Sunday, June 25, 2006

Odds and Ends

I will be traveling for a week and won't be able to post, alas.

Here are a few worthy articles:

In the "American Conservative," Divided & Conquered: A visit to Syria, Israel, and Palestine reveals the barriers—physical as well as political—to Mideast peace: By Scott McConnell, July 3, 2006.

Syria cracks down on dissent by Anoushka Marashlian, for "Open Democracy," 19 - 6 - 2006.
The domestic, regional and exile pressures on Bashar al-Assad's regime are still a long way from threatening regime change in Damascus, says Anoushka Marashlian.

Compare the al-Hayat story by Walid Choucair to Slackman's
Syria is Not Iran - Jun 24, 2006: It is natural for Syria to want to open up to the influential Arab states at this stage. The question that is mostly raised in the ...

Wary of U.S., Syria and Iran Strengthen Ties
Michael Slackman and Katherine Zoepf in the NYTimes June 25, 2006

SAYEDA ZEINAB, Syria, June 24 — For a long time, the top-selling poster in Hassan al-Sheikh's gift shop here showed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seated beside the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. A few weeks ago a slightly different poster overtook it, this one with the Syrian president, the Hezbollah leader and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Sheikh's shop is on a bustling street in Sayeda Zeinab beside the entrance to a Shiite shrine that shares a name with the town, and both have been packed with Iranian pilgrims, many more than in years past.

Those changes illustrate what may well be a worrying phenomenon for Washington as it seeks to contain Iran and isolate Syria: the two governments, and their people, are tightening relations on several fronts as power in the region shifts away from the once dominant Sunni to Shiites, led by Iran.

This is, in part, the result of the American installation of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led government. But it is also spurred by the growing belief in Arab capitals that the Bush administration may soon negotiate a deal with Tehran over Iraq and nuclear weapons.

Arab governments once hostile to Iran have begun to soften their public posture after decades of animosity toward Tehran. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt met Iran's national security chief, Ali Larijani, in Cairo recently, and Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, visited Tehran this month and declared the two nations to be good friends. In addition, Iranian officials recently sent messages of friendship to every Persian Gulf state.

Amid all that activity, Syria has managed to inflate its power in the region by playing a subtle double game and setting itself up as a possible go-between.

On one hand, it is offering Iran the chance to develop a strong and unified crescent of influence extending from Syria to the Palestinian territories, now led by Hamas, a Syrian and Iranian ally. On the other, Syria, which has a secular-oriented government but is made up of different religious sects and ethnic groups, has held itself out as an important player in the Sunni effort to limit the spread of Shiite influence. That has helped it with Arab countries and has attracted investment from the around the gulf, diplomats and political analysts in Syria said.

"Syria will work to use its role as a pivotal point to get the most from both the Arabs and Iranians," said Ayman Abdel Nour, a political analyst and Baath Party member who works for more political freedoms.

Syria's strategy has helped it win crucial support at a time when it is cut off from the United States and Europe. But political analysts and government officials say it is also a risky strategy, one that could weaken Syria if Iran cuts a deal with the West over its nuclear program — and abandons its ally in Damascus.

"Syrian officials are worried about America making a deal with Iran," said Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University. "Syrians fear that Iranians will use them as a card to buy something from America."

At the same time, Iran's efforts to bolster Shiism in parts of Syria come as the government here is confronted by the rise of radical Islamic ideas that many say are being exported from the gulf region. Though relations with Iran are widely perceived as a political alliance rather than a religious one, the confluence of the two forces could aggravate sectarian rivalries. Tensions among Syria's many religious and ethic groups burn so hot beneath the surface of the society that newspapers are forbidden from identifying sects even when reporting on Iraq.

Syria and Iran began establishing closer ties decades ago, but the real strides have been recent.

Syria has signed expanded military and economic agreements with Tehran covering everything from telecommunications projects to higher education. Syria will buy missiles from Iran. Iran will build cement and car plants in Syria.

At the same time, Arab nations that have been cool to Syria are now reaching out to it. Syria received the king of Bahrain this month, he met Thursday with Mr. Mubarak, and this week President Assad held a telephone conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Relations between Amman and Damascus became strained when Jordanian officials accused Syria of allowing Hamas to smuggle weapons across Syrian territory and into Jordan — charges Syria has denied.

"Iran injected Syria with a lot of confidence: stand up, show defiance," said Sami Moubayed, a political analyst and writer in Damascus. "Iran is giving them advice. This is certain."

European diplomats here said that Syria's turn away from the West — and toward Iran and other Eastern countries — had also been part of a domestic power struggle between two forces within the government. Those who favored at least trying to keep a foot in the door with Europe have been silenced, and those seeking to shift Syria toward the East have been empowered, said the diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid aggravating tensions between their governments and Damascus.........

Damascus (AsiaNews) Syria Poses Conditions for Dialogue With Beirut
The Syrian Information Minister Mohsin Bilal, said that first "we have to wait until internal Lebanese dialogue is concluded" (started in Beirut in March and going on intermittently since). He told a delegation of Lebanese journalists, including the AsiaNews correspondent: "When you have finished your meetings, you will be welcome in Syria".

Bilal emphasized the availability of his government to start sincere dialogue, without mediation, between the two countries before dealing with practical issues. "Don't expect Syria to ask anyone to mediate between us and Lebanon," he warned, underlining the importance of existing agreements "which must be respected." This was a response to calls by the anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon, which is demanding a review of all agreements Lebanon signed with Syria in the past.

The minister clearly said Damascus will receive anyone who wants to go to Syria, "on condition they don't pass through Washington or Paris." Lebanon has asked for a meeting with Syrian officials, but Damascus has been reluctant to invite Prime Minister Fuad Siniora for talks. In a wider context, the reference here is to international pressure exerted by the United States, France and Great Britain, which have promoted a series of UN resolutions regarding Lebanon. The most unpalatable for Damascus is Resolution 1559 of the Security Council that calls on Syria to end its interference in Lebanese affairs, to define its borders and to establish diplomatic ties with Beirut. Bilal called on the French government "to play its historic role", distancing itself from the USA, which is only following "its self-interest" in the region.

Today, the Syrian press reported government sources saying that yesterday's meeting between the Syrian President, Bashar Assad and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, mediator in the Lebanese-Syrian conflict, "did not yield any positive outcome". Damascus even took the opportunity to reiterate that "for the moment, the issues of the border and diplomatic ties will be not discussed."

Already at the beginning of the week, the Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister Walid Muallem had said that "this is not the right time to establish diplomatic ties" between Syria and Lebanon. However the Lebanese MP, Saad Hariri was more optimistic. Yesterday, in Paris, where he met President Chirac, the son of the ex-Premier Rafic Hariri, killed last year, said diplomatic ties with Syria "are possible".
Exiled leader of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria ready to hold peace ...

"The Truth about Islamic Extremist Groups in Syria" by Abdullah T.

By Abdullah T.
June 20, 2006
For "Syria Comment"

Before the war in Iraq, Syria was largely abscent of Islamic extremists. It was one of the most stable and safest countries in the Middle East. But the war in Iraq and the opening of the Iraqi arena for extremist groups changed the security situation in Syria. Syria has become a gateway for volunteer Pan-Arabists and Mujahideen. As a result, the border regions of Syria (Abu Kamal, specifically) have witnessed gatherings of people bent on joining the Jihad in Iraq, especially during the opening day of the war when the republic’s Mufti, Ahmad Kaftaro, declared, “Jihad in Iraq is a duty for all Muslims.” However, after the first year of the Iraqi occupation, small terrorist incidents carried out by Salafists began to be recorded. On 6 May 2004, three Syrian youths with religious backgrounds attacked an uninhabited house previously owned by Rifa’at Al Asad (the president’s uncle). On 6 May 2005, Syrian security forces raided a house that was inhabited by a fundamentalist group and stumbled upon a “variety of weapons.” And in the beginning of 2006, violent clashes occurred in remote parts of the Damascene countryside between Salafis and Syrian security forces.

It is hard to deny the existence of Islamic extremist groups in Syria, however, one must ask why these groups are targeting Syria? Why do Syrian security forces always seem to find these groups in the countryside and behind closed doors? And why do these groups always seem to target insignificant targets? They have never targeted important political, military or tourist sites as is the case in other countries.

Security and intelligence sources in Syria have publicly announced that Syria has arrested between 1200 to 1800 Jihadi extremists of various sorts, some from the Jund Ash Sham (The Army of Sham). But one informant within Syrian Intelligence puts the number of arrests closer to 4000.

What is more, it was explained to me that Syrian Intelligence uses members of Jund Ash Sham from time to time for its own purposes. Syrian Intelligence deceives members of Jund Ash Sham into believing that Syrian Intelligence will assist them in carrying out terrorist acts in Iraq. Syrian Intelligence leads would be fighters into believing that the state authorities will help them to carry out martyrdom operations in Iraq. The authorities set up the unwitting Jihadists in houses far the city center in remote areas and supply them with weapons ostensibly for secret operations. Then the Syrian security forces surround the Jihadists swoop into the house and kill them. The security forces in triumph then trot journalists out to report on their success and the looming danger of terrorism in Syria.

I have been informed that the victims are indeed authentic Jihadists and Salafists, who hope to fight in Iraq. But the Syrian regime turns them to their own purposes to achieve two goals: first, they eliminate dangerous radical fundamentalists; second, they demonstrate to the world and especially to the United States that Syria is afflicted by terrorism just as America is. The implication is that Syria and the West must find common ground in the war on terrorism.


After Syria opened its borders to volunteer Mujahideen, many Syrians and Arabs went to Iraq across the border and after the fall of Baghdad many volunteers escaped to Syria and this is something I witnessed with my own eyes in Abu Kamal. Abu Kamal was the site of many arrests of Arab volunteers because it was the main transit point between Iraq and Syria. In the course of my interview with a returning volunteer from Iraq, he told me that “in the beginning, the Syrian Mukhabarat (Syrian Intelligence) allowed them to go to Iraq.” But, when he returned to Syria the Mukhabarat arrested him and accused him of being a prominent member of Al Qaeda and added his name to the International Office of Terrorism in Damascus. In spite of the fact that American security forces arrested him for three months and then released him when it became clear that he was not associated to any armed group or organization. There are many people returning from Iraq that are arrested by Syrian Intelligence and accused of being terrorists while only a small minority actually are. This is, in actual fact, the way the Syrian Intelligence deals with people returning from Iraq. The Syrian Administration is using the International Office of Terrorism and its “list of names” as a negotiating card for every foreign policy crisis.

Syria has been the most successful Arab regime in combating terrorist cells. There have been no successful terrorist strikes within Syria. Its record compared to Jordan, Egypt or Saudi Arabia is good.

But why have fundamentalist groups not targeted Syria for a serious strike? Is it because they view Syria as a strategic ally in their war on the West, even if Syria is playing a double game in order to protect itself? Perhaps they have tried but have been thwarted by Syria’s intelligence apparatus, which has clearly penetrated various Jihadist cells? It is hard to answer such questions definitively. Perhaps there is no unified strategy among the various branches of Syria’s security machine.

One must conclude, however, that up to this point, Syria has finessed the terrorist upsurge spreading through the region with cunning effectiveness, even as it has stumbled in its relations with the West. Like so many states in the region, Syria initially sought to export its fundamentalists to Iraq in the hope that they would meet their end in the Mesopotamian struggle. Those who have returned are promptly arrested and interrogated.

An Opposition Member Gives His Analysis

These two notes were sent to me by an important freethinking intellectual in Damascus. He asked that I not use his name at this time.

Like Father like Son: The myth of the Old Guard

I am not upset anymore of the Syrian opposition failure; it is something that I have become accustomed to. For example, I did not sign the "Damascus – Beirut" declaration - not because I do not agree with it, but because its timing was wrong, according to my point of view. In the matter of fact, I think that this declaration should have been announced directly after the assassination of Mr. Rafiq Hariri and not almost a year later. Due to the huge external pressures then, the Syrian regime was not able to react the way it has done so far. In brief, I think that the Syrian opposition missed the right moment to hit.

However, I am really annoyed about the way that President Bashar is assuming more and more power: it reflects the same old manners of his father, President Hafez. It is the same gradual, relentless, and determined approach. After all, President Hafez did not change into a dictator, just like that, in a moment of time.

Regardless of the great differences in conditions surrounding their assumption of power (i.e. the Father and the Son) on the international and regional levels, there are also a number of pointes of resemblance, to the astonishment of all of us:

• Both of them started their rule with a promise of change. It was the "Tashih – correction" for the father, and the "Islah - reform" for the son;

• Both of them inspired first (by accident??) the widespread idea that they were good persons in their hearts, but they were helpless toward the corrupt team surrounding them (the "Old Guard", during the early days of President Bashar's rule). In my opinion, this idea is crucial for the appearance of a new dictator, or even it is a real call for this appearance. For when people start to believe in it, they start also to accept the assuming of more and more power by this "good-heated" man;

• Both of them capitalized on their "victories" in their confrontations with the "outside" to achieve a complete win in their struggle for power. It was the "War of October" for the father, and the confrontation with the US and especially with the Mehlis investigation for the son;

• Both of them resorted to assassinate their external enemies: politicians and journalists in Lebanon (Kamal Junblat / Rafiq Hariri; Saleem Al-Louzy / Jubran Twaini, to mention only a few);

• During his first years of rule, and before the confrontation with Muslim Brotherhood, President Hafez never resorted to wide arrests among the Syrian opposition. Arrests were always limited; however they were used to spread fear on a wide-scale, and they were intensified in the mid 1970's by resorting to firing state-employees through what is known as "abusive end of service measures". It seems that President Bashar is using the same old "toolkit". Limited arrests can be easily forgotten, they think, but serve the same purpose as wide-scale arrests: they instill pervasive fear.

Is Syria on its way toward a more generalized oppression of freedoms, the way it used to be in the 1980's? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be: yes.

He also sent me this response to my Lebanon article:
Dear Josh,
Your article, Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon, is simply fantastic, congratulations…

However, I would like to make the following comments:

"In an ideal moral universe, the answer to the question of which country – Lebanon or Syria – is responsible for improving relations between the two is simple. It is Syria’s duty. Syria must satisfy a long checklist before having restored full sovereignty to Lebanon. 1) It must clarify ownership of Shabaa farms, 2) stop arms transfers to Palestinian militias and Hizbullah, 3) stop threatening Lebanese politicians, 4) account for missing and imprisoned Lebanese, and 5) establish an embassy in Beirut", you wrote.

I think the word "responsible" in the original question is tricky. I think the question should be rephrased to become: “Improving Syrian Lebanese relations ... whose interest is it?”

I think that the massage expressed by Syrian intellectuals who signed the "Damascus – Beirut Declaration" was clear: improving Syrian Lebanese relations is one of Syria's highest national interests. While this is clear for most Syrian's, the Syrian regime was very aware of the implication, i.e. that it is responsible for endangering Syria's highest national interests, and hence its violent reaction toward these intellectuals.

The other massage, of which the regime was aware, also, is that Syria's foreign policy is a failure. Here we have real sphinxes in the ministry of foreign affaires, who refuse to react under pressure (since this hurts "Syrians national pride"!!) and do not move when those pressures calm down. To my best knowledge, the last sphinx, Mr. Waleed Mua'llem is still "looking east", or may be just staring. It will be fun to explain this "looking east" strategy as either looking to Americans in Iraq, or looking to Washington via the Pacific Ocean. I think that the 5 points you mentioned above can really provide basis for a Syrian initiative to be marketed, and negotiated, by the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the light of Syria's highest national interests. However, it seems that language of the successive sphinxes lacks the word "initiative". Moreover, the regime has always thought of its foreign policy as a red line, and this explains another side of its reaction against the intellectuals.

Back to your article and to options you suggested on "How will Lebanon win full sovereignty. I think that option 3, "The United States makes a deal with Syria on Lebanon’s behalf to buy Lebanese sovereignty from Syria…" is the most important option, given:

• The lack of a Syrian initiative;

• The willingness of the Syrian regime to make a deal with the US. In the matter of fact, President Bachar referred to this in one of his speeches, when he said that he asked the American: "what is the deal "Safqa" you are offering?" In this context, one might observe a tendency. The regimes of Syria, Iran, and North Korea, all ask to deal directly with the US. I know only a little about Iran and North Korea, but in the Syrian case I think that the reason is clear. It relates not only to the "US acceptance of the Asad regime’s legitimacy", as you have rightly noticed, but also to fears of Syria's policy makers to negotiate things with other parties, such as the EU, and reach an agreement that might fail to win US appreciation. Since they know that their negotiation capacity is very limited, they prefer to negotiate directly with the US to know exactly what the American interests are.

• Since points 1 and 2 above (i.e. clarify ownership of Shabaa farms, stop arms transfers to Palestinian militias and Hizbullah) relate also the Syrian-Israeli conflict, Syrian policy makers will be reluctant to find solutions these issues without US. direct involvement.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The CIA's View of Syria

In the recent Front Line documentary, "The Dark Side," shown on PBS, Michael Scheuer explains the CIA view of Syria: This is what he said:

Syria is a perfect example. Syria, in my adult life, has always been tagged as an enemy of the United States and as a threat, but once you get inside the intelligence community, you find out that the Syrians are bankrupt, a police state that's riven with factions and couldn't threaten the United States in 100 years.
Michael Scheuer was chief of the CIA's Bin Laden Desk from 1995 to 1999 and headed an internal CIA investigation into the allegations of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda -- an allegation his team found to be false. He is the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.

The whole part of the interview on Syria reads:

Question: At the moment of 9/11, give me a report card on the status of the CIA, vis-à-vis the new White House: their attitude, orientation, hopes, fears.

Michael Scheuer: There was a sort of euphoria that the Bush administration was going to be a strong backer of the CIA,... although it was clear that some members of that administration, particularly [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense] Mr. [Paul] Wolfowitz and [Secretary of Defense] Mr. [Donald] Rumsfeld, really had very little use for the intelligence community as a whole.

Question: Why, do you think?

Michael Scheuer: I think we weren't giving them the answers over the years that they wanted to hear. Syria is a perfect example. Syria, in my adult life, has always been tagged as an enemy of the United States and as a threat, but once you get inside the intelligence community, you find out that the Syrians are bankrupt, a police state that's riven with factions and couldn't threaten the United States in 100 years.

But because Rumsfeld and [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas] Feith and Wolfowitz are so pro-Israeli, the answer needs to come back, "Yes, Syria is a threat." Over the course of a decade and longer, even back into the first Bush administration and into Mr. Reagan's administration, the enemies of Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Feith, Mr. Wolfowitz were not necessarily the enemies that you could derive from the intelligence material.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Arab Nationalism, Secure Borders, and Democracy

Some Thoughts on Arab Nationalism, Secure Borders, and Democracy: a Response to Readers

A number of readers criticized my previous article: “Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon.”

Here is my response: (I have moved it from the comment section and given it a separate post because it is long and hopefully worthy of discussion.)

Mounif complains about artificial borders. He writes:

Please tell me why do you advocate the strengthening of the artificial borders and barriers that were established by the colonialist French and British. This is at a time when the European Union is abolishing them, the Latin Americans have Mercosur, the East Asian have the Shanghai cooperation council, and the Americans have NAFTA and Cafta and the like. My own family is divided between Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria by arbitrary borders. If you were to take a poll you would find the vast majority of the people want to abolish separations and divisions. Lebanon and Syria are NOT countries, please remember this. They are clans and families masquerading as countries.


This gets to the heart of the question raised by many of the comments. Why are borders important? Isn't Arab nationalism the answer to the woes of the Middle East?

I am in sympathy with those idealists who want an EU for the Arab world and some kind of practicable unity.

I would argue, however, that before any successful measure of unity or real cooperation on the scale of the EU can succeed in the Middle East, clear and respected borders will be a prerequisite.

Why? First, this was necessary in Europe as a forerunner of the EU. So long as Pan-German, Pan Slavic, and Pan Whathaveyou ideologies dominated, there was no possibility for cooperation and every incentive for war and mistrust among the peoples of Europe. The second 30-year war - 1914-1945 - was fought in Europe over border issues and questions of national dominance. Pan-national ideologies brought war not cooperation.

The same has been true in the Middle East. The rejection of the foreign imposed borders in the Middle East has led to a terrible and largely destructive identity crisis and jockeying for primacy and unity schemes. These have all caused distrust and enmity, rather than promoting fraternity and cooperation.

Only when national borders are internalized, accepted, and respected, will each Middle Eastern country be in a position to begin compromising on its sovereignty, as was the case in Europe.

Only by accepting borders will unity be possible. This will take lots of time and hard work. The Middle East is far from that point. Iraqi borders and national identity may be redrawn and shaped. Israel and several of its neighbors have yet to settle on their borders - Palestine, Syria, Lebanon. There are other nasty border disputes, one doesn't have to list, including the Lebanon-Syria dispute, which is our concern here.

That is how I see the future of Arabism. It can help with establishing an EU-like confederation, but only once each state fully recognizes the sovereignty of the other. Only then, will the shared history, language, and culture of the peoples of the region be able to work its magic in dismantling the barriers of tariffs, travel, bigotry, and work restrictions.

