Friday, April 29, 2005

Roots of the "Kurdish Problem"

Katherine Zoepf of the New York Times has written an excellent article on the Kurdish problem in Syria (copied below). Bashar al-Asad's long stated goal to resolve the painful problem of the 200,000-plus stateless Kurds in Syria has taken on particular urgency now that a larger bill on national rights sits before the parliament. It is designed to give all Syrians, not only men, the right to confer nationality. But before it can be acted on, the Kurdish question, a subset of the national law, must be resolved.

Solving the Kurdish question has become urgent not only because of the glaring inequality the stateless Kurds in Syria, but because of the radical changes to the status of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Turkey. Syria has always been able to boast that it treated its Kurds better than its neighbors did. That boast is now hollow. In the future, Syria's Kurds of the North-East will no longer be content to submit to the deprivations of old. The riots of last spring testify to this. If Syrians want the loyalty of the Kurds, they must accord them equal respect and rights. The plight of the stateless Kurds has long been a stain on Syria's claim to treat its people with equality and dignity regardless of ethnic or religious background.

The question of stateless Kurds in Syria began in 1962, when President Qudsi, passed a law that required that the inhabitants of the Governorate of Hasaka (the region of North-East Syria between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers) be counted in one day. Those who were found to have come into the country without proper papers were stripped of their citizenship in August 1962 along with any children born in Syria.

Based on the French archives, it is estimated that some 22,000 Kurds out of more than 200,000 living in Syria during the 1930s had fled into the country from Turkey where they faced persecution following Kemal Atatürk's brutal suppression of the Shaykh Said revolt of 1926. The descendants of those 22,000 now make up the stateless Kurds in Syria.

Why did Nazim al-Qudsi, ordinarily a liberal man with a long record of honorable political achievement who died only a few years ago in Geneva, pass such a discriminatory law? There can be little doubt that it was discriminatory, for none of the other minorities of the region who had fled or migrated into Syria were touched - not the Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs, or the Arab tribes which continued to settle in the Jazira throughout the 1950s and 1960s and who come from Iraq, Jordan, or the Arabian Peninsula. Only the Kurds were targeted for suspicion.

The census was also arbitrary. A number of ministers and high officials were deprived of nationality by the half-hazard census takers. These included General Tawfiq Nizam ad-Din, Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army in 1955 and his brother who was a minister and parliament member, the family of Ibrahim Pasha Milli, who was a founder of the Syrian Parliament in 1928, and many other Kurds of high rank and long service in Syria. The powerful were able to retrieve their Syrian nationality, but the poor and less fortunate remained stateless.

As Sami Moubayed has recently written,

"the Qudsi regime came to power when Syria dissolved its merger with Egypt in September 1961, and was coming under daily fire by president Gamal Abd Nasser, who accused the new leaders of Damascus of being opponents of Arab nationalism.

To prove their Arab zeal, Syria's new leaders passed decree number 93, stripping about 120,000 Syrian Kurds of their Syrian citizenship. The argument of the authorities in 1962 was that the census was aimed at identifying "alien infiltrators" in Syria; those who had illegally crossed the border from Turkey. Kurds had to prove that they had lived in Syria at least since 1945, or lose any claim to Syrian citizenship. The census was rigged, and led to the fiasco of Kurdish "unrest" in Syria, which exploded in 2004.

The insecurity of the "infisal" (separatist) regime in the face of Nasserist and Baathist attacks goes a long way to explain the context of the decree stripping Kurds of Syrian nationality, as Moubayed suggests, but it should also be seen in the longer context of both growing Arabism and Communism in Syria as well as the ongoing attempts by the Western Powers to use the Kurdish tribes as a means to destabilize Syria and thwart Arab nationalism.

Citizenship laws were put into place in Syria beginning with the Lausanne treaty of 1924. French Mandate law established a "Syrian" citizenship based on birth on Syrian territory. After independence, citizenship was recast in terms of a "Syrian Arab" identity, where an Arab racial designation was introduced into the criteria for national privileges. Thus the present law, which has its roots in laws passed under Adib Shishakli (1949-1954), states that citizenship is enjoyed by those born to "Arab Syrians." There is no written legal status for non-Arab Syrians. Thus the law states that citizenship is given to those:
- من ولد في القطر أو خارجه من والد عربي سوري.
من ولد في القطر من أم عربية سورية ولم تثبت نسبته إلى أبيه قانونا.
"who are born in Syria or abroad of a Syrian-Arab father."

The question begged by this law is what happens if you are born to a Syrian-Kurdish father or to any non-Arab Syrian father.

The rise of the Communist Party, led by Khalid Bakdash, a Kurd, which had a considerable following among the Kurds in the North-East, also caused the enmity of Arab nationalists. Likewise, the US worried about the spread of the Communist Party in Syria. During the 1940s and 1950s, US diplomats in Damascus frequently recommended that the Syrians keep a close eye on and suppress the Kurdish led Communists.

When an American diplomat pressed Fuad Bey al-Halabi, the Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, in 1948 to explain why he was not worried about the Kurdish community situated on Syria's northeast boarder with Turkey and their pro-Soviet inclinations, the director replied:
The Kurdish tribes were in reality akin to feudal institutions. The tribal chieftains owned all the land and can control their ‘serfs.’ In turn the Syrian government can control the Kurdish leaders.

Practically without exception the principal Kurdish leaders are under death sentence in Turkey and were they to show signs of asserting too much independence of action or to disregard the wishes of the Syrian Government in any important matter they could be conveniently disposed of by arranging to have them fall into Turkish hands.

This quote comes from: US National Archives, James H. Keeley (Damascus) to Sec. of State (29 December 1948) "Comments of Fuad Bey al-Halabi, Director General of Syrian Tribal Affairs, Regarding Tribal Control Policy and Certain Special Aspects of the Kurdish Tribal Problem," 890D.00\12-2948.
Everyone, not just the Sryian authorities, tended to view the Kurds of the Jazira region as a problem and infiltrators who could be dealt with in the most humiliating and discriminatory fashion. It is this past, which Syria is now struggling to put behind it.

After Decades as Nonpersons, Syrian Kurds May Soon Be Recognized
By KATHERINE ZOEPF, April 28, 2005

AS EL AIN, Syria - Saleh Osso, a Kurdish plumber, has tried to live as far outside the reach of the Syrian government apparatus as possible. Since Mr. Osso, 34, is stateless - one of perhaps 200,000 Kurds living in Syria who are denied citizenship - that has been fairly easy to accomplish.

He has no right to own property, to travel abroad or to send his four children to high school. Officially, Mr. Osso scarcely exists.

It was a surprise, therefore, when the mayor of Mr. Osso's district visited him at home two weeks ago and began to ask probing questions about his family.

"He asked how many children I had and about whether my brothers were married or not," Mr. Osso recalled. "He stayed for about half an hour, asking so many questions and writing everything down.

"I finally asked him, 'Why are you counting us?' " Mr. Osso continued. "He said, 'It's so that you people may become citizens.' "

Though there has been no official announcement, and Syrian officials would not comment on the subject, speculation that President Bashar al-Assad is planning to do something about the "Kurdish problem," as the issue of Syria's stateless Kurds is known, has been circulating widely in recent weeks. It has generated discussion among foreign diplomats and human rights activists and cautious hope among the nation's marginalized Kurdish population.

Now, reports that government officials in the heavily Kurdish northern province of Haseke on the Turkish border have been quietly taking a census of stateless families seem to be adding heft to the rumor.

Stateless Kurds in three towns inHaseke - Ras el Ain, Tell Tamir and Amude - told a reporter that government agents had been going from house to house in recent weeks, gathering information about Kurdish residents' registration status. In some cases, stateless Kurds said, there have been two visits: one from a local official collecting census data, followed days later by a visit from a political security agent who verified the information.

The reports come at a moment when international pressure has pushed Syria into withdrawing its troops from Lebanon and the United States is challenging it, along with other Arab governments, to be less autocratic.

Meanwhile, Kurds across Syria's eastern border, in Iraq, are coming into political power in the new government there, while Kurds to the north, in Turkey, are being granted new rights under pressure from Europe.

About 1.5 million Kurds live in Syria as the country's largest ethnic minority, and also its most historically troublesome. Their very difference presents a living challenge to the militant Arabism of the dominant Baath Party.

Kurdish parties, although illegal, are among the country's best-organized opposition groups, a fact that became clear in March of last year when, within hours, the parties organized a series of demonstrations across Syria to protest what they called police brutality against Kurds demonstrating in the northeastern town of Qamishli.

In 1962 the government stripped thousands of Syrian-born Kurds of their citizenship. They and their descendants carry laminated orange identity cards that testify to their statelessness. International human rights groups estimate their numbers at 200,000; tens of thousands of other Syrian-born Kurds lack even the orange cards and are known as maktoomin (those who are muted).

But the estimates are rough. Syrian Kurdish leaders say the total number of stateless Syrian Kurds is about 300,000. The government says the number is about 150,000.

In the past the government has repressed expressions of Kurdish identity in a variety of ways, forbidding the publication of books or newspapers in Kurdish, for example, and jailing Kurdish leaders without trial.

But recently Syrian policy has seemed to ease.

On March 30, 312 Kurds who were imprisoned after the demonstrations last year in Qamishli were released under a presidential amnesty. On April 6, when the Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was chosen as president of Iraq, Kurds living in Damascus played the Kurdish national anthem without official interference in a street celebration, an act that Syrian Kurds say would have been unthinkable a year ago.

But giving citizenship to stateless Kurds would be far more meaningful. Some experts on Syria believe that President Assad may be contemplating doing so as a good-will gesture, a way to partly pre-empt the international pressure to democratize that is likely to follow Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.

"There are people close to the president who would like to see the Kurdish problem resolved quickly," said Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who is living in Damascus. "They know it makes Syria look bad."

