Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Criticism of My Za`im Posts

I have selected a few emails I received criticizing my za`im posts. The original posts are 1 here and 2 here. (I will try to answer some of these in a follow up za`im article soon.)

Nicola Migliorino writes:
Dear Dr. Landis,
I wish to thank you for your website and comments - it is very useful indeed for all of us interested in Syria (and Lebanon). I have been trying, as many others, to understand the whole Lahoud-1559 affair, and I read with interest your views. Although I agree with the importance of the za'ama factor, I believe it leaves questions unanswered.

In particular, if I understand the argument correctly, I wonder why the affirmation of za'ama had to be done necessarily by confirming Lahoud. Why not affirming authority in a way that could be similarly forceful, but at the same time save the face of Lebanon? Why not electing another pro-Syrian figure, making it strongly clear that it was Bashar's decision, but at the same time avoiding the "rape" of the Lebanese political system in full daylight? A lebanese friend has an opinion on the matter: he thinks that the Syrians (or Bashar) did not want to take risks: they were ready to place someone else on the chair, but they were afraid of surprises (iani that the guy could at some point fail in a loyalty test, particularly during these troubled times). This view seems to present the Syrian regime in a much more defensive position.

On another note, can we assume that the decision on how to proceed was fully Bashar's decision? Or was it perhaps the result of a mediation with other figures of the Syrian regime? in this latter case, isn't this undermining the whole "affirmation of za'ama" argument (or leading to another question: who's the za'im)?
many thanks again,
Nicola Migliorino

P.S.: A short note on me: I am an Italian national, I have just earned my PhD at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter (UK) with a political science thesis on the Armenian community and the state in Lebanon and Syria (1920-to date, supervisor Prof. Tim Niblock, external Prof. Ray Hinnebusch); I have lived in Syria Oct.1998- Dec 2000, where I was in charge of the Italian NGO Movimondo (working with Palestine refugees and UNRWA, but also with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour). I am currently looking for a job and working on developing my thesis for publication.

Rayyan Souki writes:
I've read a lot of your posts on your news blog and I found that your views tend to be sympathetic and apologetic towards the current Syrian Regime. You always try to highlight the "good benefits" of stability that the Alawi Minority has achieved in Syria without looking at the consequences that will arise from that artificial stability which was built on tyranny, oppression, and fear.

In order to have a more "balanced" approach to the matter, I believe that you should keep these following points present in your analysis when discussing the contemporary Syrian political scene.

These are:
1-Syria has never been a "real” nation state. For 400 years of Sunni Ottoman Occupation, it was divided into several Vilayets: Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Tripoli, Akka, etc...There was NEVER a unified Syria.

2-The French drew the present political boundaries of Syria by sewing up 4 distinct regions: Aleppo, Damascus, Jabal Al-Nusyaria, and Jabal El-Duruz.

3-The population of Syria is a funny mixture of competing ethnic and religious groups:

63% are Sunni Arabs or Arabized Sunnis.(A lot of Sunni Syrians are the remnants of Turks and Mamluks who adopted over the years the Arabic language). The Sunnis in Syria are also divided between rural Bedouins and urban settlers.

10% are Kurds. These live in the Al-Hasaka Mouhafaza and aspire to join their brothers in Iran, Turkey, and Iraq.

11% are Nusayris or Alawis. These people live mainly in the Latakia Muhafaza. They are the current rulers of Syria and the Sunni's most hated and despised group.

10% are Christians. Syrian Christians belong to more than ten different churches. Of the Christian, between 3-4 percent are Armenians.

3% are Druzes and they reside mainly in the Swayda Province.

1.5% are Ismailis.

1.5% are other minorities.

4-The presence of the Alawi Minority on the top of the political pyramid in Syria is awkward and, in my honest opinion, temporary. They represent ONLY 11% of the population. Daniel Pipes, the prominent American Scholar, has described this very clearly when he said: "For an Alawi to be president of Syria is the same as a Jew becoming the Czar of Russia or an Untouchable becoming a Maharaja in India.”

5-The Alawis are considered by the Sunnis as Non-Muslim Heretics whose blood and property ought to be "fair game.” These convictions are based on centuries old religious "fatwas" and on antiquated social traditions which the Sunnis Still recall.(For example, the Wealthy Sunni landlords of Aleppo, Homs, and Hama still remember the days when the Alawis used to work as farmers in their Farms and when Nusayri Women used to work as maids --and sex servants-- in their homes).

6- The Strategy of the Alawi Regime to remain in power is three fold: a-Buy time and hold to power as long as possible by using tactics such as: terror, oppression, massacres, torture, bribes, etc...

b- Try to appease the Americans and Israelis by convincing them that they are a more docile alternative to a Sunni-Dominated Syria. The Israelis and Americans are buying this argument FOR THE TIME BEING, but will eventually ditch the Alawis once they see that they are of no more use.

c-Occupy Lebanon and divert the attention of the Sunni majority from the internal and domestic problems they are facing . By Doing That, the Alawis hope to take advantage of Lebanon's economic potentials and to correct the historical mistake that many Sunni Syrians believed was made when parts of Syria were "annexed" by the French and added to Mount Lebanon.

7-The Alawi ruling elite resemble a Mafia more than they resemble a ruling class. Most of the top shots in the regime are related to the Assad Family.