Did Syria go into Lebanon for the Golan? Or, as Nafdik put it: "Dr Landis' thesis that Syria's entry into Lebanon is motivated by the desire to increase its chances of getting back the Golan Heights is hilarious."

I did not argue that Syria entered Lebanon to get back the Golan. It entered to keep the "Leftist-Muslim" forces from wiping out Christian power, which, it was feared, would result in Israeli intervention into Lebanon. (This was not a stupid concern. Israel did intervene in Lebanon in 1982 with an American green light for this very reason. It hoped to shut down the PLO, secure its border, and reestablish a Maronite leadership that could police its interests. On the way, it hoped to wipe out Syrian missiles, reduce the size of the Syrian air force and military capacity (which it did) and isolate it so Israel could sign peace agreements with Lebanon and Jordan and lock in control of Golan and Occupied territories (which it failed to do at that time).

What I do argue, however, is that once Syria was in Lebanon and had mastered it, the Golan became the major bargaining chip for reaching understanding. Hizbullah was used as Syria's proxy army to keep pricking Israel. Why does Syria keep pricking Israel? To get back occupied land. Yes, there is also an ideological element - Pan Arabism, Pan Syrianism, help the brother Palestinians, you name it - but these are lesser goals and might be sacrificed for land. The 1973 war was fought for the return of the Golan, not to liberate the Palestinians. The Syrian-Israeli peace talks were about the Golan.

Would Syria like to get back the Golan and keep Lebanon too? You bet. This is natural. But the nature of politics is the trade. I think Syria knows a lot about trading and deal making. This was Hafiz al-Asad's hallmark. It is what kept him in power for 30 years. I think Bashar is not immune to deal making. His problem is that everyone thought he was an easy mark, when he first came to power. No one feared him or thought much of the "blind eye doctor's" political skills. He has had to win respect the hard way. He may have his daddy's name, but the respect couldn't be inherited.

He had to learn to be a dictator and brute in a world where power gets you respect. (Let me indulge in a few "Orientalist" generalizations.)

Syria is beset with factionalism, identity confusion, contradictions, and fuzzy thinking - all of which militates against deal making and clarity in its bargaining. All the same, it does have one leader and one state. At the end of the day, this makes deal making possible. Bashar will use Arabism, Syrianism, Godism, and whatever works to keep the Syrian people behind him as he navigates the difficult market place of Middle East politics. He is learning to be an accomplished demagogue.

OK - With that said, I do think that pan-Arab and Syrian ideologies make it very difficult to sign peace with Israel or quit Lebanon, as many have argued. I also think that Asad's being an Alawite, and thus vulnerable, makes it more difficult to compromise than if he were a Sunni.

All the same, I think these fears, so often put forward as fact by parties that do not want to give up the Golan or who urge regime-change in Syria, are not convincing.

Asad, the father, was a realist above everything else. He was certainly constrained by ideology, which he understood was important to his survival and legitimacy, but he wasn't ruled by it.

Perhaps the most revealing proof of this was given in a long al-Arabiyya interview with George Hawi, the leader of Lebanon's Communist Party, just before his murder last year. Hawi explained how he and a number of fellow leftist leaders from Lebanon had come over to Damascus during the later years of the civil war to ask Hafiz to unite the two countries and hold one set of elections in both "brotherly" states.

Of course, Hawi and his friends may have just been suggesting this as a form of madiih and mujammila for the big man in Sham, but Hawi didn't laugh when he explained this to the al-Arabiyya interviewer.

Asad answered him something like this: "No, Lebanon is its own entity (kiyan). We cannot do this. It would not work." This is how Hawi reported Asad's words. Hawi was explaining to his Arab viewers that not even Asad believed that Lebanon and Syria could be united or were psychologically prepared to be one country. Each had its own identity and set of problems.

Asad did not say that Lebanon was a different nation or had the right to full sovereignty - but he did recognize that he could only push the Lebanese so far or there would be revolt. We have seen that revolt most recently.

All of this is to say that - Yes, Arabism and Syrianism are still important ideologies which constrain Syrian deal making over Lebanon and with Israel. Much as the ideology of "democracy promotion" constrains how the US does politics in the Middle east. But I do not believe it is the only, or has to be the major factor in guiding those relations.

Just as Bush made peace with Libya, I think Asad could make peace with Lebanon or Israel, if the price were right. So long as the price is not right, Asad will sing Arabism, Palestinian rights, one people in two countries, and all the other slogans that have meaning, but are not the only meaning.

I do not think peace is a lost cause, in theory. In fact, I think it is the only way forward. I do not understand why the United States is not pushing border consolidation, harder. It is pushing it for its friends, but not for its enemies. This is a mistake justified by faulty ideology. The democracy ideology is getting in the way of clarifying borders. As things stand, only pro-American democracies have the right to US support in claiming that their borders be respected. If the US would help its enemies - Syria and the Palestinians - secure internationally recognized borders, Washington would undo one big source of the ill will directed against it. Most important, however, it would set the stage for the Middle East to transcend its fixation with nationalist mistrust and recrimination. Middle Eastern states might actually be able to find the wherewithal to move forward and concentrate on internal reform, development, and other good things that the people of the region demand. Nothing would help break the cycle of violence and justification for thuggery more than recognized and secure borders. Rather than arguing that democracy is a prerequisite for American assistance, Washington should promote respect for international borders in the hope this will promote democratization. Secure and recognized borders are not the only prerequisite for democratization, but they are one thing that Washington can actually help establish and which will help facilitate the transition to democracy.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon

Creative Syria, run by Kamil-Alexandre, asks several Syrianists to answer the question: “Improving Syrian Lebanese relations ... whose responsibility is it?”
Here is my answer:

Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon
By Joshua Landis
Published by The Syrian Think Tank
June 21, 2006

In an ideal moral universe, the answer to the question of which country – Lebanon or Syria – is responsible for improving relations between the two is simple. It is Syria’s duty. Syria must satisfy a long checklist before having restored full sovereignty to Lebanon. It must clarify ownership of Shabaa farms, stop arms transfers to Palestinian militias and Hizbullah, stop threatening Lebanese politicians, account for missing and imprisoned Lebanese, and establish an embassy in Beirut.

But we do not live in an ideal universe, much as we would like to. International relations are contingent. It is unproductive to consider Syro-Lebanese relations in isolation from those of the greater Middle East, as we are now doing. Most important are Syria and Lebanon’s relations with Israel and Iraq. Because Lebano-Syrian relations are part of an international relations subsystem, it is necessary to review how Lebanon became entangled in this system as an adjunct of Syria in order to figure out how to disentangle it and build an independent status for it.

Lebanon first became hostage to the greater Arab-Israeli conflict when it entered the 1948 war as an adjunct to Syria and the Arab League. This was largely the doing of the Sunni elite that was pan-Arab and led by Riad al-Solh. The arming of the PLO in the camps and collapse of Lebanese national consensus led to the Civil War. Syria was forced to intervene in order to stop the sectarian bloodbath which threatened Syrian unity, but most importantly, Syria had to keep Israel from intervening and establishing hegemony over Lebanon. Had Israel filled the Lebanese vacuum and installed a friendly Maronite government, Lebanon would have become a launching pad to destabilize Syria. The Golan would have been lost forever. Syria had to protect its flank and Lebanon lost its independence.

Iraq became entangled in Lebanon in a serious way at the very end of the civil war, when General Aoun substituted Israeli support with Saddam Hussein’s. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US finally gave Asad the green light to end the Lebanese civil war and wipe out Aoun’s forces in exchange for Syrian backing in the Gulf War. US recognition of a Pax-Syriana in Lebanon was traded for Syrian recognition of a Pax Americana in the Gulf. It was not a perfect world, but everyone got more or less what they wanted save for the Aounists and Saddam Hussein.

Syrian suzerainty in Lebanon afforded it augmented leverage in its relations with Israel and the US. The emergence of Hizbullah in response to Israel’s occupation of the South of Lebanon was a Godsend to Syria. By harnessing Hizbullah to its campaign to pressure Israel for a return of the Golan, Syria finally achieved the firepower needed to get Tel Aviv’s respect and attention, something it had never been able to do. By mastering Lebanon, Syria achieved what Sadat accomplished with the crossing of Suez in 1973. Prime Minister Rabin began negotiations for Golan. Not only were the Heights back in play, but Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon and backing for Hizbullah were also on the bargaining table.

I do not know which country is most responsible for the failure of the Golan talks, but Prime Minister Barak made the determination that Syria was asking more than Israel would give. Instead he unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in the hope that Hizbullah would wither away, for the lack of an enemy. The Shabaa Farms pretext was hurriedly establish to provide a continuing rational for preserving the lines of battle and pressure on Israel. Although Israel’s hand was somewhat strengthened by its withdrawal, the borders remained disputed and the circle of enmity continued.

This brings us to the new world of George Bush, the status quo crusher, and the war on Iraq. President Bush, by destroying Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, dreamed of completely reversing the regional status quo and building a new subsystem of international relations in the region. In one blow, he hoped to destroy Arab nationalism as an ideology and roll back the power of anti-American and Israeli states such as Syria, if not change their regimes.

He was able to get Syria to withdraw its remaining forces from Lebanon and was instrumental in shifting Sunni ideological allegiance away from Syria and Arabism toward Lebanonism. All the same, the Bush revolution has largely foundered and may be in retreat.

Arabism did not die and the Syrian regime has survived. On the contrary, Bashar has consolidated his power and his regime is strengthened since the initial report on the Hariri killing. Hizbullah assumed the mantle of Arab nationalism in Lebanon and won new recruits, namely General Aoun and his followers. Lebanon remains deeply divided. One must speculate that it can only give Washington minimal help in any continuing efforts to role back Syria and Arabism.

For its part, President Asad realized that Syria was being directly targeted by Bush’s long-term plans for the region. He extended Lahoud’s term to put someone “strong” and dependable in the presidency. This forced Hariri to choose sides in a war he had hoped to avoid. His decision to join the Syrian opposition is widely believed to be the reason he was killed. This did not stop the Lebanese Sunnis from abandoning Syria and leading the Cedar revolution against Syria, but it did leave Lebanon leaderless and divided. Siniora, for all his excellent qualities, has not been able to command the same loyalty among Lebanese or unite the different communities as Hariri did. The Cedar revolution has collapsed and Lebanon finds itself only half liberated, with many unresolved problems.

How will Lebanon win full sovereignty? There are only a few options.

1) The United States continues to press forward with its revolution and finishes off the Asad regime, thereby throwing Syria into confusion and forcing a successor regime to renounce Asad’s foreign policy of using Lebanon as a card in its struggle to retrieve the Golan and promote its regional power. This is very unlikely.

2) The UN will prove that Syria assassinated Hariri and, based on this, the Security Council will win international and region support to sanction Syria so severely that it has the same result as option 1 and leads to Syria renouncing Hizbullah, Shabaa Farms, and its influence in Lebanon. Also, not likely.

3) The United States makes a deal with Syria on Lebanon’s behalf to buy Lebanese sovereignty from Syria. This would have to include successful peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which would bring a definitive end to the region’s border disputes and would serve to extinguish some of the principle demands of Arabism with the return of the Golan.

a. Another element the US would have to bring to the table is Iraqi relations with Syria. Right now, the US is using Iraq to pressure Syria – the Kirkuk oil pipeline is cut, trade is discouraged, and normal diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Damascus have been placed on hold.

b. Finally, the US would have to recognize the Asad regime and bring it back in from the cold, allowing it to trade freely with Europe and the West in general.

In order to cut a deal for Lebanese sovereignty, not all these things would have to be traded at once and unconditionally, but they would have to be on the table. US acceptance of the Asad regime’s legitimacy would have to be the starting point.

This option is also unlikely to happen. The Hariri murder investigation is on-going. Bush’s stated goal of advancing democracy in the region hinges on the Syrian example, as does his stated objective of reforming the Greater Middle East and putting Hizbullah and armed Palestinian militias out of business. Most difficult for Washington, however, is to put the Golan back in play. It is not clear at all that Washington has the capacity or political will to pressure Israel to give up Golan. Sharon said it was not worth giving up the Golan for peace with Syria. Other Israelis have suggested that Syria must have free elections before Israel can reenter peace talks. The balance of power between Israel and Syria is so tipped in Israel’s favor these days that Israel will continue to find a reason to put off talks. It is very difficult to envisage why Tel Aviv would want to give away the Golan.

4) There is a forth option. It is for Lebanon to go it alone, cut its ties to the US, and accept Egyptian and Saudi efforts to mediate between Syria and Lebanon. This solution is fraught with dangers for Lebanon. Hariri, Siniora, and the various groups allied with the Future Movement would not accept such a deal. Their government would not survive such an about face. They would be punished by the US. Hizbullah and Aoun would come out winners. Even if Saudi offered to promote and underwrite Lebanon’s loan rescheduling, the US would likely put Lebanon back on the terrorist list, proscribe trade, and prevent the World Bank, IMF and other international agencies from assisting Lebanon. There are no guarantees that Syria would actually offer Lebanon full sovereignty without the Golan back and US backing – two things that Beirut and Riyadh have no influence over. Syria might hand over the Shabaa Farms and sacrifice support for the Palestinian militias, but it would not help to disarm Hizbullah and cease to have an influence over Lebanese affairs through its Lebanese supporters.

For these reasons, it is hard to see how Lebanon is going to solve the long checklist of problems it has with Syria. The deep ideological and sectarian divisions in Lebanon will continue to frustrate government efforts to build a successful policy for sovereignty and will continue to leave the country vulnerable to outside manipulation.

The United States has done what heavy lifting it can, but its moral and military force in the region is largely spent. It will continue to use Lebanon as a card against Syria, but will be unable to deliver much of added worth to the Lebanese.

Syria will continue to hang on to its Lebanon card; Lebanon remains its most important asset in negotiating with Israel and the United States. It may make some minor concessions on Lebanese sovereignty in side deals with Europe, but it will not help disarm Hizbullah or fully recognize Lebanese sovereignty until there is broader regional peace and its interests have been taken into account. In the mean time, we can dream about an ideal moral universe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Word On The Syrian Economy And The IMF Report, By EHSANI2

A word on the Syrian Economy and the IMF report
June 20, 2006

(Also see addendum at bottom by Steven Heydemann)

Dr. Landis earlier posted a story entitled “Former Chancellor Schroeder puffs Syrian Economy: So does IMF”. One of commentators in the previous post (Nafdik) asked if I had a comment on the report. Even though this subject has been discussed repeatedly on this forum, I decided to post this comment at the expense of repeating myself.

First, I would encourage everyone to read the full IMF report rather than depending on Mr. Dardari’s summary of it.

These are some of the things that you will learn if you took the time to read the fine document:

Though non-oil growth was 5.5%, overall growth was limited to 3%, given the decline in oil production. The main reasons behind the economic growth are thought to be:

-Higher private investments from the Gulf region.
-Expansion of domestic credit as ceilings on maximum lending were raised
-Continued effects of the already announced public sector wage increases.
-Lower tariffs on imports, which has resulted in increased private sector investments.
-Low real interest rates because inflation has risen to 7%.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Dardari chose to highlight the 5.5% number out of the entire document as a proof that the country’s economy is on a strong path to growth and prosperity. He correctly assumed that most people will not read the report in its entirety. Those who do will notice that enormous challenges lie ahead. Indeed, the report opens up with this statement:

“The Syrian economy is facing daunting challenges”.

It ends with this:

“We wish the authorities success in pursuing the demanding agenda of reform ahead”.

My own observations follow:

Syria’s GDP is estimated to be $22 billion. 5.5% GDP growth translates into $ 1.2 billion in extra income/production per year. Dividing this increased income by the size of the population yields a per capita increased income of $61. In other words, if Syria’s per capita GDP started from a base of $1100, last year’s 5.5% growth has raised this number by $61 to $1161. In reality, the actual total GDP growth was 3% according to the report. This means that the actual increase in per capita GDP (income) was $33.

What the above numerical example highlights is that this economy needs a sustained and long period of above average growth before the low per capita GDP level is substantially affected. Mr. Dardari would like to see the economy create 1.2 million jobs in the next four years. This is going to be the minimum required to absorb the new entrants in the ever-expanding labor force. Without this level of job creation, the unemployment rate is likely to keep going higher. If you read between the lines of what Mr. Dardari says, you will conclude the following:

200,000 jobs were created as a result of 5.5% non-oil GDP growth rate. Since the country needs to create 300,000 jobs, it stands that the non-oil economy needs to grow by as much as 8.25% to achieve this goal (5.5*300)/(200)- not the 7% that Dardari targets in the five-year plan.

With all due respect, this is a monumental task.

While certain reforms are being implemented, the report makes it clear that the country continues to rank as one of the worst in the world for ease of doing business. Syria’s rank of 135 out of 155 countries in the world highlights the heavy burden imposed by outmoded or ill-conceived regulation. In enforcing contracts, the country ranked 149 out of 155. It takes 47 procedures and an average of 672 days to enforce contracts. On trading across borders, it ranked 146 in the world. In order to complete an export transaction, a business needs 12 documents and 19 signatures. Those who want to import goods must negotiate an even worse obstacle course - 18 different documents and 47 signatures are required from start to finish. In an OECD country, you need an average of 3 signatures by contrast.

This is shameful. After six years in office, there is no excuse for continuing to keep these outmoded regulatory burdens on businesses. The President’s economic team needs to reform these laws immediately and without hesitation.

As for foreign investments, there is no question that this has been part of a clear upward trend recently. With close to 20 million people and being the fifth most populated country in the region, Syria has tremendous potential. Gulf investors saw an opportunity to buy into that potential on the cheap, and they did. Buying real estate for the long haul in a country like Syria is a sound strategy. The Syrian coast boasts less than 850 beds in 5-star establishments (I personally would not rate them 5-star). This is amazingly low for a country of this size. It is inevitable that the country will need new residential buildings, hotels and resorts. In Beirut for example, one is hard pressed to find even a handful of empty lots suited for such developments. They have been bought already. Now, these same large investors and others see Syria as the next opportunity judging by the low price entry point. Such investors will likely enjoy handsome price appreciation on their investments.

Anyone who feels the urge to rush to the Syrian coast looking for land, however, is likely to be disappointed. The usual suspects have already snapped up most, if not all, of the land suited for such developments. Indeed, in the case of Syria, most new laws are usually drafted to custom fit investments that have already taken place. Happily for them, and sadly for the rest of us, this trend is likely to continue.

Addendum: Steven Heydemann of Georgetown University wrote me this important observation:

The link between comments promoting investment and comments noting what needs to be changed to improve the investment climate are clear, intentional, and important. They are not afterthoughts, as your column suggests. European incentives via negotiations over the association agreement (now shut down) are seen in Syria as having been a source of positive pressure for economic policy change. What these European leaders are trying to do is to maintain those incentives in the absence of the formal association agreement framework. So they do the old two-step: promote investment, but link it to the need for change.

No one imagines this as a major or powerful source of pressure, but the focus should be as much on what these politicians are saying needs to be changed as on their "puffs" for the economy.
Steven's remarks about my "Puff" post are important. European powers have been skeptical of Washington's "democratize-or-else" policy from the beginning. They have maintained that it is important not to cut off relations Syria, but to pursue a policy of positive engagement. This was centered on the Madrid process or association agreement, as Steven maintains.

Because that was taken off the table after the Hariri murder, European powers have been at sixes and sevens to preserve their policy of positive engagement without stepping on Washington's and France's toes.

With the publication of the lack-luster Brammertz report, which gives Syria a further reprieve and which holds out the distinct possibility that evidence of authorship of the Hariri murder may never be sufficient to convict, Europe is looking to ease its way back into its old policy of constructive engagement.

Recent pronouncements by the French foreign minister suggest France is reaching a hand out to Damascus much as Germany is by OK-ing Schroeder's recent visit to Syria to fluff the economy.

What we have here is a return to the established routine of Washington playing the bad cop and Europe playing the good cop, offering a fistful of carrots. Steven Heydemann wants people to understand this and suggests that Damascus take the carrots, move ahead with reforms, and patch up its relations with Europe. The promise - I guess - is that Washington can be brought around, if Damascus takes the right steps in correcting its relationship with Lebanon. France has made it crystal clear that the only agenda it has is Syria's relationship with Lebanon. There are real policy differences between Europe and the US. France and Germany are offering Syria a chance to move back into the comfort zone.

If not - Washington is sitting there with the hammer. Here is a bit of George Bush's most recent speech (Merchant Marine Academy June 19):
U.S. President George Bush has said that the United States and Europe will continue working for Lebanon's independence and stressed the need to spread democracy in the Middle East.

