Thursday, November 03, 2005

Opinion in Syria and the West

The following is the Washington Post's editorial condemning Syria and suggesting that the US and UN should push Syria to any length in order to capture the killers of Hariri. To see how Syria is responding to this argument read the editorial by K. Gajendra Singh at "Al-Jazeerah," November 2, 2005, who gives a good account of what is being written in editorials and said within intellectual circles here in Syria. Of course, there is not unanimity in Syria, but many of my friends - Sunni, Alawi, and Christian are taking the line that Syria should be considered innocent until proven guilty. They argue Syria is being set up and do not want to give much credence to the Mehlis report. The new line here is that Mehlis has been in the employment of a US firm before (many confuse this with being a US government agent) and that he is not impartial.

Farouq al-Sharaa's speech at the UN Security Council Meeting, which was so roundly condemned in the West and seen to be the epitome of Baathist surrealism, has actually been positively received among many in Syria. Some of my friends were deeply embarrassed by his confrontational tone, believing he should have been more diplomatic, but many others agreed with him that there might have been another perpetrator that Mehlis ignored.

This all reminds me of the O.J. Simpson case several years ago, which so divided America along racial lines. The vast majority of American blacks believed he was innocent and being framed by racists in the California police department. His lawyer, Johnny Cochrane, was excellent and proved that one of the investigators was actually a racist who regularly spoke about blacks as "niggers." This clinched O.J.'s innocence for American blacks. Whites, of course, had no doubt that Simpson was guilty. All the evidence seemed to point to him, whether it was collected by racists or not. Syrians, who are convinced that Washington has been dreaming of regime change in Damascus since Bush came to power, are inclined to believe that the whole investigation could be a plot by the CIA and others as a step on the way to this end. So far the Syrian government is doing an excellent job of getting out this message in Syria and convincing the Syrian people that no matter what it does or how it responds to Mehlis, the nation and Syria people will be targeted. This is causing many people to close ranks with the government, rather than making them see their leaders as incompetents who should go to jail.

Signal to Damascus
Washington Post
Tuesday, November 1, 2005; A24

BY MOST accounts Syrian President Bashar Assad is a political naif who has repeatedly misread the cues of a changing Middle East and disastrously miscalculated Syria's responses. That's why it's helpful that the message the U.N. Security Council sent to Damascus yesterday was forceful and unambiguous, backed by all 15 of the council's members in a session attended by a dozen foreign ministers. The council's resolution requires Syria to detain and provide for questioning anyone deemed by U.N. investigators to be a suspect in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri -- a crime that has been compellingly linked to Mr. Assad's regime. Surely even this dim dictator must now understand that his choices are to dramatically break with his past or risk isolation and sanctions he could not easily survive.

Compliance won't be easy for Mr. Assad, even if he chooses to cooperate. Among the prime suspects in the killing of Mr. Hariri, who was resisting a crude effort by Mr. Assad to reinforce Syria's domination of Lebanon, are the president's brother and brother-in-law. Brother Maher Assad commands the elite Republican Guard forces that are Mr. Assad's last line of defense against a domestic rebellion; brother-in-law Asef Shawkat is the chief of military intelligence. The resolution gives U.N. investigator Detlev Mehlis the prerogative of determining where and under what conditions suspects will be questioned, and Mr. Mehlis may want to transport Mr. Assad's relatives or other suspects out of Syria. He should also interview Mr. Assad himself, since, according to the preliminary report, Mr. Assad directly threatened Mr. Hariri at a meeting several months before his death.

If Mr. Assad ordered the killing of Mr. Hariri, cooperation might only ensure his own trial before an international tribunal. If he did not, he will have to turn on those who did conspire, even if that means breaking with family members and close collaborators. Either way, his best hope of redemption with the outside world may lie in rapidly liberalizing his authoritarian government and reversing his foreign policies, which include backing Iraqi insurgents and Islamic terrorists, supporting extremist Palestinian groups, and using murder and intimidation to destabilize Lebanon.

