to preserve the status quo.” He still doesn’t like it, recognizing that he can’t charge the Palestinian people with “veiled attempts” (who wants to preserve the status quo?), so he adds the final version “True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism.”

It’s really like a kid that realizes he’s talking nonsense, and keeps trying to perfect the nonsensical statement. All the while the parent stands by, smiling. Although I didn’t like seeing Hillary reaffirming America’s support of a President whose legal term in office has ended, and rejecting a government that was elected in the region’s first true Arab democratic elections, I still doubt Obama sees the situation as Abrams does. It’s not a coincidence that the U.S. is already speaking with Syria and with Iran, long before either adopts “true reform… based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism.”

I may be exercising wishful thinking here (I admit I have a tendency to search for reasons to be optimistic in life, more than pessimistic), but I have a feeling Obama is going to impress us all, with a very different way of looking at the region, and at America’s part in it. The August 31, 2010 date for final pullout from Iraq, not even halfway through his first administration, is a good indication (hopefully) for things to come.

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March 8th, 2009, 3:52 pm

 

7. norman said:

Shai,

If Israel and the US want to reach peace in the Midle East , They should talk to Syria, Iran and Hamas , these are the people from the Arab side that can sign a peace treaty as Natanyahou is probably the one that can sign a peace treaty from the Israeli side,

What do you think?.

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March 8th, 2009, 4:34 pm

 

8. Shai said:

Norman,

Of course. Though I doubt we can talk to Iran while we are still occupying the Palestinian territories, or until we and the Palestinians reach a final agreement (whatever form it takes). Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah, absolutely.

What do you think of the (supposed) behind-the-scene attempts to reconcile between Egypt, Saudi, and Syria?

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March 8th, 2009, 5:02 pm

 

9. Off the Wall said:

Alex
More important than the authors of articles regarding the latest AIPAC blunder ala Admiral Feeman are the responses I have seen on blogs from ordinary commenters. 8 out of 10 responses on the huffington, which reported that Schumer has voiced concern to the president about Feeman were rather harsh on Schumer, whose liberal credential are strong (not solid). On anther blog, there was similar anger and frustration about AIPAC.

AIPAC is not stupid, but over the past two administrations (Clinton and Bush), it enjoyed almost two decades of unquestionable control and power. Power tends to bread arrogance and callousness. The second issue, which i forgot the name of the blog it was posted on is that while AIPAC may not be able to derail Feeman, “who is too smart and well established” to be affected, they have successfully sent a message to younger diplomats that criticism of Israel will have a heavy price. They sent similar message to candidate Obama, and he seemed then to have fallen in line.

There are two forces coming from Obama that will only increase the anxiety of AIPAC and the host of Israel-first and only think-tanks. First is his vagueness about his own ME plan, and second is his attempt to reporachement with the muslim world. Is there a message in his choice of Turkey as his first visit to an Islamic country? especially with the current rift between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza massacre?, I think there is.

Secondly, by sending Feltman to Syria, and making sure that he does not say stupid things about M14, and that he does not end up further irritating the Syrians, Obama has told the Syrian leadership a very strong message, and that is, I am in Charge, and these guys work for the state department, who works for me, not for M14, AIPAC, or for the Lebanon lobby in the US. I Set the policy and their job is to implement it. What stronger demonstrating of changing policy than to send a devout hater of Syria and force him to act in civilized manner. He is saying ” I am the decider” but without the sophomoric context of his predecessor.

Obama presidency will not be an easy one for him, or for AIPAC. Surfing the blogsphere, i am beginning to feel that the average US citizen is beginning the process of re-shaping her/his thinking about the ME and about AIPAC. The Gaza massacre, which as posted on Yossi’s blog, was a war to reclaim the confidence in the Israeli army after Lebanon failure, may have accomplished this goal, but it also showed the world, including many here in the US, what is Israel. And while we are scared about our homes, our income, and our livelihood, we will be much less tolerant of political trickeries and games. I believe that by the end of Obama’s second term, if he gets one, Americans will be much less tollerant of AIPAC’s power. Especially as future investigations will reveal the tru role of Israeli intelligence and their friends here in the US who were present in the defense and state departments as well as in the press in taking the country into Iraq by feeding fabricated evidence to bolster Bush, Chaney’s, Miller, Fieth, etc. lies.

