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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Chirac sides with Syria on "Greater Middle East"

Does Chirac dislike Bashar? A few weeks ago a number of Lebanese Journalists speculated that France was ready to punish Syria and take the lead in a joint Franco-US initiative to pressure Syria over Lebanon. Lebanese optimism was sparked by Chirac's meeting with Bush in Paris, when Chirac's announced his support for complete Lebanese independence. The recent NATO meeting in Istanbul dispelled the notion that France is in an anti-Syrian mood. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that Bush and Chirac disagreed over economic assistance for Syria.

Overall, the summit fell far short of what was being talked about on both sides of the Atlantic four months ago. A joint "Greater Middle East" initiative also was stripped down, with the allies unable to agree even on which countries should be involved in an economic and political outreach program of the U.S. and EU. As a result, the statement announcing the initiative didn't name any countries. France had wanted Syria and Iran included, for example, but the U.S. didn't.
In other news Barak denied that he had missed an opportunity to make a Golan deal.
Barak, who addressed a conference at Netanya College, said, “Clinton’s claims that while in Sheppardstown, Syria was willing at one stage to set the new borderline 50 meters east of the Kineret (See of Galilee), are untrue [prior to 1967, Syria controlled the northeastern edge of the lake]”. According to Barak, “Every time I asked the administration if Syria adopted that position, the answer was crystal clear – it did not”. “Israeli prime ministers, including myself and my predecessor [Netanyahu], were willing to make painful concessions: To return the Golan to Syria, or almost the entire area in Netanyahu’s case, only in return for a solution that would guarantee Israel’s vital interests regarding security, advance warning stations, water and Lebanon”, Barak added.
Human Rights in Syria have deteriorated in the last four years according to the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, a group of Syrian dissidents based in London.
Human rights in Syria are deteriorating under arbitrary arrests, a crackdown on minority Kurds and systematic torture, according to a London-based rights group's scathing annual report released Sunday. In the four years of Bashar Assad's presidency, the Syrian government has "failed to take an earnest step toward the long-awaited pledge to implement reforms," said the report of the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, a group of Syrian dissidents based in London.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Were the Kurdish riots in Syria planned in Iraq?

Reports that the Kurdish riots in Syria this spring were coordinated, at least in part, by leaders in Iraq have been gathering credibility. Gary Gambill of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin writes that the Kurdish riots that began in northeastern Syria and spread throughout the country were not spontaneous. The riots in mid-March were planned as part of an effort to undermine the Assad regime amid rising tensions with the United States. "Although fueled by popular frustration in the Kurdish community," Gambill says, "the riots were a politically timed initiative to pressure the Assad regime in the face of heightened Syrian-U.S. tensions and Iraqi Kurdish political gains." The report said the Syrian Kurds were organized by Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq who had been unhappy over Assad's support for the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Kurdish effort, led by Mustafa Barazani, began around 1999 when Assad's father, Hafez, reconciled with Saddam and used Syria as a way-station for illegal weapons to Baghdad and illegal oil exports from Iraq.

Although foreign provocateurs did not directly instigate any of the rioting, the uprising was clearly encouraged by Kurds outside of Syria. Although the KDP and the PUK issued seemingly neutral calls for all sides to reject violence, both allowed thousands of demonstrators to hold anti-Syrian protests in territory under their control. In sharp contrast to the past, Kurdish communities across the globe rallied to help their Syrian brethren. In Athens, a thousand Kurds marched with candles to the Syrian embassy. In Brussels, they came with bricks and smashed the windows of Syria's embassy. Protestors in Geneva forced their way into Syria's United Nations consulate and occupied it for an hour-and-a-half. Other major demonstrations took place in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and Prague. Coming at a time when Syria was lobbying for economic assistance from the European Union (EU) and striving to fend off American sanctions, the Kurdish Diaspora's collective expression of solidarity was a public relations nightmare for Assad. The United States, for its part, condemned the Syrian crackdown. State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli called on the Syrian government to "refrain from using increasingly repressive measures to ostracize a minority that has asked for a greater acceptance and integration into Syrian life."[10] This reaction was significant, as American policymakers have long dreaded the prospect of Syria's fragmentation along ethno-sectarian lines - discouraging American words in the midst of ethnic violence in Syria would have been unthinkable a few years ago. All conceivable rationales for this response presuppose that the Bush administration does not fear the ramifications of a Kurdish rebellion in Syria - or, at any rate, is deliberately communicating this impression to the Syrians. Either way, it is clear that Assad faces the first American administration willing to threaten to the stability of Syria's Baathist regime in over two decades.
Kurdish leaders are making a big mistake if they think that sowing discord in neighboring states will reap them political rewards or increase the likelihood of their achieving an independent Kurdistan. It does seem though that the Kurds are increasingly coming to the determination that they will not be able to work out a satisfactory autonomy deal with the government that is emerging in Iraq. Thus they are turning to plan B. Seymour Hersh's article in the New Yorker this week about Israel's plan B supports Gambill's assessment. Hersh argues that the Israeli government decided about a year ago that the US was failing in Iraq and has sought to formulate a Plan B, which is based on cultivating the Kurds and helping them to establish a pro-Israeli state, so that Israel will gain some benefit from the US invasion of Iraq should the pro-democracy and pro-West experiment go south. Hersh writes,
“Israel’s immediate goal after June 30th is to build up the Kurdish commando units to balance the Shiite militias—especially those which would be hostile to the kind of order in southern Iraq that Israel would like to see,” the former senior intelligence official said. “Of course, if a fanatic Sunni Baathist militia took control—one as hostile to Israel as Saddam Hussein was—Israel would unleash the Kurds on it, too.” The Kurdish armed forces, known as the peshmerga, number an estimated seventy-five thousand troops, a total that far exceeds the known Sunni and Shiite militias. The former Israeli intelligence officer acknowledged that since late last year Israel has been training Kurdish commando units to operate in the same manner and with the same effectiveness as Israel’s most secretive commando units, the Mistaravim. The initial goal of the Israeli assistance to the Kurds, the former officer said, was to allow them to do what American commando units had been unable to do—penetrate, gather intelligence on, and then kill off the leadership of the Shiite and Sunni insurgencies in Iraq. (I was unable to learn whether any such mission had yet taken place.) “The feeling was that this was a more effective way to get at the insurgency,” the former officer said. “But the growing Kurdish-Israeli relationship began upsetting the Turks no end. Their issue is that the very same Kurdish commandos trained for Iraq could infiltrate and attack in Turkey.” The Kurdish-Israeli collaboration inevitably expanded, the Israeli said. Some Israeli operatives have crossed the border into Iran, accompanied by Kurdish commandos, to install sensors and other sensitive devices that primarily target suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. The former officer said, “Look, Israel has always supported the Kurds in a Machiavellian way—as balance against Saddam. It’s Realpolitik.” He added, “By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.” He went on, “What Israel was doing with the Kurds was not so unacceptable in the Bush Administration.” Senior German officials told me, with alarm, that their intelligence community also has evidence that Israel is using its new leverage inside Kurdistan, and within the Kurdish communities in Iran and Syria, for intelligence and operational purposes. Syrian and Lebanese officials believe that Israeli intelligence played a role in a series of violent protests in Syria in mid-March in which Syrian Kurdish dissidents and Syrian troops clashed, leaving at least thirty people dead. (There are nearly two million Kurds living in Syria, which has a population of seventeen million.) Much of the fighting took place in cities along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Kurdish-controlled Iraq. Michel Samaha, the Lebanese Minister of Information, told me that while the disturbances amounted to an uprising by the Kurds against the leadership of Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, his government had evidence that Israel was “preparing the Kurds to fight all around Iraq, in Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They’re being programmed to do commando operations.” The top German national-security official told me that he believes that the Bush Administration continually misread Iran. “The Iranians wanted to keep America tied down in Iraq, and to keep it busy there, but they didn’t want chaos,” he said. One of the senior German officials told me, “The critical question is ‘What will the behavior of Iran be if there is an independent Kurdistan with close ties to Israel?’ Iran does not want an Israeli land-based aircraft carrier”—that is, a military stronghold—“on its border.” Another senior European official said, “The Iranians would do something positive in the south of Iraq if they get something positive in return, but Washington won’t do it. The Bush Administration won’t ask the Iranians for help, and can’t ask the Syrians. Who is going to save the United States?” He added that, at the start of the American invasion of Iraq, several top European officials had told their counterparts in Iran, “You will be the winners in the region.”
The Israeli-Kurdish connection is at the center of deteriorating relations between Israel and Turkey. Zvi Bar'el has an excellent article, "Erdogan's Israeli dilemma," in Haaretz, describing how bad relations have become between Israel and Turkey over the last year. He explains how Barazani sought to convince Erdogan's government to embrace an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. His efforts were in vain. The Turkish government is not about to reverse a hundred years of anti-Kurdish policy. Instead Turkey has been rapidly building better relations with Syria and Iran so that it will be prepared to take on an independent Kurdistan. The flip side of this policy is a serious downgrading of its Israel alliance. The Kurds only hope of achieving independence in Iraq is to win the approval of Turkey. It seems that earlier this year they were trying hard to do just that - inviting in Turkish firms to help in the construction on new facilities and roads, boosting commerce and making state visits. Developing relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds have been badly set back, however, by the PKK's return to terrorism and insurgency. The only way Turks will ever consider an Iraqi Kurdistan benign or even a positive force in the region is if they are convinced that it could somehow guarantee Turkey that they would never again have a "Kurdish problem." An independent Kurdistan could have a future and possibly a powerful ally in Turkey against an irredentist Iraq only if Turks are convinced that Turkish Kurds will not try to join it. This is not going to happen though. The United States will not be able to get four square behind the Kurds, even though many Americans are sympathetic to their plight. The US commitment to making the Baghdad government stick is too greater than any sympathy for Kurdish rights. Washington will have to choose between Arabs and Kurds. It is hard to imagine how Washington can choose the Kurds. The only hope for the Kurds is if Iraq slips into chaos and the Arabs break up into emulous factions with no center to support. Then possibly Washington would be left with no option but to support Plan B. If Iraqis opt for independence, they may have 5 years at best to build their state and make regional friends. That is the time it will take Iraq to consolidate its own political center, build an army, and march north ready to fight. If the Kurds think that they will help themselves by instigating rebellions in Syria, Iran or Turkey, they are seriously misled. Their only hope is to convince as many countries as possible in the region that they can be good neighbors. By turning to Israel for safety, the Kurds are declaring that they have run out of options and friends in the region. It is a sign of desperation, which will bring them noting but grief.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Rami Makhlouf stiffs Mercedes

Rami Makhlouf is muscling in on the Mercedes concession. (See the article in June 24th's Elaph) Makhlouf, Bashar's cousin and hot-shot Syrian businessman who owns half of Syriatel and many other juicy monopolies in Syria, has managed to get the government to pass a law denying Mercedes the right to import spare parts until it makes him the exclusive agent. Mercedes must dump Omar Sanqar and his sons, who have long held the concession and whom Mercedes wants to keep. Mercedes said they would stick with the Sanqars. Rami got the law changed to show Mercedes who is boss in Syria. How can Bashar allow this to happen? Who will take reforms seriously? Who will ever want to invest in Syria if they are going to get whacked by the President's cousins?

Baradei poohpoohs Bolton's nuke scare

Syria says UN nuclear inspectors welcome It looks like those pesky "diplomats" are upsetting Baradei and the State Department with their wacky allegations. ("diplomat can only mean John Bolton, who has been riding this dead horse for months) Baradei, who is leading the investigation into the Khan nuclear ring insists that nothing points to Syria having nuclear weapons and claims the "diplomat's" evidence is fishy. I guess Baradei is tired of being bullied by ideologues, who don't care whether they are right or not. Louis Charbonneau of Reuters is getting the dust up.

"The Syrians told me they would be happy if we go and verify whatever we need to verify," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters on Saturday during a flight to Moscow for a four-day official visit. "But we haven't gotten any piece of information on why we should be concerned about Syria." Last week, diplomats told Reuters that the IAEA considered Damascus a top candidate for being the fourth customer of the nuclear black market that supplied uranium enrichment technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. But ElBaradei said no country had provided any hard evidence that would implicate Syria as a customer in the black market set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic weapons programme. "This is something I read in the paper. Nobody came to us with any information (about Syria)," ElBaradei said. The IAEA, along with governments and intelligence agencies, has been investigating the details of Khan's network so that it can be dismantled. The results of the investigation are classified. Syria, which has called for the creation of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, has denied any interest in nuclear weapons. Last month, diplomats and nuclear experts told Reuters that an experimental high-tech intelligence technique developed by the United States had detected what appear to be operating uranium-enrichment centrifuges in Syria. Diplomats said the centrifuges, which spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium for use as fuel for power plants or weapons, could only have come from Khan's network. But some U.S. officials -- as well as ElBaradei -- are skeptical about the centrifuges. "We don't have super high-tech detectors, and if somebody detected something they'd better come to us. We are the ones who can clarify fact from fiction," ElBaradei said.
See Gordon Prather's article, "Casus Belli: High-Pitched Whine." The China scoop It seems that China was trying its hand at diplomacy in Shanghai several days ago and sought to arrange a meeting between Asad and the Israeli minister, Olmert, who was visiting at the same time. Haaretz has the story. Asad packed and went home. I guess China will have to try something other than jack-in-the-box diplomacy. It's a start though.

