Wednesday, June 08, 2005

US Thinking of Taking Syrian Land - Baath Conclusions

Mamoun Fandy writes in al-Sharq al-Awsat that "Matters are on course for a showdown," between Syria and the US. (Thanks to Camille-Alexandre, a faithful reader in Canada, for bringing this article to my attention. He has written some smart comments at the bottom of the al-Sharq al-Awsat article.)

I wrote that Syria and the US are heading for a major clash soon in an article for "Syria Today," just this morning. There is no other conclusion one can come to. But Fandy gets the real scoop on American planning. We will have to see if America really follows through on its threats. Only today President Bush upped the heat by stating that Syria had not withdrawn its intelligence people from Lebanon. He also accuses the Syrians of having drawn up a hit list of Lebanese. Here's the Fandy article:

"An American Corridor in Syria", 07/06/2005

"I have no information about a strip to separate Syria and Iraq, but I can confirm that US troops have been engaged in combat operations inside Syrian territory for months." This is what an official from the United States State Department told me, in response to a question I asked on rumors of the imminent creation of a separation strip between Iraq and its Western neighbor which will extend 10km wide into Syrian land. With regard to this subject, three scenarios seem to be under discussion.

In the first instance, the US military will create a strip of land to be modeled after that used by Israel in South Lebanon to enable it to wage preemptive strikes against the Lebanese resistance. Supporters of this view see the current relationship between Syria and Iraq resembling the past relationship between Beirut and Tel Aviv. They speak of host centers in Syria that assist Arab fighters to crossing the border and join the resistance against US military presence. As such, they argue, in order to eliminate the resistance, the American military should penetrate into Syria territory, for a distance of 10 km, and eradicate these centers offering logistical support. This perspective is presented as a pre-emptive security measure that doesn't aim to destabilize Syria, but rather, to abolish support for the fighters.

The second scenario sees a return to the situation in Iraq before the last Gulf War when the country was divided into three zones, the Northern Zone, where Iraqi planes were banned from flying, ...

The US government has already held discussions with a number of Arab governments to look into establishing a corridor or a separation passageway between Syria and Iraq. In this third scenario, according to a senior Arab official, the width of corridor will be less than the 10km proposed in the first instance...

ill the Assad regime defend itself by drumming up support for the resistance in Iraq to exhaust the US military before it enters Syria? Or will Damascus grudgingly accept the new situation which will undoubtedly harm its powerful image internally and in the region, and empower the country's opposition.

The proposed border strip is also an Iraqi request...

Some observers judge the new plan for the Syrian-Iraqi border to be yet another proof of US intentions to split up the region and reconstruct according to its wishes, which might be true from an indigenous perspective.

But, from the US administration's point of view, it is faced with continuing violence in Iraq and growing evidence that Arab fighters, especially from the Persian Gulf, are crossing the border from Syria and receiving support and finds from inside the country's borders....

Is this an indication of an intention to truly distance, besiege, and destabilize Syria? It seems events are quickly moving in this direction.

Comment: A friend wrote: "This plan evokes Israel's security zone in Southern Lebanon. questions to consider: whether Iraqis will accept to play the role of the southern Lebanon Army (SLA), location of zone, legal status etc... "

If the US does grab a border strip, it will never be able to leave before regime-change. It would mean a life and death struggle for the Syrian regime and greatly increase regional instability. It would give the Mujahidiin increased legitimacy. I can't imagine Washington would really want to go down that road.

The reaction of the international press to the Baath Congress has been scathing.

This is how Tony Badran sums it up in his "Round up" over at "Across the Bay."