The congress is scared. The depth of AIPAC stronghold on them and on decision making in the US can be revealed easily if their investigation of Carl Rove extend beyond the two simple things of who fired the attorneys and who exposed Wilson. That is why the speaker of the house and the chairs of both house and senate judiciary committees are adamant that their investigation will not address issues of leading to the Iraq war. This is totally dropped of the Radar, but i believe that it will eventually be exposed and it will cause major damage to AIPAC’s power. The public is busy with the financial disaster, but calls for full investigation, beyond who ordered the torture, to go after the sources of training in torture, will be very very revealing.

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March 8th, 2009, 5:15 pm

 

10. mrrobinson95 said:

regarding mr. sands article in the National, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that any loosening of shackles on the opposition is merely a temporary move aimed at duping Western diplomats rather then a substantive change in policy.

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March 8th, 2009, 6:28 pm

 

11. Off the Wall said:

My error; Freeman not Feeman,

Here is why the neo-cons are up in arms about this distinguished fellow. Emphasis added by me

The GCC and the Management of Policy Consequences

Printable Version

Remarks to the 15th Annual US-Arab Policymakers Conference
31 October 2006, Washington, DC
Ambassador Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., (USFS Ret.)

It is an honor once again to make the concluding remarks at the annual US-Arab Policymakers Conference. I do so, of course, as an individual and as an American concerned with the implications of events in the Gulf region, not on behalf of any organization or group with which I am affiliated. Speaking only for oneself enables one to call it like it is. I shall.

The Gulf Cooperation Council began in a time of crisis 25 years ago. Since then the GCC has passed through many stressful strategic environments. It was, after all, formed to cope with the challenges that caused Americans first to declare the Gulf a region of vital interest to the United States – the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. The GCC was also, of course, created to provide a means of dealing with the sudden rise in US interest and military activity in the Gulf in the wake of these events, the oil boom, and the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.

The GCC functioned as a coherent alliance during the US-led war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation that followed the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Its members separately provided essential staging areas and support bases for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq a dozen years later. Some have since deepened their reliance on the United States, while others have hedged their previous dependency.

Now the GCC member states may be facing their greatest challenge: the changes brought about by the progressive collapse of American policies in the region, including US efforts to transform Iraq, to block Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and to achieve security for Israel by persuading it to respect the right of Palestinians to democratic self-determination in a secure homeland.

The US military have developed the useful concept of “consequence management.” The idea is to set aside for later study the questions of why and how widespread devastation followed the use of weapons of mass destruction or a large-scale natural disaster, and instead to acknowledge the damage while focusing on actions to mitigate it and prevent it from worsening. It is time to apply consequence management to the mounting wreckage of our policies in the Middle East.

Only true believers in the neo-conservative dream can now fail to recognize that it has wrought a deepening nightmare in Iraq. The shattered Iraqi state has been succeeded (outside Kurdish areas) by near-universal resistance to the foreign occupation that supplanted it. The aggravation of secular and ethnic divisions by ill-conceived constitutional bargaining and elections has created a new political culture in Iraq in which theocratic feudalism, militia-building, and terrorist violence are the principal modes of self-expression.

The attempt to cure the resulting anarchy by building a strong army and police force for the Iraqi central government misses the point. The Baghdad government is itself a key participant in all of the pathologies of contemporary Iraq. In practice, it is more a vengeful tyranny of the majority in a temporary marriage of convenience with Kurdish separatists than a government of all the people. It is hard to disprove the thesis that it seeks a monopoly on the use of force only to consolidate either a Shiite version of Saddam’s dictatorship or an Iraqi version of the Iranian theocracy. The sad fact is that, to many Iraqis, these outcomes now seem to offer the most realistic hope for renewed domestic tranquility in their country.

All but a small minority of Iraqi Arabs now reject the legitimacy of any continuing US military presence on Iraqi soil. On the one hand, the occupation has become the indispensable prop of the current order in Iraq, such as it is; on the other, the prolongation of the occupation is the main reason Iraqis wage an insurgent war against that order. The occupation thus supplies its own opposition; its continuation feeds the violence that makes its eventual curtailment inevitable.