"We've worked with the United Nations to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and we will not rest until the Lebanese people enjoy full independence," Bush said Monday in a speech to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The World Cup of Dissent Decimation

Arab states are in competition with one another to see who can smack down their opposition the hardest. It is the World Cup of dissent decimation. This free for all is taking place as a direct result of the decline in US authority brought on by events in Iraq and Iran. Washington must husband its remaining political capital to spend on its upcoming struggle with Iran. It cannot afford to alienate Arab governments when it may well need their support in the UN and in the court of international opinion. During 2005, when Washington power was still reverberating and Bush was in the blush of his new term, Arab governments did the liberalization hokey pokey to placate Washington's transformation-of-the-Middle-East chest thumping. Now that the Bush administration is a lame duck, the mice have come out to play and the heroes of the Karaguz shadow play are being whacked right and left.

Syria continues to intimidate its opposition. Prime Minister Otri fired 17 state employees for signing a petition calling for the release of the 10 human rights activists who were arrested last month.

Just to make it clear to all government employees that they had better watch their step, he issued a circular explaining that the 17 state employees from various ministries (electricity, health, oil, information and agriculture) "have been dismissed from their posts," the Association of Human Rights in Syria said in a statement.

But don't get your hopes up for Syria to make the World Cup play offs. Egypt and Jordan are playing for keeps and sport excellent opposition repression teams. They are determined not to let Syria squash decent alone. Jordan has slapped five of its most prominent journalists in jail for reporting on things the government disapproves of. Several parliamentary members have also been jailed. You can read about it on Sasa's informative"Syria News Wire."

Egypt has also been sweeping the boards. Let's not talk about the opposition arrests or beating up judges.

Mona Eltahawy” - one of my favorite Arab journalists, who writes for As-Sharq al-Awsat, has been fired. Yes, fired, because she criticized her very own Egyptian government over its crackdown of the opposition. The Egyptian government lobbied the Saudi Gov. to squeeze Asharq al-Awsat, the London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper, to dump her. It worked. She was dismissed. Mona has an excellent article in the Herald Tribune today explaining just how easy it is to get fired from "independent" Arab papers. She explains how the "red lines" work for the different papers and for writing in Arabic versus English.

But let's not talk about Jordan and Egypt's bad behavior. This is "Syria Comment."
Kamal Lubwani, the opposition leader arrested at the beginning of the year after a visit to the US where he met with high officials in the White House, is in court. He is being charged with establishing contacts with a foreign country with the aim of instigating an attack against Syria, a crime punishable by death.

The public prosecutor claims Labwani's call for increasing pressure on Syria is tantamount to contacts with a hostile state and instigation of attack against Damascus, which are punishable under articles 264 and 287 of the penal code.

Abdelhalim Khaddam, the ex-VP and leader of the National Salvation Front, is also having trouble with the Syrian courts, which are gunning to separate him from his considerable assets. The following message was sent around by Khaddam's lawyer about his unjust treatment in Syria: (Thank you Sophia Hoffmann)

The lawyer Farid Al-Dib declares to the whole world and to all the organizations concerned the following facts:

The Prime Minister and the Minister for Finance of Syria deposited a civil complaint against Mr. Abdelhalim Khaddam and his family, that consist, of 24 people (his wife, his sons and their wives, his daughter and her husband, and all his descendants) in order to confiscate their assets.

The first meeting of the court was held on Monday April 24, 2006. The Khaddam family was asked to appear before the magistrates' court in Banias. Nevertheless, Mr. Khaddam and his family did not receive any convocation to attend the court. They were informed by the press (Techrine newspaper) 20 the Mars 2006. Following this complaint, Mr. Abdelhalim Khaddam and his family have asked various Syrian lawyers for their defense. The latter received pressures and threats in order to refuse such nomination. Consequently, the plenary meeting thus was deferred to Monday June 12, 2006.

Consequently, I was named as a defense lawyer by Mr. Khaddam to defend his rights and his family rights and I accepted. The Khaddam family forwarded to me of the official procreations in order to be able to officially represent them in front of the Syrian courts. Decree 10 of the law concerning the order of Syrian lawyers gives all Arab lawyers the authorization to defend the interests of the individuals in front of the Syrian courts provided that they receive the preliminary authorization on behalf of the president of Syrian lawyers. I addressed a letter on June 6,
2006 to Mr. President of Egyptian lawyers and to Mr. President of the union of Arab lawyers asking them to inform the President of Syrian lawyers so that I can defend my customers Mr. Khaddam and his family. The president of Egyptian lawyers addressed this same day (June 6, 2006) a letter to Mr. President of Syrian lawyers (Walid Altech). A colleague who works in my office personally carried this letter to Mr. Wealid Altech.

In spite of the awareness by Mr. Altech of the procreations of my customers and the reception of the copies of those, he did not give an authorization and posed impossible conditions such as for example obliging me to appear in person in his office and the need for appointing a Syrian lawyer to assist me with the defense of the Khaddam family. He added that even if these conditions are carried out, the authorization will not be guaranteed. Consequently my colleague returned from Damas empty handed.

In light off the preceding facts, Mr. Khaddam were denied of his rights to obtain a lawyer; which is against the International Conventions, and against the Syrian constitution and the Syrian laws. That means that the complaints emitted against Mr. Khaddam and his family is null and without any avenue. Consequently, I ask all the organizations concerned throughout the world to intervene to protect the right to defend Mr. Khaddam and his family.
It should be noted that Khaddam vigorously denies that he engaged in corrupt practice. In the BBC Hardtalk interview with Khaddam last week, he explains that he worked as a lawyer to buy his lovely house on Rue Foche.
STEPHEN SACKUR - You want to be the leader of this opposition movement. So the people of Syria have the right to know where you got your wealth from if not from Mr Hariri.

ABDUL HALIM KHADDAM - I have no fortune. I have four sons. The youngest started working 20 years ago. I started in 1958. I worked as a lawyer for a long time. I come from a family that owns land and assets. My sons are in employment. Some are in the Gulf States, others in Syria.

The youngest has worked for 20 years and the eldest for half a century. Obviously they are able to enjoy a comfortable and honourable life. Their economic involvement is not what others imagine it to be. One is in a partnership running a canned meat factory. The other owns a shop...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Former Chancellor Schroeder Puffs Syrian Economy: So Does IMF

The Syrian economy is being fluffed by former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He is calling for greater investment from both the Arab world and the West in Syria. After attending last week’s second Syrian-Emirati economic forum, the Schroeder has been hot on the Syrian economy. "Arabian Business," an Emirati magazine which boasts Massoud Derhally as a correspondent, has two stories talking up economic growth and investment in Syria. Here is one, "Syrian Dream." Here is another, "Syria moves forward." It comes as no surprise that Emaar Properties, one of the world's largest real estate developers and an Emirate firm, has just signed a major contract in Damascus. A few typical paragraphs, quoting Schroeder reads:

“I am confident that with the Syrian course of modernization gathering momentum, European investors will become more courageous.”

The change in the Syrian economy is already visible in terms of the numbers: whereas in 2000 the growth rate was negative at minus 1%, today it stands at 4.5%. In the non-oil sectors it is as high as 5.5%. Significantly, private investment in the country has soared by 25% over the past twelve months.

Schroeder says: “The economic data is very positive and foreign investors especially from the Arabic region are very active here.

“I think that if the economic reform process, which the government has started is continued, there will also be more investors from Europe.

The IMF is also rather upbeat, suggesting Syria is on the right track for growth. The Syria Report leads its issue this month with

The IMF estimates that non-oil GDP grew 5.5 percent last year (hence the declarations of Abdallah Dardari in that sense in the last few weeks –Read Economy shows signs of robust growth in spite of doubts over government statistics) and expects it to grow by slightly more than this figure in 2006. Overall, the report is positive towards the Syrian Government’s economic policy and admits that “there has been a momentum for reform to improve the overall business climate, including through a noteworthy simplification of the tax system and substantial improvement in the regulatory framework for the tourism sector. Outdated business laws and commercial codes are being revised, and the legal and regulatory framework to launch a securities market is being laid out. Overall, government interference is declining and private entrepreneurship is on the rise.”
Of course, after giving these rosy forecasts for the economy, each commentator lists the things that must be changed before really healthy growth can be achieved, such as releasing civil society from its straight jacket, creating an independent judiciary, combating corruption, etc.

Syria Comment in the News: NYTimes - The Nation

Robert Worth of the New York Times, mentions "Syria Comment" in his Week in Review article, "Mideast Analysis, Fast and Furious." He writes:

Another influential Middle East blog, Syria Comment, has drawn similar criticism from bloggers who claim that its author, Joshua Landis, is too soft on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Badran now writes a blog, Syria Monitor, that highlights the Syrian opposition and portrays Mr. Assad as a cruel autocrat.
Fun. Thanks for the push Robert. Thank you too, Tony. While we are trading barbs, everyone will get a good "Oh-my-God" or "jeepers-creepers" when they read this article in the "The American Conservative" about the new outfit Tony Badran has chosen to work for: The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, or FDD. (Hat tip Syriana) Here is a taste:

In early 2001, a tightly knit group of billionaire philanthropists conceived of a plan to win American sympathy for Israel’s response to the Palestinian intifada. They believed that the Palestinian cause was finding too much support within crucial segments of the American public, particularly within the media and on college campuses, so they set up an organization, Emet, [which means ‘truth,’ in Hebrew]: An Educational Initiative, Inc., to offer Israel the kind of PR that the Israeli government seemed unable to provide itself.

At first, Emet floundered, without an executive director or a well-defined mission. But that changed after Sept. 11, and Emet changed too, into what is now the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The name is different, but the goal of influencing America’s opinion-forming classes remains.

What makes all of this possible is the support the foundation receives from its billionaire backers. Its nearly $3 million annual budget comes from 27 major donors, most of whom are members of “the Study Group”—also sometimes called the “Mega Group” because of their sizeable contributions—a semi-formal organization of major Jewish philanthropists who meet twice a year to discuss joint projects.

The group’s membership includes, among others, U.S. Healthcare founder Leonard Abramson, New York financier Michael Steinhardt, Seagrams patriarch and Jewish World Congress president Edgar S. Bronfman Sr. and his brother Charles, and Lynn Schusterman, widow of Oklahoma oilman Charles Schusterman. Some of the group’s projects have been establishing and funding Birthright Israel, which provides Jewish youths with free travel to the Holy Land; a synagogue restoration program called STAR (Synagogue Transformation and Renewal); and the renovation and re-invigoration of Hillel, the Jewish campus chaplaincy. More than a few of these projects have generated controversy among some American Jews, who see this small group of mega-donors exercising considerable influence over Jewish-American affairs. But for all the debate that has attended some of these projects, none before has been as overtly political as Emet or FDD.

Leonard Abramson was the point man for establishing Emet. He, Michael Steinhardt, and Edgar Bronfman were the foundation’s board of directors at the time of its incorporation in the spring of 2001. Their original plan called for Emet to have centers in both the U.S. and Israel, with the Israeli branch to be located at Tel Aviv University under its president, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich. Emet was to have close ties to the Israeli government as well—so close, in fact, that there was some dispute between the mega-donors and the Israeli Foreign Ministry over just whose project this was. [Continue...]
Philip Weiss writing in The Nation has a great article, entitled, Burning Cole, about how Juan Cole was shot down for a job at Yale University by neocons angry over his influential blog. The best they could do was to call him an anti-Semite for his criticism of Israel and anti-American for his criticism of the way the war in Iraq has progressed. Weiss quoted my defense of Cole: "Joshua Landis, a professor at University of Oklahoma, describes Cole as "top notch."
"He was the wunderkind of Middle East Studies in the 1980s and 1990s," Landis says. "He can be strident on his blog, which is one reason it is the premier Middle East blog.... [But] Juan Cole has done something that no other Middle East academic has done since Bernard Lewis, who is 90 years old: He has become a household word. He has educated a nation. For the last thirty years every academic search for a professor of Middle East history at an Ivy League university has elicited the same complaint: 'There are no longer any Bernard Lewises. Where do you find someone really big with expertise on many subjects who is at home in both the ivory tower and inside the Beltway?' Today, Juan Cole is that academic."

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ahmed Abu Adas, Jund al-Sham and Mossad? (by t_desco)

The recent discovery of several Israeli spy networks in Lebanon could have some surprising implications either for the Hariri case or at least for the case of the 14 bombings, killings and assassination attemps which are also being investigated by Serge Brammertz.

In a bizarre twist, Hussein Khattab, a Palestinian member of the spy ring, who is still at large, is the brother of Sheikh Jamal Khattab, an Islamic cleric who has allegedly recruited Arab fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
(Lebanon exposes deadly Israeli spy ring,The Times, June 15, 2006)

The list of persons connecting Hussein Khattab to Ahmed Abu Adas is remarkably short: Hussein is the brother of Sheikh Jamal Khattab who works closely with Sheikh Abu Obeida who allegedly met with Abu Adas in Ain al-Hilweh.

Of course, this is not evidence of any link, but it's certainly something worth looking into.

There are two quotes in the first Mehlis report which link Abu Adas to Sheikh Abu Obeida. Mehlis dismissed the first (§80 and §197) as being little reliable (the Al-Ahbash Security Service had reported that Adas "often went to Ein al Helwa" and that he visited Abu Obeida who is described both as "deputy to the leader of Jund al Sham" and as "deputy leader of the terrorist group Asbat al Ansar"), but the German prosecutor never addressed (or explained) the second:

81. ... The Lebanese investigation further revealed that Mr. Abu Adass had been employed at a computer shop in the summer of 2004, which was owned in part by Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sani, who was a member of the Ahmed Miqati and Ismaíl Al-Khatib network.

Ahmed Salim Mikati was a member of the Dinniyeh group headed by Bassam Ahmad al-Kanj who was killed in an uprising in the mountains of Dinniyeh in January 2000. The surviving fighters found shelter in Ain al-Hilweh. The group is said to have merged into Jund al-Sham. According to Bernard Rougier's excellent study on Salafi extremism in Palestinian refugee camps, al-Kanj was a religious teacher of Abu Obeida (also called Jihad Mustapha) (Bernard Rougier, "Le jihad au quotidien", Paris 2004, p.213).

While Sheikh Jamal Khattab is imam of the al-Nour Mosque in Ain al-Hilweh and an Islamist leader in the camp, Hussein Khattab belonged to the PFLP-GC:

According to Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, Khattab was a member of the Palestinian Popular Committees and was the public relations' official in South Lebanon.
(Israel keeps silent over the capture of a Mossad network in Lebanon, Al-Manar, June 14, 2006)

His brother seems to have intervened when Hussein was detained on suspicion of being involved in the killing of Jihad Ahmad Jibril in 2002:

L’un des individus toujours en liberté est un réfugié palestinien, Hussein Kh. (Khattab), âgé de quarante ans et né dans le camp de Aïn el-Héloué. Il avait été arrêté et libéré à deux reprises par les autorités libanaises et syriennes, notamment dans l’affaire de Jihad Jibril mais l’intervention d’un cheikh de Aïn el-Héloué auprès d’un homme de religion libanais a pu le libérer des prisons syriennes.
(La porte piégée du véhicule ayant servi à l’attentat de Saïda a été préparée en Israël, L'Orient-Le Jour, 14 Juin 2006)

According to Defense Minister Elias Murr, "the investigation has yet to find any link between suspect Mahmoud Rafeh, the alleged leader of the network, and a string of assassinations in and around Beirut since October 2005".

However, Khattab is "believed to have commanded a separate Israeli network in Lebanon", and Rafeh has confessed to transporting bombs across Lebanon since the Spring of 2005. It is unclear so far what has happened to (or what was done with) these bombs:

Security sources quoted by As-Safir newspaper Thursday said Rafeh confessed to transporting explosives across Lebanon in briefcases since early 2005, but were unable to determine the end result of the explosives as Rafeh was allegedly tied to more than one Israeli network.
(Murr gives army full credit for cracking terror network, The Daily Star, June 16, 2006)

Al-Manar provides a more detailed account:

Investigations with Lebanese Mossad agent, Mahmoud Rafea continued, and revealed that Rafea had since the Spring of 2005, delivered bombs in black suitcases, to several locations in Beirut, its eastern suburbs, Mount Lebanon and the South. Meanwhile, security forces are still after Palestinian Mossad agent, Hussein Khattab, who is now suspected of leading a Mossad network of his own.
Rafea admitted he had delivered, since the Spring of 2005, bombs in black suitcases to different locations, in eastern Beirut, Mount Lebanon, South Lebanon. Security Forces however did not yet determine how these bombs were used.
Apparently the operations of Rafea and his network intersected with the operations of other Israeli Mossad networks. Security Forces are focusing on this new information, while seeking to capture Rafea's partners, on top of which is Palestinian Mossad agent, Hussein Khattab.

According to reports, Khattab might be leading a Mossad network of his own, that carried out a series of assassinations and bombings, other than those committed by Rafea's network.

According to Assafir daily, the Israelis might have unclosed Rafea and Khattab's networks to each other, to carry out the assassination of Jihad Ahmad Jibril, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command in 2002. Previous Israeli assassination attempts failed to harm Jibril, and therefore efforts of more than one network had to be combined to kill the man.

(Lebanese authorities still searching for the rest of Mossad network, Al-Manar, June 15, 2006)

So far Al-Manar is also the only source mentioning Ghaleb Awali as one of the persons killed by the network:

Beside the Majzoub brothers assassination, Rafea and his Mossad network assassinated Hezbollah officials, Ali Saleh and Ghaleb Awali, Jihad Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command and Abu Hasan Salameh, as well as other security operations which will be revealed for the first time.
(Lebanese Army to release a detailed statement on capturing an Israeli Mossad network, Al-Manar, June 13, 2006)

This is interesting because at the time a statement in the name of Jund al-Sham had been issued claiming responsibility for the killing.

The then leader of Jund al-Sham, Abu Youssef Sharkiah, denied the claim. (Lahoud blames Israel for assassination, The Daily Star, July 20, 2004)

He has since relinquished his authority over the group as "disputes" emerged "between its members over plans for bombings and assassinations". (Jund al-Sham collapsing under Fatah and state pressure, The Daily Star, January 05, 2005)

Other statements by Jund al-Sham "criticized Shiites and Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as "unbelievers." " (Group vows to avenge anti-Islamic attacks, The Daily Star, June 30, 2004)

In July 2005, Jund al-Sham faxed a threat to assassinate several prominent Hizballah allies and leaders, including former spiritual leader Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah, to the Shiite Fatwa Center in Tyre. (Can al-Qaeda’s Lebanese Expansion Be Stopped?, Emily Hunt, February 6, 2006)

This raises the question if Jund al-Sham may have been manipulated by Israeli intelligence and their Lebanese agents (or, alternatively, if the group may have been used as a cover for their operations).

In October 04, 2005, As'ad AbuKhalil was left bewildered (and supposedly angry...) by "an alleged threatening flyer by Jund Ash-Sham": "I read that flyer, and it does not sound like Jund Ash-Sham at all. ... The flyer does not contain any of the religious language that one usually finds here. This flyer was written by a secular Arabic speaker."

Regarding the 14 bombings which are being investigated by Brammertz, in particular the eight explosions in public places, Jund al-Sham has claimed three of them:

In their sixth statement, Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Levant) claims responsibility for the three bombings in Lebanon, “challenging the crusaders once more.” ...
The three explosions Jund al-Sham references seem to be those that occurred in the Christian sections of Lebanon during the past week. Three people have been killed, and three more injured.

(Jund al-Sham (Soldiers of Levant) Claims Resonsibility For the Three Bombings in Lebanon, SITE Institute, March 29, 2005)

Finally, Jund al-Sham also famously issued a threat to assassinate Detlev Mehlis while he was working on his final report:

Akkar, Lebanon- A group calling itself Jund El Sham, threatened to slaughter German Prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who is heading a U.N. team investigating Rafik Hariri's assassination. The group also threatened to slaughter members of the reigning Lebanese authorities.

(Jund El Sham Threatens to kill Mehlis, 6 October, 2005)

Some remarks on the second Brammertz Report

In my opinion, Brammertz does not exclude the possibility that an Islamist group was responsible for the bomb that killed Rafik Hariri. This isn't the main focus of his investigation, but he does not discard the possibility, e.g.:

40. On the other hand, one single team alone might have conceived of the idea to kill former Prime Minister Hariri, conducted the reconnaissance and surveillance, prepared the claim-of-responsibility video, acquired the explosives, acquired and prepared the Mitsubishi truck, used an individual as the trigger mechanism, and executed the operation. Based on this hypothesis, the number of participants may have been relatively small.

§47 calls for "intricate knowledge of the motives, means and methods of "suicide bombing" in the region".

§50 makes clear that, "pending final DNA results from recently collected evidence at the crime scene", Ahmed Abu Adas wasn't "the individual who initiated the detonation of the IED, as stated in his claim of responsibility" and that he also wasn't present at the crime scene".
However, in an intriguing passage Brammertz states that:

The Commission does not exclude the possibility that he was involved in other aspects of the operation beyond his participation in the making of the claim-of-responsibility video message.

This could mean that was an active participant in the crime and not a passive victim of kidnapping. It also raises the possibility, however faint, that he is still alive.

§54 features "extremist ideologies" as being among the "possible motives of those who commissioned the crime".

