Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Syria's Withdrawal from Lebanon Means More Internal Change

Yesterday was a day of celebration in Lebanon: 29 years of military occupation by Syria came to an end. Although the Lebanese and world press covered the story in detail, Syrians largely ignored the fanfare. It was not a proud day in Syria. In fact the Baath newspaper included no story about Lebanon on its front page.

There was some relief here as most people want to see the sordid affair of Syria's withdrawal concluded; they pray that the world spotlight will move elsewhere and the barrage of incriminations coming from Lebanon will subside. Relations between the two countries, which are so complex and intimate, are always described by Syrians in terms of a family. For the last thirty years they have been dysfunctional. Syrians now hope real brotherhood can be reestablished between the two societies. Everyone knows that will take time. The painful TV coverage of the demonstration in Beirut by family members of Lebanese who disappeared into Syrian prisons drove this home. My wife had to get up and leave the room when al-Arabia showed the wailing mothers and distraught brothers of missing Lebanese, who were demonstrating in front of parliament in Beirut, being beaten back by Lebanese troops. It was not easy to watch. Many in Syria hope Bashar will release the remaining Lebanese held in Syria and account for the missing as rapidly as possible. Only then will old wounds heal properly.

If Syrians have lost interest in Lebanon, they are ever more concerned about internal developments. The main story in the Baath newspaper was about the first round of elections for the Regional Party Congress that was concluded earlier this week. None of the statements by the successful candidates mentioned Lebanon or Syria's foreign relations. All were concerned with internal reforms. Candidate after candidate demanded that economic reforms be speeded up and that the public sector be realigned with the new demands of the Syria people. Without being explicit, the candidates are demanding more capitalism and a broadening of the free market. Many spoke out in favor of better healthcare and schools. All asked for better qualified public servants and administrative reform. Most complained that party members don't come to meetings implying that they are useless and that the party has lost its way. Society sees it as a bastion of clientalism and patronage. The candidates are clearly concerned that they are wasting their time running for elections and hope for the status and duties of the party can be clarified. How that will happen is anyone's guess.

The withdrawal from Lebanon leaves Syria facing a deep identity crises. All the billboards around town demanding that Syria strengthen its role in the region and defend Arabism cannot hide the fact the Syria has very little clout in Arab affairs. Perhaps this is a good thing. Syrians can now focus on putting their own house in order. The humiliation Syrians have experienced outside their borders over the last several months may be expiated by forward movement at home.

Hassan Fattah of the New York Times, helped by our very own Katherine Zoepf in Damascus has the most thoughtful and detailed report on Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, entitled, "Syria Force Leaves Lebanon, but Political Puzzles Remain." In its last lines, the always smart Sami Moubayed is quoted:

In Syria the soldiers were met by rice-throwing well-wishers apparently organized by the government. But the sense of humiliation was hard to hide. The Syrians generally dismissed the Lebanese as ungrateful, said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.

"But the intellectual elite understands very well how Syria's place in the world has changed," Mr. Moubayed said. "The nationalists among them feel that everything Hafez al-Assad built is being squandered."

Nicholas Blanford has a good report as well With Syria out, Lebanon clout grows: The last Syrian troops left Lebanon Tuesday, ending 29 years of military domination.

Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribute has a fine series of articles on Syria, which suggest that although the president's authority is limited and he must pit his own agenda against those of the powerful men around him, he has consolidated his power over the last months. (Thanks to Tony Badran for sending them my way.) Here is a bit from "Reform hinges on Syria's leader."
Old guard and new

At a Damascus meeting in October 2002, Assad waited until his aides left the room before he made a startling admission to Burns. If U.S. officials really hoped to talk to him, Assad said, they must avoid usual government channels and rely only on the special intelligence route created to share data on Al Qaeda. Only that channel, he said, "comes to me unfiltered," according to a former senior U.S. official briefed on the exchange.

Analysts have long described Assad as prisoner to an entrenched "old guard." But there are distinct signs that Assad holds far greater power than he did several years ago--and his decisions have not marked the decisive turn toward reform that many had predicted.

Indeed, some of the "new guard" he has promoted have been shunted aside, while others, including relatives, are becoming as entrenched as the men they replaced.

Three-quarters of the top 60-odd officials in political and security ranks were replaced by the end of 2002, according to German foreign policy analyst Volker Perthes. Last June, Assad retired 500 more military officers over age 60--a delicate move he considers vital to removing checks on his power, advisers say.