The Syrian state is clearly doing its research first, because giving citizenship to the stateless Kurds could open up a host of practical problems. Kurds who were denied degrees because of their stateless status, for example, or whose family property was seized in 1962 might well begin clogging the courts to seek compensation.

But Ammar Abdulhamid, the director of the Tharwa Project, an organization based in Damascus that monitors minority rights issues in the Arab world, said he had conducted a survey and believed that most Syrian Kurds were willing to accept a clean-slate approach: citizenship without immediate reparations.

"The Kurds just want basic rights," Mr. Abdulhamid said. "They're not thinking about accountability for the past. Ideally, along with citizenship, the government would set up a committee that would systematically look into some of these other demands."

Despite the possibility of technical problems, Mr. Abdulhamid added, the Syrian government has compelling political reasons to offer citizenship to stateless Kurds. The government fears that a domestic Kurdish separatist movement may be growing, he suggested, and that disenfranchised Kurds could be manipulated by outsiders to destabilize Syria.

"The situation for the Kurds has really eased in Iraq and Turkey," a Western diplomat said. "The Assad regime probably realizes that the best way to weaken any separatist sentiment is to give the Kurds more of a stake in the country."

But according to Faisal Badr, a Kurdish lawyer based in Damascus whose wife is stateless, most Syrian Kurds harbor no separatist ambitions and, citizenship decree or no, their leaders will continue to push for change within Syria.

"The vast majority of us want our problems to be solved within the framework of the Syrian nation," Mr. Badr said. "Giving citizenship to the Kurds would be a positive step, but it's still very partial. We want to see democracy in Syria."

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Syria's Ba'athists Loosen the Reins by Sami Moubayed

This excellent article by Sami Moubayed gives an overview of party politics in Syria and explains what is likely to happen at the up coming Regional Baath Party Congress.

Syria's Ba'athists loosen the reins
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A new Ba'ath Party law is to be created in Syria, breaking the socialist parties' monopoly over politics in that country, in place (with the exception of the years 1961-63) since 1958. The move is a calculated gamble on the part of the government, and will also challenge a US bill against Syria calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria".

On March 8, 1963, the Military Committee of the Ba'ath Party came to power in Syria, pledging to restore the Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958. All parties that had supported the post-union order were outlawed, creating a one-party state in Syria, headed by the Ba'ath, modeled after Gamal Abd al-Nasser's Egypt since 1952.

The offices of the Communist Party, the Syrian Social Cooperative Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Liberation Movement, the National Party and the People's Party were all shut down, and their newspapers were banned. Already on the blacklist of political parties in Syria since 1955 was the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).

Over the years, as the founders and members of these political parties died, either in exile, jail or political retirement, the parties evaporated from the consciousness of the four generations that emerged in Syria. The only exceptions were the Muslim Brotherhood and the SSNP, which although banned (for different reasons) remained popular, and the Communist Party, which decided to cooperate with the Ba'athists after 1970 to avoid the fate of other parties in Syria.

The 1974 party law, which laid ground for the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary coalition headed by the Ba'ath, allowed more parties to emerge, yet conditioned that they had to be from the socialist orbit. President Hafez Assad ended the one-party system, conditioning, however, that new parties be socialist ones, and allowed the creation of other socialist parties such as the Arab Unionist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Unity Socialist Party.

The NPF monopolized power in the hands of the socialists, who functioned under the umbrella of the Ba'ath. Apart from the Ba'ath, which has nearly 2 million members, these parties have no power base throughout Syria. In 2000, independent figures tried to re-establish the National Party of Damascus and the People's Party of Aleppo, but for a variety of reasons the projects never materialized. The SSNP reactivated itself in public life, and so did the Communist Party in 2001, by republishing its two political weeklies, outlawed since 1958, al-Nour (The Light) and Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People). In February 2001, vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam reportedly promised Riyad Sayf, the Damascus deputy in parliament, a new party law for Syria.

For various reasons, that did not happen in 2001, but today it is almost certain in Damascus that a new party law will be created, and announced at the upcoming Ba'ath Party Conference in June, breaking the socialist parties' monopoly over politics in Syria. President Bashar Assad was very clear about that when speaking to Spanish journalists in Syria in March. He said, "The coming period will be one of freedom for political parties" in Syria.

In 1973, Article 8 of Syria's new constitution said the Ba'ath Party was the ruling party of the state and society. Ba'athist Syria was modeled after the USSR with regard to the ruling party and its relationship with state and society. Just as in Syria, the Communist Party of the USSR became virtually indistinguishable from the USSR, from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 until the Communist Party Conference of 1986, after which membership dropped significantly. When the conference took place, the USSR had 19 million people registered in the Communist Party. In Syria, with different proportions, the number is 1.8 million.

In both Damascus and Moscow, membership in the party became a privilege, and a guaranteed path to success in government, society and the civil service. The Ba'athists created the political elite of Syria from the 1960s onward, just as the communists did in the USSR. It became virtually impossible, in both the USSR and Syria, to assume senior government office without being a member of the ruling party. Some joined out of conviction, yet most out of a desire to advance in the civil service, military, diplomatic corps and government institutions. Not anybody could become a Ba'athist. And not everybody could become a Communist. One had to be recommended by an existing member, and one's past was closely studied. The slightest history of deviance was enough to turn down membership application. As several consecutive generations grew up under one-party rule, it became normal, and in some cases expected, for an ambitious man or woman to join the Ba'ath Party.

In the USSR, a youth organization was founded called the "Young Pioneers", where young members would join until the age of 14, from which time they would become members of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) before becoming full-time members in the Communist Party. In Syria, the steps were repeated, only replaced with the Ba'ath Pioneers, Revolutionary Youth, and eventually full-time membership in the Ba'ath Party.

The SSNP in today's Syria
Under the new party law expected in June, parties not affiliated with the NPF will be permitted to operate as long as they are not Islamic, or encourage sub-national loyalties (eg Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, etc). The first party expected to receive a license is the SSNP. It is also the party expected to obtain the widest popularity in Syria.

Founded in Beirut in 1932, originally as a secret society of five intellectuals, by the revolutionary philosopher Antune Saada, it grew into an official party and became immensely popular in Syria from the 1940s onward. A radical and secular party, it originally flourished among students at the American University of Beirut and spread to other intellectual centers in Lebanon and Syria, calling for the unification of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan), and challenging the ideas of modern Arab nationalism that became popular in the 1950s under Nasser of Egypt. Meaning, the SSNP was uninterested in North Africa (Egypt included) or the Arab Gulf region.

It was outlawed in Syria in 1955 when some of its members were accused of assassinating Adnan al-Malki, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army. Malki was an Arab nationalist, an ally of the Ba'ath, and his brother Riyad was a ranking Ba'athist in Syria. Authorities cracked down on the party, forcing it to move underground, and greatly persecuted SSNP members from 1955 onward.

Restrictions softened when Hafez Assad came to power in 1970, reportedly because he sympathized with the SSNP, and in February 2001, his son, President Bashar Assad, gave an interview to the Jordanian weekly al-Majd saying that he "did not mind" a relaunch of the SSNP in Syria. A few months later, the SSNP was permitted to attend a meeting of the NPF as an "observer".

This was seen as an indicator that the state was willing to grant more freedoms to the SSNP, especially since it tolerated its members having seats in parliament. After an uprising started in Palestine in September 2000, the party was permitted to stage a rally in Damascus, in favor of the Palestinian resistance, for the first time in 50 years. This month, Assad received a delegation of SSNP leaders in Damascus, including Issam al-Mahayri, the aging secretary general of its Syria branch since the party founder's death in 1949.

All of these are indicators that the SSNP is back on its way to becoming a main factor in political life in Syria. The failure of modern Arab nationalism, and the distance of countries once considered as solid Arab "brothers" such as Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman, all explain why the concept of Greater Syria is on the rise in modern Syria. Of all the other parties that will be authorized, the SSNP probably has the largest power base (unofficially estimated at more than 90,000), matched only by the Ba'ath.

Other parties expected to emerge are the Coalition for Union and Democracy, a Nasserite organization, and the Arab Socialist Union of Jamal al-Atasi, a party that is Arab nationalist in outlook, pro-Nasser, relatively popular in Syria, which deviated from NPF ranks for ideological reasons in the 1970s.

If the arrested Damascus parliamentarian Riyad Sayf is released from jail (his prison term ends in 2007), he will strive to re-establish his Movement for Social Peace. An unofficial party, it was created and abrogated in 2000, lobbying for the creation of a multi-party system, a release of political prisoners, and an end to socialism in Syria. If no legal obstacle prevents him from getting a license (he might be stripped from his civil rights), then Sayf might succeed and his party would win during election time, because he is popular in Damascus.

A moderate Islamic party might be permitted to operate under the leadership of Dr Mohammad Habash, the regime-friendly Islamist deputy in the Syrian parliament, but no license will be given to the Muslim Brotherhood, which tried and failed to topple the Assad regime in 1982, inflicting a lot of blood in Syria.

Law No 49, which makes membership in the Brotherhood a criminal offense punishable by the death penalty, will most probably be abolished in the upcoming Ba'ath Party conference. This is seen as a gesture on the behalf of the government to build bridges with its opponents. Other similar gestures have been the return to the country of General Jasem Alwan, a Nasserist officer who tried to topple the Ba'athist regime in July 1963, four months after it had come to power. He was sentenced to death, escaped to Egypt, and ever since has been a loud critic of Ba'athist Syria.

Having spent more than 40 years in banishment, he returned to Syria this month, and so did Yusuf Abdelki, a popular and widely respected artist, persecuted and arrested previously for his communist views. Abd al-Hamid al-Sarraj, the ruthless director of intelligence who persecuted the Ba'athists from 1958-61, and has also been in Egypt ever since, is also due for return in 2005.