Finally, there is also a (possible) allusion to Jund al-Sham, or rather, to the alleged terrorist cell consisting of 13 members detained in January 2006:

57. The Commission is further examining the possibility of one single group, with a singular intent and capacity, having committed the crime. For example, the Commission continues to develop its knowledge concerning individuals who are, or who have been, in the custody of the Lebanese authorities, allegedly as members of terrorist groups. This area of its investigations remains ongoing, and focuses on the links, intent, capacity and motivations of these individuals.

Some of the 13 suspects have claimed to be members of Jund al-Sham. (Lebanese authorities arrest 13 Al-Qaeda suspects, The Daily Star, January 14, 2006)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Is the Regime weaker or stronger following the crack down of on the internal opposition?

Burhan Ghalioun, one of Syria's sharpest analysts and opposition voices, answers this question in his article on, "The Arrests and the Deepening of the Syrian Crisis," in the affirmative.

He argues that with their arrest, the thirteen opposition intellectuals are winning. Why? Because the regime has painted itself as the extremist, while the opposition has captured the middle gound of reasonableness and moderation.

Repression has worked in the past because the opposition was extremist (we can think of the Muslim Brothers) and the regime maintained the acquiescence of the masses because they did not see the extremist opposition as a solution.

Today this dynamic is reversed.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A Comparison Between The Christians Of Syria And Lebanon, By EHSANI2

A comparison Between The Christians of Syria and Lebanon


June 14, 2006

Rather than sharing common goals like most other minorities in the region, Syrian and Lebanese Christians seem to be at odds with each other when it comes to assessing their political survival. Nowhere is this more apparent than the way each community supports or condemns the current regime in Damascus.

The difference in the two communities stems from the following fact:

While the Lebanese Christians have traditionally been politically engaged, Syrian Christians in contrast have chosen to stay on the fringes of their country’ political life. While the former group has resisted the various regional pressures to weaken their political influence, the latter has made the choice to play it safe and stay out of politics. While the former has largely called for outside help to ensure its survival, Syrian Christians have aligned their fortunes with the survival of their regime instead.

Let me now elaborate

Syrian Christians seem to overwhelmingly believe that in spite of all of their regime’s shortfalls, the alternative would most likely be far worse. More specifically, they seem convinced that a more Islamist leaning group will follow the downfall of this regime, an event that will inevitably end up destroying their coveted way of life. For the record, the size of this community has steadily fallen as a percentage of the total population. From a high of 25%, this percentage is estimated to have fallen to as low as 10%.

It is widely believed that the Syrian Sunni community is divided along lines of income and religious fervor. The Sunnis who have aligned their business interests to those of the regime may not be too keen to lose their immense advantages. They may, therefore, be inclined to support the status quo. But, this group does not represent the majority. The more likely profile of a Sunni Syrian is one that dreams of a day when one of their own is finally in charge. We are frequently told that Syrians are not very religious. A change in the regime, therefore, is unlikely to cause a major shift in the seemingly secular nature of this society.

It is my belief that the Syrian Christians do not share this view. Instead, they are more inclined to view their Sunni fellow countrymen as more devout and religious than the consensus opinion. Given the choice, the Sunni community is believed to be willing to accept being governed by a religious establishment. Left to their wishes, therefore, Syria’s majority will most likely accept a sharper tilt in the direction of religioun were this regime to fall. When this happens, Syria’s Christians fear that they will lose a list of social privileges that they currently hold so dear. This list includes the right to worship, dress, drink and party as they wish. It also includes of course internal law and order.

While the above list is important, political aspirations and active engagement in the country’s political future is critically missing from this list. Since the French departed the country after independence, Syrian Christians have suffered a steady loss in political activism. When their own country’s constitution stated that the President of Syria must be a Muslim, they quietly accepted being excluded from ever participating as equals. In effect, they failed to complain or resist being third class citizens in their own country. Presumably, they felt that it was best to carry on doing what they have done for decades-stay on the sidelines and play it safe. So long as they could go to church, avoid wearing a veil, drink their Scotch and dine outdoors, life was perfectly acceptable.

Given this regime’s non-Islamist tendencies, a soft marriage of convenience was born between the Alawi regime and the country’s Christian minority. Stated differently, the Christian community outsourced its own security and the protection of its way of life to this Alawi regime. Without any political or military aspirations that would act as a future threat, the regime was more than happy to implicitly agree to protect this less than powerful partner.

Lebanese Christians in contrast have worked hard to protect the huge privileges that they were afforded after independence. Camille Chamoun’s epic encounter with the powerful Nasser in 1958 was a case in point. With the help of American marines, he was able to defeat the Pan Arabists that were backed by Nasser. Since then, Lebanon’s history has been rife with examples where that country’s Christian community had to endure immense regional pressures to weaken its grip on power. While the Taef accords succeeded in taking away a significant number these privileges, the fact remains that the community has been steadfast in its resistance to the forces that are heavily stacked against it. This political activism stands in direct contrast with the apolitical Christians of Syria. It is worth reiterating that the Christians of Lebanon would not have been able to survive and maintain their influence had they not accepted the help of foreigners. This has included the French, Americans and even the state of Israel. Given the Syrian Christian community’s more Pan Arabist leanings, such foreign adventures by the Lebanese Christians have acted as a major contentious point between the two communities.

In conclusion, while the Syrian Christians have supported this regime for a list of valid reasons, the fact remains that they have effectively aligned their long-term survival to the survival of the regime itself. This is a highly dangerous and shortsighted strategy.

Were the Damascus regime to fall, the country’s Christian community will undoubtedly suffer immensely. Such fears explain the significant increase in the number of people that have decided to immigrate to the west when given the opportunity. Anyone with the economic means to do so has opted to deliver their new babies in countries like Canada or the U.S in the hope of gaining an alternative “safe” passport. This trend has been in force for decades and is likely to continue. The plight of Iraqi Christians since the fall of Saddam has reinforced such fears. Christian friends are often heard saying, “We have no future here. This country is not ours in the future”. By outsourcing their own security and the protection of their lifestyle to the regime rather than being politically active themselves, this country’s Christians may believe that they have been well served thus far. Their future prospects, however, are highly uncertain. Were the regime to fall, some will choose to stay and accept their different lifestyles. Others may decide to leave. One highly probable destination of course will be Lebanon. Odds are that the Christians of this country will survive longer in this region. Decades of political engagement, personal sacrifice, friendlier constitution, and alliances with outside forces may end up attracting those fleeing Christians next door.

The Syrian Opposition Beleaguered But Undaunted

The courage of the Syrian opposition within the country never ceases to amaze and inspire. Its leaders may be down due to the ongoing crackdown, but they remain undaunted.

Maamoun al-Homsi, one of the original leaders of the Damascus spring and a Syrian legislator who spent almost 5 years in prison, has moved to Jordan in order to carry on his opposition work. He called on European countries to put more pressure on the autocratic Syrian regime to free political prisoners, improve its human rights record and introduce democracy. He told Reuters:

"I left Syria 10 days ago and I am not going back. I left so I can deliver the message of the Damascus Spring to the world -- save the political prisoners of Syria. The Europeans should do more to press for these prisoners' release and withdraw their ambassadors from Syria if it does not respond to their calls. At least 13 were detained in this round but there are hundreds of political prisoners and we want them all freed as no one should be jailed for expressing his opinion. Some of these people are in their 60s and they are sharing cells with common criminals. They need doctors and human rights groups to visit them because they are being mistreated.”
Homsi's move to Jordan in order to speak out demonstrates how fearful opposition members and human rights workers have become in Syria. All the same, ten extremely brave human rights advocates have spoken out today. They issued what they called the "Syria Declaration." UPI writes that

Addendum: (June 15) The UPI made a mistake in translating the list of organizations which signed the Syria Declaration. It originally said that Anwar al-Bunni's and Maatouk's organization had signed it. This is not true. I heard from members of the Syrian opposition that the UPI author had mis-translated the name of the organization wrong and then supplied the wrong leadership. The original document, which I have now copied below in Arabic, makes no mention of Maatouk and Anwar al-Bunni and does not name their organization. Anwar is in prison and on trial. He cannot afford more trouble.

The "Syria Declaration," issued late Tuesday night, underscored the urgent and pressing need of the Syrian people for an all-out democratic change that will move Syria from being a security state to a civilian one with an effective parliament and institutions.

"The rotation of power ensures the participation of the Syrian people in running the affairs of their country whereby their vote will bestow legitimacy on the authority and its administration," the declaration said.

It stressed that placing Syria on the path to democracy requires major changes in all the state's institutions as well as amendments in the country's internal and foreign policies to suit the interests of the Syrian people.

The declaration also called for canceling the emergency laws which have been in force since 1963; increasing public freedoms, including liberties of expression, thinking and religious belief; and requested separation between the executive, the legislative and the judicial authorities.

It called "for releasing all political prisoners, drafting a new publication law that secures freedom of expression, as well as a new law for political parties, (and) removing restrictions on the creation of political groups."

On the economic level, the declaration called for uprooting corruption and distributing national wealth equitably by securing jobs for the unemployed without discrimination.

It requested a modern economic system that ensures social justice, bans monopolies and follows the rules of the open market economy.

Among the signatories were the Committees for Defending Democracies and Human Rights in Syria, the Syrian Organization for Human Rights of Abdel Karim Rihawi; The Sham center for democratic studies and human rights, presided over by Aktham Nuisa, the Movement of Syria's Assyrians; the Secular Liberal Democratic Gathering; and the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

إن حاجة الشعب السوري إلى تغيير ديمقراطي شامل يعيد بناء مفهوم المواطنة ويؤسس لحاضنة وطنية باتت حاجة غير قابلة للتأجيل، وغير مقتصرة على مسار محدد، عبر تغيير شامل يعيد ما دمره الاستبداد في الشخصية الوطنية السورية، وفي كل مناحي الحياة، والتي جاءت نتيجة حتمية لسيطرة واحتكار الحزب الواحد وعقليته الوصائية على الدولة والمجتمع.إن تسارع الأحداث وتخالف وجهاتها تستوجب تأطيرا لمجمل الحراك المدني في المجتمع السوري عبر مشروع تغييري جذري ينقل سوريا من الدولة الأمنية إلى الدولة المدنية البرلمانية والمؤسساتية، تتجسد فيها حيادية الدولة، وتداول السلطة عنوانا لمشاركة الشعب السوري في إدارة شؤون بلاده، حيث يكون رأيه وصوته الانتخابي مصدرا لشرعية السلطة وإدارتها.إن وضع سوريا على مسار التطور الديمقراطي يتطلب إنجاز تحولات في كل مفاصل الدولة والمجتمع تلغى بموجبها مرتكزات ثقافة الإقصاء والوصاية، وتتبدل السياسات الداخلية والخارجية بالتوافق مع مصلحة الشعب السوري ومستقبل أبنائه. وبحكم كوننا جزءا من الوطن السوري فإننا نعبر عن إرادتنا بأن الدخول في عملية التغيير يجب أن تسقط بداية مفاهيم وذهنيات الاستبداد في مصادرها كافة. والتغيير الذي ننشده تغيير جذري فرضته المتغيرات الموضوعية الداخلية أساسا والمترافقة مع التبدلات الدولية والإقليمية، ما استدعى ضرورة أخذ المجتمع السوري بتشكيلاته المدنية زمام المبادرة عبر توافق وطني ينهي احتكار السلطة والدولة والثروة والمجتمع ويؤطر لتعددية سياسية ديمقراطية علمانية ليبرالية حقيقية، وبشفافية مديدة، في تناول ومعالجة كل أمور الوطن، وبمشاركة من يرغب من الأطياف السياسية بعيدا عن الإقصاء والتمييز والقسر.وبناء على ما تقدم توافقنا نحن القوى والتجمعات والهيئات الموقعة على هذا الإعلان، وبعيدا عن احتكار الرؤية والادعاء بامتلاك الحقيقة الكاملة، على ضرورة التغيير الديمقراطي السلمي والمتدرج للانتقال من الدولة الأمنية إلى الدولة المدنية في سوريا انطلاقا من التوافقات التالية : 1ـ تكريس ثقافة التسامح في المجتمع وقبول الاختلاف كمنعكس لمفهوم \"المواطنة\" الذي يشكل عصب الدولة المدنية. والقطع مع جميع المشاريع الاقصائية والاستعلائية تحت أي حجة أو ذريعة كانت ونبذ العنف والفكر الشمولي والأصولي وتجلياتهما في العمل السياسي والثقافي.2- اعتبار التغيير حاجة وطنية بامتياز، وإنقاذية، تنطلق من الداخل السوري وتعبر عن آمال ومصالح الشعب بكافة مكوناته وشرائحه وانتماءاته المختلفة.3 ـ اعتماد الديمقراطية كنظام سياسي وكنقيض للطغيان والاستبداد، نظام يكرس رأي الأغلبية من غير إلغاء لرأي الأقلية، من خلال عقد اجتماعي يقر التعددية وتداول السلطة في جميع مفاصل الدولة على قاعدة نبذ العنف وعدم اللجوء إليه واعتماد الوسائل السلمية والديمقراطية عبر صناديق الاقتراع.4 ـ إنتاج معادلة وطنية قوامها حقوق الإنسان ودولة المؤسسات وفصل السلطات الثلاث وفصل الدين عن الدولة من خلال نظام ديمقراطي يجسد علمانية الدولة ومدنية مؤسساتها.5 ـ إطلاق الحريات العامة وحرية الرأي والتعبير والاعتقاد والحرية الدينية وتقرير الحرية الفردية في الحركة والانتقال وصيانة الكرامة الإنسانية من العسف والاستبداد وفق المواثيق الدولية وشرعة حقوق الإنسان.6 ـ رفع حالة الطوارئ وإلغاء الأحكام العرفية والمحاكم الاستثنائية وإلغاء كل أشكال الاستثناء من الحياة العامة.7 ـ إطلاق سراح كافة المعتقلين السياسيين وطي ملف الاعتقال السياسي نهائيا والكشف عن مصير المفقودين وتسوية أوضاعهم وتعويض ذويهم والسماح بعودة المبعدين إلى الوطن دون قيد أو شرط وإعادة الحقوق لكل المجردين منها لأسباب سياسية أو قومية وإزالة كافة أشكال الاضطهاد السياسي والقومي والديني وتصحيح آثاره.8 ـ ضمان حقوق جميع مكونات الهوية السورية كمكونات تاريخية أصيلة وجزء من \"الكل\" السوري من حيث \"المواطنة\" في الحق والواجب. والحفاظ على خصوصيتها، ورعاية حقوقها الثقافية، وصياغة مفهوم جديد للهوية الوطنية يعكس هذا الطيف المتنوع في إطار وحدة البلاد وتحت سقف القانون. وحل جميع القضايا الوطنية العالقة في سوريا حلا عادلا واعتبارها قضايا وطنية بامتياز تمثل نسيجا وطنيا سوريا واحدا وفي مقدمتها قضايا الجنسية والهوية.9ـ العمل على إصدار قانون مطبوعات جديد وعصري يحترم الإبداع والكلمة الحرة ويؤمن للإعلام دوره ووظيفته في التوعية والثقافة وفي الرقابة والتطوير.10-إصدار قانون جمعيات جديد يساهم في إعادة تأهيل المجتمع للاندماج بالشأن العام عبر آليات وحوامل ديمقراطية تؤمن لقواه وشرائحه المختلفة الدفاع عن مصالحها والمشاركة في صنع القرار.11ـ إصدار قانون أحزاب عصري يسمح بإعادة الحراك السياسي الراكد للشارع السوري ويشرعنه ويضمن ممارسة العمل السياسي والنشاط الجماهيري لجميع الأحزاب دون تمييز وعلى قدم المساواة ودون الادعاء بأي دور استثنائي أو وصائي لأي منها.12 ـ الاعتراف بحقوق المرأة كحق متأصل ينبثق من منظومة حقوق الإنسان العالمية. والمراجعة النقدية لكافة القوانين التي تضم موادا تمييزية مثل قانون الأحوال الشخصية (وخاصة ما يتعلق بقوانين الطلاق)، وقانون الجنسية، وغيرها من التشريعات بما يضمن مساواتها التامة مع الرجل. والعمل على إيلاء الرعاية الخاصة والقصوى لحقوق الأطفال، وتأمين البيئة المناسبة لنموهم ورفاههم، والاهتمام الجاد بحقوق المعوقين، والعمل على العناية بهم ودمجهم في المجتمع، وتخصيص ميزانية وبرامج خاصة بهم. 13ـ استئصال الفساد الذي ارتبط بنيويا وتداخل مع هيكلية السلطة، ما جعله ظاهرة خطيرة مؤثرة في مجالات الاقتصاد والإدارة والمجتمع والثقافة، ومحاسبة المفسدين كافة.14-إنهاء تسييس القضاء والعمل على إصلاحه بما يضمن استقلاله الكامل وحياده التام ليتمكن من ممارسة دوره في الحفاظ على الحقوق وإقامة العدل وإشاعة الطمأنينة في المجتمع.15ـ إنهاء تسييس الجيش، ودعمه وتعزيز دوره في الدفاع عن استقلال البلاد وسيادتها وحماية الدستور.16ـ إعادة النظر في دور الأجهزة الأمنية وقوانينها وتأهيل رجالاتها من أجل إعادة الاعتبار للأمن ببعده الوطني .17 ـ الالتزام بالعمل على استرجاع الجولان المحتل كاملا وصيانة الاستقلال والحفاظ على وحدة الشعب والأرض وتعزيز انتماء سوريا الفاعل لمحيطها العربي لتلعب دورا أساسيا في إحلال السلام والأمن والاستقرار في المنطقة، وتنفيذ قرارات الشرعية الدولية ذات الصلة.18ـ الحرص على التوافق مع الأسرة الدولية ومؤسساتها المختلفة. ومحاولة القيام والمساهمة بدور فاعل وإيجابي في بناء نظام دولي أكثر عدلا يرتكز على قواعد العدالة ومبادئ السلام وتبادل المصالح والالتزام الكامل بالمعاهدات والاتفاقيات الدولية وشرعة حقوق الإنسان.يولي اعلان سوريا الشأن الاقتصادي اهتماما كبيرا ويعتبره الأساس في حالة نهوض الأمة من خلال الآليات التالية:ـ تحرير الاقتصاد باعتماد نظام اقتصادي حداثي يحقق العدالة الاجتماعية ويمنع الاحتكار ويؤكد الشفافية ويؤسس لنظام ضريبي عادل وقادر على توفير الضمان الصحي والاجتماعي، وتكافؤ الفرص، دون تخلي الدولة عن مهامها الاجتماعية تجاه الفئات الأشد فقرا في المجتمع. -التوزيع العادل للثروة الوطنية بما يسمح لأكبر عدد من المواطنين السوريين بالوصول إلى الخيرات المتاحة، والإفادة من الخدمات المطروحة من صحة وتعليم وسكن ووسائل اتصال، وتوفير عمل لمن هم في سن العمل، وعدم تمييز فئة على حساب فئات أخرى، والحفاظ على التوازن بين المرتبات والأسعار، وتأمين الاستثمارات المتوازنة بين قطاعات الإنتاج المختلفة، وتطوير الخدمات العامة الأساسية، والأخذ بالتقدم العلمي والتكنولوجي لتحسين وسائل الإنتاج وتطويرها، والتصدي لكل أشكال التمييز بين شرائح المجتمع المختلفة، والدفع باتجاه المساواة بين أفراده فلا ينعم القليلون بالخيرات ويرزح الكثيرون تحت وطأة الفقر، والتفكير الجدي بمستقبل الأجيال القادمة من خلال منع استنفاذ الثروات والإمكانيات المتوفرة، بل التأسيس لأطر إنتاج وخدمات قابلة للتطور والتحديث، وتنمية العلاقة بين الاقتصاد المحلي والسياسات الاقتصادية الدولية بطريقة تفاعلية، والحث على التعاون والتبادل بين الدول.- تشجيع مشاريع تحديث البنية التحتيه وتطوير المنشآت العامة والاعتماد على المرافق السياحية وحركة النقل كون سوريا بوابة الشرق والغرب في آن. - حماية البيئة عن طريق تطبيق أنظمة الحماية العالمية، ومنع التلوث البيئي. -اعتماد آلية اقتصاد السوق من خلال: أ- الاعتماد على منظومة تجارية شاملة ونظام من المحاكم التجارية وقوانين لها علاقة بالملكية والعقود والتعامل التجاري.ب- الاعتماد على نظام من المحاسبة يستند إلى استخدام واسع لمجموعة عامة من القواعد الحسابية المالية إضافة إلى نظام مستقل من تقارير الكشوفات والتدقيقات المالية.ج- الاعتماد على سياسة تثقيفية تطرح الثقة باستقرار ومصداقية الهيكل القانوني-المؤسساتي، والالتزام التعاقدي، والنزاهة والمنافسة الشريفة، والصدق المهني، والابتعاد عن الغش والتعامل بالرشوة.دـ محاربة كل أشكال الفساد والمحسوبيات والوساطات من خلال أجهزة غير حكومية تعمل بشفافية وأمانة على كشف كل حالات الفساد وعلى استرجاع المال المنهوب بكل الطرق والوسائل المتاحة.مشروعنا اقتصادي الهدف، سياسي الطابع، وطني الدلالة، ديمقراطي الآلية، علماني التوجه، ليبرالي الثقافة، يؤسس لفعل سياسي ينسجم مع المرحلة التي شعارها الديمقراطية والليبرالية وحقوق الإنسان.ـ المحور الثالث

- لجان الدفاع عن الحريات الديمقراطية وحقوق الإنسان في سوريا. - (ســـواســـية ) المنظمة السورية لحقوق الإنسان.- - مركز الشام للدراسات الديمقراطية وحقوق الإنسان.- حركة السريان السوريين.- مركز الشرق للدراسات الليبرالية وحقوق الأقليات.ـ لجنة المتابعة في قضايا المعتقلين والمنفيين ومجردي الحقوق المدنية والجنسية.- التجمع العلماني الديمقراطي الليبرالي(عدل).ـ برنامج دعم ضحايا العنف – ألفة.- الشبكة السورية لحقوق الانسان-الاستاذ سليمان يوسف عضو قيادة المنظمة الآثورية الديمقراطية واحد مؤسسي التجمع الليبرالي

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Dangerous June Brings Relief to Damascus

June is turning out to be a good month for the Syrian regime. I spelled out the stakes in the Arab Reform Bulletin published this month by the Carnegie Foundation for Peace and edited by Michele Dunne. The two challenges have now passed - the National Salvation Front meeting and the Brammertz Report into Hariri's killing, which gives us a chance to recap. Here is the article; recap follows.

