Friday, June 03, 2005

What is Syria Doing? Baath, US, and More

The Syrian regime is trying to show its strength in the only way it knows how: by firing off scud missiles, strategic arrests among the Kurdish, human rights, and opposition communities, by refusing to give America what it wants on the Iraq border, by playing host (May 22) to Farouk Kaddoumi (PLO leader) and the leaders of the militant Palestinian factions in order to derail Abu Mazen and get the Palestinians to keep shooting.

Syrian leaders are angry. For four months the government has cowered under the raised stick of UN resolution 1559. It let the opposition in Syria speak freely and criticize with abandon. It promised the country reforms at the Baath Party Congress, it withdrew its military from Lebanon. All of this to please America - at least that is how many government officials see it.

What happened? What did the government get for playing the game? Nothing. Zero. Not one word of thanks. Not one gesture of gratitude. Secretary Rice stated Syria had not withdrawn from Lebanon even as the UN gave the country a clean bill of health.

Of course, Washington's view is that Syria is bad and deserves thanks for nothing it does. How can one thank evil for being less evil? Washington big wheels have stated that they believe President Asad is weak and not in control of his country and that the regime will collapse within the year. President Chirac has repeated the same analysis. They have him on the run, they believe, and must press the offense. "Pressure works" is their mantra - so let's lay it on and squeeze until Syria is dry or pops.

This is just the kind of logic President Bashar and his men are determined to stop. They believe they must turn it around and show that "pressure doesn't work", that Syria is not a "charitable institution" that gives and will keep on giving, but rather that Syria is a "normal country" that must be dealt with like any other - through engagement and give and take - in short, by deal making. Hence Sharaa has renewed calls this past week for Israel to open peace negotiations on the Golan, for the EU to jump start the Madrid process, and for the US to deal over the Iraq border, for discussions about lifting US economic sanctions and the return of Syria's ambassador. This is what Syria is asking of the West in return for having withdrawn from Lebanon and for future cooperation on Iraq - all to no avail.

As many Syrians point out, however, "how can Syria expect to be treated as a 'normal country' if it acts like a thug." What is this "strong man" posturing? Washington is counting Syrian mistakes. Scud missiles test-fired, Khasnawi dead, Kassir dead, the Attasi 8 harassed, and the border with Iraq a sieve. "This is the old Syria, not the new Syria that Bashar promised us," they complain. People are pulling their hair out with frustration. They feel trapped between a bad government and a Washington they don't trust.

Now that 1559 is finished, the US no longer has a big stick to wield over Syria. Bashar is exploiting the temporary confusion and weakness of Western policy to reposition himself and the country. He will show the West that the Syrian government is not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, nor is it weak - at least not internally. "If the West wants satisfaction from Syria," logic dictates, "it must deal, not dictate," that is the message from Damascus.

After all, what can Washington do? Bomb Syria? Strategic strikes? That won't do any good. It didn't work in Iraq after 1991. Provoke the Kurds to revolt? Khasnawi got killed for suggesting the Kurds could act as the West's cat's paw. Use Lebanon as a big "Free Syria" radio station to up psychological pressure? Kassir was terminated for doing just that. Just sit tight and wait for Bashar to implode on his own because of growing Syrian unemployment and falling oil exports? Wishful thinking.

Syrians are being asked to choose between a thuggish government that kills the odd opponent while promising slow and tinkering reform, and chaos, Islamism, or civil war. It is an easy choice for most Syrians. They will choose their government, which, in the greater scheme of things and given the available alternatives, isn't so bad. The West doesn't have a plan. It doesn't have an alternative - not one the Syrians find attractive.

Bashar will exploit this weakness. He is doing just that. America is screwed in Iraq, and so long as it continues to be screwed in Iraq, Bashar will tickle the US, blow hot air in Washington's ear, and wait for the clock to run out. He is betting he can outlast Bush.

Lebanon and the Kassir Assassination
Samir Kassir, one of Lebanon's most anti-Syrian reporters who blamed Syria for Hariri's murder, was blown up in his car two days ago.

According to Hassan Fattah of the N.Y.Times,

"The attack on Mr. Kassir was interpreted by many in Lebanon as a warning to other anti-Syrian figures and raised fears of a wider campaign of assassinations."

"It's going to elicit the same kind of anger and rage among Lebanese" as the assassination of Mr. Hariri did, said Rami Khouri, editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. "But the anger this time is going to be focused on Émile Lahoud."
In a moving eulogy, Michael Young explains that the anger at Kassir's assassination should be directed against Syria.

In a second and very smart article, Michael explains why Lebanese anger should not be taken out on Lahoud, even if Jumblatt will try to exploit Lebanon's rage to unseat the pro-Syrian president. Michael lays out, in the most persuasive road map of Lebanese political psychology I have yet to read, why the young Hariri must not get drawn into the web of Jumblatt's game.