Probably, in a healthy political environment, independents will strive to re-establish the National Party of Damascus, loyal in the 1950s to Syria's late president Shukri al-Quwatli, who died in 1967, and others will work for the People's Party of Aleppo, whose president and co-founder Nazim al-Qudsi died in 1998. Both parties were non-ideological, unlike the Ba'ath and communists, but rather mirrored the socio-political interests of their respective communities, and promised to represent them adequately in parliament during the 1940s and 1950s.

The National Party ruled Syria from 1946 to 1949, and again in 1955-58, while the People's Party reigned in 1949-51 and 1961-63. These parties did not have firm objectives, and were pragmatic, doing what was in their communities' interest to survive politically. When it was popular to demand union with Iraq in 1949, for example, the National Party did that, yet when it became needed to support a union with Egypt instead in 1958, it also did just that.

The new generation of Syrians will head toward politicians who have no ideological convictions, and are working only for the interests of their respective communities. It is not a crime in politics, contrary to what many believe, to be pragmatic, and change sides and convictions according to needs and circumstances. Since ideologies have failed their founders all over the world, these non-ideological parties will probably be the most popular if a true multi-party system emerges in Syria.

In 2000, Paris-based Syrian businessman Umran Adham tried to re-establish Quwatli's National Party, but the project was delayed "because the state was unenthusiastic". A legal team was put in charge of paperwork, and the National Party's 1946 constitution was updated to apply to modern Syria. Adham had explained that the party should be ready by late 2001 and able to take part in the parliamentary elections of 2002. He then spoke to the Beirut-based Daily Star and said the project had been delayed "for another three to four years". He added that he had "sent out signals" showing that the project was ready and awaiting approval, and received "an extremely passive response" from senior state officials, showing that no Ba'athist leaders wanted to resurrect the National Party in 2001.

Today, the mood is different in Damascus. It is very likely that a resurrection for the National Party, the People's Party and the SSNP will happen. To succeed, they need credible people to lead them. The success of the National Party, for example, was due to the immense popularity and trust that people had in its unblemished leader Quwatli and his prime ally Sabri al-Asali. There aren't many people in Syria today with the caliber of someone like Quwatli to inspire immediate confidence among the public. Without real leaders, both the National Party and People's Party will be failures.

The question that many are asking: "Why now?" Why has the Syrian government decided to create a multiparty system which might challenge the power of the Ba'athists? Contrary to what many believe, the Ba'ath Party is very strong in Syria, and has a lot of active supporters. Changing the views of a society indoctrinated with Ba'athist views since 1963 will not be easy. The masses, who generally lack a proper democratic culture, will not readily join other political parties, especially ones that challenge Ba'athist ideology.

This is the exact reason. The state is confident enough that no real threat will be presented to its power if a multi-party system emerges in Syria. Let the parties operate, and let them win parliamentary seats. The ruling party of the state and society will still be the Ba'ath Party, since amending Article 8 of the constitution, which gives it that leadership status, will not be discussed at the upcoming conference. A multi-party system will threaten nobody, and yet be greatly welcomed by the Syrian masses, who are demanding such a kind of political reform in Syria.

The Syrian masses will be pleased, and the Syrian government will get good public relations credit for it. It will also challenge a US bill against Syria, presented on March 8 in the House of Representatives, calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria". It reads: "The president is authorized to provide assistance and other support for individuals and independent non-governmental organizations to support transition to a freely elected, internationally recognized democratic government in Syria."

The message from the public and government alike in Damascus is clear: there is no need for US help, the Syrians will democratize on their own, at will.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

It is worth reading the commentary on the article by, which Tony B brought to my attention. They think that opening up new parties will be the beginning of the end for the Asad regime. I can't agree. Many other Middle East authoritarians have done this as a means to let off social steam, please Washington, and build a more responsible and organized civil society. So far liberalization in the Middle East has not led to democracy. But that does not mean it won't in the future. Certainly having elites practiced in party life, even circumscribed party life, is a good thing. Syria's reforms will be window dressing at first. But maybe with time that will change as the regime and society work out better ways to organize political life and reestablish some sense of trust and dialogue.

What introducing party life means is that Bashar is trying to move Syria off the list of "Dictatorial Regimes" and put it into the growing camp of "Liberalizing Authoritarian Regimes," such as those of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. It means some party life, more active NGOs (which Syria has yet to allow) and allowing for the growth of civil society.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Syria's Withdrawal from Lebanon Means More Internal Change

Yesterday was a day of celebration in Lebanon: 29 years of military occupation by Syria came to an end. Although the Lebanese and world press covered the story in detail, Syrians largely ignored the fanfare. It was not a proud day in Syria. In fact the Baath newspaper included no story about Lebanon on its front page.

There was some relief here as most people want to see the sordid affair of Syria's withdrawal concluded; they pray that the world spotlight will move elsewhere and the barrage of incriminations coming from Lebanon will subside. Relations between the two countries, which are so complex and intimate, are always described by Syrians in terms of a family. For the last thirty years they have been dysfunctional. Syrians now hope real brotherhood can be reestablished between the two societies. Everyone knows that will take time. The painful TV coverage of the demonstration in Beirut by family members of Lebanese who disappeared into Syrian prisons drove this home. My wife had to get up and leave the room when al-Arabia showed the wailing mothers and distraught brothers of missing Lebanese, who were demonstrating in front of parliament in Beirut, being beaten back by Lebanese troops. It was not easy to watch. Many in Syria hope Bashar will release the remaining Lebanese held in Syria and account for the missing as rapidly as possible. Only then will old wounds heal properly.

If Syrians have lost interest in Lebanon, they are ever more concerned about internal developments. The main story in the Baath newspaper was about the first round of elections for the Regional Party Congress that was concluded earlier this week. None of the statements by the successful candidates mentioned Lebanon or Syria's foreign relations. All were concerned with internal reforms. Candidate after candidate demanded that economic reforms be speeded up and that the public sector be realigned with the new demands of the Syria people. Without being explicit, the candidates are demanding more capitalism and a broadening of the free market. Many spoke out in favor of better healthcare and schools. All asked for better qualified public servants and administrative reform. Most complained that party members don't come to meetings implying that they are useless and that the party has lost its way. Society sees it as a bastion of clientalism and patronage. The candidates are clearly concerned that they are wasting their time running for elections and hope for the status and duties of the party can be clarified. How that will happen is anyone's guess.

The withdrawal from Lebanon leaves Syria facing a deep identity crises. All the billboards around town demanding that Syria strengthen its role in the region and defend Arabism cannot hide the fact the Syria has very little clout in Arab affairs. Perhaps this is a good thing. Syrians can now focus on putting their own house in order. The humiliation Syrians have experienced outside their borders over the last several months may be expiated by forward movement at home.

Hassan Fattah of the New York Times, helped by our very own Katherine Zoepf in Damascus has the most thoughtful and detailed report on Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, entitled, "Syria Force Leaves Lebanon, but Political Puzzles Remain." In its last lines, the always smart Sami Moubayed is quoted:

In Syria the soldiers were met by rice-throwing well-wishers apparently organized by the government. But the sense of humiliation was hard to hide. The Syrians generally dismissed the Lebanese as ungrateful, said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.

"But the intellectual elite understands very well how Syria's place in the world has changed," Mr. Moubayed said. "The nationalists among them feel that everything Hafez al-Assad built is being squandered."

Nicholas Blanford has a good report as well With Syria out, Lebanon clout grows: The last Syrian troops left Lebanon Tuesday, ending 29 years of military domination.

Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribute has a fine series of articles on Syria, which suggest that although the president's authority is limited and he must pit his own agenda against those of the powerful men around him, he has consolidated his power over the last months. (Thanks to Tony Badran for sending them my way.) Here is a bit from "Reform hinges on Syria's leader."
Old guard and new

At a Damascus meeting in October 2002, Assad waited until his aides left the room before he made a startling admission to Burns. If U.S. officials really hoped to talk to him, Assad said, they must avoid usual government channels and rely only on the special intelligence route created to share data on Al Qaeda. Only that channel, he said, "comes to me unfiltered," according to a former senior U.S. official briefed on the exchange.

Analysts have long described Assad as prisoner to an entrenched "old guard." But there are distinct signs that Assad holds far greater power than he did several years ago--and his decisions have not marked the decisive turn toward reform that many had predicted.

Indeed, some of the "new guard" he has promoted have been shunted aside, while others, including relatives, are becoming as entrenched as the men they replaced.

Three-quarters of the top 60-odd officials in political and security ranks were replaced by the end of 2002, according to German foreign policy analyst Volker Perthes. Last June, Assad retired 500 more military officers over age 60--a delicate move he considers vital to removing checks on his power, advisers say.

"The old officers believe that Hafez al-Assad brought them to power, but that they brought Bashar al-Assad to power," a senior adviser to the government said.

To understand that older generation, visit Jibran Kourieh, who spent 22 years as Syria's lead government spokesman until he retired three years ago. As he puffs a water pipe at a Damascus cafe, his crown of white hair, V-neck sweater and pinstriped suit give the air of an aging apparatchik, reinforced by his contempt for Mikhail Gorbachev as a leader who "destroyed the Soviet Union." Above all, Kourieh blames the U.S. for pressuring Assad into the position he faces today.

But asked how the father might have handled similar pressure, Kourieh said: "If President Hafez al-Assad was here, it wouldn't have reached this point. He passed through very serious situations in his time."

To counter the influence of that old guard, Bashar is turning to younger, largely Western-trained technocrats. His wife, Asma Akhras, a Syrian financial analyst raised in London, has taken a more public role, encouraging a civil society and small businesses. The president's younger brother Maher heads a key military unit, and Bashar promoted his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat to head of military intelligence.