So the Baath Party Congress is over. Can you feel the change!? This has to be the most pathetic show this side of Baghdad Bob. The reactions in the Arabic papers were highly critical, especially in the London-based dailies Ash-Sharq al-Awsat (see, e.g., here and here), and Al-Hayat (see, e.g., here), but also in the Lebanese An-Nahar (see, e.g., here, and this dissection of Bashar's horrible, horrible speech by Jihad Zein), and the Kuwaiti As-Siyassah (see this editorial by the feisty Ahmad al-Jarallah).
One reader thought this was the best article on the Conference:
The land of rumors, leaks and gossip By Zvi Bar'el

The story of Syrian engineer Khaled Mustafa Rahal can explain why the convention of the national Baath Party Congress does not impress the citizens of the country. Rahal was appointed to be the head of the Aleppo branch of the government bakeries corporation. Within a year, he managed to produce a profit of about $2 million - almost twice that of his predecessor in the job, with similar means at his disposal. He didn't increase the manpower or the means of production. He only streamlined the work of the bakeries. In December 2004, Rahal was fired....
Rob Satloff, at the influential think-tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is scathing as well. He uses the conference to repeat his call for regime-change, no doubt something others are doing in Washington. This is what he wrote in the New Republic Online, June 8, 2005:

President Bashar al Assad of Syria has lately seemed to be doing everything possible to make himself an ex-dictator... This week, Assad's mistake was doing nothing at all.
To paraphrase the courageous Syrian reformer Ammar Abdulhamid, if the Assads were the modern-day Corleones, Hafez dreamed of having Michael succeed him but was stuck with Fredo.

This week's Baath Party Congress was supposed to give Bashar the opportunity to make a fresh start. Rumors were rampant that the young leader would finally announce real change... But Assad, a world-class underachiever, fooled us again... He did nothing.

So there it was: Assad's answer to calls for reform was not less Baathism, but more. In offering a ringing defense of an ideology whose only other champion these days is a jailed Saddam Hussein, Assad once again showed that his regime is one in whose survival the United States -- and the West, more generally -- simply has no interest...

Meanwhile, Assad has been so offensive that usually restrained observers have begun calling for more assertive measures to isolate the regime and trigger change. This week, for example, The Financial Times of London editorialized that Syria is caught in a "time warp, ostensibly oblivious to the consequences of its own behavior." It suggested tightening the noose on Assad and his cronies through targeted sanctions, to be implemented by the U.N. Security Council, that would restrict the ability of this small group to travel or to transfer and access their assets.

Washington should embrace these ideas and push for more. For decades, America has been reluctant to classify Syria as a full-blown rogue regime because of its potential role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. That policy should be jettisoned. In its place, Washington should search for a third way between the bad option of a more effective Baathist dictatorship and the worse option of helping to empower Syria's radical Sunni Islamist militants. This will mean publicly encouraging the small, hardy band of domestic liberals that is routinely hounded by the regime and thrown in jail. Today, this group has little popularity, poor visibility, and virtually no organization; but if it becomes clear that the West will no longer throw lifelines to the Assad regime, the ranks and confidence of reformers may grow. Given how brittle Assad's government has become, Syria is one country in which a battle of ideas may itself be enough to trigger fundamental change. If so, Fredo Corleone's days in power are numbered.
There were two moments of excitement reported during the last day of the conference. One was a fight between Khaddam, who resigned, and Ali Jamalo. The other was the dust up between Khaddam and Foreign Minister Sharaa. Both were about who is to blame for losing Lebanon. Here is how Tony reads it.

Indeed Bashar may be thinking that he can fool people again by removing some of the "old guard" like VP Khaddam, who actually resigned in a theatrical fashion, including a -- almost certainly staged -- confrontation with a pro-regime journalist, Ali Jamalo, who attacked him on the Lebanon file (an episode that was mocked by Ghassan Tueni, which leads me to believe that it was indeed staged!

Khaddam had a fight with Sharaa on the Lebanon file, and blamed the mistakes on him (perhaps not just him, wink wink!). Although I have zero sympathy for Khaddam, he is in fact right, as he was sidelined a long time ago from the Lebanon file. This fact didn't escape commentators in the Arabic papers, such as Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, and Shaaban Abboud. This is but a theatrical move, perhaps aimed at scapegoating Khaddam for Lebanon, milking that "old guard" theory that everyone seems to buy around here.

