Sunday, February 27, 2005

Syria Helps US Capture Saddam's Half Brother?

Is Syria helping the US in Iraq?

Sabawi Ibrahim Hasan, a half brother of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has been captured.

One reporter told me: "I am told that the Syrians effectively handed him over to the Americans, either by kicking him out and telling the Americans, or informing the Americans where he was in Iraq."

"I am also told that there might be more examples of this in the near future and that some of the senior baathists in Syria will begin leaving the country for safer destinations."

Local Reporters Getting Warned

Syrian reporters are getting their hands smacked here for the first time in years. Two reporters told me yesterday that they had gotten warning calls from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling them that they were not being loyal to Syria because they had filed "irresponsible" articles.

This tells us:
1. The heat is back on in Damascus. Until recently one could write pretty much as he pleased. Now the foreign ministry is trying to shut people up.

2. Both Syrian reporters were steaming. They don’t like to have their citizenship invoked in criticism. It is the old way of doing things here and it gets people furious because there is no argument, just threats. Five years of relative freedom has changed Syrians a great deal. Six years ago, I would not be able to circulate so freely among reporters and professors. They would not have expressed their anger. They are also thinking in completely new ways. Watching satellite TV, traveling, and having the Middle East change around them, has changed their perspective and educated them to a completely new language.

3. The Ministry -- and government, by extension – are way over their heads on this. They don’t know how to deal with public relations and can’t even get their story straight. Every one here is tearing their hair out over the incompetence of the government spokes-people and officials. As one local political science professor said: “I was watching a government deputy speak on a satellite station last night and they said Syria would win against Israel and its enemies because it was strong and held up the banner of LOVE.” He looked at me dumbstruck and said: “How can they say such things? Where do they find such lines.”

4. Syria’s old cards are blowing up in its hands, as I reported several weeks ago. The Hariri killing followed by the fake confession on al-Iraqiyya TV by someone claiming he had been sent into Iraq in 2001 to join the opposition, and now the Islamic Jihad report have clobbered Syria. It is completely isolated. The Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian fronts have all boomeranged against Syria. They are not cards but self inflicted wounds. The government will have to give them all up to save itself. This is what my father-in-law, the general, said to me the day we heard about the Hariri assassination.

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing without informing the government, according to sources here. The Syrian government probably had no foreknowledge of the Tel Aviv bombing and is severely embarrassed by the Islamic Jihad announcement. The reporter I spoke to said, “Islamic Jihad is much more irresponsible and rash than Hamas. There is going to be elections in Gaza soon and IJ is not popular and will lose. Thus, they organized the bombing to stake out their position on the extreme.” Obviously there is confusion in IJ ranks. The Gaza office denied responsibility when Damascus was taking credit.

Regional Ba’th Party Conference: I’ve been trying to follow the story of the planned meeting for the conference of the regional leadership of the Baath Party. (There is no “National Leaderhip.” That was the old Baath Party led by Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar, which fled the country in 1966 and ended up in Iraq.) The meeting is important because many of the various ministries’ reform plans depend on the Party first changing its constitution to allow for a greater market economy (getting rid of socialism - Ishtirakiyya) and allowing for greater political freedom and pluralism (hurriyya).

A top Baathist explained to me that the Party could not meet in June or July as announced because Party elections have yet to take place. He explained that there are actual democratic elections by the Baath Party members for leadership. There are several layers of party organization extending from the very local level up to the top regional command. (I believe there are four layers altogether, but there may only be three) Each election, he said would take up to a month. Thus, if one does the math, it will be impossible to have the regional command meeting by July. The election process has not begun or even been announced.

Freedom: When I asked if the process was really democratic going right up to the top, he explained that it wasn’t. “The way it works,” he said, “is that at the lower levels the process is very democratic and correct. But at the last level it is not. The government leadership appoints who it wants to the regional command from the lower ranks.” He explained that many of the elected officials give wonderful and heated speeches after they are elected about how they want to change things. “Then they are punished.” He said. “They are not hurt,” he assured me, “just punished in various ways. They don’t get what they want. At the last level, it is “wila’” or loyalty to the leadership which counts.”

1. The Baath Party Conference cannot be help before this fall, if then.
2. Democratic elections take place in Syria among the lower ranks of the Baath Party.
3. Reformers are elected and rise up through the ranks. They are not rewarded for there reformism, however, unless they show loyalty to the leadership, which may contradict their reform plans.
4. The present pressure on Syria will surely halt most reform plans because there is a very high premium on loyalty to the regime right now.

Syria's Dead End

I have republished this post because the "permanent Link" was not working and comments could not be displayed or added.

Syria's Dead End

The squeeze has been placed on Syria, and cracks are beginning to form in the ordinarily stolid constitution of a people accustomed to disappointment and hardship. Everyone wants to criticize the government as their anxiety overflows the lip of well practiced patience. With a minimum of prodding, one gets a flood of complaint. The leadership has led the country into a blind alley. It will be the people who pay the exit price.

Everything turns on European sanctions. Unlike the US, Europe is Syria’s major trading partner. Sixty per cent of Syrian trade is with European states. France has already called for sanctions. Will Germany and Britain follow suit? If Germany and Britain agree to join an economic embargo of Syria, the entire EU will be pulled behind them, whether they like it or not. Spain and Greece, the states which have traditionally been most outspoken in Syria’s defense, will be mute. Surely the European powers will look for ways to stop the sanctions train before it leaves the station.

The problem for the European states is that once they attach their wagons to America’s economic sanctions engine, they are hostages to George Bush’s Syria policy. Once imposed, sanctions are likely to continue for decades. In all likelihood, they will not end until there is regime change in Damascus. Even if the European powers enter into a sanctions regime with the US for the sole purpose of forcing Syria from Lebanon, they will not be able to escape sanctions until the entire list of American demands are met. America’s list of demands is endless. It wants Syria to end support for the Palestinian resistance and Hizballah. It demands Syria pull out of Lebanon; it wants Syria to give up its WMD; and it wants Syria to arrest a long list of Iraqis accused of financing and organizing the resistance in Iraq. Syria will never meet all these demands. Not so long as is a Baathist state.

Should Europe try to end sanctions on Syria before all of America’s demands are met, Washington will accuse them of recognizing Syria’s right to WMD or its right to support Palestinian fighters. Sanctions on Cuba have lasted 40 years, those on Iran have been in place since the revolution, sanctions on Iraq lasted until the overthrow of Saddam, and US sanctions on Syria as a terrorist state have been in place since the late 1970s. Sanctions are a very blunt weapon that once begun can rarely be ended. Moreover, they hurt the defenseless masses more than the well provisioned leadership. At least initially, they stoke the passions of nationalism and popular will to resist, rather than the opposite. The logical end to sanctions will be regime change. This Europe wants to resist. The Europeans were opposed to President Bush’s plan to reform the greater Middle East when it was declared and most still do.

The European diplomats in Damascus disagreed with Bush’s policy of driving Syria to the wall. Many privately blame the US for creating the political tension that has led to Hariri’s assassination. They wanted Washington to cut a deal with Bashar al-Asad months ago, to trade the Golan for a Lebanese withdrawal. They never bought into the notion of “Democracy in the Middle East.” Perhaps “old Europe” appreciates the difficulties of democratic transformation in “old societies” better than young America? Or, perhaps, as Washington claims, Europe is merely stubborn and contrary, having failed to appreciate the new temper of the times? Washington refused to negotiate with Syria for ideological reasons. “It would not negotiate with dictators and terrorist states.” Europe, at least initially, hoped to make something out of Bashar.

The Hariri assassination has placed the Europeans in a very awkward position. If they don’t agree to economic sanctions, the US will accuse them of sanctioning murder. Bashar’s blunders have cut the legs from underneath Europe. A few days ago, when the Canadian PM claimed that the Lebanese situation was a delicate one and that Syrian troops played an important role in maintaining security, he set off an uproar. Opposition members and supporters alike forced him to retract his statement. When Solana – the EU foreign minister – initially said that Europe’s relationship with Syria would not change until the author of Hariri’s murder had been found, his words were drowned out by Tsunami of American and French accusations. Europe will have to give way to America on the Syria-Lebanon question. Chirac has stated that Lebanon is France’s Iraq. All Europe will soon be confusing Beirut with Baghdad.

The Syrians, inept at making European calculations, are busy adding up local support. Will Iran stand firmly by them or inch toward recommending withdrawal? Will Hizballah remain faithful or will it cut a deal with the Lebanese opposition? How will the Lebanese Sunnis stand now that their leader has been cut down? Will they unequivocally blame it on the Syrians? Or will their sense of Arab nationalism and sensitivity to being called pro-Israeli prevent them from breaking with Damascus and joining whole-heartedly with the “Lebanese,” anti-Syrian camp? Who can speak for the Sunnis now that their za’im is gone? Will they fragment as they did during the dark years of the civil war, remaining without a single voice or strongman to unite them? Who someone emerge to fill Hariri’s shoes, or will they produce a sea of leaders, ripe for Damascene fishing expeditions? Can the opposition hold and gain strength as it claims it will? Or will the Lebanese grow weary of revolution? Most of all, eyes are on the Shiites and Hizballah to help lead Syria out of its morass.

Yesterday, my barber and two taxi drivers insisted that Syria would not withdraw from Lebanon. “Syria is strong,” they stated. Whether such bluster and demonstrations of national resolve are designed to impress “the American” or constitute real expressions of steadfastness, who can say. All the same, there are some here ready to hunker down, like in the bad old days, and wait out the storm. That is not the majority opinion among the upper-classes though. Most Syrians are beginning to curse their masters.

Acrimonious debate is dividing Syria’s leaders over how to proceed. The old Sunni patricians of the regime – the Khaddams and Tlases, who have been edged aside by the young bucks of the palace – are angry about the avalanche of misdeeds. The death of Hariri has hit them hard. They want the “Lebanon portfolio” back in their hands, where it had been secure and well tended.

Is the President being held hostage by cousins, in-laws, and siblings? Many are coming to believe this conjecture. Do they have a vision? Or has miscalculation fed by darker interests propelled them into a dead end?