"The old officers believe that Hafez al-Assad brought them to power, but that they brought Bashar al-Assad to power," a senior adviser to the government said.

To understand that older generation, visit Jibran Kourieh, who spent 22 years as Syria's lead government spokesman until he retired three years ago. As he puffs a water pipe at a Damascus cafe, his crown of white hair, V-neck sweater and pinstriped suit give the air of an aging apparatchik, reinforced by his contempt for Mikhail Gorbachev as a leader who "destroyed the Soviet Union." Above all, Kourieh blames the U.S. for pressuring Assad into the position he faces today.

But asked how the father might have handled similar pressure, Kourieh said: "If President Hafez al-Assad was here, it wouldn't have reached this point. He passed through very serious situations in his time."

To counter the influence of that old guard, Bashar is turning to younger, largely Western-trained technocrats. His wife, Asma Akhras, a Syrian financial analyst raised in London, has taken a more public role, encouraging a civil society and small businesses. The president's younger brother Maher heads a key military unit, and Bashar promoted his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat to head of military intelligence.

But diplomats and critics say Assad's failure to rein in the economic advantages senior officials and relatives enjoy limits his power to reform the economy. Without Assad combating that corruption, critics say, powerful interests quash change.

"There is urgent need for economic reform," said economist Hussein Amach. "Unemployment is high, poverty is widespread, economic enterprises are losing in every kind of operation. Bureaucratic corruption is widespread."

But Amach knows that voicing such criticism can be dangerous. After openly urging reform of Syria's deeply corrupt public sector, he was fired Jan. 1 as head of Syria's Agency for Combating Unemployment. Like many before him, he had touched the government's rawest nerve. And for Assad, the criticism couldn't have come at a more sensitive time.

"OBSTACLE TO CHANGE: Corruption, nepotism stand in way of democracy"By Evan Osnos
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published April 22, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Like many Syrian entrepreneurs, Adnan Tarabishy knows what it takes to survive in business today.

"We have to bribe the officials from the Ministry of Finance to all other bodies in the government," he said. "It's a necessary fact."

Among obstacles to democratization in Syria, few loom larger than corruption, say analysts, diplomats and Syrian officials. Tax evasion is common. Political and family connections yield prized government contracts. Bribery is routine.

That integration of politics and economics is an important element in understanding why Syrian President Bashar Assad's pledges to reform his government have foundered. To supporters and critics, Assad appears caught in a political spiral: Corruption and inefficiency put mounting pressure on his government, but the reforms required could undermine his power.

Syria's economy is languishing. Economists say it has been in continuous recession, except for a few years in the early 1990s, since 1981. Moribund public companies cost the state millions in subsidies, and restrictive finance laws curtail private-sector development.

That is a bleak picture for businessmen like Tarabishy, an energetic, earnest 28-year-old who parlayed $1,500 and a roomful of rented furniture into a bustling business-training center and later an advertising firm. He sees a growing brain drain.

"We're supplying the market with highly educated people," he says of the Professional Development Institute he founded. "I don't like to be pessimistic, but 90 percent of our graduates are now out of Syria."

Assad bemoans the lack of economic and administrative reform.

"There are literally thousands of mediocre and fossilized bureaucrats who have been entrenched in their ministries for decades, don't want to change and don't know how to think . . . in a different way," he told former National Security Council analyst Flynt Leverett last year.

But Assad's family also profits from that system. His younger brother Maher "is increasingly notorious for his personal greed and complicity in corruption, as are the Makhlufs, Bashar's uncles, aunts and cousins on his mother's side," Leverett writes in a new book on Syria.

Those connections circumscribe Assad and his advisers' ability to make bold changes. "They do not want social upheaval," said Damascus economist Riad Abrash, a former deputy minister of planning. "They want stability."

I am also copying the useful information about the recently fired Presidential advisor, Nibras al-Fadil, given by one recent comment.

Here's a link to a bit more information on the Nibras al-Fadel affair. The site is that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the last time I was in Syria it was blocked, so I don't know if you'll be able to open it:

Check it out today because the site is updated daily so you might miss it if you wait. Apparently his firing is the talk of a very large number of people, and seen as a major loss to reformers. Let me also note that the website is among the most reliable and accurate, so despite my disgust of the brotherhood and their ilk, u can probably count on what they're saying.