But diplomats and critics say Assad's failure to rein in the economic advantages senior officials and relatives enjoy limits his power to reform the economy. Without Assad combating that corruption, critics say, powerful interests quash change.

"There is urgent need for economic reform," said economist Hussein Amach. "Unemployment is high, poverty is widespread, economic enterprises are losing in every kind of operation. Bureaucratic corruption is widespread."

But Amach knows that voicing such criticism can be dangerous. After openly urging reform of Syria's deeply corrupt public sector, he was fired Jan. 1 as head of Syria's Agency for Combating Unemployment. Like many before him, he had touched the government's rawest nerve. And for Assad, the criticism couldn't have come at a more sensitive time.

"OBSTACLE TO CHANGE: Corruption, nepotism stand in way of democracy"By Evan Osnos
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published April 22, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Like many Syrian entrepreneurs, Adnan Tarabishy knows what it takes to survive in business today.

"We have to bribe the officials from the Ministry of Finance to all other bodies in the government," he said. "It's a necessary fact."

Among obstacles to democratization in Syria, few loom larger than corruption, say analysts, diplomats and Syrian officials. Tax evasion is common. Political and family connections yield prized government contracts. Bribery is routine.

That integration of politics and economics is an important element in understanding why Syrian President Bashar Assad's pledges to reform his government have foundered. To supporters and critics, Assad appears caught in a political spiral: Corruption and inefficiency put mounting pressure on his government, but the reforms required could undermine his power.

Syria's economy is languishing. Economists say it has been in continuous recession, except for a few years in the early 1990s, since 1981. Moribund public companies cost the state millions in subsidies, and restrictive finance laws curtail private-sector development.

That is a bleak picture for businessmen like Tarabishy, an energetic, earnest 28-year-old who parlayed $1,500 and a roomful of rented furniture into a bustling business-training center and later an advertising firm. He sees a growing brain drain.

"We're supplying the market with highly educated people," he says of the Professional Development Institute he founded. "I don't like to be pessimistic, but 90 percent of our graduates are now out of Syria."

Assad bemoans the lack of economic and administrative reform.

"There are literally thousands of mediocre and fossilized bureaucrats who have been entrenched in their ministries for decades, don't want to change and don't know how to think . . . in a different way," he told former National Security Council analyst Flynt Leverett last year.

But Assad's family also profits from that system. His younger brother Maher "is increasingly notorious for his personal greed and complicity in corruption, as are the Makhlufs, Bashar's uncles, aunts and cousins on his mother's side," Leverett writes in a new book on Syria.

Those connections circumscribe Assad and his advisers' ability to make bold changes. "They do not want social upheaval," said Damascus economist Riad Abrash, a former deputy minister of planning. "They want stability."

I am also copying the useful information about the recently fired Presidential advisor, Nibras al-Fadil, given by one recent comment.

Here's a link to a bit more information on the Nibras al-Fadel affair. The site is that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the last time I was in Syria it was blocked, so I don't know if you'll be able to open it:

Check it out today because the site is updated daily so you might miss it if you wait. Apparently his firing is the talk of a very large number of people, and seen as a major loss to reformers. Let me also note that the website is among the most reliable and accurate, so despite my disgust of the brotherhood and their ilk, u can probably count on what they're saying.

Also I did a search in the Daily Star newspaper, trying to find what exactly Nibras said that got him fired (of course that is if the all4syria account that the interview was the reason he was kicked out is true)...I found about 4-5 articles that mentioned him, and given that the all4syria said the interview he did with Daily Star was about a month and a few days old, I think that they are referring to this article:

If I am correct that it is this article, the words that might have done him in are his saying that in order to maintain stability and prosperity in Syria, one of the things that should be done, in his words, is "not pitting different religious, ethnic and other population groups against each other".

Perhaps the leadership circles saw it as his hinting that that's what the Alawi regime is doing.... However other things he said that might have done him in are his saying that its important to have "good governance and democratic values, promoting human rights, dignity and freedom".... or his saying that: "the leadership should take advantage of the upcoming Baath Party congress to transform it from a party to a national congress, setting the stage for the sorts of deep, structural changes that are needed to provide the foundation for economic and political reforms".....or perhaps his complaining of: "high levels of corruption, informality and patronage"... (focus on the word patronage).

Anyway, I'll leave you to read the article, but his words are truly impressive, and unheard of in Syrian official circles...which is unfortunately why he was probably fired.
Peace, Syrian in Canada

If anyone wants to know what it is like reporting on the Iraq-Syrian border this story by FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye is interesting and well done.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Bolton and the Politicization of US Intelligence on Syria

I am posting an article on Syria's security network in Lebanon below that comes from It was sent to me by a reader who asked that I publish it even though he noted that "I feel it's too much talk, not enough facts."

I post it, nevertheless, because there have been a number of articles reporting the same thing. One never knows about the truth of such unsubstantiated claims.

I never now how to pass on such articles. US intelligence agencies and institutes have been so damaged by their propensity to spin that one must take this sort of unverified news with a large grain of salt and remain skeptical until ones sees some facts.

Nothing has done more harm to our confidence in US intelligence warnings than the willful politicization of intelligence by the ex-Under-Secretary of State John Bolton, whose nomination for the position of US Ambassador to the UN has now run into grave problems in the Senate.

The recent hearings on Bolton underline his intelligence misrepresentations only too well, something I have sought to point out on Syria Comment for the past year (see this post of May 20, 2004, or this post of June 26, 2005, or this post).

The most damaging allegation about Bolton involves his 2002 efforts to prod the intelligence community to back his allegation that Cuba might be seeking to export WMD from an offensive biological weapons program. In February 2002, he prepared a speech that, according to an unclassified Senate Intelligence Committee report, "contained a sentence which said that the U.S. believes Cuba has a developmental, offensive biological warfare program and is providing assistance to other rogue state programs."

The problem was that Bolton's charges went well beyond what the intelligence community viewed as solid evidence. They claimed Cuba had a "limited, developmental, offensive biological warfare research and development effort." In 2004, the intelligence community revised its 1999 estimate even further downward because it was even less sure that Cuba had any such offensive WMD effort.

Bolton did the same thing to Syria as he did to Cuba. From 2002 to 2004, he consistently insisted that Syria was a growing threat because of WMD and even accused it of developing nuclear weapons capabilities for which there was no evidence and only allegations. Even more egregious, he kept on insisting that Saddam Hussein had smuggled his WMD into Syria even after it had become quite clear that Iraqis could provide no evidence of this and that US agencies had found no evidence that Saddam had preserved any of his WMD. The politicization of intelligence has done a great disservice to US creditability.

After writing this last night, I saw this morning that the New York Times published an article on Bolton's Syria misrepresentations. It says:

Ex-Officials Say Bolton Inflated Syrian Danger
By DOUGLAS JEHL, April 26, 2005
In the speech itself, Mr. Bolton pointed to Cuba, Syria and Libya as "rogue states intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction," a trio that extended "beyond the axis of evil" of Iran, Iraq and North Korea that President Bush had described in his State of the Union address several months earlier. On Syria, Mr. Bolton said in the 2002 speech that the government in Damascus "is pursuing the development of biological weapons and is able to produce at least small quantities of biological warfare agents."

In testimony to Congress in June 2003, Mr. Bolton said American officials "know that Syria is pursuing the development of biological weapons." But a report sent to Congress by the C.I.A. in April 2003 was more guarded in its assessment than Mr. Bolton had been. Using an abbreviation for biological warfare, it said only that it was "highly probable that Syria is also continuing to develop an offensive B. W. capability."

David Sanger also has an article in the Times entitled, "Arms Move to Syria 'Unlikely,' Report Says"
The Bush administration's senior weapons inspector said in a report released last night that it was "unlikely" that Saddam Hussein's forces moved weapons to Syria, though he expressed concern about nuclear-related equipment that was apparently removed after American-led forces invaded Iraq.

It is good to see that the administration is finally getting around to clearing up the false allegations that Syria had spirited away Iraqs WMD. Even the CIA has now included a disclaimer on its website.

Here is the article on Syria's Network in Lebanon. Most of its information is tied to one unnamed "diplomatic source," who mysteriously knows exactly what was said in a high level meeting of Syria's top security officers. For this "diplomatic source" to know what went on in the meeting, one of Syria's top security officers must have leaked the information in order to undermine Syria's position in Lebanon. This does not seem likely to me, but here it is anyway.
Syria's New Network in Lebanon
Syria is officially pulling out of Lebanon but appears to be simultaneously deploying clandestine networks throughout the entire country.

According to a diplomatic source, Syria's leadership held one of its most important meetings ever on the Lebanese situation in Damascus on March 24. In attendance for the occasion were president Bashar al Assad; his younger brother, Maher, commander in chief of the Republican Guard; his brother-in-law, the all-powerful general Assef Shawkat, chief of Military Intelligence; his influential sister Bushra, wife of Shawkat; general Ghazi Kanaan, interior minister and former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon; general Bahjat Suleiman, chief of Section 251 of the General Intelligence Directorate; general Mohamed al Mansourah, new boss of the Political Security agency (IOL 493); and general Roustom Ghazale, chief of Syria's secret service in Lebanon.

While Assad called for Syria to disengage itself from the Lebanese "quagmire", Kanaan, Shawkat and Maher Assad pushed a plan to set up covert networks taking their orders from Damascus throughout all of Lebanon.

As a result, Syrian intelligence operatives have begun infiltrating the 12 Palestinian camps housing 400,000 refugees in Lebanon, and particularly the Ain el Heloue camp east of Saida in the southern part of the country. Other agents carrying fake Lebanese ID papers have installed themselves in the southern suburbs of Beirut with the assistance of Hezbollah, which put apartments at their disposal.