Syria: Conflict with West Spurs Economic, not Political, Reform
By Joshua Landis
June 2006, Volume 4, Issue 5

Political reform in Syria is not on. Last year's promises of a “great leap forward” —a rewritten emergency law, citizenship for stateless Kurds, and a new political party law before local elections in 2007 — have been shelved. President Bashar Al Assad stated in a recent television interview that, given the situation in Iraq and Syria's mounting battle with the West, security would come first. That warning was the opening shot in a sweeping crackdown on opposition and human rights leaders, the most intense since the Damascus Spring leaders were imprisoned in 2001.

The Syrian regime insists it must clear the decks of potential fifth columnists as it prepares for a showdown with the Bush administration over Lebanon and the war on terrorism. June is a pivotal month. The new UN investigation into Rafiq Al Hariri's murder is expected to indict Syrian leaders; the question is whether the investigators have amassed enough evidence to move the Security Council to impose sanctions or initiate an international trial.

In addition to the threat from the West, the growing unity and tactical dexterity of the Syrian opposition worries the regime. Over the last year, not only has the internal opposition united and joined ranks with expatriates—read Muslim Brothers—in the promulgation of the “Damascus Declaration,” but former Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam (a Sunni Baathist) has come on board in an effort to split regime loyalists. The intended message to Syrians is: “this is not Iraq ; we will not hunt Baathists. We are pluralistic, moderate, and non-sectarian; the regime is Alawite, extremist, and sectarian.” The newly formed National Salvation Front met in London June 4-5 to agree on “an executive plan for the liberation and democratization of Syria.”

Among the challenges identified at the London meeting is accelerating opposition efforts to build bridges to the Lebanese Cedar Revolution. Syrian oppositionists recently signed a joint declaration with Lebanese activists in support of UN resolution 1680 (calling on Damascus to resolve border controversies with Beirut, establish a permanent diplomatic relationship, and control the movement of arms into Lebanon), an initiative that became the pretext for the recent regime crackdown. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblat has met with Khaddam on several occasions and hosted a Muslim Brother delegation at his palace in Mukhtara in May. The next step would be for Future Movement leader Saad Hariri to champion the Syria opposition cause in Paris, Riyadh, and Washington, which would up the ante significantly.

If Syria's battle with the West has justified postponing political liberalization, it has hastened an economic opening. Washington's efforts to crash the Syrian economy and choke off its access to foreign finance have concentrated the mind of the regime. Last fall, when the Syrian currency lost 20 percent of its value overnight due to Western pressure, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari insisted to a number of associates that he would “[expletive] the black-market profiteers.” It is this lusty spirit of combat that has enabled regime reformers to drive forward the overhaul of Syria's financial sector, which is now considered a matter of survival.

Private banks have proliferated, and are growing rapidly although they have yet to capture a majority share of the market. Central Bank Director Adib Mayaleh said recently that the foreign ownership ceiling on private banks would be raised from 49 to 60-70 percent soon. Private currency trading has been legalized to eliminate the black market, and the Syrian lira has regained the value it lost last year. The finance ministry is also on its way to introducing treasury bills and issuing public debt, which will transform the government's ability to increase investment and plan budgets, a major step in modernizing the economy. So far, efforts by the United States and France to press private banks to cease underwriting lines of credit to Syria have had uneven results and failed to trump Syria's economic liberalization.

Still, economic liberalization has its limits, as Al Assad has not found the wherewithal to cut through the corruption, layers of socialist legislation, and cronyism needed to carry out real structural reform. Also, Al Assad's initial hope that rapid trade growth would lead Syria out of its economic doldrums has been disappointed. The U.S. closure of the Iraq market in 2003, followed by the expulsion of Syria from Lebanon in 2005, dealt Al Assad's plans a heavy blow, from which Syria has only partially recovered by reorienting its trade east to Russia, India, and China and sucking in some of the petrodollars washing through the Gulf.

Whether the Syrian regime can liberalize its economy, outmaneuver western sanctions, and preserve its power base is an open question. In the face of increasing Western and opposition pressure, high GDP growth and banner figures for foreign investment have become critical weapons for regime survival.
The National Salvation Front meeting did not light the world on fire. Although it gave the opposition a chance to present itself to the world, ex-Vice President Khaddam grabbed all the headlines. His rather authoritarian was of dealing with the meeting won him few converts. Two members of the front have since withdrawn their parties, complaining that Khaddam rigged the election. The two members are Mr. Marwan Hammoud who is the leader of the Syrian National Democratic Gathering, a political organization based in Vienna, Austria; and Mr. Abdul Hamid Haj-Khodr, the leader of the Freedom Association for National Unity and also a member of the NSF's Steering Committee.

Mr. Haj-Khodr explained his resignation, claiming that he did not see either democracy or transparency in the NSF meeting.

Marwan Hammoud announced:
We have withdrawn because we did not see democracy being practiced nor do we think that the [NSF] was a vehicle that will lead Syria to true democracy in the future.... We refuse to be a tool in the hands of Khaddam because he is not competent enough to be the president of Syria. The way he approached the meeting, especially the last day, proved to us that this man cannot be democratic.
He explained that the 10-person leadership committee was "chosen" when

Khaddam and Bayanouni disappeared with about 20 other of the attendees most of whom were Muslim Brotherhood and old Ba'athists friends of Khaddam; when they appeared again, they simply announced the list of the Steering Committee made-up of 25 people and asked to vote for or against it. Since there were only 43 participants in the meeting, they already planned their win behind closed doors by convening the majority.
The purpose of the NSF is to bring democracy to Syria. The Dorchester meeting was not a particularly promising start for this project.

The spokesperson of the Damascus Declaration, Hasan Abdel Azim, also distanced his organization from the NSF, explaining that "no coordination, talks, or relation exist between the two." This sort of a remark is necessary in the face of the ongoing crackdown on opposition members inside Syria in order not to provoke further arrests. Nevertheless, there was widespread unhappiness within the ranks of the Damascus Declaration coalition when Bayanouni accepted Khaddam as his partner and first announced the formation of the SNF.

For the time being the Syrian opposition has demonstrated how divided it remains over goals, means, and personalities. The Syrian regime has little to fear from it in the short run. What is more, Khaddam's efforts to win the open backing of Lebanon's Future Movement leaders had to be shelved. It was widely expected that Jumblat or perhaps even Hariri might show up for the close of the NSF meeting in London for a laying on of hands, but there wasn't a word from the Lebanese. When Khaddam was asked after the conference if he would team up with the Cedar crowd, he had to deny any intention of doing so. Asad's crackdown on the internal opposition members who had signed a petition with their Lebanese counterparts proved successful in so far as it made linking up with Beirut a no-go for the external opposition as well.

The second major test this month was the Brammertz report. Syrian authorities have professed their satisfaction with it. If Brammertz has amassed any important new evidence, he is not showing his hand. The Lebanese have tried to put the best face on what was a very disappointing report from their point of view. Saad Hariri made sure that everyone understood that he would not be prepared to let the issue die and make peace with Damascus by declaring, "Assad is to blame. Or let me put it like this: 'Based on everything I know, I hold him at least partly responsible."

Jumblat, true to his renowned for mellifluous and stirring sound bites, proclaimed: "There will be no settlement, no pact of honor, and no peace with the tyrants of Damascus, with those who have violated Lebanon's independence and killed its free men."

Khaddam chimed in with his own bit of spin, saying in an Elaph interview: "I possess all the documents that incriminate the criminal policy of the Syrian regime." Of course in a contemporaneous interview, he admitted he had "no hard evidence to back his claim." The Lebanese paper, The Daily Star, which should be at least indulgent of Khaddam now that he is anti-Syrian, wrote in its editorial that Khaddam lacks even a "modicum of credibility."

Attempts by the anti-Syria crowd to gin up a bit of excitement and anti-Syrian fervor over the Brammertz report fell flat.

By contrast, the pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon were positively energized. Suleiman Franjieh re-launched al Marada, the Christian militia founded by his grandfather, as a new political movement at a ceremony attended by thousands in his northern hometown of Zgharta. Other parties allied with Damascus attended the ceremony Sunday including Hizbullah, Amal, and General Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement.

This is one more sign that the fleeting national unity Lebanon demonstrated a year ago is in rapid retreat. The reemergence of armed militias and extremist gangs is a direct consequence of the central government's failure to make headway on any issues of consequence. The power vacuum at the heart of the Lebanese state has encouraged every faction to arm itself in the belief that real politics will be carried out not in the corridors of parliament, but on the streets. The stand off between Washington and Damascus is tearing Lebanon apart.

Anthony Shadid, drives this point home in his brilliant article in the Washington Post in which he interviews a bunch of Lebanese fighters who have returned to Tripoli from Iraq, "Smoke of Iraq War 'Drifting Over Lebanon': In Political and Social Life, Returned Fighters Inspire Climate of Militancy." It is a chilling article and reminds us that the aftershock of the US occupation of Iraq will have enduring repercussions.

Pro-Syrian parties in Lebanon were given a serendipitous boost by the roundup of a major terror network with ties to Israel by Lebanese security forces this last week. Seven members of a terror cell led by Mahmoud Abu Rafeh, an ex-security forces officer from the Druze community, were apprehended. Cell members, some of whom had been trained in Israel, are responsible for killing a number of leading Palestinian and Shiite enemies of Israel.

Hizbullah leaders have spun the breakup of this Mossad ring in order to revive speculation that Israel was behind Hariri's murder and not Syria. Hizbullah politburo member Ghalib Abu Zaynab said:
"It is a reminder that Israel [continues to pose a] threat, continues to breach Lebanon's security and should never be dismissed as a suspect in assassinations and explosions that have occurred in Lebanon,"
In conclusion, Syria is in a stronger position today than it has been since the US invasion of Iraq. Syria's Defense Minister Hasan Turkamani is in Iran for four days to build on their mutual defense relations. The Palestinian foreign minister has just arrived in Damascus for talks. Nabih Berri is in Egypt trying to get mediation for better relations between Lebanon and Syria. Gulf real estate investors have just announced another $500,000,000 development project in Syria. In short, Syria is back in the thick of Arab politics after having been seriously isolated following the Hariri murder. US attempts to keep it bottled up are losing their steam and effectiveness, as a recent congressional hearing made clear. June could have been a terrible month for Syria, but it has turned out to be a good one. Khaddam has warned Asad that he should take no joy in the good news, for it would be like the rejoicing of the cancer patient who is given two more months to live. Khaddam promises that he and the Muslim Brothers will be ruling in Damascus before the close of the year. It is hard to know what modicum of credibility to give such warnings. Syrian officials are trying to play it cool, but they are undoubtedly feeling more confident than they have for some time.

Terror in Syria

The latest issue of Jamestown Terrorism Focus carries the following article based largely on Ibrahim al-Hamidi's reporting from Damascus. Even more detail can be found in Sami Moubayed's article, "Terror within Syria".

Violence in Syria Points to Growing Radical Islamist Unrest
Chris Zambelis
Volume 3, Issue 23 (June 13, 2006)

According to reports in early June, Syrian authorities claim to have disrupted an attack by radical Syrian Islamists near Ummayad Square in Damascus, possibly targeting government buildings. A team of 10 armed militants allegedly opened fire against a Syrian police patrol around dawn after being spotted in an abandoned building located in the immediate vicinity of Syria's state-run General Organization of Radio and Television headquarters and other key government buildings, including the Ministry of Defense, Criminal Security Department and Customs Department. The ensuing battle lasted for more than three hours. The militants also used hand grenades during the fight, which left four militants dead. A Syrian security official and a guard at Syrian Television were also killed while others were injured. The remaining six fighters were arrested (al-Hayat, June 3; al-Ahram, June 8).

The incident remains shrouded in mystery. No group has claimed responsibility for the apparent botched operation. Interestingly, Syrian authorities did mention that all of the assailants are Syrians who had once observed a Sufi tradition but have since adopted a radical fundamentalist takfiri worldview (al-Hayat, June 3). These details imply that Syrian intelligence tracked these individuals and may have more information about their origins and background than they are publicizing.

Some local Syrian sources suggest that the botched plot was actually the result of a U.S. and Israeli effort to destabilize Syria by supporting radical Islamist fundamentalists (Tishrin, June 3). Syrian officials did mention that the militants were armed with U.S.-made M-16 semi-automatic rifles, hunting rifles, mobile phones, homemade bombs and detonators. They also wore military camouflage uniforms (al-Jazeera, June 2; al-Hayat, June 3).

Significantly, Syrian sources claim that the captured militants were carrying CDs and cassettes of sermons by Mahmoud al-Aghasi (known as Abu Qaqa), a Syrian with close links to al-Qaeda. His sermons mention a previously unknown group called Ghuraba al-Sham (Strangers of Greater Syria). It is unclear whether Ghuraba al-Sham is another name for Jund al-Sham (Army of Greater Syria), one of an array of obscure Syrian radical groups with alleged ties to al-Qaeda that have been implicated in violence during the last couple of years. Jund al-Sham has also been linked to Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (known as Abu Musab al-Suri), a leading Syrian al-Qaeda member. Abu Qaqa holds a Pakistani passport and is believed to be presently in Chechnya. He has been implicated in facilitating the streams of insurgents and other radicals that reportedly make their way to Iraq through Syrian territory. He is also reported to be linked to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He has spent time in prison for organizing radical activities in Syria (al-Ahram, June 8; al-Arabiya, June 5).

Upon cursory examination, this latest incident fits the larger pattern of simmering tensions and increasing violence between Syria's radical Islamist community and the state. The ongoing insurgency in Iraq is also contributing to the radicalization of Syria's Islamist opposition. Ongoing efforts by Damascus to stem the flow of insurgents and radicals to Iraq to fight U.S.-led coalition forces and recent reports alleging Syrian intelligence cooperation with Washington, including allegations of Syrian involvement in the detention and torture of al-Qaeda detainees in order to curry favor with Washington in the war on terrorism, is also sure to inflame tensions among Syria's radical Islamist community.

It is important to differentiate between the different groups in the region bearing the same or similar names, including a distinct organization called Jund al-Sham based in Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and another implicated in the 2005 suicide attack in Doha. Tanzim Jund al-Sham (Organization of the Army of Greater Syria), which is implicated in attacks in Syria during the last year, is also believed to be a distinct organization (Terrorism Focus, October 4, 2005; Terrorism Focus, June 24, 2005).

Monday, June 12, 2006

Khaddam and the Opposition

Two new interviews with ex-V.P. Abdel Halim Khaddam, who has recently launched the National Salvation Front, and a new and important site by Tony Badran:

The first Khaddam interview is by Bette Dam, an excellent Dutch journalist. It can be found in Arabic here. It was published on 6 June. Here is a rough summary:

Khaddam explains that he began to think of going into the opposition after the Soviet Union collapsed. He explained that it was clear Syria needed a new economic system and to feed its people. The entire balance of power had changed and Syria needed to respond to this. It could not be business as usual.

Khaddam explains that from the beginning of Asad's wing of the Baath coming to power, he had hoped there would be greater freedom and democracy. However, Asad began to rely on security and empowered the mukhabarat to the exclusion of the Party, which ended freedom. He says there are people who think like him remaining in the Party but they are not in power and are watched very closely. He would not name any for fear that they would be imprisoned.

When asked why he was so patient with the regime for 30 years if he objected to the rule of one man, Khaddam explains that Syria was going through difficult times in the 1970s and 1980s in its relations with Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, etc. and his resignation would have weakened the country and would not have been understood by the people. It could have put him into danger. Nevertheless, he said he made his criticisms clear and published a book, entitled: The Contemporary Arab Regime.

Khaddam says that Syria's entry into Lebanon in 1976 was the correct thing to do. It was the best of a number of bad possibilities. First, it was the Christians who asked for Syria's help. Zahleh, the largest Christian city in Lebanon, and several other Christian towns in the Baqaa were completely surrounded by enemy forces and were cut off from resupply of food and medicine. If Syria did not go in to raise the siege, he says, another power would have, most probably Israel, which would have been detrimental to Syria's strategic interests and security.

Syria should have left Lebanon according the to the Taif accord in 1994, he said. It did not because Israel remained an occupying power in Southern Lebanon and its forces were a mere 35 miles from Damascus. But Syria should have withdrawn from Lebanon in 2000, at the time Israel pulled out, he claims.

Khaddam claims he made his views know to Asad in 2000. Asad did not want to pull out because he was in negotiations with Israel. Khaddam was against Lahoud taking the presidency. He advised Asad that the Lebanese would not stand for a President who was from the military. Asad insisted because he wanted someone strong in the presidency who would stand by his side in the negotiations and would not try to open a separate front with the Israeli's. Anyway, Khaddam explains, the Lebanon portfolio was taken from him in 1998 and given to Bashar, so it was not his decision.

Damascus Spring and Reform
Khaddam claims he was a supporter of open dialogue, the Damascus Spring, and creating the right atmosphere for democracy and freedom in Syria. He explains his famous speech at the University of Damascus, when he said that the regime could not allow Syria to become like Algeria, which was in civil war, as follows. He said that a number of the civil society leaders were urging Bashar to carry out a revolution against his father's regime, because it was inhuman, etc. I told them Bashar would not do this because he is from his father's heart. I told Bashar that if you turn against your father, they will ask for your head next.

Anyway, Bashar did not have the power to turn against his father's regime at that time because the security chieftains, who were the heart of the regime, would have pushed him aside.

Bashar said he wanted to concentrate on economic reform, so I presented him with an economic reform package. Nothing happened. Then he said he had to carry out administrative reform before the economic reforms so I presented him with an administrative reform package. We got Jacque Chirac of France to send a team to help us with this, but Bashar did not take their advice and nothing happened.

I explained all this at the time of my resignation during the Baath Party congress.

What were the high points?
Khaddam says the most encouraging point was in 1970 and the first part of 1971 when Syria repaired its relations with other Arab states, from which Syria had become cut off. After that, Asad began to consolidate power in his own hands; his family members began to spread corruption and the security apparatus began to tighten its grip on Syria. There was no question about challenging this system. Asad prepared his brother Rifaat for power and then his sons after Rifaat moved against him.
BBC HardTalk: The other Khaddam interview is a BBC television show, "Hardtalk," known for its hard hitting and entertaining questions. It will air tomorrow, Tuesday. The interview will be broadcast at the following times (gmt) on BBC World tomorrow - Tuesday 13th June: 0330, 0830, 1530, 1830, 2330. A streamed version will be available on Hartalk's website after broadcast. There will also be a transcript available.

Tony Badran has constructed a new site - the Syria Monitor - to push the Syrian Opposition's views, bring them to an English speaking audience by translating them, and to set out their schedule of events. It is a fantastic service to us all. Tony has recently been named a Research Fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon and Syria. He researches and writes on political developments and the democratic movement in Lebanon, as well as the opposition in Syria. The "Syria Monitor" is part of his new duties to "defend democracy from terrorism," as the FDD describes its mission.

In advertising his new site, Tony writes:
The Syria Monitor. It's your one stop for news on the Syrian opposition on the web.

If you're looking for how much a cup of coffee costs at the Dorchester Hotel, where the NSF conference took place, you won't find that type of ridiculous nonsense here. Instead, you'll find some real, useful, and objective information.
The reference to the price of coffee at the Dorchester, I am delighted to say, is from the coverage on "Syria Comment." Whereas Syria Comment was able to attract several exclusive stories from non-journalist attendees and from journalists before they filed their own, less colorful stories, Tony copied the wire services. The various views carried on my site gave a description of the setting, explained who was there and what was said in the corridors, as well as gave different impressions of the atmosphere and tenor of the debate. Some were impressed by the proceedings others were not.