Where did things begin to go wrong? What would Hafiz al-Asad have done” is one of the often asked questions here? One closely placed source answered this question without hesitation: “The father would have joined Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” just as he joined Bush the father in 1991. In exchange he would have secured a free hand in Lebanon.” The president stood against America in Iraq. For that he will have to pay with Lebanon – perhaps more.

The initial line that seems to be emerging from the palace is that Syria will not be chased from Lebanon with its tail between its legs. It would seem Syria is still holding out for a deal. Bush and Chirac are in no deal making mood.

Much will depend on Britain and Germany. Much will also depend on the Lebanese people. Even more will depend on Syria’s president to find an exit from the present cul de sac.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

For a tough but smart analysis of the Lebanon situation see Tony Badran's latest posts at Across the Bay. He quotes an article on Jumblatt's latest revelations about Hariri's last meeting with President Asad.

Jumblat recited in the interview what President Assad told Hariri in their last meeting in Damascus in august last year shortly before Syria dictated the 3-year extension of President Lahoud in power.

"Lahoud is me," Hariri quoted Assad as telling him in the meeting that was held when Hariri was still the prime minister of Lebanon, Jumblat said. "That was the intro of Syria's dictation of Lahoud's extension in September, which led Hariri to resign and which touched of the current crisis," Jumblat explained.

He further quoted Hariri as having told him that Bashar said: "If Chirac wants to get me out of Lebanon I will destroy Lebanon. Jumblat has Druze in Mount Lebanon, but I also have Druze and I shall hit and destroy Mt. Lebanon."

Jumblat said the opposition in Lebanon "does not want to fight the Syrians. They are our neighbors. But we don't want to be annexed in a new Anschluss as Hitler did to Austria in 1938."

Tony argues that Syria will burn its way out of Lebanon much as Saddam did on departing Kuwait. I don't think he will. The Germans and Europeans seem to have persuaded Bush to wait on sanctions until after the May elections in Lebanon.

A number of people here in Damascus have suggested that Syria may try to hold off the withdrawal until the Lebanese elections in order to save face by leaving with a new government and in an orderly fashion. That would seem to be Europe's hope and advice to Bashar. For the time being, President Bush is going along. He cannot use force in Syria or act unilaterally. There are no more troops to spare. He needs Europe this time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Bush - Delays call for Sanctions

Lebanonwire: February 23, 2005

Bush turns up heat on Syria over troops, 'secret services' in Lebanon
by Olivier Knox

MAINZ, Germany, Feb 23 (AFP) - US President George W. Bush ratcheted up the pressure on Syria Wednesday, demanding that it pull its troops and "secret services" out of Lebanon but stopping short of urging immediate UN sanctions.

"Syria must withdraw not only the troops but its secret services from Lebanon," Bush said during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Bush added that the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon "need to be free, without any Syrian influence".
When asked whether he would try to urge European leaders to seek sanctions against Damascus, Bush said he would watch the reaction of the Syrians.

"The charge is out there for the Syrian government to hear loud and clear, and we will see how they respond before there's any further discussions about going back to the United Nations," he said.

Bush and his French counterpart Jacques Chirac made a joint call after talks late Monday for Syrian soldiers to pull out of Lebanon, with the European Union adding its voice Tuesday.

Schroeder said he agreed with the US position and echoed US calls for an independent probe of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14.

UN resolution 1559 calls for all foreign forces to be pulled out of Lebanon and for militias such as Hezbollah to be dissolved.

Syria maintains 14,000 troops in the country, but has been facing growing pressure to pull out of Lebanon following Hariri's killing.

The United States has been hardening its tone with Syria on several fronts in recent months and last week recalled its ambassador to Damascus for urgent consultations as a strong signal of its displeasure.

The Americans are seeking a full and transparent investigation of the bomb attack that killed Hariri and 17 other people in Beirut. Washington has implicated the Syrians.

In addition to the withdrawal from Lebanon, Washington is also demanding that Syria end its support for insurgents in neighboring Iraq as well as Islamic militants seeking to torpedo the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying Monday that he would soon withdraw troops under a 1989 accord that ended Lebanon's civil war.

But US officials have been unimpressed by the pledge.

"We'll judge it by the facts," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Tuesday.

Meanwhile Syria's official state press lashed out at Washington's new pressure Tuesday, accusing the United States of hypocrisy.

Bush's position "throws light on what is being hatched against Syria and the region," said government newspaper Tishrin. "It demonstrates the American policy of double standards and preconceived ideas."

The paper said it was "illogical" to insist that UN Security Council Resolution 1559 be carried out and ignore other resolutions in the Middle East that have not been implemented.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The taste of Bitterness in Syria

Syria is going through new layer of emotions as a result of the Hariri assassination.

Before describing local reactions, I must say it was very moving to watch the extraordinary demonstration in center-city Beirut yesterday, the city in which I grew up. Many TV channels carried live feed of the procession from Martyr’s square to the UN building. The demonstrators carried signs with various nationalist slogans. Some said “Syria out,” others simply bore the crescent and cross together, but most were pictures of Hariri or the Lebanese flag. Like witnessing a downpour in the desert, it was extraordinary to watch the mass demonstration. Such manifestations of creative spirit have been absent from the Arab world for so long. Much of the public anger expressed in the days immediately following Hariri’s murder had given way to a celebration of Lebanon’s surprising unity. The participants were orderly and calm. There was a minimum of speechifying. Perhaps the leaders sensed that the day was a day of the people; they had better tag along, rather than try to direct. It was a beautiful first day of spring. It gives one faith that the Lebanese will finally get what they have been praying for these last 30 years – national reconciliation, independence and freedom.

Of course anyone familiar with Lebanon and the Arab World knows how elusive such goals can be. We can expect many setbacks and disappointments along the way. When Lebanon’s many sectarian leaders do try to organize and channel the new sentiment and popular expectations toward their own ends, solidarity will be sorely challenged. But who can deny that something new has happened? It has electrified people. Out of the barren Middle Eastern political scene has sprung the possibility to hope.

Bitterness and cynicism have reigned as king and queen of the region for so long that most people have forgotten the simple and much maligned power of faith in the future. And it has not come out of Iraq or Palestine, but out of little, exceptional Lebanon, which so many had written off as the Noah’s Arch of disorder. Long live Lebanon!

* * *

If Lebanon has seen a renaissance of spirit, Syria has had its spirit drained. The Ba’th (Renaissance) Party is in all time disarray. Fa’iz Ismail of the Progressive Front wrote the other day that the Party would not discuss “domestic maters” in its much anticipated meeting this summer. Only foreign topics would be on the table. That means no party reform as many had hoped, no legalization of new political groupings, and no end to the straight jacket of socialism and one party rule. If Lebanon is entering a new era of freedom with new leaders, Syria is mired in the old. There are no demonstrations here.

Syrians are grumbling and confused, disappointed and frightened. They are angry too. One neighbor of a friend, a well known doctor whose son attends the Lebanese American University in Beirut, insists his son will not return to Lebanon to complete the new semester. The son claimed that of the 300 Syrian LAU students, half will not return to Beirut. “You don’t know how the Lebanese hate us,” he said. “We don’t feel comfortable there, and we don’t want to return.” Perhaps these students and parents will reconsider their decisions in a few days should anxieties calm down. For the time being, no one is taking chances. The manager of a tourist company I spoke to said he had ordered Lebanese buses for his tourist groups, so they could pass into Lebanon from Syria unmolested. Syrian buses and cars have been stoned in Lebanon. One military officer claimed that his wife’s car had its windows broken while she was on a shopping trip across the border two days ago. The tents of Syrian itinerant farm workers were burned and destroyed near Tripoli. The Syrians are leaving Lebanon with or without government orders.

Many people are angry. “Tuzz `alla Lubnan” (Fart on Lebanon) is a common refrain around here among taxi drivers and shop keepers: “They are the ones who need us. We don’t need them. Perhaps some leaders are getting rich in Lebanon,” they add, “but for the Syrian people, Lebanon is a burden.” No soldier likes serving in Lebanon. Many will remind you that for the ordinary Syrian, Lebanon has been a constant drain in treasure and lives.

But everyone is worried underneath their show of hurt national pride. There are at least 300,000 Syrian workers in Lebanon (some say as many as 1,000,000) who may be forced to come home. What will Syria do with them? They are all supporting families. People are angry at Syria’s leaders. As one taxi drive said by way of a local aphorism: “When the leaders eat unripe grapes, it is the people who taste the bitterness.”

Arabism is dead: There is no popular will to stay in Lebanon. Ninety per cent of Syrians, maybe more, say Syria must leave. They know Syria’s presence in Lebanon has outlived its usefulness and welcome. “Arabism is dead,” the more reflective say. “The Saudis and people of the Gulf,” they don’t like us. “Jordan? Oh yes! We have great relations with Jordan. Iraq? Egypt? Morocco? Everyone is thinking of themselves. The Palestinians are ready to give up their rights.” One hears such comments wherever on goes. Some have said this for a long time, but others are letting it cross their lips for the first time. There is a new disappointment. Perhaps the often-interred Arab nation is actually dying? Even the Syrian government and Ba’th Party will have to eventually wake up to the reality. As the Minister of Information wrote several months ago, “There is no Baath Party in any other Arab country except for perhaps Yemen. No one wants to unite with us. Let’s not pretend. It is time to recognize this and change.” The Baath Party has its hands over its ears.

The Christian shops in the neighborhood had their televisions tuned to LBC and the Lebanese demonstration all day long. The noise and hubbub coming from their shops was audible on the streets. Muslim shops were listening to something else. Not a few were tuned to recitations of the Koran. Syrians are worried for their future and divided in how to respond to the events in Lebanon.

A month ago, foreign reporters were swarming all over Damascus trying to read the impact of Iraqi elections here. Only 14,000 Iraqis voted. It is the impact of events in Lebanon that they should have come to report on. That is what the Syrians are paying attention to.

Today, the Syrians taste the bitterness. Perhaps in the future, Lebanon will bring them something sweet. As my devout local newspaper seller said when I asked him what he thought of Lebanon: "The Lebanese have freedom. Every sect has a party to express the needs of the people. Isn't that what everyone wants and what Allah intended? Al-hamdulillah."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Syria Defies American Demands

Hala Jaber, writing for the Times of London from Damascus explains:

Syria rejects US call for Lebanon pullout

SYRIA has defied American demands to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and to disarm Hezbollah militants, insisting that Israel must first pull out of the Golan Heights.
The government in Damascus has been under growing pressure from Washington since last week’s assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and forthright critic of Syria’s military presence in his country. President George W Bush recalled the US ambassador to Syria and demanded an international investigation of the killing.