And to retain a presence in the capital and in Christian regions the Syrians have activated their local networks, and specially among Lebanese political parties that have long been beholden to Damascus.

This is the case of the Syrian National Social Party (PSNS) in which Christians are an active minority; the Lebanese branch of the Ba'aath Party; the Habashis, a Sunni fundamentalist movement; and the Movement for Islamic Unification.

Syria's new strategy is reflected in events affecting the Movement for Islamic Unification, which is also a Sunni fundamentalist outfit established in Tripoli in northern Lebanon. At the outset the movement close to Syria's Moslem Brotherhood violently opposed Syria's presence in Lebanon.

Following a deadly rift within the movement the Syrians started in 1994 to arrest and jail several hundred of its members. But early this month, the Syrian secret service began releasing the prisoners who flooded back to Tripoli, this time to serve Syria's interests. According to sources in Tripoli, large amounts of weaponry have been distributed in the city.

There was a demonstration yesterday of about 50 people in front of the State Security Court: See Syrians stage rare protest at trial of rights activists. One photographer, Ghaith, whom I spoke to said that he was impressed with the courage of the demonstrators, who were surrounded by security people in full riot gear and who out numbered the demonstrators. He took pictures until he was told to leave.

Ghaith, an Iraqi, came to Syria only a week ago from Baghdad and says how pleasantly surprised he has been to find Syria so different from Saddam's Iraq. He said that he was amazed to see the demonstrators holding their small sheets of paper above their heads and demanding that emergency law be lifted. "No one ever dared to do that in Iraq." He was hardly checked at the airport, and he was able to help his fiancé, a British reporter and novelist, get an extension for her reporter's visa for several months with a minimum of fuss, just a small payment to an officer who made the telling eye contact. They both sang Damascus' praises for being so much fun and cosmopolitan.

They are both refugees from Iraq, driven out by the deteriorating security situation.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Economics of the Syria - Lebanon Relationship

Thank God for Andrew Tabler. Once again he has cut through the fog to tell us what we do know about the Syrian-Lebanese economic relationship. His article from "Executive", copied below, should be of interest to many readers who have been carrying on a vigorous debate on these pages about who is going to be hurt more - Syria or Lebanon - if relations between the two countries worsen.

Tabler's article is followed by an interview with Fouad Siniora, who was economic minister of Lebanon. He also helps to shed some light on the economics of the relationship.

The economic relationship: Beyond all political fallout, the economies of Syria and Lebanon remain deeply intertwined and complimentary
Executive Magazine, (April 2005 No.70)
By Andrew Tabler,

In the current political furor, it must be remembered that the Lebanese and Syrian economies are and have been strongly interdependent – a situation that predates Syria’s military intervention in 1976 and will probably remain so in the short to medium term.

Prior to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the Lebanese economy was finally picking up steam, built on stronger trade with the region, including Syria. Should the opposition win the upcoming Lebanese elections, it will not necessarily mean that Lebanon will be cut off from Syria economically. The special bilateral agreements of the early to mid 1990s have been replaced with Arab-wide trade pacts that have slashed tariffs on a wide variety of goods and facilitated inter-Arab investment. They will remain binding. Restrictions on Syrians working in Lebanon are a possibility, but the fact of the matter remains that Syrian labor is not easily replaced by other foreign workers, as they require housing and residency permits to the tune of $1,800 per year. If economic reform accelerates in Syria in response to the crisis, which it has in terms of banking, Lebanon’s could lose its share of Syrian savings, and with it, a vital source of deposits that can be invested in everything from Lebanese treasury bills to credit cards – all of which keep the Lebanese dream of material progress going. But as US pressure increases on Damascus, Syrian reform is likely to grind to a halt for the foreseeable future unless a working compromise can be found.

Trading partners

Despite ebbs and flows in Lebanese-Syrian relations over the years, bilateral trade has continued unabated and has seen rapid growth in bilateral trade. In 1997, for example, the volume of bilateral trade stood at $76.81 million, for which Syrian exports to Lebanon accounted for 92.7%. As more agreements were signed, Lebanon gradually began tipping the trade balance in its direction. In 2000, for example, bilateral trade volume stood at $190.1 million, with Syrian exports making up 87.8%. By 2003, trade volume stood at $277.2 million, but Syria’s share of the pie had slipped to 74.06%. In the first half of 2004, total trade volume stood at $136.95 million, of which Syrian production accounted for only 63%. While such figures are susceptible to fluctuations in energy prices (almost half of Syrian exports to Lebanon are oil products), Lebanese exports to Syria more than doubled between 2001 and 2003, and Lebanon’s share of official trade volume continued to grow.

Official statistics on Lebanese-Syrian economic activity are deceiving, however, as they do not reflect services Lebanese enterprises provide to Syrian clients, as well as rampant black market activity. The Lebanese state’s ability to assess taxes and customs duties during the war was severely curtailed. Getting a handle on the volume of black market activity between the two countries is therefore incredibly difficult. But a brief look at some of the reasons Lebanese and Syrians took their economic activity underground sheds light on what remain important needs of both sides that are likely to quickly show through the current political posturing.

Refuge for Syrian money

First and foremost are financial activities. Following Syria’s Ba’athist Revolution of 1963 and the nationalization of the banking sector, Syrian money poured into Lebanon. Syrian financiers set up shop in Beirut and in Chtoura to service the needs of Syrians, due in large part to the inefficiencies and restrictions that accompanied state domination of Syrian finance. Syrians are not inward-looking people cut off from the rest of the world and over the last century, Syrians migrated to the West in large numbers due to extensive political instability, and carried their trade with them. Thus, unlike many other “socialist” countries, Syrian had a strong need to keep and effectively use hard currency.

Lebanon fits Syrians needs to a tee. Its famous banking secrecy laws made it easy for Syrians to hide their true income and worth from the Syrian authorities. The banks’ top-rate services, in terms of transfer facilities, suited the needs of Syrian traders all over the world. Last but not least, the banks’ ability to make smart investments and make strong returns made Lebanon Syria’s piggy bank.

When the Syrian state imposed harsh foreign currency restrictions following its forex crisis in 1985 to 1986, Lebanon became an important conduit for black market currency transactions in and out of Syria, known in the region as the HAWALA system. When Syria’s private sector began to grow in the early 1990s, and Syrian banking regulations remained high restrictive, this activity became semi-sanctioned, with Syrian authorities openly turning a blind eye to the illicit activity. Lebanese banks asked few questions, as per their banking confidentiality regulations.

Lebanese banks also became active in loans to major Syrian enterprises, charging high rate of interest and special terms in exchange for forgoing the ability to secure collateral in Syria (which is restricted to Lebanese banks). Last but not least, Lebanese banks provide, and still provide, the lions share of L/C and other import finance facilities to Syrian importers. Only in the last few weeks, following Hariri’s assassination, have Syrian regulations been eased to allow Syrian banks to provide L/Cs in foreign currency.

The second area concerns black market trade activities. Despite changes in Syria’s customs regulations over the past few years, the country remains a highly protected economy. Lebanese products skirt these restrictions through the abovementioned free trade agreements. As Syria’s private sector has grown, so has its appetite for goods either banned by Syrian customs regulations, or those forbidden by US trade restrictions on Damascus. As a result, Lebanese traders have become masters of “re-exporting”, where goods such as US computers or car parts are shipped on to Syrian suppliers in violation of US law. In response, US corporations have put heavy pressure on Lebanese import agencies to obtain “end-user” licenses for various products. Strong family business ties straddling the border, high commissions made by Lebanese re-exporters, along with no increases in the capacity of the US embassy to monitor such transactions, make such demands virtually unenforceable.

Swapping expertise

In terms of services, Syrian producers utilize Lebanese expertise in everything from production techniques and marketing. Most Syrian businessmen say Lebanon’s close proximity and the international experience of its workforce make Lebanon the best source at the best price. But perhaps more important is the willingness of Lebanese companies to receive large “off the books” payments from Syrian sources that in most other economies would be considered money laundering. This fact is not due to the Lebanese penchant for “business” but rather their understanding of, and willingness to circumvent, Syria’s foreign exchange restrictions. Along with, of course, Lebanon’s banking secrecy policy.

Syria's manpower

The third area involves Syrian labor in Lebanon. Since independence, Syrian workers have satisfied Lebanon’s demand for skilled, cheap, and unreported labor – an important factor in the profitability of Lebanese businesses. While many Lebanese now complain that the estimated 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon are in fact stealing jobs away from Lebanese, the simple fact of the matter is that Syrian workers, in the words of one Lebanese businessman, “will do what most Lebanese feel is beneath them.” It is easy to understand: Lebanon’s skilled and polyglot workforce invests in its education with the hope of obtaining a white-collar office job. Syrian workers, therefore, fill the blue-collar gap in Lebanon ask construction workers, garbage collectors, handymen and house cleaners. This makes Lebanon an important source of remittances to the Syrian economy, with some estimates reaching $4 billion per year.

Not all these funds leave Lebanon, of course, as most Syrians are still reluctant to repatriate their savings to Syria’s nascent private sector banks. Many Syrian workers are also married to Lebanese nationals, making estimates of the Syrian labor drain on Lebanon hard to quantify. Nevertheless, Syria continues to suffer from high unemployment, and the economic opportunities for Syrians in Lebanon are an important part of keeping food on the table among the families that straddle the anti-Lebanon range.

A brief history of Lebanese-Syrian economic pacts

In the year’s following independence, different Syrian governments tried to placate the wishes of businessmen from all over the country who historically preferred using Lebanese ports. This culminated in the signing of the Lebanese-Syrian Economic Pact of 1953 – a document designed to help integrate the two economies. The agreement allowed for quota and duty free trade in agricultural products and exempted industrial production from all or half of customs duties, depending on the product in question. In terms of labor and services, Lebanese and Syrians could obtain a six-month residency permit on the border, which allowed Syrian surplus labor to serve the Lebanese market – a situation that continues to this day.