Sharaa has been scapegoated for the Lebanon fiasco from the beginning. Several people told me that he assured President Asad that there would never be a resolution 1559. When Bashar was contemplating extending Lahoud's presidency, he evidently gave the President the go ahead to change Lebanon's constitution, declaring that both Russia and Algeria would veto the UN resolution in the Security Council. Should we believe this? Then why hasn't he been fired? Perhaps it was a convenient allegation for a decision taken at the top, similar to Bush blaming the CIA for giving him wrong intelligence on Iraq's WMD?

Many sources also claimed that Khaddam advised the president not to extend Lahoud's presidency - the move, which started the Lebanon snowball rolling. But even this "leak" has been brought into doubt. A normally well informed citizen, told me recently, that when the top leadership met to discuss the Lahoud extension - and many advised the President against it - Khaddam conveniently absented himself by flying off to France for medical treatment, allowing him to play a double game: pretending to be against it, while not actually being against it. How can we ever know if any of these allegations are true? There is such a lack of transparency that wild speculation must substitute for news. The result is no one is held responsible and mistakes repeat themselves.

Ibrahim Hamidi writes that the government will be changed within the month. Quite a few ministers are expected to be changed. Here is what Hamidi hears.

وعلمت «الحياة» ان تغييراً حكومياً سيحصل بعد شهر من انتهاء المؤتمر، وان الوزراء «البعثيين» لن يتجاوز عددهم عشرة وزراء، ما يساعد على تفسير اسباب عدم ترشيح عشرة وزراء انفسهم الى عضوية المؤتمر، كان بينهم وزراء الاعلام مهدي دخل الله والاقتصاد عامر لطفي والادارة المحلية هلال الاطرش، اضافة الى نائب وزير الخارجية وليد المعلم ورئيس البرلمان محمود الابرش.
I am voting for Ayman Abdul Nour. But hope it won't be Ministry of Information. What a tough position. He did a valiant job on al-Jazira tonight, explaining why the government had made a "leap forward." He was up against Burhan Ghalioun of the Sorbonne, who was very good.

Ibrahim's excellent al-Hayat article in two parts, explaining what he learned from government leaders in Washington, is a must read for those who know Arabic. It is one of the best explanations of Washington think. He recently traveled there to speak to an impressive list of decision makers and influence peddlers. Here is part one. Here is part two.

In "The Right Path to Arab Democracy," Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Clinton, and Vin Weber stand up against regime-change. They are trying to define a Middle East policy for a future Democratic Party administration.
In promoting democratic institutions in Arab countries, we should bear in mind that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable. Our goal should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution....

Washington should support the participation of any group or party that has made a credible commitment to abide by the rules of democracy, including nonviolence and respect for constitutional procedures. It would be a mistake to exclude Islamist parties on the assumption that they are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence. The best way to marginalize violent extremists is to make room for as broad a range of nonviolent perspectives as possible....

Washington should also review its visa policies to ensure that, while those from Arab countries who may be dangerous are kept out, those who are not (the overwhelming majority) are allowed in without having to endure humiliating delays.
The Force of Islam:
Nabil Fayyad, who used to write bravely for "An-naqed" about how Islamic extremism was over-taking Syrian society and institutions, has now reversed himself. Following his temporary arrest six months ago, he left Syria for the States and is now working with Farid Ghadry. He writes in alseyassah that the Muslim Brothers and fundamentalists are really very small in number, won't come to power, and are a myth spread by the Asad regime. (He states the Alawites are 18% of the Syrian population and the Murshidiyun a further 2%. Druze and Ismailis are another 7%.) There are enough people in the government making up figures. Nabil, don't do it too.

Nick Blanford has another excellent article in the Daily Star on the Syrian Opposition.
Syria opposition too weak to confront state

Bludgeoned by 40 years of authoritarian rule and riven by internal bickering,
Syria's diverse and often fractious opposition is in a poor state to confront a
Baathist regime undergoing a process of consolidation.

Ammar Abdulhamid gives his round up here. He writes:

For those who are truly sober, the upcoming congress promises to present just another opportunity for Syria's "wise leaders" to commit a major screw up. After all, it has been months since they have committed such a faux pas and they are not in the habit of making us wait for long.
Rime Allaf of Chatham House is only slightly more up beat. She told The Guardian:
The disappointing absence of the promised "great leap" forward could obscure more gradualist steps. Several non-binding measures debated at the conference, which ended last night, may lead to what Ms Allaf called "calculated reform".