Also I did a search in the Daily Star newspaper, trying to find what exactly Nibras said that got him fired (of course that is if the all4syria account that the interview was the reason he was kicked out is true)...I found about 4-5 articles that mentioned him, and given that the all4syria said the interview he did with Daily Star was about a month and a few days old, I think that they are referring to this article:

If I am correct that it is this article, the words that might have done him in are his saying that in order to maintain stability and prosperity in Syria, one of the things that should be done, in his words, is "not pitting different religious, ethnic and other population groups against each other".

Perhaps the leadership circles saw it as his hinting that that's what the Alawi regime is doing.... However other things he said that might have done him in are his saying that its important to have "good governance and democratic values, promoting human rights, dignity and freedom".... or his saying that: "the leadership should take advantage of the upcoming Baath Party congress to transform it from a party to a national congress, setting the stage for the sorts of deep, structural changes that are needed to provide the foundation for economic and political reforms".....or perhaps his complaining of: "high levels of corruption, informality and patronage"... (focus on the word patronage).

Anyway, I'll leave you to read the article, but his words are truly impressive, and unheard of in Syrian official circles...which is unfortunately why he was probably fired.
Peace, Syrian in Canada

If anyone wants to know what it is like reporting on the Iraq-Syrian border this story by FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye is interesting and well done.


At 4/27/2005 05:20:00 AM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Syria withdrawal from Lebanon is a chance for Lebanese and Syrian as well. By the way I found a good article (for once) on al jazeera.


Bitter memories

The Anjar military intelligence office may be a place where some memories will never leave.

There were joyous scenes as
Syria completed its pullout

A construction contractor points at the two-storey building, covered with graffiti, and says: "This is the Prophet Yusuf Centre. That's where the Syrians tortured people."

The contractor claims he still remembers the screaming of detainees whom he heard when he took his truck to do some digging work about 20m away from the centre.

"They were screaming from pain," he recalls. "I finished my work quickly to get away from there."

Remon Buban, a commercial driver, remembers the seven days he spent at the centre in 1986. He was then transferred to Syria where he was moved from one detention facility to another over 12 years.

"I hate the Syrian regime. I hate it more than you can imagine," he says. "I was tortured for years and years and was thrown in prison because of a fake accusation."

Syrian-Lebanese ties

But Buban says he will never forget the friendships he made in prison with Syrian inmates.

"The Syrian people are very simple and good people," he says. "Every time one of them used to receive a family visit, he would invite me to share the food his family brought him."

Some Lebanese say Syria wrongfully imprisoned them

Rafi Tamourian, 25, told Aljazeera.net he was happy to see the Syrians leave - as his mother kept interrupting him in Armenian, obviously trying to stop her son from answering questions involving Syria.

Armenians are Anjar's main inhabitants.

"Maybe they are our brothers, but they have treaded on our hearts for a long time now," he said.

Residents in the Hizb Allah stronghold of Yahfufa, a small village tucked in a valley and surrounded by mountains, support Syria, saying it backed the armed resistance in forcing Israel to pull out its troops from Lebanon in May 2000.

"It's true Syria is getting out of the country, but our relations must and will become stronger," a Hizb Allah guard told Aljazeera.net.

Honouring Syrian dead

In the neighbouring village of Riyak, a cornerstone for a monument to honour Syrian soldiers killed in Lebanon's wars was laid during a farewell celebration which included a military parade for separate Lebanese and Syrian battalions.

"Let's remember our martyrs," a commander shouted. The Lebanese and Syrian soldiers roared three times in unison: "We will never forget them."

A Syrian journalist covering the farewell celebration addressed his Lebanese colleagues with "mabruk", a congratulating salute.

"I'm happy. I don't want oppression to be practised against the Lebanese in my name," he said, adding he hoped his country would continue to go through changes under the leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

At 4/27/2005 06:36:00 AM, Anonymous JoseyWales said...

Some people complain "that the party [Baath] has lost its way"

What way would that be?

"The nationalists among them feel that everything Hafez al-Assad built is being squandered."

Please do tell, what has Hafez built?

A lot of these people still don't get it. One-party failed ideology goes HAND IN HAND with corruption and a lousy economy and all sorts of other bad things.

At 4/27/2005 09:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Corruption (at least low and mid-level corruption) is a matter of culture. Democracies can be as corrupt as dictatorships: India, Pakistan (civilian goverments in Pakistan are so corrupt sometimes that military coups are welcomed), even the new Iraq.