The Christian-Sunni alliance is the true measure of Lebanon at this delicate turning point in the country's history. If Hariri forsakes that alliance to honey in the mercurial embrace of the Druze warlord and to take misdirected revenge for his murdered father, Michael argues, Hariri will be lost. Lebanon will be lost. Hariri as Hamlet.

Baath Conference and Reform
Here are two good articles on what to expect from the Baath Party Congress, one by Ziad Haydar, As-Safir's excellent reporter in Damascus, and another by Rober Rabil of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who gives good background on the Baath Party.

Expect very leisurely change from the Baath congress
Ziad Haydar Saturday, June 04, 2005
Here is a bit:
Three scenarios have been discussed in Syria of late, ranging from the optimistic to the pessimistic, from rumors to more substantiated information.

The first scenario spoke of a "white coup," an idea promoted by foreign newspapers. This scenario provided that Assad, in the few days preceding the congress, would change officials controlling economic and political affairs. It contemplated that he would initiate a campaign against corruption and plan substantial changes in the security apparatus, removing well-known figures and paving the way for a smooth Assad leadership.

The second scenario sees the Baath congress as a basis for discussion about the future of Syria. In that way, it may decide on economic openness, the introduction of a market economy, and discuss a new law that allows other parties to participate in the leadership. Proponents of this view suggest Assad will introduce organizational changes in the party structure that will lead toward greater flexibility and a more independent relation vis-ˆ-vis political authority.
As for the third scenario, it is a pessimistic one. It is subscribed to by the Syrian opposition, who see in the congress an occasion for cosmetic changes in order to enhance the Baath's grip on power, rather than weaken it. Opposition figures believe that the congress will not abolish the past nor build for the future.

Among the three scenarios, the second is considered the more realistic...

Robert Rabil
Baath Party Congress in Damascus: How Much Change in Syria?
June 2, 2005
Here is the ending of the short report:
It is safe to expect that Asad may further separate the Baath Party from the state, while continuing to rejuvenate Baathism, by replacing the old guard with less ideological, more pragmatic party members with an interest in reform. Correspondingly, the Regional Command may be purged of senior political figures, who will be replaced by younger Asad loyalists. This will complement Asad's attempts to open up the public sector by pursuing a kind of soft privatization and introducing gradual economic reforms to integrate Syria into the global economy.

Other issues that may be taken up at the congress include:

•Ending martial law, which has been in effect since 1963;
•Granting a general amnesty for political prisoners and allowing political exiles to return -- the regime has already allowed some political exiles, such as former president Amin al-Hafiz, to return;
•Suspending Law 49, which makes membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death; and
•Granting citizenship to approximately 100,000 Kurds who are permanent residents of Syria.


It appears that Asad sees the upcoming Baath Party Congress as an opportunity to unite a broad spectrum of Syrians to fend off American pressure. Asad also hopes to prevent the creation of a U.S.-supported opposition like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi Nationals Congress. In this respect, Asad is trying to create a pluralistic nationalist political front that can satisfy some demands for political and economic reform without endangering his rule. Moreover, recent arrests (including the head of the Arab Human Rights Organization), and the alleged murder by government of Muhammad al-Khaznawi, a Kurd and a prominent Muslim religious leader who had spoken for Kurdish political rights, the regime has marked a red line for the reformers that they should not cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood or with Western institutions and governments, especially the United States.

Paradoxically, though Washington's relations with Damascus remain tense, U.S. pressure on Syria seems to be paying off by forcing Damascus to undertake overdue reforms.
Fadi Zown sent me the following: "I borrowed this from Laura's (Rosen) "War & Piece" ... Cheers, Fadi" (Laura Rozen covers foreign policy and national security from Washington, D.C. as a journalist for the American Prospect and for her weblog, War and Piece.)

The latest subject of Bush administration inter-agency squabbling over intelligence manipulation and politicization? Syria, and the mystified reactions from professional US intelligence sources over the apparently dubious claim by an anonymous US military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi had planned recent Iraq attacks while being sheltered in Syria. Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay report:

"..U.S. intelligence has no evidence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq, and experts don't believe the widely publicized meeting ever happened, according to U.S. officials.

Two weeks ago, a top U.S. military official in Baghdad, Iraq, told reporters that Zarqawi had traveled to Syria in April and met with leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to plan the recent wave of bombings against American troops and the Iraqi government. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In the following days, top Bush administration and Iraqi officials increased their threats against Syria.

The reassessment comes amid a debate within the U.S. intelligence community over how to fight the insurgency and over Syria's role in it, the officials said.

Some analysts argue that, while Damascus has been unhelpful in stopping terrorists crossing its border, its importance is being exaggerated and that the key to defeating the insurgency is in Iraq, not in Syria or Iran.

Three officials who said that the reports of Zarqawi's travels were apparently bogus spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified and because discussing the mistaken report could embarrass the White House and trigger retaliation against them.

The allegation by the U.S. military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi and his lieutenants met in Syria suggests that, despite the controversy over the Bush administration's use of flimsy and bogus intelligence to make its case for war in Iraq, some officials are still quick to embrace dubious intelligence when it supports the administration's case _ this time against Damascus.

One of the U.S. officials said the initial report was based on a single human source, who's since changed his story significantly. Another official said the source and his information were quickly dismissed as unreliable by intelligence officials but caught the attention of some political appointees.

These officials and two others said that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were mystified by the reports of Zarqawi's visit because they had no such information..."
To get the best view into just how bad screwed up US intelligence on Syria has been, read Laura Rosen's excellent piece:
The Bolton Endgame
Laura Rozen
, May 11, 2005
On the eve of the Bolton vote, a dizzying stream of new information continued to wash in, filling in the portrait of Bolton and his loyalists as a kind of rogue political force engaged in all-but-open warfare against their bureaucratic enemies in the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and openly working to undermine the president's policies of supporting multilateral negotiations on North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs.


At 6/04/2005 03:59:00 AM, Anonymous quinn mccoy hansen said...

Just thought that I would point out this:

"Not one gesture of gratitude. Secretary Rice stated Syria had not withdrawn from Syria even as the UN gave the country a clean bill of health."

where you say syria leaves syria, instead of lebanon

anyways, i really like your posts

At 6/04/2005 05:02:00 AM, Blogger sasa said...

freudian slip?

The Syrian News Wire.

At 6/04/2005 06:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We would like to express condolences and sympathy to the martyr Sheikh Dr Mohammad Ma'shouk al-Khaznawi's Family and our kurdish and non kurdish syrian people,for this tragic loss, victim of the evil forces of al baath.
We send also our deepest condolences to Dr Samir Kassir's Family and Friends on this tragic loss.
He was half Syrian and courageously supported Syrian people's struggle for a free and democratic Syria.
May Allah rest their soul in peace.

At 6/04/2005 01:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The murder of genuine people like Al-Khaznawi and Kassir will go on as long as the Baath regime is in power.

At 6/04/2005 06:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would also point out that when you say "Syria is mad" that it connotes that Syria is insane rather than angry. It took me most of the post to understand you meant the latter.

At 6/04/2005 07:59:00 PM, Anonymous Ghassan said...

The Syrian mafia regime is like a blind in a china store! They will go a mistake after the other until they break everything and will recognize that they destroyed their country! Freedom will not be denying for Syrians forever but for the Syrian to get their freedom must earn it! Must fight for it! Yes, they will kill 10, a 100, may be a thousand but Syrians must not stop! They must fight to free their country from the mafia! That how countries are liberated! Read history books and you will always find out that without sacrify there is not freedom! May Allah bless you and wish you from the bottom of my heart that you will be free sooner not later!

At 6/05/2005 02:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ghassan, why dont you concentrate your efforts and wishes on liberating your country from your mafio families, Hariri, Jumblat, Jumayel, etc.

At 6/05/2005 02:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There Is a Need for Pressure from Inside of Syria"

After the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon many experts assume that the events will have a political impact on Syria. Bernhard Hillenkamp spoke with Mohammad Ali al-Atassi, Syrian civil society activist and journalist of the Lebanese daily "an-Nahar"

What is the current situation of civil society in Syria?

Ali al-Atassi: First of all, I would like to say a few words about the background of civil society in Syria. Civil society in Syria may not correspond to a strict definition of political science, as it evolved in the West. For example, independent NGOs are legally forbidden in Syria. However, there are political initiatives outside of the official realm of the Syrian government that can be considered under the term civil society.

After years of political repression, political activities in Syria do exist as a kind of self-defence. But fear remains strong among Syrians. Although at the end of Hafiz el-Asad's reign a limited number of political prisoners were released, society, at large, continued to be marginalized.

When Bashar al-Asad, Hafiz al-Asad's son, became the heir to political power in Syria and the constitution was changed within 30 minutes, some intellectuals and dissidents were shocked. They felt that it was time to do something. At the beginning of Bashar's term, it was not clear how politics would evolve. A period of relative openness and tolerance began. Contrary to Iraq where most intellectuals and dissidents were eliminated or forced into exile, Syria has not lost its intellectuals.

They started to author petitions and organize gatherings to discuss political issues. The so-called Damascus Spring began. Three main demands were made at this time: First to lift the emergency law, second to release the political prisoners and allow the return of exiled politicians, third to introduce political reform. But with the arrest of four prominent figures of the opposition, Riyad al-Turk, Riyad Saif, Ma'moun al-Homsi and Arif Dalila, the spring of Damascus soon came to an end. The regime again started to threaten society.