They included the partial relaxation of media controls, privatisation plans, and the possible legalisation of more approved opposition parties - while still excluding the Kurds and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Such moves would be consistent with Mr. Assad's cautious, almost stealthy approach to change.

"He will keep the lid on any substantial or radical reform," Ms Allaf predicted. Emergency laws in force since 1963 would largely remain, for example. But even modest shifts might allow Mr. Assad to claim progress.

So too will the de-emphasising of the Ba'ath party's leading role and a concomitant reinforcement of executive power bolstered by Assad appointees...
Better to go straight to here Web log, "Mosaics: Blog on current and Middle East affairs".


At 6/10/2005 07:42:00 PM, Anonymous Rime Allaf said...

Joshua, I'm not sure I'm quite as upbeat as your quote from the Guardian piece suggests. My low expectations and disappointment are perhaps better expressed - repeatedly - here (

As I put it in my last article, it's not quite winds of change, but rather dust in the wind! I don't think anyone can speak of "leaps" (whether great or small), no matter in what context they are put. You are right about Burhan Ghalioun - as usual, he was excellent. I have a feeling that deep down, even Sami Khiyami was tempted to agree with him!


At 6/11/2005 06:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abdelnour Case is not the first pseudo-reformer of his kind ,on the eve of his appointment for prime minister post,Mohamad Miro was presented as the tenacious mister anti-corruption and honest reformer ,that claim had astonished the inhabitants of Al Hassaka and Aleppo, who suffered from its bad management and unscrupulous racketeering when he was governor in these 2 muhafazat.Recently the bankruptcy of companies in Aleppo showed that he was 20 millions $ shareholder in one company.Other famous pseudo reformers are Mahdi Dakhlallah ,Bothaina Chaabane who received as impossible mission to defend the indefendable mistakes of the regime .
Anyway forget this unsuccessfull and powerless puppets,the epicentre of the executive power still Makhlouf ,Assad ,Shawkat and cronies....and they are ready to exhaust more and more Syria for the sake of their stolen privileges.

At 6/11/2005 05:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great blog Joshua.

A couple of things. One is that billions of dollars is riding on this regime change. The amount of assets controlled and fleeced by the Alewite elite is staggering, and they (and nobody else for that matter) would give it all up without a huge fight. Those who think that regime change from within can come about easy - have it all wrong. That is why external force or pressure is absolutely necessary. Nobody is going to give up the millions these people pocket (both in tangible and intangible assets) just so happily.

But why is the regime targetting the small and ineffective liberal and secular opposition - when it has a much greater threat to its existence from the Sunni Wahhabis?

The answer is clear IMO. THe Sunni Wahhabi is the "insurance policy" purchased by the regime to protect itself against foreign pressure. The theory goes that if you overthrow us, you will get another Iraq from these Islamists. Unfortunately this is a good theory.

A related issue is the "fear of insecurity and instability" which propels secular Syrians to back the regime.

So the solution is to come up with an accomodation and agreement as to what the post-Assad regime is going to look like. This can be as simple as assigning so many seats to the Islamists so that they receive the incentive not to take up arms.

Once an accomodation (with UN blessing) has been arrived at between the elements of the secular opposition and the Islamists, then this accomodation should be publicized and the silent majority be brought on board and sold on it.

Once the future is ascertained, the silent majority will MOVE. I have no doubts about this. What is keeping the rank and file from moving is the fear of the unknown. Nobody wants to jump a sinking cruise ship for a sinking boat.

But once US and UN can engineer a "grand concensus" on how to implement the post-regime civil society, you will see movement from the population. Guaranteed.


At 6/11/2005 07:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not 10 Km American corridore on "Iraqi" land ?

At 6/13/2005 10:42:00 AM, Anonymous kingcrane said...

Pay attention to some of the material: Does Algeria have veto power?


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