Like Farid Ghadry, who named his blog "Syria Comment Plus," Tony seeks to compare his new site with "Syria Comment." It is flattering.

Also like Ghadry, Tony's new employer, The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, has a similar list of sponsors. The Board of Directors and Advisors is choc-a-block full of familiar names, such as Representative Eliot Engel, who co-sponsored the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, Dr. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Newt Gingrich, Gary Bauer, Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle, etc.

I can only hope that the FDD has gotten some of the 5 million dollars that congress recently earmarked for boosting democracy in Syria. If Tony's "Syria Monitor" is a product of that effort, it will be money well spent. It is a useful service that all of us who are interested in Syria will profit from and use. Democracy begins with respect for different viewpoints. Tony is an exemplar of these characteristics. His equanimity, tolerance, and respect for views from across the political spectrum should serve him well in his new job as a purveyor of democracy for Syria.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Brammertz Report is a Bust: Syrians Relieved

The Brammertz 30-page report has come out and it is a dud - at least for those who were hoping to increase the pressure on Syria by having it brought in front of the Security Council for economic sanctions or further resolutions.

A PDF copy of it can be found here. There are a number of news articles on it as well. Here is Forbesand here is Reuters.

Who killed Hariri?

Brammertz said he has two hypotheses: that a small team acting on its own planned and conducted the entire attack itself, or that it took a larger, complex operation, with a large number of people performing smaller, very specific tasks.

Brammertz' predecessor as chief of the investigation, Germany's Detlev Mehlis, had said the killing's complexity suggested the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role in Hariri's assassination. Yet Brammertz shied away from making any such claims.
This is important because Mehlis had accused only the Syrians and their Lebanese underlings. He supplied names of those he believed responsible, including Asef Shawkat, the Syrian President's brother-in-law. This accusation was built on the notion that the operation was so complex that only Syria could have carried it out. Brammertz does not say this was not the case, but neither does he confirm that only Syria should be a suspect, as Mehlis did in his two reports.

US policy, which is to keep raising the psychological, political, and economic pressure on Syria, just got a big "Khazouq," (the shaft) as my wife delicately put it. At first she suggested, "There must have been a deal. The report is too good." It was unlike the UN not to try to hurt Syria. When I argued against this interpretation, suggesting that Brammertz just doesn't have much to go on and that once he threw out the testimony of Hussam Hussam and Saddiq, which had so beguiled Mehlis, he discovered there just wasn't much evidence to point to Syria conclusively or to anyone else. "It was just an honest report," I argued. Her reply was: "Well then, maybe Bashar will learn a lesson from this." I asked, "What lesson is that?" She replied, "He needs to be more open and to cooperate with the UN and not lose friends such as France."

That is sound advice. All the same, a year ago Mehlis and France both were certain of Syria's authorship of the crime following Hariri's murder. They were gunning for the regime. It was not surprising that Bashar al-Asad would suspect that the there was little he could do to exonerate Syria and had to suspect the investigation was a set up.

Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the U.N., said American officials would have no immediate comment because they were still studying the 30-page report. What can they say? They will have to suggest that it is a good report that doesn't exonerate Syria and that Syria must comply with UN resolutions 1559, 1680, and the rest, pronto or else something very bad will happen.

The report is extremely short compared to those of Mehlis, Brammertz' predecessor. It is also very dry reading, unlike Mehlis' reports which read like spy novels and were full of sensational detail, much of which turned out to be supplied by witnesses who were later discredited.

Brammertz has continued in the careful, reserved, and cautious manner that has characterized his investigation from the beginning. He says he has made "considerable progress" in his probe of Hariri's assassination, and said most of his work could be wrapped up in several months, but he has welcomed Lebanon's request that the inquiry be extended for another year. France says it will support this. So has Kofi Annan. "This would provide a much needed sense of continuity and stability, guarantee progressive operations and planning, and offers assurances to staff," the report said.

Brammertz is expected to brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday - a day before his commission's mandate expires. "I share the view expressed by Mr. Brammertz and the Lebanese government that the commission should be provided with stability and predictability in its mandate and resources," Annan wrote.

Forbes writes that,
Brammertz' report gave the Security Council a rough outline of his investigation into the bombing that killed Hariri as his convoy moved through downtown Beirut.

According to the report, evidence collected so far suggested the bomb that killed Hariri was above ground and fit with earlier theories that it had been packed into a Mitsubishi truck whose demolished carcass was found at the scene.

There has been speculation in Lebanon that there was a possibility of two explosions - one underground and another in a truck - especially after Brammertz's team recently erected a huge tent at the scene of the killing and dug into the ground.

"Evidence collected from within the soil on the inside of the crater, indicates that the IED (improvised explosive device) was most likely located above the ground," the report said.
The report said there was no evidence to suggest that a man named Ahmed Abu Adass, who appeared on a video tape claiming responsibility, was in fact involved.

Addendum (June 11): Here is a comment I was sent from a respected analyst based in the region. He is correct that Syria remains the only suspect according the the various implied Brammertz scenarios. The question that cannot be answered today is whether the investigation has amassed enought evidence to convict Syrians in court. When Brammertz took over from Mehlis, there was not enough evidence.
I agree with much of what you say. Damascus is off the hook for the time being, but I think it is premature for Bashar & Co to pop the champagne corks. I suspect that Brammertz is deliberately avoiding mehlis' reveal-all style to avoid the pitfalls of unreliable witnesses, such as Hussam Hussam etc. Brammertz is building a case to take to court and I suspect that the final revelations will be made before the tribunal, not in the last UNIIIC report. There is nothing to suggest that Brammertz has deviated substantially from the broader direction that Mehlis initiated. The reference to "political motives, personal vendettas, financial circumstances, and extremist ideologies" being possible factors in the assassination still fits in with the motives attributable to the Syrian regime - political motives: Hariri was planning to weaken Syria's hold on Lebanon; personal vendettas: Lahoud, the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies detested Hariri. It was the whispering campaign of Lahoud and his cronies that exacerbated Bashar's inherent distrust of Hariri; financial circumstances: many powerful Syrians and Lebanese stood to lose financially if RH and his allies rode to triumph in the May 2005 elections, overturning Syria's hold on Lebanon; extremist ideologies: the field is open wide here - Alawite distrust of an immensely powerful Sunni exerting a threatening influence over his Syrian co-confessionalists/Shiite distrust of an immensely powerful Sunni who could provide an obstacle to Iran's ambitions to further its influence in the Mideast/Salafi jihadis who hated Hariri and had no connection to Syria at all.

Many people who believe Syria is innocent of blame tend to look at Hariri's murder as an isolated event. But as you know, Hariri's death fitted into a pattern that had been unfolding since the early 1990s when the younger generation of the Syrian regime began asserting itself, and accelerated from 2000 when RH returned to the premiership before climaxing after Lahoud's presidential extension. Hariri's assassination needs to be scrutinised in the context of the other 14 bombings and assassinations before and after his death. While one could argue with greater or lesser degrees of conviction that Hariri's death could have been caused by Mossad/CIA/Al-Qaeda, the theories take on far less credence when analysed within the prevailing political environment before and after the assassination.

Ghadry's Reform Party of Syria Slams Bayanouni and Khaddam

The meeting of the National Salvation Front in London last weekend has provoked a counter-attack from Farid Ghadry. It should be recalled that Ghadry's Syrian Reform Party, a Washington-based Syrian exile group, was excluded from the Damascus Declaration and its follow up conference in Washington DC. Both were precursors of the recently formed National Salvation Front, which threatens to push Ghadry’s group aside.

In a circular entitled: "Saudis behind efforts to install Islamist extremists and Ba'athists in Syria to serve as a proxy against Iraqi democracy," Ghadry's Syrian Reform Party has announced that the Saudis are "funding and sponsoring the National Salvation Front." Moreover, the SRP claims that it has "uncovered a pernicious link between the Saudi government and the Ba’athist friendly National Salvation Front" that is part of a "wider regional plan to undermine the young democracy in Iraq and to promote wider regional sectarian conflict”

The SRP insists that the reason Saudi is funding the "anti-democratic Syrian opposition" is because they have "seen the success of the alliance between Islamists and Baathists in Iraq" and hope to replicate this alliance in Syria in order to "install a government in Syria that they can control" and which will "serve their own agenda."

Just as interesting, as this broadside, for which no evidence is given, is the sharpening dispute within the Bush administration over which Syrian opposition wing to pay attention to - the more popular NSF or the pro-Bush administration SRP.

Ghadry supporters within the administration and on the far right asked him to testify to congress and give a talk in the wake of the NSF confab in London. Ghadry is clawing his way back on stage. Helping him to do this is the

The Congressional Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, which is chaired by Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen (R-FL)(See photo). She and Eliot Engel (D. NY) were the sponsors of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act. They have spearheaded the anti-Syrian legislation in congress.

(Addendum: Ghadry and his immediate family have given $8,000 to Ross-Lehtinen and Engel over the last three years. See this. Also see the smart post by George Ajjan on the hearings.)

Ileana, asked five people to give testimony on Syria and "recommendations regarding the Syria Accountability Act and the state of human rights conditions inside Syria."
The official site of the hearing is here.

Panel I: included Congressman Eliot L. Engel, (see photo) who sponsored the Syria Accountability Act with Ross-Lehtinen.

Panel II was composed of Theodore Kattouf,(Former American Ambassador to Syria) and now President of Amideast, who is not inimical to the Syrian government; as well as three advocates of regime change) Mr. Farid Ghadry, Reform Party of Syria; Marius Deeb, a Lebanese Professor at SAIS, Johns Hopkins; Mr. David Schenker, Fellow at WINEP and ex-Rumsfeld aid.

The testimony given is summarized in a Voice of America article here. Theodore Kattouf said:

"Many if not most Syrians would welcome a much more open and democratic society, and a leadership that while nationalistic, was far less oppressive," said Theodore Kattouf. "But my strong sense is that they also want change to be brought about through their own efforts and managed in a way that prevents sectarian bloodletting and even civil war.”
Eliot Engels said that the Bush administration, which said it was waiting to gather support from other nations before implementing stronger measures, must act now.

"The delay I believe is no longer acceptable," said Eliot Engel. "The time has come to impose the full range of penalties envisioned in the act. And if we don’t do it in conjunction with other countries, we should absolutely do it alone, right now."
David Schenker went through the argument in his recent article linked to SC a few posts ago. He said efforts by Congress and the administration to turn up the heat [on Damascus] have been hampered by distractions, such as Iraq, but did not believe that the administration had the power "to pressure the Syrians to change their key problematic policies." He said: "Can we expect modifications at the margins? Possibly. Significant policy changes? Not likely."

Maurice Deeb emphasized the importance of working through the United Nations and pointed to the latest example of the impact of the Syria Accountability Act: the withdrawal of U.S. Marathon Oil Company from Syria.
Farid Ghadry said internal opposition to President Assad remains stifled, the exile opposition divided, and U.S. policies inconsistent. He advocated a stronger and highly visible stance by the Bush administration and Congress supporting democratic changes in Syria.

"To actually call for democracy and freedom for the Syrian people, to actually call [for] rescinding some of the laws, to lifting the emergency laws in Syria," said Farid Ghadry. "Then you would bring the Syrian people to your side. Once you do that, the pressure will be tremendously immense on the system."
So what do we learn from this? The US is unwilling and incapable at this time to pressure Syria effectively. First, the mass of Syrians are not sympathetic to American efforts, according to Kattouf. America does not have the power to significantly hurt Syria, according to Schenker. Europe and Washington are busy putting out fires in Iran and Iraq and will not pour oil on the Syrian embers in the meantime. Although the UN and Europe could hurt Syria, they will not do it. The only way to change Syria, according to Ghadry, is if the US commits itself to regime-change in Syria by throwing itself openly and emphatically behind the goal of bringing democracy to Syria, something Schenker, who should know, explained the USG cannot do and Kattouf explained it should not do. By holding the hearings, the two congress members have sewn up the votes and donations of their respective Lebanese and Jewish constituents. They also help put Farid Ghadry back in the limelight. Ghadry was also given the chance to insist on the record that the US support his group and not the "repackaged Baathist-Muslim Brother" alternative. In further support of Ghadry, a gaggle of neocon supporters led by Frank J. Gaffney invited Ghadry to speak at the Stanton Group Meeting on 26 May 2006 along with a member of the Heritage Foundation. Ghadry may be down after recent defections and expulsions from his Party, but he certainly isn't out.

State Department spokespeople have recently said that they are open to all sections of the Syrian opposition and are eager to hear what the National Salvation Front has to say and offer. This news was a direct challenge to Ghadry and his supporters within the government. They have fought back this week, helping to provide Farid Ghadry with a forum to trumpet his claim that the NSF is neither democratic nor pro-American, whereas, his SRP is both, according to Ghadry.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

As Dictatorships fall, the likely winners are................., By EHSANI2

As Dictatorships fall, the likely winners are........
June 7, 2006

Let me state at the outset, that I am a huge proponent of the separation of religion and state. I also happen to believe that Islam and western liberalism are incompatible. The Moslem world will keep blaming everyone else for its failures. Just like the banner of the Egyptian elections proclaimed, “Islam is the solution,” the vast majority of the Moslem world happens to share the spirit of this slogan. No matter what form of government they are presented with, they will continue to wish for the day that Islam became the rule of the land. This is in the region’s DNA.

It was the same in Iran. They felt that Khomeini and his brand of government were going to be their savior. Unless they were given the chance to try it, it would have remained a beautiful unattained dream. But now that they have tried it, future generations of Persians will say thanks but no thanks. Hamas is another case in point. The Palestinian people felt that if they were only able to bring Islamists to power, all their problems would be solved. They now took it out of their system. Years later (if not already), they will realize that this was a mistake. But they would never have believed anyone unless they tried it for themselves. Just like the Iranians, when future Palestinian generations will say, “Islam is the solution,” the response will again most likely be thanks but no thanks.

Only when this scenario is played out in country after country in the Middle East, will the region be ready to progress to the next stage. The threat of Islamism is likely to be with us for many decades. It is likely to take Middle Easterners as long as it took the Russians to reject communism, if not longer. If that took 70 years, this may take 100 years or more. Iran is now 27 years into its Islamist experiment. If I am right, we have only started down the Islamist road. I truly hope that I am wrong. There is nothing that I detest more than religious people running our lives. But, I think it is inevitable. As we demand more democracy and the removal of dictatorships, the natural next step will be to allow for the majority to express its will at the voting booths. Liberals will be no match for the religious establishment in the scramble for power as the present authoritarian regimes give way. Iraq has already begun its experiment with Islamism, as Mullahs take the reins of power. Sadly, Syria is unlikely to buck this trend. A number of analysts and experts believe that the country is somehow different from the rest of the Middle East; they argue that secularism and liberalism will prevail. I am skeptical.

Middle Eastern potentates gamble that they can short-circuit the Islamist swing of the pendulum, by crushing the extremist forces of Islam and domesticating the rest. Beginning at the very start of the twentieth century, Ataturk set out on the course of smashing the religious establishment in Turkey and marginalizing the Mullahs and Islamists. He blamed the backwardness of the Middle East and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during WWI on the obscurantism of the Imams and backward looking project of religion.

Secular modernizers and the West have been transfixed by Kemal Ataturk's forced secularization of Turkey: the abolition of the Caliphate, the imposition of puritanical secularism, the closing of religious schools, the banning of Islamic dress, and the purging of the Turkish language of its Arabic vocabulary. Many were particularly intrigued by Ataturk's description of Islam as "a putrefied corpse which poisons our lives" and as "the enemy of civilization and science.”

There can be little doubt that modern day Middle Eastern rulers look back on the lessons of Ataturk, with admiration. Many "liberals" do as well. They tell themselves that if they can hang tough, hang on to power, and hang the Islamists their countries can ride out the Islamist storm. Husni Mubarak, in paving the way for his son to succeed him, no doubt, thinks along these lines - that is what he is selling the West and the moneyed and intellectual classes of Egypt. The Assads of Syria use the same rational. If given enough time, they can guide their people through the Islamist moment, even if it takes half a century or more. They present themselves as the secular counter-force to Islam. But can they weather the storm? Is it so simple or does the pendulum of history defy the forceful hands of secular dictators?

Everyone now looks to Turkey as the example of the successful secularizer. After a century of holding the pendulum back from its Islamist cycle, the Kemalist military elite has recently released it. The present Islamist rulers who have inherited power turn out to be benign, we are assured. Yes, hijabs will be allowed in public buildings, but all the scarier forms of Islamism, such as the imposition of shari`a law and rejections of pluralism, have been leeched from the political agenda of the dominant Turkish Islamists. That is the assumption, at least. It must be noted that a number of secular Turks have been warning that the pendulum is only beginning its swing toward a more Islamic form of government and surprises may still be in store for Turkey.

In any case, it may be argued, Turkey is a unique case that cannot be properly used as a model for the Middle East more generally. Its proximity to the West and its significant strides in the field of economic reforms and education during the 20th century set it apart, as does the fact that it inherited the Ottoman brain and nervous system, which left it with a more sophisticated leadership, more developed state institutions, and much further along the road to modernization. Moreover, in the latter half of the 20th century, Turgot Ozal forced through an economic liberalization program that vastly improved Turkey's economic prospects. Turkey's economic advances have convinced many analysts that the Turkey has successfully inoculated itself against the extremes of Islamism. In my opinion, the Turkish army’s ever-strong presence has been a huge factor in preventing the country from swinging back more forcefully to the Islamist extreme. But, in spite of the country’s high economic development, excellent education system, and years of forced secularism, it has not been able to avoid being governed by the Islamic government of today, though admittedly they are not of extremists.

In conclusion, the people of the Middle East seem destined for more political reforms and democracy. As dictatorships give way to the will of the people, Islam will most likely emerge as the winner in most Middle Eastern countries. Regrettably, the liberal voices that have long been kept at the margins of power and state institutions will likely lose this race. Years of failed economic policies and sagging standards of living will make it easier for the Islamists to convince their fellow countrymen that “Islam is the solution.” The banners that we saw in the latest Egyptian elections will most likely be raised in future elections across the Arab World. Only once our people have actually experience Islamic governance will the liberals among us get their turn. Examples of this scenario can be seen in the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Iran, and Iraq. Every time a change in the status quo has taken place, the Islamists have quickly filled the void. The liberal voices will most likely disagree with me. Syria is surely different, they are likely to argue. While I will pray that they are right, my fear is that Syria's Islamists will be coming to power next.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Dardari Speaks to Tabler about 5-Year Plan

Abdullah Dardari, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Syria's economy, explains the Five Year Plan to Andrew Tabler. This is the lead article in this month's "Syria Today," Syria's premier English language magazine that covers current events, business, and culture in Syria. Dardari clarifies that 7% is the target growth figure for 2010.

Squaring the circle?
"Syria Today"
Interview with Deputy Prime Minsiter Abdullah Dardari
By Andrew Tabler

Syria’s economic plan for the next ten years is a departure from the norm, aiming to implement socialist development schemes alongside free market capital enterprise. Andrew Tabler asked the minister in charge how the ideology can be made reality.

Life in Syria – like in many developing countries – does not readily lend itself to planning. Worsening traffic jams to recent international pressures are just a few reasons why Syrians tend to focus on the short-term.

For decades, the Syrian state did very much the same thing. Budgets were passed at the end of the fiscal year, allowing for “perfect” accounting. Ministries pursued projects that often conflicted with other authorities. Such factors – along with worsening regional tensions – led to low economic growth and the slow pace of reform in recent years.

The government claims this is about to change, however, following the passage into law of Syria’s 10th Five-Year Plan (FYP) on May 7. As in past socialist schemes, the FYP’s 28 chapters outline sector development strategies for everything from agriculture and irrigation to education and health. Cutting across the plan, however, are capitalistic development concepts such as “indicative planning”, “stakeholder participation”, “good governance” and “civil society”. How will Syria square this ideological circle?

Syria Today read the plan and asked Abdullah Dardari, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs and head of the State Planning Commission (SPC) – the executive body tasked with bringing the plan to life – about how the FYP is going to implement the “social-market economy” ideal adopted at the June 2005 Ba’ath Party Conference.

The introduction of the FYP says the transition to a “social-market economy” will require forging a “new social contract” among “vital forces in Syrian society.” It says “such partnerships are the only route to win societal transformation and meet associated challenges.” What will this new contract look like?

First of all, the FYP will represent the substance of the new social contract. This is a dynamic process, not simply a static text. Things will be debated and changing all the time. It will be a new social contract in the sense of a new partnership between the state, the private sector and civil society. A new division of labour and new responsibilities and authorities will be derived from this dynamic over the next few months and years in Syria. The new social contract will be represented by a host of new laws that, by the end of the plan, will have produced a completely different legal framework that runs this country. The government will emerge as the regulator of the economy. State enterprises, the public sector and the private sector will take on new roles. This new set of legislation, in addition to the new parties’ law and media law, will constitute this overall framework we call the new social contract.

The plan talks about “association of just and equitable distribution of wealth with distribution of power through good governance. This boils down to promoting transparency and accountability in respect of the political and social relations, as well as allowing Syrian citizens to stand up for their economic, political and social rights.” The state has just arrested the largest number of civil society and opposition figures since the Damascus Spring crackdown of 2001. How will this part of the plan be implemented in such a climate?