Ayman Abdel Nour, a leading Syrian analyst, said yesterday that Damascus had now told senior American officials that a unilateral withdrawal of its 15,000 troops was out of the question until Israel ended its occupation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967 and annexed 14 years later.

“Syria has national interests which must be fulfilled before it can withdraw from Lebanon and this has been relayed to American members of Congress, the Senate and the State Department,” Nour said. “If the United States uses its leverage and pressures Israel fully to return the Golan Heights, only then can Syria fully withdraw from Lebanon.”

Nour also said Syria was concerned that if its forces were driven out of Lebanon in a humiliating manner, it could lead to a rift between the peoples of the two countries which would “last for generations”... (more)
I don't know how far this is going to get Syria? There is not much the US can do right away, but if the EU joins sanctions, it will be another story. Most European diplomats in Syria believe Syria should get the Golan, which may impede the US's attempt to railroad for sanctions.

Hizbollah cools down anti-Syria rhetoric: Al-Jazeera reports that the leader of Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, issued a stark warning on Saturday saying the popular agitation against Syria following the assassination of former prime minister is not helpful....

Bashar does some house cleaning:

Syria replaces intelligence chief: Shawkat is in charge of intelligence at home and abroad Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has appointed his brother-in-law as head of military intelligence, reports say.

Brig Gen Asef Shawkat replaced Gen Hassan Khalil, who at 65 had surpassed retirement age.

Syrian sources say the appointment could suggest Mr Assad is consolidating his hold over the security services.

As head of military intelligence, Gen Shawkat will oversee Syria's domestic and foreign intelligence operations, including in Lebanon. Gen Shawkat, 54, was previously deputy military intelligence chief and is married to President Assad's sister, Bushra.

General Ghazaleh, Syria's top ranking security officer in Lebanon, has also been sacked. I am not sure who will take his place.

I took down my article "Disarray in Syrian Ranks Leads to Crisis" because a number of Syrian friends here said that "everyone was talking about it" including among university political science departments and that it could cause me trouble. More to the point, some friends believe that it could cause them trouble as well, perhaps earning them a visit to ask about their relationship to me. At worst, I would be asked to leave Syria, but even my wife was anxious and pointed out that it could have repercussions for the family.

Anyway, I have taken it down. There is no point in jeopardizing my friendships and family. Using names is not on. That means my commentary will be less sharp. Nevertheless, the red-lines in Syria are much higher than they used to be and one can say most anything so long as powerful individuals are not annoyed. Sorry about that.

Dr. Sami Moubayed has also asked me to take down his article. He wrote:

I am working on a defense, but I am starting to have second thoughts about it because obviously from the insults, the readers are not people to be negotiated with. They have exceeded normal debate and have transformed the dialogue into direct and very rude insults.

I will leave it at that. I am sorry to break with normal blog etiquette by changing things after the fact.

If anything good comes out of this crisis, it will be that Syria leaves Lebanon. It is a difficult thing for Syrians to do, but it is certainly time. As my wife said to me this morning,
If you visit the cemetery where my grandfather is buried in Jable, you will see the graves of many Syrian soldiers who died in Lebanon. Their mothers and wives still visit them and cry. But the Lebanese hate us. I understand it. Still it is difficult. The last time I was in Beirut, I went to shop at ABC. Of course everyone could tell I was Syrian from my accent and they didn't want to serve me. We must leave Lebanon.
No Syrian wants to leave under American pressure, but perhaps it is only with pressure that Syrians will leave.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Syria Must have a place in the "New Middle East

Scott Wilson has again written a very smart article on Syria's position in the region. Some see the Hariri assassination as a reason to completely isolate Syria. The call of the Syrian opposition in Washington, led by Farid Ghadry, for "regime change," is finding new adherents. This is a dangerous game, however, which will lead to America over-reaching in the region.

European Ambassadors in Damascus still believe that Damascus needs to be given a stake in the "New Middle East" that Washington and others are trying to build. It was be cut into peace deals with Israel and the Syrian track needs to be restarted. Even if Syria is temporarily isolated, they note, its interests will not go away. It is better to accommodate Syria and draw it into regional plans, rather than put it to the wall.

Syria Likely to Defy Calls For Pullout From Lebanon
Reaction to Bombing Underlines Strategic Interest in Neighbor
By Scott WilsonWashington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page A19

DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 18 -- The Syrian government has reacted defiantly to accusations that it had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, underscoring a strategic interest in Lebanon that makes it unlikely international pressure will force Syria to withdraw forces from its smaller neighbor.

The rage and grief over Hariri's death Monday in an apparent car bombing in Beirut have angered the government of President Bashar Assad, which has denied any involvement in the slaying and refused calls by Lebanese leaders and the Bush administration to remove its 15,000 troops in Lebanon.

Syrian officials have accused Lebanese opposition leaders, now preparing for parliamentary elections that are shaping up as a referendum on Syria's presence in their country, of taking advantage of Hariri's killing to further their own political agenda. But the bombing also appears to serve Syria's own goals at a time when Hariri and other Lebanese leaders were posing a growing threat to its influence in the country and to Assad's leadership.

"If the opposition wins a majority in parliament, it could spell not only the end of the Syrian presence in Lebanon but the regime's hold on power," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador to Syria.

Ford said the uncertainty surrounding the bombing left him unconvinced that Damascus had a hand in it: "The objective would have been to administer shock and awe, Syrian style, to sow fear within the Lebanese political classes that had been crossing some of Syria's red lines."
The killing has reminded the region that Syria, whether responsible or not, has reasons for wanting to maintain its decisive influence in Lebanon. Western diplomats here say the Syrian government, which first sent troops to Lebanon in 1975 at the request of the embattled Christian-led government, has always feared a cohesive Lebanese opposition movement far more than international pressure.

As an increasingly important voice against Syrian influence, Hariri threatened Assad's control over Syria's ruling Baath Party, whose senior members have substantial economic and political interests in Lebanon. Many of the officials with the most to lose from a withdrawal belong to Syria's security and intelligence services, which have a history of acting without orders. An attempt in the 1980s by Syrian intelligence agents to down an Israeli airliner in London was thwarted by Israeli intelligence. The plot was never revealed to Hafez Assad, the current president's father, who died in June 2000.

Syrian officials say Hariri's assassination has worked against their interests by uniting Lebanon's Christian, Druze and Sunni parties, some of which battled one another during years of sectarian strife. The opposition does not control a majority in Lebanon's parliament, but the fresh surge of anger over Syria's presence has strengthened its position heading into elections scheduled to be held as early as April.

"We had everything to gain by working with Hariri, and everything to lose by his death," said Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria's minister for expatriates and a noted political writer. "Hariri was a bridge. The one who carried out his killing is the one trying to escalate the tensions and instability in this region."

The Lebanese opposition has been coalescing at a time when Assad is surrounded by potentially destabilizing political change, Western diplomats here say. The ethnic Kurds' success in Iraq's elections last month has complicated the Syrian government's relations with its own restive Kurdish minority. About 50 Kurdish prisoners have begun a hunger strike to protest conditions.
At the same time, Hariri's death has revived diplomatic threats to Syria that had languished for months.

The U.S. and French governments have renewed calls that Syria comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last year that calls on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, the armed Shiite Muslim movement on Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Syria announced this week that it would form a "common front" with Iran against mutual threats, an agreement Shaaban said did not include military cooperation.

"If all the Lebanese would gather now and ask us to leave, we will get out," said Baha Din Hassan, an independent member of Syria's parliament. "But we won't get out just because of the small minority we see calling for it now."

Under the terms of the 1989 peace agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war, Syria was supposed to have pulled all of its troops back at least to the Syrian frontier more than a decade ago.

On Friday in Beirut, opposition leaders declared what they called "an independence revolution" that would entail peaceful demonstrations until the Lebanese government resigns, Syria withdraws its troops and an international committee is named to investigate Hariri's assassination. Lebanon's minister of tourism, Farid Khazen, a Maronite Christian, resigned, becoming the first cabinet member to do so. He said the government was unable to "remedy the dangerous situation in the country."

Last year, the Bush administration applied sanctions that prohibited nearly all U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine and banned Syrian flights to and from the United States. The sanctions also forced American financial institutions to sever relationships with the Commercial Bank of Syria.

Western diplomats here say sanctions could be extended to include a ban on Syrian exports to the United States, mostly textiles and agricultural products that account for a small percentage of Syria's economy.

Samer Debs, president of the Chamber of Industries of Damascus, said that the chamber's 14,000 members trade more with Europe and Arab countries than the United States but that new U.S. sanctions on Syrian textiles, olive oil and clothes would hurt a little.

Debs, who graduated from the American University of Beirut, said U.S. sanctions have damaged Syria's emerging private sector, which now accounts for 60 percent of Syria's non-oil revenue in an economy traditionally controlled by the ruling party. "Sanctions are not going to solve this problem," Debs said.

For Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, remaining in Lebanon has become a political test. Hard-liners in his government, many of them septuagenarian carryovers from his father's time who have resisted even his limited efforts to open up the state-run economy and shrink the Baath Party's influence, could blame him for the loss of regional influence that would result from a retreat from Lebanon.

Most important in political terms, Lebanon serves as leverage for Syria in its negotiations with Israel.

Assad has tried unsuccessfully to revive the dormant peace process with Israel, known as the "Syrian track," in recent months. At the same time, Lebanese opposition leaders have suggested that Lebanon pursue its own peace talks with Israel. But Hezbollah -- with its guns and 12 seats in parliament -- ensures that Lebanon will not make a separate peace agreement with Israel that does not include a settlement of decades-old Syrian-Israeli territorial disputes.

To influence Syria, said Ford, the British ambassador, foreign countries must give it "a stake in the process taking place in the region, something to lose for its actions. The one thing they really want, and I dare say deserve, is support for resuming the Syrian track. Then this would be the stick: a rupture of the peace process if they behave badly."

Al-Qa'ida in Syria?