The unpopularity of the occupation continues to provide a rewarding opening for outside agitators. Al Qa`ida now openly acknowledges a major stake in the US staying in Iraq for as long as possible. Our military presence is not just a potent motivator of anti-Americanism and a source of volunteers for terrorism, it has put us in the position of providing instructors to “Jihad U,” the graduate school we have inadvertently created in Iraq for terrorists with global reach – an advanced curriculum, where failure is punished by death at our hands, but course completion is rewarded by a chance to take part in future terrorist operations in Europe, Asia, and North America. The costs of the occupation must be measured in much more than the hundreds of billions of dollars we continue to spend on it.

No one can predict how US forces will withdraw from Iraq, but no one now doubts that their departure is only a matter of time. While some wish to soldier on, few see any prospect that the United States will leave behind an Iraq at peace with itself, a united Iraq capable of playing a constructive role in regional affairs, or a strong Iraq willing and able to balance Iran as it once did. The United States invaded Iraq against the counsel of our allies and friends, drunk with our own self-importance, convinced by our own delusions, apparently invincible in our ignorance, and utterly unprepared for the quasi-colonial mission we assumed. Contemporary Iraq is a monument to American martial prowess and civil ineptitude.

It now seems likely our withdrawal will be undertaken for domestic American political reasons, again without much attention to Iraqi and regional realities. But withdrawal risks escalating the conflict inside Iraq, infecting other parts of the region with Iraq’s sectarian strife, and providing an early graduation ceremony for terrorists bent on applying elsewhere what they have learned in Iraq. Unless diplomacy has first crafted a regional context that limits the damage, a politically-dictated withdrawal will crown our incompetence with disgrace and devaluation as a security partner. What kind of country is it that invades another, trashes it, sets it on fire, and then walks away to let inhabitants and neighbors alike die in the flames or perish of smoke inhalation? Who will wish to associate themselves with such a country, still less entrust their security to cooperation with it?

We did not consult the GCC countries or others in the region about the strategy or tactics of our invasion of Iraq. We would do well to seek their advice, counsel, and support – and they would do well to insist on our consulting them – as we make our next moves, whether these are within Iraq or away from it. Techniques of asymmetric warfare pioneered in Iraq now find their way within weeks to Afghanistan and elsewhere. The targeting of GCC rulers and oil and gas facilities by terrorists with connections to the mayhem in Iraq underscores our common interest in countering spillover from the jihadi intervention in that country. Similarly, the well-founded concern that areas in the Gulf with mixed Sunna and Sh`ia populations might suffer contagion from the religious struggles in Iraq emphasizes the imperative of containing them.

These are closely connected and clearly anticipatable problems that affect many countries in the region. They must not be left to be addressed ad hoc and at the last minute.

Then, there are the problems presented by Iranian ambitions, not just for nuclear weaponry but for preponderant influence in the Gulf. These go well beyond the issues of whether bombing Iran would not provoke it to attempt regime change in the countries from whose bases the attack had been launched, or simply confirm it and others in their judgment that the only effective protection against preemptive attack by the United States is the possession of a nuclear deterrent.

Assuming, as we must, in light of the results similar US policies toward north Korea have produced, that Iran will eventually acquire a nuclear deterrent, how do the GCC countries plan to deal with Iran as a nuclear power? Will each respond separately or will the response be collective? Will there be piecemeal appeasement or defiant reaffirmations of sovereign independence? If a nuclear umbrella or deterrent to the nuclear threat from Iran is deemed necessary, will this be collectively managed or will each country seek its own protection? In either context, what role, if any, do the Gulf Arabs desire for the United States or other nuclear powers? Is the role they envisage for us one that Americans can or will undertake?

Then, too, having destroyed Iraq’s utility in balancing Iran, we and the GCC have yet to concert a strategy for a new and sustainable balance of power. Such a balance cannot be sustained if, as was the case in Saudi Arabia, the American military presence becomes not an asset to national security but its principal liability, thanks to the provocation it offers to political extremists. How do we propose to manage the contradiction between our desire to assure the stability of the Gulf and the fact that our presence in it is inherently destabilizing? If we are to avoid a strategic debacle, we cannot leave Iraq without agreeing on answers to these questions with our Gulf Arab partners.