This is a much wider issue than an incident here and there. The FYP touches upon 18 million Syrians, not just a small group of people. First, we are talking about ensuring that all Syrians are equal in the eyes of the law. Secondly, that all Syrians are equal in the eyes of the civil service, and ensuring it is accountable to the people and the legislature. This requires a complete change in the mindset of civil servants, a lot of training, and putting the citizens at the core of civil service operations; ensuring that the citizen is a client to whom the civil service is accountable. It is important also to ensure transparency of expenditures and the budget. We are preparing a new law for public finance that ensures much more transparency.

The role of civil society organisations is “activated” under the FYP. This includes NGO’s “assisting” in poverty reduction, social reform, and “advocacy and support” programmes for women, children, and special groups; “implementing” social mobilisation and consumer protection programmes; and “co-work” for good governance and accountability of state institutions. Is it safe to assume that programme-specific operational NGOs will be permitted under the plan, but that their advocacy activities will remain limited?

It’s safe to say there will be a new NGOs law, and that they will work on different fronts. First, they will have to improve their own governance. Secondly, they will have to move from charity towards more development work. Advocacy is an important part of their work for women, children’s rights, etc. But they will also have to work with us on issues of poverty, monitoring state function on the local level. So I believe the civil society will play a larger role. There is movement already.

Syria is now under considerable international pressure. Has this made it harder to permit NGOs under the FYP to advocate for such issues as human rights, press freedoms, and democracy?

The plan itself does not talk about press freedoms and democracy. It talks about it in the preamble, but leaves it to other national agencies to deal with it, and other mechanisms. The new media law will expand the horizon of press freedoms considerably. The new parties’ law and the NGO law will also improve the political life of this country. They will be in line with the FYP.

The FYP aims at “recognising, modernising and organising the informal economic sector, financing its expanding activities, [and] enabling it to have a participatory role in achieving prosperity and welfare to larger social groups.” How are you going to entice people who purposely skirt reporting their activities to the state to suddenly allow it to organise and finance their operations?

Well, why does the informal sector skirt reporting in the first place? Two reasons. First, they think they will have to pay higher taxes and administrative costs. Second, there are not incentives for them to legalise their operations. Our tax system is still very complex. We are working on that, and we are looking at including the informal sector in the new tax law. The cost of registering a company in Syria is very high and takes a long time. So SME’s don’t bother. Our banking sector also does not provide special care for SMEs in terms of services and finance. When our banks offer better access to finance that serve the needs of SMEs, they will join the official system.

Ahead of the FYP’s passage, there was considerable talk of resistance to the plan from some ministries. When President Assad signed the plan into law on May 7, the official communiqué read “the SPC is the sole competent authority to draw interpretive instructions of the law and follow up on their implementation.” Did this phrase lessen resistance?

I don’t want to call it resistance. It has been a dialectic process. In 2004 two things happened. First, there was an awakening at the SPC and secondly the preparation of the FYP. This plan brings new ideas in response to the latest Ba’ath Party Congress’ resolutions. This created some shock waves across the government. So you would expect reluctance to adopting everything this plan is bringing. In my direct experiences with ministers, I don’t see any differences on substance. There are some differences on wording. The text of this communiqué has been there for the last nine plans. Since its formation in 1968, SPC was always responsible for interpreting the plan.

The plan talks about setting up “sectoral committees” that will lay the groundwork for participation by ministries and public sector enterprises in project formation, forming visions, strategies, etc. “This will hold the involved authorities accountable during the plan implementation period.” Have these committees been formed?

Yes, there are now sectoral committees, including deputy ministers from line ministries, technical advisors, and people from the SPC. They will report to the prime ministry on the development of the FYP. There is a strong trend towards decentralisation and delegation of authority as well. For the past 30 years, Syria was a centrally planned economy and the SPC played a very big role in supervising plan implementation. We want to give some of this role to the ministries. Ultimately, they will be held accountable. So they need to enjoy the delegation of authority necessary to do this. And if you look at the constitution, they have this authority.

Concerning the use of “indicative planning”, the FYP says that “the state will orchestrate investment and market activities rather than dominate or control them.” The next paragraph reads “the social market policy adopted by the FYP lays much emphasis on government intervention.” It then says “the state will withdraw from any competitions wherever market mechanisms are found to be worthy of playing an essential role…” This seems contradictory. How are you going to square all this?

It’s not contradictory. This will be an evolving process. It starts today with a dual role for the state, where the state runs the economy through laws and policies and at the same time has its own tools in the economy, such as the state-owned enterprises, state monopolies for foreign trade, etc. It is a more Keynesian approach to growth, with a lesser role for the state through direct institutions such as state-owned enterprises. The state will have a more powerful role in policymaking, and the state-owned enterprises’ share of overall production would be reduced.

The FYP says it will “guide” the private sector towards co-investments in all sectors and will “strengthen” the sector’s role by relaxing restrictions, promoting competition, making it pay taxes, and ensuring commercial justice and market transparency. This sounds great on paper. But what is the mechanism for getting the private sector to buy into this process?

First, so far it seems that the private sector has bought into the FYP. The 2005 figures seem to confirm that. The private sector, despite current impediments, can see we are cutting red tape. This has improved the overall mood of the private sector. I hold a joint committee every Monday with the private sector. The results are handed over to the economic committee and then the council of ministers. There will be new regulations and deregulations that will create a new environment for the private sector.

The FYP says it has conducted poverty mapping for the first time. What did you find?

Overall, the situation for low-income Syrians has improved. The percentage of people living under poverty line dropped from 14% to 11% between 1997 and 2004. Early indications for 2004-5 confirm that this trend continues. In Hama, for example, the poverty rate dropped from 18% to 9% in the same period. Things are improving, unlike the popular belief.

Concerning “macroeconomic modelling,” the plan talks about a “linear scenario” based on current circumstances and performance levels. This “optimistic scenario” anticipates annual economic growth of 7%. Then there are “two other scenarios” linked to “quantitative and qualitative changes, as well as regional stability and security, and fluctuations in oil prices.” This scenario anticipates a “growth level of 5%.” Is the current situation a linear scenario, or one of the two less optimistic ones?

I was just reading the latest IMF [International Monetary Fund] Article IV report for Syria, which has yet to be published. I am proud of it. The report vindicates our policies. We are talking about a non-oil sector growth rate of 5.5% – one of the highest in the region. This comes from a 25% increase in real investments in 2004 and 2005, respectively. These are very good figures after years of recession. The positive scenario doesn’t say annual growth of 7% now, but by 2010. We are now doing an economic situation analysis using 2004 and 2005 figures. The supply-side response in Syrian economy is proving to be much more elastic than we anticipated.

For a full outline of the FYP, as well as other useful information, visit

Neocons and Honor Killings

Two article stand out today: One is not on Syria; rather, it is on the philosphy of the neoconservatives. Although short, it gives many fresh and new insights into the thinking and intellectual starting points of the conservative movement.

Many of these "neoconservative" assumptions have spread far beyond the narrow confines of the true believers to become accepted wisdom. The authors are both experienced historians and policy analysts.

Acts of faith
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke, Asia Times, June 5, 2006
(Also see the other articles in this excellent series. Hat tip to War in Context)

The attacks on September 11 catapulted [Bernard] Lewis from the world of scholarly debates into the home of Vice President Dick Cheney, who convened a dinner of experts to help shape a policy toward Islam. Lewis dominated the discussion, telling Cheney that radical Islamists viewed the US as incapable of maintaining a strong foreign-policy course, as evidenced by the US retreat from Beirut in 1983 and from Somalia in 1993.

Cheney was entranced by Lewis's views, though not simply because he agreed with him: here was a man with a vision of Islam and the credentials that would give US policy legitimacy. Cheney was particularly attracted by Lewis's view that Islam's problems are largely self-inflicted, and that the legacy of Western colonialism and economic exploitation has little to do with Muslim attacks on Western societies.

This fit well with the neo-conservative view - which was already maintaining that "when we were attacked on September 11, we knew the main reason for the attack was that Islamists hated our way of life, our virtues, our freedoms". The attacks had nothing to do with Western policies, with the legacy of colonialism, or with the support for Middle Eastern dictators. It wasn't that we in the West have bad policies, it was that they have no values.

It is not hard to see how the young Lewis (a scholar diligently bent over his researches in the dusty Ottoman archives in the wake of World War II) was so taken with Kemal Ataturk. Here was a Muslim, Lewis believed, who understood that modernization of his culture could only take place when Islam adopted the narrative of the West.

Lewis set about his life's work with a fury, transmitting Ataturk's vision of a new Middle East for a generation of US and British policymakers. His influence is undeniable: Lewis's views on Islam embody the now prevalent Western vision of Islamists as reactionaries at war with modernism, as obscuritanists doing battle with values, as technophobes seeking a return to the 7th century. Lewis was particularly intrigued by Ataturk's description of Islam as "a putrefied corpse which poisons our lives" and as "the enemy of civilization and science".

This article from MEMRI is well worth reading in full.

The September 2005 murder of a young Druze woman, Huda Abu 'Asali, by members of her family because of her marriage to a man outside of her ethnic group, sparked a wave of outraged reaction throughout Syria against the phenomenon of "honor killings" of women by their male relatives. The independent Syrian website "Syrian Women" launched a sweeping campaign, under the slogan "Stop the Murder of Women, Stop the 'Honor Crimes!'"(1) and posted numerous articles by Syrian Muslim and Christian clerics as well as by attorneys, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens. As part of the campaign, the site posted a petition calling for a stop to honor killings. To date, nearly 10,000 people have signed this petition, most of them from Syria.

The main goal of the campaign is the amendment of Articles 548, 239, 240, 241, and 242 of the Syrian penal code, which grant immunity or a significantly reduced sentence to a man who murders a female relative.(2)

A few months later the Syrian government press joined the campaign. The Syrian daily Teshreen published several harsh articles stating that honor killings were the product of "historical backwardness" and calling for changes in both the Syrian penal code and the school curricula. The Syrian government daily Al-Thawra published a special investigation of honor killings, which found that over 40 honor killings took place every year in Syria. The investigation also included comments by Syrian attorneys and clerics, who said that murder is forbidden by all religions and that the articles of the penal code permitting those guilty of murdering women to evade just punishment must be abolished. [Continued]

Monday, June 05, 2006

Students and Politics

Flouting Syria's martial law, bold students advocate democracyBy James Brandon | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
Tuesday, 06/06/06

ALEPPO, SYRIA – Two years ago, Syrian student Muhammad Arab was imprisoned for calling for reform of his country's political system. Now released and back studying at the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Aleppo, he is determined to continue promoting democracy.

"Prison wasn't great, but living without freedom is worse," says Mr. Arab, a broad-shouldered young medical student.

Arab is one of a handful of students agitating for reform and struggling to build a pro-democracy student movement in Syria, where martial law imposed in 1963 forbids unofficial political gatherings or groups.

"The student movements are not very significant in terms of being able to change things now," says Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma. "But here is the very genesis of a new Syrian effervescence. This is the start of a 10- to 15-year transformation of society."

While no organized student movement exists at present, one may be emerging. A small number of students are loosely linked but have no official names, leaders, or organization. They simply come together to organize political debates, spread democratic ideas, and take opinion polls.

"We're talking about little groups of 10 or 15 students," says Dr. Landis, who spent 2005 in Damascus and is the author of the blog "They just appeared in the past two years. Every now and again, the government tries to smash them. When there are demonstrations, the police beat them up and their leaders are sent to prison for lengthy terms.

"Most of the time this is enough to convince most students not to get involved in politics," adds Landis. "But there are always some who are prepared to carry on."

Arab is a case in point. At his university in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, he ran against a candidate from Syria's Baath Party in student elections in March 2004. When he won, the university suspended him and 80 other students.

Undeterred, he traveled to Damascus, five hours south, to join a protest against the university's decision. There he was arrested and put on trial in Syria's State Security Court. "I saw my lawyer for only a few minutes before the trial, so there was no chance to prepare a defense," he says.

Then the court, Syria's highest, sentenced Arab to three years imprisonment. He served only eight months, but was regularly beaten and threatened, he says.

"The government is more afraid of secular opposition groups than religious ones," points out Ayman Abdul-Nour, a prominent reformist member of the Baath Party in Damascus. "Because any time the government wants to get rid of the Islamists, it can just call them terrorists and bomb them. The government also knows that the US will not seek to replace the regime with Islamic people."

But students face pressure not only from the government and the university authorities but also from their friends and parents. "Becoming involved in politics, I was aware that I might cross some of the regime's 'red lines,' but I suppressed my fear," says Nasser Babinsy, a friend of Arab and a fellow activist. "And 43 years of dictatorship teaches you a lot of fear."

But analysts point out that activists hoping to spread democracy must not only overcome official harassment, they must work against an educational and social system designed to support the regime.

"Syrian society is fighting against so many layers of authoritarianism," says Landis. "Arab nationalism is like a religion in Syria; it's not something that you can debate."

In addition, President Bashar al-Assad's limited economic reforms have removed some of the pressure for political reform. "Eighty percent of Syrians don't care about political freedoms," says Sami Moubayed, a writer and independent political analyst in Damascus. "They want jobs and more money."

But others argue that even religiously observant and less-educated Syrians are starting to see democracy as the best option. "Our country is tired of totalitarianism," says Mohammad Deeb Khor, a member of the opposition Revolutionary Workers Party, which formerly followed communist-style ideology. "People are thirsty for basic freedoms. Democracy is not paradise but it is a stage from which to meet society's interests."

As democratic ideas spread, Syrian democrats are also discovering the power of nonviolent protest. "Earlier this [year], a group of people demonstrated in Damascus, calling for an end to the martial laws," says Najib Dadam from the opposition Socialist Arab Democratic Union Party.

The regime sent 2,000 security men to beat them up, he says. "These things will continue to happen, and we will continue to build support, until this becomes a massive public movement."

While a mass movement might be some time off, analysts say exposure to satellite TV and the Internet is alerting Syrians to the possibilities of democracy. "If Iraq had been a success, the domino effect would have toppled all the dictatorships in the region," says Dr. Moubayed. "But America has lit a real interest in democracy in this region; the dominos are starting to fall, but slowly."

"Meeting the National Salvation Front" by Sophia Hoffmann

I just received this wonderful write up of the NSF conference from Sophie Hoffmann, who I thank very much.

Dear Dr. Landis

Here are some tidbits from the press conference of the Front for National Unity meeting, held in London this afternoon, June 5, 2006.

It was held in a backroom of the elegant Dorchester Hotel, tight security reigned. About dozen Arab journalists and a handful of foreigners found there way to the meeting. Only about 15 minutes late, Khaddam, Bayanouni and their entourage rolled through the doors and filled the room. In attendance were a couple of women wearing hijabs; the rest were men in 50s wearing grey suits. One representative from each of the nine groups that form the National Salvation Front took seats on the panel. Khaddam, aging, but still handsome, sat next to the mild mannered Sadraddine Baynouni who had on his gold-rim spectacles.

The conference kicked off with one of the Muslim Brothers giving an eloquent and impressive overview of the findings of the conference. I will summarize his words:

"The NSF is calling for the same thing that the people in Syria's prisons call for. We are not an alternative to other opposition groups in Syria but are one of them and we have the same demands. We want to have a country based on democratic pluralism and in 2006 want free elections that express the will of the people, with no special group taking a larger share of power. We want a constitution made by all people.

"The favoritism of the Alawi sect creates discord in Syria. We believe that Alawis and Muslims are part of the same general society and know that Alawis, like all other Syrians, are the victims of the corrupt family ruling Syria; they will be a major partner in the rebuilding of Syria.

"The Baath Party also has been a victim of the regime and we call on all Baath members to help us free Syria from this regime.

"We welcome all other groups to join us and we call all other opposition groups - liberals, Marxists, etc. to align with us.

"The NSF has picked its Central Committee [names not mentioned] and have established a common agreement between the different members.

"We have formed a transition government that in six months will:
1 - Reinstitute the 1950 constitution until a new constitution has been created
2 - Exercise executive power
3 - Rescind the state of emergency that restricts the human rights of the Syrian people, in particular law 49 that makes membership of the brotherhood punishable by death
5 - Give nationality to Syrian Kurds
6 - Cancel all decrees with regards to appropriated assets and return them to their rightful owners"

The speaker continuously emphasized the suffering of the Syrian people, sometimes singling out particular groups that had "also suffered" - like the Alawis or Baathists. He called on the UN, the UNSC and the great powers to take a stance that will protect the Syrian people's rights and to end the current regime of corruptness.

After his speech the floor was opened for questions - the Arab journos kicked off and clarified that:
- The NSF is against foreign intervention and, this was then continuously emphasized throughout the conference - change has to come from the Syrian people and from within.

Asked how exactly they imagined this to happen, Khaddam - who spoke quietly and was quite passive throughout - stated that they could not discuss their agreed upon tactics with the press. He also said that a number of Alawis had already joined them but that their names couldn't be revealed for security reasons. "Every Alawi opposing the regime will be punished twice as hard as anyone else for criticizing the regime", he said.

The Kurdish issue loomed fairly large due to the presence of a Kurdish reporter, who even address one question in Kurdish to a Kurdish member of the panel and insisted successfully that he reply in Kurdish. The NSF is clearly keen to get the Kurds on board and is promising them what they want. The Kurdish panelist even said that he was for a federal solution in Syria in the long run, but that this had been opposed by other members of the front and therefore was not part of the NSF’s agenda. (Remarkable ability for compromise!)

One juicy Khaddam quote before I have to leave:

"I do not regret my role in Lebanon and as we all know, without Syria's intervention at the time, Lebanon would not exist today. I do not want to enter into details of the Lebanon question now, but I will speak on this topic very soon and you will see what mistakes were made by Syria and also by the others. I will try to be objective in this attempt."

In this moment, I looked at his face and wondered: at which meetings was this man present, what historical decisions did he witness, and how much of his knowledge is he going to reveal to the world - much to the dismay of the Asads of today?

All the best
Sophia Hoffmann

Sophie Hoffman has just returned from six months in Syria, where she worked as a journalist for “Syria Today” and IRIN. She can be reached at

Day One of National Salvation Front Meeting

I have received several reports from the first day of the two-day National Salvation Front conference that is being held at the Dorchester hotel in London. This is the meeting of the Syrian exiles who are trying to put together a program for changing the Syrian regime into a democracy. I have spliced together a few reports here by friends who wish to remain anonymous. I will post another by Sophia Hoffmann, a German journalist, who is willing to have her name used in my next post.

The Dorchester was festooned with private security heavies posted all around the building. The organizers of the conference were clearly taking no chances. There were only a small handful of Anglophone journalists in attendance. Agence France Press had a journalist there, who has already filed this bloodless story.

The whole convention seems to have been very hush-hush. Friends at Asharq Al Awsat knew nothing about it and I think Al Hayat were equally in the dark. Apart from Al Hurra, both Al Jazeera and Radio Sawa had correspondents there.

There were perhaps 40 odd attendees, certainly no more than 50, who were not press. Many of the attendees had been at the previous conference in Paris at the end of September. Obeida Nahas, who runs the Levant Institute and is a member, or “close to,” the MB, was there and did an interview with the Iraqi woman journalist from Al Hurra, who will be covering the closing press conference live at 1400 BST tomorrow.

Bayanouni's speech was pretty standard fare, according to different reports. He kept referring to the regime as "the gang that controls Syria" with the occasional salam alaikums thrown in for good measure. Then the press got moved out whilst the participants, which included only two women - both veiled - got on with the job of plotting the regime's downfall.

One observer remarked that Khaddam reminded them “not so much of Gollom from Lord of the Rings, but rather your typical Soviet apparatchik.” An Israeli journalist asked Khaddam's rather portly son - Jihad - for an interview, but Jihad flatly refused as he had apparently already gotten bashed for having spoken earlier to an Arab-Israeli newspaper.

One participant complained that he bought coffee at the bar - £16 for three cups, and the stuff was no great shakes. "$30 bucks for that!" he complained. Khaddam told another journalist that he was a “good Muslim,” which must be comforting for his new partners.

Khaddam's English-speaking grandson had the most stature of the contingent with his bouncer physique and wrap-around shades. One journalist was told that Rifat al-Asad’s son was there, but he was unable to verify it. If he did attend, he kept a low profile.

Khaddam is scheduled to appear on BBC a few times in the upcoming days. An interview on "Hard Talk" will be aired next week. I will get the link when it is. He will also do "Newsnight Tonight." So stay tuned to BBC.

Here is a weblink to a BBC radio programme, giving background on the NSF meeting. Kim Ghattas reports from Damascus and interviews the wife of jailed human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni. Khaddam is interviewed, and I do a little wrap-up bit. The show was done on Friday; and can be accessed for a week after transmission.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

National Salvation Front Meeting in London

Anyone attending the meeting of the National Salvation Front at the Dorchester hotel on Park Lane in London should send me their impressions and comments. I will post in a round up of the conference. Thanks. Joshua

Here is a teaser from one friend who was there:

I just went along this morning to the opening press conference of the National Salvation Front of Syria in the gaudy opulence of the Dorchester hotel on Park Lane. Khaddam kept everyone waiting for an hour before delivering his speech, full of the usual platitudes about democracy, freedom, liberty, nationhood, and apple pie. Like he's had the same consistent message for 30 years and didn't just change his tune less than a year ago. The fact that Bayanouni was able to get there on time from his little semi out in the sticks whereas Khaddam only had to take the lift down three floors speaks volumes about both men. They played the rather martial-sounding Syrian national anthem and then Khaddam gave a twenty-minute speech marred by occasional feedback problems on the sound system and the odd mobile going off. In his one concession to his new ally he finished by saying that he hoped Allah would make their way easier and enable them to choose the right path.
Here are two comments just sent regarding the previous "economy" post. One is from a leading Syrian analyst, who gives some good clarification on the economic figures slopping around:
Hi Joshua,

A quick comment on the recent post about economic growth figures. First, keep in mind that the target GDP growth rate that Dardari is shooting for is 7%, and that what made the 5.5% figure so important is its origins in "non-oil" sources of revenue. I met with Dardari last week, and he was clearly pleased as could be to be able to report these numbers, even if your correspondent, along with economists here (like Sukkar) are having trouble figuring out the components of the statistic. However, the 5.5% is not a total GDP growth figure, which is what your column implies. It refers only to the non-oil components. One reason this is so important, of course, has to do with the central role that non-oil sectors must play in hitting the employment target that Dardari has set of 200,000 new jobs per year. With this non-oil growth -- assuming for now that it is accurate - this figure will have been met, or nearly met, representing an unprecedented number of new jobs created in Syria -- the highest ever. Not surprisingly, the job creation figures are received with some skepticism, as well. For one thing, there are estimates that Syria needs to create something on the order of 300,000 new jobs per year to absorb new entrants into the workforce, and this number doesn't take into account the under-employed and those working informally. So even if we accept the government's numbers, there are indications that even this historically high level of job creation will address only a portion of the problem. And if the government numbers are wrong?

If someone is able to unpack the non-oil growth numbers, I'd be very interested to see what they discover.
The next comment is from George Ajjan, who writes:

I have written about the Schenker article today, here - to me it's an early draft of a more general neo-con concession speech.

Could Syria's GDP Growth be 5.5%?!

Every quarter, we wait for Jihad Yazigi to come out with the new "Syria Report" to get a sense of what is happening with the Syrian economy. (See lead article copied below.) The economy is the single most important story in Syria. Its drama comes from the fact that the West, chiefly the United States, is trying to crash the Syrian economy as a means to get Syria to change its behavior - or regime - which ever comes first. Washington has very few political levers to achieve its goal - save for the UN Security Council, which has put few teeth behind its admonitions that Syria be nice to Lebanon and Israel.

If Syria has good economic figures, it means Damascus is winning. It can growl at Washington and UN resolutions. If it has bad figures, it means Washington is winning, and Damascus should consider shutting down a Palestinian organization or two, or, at the very least, scratch in the boarder with Lebanon more clearly on its UN map.

Although nerves are frayed in the run up to the Brammertz report to be published on June 15, some ex-Bush, defense department figures are saying that Syria has slipped the noose. Most important in this regard is David Schenker's article this week in the "Weekly Standard," entitled "Assad State of Affairs: Syria's dictatorship survives to fight another day," (06/12/2006, Volume 011, Issue 37).

Schenker, who is now a senior fellow at WINEP was the Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian affairs adviser in the office of the secretary of defense from 2002 to 2006, concludes:

Objectively, it would seem that Syria has run the U.S. table. Despite the administration's rhetorical campaign against Syria, Washington is in no rush to up the ante with Damascus. Which is just fine with the Assads, who have been playing for time for three decades. The sad reality is that with just over 900 days to go and attention focused on Iran, Iraq, and Hamas, the clock is running out for the Bush administration's Syria policy. Of course, this is how Assad planned it. Hunkered down in Damascus, the Baathist regime intends to wait out yet another president. Regrettably, if the past five years are any guide, it will succeed.

The economic news from Damascus suggests it may succeed. Oil proceeds are up, even if production is down. Tourism is up, even if the numbers have been exaggerated. Foreign investment is up, even if few projects have gotten under way. Dardari's announcements this week that Syria will build two major free-trade zones, underline the regime's determination to win the economic battle. Dardari said "Syria will open a free zone just like Dubai's Jebel Ali" in the Tartous region. As one reader pointed out to me: "Rami Makhlouf has already bought a huge amount of land there incidentally....Surprise surprise."

The other free trade zone will be on the border with Iraq. Syria has been improving its relations with the various Iraqi factions, which is made easier by the fact that Iraq's new PM lived in Syria for 20 years. There has been discussion of building an oil pipeline from Iran through Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria to Turkey. The US has dissuaded the Kurds from moving ahead with these plans, but it would be an ideal way for the Kurds to improve relations with its neighbors and lock in a certain amount of good will and security.

The biggest bit of bad news is that the last American oil company - Houston based Marathon - has sold off its interests in Syria to a Canadian firm. But rumors that French banks are joining US banks in their boycott of Syria's Commercial Bank are being denied by Syrian authorities/.

Syriatel, Rami Makhlouf's monopoly on cell phones, is making a fortune. Ehsani2 writes:
My good friend Rami Makhlouf announced yesterday that his Syriatel pays the Syrian Government 1.7% of the country's gdp in taxes.

With a gdp of $22 billion, this amounts to $374 million in taxes. Given a corporate tax rate of 30%, this means that the company makes an after tax profit of $534 million. This translates to $1.48 million a day.

Not bad! This is from just one business. Had the government opened this license to an open auction, hundreds of millions of dollars would have been paid to obtain the license. Instead, this license was given away for free.
Before publishing this news, Syriatel announced it is lowering cell phone fees by 3%. Syria's phone rates are considerably cheaper than Lebanon's. I don't know how they stack up to Jordan's, Turkey's or Israel's. I know Syria's over sea's costs are very high compared to most neighbors, but I am not sure about internal call costs.(Perhaps one of you does?)

Ehsani also writes: "Business has slowed down appreciably in Syria over the past month. Liquidity has tightened which has caused a lull in all economic activity." This economic slow-down is due to the Brammertz effect. People are nervous that there may be some surprises, yet.

Also, there is a new Syria Blog devoted to economic issues, which has been begun by a Houston based Syrian economist. Take a look, here.

Back to Yazigi's "Syria Report" feature article this month about the new growth figures announced by Deputy PM Dardari. The first question we all ask is: What do such figures mean? Can they be trusted? Like most everything in Syria, one never knows how much relation the economic statistics produced by the various ministries have to reality; are they fudged to promote the official story? Do the ministries have the expertise and data to be reliable even if they wanted to be? Yazigi, like all Syrians, struggles with these questions in his feature article. He is skeptical that GDP grew at 5.5% in non-oil sectors in 2005, and shows how the individual statistics put out by the various ministries do not jive with Dardari's; all the same, he concludes that the Syrian economy is growing faster than usual.

Economy shows signs of robust growth in spite of doubts over government statistics
Date : 03/06/2006
GDP grew by 5.5 percent in the non-oil component of the Syrian economy in 2005 according to Abdallah Dardari, deputy Prime Minister in charge of Economic Affairs.

Until now the official estimate for GDP growth, as stated by the Prime Minister and the head of the Central Bureau of Statistics, was 4.5 percent while in 2004, the Syrian economy grew by 3.2 percent.

Dardari’s announcement, in contradiction with all previous estimates by Syrian officials, was received with skepticism by many economic analysts. Besides the figure in itself, the components of this growth were not clear. In a conference held in Damascus, Dardari said that the main factors behind growth were non-oil exports, which grew according to him from USD 3.2 billion in 2004 to USD 3.6 billion in 2005, and tourism, which grew by 15 percent. Until now the official figure for 2004 exports, excluding oil, stood at USD 2 billion.

A few days later, before Parliament, Dardari said that the two main engines for last year’s growth were the tourism sector as well as agriculture. Tourism revenues make up around 8 percent of GDP while agriculture production represents around 25 percent of that aggregate.

A report published by the Teshreen daily on May 24th with preliminary figures on the balance of payments contradicts some of the statements made by Dardari. According to this report, non-oil exports grew by 10 percent last year from USD 2 billion to USD 2.3 billion, and not USD 3.6 billion. Oil exports meanwhile rose to USD 4.1 billion, an 18.7 percent annual rise, on the back of rising oil prices. Total exports reached USD 6.4 billion, a 15 percent annual rise.

Also, imports totaled USD 7.2 billion in 2005 from USD 5.9 billion the previous year, a 22 percent yearly increase.

The data also show that income from tourism reached USD 1.95 last year from USD 1.8 billion. This is an 8.3 percent growth in income. This is more or less in line with the figures of the Ministry of Tourism which estimated that the sector earned EUR 1.85 billion (USD 2.3 billion) in 2005, but well below Dardari’s estimates.

There has been wide skepticism recently in the Syrian business community over the statistics provided by Syrian officials. The Minister of Tourism was for instance strongly criticized by Members of Parliament last March when he presented before them the 2005 report of his ministry. MPs criticized what they estimated was the lack of reliability of the Ministry’s data, including the lack of clear differentiation between actual tourists and transit and business travelers.

The Investment Bureau is also regularly criticized because, 15 years after its inception, it still does not provide any figure on the investments taking place in the country. Rather, the Bureau merely provides figures on the number of projects that are licensed, disregarding the actual rate of enforcement of these investments.

Despite the doubts over the figures provided by the Government there is, however, a large agreement among economists in Syria over the fact that the economy is doing increasingly well.

Gulf investors are continuing to show strong interest in real estate and tourism, even if not many of the projects announced have really taken off the ground yet. Meanwhile other sectors such as banking and insurance are continuing to attract capital. Also, in various industrial sectors, new projects are announced almost on a daily basis, although here again, the time scale is too short to judge how many of these schemes will see the light of day.

It remains therefore very difficult to assess how much all this is having an effect on GDP growth and unemployment. In one of the many interventions he made this past month, Dardari said that in 2005 200 000 new job opportunities were created, that unemployment stopped growing for the first time in years and that the poverty rate fell from 14.7 percent to 11.4 percent!

Copyright © 2006 The Syria Report

Friday, June 02, 2006

News Round UP (June 2, 2006)

Russia seems to be building a naval base for its ships at Tartus:

The source in the Russian Defense Ministry noted that the facilities in Syria would allow Russia to expand its influence in the Middle East and to guarantee Syria's security. Russia plans to install an air defense system with S-300PMU-2 Favorite ballistic missiles to be operated by Russians, not Syrians, for the defense of its base. Those missiles will also provide cover for a significant part of Syria.
Marwan Al Kabalan is turning into one of Syria's best analysts. His article, "Is Syria's eastward drift viable?" puts the new Russian port deal in larger context. He explains how the West has forced Syria's hand in the move east, but many Syria's are still hoping they can patch up relations with the West.

BBC reports that "Five die as Syria thwarts attack" against a building near the offices of Syrian state TV and radio. It is not yet clear why the building was attacked or what group the attackers are connected to.

In "Zarqawi Calls for Disarmament of Hizbullah: Internet Audio Message" Annahar reports that Zarqawi accuses Hizballah of acting as an Israeli agent by foiling al-Qaida attempts to attack Israel from Lebanese soil. He claimed"
"Hizbullah is an independent state inside Lebanon... It puts forth lying slogans about Palestinian liberation when in fact it serves as a security wall (for Israel) and prevents Sunnis from crossing its borders."

The Israeli Army Claims it Killed Three Hizbullah Fighters Attempting to Infiltrate during Clashes in last weekends tit for tat fighting. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the fighting during which Israel unleashed its fiercest artillery barrage since 2000.

In other news from Lebanon, the government has voted to spend $266 million on an international tribunal to try Hariri's killers. A judicial team that is charged with discussing the international tribunal to try those suspected of assassinating ex-premier Rafik Hariri has left for U.N. headquarters in New York. This is timed to raise Syria's blood pressure as the Brammertz report is due out in less than two weeks. Many annalists have suggested that the Brammertz report cannot be serious because few ground rules for the ensuing trial have been decided on.
Issues such as the funding of the court, the applicable law, the location, jurisdiction and other details remained to be determined before concluding the agreement between the U.N. and the Lebanese government.

One matter of concern to the international community is the death sentence that is sanctioned under Lebanese law. Officials, including Justice Minister Charles Rizk, have said that Lebanon was willing to suspend the death penalty in this case.

In another development, the government is expected to earmark over 4 billion Lebanese Pounds ($266 million) of the national budget to cover the expenses of the U.N. commission investigating Hariri's murder.
A Syrian Lawyer has Withdrawn Lawsuits Against Jumblat and Hamadeh.

Al-Hayat [Ar] reviews the Diaries of Meir Amit, the head of Israeli intelligence during the 1967 war, which have recently been published in Israel. He said that his proposal to extend the war for an extra day so that Israel could take the Jabal Druze from Syria and turn it into an independent Druze state was rejected by Israel's leaders. This was a lost opportunity, according to Amit. He also says that US defense minister Robert McNamara gave Israel the "green light" for its surprise attack on Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

Another story on how the "Islamic revival spreads in Syria despite rule of secular Baath." This one is better than most and features Aleppo.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

France Offers Syria a Deal

France Offers Syria a Deal. That is what Michel Najm of Asharq al-Awsat was told by a high-ranking French official. I have copied the article below. If you have not read it, read it first. Here are some preliminary observations of how I imagine Syrians are thinking about it.

The prospect for a deal with France must be intriguing to Damascus. Here is how regime conservatives and liberals will think about it.

1. The conservatives will think that the West is bluffing and has over played its hand. The US, neocon regime-changers that France claims to be able to save Syria from are a spent force; they are dead-enders. France's offer is empty. France should have offer this deal last year before the release of the first UN report on Hariri, when Syria was scared and the West had maximum bargaining leverage. They missed their chance. Now the Western team is trying to resurrect the type of pressure it had then by using the anticipation of the Bramertz report due out June 15, but it is bluffing; Bramertz has nothing conclusive. France is like Arafat; it missed the moment to make a deal.

The conservatives will be saying that the West knows it cannot beat Damascus by pushing it to the wall. Anyway, the Syrian opposition is a weak reed on which to build a policy; the West would never back Bayanouni as president and the Muslim Brothers as the leading party in Syria. The Bush administration is returning to realism and abandoning neoconservative idealism on its own. The deal with Mubarak proves this, if that with Libya did not. Things are so bad in Iraq and Afghanistan that the West cannot possibly risk further destabilization in the region. Iran is sucking up Western attention. Given the taught nerves of the world over the Middle East, the Security Council will never move to sanction Syria over the Hariri trial. Anyway, Lebanon has turned out to be a mess and tragically divided. It cannot sustain a fight with Syria, which threatens to polarize the sects even further, indefinitely delay economic reforms and debt rescheduling, and possibly force Lebanon to declare bankruptcy. France is a spent force in the region. What can it really offer Syria that Syria is not already getting from the rising Eastern powers: India, Russia, and China? This "deal" is a typical good-cop bad-cop performance from the West. Syria must stand with its allies - Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas - in their time of trial. Syria must be steadfast and confront western plots.

2. The regime liberals will answer this by arguing that France is the key to repairing relations with the West. When France abandoned Syria everything began to go wrong. By repairing relations with France, everything can begin to go right again. Syria can get out of its mess with the UN and Europe. It can move beyond the Hariri investigation and impending sanctions. It can rejoin the Madrid process; be relieved of possible banking sanctions by Europe; and isolate American hotheads. Why not recognize Lebanese borders, establish an embassy in Beirut, and normalize relations with Lebanon? France is not asking for Hizbullah to disarm. Syria will not be abandoning its allies in Lebanon, but only making their lives easier. Syria needs good relations with Lebanon to prosper. If France can make a few statements about the Golan Heights being Syrian and the necessity of Israel moving toward peace talks with Syria, so much the better. Syrian troops are already out of Lebanon. Let’s move on. It is time to abandon antiquated notions of Greater Syria. They are unrealistic and unrealizable. France is not asking Syria to change its policies on Iraq or Palestine. This is not a Qadhafi deal. Far from it.

Prosperity is the operative word. If the President is serious about wanting to put a chicken in every Syrian pot, he must repair relations with the West and Syria's neighbors to jump-start the economy. Syria must put its own interests first. Syria cannot simply rely on the East. It has become dangerously close to Iran. The pressure is straining sectarian relations within Syria. To restore investor confidence in Syria, Damascus must end the threat of sanctions and further trouble from the West. The Gulf States may be willing to pitch in a few billion dollars of economic assistance and some investment to sweeten the deal. Economy Tsar Dardari's ambitious five-year economic plan will stand a chance of success if Syria can move beyond the politics of confrontation. It is not in Syria's interests to fight the West. France is surrendering. Syria would be wise to accept this peace offer gracefully and get as much as you can.

I am not sure who will win this debate within the Syrian regime now. Much will depend on whether this is just a trial balloon or a serious offer. It will also depend on how Washington and Hariri's people respond to it.

Here is the article:

A high-ranking French source tells Asharq al-Awsat: 'We are ready to open up to Syria, but the road passes through Lebanon.'"

By Michel Najm

Paris-An official high-ranking French source told Asharq al-Awsat: "France is ready to resume political dialogue with the Syrian leadership. It is even ready to help President Bashar al-Assad and intervene in his favour."

The source added: "But this stand is conditional on France making sure that Syria has decided to be positive in Lebanon through actions, not only statements and declaration of intentions."

In a statement to Asharq al-Awsat yesterday, the source said: "Paris decides its stand toward Damascus depending on the Lebanese issue alone. It does not link this stand to regional issues, whether in Iraq or Palestine."

This suggests that Paris' stand is different from that of Washington, with which it worked hand in hand to push the Syrian authorities to withdraw their forces and intelligence services from Lebanon under Resolution 1559. Then they worked to set up an inquiry commission to investigate the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

The source pointed out: "Paris needs some time to test the current Syrian role in Lebanon. Several issues are a cause of concern to us."

The source added: "Paris' main question can be answered by many events and stands. They are the parliamentary elections, formation of a new Lebanese government, and Syria’s stand on allowing the emergence of a new Lebanese national consensus on Lebanon's independence and sovereignty, and the direction in which Lebanese organizations will move."

These organizations include Hezbollah, parties that revolve in the orbit of Damascus, and non-Lebanese organizations, that is to say, pro-Syrian Palestinian groups.

According to the French source, Paris has information indicating that Syria kept behind in Lebanon important intelligence and non-intelligence bodies that allow it to influence the situation in Lebanon.

The source said that Paris received messages through traditional diplomatic channels and other parties indicating that Syria has a desire to open a new chapter with France. He added that France "does not object" to responding to these messages.

The French source said: "If Paris reaches a conclusion that Damascus is playing the new game and accepts its rules, it will be ready to give Syria a helping hand on more than one level."

The source added: "Paris will not be embarrassed to resume the dual

assistance, which it began to extend to Syria regarding administrative and economic reform. Also, it will encourage the EU to resume high-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus."

Paris was behind Europe's diplomatic boycott of Syria in recent months.

The source noted: Damascus suffers "isolation" in its relations with the West.

Also, the EU postponed the signing of the European-Syrian partnership agreement that was initialled in Brussels in December last year. The agreement is awaiting a final signature before being ratified by European parliaments.

The source added: On the other hand, Paris can intervene with the US

Administration in Damascus' favour to urge it "not to intervene", that is to say, refrain from making political changes in Syria from abroad.

The source said: "Paris believes that US President George Bush respects what French President Jacques Chirac thinks and says about the Lebanese and Syrian issues and listens to him."

The source added: "Accordingly, we can persuade Bush not to heed the view held by extremists in his administration that toppling the Syrian regime will solve at once many problems, which the United States suffers in the region.

We can also convince him not to squeeze the Syrian authorities in the corner, because this move will prompt Syria to refrain from cooperation."

After a meeting with the French president in Brussels in February, Bush said that Chirac is "more experienced" in these two issues than him.

The French source summed up Paris' stand as follows: "We are ready to cooperate with, and help Syria. Nevertheless, restoration of confidence needs time and actions. The way to do this will depend on how Damascus deals with the Lebanese issue in the coming months."

The source added: "we are aware of the fact that Damascus took important steps in Lebanon, but we need guarantees for the future. Our main goal that has not changed is to see Lebanon restore its health, sovereignty, independence, and democracy and achieve new national consensus."

Turning to the Lebanese issue, the French source said that Paris can be “patient" on the question of disarming Hezbollah and the Lebanese state taking control over all its territories, including the (Palestinian refugee) camps. But the ultimate goal is to ensure that the state imposes its prestige everywhere in the country, the source noted.

The French source said: "For our part, we are ready to help rebuild the Lebanese army and assist the Lebanese legitimate authorities to restore their prestige all over Lebanon."