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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Posting from Damascus

Dear Readers, It will be much harder to post intelligently from Damascus. The Internet just isn't fast enough to get around the proper articles in a timely fashion. The US embassy allows Fulbrighters to use an embassy computer that has a satellite connection, but I have only been able to open my email once out of 4 days trying. (They say this has nothing to do with the intervention of the Government, which can't read or interfere with satellite stuff.) I will go to the regular internet cafes and see if the results are better. They very well may be. Much information comes to me via email. So without it on a regular basis, I will be blind. Michael Young wrote about the same subject as I did in his last post and linked to me. (I would link to him now, but my computer is too slow to make it feasible.) He argues that Syria could very well be a center for Iraq's terror organizations. He argues Abdul Halim Khaddam has his networks into Iraq, suggesting that other Syrian officials and services also do, and that the Syria state - at least the tangle of officials and bureacracies that make it up - may all be looking the other way on what their brethren are doing. [I miss-paraphrased Michael a few days ago, claiming that he suggested that "Khaddam is probably at the center" of Iraqi resistence. He suggested no such thing and I hope he will accept my appologies for any misleading para-phrase.] Only the Syrian opposition in exile is suggesting that Khaddam is at the center of things. The US and Iraqi governments are arguing that the Syrian intelligence is at the heart of planning in Iraq, but they have not named Khaddam as the main organizer. Khaddam has known contacts to Iraq, Young suggests, because he presided over the oil-electricity deal General Petreus struck with Syria last year, rather than leaving the task to the appropriate minister in Syria. Michael is right that under normal circumstances ministers would have done the deal. But nothing along the Iraq-Syrian border was normal in 2003. This is why a US General was brokering the deal for Iraq and not an Iraqi minister. One can understand why the Syrian government would not regard the situation as normal and assign someone with more military and political clout. But nothing can prove that the Syrian intelligence is not at the bottom of things in Iraq, nor that the Ba`th has not rediscovered its common ideological roots after 40 years of separation. The same, of course, is also true of Iraqi accusations against Syria, none of which have actually been demonstrated. Why have we not seen the photos of terrorists with Khaddam? The Iraqi Government has every reason to try to shift the blame for the successes and potency of the resistance onto secret Syrian organizations. After all, Iraqi forces have been a disaster themselves at finding hard evidence about the resistance's leadership. American officers argue that the resistance knows more about the movement of American troops than the Americans know about the resistance. Not good. A big stain on the Iraqi intelligence. Of course the weakness of Iraqi forces and their unwillingness to fight in a number of cities is also an embarrassment that can't be covered up by blaming Syria. The failure of Iraqi intelligence and defense forces cannot be placed at Syria's door, although, it is hard to think that someone won't try. All the same, this does not exculpate Syria. It is easy to speculate right know. Washington has upped the pressure on Damascus in so many ways these last months that there must be many people in the Syrian administration arguing for just the type of hardball policies Damascus is now being accused of. Most Syrian's are with the resistance in their hearts and believe America is in Iraq for no good. My mother-in-law asked me if I thought the Americans were stealing Iraqi oil. She also allowed as how she couldn't believe the resistance would cut off the heads of Iraqis. Her views are widespread. She was a teacher for 25 years and reads several newspapers a day. Of course, she also likes al-Manar television, Hizbullah's channel. Having just gone through the painful process of looking for an apartment in Damascus, it is quite clear that Syria is experiencing very big changes, that most people are only just waking up to. Rents have gone through the roof. Most Syrians blame this on Iraqis and other foreigners, but there are several other more important reasons. The new renter’s law, which is now two years old, has completely eliminated socialism of rental properties and has caused a major revolution in the ability of property owners to accumulate wealth. I will talk about this and the newly proposed agricultural laws that will do the same thing for rural property in an upcoming post. In the mean time, be patient as I learn the new system here.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