Al-Qa'ida in Syria
An al-Qaida website explains that it did not carry out the Hariri assassination. Why? Because:

1) "The priorities of the al-Qaeda Organisation in Syria are focused on its foundation [in the country] not on blowing up cars in towns."

This is revealing. Al-Qaida sees Syria as a temporar and necessary ally in the war against America and Jews. Clearly it doesn't have much of a base in Syria, but is struggling to establish one. The Asads must be careful not to play with fire.

Jihadist Commentary on the Killing of Rafiq al-Hariri
Sent by Jamestown Foundation
February 18, 2005

Reaction to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri on the Jihadi websites mirrored the diversity - and the bewilderment - of the world's press. As a sample of this diversity, the following postings are taken from the jihadist discussion web magazines and forums Muntadiyat al-Ma'sada al-Jihadiyya (, Shabkat al-Ahrar ( and Mufakkirat al-Islam (

Immediate comments on the day of the killing searched for the usual suspects:

"Brothers, believe me, the Jews and the Christians, that is the Americans, they were the ones who killed al-Hariri... the CIA and Mossad did it in order to fight against Syria" to which the writer subsequently added in English, "we will kill all Jewish in all this world!"

But soon the video of the jihadist group claiming the attack attracted much attention. There was some initial enthusiasm for the idea, and one participant felt impatient with all the hand-wringing about the effect of the bombing on regional stability: "Brothers, the first point I'd like to mention is that stability in the Middle East is a prime American interest. We the oppressed in our lands do not seek this stability!" ... "This martyrdom operation may conceal good things for many people ... the reason being the strength of the upheaval ... For whatever material benefit al-Hariri provided his people, ... he did not walk the path of the righteous... so beware of being caught up in false, Satanic emotions ..."

As for the videotape displayed on al-Jazeera television: "The martyr who appeared on the tape claiming responsibility has all the features of piety and sincerity ... do you not see this on his shining face? It may not be necessary that this group should rally officially or organizationally under the banner of al-Qaeda, but rather morally so. If this organization survives, then it will rally to the banner of al-Qaeda, just like al-Zarqawi and his organization. And it will be blessed by the Shaykh of the Mujahideen Usama [bin Laden]."

However, the vast majority of comments greeted the idea of a Jihadist group being responsible with scepticism: "Not that I want to defend al-Hariri, but the truth is, there is no such group as the al-Nasr wal-Jihad (Victory and Jihad) ... And despite all that has been said about al-Hariri, he was the one who safeguarded the rights of the Sunnis in Lebanon..."

"As for the theater of the al-Nasr wal-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham group," said another, "an unknown group claiming this huge operation with international ramifications - there are no 'Wahhabi' organizations in Lebanon. The religious Sunnis in Lebanon belong for the most part to Islamic organizations, the rest being a matter of scattered individuals ... the only organization bearing arms is the very limited 'al-Dhaniyya', who can manage a Kalashnikov at best..."

One female contributor signing herself "Daughter of the Lions' Den" was unconvinced by the reasons given by the martyr about the links between al-Hariri and al-Sa'ud justifying the slaughter of so many. She put forward another point: "The face of the one speaking on the tape appears fully revealed. Whereas we are used to seeing the spokesmen of the Jihadi groups with their faces covered..."

Was it al-Qaeda? A message was posted on February 14 purporting to be from Tanzim al-Qaeda fi Bilad al-Sham (al-Qaeda Organization in the land of [Greater] Syria) categorically denied any connection with the bombing. It gave four reasons for this:

1) "The priorities of the al-Qaeda Organisation in Syria are focused on its foundation [in the country] not on blowing up cars in towns"

2) "Our main priorities now are aiding our brothers in Iraq and Palestine"

3) "The way we support our brothers in the Arabian Peninsula has never been and will never be by way of what has happened today"

4) "What al-Qaeda carried out in New York and Washington and the sacrifices it made of its finest men, were on behalf of Beirut; it is illogical that it would today carry out bombings against Beirut's streets and buildings."

However, two days later, on in a message from the Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad Fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda Organisation in the Land of the Two Rivers, the group headed by al-Zarqawi), official spokesman Abu Maysara lambasted the "Crusader press' for its lies, and dismissed "the claims by Reuters that we had spoken about the killing of the tyrant al-Hariri. No, we have never spoken a word concerning him."

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Disarray in Syrian Ranks Leads to Crisis

“The decision to extend President Emile Lahoud’s term was taken by the Asad family itself.”

So said a smart diplomat when we met yesterday to discuss the crisis. “We know that,” he said.” Vice President Khaddam and Interior Minister Canaan – Syria’s most knowledgeable Lebanon hands who long handled the Lebanon portfolio – recommended against extending Lahoud’s term and manipulating the Lebanese constitution as if it were the Syrian constitution. “They were over-ruled by the Asad family itself,” the diplomat said. The decision turned out to be a fateful one, for it set Syria on its recent collision course with Lebanon.

Why the young Asad brother and cousins decided they could do without the advice of “the Old Guard” is where conjecture and speculation begin.

One Syrian general, reflecting on the mess Syria finds itself in since the Hariri murder, wondered how his government could have gotten so out of touch with the political pulse in Lebanon to make such ill-fated decisions. In the end, he said:

“We made many, many mistakes in Lebanon. Do you know how much a Lebanese car cost in Syria during the war? 2,500 Syrian pounds at the border. Imagine, 2,500 SYRIAN pounds! (The equivalent of 400 dollars.) And that was a Mercedes. Every officer stole what he wanted. That’s what happens in war. Syria was filled with Lebanese cars. And for every one of those cars, there is a Lebanese family who hates Syria.”

“It wasn’t just cars,” he added. “Soldiers filled trucks with kitchen tiles, faucets, perfume, bathtubs, you name it, and drove them back to Syria. It was easy for them. They had guns. Who was going to say no to them?”

“But Syria paid a heavy price for stopping the civil war in Lebanon,” he added, perhaps in an attempt to explain that things are never as simple as they seem. “My youngest brother was killed in Lebanon.” He paused. “It was 1976. Six were killed in a tank. He left eight children…. Do you know how he was returned to us? They brought the bodies back to Damascus and put them on a gas truck – just an ordinary gas truck – and delivered them to the villages. There was no officer in the truck, just a regular soldier without rank, wearing dusty fatigues. The government didn’t send anyone in a proper uniform to say ‘Thank you for your sacrifice, and for fighting for your country.’ But I told my brother when we buried him, ‘Muhsin, thank you. You died to help the Lebanese and to bring peace.’ I still believe that today…. We made many mistakes. The Lebanese were grateful at first, but that was many years ago.”

But such explanations don’t help us understand the recent series of miscalculations beginning with the extension of Lahoud’s presidency that have inflamed Lebanese opinion and led Syria into its recent crisis.

The diplomat I spoke with believes the reason the Asad family overruled the older generation of experienced Lebanon hands was that family members such as Bashar’s brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf had important business dealings in Lebanon which depended on Lahoud. “They needed Lahoud to stay for their own interests,” he said. “The family members were pushing for his retention. Perhaps they were trying to create their own Lebanon policy and side-line the ‘old guard,’” he added. “Maybe Bashar went along because he is trying to create his own base of power?”

This is where the speculation within the diplomatic community begins to veer off into a number of directions. The diplomat, then concluded, “There doesn’t seem to be anyone at the top with a real sense of long-term strategy for Syria’s foreign policy. It is being patched together for reasons which are hard to figure. In the past, Hafiz al-Asad was the strategist. He had a clear vision of what Syria’s ultimate goals should be. Today, it is not clear where Syria is headed or why decisions are being made.”

The theory that the Asad family made the decision to extend Lahoud’s presidency at the last minute jives with Hariri’s own version of events. The Daily Star yesterday ran an interview with Hariri given to a Lebanese reporter the day before his death. He had spoken off the record on a number of topics, but the reporter broke with journalistic protocol because of Hariri’s assassination and wrote up the entire conversation. Hariri explained that he had “gone into opposition the moment Lahoud’s term was extended.” He explained how he had been completely blind-sided by the decision. Bashar al-Asad himself had called Hariri to a meeting in Damascus and told him that Lahoud’s term would be extended and effectively ordered him to ease the passage through parliament. Hariri said that Bashar did not consult him beforehand or ask his opinion on the matter. He was told what to do. The meeting lasted only 10 minutes. For Hariri, this was a Rubicon.

Undoubtedly, Hariri’s friends in Damascus, such as Khaddam, had not prepared him for the Asad meeting. Hariri was understandably incensed to be taken so off-guard and cut out of the decision-making process. From what the diplomat explained to me, we can conclude that the reason Khaddam could not warn him or bring him into the decision-making process was because Khaddam himself did not believe that Lahoud would be kept on. Perhaps he and other “old guard” advisors had assured Hariri that Syria would do no such thing. The Syrian government had, after all, announced only weeks before the elections were to take place that it would not interfere. In all likelihood, Hariri had been assured by his “old guard” Syrian friends that the presidential election would go forward without Lahoud. Clearly, Hariri was used to knowing and being consulted about such momentous decisions before the fact. The Asad overrule and disarray within the Syrian chain of command drove Hariri into the opposition. Eventual, it led to his death.

But could the Syrian President have ordered Hariri’s assassination? No one here will say that, and I don’t think they believe it. It is not consistent with his character or policies. The consequences of Hariri’s murder are too devastating for Syria for such a decision to make sense.

So what can we learn from this?

1. So far there is nothing to point to the Syrian president having foreknowledge of Hariri’s assassination.

2. The “old guard,” were not always bad. They understood Lebanese sensibilities and Syrian strategic interests better than the new guard – or at least, better than many close to the president.

3. There is tension between old and new guard over foreign policy, which has caused disarray in Syria’s decision making process. It led directly to the mishandling of Syria’s relationship with Lebanon and the extension of Lahoud’s presidency. It caused Syria to burn its bridges with Hariri and pushed him into the “opposition,” where he was uncomfortable and did not want to be.

4. Could Hariri have been killed by someone high up in the Lebanese government and also possibly a business enemy? Quite possibly. Could they have opened a back door with people in Syria? Also possible. There is a lot of money being made in Lebanon by both Lebanese and Syrians, which depends on government power, contracts, and corruption.