During the civil war, Lebanese-Syrian trade continued, albeit on a much more limited basis with areas under the control of Christian militias. In the early 1980s, Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayal tried to uproot Syrian business ties with areas under his control and led the Azharis – a financier family of Syrian origin – to sell their controlling stake in Credit Libanais in 1984. Following Syria’s role in implementing the Ta’if Accord, both countries signed the agreement for Brotherhood and Collaboration of 1991.

While the agreement is often framed in terms of its bilateral commitments to overall cooperation, external affairs, and security, equally emphasized are economic and social affairs. Such matters are overseen by the Committee for Economic and Social Cooperation, an offshoot of the Lebanese-Syrian Higher Council, which oversees the agreement.

In 1993, Syria and Lebanon concluded yet another pact - The Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination. Perhaps more than any other agreement, it outlines in detail the goal of gradual economic integration between Lebanon and Syria, as well as the principles on which such goals would be met. Six clauses outline free movement of persons, labor (based on the laws of each country), services, goods, capital, and transport. In addition, a “mechanism” was established to coordinate national policies in water, energy, electricity, taxation, and finance, amongst others, with the goal of achieving a common market between the two countries.

As each state adjusted its legislation to meet such goals, bilateral trade expanded. When the Arab leaders began looking to liberalize pan-Arab trade in the mid 1990s, in part to counteract its free trade agreements with the EU and the WTO, the 1993 agreement was held up as a success story. This led in 1997 to the conclusion of the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement (GAFTA), in which Lebanese-Syrian economic relations have been framed ever since. GAFTA established the goal of eliminating all tariffs and quotas (with some exceptions) on January 1, 2005. Ahead of that date, Arab countries were free to conclude bilateral agreements to accelerate economic liberalization – a clause Lebanon and Syria took quite seriously. Some 23 bilateral agreements were subsequently concluded, including everything from investment guarantees and industrial and agricultural production to the protection of the environment to emergency medical services.

Lebanese-Syrian Trade ($m)

Year Volume Exports (Syrian) Imports (Lebanese) % Syrian
1997 76.81 71.2 5.6 92.7
2000 190 166.83 23.2 87.8
2003 277.2 205.3 71.9 74.1
2004(1st hlf) 137 85.97 50.98 63

Source: Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade/Central Bureau of Statistics

Top Bilateral Exports ($m)


Oil Products 89.3
Mutton 32.2
Phosphate products 16.8
Fruits and Vegetables 13.2
Legumes 6.6
Milk and Dairy Products 6.3
Iron rods and products 5.3


Paper products 10.7
Cement 9.3
Aluminum products 4.6
Marble 3.6
Sugar products 2.3
Juice and water 2.1
Alcohol .9

Source: Syrian Ministry of Economy and Trade/Central Bureau of Statistics

Q & A: Fouad Siniora - Forward thinking (April 2005 No.70)

The former finance minister outlines Lebanon's economic priorities and prospects amid ongoing political instability

What do you think of comparisons and calculations where people come up with numbers, how much we gave, how much they gave, how much they profited, and so forth? Do you have any view on the net balance of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship in those terms?

I think it is very difficult for anybody to say today but I can really tell you that there really is a synergy and it definitely is in the interest of Lebanon and in the interest of Syria to work together and have closer economic relations, not one overriding the other and taking advantage of the other. Syrian labor is very important to Lebanon and people are mistaken when they talk about Syrian labor. I personally have not heard of any situation under which somebody had Syrian labor imposed on him. In the agricultural sector, the basic labor force is Syrian, in the construction sector, the same thing. Lebanon imports cheap labor and Lebanon exports expensive labor.

After elections, what are the priorities in economic policy that need to be addressed?

We have to address growth, employment and the fiscal situation. Fiscal stabilization has been a big responsibility of the Hariri years. Under your leadership and direction, the ministry of finance has been successful in pursuing reform, implementing VAT since 2002 and lately increasing fiscal revenue. Does the current situation endanger this progress? What really counts now is to proceed in expediting the process and moving to the next phase, which must first begin with the [Syrian] withdrawal. Mind you, my point of view personally and one I believe shared by many reasonable Lebanese in this is that we have to really be on good terms with Syria. Syria is our neighbor and no matter what happens, nobody can change geography. It is our interest to be on good terms with Syria, because Syria is our gateway to the Arab world. We also have no interest in signing any agreement like the May 17th or anything of that sort because it is not in the interest of Lebanon to do so. On the other hand, we have to really work out with Syria something that we can abide by – a very simple formula, as Hariri once said, set by Bcharra Khoury in the old days, [which held] that Lebanon is not supposed to be a place or a passage for colonialism against Syria. As Hariri said, Lebanon cannot be ruled against Syria but it also cannot be ruled from Syria. This is the arrangement that we have to respect. I think this will lead us to great potential for the development of Syria and of Lebanon.

You mentioned that the Lebanese government has been very slow to implement measures. Would disentanglement of the political processes, meaning reduction of Syrian political involvement in Lebanon and reduction or removal of MOUKHABARAT structures, help to improve public sector governance decisively in the short term?

I think this is going to be very helpful, because it means that each organization will have to concentrate on what it is supposed to do. The MOUKHABARAT, according to the Taif Agreement, should really have worked for military objectives, not against the people, taping their phone calls. They are wasting their time. It would have been a very strong message if the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon had happened without the Hariri assassination. We would have seen the country going places.

How about the impact on Syria? Would it also bring a strong positive effect on Syria?
If I were in the Syrian shoes, yes, I think this is going to be. How are they going to take it; how they are going to deal with it? This is for the Syrians to decide. I am not going to interfere in their business, but I think this is something that can be converted into a new opening, a new opportunity.

From a fiscal perspective, does Syrian labor bring about damage to Lebanon?
They are creating value, my friend. I am not in favor of something that is the manipulation of certain things or the interference in many affairs in the country, this is definitely not productive at all; this is destructive. But when you talk about Syrian labor, why don’t you talk about the 100,000 Sri Lankan housemaids? Are you against 300,000 Syrians but not against the 100,000 from Sri Lanka?

How about taxation and work permits for the foreign workers?

If you go to Switzerland, they get labor from France, from Italy, from Spain, or from Portugal and all of them are illegal. Why would you impose taxes on Syrian labor? We can impose taxes, but who is going to eventually pay the taxes – the Lebanese will.

So from the fiscal perspective, would you impose taxation and collecting fees for work permits or would you personally favor a totally open labor environment?

If you want to organize it in terms of simple paperwork, then fine, why not. Nobody is questioning that. But why don’t you ask the same thing between Mexico and the United States? Let’s not concentrate on the side issues instead of the main issues. What we are really complaining about is the interference in political affairs and administrative affairs and everything pertaining to the functioning of the operations in the country. Here, the [Syrian] intelligence is interfering and this is counterproductive and damaging to the economy. Would this be a good time for devaluation of the Lebanese pound, given that the rate of dollarization is high?

It would be counterproductive. You are not gaining anything in terms of reducing your liabilities. You could reduce the debt by a trickle. The benefits, however, are very limited and the costs are very high. I don’t think this is helpful.

Could there be a Paris III and who would be the person to bring the international institutions and donors to the table, now that Mr. Hariri is gone?

I don’t know. It depends on who is going to be the prime minister then. If we wanted to really have a Paris III, we would have to prove to the world that we are serious and are ready to do what is really required so that we can carry on the reforms. We have committed ourselves with the world that we are going to do the reforms and what happened to the contrary was that we did nothing to carry out these reforms. It is high time to realize that the world is not going to do anything for us if we cannot do anything for ourselves. God helps those who help themselves. [Paris II] was an opportunity that was given to us and we abused it and did not take advantage of it.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Baath Will Disolve its National Leadership and Drop the word "Socialism"

For those who are optimistic about coming changes during the Regional Baath Party Congress, the following article should be on interest. The Minister of Planning, Dardari, has also been giving interviews trying to drum up support and optimism about the coming changes. Much of the work of his office depends on altering the Baath constitution where socialism is concerned. He also needs to clear away some of the dead wood around him and keep his avenue to the President open.

"The Baath Will Dissolve its National Leadership and Drop the word "Socialism" from the Party Name." That is what al-Sharq al-Awsat claims (article in Arabic) is going to happen at the 10th meeting of the Regional Leadership due to be held next month. Ayman Abdulnour is the main source for the article. As a party member and one of the best informed Syrians around, he should know.

Deborah Amos of NPR has a good story on Syria which nicely catches the quandary Syrians are in. On the one hand they are fed up with the corruption of the party and regime and despair that it can change itself. On the other hand, everyone keeps praying that Bashar, whom most people like, will be able to "pull a rabbit out of a hat." They look at Iraq and Lebanon and don't want to risk civil war or major instability to get their change. As one Syrian reporter told me the other day, "The problem is that we are not willing to sacrifice like the Lebanese or Iraqis to get change. I am the first one to admit to being a coward."

Needless to say, he had a good job. On my recent trip around Syria, I had a chance to look up many old friends and makes some new ones. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many old friends were doing quite well and had prospered over the last 15 years since I last saw them. Most, however, felt that they had not had the opportunities they could have because of economic stagnation and government obstruction. I will write about this at length in my upcoming travelogue.

Elisabeth Eaves of Slate was recently in town and has written an excellent series of articles that don't just trawl over the same material. She has a nice eye for detail.