Bashar breaks some China

The anti-Syrian squad in Washington is still trying to nail Syria on the Nuclear issue. But they are doing it in an odd way -- constant leaks, all uncorroborated. Who can have confidence in these guys? The LA Times on June 25 published an article, entitled: "Nuclear Ring May Have Aided Syria," which quotes an unnamed US intelligence source. "International investigators are examining whether Syria acquired nuclear technology and expertise through the black market network operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, according to a U.S. official and Western diplomats." But most of the Western diplomats and International Atomic Energy Agency sources said Syria was on the list of suspected customers, but "no evidence had yet been found" to suggest "that Khan visited Syria or sold technology to it." "Other Western diplomats and some U.S. officials cautioned that the information linking Syria to Khan's network was not conclusive. Even if Khan had contact with Syria, they said, there was no evidence that Damascus bought centrifuges or other technology from him." Syrian officials have dismissed accusations that the country is pursuing nuclear weapons." China It seems to have been a bad day for Bashar in China. He cut his trip short, declining to visiting Shanghai. Reuters suggested the premature return may be because China didn't want to sell Syria arms and because Olmert, the Israeli minister, had just visited Shanghai a few days earlier. Clearly, China has business to do in the Middle East and it isn't with Syria. Peking may oppose the US in Hong Hong or Taiwan, but why would it want to annoy the US or its far more important arms and business partner, Israel, by stroking Syria too much? Syria is discovering that the old days are gone. Without the Cold War and China being a first world power now, it has no reason to be interested in Syria. It's market is too small and its know-how too limited. It can make tires but not computers or airplanes. Reuters writes:

"No new agreements have been signed in the military area during this visit," she said. Syrian Ambassador to China Mhd Kheir al-Wadi characterized the visit as "excellent," but refused to detail the reasons behind the early departure. "The visit was very, very good, it was an excellent visit," Al-Wadi said. Assad's trip coincided with a visit by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was also seeking to strengthen his nation's ties with Beijing. Olmert was in Shanghai on Thursday with a group of Israeli businessmen. Syrian news reports have indicated Damascus' preference for Chinese-style economic reforms that have been characterized by the embrace of capitalism while maintaining its one-party Leninist political system. Seventy Syrian businessmen have been in Shanghai since Friday to discuss ways of developing trade and attracting industrial investments, a Syrian economic source said.
The Daily Star gave this explanation for why Syria is so eager to do business with China:
Economic and political problems are squeezing Syrian businesses. Over the last few years, the depreciation of the dollar due to Washington's expansionist fiscal policy to fund the so-called "war on terror," and the Federal Reserve's decision to keep interest rates low to induce a faster economic recovery in the US, has eaten away at profits in Syria's dollar-dominated economy. As European intermediate goods and finished products became more expensive, Syrian businesses began looking to dollar-denominated US products instead. But with Washington's announcement of a ban on US exports to Syria last month, Chinese exports to Syria - which were estimated to be worth between $320 million and $500 million in 2002 - are soon likely to become a vital lifeline for many Syrian businesses. "Dealing with Chinese companies makes sense because China is not involved in our regional conflicts. It will keep the US from pulling the rug out from under us," says Karim Khwanda, vice-president of Khwanda Group. "We need as many options as we can get. I think the real question now is how seriously the Chinese take us." Questions over just how eager Chinese companies were to do business with Syria were raised following the business delegation's earlier three-day visit to Shanghai, where most Syrian businesspeople said they felt slightly ignored by their Chinese counterparts. Whether this factored into the cancellation of Assad's visit to Shanghai scheduled on June 23 remains unknown.
Syria did announce a big tire deal though.
Increased Chinese interest in the Beijing conference could be attributed to an announcement earlier in the week of a $100-million deal between Syria's Fredstone Organization and China's state-owned MCC to establish the Middle East's largest tire factory in Syria, with a capacity of 2.2 million tires per year. Based on an agreement from 2001, the plant's production will service markets throughout the region.
Muslim Brothers coming home Several articles cover the on going talks between government figures and the Muslim Brothers, who seem keen on coming home. One MP has announced that they can live in peace if they return as individuals and not a party. "Some people who oppose the government say they are able to live undisturbed, this is one of the positive signs. ... And if (members of the Brotherhood) come back ... they will find they can live a normal life in Syria."
Mohammed Habash, an independent member of parliament who won a seat in elections more than a year ago, said the time was ripe for members of the banned movement to come home. "We sent a few signals (to the Brotherhood) because of positive democratic developments we are seeing in this country." Habash said Syrian authorities had not asked him to encourage Brotherhood members to return, and that Damascus was only ready to accept them back as individuals, not a political party. But he said it was time to put the past behind them. Syria has released hundreds of political prisoners including members of the Brotherhood since President Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, following on from a gradual policy of reconciliation started by his father Hafez.
Another thoughtful article on the Brotherhood by Samir al-Taqi appeared in the Daily Star. It gives greater historical background on the MB and some sense of who they are today. The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - A reconciliation in Damascus?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Cinton Blames Barak on Golan

Clinton blames the failure of Syria and Israel to make a deal on the Golan at Shepherdstown in January 2000 on Barak. "Barak had not been in politics long, and I thought he had gotten some very bad advice. If Barak had made real peace with Syria, it would lift his standing in Israel and across the world, and increase the chances of success with the Palestinians. If he failed, a few days of good poll numbers would vanish in the wind. As hard as I tried, I couldn't change Barak's mind," Clinton wrote. Evidently, Netanyahu also was willing to leave the Golan if he got a secret security deal with the US and a Lebanon deal. See the details at Netanyahu denies he was willing to give up all the Golan but his associates say he was.

Speaking with Army Radio, Netanyahu said that the first diplomatic move he made upon becoming Prime Minister in 1996 was to obtain a letter from then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The letter laid out the U.S. position that Israel has no obligation to withdraw totally from the Golan. The interviewer then asked if Netanyahu might have agreed at a later date, despite the Christopher letter, to quit the entire Golan. "I agreed only to make concessions in the Golan - concessions that were defined as setting the border 'kilometers' from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) - or, to be exact, 'miles.' That's what we wrote there," Netanyahu said. But Maj.-Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, former chief of Israel's Military Intelligence and the man who headed negotiations with Syria under Barak, confirmed today that as prime minister, Netanyahu agreed to withdraw from the entire Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967, lines near the Kinneret shore. Saguy told Haaretz that when he received the task of coordinating negotiations with Syria, he read all of the material on negotiations under the governments of Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu and Barak. "Anyone with eyes in his head, not to mention the Syrians, could have understood that all of the Israeli leaders were willing to leave all of the Golan Heights if satisfied in the realms of security, water, normalization, and also regarding a settlement in Lebanon," Saguy said. Saguy referred to reports of talks conducted on Netanyahu's behalf by his friend, American businessman Ronald Lauder. "By reading these documents, I learned that if I were a Syrian, I would understand from the proposal brought by Lauder that if Israel can be satisfied regarding all of the abovementioned points, it would be willing to withdraw to the June 4, 1967, lines."

National Front wants Real Power Sharing

Bashar is intent on expanding political participation away from the Ba'th. Although he is being very cautious, it is clear that he is clipping Ba'th Party wings. (See previous post) Now he seems to be opening the field toward the loyal opposition, which is heavily secular and highly educated. This is the import of the new moves of the National Progressive Front to update their charter and seek more cabinet posts. Al-Ahram reports: Radical Changes are coming to the charter of the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of nine opposition parties that works in partnership with the Baath Party. Youssef Al-Faysal, secretary-general of the Syrian Communist Party (SCP) said that there were many reasons for changing the 32 year-old charter, such as "Syria's changing political and economic agendas." The reforms aim to carve a larger niche for the NPF in the political decision-making process and permit it to assume a role in running the country, Al- Faysal said. "There is a general perception that the NPF's role is only marginal in Syrian politics; this perception should change." The structure of the political system in Syria is based on a partnership between the Baath Party and the NPF. The cabinet has eight ministers who belong to the coalition. In the People's Assembly, there are 36 NPF deputies. The SCP, for example, has representation in local municipalities and professional syndicates. NPF members see the changes as a move to add strength to the front. The NPF started in 1971 with five political parties and has expanded to include nine. In the past, the NPF was not allowed to be active within universities or the army. The ban, however, has now been lifted and many NPF parties are engaged in political activism. The changes also touched upon the internal structure of the NPF itself. Al-Faysal said that the Front should hold a national convention in which ministers of economy and foreign affairs submit reports on their assessment of Syria's economic and foreign policy achievements. This, explained Al-Faysal, would make officials accountable to the NPF. NPF changes, according to one observer, would certainly have an impact within Syrian public space. The nine parties, according to the proposed draft, will have the right to publish newspapers, something prohibited in the past. The most striking change, however, relates to Syria's relationship with Israel. One paragraph in the charter which for the past three decades defined the Front's stand as against any form of relationship with Israel has been replaced with a paragraph putting forward a new policy with regards to Syria-Israel relations -- one that firmly believes in a just and comprehensive peace. "It was necessary to change this in light of the developments in the region and also of Syria's new policy orientation towards Israel," said Al-Faysal. The document will be discussed during the forthcoming national meeting of the NPF that will be attended by President Bashar Al-Assad himself, a final draft to be agreed upon then. See: Al-Ahram Weekly, "Change in Syria" These possitive headlines were dampened by the hunger strike annonced by a prominent Syrian human rights activist imprisoned in April. There is mounting presser on Bashar to release the country's political prissoners.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Syria, Iraq and the US

What does Syria want in Iraq? Some analysts have argued that Syria is and will be an implacable foe of a pro-West Iraq and is doing everything in its power to undermine the new government and to help the insurgents. Others argue that Syria wants to work with the US and new government if the US reverses its anti-Syrian policy and brings Damascus in as a partner in its efforts to stabilize the country and build trade. Joseph Bahout has a good article in the Daily Star arguing this last point, entitled,Syria seeks an edge in Iraq, and there is much to lose - June 8 Syria opposed the US invasion of Iraq for obvious reasons. The anti-Ba'thist and Arab nationalist ideology of the US was a direct threat to the Syrian regime. No doubt, Syria was happy to see the Iraq resistance put a stop to the American juggernaut. With 5,000 Americans killed or wounded by the Iraqi resistance, early US dreams of remaking the Middle East through regime-change have evaporated. That allows a new relationship to be hammered out between Damascus and Washington. Bashar is making every effort to do just this and is courting the Americans not only with honeyed words but also with serious body language. I suspect the US State Department is engaged in negotiations with Damascus - perhaps even contemplating an important re-think of its Syria policy and negative view of Bashar. Last month US Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs William Burns said that "the American administration is keen on the continuation of developing relations with Syria to get the correct ties in the future. He stressed that imposing sanctions on Syria did not mean to cut communication between the two countries. If Bush is not contemplating reviving US-Syrian relations, he should be. Syria has many reasons to court Baghdad and the US: The economy Syria needs to build trade with Iraq. The American invasion of Iraq hurt Syria's economy badly. According to IMF statistics, GNP in Syria during 2003 dropped significantly because of the cut off of trade with Iraq. GNP slumped to a meager 2.5% in 2003, and trade declined 22% according to Tishrin's announced customs figures to 4.76 billion dollars in 2003 from 6.07 billion in 2002. Much of the decline comes from the shutting off of the oil. See the article by La The IMF predicts that GNP will spring back to 3.6% growth in 2004 and 4% in 2005. But these percentages are still well below the numbers Syria needs to make a serious dent in its 25% unemployment rate. Syria can expect the Iraqis to open the pipeline from Kirkuk to Banyas once relations between the two countries stabilize and real sovereignty returns to Baghdad. Better relations between Syria and Washington will speed this process along. Iraq desperately needs another outlet for its oil exports, which have been attacked relentlessly by the Iraqi resistance. Of course, the Syrian pipeline would also come under attack, so any trade between Syria and Iraq will depend largely on the security situation in Iraq. This means that Syria needs security in Iraq as much as everyone else, giving the US a strong incentive to talk seriously with Syria. The only thing that separates them is ideology. Ba`thism Bashar is hardly a Ba`thi. Almost every statement he has uttered in the last months suggests he does not see the world through a Ba`thi lense. He promises Syria will leave Lebanon as soon as it gets back the Golan from Israel. He has reassured the world that he recognizes Lebanon's right to sovereignty and only holds it as a bargaining chip. His clear renunciation of any Syrian claims on Lebanon is a dramatic shift away from the "qutri" thinking that has been the cornerstone of Ba`thism. Syria's constitution, replicating Ba`th Party ideology, states that Syria is only the "qutr" or region of the Arab nation and not a legitimate nation on its own. Bashar is rapidly jettisoning such rhetoric and thinking. Nothing reflects this more than today's announcement that Syria is planning on erasing a clause from its national convention which forbids recognition of Israel. The convention, which replicates the "three no's" of the Khartoum conference explicitly forbids recognition, negotiations and peace with Israel. The changed convention will call for the implementation of United Nations and Security Council resolutions in order to reach a just peace in the Middle East. Syria has aligned itself with the UN and international law rather than 1970s Arabism. Bashar's steady attack on the Ba`th Party took another step forward as well. With regard to internal policy, the new convention will allow students who are not members of the Ba’th party to participate in organized university events. What is more, it will also take into account the fall of the Soviet Union and remove references to the socialist bloc of nations. Moshe Ma`oz, a reliable Israeli Syrianist, claims that these changes are largely due to American pressure. Who can deny that they have been sped along by US sanctions, but they also accord with Bashar's stated plan to move away from Ba`thi influence, open up the economy, and make peace. Bashar is much closer in ideological outlook and instinct to the US and the West, than the US seems prepared to admit. If the US wants a stable and pro-American Iraq, it will have to move away from its hostility to rulers like Bashar and recognize that the Syria is also interested in stability and liberalization in the region. Of course, Syria wants to see US troops leave Iraq, but so do most Iraqis... and most Americans. Syria, however, does not want instability in Iraq and will accept American troops there so long as they don't plan to stay indefinitely and don't threaten Syria. To compliment its recognition of Israel, Syria has also recognized OSLO and made up with the Palestinian Authority. The Cultural Minister of the PA Yehya Yakhlof said Tuesday that Syria and the Palestinians have resolved their differences. He said, "The Syrian leadership assured to me that any Palestinian Authority leader and (any other) official is welcome in Damascus and that the page of dissension has been turned." Syria has laid the groundwork for peace. Israelis who claim Bashar is insincere will have to scratch around for some new argument. Perhaps they will insist on seeing a Swedish form of democracy in Damascus before they can open discussions? The Old Guard Another common argument used to explain why Bashar will never really make peace with Israel or the West is that he is weak and a hostage to the "old guard." But the old guard is being replaced and Bashar is coming into his own. Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas retired two weeks ago. Yesterday it was announced that Vice President Abd el Halim Khaddam will resign his post in the coming months. Khaddam, 72, accompanied President Hafez Assad for many years and helped President Bashar Assad take power and learn the complicated art of Arab diplomacy. He has been an important advocate of improving relations with Turkey. Faruq al-Shara`a is the last of the triumvirate usually associated with the old guard. Perhaps he is also getting ready to retire? Many have speculated that Buthaina Shaaban is ready to replace him. Bashar has become much more sure of himself on the world stage. He has developed a lively and appealing persona in his frequent TV interviews and seems to have developed a real taste for the media. What a welcome change from his father's sphinx-like silence. More important, what a change from Bashar's own timidity during his first years as president. He is also turning into a world traveler as he gains experience and self assurance. In the last several weeks he has been to Turkey, Spain and Kuwait. He is now headed to Asia to speek to the Chinese and sign a number of trade and cultural agreements. Those who argue that Syria must be isolated and brought to its knees misreading Bashar. Syria's president is not only in control, but he is becoming a stronger leader all the time. His strength is good for the West and good for Israel, if only they will see it. This is an opportunity for both. As for Iraq, Syria has no reason to undermine the new government or democratic political process that we all hope will take root there. To ensure Iraq's stability and economic growth, which will be crucial to democracy, the US needs to recognize that Bashar is changing Syria and is a force for good in his country and the region.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

For Chirac, Lebanon and Syrian politics are personal

Would one of our readers explain how Bashar spurned Chirac? (go to the comments button at the bottom of this post.) What is the relationship between Chirac and Bashar? In today's Daily Star, Zeina Abu Rizk argues that Chirac does not like Bashar and is angry at him for spurning France's early effort's to take the young Syrian president under its wing. Abu Risk writes of last weeks meeting between Bush and Chirac:

These meetings have also revealed Chirac's rather negative perception of his Syrian counterpart, the source said. This tense relation between the two men goes back to the time when Assad was elected Syrian president. At that time, Chirac tried to play the role of the young president's godfather, trying to orient him in his political choices, but the Syrian leader refused to be tutored. Ever since, their relations have become more or less tense. In general, there seems to be a French-US understanding on two main points with respect to Lebanon: First, the necessity for a full implementation of the Taif Accord in text and in spirit. In this context, the two sides agree that the time has come for a Syrian pullout from Lebanon. And second, a commitment to the constitutional mechanism and norms in Lebanon which should eventually lead to the election of a new president next fall. However, for the time being, the US administration has no executive measures to propose in order to put these beliefs into effect itself, the lack of tangible means to implement these beliefs is an indication that the Lebanese issue is hardly a top US priority. Indeed, whoever is elected US president next November is unlikely to change this policy. As for France, it might not feel that now is the time to pressure the US about a Syrian pullout or other issues concerning Lebanon. However, Paris is unlikely to close this course, at least not as long as Chirac is in power. In the meantime, Syria is free to act in Lebanon, particularly in regard to the election of a Lebanese president.
Can it be true, as Abu Rizk implies, that Chirac is more eager than Bush to push for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon at this time? Yes, France has a long and close relationship with Lebanon, which is more important than its Syria connection. All the same, France was not one of the three EU countries that insisted on stalling the EU trade agreement with Syria. France has been the most aggressive EU country in opposing US policy in the Middle East, especially when it comes to throwing around its weight, imposing sanctions, and seeming to act in Israel's interests. France led the way in saving Iran from the direct wrath of the US last year when the neoconservative were seeking to mobilize Europe to sanction Iran over the development of Nuclear facilities. Anyway, I am curious to know if any of our kind readers can flesh out the Franco-Syrian relationship further than Abu Rizk has. Without France in its corner, Syria will face many difficulties in the future.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Road to Democracy, via Damascus

Michael Young published an important article in the New York Times yesterday, entitled: "The Road to Democracy, via Damascus." He suggests ways that the US and EU could nudge Syria toward withdrawing from Lebanon. I reproduce the entire article here for readers, and comment on it below. The Road to Democracy, via Damascus By MICHAEL YOUNG BEIRUT - Last month President Bush bowed to Congressional pressure and imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria. Although the president went beyond what Congress demanded - banning most exports to Syria, prohibiting Syrian commercial flights to America and freezing assets of Syrians with known ties to terrorism - he missed an opportunity to show that the United States is serious about democracy and self-governance in the Middle East. The sanctions may be helpful, and the United States has long called for an end to the Syrian military presence of Lebanon - just last week President Bush said that "the people of Lebanon should be free to determine their own future, without foreign interference or domination." But the Bush administration, working with the European Union, should be doing more to encourage Syria's withdrawal. Because Syria is the patron of Lebanon's postwar political elite, this idea provokes official antipathy in Beirut. Recently, President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon declared that Syrian forces would remain in the country until a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Given the deadlock in regional talks, this invited an open-ended stay. Since May 2000, when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon (removing a Syrian justification for its troop deployments), the Lebanese authorities have defended the Syrian presence as necessary, legal and temporary. For decades, Syria has been the unavoidable force in Lebanese politics. Even after 1991, when Arabs and Israelis were negotiating peace, American and European envoys dealt with Lebanon in Damascus. Things have changed in recent years. There is growing boldness by Lebanese opposition figures who are now openly demanding a new relationship with Syria leading to a pullout. The Syrian president, Bashar Assad, has made reform his mantra, though he has not discussed a full pullout from Lebanon except in the most indefinite of terms. For the Lebanese, however, Syrian reform must include reviewing a Syrian military presence in their country that is seldom discussed in Damascus and has never been put to a referendum in Beirut. American sanctions have heightened pressures on Mr. Assad. Yet by themselves they will not improve Syrian-Lebanese relations. In fact, trying to force a Syrian pullout may be dangerous. It could lead to domestic tension in Lebanon that Syria would highlight, and even encourage, to reaffirm its indispensability to civil peace. What the United States and the European Union should do is put Lebanese sovereignty at the top of their agenda — even if they have few means of enforcement. And Syria and Lebanon should themselves recast their relationship and set a sensible deadline for a Syrian withdrawal; it need not be immediate, but neither should it be relegated to a distant future. This would help marginalize those who, wrongly, seek a rude divorce between Beirut and Damascus. What would the advantages be to Syria and Lebanon? It would end a debilitating relationship that benefits neither — so that both can, together, endure the impact of future regional realignments. But it would also acknowledge that Syria's real challenges come not from Lebanon or even from Israel (the Syrian-Israeli border is among the quietest in the region), but from Iraq, where American forces can continue to intimidate Syria. How can the international community help? First, by calling, after years of indifference, for the peaceful carrying out of United Nations and other resolutions demanding foreign troop withdrawals from Lebanon. This would include a renewed commitment to the 1989 Taif accord that ended the civil war and outlined a Syrian redeployment to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon within two years. While the wording of the accord is open to interpretation, its spirit is not: the Syrians are asked to move their troops with the implicit promise of a total withdrawal. Second, the United States and Europe should insert themselves into the Syrian-Lebanese relationship by advising the two states to redefine their rapport and set a framework for a Syrian departure. Both power blocs say they favor democratic self-determination; they can prove it in Lebanon. This might represent interference in the bilateral affairs of foreign states — but sovereignty should not be an excuse to allow the domination of one country by another. Third, the United States and the European Union should protect and enhance Lebanese liberal institutions — timely and free elections, and respect for the constitution, judicial independence, civic groups and opposition parties. A priority is guaranteeing that Lebanon's presidential election this year and parliamentary elections next year take place and are free and fair. After all, it is Lebanese democracy itself, not Syria's presence, that makes Lebanon stable. Only true democracy will ensure a Syrian pullout goes smoothly and that a durable Syrian-Lebanese bond — one between equals — is built afterward. President Bush has often spoken of the importance of bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East. His focus has been on Iraq, but Lebanon provides as good an opportunity to advance such aims. And while the international community should play a role, it is the Lebanese and the Syrians who must take the lead in redefining their relationship. Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Let's hope Washington can refine its approach to Lebanon along the lines Young recommends. The background and motivation of the spokespeople for the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act in the US congress did not inspire confidence. With pro-Likud members of congress and General Aoun as the frontmen for America's free-Lebanon policy, it is not clear how Washington will "help marginalize those who, wrongly, seek a rude divorce between Beirut and Damascus," as Young puts it. Because of the genesis of the Act, and its clear connection to the neo-conservative groups who were simultaneously calling for regime-change in Damascus, who could help conclude that "rudeness" what it was all about. Most every politician in the region shuddered at its implications and treated it with deep skepticism. All Arab heads of state condemned it without waffling or honeying their words. Young wants to take the policy away from the hit-men. To do this he turns to Washington. But it is the Lebanese themselves who will have to guide Washington and push Damascus toward the greater subtlety and politeness that will ultimately bring legitimacy and success to the effort. Young writes that "there is growing boldness by Lebanese opposition figures who are now openly demanding a new relationship with Syria leading to a pullout." I hope he will expand on who these people are and how they can build bridges to all the communities of Lebanon to formulate a full throated call for Syrian withdrawal. The only way the Lebanese will push Syria out is if they are unified and demand it; otherwise, the Damascus game of divide-and-rule will be too easy, and Lebanon will remain Syria's playground for years to come. In a recent interview Bashar accused the Lebanese of blaming all their troubles on Syria. He quite honestly admitted that Syria does have interests in Lebanon and does throw its weight about during election season, but he added, "Don't throw it all on me." There is no doubt that Syria pushes its weight around - but there is also no doubt that Lebanon has sucked Syria in, due to its internal divisions. To a large extent, it is that sucking motion that keeps Syria so happily ensconced in Lebanon. Young explains that the Lebanese who want Syria out may never be able to gain much power in the country. Why? "Because Syria is the patron of Lebanon's postwar political elite, this idea [asking for Syria to leave] provokes official antipathy in Beirut. Recently, President Émile Lahoud of Lebanon declared that Syrian forces would remain in the country until a comprehensive Middle East settlement." President Lahoud is today’s "bad boy" in Lebanese politics because he has been maneuvering to change the constitution to allow himself a second term. It is a terrible idea and would symbolize the total corruption of the Lebanese system. Everyone knows it will only happen if Syria throws its weight behind the notion. There are many other bad boys in Lebanese politics. One doesn't even want to start going down the list because it becomes too long and depressing. But the real problem is not the bad boys; it is the "good boys." By this I mean true Lebanese patriots who are liberal and in Michael Young's camp. I think of my good friend Paul Salem: smart, Harvard educated, enterprising and from a wonderful family that has long served Lebanon in politics and education. He was brave enough (some say foolish) to run for parliament a few years back (and lost). Many friends remarked with a smile, "How pro-Syrian Paul has become of a sudden." It didn't help him in the end. Paul is too clean and perhaps too much of an idealist. But the point is he tried to be pro-Syria, perhaps just long enough to get in the door so he could do good for his country … but he tried.... My final gripe with Young's argument is the issue of the Golan. He dismisses it on the pretext that it will never be solved. But the legitimacy of borders and national sovereignty of Middle East countries is THE POINT. As Thomas Friedman correctly stated in today’s op-ed: "Taking the High Ground," respecting legitimate national borders in the region is the only real solution. It is the only way to gain the moral high ground. Just as Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon gave it the moral high ground in fighting Hizbullah, so will withdrawing from Gaza (and the WB) give it the high ground in fighting Hamas and extremism. Now all the pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon can say with a straight face that "Syrian forces should remain in the country until a comprehensive Middle East settlement." What if they couldn’t say that? What if they were denied this moral principle? What if Syria were denied the moral high ground of occupation? What would it tell the Lebanese? What would it tell its own people? Today Syrians and many Lebanese actually believe Syria has a right to wage its cold war with Israel on Lebanese soil. Bashar has said straight out that Syria will leave when the Golan issue is solved. Why not force him to live up to his words? Certainly, it is unfair for the Lebanese to have to wait on Israel and Syria, as they have done for the last 30 years. Moreover, the free-Lebanon movement in Washington derives its clout from pro-Israeli lobbyists, who would drop their Lebanese friends like cold fish were they to take up the free-Golan issue as well. All the same, it would give Michael Young and those who call for ending occupation the the moral high ground in the Arab world as well as in Washington. They could stand on principle and not just half-principle - if not in Washington then perhaps in Damascus. After all Michael Young claims that The road to Democracy is Via Damascus. Washington will not get it for him alone. Maryam Shaqra, a Washington media analyst at the Embassy of Syria replies

Contrary to the implicaiton of the article by Michael Young (“Get Syria out of Lebanon," Views, June 18), Israel did not withdraw from all Lebanese territories. And since Israeli forces can reach Damascus in less than half an hour, the Syrian presence in Lebanon is a security necessity for both Lebanon and Syria. The Syrian presence is mainly in al-Bekka valley. More important, it is by a mutual agreement between both the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Syrian troops are there by invitation not invasion, and the remaining troops are there temporarily. Reaching a peace agreement between Syria and Lebanon on one side and Israel on the other side will eliminate the need for such a military presence. I am glad that Young referred to implementing the United Nations' resolutions. Indeed, this is a Syrian demand. Maryam Shaqra, Washington media analyst, Embassy of Syria

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Lebanon and the Syrian Economy

According to the Daily Star, The Lebanese Presidential vote is a Lebanese matter: Assad: "By Nayla Assaf