Iran is emerging as yet another proof that diplomacy-free foreign policy does not work. Neither do lack of planning or the refusal to talk to interested allies and adversaries. It’s not hard to anticipate the questions that will arise from the probable future course of events in Iran itself and in Iranian relationships with Iraq and other countries in the region. These too must not be left to tactical responses, improvised on the spot in the absence of strategy, sprung with no warning upon those whose cooperation or forbearance is essential to enable them to succeed.

Finally, let me allude briefly to the issue of Israel, a country that has yet to be accepted as part of the Middle East and whose inability to find peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs is the driving factor in the region’s radicalization and anti-Americanism.

The talented European settlers who formed the state of Israel endowed it with substantial intellectual and technological superiority over any other society in the Middle East. The dynamism of Israel’s immigrant culture and the generous help of the Jewish Diaspora rapidly gave Israel a standard of living equivalent to that of European countries. For fifty years Israel has enjoyed military superiority in its region. Demonstrably, Israel excels at war; sadly, it has shown no talent for peace.

For almost forty years, Israel has had land beyond its previously established borders to trade for peace. It has been unable to make this exchange except when a deal was crafted for it by the United States, imposed on it by American pressure, and sustained at American taxpayer expense. For the past half decade Israel has enjoyed carte blanche from the United States to experiment with any policy it favored to stabilize its relations with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors, including most recently its efforts to bomb Lebanon into peaceful coexistence with it and to smother Palestinian democracy in its cradle.

The suspension of the independent exercise of American judgment about what best serves our interests as well as those of Israelis and Arabs has caused the Arabs to lose confidence in the United States as a peace partner. To their credit, they have therefore stepped forward with their own plan for a comprehensive peace. By sad contrast, the American decision to let Israel call the shots in the Middle East has revealed how frightened Israelis now are of their Arab neighbors and how reluctant this fear has made them to risk respectful coexistence with the other peoples of their region. The results of the experiment are in: left to its own devices, the Israeli establishment will make decisions that harm Israelis, threaten all associated with them, and enrage those who are

Tragically, despite all the advantages and opportunities Israel has had over the fifty-nine years of its existence, it has failed to achieve concord and reconciliation with anyone in its region, still less to gain their admiration or affection. Instead, with each decade, Israel’s behavior has deviated farther from the humane ideals of its founders and the high ethical standards of the religion that most of its inhabitants profess. Israel and the Palestinians, in particular, are caught up in an endless cycle of reprisal and retaliation that guarantees the perpetuation of conflict in which levels of mutual atrocities continue to escalate. As a result, each generation of Israelis and Palestinians has accumulated new reasons to loathe the behavior of the other, and each generation of Arabs has detested Israel with more passion than its predecessor. This is not how peace is made. Here, too, a break with the past and a change in course are clearly in order.

The framework proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at Beirut in 2002 offers Israel an opportunity to accomplish both. It has the support of all Arab governments. It would exchange Arab acceptance of Israel and a secure place for the Jewish state in the region for Israeli recognition of Palestinians as human beings with equal weight in the eyes of God, entitled to the same rights of democratic self-determination and domestic tranquility within secure borders that Israelis wish to enjoy. The proposal proceeds from self-interest. It recognizes how much the Arabs would gain from normal relations with Israel if the necessary conditions for mutual respect and reconciliation could be created.

Despite the fact that such a peace is so obviously also in Israel’s vital and moral interests, history and the Israeli response to date both strongly suggest that without some tough love from Americans, including especially Israel’s American coreligionists, Israel will not risk the uncertainties of peace. Instead, it will persist in the belief, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that it can gain safety through the officially sanctioned assassination of potential opponents, the terrorization of Arab civilians, and the cluster bombing of neighbors rather than negotiation with them. These policies have not worked; they will not work. But unless they are changed, the Arab peace plan will exceed its shelf life, and Arabs will revert to their previous views that Israel is an ethnomaniacal society with which it is impossible for others to coexist and that peace can be achieved only by Israel’s eventual annihilation, much as the Crusader kingdoms that once occupied Palestine were eventually destroyed.

Americans need to be clear about the consequences of continuing our current counterproductive approaches to security in the Middle East. We have paid heavily and often in treasure in the past for our unflinching support and unstinting subsidies of Israel’s approach to managing its relations with the Arabs. Five years ago we began to pay with the blood of our citizens here at home. We are now paying with the lives of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines on battlefields in several regions of the realm of Islam, with more said by our government’s neoconservative mentors to be in prospect. Our policies in Afghanistan and Iraq are adding to the threats to our security and well-being, not reducing them. They have added and are adding to our difficulties and those of allies and partners, including Israel. They are not advancing the resolution of these problems or making anyone more secure. They degrade our moral standing and diminish our value as an ally. They delight our enemies and dismay our friends.

In the interest of all, it is therefore time for a change of course. But, as Seneca remarked almost 2,000 years ago, “if a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable.” It is past time that we agreed on our destination and devised a strategy for reaching it. As events belatedly force us to come up with a workable approach to consequence management and lay a course to take us beyond it, Americans will need the advice of our partners in the GCC and others in the region.

If we pay no attention to the opinions and interests of these partners, we should not be surprised to discover that we have forfeited their friendship and cooperation. Without both, we cannot hope to manage and overcome the consequences of the series of policy disasters we have contrived or to devise new and effective policies. And we here, like our friends in the region and elsewhere, will all pay again for this failure, and pay heavily. We must not allow that to come to pass.

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March 8th, 2009, 6:51 pm

 

12. Joe M. said:

Shai,
I don’t disagree that Abrams is an asshole, but i do think he is less “starry-eyed” than most of his fellow ideologue fanatics. Also, my guess is that Abrams is spelling out Netanyahu’s policy towards the Palestinians in that article…

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March 8th, 2009, 7:10 pm

 

13. Shai said:

Joe M.,

You may well be right. But you can’t imagine how “happy” I am that Lieberman will be Israel’s next Foreign Minister, who’ll travel the globe explaining his racial ideology to his astounded counterparts. And of course Netanyahu who’ll try, for about the 5 minutes that it will last, to convince world leaders that the West can “still win”… (as the title of his earlier book “How The West Can Win”) What we need now is perfect clarity – let no one misunderstand what the current Israeli leadership stands for. And let no Israeli misunderstand what the Right stands for. If there is a chance for change in Israel, it is only through this.

I’ve used this comparison before – as you’re probably aware, in the Jewish tradition, during the 7 days of mourning (“Shiv’a”), all mirrors in the house of the remaining family are covered, so as to remove any chance of focus on the self, rather than the deceased. I claim Israel has had those covers on for over 60 years, and it is high time to remove them. Perhaps a very-hawkish (and racist) government is precisely the way to achieve that.

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March 8th, 2009, 7:29 pm

 

14. Joe M. said:

Shai,
I agree about Lieberman as FM, but also I would not underestimate him so much. I think he has no problem lying or just speaking in generalities. And I think Israel has too much support internationally for someone like Lieberman to have a significant effect in terms of removing the covers… But yes, I also agree.

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March 8th, 2009, 8:35 pm

 

15. norman said:

Shai, Joe M, OTW ,

What I am afraid of is that the US , KSA , Egypt are trying to get from Syria with honey what they could not get with vinegar,

I hope Syria will figure that out and will avoid being fooled for promises we are used to in the last 30 years , or even the Last 100 years starting with Arab revolution against the Turks ,

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March 9th, 2009, 1:14 am

 

16. Joshua said:

Mr Robinson, You write:

“Any loosening of shackles on the opposition is merely a temporary move aimed at duping Western diplomats rather then a substantive change in policy.”

I don’t think any Western diplomats will be duped. No one that I am aware of expects Syria to call for free elections any time soon. What most Western diplomats do want is for Syria to become more like Jordan or Egypt, which allows for greater expression of opinion and press freedoms.

It is possible that greater freedoms of expression in an authoritarian state lead to the retention of greater numbers of political prisoners. (If the red lines are more ambiguous, more people will cross them.) Egypt retains some 20,000 political prisoners according to Saad Addin Ibrahim’s estimation in 2005. Syria is probably around 3,000 – although that is just a guess. In 2005, the US embassy estimated that Syria was holding 2000 political prisoners. But even adjusting for size of population (Egypt is four times greater) that means Egypt imprisons more of its people in what human rights organizations classify as political prisoners. If radicalism in the region declines, Syria might reduce is number of political prisoners – which would be important – but, of course, have nothing to do with democracy.

I am not sure why Egypt would hold more political prisoners than Syria because it has all the hallmarks of a more stable society. Egypt is a more homogeneous society than Syria’s. It does not have an important sectarian diversity as Syria does and is an old nation, unlike Syria, which was created rather artificially after WWI – all reasons for less democracy in Syria.

It would be interesting to know why some societies retain more political prisoners than others. Iraq is obvious. It is only now emerging from a civil war, sectarian strife, and foreign destruction of its central state institutions. US run prisons hold some 40,000 prisoners alone – most without charges or sentences. I do not know how many are held in non-US run prisons.

Israel retains some 11,000 Palestinians – most without charges. The reasons for this are obvious and need no explanation. (Palestinians are terrorists 😉

Turkey also has a considerable number of political prisoners – most Kurds – but nothing on the scale of Egypt.

Algeria has a higher percentage of political prisoners than Syria. So does Tunisia. It is easy to understand why Algeria holds high numbers of political prisoners, but why Tunisia which has not had a civil war, has no sectarian divisions, etc.?

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March 9th, 2009, 1:22 am

 

17. norman said:

Joshua,

Do you think that the reason is that most Syrians support the government stand on forign policy, Iraq, Palestine while they do not like corruption but they do not see that as worse than other Arab countries,

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March 9th, 2009, 1:59 am

 

18. Enlightened said:

OTW:

Thanks for posting the article on Chas Freeman. Its good to have you back.

I have been reading with interest in the blogosphere for the last week, regarding Chas Freemans appointment and the organized, smear campaign by the AIPAC orcs, namely Kramer, Rosen , Pipes, Rosner, Pollak and Marty Peretz.

My gut feel, is that Chas Freeman is too polished an individual, with quite a good service record for him to be tainted with any mud they trow at him.

I remember reading shai’s post about looking at yourself in the mirror, and thinking its ok to say that you don’t like what you see. I think that Freeman has the Orcs spooked, because he is breaking long held taboo’s. Once they start its hard to rebuild them!

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March 9th, 2009, 3:26 am

 

19. norman said:

Monday, 09 March 2009 – 12 Rabi Al-Awaal 1430 H
OPINION
Sum up of the Middle East wish-list for Barack Obama
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has made a good start in the Middle East with her recent tour. She reaffirmed American commitment to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; she frowned on Israeli house demolitions in East Jerusalem; she announced the start of a dialogue with Syria; and she invited Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan.
These moves point to some radical new thinking in Washington after the catastrophic blunders of the Bush years. They have aroused great – perhaps too great – expectations in the region. The Arabs, in particular, are now looking for President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State to move from words to acts.
What do the Arabs want from Obama? This was a major theme at an international conference held at the NATO Defence College in Rome on March 4-5, attended by participants from the Middle East, the United States and Europe. Inevitably, Arab expectations from Obama were at variance with those of the Israeli delegates. But the conference was a useful exercise in mutual enlightenment.
The conference heard that Arab demands from Washington could be summed up as follows:
u The US should spell out in detail its vision of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, and declare that it was determined to resolve the conflict, not simply to manage it.
u The US goal should be a comprehensive peace: that is to say there should be coordinated movement on both the Syrian and the Palestinian tracks. Any attempt to promote an Israeli-Syrian peace while relegating a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a later date was bound to fail. Equally, focussing on the Palestinian track to the neglect of Syria was a recipe for failure. Although simultaneous movement on the two tracks might prove difficult, it had to be recognized that neither could reach closure without the other.
u The US should overcome Israel’s well-known reluctance to negotiate with both the Palestinians and Syria at the same time. It should use its considerable leverage to bring Israel to the negotiating table – in much the same way as former US Secretary of State James Baker managed to compel a reluctant Yitzhak Shamir, then right-wing prime minister of Israel, to attend the 1991 Madrid peace conference.
u The US should insist on an immediate and total freeze of Israeli settlement expansion on the occupied West Bank. Without such a freeze, any Palestinian-Israeli negotiations would be futile.
u The US – together with the European Union, Russia and the UN – should play an active role in talks on both tracks. Turkey might also play a useful role. These outside parties, with the US in the lead role, should stimulate negotiations, arbitrate between the parties, monitor implementation of agreements reached, and be ready to provide security guarantees if these were needed. The Palestinians and Syria should not be left to face Israel alone, since the imbalance of power was simply too great for a satisfactory conclusion to be reached.
u The US should ‘rein in’ Israeli militarism, rather than ‘unleash’ it, as the Bush administration had done – against Lebanon in 2006, against Syria’s alleged nuclear facility in 2007, and most recently against Gaza last December-January. In particular, Washington should firmly prohibit any Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
What is the background to this last demand?
The destruction of Iraq by the United States has overturned the regional balance of power to Iran’s advantage. Iran has emerged as a regional rival to both Israel and the United States. Israel, in particular – in spite of its own vastly superior nuclear capability – regularly depicts Iran’s nuclear programme as an ‘existential’ threat, which must be eliminated by force, if necessary.
Most of Iran’s Arab neighbours are undoubtedly concerned at the rise of Iran. A key debate in the Arab world today – in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Lebanon, Egypt – is how to contain and accommodate Iran’s rising influence. But any such worries are dwarfed by the fear of an Israeli strike against Iran, which could be catastrophic for the Arab Gulf states, as they would find themselves in the line of fire. Indeed, an Israeli-Iranian military clash could trigger a regional war and could be devastating for Arab, American and Israeli interests.
u The Arabs dream of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East – an improbable outcome in view of Israel’s determination to be the region’s sole nuclear power. But short of general nuclear disarmament, the Arabs would like the US to embrace the goal of a regional balance of power, rather than guaranteeing Israel’s military edge over any Arab combination. The argument is that a balance of power keeps the peace, whereas an imbalance causes war, since the stronger power will always seek to impose its will by force on its weaker adversaries – as the Gaza war has demonstrated only too clearly. – SG OTHER NEWS FROM Opinion
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March 9th, 2009, 3:28 am

 

20. OFF The Wall said:

ENLIGHTENED
Thanks for the kind words.
I will try to be more consistent, but again, no Guarantees.

I agree that Freeman is a hard nut to crack, and your assessment of the motives behind the smear campaign is spot on.

One day, may be in my lifetime, the US will recognize the heroic contribution of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to freedom of speech in this country and to the country’s ability to regain its independent thinking with respect to foreign policy. I am not saying that it is a done deal, but as you have astutely said it, they broke a taboo. And once broken, taboos are hard to rebuild.

AIPAC angers me not because it is Jewish or even advocating friendship with Israel, I for one hope for the day Syria and Israel can become friends and I have indicated on these pages my inclination to support to the “romantic” group on SC led by Shai and Rumyal. AIPAC angers me because of its ability to subvert the core of our democratic values. In fact, I am against lobbying in its current form, and I would support anyone advocating full public financing of political campaigns. Lobbying is what led to de-regulation of our economy and with that led to the global economic catastrophe we face now. It is what led to banks playing outside the rules for decades, and even bending those rules with tacit approval from both executive and legislative branch. And finally, lobbying is what fills the pork barrels in our budget bills. In developing world, we would call such action corruption. Here we dress it with respectability and enjoy its dining and dancing and occasionally more enticing types of entertainment.

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March 9th, 2009, 3:45 am

 

21. Joshua said:

Norman, I do think Syria\’s foreign policy has limited the number of prisoners. Were Syria to have follow the foreign policy of Egypt, it would have many more Islamists in jail. As it is, most of the political prisoners are Islamists, even though we know the seculars the best. I presume the next largest group is Kurds.

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March 9th, 2009, 4:56 am

 

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