But times have changed. The revolution in information technology and media as well as the broader regional changes make it impossible for the Syrian government to turn Syria into a big prison once again. Syrian society is increasingly exposed to the outside world.

After five years of Bashar al-Asad, it has become clear that economic reform cannot work without political reform. However, the regime is not willing to introduce political reform. There is a need for pressure not only from outside but from inside of Syria.

What impact did the breakdown of the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus in Lebanon have on Syria and the Syrian civil society?

Al-Atassi: The security apparatus plays a fundamental role in Syria. It has established a system of fear. This system suffered a defeat in Lebanon. The regime does not arrest political leaders as it did before, but this does not mean that the system has changed. There are no fundamental changes. The system has become weaker but power is still in the hands of the same ruling elite. For a real improvement, there has to be a change within the ruling elite.

Not even the return of exiled politicians can be seen as an effort to deal with domestic politics in a more productive way?

Al-Atassi: Only a limited number of exiled politicians have returned, maybe three or four. Two were arrested on their return. There has to be an amnesty that permits exiled politicians to return and guarantees them that they will not be arrested.

What role do political parties play in such a process?

Al-Atassi: The government talked about issuing a law that would regularize political parties. But I do not think that they are really interested in allowing new political actors to participate in politics. The government only wants to give itself a new legitimacy.

It is time for the opposition parties to unite. They often live more in the past than the presence. The leftist and liberal groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood have to make alliances and work on a common democratic program. The opposition parties are currently working on a national conference to engage in a dialogue together. We are in need of new political figures who give voice to society's concerns.

What role do human rights activists play?

Al-Atassi: There are a few human rights groups in Syria but not all of them are primarily interested in human rights. At times, they are more interested in politics. They are active in human rights issues as a substitute for their political intentions. The human rights activists are important, but their number is limited. They play a crucial role in civil society.

Where are the Islamists?

Al-Atassi: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has learned from the Egyptian experience. It is moderate. It suffered a lot in the eighties. In Western media it is often portrayed as a potential replacement of the Syrian government. This is not correct. The Muslim Brotherhood today represents only a part of Syrian society. Its radical current was wiped out in the early 1980s by the Syrian government. There is also the official Islam which cooperates with the regime and is not involved in politics. Among the sunnis other political non-islamist currents, also most of the sunni Kurdish groups, do not subscribe to islamist thinking. Besides around 20 percent of the population in Syria are not Sunnites, but other minorities. Islamists are only a minority.

Have the developments in Lebanon any influence on Syria?

Al-Atassi: The case of Lebanon is very different from the Syrian. Syrian foreign troops were stationed in Lebanon. The international community asked for their withdrawal. In Syria it is not an international affaire with potential foreign intervention.

But the developments in Lebanon have shown the Syrian people that political change is possible with peaceful means. They also showed the importance of a unified opposition in order to mobilize people to demonstrate in the street. Last but not least, they showed that the army can stay neutral.

However, we do have to keep in mind that Lebanon has been more exposed to the outside world than Syria. Its media is far more independent. It was partly due to the presence of foreign media in Lebanon – all the demonstrations were broadcasted direct – that the opposition was not suppressed. All this makes it unlikely that the same events will be repeated in Syria.

Today Syria is weak. It has lost its political partners in the region. And the American pressure on Syria is strong. The Syrian officials should realize that if they want to save their country from this pressure, they should work with the opposition and the people in order to achieve political change. The problems are obvious and Syria cannot cover its domestic problems by using the pretext of the situation in Iraq or Lebanon. The Syrian regime has to start a dialog with its people.

Is there a chance that the Syrians will follow the Lebanese example?

Al-Atassi: I do not think so. As I already said, the situation in Syria is very different. In Lebanon it was a problem between two states, whereas in Syria it is a problem between the state and its people. Besides, did the Lebanese follow the Iraqi example? Did the people in Czechoslovakia follow the Polish example? Every country has its characteristics and specific situation.

Political change in Syria should come from within Syria. Nevertheless, Europe and the West, in general, should keep their pressure on the Syrian regime to introduce political reform and respect human rights. They should not fall into the trap to believe that the Islamists are the only alternative to the regime. The Islamist threat is created by the regime. It does not exist anymore.

Interview: Bernhard Hillenkamp

At 6/05/2005 09:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No economic reform ever really happens without political reform.

Political reform means breaking rice balls and that's a problem.

A possible peacefull solution will be to introduce a system of a privilaged monarchy for the Assad family kind of a la great Britain.

The ruling family keeps its property and ceremonial role while delegating politics to an elected prime minister chosen by a two party system.

Plain, pragmatic and Simple.


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