Syrian President Bashar Assad said over the weekend that the presidential elections here, set for November, were a 'purely Lebanese issue' and that Syria would not have the final say on extending the term of the current president, Emile Lahoud, through constitutional amendment. Assad also stated that the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon was 'temporary,' linking it to the Middle East peace process." Once there was peace in the region, Syrian troops would quit Lebanon, he suggested. Assad's comments came shortly after statements by US President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac were made public which called for Lebanon's sovereignty and independence. Assad told Al-Qabas that the Taif Accord (1989 National Accord Pact), which stipulates the redeployment of Syrian troops to the Bekaa Valley, had been implemented through a series of recent redeployments. Assad also stressed the sovereignty, independence and unity of Lebanon. "It is true that we do influence the Lebanese situation and anyone who does not admit that is far off from reality. But throwing everything on us is wrong," he added. According to Metn MP Pierre Gemayel, a member of the pro-sovereignty Qornet Shehwan Christian opposition group, Assad's statements may mean that President Emile Lahoud's term will not be extended. "If like he (Assad) says, Syria will not interfere in the presidential elections, then I believe that we will not witness a renewal of the presidential term. The Lebanese people do not want the constitution to be violated or amended." Since it is unconstitutional for a president to run twice or have the presidential term extended, any such action would require that the constitution be amended, as it was previously done in 1995 when the term of then-President Elias Hrawi was extended for three years.
Al-Jazeera added:
"The (pullout) issue consists of stages. The first relates to the Taif agreement which has been implemented. The other is subject to a Lebanese-Syrian agreement, regional developments ... and the issue of peace," in the Middle East, Assad told Al-Qabas daily in an interview. He said Syrian troops were mainly in the Bekaa Valley along with the Lebanese Army to ward off any Israeli attack, which could put Damascus at risk. "We are no longer present in the Lebanese interior. There are no Syrian troops inside the Lebanese cities," Assad said. "The presence of Syrian troops is temporary and not at all permanent ... We talk about a strong and independent Lebanon. We recognize its independence ... and we always concentrate on Lebanese sovereignty," he said. Syria has an estimated 20,000 troops stationed in Lebanon. Damascus is also closely linked to the Lebanese group Hezbollah based in southern Lebanon. The United States and several European countries have been pressing Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon and the US Congress has passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, which calls on Syria to end what it terms the occupation of Lebanon.
These reasuring statements about Syria's limited goals in Lebanon should go some way to dispell the notion of many that Damascus is secretly determined to carrying out some Greater Syria fantasy. Perhaps, most important, it will convince Syrians themselves that Lebanon is not an illigitimate country that must return to the bossom of its Syrian motherland. Kurdish Media reported that Aziz Daud, a Kurdish leader called for Syria to pass a law legalizing the formation of political parties
DAMASCUS, June 6 (AFP) - 14h50 - A Kurdish leader, Aziz Daud, called Sunday for the authorities to draw up a law authorising political parties in Syria, following a warning that the Kurds’ unofficial movements would no longer be tolerated. "The decision to repressively ban the Kurdish movements will provide neither security nor calm," he said. "The solution would be to pass a law" on the creation of political parties, said Daud, who is secretary general of the Kurdish Progressive Democratic Party, in a statement. "The Kurdish political parties are patriotic movements which have been in Syria ever since independence (in 1946). They will not halt their political activities," insisted Daud. "Their presence in Syria is like that of the National Progressive Front parties and banning them amounts to a discrimination against the Kurdish people," he said, in a reference to the country’s ruling seven-party coalition. A human rights activist, lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, said Thursday the Syrian authorities had warned Kurdish leaders that their unofficial movements would no longer be tolerated, amid a crackdown on the minority.
Syrian Economy The debate in Syria over whether to cut employees at the state industries and in ministries is heating up, as the following article suggests. The Daily Star reported on Monday, June 07, 2004, that Syria's textile sector loses $32 million dollars
DAMASCUS: Syria's state-run textile industry has lost $32 million in recent years, the ruling party's Al-Baath newspaper reported Sunday, slamming the figure as "catastrophic." "The state textile industry has registered losses of 1.622 billion Syrian pounds ($32 million) while some companies made a profit of only 78 million Syrian pounds," the daily said. The textile industry is traditionally considered a pillar of the Syrian economy, but has been hamstrung by "high production and energy costs, as well as high levels of waste," Al-Baath said. It added that some members of the industry "feared introducing reforms that could enhance its performance." Syria has in recent years implemented reforms to develop its private sector, but the government insists that state industries will not be privatized. - AFP
Asad is priming the economic pump in Syria by increasing state employees' salaries by %20 again. He did this once before in 2002. My brother-in-law, who works for the Ministry of Agriculture was very pleased at the time, as were most Syrians. In 2002, the salary increase accounted for around 1.25% of growth out of a total GDP growth of 3.6% that year. This form of Keynesian economics may beef up economic growth, which, at a projected 3%+ expansion this year will just nose out expected population growth. 3% is considered anemic for Syria, which needs to grow much faster to really improve living standards and provide jobs for the many young people pouring into the job market as well as for those already languishing in the ranks of the unemployed, which is officially calculated to be 25%. This is why so many officials are reluctant to cut overstaffed state factories and ministries. About 2m Syrians receive state salaries - (1.2m employees, 400,000 military, and 400,000 retirees). That is around one out of every 4 adults. Unfortunately, this is not out of line with other MENA countries. According to the IMF, something like 30 to 35 percent of GDP in the region is coming from central government expenditures. Something like 30 or 35 percent of wages comes from the public sector. What's more, large layoffs would undercut the government's pump priming. But without layoffs, many argue, inflation will rear its ugly head and eventually wipe out tonic of increased salaries. Syria needs strong medicine. Some of these problems are described in a recent report by The Oxford Business Group: Damascus, June 7th . Income Tax Here is a factoid which reveals just how large Syria's economic problems are. Modern governments depend on income taxes to supply the bulk of revenues. Not Syria. Mohammad al-Atrash, Min. of Finance, provided the following statistics to explain how inadequate and lopsided taxation is in Syria. The Public sector contributes 13% of GDP. The Private sector contributes 87% of GDP and employs 60% of the workforce but In taxes, the Public Sector paid 92 bil SYP The Private sector paid only 10 bil in SYP - or 1/9th of income tax is paid by the private sector which generates 87% of GDP! The only people who pay income tax in Syria are government employees, because they have it taken directly from their salaries. There is no effective tax collection system for the private sector. Instead, Syria imposes high tariffs. Import and export duties, which impede trade, have been funding a disproportionate amount of gov. revenue. But tariffs will be dramatically reduced once Syria begins to comply with the new trade agreements signed with the EEC and eventually the WTO. As this revenue stream to the government dries up, new taxes will have to be implimented. Most important will be enforcement of the income tax. This is an extremely difficult undertaking. It probably surpasses the bureaucratic capabilities of the government. How can one administer an income tax in a country where no one has a bank account, and where every one still pays their bills by walking over to the electric company or gas company to pay it in cash? Not even the mail is trusted to convey business. What's more, enforcement of an income tax - even if it were possible, would surely provoke widespread public resistance. It can come as little surprise that the Syrian government has been dragging its feet. The quick fix will be to impose a VAT tax on consumption like Europe. The key to all fiscal reforms must be an efficient and reliable banking system. This is where Syria is light-years behind its neighbors, especially Lebanon. Hopefully the entrance onto the Syrian stage of Lebanese banks with their many years of experience will guide this revolution smoothly. The impact of new capital markets and mortgage possibilities are already having an impact. Apartment prices have been skyrocketing in Damascus this year. Now is the time to buy. A third bank just opened its doors in Syria two days ago. What Syria needs is stability and time now. Bashar seems to have a taste for diplomacy. His trips to Spain and Kuwait this week show that he knows how to smooth the waters. Hopefully he will have the courage and authority to gore a few sacred Syrian cows as well.

Friday, June 04, 2004

New Voices From Syria

New and interesting intellectual ventures are popping up in Syria all the time - a product of the increasingly liberal climate under Asad. They allow for open and heated debate on topics that have long been taboo. Here is an article by Ammar Abdulhamid, entitled, "Cradle of Contradictions," which speaks about some of the new projects being started, especially and his own, Tharwa Project. (Here is a bio of Abdulhamid, which appeared in the Washington Post.) This appeared in Project Syndicate

Syria's various political power centers have embarked on a desperate search for a vision to promote change yet allow the existing order to survive. Because Syria's rulers have neither the ability nor the know-how to produce such a vision, civil society has been granted some leeway for action. Clearly, this expansion of civil society's operating arena may even turn into open opposition to Syria's rulers. The point is to allow for some debate to take place in the hope of producing the sorely needed vision of change. This will give the outside world the impression that serious change is taking place and that the regime should be given the time to see it through. Crackdowns, detentions, and illegal trials thus exist hand in hand with a growing tolerance for creative initiatives. Over twenty NGOs have been formed in the last few months. Many are charities and often include on their advisory boards one or two members with clear government connections (the daughter of a minister or an army general, or, in a couple of notable instances, the President's wife). Even so, this development is still significant by Syrian standards, as independent initiatives are traditionally frowned upon. Of real significance here is the press service, All4Syria (, created by the Syrian engineer Ayman Abdul Nour. The service contains an electronic newsletter that includes Syria-related reports and articles gathered from a variety of sources, often including comments by opposition figures at home and abroad. In its way, All4Syria has provided an indirect conduit for dialogue between government and opposition, which may not have taken place otherwise. Although All4Syria's Internet site was recently blocked for unspecified reasons, the newsletter continues to be circulated and Mr. Abdul Nour moves in his usual circles unmolested. I have been involved with the launch of another initiative, the Tharwa Project (, which I have long envisioned as one way for the Arab region to address its problems with religious and ethnic minorities. Although regional in scope and with a colorful international board of advisors, the Tharwa Project (Tharwa means wealth in Arabic) is based in Damascus and will be run from there. The launch of the Tharwa Project one month ago inadvertently coincided with Kurdish riots that rocked northern Syria. This, together with the prominence of the advisory board (which includes well-known Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, French expert on political Islam Gilles Kepel, and Flynt Leverett, a Brookings Institution Fellow) and the sensitivity of minority rights in general, combined to give the Project national, regional, and international notice. So far, Syria's authorities have not reacted to the Tharwa Project. It's probably still too early in the game for that. But the Project seems to represent the type of activity that can help produce visions for change. Some in the Syrian government could be aware of this. Nevertheless, fourteen civil society activists who attempted to organize a special meeting to address the realities of the Kurdish issue in Syria recently received various sentences on charges of working to undermine national unity. The authorities clearly wish to control the extent of the thaw in Syria's political culture. But even as such crackdowns continue, more private independent initiatives are bubbling to the surface. For my colleagues and me, this is the time for hard and continuous work to expand the space of popular participation in the country and region. We can deliver no judgment at this stage as to where things might be heading. Everything and anything seems possible. Still, it is tempting to think that Syria is witnessing a new beginning, and the end of an era whose sins we all bear. Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian poet, novelist, and commentator. He is also coordinator of the Tharwa Project, a regional program that addresses minority issues in the Middle East. Copyright: Project Syndicate, April 2004.
My own favorite site is," which has both an English and Arabic section. In the Arabic section,The pulpit of Nabil Fayad, is the place to be. Nabil Fayad is fascinating. A Sunni pharmacist, he has translated Cook and Crone's, Hagarism, and Cook's, Muhammad, into Arabic, as well as a number of works by German scholars. He is determined to explore the influences of Judaism and Christianity on the Islamic tradition and rails against the blinkered anti-intellectualism of the "Asharites" who teach at the Sharia' college in Damascus and keep the door of Ijtihad bolted. He has been beaten up by fundamentalist thugs, as one can imagine. But he keeps at it. He talks about the Alawi, Ismaili and Christian communities in Syria with admiration and sensitivity, but is unflinching in his attack on small mindedness wherever he finds it. He is no friend of orthodoxy but has a deep knowledge of the Abrahamic traditions. It is Fayad's learning, intellectual courage, and wise humanity that will ultimately spark the deepest sort of cultural change in the region. A passage from Fayad's piece entitled, "Cultural Maronitism" reads:
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th c., the Maronites carried the banners of modernization for the region through the Arab nationalism project, to face the Turkish occupation; Now that nationalist project has expired and outlived its usefulness, however the dangers of dragging the region to the abyss still stand. Despite the overwhelming presence of fundamentalist currents, the liberal current is in its best shape today. Hence, thanks to unorthodox communications media, it seems that the Maronites are once more required before anyone to carry the banner of a project of enlightenment, only not a Pan-Arab one this time for that is sure to fail. Rather, a project that is limited to Lebanon and Syria first and foremost. After that? Well, we can discuss that later. (The translation has been stolen from Tony Badran's June 6 Post)
I thank Suleiman Ward, an Ismaili friend, for bringing these sites to my attention and for his intelligent observations about Syria. It is worth noting that the favorite link to an American intellectual on all these sites is to Daniel Pipes. Al-Tharwa features his Middle East Quarterly, but all use him as a springboard for discussion.