More likely Mr. Assad will choose, like Saddam Hussein before him, to stall and prevaricate in the hope that the Security Council will shrink from taking action against him. The Bush administration was obliged to drop mention of sanctions from yesterday's resolution in order to win the votes of several governments, including Russia and China. And there is no shortage of Western apologists for Mr. Assad, who claim that he is a victim of hard-liners around him, or that the United States and Europe would be better off striking a deal with him than supporting action that might "destabilize" his country. The regime they would accommodate murdered the prime minister of a neighboring state and has done its best to sow chaos and kill Americans in Iraq. There are better ways to handle it than backroom bargaining: As a start, the United States and its allies should continue to insist that the murderers of Mr. Hariri be brought to justice. [end]

In the Fief of the Assads, Friends Melt Away
November 2, 2005 NEW YORK TIMES

DAMASCUS, Syria, Nov. 1 - Syrian officials have been saying for years that they have closed down all the offices of Palestinian factions working here in the capital city, as the United States and the Europeans, among others, have insisted. They are all gone, they say: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others.

But last month, President Bashar al-Assad held a meeting of the leaders of all the factions. He called for unity among Palestinians and, according to people at the meeting, said he would remove some of the restrictions he had placed on their political work from Damascus.

"It would be illogical to say let's have a public meeting and say our offices are closed," said Abu Ahmed Fouad as he sat behind his desk in the downtown Damascus office of the Popular Front.

For decades, Syrian leaders have played a kind of double game, assuring the world, for example, that the Palestinian offices were closed while letting them set up shop in "apartments." It was a strategy that worked well for Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father and predecessor as president, who would often rely on proxies to carry on his battles while he tried to use Syria's influence with the Palestinian groups as a bargaining chip to advance Syria's agenda.

But that same strategy is now exposing some of the weakness and indecision plaguing the government. Faced with a United Nations investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, a crisis that threatens to undermine the ruling circle, the Syrian leadership has returned to form, resorting to cold war-style rhetoric and relying almost exclusively on an appeal to the faded concept of Arab nationalism to rally regional support.

The crisis has highlighted how Mr. Assad's efforts to bring young, forward-looking technocrats into the government have largely failed, and how isolated Syria has become. And it has demonstrated, perhaps most disturbingly to many younger, reform-minded Syrians, how tone-deaf the leadership can be.

For example, after the United Nations Security Council voted Monday to demand that Syria cooperate with the Hariri investigation, many people here said they had been shocked to hear Syria's foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, suggest that saying Syrian security forces knew about the killing in advance would be like saying the United States knew about Sept. 11 in advance, or Spain about the Madrid train bombings, or Britain about the subway attacks.

Syrians seem uniformly convinced that the investigation is being used by the West to bend the Assad government to its will. But that is not translating into support for the government or for its approach to managing the investigation. Worse, people here say, the crisis has begun to change the public's perception of its leaders, shaking their confidence in the ability of the leadership not just to fight back, but to survive.

"The regime is crippled at the highest, closest, smallest circle," said a Syrian political analyst who has worked closely with the people in power here over the years, but said he had to speak anonymously for fear of retribution.

And so there is a debate within the inner circle, this analyst said. On one side are the conservatives who want to try to preserve Syria's role in the region, its use of surrogates, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, or its support for the Palestinian cause. On the other side, the analyst said, is a smaller group inside the government looking to shore up Syria's strength by taking steps to calm the critics and to improve Syria's domestic political, economic and social situation.

At the moment, the analyst said, the conservatives seem to be prevailing, adding that it is hard to know where the president stands in the debate.

When Mr. Assad first came to power five years ago, he brought in young educated Syrians, many from abroad, who were keen to usher their country into modernity, economically and politically.

Now almost all of those people are gone, and those remaining have been largely marginalized. Curiously, the conservatives have been simultaneously empowered by the Hariri crisis and, in a broader sense, undermined by it.

It is commonly heard here that the public would be willing to endure sanctions and international isolation if the government were in trouble for its stand on the Palestinian cause or for its positions on Iraq, but not over the Hariri affair. That was evidenced Tuesday when the authorities tried to organize a sit-in outside the United States Embassy. They hung flags, set up speakers and blared music. A few hundred people showed up at first, but the crowd quickly started to thin. Security agents were seen ordering young people to stay put as they tried to walk off.

Many officials here are saying they were duped by Detlev Mehlis, the German prosecutor leading the Hariri investigation. Several officials said they were shocked when he said Syria had not cooperated.

Officials here said in interviews that Mr. Mehlis never once expressed any discontent during his two days in Damascus, and that he must have been setting Syria up to fail.

"Do you want full cooperation, exactly what do you want?" said a Syrian official close to the president who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss foreign policy. "We gave what we thought was full cooperation without any objection of the Mehlis team. Not any objection. They did not record a single objection. So what is cooperation? I don't understand."

There is some sympathy for Syria's position here in Damascus, with Western diplomats acknowledging that Syria has taken some steps to meet foreign demands, such as tightening its borders to impede the flow of militants and weapons into Iraq and encouraging the Palestinians in Damascus to support the Palestinian Authority and not to sponsor militant actions in Lebanon, Gaza or the West Bank.

But even for diplomats, trying to figure out what Syria's leaders are really up to is a bit like reading tea leaves. At the conclusion of his meeting last month with the Palestinian factions, for instance, President Assad sat with all of the leaders for a picture. That the head of Hamas was seated by his side was taken by many outside Damascus as a warning and a threat that Syria was reverting to its old ways.

The International Investigation and Old Security Files
Jihad el Khazen Al-Hayat - 02/11/05//

I have decided to cooperate with the international investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. I hope that Syria cooperates as well, in implementation of the new UN Security Council resolution. Today, I have the following:

On 22 September 2004, Defense Minister Elias Murr, who was Interior minister at the time, announced that he had frustrated a plot by Salafist radicals linked to al-Qaida to destroy the Italian Embassy in Beirut, to protest Italy's participation in the war against Iraq.

Without knowing it, Elias Murr thwarted the first, or original plot to assassinate Rafik Hariri, which had it succeeded, would have done away with the country's entire future, by striking at the Beirut Central District, the symbol of Lebanon's recovery.

The Italian Embassy in Lebanon faces the Parliament building at Nejmeh Square and is next to St. George Eastern Orthodox church and the Etoile coffee shop where PM Hariri used to meet friends and journalists upon exiting Parliament. If a ton of explosives had gone off there, the destruction would have been devastating, right in the heart of the capital, and would have killed hundreds.

We now know that Lebanese security personnel arrested the members of the group, most prominently Ahmad al-Miqati and Ismail al-Khatib. The latter died in prison, it was said under torture, and Salafists rioted and attacked security facilities in Anjar. Also enraged was Brigadier General Rustom Ghazaleh, the then-head of Syrian forces in Lebanon, and contacted Brigadier General Said Eid of the Gendarmerie, to ask Murr to contain and calm the situation; he then threatened Minister Murr. There is confirmed information about the explosives, and where they were hidden. Some of the accused were released after pressure from Ghazaleh, while the rest were released in a subsequent amnesty.

If the plot failed with the Salafists, the one that succeeded was with the Ahbash; both groups are in close contact with Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agencies, and specifically Ghazaleh. The Salafists are based in Tripoli and Dinnieh, with a strong presence in Sunni towns like Majdal Anjar (in the Bekaa). The Ahbash's base is in West Beirut, with some limited presence outside this area. This is where Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan, the Commander of the Republican Guard, enters the picture. He and his brother Majed are nephews of Ibrahim Qoleilat, the head of the Murabitoun militia during the civil war; the Murabitoun were gradually absorbed by the Ahbash, especially after the Palestine Liberation Organization exited Beirut in 1982.

The Syrian security role with the Ahbash at the beginning was aimed at weakening Lebanese Sunni opposition to the Syrian presence, which is how the Ahbash were able to control one mosque after another in Sunni neighborhoods. They almost took over Dar al-Fatwa (the leading Sunni religious organization) when they nominated Nizar Halabi, the head of the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, the front for the Ahbash, for the post of mufti of the Republic. But the Salafists assassinated Halabi in a rebellion against Syrian wishes, as if all Lebanon's Sunnis had assassinated him. Despite this event, the Ahbash continued to compete against traditional Sunni institutions like Dar al-Fatwa and the Maqassed charitable association. This continued until the Syrian presence in Lebanon ended, and with it, the Ahbash's influence with Syrian and Lebanese intelligence organizations.

There are common denominators between the Salafis and the Ahbash, despite their competition, which go beyond Syrian sponsorship. Ahmad Abu Adas was mentioned in detail in the UN report by Detlev Mehlis, and was a part of both groups. Mehlis' report said that in the summer of 2004, he worked at a computer store owned by Sheikh Ahmad al-Ani, a member of the Miqati-Khatib network. The explosives of this network were in Anjar and were confiscated after the al-Hariri assassination, from a depot owned by Mohammed Mamluk, of the Murabitoun. His pictures with the group's logo were pasted on walls and demonstrations demanded the release of the "number one resistance fighter."

The most powerful part of Mehlis' report came in the telephone contacts between Ahmad Abdel-Al, Mahmoud Abdel-Al, Mustafa Hamdan, and the Presidential Palace. Perhaps we should add here that Majed Hamdan formed a security company that employed a number of Murabitoun and was responsible for security in places that included the site of PM Hariri's assassination.

I believe that the first plot took place in cooperation with the Salafists and the second with the Ahbash, while Ghazaleh and Hamdan were in contact with both groups. I don't rule out the idea that we will discover, after the investigation is completed, roles for the heads of other Lebanese and Syrian security agencies. The final charge they might face is withholding information, meaning that they didn't plan or carry out the assassination but knew about the plot and tried to mislead investigators.

We might not have seen these pieces of the puzzle if Murr hadn't been the victim of an assassination attempt for which the Salafis were blamed. There was a rumor that the international investigators wanted details about Murr's bank accounts, while Mehlis denied this. But the damage was done, and before the denial Murr had moved his rifle from one shoulder to the other, as the saying goes.

If we go back to the news conference about the Italian Embassy plot, we find that Murr spoke of the role of Lebanese and Syrian security agencies in discovering the conspiracy, with the most important role going to Italian intelligence. Murr also talked about two networks: one engaging in sabotage in Lebanon, and the second sending suicide bombers to Iraq. It appears that each group had its role: the Ahbash represented poor Sunnis in Beirut against the merchants and aristocrats of the sect, and carried out important charitable work.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim Qoleilat was the number one suspect in the 1966 assassination of al-Hayat's publisher, Kamel Mroue, a crime carried out by Tawfiq Sultani. In 1975, the Murabitoun killed a university colleague of mine, Najib Azzam, after stopping him at one of the militia's checkpoints in al-Tariq al-Jadideh. They had found out that he was a Christian, without knowing that he was a registered member of Fatah. After Najib's killing, Palestinian forces took over the area and evicted the Murabitoun, then left them alone because they were allies. Today, the return of the Murabitoun, under the cover of the Ahbash, occurs to me with the assassination of PM Hariri.

A few years ago, the Ahbash demonstrated with knives in support of Syria. The Syrians should know that with friends like the Ahbash, they don't need enemies. As for the Ahbash, he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

Also see the story about Rana Qoleilat in al-Hayat. She was the head of Madina Bank, who fled to Syria and is now in Egypt. The Daily Star says that Mehlis plans to interrogate Rana Qoleilat, an executive at Al-Madina Bank, on suspicion of having information on the funding of Hariri's assassination.

She is wanted in Lebanon on forgery and money-laundering charges and for fleeing Lebanon after posting bail on April 17. Qoleilat is said to have been arrested in Egypt and faces deportation.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he would oppose the use of Iraq for any US military strike on Syria. Reuters (Nov 1)

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in remarks published on Tuesday he would oppose the use of Iraqi territory as a launchpad for any U.S. military strike on Syria.

"I absolutely reject that Iraqi territory be used as a launchpad for any military strike against Syria or any other Arab country," Talabani told Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

"But this is my personal opinion and my capabilities are limited in confronting America's might ... I cannot impose my opinion on them," he added in an interview.


At 11/03/2005 09:28:00 AM, Blogger Joseph ALi Mohammed said...

The Regime deserves no pitty. It is always true what Christ said: "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

At 11/03/2005 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

"Another perpetrator for Hariri killing" maybe an act of god or nature. Does these dumb Baathist have an idea of the volume and credibility of evidences that are not shared with them yet. They are into big surprise.

At 11/03/2005 10:27:00 AM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

Denial, ignorance, narrow mindeness and tribal is the only way to describe the average supporter of these regimes. Where is the anger and disgust when a citizen hears that an immediate family member of the president is worth Billions of Dollars? Where is the outrage? Does anyone care? Or is it all acceptable so long as we have so-called "stability" and we can pretent to stand up to America?

At 11/03/2005 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Ghassan said...

The analogy of O.J. Simpson is not accurate. My African American friends know that O.J. did kill his ex-wife but they don’t want a black man to be punished! The Syrians were in control of every aspect of Lebanese life and no way they were not aware of the assassination plot that the evidence shows it was being planned for months! O.J. was not even living in his ex-wife’s house. The killers will pay the price sooner or later.

Here is my and I copied from a posting a comparison between the Syrian regime and the Saddam's regime!

Bashar Assad = Saddam - experience (At least Saddam had advisors representing diverse groups, although all were "Yes men" people! Experience is more important than 1.5 years in Europe. Assad has his brother, his sister and his brother-in-law as advisers!)

Maher Assad = Udai (But Udai was hoping to get the throne AFTER the death of his dad not before!)

Asef Chewkat = Al-Majed's (They defected to Jordan but later returned back and were killed within hours. But Asef has nowhere to go and eventually will get the same punishment!)

Al-Sharaa' = Tareq Aziz + arrogance + stupidity + an eye on the throne!
(At least Aziz was using logic although wrong to defend the Saddam regime).

Rest of the mafia Asad Inc. regime = Rest of the dictator Saddam regime!

I forgot, Majed Assad = Qusai but with a brain!

Minority tribe rules majority:
Syria majority Sunni --> Allawi rule
Iraq majority Shia --> Sunni rule

Stupid useless positions lead to disaster:
Saddam (pretend to have nukes)
Assad (we are innocent but we will not cooperate)

America giveth, America taketh away:
Iraq supported by the US in Iran war
Syria supported by the US to control Lebanon

When in trouble put yourself in more shit:
Saddam plays around with inspectors
Syria plays around with Melhis team

Arab hero on the outside, groveler on the inside:
Saddam tries to contact the US at the last few months
Assad changes banking rules and arrests insurgents for the US

Tough leader ready to die for his fantasy:

At 11/03/2005 01:25:00 PM, Blogger EHSANI2 said...

I think everyone can rest assured now that the Harriri mystery will be uncovered soon. Who will do so? Ghada Mourad who is the head of the Syrian Committee.

How will she do so? She called on everyone who has information on the murder to "either come personally to the headquarters of the committee or call it via phones, faxes or email on addresses to be announced as soon as possible"

My own advice?

I would send an email and would pass on going to the headquarters!

At 11/03/2005 06:19:00 PM, Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11/03/2005 06:21:00 PM, Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Oh, please, give me a break. The Vice President of the United States, a former telephone line repairman, is now a billionaire cashing in on the US military contracts around the globe. The President, Son of Bush Senior, is our very own version of the Assad family. Egypt, the darling of the Americans, is running around arresting freaking bloggers.

At 11/03/2005 07:34:00 PM, Blogger Ms Levantine said...

I wonder what the epitome of Baathist surrealism is, Sharaa's moronic statements or Landis comparing Hariri to O J Simpson. This would be hilarious if only it did not insult all those that the Syrian regime killed and persecuted over the years. Next time you are in Beirut you should pay a visit to May Chidiac and explain your unconditional defense of the Syria regime to her. I am sure she will appreciate it. But then again, you are free to post your opinions so I will not argue with them. My problem with your blog is on a more personnal level.

At 11/03/2005 08:13:00 PM, Blogger Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Ms. Levantine, aren't we the indignant little name-calling fright queen? Rather over-the-top, don't you think, telling Mr. Landis to visit Mrs. Chidiac? But you had to score a over-hyped dramatic point at any cost.

At 11/03/2005 08:43:00 PM, Blogger Gina said...

Ms Levantine,

I completly agree with you, his source maybe is also personnal, ehsani2 called it narrow mindedness. Patrick Seale shows the same behavior. Pitty, thats all I can say.

At 11/03/2005 08:58:00 PM, Blogger Gina said...


what is it good for to talk about american government here? Actually the problem is in Syria now, isnt it? You are right, we can blame western democracy, western society, crimes in the west and how bad it seems to arabs, to live there.
It is not only narrow mindedness here, no, its kind of mentally handicapped.

At 11/03/2005 09:05:00 PM, Blogger Gina said...


what is it good for to talk about american government here? Actually the problem is in Syria now, isnt it? You are right, we can blame western democracy, western society, crimes in the west and how bad it seems to arabs, to live there.
It is not only narrow mindedness here, no, its kind of mentally handicapped.

At 11/04/2005 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Yabroud said...

Will you shut up, Gina? You are a thief, and you know it.


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