More signs of Syria turn up in Iraq

Nick Blanford has an interesting article in today's Christian Science Monitor. (December 23) Nevertheless, European diplomats remain cautious about US allegations. There have been a number that haven't panned out and they suggest that there is very thin evidence for the present round of accusations that Syria is ground zero for the Iraqi resistance. *More signs of Syria turn up in Iraq* By Nicholas Blanford | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor DAMASCUS, SYRIA – When US troops stormed the rebel-held city of Fallujah last month, they uncovered photos of senior Syrian officials that have further strained the already tense relations between Syria and Iraq, according to the Iraqi ambassador to Syria. Several captured insurgents were found in possession of the photographs, confirmation, according to Iraqi officials, that some elements in the Syrian regime - perhaps acting independently - are involved in Iraq's bloody insurgency. "Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wrote a letter to the Syrians saying he had the pictures but was not going to release them despite being under pressure from the Americans to do so," says Hassan Allawi, Iraq's newly appointed ambassador to Damascus. The ambassador said that the photographs were found in the possession of Moayed Ahmed Yasseen, also known as Abu Ahmed. He is the leader of the Jaish Mohammed group, which is composed of former Baathist intelligence personnel. One picture showed Mr. Yasseen standing beside a senior Syrian official, the ambassador said. He would not identify on the record the Syrian officials in the photos. US Marines in Fallujah released a report on Nov. 20 that revealed they had discovered a hand-held Global Positioning System receiver with waypoints originating in western Syria and the names of four Syrian foreign fighters contained in a ledger. The evidence has triggered renewed charges from US and Iraqi officials that Syria is knowingly providing assistance to several former Iraqi Baathists who are believed to be running the insurgency from Damascus. US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage warned Syria Wednesday that Washington was prepared to impose new sanctions if it failed to clamp down on fugitive Iraqi officials. Last week, Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of US forces in Iraq, said that the exiled Baathists had formed a group called the New Regional Command and were running the insurgency from Syria. The Syrians, he said, "are not going after the big fish [or senior Baathists], ... the people that we're interested in." Ambassador Allawi says that the "real danger" to the Syrian government is not pressure from the US and Iraq, but from the reformed Iraqi Baathist network in Syria. "There is an Iraqi Baathist invasion of Syria. It's overwhelming," he says. "They stole gold and robbed banks and came here. They have enough funds to keep fighting for 30 years." Nonetheless, it remains unclear to what extent some of the Iraqi Baathists are involved in the insurgency and what level of assistance is being provided by elements in the Syrian regime. "There is a high level of suspicion but not much evidence," a European diplomat in Damascus says. The Syrian government rejects the US and Iraqi accusations, saying it is working to help stabilize its neighbor. Mehdi Dakhlallah, Syria's information minister, says it is impossible to monitor the activities of all Iraqis who have entered Syria since the war. "Syria has always been open to all Arabs, and if they have the correct documents, they can enter," he says. "But we can't read their minds about what they are going to do once they are here." There are officially 250,000 to 300,000 Iraqis living in Syria, although the International Organization for Migration says the figure may be much higher. They include former Baathists, businessmen, Kurds, and Christians fleeing persecution. Most of the wealthier Iraqi exiles have settled in the affluent Mezzeh district of Damascus. Driving expensive cars and dining in pricey restaurants, the new arrivals have sent property prices soaring. Complicating matters for the Syrian authorities is the suspicion that some former officers in the Iraqi intelligence services entered Syria using fake passports. Most Sunni Iraqi exiles openly profess their support for the resistance in Iraq. Ahmad Dulaimi's membership in the Baath Party cost him his job teaching at Baghdad University, a victim of the de-Baathification program of the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority. Originally from Fallujah, he moved to Damascus last year and earns a small living writing for Al-Moharer, a pro-Baathist website which advocates armed resistance in Iraq. "Everyone supports the resistance here, Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians," he says. "Resistance is the only weapon to free Iraq and free our prisoners." Among those mentioned by the exiles as leaders of the reorganized Iraqi Baath party are Sabawi Ibrahim, a half-brother of Saddam Hussein who once headed the Iraqi intelligence service; Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, secretary-general of the Iraqi Baath party regional command; and Fawzi al-Rawi, a businessman. The US is offering $1 million rewards for information leading to the arrests of the first two men. Many Iraqi exiles say that Syria is being unfairly singled out for criticism when there are many more Iraqi Baathists, including senior figures, living in Jordan. "We are very surprised that everyone accuses Damascus, when most of the senior Baathists are in Amman," says Mohammed Said, the representative in Damascus of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party. Mr. Said and other Iraqis interviewed say they believe that the Syrian government does not facilitate the activities of the Iraqi Baathists, instead blaming individual Syrian Baathists who share an ideological affinity with their Iraqi counterparts. Syria's regime is a separate branch of the Baath party that ruled Mr. Hussein's Iraq. The Syrian regime is no longer the monolithic entity it was under the leadership of former President Hafez al-Assad. President Assad, who died in 2000 and was replaced by his son Bashar, kept a firm grip on the regime. But since 2000, new power centers have emerged, a mix of old regime figures, the intelligence services, and powerful business interests. "I think the Syrian leadership does not know all the details of what's going on," says Mr. Allawi, the Iraqi ambassador. "The problem in Syria is that there are so many security branches that one doesn't know what the other is doing." It is a problem that seems to be recognized by the Syrian government. Interior minister Ghazi Kenaan is reportedly trying to reform the intelligence services and bring them under a centralized command. On the same topic; the following interview with Under-Secretary of State, Armitage is interesting: Interview With Pan-Arab Print Reporters Richard L. Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State Washington, DC December 21, 2004 EXCERPTS QUESTION: Sir, on Syria and the U.S., yesterday the President said that we have a, you know, a whole range of options -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Options, right. QUESTION: -- to do with Syria from the diplomatic to economic and even into the military action. I mean, are you on a collision course with Syria because of differences with Iraq and because of differences with 1559, Resolution 1559 on Lebanon? I mean, you gave them at least a list of demands and -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, let's separate them out. First, on UN Security Council Resolution 1559, this is the will of the entire Security Council, and so not a collision course with the United States. We're simply asking that Lebanon be left to Lebanese and that Lebanese themselves are able to determine their future free of foreign influence now. So that's not a collision course with the United States, it's a collision course with the international community. The question of Iraq, we have made certain presentations to the Government of Syria, and they have done some of the things that they've asked. We trust that they'll do a lot more. Syria has to come to the conclusion that their neighbor will be a free and democratic Iraq. And I think it will be much more - - much better for Syria's future if that neighbor, the one had fond remembrances of a friendly relationship Syria than someone who has a grudging relationship because Syria has not done what is necessary to do to support the people of Iraq. To the extent there's a collision course, it's with Iraq. QUESTION: Just to follow up. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure. QUESTION: The Syrians say that they have cooperated little bit with the United States, especially on the issue of -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I just said they have. QUESTION: Yeah, on financial accounts -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: And borders. QUESTION: And borders. Right. And also, but I remember I was told that when Secretary Burns and Mr. (inaudible) were there in September, I think, the Syrians were given certain names -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: That's correct. QUESTION: Including the name of a former Baathi leader, who is, according to the American side, is in charge of financing the insurgency in Iraq. When you give them information like that that is specific, what do they say and did they promise you, I mean, this has been a few months ago, right? DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: There were no promises. They took the information and said they'd look into it. It's not one individual, there were several former Baathists who, apparently, are allowed to range fairly freely in Syria, and we believe are responsible for some of the funding -- not all of the funding, but some of the funding that funds insurgent activities in Iraq. And we expect them to close those spigots down. QUESTION: Sir, on -- QUESTION: Let me follow up on this. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: We've got plenty of time. QUESTION: Okay. QUESTION: On this issue -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Yeah. QUESTION: Now, I have it from a solid Syrian source that you actually submitted six names. You wanted six names, two of whom are wanted by the Syrians for bombings and so on in Damascus, you know, some years back. I mean, I, as you know, the Syrian regime and the Iraq regime were not good friends. And the other four are apparently -- there are no solid evidence against them. Could you -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, I won't speak specifically to how many names. You've got your own source and you generally have good sources. The fact of the matter is, we have to be convinced, and I think more importantly, that the Government of Iraq, the people of Iraq have to be convinced, that Syria is doing all she can to stop the activities which harm Iraq. It's hard for me to believe, knowing the nature of the Syrian regime that they can't come up with some information on people. QUESTION: Right. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Who are involved in anti-Iraqi people activities. So we look for even greater efforts from the Syrians. QUESTION: And do you -- QUESTION: And just -- okay. QUESTION: Sorry. QUESTION: Follow up. QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure. QUESTION: Do you expect that Syrian-American relations will continue to sort of be chilly for, you know, the -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: I would hope not. But the answer to that is in Damascus as far as I'm concerned.I would hope for a much better day with Syria, but it's all up to Mr. Assad and his colleagues. QUESTION: May I just follow up on that. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure. QUESTION: Why always, I mean, some people saying that also, why your position on Syria vis-à-vis Lebanon and Iraq seems identical and following the, I mean, in the footstep of Israel? Regarding Syria or towards Syria. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Make sure I understand the question: That our activities vis-à-vis Syria are the first steps on -- QUESTION: No, no. QUESTION: No, no. QUESTION: Mirror that. It's like the Israeli position. QUESTION: Of Israel. Take the Israeli position most of the time. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Well, to the extent -- it reflects the Israeli position to the extent that, for instance, Hezbollah forces are funded through Damascus, and Hezbollah is a threat to the citizens of Israel. To that extent, it would reflect Israel's position. I would also say it reflects the position of the Iraqi Government. Because on another border, our activities with Syria and our interests in Syria has been closing down that border, so I don't think that our activities vis-à-vis Syria are necessarily a function of any one government. We have different interests with Syria. We've got Iraqi interests. We've peace process interests. We've got Lebanon's interest. I would long for the day where Syria would be a hopeful and participating member of the community, and the regional community. But as I say, that's not a decision that'll be reached here in Washington. It'll be reached in Damascus. QUESTION: This included your action, the recent action against Al Manar TV channel? DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Lebanese TV Al Manar? QUESTION: Yeah. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: We've designated it a Foreign Terrorist Organization -- as a Hezbollah Foreign Terrorist Organization -- MR. ERELI: A terrorist organization. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: A terrorist organization. QUESTION: Okay. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Because of their activities spewing Hezbollah incitement, inciting to violence, and it reflects the fact that our view is that Al Manar is not being a good citizen. QUESTION: I'm done with this issue. You want to continue on different? QUESTION: Just a final one on Lebanon, on 1559. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Sure. QUESTION: The Lebanese were not very happy with 1559 as a government. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Some Lebanese were not very happy. Some are thrilled. QUESTION: Yeah, the government. No -- DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Some are thrilled. QUESTION: Probably most of them are thrilled. (Laughter.) DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: Thank you. (Laughter.) Put that on the record. QUESTION: Well, I'm Lebanese although I'm asking my question as a professional. But the government was not thrilled by it, honestly. What's the state of play between the United States and the Lebanese Government on this issue because there is -- I've heard that when the issue of UNIFEL, the UN presence in south Lebanon is reviewed at the end of January, that the United States is going to raise the issue of 1559, too. DEPUTY SECRETARY ARMITAGE: We may very well raise it, 1559. Syrian noncompliance with it is flaunting the will of the international community. The government -- I've spoken before, the Government of Lebanon seems to have a distinctly "made in Damascus" flavor. And I don't know how that is particularly pleasing to the great majority of Lebanese citizens. But as I say, and as 1559 points out, it should have the right to be free of foreign interference. This was taken from: I have arrived in Syria and should be able to post from here. Haven't gotten a connection to the apartment yet, but that will come with the fullness of time and a visit to the computer society with a few pictures. It is great to be back in Damascus. More on that later. The few "regular Syrians" I have spoken with during my short few days here all support the Iraqi resistance, regardless of their religion. Many have all kinds of notions about America's real objectives and operating procedures.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Syria must follow Palestinians to Peace, Bush says

The US is weighing whether to punish Syria with further sanctions according to Washington Officials quoted by the Jerusalem Post. On Friday, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the US commander in Iraq, said the Iraqi insurgency was being run in part by former senior Iraqi Baath party officials who "are operating out of Syria with impunity and providing direction and financing for the insurgency." He acknowledged that Syria has increased its efforts to patrol its border with Iraq. "But they are not going after the big fish, which is really the people that we're interested in," he said.

"It's clear we are heading into some kind of confrontation with Syria unless the Syrians reverse their policy," a senior government official told The Jerusalem Post.
Syria must wait until after an Israel-Palestinian agreement, Bush says. (AFP) 19 December 2004
JERUSALEM - Syria will have to wait to resume peace negotiations with Israel until after a settlement is reached with the Palestinians, US President George W. Bush said in comments published on Sunday. “Now Assad needs to wait: first peace between Israel and Palestine, and then we’ll see what to do with Syria,” Bush told a correspondent from the Yediot Aharonot daily during a White House reception. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recently offered to reopen negotiations with Israel which stalled five years ago over the status of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau occuped by Israel since 1967. However Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reacted cooly to Assad’s overtures, instead focusing his energies on next year’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. Bush also echoed recent comments by Sharon as he voiced optimism about the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the coming year. “This next year is very important because it is going to lead to peace. I not only believe that, I also know that it’s going to happen,” he said. “Sharon has understood that. It is very important that the Palestinians understand as well that peace is not something that is achieved with words, but with action. “I have reason to believe that the new Palestinian leadership understands that and is moving in the right direction.” Bush has previously said that the recent death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as an opportunity to open a new chapter in the Middle East and expressed confidence that a Palestinian state can be created during his second four-year term of office.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

US mulling military options against Syria

The following article was sent around by The Reform Party of Syria, Farid Ghadri's group in Washington. It would seem quite accurate, especially because several friends told me that William Kristol's article, recommending military action against Syria, was causing a stir in the office of the Secretary of Defense. Of course, the strategy of bombing Syria raises the question of how much power Bashar has over his generals. The idea would be that if he does have control the US could force him to confront his renegade generals by bombing Syria. Bashar would shut them down, something he may not have the motivation to do so long as Syria does not have to pay a price for letting them cheat. If Bashar doesn't have control over them, then he will be unable to stop whomever it is that is working with the Iraqi opposition. In which case, the situation in Syria could deteriorate. The generals could decide to up the anti with America and really confront Washington by pouring more resources into the Iraqi opposition in the belief that they could drive the US out of Iraq. The worst-case scenario would be to hasten Bashar's ouster. We don't really know what this would mean or who might come to power in his place. Possibly Kanaan, the interior minister, could rise up. He is considered pro-American. But of course V.P. Khaddam could gain power as a result. He is pro-Iran. Then of course there is the possibility that the whole clique at the top would fall from power and Islamic currents, now far from power, could find themselves elevated to a new position of authority in Syria. The truth is that no one in Washington has the slightest idea what the result of such a policy would be. If Washington decides to risk a confrontation with Bashar and push him either to confront his hardliners or fail in trying, a new world in Syria could open up. Very risky. But Washington likes risk these days and those in power may feel they have little to lose, given the present dangers in Iraq. *US mulling military options against Syria* Here is the article. Despite recent Syrian overtures towards Israel. Intelligence information confirms Damascus is continuing to actively aid and abet Iraqi insurgency. Washington DC, December 15, 2004 /RPS News/ - Washington is reassessing its policy towards Syria, in light of increasing evidence that President Assad has no intention of keeping his promises to the US to stop cooperating with the Iraqi Sunni insurgency. A senior intelligence source has confirmed that the administration is currently conducting discussions over Syria at senior levels. These discussions are not only limited to the policy itself, but include possible operational scenarios in the event it is decided to change US policy. The main debate is whether any US military strike should be confined to a few targets, destruction of which would inflict enough pain on Baschar Assad and his regime to prompt them to rein in the anti-US forces operating from Syria, or whether a broad military campaign aimed at regime change would be preferable. Until now the leading administration doves, outgoing secretary of state Colin Powell and ex-CIA director George Tenet held sway. They strenuously opposed a second US military campaign in the Arab world, saying the fallout would be more damaging then any possible advantages. As a result Washington issued Assad a series of ultimatums, which he consistently flouted. The first was the US-Syrian agreement signed in September, in which Syria agreed to cooperate with the US military in curbing the two-way traffic of smuggled guerrillas, terrorists, arms and money through the Syrian-Iraqi border. The main difficulty pinpointed at the time was the Arab smuggler-tribes who for time immemorial have ruled the border regions and were liable to fiercely resist any attempt to bring them under control. Within two weeks it had become clear that Syria had no intention of honoring its commitment, when Syrian vice president Halim Khadam was discovered at the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal in a secret huddle with the chiefs of those very tribes. By now it has become clear that Damascus has opted out of its military accord with the Americans. The volume of fighting forces and war materiel crossing from Syria to Iraq has increased rather than diminished, and armed bands of tribesmen, among whom Iraqi insurgents, al Qaeda and Hizballah terrorists mingle, have expanded their control of broad regions on the Iraqi side of the border and aggressively attack any American force or vehicle venturing on their turf. Tribes dominating the border region are on the Iraqi insurgents’ payroll, receiving large weekly payments from Iraqi Baath headquarters in Damascus.. The Damascus center is the hub of the 4,000 ex-party leaders and army chiefs living in Syria. It awards the tribes a bonus for every attack they mount against American or Iraqi forces in the border vicinity, as well as a rake-off for every illegal transfer of weapons or explosives. Syrian regime high-ups, top military brass and officers stationed on the border also get their share of the cut. There have been several unpublicized battles between American and Syrian forces, when Syrian troops intervened to try and prevent the Americans from carrying out a hot pursuit of Iraqi insurgents at the border, Several Syrian soldiers have been killed and captured in these firefights, and senior leaders of the Anaza tribe taken prisoner. Six weeks ago US special-ops forces raided Anaza encampments, uncovering large volumes of weaponry destined for Iraq. They also discovered approximately 10 million dollars in cash and gold coin, and over a hundred terrorists in hiding. However now, with the departure of Powell and Tenet, and a second term safely in hand, the military option has again risen to the surface. Proponents of this policy are saying that unless decisive action is taken against Syria, there is a real danger the gains from the Fallujah campaign will disappear. Two weeks ago, shortly after the fighting died down, the Americans noticed that many of the Sunni guerrillas who fled the embattled town towards the Syrian border found sanctuary with the Anaza tribes, were awarded new identities, money and arms and returned to Fallujah among the returning refugees. These infiltrators now threaten to reverse the US purge of Fallujah as the central base of insurgents and terrorists. The Bush administration and the US military in Iraq are in no mood to let this happen. There are however, several factors that complicate matters. Limited strikes will not destroy the various smuggling networks operated by Sunni tribes in the border regions. The fate of the Assad regime is of supreme indifference to them, in fact they would shed no tears if the current regime, dominated by the despised Alawis, considered by many Sunnis to be heretics, was to disappear. Limited strikes are also unlikely to cause enough pain to convince Assad to take action against the tribes. The next three months are not conducive to military action against Syria. The Palestinians go to the polls on the ninth of January, the Iraqis three weeks later. US military action against an Arab states could have an adverse impact. Anything more than limited strikes could alienate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, whose diplomatic and financial backing the Bush administration is seeking at the moment to further its plans for an Israeli-Palestinian accord. Some of the Syrian targets on US drawing board have an Iranian component, either in the form of a financial investment, or the presence of Iranian military or civilian liaison personnel. Tehran, which fears an US-Israel strike against its nuclear plants, will be watching closely to gauge how far the Americans are willing to go in their military punishment of Syria. This could provide valuable information as to the limits of American patience with them, and, more importantly how to prepare for a possible American strike against them. The tentative conclusion is that a limited US strike in the near future is unlikely, but a major military operation, possibly in coordination with Israel slightly further down the road is a real possibility. The fact that Washington has supported, and perhaps even advocated Israel’s decision to ignore all recent reports of a possible Syrian overture, and interest in resuming peace negotiations could be a reliable indicator of what lies ahead. Today the London based Saudi owned Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat published a report quoting “knowledgeable sources” that President Bush had decided to make an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement a priority. According to the report, Israeli-Syrian negotiation would resume in February. The report claims that UN Sect.-General Kofi Anan is also involved, and has told his main Middle East troubleshooter Terja Laerson to begin preparing for these talks. However Israel has, with US full support, and according to some reports, at the US’s request, rebuffed a series of attempts by Syria to resume peace talks. Israel has insisted that Syria must cease all its cooperation with terrorism, and close down Hamas and Hezbollah headquarters and offices in Syria before peace talks can resume. The fact that this change of American heart has been reported in a Saudi newspaper is also suspect. When US officials want to prepare the groundwork the leaks are usually to a major US publication. The fact that the Saudis are desperately tying to prevent any US military action against Syria should also be taken into account with regard to this report.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Uri Savir Argues for Negotiations With Syria

URI SAVIR, Israel's chief negotiator with Syria from November 1995 to March 1996, says, "Say yes to Syria." The war in Iraq, as well as the international struggle against terrorism, demands a fresh, strategic approach to the resolution of the conflict in the Middle East. Incremental steps such as Israel's withdrawal from Gaza are important, but they will not fully reap the benefits that may result from the major changes taking place in the region as a result of the US's and Europe's (gradual) placement of the war on terror and political reform at the top of the international agenda. This new agenda certainly puts pressure on Israel's neighbors. Israel must thus take a new approach, one that emphasizes the Western demands of curtailing fundamentalism, terrorism, and totalitarianism in parallel with answering some of the legitimate demands of the Islamic and Arab world in relation to the end of the occupation and recognition of a Palestinian state. Non-conditional negotiations with Syria would serve both to strengthen this approach and legitimize efforts for peaceful relations with the new Palestinian regime. In addition, they would create a new atmosphere in the region that could translate into guiding principles for a second Madrid Conference.... There seems to be little doubt about the changing currents in Syria, yet many believe that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cannot wage a peace offensive on Gaza and Syria simultaneously. Israel has, in the past, won wars on many fronts. In the future it should attempt to make peace on all these fronts. The Middle East has moved in recent months from despair to hope. It is in Israel's best interest not to miss this window of opportunity.

Washington's Newest Anti-Syria Campaign

William Kristol of the "Weekly Standard" has an article summing up the Bush administration's view of Syria: "Getting Serious About Syria." After stating that Syria is a hostile nation, responsible for helping Iraqi Baathists direct the resistance, he recommends that "We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal ..." The second half of the article reads:

For the next 80 days, Abdullah and his unit went almost every day to attack American bases with mortars, or to man mujahideen checkpoints. He took part in ambushes on US convoys. As a mine hit a patrolling Humvee, Abdullah fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the second vehicle. He was transferred to Fallujah for three months, conducting raids with his unit in the neighboring Sunni towns of Samara and Ramadi. . . . US and Iraqi officials believe the Syrian government has turned a blind eye to those supporting terrorists in Iraq, seeing the insurgency as an outlet for religious extremists to let off steam. . . . Iraqi exiles in Damascus say there may be as many as 80 "mujahideen mosques" either in name or spirit supporting the resistance. Several prominent mosques in Damascus, including the large Bilal al-Hashemi mosque, have reputations as staging posts for Syrian fighters, suggesting a logistical and financial operation beyond the ability of any one tribal leader. The US military believes there may be as many as 2,000 foreign fighters in Iraq, mostly from Syria. They do not operate in a vacuum. . . . At the other end of the city, thousands of members of Saddam's regime have settled in the wealthy Mezzeh district. . . . The refugees include the three sons of the former industry minister Mohammed al-Douri, on whose farm Saddam was captured in a bolthole. It is likely that many recent arrivals have sufficient funds to finance Syrian mosques. As members of Saddam's regime some have been able to buy swaths of Damascene property which they rent out. Others live off their plundered Iraqi money. . . . By Bush Doctrine standards, Syria is a hostile regime. It is permitting and encouraging activities that are killing not just our Iraqi friends but also, and quite directly, American troops. So we have a real Syria problem. Of course we also have--the world also has--an Iran problem, and a Saudi problem, and lots of other problems. The Iran and Saudi problems may ultimately be more serious than the Syria problem. But the Syria problem is urgent: It is Bashar Assad's regime that seems to be doing more than any other, right now, to help Baathists and terrorists kill Americans in the central front of the war on terror. The deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Saleh, wants to address the problem. He said last week, clearly referring to Syria as well as Iran, that "there is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighboring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people, and such a thing is not acceptable to us." U.S. military intelligence officials agree: They have recently concluded, according to the Washington Post, "that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government." What to do? We have tried sweet talk (on Secretary Powell's trip to Damascus in May 2003) and tough talk (on the visit three months ago by Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt). Talk has failed. Syria is a weak country with a weak regime. We now need to take action to punish and deter Assad's regime. It would be good, of course, if Secretary Rumsfeld had increased the size and strength of our army so that we now had more options. He didn't, and we must use the assets we have. Still, real options exist. We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq; we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition (pro-human rights demonstrators recently tried to take to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime's abuses). This hardly exhausts all the possible forms of pressure and coercion. But it's time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East. --William Kristol
Since Faluga was pacified, a spate of news articles focusing on the leadership role of Iraqi exiles living in Syria have appeared. The Washington Post article of the 8th by Thomas Ricks is lays out the administration's concerns: "The Rebels Aided By Allies in Syria, U.S. Says Baathists Reportedly Relay Money and Support."
U.S. military intelligence officials have concluded that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognized from Syria, where they said former Saddam Hussein loyalists have found sanctuary and are channeling money and other support to those fighting the established government. Based on information gathered during the recent fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, the officials said that a handful of senior Iraqi Baathists operating in Syria are collecting money from private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe and turning it over to the insurgency. In some cases, evidence suggests that these Baathists are managing operations in Iraq from a distance, the officials said. A U.S. military summary of operations in Fallujah noted recently that troops discovered a global positioning signal receiver in a bomb factory in the western part of the city that "contained waypoints originating in western Syria." Concerns about Syria's role in Iraq were also expressed in interviews The Washington Post conducted yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar. "There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back," Yawar said. "They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are . . . disturbing or undermining our political process." Abdullah noted that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that "foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have previously complained about Syria's role in Iraq, but officials said the latest intelligence has given impetus to new efforts aimed at curbing the activities of the Hussein loyalists there. The U.S. government recently gave the government of Syria a list of those officials, with a request that they be arrested or expelled, a State Department official said yesterday. "We're bringing quite a bit of pressure to bear on them, and I think some of it is working," said another official, who works in federal counterterrorism efforts. Like other officials interviewed for this article, he declined to be identified by name or position because of the sensitivity of his specialty. One briefing slide in a classified summary of new intelligence data also says that new diplomatic initiatives are being used to encourage the Syrian government to detain or expel the Iraqi Baathists. "The Syrians appear to have done a little bit to stem extremist infiltration into Iraq at the border, but clearly have not helped with regards to Baathists infiltrating back and forth," said a senior U.S. military officer in the region. "We still have serious challenges there, and Syria needs to be doing a lot more."
What is speculation by Washington and what is really known is hard to determine. Before Faluja, Washington was certain that Syria was the major source of Mujahidiin coming across the border and was convinced that foreigners were organizing the worst attacks. Faluja dispelled this argument. Iraqi officials announced that only 4% of the captives in Faluja were foreigners. Less than 30 foreigners were taken or identified among the dead. How many were Syrian, we have not been told. One might assume 5 or 6. This evidence put a big hole in the Syrian mujahidiin theory that was peddled with such confidence before Faluja. America learned what many officers on the ground have been saying for some time - We don't know how the resistance is organized or lead. Post Faluja the analysts decided that if the resistance was not powered by Syrians then it was lead by Iraqis living in Syria, hence the spate of articles suggesting that the Defense Department had adopted this view. It will be interesting to see if it has more staying power than the last theory. Meanwhile, the earlier theory that Syria hid Saddam's WMD has also been abandonned. When Rumsfeld was interviewed recently in Kuwait and asked about WMD, he admitted for the first time that America was wrong. He didn't trot out the old "they're hidden in Syria line." So much for theories: One thing is clear. Washington doesn't really know what is behind the resistance. As Ricks reported:
Not everyone with first-hand knowledge of the intelligence is convinced that the United States really has a strong grasp of the nature of the insurgency, especially the idea that the insurgency is being directed from the top down. Some Special Forces officers contend that many of the small-scale roadside attacks with bombs or rocket-propelled grenades are mounted not on orders of a hierarchical organization, but rather by Iraqis working more or less alone who feel they have been humiliated by U.S. soldiers, or who simply dislike the occupation. "I just don't have the sense that we're getting to where we need to be," said one Defense Department official. "We don't know where the enemy is."
In the meantime, officials in Washington and Iraq are sticking to their line that the trouble is outside Iraq and fueled by "deadender Baathists." Syria is resisting taking the next step down the road to fulfilling US demands. It has restricted the flow of Syrians and foreigners crossing into Iraq. Syrian intelligence is sharing information with Iraqi and US commanders along Syria's border with Iraq. But getting Syria to arrest or expel Iraqis, the names of whom are provided by the US, will be a tough sell. 500,000 Iraqis are estimated to have come to Syria over the last year. Controlling them will be very difficult. Syria will resist getting into a major quarrel with resident Iraqis, not to mention with local Islamists and mosque leaders. Bashar has been expending great effort to end his father's war with the "Islamic Currents" in Syria. The last thing he will want to do is reactivate it for George Bush. All the same, it is not in Syria's interest to fight the US on this one. The US needs to do everything in its power to diminish the Iraqi resistance. Even if the latest moves to crack down on Iraqis in Syria is based largely on speculation or guesswork, it is a worthwhile strategy. Washington isn't having much luck with its other strategies for defeating the resistance and Syria has been quite cooperative in the past and will probably be so in the future. So why not mount yet another Syria bashing campaign? It is cheap, and who knows, the Defense Department might finally be right? It could be a Syrian plot after all.

Israeli Peace Plan with Syria and Lebanon

Naharnet sent the following article around on an Israeli plan for peace with Syria and Lebanon which will be discussed tomorrow in Hertzliya. It has some interesting new twists because it includes land swaps with Jordan. Sharon is not keen on it, but it is good to see some new creative thinking. Israel is discussing a comprehensive plan for peace with Syria and Lebanon under which the Jewish state would relinquish the western and northern fringes of the Golan Heights as well as the Shabaa farms, keeping in hand the major water resources on the eastern flank of the strategic plateau plus a corridor to Mount Hermon. The plan, which will be tabled for detailed discussion at the annual Israeli "Hertzliya Conference" on Monday, focuses on a triple land swap between Israel, Syria and Jordan. The Shabaa Frams, which Israel captured along with the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war, would be turned back to Syria, not Lebanon. According to the plan, which would be put forward in the context of a peace treaty with Syria, Israel would maintain its control over the eastern edge of the Golan Heights above the Sea of Galilee and the lake's water line. The size of this territory is about 250 square kilometers, in which 10,000 of the Golan's 16,000 residents live. Israel, the plan states, would continue to control the water resources and an access route to Mount Hermon. The portion returned to Syria would include all Druze- populated villages. Syria, under the plan, would receive land from Jordan along their common border, equal to the size of land it conceded from the Golan Heights. Israel would compensate Jordan with a portion of land south of the Dead Sea plus significant financial restitution. Mount Hermon would be turned into a "recreation center in heavens," complete with the most advanced skiing courses and winter resort hotels. It will be collectively exploited by Lebanon, Syria and Israel. The new plan was drafted by Dr. Uzi Arad, a former senior Mossad official and advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu, Professor Gideon Biger and Dr. Shmuel Bar. It has already been introduced to American and Syrian officials who expressed interest in the plan. Soon-to-be U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said it was a "creative plan." However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not appear to be overly enthusiastic. It is estimated all his efforts are currently focused on the disengagement plan. Bill O'Brien, a smart local Oklahoma reporter, has writing a good story on Syria, giving an overview of peace negotiations.

Bashar al Assad and those around him may see Syria’s conflict with Israel as an issue that serves to impede efforts to reform the Syrian economy. And the younger Assad’s government has been quietly seeking American support to regain the Golan Heights. Several months ago, an Israeli journalist reported that Bashar al Assad was willing to fly to Israel for the purpose of negotiating the return of land occupied by the Israelis.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Voting Districts in Iraq and Lebanon: Drawing Battle Lines

Dear readers: I will be traveling to Syria in the next several days, where I will live for 12 months as a Fulbright scholar to work on a new book - Oxford Press, country study of Syria, 1918 to present. I will try to keep "Syria Comment" going from Damascus. It will take me a few weeks to get settled there and figure out the capabilities of blogging over slow telephone connections! Michael Young has written an important article comparing the electoral systems of Lebanon and Iraq. He argues that the only way to reassure minorities, i.e. Christians and Druze in Lebanon and Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, is either to mandate minority representation as in Lebanon or to confine parliamentary election lists to the local level and not national. Here is a small bit of his argument. Read the whole thing: The Americans and Perelli made a spectacular blunder (in Iraq)in backing a single-constituency system. Allow me to refer to another multi-communal (though not multiethnic) Middle Eastern state, Lebanon, to explain just why. In 1943 Lebanon adopted a "consociational" system, where the religious communities are represented in parliament and in the national bureaucracy according to a ratio not necessarily reflecting their demographic weight. The idea is to give all groups a protected stake in the state. Today, that ratio is 50-50, so that although Christians are a minority, they nevertheless have half the seats in the legislature, and still hold the presidency. Everyone understands that if communal representation in parliament were decided by majority vote, even based on proportional representation, the minorities would consider this the beginning of an irreversible slide, and would probably abandon Lebanon, resort to violence, or both. This is the essence of what is known as the minority syndrome—the belief that any loss of power by one's own group in a multi-communal society will ultimately lead to the eradication of that group. However, in recent years, Syria's Lebanese allies have periodically warned Christians against going too far in their opposition to Syria by threatening to resort to an election system that would make Lebanon a single constituency. Somewhat similarly to the proposal in Iraq, such a system would mandate the formation of contending national slates of candidates, so that, in fact, the majority Muslim electorate would have a decisive say in choosing all Christian candidates (even though half the seats in parliament would still be reserved for Christians). Precisely for that reason, and fears that it would alienate Christians and other minorities, notably the Druze, the project remains controversial (and as noted above, is mainly resurrected as a means of intimidation). For similar reasons a single constituency in Iraq is bound to alarm Arab Sunnis there. The Sunnis see nothing but peril in a plan that gives considerable power to the majority Shiites and that, worse, unlike the Lebanese structure, does not set a fixed ratio of Sunni seats in the future parliament. Landis response to Young: Great article Michael. I have been thinking a great deal about the contradictions between US voting policy in Lebanon and Iraq. The whole thrust of election reform in Lebanon is to reduce the size of the districts and lists, which America theoretically supports in order to reward its friends there. In Iraq it is doing the opposite to reward its friends. Not smart. Not just because it is inherently contradictory and seems so self-serving to anyone who thinks about it, but because it will backfire, as you so rightly point out. You did a great job in laying this out. Young response: Josh, Actually I disagree on Lebanon: Taif expanded the electoral district to the Muhafaza (from the qada), and the US has not really taken position on this at all, at least none that I can remember. In fact I haven't heard the US sound out on electoral districts in one way or another. In Iraq I think the motive was partly to implement a system that would reflect the proper distribution of communal power--it was, after all, a plan proposed by the UN, not the US, initially. There was a vague effort at sticking to a Western notion of elections there, but also calculation of course. The problem, I think, is that they missed the real problems with that. Landis response: Yes, But the solution to Lebanon in the long-term is to get guarantees for minority representation, which can only be done through some sort of districting laws that favor local representation. Ultimately, the national pacts, and ta'ifs, which set rigid numbers for religious power-sharing are destabilizing, because they become fixed and set battle-lines. When demographics change, as in the Lebanese case, the parliamentary percentages do not. In the long run 50-50 is not a solution for Lebanon because it does not reflect the correct distribution of people and would need to be renegotiated every 10 years with every census, as it is in the US. If the US were using the Iraq model for Lebanon, there would be a Shiite Prime Minister, etc. The US supports Christian power in Lebanon. It did in 58, 82, and with UN resolution 1559. That is not the stated goal, as you say, but it is the result that everyone in the region understands and the practical result of its interventions, so it doesn't really matter whether it puts it in black and white, I suspect, or comes out in favor of the "qada" rather than the "muhafaza." The minorities want the qada returned and maybe that is a good thing as you suggest. But to get that, they will have to give up 50-50. The US has been debating minority-friendly districting for decades. During Clinton's administration, the proposal to allow districting for black localities in order to guarantee minority representation was raised. Republicans have always gerrymandered in order to wipe out black representation by swamping them with white conservative neighborhoods. Ultimately, the American people rejected the idea of minority set-asides because it undermines everything the US stands for - it just happens to mean Blacks get screwed unless they learn how to play the American game and internalize the dominant culture so they won't feel alienated. The important thing is to find a solution that is equitable in the eyes of the majority of Lebanese and will stay equitable over time. Strict percentages can never do that. The US has come out against ethnic set-asides time and again, perhaps for good reason. I understand the Levant is different from the US because so much more is at stake in the ethnicity-religion game. Nevertheless, as a supporter of true liberalism and individual rights, it is hard to come up with another solution that doesn't somehow work at cross purposes with the principles you want to inculcate. J Young response: Josh, If you remove the 50-50 ratio, you will have mass Christian emigration, nothing less. The end of what remains of multicommunal Lebanon. If the US supports Christian power today, I have yet to see any evidence of it. 82 was not an effort to back "Christian power", but a desire to hit 2 birds with one stone: get rid of the PLO and put in a friendly government to Israel. There was almost no Christian component to that that I could see, except that the ally of the moment happened to be Gemayel. Had it been Nabih Birri, nothing would have changed. Indeed, one of the first things the US told Gemayel (Amin) after he took power, was that he should open up to the Muslims. As for 1559, let's be serious. What makes it a "Christian" policy? It's an effort to screw the Syrians, sure, but I have seen no evidence, nor do I think there is any, that Bush and Chirac were thinking of the Christians. If anything, it was ecumenical, as Chirac showed by consulting with Jumblatt and probably basing some of his views on how the Syrians treated Hariri (to whom Bashar directed a direct threat that included Chirac, when compelling him to vote in favor of an extended mandate for Lahoud). By the way how does this: "The US has come out against ethnic set-asides time and again for good reason: square with this: "The US supports Christian power in Lebanon". It's not a contradiction, but shows quiet separate dynamics. If the US supported Christian power, they'd do everything in their power to support the pillar of what remains of Christian power in Lebanon: confessional set-asides. Take care, M

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Why Lebanon Should not Oppose Israeli-Syrian Peace Negotiations

Debka File has a very interesting article arguing why the US and Israel should rebuff President Asad's peace initiative, refuse to be "fooled" by Syrian perfidy, and maintain their united front of confrontation and steadfastness toward Damascus. This general argument is made in various forms by groups with an interest in "regime change" in Syria. The article is picked up by "Free Lebanon" and other hard line outfits that either want to bring down Asad or retain the Golan for Israel. They fear that if Washington should begin a dialog with Syria, they will loose their traction in Washington and the Lebanese opposition will loose its privileged position as the single ally of the US in the region. They argue that Syria is losing its hold over Lebanon anyway so why bargain, the Lebanese opposition is unified and strong so it can tackle Syria and Hizbollah without negotiations, Bashar is not serious about peace, the Syrian regime is so anti-Western and pro-terrorism that it is beyond salvation, and finally that by smashing Damascus and bringing about regime change, a positive, pro-Western government will take shape in Syria. All of these arguments, except the first, are wrong. But first, here is what the article says: December 4, 2004, 11:57 PM (GMT+02:00) Syrian ruler Bashar Assad is pitching his offer of peace talks with Israel to disguise his real woes: US and French demands to disarm the Hizballah terrorists and let Lebanon have a fair election and the internal divisions bedeviling his regime. The Bush administration and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are not fooled. On November 12, Assad made the unusual gesture of taking UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen aside in a quiet corner of his palace in Damascus for a long tête-à-tête. Aides – even an interpreter - were left standing outside the door. When he came out three hours later, the UN official announced with the same sort of enthusiasm he used to show about Yasser Arafat’s peaceful intentions that Assad is ready to start negotiations with Israel at once without prior conditions and even pay a visit to Jerusalem. Washington sources assured DEBKAfile that his words bore no relation to his conversation with the Syrian president. Larsen’s mission was not to discuss Syrian-Israel relations but rather to deliver a two-point ultimatum from Washington: 1. Damascus’s statement on Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon is not good enough. It meets only one half of UN Security Council resolution 1559. The other half requires Syria and Lebanon to disarm the Hizballah terrorist group by April 2005, just under five months away. 2. Lebanon’s March 21 general election must be fair and above board. All of Assad’s goodwill gestures will count for naught if Syrian military intelligence and the Lebanese security service customize the list of candidates and tinker with the voting process. Larsen stressed to the Syrian ruler the importance Washington attaches to a fair and honest election in Lebanon - so much so that if Assad monkeys with the process, the United States is prepared to seek Security Council sanctions. Assad was very grateful for the way Larsen highlighted the Israeli issue as a red herring to draw attention away from the real business at hand – firstly because he is not happy about showing the world how far American pressure is getting to him and, second, because he would be even less happy about exposing the power struggles besetting his regime. One quarrel, according to our sources, is muddling the chain of authority in the intelligence apparatus. Newly-appointed interior minister Ghazi Kenaan, who came to the job from long years as Syria’s all-powerful military intelligence chief in Lebanon, insists that his department is not subordinate to any other intelligence body in the country. That was his condition for taking the job. But by backing him up, the Syrian president has caused his nephew General Assad Shawqat to resign as head of Syrian intelligence and security and take the job of deputy military intelligence commander. These musical chairs bear on Assad’s attitudes on the Lebanese and Israeli questions. Kenaan belongs to the pro-reform faction in the Syrian leadership which advocates Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and negotiations with Israel to stave off American punishment. By strengthening Kenaan’s hand, the Syrian ruler appears to adopt this position – although he has never confirmed this outright. Shawqat’s boss, head of military intelligence General Hassan Khalil, is due to retire early next year. Shawqat may replace him, although this is not certain. If he does, he will attain equal rank with Kenaan. This may be a setback for the faction seeking to disengage from Lebanon and engage Israel. However, in Assad’s shop, hopefuls are kept dangling in suspense about their next steps on the ladder. Outside the intelligence community, civilian government is split into two camps over policy. The pro-reform faction, led by propaganda minister Dr. Mahdi Dahlallah and deputy foreign minister Walid Mualem, who as Syrian ambassador to Washington led many formal and secret talks with Israel, want talks with Israel to start from the point they were broken off four years ago. The Syrians claim that late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to Israel evacuating the entire Golan except for a chain of hills commanding the Sea of Galilee. If what has become known in diplomatic parlance as the Rabin deposit is accepted, an accord can be wrapped up in 24 hours. The second camp, the conservatives, headed by vice president Khalim Haddam and foreign minister Farouq al-Shara disagree. They reject the Rabin deposit and demand a full return to pre-1967 lines, including also the Syrian strip of shore on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, the entire Golan and the Shabaa Farms at the foot of Mt. Dov, to which the Syrians claim sovereignty. The French have been helping the US press Assad to quit Lebanon and allow a fair election to go forward. DEBKAfile’s Paris sources report that Washington also asked the French to find out if Assad is willing to publicly renounce Syria’s territorial claims to the Shaaba farms, thereby proving his genuine desire for progress on Lebanon and the dispute with Israel. Damascus has made no reply to this trial balloon from Paris. As seen from Washington, Assad is consistently evading response to American demands and messages on Lebanon and the Hizballah by turning the subject round and offering to start talks with Israel – a call that makes him look good in the world media while avoiding the issues. To get around this blank wall, the Americans enlisted the help of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who summoned the Syrian ruler to a meeting at the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh last Tuesday, November 30. Our Middle East sources report that Assad was very unwilling to go, but Mubarak, prodded from Washington and Paris, insisted. They spent two hours in blunt conversation. The Egyptian ruler warned his guest in no uncertain terms that continuing to ignore Washington and its demands would end badly. But an Egyptian spokesman in Mubarak’s party, alert to the importance of disguising the content and tenor of the summit, picked up the Damascus stratagem and announced Mubarak had offered to broker resumed Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrian ruler was furious at having his tactic hijacked without his permission and forced Cairo to publicly retract this statement. Realizing what is going on, Israeli prime minister Sharon on Thursday December 2, denied knowledge of Assad’s offer to visit Jerusalem or enter into negotiations. Whenever he is questioned on the subject, the Israeli leader says words are cheap; he wants to see action. Israel applied this rule of thumb to the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin’s article on Saturday, December 4, which urged the world to force Israel to accept negotiations with Syria rather than tolerating the Jewish state’s obstructions. For the moment, “the world”, especially Washington and Paris, is pushing Assad for answers and not getting them. The only bit of new information in this article is part about Interior minister Ghazi Kenaan, who came to the job from long years as Syria’s all-powerful military intelligence chief in Lebanon and has pushed aside other security chieftains to become the President's right hand man. This was done in the face of hard-line resistance from VP Khaddam and his click. (See my article on Khaddam and his backers) The Debkafile article confesses that "Kenaan belongs to the pro-reform faction in the Syrian leadership which advocates Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and negotiations with Israel." This should be good news to those who wish to see real Lebanese independence. It suggests that Bashar is serious about negotiations and has taken steps to rearrange the Alawite generals and regime strongmen in order to bring forward those that want reform and a way out of Lebanon. The authors of this article, however, brush it aside, claiming Kanaan and Bashar only want "to stave off American punishment." They argue it is all a trick that should fool no one. This is also Sharon's announced policy. What is their proof that it is a trick? * UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen - the man who delivered Asad's peace message to Sharon also believed in Yasser Arafat’s peaceful intentions. But Larsen is only one of many messengers to claim that Bashar is serious. Geoffrey Kemp, no Syrian stooge or Arafat lover, was categorical in saying that Bashar is serious. Both the President of Israel and Chief of Staff, Gen Yaalon argued that Israel should at least call Asad's bluff and try a dialog even if Israel should later find out Asad is not serious. * They argue that Asad is interested in relieving US pressure on his country and in opening up a dialog with Washington. What can possibly be wrong with that? Of course he wants to relieve pressure on his country. That is exactly why Washington placed sanctions on Damascus in the first place, so Asad would respond. Now he is responding. That is what frightens those who will only be satisfied with regime change in Damascus. * Regime change in Damascus is not in Washington's interest. Neither is it in Lebanon's long-term interest. The only elements in Syria's political world that are likely to benefit from Bashar's fall are the Islamists. Most pro-American types in Syria have little public support, and many of them are already working in the government. Bashar has given important government posts to most of the pro-Western reformers he can find. Moreover, Bashar is about the most pro-Western Syrian Washington is likely to find. Yes, he is weak and cannot transform Syria overnight. But Washington should not lament the fact that Bashar is not the authoritarian dictator his father was. He has allowed for a certain pluralization of power in Damascus. This means he must play politics in Syria just like every other national leader. He cannot wave a wand and solve all Syria's problems. He must move like-minded generals, like Kanaan, and politicians like Dakhlallah, into positions of authority to help him. It is good that Syria is less dictatorial than it used to be. This is what pro-Westerners wanted. That Syria doesn't just jump to the President's tune, is the price of liberalization and decentralization of authority. The attack on Bashar is short-sighted. Those Lebanese who seek to scuttle comprehensive regional negotiations between Syria, Israel and Lebanon and block the chance for a solution to the long-term border problems that have bedeviled the region since World War One are doing no one any favors. Bashar's willingness to engage Israel and the US in negotiations is a good thing. It offers all states a chance to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute once and for all. It is that dispute which has been at the root of so much misunderstanding and most of the regional wars over the last century. Once it is resolved, other questions about ideology (Arab nationalism), religious bigotry, confessional power-sharing and liberalization will be so much easier to deal with honestly. Today, they all become embroiled in the greater territorial struggle between Israel and the Arabs and seem intractable. They are not. Extremists on all sides will find their arguments defused. The Lebanese opposition will not win the battle with Damascus over independence if they rely on raw power and US backing alone to push out the Syrians. This was demonstrated in spades in 1982. The only way for the Lebanese opposition to really gain power, unify Lebanon around the call for independence, and resolve the lingering sectarian problems of the civil war, is if it cuts Syria into the deal and as Bashar insists it does. If Syria gets back the Golan, Bashar will no longer have a pretext for staying in Lebanon, just as pro-Syrian Lebanese will no longer have a reason to resist the charms of their Christian and Druze compatriots.

Friday, December 03, 2004

"Staggering Absence" of young intellectuals in Syria by Ammar Abdulhamid

The following article lamenting the "staggering absence" of young intellectuals who capture the public imagination in Syria is well worth the read. Letter from Damascus: Superhighway to Damascus by Ammar Abdulhamid BookForum - Jan/Dec 2005 One of the most significant deficits in the Arab world today—and one which the highly publicized United Nations Arab Human Development Reports have so far failed to mention—is the staggering absence of young voices on the intellectual scene and in the public debate concerning societal and political reform. This is perhaps the starkest manifestation of the "knowledge gap or deficit" referred to in the reports, issued annually by the United Nations Development Program to monitor socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab states. Arab countries, it seems, have somehow ceased to produce intellectuals—artists, novelists, poets, and political and social analysts—who could navigate new courses and harness popular sentiment to help lift their countries out of the morass in which they are mired. Take Syria, which has historically produced more writers and thinkers of great renown than any other Arab state. In contrast to the dozens of figures who emerged on the country's intellectual scene in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, there is hardly a single figure in Syria today who is capable of galvanizing popular interest. Indeed, no author, poet, or thinker below the age of forty has managed to make a name for him- or herself within the country, much less in the Arab world at large. In the meantime, the older, familiar voices—Adonis, one of the most daring and creative contemporary Arab poets; Nizar Qabbani, hands down the most popular Arab versifier, inspiring singers throughout the Arab world with his works; Saadallah Wannous, the most prolific Arab dramatist; and Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, the courageous critic of contemporary Arab thought, both religious and political—continue to dominate. And this despite the fact that Qabbani and Wannous are dead, and Adonis and al-Azm are in their seventies, with Adonis living in Paris and al-Azm spending most of his time teaching abroad, in Europe, the United States, and Japan. What happened? A number of factors are responsible. For one, a climate of fear continues to prevail in Syria, thanks to the severe limits on freedom of expression and assembly still imposed by the Baathist government. Every Syrian below the age of forty was raised under the rule of the Baath Party, which seized control of the country in a bloody coup in 1963. Syrians of this generation have vivid recollections of the dictatorial rule of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, and the horrific crackdowns of the late '70s and early '80s, as well as the 1992 massacres in the central Syrian city of Hama, where more than fifteen thousand people were killed and buried in unmarked mass graves. This kind of repression has, naturally, fostered an attitude of political and social apathy among young Syrians and stifled the spirit of free inquiry. Add to this an outmoded educational system that values rote memorization over critical thinking, societal and cultural taboos on the criticism of "traditional values," and a serious shortage of activities, social clubs, and national programs designed to discover and support talented individuals in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and the dearth of young intellectuals today should come as little surprise. The above factors have also contributed to a decrease in exposure to modern philosophy and the intellectual trends of the West, so that even as limits on freedom of speech in the Middle East are now being challenged as a result of the introduction of the Internet and the proliferation of Arab satellite-TV networks, the few young voices in Syria who have managed to emerge (most of them in their late thirties and forties) have often shown a woefully inadequate understanding of contemporary global realities. Instead, they tend to fall back on the dated, nationalistic rhetoric of their predecessors rather than attempting to critique it. Thus the problem of inadequate human resources, which the UN reports identify, seems to affect not only the professional sphere but the intellectual scene as well, a situation true of nearly every Arab country, to varying degrees. And yet, lifting the limits on freedom of expression and fostering the development of young intellectuals aren't enough. There is a clear need to bridge the gap in knowledge that separates the Middle East from the rest of the world. This requires broad exposure to modern Western thought—not only academic and cultural exchange programs, involving scholars, students, and artists, but more important, the adoption of a large-scale effort to translate into Arabic works of Western philosophy, the humanities, and the social and political sciences, classical and contemporary alike. According to the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, fewer than 4.4 books per million people are currently translated throughout the Arab world each year, in comparison with 519 in Hungary and 920 in Spain. Given that the total population of the Arab world is around 250 million, the total number of books translated into Arabic each year is around 1,100. In the past, similar translation efforts have, over time, led to an intellectual and cultural renascence in the societies that have championed them. This was the case in the Arab world in the ninth century, when Arab scholars set about translating Greek and Aramaic works on philosophy and science. There is a strong argument to be made that a serious commitment to translation, in tandem with programs designed to encourage young Arab minds to grapple critically with these texts, could have a similarly beneficial effect today. It is a time-consuming undertaking, to be sure, but then, cultural battles are won only through decades of interaction and introspection. Cultures do not change overnight. Naturally, considering the ambitious scale of such a project, it cannot be entrusted solely to the Arab regimes or independent Arab publishers, who are struggling to get by. Rather, an alliance of state, independent, and international institutions is needed to provide funding and work out a plan adequate for such a vast enterprise. One major channel for this undertaking is likely to be the Internet, where censorship by Arab states is still fairly lax. In Syria, the website has already managed, in four short years, to establish itself as a vital outlet for young and aspiring minds. The site offers sections on philosophy, nonviolence, psychology, environmental affairs, and literary endeavors, especially poetry and short stories. Although based in Damascus, its contributors and readership come from all over the Arab world, as well as from Arab communities in Europe, the United States, and Australia. Despite its continued political reticence (and its highly sophisticated language, which makes it accessible only to a tiny minority of readers), Maaber nonetheless showcases youthful thinkers who possess exactly the kind of analytical skills and introspection that are sorely needed if Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, are to develop a more realistic and fruitful vision of the future. Though Maaber is by far the most sophisticated such website, others have joined in the attempt to take advantage of the relative freedom of expression on the Internet, such as Akhbar al-Sharq (, Rezgar (, and my own Tharwa Project (, which focuses on the concerns of ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab world. The proliferation of such websites is an indication of the hunger in Arab states for intellectual initiatives, and comes at a time when access to the Internet and its popularity have become more widespread throughout Syria, despite the relatively high costs involved. But larger and more systematic efforts are needed if the challenge is to be met. Arab states desperately need to empower their young. More to the point, they need to do so in the right way—that is, in a way that makes them feel they are an integral part of the world and more involved in the making of contemporary civilization—rather than pariahs or mere relics of things passed. Ammar Abdulhamid is currently a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, where he is working on a monograph on the next generation of Arab intellectuals. He is a Syrian novelist and social analyst based in Damascus and is the coordinator of the Tharwa Project, which seeks to raise awareness of the living conditions of minority groups in the Arab world.

Syria Today is a wonderful new publication that is being put out in Damascus. It's mission is to cover Syria's economic and social development, bringing together some of Syrian's best writers and analysts with native English speakers and editors specialising on Syria. Syria Today seeks to bridge the information gap on Syria through the provision of high quality articles on the country's development issues, its distinct features, and the effect of recent reforms on the Syrian people. One excellent article is by Rhonda Roumani and Andrew Tabler, who talked to business people in Syria about their hopes and fears following the enactment of US sanctions. They find that hospitals in particular are having a terrible time getting replacement parts for sophisticated American machinery, such as MRIs, crucial to patient care. Another section tries to navigate Syria 's economic reform measures, outlining the most recent measures, as well as upcoming studies and legislation. Also, don't miss the informative interview with Abdullah Dardari, Minister of State for Planning Affairs, about efforts to coordinate Syrian reform. If this publication can maintain the same quality as its first issue, it will be doing us all a great service.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Does Bashar Want Peace?

Michael Young writes a fine and disparaging article about the Syrian-backed demonstration in favor of Syria in downtown Beirut, "Telling Syria: Thanks a hundred thousand," in the Daily Star. He ends it by writing: "The Lebanese-Syrian relationship probably cannot transcend subservience to reach collaborative neighborliness. But the worst thing is that few Lebanese have the courage to tell their brethren in Damascus that the gimmicks of Syrian power are separating Lebanon from Syria perhaps irreversibly." Elsewhere, Young has written that the Lebanese opposition to the Syrian occupation will have to unify before it can be effective. Nicholas Blanford of the Christian Scientist Monitor quotes a number of analysts - including yours truly and al-Hayat's Ibrahim al-Hamidi - who explain why they think Syria is serious about peace with Israel. Bashar said to have contemplated going to Jerusalem Last Year Israel on Wednesday acknowledged that secret contacts between it and Syria were held early last year. Syria, meanwhile, denied an Israeli media report that President Bashar Assad signaled he was ready to visit Jerusalem last year and address its parliament in a pitch for peace. "It goes without saying that this is completely baseless," a Foreign Ministry official said of the report published in the Maariv daily. But Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom acknowledged Wednesday the Israeli government had held secret contacts with Syria last year, including with relatives of Assad, but said that they had been broken off after leaks to the press. Quoting unnamed Israeli officials, the Maariv daily said Assad signaled he was ready to come to Jerusalem in a move to revive peace talks - suspended in 2000 - but that the gesture was thwarted by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office. Asked about the Maariv report, Shalom did not comment on whether Assad had requested to visit Jerusalem, but insisted contacts held a year and a half ago had been only "preliminary." Roger Hardy of the BBC explains that there was never much chance President Bashar al-Assad would accept the Israeli invitation to Jerusalem. He doesn't want to be Sadat and Washington is not urging him to go as it did Sadat and doesn't seem any more interested than Sharon in drawing the Syrian's out. As Hardy writes: "President Bush, like Prime Minister Sharon, seems more interested in punishing President Assad than rewarding him." Israel is Better off with Syrian Forces in Lebanon An Israeli government report concluded Syria's troop deployment in Lebanon is in Israel's best interest, Israeli military radio reported Wednesday. Israeli National Security Council chief Giora Eiland warned in the report, commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon would only serve to strengthen Hizbullah. The report's conclusion is in stark contrast to the Israeli government's public stance, which has consistently demanded that Syria withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and halt its backing of Hizbullah. Tel Aviv has insisted it will not resume peace negotiations with Syria until both demands are met. Israeli military radio said officials from Sharon's office indicated he found the report's recommendations unacceptable. Beirut-based political analyst Simon Haddad said the report's recommendation made "no sense. ... Even if Syria withdraws its troops, it will retain control over Lebanon and will retain its relations with Hizbullah." Haddad added that he believed the report was aimed at destabilizing the national entente in Lebanon. He said it might also be to show that Israel has no interests in promoting UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Adopted on Sept.2, the resolution calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon and for the disarmament of Lebanese and foreign militias. But political analyst Nawaf Kabbara said, "If Syria withdraws, Lebanon will be faced with the following situation: a weak government and a strong military power in Hizbullah which will definitely grow stronger and more powerful." He added that internal opposition to Hizbullah would also grow, possibly with the help of outside backing, creating a situation which would destablize Lebanon. "Our situation is not easy," he added, "the Syrian presence is indispensable despite its inconveniences." He added that Hizbullah's raison d'etre will not cease with Syria's withdrawal. "Its goal, at the present, is not limited to freeing the Golan Heights. It is a regional organization and as long as there is a regional justification for its existence, it will continue." What, then, would be the solution? "Going back to the negotiations table," as Syrian President Bashar Assad seems to be doing, according to Kabbara. Sharon rejects talks with Syria Again: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he will not revive peace talks with Syria as long as Palestinian militant groups operate in Damascus. Mr Sharon said that President Bashar Assad had not taken "the smallest step" against Palestinian militants based in the Syrian capital. Syria, which had recently suggested renewed negotiations, rejected the Israeli conditions as "unacceptable". Hamas and Islamic Jihad both have headquarters in Damascus.