If there were genuinely free elections in Syria, who would win ? Would the Muslim Brotherhood do well ? My guess would be yes, especially in the rural areas.

At 4/27/2005 04:36:00 PM, Anonymous Future Presidential Advisor said...

The Syrian government is extremly corrupt, lacks future planning, and is going down the hill, if major reforms do not take place shortly.

But I don't know why people, especially in the US are dwelling on how "embarrased" Syria was in face of the international community.

Do I have to mention U.S embarrasements..I can name many, and many..from Vietnam to the War on Iraq.

Let it go. Bashar Al-Assad wants to reform, but it is not easy implement reforms that curb the elites incomes. It is not easy to go to sleep knowing that those who are loyal to you and the mnoney you provide, are ready to revolt against you any second.
One thing all rulers in the region will never forget, is not the war on Iraq, but how people who are closest to the Saddam spoke of his whereabouts and refused to defend him in time of need.

This is not easy.

At 4/27/2005 07:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Future Presidential Adviser,

How about the current and future Syrian regimes stop worrying about Bush, the US, Vietnam (for God's sakes), Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq etc and start dealing with your OWN crap. It is no wonder Syria is a mess.

Ans no it is not very difficult to change things if you are a dictator and REALLY want to, especially since many gullible Syrians, I hear, believe he is a reformer and want reform themselves. (What's one more round of B'Rouh, Biddam etc...)

At 4/27/2005 07:24:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

To Future Presidential adviser...

I think it's a little bit too early to say that the Iraki war was an embarassment. In fact, I think it's something to be proud of.

Was Irak happier under Saddam or not?

At 4/27/2005 08:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's "Iraq", please spell it right. Don't be some wannabe french guy like most lebanese.

At 4/28/2005 03:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To anonymous at 7:06: how bout every country in the world deal with their own crap? I dont see it happening so take your sorry whiny lame-ass elsewhere.

Iraq is a success? My friend do you know what success is? Based on your spelling, I would doubt you have reached that stage. what kind of an intelligent statement is that? Just because its the same shit in a white bucket instead of a black one, doesnt mean you have SUCCESS!! retard?

I guess this lack of intelligence stems from your lebanese identity (fortunately not all lebanese share this characteristic with you) and getting your ass whipped for 30 years...now you have the balls to speak up when 2 of the most powerful countries in the world back you up. I shouldve seen your face 2 years ago...punk

I aint Syrian, I aint even Arab. Its a shame how outsiders see your situation better than you do.

At 4/28/2005 08:26:00 AM, Anonymous Future Presidential Advisor said...

Anonymous who first replied to me, asking me to worry about my own crap.

I say how about America for God's sake worries about its own crap? How about you look where the flight of that supposidly hit the Pentagon went? and how about you ask why the Iraq War went from a "threat elimination" to Iraqi Liberation"? If Syrians are gullible, Americans have no clue what is going on in the world. How about your liberating faithful Bush stop french kissing the "Evil doer" Crown Prince Abdulla, if you are really worried about human rights and liberty?

Do not give me this argument. I love Americans, but sometimes I feel their only world wide Education is from Fox News and people like you. Which is sad. I am sad to see you talking politics. You have no clue.

At 4/28/2005 06:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Future Presidential Advisor and the Anon before him:

You both have a great future as advisors, provided you:

1) Read a serious book once in your lives

2) Take both your heads out of Michael Moore's large behind (BTW that's where the Pentagon flight went)

And not necessarily in that order.

At 4/29/2005 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous Future Presidential Advisor said...

to Anon 6:32:

That may be a tough solution, since the average Syrian weighs about 180 pounds, we really can't handle what you recommended shove up our behind. I am pretty sure you, as an average American, can accomodate Moore, and whatever he has in his behind, up yours.

Regarding the book, I now know why the whole Arab world has the same amount of publications in a year as the state of New York, when half of your books are: Middle East for Dummies, and many other dummies books, and my favourite: Ten ways how to be smart..a lot of free time my friend.

At 5/10/2006 02:11:00 PM, Blogger leo said...

How about the current and future Syrian regimes stop worrying about Bush, the US, Vietnam (for God's sakes), Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq etc and start dealing with your OWN crap. It is no wonder Syria is a mess.
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