5. Could Bashar not know about this? Only if there is disarray in the uppermost ranks of the government.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Syria Will Have to Withdraw from Lebanon

As Lebanon prepares for Hariri's funeral today, which will be marked by large demonstrations and an emotional outpouring, Syria has gone into a state of shock and is doing what little it can to defend its position. Life in Damascus is outwardly quite normal, but there is a widespread anticipation of the worst and a sense of impending attack and encirclement. I have yet to hear a Syrian who believes his government is behind this. Everyone suspects evil doing on the part of Syria's enemies.

Syrian opinions
A number of extended family members came to dinner last night. They watched a bit of the Walid Fares (Lebanese-Maronite) - Kandil (pro-Syrian, Lebanese parliamentary member) debate on al-Jazeera. Each accused the other's group of being behind Hariri's killing.

My father-in-law, who served as a (liwa') or general for ten years and was the number 2 man in the Syrian Navy was very direct when I asked him what Syria should do now.

He said,

Syria will have no choice but to withdraw from Lebanon. Everyone will turn against it. All the old cards – Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Hizballah – have turned into thorns in its side.

Mubarak will call a meeting of the Arab League and they will find a face-saving deal that will allow Asad to withdraw.

The Lebanese have had enough of Syria. The world will use the Hariri assassination against Syria even if it is innocent. Lebanon is finished for Syria.

The Syrian people won’t complain. Lebanon is not an emotional issue. It is an issue of high politics and geo-strategy. Syria will be weakened because now Israel will be able to poke at Syria through Lebanon.

The reality is that Syria is weak. The old strategy can no longer work. Russia is playing with Syria and cannot support it. There is only one path forward for Syria and that is to withdraw.

President Chirac is expected to fly to Beirut for Hariri's funeral on Wednesday and Arab kings and presidents will send senior representatives to see the assassinated ex-premier of Lebanon lowered into his last resting place at the courtyard of Al Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.

Chirac called on Mrs. Nazek Hariri at the ex-premier's house in Paris, where she was staying in recent weeks. As the French head-of-state was offering his condolences, Gen. Aoun walked in to console Hariri's wife. Chirac and Aoun shook hands.

Mrs. Hariri flew to Beirut late Monday evening on her husband's private jet. She was accompanied by former Lebanese intelligence chief Johnny Abdo and his wife.

Hariri's widow withdrew to the Koreitem ward reserved for woman condolence rituals where she accepted condolences from a stream of sympathizers flanked by Hariri's sister Bahia and his daughter Hind.

The men's section was crowded by politicians, religious leaders and notables. Among them was Syria's vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam who stood next to Bahaa Hariri as condolers filed past. Mufti Rachid Kabbani stood on Bahaa's other side next to Hariri's second son Saad.

It was noted that Khaddam sat down when French ambassador Bernard Emie and U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Feltman arrived to extend their condolences. They shook hands with Kabbani, the 2 sons and Walid Jumblat but both ignored Khaddam.

DAMASCUS, Feb 15 (AFP) - Syria went on the defensive Tuesday after the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who resigned just four months ago in protest at the dominant role of Damascus in his country.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was among the first leaders to condemn the massive Beirut bomb blast that killed Hariri and another 14 people on Monday and brought back memories of the dark days of the Lebanese civil war.

The official press condemned the murder as an "odious crime," saying Hariri was a "welcome son" for Syria and accused arch-foe Israel of seeking to sabotage Lebanon's achievements since the 1975-1990 war.

"What happened was an attempt to shatter national unity in Lebanon, to sow anarchy and divisions which lead to a climate of civil war," said government newspaper Tishrin.

While the opposition to the pro-Syrian government in Beirut openly blamed Syria for the assassination, the official Damascus media in turn pointed a finger at Israel without even reporting the accusations against Syria.

Israel "continues to work to sabotage Lebanon's achievements to try to bring anarchy to the country and to be able to continue its occupation of the Shebaa Farms", a disputed strip of land along the Israeli border, said Tishrin.

Several Arab analysts stressed that Syria itself was also targeted by Hariri's assassination.

"Syria certainly did not need to complicate the situation, just when it is already in the firing line" over UN Resolution 1559, Rauf Ghoneim, a former Egyptian deputy foreign minister, said on the public station, Nile-TV.

The UN Security Council adopted the resolution in September calling for an end to foreign interference in Lebanon and the withdrawal of foreign troops, a direct message to Syria which still has 14,000 troops stationed there.

Political scientist Gamal Salama, also in Cairo, ruled out any Syrian link because the killing could not serve the interests of Damascus. It could signal "the prelude to action against Syria", said Salama.

"Something has been in the pipeline against Syria for a long time. "Nobody knows what or when, but something is being cooked up to target Damascus."

The editor-in-chief of Syria's official Ath-Thawra newspaper, Fayez Sayegh, said the attack on Hariri "targeted national unity and civil peace in Lebanon".

In the face of the accusations of Syrian involvement, Sayegh insisted that Damascus "always welcomed Hariri as one of its sons and as a major Lebanese figure".

Monday, February 14, 2005

Syrian Reactions to Hariri's Assassination

Syrian reactions to Hariri’s assassination:
My sister-in-law called me at 12:00 noon to tell me to turn on Jazeera. Harriri had been killed. My mother-in-law and I turned on the TV. I immediately suspected the Syrians and said to Umm Firas, “The Syrians will be blamed for this.”

She responded, “Why Syria? It is the Israelis.” Both my sisters-in-law later concurred with this analysis. They could not believe Bashar would do this. They both know him fairly well from time spent together in Lattakia in the Late 1990s.

My father-in-law, who was a General in the Syrian Navy for 10 years, arrived from Lattakia later in the evening. He was visibly worried and depressed. He would not say who he thought was behind it, but said the bomb was clearly sophisticated. This was not something planned yesterday. It needed detailed intelligence about Hariri’s movements and real experience. He left it at that. He was clearly disgusted at the barbarity of the act and worried about world reaction and the effect it would have on Syria.

This morning, I said to my wife, “How can it be the Israelis?” It doesn’t make sense for them to do it. They had everything going their way in Lebanon and they didn’t have to do a thing. America and France were doing all the heavy lifting for them. The Lebanese opposition was organizing against Syria in a way that Israel had failed to achieve in 1982. If the world discovered there was Israeli involvement it would be devastating for Sharon.”

My wife responded: “But it doesn’t make any sense for Bashar to do it. A leader who is trying to develop his country and has been working with the Americans on the Iraqi border, why would he do this? It is not like him. This is something that Saddam or Qadhafi would do, not Bashar. It will bring the whole world down on him. If the UN imposes sanctions, it will kill Syria and everything Bashar has been trying to achieve. He doesn’t need force to control Lebanon.”

She asked, “If the Syrians were going to kill someone, why didn’t they kill Jumblatt? He is the one who has been speaking out and is anti-Syria, but even he said that if the Americans hit Syria, he would be the first to side with Syria. Why would Syria jeopardize this sentiment in Lebanon?

I suggested that perhaps no one sees Jumblat as a real threat. The Druze are only 5% of the registered voters in Lebanon. The Sunnis are roughly 23% of registered voters, and Hariri and his supporters were slated to win all of the Beirut seats in Parliament in the coming elections. They are the seats that count, and the Sunnis are the important swing factor in Lebanon. Hariri, for all intents and purposes, is the Lebanese opposition. Without him the Sunnis will be leaderless and fragmented just as they were during the Lebanese civil war.

She pointed out that just yesterday in the Tishreen newspaper the front page article was an interview with the Lebanese Defense Minister, who said that the opposition was not the majority and would not win the elections as they were insisting they would. He argued that Syria did not have to fear Lebanon going over into the American and Israeli camp. Why would Syria over-react? Bashar is trying to take our country away from this kind of violence and lawlessness. This will be a disaster for Syria,” she insisted.

I suggested, “Well, perhaps Bashar isn’t in control?”

She looked at me with disgust. We left it at that and she went off to teach at the Canadian School. Frankly, I am stumped. My in-laws have given up trying to blame it on the Israelis now. It just doesn’t make any sense. “Perhaps it was a Palestinian group or Hizballah?” they suggest, still determined that Syria could not be behind it.

There is great worry here and nervousness.

One Lebanese friend wrote:

I couldn't believe it... The Syrians were told this stuff is off limits. I hope they [the Americans] crack down hard on them now... regime change all the way, these assholes will never change.

I love how all this is somehow blamed on the Lebanese! The crap that bothers me most is exemplified by this passage by Helena Cobban on her site, which in a sense is what is being hinted at by all the Arabist morons:

It would be much, much easier for the Lebanese to prevent all these kinds of externally generated destabilization operations from succeeding if they could come to some kind of a durable national understanding among themselves. But they have never been able to do that yet. That has left their country extremely vulnerable to the often brutal machinations of their neighbors.
Really!? Gee thanks Helena. It didn't dawn on her or the Arabist network that Hariri was to be part of PRECISELY that cross-sectarian coalition that was asserting Lebanese independence and sovereignty.
Another Lebanese journalist friend wrote:
I'm never one to protect the Syrians, and I actually believed they remain the most likely suspects. However, the key question is which Syrians, because I cannot imagine that Bashar would have okayed a hit that will in fact prove disastrous for Syria. What I'm saying is that this affair may go beyond just killing Hariri, to other types of calculations. I'm not suggesting an Israeli plot, and often groan when I hear that, but nothing will please them more than the reaction that will come from this. In no way does Syria come out of this in one piece, whether inside Lebanon or anywhere else.
A number of analysts are reading the assassination as a sign that the Syrian government is in disarray. They see in these events the jockeying for power within the Syrian regime and calculations that could add up to a coup or future break-up of the regime.

I don't buy it. I have heard this sort of speculation before, but there is no real evidence of it.

Everyone is a perplexed and only time tell.

The New York Times begins its story on the Hariri Assassination as follows:

U.S. Seems Sure of the Hand of Syria, Hinting at Penalties

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 - The Bush administration, condemning the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in Lebanon, suggested Monday that Syria was to blame and moved to get a new condemnation of Syria's domination of Lebanon at the United Nations Security Council.

American and European officials also said the administration was studying the possibility of tougher sanctions on Syria, effectively tightening penalties imposed in May, when Washington said the Syrian government had failed to act against militant groups in Israel and against a supply line from Syria to the insurgents in Iraq.

"We condemn this brutal attack in the strongest possible terms," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, adding that the killing was "a terrible reminder that the Lebanese people must be able to pursue their aspirations and determine their own political future free from violence and intimidation and free from Syrian occupation."

American officials said the killing was an ominous development on two counts: first, because it raised concern that Lebanon could plunge back into the civil war that it suffered throughout the 1980's, and second, because it underscored growing American impatience with the role played by Syria in the Middle East.

Mr. McClellan and other administration spokesmen said they had no concrete evidence of Syria's involvement in the killing of Mr. Hariri, a prominent opposition leader and critic of Syria's role in Lebanon, who died along with at least 11 others when a car bomb blew up next to his motorcade in Beirut.

And in fact the Syrian foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, speaking at a news conference in Damascus, also condemned the attack.

But the target of the American criticism was unmistakable, as several officials condemned Syria's role in Lebanon as part of their comments on the attack.

"We're going to turn up the heat on Syria, that's for sure," said a senior State Department official. "It's been a pretty steady progression of pressure up to now, but I think it's going to spike in the wake of this event. Even though there's no evidence to link it to Syria, Syria has, by negligence or design, allowed Lebanon to become destabilized."

At the United Nations, the Security Council called for a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the bombing, but there was some doubt that the Council would vote to condemn Syria by name. In a resolution passed last year to condemn Syria's role in Lebanon, Syria was not specifically mentioned; there was only a reference to foreign forces in Lebanon.

Statement by Whitehouse and interview of US Press Secretary on Hariri Assassination.

The President was "shocked and angered to learn of the terrorist attack in Beirut today that murdered former Prime Minister Hariri and killed and injured several others. Mr. Hariri was a fervent supporter of Lebanese independence and worked tirelessly to rebuild a free, independent and prosperous Lebanon following its brutal civil war and despite its continued foreign occupation. His murder is an attempt to stifle these efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of foreign domination. The people of Lebanon deserve the freedom to choose their leaders free of intimidation, terror and foreign occupation, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. The United States will consult with other governments in the region and on the Security Council today, about measures that can be taken to punish those responsible for this terrorist attack, to end the use of violence and intimidation against the Lebanese people, and to restore Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and democracy by freeing it from foreign occupation." And with that, I will be glad to go to your questions.

QUESTION: Scott, that statement seems aimed at Syria, if I read it correctly. The group that's claiming responsibility seems to have some ties with people in Saudi Arabia. Do you believe that this attack was coordinated through Syria?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, we do not know who was responsible for the attack at this point. It's premature to know that. There are some -- there is a group that has claimed responsibility, but that's why we've called for measures to hold those responsible, who committed these acts. And those are matters we'll discuss with others and discuss at the United Nations Security Council.

Q: Do you have reason to believe that Syria was somehow behind this?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, again, it's premature to know who was responsible for this attack. But we continue to be concerned about the foreign occupation in Lebanon. We've expressed those concerns. Syria has maintained a military presence there for sometime now, and that is a concern of ours.

Q: Scott, the President has been working on this issue for years now, primarily with French President Chirac, frequently. I recall during the readouts of meetings and conversations they've had, Lebanon has often come up.

MR. McCLELLAN: Correct.

Q: Is what happened today and the continuing Syrian presence a verdict on the ineffectiveness of the French-U.S. attempt to get Syria out there?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I think we've made very clear what are views are and what our concerns are when it comes to Syria. And we've expressed those views. We've talked with others about those views. We do have a Syria Accountability Act, and we have taken some steps under that, as well, as you are well aware.

Q: But I wonder what's -- has the French President's efforts to address this situation failed? Is there something tougher that needs to be done here?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've been working with the international community, as I pointed out. There's a Security Council resolution that calls for an end to foreign occupation in Lebanon. If you'll recall, Syria has been there for quite some time. It's inconsistent with the '89 accords that were agreed to, and we've continued to express concern about that. We've continued to work with our international partners to persuade and convince Syria that they need to leave Lebanon and let the Lebanese people decide their future.

The Lebanese Battlegournd

It seems that the Western Powers and Syria are headed for confrontation. The Americans have already threatened added sanctions (stopping the use of bankcards and direct financial transactions with the Syrian Central Bank - not a biggie). The real question is whether the Europeans will begin a sanctions regime of their own. Much of Syrian trade and economic assistance are from Europe. It would be devastating for Syria to have it disrupted. So far there is no indication that Europe is willing to join the US in sanctions, but with France and Britain joining the US on its Lebanon policy, such a possibility is no longer unthinkable.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N coordinator of Syria's departure from Lebanon under Resolution 1559, has reportedly asked that President Assad be given a 'last chance' to bow to the will of the international community or face a financial blockade by the United States and the European Union.

The London-based Al Hayat newspaper said Sunday that Roed-Larsen made the request during a 75-minute meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris Saturday following 5-days of talks in Beirut and Damascus on ways to bring about an 'amicable' Syrian pullout from Lebanon.

Chriac responded by a reiteration that France wants complete compliance with U.N. resolution 1559, stressing that the Lebanese parliamentary elections set for May "represent a step that the international community will be very sensitive to," an Elysee statement said.

Roed-Larsen, in turn, told reporters after the Elysee meeting that the "situation is difficult, but I think there will be a solution for which we need the good will of all parties concerned to make progress in applying the resolution."

Al Hayat cited diplomatic sources in Paris for its 'last chance' report. It quoted the sources as also saying the international community had sent a clear message to the Assad regime to refrain from 'any bloodletting in Lebanon."

The message warned that assassinating ex-Premier Hariri or Druze leader Walid Jumblat would initiate a "total, final and irrevocable divorce with the international community," according to Al Hayat.
Beirut, Updated 13 Feb 05, 16:24

Meanwhile, the Lebanese opposition is preparing itself for state intimidation as elections draw nearer. These quotes arrived via Naharnet:
Harirists charged that President Lahoud's regime was using the judicial system to prevent the ex-Premier from repeating his sweep of 18 from Beirut's 19 seats in Parliament in the 2000 elections.

"They're stupid," Hariri told An Nahar in response to a question about the affair of the Charity organization, which was denounced by the opposition nationwide.

"This is just the beginning," said Walid Jumblat. "The talons of the police state are bared and more attacks on the opposition are in store, but we will fight them to the bitter end."

Beirut, Updated 13 Feb 05, 11:03

Bashar Still Wins Hearts with Intellectual Curiosity

I recently got an interesting note from Moatasem Salame describing a recent meeting with President Asad. He writes:

I am a Syrian who works to develop business through promoting e-learning in the Gulf. Please let me narrate this incident that can sum up a lot of the Syrian political scene:

Two years ago, I was participating in a Syrian IT expo held in Damascus. we were visited by most of the cabinet ministers and finally the president. You would expect the ministers and especially the so-called technocrats to be interested in what we were exhibiting (e-solutions such as e-health, e-document, content management, etc) and then your would expect the president to make a protocol visit with short or non conversations with the exhibitors but it was the absolute opposite: Ministers came for TV coverage, I can't remember anyone of them asking a genuine question or stoping for more than two minutes on the other hand, the president visited our stand for almost half an hour asking in depth questions, listening carefully and showing high interest in the subject matter.

I don't think that this incident needs a conclusion or a comment but I hope it could give you some idea on what is going on.
Best wishes,

An anonymous poster added the following analysis of why reform is slow.

Dear Joshua,
While I am hearing a lot of arguments to the extent that Bashar is putting capable people in top positions, we see four major defects:

1- Many newly appointed officials on top such as the ones connected with the various sectors of the economy are imported expatriates disconnected from the Syrian complicated laws and the legal loopholes. They lack the means to establish effective channels between the economic elements in the society necessary to communicate the detailed problems hindering reforms. While Bashar and his wife are reaching to the masses to get a feel of the social problems (maybe primarily for enhancing their self image), his economic ministers are only relying on Bath controlled establishments (like the chambers of industry, commerce and agriculture) which have no interest in anything but advancing their member's personal wealth.

2- While these newly appointed ministers have acceptable resumes, Bashar is not giving them the free hand to make the necessary cleanup of their ministries. Appointments of employees on departmental level and below still require the approval of Bath leadership and appointments are still made on the basis of favoritism and not merits. In turn, such appointees are making sure these departments they head serve their personal interest at the expense of the general welfare.

3- No reforms are made on the level of local governments whatsoever. A local official is still appointed for being only a Bath favorite and lacking the minimum merits to do the job and the chance of scheduling an appointment with such an official is much slimmer than meeting Bashar dining at a local restaurant. Once again, the means to communicate problems prior to solving them is absent.

4- The Judicial system is Syria is in a state of misery. Chances of finding an honest non-corrupt judge are slimmer than winning the lottery. Justice is auctioned on daily basis to the highest bidder. Final verdicts take years to obtain. Enforcements of verdicts cost a good percentage of the verdict. Suing the government is next to impossible even though the government is the main confiscator of people's economic rights (since we are keeping the discussion on the economic problems of Syria)

In light of the above, I don’t see how Bashar is doing anything at this time to correct the problems with the Syrian economy except by encouraging the unequal distribution of wealth and making the poor much poorer while his relatives are harvesting the majority of economic benefits under his so-called reforms.
Thank you for replying back to my previous post.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

"A Liberal in Damascus" By Lee Smith

A good article written by Lee Smith about Ammar Abdulhamid, the founder of al-Tharwa project, just appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

A Liberal in Damascus
February 13, 2005
New York Times Magazine

When I first met Ammar Abdulhamid in Washington in the fall, the 38-year-old Syrian novelist, poet and liberal dissident had Damascus on his mind. He had received word from his wife back in Syria that the political situation at home was becoming more precarious for rights activists like himself. As a fellow at the Brookings Institution, he'd been meeting with leading figures in the Bush administration and writing articles in the Arab and Western presses that were sharply critical of the Syrian government; he simply didn't know what to expect on his return. Now, sitting here in a Damascus coffeehouse in late January a week after his return, he is telling me that he had found reason for optimism about the country's future in the least likely of places.
''When I arrived at the airport,'' Abdulhamid says, ''I was told I had to go to political security. It took me some time to find out exactly which security apparatus wanted to speak to me, but then I met with them for two days in a row. I was very up front about my activities and even talked about things they didn't know yet, like an article I had co-written with an Israeli. One of my interrogators told me that what I was doing would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and he's right. I got the sense from even some of the security police that they see there has to be a new way of doing things in Syria.''

For the last half-century, the Islamist movement and Arab regimes themselves have pushed Arab liberals to the sidelines. As a result, the Arab world's democracy activists and intellectuals do not enjoy the same advantages their Central and Eastern European counterparts did back in the 80's: whereas the generation of Havel and Walesa was backed by the Catholic Church and its Polish-born pope, Arab activists enjoy no such solidarity with any established Muslim institutions. Indeed, while militant Islamist leaders have called for elections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they typically see liberal, secular reformers like Abdulhamid as a threat to the traditional foundations of their authority.

Even so, the liberals seem to be gathering a little momentum. Recently, intellectuals from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia petitioned the United Nations for a tribunal to prosecute both terrorists and the religious figures who incite violence. In Egypt, two new publications, Nahdet Misr and Al Masry Al Youm, fault the region's leaders and clerics alike for keeping Arabs from joining the modern world. The Iraqi election posed a stark challenge to regional autocrats. While Abdulhamid harbors mixed feelings about the United States' decision to invade Iraq, he says he believes that the American presence in the region is vital to the prospects for reform. ''We are an important part of the world,'' he says, ''and our inability to produce change on our own terms invites people in. The world is not going to wait for us.''

Political engagement is unfamiliar territory for a writer who grew up in an artistic milieu (his mother is one of the country's most popular actresses) and describes himself as a reluctant activist. ''I got politicized in spite of myself,'' Abdulhamid says. After the publication of his first novel, ''Menstruation,'' a sometimes-surreal depiction of the sexual and intellectual mores of young Syrians, the foreign diplomatic community in Damascus identified him as one of the important voices articulating the rising generation's disenchantment. ''The novel made it so that many embassies wanted to hear my take on things,'' he explains.''I was frank before, but no one was asking.''

Abdulhamid's outspokenness helped win him invitations to conferences abroad and grant money from European foundations, which he used to start the Tharwa Project, a Damascus-based group with a Web site monitoring the status of Middle Eastern minorities. Tharwa is a bold initiative in a country that's sensitive about its minority issues, especially those involving the historically marginalized Kurdish population. Still, the ruling Assad family -- which is itself drawn from the minority Alawite population -- has looked kindly on Tharwa. ''We met with the president's wife,'' Abdulhamid says. ''She was interested and complimentary, but confused. She wanted to know if we were Kurds.''

Abdulhamid is actually a member of the country's Sunni Muslim Arab majority. Indeed, he went through a brief fundamentalist phase, which ended with his disgust at the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. ''Without that period in my life,'' he told me, ''I never would've been assertive. As a fundamentalist, it was my responsibility to preach and teach, and so I had to live up to this idea I invested in myself. It's why I'm as inquisitive and self-inquisitive as I am today.''

In embracing first Islamism and then liberalism, Abdulhamid has played a part in the two main opposition forces in Arab politics. If today the two movements have little in common, they each did issue from the same 19th-century Muslim reform movement that emphasized how far the lands of Islam had fallen behind the West. In the early 20th century, liberal democracy appeared to be the future of Arab politics, especially in Egypt, where the country's popular revolution won Egyptians their first modern constitution. But liberalism failed to take hold in the rapidly growing middle class. Religion was the language they knew, and organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood responded by dressing their criticism of the existing political order in Islam's traditional message of social justice.

Even as Arab liberals look ambivalently to Washington for support, many American analysts warn against placing bets on them. ''We hail the liberals as authentic voices for change in the Middle East,'' says Jon Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ''But what we don't hear is that many of these people have accents when they speak Arabic as well.'' In other words, the liberals are too Westernized to make an impact on the Arab masses. ''They won't get anything done by talking to people like me,'' Alterman says. ''They need to be at street rallies in the Arab world.''

Abdulhamid agrees. ''We need to go grass roots, and show some bravery,'' he says. ''We need to build a constituency, and create alliances, because without a strong opposition there is no change that's going to come at the top.''A key question, of course, is whether liberals would be wise to build alliances with the more popular Islamists. Would the victory of such a coalition bring liberals to power, or hasten their demise?

Right now, such questions are largely academic in tightly controlled Syria, where elections are not on anyone's calendar. Abdulhamid himself says he hopes to spend the next year explaining the American viewpoint to anyone in Damascus who will listen.

''A lot of people are waiting to see if Ammar is going to get into trouble,'' says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma who is spending the year in Damascus. ''Some want to see if this means they can advance their own agendas and stick their necks out. But there's a lot of resentment as well. People here have spent their careers observing all the red lines and playing by the rules, and if Ammar gets away with it, they're going to feel like fools.''

Lee Smith, who has written for Slate and Wired, is working on a book about Arab culture.

Also see Ammar's opinion piece in the Daily Star today.
Syria's salvation is through reform

Friday, February 11, 2005

Syrian Museum On-Line: Moubayed and Abd Rabbo

The first Online Museum of Syrian History

Sami Moubayed and Sahban Abd Rabbo began building a Syrian Museum on line some five months ago. It is the only such website devoted uniquely to Syrian history and covers the years 1900-2000. They have already posted thousands of pictures, sound recordings, audio-visuals, and documents to the site. Everything is in English so far, but they are hoping to add translations in Arabic as funding for their venture expands. Most of the documents on the site are scanned from Arabic originals with English captions. There is a section for downloading video clips -- the earliest dates from 1919. They have also put up numerous patriotic songs from the 20th century, which can be down-loaded. But the largest resource on the site is the photo gallery.

Its creators, Moubayed and Abd Rabbo, have gathered tons of wonderful photos of the men who shaped Syrian history in the 20th century - some of the more famous are Shukri al-Quwatli, Hashim al-Atasi, Said al-Ghazzi, and Faris al-Khury. Other pictures were collected from books and newspapers. There were some 1,500 photos on display by January 2005, but they add more every month as they collect them. The largest albums are those covering the years of presidents Shukri al-Quwatli (1943-1949, 1955-1958), Hashim al-Atasi (1932-1939, 1949-1951, 1954-1955), Adib al-Shishakli(1951-1954), and Hafez al-Asad (1970-2000).

In addition to covering political history, the website also allows its visitors to learn about the cultural, artistic, and social history of Syria through some of its major artists, writers and cartoonists.

So far the museum has been visited by more than 17,400 guests from around the world. The highest number of visitors come from the USA (10%) while the second highest number(9%) come from Saudi Arabia. It is a wonderful resource for historians, who need photos for books and articles. I have already incorporated photos from their site into my articles and plan to use them in my forthcoming book: Democracy in Syria.

Sami Moubayed is Syria's most promising young historian. Actually it is incorrect to use promising to describe Sami. Although he is only 26 years old, he has already gotten his Ph.D. in history from a British University, written three books and worked as a journalist. He has done more than many seasoned historians.

Like Sami, Sahban Abd Rabbo is one of Damascus' great talents. He is the webmaster, responsible for the handsome design of the site and for keeping everything up and running. The two can often be found sipping tea in Cafe Rawda, next to the parliament building, where they plot their additions to The Syrian Museum.

If you have photos to contribute to the collection, please contact Sami or Sahban at

visit at

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Washington Steps up Pressure on Damascus

Secretary Condoleezza Rice has been on the war path recently, drumming up support for Washington's campaign against Syria. Ever since the President spoke out against Syria in the State of the Union Address, Washington officials have been stepping up their warnings that Syria must change its policies. Wolfowitz accused President Bashar al-Asad of being powerless to control his generals and the Iraqi border. His personal attack on the President suggests Washington is ratcheting up the psychological pressure on Bashar.

Secretary Rice has spoken out about Syria's roll in Lebanon and the region recently. The following are two of her statements.

Secretary Rice's Remarks With French Minister of Foreign Affairs Michel Barnier After Their meeting in Paris, France on February 8, 2005

Lebanon is a situation in which there is the potential for a very fragile democratic situation to be stabilized and supported by us. And that's why France and the United States sponsored Resolution 1559. There should be a very clear message to the Syrians that it is out of step with where the rest of the region is going to interfere in the democratic processes in Lebanon, and that those elections should go forward. The 1559 speaks to these issues and it should be followed.

The Syrians also, of course, need to stop supporting from Lebanon the rejectionist groups that are a threat to the very peace process that we all want to see go forward. The United States has already used the Syrian Accountability Act to levy sanctions against Syria. We are constantly looking at what more needs to be done in that regard. Because it is just not acceptable that Syria would continue to be a place from which terrorists are funded and helped to destroy the very fragile peace process in the Middle East or to change the dynamic of events in Lebanon.
Rice on Missile Sale

From Interview With Ayala Hasson of Israel Television Channel One Secretary Condoleezza Rice Jerusalem February 6, 2005

QUESTION: We'd like your opinion about Russians selling missiles to Syria, given that Syria supports terror and those missiles could fall into the hands of terrorists.

SECRETARY RICE: We've made very clear to the Russian government that we think it would be a mistake and indeed potentially destabilizing to have sales to Syria. At this point the Russians say that there is no such thing that they are going to do, and we hope that that is indeed the case. We understand that Russia has relations with Syria. A lot of people have relations with Syria. But what really needs to happen now is that all who have relations with Syria need to use those relations to convince the Syrians that it is time for them to end their support for terror; it is time for them to end their interference in the affairs of Lebanon; and it is time for Syria, if it wishes to be a member of the international community, to be more responsible in its behavior in international politics including in Iraq, where we are very concerned about support for the insurgency in Iraq that is coming from Syria.
Syria has responded angrily to Washington's attacks and Syria's supporters in Beirut have been speaking out against Washington's latest round of attacks.

It is not clear whether President Asad will meet with Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. coordinator of Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon under resolution 1559, while he is in Damascus. Already he has failed to see President Asad on schedule, which many are calling a Snub.

The Syrian Scene - According to Hamidi and Western Diplomats

I spoke with Ibrahim al-Hamidi on February 7 about a number of topics that are occupying Syrians these days. Hamidi is the al-Hayat bureau chief in Damascus and one of the best connected and smartest analysts of the region.

The Iraqi Boarder: I asked him what Syrian policy is toward Iraq and whether he believes the government is actively taking part in organizing the Iraqi resistance as American officials claim. He said that Bashar and the government are serious about working with the Americans and are now looking for ways to comply with American demands. They are ready to step up surveillance of the border and do what they can to stop infiltration.

The problem comes with implementation. Like all things here, the gap between intentions and implementation is large. “Bashar is trying to work through institutions,” Hamidi said. He asks the heads of Syria’s institutions to work with the Americans and shut down infiltration and dissuade Iraqis in Syria from using it as a base. As orders get passed down the ranks they become diluted. Corruption plays its part. Anyone with several thousand dollars can hope to find guards willing to turn a blind eye to an illegal or unorthodox crossing.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Syrians are angry with America and don’t like the occupation one bit. Thus, there are many cogs within the bureaucratic machinery that don’t always turn in sync with the President’s wishes.

Furthermore, the President himself cannot take as firm a stand in support of the Americans as he would like. Because popular opinion is so anti-American and because he came out so resolutely in opposition to the American invasion and occupation at the beginning of the war, it is dangerous for him to reverse course with equal resolution. It makes him look weak. It contradicts his earlier stand. And it is not at all popular. Thus, there is a lot of slippage. Officials don’t follow orders, in part, because the orders are muddled.

The rise of Islamism
: Hamidi is working on a new article on the size and number of religious organizations in Syria. It will be based on his previous Daily Star article copied in my last post, but this time in Arabic and for al-Hayat. He said the reaction to the last article was heavy. He had gotten many calls from foreign officials wanting to know more. Most inquiries were made by Syrian officials, however, wanting more statistics and details about the scope and politics of the various groups that have been growing in Syria. Like everyone else here, Hamidi sees a noticeable increase in Islamic organizations and piety among Syrians. His al-Hayat article should appear in several days.

The Regional Baath Party Congress: Several analysts at foreign embassies here are now writing up reports in which they must speculate whether the Regional Baath Party congress, which is supposed to meet sometime this summer, will announce important changes to the party and its philosophy.

When I asked Ibrahim if he thought real changes to the party were going to be announced, he was skeptical. “It doesn’t look promising,” he said. There were a number of delays before the last congress met indicating that factionalism within the Party is still rife. Four major reports were issued by the last meeting of the Party on (1) Arab nationalism and unity, (2) socialism (3) freedom and democracy (4) The reorganization of the party (whether it would continue to hold its political monopoly over the state). All turned out to be conservative and uninteresting. This indicates, according to Hamidi, that the old guard in the Party continues to dominate and has successfully thwarted the more radical message and criticism of the reformers. He believes a number of issues about procedure, party elections, and institutional change must be addressed before the reformist message will be heard in full. He was not sure the Party would be able to solve its factional problems in time to hold a meeting this summer. In other words, thumbs down to the prospect of radical party change. Many are hoping that the Baath will permit the creation of independent parties, dilute or eliminate the constitutional clauses mandating socialism, and open the door for an identity remake, i.e. a move away from Arabism toward a more formal recognition of some sort of Syrian identity.

I also spoke to Andrew Tabler of "Syria Today" and a diplomat in the German Embassy about what they anticipated from the Party meeting. They were a little more up-beat than Hamidi. Tabler said that the Minister of State for Planning Affairs, Abdullah Dardari, is counting on changes to the Party's stand on socialism so that his five year National Indicative Plan can move forward without contradicting the Baath constitution. Dardari promised to begin a real national discussion before the issuance of his five year plan by publishing the results of economic forecasts that his office has been doing. Evidently they will show how badly the Syrian economy will do in the coming years if important reforms are not enacted. This discussion has not begun, however, in part because the Baath Party has been dragging its feet on changes. Tabler said pressure from the United States and Europe to get reforms underway may help break the Party deadlock. He thinks that we could see a move to legalize political parties other than the officially recognized Progressive Front. The cost of doing nothing is too high due to internal and external pressures alike.

Lebanon: Syria is still looking for a deal, according to Hamidi. He has met with Walid Mu`alim several times since Mu`alim took over the Lebanon portfolio. The language of Syrian officials remains that they will respect 1559 if other UN resolutions, such as 242 and those concerning the Golan, are also respected. Bashar wants to trade. The question is whether the US is willing to cut a deal with Syria. Hamidi is doubtful it will. Every indication so far is that the US has taken an ideological stand on Syria and will not budge and will not trade. Nevertheless, Syrian officials are working on the Iraqi border with increased seriousness, Hamidi suggests, in the hopes of creating the right environment for deal making and to reach out to the US.

When I asked him what leverage America has with Syria should Damascus not move quickly enough for Washington, Hamidi shrugged his shoulders. “Not much in the short term,” he said. Syria is not isolated. One of Bashar’s great strengths is that he has built good relations with most of his neighbors and many European countries, so it will be hard for the US to trap Syria in an economic stranglehold as it did Iraq. All the same, “in the long term, considering that Syria is under growing economic pressure from shrinking oil production and growing unemployment, Damascus does not want to fight with Washington.” It does not want to risk perpetual economic sanctions and hostility from the US. Sure, Syria can go to Russia and China in search of trade and possible arms to counter-balance US pressure, but no one in Syria sees such a strategy as a replacement for good relations with the West.

I have asked the same question of several diplomats here. The British Deputy Chief of Mission, Roddy Drummond, said his ambassador has been asking the Americans what their plan is for the coming months. After all, the British, like the French, have committed themselves to 1559 and hitched themselves to the American wagon in Lebanon. They quite rightly want to know what they have gotten themselves into and have a peek at plans going forward. Drummond complained that the Brits never got a clear answer from their American friends on this question. The suggestion is that the Americans are flying by the seat of their pants with 1559. One can only suppose that the US position will depend on the Lebanese opposition and how effective and unified it remains. If the opposition continues to gain muscle and numbers, then the US strategy may continue to gain momentum, and the Syrians may be forced to continue making concessions and moving their troops. One gets the distinct sense that the other European ambassadors here wish the Americans were willing to cut a deal with Syria and throw the Golan into the mix so that all the border questions plaguing the region could be resolved once and for all. The Lebanese opposition alone is a weak reed on which to build a policy.

Karl Schramek, the Austrian Ambassador in Damascus and a keen observer of the political scene here, expressed the broader EU concern that Washington has gotten itself into an ideological straight-jacket on the Syrian question and won’t have the flexibility to take advantage of the opportunities for deal making that many feel are now available to the West.

According to Hamidi, Mu`alim insists that Syria genuinely wants to rebuild its relations with Lebanon on a sound institutional basis and move away from the relations of the past, which grew out of the war.

If the US doesn’t offer Syria any carrots for Lebanon, Hamidi said, then Syria will play rope-a-dope. It will never say no to the UN and America, but will delay, linger, and wait. America’s demands are contradictory, Hamidi pointed out. On the one hand Washington insists that Syria pull its troops out of Lebanon, and on the other, it wants Syria to disarm Hizballah. Syria will give an inch here or there, in order to roll with the punches, but it won’t throw in the towel on Lebanon, without a number of assurances from Washington.

Hamidi can not imagine that the US will resort to force in Lebanon or Syria. Some American officials have called for punitive bombings, either of Hizballah or within Syria itself, if Syria does not get with the US anti-terrorism program. Hamidi said that any use of force by the US could easily swing public opinion in Lebanon back into Syria’s favor. Syria over-reached when it imposed Lahoud on Lebanon for a second term, setting off events that led to the formation of a real opposition in Lebanon and the issuance of 1559. If America pushes back too hard, public opinion in Lebanon could just as easily rebound against America. Jumblatt has been as violently anti-American in the past as he is anti-Syrian today, Hamidi pointed out. By bombing Hizballah, or even Syria, Washington could cause him to reverse course yet again. If America pushes too hard, the Lebanese opposition will splinter.

Democracy and the Iraqi Elections: I asked Hamidi if he sensed a spill-over effect from the elections in Iraq. Does watching Iraqis vote give Syrians the democracy bug? “The elections will surely have an effect in the long run,” he insisted, but added an important caveat, “that is if things go well in Iraq.” Right now, he explained, “Syrians do not look at the Iraqi example as something they want to follow.” The instability in Iraq has been frightening for Syrians. “At least here, you can go to the store and go to your work in peace.” Life is very quite and Syria is one of the safest places in the region. (Every taxi driver in Syria will tell you, with considerable pride, that the UN named Syria the third safest country in the world several months ago.)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Syrians were frightened of the Lebanon disease, which threatened confessional hatred and civil war. Hafiz al-Asad offered Syrians stability, and they were, for the most part, grateful. “Today,” Hamidi said, “Syrians are frightened of the Iraqi disease. The Kurdish riots last spring followed by the Mezze bombing several months later made people nervous that the instability in Iraq was washing over the border.”

As my sister-in-law said to me when I asked her the Iraq-example question, “What is the alternative to Bashar? Iraq?! “No thank you. We see many people being killed there every day.” Then she insisted, “You can’t compare Syria to Iraq. Bashar is not like Saddam. We are more or less free to say what we want and to live our lives peacefully. Yes, there are red lines we must observe, but we are used to them, and anyway, how many people do they affect?” She answered her own question: “I don’t think very many.” Asking the Iraq question to Syrians invariably pricks at their considerable national pride.

When I asked the taxi driver who took me to Ibrahim’s handsome 9th floor office in Mezze what he thought of the elections in Iraq, he answered, “What do we care about politics? We accept the rulers who come over us. What concerns me is feeding the children and keeping the wife happy. This is hard enough.” Then he looked at me with a mischievous grin on his face and added: “The Americans, didn’t they invent that pill that helps old men like me keep my wife happy?” While we were both searching for the name of the magic blue pill, my driver added, “Why can’t America bring us more of those pills? That would be a good thing. It would please my wife.” By the time he had finished laughing, we had arrived at Tala Tower.

If the Iraqi democracy is to become America’s answer to Viagra in the realm of foreign policy, Syrians will first have to see Iraqis doing well, feeding their children, and keeping their wives happy.