From: Elisabeth Eaves
Subject: Going Home
Updated Tuesday, April 19, 2005, at 8:22 AM PT
Today's slide show: Images from Sayyida Zeinab, Damascus

On the fringes of Sayyida Zeinab, an outlying suburb of Damascus, there are signs of transience. Buses are lined up pointing eastward, facing desert for hundreds of miles. There are families loading large square packages and plastic-wrapped children's bicycles into the cargo holds. There are cheap hotels and signs on boxy concrete buildings that advertise furnished rooms for rent.

Dominated by the spectacular golden dome of the Sayyida Zeinab mosque, this neighborhood draws Shiite pilgrims from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and farther afield. For more than a decade now it has also been a magnet for Iraqi Shiite migrants who have come and stayed, in numbers that probably peaked in the hundreds of thousands. They came during the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran that ended in 1988, then during the Persian Gulf War of 1990 and 1991, and then they came as refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime. Most recently, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, they came again.

"I came to feel like I'm a human being," said Ali Raouf Abdul Amir, a patron of the Restaurant of the Youth of Iraq. He arrived on May 25, 2000, before the most recent war. "I had to serve twice in the Iraqi army, and so I couldn't grow at all financially," he said. "Imagine a person my age not married yet." Amir, 30, is an artisan who inlays precious stones into metal in his shop one alley over from the restaurant. His sister and two brothers followed him here and sat out the postwar chaos, but they left six months ago. Amir is now thinking of going home too.

Newspapers, citing the United Nations and Syrian officials, have suggested that between 500,000 and 700,000 Iraqis—Muslim and Christian and of various ethnicities—have arrived in Syria since the war ended, joining some 100,000 Iraqis who were already here. An official at the International Organization for Migration in Damascus suggested to me that the number of new Iraqi arrivals was 400,000. If somewhat disparate, these figures are better than the statistics on how many Iraqis are leaving Syria, which don't exist.

There are anecdotes, though. Two-thirds of Iraqis in Sayyida Zeinab have returned to their homeland since last autumn, according to an estimate by Bassim Suleikhi, an Iraqi trucker and trader who travels the road between Damascus and Najaf. He splits his time between the two cities when he is not on the road, and he, too, takes tea at the Restaurant of the Youth of Iraq.
Two-thirds sounds like a lot, especially since Sayyida Zeinab still feels Iraqi in many ways, as well as overwhelmingly Shiite. (Shiite Muslims make up only a small minority in Syria.) The streets and alleys around the mosque, where you can buy assorted nuts, a whole goat carcass, or a polyester dress, were thronged with shoppers on the two occasions I visited. Nearly every woman wore an all-erasing black cloak of the kind typical in Iran and southern Iraq but unusual in downtown Damascus, where European dress is common. Campaign posters from Iraq's Jan. 30 election were still pasted to the walls, all of them for the United Iraqi Alliance, or 169 list, the Shiite party endorsed by the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. (Ibrahim Jaafari, a 169 candidate, is Iraq's new prime minister.) There is an Imam Sadr Hospital on Sayyida Zeinab's busiest thoroughfare, named for the late Iraqi cleric Mohammed Sadiq Sadr. As well as founding a network of Shiite charities, he fathered the young firebrand Muqtada Sadr.

Even President Bashar Assad appears to have pragmatically franchised himself in Sayyida Zeinab. Throughout most of Syria his face appears alone, hanging on government ministries, buses, and barbershops. Often his image appears near a picture of his late father, Hafez, the former president, or his deceased brother Basil, the would-be president who was killed in a car crash. Occasionally, Bashar appears in a pastoral setting with his wife and kids. In Sayyida Zeinab, though, the photo on the walls is one of him sitting as an equal beside Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militia group. Perhaps, in fact, it is the residents of Sayyida Zeinab who have done the co-opting. Bowing to the unspoken national demand to display the president, they have chosen this particular depiction.

Still, as the election posters fade in the bright sun, the 10- to 14-hour road trip to Najaf is beginning to look more attractive for Iraqis who, after all, can never obtain Syrian citizenship.
"I'm homesick, and I expect the Iraqi government to stabilize things soon," Amir said. He told me that government jobs in Najaf now pay $200 a month, compared to $3 a month under Saddam Hussein. "If the government employees are getting good salaries, they go out and buy televisions and other things," he reasoned. Suleikhi, the trucker, told me government jobs back home now paid $300-$400 a month. In any case, the reports are good. "The standard of living is 100 percent better," Suleikhi said. I have met few men more openly pleased than these two with both Syria and the United States.

"We will never forget about Syria, which hosted us all these years," Amir said, adding that he has had the freedom to do as he pleases here. Syria has allowed Iraqi migrants to send their children to public schools, get medical treatment at public clinics, and obtain drivers' licenses. Suleikhi, for his part, said that he prefers traveling to Syria than to Jordan, because of the psychological bond between Iraqis and Syrians. As for the United States, "the invasion was a good thing," said Suleikhi. Thirty-eight and single, he has been traveling between Syria and Iraq since 1997. He buys parts for cars and trucks in Syria and sells them in Iraq, and he has noticed a major upturn in business since the end of the war.

Amir says he is grateful to the United States for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, but he is more circumspect than Suleikhi. He noted that Najaf, while much improved over recent months, suffers from the lingering blight of occasional terrorist attacks, which he blames on Sunni fundamentalists. He is not entirely sure about the U.S. government's intentions and said that it may have lied about being a liberator rather than an occupier. I asked him what he would do if that was the case. With enviable peace of mind, he said, "We will await Sistani's word and do what he says."

From: Elisabeth Eaves
Subject: A Roaring Absence of Failure
Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2005, at 3:23 AM PT
Today's slide show: Images from the Golan

Peacekeepers get a bad rap, and it's not hard to see why. Time after time, warring parties have slaughtered one another in their presence, sometimes on a massive scale. U.N. troops were present when Rwandans butchered Rwandans in 1994 and when Bosnian-Serb forces overwhelmed Srebrenica in 1995. When peacekeeping troops are present and peace prevails, we still don't give them much credit, assuming instead that the warring parties don't really want to kill each other anyway. Peacekeeping is one of those jobs in which success is hard to measure because it's mainly visible in the absence of failure.

I recently visited the front line between Syria and Israel, two countries technically at war, although calm has mostly prevailed on their border since 1974. If either country chose to launch an all-out invasion, the U.N. forces in the middle couldn't do much to stop it. Nevertheless, I see UNDOF, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force stationed here, as a success.
The Golan certainly didn't look like a war zone as I traveled south from Damascus. The villages were busy with people and traffic and surrounded by lush, green fields. Here and there, though, sprouting like poisonous mushrooms in the grass, I saw metal signs marked with crudely drawn skulls, denoting the presence of mines.

UNDOF's Camp Faouar looked like summer camp for grown-ups. The cabins were set among pine and cypress trees and decorated with national flags—Canadian, Polish, Japanese. There were tennis players on the court and men jogging along gravel paths that cut through patches of wood. The sky was blue and the snow-covered peak of Mount Hermon glinted in the sunlight above.

This was headquarters for the 1,185 soldiers tasked with enforcing the Syrian-Israeli cease-fire that followed the October (or Yom Kippur) War of 1973. Inside the command center, Maj. Siegfried Perr, who is Austrian and wore a blue beret, gave me a slide show briefing. He showed me lines upon lines upon lines: borders at various dates, lines of advance in various wars, lines of withdrawal. Two of the lines marked the so-called Area of Separation, a narrow, 45-mile-long strip of land that runs from the heights of Mount Hermon in the north to Wadi al-Raqid, which is below sea level, in the south. Neither country may have military equipment or personnel in this area. On its side, Israel has built a six-and-a-half-foot-high "technical fence," Maj. Perr said, which sets off an alarm if it is touched. From the Syrian side, though, other than a checkpoint on the road, there is no obvious sign that you have entered the zone. The area is home to more than 50,000 Syrian civilians, up from 5,000 in 1974, and benefits from new roadways and government-funded construction.

Other than patrolling the Area of Separation, the things UNDOF does may seem small. They are the sorts of things development experts call "confidence-building measures," which would be easy to dismiss as so much U.N. jargon. But they make daily life more palatable for ordinary people, which is not something that should be dismissed.

UNDOF provides medical assistance to local civilians who come asking for it. It also does demining work, ridding the landscape of the bitter crop sown by both sides in 1967 and 1973. Mines still sometimes kill local villagers and their livestock and have been responsible for some of the 49 UNDOF deaths since 1974.

UNDOF also helps people cross the border. When Israel captured the Golan in 1967, Syrian villagers came with the territory. They number some 20,000 today and are mostly of the Druse sect. Young men from these communities sometimes travel to study in Damascus. Brides may also cross to join their new husbands, a choice that usually means they will never see their own families again. And, as of the last few months, apple trucks have been allowed to cross, bringing produce from the Golan to market in Syria. In a rare show of cooperation between the two countries, Syria is importing about 7,000 tons of apples grown by Golan Druses.

So, what is UNDOF up against? I'll give two examples. One is the town of Quneitra. Unlike the rest of the Area of Separation, Syria has preserved Quneitra as a ghost town. It had suffered damage in 1967, when Israel first seized it along with the rest of the Golan Heights. Syrian forces shelled it in subsequent years, and it was the site of fierce fighting during the October War, changing hands several times. The subsequent cease-fire required Israel to hand Quneitra back to Syria. What happened next remains the subject of a propaganda war. Syria says that all the houses in the town were systematically destroyed by Israel, while Israel says the destruction was the result of the preceding battles. In his briefing, Maj. Perr said that "as a provocative act it was flattened and destroyed by the IDF before it was returned to Syria," but asked about this later, his force commander told me merely that there were competing claims: that Quneitra was destroyed during the wars, that the Israelis did it just before their withdrawal, and even that the Syrians did it after the withdrawal to burnish their monument to Israeli perfidy.

I couldn't read any tales from Quneitra itself. Aside from a church, a mosque, and a heavily damaged hospital, the town is a field of rubble heaps. Hundreds of homes rest in eerily similar piles. A large slab, once a flat roof, juts up from almost every one.

Whatever the source of the destruction, Quneitra has been frozen in this state for clearly political aims. Lest there be any doubt, the sign in broken English on the hospital makes it clear: "Destructed by Zionists and changed it to firing target!" This preservation of defeat represents feelings about history and loss that I find difficult to understand. Isn't the enshrining of destroyed Quneitra a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face? What kind of society shows off its failures this way? Can anyone imagine Americans preserving the destroyed World Trade Towers as ruins? The citizens of an industrious, optimistic, successful civilization would find the very idea ridiculous. Whatever else it is, this preserving of wounds is a weapon of the weak, a last resort of the defeated. But it also suggests a profound unwillingness to move on from war to peace.

My second example occurred last week, following the first violent border incident in two years. (The last took place in early 2003, when Israeli soldiers killed a Syrian civilian down in Wadi al-Raqid, where the Area of Separation is only 220 yards wide.) This time, a Palestinian from a refugee camp inside Syria managed to cross the border and fire on Israeli soldiers, who captured him. Afterward, according to a wire service report, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman blamed Syria for "allowing" the infiltration, although Israel's alarmed fence and vastly superior defense forces apparently didn't detect him either. The spokesman called the incident a "grave violation" of the security arrangements in place and said, "The Syrians should not be allowing armed terrorists to cross the border."

This verbal transformation of lone gunman into proto-invasion shows another leadership with a taste for escalation. We may give U.N. peacekeepers a hard time, but their daily work on this border goes a long way toward keeping the war in the realm of words.

From: Elisabeth Eaves
Subject: Are We Free Yet?
Posted Thursday, April 21, 2005, at 6:26 AM PT
Today's slide show: Fighters for freedom.

When you are sitting in a bar after midnight, sipping arrack and listening to a violin and synthesizer duo, and the bar is built into a 500-year-old stone home in the walled city of Damascus, and the duo takes a break and the speakers blast the Scorpions ballad—I'm not kidding—"Winds of Change," it would be easy, in spite of oneself, to get sentimental about a Syrian glasnost. Especially after discovering that the night life in Damascus is rather good, and not just good in the debauched way of a tomorrow-we-may-die sort of crowd, or the aggressive way of behind-closed-doors elites, but actually relaxing and fun. Outside on Thursday nights, droves of young men and women, Christian and Muslim, stroll the streets late into the night, moving from shwarma stand to art gallery to DVD store on al-Qaimariyya Street, or bar-hopping near Bab Touma, the Gate of Thomas.

Even when not under the influence of arrack and the Scorpions, it was tempting to be optimistic when the thing I kept hearing from Syrians was that things would change for the better because they simply had to. Mounzer Alkubeh, who is a guitarist, composer, and nightclub owner, told
me simply: "It will happen. There is no other choice." This had an alluring logic. But then Alkubeh was about as apolitical as a Syrian can be, with concerns ranging from intellectual property rights to the schlocky music on Arab satellite TV.

The city's many Internet cafes also lent to an illusion of openness. At the Aural Internet Service in gritty central Damascus, I accessed the most recent report on Syria from Human Rights Watch, opening it in both English and Arabic. I brought up Syria Comment, the English-language blog of American professor Joshua Landis, who lives in Damascus and speaks freely about the regime. I opened a handful of critical news stories about Syria and printed a story supporting an expatriate dissident, which the manager handed over to me without batting an eyelid.

But the experience of those criticizing the regime tells a different story. All4Syria, an electronic newsletter run by Ayman Abdalnour, sends out daily independent commentary in Arabic and has become highly influential. It reaches, by Abdalnour's estimate, some 75,000 readers once the 15,200 subscribers pass it on, and, according to Landis, it "is a leading venue for reformers to complain, air grievances, and spin." Specific proposals it has published have come about more than once since it was founded in 2003. For instance, it had urged the release of 312 Kurds detained in April 2004; on March 30 of this year the president pardoned them. All4Syria has also called for the granting of citizenship to the country's so-called stateless Kurds. Damascus tea-leaf readers now believe this will happen when the Regional Baath Party Congress convenes later this spring.

In other words, All4Syria makes too much of an impact. The government began to block it in April of last year, shortly after it criticized the Baath Party directly. This points to the element missing from the apparent openness: legal protections. In 2000, Bashar Assad inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez Assad, an admirer of the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Bashar initiated a thaw, releasing political prisoners from jail, allowing independent newspapers to publish, and letting reformists hold public meetings. This "spring" lasted one year, after which the meetings were called off and government critics thrown in jail. Of 10 high-level arrests made in 2001—among them two members of parliament, an economics professor at Aleppo University, and a human rights lawyer—all remain jailed, said human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni.

What is going on now is a lot of testing of "red lines," as everyone in Damascus seems to call them. People are saying things and publishing things. But many of them, like al-Bounni and Ammar Abdulhamid, who heads the minority-rights Tharwa Project, are engaged in a harrowing pas de deux with the government. Al-Bounni and Abdulhamid are both barred from leaving the country. Intelligence officials have interrogated Abdulhamid three times since January. Al-Bounni has seen his siblings and friends thrown in jail for peaceful political speech. No one testing the limits knows when the next crackdown might come or what will provoke it.

I met al-Bounni in a low-ceilinged office crowded with boxes. Demanding human rights is not very lucrative, and he is not a popular lawyer in ordinary court cases because he refuses to pay off judges, so he was giving up the space to save money. Over thick Arabic coffee, he laid out a few of the things he is fighting for: an end to political arrests (Human Rights Watch estimates that thousands of Syrian prisoners of conscience remain in jail); an end to torture in jail; an end to the law that says security officials may not be prosecuted. And he wants Syria to have an independent judiciary and free elections.

He has little patience with the debate over whether the president has enough control to make changes. "Legally, technically, he has the power to change. Militarily, he could do it. If he wants to, he could do it in 24 hours," al-Bounni said. He still holds out hope that the Assad regime will see that change is the only option and undertake it peacefully. "We hope it understands that what has happened in the world means it must change. It's not just the United States saying so, it's the whole world," he said. "But up until now, they have given no signs that they understand."
International pressure on Syria has increased dramatically in recent months, for example with France and the United States teaming up to pass U.N. Resolution 1559, calling for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, and with the European Union threatening economic sanctions.
Asked how he and others like him survive their tango, al-Bounni was quick to credit international attention. "The regime is waiting for the world to close its eyes, and then it might put us in jail." Right now he said, "We can speak illegally. We are safe because of the international community."

Abdulhamid, who often despairs of the government on his eloquent English-language blog, is not entirely sure how he stays out of jail, though extensive media coverage of him outside Syria has certainly helped. Also, his mother is a Syrian movie star. Recently, though, she too was interrogated about his activities. "It may be the fact that we are focusing on a regional issue [minority rights] rather than a specifically Syrian one," he speculated. "It may be the fact that we have European funding or that we're blatantly breaking the law."

He is not entirely without hope. "We're seeing the makings of a velvet revolution," he said. But not in a Gorky Park sort of way. "The end is not going to be as grand and eye-catching as in Eastern Europe. We have too much baggage. We have Islamicism as a complicating factor." Nevertheless, he said, "This is the beginning of the end. The Internet and satellite TV have launched it."

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Lebanon News

Tony Badran at Across the Bay has an interesting post on the new Shiite political gathering ("The Lebanese Shiite Gathering") which has emerged as an alternative voice in the Shi'a community, clearly distinguishing itself from the two main Shitie parties, Hizbullah and Amal.

Naharnet gives a summary of President Bush's 10 minute LBCI interview.

From a Syrian point of view, the interesting parts are that Bush reiterates his enmity toward Hizbullah as an armed militia, which he called a "dangerous organization."

More importantly though, he seems to be offering a peace dividend, not only to the Lebanese in the form of generous financial support if the opposition continues to push out pro-Syrian deputies, but also to Syrians.

For Syria to improve relations with Washington Damascus must leave Lebanon and stop supporting Baathists in Iraq -- "stop those people in Syria who are funneling money and helping smuggle people and arms into Iraq," Bush said.

He expressed hope that diplomatic pressure on Syria would make Damascus change course, apparently ruling out military action.
Here is the transcript of the Syria part of the interview:

Q: Mr. President, we all know that Syrian-American relations are at their lowest now. Is there a road map for Syria to improve its relationship with the United States?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Syria has heard from us before. We have made it very clear that -- what we expect, in order to be able to have relations with us. First on the agenda, right now, there's two things immediately that come to mind. One is to stop supporting Baathists in Iraq -- stop those people in Syria who are funneling money and helping smuggle people and arms into Iraq. They've heard that message directly from me. And secondly, of course, is to completely withdraw from Lebanon. Syria must shut down Hezbollah offices. Hezbollah not only is trying to destabilize the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, but Hezbollah, as you know, is a dangerous organization.

Q: But those offices are in Lebanon, they're not in Syria.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, they're in Syria, too. And Syria has got to do its part about making sure that Hezbollah doesn't receive support from Syria.

Q: What if the diplomatic effort and the sanctions fail in changing Syrian attitudes? Is there another option?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think the government will feel the international pressure. We're just beginning. And, obviously, diplomacy is the first course of action. And we hope -- I think diplomacy will work.

Q: Mr. President, for the last four or five decades, Israel was seen as a country trying hard to be accepted by its Arab neighbors, and signing peace agreements with them. Nowadays we hear someone like President Bashir of Syria complaining that all Syria's attempts to relaunch peace talks with Israel were not taken seriously. Are you doing something to intervene and maybe to put the two parties together?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, