Monday, May 30, 2005

Atassi 8 Freed

The Atassi 8 have been freed.

Here is Ammar Abdulhamid's comment about it:

Another Demonstration of Weakness and Confusion! A few hours ago, the Atassy 8 were released. International and internal pressures seem to have paid off. As such, and rather than coming as a demonstration of strength, as it was intended to be, the entire move came as a further demonstration of the Regime’s weakness, confusion and lack of resolve.

Mr. Ali Abdallah, however, the leftist activist that had read the Muslim Brotherhood statement in the Forum is still under arrest and will reportedly be tried under Law 49 outlawing the Brotherhood and prescribing the death penalty against those who collaborate with it. The same fate seems to await the lawyer and human rights activist, Muhammad Raadoun.

Meanwhile, yesterday, the government arrested another well-known lawyer and activist, one Habib Salih. No reason was given for the arrest. Also, the official spokesman for the Atassy Forum, Mr. Habib Issa, jailed two years ago, is still in jail and is not expected to be released anytime soon. So are the MPs Riyad Seif and Mamoun Homsi. The same applies to scores of Kurdish, Islamist and secularist activists that have been arrested over the last few months and years. The promise that the President made less than a year ago to end the file of political detainees still goes unfulfilled, and still witnesses unexplained reversals.
Patrick Seale had this to say about the Atassi 8 arrest:
The harsh response by the authorities is regrettable and counterproductive. Bayanuni himself had long since persuaded his branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to renounce violence and extremism. He has repeatedly called for national reconciliation and the healing of wounds. He has even won the support of Syria's "Mandela," the veteran Communist Riad Turk, who spent 20 years in jail. Turk, whose new party name is the People's Democratic Party of Syria, advocates cooperation with a range of political groups, including Baathists and reformed Muslim Brothers.

Before her arrest last week, Suhair Atasi, daughter of the founder of the Atasi salon, was also campaigning for a national dialogue involving Baathists, communists, Kurds, Muslim Brothers and civil rights activists, to thrash out a reform program helping Syria protect itself against foreign pressures. What distinguishes the strands of the Syrian opposition is that they are all resolutely "patriotic," refusing any collaboration with the United States, or any outside power, against their own country.

In this, they differ sharply from the U.S.-based Farid Ghadry, an "opposition" figure of little local credibility, who has been taken up by Washington and by some European officials in Brussels. The Damascus opposition derides him as the Syrian Ahmad Chalabi.

The Atasi group is not, however, the only victim of Syria's security services. There have been several arrests at Damascus airport and elsewhere, as well as reports of political kidnappings. Armed robberies have also taken place by criminal gangs, some of them linked, or so it would appear, to disorderly cousins of the president, or even to his brother Maher Assad, a commander of the Presidential Guard.

Mohammad Raadun, president of the Arab Human Rights organization in Syria, was seized from his office in Latakia on May 22 for advising Syrian exiles not to return home for fear of arrest or worse. Meanwhile, the former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh, and his three siblings, have been accused by the Medina Bank of Lebanon of defrauding it of tens of millions of dollars. The general impression is one of racketeering, lawlessness, and of unchecked security services, which Assad seems unable or unwilling to bring under control. The French daily Liberation described Syria as a "dictatorship without a dictator."

It is a fact of life, however, that when a small country is in danger of being overrun by an aggressive superpower, it would be wise for it to clean up its act in order to win some protection from the international community - and more importantly from its own nationals. For whom in the country today, apart from those profiteering from the regime, would rise in its defense?

Lebanon's Elections - What's at Stake?

The Lebanese elections being held today have created excitement because they have overturned the pro-Syrian status quo of the last 30 years. They have also produced great disappointment because the Zaim system has remained largely unchanged. All the old names and "feudal" lords are back. "Revenge of the Zaims" might be a good movie title. Also it would seem that Saad Hariri is set to become Prime Minister, or to name the future Prime Minister, even though he has no experience save being the son of his father.

I have just returned from several days in Beirut, where I gave a few lectures at AUB on Syria. But I also had time for a delicious dinner at Majana's with my favorite journalists: Michael Young of the Daily Star and Reason, Nicholas Blandford of the Christian Science Monitor, and Anthony Shadid or the Washington Post.

We had a long discussion about the meaning of the elections. We all remarked that there was a widespread sense of let-down about how little of the "New Lebanon" was being realized and how much of the "old Lebanon" had reemerged - the confessionalism, old families, horse trading, and deep seated distrust across communal lines.

Michael Young, a Maronite, and champion of Lebanon's confessional system, had little time for our grips about the old Lebanon. "What do people expect?" he asked. This is Lebanon. We are all part of the confessional system. Even if you scratch Aoun, you find a confessional minded person," he insisted. (Aoun is the politician who poses as the destroyer of the old system and champion of a new united Lebanon.) "It is 10 times better than the authoritarianism Lebanon is surround with." That is the real alternative to the Lebanese system. We should be grateful that we have real pluralist politics, and the Lebanese should stop bitching." So said Michael. By and large, the Maronites are happy with the present system because they are guaranteed 50% of the parliamentary seats, despite being around 40% of the Lebanese population. They see attempts to refashion the system as a threat to their constitutional guarantees under Taif and an attempt to marginalize them.

This did not stop Anthony or Nick from insisting that the Lebanese were disappointed. Anthony's article today is all about how the old Zaims are back. He focuses on Jumblatt, but it is about all Lebanon and how the communities remain divided:

Lebanese seek to map a future mired in past
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, May 29, 2005

It's politics as usual in Lebanon, more than two months after hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese poured into downtown Beirut this spring, furious over the assassination Feb. 14 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, which they blamed on Syria. In what they proclaimed the Cedar Revolution, they demanded the end of a generation of Syrian dominance over their tiny, mountainous country.

The Syrians have since left, but Lebanon is perhaps most remarkable for how little else has changed. "We gave an impression to the world that we were united again," said Sarkis Naoum, a respected columnist for An Nahar, a leading newspaper. "But this unity is still on the surface, this unity is still superficial, it's not deep. If the political classes and the politicians and the leaders of the religious communities don't deepen this national unity, it will melt like the snow.

[complete article]

Hassan Fattah of the New York Times also stresses how little has changed in his article, "New start in Lebanon is slowed by old rules." A large per cent of the candidates were assured of their success before the elections began because of the way election lists are hammered out in back rooms. It is not about campaigning. Many candidates ran unopposed.
The 128-member Parliament is evenly split between Christians and Muslims, while the country's demographic distribution is widely different. In effect it means that Christians, who make up less than 40 percent of the population, have far more influence in Parliament than Muslims, with almost 60 percent.
Reuters confirmed the disappointment felt by Lebanese in its article on the low turnout at the polls in Beirut today and total success of the Hariri ticket. "Hariri slate wins Beirut poll, turnout low: Candidates led by the son of slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri have won all the seats in Beirut polls, but turnout was low."

If there was one article that infuriated my Christian friends this week, it was:
Lebanon's election: Free but not fair
By Annia Ciezadlo, Washington Post, May 22, 2005
Every week, my husband and I take a rickety old taxi to Hezbollah country. The emerald city of downtown Beirut, with its glittering luxury towers, drops away behind us; ruined buildings, their shell-shocked hulks festooned with laundry, loom ahead like ghost ships.

We soon leave Beirut proper and reach the dahiya -- the dense and sprawling Shiite crescent, half suburb, half slum, that cradles the city's southern borders. In the dahiya, home to my in-laws and a large swath of Beirut's population, the recent anti-Syrian protests that became known as the Cedar Revolution seem like a fairy tale. "As an area, as dahiya, we're not concerned about what's happening in downtown," one college student told me in March while demonstrations raged in Martyrs' Square. "We regard what's happening as a joke."

Around the world, however, the candy-cane banners and multilingual college kids of the uprising caught the imagination of millions. Holding parliamentary elections on time, free of Syrian influence, became democracy's new rallying cry. President Bush cautioned against delaying the poll, scheduled to run on four consecutive Sundays beginning May 29.

But Bush and other well-meaning Americans are ignoring a fundamental problem: With Syria gone, Lebanon's elections will be free, but they won't be fair. In Lebanon, Muslim votes, especially Shiite votes, count less than those of Christians. Literally. During the last election, in 2000, politicians running in the primarily Muslim south had to get three times as many votes to win a seat as those running in some Christian areas.
Shiites, like the much smaller Sunni community, have 27 seats in Parliament as compared to the Maronites' 34 seats. The rest are divided among other sects.

This kind of argument makes Christians particularly angry. "But Nabih Berri, the speaker of the parliament, is very strong. He has been speaker for 15 years and nothing gets done in government with out his say so," Christians correctly point out. "Berri shut down parliament before the new election law could be discussed and, especially, before a vote on pardoning Geagea could go through. Why do the Shiites complain? It is just whining."

"Hizbullah is a scandal", my Christian friends insist. "What other country allows an armed militia to run around threatening people? We can't even visit some areas of the South because the Hizb won't let us. It is blackmail, worse, it is terrorism. How can they say they are working for Lebanon when they are only interested in themselves and are hurting Lebanon?" That is how my Christian friends see it.

UPDATE: Michael Young just sent me his written response to the
Annia Ciezadlo's article, which has been published by the Post. You can see whether I represented his argument correctly. Here it is:
Annia Ciezadlo missed the point about Lebanese democracy, which is based on the representation of religious communities as opposed to a "one person, one vote" model.

Yes, Christians are a minority in Lebanon, although the figure Ms. Ciezadlo cited of 23 percent was wrong. The CIA World FactBook estimates Christians at 39 percent of the population. Perhaps Ms. Ciezadlo confused the Maronite community with Christians as a whole.

And, yes, Christians received half the seats in parliament. Far from being "state-sponsored discrimination," however, this distribution was the fruit of a compromise among the religious groups and today is not challenged by any of them.

The logic was that all religious groups would have a role in a system of set-asides and that they would be reassured enough to remain a part of Lebanon. When the formula was agreed upon at independence in 1943, it was enlightened: By positing a weak central authority and strong sects, it allowed Lebanon to avoid the authoritarianism prevalent in the Arab world.

Further, the alleged Christian advantage is far less simple than Ms. Ciezadlo presumed. For example, since the constitutional changes of the Taif Accord in 1989, the presidency, which goes to a Maronite, has lost much of its power, while the longest-serving senior official since war's end has been the Shiite speaker of parliament.

Finally, the election law that Ms. Ciezadlo lamented was imposed in part through an alliance between Hezbollah and another Shiite group, the goal being to marginalize their Christian and Shiite opponents in south Lebanon. The law actually discriminates against Christian voters, although, as a remnant of Syrian rule, it surely will be changed.

Despite its flaws, the Lebanese system merits more sympathy than many in the West accord it.

Of course, the greater threat may be that Hizbullah will only trade in its guns if the Christians give up their 50% share of power. Hizbullah may try to upset the Lebanese apple cart by insisting on re-write the Taif Accord and by demanding closer to a 40% share of seats in Parliament, a share that better represents the actual number of Shi`is in the country. The other sects, particularly the Christians, would be asked to give up power to the Shiites. This is the long-term threat of Hizbullah and it is why the party makes Christians so nervous. It is also why Taif has become a sacred script to Christians, while it is seen as antiquated by many Shiites.

So long as the Shiites are the only group to carry guns, they will have more than their constitutionally allotted power. To give up their guns, Hizbullah may demand a larger number of parliamentary seats and more constitutional power as recompense.

These thorny constitutional questions loom in the future. The 1975 civil war was fought over the issue of communal representation. Lebanon's "new" unity will be put to the test when it comes to renegotiating communal representation once again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Economic Growth in Syria - Or Not?

I recieved two very useful comments on my post "Would it be Better for Syria to have Regime-Change Now or in 5 Years?". (By the way this article appeared translated in Arabic and slightly pared down on, which is co-funded by Firas Tlas. Click here).

Correction: I originally wrote that is owned by Firas Tlass, the eldest son of Mustafa Tlass, who was Hafiz al-Asad's long-time Minister of Defense. This is not true.

Nidal Maalouf, the General Manager of the Syrian Economic Center and Editor of Syrian-News, recently wrote me to explain that

Syria-News site is run by the Syrian Economic Center, a limited partnership that is co-funded by Mr. Tlass. SEC was established in 1995, and Mr. Tlass became partner in 2004.
I would like to thank Mr. Maalouf for correcting me and to apologize for my misattribution.

The first comment came from:
Maurice Saade
Agricultural Policy Officer
FAO Regional Office for the Near East
Cairo, Egypt
I beg to differ with your conclusions regarding economic growth rates in Syria. The data in the FAO report that you have quoted can be very misleading if you do not read it correctly. The growth rates calculations are made in Syrian Pounds (SL) and not in $US. Keeping in mind that the exchange rate until the early 1980s was around 3.5-4.0 SL per $US (compared to 50 S per $ since the early 1990s), so you can imagine how distorted the analysis can be if it is based on SL. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find GDP figures from the 1960s or 1970s. But I recall very well that in 1975, the per capita GDP in Syria was around US$ 1500, compared to World Bank estimates of $1160 in 2003, and this is measured in current terms, i.e. not taking inflation into consideration. So in real terms, $1500 in 1975 is equivalent to at least $3000 (probably much more) in today’s terms. Therefore, the real per capita income DECLINED by more than 60% in the past 30 years. Needless to point out that in 1975 there were very little oil revenues and Syria was still reeling from the 1973 war with Israel. It is this long-term trend that most Syrians have felt over the past few decades, particularly the middle class which has seen its purchasing power steadily decline since the early 1970s until it was almost wiped out during the hyper-inflation of the late 1980s. The relative very modest improvements in income during the 1990s may look somewhat impressive, but this is only when they are compared to the abyss rates of 1985-1990.

Best regards, Maurice Saade
P.S. The above remarks reflect my own personal views and not the official position of FAO.
The second comes from:
Jihad Yazigi
The Syria Report
Rue du Paradis, 75010 Paris, France Tel/Fax: 01 43 27 05 14

There are a number of factors you have to take into account when you talk of Syria's GDP or in general of the statistics in the country.

The paragraph of the FAO report you mention is referring to GDP growth in Syrian Pounds. This is not very significant data as the rate of the Syrian Pound to the dollar has plunged dramatically since the mid-eighties. So, as a rule and in order to compare with other countries you should use the dollar rates.

In practice, for the last twenty-five years, the Syrian economy has stagnated, with the exception of the first 5 years of the nineties (1990-95). These five years witnessed a conjunction of factors: a surge in production of oil, three successive years of good rain and of growth in agricultural production (which makes up around 25-30% of GDP), capital inflows from the Gulf (following Syria's opposition to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait) and also to a lesser extent private capital inflows that followed the enactment of investment Law N°10. However, in practice, Syria's current per capita GDP stands very much at the same rate as it was in 1980, around US$1,000.

For your information, the seventies witnessed an extraordinary period of economic growth. This was accompanied by a growth in literacy and life expectancy and if I remember well (I have to check the figures here), Syria had during the seventies the third highest average annual growth rate in the world in HDI (Human Development Index).

Another thing you have to take into account is that the economic figures published by all international institutions are based on local Sryian statistics. These statistics grossly underestimate private sector production. Syrian business owners do not report the correct earnings of thier companies in order to escape taxation. According to national statistics the private sector made up around 70% of industrial GDP (outside the oil & gas sector) in 2002. So you can imagine that there is a large gap between what the statistics indicate what reality really is.

Finally, just one remark on relates to unemployment, a subject you did not cover, but which I think is interesting. If GDP growth is higher than population growth you get an increase in per capita GDP. That's all fine but you have to know that in order to obtain a fall in unemployment rates, it is simply not enough to have growth in per capita GDP, because with time comes also growth in productivity, that is the increase in the production produced by every single person.

In France for instance, annual increase in productivity is 2% per annum. Population growth there is 0.5% per annum. As a result, in order for unemployment to fall, the French need a rate of at least 2.5% per year. If the same rate of 2% applied in Syria and you add up around 2.7% in population growth, you actually need a per capita GDP growth of at least 4.7% before unemployment can fall. As long as it isn't the case, unemployment keeps rising.

Best, Jihad

Thanks to both Maurice and Jihad for helping us to understand the long-term economic growth rates in Syria. To someone who has lived off and on in Syria since 1981, it does seem like the economic situation has improved for many people and not just the upper-class. All the same many Syrians have insisted to me that things are actually worse and that the average Syrian is poorer now than in the 1970s. I find that hard to believe. Maurice thinks so. Jihad says they are roughly the same, but that Syrian state statistics may under-report national wealth.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Syria Arrests Many and Stops Cooperating with US

The Syrian government has begun what seems a sweeping crack down on civil society leaders and opposition members. This is coordinated with cutting off CIA and intelligence cooperation with the United States.

It comes at the time of the UN announcement that the United Nations team has verified the pullout of all Syrian troops and (as far as anyone can tell) intelligence officials from Lebanon. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced Monday, "We have verified all the withdrawal, including the border area," he told reporters.

At dawn this morning, the Syrian authorities, represented by the Political Security Apparatus headed by Mohammad Mansoora, arrested the Board of Directors of the Jamal Atassi Muntada (Forum). Early reports are that the people arrested were: Mrs. Souhair al-Atassi, Dr. Hazem Nahar, Mrs. Nahed Badouiah, Mr. Hussein Al-Oueidat, Mr. Youssef al-Jahmani, Mr. Jihad Masooti, Mr. Abdul Nasir Kahlous, and Mr. Mohammad Mahfoud.

On May 22, Mohammad Mansoora's security people raided the office the Arab Human Rights Organization and arrested its leader Mr. Mohammad Ra'adoun.

DOUGLAS JEHL and THOM SHANKER of the NYTimes report that "Syria Has Stopped Cooperating With U.S. Forces and C.I.A. Published: May 24, 2005

WASHINGTON, May 23 - Syria has halted military and intelligence cooperation with the United States, its ambassador to Washington said in an interview, in a sign of growing strains between the two nations over the insurgency in Iraq.

The ambassador, Imad Moustapha, said in the interview on Friday at the Syrian Embassy here that his country had, in the last 10 days, "severed all links" with the United States military and Central Intelligence Agency because of what he called unjust American allegations. The Bush administration has complained bitterly that Syria is not doing enough to halt the flow of men and money to the insurgency in Iraq.

Mr. Moustapha said he believed that the Bush administration had decided "to escalate the situation with Syria" despite steps the Syrians have taken against the insurgents in Iraq, and despite the withdrawal in recent weeks of Syrian troops from Lebanon, in response to international demands.

He said American complaints had been renewed since February, when a half-brother of Saddam Hussein, who was once the widely feared head of Iraq's two most powerful security agencies, was handed over to the Iraqi authorities after being captured in Syria along with several lieutenants. The renewal of complaints caused Syria to abandon the idea of providing further help, he said.

"We thought, why should we continue to cooperate?" he said.

Bush administration officials said Syria's stance has prompted intense debate at high levels in the administration about new steps that might be taken against the Syrian government. The officials said the options included possible military, diplomatic or economic action. But senior Pentagon and military officials cautioned Monday that if any military action was eventually ordered, it was likely to be limited to insurgent movements along the border.

"There's a lot of discussion about what to do about Syria and what a problem it is," said the administration official, who works for a government agency that has been involved in the debate.

Relations between Syria and the United States have been souring for months, and some Bush administration officials said Syria's level of cooperation had been dwindling even before the latest move.

Lawrence Di Rita, the Pentagon spokesman, said there have been occasional low-level military-to-military communications along the border. He said the Defense Department had received no official notification of a change in that status, nor that the status of American military attachés in Damascus had been altered.

The American officials declined to provide an on-the-record response to Mr. Moustapha's statements on halting intelligence cooperation, citing the delicacy of the issue.

American intelligence officials have said Syria has provided important assistance in the campaign against Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11 attacks. In recent months, senior Pentagon officials and military officers say, cooperation between the two nations has included low-level communications across the border between captains and field-grade officers of the American-led alliance and their Syrian counterparts.

One senior military officer said those communications had been helpful in mitigating a number of "cross-border firings" of artillery that have occurred between Syrian forces and the American-led military in Iraq. Any further scaling back of cooperation there or between Syria and the C.I.A. could have a tangible impact, officials said.

American military officers in Baghdad and intelligence analysts in Washington say militant cells inside Iraq draw on "unlimited money" from an underground financial network run by former Baath Party leaders and relatives of Mr. Hussein, many of whom they say found safe haven to live and operate in Syria.

Those officials say Damascus has done very little in its banking system to stop the financing, nor has it seized former Iraqi Baathists identified by the United States as organizing and financing the insurgency.

In presenting Syria's case, Mr. Moustapha said his government had done all it could to respond to American complaints, including taking steps to build barriers and add to border patrols.

He declined to comment on any role Syria might have played in the capture of Mr. Hussein's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti, No. 36 on the American list of 55 most-wanted Iraqis. But the ambassador said Syria had jailed some 1,200 foreign fighters who sought to enter Iraq from Syria, and had returned scores of others to their home countries.

On the day of the interview with Mr. Moustapha, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Syria was "allowing its territory to be used to organize terrorist attacks against innocent Iraqis."

A senior American military officer acknowledged that "the Syrian government has in some cases been helpful" in building border berms and otherwise taking action against people involved in providing support to the insurgency. But the officer added: "Our sense is that they protest a bit too much and that they are capable of doing more. We expect them to do more."

Comment: Embassy officials in Damascus have been repeating for some time their key phrase: "Pressure works."

Clearly Bashar has taken the decision that he must attempt to stop that montra which has become dangerous. He may believe that with the withdrawal from Lebanon, Europe will no longer side with Washington on ratcheting up the pressure. America has few good options now for raising the heat.

The Baath Party Congress will probably be a let down. Bashar has been telling people for some time "not to expect too much" from it and that people should lower their expectations. The crack-down would seem to suggest that he is neither planning surprises nor expecting that anything done at the conference will relieve US pressure.

He may believe that the reduction of car import tariffs has "drugged" the people, as some are saying.

Opposition members were trying to organize. The Atassi group recently held a meeting at which different parties read out their agendas. Someone even read the program and demands of the Muslim Brotherhood, based in London, and was promptly arrested, causing the group to become scared. A week ago, Sabine Lubbe Bakker, a Dutch graduate student, wrote a report on the meeting, which she had attended. Initially she wanted me to publish it, but quickly changed her mind and asked me not to because members of the Atassi group were frightened and wanted to keep a low profile.

Many opposition members and reformers have been calling for a broad front to be created, which would include the Muslim Brotherhood. This is clearly not permissible and has spooked the government. So long as individuals complain, there is no threat. If they begin to organize, as they have been tentatively doing, there is a threat.

See the article By Azme Bashara in al-Ahram, which suggested that relations between the US and Syria were headed down hill. It is an interesting read and may well have had an influence on decision making here, although, the present crackdown would seem to have already been in the works.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Survey of Baathist Political Tendencies: A Hoax?

Several people have emailed me about the alseyassah article article that describes an opinion poll taken of Baath Party members. The most interesting part is the claim that roughly 25% of the Baathists said they would vote for Muslim Brotherhood or Muslim Brotherhood backed candidates in an election. Over 50% said they would vote Islamic-Nationalist.

This article is based on a report that was written and circulated by Nazir Nayouf. He is based in Paris, an Alawite, who was imprisoned for a long period under Hafiz al-Asad. He describes his group as: "SYNATIC is a NGO, founded in Damascus on 14 July 2001 by world-well-known human rights advocator Nizar Nayouf and other former prisoners of opinion. It struggles for exposing and documenting the crimes done by the dictatorship ruling in Syria, and building a secular democratic state."

How reliable is Nizar Nayouf? He circulated a report claiming that Iraq's WMD had been smuggled into Syria and was hidden in three places in Syria, which became a central basis for US Defense department claims that Syria was the hiding place for Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction. He included a map of the locations with his report, which has been published on the web. (I wrote about this long ago.)Although some of his reports seem to be based on reliable information, he is frequently wrong or partly wrong.

About his latest report on the Baathist poll, my hunch is that it is completely fabricated. I have asked several people here to ask about the story. None of them could come up with anything. One good journalist said, "Don't believe it. No Baathist would say he supported the Muslim Brotherhood on a poll done by the secret police, even if he secretly did support the Islamists."

That is the best I can come up with. Here is his original report

دمشق ، 17 أيار / مايو 2005
تقرير صحفي
المخابرات العامة تنهي عملية " المسح التقويمي الشامل " للبعثيين المدنيين 77 :
بالمئة يؤدون واجبا دينيا واحدا على الأقل ، و 53 بالمئة يذهبون إلى الجامع بشكل منتظم

أنهى فرع الكومبيوتر في مبنى قيادة إدارة المخابرات العامة ( أمن الدولة ) قبل حوالي أسبوعين تحميل المعطيات المسحية الخاصة بأعضاء حزب البعث " الحاكم " من غير العسكريين واستخلاص النتائج الإحصائية التقويمية التي ستقدم للرئيس السوري بشار الأسد قريبا . وقال مصدر مقرب من أحد مهندسي المعلوماتية الذين تولوا عملية تحميل هذه المعطيات " إن عملية المسح التقويمي ـ الإحصائي كانت بناء على طلب الرئيس بشار الأسد الذي أوعز لإدارة المخابرات العامة القيام بها قبل حوالي عام من اليوم . وذلك بهدف معرفة التركيب الحقيقي الشامل لحزب البعث من مختلف النواحي ، ليصار بعد ذلك ( وهو ما تم فعلا الأسبوع الماضي ) إلى تحليلها وفق برنامج صمم بمساعدة تقنية يابانية . وأشار المصدر إلى أن إدارة المخابرات العامة أوفدت ثلاثة من ضباطها المهندسين إلى اليابان من أجل اكتساب المعرفة التقنية الخاصة بهذا المشروع من خلال دورة استغرفت ثلاثة أسابيع ، وبموجب اتفاق مغطى بوثائق أصدرتها وزارة التعليم العالي ، باعتبار أن المهندسين الثلاثة " يعملون في كلية المعلوماتية التابعة لجامعة دمشق " !! وطبقا للمصدر فإن " عملية المسح هذه تعتبر الأولى من نوعها في سورية وربما في العالم العربي كله . وقد شكلت نتيجتها صدمة حقيقية للمعنيين رغم أنها كانت متوقعة بالنظر لمعرفتهم أن الحزب لم يكن له من ذلك إلا الاسم ، وأنه تحول إلى تجمع هيولي مائع منذ أواسط السبعينيات الماضية حين اتخذ الرئيس الراحل قرارا بإنهاء سلطة الحزب على أرض الواقع وتحويله إلى مجرد ماشطة ( وصيفة ) مهمتها رش المساحيق على وجه السلطة ونتف الشعر الزائد في حاجبيها " حسب تعبير المصدر . وفيما يلي ملخص إجمالي لهذه العملية وفق ما ذكره المصدر لـ " المجلس " .
قامت عملية المسح على أساس نموذج استبياني تولت فروع إدارة المخابرات العامة في المحافظات تعبئته ، سواء مباشرة أو بالتعاون مع شخصيات علمية وثقافية حزبية تجيد هذا النوع من العمل وتتعاون مع إدارة المخابرات . وقد ضم النموذج أكثر من أربعين سؤالا أو " مفردة استبيانية " ، بالإضافة للمعطيات الشخصية الأخرى ( معطيات الهوية الشخصية كالعمر والمهنة .. إلخ ) . ومن بين هذه الأسئلة / المفردات : الأصول القومية والدينية والمذهبية ( عربي / كردي / أشوري / شركسي / مسلم سني / مسلم علوي / مسلم درزي / مسلم اسماعيلي / مسيحي /.... ) ؛ هل يؤدي الفرائض الدينية ( صلاة في الجامع ، الصيام ، الحج ، الذهاب إلى الكنيسة .. . ) ؛ هل يميل إلى دمج الفكر القومي بتوجهات إسلامية ؛ هل سبق له أن اعتقل لسبب سياسي ، وعلى أي خلفية ( يسارية ، ماركسية ، قومية ، إسلامية ) ؛ هل سبق له أن انتمى لحزب آخر قبل عضويته في حزب البعث ؛ إذا جرت انتخابات برلمانية حرة ، لصالح أي اتجاه سيصوت ( قائمة / مرشح شيوعي ، قائمة / مرشح اسلامي ، قائمة / مرشح بعثي .. ) ؛ هل يقبل بمبدأ فصل الدين عن الدولة ( أن يكون رئيس البلاد غير مسلم ) ؛ هل يقبل بمبدأ زوجة واحدة ( يرفض مبدأ تعدد الزوجات ) ؛ هل يقبل بالزواج المدني ( زواج مختلط الطوائف ) ؛ هل يقبل بقيام سلام طبيعي مع إسرائيل وفق قرارات الأمم المتحدة ؛ هل هو مع مبدأ إلغاء التأميمات التي قام بها الحزب ( في الستينيات ) ؛ هل يملك مصدر رزقه الأساسي ( موظف ، تاجر ، محامي ، طبيب .. ) ؛ إذا كان موظفا حكوميا ، هل يملك مصدرا آخر للرزق ، وهما هو إن وجد ... إلخ .
وطبقا للمصدر ، فإن عملية المسح شملت مليون ومئة ألف عضو في الحزب . ومن بين النتائج التي توصل إليها المسح ، والتي أمكن معرفتها ، ما يلي :
ـ 64.3 بالمئة من أعضاء الحزب هم من المسلمين السنة ؛
ـ 19.7 بالمئة من المسلمين العلويين ؛
ـ 9.8 بالمئة من المسيحيين ؛
ـ 7 بالمئة من باقي الأقليات القومية والدينية .
ـ 77 بالمئة من البعثيين يؤدون واجبا دينيا واحدا على الأقل ( صلاة ، صيام .. ) ؛
ـ 53 بالمئة يذهبون إلى الجامع بشكل منتظم ؛
ـ 63.2 بالمئة يرفضون مبدأ فصل الدين عن الدولة ( أن يكون رئيس الدولة مسيحيا ) ؛
ـ 6.7 بالمئة من أعضاء الحزب ينتمون إلى التيار اليساري ( ماركسي ، صلاح جديد ) ؛
ـ 53.4 بالمئة سيصوتون لقوائم أو مرشحين ذوي اتجاه قومي ـ إسلامي ؛
ـ 24.3 بالمئة سيصوتون لقائمة جماعة الإخوان المسلمين أو لمرشحين مدعومين من قبل الجماعة في أي انتخابات ديمقراطية ؛
ـ 9 بالمئة سيصوتون لقوائم يسارية أو مرشحين يساريين وشيوعيين ؛
ـ 71.5 بالمئة مع إبرام اتفاقية سلام مع إسرائيل على أساس قرارات الأمم المتحدة ؛
ـ 28.5 بالمئة ضد السلام مع إسرائيل بأي شكل من الأشكال ؛
ـ 83 بالمئة من الموظفين لهم مصدر دخل واحد على الأقل عدا مرتبهم الوظيفي ؛
ـ 57 بالمئة يؤيدون إلغاء التأميمات التي تمت خلال السبعينيات ؛
ـ 9 بالمئة سيصوتون لقوائم يسارية أو مرشحين يساريين وشيوعيين .
هذا وقد أشار الباحثون " المخابراتيون " إلى أن نسبة الارتياب ( هامش الخطأ ) تتراوح بين 1.5 و 2.2 بالمئة ، وذلك تبعا لكل مفردة استبيانية من المفردات المشار إليها .
وإذا أخذنا بعين الاعتبار الدقة العلمية لهذا المسح ، يمكننا أن نتوصل إلى النتائج الأولية التالية :
أولا ـ إن البنية العامة للحزب هي بنية محافظة .
ثانيا ـ إن الحزب ، وفي حال فصله عن السلطة ( أي إلغاء المادة الثامنة من الدستور التي تكرسه حزبا قائدا للدولة والمجتمع ، وتشريع التعددية الحزبية والسياسية وسن قانون أحزاب )، سيتشظى إلى أربعة تيارات / أحزاب أساسية ( أو تلتحق بأحزاب تحاكي هذه الاتجاهات ) ، وهي حسب حجمها : التيار القومي ـ الإسلامي ؛ التيار الإسلامي ؛ التيار الليبرالي ؛ التيار اليساري . ويمكن ، تقديريا ومن خلال عملة إزاحة معينة فيما بين هذه التيارات ، أن نستخلص تيارا خامسا هو التيار " القومي الصرف " ، الذي ـ مع الاحتفاظ بنسبة معينة من هامش الخطأ ـ من الصعب أن يتجاوز 15 بالمئة في أحسن حالاته !

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Would it be Better for Syria to have Regime-Change Now or in 5 Years?

The other evening I argued with a Syrian friend - a smart and established journalist - over whether Syria should have regime-change now, or sometime in the future, let's say in five years.

I argued that regime-change now would be a mistake and would hold many unforeseen and unpredictable dangers. My friend argued the opposite. He said the sooner there is regime-change the better. "You are out of touch with real Syria," he said. "Who do you see? The wealthy and well off. Look at the growing number of poor in the suburbs of Damascus" he suggested. "Look at the poverty in the countryside, the growing number of unemployed, etc."

I argued that Syria has no organized opposition that has any experience. The ethnic and sectarian divisions among Syrians are real and wide. There is very little "liberal" consciousness among the broad masses. "If there is revolution or regime-change now," I argued, the chance of Syria heading toward chaos or even civil war is high - too high to risk."

I came home and looked up the numbers. In Syria there is a growing absolute number of poor, but a declining number of poor as a percentage of the population. Anyway, the elites are more important than the poor in governing the country successfully. They must be prepared to take power.

In a report written six years ago, the poverty in all MENA (Middle East and Near East) countries was summed up like this:

We calculated the number of poor people in MENA in 1985 and 1994 according to different poverty lines ranging from spending per-capita of $21 to $60 per month. One conclusion that emerges is that, irrespective of the choice of the poverty line, the actual number of poor in MENA has increased between 1985 and 1994. If instead of measuring the number of poor, we measure the proportion of poor in the population, we observe that the percentage of poor people has decreased between 1985 and 1994, again irrespective of the choice of the poverty line.
In conclusion, my friend is right: there are more poor people. But he is wrong to argue that the problem is getting worse. It isn't. The percentage is declining, although too slowly.

In terms of the rate of annual growth, Syria has been in the middle of the MENA pack since the Baath revolution of 1963, but much of that growth has been wiped out by the high population increase. (Syrian growth rate in the 1950s was much higher.) Here is what FAO has to say:
During the last four decades economic growth in Syria has advanced at a rate of 4.6 percent per year on average (between endpoints of the 1963-1999 period). This is a good rate of growth in the long term for many countries. Unfortunately, the growth in population in Syria is also quite high (3.3 percent average over the same period). Growth has accompanied the rapid growth in population, which is a real achievement, but per capita income has remained stagnant in the long-term, alternating ups and downs. The economy has progressed on a cyclical pattern of periods of rapid growth followed by periods of stagnation or decline. The 1990s have been a period of growth, but a decreasing rate,
More up to date figures (1990-2001) also give a fairly high rate of growth. Here is what the UN says according to the Globalis World Indicator Information on Syria
Indicator: GDP per capita annual growth rate - 1990-2001
Description: GDP per capita annual growth rate: Annual GDP growth per person. Least squares annual growth rate, calculated from constant price GDP per capita in local currency units.
Source: Human Development Report (UNDP)
Syria is squarely in the middle of GDP per capita annual growth rates for 1990-2001 at 1.9%
Syria is below the following countries (the figure is the rate of growth)
Lebanon 3.6
Sudan 3.2
Tunisia 3.1
Egypt 2.5
United Kingdom 2.5
Yemen 2.4
Canada 2.1
United States 2.1
Iran 2
Syria 1.9
Turkey 1.7
France 1.5
Germany 1.2
Jordan .9
Morocco .7
Oman .6
Algeria .1
Chad -.5
Kuwait -1.0
Saudi -1.1
UAR -1.6

It should be added that Syria's population growth rate has been falling sharply in the last decade. Today it is 2.7% and not 3.3%, as it used to be.

Growth in the last few years has also been down. In 2002 it was around 4%. It fell dramatically to 2.5% in 2003 because of the US invasion of Iraq, but picked up again to 3.9 estimated in 2004 and is supposed to grow even faster in 2005 (projected 4.3).

The basic picture for Syria is improving because the country is getting population growth under control. Non-oil growth should be good in the coming years because of Asad's financial, tourist, diplomatic (think Turkey) and investment reforms. It should be added that the withdrawal from Lebanon may also end up having a positive effect on the Syrian economy in the long term. Remittances are sharply down because of the return of Syrian workers, but overall foreign investment is growing.

The UAE investment firm, Majid al-Futtaim, is beginning the single largest investment project in Syria - a series of hotels, Mall, restaurants, playgrounds for kids, movie theaters, etc. on the road to Beirut. Initial investment is 300 million dollars, but the plan is to eventually invest 1 billion in the coming years. The firm's outlook is good because tourism was up this spring by 30%. Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon should not hurt the project, which will rely heavily on Gulf and Lebanese consumer tourism. As one person, knowledgeable about the project, suggested to me, "these sorts of mega-projects will transform the face of the Syrian economy in five years. Syrians will develop a new consumer culture."

Of course, Syrian oil production is due to decline in the coming decade, so that is bad news, but it isn't perhaps as dire as some suggest it will be.

All the same, Syria's per capita income is not good. The country is poor compared to other MENA countries. This is due to bad management. Here are the UN figures provided by Gobalis. Indicator: GDP per capita - 2002

Syria is ranked country 96 out of 152 countries listed. Its adjusted GDP per capita is $3,620

Egypt is #94 and Morocco is #95 on the list. They are immediately above Syria at $3,800. Jordan is country #91, Lebanon is #89 at $4,360 GDP per capita.

The only Arab countries that are poorer per person are Sudan and Yemen, which are well below Syria. This is why Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California) told Yale University students recently
that Syria is now the third poorest country in the region, behind only the Sudan and Yemen, and that its economy is "desperately" in need of foreign investment. "What Syria has is disinvestment," Lantos said. "Any Syrian with money gets it out of the country."
Another reason to expect Syrian growth rates to be below potential is its on-going battle with the US.
About US-Syrian relations, Lantos was not as optimistic as he was about US-Libyan relations. He recounted a visit he made to the country in the spring of 2003, in which he met with President Bashar Assad and proposed a "road map" for stabilizing relations with the United States. Lantos urged Assad to close down terrorist offices in the country, withdraw its 17,000 troops from Lebanon, quell "vicious" anti-American propaganda in Syria and
close down its border with Iraq.

"He was shown evidence of Syrians supplying everything anti-American forces need," Lantos said.

Unfortunately, said Lantos, "Assad has chosen not to follow the path of Libya." Hence, he told his audience, he is recommending that U.S. policy toward the country be "the exact opposite course" of what he proposed for Libya.
The point I am arguing here is that the state of the Syrian economy is not a reason to wish immediate regime-change. It is growing, contrary to the belief of many.

The reason for sticking with President Asad is because of Syria's institutional and ideological weaknesses. If change comes before Syria has real institutions, capable of guiding the country, the government may collapse as did Iraq's. There would be chaos and possibly civil war as we saw in Lebanon.

The counter-example is Egypt. Egypt's state institutions are growing in strength and independence. They are exploiting the political opening being offered the country by President Mubarak to assert their corporate identity and independence. A week ago, 2000 Egyptian judges said they would not oversee the elections unless they were given independence and legal autonomy. Read this article in today's NYTimes by Hassan Fattah:
Egyptian Judges Are Entering Growing Reform Movement
CAIRO, May 19 - When thousands of Egyptian judges gathered in Cairo last week to demand greater independence from the government, they highlighted the entry of a powerful new force in the country's growing reform movement: official institutions.

Long taken for granted as appendages of the government, some institutions are less willing to tolerate business as usual this election year. The judges' extraordinarily public step is perhaps the most obvious display of resistance, and builds on a similar call by judges in Alexandria weeks earlier.

In small ways, institutions like Parliament and the state-controlled news media have begun to show a degree of independence too. While small groups of protesters demanding greater democracy and an end to President Hosni Mubarak's government are now taking to the streets, the greatest potential for change may lie in those official institutions.

"The return of real politics has put many institutions back in the limelight, and these institutions are beginning to work for change," said Abdel Monem Said, director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, a government-backed research and policy organization.