8-The Greatest catastrophe the Alawis fear is to lose power and to face a brutal and bloody Sunni retaliation on the crimes they committed..(Tadmour Prison Massacre, Hama Massacre, Torture, Detention...).

As for " Stability" you are speaking about, Well it’s all based on weak foundations. A slight push by the Americans will cause a "Domino effect" and put the Alawis face to face with the dark days that they will eventually encounter.


A final Note:

On the long run I believe, it is in the Strategic interest of Israel and the US to DIVIDE Syria. A recent report by the Israeli Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya said that in the next 25 years, the population of Syria will double to 35 million. 5 million Syrians will be living in the region between Damascus and the Israeli Border. This demographic element in itself, will create huge difficulties for the advancing Israeli armored divisions that might push into Syria incase of an all-out war.(These war lessons were learned by the Israelis during the 1982 Lebanon invasion in which they were forced to advance in high population density areas. This made their armored division more susceptible to guerilla warfare.)

In addition to that, the Jewish State WILL NEVER relinquishes the Golan Heights that control 30% of the Jordan's River water.

Also, Israel would like to see a "castrated" Syrian Army. Despite the military weakness of the Syrians, they still pose an important threat to the security of Israel. Their Scud surface-to-surface missiles can't be dismissed. Nor can their relatively antiquated chemical warfare capabilities and their obsolete armored divisions.

After the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, the dissolution of Iraq, and the destruction of the Palestinian authority, Israel has only Syria, on its Northern Border, to deal with.

It should be noted also that the American Neo-cons in their Famous "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" policy paper said that "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria."

Gibreel Gibreel, a Lebanese businessman working in the United Kingdom, holds degrees from Buckingham and Edinburgh universities. He writes:

I read your piece entitled ‘Was Lebanon Bashar's mini 1973 War?’ (Sunday, September 12, 2004). Who are you? Are you genuinely a professor in a real university? Are you published?
I'm not convinced you know what you’re talking about; your entire view is so obviously constructed by the writings of people like Robert Fisk and Jonathan Randall, rather than any proper academic works. Your mistaken views are exactly why US administration after US
administration gets it wrong in the Middle East. Living in Syria for a couple of years or so, or uttering a few choice words in Arabic doesn’t mean anything.

Once you remove your prejudices from your writings you may actually start to know your subject. I apologise in advance if you feel I have offended you; I don’t mean too, but I have met so many people like you in my time. You get it wrong time and time again and then use the phrase "I’m not convinced of this, or not convinced of that" to cover up your lack of knowledge.

I will make two points.

First, how anyone can possibly be so optimistic about the Ba’ath dictatorship is beyond me. You would have thought that history would have taught the Americans, academics and governments, not to expect too much from the regime. I won’t labour this point because I am quite tired of trying to understand how seemingly educated and intelligent people ignore the behavioral history of the Ba’ath regime, the late Hafez el Assad, and now his son to argue that they are “misunderstood” and that the West should make an effort to try to see their point of view. You claim to have lived in Syria; did you ever bother to ask any Syrian not associated or benefiting from the Ba’ath regime whether he thinks they are misunderstood?

Second, to address your point about the Christians of Lebanon, particularly the Maronites, with whom you seem to have an axe to grind. Take a look at the position of Christians in countries across the Middle East. Are they treated equally? Do they enjoy the same status as Muslims in those countries?

For a Muslim being Arab is being Muslim, one cannot be separated from the other, no matter how westerners like you try to fudge the issue. In the opinion of Muslim / Arabs, Christians can’t be Arabs; even Muslims in Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. have to abandon their history and culture and adopt Arab history and culture in order to be a proper Muslim.

So can you blame the Christians of Lebanon for not wanting to be treated as second-class citizens? (Please see my analysis of the centrality of religion to Muslims in their public and private life at http://www.meforum.org/article/105.) I’m sure that if Lebanon’s Christians were able to believe that Muslims can separate their religion from politics, one man one vote would be welcomed, but the example of the surrounding countries don’t set a good example.

My definition of democracy is not just a system of one man one vote, but a system in which every citizen is equal and his or her rights are protected. Therefore, Lebanon is a democracy; all its citizens are equal and their rights are protected under a constitution and legal system that was constructed by men for men, not by “god” for men and under which only those
who adhere to a particular faith are considered equal beings. Sharia law would soon become the basis of a constitution and the dominant legal system in Lebanon if the president was a Sunni or a Shi’, a system under which non-Muslims are considered inferior and subject to the whims of Muslims.

Under “Christian” rule in Lebanon, Muslims are equal and have more rights than their co-religionists in the surrounding Islamic or self-styled “secular” states. Sufficed to say that when a Muslim defendant is brought before a court in Lebanon he or she does not require two Muslim witnesses to challenge the evidence of one Christian or non-Muslim plaintiff.

Under “Christian” rule in Lebanon at least a Muslim is permitted to walk up to the ballot box and cast his vote for a representative who is of the same faith as he or she, knowing full well that people of his or her faith can become government ministers, prime minister or speaker of the house and be involved in the decision making process. Where else do you see this in the Middle East?

No, Mr. Landis, Lebanon is a democracy, however you choose to define democracy, and I’m sorry to say that it’s your prejudices that cause you to be so anti-Christian.

Best regards,
G. Gibreel


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