Syria Clamps down on Kurds


Syria has told leaders of unofficial Kurdish parties that the state will no longer tolerate their activities. Military intelligence officials summoned three leaders to tell them the news on Wednesday, according to a statement by a human rights activist. If they do not cease, they were told they would be treated as if they were members of other "banned" parties. Syria's single-party rulers have freed political prisoners but still harshly repress any pro-democracy moves. Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said Kurdish party leaders Fuad Aliko, Aziz Daoud and Saleh Kado had been summoned by the secret police, but the warning applied to all 14 Kurdish parties. Correspondents say the latest move is being seen as a major setback by Kurdish groups, as relations with the state appeared to be on the mend again. Kurds have long complained they lack basic rights. Mr. Aliko said his Yekiti party would continue activity regardless. "If they want to arrest us, let them arrest us," he said in remarks quoted by Reuters.
It is hard to know how this clamp down will effect Bashar's promise to naturalize 30,000 of the estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds in Syria. The Kurdish parties have been acting as the stalking horse for the larger civil society movement in Syria. Bashar may have hesitated to crack down on the Kurdish parties earlier in an attempt to keep the festering Kurdish question separate from the larger civil rights movement in Syria. Clearly this is another sign that Bashar will not allow political liberalization in tandum with economic liberalization. Citizenship laws in Syria are a nightmare and badly in need of reform. They are completely patriarchal. My son, who is half Syrian through his mother, cannot become Syrian under any circumstances, whether born in Syria or not. His nephew, whose father is Moroccan and mother Syrian and was born in Damascus, is also denied citizenship. The father being Arab does not help. Switzerland had similar laws until about 20 years ago! Even registering my marriage in Syria turned into a Kafkaesque impossibility. I was willing to convert to Islam out of respect for my in-laws and not to make my wife a murtada or apostate in the eyes of Muslim society. But to register conversion in Syria, the mukhabarat demanded proof of the religion from which I was converting. They needed a baptism certificate. (This, I discovered, is to know whether I am Jewish and a potential enemy of the state.) But, being an atheist and never baptized, I didn't have baptismal papers, alas. Ultimately, I would have had to convert to Christianity in order to then convert to Islam. Oh dear. I became spiritually confused. I had to abandon the attempt after considerable effort. This is an inkling of the nightmare that the 200,000 stateless Kurds live in. Many are great grand children of Kurds who fled into Syria from Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, when Atatürk was putting down the Sa'id rebellion and the French were welcoming. In Syria, it is necessary to have a ‘hawiyya” or I.D. in order to take a bus, stay in a hotel, get a government job, or go to secondary school or University. Kurds who don’t have I.D.s are often condemned to a life of penury and suspicion. Their only option is to start their own businesses or stay on the farm. Some History on Kurds in Syria I add the following minutes of a 1998 discussion panel on "Kurds in Syria" held at The Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) KURDISH CONFLICT RESOLUTION FORUM: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Syria Panel - General Discussion/Questions and Answer Period WKI Conflict Resolution Forum July 29, 1998 JON RANDAL: Aren't the Kurds without citizenship in Syria descendants of people who came from Turkey after Sheik Said's rebellion? Second, does the policy to create an "Arab belt" still exist? I thought it had been abandoned at some point. Also, could somebody address the fact that so many of the PKK in northern Iraq, at least when I visited three or four years ago, are young Syrian Kurds encouraged by Damascus to fight and die in great numbers? OMAR SHEIKHMOUS: Well, the 120,000 Syrian Kurds that lost their citizenship were not really descendants of the Sheik Said rebellion. The government that came to power after the coup in 1961 that separated Syrian again from Egypt and the Arab Republic wanted to show its zealous Arab Nationalist profile by going hard on minorities in Syria. The 1961 decree was taken by the former government, the first Ba'ath government, not the present one. They very randomly denied people, most of whom were suspected of being politically active Kurds. These people were affected by the decree. I was a student even in Britain at that time. I was included in the decree as well. Some people had never even been to territories that belonged to Turkey. But they did very randomly include a large number of people based on ultimate identities or lack of ultimate identities and declared these to be refugees from Turkey and the Sheik Said rebellion and consequently took away their citizenship from them. The question of support for the PKK by Syria true. The Syrian intelligence organizations encouraged a large number of young Kurds from Syria. Actually, there were three categories of Kurds that joined the PKK. Some youngsters in the universities and secondary school or high schools, patriotic Kurdish nationalist reasons, did join the PKK, but only in small number. Others were specifically encouraged by the Syrians security organs. They were allowed to skip doing military service in Syria if they did the service with the PKK. As for the Arab belt, the policy of Arab resettlement in Kurdish was abandoned in 1978 by the government of Syria. Kurds were rarely deported from this ten kilometer belt along the borders between Syria and Turkey all along the border. Rather, the government settled Arabs into this ten kilometer belt in areas that were more fertile agriculturally. They dug artesian wells for them. They gave them support. They even armed them. These were mainly people from Raqqa area displaced from their land because of the Assad Dam and the waters that cover their villages and lands. Of course, the government had a policy of Arabizing that area, but the Kurdish villages were not destroyed. Arab villages were placed next to them and there was very clear discrimination against the Kurds. The Syrian's even instituted land reform policies directed against Kurdish landlords. They never gave land to Kurdish persons, only to Arab peasants settled in those areas. MAHMOOD OSMAN: The Syrian Kurdish question is very important and delicate. From what I have heard, and information is very scarce and only comes out in pieces. I personally, and many other Iraqi Kurds have a lot of relations with Syrian Kurds, their parties and with the Syrian government. One has to be careful to distinguish between the internal policies of Syria towards the Kurds and the external policies focused on the Kurdish question in general. As for internal policies, the Syrian constitution maintains no mention of Kurds. There is no existence for the Kurds. No allowances are made for schools, language, anything. Everything is done in the name of the Arabic Republic, Arabic people. Everything is Arabic in Syria. But practices of oppression against the Kurds were bad before the Alawites came to power. Before the Alawites, the Sunnis, in the name of the Ba'ath party, and even before, during Nasserite period, were very chauvinistic. They treated Kurds very badly. Even talking in Kurdish on the street could result in detention. You couldn't give children Kurdish names. Since the Alawites came to power, one has to say practical treatment of Kurds is better because the Alawites themselves are a minority. They seized power in a coup from the Sunnis and need other minority support like the Shurkas, the Kurds, the Armenians, Druzes and others. And so that's why the practical treatment of the Kurds, the daily treatment of the Kurds is better. They are not so much persecuted. They are not so much captured or oppressed. But the constitution remains to deprive them of cultural and political identity. Nothing has changed officially. Language is officially outlawed. The second point about Syria's external Kurdish policies. The Syrian government has been very cleverly dealing with the issue, much more clever than Iraq or these other governments we know. They have always exported their Kurdish question over the past 20 years, even to Iraqi Kurdistan. The government of Syria allows Iraqi Kurds in Damascus and helps the Iraqi Kurdish parties, KDP, PUK, all the parties actually. They always encourage Syrian Kurds to support the Iraqi Kurdish parties against the regime of Saddam Hussein. They supported the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq very cleverly, directing attention to Saddam Hussein so that problems in Syria will be forgotten or seem less critical. Now, they have directed their Kurds, in the past years against Turkey through the PKK and its supporters. Again, cleverly, they direct attention towards helping PKK struggle against Turkey. Many Kurds in general are against Turkey because it's government is anti-Kurdish. Anyway, despite being deprived of their rights, the Kurds of Syria have not taken up an armed struggle against the government. Because they don't have an armed struggle, the Syrian government hasn't taken extreme measures against Kurds as has been the case in Iraq and Turkey. If they had risen in arms, God knows what would happen to them. One has to put it in that context. Now, the final point that I want to make is that Syria had a very negative position on Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991. When we made elections in '92 and we had the Kurdish entity which stayed for two years, immediately Syrian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers got together to plot how to destroy this entity. And they met five times, in Ankara, in Teheran, Damascus, and Istanbul. Only after the Kurds began fighting with themselves have the ministers stopped meeting. So, on the issue of the Kurdish entity, their position was just like Iran and Turkey and the others. HAZHIR TEMOURIAN: Is it proper to speak of Syrian Kurdistan? Is there a region in the country where there is an identifiable majority Kurdish population? OMAR SHEIKHMOUS: The border between Syria and Turkey was established in 1921. They took the Orient Express Line as the border without any consideration of geographic, ethnic, or natural boundaries. And that's why you find three enclaves of Kurds in Syria. One is in the Kurdish mountains north of Aleppo and Kobanyi and the Deir ez Zor. The cessation of Alexandretta to Turkey created geographically equal form and shape that's extended into the territories of Turkey on the Derik area along the Iraqi and Turkish border. It's really because of these drawing of lines and maps and so on and so forth you have three enclaves that are extensions of Kurdish territories into Syria from Turkey and Iraq. So they are not geographically continuous or connected with each other. But these are majority Kurdish areas. NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe most Kurdish political parties have been penetrated by one or the other government in one form or another. Whether the penetration is deep and makes the ultimate decision, we don't know. But I'm sure there is penetration. Not just within the PKK, but also with other Kurdish political parties in Iraq and Iran. KENDAL NEZAN: This is just a piece of information. I read a recent UNHCR report on refugees which states that there are 200,000 Syrian Kurds deprived of their citizenship. That is an official estimate of the UNHCR, which has sent a mission to Syria. The report also talks about refugee camps of Iraqi Kurds in Syria. About 800 people in such camps are prevented by the Syrian government from going abroad. BAKHTIAR AMIN: The United Nations General Assembly has adopted several resolutions regarding nationality and citizenship. I believe it is in the best interest of the Kurds to internationalize and publicly raise the question of the citizenship now that it falls under the mandate of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees. We should contact the United Nations High Commission of Refugees and encourage them to resolve this issue. OMAR SHEIKHMOUS: Anyone interested in the situation of Kurds in Syria who have lost their citizenship in Syria can obtain a report by Human Rights Watch issued in 1997. It is a detailed study based on field research in Syria for more than three years. I would recommend that you look at that. The last two points -- the Syrians are very refined in their methods in intimidating all sorts of opposition. They are not vulgar like the Iraqis and the Iranians. And they have managed and succeeded, unfortunately, in splitting all of the opposition forces in Syria and they infiltrate into them. And then, as far as the Syrians are concerned, again, as long as you play this cat and mouse game in a very refined way, and as long as the opposition does not take a very serious form, they are tolerated by the authorities. But once it reaches the level of seriousness, they are very harshly suppressed like the Muslim Brotherhood and other groupings in Syria. Syrian Government attitude to Kurds of al-Jazira area in 1948 When the French left Syria in 1946, the Syrian government did not grant many Kurds of the region passports because they had been born in Turkey. This gave the Syrian government an easy means to control them. When an American diplomat asked Fuad Bey al-Halabi, the Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, in 1948 to explain why he was not worried about the Kurdish community situated on Syria's northeast boarder with Turkey, the director replied:
The Kurdish tribes were in reality akin to feudal institutions. The tribal chieftains owned all the land and can control their ‘serfs.’ In turn the Syrian government can control the Kurdish leaders. Practically without exception the principal Kurdish leaders are under death sentence in Turkey and were they to show signs of asserting too much independence of action or to disregard the wishes of the Syrian Government in any important matter they could be conveniently disposed of by arranging to have them fall into Turkish hands.
This quote comes from: US National Archives, James H. Keeley (Damascus) to Sec. of State (29 December 1948) "Comments of Fuad Bey al-Halabi, Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, Regarding Tribal Control Policy and Certain Special Aspects of the Kurdish Tribal Problem," 890D.00\12-2948. A good report on the stateless Kurds in Syria can be found here Also, for thoughtful commentarty on the Kurds, see the Damasccus based writer, Ammar Abdulhamid, and his article: Syria and the Kurds - cool heads must prevail of March 25, 2004 on the recent troubles. The Daily Star reports that during Asad's visit to Spain, he stated that Damascus was "prepared to contribute to all international efforts to eliminate factors of unrest" in Iraq. Syria would take part in wiping out "tension, in stabilizing Iraq and in rebuilding it, and in improving the situation of the Iraqi people." Asad took a cool attitude toward the new Iraqi government:
Assad insisted it was not for Damascus to judge the merits of Sunni tribal leader Ghazi al-Yawar, the newly named president, or Iyad Allawi, Iraq's new prime minister, who will assume power on June 30 when the US-led coalition returns sovereignty to Iraq prior to general elections to be held by early 2005.
Both Asad and the Spanish King agreed that no progress on Israeli-Syrian negotiations could take place before elections in the US.

Two Views: Is Syria Supporting Iraqi Resistance?

I have received two emails: one on the subject of Syria's role in Iraq; the other on the "wedding party" bombing. The first is from Robert Lindsey, an independent journalist. His longer article on the Iraqi Resistance is available in two parts: one and two. I am copying the part on Syria packaged for me by Robert Lindsey, who writes: I did the research for a piece on Jihadunspun called "An Insiders Look at the Iraqi Resistance". The article has been taken down but you can still find it on Google. My piece was praised by Ahmed Hashim, one of the US' top experts on the Iraqi rebels. That does not make me correct, but I have done my homework. Re: your piece on Iraqi weapons going to Syria, I must object to some of these stringent denials. The following is from the most recent iteration of my work-in-progress on the Iraqi resistance (58 pages so far). I will send you the entire document if you wish to look it over. Here is the section on Syria: FOREIGN ASSISTANCE Syria: Although US propaganda has made much of the Syrian connection to the Iraqi insurgency, there does appear to be some truth there. Various Iraqi guerrilla groups have claimed that they get assistance, in one way or another, from Syria. A Muhammad's Army cadre claimed in Summer 2003 that they get money from Syria. Whether the cadre meant the Syrian state or non-state actors in Syria is not known. The Martyr Khattab Brigade (the armed wing of a larger group called Mujahedin of the Victorious Sect) of foreign fighters claimed in Summer 2003 (at the time headquartered in Fallujah) to have a training camp in Syria. A unnamed cell in Baghdad claimed in November 2003 that Syrian intelligence operates in Iraq, but was unclear on their exact role. Another unnamed group in Baghdad said in Fall 2003 that they got weapons from Syria via cross-border smuggling. They did not specify whether the weapons came from the state or non-state actors, only that they came across the border. Apparently, fighters and weapons are still able to cross various borders, including the Syrian border, into Iraq to help the insurgency. For a long time, in my opinion, the Syrians were not only doing little to stop the cross-border traffic in fighters and money into Iraq, most of which was being run by local Bedouin tribesmen whose territory spans Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but they were possibly even helping these Bedouins run the traffic. More recently, as of about August 2003 or so, the official support from the Syrian regime seems to have been dramatically reduced or even ended, but the Syrian hands-off attitude seems to me to be little-changed. The official Syrian security presence at the border has been beefed up and makes some cursory efforts at stopping traffic, but reports indicate that they are easily bribed into looking the other way. The Syrian state does not seem to be actively involved in the cross-traffic anymore, but they do not appear to be doing much to stop it either. There seems to be a "look the other way" attitude in place instead. Syrian intelligence appears to be in Iraq in large numbers, but no one can figure out what they are up to there. Fighters, weapons and money come from Syria, but the available evidence to me suggests that it is unknown non-Syrian state actors (possibly the local Bedouin tribes and the insurgent groups themselves), not Syrian state actors, who are running the weapons and men across. In 1-04, reports of unknown reliability indicated that much of Syria's northeast border area with Iraq had become something of an open-air arms market, with the Syrian state once again simply displaying a see-no-evil mindset. The arms traffic was supposedly going across the Ninewa Province border with few difficulties. In addition guerrillas, pro-Coalition Kurdish forces in northern Iraq such as the PUK were amongst the customers (in fact, they were supposedly the largest customers). As of 2-04, guerillas in Baghdad continued to report significant quantities of weaponry being smuggled over the Syrian border and into Baghdad. There have been numerous reports of Syrian fighters fighting in Iraq long after the fall of Baghdad. They seem to be especially notable around the Fallujah-Amiriyah-Ramadi region and over by the Qaim-Husaybah border region. Guerillas in the Qaim area reported in late 2003 that there were a significant number of Syrians fighting in the insurgency there. In December 2003, a Syrian woman was arrested in Basra with bomb parts as part of a conspiracy to bomb the port there. Most recently, an AP reporter encountered a force of hardline Syrian jihadis in the Jolan District of Fallujah after the US withdrawal. They were extremely hardline Sunni Islamists reminiscent of the most hardline Syrian Muslim Brotherhood elements. In late 2003, guerillas reported that Syrian students in Baghdad seemed to have suspiciously large amounts of cash on them, and that a number of these students, along with other foreign students similarly awash with suspicious cash, were supporting the insurgency financially. No one seemed to know where the Syrian students' cash came from, or that of the other foreign students, for that matter. Contrary to your assertion, I believe ~200 Syrians have been arrested so far on charges of insurgency in Iraq. Clearly, Syrians and other foreign fighters are fighting in Iraq. I estimate the size of this group as no more than 3-5% of the total insurgency. Clearly, men and weapons come over the Jordanian, Syrian, Kuwaiti, Saudi and Iranian borders into Iraq. At the moment, there is little to implicate the Syrian state other than that they do not seem to be doing a lot to stop the traffic. I would argue, why should they? It is really the US problem. Do we attack Mexico for the illegals and drugs coming across that border? Policing the Iraq-Syria border for unwanted traffic is the responsibility of the US. **** When I asked Robert if there was proof of Syrian government involvement, he added informally: Well clearly they were in on it before and during the war; that is obvious. What happened after the fall of Baghdad? Well, admittedly most of the info I could get was out of Israeli and US intel (it's full of disinfo and but also full of a lot of factual stuff - they're as often right as wrong - but I can kind of sort it out often). From that, and from just scuttlebutt in general, I got that the running of foreign fighters was taken over or handed over to the local Bedouin tribes in the region. The scuttlebutt was that though the Bedouins were doing the dirty, the Syrian gov was giving them a helping hand. Even Israeli intel was claiming that as of August or so, it looks like the US came down real hard on the Syrians about this, and the Syrians really cleaned up their act. My personal opinion is that official government help kinda dried up or went underground around then. There is still some weird stuff going on - why do Syrian students in Baghdad have so much cash, etc.? You're asking for proof? Is there any proof of any of this? Nope! When do you ever get "proof" of this stuff? At the moment, I think the Syrian government role is limited to looking the other way at the border, and there may be some open-air arms markets at the border - I am not sure about that one. Supposedly, most of the foreign fighters now come in through Jordan and Kuwait these days. I don't feel there is much evidence for active assistance since August 2003 or so. My personal opinion is that hardly any of the governments in that region want the US Army in Iraq breathing down their neck and implicitly threatening them. Do you want to talk about OTHER governments in the region? Actually, after August 2003 you could make a worse case for the Jordanian government's involvement than the Syrians. And since September 2003, I do believe that the Iranian government has been giving $$$ to the Sunni resistance. They also funded all the Shia factions, including Sadr. But at the moment, Sadr seems out of favor. On the other hand, there are some very hardline factions inside the Iranian state (Revolutionary Guards, Al Quds Army, etc.) who in my personal opinion are indeed helping Sadr in various ways. Important to note the Iranian state is not monolithic. Landis here: To place the post war months in context. In April 2003, the Feith group had drawn up contingency plans for an invasion of Syria. Bush shelved it because he had enough on his plate. All the same, Syria was doubtlessly very scared. Under-Secretary of State Bolton had already tried to add Syria to the axis of evil and was spearheading the drive for regime change in Damascus. I am sure more than one faction in Syria was arguing that the only way to forestall US inspired regime-change was to stoke the Iraqi resistance. That has not been Bashar's modus operandi though. He has sought to deny America any excuse for interference, by shushing Hizballah, avoiding material assistance to the Palestinians, offering the US intelligence on al-Qaida, and repeatedly asking for US help with the Iraqi border. What Bashar has wanted is to get the US border commanders actively and openly working with Syrian officers on border management in order to diffuse the neoconservative bombs, restart "constructive engagement", and make friends with US defense department officials. The US has refused to play this game, save at the lowest level so that it can insist that Syria is a terrorist state. There were constant unsubstantiated accusations by DoD officials and intelligence "sources" that Syria was hiding top Ba`thists, concealing Iraq's chemical weapons, sending loads of night-goggles over the line, etc. in order to stop constructive engagement. Powel’s attempts to start dialog and rekindle engagement were slapped down by DoD at every turn. Undoubtedly, a number of pressure groups wanted to make sure that the economic sanctions required by the Syrian Accountability Act were imposed and that no rear-guard action by softies on Syria was successful. In the midst of the inter-departmental battle a lot of muck has been stirred up and it is hard to know whom to believe on intelligence. I have no means to criticize either of these two reports save to say that so much remains conjecture and caution about sources should be the rule in such a heated environment. As for the next report, it would be stronger if it took up the topic of the video-tape of the wedding that was reported on widely. The use of invective about "scum bags" and the like suggests.... Well, he's fighting a propaganda war as much as anything else. I guess the urge to squeeze in extra spin value is irresistable. But where do it stop? The Second note is from LtCol Bill Mullen, USMC, which was forwarded to me by Ray Close, ex-CIA. Subject: "Wedding Party" Details forwarded 06/01/04 Just reviewed a classified brief on the supposed wedding - no way it was. Here are some unclass details I can provide (brief had lots of pictures to back up the details): Weddings are traditionally held on Thursdays in Iraq to take advantage of Friday as a day of rest - raid took place on Tuesday night. - Only permanent dwelling at the site held large stocks of food, bedding, medical supplies (lots of these - was the wedding going to be a cage match of some sort or were the caterers just bad cooks?), ammunition and weapons, as well as an apparent document forging set up. Meat was still frozen solid -not prepared for a wedding feast and there were no stocks of dishes, plates, etc. - Contrary to media reports, no "Nuptial Tent" was found and a 1 KM area around the site was searched - any further away than that would be just too far for the catering staff to walk carrying all those huge platters of food - against union rules. - No evidence of any means of support for the house (like sheep farming which is most common in that area). All evidence pointed to a smuggler way station - fit perfectly the description of several others found in the past. - "Wedding guests" (deceased of course) were almost all men of military age, only a couple of women, no elders at all and only one child(wounded) noted. All dressed as city dwellers, not Bedouins who would hold a wedding at such a location. All of the deceased were sterilized, as in none had any form of ID on them at all. Only ID's found were in a nice neat stack inside the house - and then quite a few less of those than there were people at the site. - Weapons were varied and included RPG's (they really suck when you fire them up in the air for celebration), there were also military binoculars (when they separate the men and women they have to look at each other with bino's I guess), and IED making material (party favors?). - Lots of clothing prepackaged in pants and shirt sets (guerranimals for guerrillas). - There were also no gifts, no decorations, no food set out or left over, and the good bit of money recovered was all in the pockets of the "guests" (maybe they were just cheap guests). I strongly suspect that after their Foreign Fighter way station got whacked, they tried to set it up to look like what happened in Afghanistan when a wedding was actually hit due to celebratory firing being taken for ground fire by orbiting aircraft. I also would not put it past the scum bags to sweep a local village for appropriately aged "guests" to kill and display for the TV cameras. Our BDA assessment was made by people on the site just after the schwacking, and they took their time to count and exploit the site. This is just speculation on my part. Bottom line assessment: Good hit - no wedding. These were foreign fighters that had just crossed into Iraq and got an early trip to paradise and the martyrdom hall of fame. Thought it was important to get this word out as much as possible as you won't see any of this on CNN. Take care, LtCol Bill Mullen, USMC Executive Assistant J-3, Deputy Director for Regional Operations 2D921, The Pentagon

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Response to "Lebanon Occupation"

(updated June 7, 2004) I received this critique of my "Is Syria Occupying Lebanon" post from a knowledgeable anonymous writer. I respond to it at the bottom as does Tony Badran. Anyone who is new to "Syria Comment" and is reading down from the top may want to start from the original post and work their way backward. Tony Badran has also written an overall critique of my views on his own site, Accross the Bay. Anonymous writes Dr. Landis, I was reading the exchange between you and Tony; it was well balanced and the argumentation was great. That was until I got to your original piece "Is Syria Occupying Lebanon?" Respectfully I take issue with some of its contents. The major Lebanese spokesman for the bill in Congress was General Aoun, who represented the Maronite community in Lebanon before he was expelled from the country by the Syrians (with US support) in 1991 at the time of the Gulf war. Although I like your assessment of "spokesman" (since he was only a mouthpiece during the whole process) you cannot say that he represented the Maronite community during that era (even though he recently made remarks to Assafir regarding federalism and the cultural diversity of Lebanon that should be recognized institutionally both themes are popular in Maronite circles). In fact during that period (late 80's) the Maronite community was polarized between the Lebanese Forces Militia and Aoun's ill-fated government. And since he advocated the centrist Lebanese mentality of the national pact which a lot Muslims subscribed to he can hardly be qualified as the figurehead of the Maronites in Lebanon. In fact a lot of Muslims still saw him in a positive light before he pushed for SALSA. This point is particularly problematic for your subsequent analogy. Aoun is not a symbol for Maronite supremacy in fact he was an active agent in its demise and would fit better under the Lebanese nationalist school of thought which you did not even consider. In fact you amalgamated the Christian nationalist camp with the Lebanese nationalist camp when you mentioned the "Auberge des minorities" to contrast Christian education with Hizballah's education. The refuge of minorities theory was first consolidated and articulated by Michel Chiha which was an active supporter of the constitutional bloc (Khoury, Henry Pharaon etc.) which cannot be considered as a symbol of Christian dominion. That whole school of thought was centrist (cf. with the national bloc and its staunch Christian dogma), it attracted Muslim membership and collaborated with Muslim and Arab nationalist leaders and was in opposition to the Maronite political establishment. This also ties into your comment about how Christians need to come to terms with their Muslim countrymen. Even theories and principles that were considered centrist and nationalist and moderate (such as the refuge for minorities) are deemed to be partisan, extremist, unacceptable and Christian now. You made those theories equivalent to hizballah's absolutism. "This plan was a tragedy in 1982 and is a farce today. That is why the Lebanese, save for a few hotheads, have all spoken out against the Syrian Accountability Act." Come on, do you really think that is why they have spoken out against it? Does it make sense for these same leaders (the ones representing the opposition) to speak out during the world Maronite congress held in the USA and keep their mouth shut in Lebanon. The resolutions of the congress stipulates full military withdrawal and a halt for political intervention in Lebanese affairs (i.e. it mirrors SALSA). Are you also not aware of the maneuvering by the Lebanese judiciary and the prosecutor general who conjure up charges as soon as opposition figures speak out against Syria or its interventions? The list is long from Geagea, to Aoun, to Chamoun to Amine Gemayel all have been publicly threatened through inquires, special investigations and allegations immediately after outbursts against Syria. "Christians must come to terms with their Muslim countrymen, like it or not." Christians have come to terms with their Muslim countrymen by accommodating all of their requests. All points of contention generated by the dualism of Lebanese society such as identity, foreign relations, education, etc. have been dictated by Lebanese Muslims and wholeheartedly accepted by the Christians. And as you showcased for us above even centrist ideas that are inclusive, tolerant and liberal are deemed as "Christian" and therefore negative. So basically you are either an Arab that advocates Israel's destruction, opposes the west and supports forms of terrorism or you are an "isolationist" "Christian". Is that what you are saying? But let me put it in another way. What can the Christians do to come to terms with their Muslim countrymen? "Christians teaching that Lebanon is an Auberge des minorites, created and protected by Christians (I won't even mention Phoenicians)?" I am not sure where you are getting your information from but education in "private" "Christian" schools is stipulated by the ministry of education directly. There is no mention of Lebanese particularism, there is little mention of Phoenicia and no talk of a non Arab culture and every history book starts with the year 1517. The curriculum mirrors that of Syrian schools, only with a dash of religious diversity, the only type of diversity allowed under Arab nationalism (and this ties into your chpeal about Maronite president and Maronite members of parliament; what you are basically saying is as long as they are Christian they represent the Christian community). But are you seriously comparing Hizballah's jihadist education to the "Auberge des minorities" as advocated by some Lebanese nationalists? One is liberal, inclusive, and progressive while the other is .... Well it is Hizballah's. As you or Tony mentioned it is not only Maronites that are such minorities but we can include the Shiites, the orthodox Christians, the Druze, so that appellation is appropriate (coincidentally all these groups asked for autonomy at one point). But here is what I really had a problem with: your contention that Syria is protecting the interests of the Christian community in Lebanon by preserving the Maronite presidency and members of parliament etc. Since you refer to Haifa's exercise routine on LBC I have to assume that you are talking about Christian's political, cultural, and civil rights versus their religious rights (since religious diversity is supposedly protected under the rubric of Arab nationalism). In other words what needs protection against the Muslim numerical supremacy is a way of life. How is the religious affiliation of the president or members of parliament relevant when the way of life they are protecting is the Muslim Arab one? Christian populist leaders have unanimously maintained that what they defend is not their religion but their culture so it would not matter if all government positions were held by Roman Catholic Saints, as long as they are installed by Syria and as long as they are implementing its projects they do not fulfill the aspirations of the Christian community. So what Syria is doing is palliating the expectation of the community by fulfilling a technicality but they get around that problem by installing people that are culturally and politically Muslim. Jubran Tueni said something very close to that in an editorial a couple of years back when he accused Emille Lahoud of not being a leader for his Maronite community. (Posted by Anonymous to Syria Comment at 6/3/2004 11:17:25 AM) Landis replies to Anonymous: Dear Anonymous, Thank you for elaborating on the various levels and subtlety of Lebanese politics - both Muslim and Christian. It is helpful and underlines some of the weakness of my attempt to generalize about Christian-Muslim attitudes. The old "Politics of the Notables," is still alive in Lebanon, with all of its elitist but liberalesque style of politics. Fouad Ajami has written lyrically about his nostalgia and admiration for that class of notables who could sort out the kaleidoscope of Lebanon's competing regional and confessional demands without descending into the rigid certitudes of ideology or religion. As you point out, the Asaads (who never really left it) and even Amal have reentered the notable game. Threatened by Hizballah's popularity and ability to mobilize the masses among the Shi'a, Amal leaders are making deals with Christian and Sunni leaders as they did prior to the civil war. Even Hizballah is becoming adept at accommodationist politics according to Adam Shatz's fine review article: "In Search of Hezbollah". This gives hope for Lebanon's future, and may suggest, as you argue, that Syria is the only real roadblock to a happy, democratic, and united Lebanon. I don't believe it though. The day of the "Politics of Notables" is over and mass politics has arrived. This does not mean that one shouldn't learn from the old notable style that had liberal aspects to it; but Politics of the Notables won't work in the old style anymore. It used to be enough to have a liberal few who could manage the affairs of the uneducated many. In fact,the notables were not really liberal in a modern sense. Rather, like the Ottoman elite before them, they had learned to accept the parameters of the confessional system that was imposed on them (the National Pact) and abide by its rules, which limited their demands. However it was liberal at the top and illiberal at the bottom. The exploitation of the peasantry, the enforcers (Qabadayat), and the elitist attitudes which characterized politics of the notables is no longer tenable. What is more, the entire system depended on a Sultan to be the ultimate enforcer. The Lebanese system survived for 30 years after the French left, but that was "institutional afterglow." It almost fell apart in 1958 due to the spread of Nasserism. Many have argued that it was the Eisenhower doctrine, US troops, and money to rig elections that propped it up for another few decades, not to mention smart politicking by Shihab, who controled the army and acted like a Sultan (See Walid Khalidi's book on the coming of the Civil War). I would argue that the politics of the notables has, in a sense, been resurrected today in Lebanon by the Syrians. Bashar, the Syrian president, is the new Sultan, who acts as final arbiter of notable politics. He polices the various factions in their constant competition for an ever greater share of the spoils. Ideology has been drained out of politics on the national level by Syria because it stopped one side from winning and kept one faction from becoming too powerful. All the new ideological parties of the 1970s lost their way because they couldn't win, became "corrupt" after years of pointless fighting (pointless because they couldn't win) and had to revert to the old rules again - Ta'if with a Syrian sultan. Syria has stopped ideological politics from running its course; it is almost as if Great Britain had stopped the American civil war in mid-stream, keeping the Yankee's from pounding southern nationalism to death - as if Sherman's march through the south had never happened. The notion of Lebanon as an "auberge des minorites" would have been clobbered had no one intervened. Lebanon suffers from civil war interruptus. This is good for the Christians because it gives them a second chance to spread the word and try to convert the rest of the country to the Auberge idea. Anonymous believes that if the sultan leaves, politics-of-the-notables will find a new and happy equilibrium; and winner-take-all ideological politics will not rear its ugly head again - or if it does, the chastened politicians will contain it because most now believe in "auberge des minorites." To accept this thesis, you must convince me that Hizballah (and allies) won't do a Sherman's march on the north? Or, if Asad is thrown out by a coup or American induced regime-change, that Syria -- dominated by the Muslim Brothers or a similarly ideological driven party -- would not do a Sherman's march itself? I take your point that Michel Chiha's "auberge" idea is liberal, doesn't exclude the Muslim communities, isn't on its face Christian, and is thus the correct basis on which a happy liberal Lebanon can be built. That doesn't mean it will be realized. Liberals have a lot of missionary work to do in the region and in Lebanon before this dream will have a real chance of success. This brings us to Abu Uthman's comments, which no one has responded to. He writes: Peace There has been a country called Syria for centuries, before the Ottoman Rule, the Umayyad Rule was from Syria, Damascus. To the Arabs it is known as Ash-Sham or Ardul Sham. Lebanon was just another example of the British and the French leaving behind them badly carved out countries in the Middle East that have caused so many problems during the 20th century. The US fails to realise the problems it can cause with its continuous interference. Syria had a lot more of a presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended yet they pulled them back mainly into the Bekaa valley. Since the end of the war I have been to Lebanon 3 times, and the opinion of the people is not against Syria and its presence in Lebanon, the majority of the people would prefer the Syrian workers that cross the border everyday and take the wealth back with them to Syria not to enter for the jobless amongst the Lebanese are much. Yet the Arab nationalists and the supporters of Hizbullah which are not a small number would not want to see Syria leave too soon, because it will create a fear of being vulnerable and at the mercy of Israel. And what right has the US to speak against occupation? Abu Uthman adds, it was governed by Yazid who was appointed by Umar bin Khattab then by his brother Muawiyya (who started the Ummayad Dynasty) this occurred before the Ottoman Empire. And one more thing that seems to be ignored and that is you speak on behalf of a minority in Lebanon (maronites) and not the majority who are Muslims. And it is mainly the Christians who have the identity as Lebanese and not Arabs whilst the Muslims carry the identity of Arab. Abu Uthman gives us his perspective as a (Syrian Muslim, I presume). He doesn't begin his history in 1517 with the Ottoman conquest of the Syrian lands or with the Mutasarifiyya of Lebanon (established by the Ottomans due to French pressure following the bloody civil war in Lebanon - 1840-1860 - which gave the Maronites and Christians a consitutional role in a special administration over much of what is today Lebanon. It is viewed by many as the precurser to modern Lebanon at its distinct Lebanese administration and character) or with the Canaanites and Byzantine Empire (Which Antoun Saade and his Syrian Nationalist Party harkened back to). Abu Uthman begins with the Muslim futuhat and Mu'awiyya as most Muslims do and reminds us of the still important identity differences between "Lebanese" and "Arab," which he argues runs along confessional lines. (See the last section of my "Islamic Education in Syria" paper, entitled, "Alawis, Druze, and Ismailis," to see how this identity difference takes place among Christians and Muslims in Syria). Abu Uthman's views are common among Lebanese Muslims as well. A Sunni Lebanese friend of mine, who now teaches Islamic history at a prestigious American university, explained to me a few years back that he identifies with Sham and the Umayyad past and feels more a part of that then the mutasarafiyya, etc. He recounted to me how the administrator of the Hariri Foundation, which gives grants to Lebanese graduate students to study abroad, had told the (Sunni) students that Hariri wanted to promote a new generation of Lebanese historians because every time there was a conference on Lebanese history or some occasion of state that required a speech by a Lebanese historian, they had to call up Kamal Salibi or some other Christian historian. They didn't have Sunni historians of Lebanese history. When I asked my friend how a Sunni would teach Lebanese history - glorifying its distinct past - if he refused to extol the virtues of the Christians in building its identity, fighting for the mutasarifiyyaa, etc. He looked at me blankly and didn't have an answer. The lesson I draw from this anecdote is that Muslim Lebanese have still not constructed a special Lebanese history that they identify with. They still, like Abu Uthman, view the construction of Lebanon as a nefarious foreign act. They don't accept the traditional Christian, or, as Abu Uthman states, "Lebanese" version of this history. Abu Uthman suggests that Lebanon should be part of Syria. I don't think most Muslim Lebanese believe this. They have a distinct national identity (negatively defined) in that they know they don't belong to any of their neighbors (Abu Uthman seems to imply this by saying that they don't want Syria to leave "yet"), but I am not sure they have yet constructed a "positive" Lebanese identity that Christians can buy into. I stick to my Salibi "House of Many Mansions" argument made in my previous post. Perhaps it is too soon to get rid of the Sultan or za'im al-zu'ama'? Tony Badran replies: June 4, 2004 You're right about the dichotomy between Lebanese and non-lebanese Muslims. Lebanese Muslims don't want to be Syrian or Saudi or what have you. They have this Arabism which is Sunni through and through, which also has elements of this history, but it's differently phrased usually. I did like your note on how the Lebanese Muslims cannot describe their singularity except through the Maronite narrative. I thought that was very interesting and important. But I aslo believe that this might be the basis for the future narrative, should it ever come to be. It just HAS to be based on the communities, not on an amorphous Sunni ideology. For instance, since you like bringing up US analogies, think of the May Flower and the pilgrims. These were sure as hell not black or Latinos or Chinese or Koreans! Yet, this is the narrative of the United States, historically. The same applies with the Maronites. Historically, they are crucial. Some muslims have indeed touched on that here and there in editorials and stuff, that the idea of Lebanon is inextricably linked to the Maronites. Unfortunately this segment lops all Lebanese Muslims together. I'm sure the Shiites don't associate themselves with the Umayyad narrative. It would be interesting to hear what it is now, after their self-awareness and politicization, but also, in their bid to be, like the Alawites, "Arabized." There has been a new reaction among some Shiites, especially the Hizbullah people, who rarely display Lebanese flags because they say cedars are from Maronite country. That is the most radical response since the Sunni call for union with Syria. The Druze also are left out, although their narrative is even more interesting in its closeness to the Maronites.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Tony's response on Lebanon

I am posting Tony Badran's response to my previous "Syria Occupying Lebanon" post because he has put careful thought into it and it deserves to be highlighted. For more, see his blog, Across the Bay In response to Tony's comments, I can only say that I am more skeptical than he about everyone getting along in a Federation. I still think Salibi's, "House of Many Mansions" thesis - that each major sectarian community in Lebanon has its own understanding of history and dreams for the future, is useful. It makes compromise difficult. There is no basic liberal understanding that "truth" in the public arena must be understood with a small "t" rather than a capital "T." The liberalism deficite makes compromise difficult. The rhetoric of a Hizbullah, for example, is uncompromisingly absolutist, even if its political actions suggest a move toward accomodationist policies. I don't believe an unpoliced federalism in Lebanon would work today. The dismissiveness with which Tony talks about Hizbullah and Amal, not to mention so many other leading Lebanese politicians, makes my point. Syria maintains a form of federalism in Lebanon - but of course Tony is right to point out that it abuses its authority and is not a liberal power at heart. All the same, it is not responsible for turning Hizbullah into the electoral powerhouse it has become; in fact, Syria has restrained its electoral power by forcing it to run a combined ticket with Amal in many districts. Syria made this point in the latest round of Lebanese elections by allowing Hizbullah to run on its own, which has brought it greater power. As Michael Young rights in today's Slate,

Damascus saw an opportunity to raise the ante on the United States, which recently imposed sanctions on Syria under congressional legislation known as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. One of the act's stipulations is that Syria give up support for Hezbollah, which U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage referred to last year as "the A-team of terrorists." So Syria, by allowing the party to score well in the elections, effectively told the Bush administration, "Don't ask us to suppress Hezbollah; the party has strong support and legitimacy in Lebanon."
Syria does not want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg (lebanon), and at the end of the day, the Alawites have a vested interest in "ta'ayyush," the vaunted Lebanese "convivienda" or notion of "live and let live," that has characterized Lebanese inter-confessional affairs for much of the century. After all, the Alawites are potentially the Maronites of Syria. In Syria the situation is worse than in Lebanon. It is precisely because Syrian society is so deeply illiberal, that I am skeptical about revolution today. Bashar is much more liberal than the society over which he rules. Were he to be removed forcefully, worse would probably replace him. The best thing is to push liberal reforms - a liberal economy, trade, respect for the law, and worry about democratic elections down the line. As Farid Zakaria has written in his article, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy",
the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is -- instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections -- to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.
At 9:52 PM June 2, 2004, Tony said... Well, Dr. Landis, if this was supposed to convince me that you were not too pro-Syrian, it certainly failed! Here's why. First things first, to clarify the thing about the jails. I realize that the person who said it was Turk, but the place and the fashion with which you quoted it adumbrated that you endorse it as proof for improvements under Bashar. There are further problems with a statement by Turk (which even on the face of it, is clearly a condemnation of Syrian practice as it is!) because he is a internationally known figure, so I wouldn't be surprised if his treatment was different. But how about those Lebanese prisoners (not to mention countless innocent Syrians) who have "disappeared" during the war never to be heard from again, whose mothers were recently sent back packing at the Syrian border when they marched to Syria (you want the Lebanese to voice their concerns well here it was)? That piece I linked which was published in Lebanon's leading daily testifies to that extent. As for Bashar's lifting of the emergency rule (tentative as it is), some might argue that it wouldn't have been possible had it not been for the US war in Iraq and the tremendous heat it generated, and the courage it gave to some opposition groups to voice their demands. Let me just remind you that previous to that, many an editorial appeared in LEBANESE papers, by Syrians and Lebanese alike, (and they still do) demanding a reconsideration of Syrian internal and external (vis - vis Lebanon) affairs. As for your point about revolution, well it is in fact needed, and I believe you do agree. The only difference is how measured should it be, or to put it differently, of what type should it be, since not all revolutions are military. You say regime-change is not the answer, and you may be right. This is certainly the view of people like Fareed Zakaria in his book on illiberal democracies. Granted, let's assume that Bashar is the best thing for pushing Syria forward. The problem with this view is that it assumes that Bashar is president for life! But if that is the case, then how real are these reforms and changes!? As for the "from within argument" which has been propagated ad nauseam by all the guild of dictators in the region, starting with King-President Mubarak, it is a bankrupt argument. No change happens in isolation, and someone like you who advocates engagement should be the last to argue for it! All change comes from interaction and exchange of ideas and models. Despite the rantings and ravings of Edward Said, it the Napoleonic campaigns into Egypt, and the ensuing contact with Europe, that stimulated what is the only "Renaissance" in the Middle East, whose effects and figures people still quote to this day. With regard to pressure, none of them would have been effective (indeed they have not been) had it not been for the US action in Iraq, which created a sense of urgency, even as the peoples of the ME were against it, but this type of schizophrenic behavior is not alien to the region. In fact, you yourself mentioned in that paper in the Syria Report that the US is the bad cop to the EU's good cop, that gives leverage to the EU to press on clauses that the Syrians would otherwise not agree to. Finally, concerning the economic prerequisites, they strike me as slightly materialistic and deterministic. Reading your paper on Islamic education in Syria, I get the feeling that there needs to be a profound change in the conscience collective of the country. The flip side of that argument is to point at Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where people enjoy a decent GNP, yet they can hardly be called democratic. But herein lies the dilemma: in your paper you lay out the conundrum where a leader like Bashar has to cater to this pathological culture in order to maintain legitimacy! This is what Mubarak did in Egypt (cf. Geneive Abdo's No God But God book). Your conclusion was that, ironically, it would need a non-minoritarian leader in order to reform the education system in Syria. But if we need to keep Bashar, then that will not happen. Again, this seems more like a vicious circle, just like the old argument that held that "secular" dictators are needed to fend off Islamists. Your paper proves that those "secular" leaders, and the predominant ideology of the region (Arab nationalism) are farthest from secular, and alien to liberalism. So, in complete reversal of your position, I fail to see how you can maintain liberal economies in illiberal cultures and societies. As for the roots of the SALSA, you go back to Sharon and Israel's ill-conceived and ill-fated 1982 adventure in Lebanon. That is certainly not a good model. But, NO ONE in Lebanon says that it is, including the Christian party, the Lebanese Forces (whom Asad has banned in Lebanon) who were Sharon's allies. Jean Aziz, a high ranking member of that party, has been constantly writing and lecturing on the necessity of rebuilding a contract with the Christians' "sole partner, the Lebanese Muslims," as he called them, and not to re-establish Maronite ascendancy in Lebanon. In any case, this ascendancy has been abolished by the Syrian-sponsored and Syrian-engineered Taif accord. This view of inra-Lebanese politics, and Lebanese-Syrian relations is shared by the most powerful, and most independent, Christian institution in Lebanon, the Maronite Church, led by Cardinal Sfeir. Sfeir opposed the SALSA for its sanctions on Syria, but agreed with one of its aims: Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and reconfiguration of Syrian-Lebanese relations. You said the Lebanese never voiced their will on the issue of occupation (the use of quotation marks to qualify this term is beyond me); RUBBISH! Christian groups, students, and political parties have been voicing it constantly, only to be met with imprisonments, beatings, intimidation, silencing, and prosecution by the Syrian-appointed Lebanese puppet government. As for the remainder of your expose on Lebanon's recent history, it is rather one-sided, and thus seriously flawed, and ignores the Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian interventions that led to the breakdown of the intra-communal agreement among the various Lebanese confessional groups. As Farid Khazen convincingly argues in The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon, the breakdown of the system is inextricably linked to the unbearable pressures that were laid on it due to the deadly ideology of Arab nationalism. That pressure made it impossible for groups to do what they used to do best which is COMPROMISE. That is the backbone of consociational democracies like pre-war Lebanon (cf. Arend Lijphart). Yet, the ideology of conformity by force which is Arab nationalism, made it impossible for Christians to negotiate, as it was correctly seen like an abandonment of their identity, as well as the agreed upon compromise on Lebanon's identity (which was never called "Arab" before the Taif accord). It was a time of extreme tension with PLO militias running around the country with talk of a substitute state for the Palestinians etc. You can't negotiate in these conditions. It was too late, the sacrifice had been made without the Lebanese's approval (I'll remind you that Muslim Jordan had no problem decimating the Palestinians and kicking them out from Jordan to Lebanon). Yet, what is the FIRST clause of the Taif accord? "Lebanon is ARAB in identity and belonging." The funny thing is that you've dealt with this issue in Syria in your paper, but fail to see its repercussions in Lebanon! So Syria has gone completely in favor of the Muslims when it came to the identity of Lebanon. That by extension was a blow to the Maronites. So the re-arranging was not only of the "power-sharing formular" as you put it, but of the entire nature of the country. And then you say that the civil war has not been resolved. Well DUH!! You blame the Lebanese for it, which is partly correct, but you leave out the Syrians' role. If the Syrian solution was to define Lebanon's identity, and if the civil-war was in large measure due to that definition, then how do you expect anything to be resolved under the Syrian solution!? Secondly, the Syrian appointed government, with people like Berri and Jumblat, are warlords from the war! So how can anything be resolved when some of the parties to the war are in power with Syrian tutelage!? Many a Christian militiaman, including a former high ranking Lebanese Forces fighter, came out and apologized for the Muslims. There has been no reciprocity on the Muslims' part (save for a certain Hisham Chehab), but then again what should there be!? They won! Who makes the topic taboo? Syria's cronies, who happen to be the Lebanese government! So your clause on the Muslims coming to terms with Lebanese exceptionalism seems a contradiction in terms after reading your paper on Syrian policies of conformism! If Lebanon is Arab then how is it exceptional?! I'll make a further analogy with your paper on Syrian education and conformism. You made a point in there about the Alawites being so insecure about their identity as to be more Sunni than the Sunnis so to speak. Well, all you have to do now is hear the post-Taif CHRISTIAN leaders speak about Arabism! My God, you'd think they just came fresh from the Arabian desert on camel backs! They're more royal than the king! Gone is even the TALK of a multiculturalism. Jumblat for one has pretty much called it treason! Basem Yamout, the education minister, has banned the word "conquest" from history textbooks when it refers to the Arabs' invasions of the Levant! His logic was, "how can they be invaders if we were already Arab?" Beirut MP Naser Qandil, a particularly annoying Syrian pit bull, has even demanded that the Christians reconsider their relation to the Old Testament, as it is Jewish! A friend of mine from Beirut told me of a conversation he had with a Beirut area Muslim mayor regarding the construction of a new mosque near a large cathedral in Beirut. The mayor reportedly told him that it was "precisely" because it was a large cathedral that they were building the mosque! So, as I have always maintained, the adjacent presence of mosques and churches in Beirut which was always taken as a sign of peaceful coexistence, is and was indeed a rivalry! If there is a church, make sure you build a mosque next to it! As for the "Auberge des minorites" comment, it is ironic that your paper on Syrian education mentions that Hafiz Asad's father co-signed a letter to the French requesting that the Alawite minority be annexed to Lebanon, indeed "l'auberge des minorites." But you can't have a country of minorities with Arab nationalism! The two are mutually exclusive, and your paper demonstrates that without a doubt. But Asad's legitimacy and survival RELY on this ideology as you argued yourself! "How does one resolve the great cultural gap between Hizballah teaching Imamism and Khomeinism in its schools and the Christians teaching that Lebanon is an Auberge des minorites, created and protected by Christians." Some Christians have suggested federalism (which, by the way, is the de facto reality in the Hizbullah areas, and in the Druze area!). But the (revised) pre-war formula of consociational democracy would be more than enough. In fact, the Taif accord postulates less central government and more local autonomy and decentralization (the hallmark of the pre-war system. Think of traditional Republican politics in the US.) Furthermore, Hizballah is not alone, there are other Shiite groups. For instance, the shiite cleric Shamseddine wrote in a book (al-Wasaya) before he died that Lebanon's confessional system should be maintained. That Lebanese exceptionalism should be respected, etc. (all the things you mentioned). But, Hizbullah didn't grow in a vaccum. Who is giving it cover, and backing it in order to use it against Israel? Syria. Who's Nabih Berri's, Shiite Amal's leader, patron? Syria. So to say that Lebanese officials don't say that Syria is a problem for the internal Lebanese balance is ridiculous as all these officials are appointed by Syria! I don't see how Syria's role in the elections is a case in point of Lebanese passivity!!! As far as I'm concerned it's the opposite!! Furthermore, the Maronite Church issued a strong condemnation of Syria's involvement. I'll remind you that the Syrians interfered to overturn a local election in the Christian dominated Mount Lebanon when its vassal Michel Murr lost it to the opposition. The issue of Syrian interference with elections has been studied by Farid Khazen (it's online I believe if you search for it). The Syrians have been playing sectarian politics in Lebanon as well (not just in Syria!). But also you completely leave out the issue of Syria's draining of Lebanon's economy. You once hinted that Syria is a force of stability in Lebanon. Like hell it is. It's draining its economy. Its elite thrive on blackmail and illegal trade. Their propping of Hizbullah as an untouchable militia (like the PLO in the 60s and 70s) and using them to pressure Israel. Also, this cover means that Shiites in Hizbullah areas don't pay bills or taxes. That's made up for from the pockets of the Christians of Mount Lebanon. Their dismantling of Labor Unions (see this piece here). Their support of overbearing repression of the (mainly Christian) opposition is hardly a record of stability! If the Muslims perceive that the Syrians' presence there is to their advantage, why would they call for their withdrawal? But this is to Syria's advantage as well, as it is making quite a use of Lebanon! In fact, it's Syria's only regional card, especially after the Iraq war. The Christians don't call Syria an occupier under their breath. They do it out loud and often. But then they get that same breath beaten out of them by Syria's cronies. In fact, Pro-Syrian Muslims (like the aforementioned Qandil) have made a point of organizing demonstrations to coincide with those anti-occupation marches by Christians. Often, the Muslims come armed. Yes, the Lebanese bear responsibility, but hearing you one would think the Syrians are puppies and the Lebanese a cold ungrateful pet owner! You talk about change coming from within. Well how is that possible in Lebanon with a foreign occupying power controlling things? "It seems that the Syrian President understands that political repression and the extreme limitation of the freedom of expression signify a continuation of the isolation of Syria from the Western world of normal nations." Unfortunately, that's not the policy in Lebanon! But, like I said, if I read your paper properly, his reforms will always be limited, and contingent on Sunni conservatism! The recent move with the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't seem promising if it means more concessions to a more rigid Sunni control of culture and education. You can try to liberalize the economy as much as you want. That's always good as it might force liberalization of society. But there's always the counter point. What if that liberalization attempt gets hamstrung by an illiberal culture? What do you do then, especially if the liberalizer's standing depends on the support of the illiberal? "Danny's words are still true today. Syria's footprint in Lebanon could be much heavier than it is." I suppose the Lebanese should be grateful! Sure, go tell that to the staggering number of Christian youths emigrating. They are the best educated and the most liberal and multiculturalist in the region. Almost all trilingual. Ironically, this was your conclusion in the Syrian education paper! "No one expected Bashar would let Hariri become PM again in 2000, but he did." He needs his connections with Jacques Chirac and other world investors. "If the Lebanese really wanted the Syrians out and were willing to unite and fight for an independent Lebanon, there is a good chance Syria would leave." Yes, I'm sure those 25,000 soldiers are just ornaments! But then again, I thought that revolution was not the way you recommended! "Bashar is busy rebuilding good relations with all Syria's neighbors and Europe. He would not squander Syria's return to the world community and its economic reintegration into the region in order to repress Lebanon in the case of a concerted revolt by the Lebanese." The security services crushed a demonstration when Powell visited! You can't get any more public than that! "Were the Lebanese to stand united against Syria, the world would back them." Now who's dreaming? You or the neocons!? "Today, most everyone believes the Lebanese need a Za'im to balance their divided and bickering notables." You should talk to King Abdullah of Jordan. He'll like that comment. So will Mubarak and Qaddafi. That's a real way forward! "Most countries fear Lebanon will slip back into civil war, should Syria leave." That's a self-fulfilling prophecy now isn't it!? If the Syrians prop it up to be that way, of course it will! This is not to say that the Lebanese factions love each other. But the Syrian stalemate of the last 15 years didn't help one bit in that reconciliation process, but rather hurt it. "That is why they don't insist on it and why the US congress is a lone voice singing SALSA." Rubbish. All the Christians, save for Syrian cronies, are for their withdrawal. You should hear what the Maronite Church says. As for the unity with Muslims, the Christian opposition group, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, tried to reach out to Muslims to get them on board in the request to reformat relations with Syria. One Muslim responded, Walid Jumblat (a Druze actually), and then he backed out. Instead, pro-Syrian Muslims formed their own "Gathering" calling for the opposite. But please don't tell me that Syria is a poor passive entity just waiting to hear the Lebanese say the word for them to gracefully pull out, and lose millions of dollars and a strategic asset in the process! Lastly, while you answered one side of the issue of expatriates (not convincingly, as your analogy is so over the top and not accurate), you completely ignored the other, which is the Syrian pressure to issue Lebanese passports to thousands of non-Lebanese Muslims, and Syrian infiltration of the Lebanese army (through the same process of naturalization of Syrian Muslims). And for the gentleman who posted the other comment. That argument of Lebanon being a Western invention is so useless. The Lebanese (especially the Christians) have an extremely strong sense of national identity. But beside that, the same argument goes for Syria as well, as before the European powers there were NO nations at all (including Syria). There was only the Ottoman Empire and its districts, period. No Palestine, no Syria, no Jordan... just the Ottoman Empire. As for keeping Lebanon for protection, there is a piece on it by Michael Young in the Daily Star ( I don't have the link, but you can go and search for "Michael Young" and you'll find it. I'll try getting it for you.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Is Syria Occupying Lebanon?