The institutions are presenting Mr. Mubarak with an unexpected challenge from within, one that will be difficult to dismiss. "The fact is, major changes in this country are going to come out of those institutions, not from the streets," Mr. Said said.
Syria is at least 5 years behind Egypt in developing independent institutions, maybe ten years. Some will argue that as long as the Baath is in power in Syria, the country will never be allowed to develop independent institutions or free thinkers.

I disagree. This last month we witnessed a minor uprising in the ranks of the Baath Party itself over the irregularities of the Party elections. A petition was circulated by Party members such as Ayman Abdul Nour and signed by many highly placed Baathists complaining about the corruption of the elections and demanding that 100 qualified reformers be added to the Party Congress, which has roughly 1,200 members, and from which the Command Council of 21 members will be selected.

Many argue, and I think convincingly, that Bashar is trying to build more professional ministries - that he is, in effect, an institution builder, who is trying to replace patronage and clientele networks with well qualified personnel in legally based institutions.

Bashar's distaste for the security institutions of the country and his veering away from reliance on the military is evident. I will recount one story which underlines his alienation from the Military and traditional pillars of the regime.

A good friend recently retuned to Syria for a three week visit to see if he wants to bring his family here and start a business. He has lived abroad for nine years and is a successful engineer working for a multinational corporation. He is Alawite and a son of a retired minister.

He said he visited 14 school friends when he traveled up the coast to Tartus and Banyas, and added:
You know how most everyone on the coast (Alawites) depends on the Army, either directly or indirectly? Well, they all said that the present regime no longer respects the army, and people follow suit. In the old days everyone knew that Hafiz was "ta’ifi," sectarian. They supported him because they knew he was pulling for them and was helping them. They no longer feel that way. They said the moral in the army was zero. They said that this president might as well be a Kurd or Sunni because he no longer favors the military and doesn't reach out to his people (Alawites).
I have heard similar stories from many others. When I asked my mother-in-law (wife of a retired general) if this was true, she raised her eyebrows, as if to suggest I was an idiot son-in-law for asking such a stupid question. "Yes, of course. They used to respect the army but now people look at us with dislike and sometimes even loathing."

I asked why.

"Because we lost 4 wars," she quickly answered. "We haven't received any new arms in ten years. The training is nothing. No one cares about the army anymore. People don't believe in Baathism or in the government. The officers are not like they used to be. There are no longer any great men among them whom people respect; they are corrupt. It is not like the old days when everyone looked up to the military and the officers sacrificed to build their country and believed in Syria."

I have no clue whether this "Golden Age" of military heroism ever existed, but I suspect there is something to Umm Firas' comments. She is smart and a keen judge of men. A picture of Abu Firas shaking President Nasser's hand on the day of his graduation from the UAE Naval Academy in 1960 hangs proudly in their living room. They look at the 1960s as a time when military men were giants. Of course, they were young then and idealistic. But I doubt many young men going into the army today are as idealistic.

Anyway, the moral of this story is that Bashar has abandoned the military. My friend and mother-in-law believe this is dangerous. It probably is, although, I don't believe the dispirited military is likely to cause Bashar real problems. It does suggest, however, that the president is not doing business as usual. He was not brought up in the military like his father and brother, Basil. He is counting on the work of his reformist ministers - Planning, Economy, Tourism, Finance, etc. - and not on the security forces to build a new Syria and create support for his presidency and regime.

Many believe Bashar's strategy is foolish and will lead to eventual collapse. It may be, but it should be supported. The longer he gives reformers a chance and keeps the intellectual environment open for people to criticize, question and debate, the better off Syria will be.

If the West squeezes Syria too hard and too quickly, causing premature collapse, Syria may end up in chaos. The new institutions are not ready to take on the responsibility of running the country or guiding it through real turbulence. They are not as mature as Egypt’s institutions. All the same, they are headed in that direction. Very few people in government believe in Baathism. Given time, they will chose independence and honesty over corruption and slavish obeisance to the regime. There are many good people in the government. Syria needs them working on its side. They will in time.


The bankruptcy of present ideological thinking in Syria is the second reason why regime-change today is a bad idea. Syria has no developed national consciousness or clearly articulated national idea. Having a developed and well defined sense of the nation is crucial to the success of democracy. There can be no setting the "rules of the game" of democracy or establishing a national social contract if citizens cannot agree what game they are playing. They must know where their borders are and embrace fellow citizens as legal equals. Syrians must want to be Syrians.

Since its inception in 1918 following WWI, Syrians have denied the legitimacy of their national borders and a Syrian national identity. Instead they chose Arab nationalism - the unity of the Arab countries. This has failed. In the meantime, all reference to a Syrian national identity has been practically outlawed. Schoolbooks from grades 1 to 12 do not include the word Syria. I wrote an article about Islamic education in Syria for which I read the required books students must read in every grade. There is not one mention of Syria. The word does not appear in the curriculum.

The Syrian National Party was outlawed until last week. It has been since 1955. President Quwatli in 1946, when the French left the country, stated that he "would never raise the Syrian flag above the flag of Arab nationalism." Every Syrian president has made good on that promise since. The Syrian constitution says that Syria is a "region" of the "Arab nation." Syria exists as a geographical entity, but not as a national identity. Syrians love their country, but they deny that there is such a thing as a Syrian nation or particularity that is Syria.

As Karfan (an Alawite) recently wrote on his blog:
No one believes in the Arab identity joke anymore and our Kings have made all efforts to erase and destroy any attempt of creating a Syrian Identity that gathers all of us. Eventually people find that those stupid sectarian and religious identities are the only way to belong... What is left for them to believe or belong to? Nothing.
Karfan is right. Without Arabism, Syrians have only their sectarian communities to fall back on, because Syrianism has been denied to them. The strength of sectarian identities in Syria is potentially very dangerous should there be sudden regime-change. Syrians would do well to work out a national identity that is at peace with their borders before facing into political uncertainty.

Syrians are beginning to back into a Syrian national identity. The withdrawal from Lebanon has forced the issue. So has Bush's campaign against Arabism; so has the "me first" campaigns of Jordan and all the other countries of the Arab world. The Jordan first, Egypt first, etc. campaigns are killing political Arabism. Syria is not far behind, but it is behind.

If the present Damascus Spring is accomplishing anything, it is changing the way Syrians see themselves, the way they relate to other Arab countries, and the way they see their own destiny.

The political opposition in Syria has failed to articulate a Syrian national identity and is still caught in the web of Arabism, although there are some nascent parties that have adopted a purely Syrian-democratic platform. (Riad al-Turk's old Communist wing just renamed itself the "Syrian Democratic Popular Party" three days ago to great fanfare. It is happening.

But there is still no real opposition. There are only talking heads and mini groups. They are not organized, nor are they ready to lead a country.

Syria needs time. The West should squeeze but not break.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Change is Coming - but How?

Change is coming to Syria - there is no way to deny it. How it will happen and how controlled it will be, no one can say. As one Syrian friend said to me, "Will it be in five years, ten years, or next year? I cannot say, but it is coming."

The signs are everywhere. One top Alawite official joked to a Sunni friend, "Will you treat us well in the future?" This kind of remark revealing the anxiety of regime figures about the future, but still couched in a joke to indicate insouciance, would not have been heard a year ago.

Everyone at the dinner table had a story like the one related above, indicating that that the elite is anxious and beginning to take evasive action to prepare for change - what kind of change? Who knows?

Some top officials are beginning serious campaigns to improve their images, carrying out high-minded social projects to beautify Damascus or support cultural life. Others are finding ways to deny their connection with and involvement in the darker chapters of regime history. They are pondering judgement day and vacuuming the house, putting out flowers, and making themselves presentable.

Sami Moubayed's excellent article "Soft de-Baathification in Syria," published in al-Ahram Weekly points out that "The Baath Party Conference, scheduled for June, is expected to pave the way for a general amnesty, releasing political prisoners and permitting the return of those banished for political reasons."

One of the reasons driving this reconciliation project, directed at healing the old wounds caused by Syria's long years of political turmoil and dictatorship, is undoubtedly the fear of revenge. Sami points out that it was begun by Basil al-Asad in 1994, but that others, such as Mustafa Tlas, have been pushing it hard by getting the portraits of Syria's past leaders added to the Parliament walls. They had been "airbrushed" from Syrian history, as Sami wrote.

If Syria is to have a soft transition to a new political order, and avoid sinking into the sort of bloodletting and vendetta driven chaos that has overtaken Iraq, a reconciliation process is crucial. Only by making amends, can the present power-brokers hope to secure their safety in the future. To truly make amends, there is still much reconciliation to come.

All the same, the rapid augmentation of the reconciliation process indicates that people at the top are getting nervous and thinking of the day when they may no longer be in power.

Washington is upping the heat on Syria about supporting Iraqi insurgents.

In an angry indictment, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday broadened US accusations that Syria was contributing to violent insurgencies in Iraq.

After a meeting with Iraq's planning minister, Barham Salih, Rice again accused Syria of supporting terror. To that she added an allegation that Syria may also be providing financial support for insurgents as well as "allowing its territory to be used to organize terrorist attacks against innocent Iraqis."
Last week, saw a major campaign to choke off the infiltration of foreign fighters along the border with Syria. There are plans to move much of the U.S. Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to the border from the Baghdad area. Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, said: "It's really now a war against the Iraqi people conducted by foreigners," said

Zarqawi in Syria?
"Zarqawi and his top-level administrators met at least five times outside Iraq," an American official who prefers to remain anonymous said. He added that the last meeting was held in Syria one month ago. The same source claimed Zarqawi had ordered an increase in the number of suicide attacks in Iraq after the meeting in Syria as he was concerned over the stability and decrease of resistance in Iraq following the elections. No meetings had been held in Iran according to the same source, who said they received this information through Al Qaeda members under arrest.

General John P. Abizaid, commander of the U.S. forces in the Middle East, said, "it is obvious that insurgents have some kind of activities in Syria and the administration should do its best to prevent these."
Never trust and anonymous official. If US intelligence has good information about Zarqawi traveling to Syria, General Abizaid would have said so. He seems fairly trustworthy.

A number of American officials hate Syria and will say anything to promote US hostility toward it. We saw how Bolton do this over and over again, and he was Under-secretary of State for Arms Control, no little chicken. He inflated claims about WMD development in Syria; he claimed Syria was developing nuclear weapons when CIA and State clearly warned him against such allegations; he insisted that Syria was hiding Iraqi WMD for a year after US officials knew this was false, having established from debriefed Iraqi scientists and politicians that Iraq had destroyed its WMD. He said Syria was part of the Pakistani nuclear racket, which Baradei had to deny.

Sec. of Def. Rumsfeld and V.P. Cheney protected Bolton and encouraged him to spin. I don't know whom one should trust from the US government, but if a statement is made by an “anonymous American official,” and not someone willing to back it up with his name and reputation, it is wise not to believe it.

Syria denied the accusations immediately. A Syrian official told Reuters news agency that the claims are a part of the political pressure campaign applied on Syria administration.
Who are the suicide bombers of Iraq? According to the web-sites of radical Muslim organizations who provide lists of martyrs, they are an internationalist brigade of Arabs, with the largest share in the online lists from Saudi Arabia and a significant minority from other countries on Iraq's borders, such as Syria and Kuwait.

The roster of the dead on just one extremist Web site reviewed by The Washington Post runs to nearly 250 names, ranging from a 13-year-old Syrian boy said to have died fighting the Americans in Fallujah to the reigning kung fu champion of Jordan, who sneaked off to wage war by telling his family he was going to a tournament. Among the dead are students of engineering and English, the son of a Moroccan restaurateur and a smattering of Europeanized Arabs.

There are also long lists of names about whom nothing more is recorded than a country of origin and the word "martyr."... U.S. military estimates cited by security analysts put the number of active jihadists at about 1,000, or less than 10 percent of the number of fighters in a mostly Iraqi-dominated insurgency. But military officials now say the foreigners are responsible for a higher percentage of the suicide bombings.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Blogging Association of Syria

I met with the Association of Syrian Bloggers last night at Leila's Cafe next to the Umayyad Mosque. What a truly wonderful crowd. Ten bloggers showed up. Ayman Haykal, who keeps the Damascene Blog, is the organizer of the association. (His site lists most of the blogs.) Two women bloggers were among the 10 who showed up; most are university students and write in English because of a few technical difficulties caused by writing in Arabic. It seems they are easy to overcome, so we can expect more Arabic blogs quickly.

There were a mere 5 blogs or so in Syria at the beginning of 2005. Now there are some 34 or 35. "A veritable blog explosion is going on," Ayman announced. All the same everyone was dismayed at the small number of Syrian blogs. "It is because we are afraid of the written word," one explained. "We base our blogs around photos. They can say a lot." We spoke about many subjects: Syrian identity, Arab nationalism, democracy, US policy, and, of course blogging as it related to each. Almost everyone said he was optimistic about Syria's future and believes the country is changing quickly and for the better.

It was one of those evenings that make you feel good to be alive. Leila’s cafe is on the roof of one of tallest buildings crouching up next to the Umayyad mosque. We had a view of the entire old city. A cool breeze was coming off Casioun Mountain, the swallows were swooping around the minaret of the mosque and countless ovals of pigeons circled in the distance, following the urgings of unseen keepers. As dusk slipped down over the city lighting up the green minarets sprinkled to the horizon, all was well in blogger world.

Ayman and I will give a lecture on "Blogging in Syria" at the US cultural center, which is near the embassy on Tuesday, May 31 at 6:30. Everyone is invited. It will be short with question an answers.

Tom Spender wrote an excellent article for the Christian Science Monitor on how Damascus is becoming "A new 'Mecca of Arabic studies." It is used in an al-Hayat article by Jihad al-Khazin on the same subject in Arabic here. (I am quoted; you are warned - vanity)

Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent of the Washington Post, is in town for a few weeks and has written a fine article on the reforms expected from up-coming Baath Party congress Syria Heralds Reforms, But Many Have Doubts Party Weighs Gradual Moves Toward Democracy. Ammar Abdulhamid says we should expect nothing. Others see some light coming from the conference, but not enough. The positive remarks are from those who see reform as a long slow process.

SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN of the Times has also written an interesting article on reform: "Assad: Syria's man in hot seat." The most memorable quote is by Samir al-Taqqi:

"Six months ago, you could have said Bashar is not a power generator, he's an intersection of power," says Dr. Samir Altaqi, an adviser to the government. "Then he began to interfere directly and decide many things."

Hizbullah's Sheik Muhammad Kawtharani answers some important questions about his party's participation in Lebanese politics in a question and answer article, also by Martin in the "Times." (Thanks Tony)
Flynt Leverett has an interesting interview with Rami Khoury of the Daily Star: "Syria must speed reforms to thwart outside pressure."

Related is Patrick Seale's article: "A new struggle for Syria is in the making." about Leverett's new book. He writes: "For Syria's main enemies in Washington, forcing Syrian troops out of Lebanon was only a means to an end. The real objective was the destabilization of Syria itself as a step toward the overthrow of the regime."

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Hariri and Asad - What Went Wrong? Mashnouq and Moubayed

The most interesting and important article on Lebanese - Syrian relations has been published in two parts by "al-Hayat" in Arabic. It is an interview with Nihad al-Mashnouq, Hariri's advisor on relations with Syria. As one Lebanese friend wrote me:

Mashnouq was indeed in the "inner core" of the Hariri pantheon, and he has a score to settle with the army and Lahoud, who forced him into exile, accusing him in a smear campaign, as I recall, of homosexuality. Whether there is any truth there, I don't know, but it was one of those accusations designed to blacken him, with no evidence.
He explains what went wrong, and why relations between Hariri and al-Asad collapsed well before the Lahoud extension. Already by 2000, "the door closed" between Hariri and Asad, he writes, because the Syrians did not want Hariri to become Prime Minister again.

President al-Asad told Allawi of Iraq that he insisted on extending Lahoud's presidency because it would be better to have the situation deteriorate with Lahoud there, than to have it deteriorate without him. Clearly, Bashar was convinced that Syria was going to lose Lebanon if he allowed Hariri to have his way. This is the best explanation why he extended Lahoud's presidency, even though the Americans had made it perfectly clear that they would not allow it. Bashar understood Hariri was working against Syria's interests in Lebanon long before the Lahoud extension.

Mashnouq says Bashar al-Asad had promised Sec. of State Powell that he would withdraw Syrian forces from all of Lebanon except the Baqa`a during their meeting in December 2003, but he never did it. At that point, Washington crew a line in the sand. Allawi tried to warn Bashar not to extend Lahoud's term, according to Mashnouq, but President Asad was determined to try and keep Lebanon.

Mashnouq claims Harir was murdered according to some larger plan for the Middle East, in which no powerful Sunni of Hariri's stature would be allowed take power. What exactly this means, you will have to determine for yourselves. Here are the links and a bit of the first part in Arabic.

تفاصيل أسوأ اجتماع عقده الرئيس الشهيد في حياته (1 من 2) ...نهاد المشنوق: سورية قتلت الحريري سياسياً... وخدام لم يكن يرغب بعلاقة بينه وبين بشار الأسد
بيروت – حازم الأمين الحياة 2005/05/12

ما الذي حصل في سورية وجعل من الرئيس الحريري هدفاً للسياسة السورية في لبنان؟

- انا أعتقد بأنه اذا كان لا بد من الكلام عن طبيعة النظام السوري التي نشأت في العام 2000، فلا بد من التأكيد ان الرئيس بشار الاسد وصل على حصان ابيض، ليس بسبب تسلمه السلطة، وانما بسبب تقبل المجتمع الدولي له باعتباره صورة حديثة عن سورية التي امضت وقتاً طويلاً في تراتبية سلطوية دائمة لم تتغير. وفي البداية ظهر ان لديه ميول تحديث، ورغبة بالتغيير وتفهماً لحاجات المجتمع الدولي واعترافاً مطلقاً بالشرعية الدولية. وكان معه في الوقت نفسه إرث والده الذي يمكن تقسيمه جزأين، الجزء الاول هو ثقل نظام عمره 30 سنة والجزء الثاني هو القيم والثوابت.

الذي ظهر بعد سنتين من حكم الدكتور بشار انه امسك ارث الوالد من دون اي تعديل. كان واضحاً ان ليس لديه الافق الدولي والنظرة الدقيقة لتغيرات العالم التي كانت متوافرة لوالده طوال 30 عاماً. ظهر ارتباك كبير في السياسة الخارجية مثلاً، وظهر ان هناك لغتين تتحدث بهما الخارجية السورية.

على الصعيد الداخلي وفي البداية ظهر وكأن هناك انفراجاً في سورية. ففتحت المنتديات الثقافية وأتيح لبعض المعارضين الكلام، ولكن فجأة صدر قرار باغلاق كل هذه المنتديات، وتم بعدها اعتقال نائبين منتخبين. اعتقد بأن الرئيس بشار وبدل ان يتخلى عن اثقال والده وان يحتفظ بقيمه فعل العكس اذ احتفظ بالأثقال وتخلى عن القيم ما عدا مسألة تحرير الجولان ولكن بالطريقة التي يعرفها.

في فترة الانفتاح السياسي في البداية، شكل الامن في سورية اول طوق على حركة الرئيس الاسد تحت شعار ان الامن سيد الاحكام. وبعد فترة تدخَّل سوسلوف حزب البعث عبدالحليم خدام وبدأ ينظر الى مسألة الاعتقالات وكأنها طبيعية، ونسي انه وأولاده كانوا لفترة ليست بعيدة معرضين للاعتقال. وانطلقت نظرية تماسك الحزب في وجه الرأي العام وليس لاقناع الرأي العام. انا تقديري انه عندها وضع الطوق الثاني حول الرئيس بشار وهو الطوق الحزبي، اذ أقنعوه بأنه لا أمان من دون الطوق الامني اولاً والطوق الحزبي ثانياً فيبقى الشعب السوري خارجهما، فاختار الاسد الأمن العام بدلاً من الرأي العام.

طوقان في الداخل وقراءة خاطئة للتطورات في العالم، فكان طبيعياً ان جزءاً من هذه السياسة لبنان، كما كان طبيعياً ان تصاب علاقتهم السياسية بلبنان بتدهور. وأصبحوا يعتقدون بأن في امكانهم فعل ما يريدون. ويقول الدكتور اياد علاوي عندما كان في بيروت انه اتصل بالرئيس الاسد قبل التمديد الاخير للرئيس لحود وقال له ان الاميركيين غير موافقين اطلاقاً على مسألة التمديد، وبعد جدل قال له علاوي ان اصراركم على التمديد اشبه بانتحار سياسي، فرد الاسد حرفياً: «انتحار سياسي مع تمديد افضل من انتحار سياسي من دون تمديد». الرئيس حافظ الاسد كانت لديه ميزة انه في اصعب الاوقات لا يقفل كل الابواب، فانتقلنا الى سياسة اخرى معاكسة تماماً. فعدم التمديد لم يكن رضوخاً للضغوط الاميركية وانما اعترافاً بالشرعية الدولية التي نشأت، وفي الواقع.

أنا معلوماتي انه عندما جاء وزير الخارجية الاميركي كولن باول عام 2003 الى سورية وقابل الرئيس الاسد وأجرى معه محادثات حول مسائل عدة منها المفاوضات العربية – الاسرائيلية ومنها لبنان ومنها مكاتب «حماس» و»الجهاد الاسلامي» في دمشق، ومنها العراق، يؤكد الجانب الاميركي انه تم الاتفاق على نقاط محددة منها الانسحاب من لبنان ما عدا البقاع قبل نهاية العام 2003.

وطبعاً هذا الامر لم يتم، ولم يتم الالتزام بمعظم بنود التفاهم. وبعدها اقتربنا من موضوع محاسبة سورية، وبعدها وصلنا الى القرار الرقم 1559. ثم جاء ارميتاج وبعده وليام برنز، وكان الرد السوري ان ما حصل في الجلسة هو استماع وليس اتفاق، ففقد الاميركيون صوابهم، فهم بحوزتهم محضر الاجتماع.

هذه هي المقدمات الفعلية لانهيار العلاقة بين النظامين اللبناني والسوري والتي سنشهد فصولاً اخرى منها.

Part Two: About the future of the Hariri family and Lebanon.

لهذه الأسباب أُبعدت من مكتب الحريري... وطه ميقاتي أعادني الى بيروت (2 من 2)... المشنوق: لحود أراد ردم الحفرة في اليوم الأول فنصحته بتولي التحقيق اذا لم يكن هو الفاعل
بيروت – حازم الأمين - يجيب نهاد المشنوق في الحلقة الثانية والاخيرة من الحديث معه عن أسئلة تتعلق بمسألة إبعاده عن مكتب الحريري ثم يعطي رأياً او توقعاً في مستقبل زعامة آل الحريري، ويختتم بحكاية الانفجار الذي أودى بالحريري وبزيارة قام بها للرئيس لحود، بعدما هاله الاهمال المتعمد في عملية التحقيق.

Another very good article in English placing General Aoun in historical context is by Sami Moubayed.

Michel Aoun comes home to roost
By Sami Moubayed

Aoun returned to Lebanon on the offensive, hateful of everyone and everything that kept him in exile for so long, promising destruction of the existing order and sweet revenge. The Beirut he entered last week was very different from the war torn one he left behind in 1990. That Beirut did not have a Rafik Harrri hallmark on it. Yet, all the actors of Beirut 1990 are still there.

Former president Amin Gemayel, who appointed Aoun prime minister in 1988, upsetting tradition in Lebanon because Aoun was a Maronite, is still there. Patriarch Man Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who worked for Aoun's downfall, is also still in religious office. Ex-prime minister Salim al-Hoss, who led a rivaling cabinet in 1989-1990, is there, and so is Samir Gagegea, who Aoun had viciously fought in the eastern districts of Beirut. The general who had been chief-of-staff and who had orchestrated Aoun's exodus from Baabda Palace, stands today in Baabda Palace, the legitimate and internationally recognized president of the Lebanese Republic.

Also see Sami's previous article: The waxing of the Shi'ite crescent.
DAMASCUS - Since the Islamic revolution took place in Iran in 1979, one of its prime objectives was to strengthen Shi'ites all over the Muslim world. Before that revolution, they were a disinherited, underprivileged and neglected community in Lebanon and Iraq.

This "Shi'ite emancipation" was first done in Lebanon, through the charismatic cleric Musa al-Sadr, who was funded and supported by the mullahs of Tehran in his "Movement of the Dispossessed" and its military branch, Amal, created in 1974 and 1975, respectively.

They later supported Hezbollah, a pure Iranian creation, that strove at first to establish a theocracy in Lebanon, similar to the one in Iran...

In Iraq, the mullahs began to fund, train, protect and harbor Shi'ite dissidents opposed to the regime of Saddam Hussein, where they were oppressed by the Sunni minority. Ibrahim Jaafari, the new prime minister, who is the de facto ruler of the new Iraq, spent the years 1980-89 as a fugitive in Iran.

After 25 years of underground struggle, this community succeeded in toppling Saddam, ironically, with the help of the US.....
Also see: No room for political Islam in Syria
By Sami Moubayed
Since pressure increased on Damascus in 2003, Syria has stressed that it wants to reach out to what it describes as "nationalist opposition", men who are not funded, allied, or in support of a US-engineered regime change in Syria, like the US-based Farid al-Ghadri. One week after the fall of Baghdad, the Doha-based al-Jazeera TV interviewed members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and all of them called for dialogue with the regime, rather than confrontation, stressing that there was no Ahmad Chalabi among the Syrian opposition, and pointing out that they would never side with the US against Syria, despite their history of conflict with the Ba'athists. The message was noted, and highly appreciated by the Syrian government.....

Sunday, May 08, 2005

News Round Up

The Arab leaders are bringing Syria back in from the cold. Both Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and King Abdullah II of Jordan have visited Syria this last week in an attempt to reward Syria for its withdrawal from Lebanon and to reassure Asad that they do not see eye to eye with President Bush's continued attempts to isolate Syria.

Of course, Saudi and Jordan will keep pressure on Damascus to stay out of Lebanese politics, as will the French, but they are all moving away from Washington's extremism.

The Syrians are trying to insist that they cannot be blamed for trouble in Lebanon anymore. As one Syrian spokesman said: "Syria has abided by the demands of the United Nations. If there are still demands from the UN, concerning disarming of militias and other issues, that is not the responsibility of Syria."

Undoubtedly, the Syrians are taking some pleasure in watching the Lebanese descend into their old bickering habits. Aoun's return has reopened many old wounds. As Lin Noueihed of Reuters explains:

Lebanon's most prominent anti-Syrian leader said on Sunday he had yet to hear from fellow opposition politicians, signaling deepening splits within the disparate front that helped end Syria's 29-year military grip.

A day after returning to Lebanon amid scenes of jubilation, Michel Aoun said his allies so far were the tens of thousands of youthful supporters who welcomed him home from a 14 year exile.

"Until now I haven't heard...I assume silence after a certain period means rejection," Aoun told reporters at his home just outside Beirut, where he received a stream of politicians.
Jumblatt and Aoun have already traded insults over who should be seen as the great liberator of Lebanon. Aoun claimed responsible for driving the Syrians out. Not content with insulting Jumblatt alone, he also attacked Hariri's martyrdom and hero status. It was Resolution 1559 that drove the Syrians out, he insisted, not Hariri, his murder, or Jumblatt's high-wire politicking. The engine of change came from the outside, he argued, with his [Aoun's] authorship of 1559 in coordination with Chirac and ultimately the Americans, and not from the inside.
The international resolution was the driving factor of the Syrian evacuation. It was taken before the extension of president Lahoud's term in office in September and before Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination," the general said at Beirut airport's VIP lounge. "Hariri was aware of this and I believe he was assassinated for contributing to this effort," Aoun said.

Jumblatt retorted, "The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was brought about altogether by Hariri's blood, not by the returning Tsunami this afternoon."
Aoun wants to depict Hariri and Jumblatt as lowly handmaidens to a policy Aoun concocted from his Paris exile.

There is some truth to Aoun's claim. The Syrians share Aoun's view. They have insisted all along that the main force behind their exodus is a foreign conspiracy. In some respects Hariri and Jumblatt were Johnny-come-latelies. All the same, without their crucial support being thrown behind 1559, the Lebanese Lobby in France and the US would never have made 1559 work. Jumblatt and Hariri took the big risk by dragging their communities out of the Syrian camp and into the Paris pavillion. By belittling the role of the Druze and Sunnis, Aoun does the opposition a great disservice. It will undermine their unity. He is a narcissist of the highest order.

Having just seen the movie "Kingdom of Heaven," I cannot help but compare him to the fresh crusaders who arrive in Jerusalem and muck up the delicate entente-cordialle, which had been struck between the Christians and Muslims. Damascus has withdrawn. This is not a time for Christian chest thumping. Rather fence mending is in order, as P.M. Mikati has suggested.

President George W. Bush has decided to extend Washington's sanctions on Syria for another year, saying that "the Arab country was a threat to the United States." Washington insisted that Syria keep out of Lebanon's elections this month and allow the “disbanding and disarming” of militia forces in Lebanon.

Syrian Finance Minister Mohammad al-Hussein said Washington's sanctions were "unfair and illogical." He said his country would "continue to exert efforts for reform in the area of economy and other areas".

The Syrian government announced a cut in taxes on car imports from 255 to 60 percent on vehicles with medium and large engines, a step that is expected to facilitate the signing of a long-planned aid and trade agreement with the European Union.

The reduction of import duties on cars will probably do more to endear the average Syrian to the government than all the reforms due to be announced at the Regional Command meeting of the Baath Party. (By the way, the date for that meeting has been finally set for June 6.)How Syrian cities will support the flood of new cars that this reform is bound to engender is anyone's guess.

al-Arabia channel will conclude its three part series on "Syria: The View from Inside" at 8:00 tonight. It is a remarkable show, pitting three Syrian ministers against a very tough panel of Syrian reformers and opposition members: Ayman Abdul Nour, Michel Kilo, Thabit Salim, and `Isam Dari.

Last night's show had Minister of Information Mahdi Dakhlallah taking on the panel to talk about the up-coming Baath Party Congress. Evidently, Dakhlallah complained to the other guests before going on the show that he should not have been asked to speak for the Regional Command of the Party because he does not belong to it. He was ordered to appear on the show by the President after the actual members of the Regional Command refused to go on. Good for Dakhlallah. Bad for the Regional Command.

As Ayman Abdul Nour said on the show, Dakhlallah is one of the best Ministers and a real reformer. Dakhlallah called for eliminating the National Command of the Party before he became minister, because, as he argued, "no other Arab country wants to unite with Syria, let's face it."

The panelists spoke passionately and intelligently about the need for pluralism in Syria. They complained about the one party state. "How can the Baath Party be the only voice of the people," they argued, when so few belong to it and even fewer actually believe in it? All the principal slogans of the party are ripped from medieval history, they pointed out - "Unity, Socialism, and Freedom." None of them are relevant to modern Syria, except "freedom," which they were quick to point out the Baath continues to deny by maintaining emergency law.

At one point, Dakhlallah, overwhelmed by the onslaught, tried to turn the tables on his torturers by arguing that some of what they said verged on "un-patriotic" thought. The moderator quickly asked him if he was accusing them of treason. It was a delicious moment. Dakhlallah quickly pronounced, "It is their ideas that are not patriotic, not their persons." I could feel all of Syria jumping out of their seats and overturning the tea trays their wives had dutifully placed before them in order to shake their fists at the TV. Thank God the al-Arabia moderator was fast on her feet. She asked what the difference was. Dakhlallah looked sheepishly away from the camera. His heart was not in it.

Kilo took the defense, explaining that the panelists were the most patriotic of Syrians and had done more work and written more reports to reform the country than most government officials. "If Syria is to advance," he said, "the government must not turn against the people, but listen to them and respect them." Amen to that.

As an American who is tired of hearing his own politicians accuse others of un-patriotic behavior and "working against American interests" or being "anti-American" for speaking out against Washington’s policies, it was a satisfying moment. How many times have we had to hear, "It is not the sinner, but the sin we denounce?"

Tonight, the Minister of State Planning - Dardari - will be on to defend economic reforms. He is Bashar's main "reformer," very smart and good. I advise everyone to tune in at 8:00. I must salute al-Arabia for this series. Also, bravo to Bashar for ordering his ministers to take on such smart panelists. This is new for Syria. It is surprising how civil and constructive it all is.

Leverett on US Policy toward Syria

The following is an interview with Flynt Leverett, the author of the new and important book, “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire.”

I have copied the entire panel discussion, which took place at the Brookings Institute, because it is important. It gives us the best indication we have so far of Washington’s intentions toward Syria. It short, the Bush administration seems determined to follow the strategy of “squeeze it until it pops.” Washington has concluded that it can pressure the Asad regime until it implodes, to be replaced by something else. What that “else” is, no one seems to know or care.

Those around Bush seem to believe that Asad is on his last legs. His withdrawal from Lebanon has weakened him and his government is corrupt and ineffective, they argue – so they will hasten his fall. This is why Washington refuses to promote peace between Israel and Syria and why it refuses to offer Syria any carrots for cracking down on the Iraq border crossings or for withdrawing from Lebanon. Washington is determined not to allow President Asad any successes in the eyes of his own people or the international community. They want him to fail.

In this context, a leading diplomat in town confirmed to me yesterday that Washington had intervened with the Austrian and Brazilian governments to have them rescind invitations to President Asad after they had invited him in both countries. The US failed to keep the Turkish President from visiting Syria a week ago despite its vigorous efforts to scotch the trip. Nevertheless, Washington has been successful in keeping Bashar from traveling to the West, it would seem.

Leverett’s argument is also important because he puts forward the smartest rebuttals so far offered for why Washington’s policy of refusing to talk to Syria or to offer Asad any carrots is wrong, and why it actually will hurt US and Middle Eastern interests, not to mention Syrian interests, rather than advancing them.

The French seem to understand this. The French ambassador in Damascus told a friend a few days ago that France did not support regime change or “constructive instability” as Washington has recently renamed it. This suggests that France will eventually repair its relations with Asad, now that it has succeeded in driving Syria from Lebanon. Most bets are that Chirac got what he wanted from 1559 and will resume traditional French policy in the region, which has always been anchored by good relations with its erstwhile Mandates: Lebanon and Syria.

Leverett believes the present Washington policy is misguided, first because it will fail. He argues that Bashar is popular with the majority of Syrians and that there is no reasonable alternative to him, at least not one that America should welcome. Furthermore, he argues that Washington could do a lot of good by dealing with Asad, both by bringing a final end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, where Syria and Lebanon are concerned, and also by enlisting Syria’s help in shoring up the new governments in Iraq and Lebanon. He argues that Bashar is a reformer, even if weak, and that America will gain more by positive engagement than "constructive destabilization."

Farid Ghadry - the US based leader of the Syrian Reform Party - disagrees with Leverett. He argued in a rather panicky circular today, that unless the US overthrows the Asad regime soon, both Iraq and Lebanon will turn into battlegrounds. In his view Syria is the source of evil in the region. He doesn't recommend sending in American troops but argues that if the US dropped leaflets over Damascus calling for a popular uprising, the people would rise up, overthrow the government, embrace democracy, and welcome American assistance with open arms.

Monday, April 25, 2005

MR. MARTIN INDYK [Head of the Sabban Center at Brookings]: We brought Flynt to write this book because of our commitment to indepth research and, in particular, the application of experienced policymakers to that task. Flynt himself has had decades of experience in the U.S. Government as an analyst and then a senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, then as a policy planner in the State Department, finally as senior director for Near East Affairs in the National Security Council in the first Bush administration. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the challenge oftrying to decipher how Bashar al-Asad and the ruling Baath Party are coping with the legacy of Hafez al-Asad.

He will speak today first about the book and his main conclusions, and then we're honored to have two distinguished journalists, Sy Hersh and James Bennett, to open the discussion. Sy Hersh is probably well known to you all as one of America's, if not the premier investigative reporter. He first came to prominence in 1969, many of you will remember, as the man who wrote the first account of the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam. Since then he has gone on to break a number of important stories as a result of his extraordinary investigative work and publish a number of books. He worked for the New York Times for some time during the '70s and '80s. He is now a journalist for the New Yorker Magazine, where he was the first to break the story of the Abu Ghraib Prison treatment by U.S. soldiers and since then has published his latest book, "Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib."

James Bennett is currently a staff writer for the Sunday magazine of the New York Times. He served with great distinction as the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief from 2001 to 2004, and he's an astute observer of the Middle East scene. So it's my pleasure to ask Flynt to give us a synopsis of the book, "Inheriting Syria." I must say that I'm biased, of course, but I think it's a fascinating read. And I'm very proud that we've been able to bring you, Flynt, to the Saban Center to produce this. Go ahead.

MR. LEVERETT: Thank you. Thank you, Martin, and let me add my own words of thanks to Sy Hersh and James Bennett for coming out today for this book launch.

Syria is facing a number of strategic challenges. As I have given interviews and done speaking engagements, I'm oftentimes asked if Bashar al-Asad is in charge in Syria. And I usually answer yes. Often, there is a kind of challenging follow-up: "Well, is he in charge in the same way that his father was in charge?" And to that I usually say, "Well, of course not, and why at this point in his evolution as a national leader would you expect him to have the same level of authority that his father enjoyed for the last 15 or so years that he was President?"

Hafez al-Asad, if you look at his career, didn't really become the uncontested master of Syria and this perceived brilliant player of the regional game until at least a decade or so into his Presidency after he had gone through a series of defining challenges. He established Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. He defended that hegemony against both Israel and the United States. He put down a challenge to his regime from Sunni fundamentalists. And he put down a challenge to his own position from his brother. It was after that that he was Hafez al-Asad, the Lion of Damascus, but not before.

Bashar, not quite five years into his Presidency, I don't think has gone through those kinds of defining challenges. I think he is going through one now. And how he handled that defining crisis will, I think, say a lot about his future as a national leader and about the future of Syrian politics and Syria's regional position. That's why I say it's a critical moment in terms of Syria's strategic situation. I also think it's a critical moment in terms of the evolution of U.S. policy towards Syria. Since I left government two years ago, I have often criticized the Bush administration for not having a Syria policy during its first term in office.

Like its predecessors, the Bush administration has had a long list of complaints about Syrian behaviors—support for terrorism, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, hegemony in Lebanon, shall we say not cooperating with U.S. goals in Iraq, all these things. We've had a long list of complaints, but we've not had a policy, if by policy you mean an integrated set of public positions, diplomatic initiatives, other measures all rooted in a strategy for changing Syrian behaviors that we think are problematic.

Now, though, I think the administration may be inching toward a policy, but basically a policy of regime change in Syria. We certainly haven't adopted a declaratory policy of regime change, but I think more and more, people in the administration are inclined in that direction.

I think that the administration has accepted an assessment of Syrian politics that, by forcing Syria out of Lebanon, this regime is not going to be able to recover from that blow and will start to unravel. It struck me—a couple weeks ago, I appeared on the NPR show "Fresh Air," and I would really encourage you—the interview is up on the Saban Center website. Don't go and listen to me. Fast-forward to the end of the interview when, after I've been talking for a while, they put on Liz Dibble from the State Department.

Now, Liz is a very experienced officer, someone that I worked with when I was in government. She's done public diplomacy. She's served in Damascus. She certainly knows the talking points for U.S. policy towards Syria. And what really is striking is that, after she's gone through this long list of complaints about Syrian behavior, Terry Gross asks her, "Well, are you out to change Syrian behavior or are you out to change the Syrian regime?" And there is several seconds of dead air. Okay? And Gross keeps coming back at the question two or three more times, and Liz won't give an answer.

Now, six months ago, if you had asked a State Department official if we were out to change Syrian behavior or out to change Syrian regime, you would have gotten an unhesitating answer that we were out to change Syrian behavior. Nowadys at the State Department, they're not sure that we're just out to change Syrian behavior. I think we are kind of inching toward a regime change posture. And so for that reason, I think it's a critical moment in terms of U.S. policy towards Syria.

So at this critical moment, I put out "Inheriting Syria," and I hope it does make a contribution to the policy discussion. The book from my perspective has two objectives: First of all, I wanted to provide an actionable analytic portrait of Bashar al-Asad as a national leader. This is something that I think is very much needed.

If you look at the really outstanding books that have been written on Syrian the last 20 years, you would certainly include the political biographies of Hafez al- Asad by Moshe Maoz and Patrick Seale, but both of those books are more than 15 years old. There has been some very good writing on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations by Itamar Rabinovich, by Dennis Ross, others. The Israeli scholar Eyal Zisser wrote a nice book on the last decade of Hafez's Presidency. But there's really nothing out there on Syrian politics and policymaking under Bashar. So I thought it was time that something tried to fill that void, and I hope "Inheriting Syria" does that.

The second objective of the book, though, is to take that actionable analytic portrait developed in the book and draw the implications for U.S. policy. As you may have deduced, I don't think very much of the way that the Bush administration has gone about trying to deal with Syria and achieve U.S. policy objectives towards Syria. I think there is a smarter way of going about things. I said I think that there is a pressing need for a more solid analytic assessment of Syrian politics and policymaking under Bashar. One of the things that strikes me at this critical moment is that there really is a good deal of analytic uncertainty and even confusion about Syria, with a focus on Bashar's leadership.

In the book, I identify what I think are the three dominant perspectives that tend to govern our discussion of Syria. One I describe is Bashar as closet reformer. You know, he is the Western-educated, Internet-savvy, younger-generation leader who recognizes Syria's many problems, wants to make things better, wants a better relationship with the United States and the West generally, but is constrained by a socalled Old Guard.

A second perspective I identify is Bashar as loyal son. In this image, Bashar is really a force for continuity in the system, not for change. He is seen as a thoroughgoing product of a system his father created. And he is very much from this perspective part of the problem in Syria, not in any way part of the solution. And then the third perspective I identify is Bashar as neophyte, or even in some more pejorative formulations Bashar as idiot, as in a Slate magazine article I found. The subtitle was "The Evil Moron Who's Running Syria." In this image, Bashar is presented as someone who is too inexperienced, ill prepared, uninformed, et cetera, to carry out his responsibilities as a national leader.

In reality, I think the picture of Bashar has to be a more nuanced and mixed picture. In my view, Bashar has genuine reformist impulses. He recognizes that Syria has a lot of problems economically, socially, politically. And he wants things to be different and better. But I would argue that his reformist impulses are attenuated. He doesn't have a full-fledged vision for transforming Syria.

People talk about his Western education, but let's keep in mind what that experience really was. It was a little over a year in London in what we in the United States would describe as an ophthalmology residency program. Now, if any of you have had friends who went to medical school and then went through that kind of postgraduate medical education, you will know that first-year residents don't have lives. You know, they work and they get what sleep they can, and that is their life. Bashar himself told me, when I asked him about his experience in London, he himself said, you know, "I got to know very well the route between the hospital where I worked and the flat where I lived." He says, "I still don't know London very well."

Okay. Yes, he had some experience in the West in an essentially technocratic field, but let's not overstate this. He wasn't doing a Ph.D. at LSE. So while he has reformist impulses, he doesn't have on his own, I would say, a really thorough, well-elaborated vision for transforming his country. He does indeed face constraints from the so-called Old Guard, but I think here, too, there is sometimes a caricature at work.

When I was able to interview him for this book, this was certainly a topic I wanted to ask him about, but I thought: I'm going to ease into this; I'm going to be here for a while before I raise the subject of the Old Guard. But literally, within the first quarter-hour that I was with him, he raised the subject, and I said, "All right, Mr. President. You've raised a very interesting topic. What would you want people in the United States, in the West to understand about your relationship with this so-called Old Guard?" And he said—well, he said a number of things, but the most interesting thing to me was he said, People need to understand that the Old Guard is not just two or three guys who occupy senior positions at the top of the system. The Old Guard is literally thousands of mediocre and fossilized—those are his words—"mediocre and fossilized" bureaucrats who are throughout the system and who have been entrenched in their positions over years and decades and have no interest in doing anything in a different way.

The Old Guard is also a private sector that's a private sector really in name only and exists in a kind of unhealthy symbiosis with this entrenched bureaucracy. He said, ‘Now, you look at that, that's the Old Guard and that's a real obstacle to change here.’ So he is constrained, but the constraint is not just two or three old guys at the top. It's more systemic than that.

Bashar is trying to find ways, in my view, to work around the Old Guard, both the two or three guys at the top and this more diffuse and entrenched Old Guard in the bureaucracy. And I document in the book how he is basically setting up his own alternative network of technocrats—people with Western advanced degrees in fields like economics, computer science, business; people who've had experience in the private sector outside Syria or with international institutions like the World Bank. And he is over time building up a network of these people and placing them in, for the most part, second-tier positions in the Syrian system. Occasionally he gets one up into a ministerial level appointment. And I think he's trying to build up this network over time.

Another part of that network—and it's part of the confirmation for my argument that Bashar really does have reformist impulses—is his wife, Asma. I'm saying this not only because my own wife is here; I think who a man marries says a good deal about him. Now, the woman that Bashar chose to marry, and chose to marry over his mother's objections, which is not insignificant in his cultural setting, that woman is the daughter of an expatriate Syrian physician, a world-class interventional cardiologist who's made his career in the United Kingdom. She was born, raised, educated entirely in the U.K., has a degree in computer science from the University of London, went through the investment banking training program at JP Morgan, worked at Deutsche Bank, and had been admitted to the MBA program at Harvard Business School at the time that Bashar proposed to her.

Now, you may question what it says about her judgment that she gave up Harvard Business School to accept that proposal.[Laughter.]

: But I'm more interested in what that says about Bashar's judgment, that the person he selects to be beside him on a daily basis is someone who is going to bring exposure to absolute world-class standards and practices in the globalized economy of the 21st century. I find that a very striking statement about him.

So he's trying to develop this alternative network of technocrats, but I think he still suffers from some pretty serious capacity deficits. He does not have around him the range and depth of technocratic expertise that he needs to craft serious reform initiatives, particularly in the economy. He himself will admit this, acknowledge this in conversation; that when he has tried to do various sorts of reforms, banking reform, introducing private banking, for example, the process goes unnecessarily slowly and the impact of it is reduced because he doesn't have the kind of expertise he needs to do things in a systematic way. So inevitably what he does has this kind of ad hoc and inadequate or insufficient quality to it.

So if I think about Bashar as a national leader, you know, the picture, I think, needs to be more subtle than the perspectives that tend to dominate our discussion of Syria will allow for. Reformist impulses, but they're attenuated; doesn't have a full vision, trying to develop an alternative network of advisors and experts around him, but he still doesn't have the technocratic capacity he needs to move things forward in the way that I think he would like.

He is constrained by the Old Guard. I think on the whole he does not want to have a confrontation with the Old Guard. He would basically prefer to work around them. And I think he also assumes that biology is on his side. He will turn 40 this year. You know, I think if Syrian politics played out its natural course, you know, he's not term-limited. I don't think he has to worry about losing an election anytime soon. I think the way he sees reform unfolding is over a very long period of time, a decade or more. But the real question is, given the strategic challenges that he's facing, does he really have that kind of time? And that brings us back to the notion of this being a very critical moment.

I think that the administration is embarked on a course where the risk of unintended consequences is very high. The risk of unintended consequences is certainly high in terms of what could happen in Lebanon, but I will let others talk about that today, and we can return to it in questions if you'd like. But I think it's also unintended in terms of what could happen in Syria. I said the administration is inching toward a regime posture. I don't think we're gearing up to invade Syria. Don't take me the wrong way. At this point I don't think we're gearing up for that. But I think the administration believes it can achieve regime change on the cheap. As I said, you know, the idea of being if we push Syria out of Lebanon, the Asad regime can't recover from that blow.

I actually don't think that's the case. I think this regime is more resilient than that. And I actually take seriously a scenario in which if four months, five months, six months down the road it's clear that Bashar al-Asad can still set the outer limits for Lebanese policy on the issues that really matter to Syria. I think that Bashar could conceivably emerge as a stronger figure domestically and regionally. If, on the other hand, he is seen as someone who has squandered an important strategic resource for Syria, that could have consequences for him at home. Even if we were able to bring down the Asad regime on the cheap, it's not really clear to me what interests of the United States are being served by that. You know, what would follow in a society that is as complicated as Syria's? And I would argue that Syrian society is at least as complicated as Lebanese society or as Iraqi society. What would follow the collapse of the Asad regime would be certainly chaotic, and what might emerge or what would be likely to emerge from that chaos would be, in my view, heavily Islamist in character. And I'm not really sure what American interest would be served in that scenario.

I think there is a better way to achieve American policy objectives towards Syria, and that is through a strategy of what I describe as conditional engagement. It's not rocket science. It's carrots and sticks. In a previous era, we used to call it diplomacy. [Laughter.]

MR. LEVERETT: My experience with this administration is they find diplomacy a very challenging undertaking. And they've certainly not, in my view, tried strategically rooted diplomacy with Syria. I think that we could make real progress toward our objectives with Syria through a carrots-and-sticks approach. I think that Bashar wants to make a strategic understanding with the United States. I think he realizes this is critical to his own interests in reforming Syria. And I think he is open to making, in effect, a bargain that addresses our most important concerns. But he wants to know what is in it for him.

He said to me very clearly on this point, Syria is a state, not a charity. If we are going to give something up, I need to know what we're going to get in return. And that is a conversation that he has been unable to have with this administration. We make demands of Syria, and I think, by and large, the demands are justified and warranted. But we do not spell out what is in it for Syria to cooperate with us. And, therefore, we don't get very far. I think if we were prepared to have a serious strategic conversation with Bashar and apply a carrots-and-sticks approach, we could do much better at achieving our policy objectives than on the course we're embarked on now.

So I lay out that argument in the book, and if you haven't bought the book, you can pick it up today at the Brookings bookstore. I encourage everyone to read it, and thanks to everyone for coming. [Applause.]

MR. INDYK: Thank you, Flynt. Sy Hersh had a chance to talk to Bashar al-Asad also.

MR. HERSH: Yeah, I have a problem with that. I actually was seeing him right at the time, the critical time in early February. The problem I have is I'm still doing work on it, so I have to—you know, I'm a professional journalist, but I have some things I can say without getting into a lot of details. First of all, I found—I read his book "Going to Syria." I read an early version of it, and it is—it's absolutely—you can understand why he's not at the White House. [Laughter.]

MR. HERSH: Absolutely balanced, reasoned view of what to do . . . what Flynt said at the end, of course, is, you know, he is willing to play, he's willing to deal. I'm always reluctant to tell you—I can't tell you how nice he is. He's a very open, friendly, almost disingenuous person. Of course—and I think it's real. And so any journalist will tell you, worth his salt, that you always have to discount the affection you feel for somebody because he is a warm person. There are some wonderful ironies about all this, and to get back to the real world, I'm always amused by democracy in Lebanon being touted by the United States since, let's see, RCA was fixing elections in Lebanon before Bashar was born, you know, promote — in the '50s, you know, some of you know—some of you in the government probably know firsthand — and all the stuff that was going on then. There was an awful lot of stuff going on. So we're not innocents in all of this.

I'll just take us back to some of the questions that fascinate me about the current event, what's going on now is Hariri. We really don't know who killed Hariri. I had a friend in the government. There are some people—some of the people, the neocons, like to chat to me. I don't know why, torture me, probably. But anyway, I had a friend say to me, "It doesn't matter. Why are you worrying about the fact there's no empirical evidence for who killed him?" And there isn't. I don't like the UN report at all, the Fitzhugh report. I mean, if you go back and look at the same report he wrote in Kosovo, he wrote one that was also—you can read between the lines of the report. It doesn't establish anything. And Hariri in death was, just like Ronald Reagan, much more wonderful than Hariri in life. You know, when I knew about Hariri, he was always about the enormous amount of money he was peddling into Chirac and into other people, his representation of the Saudis, not that he didn't have some ideas and not that he wasn't a key player in the rebuilding of Lebanon. But the God-like affectation that he has in death wasn't there in life.

Hariri's death, as somebody in the government said to me, he said, Sy, why are you worrying about it? It doesn't matter what the reality is. It's—Syria did it. That's all we say and that's all the world wants to believe and that's it. Syria did it, whether Bashar—the big issue is Bashar doing it, did he know it, or was it done by Ghazali and is there some of the intelligence people behind his back in Lebanon. And I don't think that is the big issue. I think the real question is I don't think we should rush to judgment on all these things, and we shouldn't be so quick to rule out anybody investigating it as corrupt as we have, except for the UN.

So it's—for me it's an open question. I do think that in death Hariri—the best thing that has happened to French-U.S. relationships has been the death of Hariri. You know, and so now you have—and you can't discount—you know, in all foreign policy discussions—you know, as Tip O'Neill would say, all politics is local. You can't discuss the friendship, regardless of its basis, between Hariri and Chirac, and Chirac's venom right now towards Bashar. Chirac is really very angry. He believes that Bashar or the Syrian Government, whether there's evidence or not, is directly responsible for the death of his long-time friend, long-time benefactor, another issue that, by the way, Flynt gets into a few times in his books—in his book. It's very interesting. He does—Flynt does get into the notion that Hariri is—had another life in terms of this payola. And so I think that colors our policy.

In a nutshell, I don't think there is much give in our policy. I think as — not surprisingly, I think the essential American policy is — it's been stated to me — is that Bashar is Saddam Hussein for many of the people, the main players in this White House. He is simply—you know, not literally but figuratively he's somebody that in their view must go. Will it happen? There's so many imponderables. We're really in an amazing situation now in which the game plan against—the initial White House game plan for redoing the Middle East, which I think is very real, was very real—they got a bonus with Hariri's death. But the basic game plan involves Syria and Iran, obviously.

And it's pretty much up in the air. No matter what they tell you, no matter how much good stuff they want to spin about the election process and all that, we're in real trouble in Iraq. And the real issue and one of the big focal points for us is obviously you can't control what's going on in Iraq right now in their view without controlling Iran. And so do we go frontally to Iran? What do we do? I think Syria inevitably is in second place or a back-burner position in the hegemony—hegemonical instincts of this government. I think they have to figure out what to do with Iran. As long as—with Iran there, there's no real safety in Iraq. I think in their view they see a direct connection between—you all read. You all know what Abdullah has been saying publicly in Jordan, and the Saudis are saying and certainly the Egyptians are saying nobody wants the spread of Iranian—an Iranian revolution — an Iranian revolution into the — south into Iraq. Nobody in this government does. So there's a lot of issues there.

Will they end up choosing to decide to isolate Syria? One attractive thing in talking to people about getting rid of Syria, of course—or getting rid of this regime is then you isolate Iran more. You have it surrounded by potential enemies. Do they think that's an impossible position? No, I think they're—I think they think he's going to fall from inside. And I think that's—that's my sense in talking to people, that he's going to erode his own position. I don't know how much we're really going to do overtly.
The tragedy of all of this in terms of—as Flynt gets into, in terms of what we could achieve that would be useful in the Middle East—and we could achieve an awful lot with carrot and sticks, I even think in terms of Hamas and Jihad and support. He's an orientalist in a way. If we don't go facially or frontally with him, we probably could have accomplished much more. And we've also — he's made a lot of steps in the right direction, but he doesn't get rewarded. And don't forget, you know, this whole process began with 9/11, and Syria was a very, very valuable, much — people in the CIA will tell you, an extremely valuable ally in the first months, first six months or first year of our war against terrorism because of their longstanding — you know, this is a country that, like Iraq, didn't have much use for jihadism, the Muslim brotherhood, and the files they turned over I think—my understanding was were in, if not the hundreds, thousands of files and an enormous help in the beginning to us as we began sort of belatedly to figure out what's going on in that world, the world of terrorism.

And so we butchered that relationship even though Bashar has been—I could just tell you, turned the other cheek at enormous stupidities by our CIA in dealing with their intelligence, I mean enormous, confounding sort of stupidities. He's maintained, still would be willing to maintain a relationship. He doesn't get anything for it. And he did provide, I can tell you again, specific information that saved American lives in the first year of the war on terrorism in other places in the world, including in the West. He had information that was incredibly valuable to us and was dealt with in such a way — I think there was a split between the intelligence agencies and this administration. But the overwhelming picture is very bleak because we've got a government run by people that do not want to look at the world that Flynt Leverett describes – the world of nuance, as he said – and balance and carrot and stick and long term. There's a short-term goal here that I think defies logic, defies sensibility, and is American policy.

MR. : One of the interesting things, and perhaps we can get into it in the discussion, is that, on the one hand, Bashar has, as you've pointed out, helped out in the war on al Qaeda; but, on the other hand, he has enabled the insurgency in Iraq to have support and in some cases direction from Syria—

MR. HERSH: Hold on. There's a lot of controversy about the extent to which that exists. There is. I mean, it's — in the reporting I've done recently, I've had an awful lot of people who once had high official positions in the government, recently left, telling me on the record — I haven't written it yet — that, in fact, he's been a restraining force very often.

Yes, there are many former Baathists living in Syria, there's no question. But I'll tell you right now, they're all over the world. They're all over the Middle East. There's certainly as many in Jordan, UAE. Everybody's getting the hell out of there, anybody with any money. So not that you're wrong, but the general notion that he has been an invaluable ally of the insurgency I don't think is so. I think there's a lot of restraints on it. I don't know what you think. What do you think, Jim? [Laughter.]

MR. : Staying out of that one.

MR. BENNETT: I'm not remotely qualified to talk to you about Syria, certainly not as qualified as these gentlemen, so I've kind of assigned myself the role of starting off the questioning. I have read Flynt's book, and I congratulate him on it, both on the book itself and on his timing, because just at the moment a lot of us have a lot of questions about Syria, he has fortuitously driven up with many answers and a sense for the complexity and nuance of Syrian politics, how the world looks from Damascus, and our own relationship to Syria that's largely missing, I think, right now from the discussion in this country.

I have done a fair amount of thinking about Syria's role in the region, particularly from the perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it's sort of from that base that I'll try to ask a few questions and get the conversation going. Flynt, in your remarks just now, you referred to the test of President Asad's success or failure in managing the withdrawal from Lebanon being his capacity to set the outer limits of Lebanese policy. Can you talk a little bit more, in a little more detail about what that means? What's his big fear or worry about this withdrawal? And what tools does he have available to him to prevent that fear from being realized?

MR. LEVERETT: I think if you look historically, the biggest challenge that Bashar's father faced to Syrian interests in Lebanon came in 1982 when, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Israel, the United States, several of our European allies supported the installation of a Lebanese government that was prepared to sign a separate peace treaty with Israel—in fact, signed such a treaty. It was in the aftermath of that treaty signing that Hezbollah really emerged as a very important and potent paramilitary force in Lebanon, carrying out terrorist attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, against the Marine barracks; the French Ambassador in Lebanon was killed. And as a result of those attacks, the United States withdrew its forces from Lebanon. The Israelis retreated into what became the security zone in southern Lebanon.

And the Israeli-Lebanese peace treaty was abrogated in 1984. I think that's really the worst case from a Syrian perspective: that you could get in the aftermath of parliamentary elections in Lebanon, whenever they happen, that you could get a government organized by the current opposition, and there are opposition figures in Lebanon. I don't know that this is a dominant threat of opposition argument, but there are those in Lebanon who will say things like, well, you know, Lebanon doesn't really have a dispute with Israel, we could make the '49 armistice line a border between Israeli and Lebanon and sign a peace treaty with them tomorrow.

I think the first thing, the first and foremost thing that Bashar wants to keep from happening is just that scenario, to make sure that Lebanon does not sign a separate peace with Israel. I think he will have levers of influence that he can use to keep that from happening. I think Hezbollah will be an important leader of influence. There will still be other pro-Syrian players and factions in Lebanese politics. So I think that is really the first and foremost interest that he is out to protect.

I think there is a range of economic interests that he will want to try to preserve, and I think to some degree market forces are going to help him do that. A lot of the recent reporting and analysis, it sounds as if the Syrian-Lebanese economic relationship is a one-way relationship that operates entirely to Syria's benefit. I think the reality is more complicated than that. There are a lot of ways in which important people in Lebanon have benefited from that relationship, and I don't mean entirely through corruption or illicit kinds of ties.

Syria is Lebanon's most important export market. If it wants to be able — Lebanon wants to be able to send its exports out to the wider Arab world, its only overland routes are through Syria. So I think there are going to be ways that Bashar can, as I said, set outer limits on the most important aspects of Lebanese policy and keep the more important aspects of the economic relationship going.

MR. BENNETT: Do you think—I'd love to hear both you guys on this question — that the administration — you spoke about the administration envisioning some process of unraveling here, but I'm very unclear on what the precise mechanism would be. Do you think that they actually think in terms of pushing a new Lebanese Government towards signing some sort of peace agreement with Israel or sealing the border, economically that is, with Syria as ways to start pushing the regime over? How would they actually go about accomplishing this kind of unraveling?

MR. LEVERETT: Well, the causal logic is also unclear to me, which is one reason I don't think this is a particularly smart way to plan policy on our part. I think you could argue there are a couple of dynamics in play that people in the administration who would like to see the Asad regime unravel, that they may be counting on. One is an argument that if Syria loses its position in Lebanon, if, for example, all the hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers who've been employed in Lebanon have to come back, that this is going to put such pressure on an already strained Syrian economy, it will increase popular discontent, and you can get a popular uprising. I think that may be one causal mechanism that they are looking at. I think another causal mechanism they may be looking at is the idea that if Bashar is seen by those around him in the power structure as having squandered Syria's position in Lebanon, that people will start to wonder if Bashar is really their best bet, it could start different factions in the power structure sort of competing with one another, and over time the regime is unable to maintain its cohesion. I don't think either of those scenarios is particularly likely.

MR. HERSH: I'm just interested in a couple of things. I've always — every — all the anecdotal evidence I have from people who travel to Damascus and my own personal perceptions, which are useless when it comes to this, is that he's popular, Bashar is popular. He's seen by many people —

: In Syria.

MR. HERSH: In Syria, in the streets, in the people. You just don't see that much evidence of any significant—he's not very popular among the Old Guard, some of the old, wealthy, you know, Mercedes and BMW crowd. They see him as not very strong, at least some of those I know and have known. Some of them talk about him as somebody whose time is short. But among—in the street he's—I don't know how much it means. I also think there's a lot of basis for believing that he seriously wanted to talk to Israel very much on the Golan Heights, wanted to renew those talks, and he has said the same thing I've been told in Washington. Before I talked to him, I had been told in Washington that the White House was very, very active in telling Sharon—which is hard to do, anyway, but telling him not to participate in these talks. I don't know if you heard that. So the pressure was against participating in the talks, whether Israel wanted to or not, came from Washington. Washington's view was—this is at the time of the Iraqi incursion or war — don't do it right now. Is that correct? That's my understanding. That's his understanding, too. He said that, too.

MR. LEVERETT: It's very interesting on that point. I think that Bashar's position on resuming peace negotiations has evolved over the time that he's been President, and I try to chart that evolution in the book. But I think you're right. Basically from roughly the time of the Iraq war, or shortly thereafter, Bashar has been saying pretty steadily, pretty consistently that he wants to resume peace negotiations with Israel. And this has started a very lively debate in the Israeli national security establishment. Very serious, credible people, like the head of Israeli military intelligence, their country's chief intelligence officer, the former IDF chief of staff, have all argued that this is serious, that Bashar really is prepared to do a deal with Israel. I think a deal under the right conditions from Bashar's perspective, but, still, he's ready to do a deal; and that Israel should pursue this, it would be in Israel's interest to conclude a peace with Syria. On the other hand, there are those in the professional national security establishment in Israel who are not so sure that Bashar really wants to do a deal.

Generally, these are the people who also argued during the '90s that Hafez al-Asad never really wanted to do a deal, that the Syria track was all, from the Syrian perspective, some kind of charade. I believe that Hafez wanted to do a deal in the '90s. I believe that Bashar would, with the right conditions, do a deal now. But it's kind of moot because I think Sharon, looking at what he has on his plate, he doesn't want to have to deal with the domestic politics of negotiating a peace with Syria at the time that he's dealing with a lot of domestic problems in connection with implementing his Gaza disengagement plan. And I think you're right, to the extent that there were people, serious people in the Israeli Government who were arguing in favor of resuming peace talks with Syria, the administration has been telling them don't do this now, and this is one favor that Sharon is willing to do—

MR. HERSH: But let me just say, the question Martin's going to ask, I bet, what about Hezbollah? What about support for Hezbollah? What about support for Hamas? What about support for Islamic jihadism? Was there much play, was there a chance to really get Bashar to do something on those issues? He would say and he has said to me, ‘Why do you ask me to do things in public I can't do? You know what I'm saying? This orientalism. Why are both sides talking, you know, in the funny way they are?’ In other words, we want him to do something he can't do, and he wants something from us we can't do, in a way, you know, at least this administration can't. But do you think there was a chance that we could have — and this is before the Gaza Strip. These talks began — the talk about Israel was almost two years ago before the Gaza negotiations got serious. There was a time then — Elliott Abrams being the point man — [tape ends].

— telling the Israelis not to go ahead. I don't know if that's your understanding, Martin. But in any case—

MR. INDYK: Let's just say there was no enthusiasm in the White House
for taking this challenge up.

MR. HERSH: But could they have gotten a deal from him? Could they have gotten something or cut back in support? You know, the big issue is going to be obviously Hezbollah in the next year.

MR. LEVERETT: I think we all know, if there's going to be a peace deal between Israel and Syria, what the deal looks like. Bashar is going to have to get something that he can plausibly portray as full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. He is perfectly prepared to talk about security arrangements, DMZs, limited force zones, thirdparty monitoring, other things like that, to ensure from an Israeli perspective that the Golan couldn't be remilitarized. I think he's prepared to meet Israeli requirements on normalization of relations, and I think Bashar understands that, as part of that deal, you know, support for groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have to be stopped. And I think he also understands that Hezbollah's disarmament in Lebanon would be part of the package. The —

MR. : Can he just snap his fingers and make that happen, though?

MR. LEVERETT: I wouldn't say snap his fingers, but as part of an overall settlement in which Syria and Lebanon were getting peace treaties with Israel, I think it would be understood that the Lebanese Armed Forces would be disarming Hezbollah and, at least before Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon, Syrian forces would backfill the positions that the LAF would have to give up in order to go into the south and take care of the Hezbollah weapons caches.

MR. : In your dreams.

: Look, here's the crux of the problem. You know, the three of us, each individually had a chance to talk with President Asad, and I think we've all come away with the same conclusion: nice guy, talks a good game about reform and peace with Israel, but when you leave the room and you look at what happens, he doesn't seem to have the ability to follow through. In my case, my experience with him was he explained very — he was very candid, in the same way he was with you, in terms of explaining his problems and very clear about what I thought was a fairly —from his perspective, fairly shrewd strategy, which was that he was going to make peace with Israel and cooperate with the United States over Iraq, and his assumption, unspoken, was that we'd leave him alone in Lebanon.

But he didn't follow through on making peace with Israel, and it's not enough just to say, well, you know, Sharon didn't respond or Bush didn't respond. There are plenty of things that he could have done if he was serious about making peace. I think he was serious, but there's a lack of follow-through. If he was serious about stopping the support for the insurgency that was coming from Iraq — from Syria into Iraq, he could have done a lot more than that. So it isn't really the case that your analysis of his reform capabilities, which is, quote, constrained, applies also to his foreign policy, that he's constrained there, too, and that what you've got is nice guy who wants to do the right thing but isn't able to do it.

MR. LEVERETT: Well, I think there's a bigger question, particularly in terms of his foreign policy. It gets back to that line I quoted about how, you know, if he's going to give something up, he needs to know what he's going to get in return. You asked — Sy asked about or you asked about what he's doing in terms of the insurgency in Iraq. Look, I think it's pretty clear at a minimum that Syria is not doing everything it could to constrain the flow of weapons, people, money, et cetera, from Syria to support Iraqi insurgents. Okay, periodically Syria does something to show that it could be helpful. You know, it affects the turnover of some important former regime people. It cooperates with us on some aspects of the funding problem. You know, there are a number of things that he does periodically to show "I could be helpful here." But he is still waiting to understand from us if I'm helpful in a sustained way here, if I, in a sense, give up this card that I have, what is it that you're going to do for me? And it's a particularly unfortunate mismatch of diplomatic styles or perspectives because he's looking to have it spelled out for him before he really commits, what do you want to get in return? And he's dealing with an American administration that has basically decided as a point of principle and a point of policy that it will not spell out for him what he could get if he cooperates. And so, therefore, we are in the situation where, you know, he says these things, indicates that he would be prepared to move down certain paths, but then there is no real movement because in my view, the diplomatic context isn't created.

MR. INDYK: Okay. Let's go to—my goodness—questions. Please make sure to identify yourselves and ask questions. Ambassador. . Wait for the microphone. Is there a microphone?

MR. LEVERETT: Oh, just yell, Ted.

MR. (Kattouf?): First of all, let me compliment Mr. Leverett on a masterful presentation, a good critique, good questioning from the panelists. It seems to me that there's been a symbiotic relationship between President Bashar al-Asad and the Old Guard, and I don't know if you'd agree. But basically, besides having the name Asad and being his father's chosen heir, whether it was ever admitted it or not, Bashar, as you noted, married well, [inaudible] attractive man in his personal characteristics, as we all know. He can go to the capitals of Europe or he could go to the capitals of Europe and be well received. He could go to Rome. He could go to London, Paris, Berlin, and be well received in all those capitals, and even learn some PR while he was there.

But right now it appears that the administration intends, as Sy indicated, to hold him responsible for the murder of Hariri and give him the Arafat treatment. Since he is not known to be — particularly known to be a tough guy, at a time when there's a need to keep — you know, if you're worried that the U.S. is up to something and you can exaggerate their ability to be successful, the question is: Might elements of the Old Guard start to look at Bashar as having exhausted his usefulness to them if he is no longer — if we can bring — if the U.S. administration can bring Europe around to their point of view in terms of isolating Bashar? I mean, the Turkish President broke ranks recently, but he's the only one I know that did. And then how do things look internally in Syria?

MR. LEVERETT: That's a very good question. I will address it. I just want to say I'm not sure I entirely accept the premise of the question in that I think that the current unity between the U.S. and the major European allies on this issue could well decrease in coming weeks. Let's assume, you know, as of tomorrow Syrian troops are out. Let's assume at some point in the next few weeks we have Lebanese parliamentary elections. I think then that the next issue that's going to come up is going to be, well, what about Hezbollah? What's its role in Lebanese politics? Does it keep its guns, et cetera? And I think there you have some real potential for the U.S. and Europe to go back on separate paths. So I'm not so sure that the current unity is going to last for very long.

But that aside, let me take the premise of your question. If Bashar is seen as not really able to deliver in terms of cultivating a better position for Syria in Europe, at least, if not in the United States, could he be seen as less useful from the standpoint of the Old Guard? It's possible, but then they're still left with the question, assuming that they begin to question Bashar's value to them, they have to have an alternative. And my own sense is they don't really have a ready alternative to propose to put into Bashar's place.

Certainly I don't think any of the people who had senior positions under Bashar's father could step in and play that role. If you were going to look for people of a younger generation, I think you would probably have to look within the Asad family. You would still be talking about an Asad regime, just maybe a different Asad. And in that context, I guess the two possibilities that people mention most are, first of all, Bashar's brother-in-law, his sister's wife—sister's husband, sorry, Assaf Shawkat, who is now the head of Syrian military intelligence. The other possibility that people identify is Bashar's younger brother, Maher al-Asad. I mean, people talk about them as possible alternatives to Bashar, but I don't know that we have any evidence at this point that they're really willing to play that game. In the past, there is a precedent, Hafez al-Asad was challenged, most significantly by his own brother, Rifaat. He was challenged at a time of real personal weakness in the sense that Hafez had had a heart attack, he was laid up in bed, and it's in that context that his brother, Rifaat, mounted a challenge to his position.

I think Bashar is certainly challenged now, but he's challenged strategically. I don't think he's challenged personally. And so we can identify those as possibilities. If the Old Guard began to look around for an alternative, maybe they could look within the family. But I don't think we have any evidence right now that either Maher or Assaf Shawkat is really inclined to play that sort of game. My name is Tammam al-Barazi, and I'm an Arab journalist — I'm a Syrian — for the last 28 years writing about Syria. The basic question which I really want to ask you, Mr. Leverett, in Syria they don't believe that, you know, turning a republic into a monarchy can happen without, you know, [inaudible] power consent. I mean, the North Korean paradigm cannot be repeated again and again, and there are now Libya, Yemen, and—you know, count. You can count many Arab countries waiting for this paradigm.

If you are preaching now that engagement, you know, conditional engagement, what an Arab academic called jamlakiya [ph], a republic/monarchy, you know, slash. That's, you know, giving like green lights to other dictators and authoritarian regimes that they can really, you know, turn a republic into a monarchy and have the blessing of the United States and have the conditional engagement with them.

MR. LEVERETT: When I argue in favor of a strategy of conditional
engagement, I try to make clear in the policy chapter that I think this is also the best way for trying to promote liberalization and greater openness in Syria, because for me, conditional engagement would have a couple of dimensions. It would involve this kind of carrots-and-sticks strategic bargaining with the regime. But it would also entail more direct engagement with Syrian civil society than we've done so far.

And I think that it's one of the ways in which, if you engage Bashar in this way you can actually empower him to pursue internal reform at a somewhat faster pace than he would in the absence of that engagement. I don't think it's, you know, making a deal with a dictator and allowing him to stay a dictator. I think it's basically a process of engagement in which U.S. strategic concerns are met or addressed, but in which you also create dynamics which are more favorable to reform and to liberalization inside Syria. I don't think it's an either/or proposition.

MR. INDYK: We heard from a Syrian journalist. We'll hear from a Lebanese journalist now. George?

MR. : I'm Palestinian, actually.

MR. INDYK: Palestinian. Do you still want to ask a question?

MR.: Yes. The question is: I'm curious whether you can provide us with a scenario of what happened on the Syrian decision to pull out from Lebanon? Who
took the decision—the President, the Old Guard? Were they in together on this? But, really, my real question is: Who in the administration is pushing the administration on this very shortsighted policy vis-à-vis Syria? Is it the neoconservatives? This lovely term everybody uses.

MR. LEVERETT: Let me take the second question first, administration dynamics. I think there's both a push from within and a push from outside. The push from within is coming from—if you want to refer to them generically as neoconservatives, okay. I don't resist that language. I think you're talking about civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, people around Vice President Cheney, who really have believed almost since the beginning of the administration that this was a particular vulnerability of Syria's, that Syria's hegemony in Lebanon was so important to the Asad regime, that if you could find a way to push on it, this would give you important leverage over the Syrian regime. I know for a fact—I mean, I know from personal experience that Secretary Rumsfeld believes this very much. He basically believes it from the time that he was President Reagan's Middle East Envoy presiding over the collapse of the first term Reagan administration's policy in Lebanon and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon. You know, exactly why that's the lesson he learned from that experience was never clear to me, but it is very much the lesson he took from his time as Reagan's Middle East Envoy.

So I think you've had a core of people in the administration who really from the beginning have seen pushing on Lebanon as a way of pushing on Syria. They've been making this argument for a long time, but they, through what I assume is coincidence, what I think is coincidence, basically were able to match up with the external source of pressure, and this is kind of ironic, particularly when you look at the cast of people in the administration, within the administration who are making this argument, their biggest support from outside the administration has come from President Chirac of France.

President Chirac had a very long and close personal friendship and association with Prime Minister Hariri, a lot of people in France who will tell you that Hariri was a significant financial supporter for Chirac's political career. And when Bashar al-Asad began to resist some of Hariri's policy initiatives in Lebanon after Hariri returned as Prime Minister, by the time of the summer of 2004, Chirac was willing to take French policy in a direction that wanted to put pressure on Syria over Lebanon. And it's really that intersection of neocons in the administration and French policy that gives you UN Security Council Resolution 1559 in the summer of 2004.

Now, I actually thought 1559 was a good idea because it did give us some real leverage over Syria on something that Syrian leadership took as important. My complaint about the way we've used 1559, particularly since Prime Minister Hariri was assassinated, is that we have used it not as a source of leverage to change Syrian behavior on things that really matter to U.S. interests, like the insurgency in Iraq, like support for anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorist groups. We have used it basically as a way of driving Syrian forces out of Lebanon, and that has become the be-all and end-all of our Syrian policy at this point. And I think that's a strategically shallow approach.

MR. INDYK: Okay. Here, please.

MR. LEVERETT: Oh, troop withdrawal, sorry. Every indication I have is that President Asad took the decision to do that.

MR.Steinberg: Let me just say one thing. The same week that [inaudible] was extended, Ben Ali in Tunisia, despite being warned by Secretary
Powell, declared himself President for Life in Tunisia. We didn't seem to be bothered by that. [Laughter.]

MR. INDYK: Please identify yourself.

MR. STEINBERG: Jeff Steinberg with EIR magazine. The second event
that I guess is also a big plus for the timing of your book release is the controversy over the appointment of John Bolton to the UN position. And one of the things that I recall was a controversy about a year and a half ago between the CIA and Bolton over a speech in an intelligence assessment. Are we in another spin cycle on Syria similar to Iraq vis-àvis intelligence assessments and how they may be used?

MR. LEVERETT: We may be. I hope that people learned some lessons from the debacle of pre-war intelligence on Iraq, but, you know, assuming learning curves is always a little bit dangerous. Look, to my mind, on Syrian WMD—and I lay this out in the book—I feel very confident—even in a post-Iraq environment, I feel very confident about saying the things that I've said which are consistent with U.S. Government representations about Syria's chemical weapons capabilities and its Scud missile force. I think we have absolutely solid information for making the kinds of statements we make on weaponized CW agent and Scud missiles.

I do not believe the case is there on nuclear, and I don't think there's any evidence there of significance indicating offensive B[iological]W[eapons] capability. I mean, BW is such an inherently murky area because of the dual-use nature of pharmaceutical and biotechnology. You know, lots of people could have offensive BW capabilities, and we wouldn't be able to say with great reliability that they had it. I guess it's theoretically possible the Syrians have it, but I don't know that we really have the evidence to indicate that they have it.

The nuclear stuff, people occasionally will try to say that Syria's, you know, somehow pursuing covertly a nuclear weapons program. After the disclosure of the A.Q. Khan network, there has been a lot of speculation that Syria was somehow a customer of that network. I haven't seen any real evidence of that, and I will just note that as recently as late last year, Mohamed ElBaradei was saying that there is no—you know, Syria cooperates with the IAEA inspection process, and that there is no evidence of any kind of illicit or covert Syrian nuclear activity.

MR. INDYK: I'd like to thank you very much for your presentation. I just had a question for you. Through your interviews with President Bashar al-Asad, did he give an explanation why isn't he pushing at all towards the internal political reform process? I mean, Syria until now remains to be almost among a few Arab countries which doesn't really have like plurality of newspapers. Does he even consider like limited experience, like Egypt in the late '70s, you know, with a few political parties and a few free press? Thank you.

MR. LEVERETT: Well, I said that President Asad has a kind of gradualist approach to reform. You know, he views this as a process that plays out over many years, I think probably longer than a decade. He also in a way views it as going on in phases, or at least on different levels.

I think in his view economic reform definitely gets primacy, that you need to work on the economy first. Some people have described this as a Chinese model of economic reform. Whether you want to call it the Chinese model or not, I think it's something that he very much believes in, that economic reform gets primacy.

I think the second aspect of reform is social reform, which in his view largely means the attenuation of sectarian identity in Syrian society and the development of civil society in Syria, which basically means organizations, associations, other kinds of fora in which people define their identities in some way other than by religious sect.

That's essentially what civil society is about. And political reform is for him the last part of the reform process, and he's very explicit about saying you don't want to move on that too early; otherwise, you get an outcome like we got in Algeria in 1992. Now, you know, could he move faster on political reform? Yes, he could. I think it's going to be very interesting to see what is announced at the upcoming Baath Party Congress this June. He laid down a marker in his own speech to the Syrian Parliament on March 5th in connection with Lebanon that this reform—that this Party Congress was going to be an occasion for significant reform announcements. Certainly political cognoscenti in Damascus are looking to this meeting as a potentially important event, whereas some—I mean, perhaps changes in the party law, allowing parties outside the National Progressive Front to form. I mean, I don't know what's going to get announced, but, you know, I think that will be something to look for in June.

MR. INDYK: In ten years' time, will Bashar al-Asad still be President of Syria? And will Syria have a peace treaty with Israel?

MR. LEVERETT: I think the odds are ten years from now, if I had to bet money up or down, I'd bet that Bashar will still be President of Syria. I'm less sure about the peace treaty with Israel.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

"Syria's stability may well be in Kurdish hands," by Hamidi

Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat's bureau chief in Damascus, has written an excellent article on the growing force of the Kurds in Syrian politics. After Islamic fundamentalists, he considers the emerging Kurdish council to be one of the most effective political movements in Syria. Here is the last half of his article published in the Daily Star. This fits nicely with my recent post: Roots of the "Kurdish Problem" .

Syria's stability may well be in Kurdish hands
Friday, May 06, 2005
Ibrahim Hamidi

Syrian Kurds were angry with the Syrian regime for preventing them from accepting condolences after a series of terrorist attacks killed Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq in February 2004. Soon afterward, Kurdish disgruntlement led to more violent protests in Qamishli and Aleppo (particularly the northern part of the city, where PKK supporters live. Demonstrators held up banners with slogans never before seen among Syria's Kurds, such as "liberation," "free Kurdistan," "kick out the Arab settlers," and "Intifada until the occupation ends." For the first time in their political history, the Kurds, who had hitherto demanded only their cultural, political and social rights within a unified Syria, expressed the issue as one of liberation.

The violence that ensued led to the deaths of around 40 people, including members of the police, and to the burning by Kurds of public and private institutions and schools. In retaliation, some 2,000 Kurds from all over Syria were detained. Most of them have since been released. The authorities used considerable force to curb the Kurds' rebellion. Now, however, it seems they are leaning toward finding a more practical political solution to the issue. Following the one-year anniversary of the Qamishli events, the appointment of Talabani to the Iraqi presidency and the success of the Iraqi Kurdish alliance in the Iraqi elections, the Syrian regime seems willing to be more conciliatory.

The Kurds and the Syrian authorities came to an agreement in March. Kurds in the province of Hasakeh staged a demonstration in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and refrained from celebrating their traditional Nawrouz feast, an occasion to reaffirm Kurdish identity. In return, Assad granted an amnesty to 312 Kurdish detainees still imprisoned after the 2004 rioting. Well-informed sources confirmed to me that the authorities have also started conducting a census and are working out the modalities of granting Syrian nationality to Kurds, and giving it back to those from who it had been withdrawn. Estimates indicate that of the 300,000 Kurds without nationality, 225,000 were deprived of it after the 1962 census, while 75,000 are said to be "of unknown origin." However, a potential source of disagreement is that, according to official Syrian sources, the number of stateless Kurds is closer to 150,000.

Kurdish representatives told me that the authorities also planned to establish a Kurdish council to look after the interests of the community "within the Syrian context." The council would mainly deal with cultural, social and language issues. The positive signals that Damascus sent to Talabani after his appointment and its subsequent granting of permission to his supporters to organize a large reception in the center of Damascus, during which the Kurdish national anthem was played and guests wore traditional garb, were signs of a new attitude.

Why did the Syrian authorities change so abruptly? There are several overlapping reasons, as there are several points of view within the Syrian regime on how best to address the Kurdish issue. There are nationalist extremists, but also practical politicians, and it seems that for now the latter have gained the upper hand. This is a good thing, since it is time to realize that the destiny of the Kurds in neighboring countries has irrevocably changed. Moreover, the United States is exerting considerable pressure on Syria, both for specific regional reasons and because of its human rights record. There is also no doubt that the Syrian authorities realized full well that the Kurds hold considerable political power.

Looking closely at the situation in Syria, one discerns three distinct political forces: the regime with the security, political, military and others means at its disposal; the Islamists, who have religion and the mosques, but otherwise no other political means at their disposal; and the Kurds, whose behavior may have considerable influence on Syria's stability if their situation is not adequately dealt with.

With at least 11 different unlicensed political parties, the Kurds have proven that they are well organized, that their leadership and people are closely knit, and that the Kurdish street can be mobilized at will. They can rely on regional networks through their political, family and tribal relationships with Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. They can bank on international support thanks to the sympathy the Kurds have aroused over the years in Europe and the U.S. They can also reportedly resort to ties with the Islamists, and I've been told that the Muslim Brotherhood has proposed that the two sides explore joint action for the future.

All this proves beyond a doubt that the Kurds are at the nexus point of a series of domestic Syrian, regional and international dynamics. The Syrian authorities did well to change their attitude from intransigence toward the Kurds to something more pragmatic and spontaneous. They will prove even more astute if they translate this heightened realism and sensibility into concrete action by granting the Kurds their rights.

Hind Kabawat and Marc Gopin Work for Peace

Marc Gopin a scholar of conflict resolution at George Mason University with a cultural background as a religious American Jewish scholar recently came to Damascus from Israel. He had given several seminars on conflict resolution in Israel. Then Hind Kabawat, a Syrian-Canadian attorney arranged for Gopin to come to Syria to speak on peace in the Middle East. Marc has recently written about his unusual visit:

The main public dialogue on January 6 - excerpts of which were nationally televised -was attended by 300 distinguished guests, government officials, artists, professors and professionals. It took place in the most prestigious building of Damascus, the Assad Library, and attendees included the American, Canadian and Swiss ambassadors, the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., assistants to President Bashar Assad and representatives of various ministries, especially the Information Ministry and the Expatriates Ministry, in addition to professionals and officials from Lebanon.

The atmosphere of the public dialogue, simultaneously translated into English and Arabic, was electric in many ways. I was treated with immense respect, but, at the same time, some in the audience had the opportunity to vent anger at what they saw as the victimization of Syria and the Palestinians. Others expressed deep appreciation for my willingness to come and listen. We had a great, tough dialogue. ...

Despite the obvious challenges of what the military supports, there are some winds of change at the heart of Syrian culture, winds that the West is missing. In fact, my biggest problem since I left Syria was that no one in Israel believed that the event actually took place, or that a religious Jew would be treated this way in the capital of Israel's fiercest foe.

Fortunately we made a videotape, and yet the sense of disbelief remains palpable. I said this to one Syrian, and she said in a generous way that is typical of her culture: "It's okay, we could hardly believe it ourselves; how could we expect others to believe it?"

Marc concludes his article by arguing:
What all parties need most now is not the immediate resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, but a palpable thaw in relations, a firm direction away from support for terrorism accompanied simultaneously by significant gestures of cultural and economic rapprochement. This, combined with subtle American efforts to engage and support Assad, are key ingredients that would help bring Syria into the circle of an enlarged peace process, and this eventually will deal a final death blow to state-supported terrorism in the Arab Middle East.

Hind Aboud Kabawat gave the following talk at George Mason as a follow up to Gopin's talk in Syria. According to those who know her, Hind is a "real force to be reckoned with here" and a leading Syrian lawyer. She is also President of the Syrian Canadian Women’s Club and a Board member of the Syrian Public Relations Association.
Here is the talk she gave:

By Hind Aboud Kabawat
Thursday, April 14
Dear Friends:

As a Syrian national (and perhaps even as a Canadian citizen) I must admit I visit George Bush’s capital with some trepidation.

My homeland has not been at the top of the U.S. president’s list of most favorite nations in recent months (or is recent years) and I must admit it saddens me deeply the way in which Syria is frequently perceived (some might argue, caricatured) in the Western media and by Western politicians and opinion leaders.

Too often our whole society is dismissed as a renegade state populated by terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers, and meddlers in the internal affairs of other societies. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But before I outline what I perceive to be a more balanced picture of Syrian society let me begin with one important caveat. Tonight I address you as a Syrian national with a deep and abiding love for my country and its ancient culture; I do not come here tonight to represent the interests, or point of view, of the government of Syria.

Indeed, I am a reformer who is committed to peaceful change in my country and a member of a Civil Society in Syria. Let me begin, first, with the whole issue of the role of religion and religious tolerance in Syria, specifically, and the Middle East, in general.

Too many people view the region as one of narrow-minded bigotry animated by deep antagonisms between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth and I know from personal experience.

My family are Christians and have been for hundreds of years. Not far from my home in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, near one of the gates leading into the quarter, is the Chapel of St. Paul, the very site where Saint Paul was lowered in a basket after his so-called “Damascene” conversion to Christianity. So you can see the Christian presence in my country goes back to Biblical days. And Christians have endured, even thrived, ever since, despite the emergence centuries later of Islam as the dominant religion in the country.

As an example of just how they much they thrived, let me give you an anecdote. Awhile back friend of mine Dr. Sami Moubayed gave me a historical textbook, which is sort of an early (1920) Who’s Who in what was then French-controlled Syria. In it there are small profiles of the leading figures of the period in business, government, culture, education and religion. Amazingly, individuals from all major religious groups were represented: Muslims, Christians and Jews. For instance, there was Fares Khoury a Christian Prime Minister, Catholic, Orthodox Priest and the Jewish
Rabai of Damascus.

Such diversity and religious tolerance squares with other more anecdotal evidence. Although almost everyone in the West believes that most Arabs and all Syrians are hostile to Jews and Jewish interests, nothing could be further from the truth. And that Western “bias” certainly doesn’t square with the historical record. Again, as a resident of the Old City of Damascus, I can tell you that Jews, like Christians, lived in this lively engaging community, in their own Jewish Quarter, peacefully and prosperously for a millennia. Indeed, while most European societies were practicing one form of exclusion or another on Jewish people, the “Children of the Book,” as Muslims call them, enjoyed great freedom and tolerance in Syria. Under the Ottomans, all religious minorities were treated fairly as long as they accepted the dominant role of Islam in the culture.

Arguably there was significantly more religious tolerance in the Muslim Middle East than there was in Christian Europe for hundreds of years. Indeed, Catholics did not even receive the franchise, the right to vote, in England, the motherland of democracy, until the mid-19th century. And we all know what terrible fate befell Jews, Gypsies, Catholic Poles, etc at the hands of Germans as late as the mid-20th century.

So, I would argue the historical record in the Muslim and Arab world for the greater part of the 19th and 20th century was quite good. And in many fundamental respects, superior to the record in Europe during the same period. It is this Ottoman legacy upon which the contemporary Syrian commitment to religious tolerance is built.

Which brings me to the present moment. The Baathist government in today’s Syria enjoys few friends in present-day Washington. Now I am no apologist for the entire record of the Baathist government but on one very important file, religious tolerance, they have an noteworthy record. From his first days as the leader of Syria, Hafez al-Assad was committed to making Syria an officially secular society, which many in the West would argue is one of the fundamental preconditions for the development of a democratic society. In contemporary Syria, all religious groups enjoy the rights to practice their religion independent of government interference or control. And indeed, with the emergence of the Christian right in the US, I would argue that the historically important separation of Church and State is under more danger here, on the banks of the Potomac, than ancient land of the Assyrians.

So believe me when I tell you, as a Christian, indeed as an Evangeslist, that religious tolerance is alive and well in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia. But skeptics might respond, what about the Syrian government’s long standing antipathy toward Israel. Well, this is a complex and delicate issue. But it is, fundamentally, a political issue. As I argued, earlier, Syria’s historical record viz a viz its Jewish minority, I believe, is as good, if not better, than most societies in Europe and North America. But frankly, there are many outstanding and complicated political and territorial issues between Israel and Syria, which have nothing to do with religion. Let us not forget that Syria remains an occupied country. And has been for over four decades.

Let us be fair and even-handed here. (I believe that if Israel withdrew from the Golan there would be a Syrian embassy in Jerusalem and an Israel embassy in Damascus in short order.) I have never been a supporter of a Syrian military presence is Lebanon. But, at least, initially and under the blessing of the United States and the International community we entered that country to prevent a sectarian genocide—and I think we succeeded in no small part. But there is no question our role, in this regard, long ago ended. And I, like many Syrians, applaud the decision of our government to withdraw from our neighbour. And I hope a new “culture of peace” will now emerge in our relations between ourselves and our Levantine neighbour. With
no interference what’s so ever in their society.

So let’s assume the Syria/Lebanon issue will shortly be normalized. The next big issue then becomes this: Can a “culture of peace” emerge between Syrian and Israel, in particular, and Israel and the Arab world, in general. Call me crazy, but I really do not believe it has much to do with religious intolerance. To repeat my earlier point, for most of the last two or three hundred years, there was much greater religious tolerance in the Arab/Muslim world than the Christian West. Thanks, perhaps, to the enlightened statecraft of the Ottomans. The heightened sectarianism, which has characterized the Arab world in recent years, is something of an aberration.

So maybe I am an optimist, but I truly believe a “new culture of peace” can emerge between the Jews and Muslims, Christians Arabs and Isrealis if we can summon the courage to overcome some very vexing and, to date at least, intractable problems.

Probably the first item on the agenda is to break the cycle of name-calling and blaming. Not long ago I was talking with my friend, Margaret Scobie, the US Ambassador to Syria, and she quite correctly noted that the time has come for some “Dramatic Gesture,” like Sadat’s famous trip to Jerusalem, or dare I say, Richard Nixon’s trip to China in the early 1970s. Back then, it was argued that only a longstanding anti-Communist like Nixon could reframe the relationship between China and the West. Perhaps it is time the leaders of Syria and Israel to reprise this historic rapprochement.

The great irony about the whole relationship between religion and a culture of peace is that all the faiths in the region—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have common roots and are all based upon a ethic of forgiveness and compassion. I honestly believe that a constructive approach for the United States is to work with those Syrians, both in the government and out of the government, who believe in peace, in religious tolerance in a New Middle East. The Americans know who we are, and I believe they know that my President is an ally in this, Support him! Help us on the tough road to peace and coexistence with our neighbors, especially by allowing us to prosper and become strong. I know this is hard, that American strongly dislikes what
some Syrians citizens have done. But look at the rest of us! Do not punish a whole country for the actions of a few! Give us a chance to build an alliance together in the search for a just solution to our problems and Palestinians problems with Israel and with the region. We can do it togethers peacefully, but if we move forward as enemies then truly extremist forces could take over my country, some religious and some secular. Let’s move together forward as allies, Come and visit us, visit
our great Syria, and see this great loving nation.

I believe the time has come for all parties, Jews, Muslims and Christians, to “walk the talk,” and truly create a culture of peace and compassion and forgiveness.

Once Pope John Paul II said” Let’s build bridges not walls” Enough is enough. Let us end this tragic cycle of violence for our children’s future.

Thank you for your time.

Hind Kabawat can be reached at: []

Friday, May 06, 2005

Interview with Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Michael Young writing for "Reason" Magazine has interviewed Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a smart Syrian opposition member. Al-Haj Saleh's remarks about US policy and regime change in Syria are interesting. It is worth comparing them to the views expressed by Riad al-Turk in an interview with me a month ago.

Assad's Forgotten Man
A Reason interview with Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Michael Young
May 5, 2005

Syrian writer and dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh has been one of the most daring and interesting voices coming out of Syria in recent years, and is regularly published in the weekly cultural supplement of Lebanon's daily Al-Nahar (as well as in the English-language Daily Star). It is hard to imagine that this modest, low-key man spent his entire youth, and rather longer, in prison, for belonging to a dissident communist movement. To look back at the behavior of the Syrian regime, but also to predict its future, who better to ask than one of its victims, a victim who was not broken and now watches the gradual disintegration of his tormentors.

reason: Syrian forces have just left Lebanon under domestic Lebanese and international pressure. Will the Syrian regime survive this, do you think?

Yassin al-Haj Saleh: It will not. When Hafez Assad decided to send Syrian troops into Lebanon in 1976, during the civil war, he did it not for altruistic reasons as his propaganda organs affirmed, but to accumulate strategic assets for his regime. Syrian intervention put an end to what British author Patrick Seale called the era of "the struggle for Syria" between 1946 and 1963, and the era of the struggle for power between 1963 and 1970, when Assad took over. Why? Because the Syrian regime was accepted into the club of regional actors. It is well known that it received an American green light to enter Lebanon, and Israel was not opposed to this as long as the Syrians respected certain "red lines" in terms of their deployments and the weapons they could use. The Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, also endorsed Syria's move. The Soviet presence in the Middle East was initially weakened by this entry into Lebanon [which targeted the U.S.S.R.'s allies, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Lebanese politician Kamal Jumblatt], but after protesting against the Syrian intervention, Moscow accepted the fait accompli. Naturally, after that Assad's regime felt safe and secure.

This, in turn, allowed the regime to enhance its domestic stability through harsh suppression and brutality. The regime felt free to do anything it wanted at home. It was not coincidental, then, that Syrian intervention in Lebanon was paralleled by a qualitative leap in suppression inside Syria. The Syrian people, too, participated in the dance of death in the Levant between 1975 and 1991, and paid a heavy price for this, one that is not widely acknowledged.

Yet now the Assad regime no longer controls the external conditions of its stability; it has lost and is losing the tools that propped up its regional role. It will not be able to firmly hold the reins of power within Syria. Its grip is already loosening. Unless it receives outside—in other words, American—support, the clock may be winding down. However, we must consider that the Syrian version of regime change may be provoked by people within the regime.

reason: Has the Syrian regime accepted that its direct influence over Lebanon is over? Or do you expect it will try to pursue influence through other means?

YHS: If you mean influence through military and intelligence instruments then, yes, it is over, though the word "accepted" is not the most accurate in describing the regime's attitude. I think it is adapting itself to the new situation in Lebanon. I do not think we will see other bombs in Lebanon or other assassinations.

reason: Has the Syrian regime become, as many are suggesting, much more of a family-run affair than it was a few years ago?

YHS: I do not think so. It is weaker now than at any time before. This has opened the door for relatives of the weak president, Bashar Assad, to participate in running and occupying the highest positions in an authoritarian, "personalized" and highly centralized regime. But the same factor, Bashar's weakness, implies that this situation cannot last.

In recent years we have witnessed a change in the pillars of the regime. One can say the regime now has two weak and unstable centers of gravity rather than the one that was both stable and powerful. Today, money and violence, or the centers of power and wealth, prop up the regime, and they have replaced what existed before, namely a unified center of gravity based on violence alone. The Assad family has a preferential access to both money and violence. But this situation is still a reflection of weakness and a deteriorating level of self-confidence. People speak about [military intelligence chief, and Bashar's brother-in-law] Assef Shawqat and [Bashar's cousin, businessman] Rami Makhlouf. They are powerful men really, but in a dilapidated regime.

reason: You were among those Syrian intellectuals calling for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Why did you and your colleagues do so, when in the past Syrian intellectuals had avoided getting involved in Lebanese affairs?

YHS: I think it is unfair to say that Syrian intellectuals "avoided getting involved in Lebanese affairs" in the past. When Syria intervened in Lebanon in 1976, dozens of Syrian intellectuals issued a manifesto opposing the intervention. This was dangerous under a ruthless regime like that of Hafez Assad. And as I mentioned earlier, when the regime intervened in Lebanon it also behaved increasingly harshly inside Syria. People were killed in Lebanon and Syria at the same time, often by the same people. Thousands of people in each country were jailed for long periods of time. Dozens of intellectuals spent years in prison; many others fled Syria; others took refuge in a kingdom of silence. The Assad regime bought off or corrupted others. The universities were literally occupied by armed militias and security men. It was a glorious period for informers who destroyed the lives of thousands of people. The entire Syrian population lived under extreme fear during the last 25 years of the 20th century.

What I want to say is that when Syrian intellectuals avoided getting involved in Lebanese affairs, it was because they avoided getting involved in all affairs—Syrian affairs included. They were aghast at their own situation. That is why the moment we began to discuss and criticize our domestic affairs was also, or nearly, the moment we began to speak critically about the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Some of us were quite outspoken in criticizing the regime and in speaking in favor of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Among those who were the most vocal, for example, were the communist leader Riad Turk and the political sociologist Burhan Ghalioun. We felt that the Lebanese struggle for independence and the Syrian struggle for democracy were deeply related, and that the regime's hegemony over both Syria and Lebanon were deeply interrelated.

reason: In June, the Baath Party will be holding a congress which is expected to be a key step in determining whether Bashar Assad can move toward reform in Syria or not. What are your expectations, and what challenges will he face?

YHS: There is a popular Syrian proverb that says: "He who tests what has already been tested is not right in the head." We have been testing the Baathist regime for more than 42 years now. It would be unwise, then, to expect anything propitious from those mediocre men who have led the country into the painful situation existing today, which writer Alan George correctly described as one of "no bread, no freedom." I do not mean to say that the Baathist congress will not take any serious decisions. What I mean is that the decisions will be maneuvers to bribe the Syrian people to side with the regime in the face of outside pressures. They will be endeavors to accommodate those pressures and create an impression outside that there is reform in Syria. The moment the regime feels those pressures evaporating, it will cancel any positive steps it has taken. This regime has treated our people as if they are unwanted guests at its table.

By the time the Baath congress is held, five years will have passed since Bashar Assad took over power. The upshot of this period is virtually nil. Acknowledging this, but also justifying it, the president said some weeks ago that "external" circumstances had obstructed reform. In fact, the opposite is true. But this is a standard pretext used by the Baathist regime to explain its successive failures. The regime has not ruled even a day without emergency laws. By virtue of this, Syria can boast of having the oldest emergency laws in the world.

reason: Could you tell us you own experiences as a Syrian opposition figure, and describe your time in prison? Why were you imprisoned?

YHS: I was one among the thousands, indeed the tens of the thousands, of Syrians who spent many years in prison. Anybody who opposed the regime was arrested, tortured and jailed. I was arrested at 19, a medical student at the University of Aleppo, because I was a member of a communist group opposed to the regime and calling for democracy—the Communist Party-Political Bureau. My 16 years in prison were spent in three places: I spent 11 years in Al-Muslimiyyah Prison, north of Aleppo, four years at Adra Prison, north of Damascus, and a terrible year in Tadmur Prison, east of Homs.

My first 18 months of incarceration, which followed a week of investigation and a day of torture, were difficult. I do not like that period. It was a time of pure imprisonment, by which I mean there were no tools that could help one to tame the monsters of prison. Later, we were allowed books and dictionaries. For thirteen-and-a-half years we had books. I learned English on my own there. Books saved me physically and mentally. If it were not for the books, I would have most certainly have been crushed. Now I live on what I learned in prison.

After more than 11 years they brought around 600 of us before the notorious Supreme State Security Court in Damascus. The hearings, which were conducted without evidence, witnesses or lawyers, took two years, after which I received a 15-year sentence [from which the previous 11 years were deducted]. The last 18 months were far easier, and in a strange way shorter, than the first ones.

The recurrent lesson the regime taught me is that it could always come up with things worse than our worst fears. After I completed my 15-year sentence they sent me to Tadmur prison, a place that literally eats men, that was worse than the "house of the dead" described by Dostoyevsky. Fear is a way of life in Tadmur, where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people. That was in 1996. They released me at the end of the year. I was 35.

reason: How have things changed for you in recent years, all the more so as the Syrian regime allows critics of the regime like you to publish in Lebanese media? Do you think the regime will continue to allow criticism of itself in Lebanon?

YHS: The regime never allows us to criticize it in Lebanon or in any other place. It is far from being happy that Syrian intellectuals have a window through which they can express themselves, speak to their people, and address their country's problems. But the regime has only two options: either to arrest people and put them in jail, which would cause an outcry among intellectuals and journalists in the Arab world and Europe; or to tolerate its critics, many of whom are former political prisoners or well-known intellectuals. In addition, the regime has not been able for the last two years to exert credible pressure on Lebanese newspapers and magazines, where we can now express our opinions. The Internet has also helped Syrian activists and intellectuals to break out of the embrace of censorship.

The regime has already lost the moral and cultural battles. Its main weakness is on these fronts. Its tools for domestic violence and suppression are still intact, but it doesn't have the spirit to use them effectively as it did previously. I think the regime will continue to "allow" us to write in Lebanese press. The alternatives are becoming more and more unthinkable.

reason: For opposition figures like yourself, it seems that the chances of effecting change in Syria are very slim, given that the weapons are in the hands of the regime, and Syrian civil society has, until now, generally been quiet, despite the expansion of protest or independent initiatives in recent years. How do you see things developing in the next years?

YHS: It may seem strange but the scenario I prefer is not a complete change of regime. Rather, it is prolonged outside pressure on the regime so that increasing numbers of Syrians take part in public affairs. The greater these numbers, the better Syria's future will be. The most important thing is that the regime not feel it has a free hand to crack down on activists and opposition members. The worst scenario is either of two alternatives: the Iraqi model of regime change, or what happened in Libya, where the international community eased pressure on, and even praised one of the cruelest dictators in the Arab world.

reason: But is change possible in Syria without outside intervention? If so, what kind of intervention?

YHS: The kind of change Syria needs is not just the installation of a new regime in place of the old one. It needs sustainable change that leads to a self- reforming political system. Outside diplomatic and public pressure can be very useful, especially when it is multilateral—American, European and Arab. Change through invasion, as in Iraq, is destructive and counterproductive. Similarly, economic sanctions harm people, not regimes. On the other hand, well-targeted sanctions against regime figures are useful. In general outside pressure is good when it is aimed against a regime and bad when it is aimed against a country.

The greatest single step that will help promote democracy in Syria is to compel Israel to withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights. This will bolster the reformist elements within the regime and will create a cultural and psychological climate favorable to democracy. In the past, external factors played a very negative role in enhancing the suppressive policies of the regime. It is still too early to say whether outside pressures are beneficial now.

reason: Are you still being harassed by the secret police?

YHS: From time to time. They summoned me to their headquarters 10 times in 40 months and prevented me from leaving Syria, even to go to Lebanon. But this applies to dozens of activists and intellectuals. And this is child's play compared to what tens of thousands of people suffered under the regime of Hafez Assad.

reason: What is the daily life of an opposition figure like in Syria? Do you find that society at large accepts you, even if the regime does not?

YHS: There is nothing unusual about our daily life except that we expect an "invitation" from the security services from time to time. Right now, a friend of mine is in their hands. They called on him four days ago and asked that he come see them on May 4. He was anxious when he telephoned me last Sunday. As for me, I spend my time reading, writing, sending and receiving emails, and meeting with friends once a week over a glass of arak. That is nearly all I ordinarily do.

When people are not afraid they express warm and generous sentiments toward some opposition figures, at least those who really respect people and have worked for their benefit. At the same time many Syrians have negative views about all kinds of politicians. They are not wrong because self-serving politicians, and now self-serving activists, are not rare.

reason: Is liberty possible in the Middle East of today?

YHS: Never; liberty and the Middle East are as incompatible as health and illness. If you want freedom you have to throw away all those traits that we see today in the region. Freedom is not possible in the petro-monarchies and emirates, not possible where regimes control security tightly, not possible for so long as the region remains a battlefield for global dominance, not possible when regimes are exempted from the human and political obligations faced by the modern state because they satisfy what the world hegemon, the United States, wants of them.

If you are asking whether there are inherent qualities in the peoples of the region that make liberty impossible and perhaps unimaginable, then believing this means that everything we learned since the Enlightenment is worthless. In other words, if those in the region are "incompatible" with freedom, then concepts of humanity, science and reason are irrelevant. But if these concepts are relevant, then freedom is possible and indeed compatible with what people in the region desire.

Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Sabine's Article in Arabic at Syria News has translated Sabine's story about the courageous students at the University of Damascus. It is presently their lead story. If you read Arabic, see:

طلاب في جامعة دمشق يطالبون بالحرية والمعرفة

A number of Syrians have commented on it at the site. Almost all congratulate the bravery of the students. Some tell their own stories of old texts and government intervention. One commentator, of course, accuses me of being a spy! He writes:

من هو جوشوا لانديز
ليس بصحفي أمريكي، بل هو أساسا مدرس في جامعة أوكلاهوما، يعمل على كتابة "بحث" يتعلق بسورياوعنوانه البريدي الآن في السفارة الأمريكية في دمشق في قسم "الدبلوماسية العامة"، وما أدراك ما تعريف "الدبلوماسية العامة. الخبر وما وراء الخبر......
ما وراء السطور

إقرأ عن مصادر جوشوا لانديز
شاهدوا الصور التي اختارها "الدكتور لانديز" في موقع الدراسات السورية!! هذه هي سوريا كما يقدمها للعالم.انظروا إلى مراجعه في الدراسة عن سورية في آخر مقال له: ريتشارد بيرل، ومركز الدراسات في جامعة تل أبيب....الخبر وما وراء الخبر...ويقيم الآن في سوريا!!!!
ما وراء السطور

Because my mailing address is at the US embassy (all Fulbright professors get an embassy address at the cultural center to receive their mail) he thinks I am a spy. He also points to the fact that I footnote Richard Perle and Eyal Zisser in this article entitled, The US and Reform in Syria, as proof that I am a spy. If he were smart enough to read, he would see that I criticize Perle. Alas.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

"Dawsha at Dam. U." by Sabine Lubbe Bakker

Sabine Lubbe Bakker is a Dutch Master's student at the University of Amsterdam. She is in Syria working on a university project about democracy in the Middle East and sent me this report.

Students Demand Freedom and Knowledge3 May 2005
By Sabine Lubbe Bakker

“Knowledge,” that was the name of panel discussion held at Damascus University on Wednesday the 27th of April 2005 that caused such a stir. The Canadian Embassy, Etana Press, and the University of Damascus organized a discussion at the University of Damascus based on the controversial Arab Human Development Report. When the report was first published in 2003, it caused uproar in the Arab world. Written by Arab intellectuals for the UNDP, it pointed out that the Arab World was falling behind in the race to produce educated elites ready to compete in the marketplace of ideas and able to rise to the top of international corporations and institutions.

In attendance were the President of the University, the Dean of the College of Letters and the Canadian Ambassador. Some 150 people came to hear Drs. M. Hadid, J. Hijazi, and Ganeh Hana, most were students.

Once the presentations were over, a number of professors stood up to address the problem of the Syria’s growing knowledge gap. To my surprise they insisted that the answer to Syria’s educational problems was more government control, not less. They called for increased analysis and criticism by the appropriate ministries. They blamed others for the deplorable state of knowledge and education in Syria: some pointed to the authors of the university text books as the culprits of Syria’s educational failings; others argued that the university had to redouble its efforts to advance education through greater emphasis on theory and memorization; none stressed the importance of talent and creativity. According to the professors, the government is the key to change and improvement.

When it came to the turn of the students to take the microphone, the atmosphere in the lecture hall quickly turned electric. A torrent of criticism poured forth. One brave undergraduate held aloft his schoolbook for all to see and calmly explained that it was 17 years old. In fact, all of his texts were as old or older, he said. “How can we innovate?” he asked. “With texts this old, we have no choice but to imitate.” He added, “Scholars and authors cannot allow security agencies to be guardians of the education – that is why we suffer with mediocrity. He ended his comments by declaring that, “with this kind of schooling, I will never be able to find a job, not in Syria or abroad.”

Another student quickly took the microphone to announce that the university had two problems, the first being the corruption of the university board. On hearing this, the Dean jumped to his feet and demanded that the student be quite and sit down. But the student was undeterred. Emboldened by a female student who cried out - “Why is there no freedom of speech?” he continued to his second point - the emergency law governing Syria. “So long as there is emergency rule, the intelligence services can control the university from A to Z. We need freedom to think, question, and learn.”

With that, the discussion period was quickly brought to an end. Many students took the chance to speak up and to be heard. To me this is a sign that Syrian students are no longer a silent mass. They have the courage to stand up to the authorities. They are willing to take responsibility for change.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Jasmine Revolution?

An uprising is taking shape within the Damascus branch of the Baath Party.

A petition is being circulated among Baath members protesting the undemocratic nature of recent party elections. Even cynics had hoped that 10% of the leadership would be new. What happened? Not one new candidate won!

This week, the second round of Party elections was held which set the ground work for the 10th Regional Party Congress to be held in June. On the 25th and 26th of April, Baath Party members voted for candidates in the Damascus region to decide which Party members would rise into the new leadership positions of Branch (fir`a) Director, members of the Branch Leadership, District (Sh`aba) Director and members of the District Leadership. High government appointments were also decided in the elections, including Ministers, Assistant Ministers, and Director Generals, according to Ayman Abdulnour.

It is from the winners of this round of elections that the new Baath Regional Leadership is to be selected. They will debate the larger issues of Party and political reform that have been put forward in four major reports produced by the working committees of the previous Regional Congress. Many Syrians have their hopes for the future pinned on the outcome of this Congress. In theory it will establish the direction of national development for the coming years. It is the institutional and ideological face of the regime.

Many Baath members were not expecting great changes in the party as a result of the voting. A number of Baathists had complained that due to Party procedures a maximum of only 10% of the membership could be changed. New blood would be minimal.

The results were much worse than even the skeptics predicted. Not one new personality was successful in the elections. Writing on April 27 in all4Syria, Ayman Abdulnour disparaged the results:

البارحة واليوم جرت إنتخابات الشعب الحزبية في فرع دمشق للحزب وفرع جامعة دمشق .... وكانت النتائج أسوء مما توقعنا إذ وصلت نسبة أصحاب المهام الحزبية والحكومية إلى 100 % ....أي لم يتمكن أي رفيق , حتى واحد فقط من الوصول على المؤتمر القطري من خارج تلك الدائرة ؟؟؟

No new blood. No hope for change. No hope that the Party can fix itself.

When candidates tried to campaign during the elections they were thwarted at every turn by the Party leaders, who were determined to hang on to their positions. Some candidates tried to print up their resumes and put out a small platform statement laying out their goals. "No," they were told by the party bosses. "You cannot distribute information unless every one does." This attitude of obstruction prevailed at every step of the election process.

The members don't know each other because most don't go to Party meetings. They couldn't pass out elections fliers and there was no printed material supplied by the election offices informing voters who the candidates were. Only general platitudes produced five years ago by the last Party Congress were published and they gave no guidance for voters hungry for information.

As a result the district and governate leadership was all reelected. A number of ministers and heads of the reform working groups failed to win seats. Who will be at the Party Leadership Congress to speak for their proposed reforms? That is the question being asked by a flood of articles published in the alternative press here in Syria - Elaph,, and all4Syria. The district and regional leadership were the only people party members knew, so they won the most votes.

Flynt Leverett in his new book quotes President Bashar al-Asad as saying that the old Guard is not four or five big honchos, it is thousands of people inhabiting every level of the government and Party who don't want to lose their positions and privileges and who are frightened by change. In a recent interview Levertt said:

The Old Guard is literally thousands of mediocre and fossilized — those are his words — "mediocre and fossilized" bureaucrats who are throughout the system and who have been entrenched in their positions over years and decades and have no interest in doing anything in a different way.

Dr. Zuhayr Ibrahim Jabour of Tishriin University writes in all4Syria (May 2, 2006) that the Baath Party cannot fix itself and that even if there were democracy within the Party it would probably not deliver the results that the reformers hope for. The officials are opportunists and corrupt, he writes. The Party will collapse because it cannot fulfill the hopes of the Syrian youth who are the majority of the country. It will bring untold suffering to the country if the Party does collapse because of the mindlessness of its members. "Hidden tensions are building up," he writes, "to the point that they can explode at any time. Who knows what destruction that may bring because who knows where it will stop."

في ضوء ذلك نؤكد ودون مبالغة بأن المسار الديموقراطي داخل الحزب لن يكون بالاتجاه الذي يريده الإصلاحيون وبالتالي لن يتمكن الحزب من أن يصبح أداة سياسية فعّالة للانتقال بالوطن إلى مرحلة جديدة تلبي طموحات السوريين وآمالهم...

وهنا نشدد على أن سوريا الجديدة لايبنيها سوريو الزمن الماضي الذين ينبغي وداعهم بعدما جعلوا سوريا تدفع اُثمانا باهظة بسبب أفكارهم ومواقفهم السياسية الخاطئة, ولأن الذين ترهلوا سياسيا وذهنيا عاجزون عن تقديم أي شيء مثمر للشباب السوري الذي يشكل أكبر شريحة عمرية في مجتمعنا والذي يبدي انعدام الثقة واللامبالاة بكل مايجري حوله بعدما اقفلنا أبواب الأمل في وجهه. ولايخفى على العقلاء منا بأن توترا خفيا يتراكم خلف هذه اللامبالاة والذي يمكن أن ينفجر في أية لحظة وينذر بالخراب الذي لانستطيع معرفة حدوده!!

Dr. Ahmad al-Hajj Ali, A member of the Committee to Develop Party Thought and ex-Head of the office of the Central Party Committee, who wrote one of the important reform papers that is to be presented at the upcoming Party Congress wrote an article entitled, "The Experience of the Baath Party Elections: Between the Permissible and the Pillage. He complains bitterly how there was not oversight or application of the rules. The party hacks were able to hold on to their privilege and position.

Al-Hajj Ali asks the million dollar question: So long as there is not a speck of democracy in the Party, how can it expect to lead society and move the country ahead in the world of ideas and realistic policies? So long as it is based on a system of spoils how can it not reward to worst and punish the best?

One of the readers of Syria Comment some weeks ago spoke about the "Jasmine Revolution." Be was referring to Syrian intellectuals and idealistic youth who are fed up with the lack of change and new ideas. They want to see the future open up to them. They want to be part of Syria and participate in building their country. In the last several days, we have even seen the members of the Baath Party crying out for change. The criticism by smart and ambitious Baath members who see just how broken their party has become is gathering steam.

Many hope that they can build pressure on the President that will help him take the bold steps they are hoping for at the Party Congress. Seeing how dysfunctional the system is and how incapable are the state institutions, they have placed all their hope in the hands of the President. It is a terrible burden for the President.

He has been trying to build up his own network of reformers and technocrats in the ministries who can provide him with the expertise and momentum for change. Considering how the Baath Party elections were carried out, it is hard to see how the reformers will be able to rise to the top.

Many in Washington and the West are predicting that the Syrian regime will implode, collapsing in on itself out of pure inertia and corruption. The Baath Party elections will not change these expectations.

The challenge for Syrians is whether they can carry out their jasmine revolution without a collapse of government and without chaos and disorder. It is time for vision at the top and organization below.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A Liberal Imam Preaches Reform

Karim Moudarres, a friend from Aleppo sent me this note about a liberal Imam, Muhammad Kamal al-Husseini, in his city who calls for widespread reform.

Dear Josh,
I am convinced that Democracy and Human Rights can never be accepted among the masses without placing them in an Islamic framework:
محمد كامل بن محمد بدر الحسيني
Muhammad Kamal Bin Muhammad Badr al-Husseini, does just that.

This Friday he spoke out again for total reform of the religious institutions,
calling for a peaceful revolution, peaceful co-existence for other
religions, declaring the clergies in Islam are sacrilegious, opening to
western ideas (but not morals), calling from the separation of politics and
religion, calling for globalization (but making sure it incorporates Islamic
ethics), reforming the school systems, and women rights. (All in an Islamic

I could not believe my ears hearing it in a Friday sermon.
(أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم كان يحرص أن يؤمن جميع الناس).
وإنه لأمر كبير يستوقف المتدبر والمتأمل أن يكون في قلب رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ، الذي فيه كمال العقل، والفهم ؛ حرصٌ على أن يكون الناس كل الناس.. بكل ما فيهم من الاختلاف، والتفاوت الوصفي...، والفروقات والتباين.. في ساحة الإيمان، والخضوع للدَّيان

I thought it would interest you.

This article by Marwan Kabalan is interesting in the light of Imam Muhammad Kamal al-Husseini's liberalism. Kabalan is angered by the about-face of conservative US commentators, who know call for democracy in the Middle East. The recent boldness of liberal Muslims in denouncing the violent and narrow-minded interpretations of Islam put forward by extremist groups suggests that the recent conversion of academics such as Bernard Lewis may be warranted, even if they are swimming with the tide.

Academia loses credibility when it serves politics
By Marwan Al Kabalan, Special to Gulf News
Published: 29/4/2005, 07:19 (UAE)

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Bernard Lewis, the famous professor of the Middle East at Princeton University, wrote an essay titled Freedom and Justice in the Modern Middle East.
In it he argued that establishing democratic rule in the Arab world isn't only desirable but also real and possible.

"To speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in the Middle East is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present and lack of concern for the Arab future.

"Creating a democratic political and social order in Iraq or elsewhere in the region will not be easy. But it is possible, and there are increasing signs that it has already begun," Lewis wrote.

In essence, this argument marks a significant shift from Lewis's original thesis on Islam and Arabism.

Decades ago, Lewis and like-minded scholars preached "modernisation" or "development" as the answer to the Middle East's woes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, basing most of its analysis on Euro-American historical development, the modernisation school argued that the transition from traditionalism to modernity was desirable, unavoidable and, hence, it represented the future of the Arab world.

In this view the history and structures of traditional Arab societies were seen as retreating in the face of modernity and social change.

Democracy was until recently a remote possibility and in many cases an unnecessary scenario; whereby anti-US elements might take over power in many Arab countries.