Sunday, September 04, 2005

The ICRC, the Ticking Time Bomb, and Druze Shaykhs

The following small story (copied below) about 500 Druze religious shaykhs coming to Syria from the Golan in order to make the annual pilgrimage to the Habil shrine at Zabadani came to my attention today. Habil is the Arab name for Abel, Cain's brother. There is more traffic between the Israeli-occupied Golan and Syria than one imagines. Much of that communication is due to the ICRC or the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The story behind the story is that of the ICRC, an extraordinary organization which opened up its doors in Syria at the time of the 1967 War to help the Golan refugees. It has remained here ever since. It is bridging the great divide between Israel and Syria over the Golanis. The ICRC organized the visit of the Druze Shaykhs. It also helps bring many students from the Golan to Damascus each year, where they get their university schooling free. The famous Golan apples - well, it was ICRC that arranged the many complicated details, permitting their sale in Syria this year. ICRC arranged for Swiss trucks, carrying Swiss license plates and driven by Kenyans, to go get the apples from the Golan and bring them to Syria. The Israelis didn't want Syrian trucks or Arab drivers and the Syrians didn't want Israeli trucks. It was a problem, but ICRC fixed it.

The ICRC is using its toe-hold in Syria on the Golan issue to press for many other important human rights issues.

Two days ago, I met the two foreign staff members of ICRC, Jean-Jacques Fresard (the chief of mission, 52, Swiss) and Irenee Herbet (the communications and field officer, 35, French), just before their trip to fetch the Druze Shaykhs. They represent the best international organizations have to offer. They are attractive, dynamic and smart. More importantly, both are passionate about their work. Jean-Jacques joined the ICRC in 1980 and has served in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Haiti, and the Palestinian Territories before coming to Syria. Irenee just joined the Damascus mission, following three years in Jordan. They both speak French, English, and some Arabic and probably several additional languages, which I am not competent to evaluate.

They have also been reading "Syria Comment" since I began it, so they have to be smart. That is why they welcomed me into their offices and plied me with delicious Turkish coffee. They want to get the word out about the many services they already offer Syria, and more importantly, the additional services they can offer.

Their big campaign now is prisoners - political prisoners. They want access to all Syria's prisons, and most specifically, the many informal holding and interrogation centers that are scattered about the country. They want to be able to keep track of everyone who goes in and out of detention. "Our mandate is to make sure that certain categories of people - the wounded, sick, prisoners, etc. - receive the protection and assistance they deserve under international law," said Fresard. "By the way," he added, "we have been teaching international humanitarian law to the Syrian Armed Forces for two years now, and this program is going very well."

But why would Syria do such a thing as to allow a humanitarian organization into the dark recesses of its security system? One immediately thinks, "Impossible! These do-gooders are total dreamers. Syria will never do such a thing. The security chiefs love their anonymity. Their business is secrecy and control. Why give it up? Anyway, it would be too embarrassing for Syria to allow a foreign organization into its prisons and would surely create scandal. Never in a hundred years!" I thought.

Jean-Jacques listened to me call him a fool, politely and with forbearance, as only someone with a good Swiss education can. "You don't understand," he said firmly, but with a smile as calm as Lake Geneva on a sunny day. "We have done this in scores of countries."

He continued, "you know, this problem - the prisoners - it will explode in Syria’s face." Do you think the international community will ignore it for ever? Do you think the Lebanese will remain quite? It is a time bomb. It will go off. It is only a matter of time. We can help fix this for the Syrians and for the prisoners. We are fixers, very discrete and professional."

"Fixers!" My mind reeled. I thought of Harvey Kaitel in the movie "Pulp Fiction," swooping in at midnight to clean up the dead bodies and whisk them away before the cops came. Call 1-800-ICRC for discrete problem removal!

Before I could blurt out, "Harvey Kaitel," Jean-Jacques put another thimble full of coffee in my hand and explained.

"We are not a human rights organization. We don't talk to the press. We don't try to embarrass our host countries, make scandals, or attract attention to ourselves. We just offer help solving difficult and pressing problems to facilitate the application of international law."

"Take the Lebanese prisoners that perhaps Syria is still detaining, for example. There is no reason for Syria to keep Lebanese prisoners any longer. The Lebanese have collected 440 files of the missing that they say are being held in Syria. Syria probably has very few remaining Lebanese prisoners. They say they have none. The problem is that no one knows, and no one believes them. They used to say they had none, but then in December 2000, fifty-four were released and returned to Lebanon. Every mother of a missing person in Lebanon, naturally, dreams that her son is being held in Syria, whether it is true or not.

This problem is only going to get bigger. If the Syrian authorities let us see them all and let us register them, we could begin to resolve the outstanding cases - little by little, slowly and discretely. We can be a neutral and trustworthy go-between, like the Kenyan drivers of the Swiss trucks on the Golan. We could fix this problem before it is used against Syria and becomes an international issue which will really embarrass and hurt Syria. It is not complicated. We do it all the time. We would be serving the interests of the Syrian government and the prisoners."

He made it all sound so simple. But before I could express my skepticism, Jean-Jacques preempted me.

"It really is simple,” he said. You have written in "Syria Comment" many times about how Syria is not the worst offender in the Middle East when it comes to numbers of political prisoners - not by a long shot, and yet the world thinks it is. It is being killed by the press. Much of it is political. It doesn't have to be that way."

I tried to press him about countries that were worse than Syria, but Jean-Jacques was being his inscrutable ICRC self. I mentioned Egypt. Egypt has many more political prisoners than Syria no matter how you count them. Saad Eddine Ibrahim wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last year that Egypt held 18,000 political prisoners. Syria probably has between 500 and 1000, but we aren't really sure because they don't let the ICRC into the prisons. Jean-Jacques was stone-faced when I tried to press him for the ICRC estimates for Syria, but he didn't contradict me either, which meant I was on the right track. ICRC's policy is not to give out numbers; no cajoling on my part could loosen him up.

He did say, "We are trying to visit prisons in Egypt just as we are in Syria." We already have agreements with Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Mauritania, to talk only about the Middle-East, but I cannot talk about Egypt, it a delicate issue and we are negotiating.

So I pressed him, "Why doesn't America or the international community complain about this with Egypt?" He reminded me that the US did complain when Saad Eddine Ibrahim was put into jail for taking money from the Americans; he was subsequently freed. So what about the other 17,999 I wondered? I know the ICRC has had "tough discussions" with the US administration about Abou Ghraib, Guantanamo and a few other issues, but I didn't ask about them, because I knew Jean-Jacques would only say, "Again they are confidential and we hate to engage governments publicly on such things."

Jean-Jacque is a realist, he didn't want to discuss hypocrisy in foreign relations. I guess all governments must be permitted a degree of hypocrisy. It is up to people like Jean-Jacques to take advantage of foreign pressure when it is available, and not to worry too much, when it is not.

He quickly got back on message, "If we were given access to the prisons and allowed to keep track of the prisoners and make sure they were treated according to international norms, Syria would be in a much better position than it is today."

"This problem is going to get bigger for Syria," he said. "It doesn't have to. It would be smart for them to work with us. We have made some progress on this issue with the Syrian authorities." He explained, "In the old days, no one would even talk to us in the government. Now, we have easy access to officials, who agree with us about getting a handle on this issue. The ones we talk to all know it is a problem and want it solved. But, for some reason, they can't do anything about it."

I thought of the security chiefs. How they must tell the government officials to take a hike when they raise the thorny issue of letting Jean-Jacques stumble around their detention centers asking the tough questions. It's just a matter of political will at the very top.

"It's not complicated," Jean-Jacques intoned again. "It is a simple human issue." I nodded and thought of the ticking time-bomb. The fuse must be very short.

Druse Clergymen Enter Syria for Pilgrimage
By Associated Press
September 1, 2005, 1:35 PM EDT

QUNEITRA, Syria -- Nearly 500 Druse clergymen living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights crossed into Syria on Thursday for an annual pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the Syrian countryside.

The 488 clerics walked 300 yards from the Israeli lines to a Syrian checkpoint at Quneitra, about 40 miles south of Damascus, where they received a warm welcome from waiting crowds.

"I'm overjoyed to be in Syria to see my relatives," said Sheik Suleiman Abu Jabal, 58, a Druse cleric from Mas'ada village who was among the group making the three-day trip.

The visit is "very important for keeping in contact with our relatives in the Golan," said Medhat Saleh, a former Syrian lawmaker waiting for the clergymen.

Israel seized the strategic Golan Heights during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory in 1981, but the move has not been recognized by the United Nations.

Some 17,000 Arabs who follow the Druse religion -- an offshoot of Islam -- live on the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan along with 15,000 Israeli settlers. Nearly all the Arabs have rejected Israeli citizenship and retain strong ties with Syria, which provides them with free university education.

Since 1988, Israeli authorities have allowed Druse to perform the pilgrimage to the Habil shrine at Zabadani, 28 miles west of Damascus.

Habil is the Arab name for Abel, Cain's brother. The two sons of Adam and Eve are mentioned, though not by these names, in the Quran, Islam's holy book, which tells the well-known biblical story of the first murder.

Irenee Herbet, the communications and field officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the clergymen's crossing went smoothly, adding Israel's permission for the group to stay in Syria for three days was "a positive signal."

Syrian-Israeli peace talks broke down in January 2000 after Syria wanted assurances that Israel would withdraw completely from the Golan Heights and all land captured in 1967. Israel refused and insisted the issues of security arrangements and normalization be spelled out first.

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