I have received three comments from Tony criticizing me for being too pro-Syrian and for softballing Syria's occupation of Lebanon. First, I must address his comment about Syrian prisons. He writes, "Your views are often learned and insightful, but the comment on Syrian prisons being 5 star hotels is a travesty." You are right, Tony. Syrian jails are known for their brutality. It was not I who made the 5-star analogy, but Riad al-Turk, the Syrian who has spent the most years in the Syrian prison system. He compared the prisons today to what they were under Hafiz. Al-Turk's point is that the prison system has improved under Bashar, not that torture or abuse have disappeared. He is the first to demand that emergency rule end and that basic laws concerning human rights be observed, i.e. allowing international agencies to regularly inspect prisons and talk to prisoners. My point in highlighting Turk's comment is to argue that Bashar is making changes. His critics, who say nothing can change in Syria without revolution, are wrong. American sponsored, regime-change in Syria is not the answer. As in China, change must come from within. That does not mean that other countries cannot play a role and pressure Syria, but Syria will have to break out of is backward economic system and dramatically increase per capita GNP before democracy will be viable. I believe Bashar has pointed the country in the right direction and offers Syria the best chance of reform at the present time. Lebanon Using the same logic, I criticize the Syrian Accountability Act. The US is silly to embargo Syria and end all constructive communication with Damascus until it withdraws its troops from Lebanon. The political origin of the Syrian Accountability Act points out how unrealistic it is. The main reason the SSA came to congress and passed so overwhelmingly is that it was pushed through by pro-Israeli lobby groups. The major Lebanese spokesman for the bill in Congress was General Aoun, who represented the Maronite community in Lebanon before he was expelled from the country by the Syrians (with US support) in 1991 at the time of the Gulf war. In essence, what the US congress is doing in this act is resurrecting the failed policy of Begin and Sharon when they first invaded Lebanon in 1982. Their strategy was to push Syria out of Lebanon and isolate it in the region in the belief that Israel would then be able to conclude peace agreements with Lebanon and Jordan. By returning Lebanon to its anti-bellum status quo - with strong Maronite leadership and a Christian dominated parliament and army, Israel hoped to finish off the PLO and impose an Israeli peace. This strategy failed miserably to the great detriment of the US. (The necons derive the wrong lesson from its failure. They insist that the rise of Bin Laden and Jihadism begins with the bombing of the US barracks in Beirut. Because President Reagan gave up on Lebanon and withdrew US troops in the face of Lebanese pressure, terrorists gained courage and decided they could drive the Crusaders and Zionists out of the whole Middle East. That is how we got 9-11, they argue.) The real problem with Sharon's and Jumayel's plan is that it ignored the realities of Lebanon. The US should never have touched it. The Christian community was no longer the majority population, and the Muslim communities were demanding radical changes in the political system. As a result, the Shi'a also found their political voice. Lebanese Muslims could not be denied their say in politics then, anymore than they can be today. The only way to come to terms with the new demographics of Lebanon was by re-arranging the power-sharing formula of the National Pact, which the Christians refused to do. Of course they were frightened of being swamped by Arab nationalism. All Christians had to do was look at the lack of liberties in the Arab world to scare themselves silly about the prospect of Muslim-Arab rule. But the Likud-Jumayel plan was not the answer and couldn't work. It should never have been tried. The neocons, in pushing the SSA, have reverted to 1982 and are trying to revive Sharon's plan. I presume they would like Aoun to be the next president. This plan was a tragedy in 1982 and is a farce today. That is why the Lebanese, save for a few hotheads, have all spoken out against the Syrian Accountability Act. The US congress may still take its lead from Israel and Aoun, but the Lebanese don't. Who would gamble on such a combination after 1982? Been there, done that. The Lebanese civil war has not been completely resolved, but one thing seems reasonably certain - the Christian community will never again be able to dominate politics in Lebanon. Christians must come to terms with their Muslim countrymen, like it or not. Muslim Lebanese must also come to terms with Christians, Lebanese exceptionalism, and the special role of the Christians in forming Lebanon. Neither side has really done this yet. How does one resolve the great cultural gap between Hizballah teaching Imamism and Khomeinism in its schools and the Christians teaching that Lebanon is an Auberge des minorites, created and protected by Christians (I won't even mention Phoenicians)? This brings us back to the Syrian role in Lebanon. Yes, Syria is "occupying" Lebanon, even if Lebanese elected officials won't say so. But isn't that just the problem? The Lebanese won't say openly and loudly that they are occupied. As far as I can tell, the only way the Lebanese will push out the Syrians is by agreeing among themselves that Syria must leave. Instead, Lebanese politicians go to Damascus to resolve their disputes; rather, then resolving them among themselves. The roll Syria is playing in the present elections , mediating between Hizballah and Amal, propping up Lahoud, and trying to keep the process from breaking down or becoming violent, while at the same time promoting Syrian interests, is a case in point. The Lebanese could stop this and push out the Syrians if they could agree among themselves to do or agree on who should lead Lebanon and how. They can't do this. In this sense, the civil war still rumbles under the surface. The conflict over Lebanese national identity has not been resolved. In the meantime, most Lebanese leaders are content to wend their way to Damascus for answers. Perhaps there is no resolution to their differences today, and this explains why they don't call Syria an occupier, or if they do, it is under their breaths? Would Lebanon have a Christian president without Syria? I think it is safe to say that it would not. Had Syria not entered the civil war on the side of the Christians, Muslim malitias and the PLO might well have destroyed the main pillars of Christian authority in the country. If one considers that today the Christians retain the presidency - even if it is less powerful than before 1975 - and have 50% of the seats in parliament, even though they are only 30% of the population, and retain their own system of Christian schools, TV chanels, newspapers and means of cultural reproduction - they have a pretty good deal - one they would not have today had Syria not brokered it for them at Ta'if. And one that could probably not be retained if Syria withdrew today. Would Hizballah allow the beautiful and charming Haifa' to broadcast her exercise routine on LBC if it had a choice? (Also, no country counts its emmigrants as legitimate voters. I cannot vote in England even though my forefathers came from that verdant Isle. If Anglo-Americans could vote in England, there would be no England.) At the time of the 2000 Lebanese elections, Danny Reshef wrote,:

More than anything else, the election campaign in Lebanon reflects a strategic choice of the young Syrian President, Bashar el-Assad. He is taking consistent steps towards the liberalization of Syria. He has given top priority to the rehabilitation and economic development of his country and its integration into the international community. It seems that the Syrian President understands that political repression and the extreme limitation of the freedom of expression signify a continuation of the isolation of Syria from the Western world of normal nations. It also means the continuation of economic stagnation and the preservation of the power of the security and military apparatus. This apparatus is still controlled to a large extent by aging, conservative officers of the Alawi minority in Syria. These officers are liable in the future to limit the freedom of action of Bashar el-Assad himself, as President. It is absolutely clear that the President could have prevented the return of Amin Jumayel to Syria, in order to intimidate all the opponents of Syria in Lebanon and shut them up, just as his father did to some degree. Yet the price, in terms of political status, in the Arab world as well as in the Western world, would be too high for someone who is dreaming of a Syria that is open, developing, modern and progressive.
Danny's words are still true today. Syria's footprint in Lebanon could be much heavier than it is. No one expected Bashar would let Hariri become PM again in 2000, but he did. If the Lebanese really wanted the Syrians out and were willing to unite and fight for an independent Lebanon, there is a good chance Syria would leave. Bashar is busy rebuilding good relations with all Syria's neighbors and Europe. He would not squander Syria's return to the world community and its economic reintegration into the region in order to repress Lebanon in the case of a concerted revolt by the Lebanese. Were the Lebanese to stand united against Syria, the world would back them. Today, most everyone believes the Lebanese need a Za'im to balance their divided and bickering notables. Most countries fear Lebanon will slip back into civil war, should Syria leave. That is why they don't insist on it and why the US congress is a lone voice singing SALSA. The only thing to convince them otherwise will be to see the Lebanese unite and demand Syria's departure with one voice. Insha'allah, that will happen one day.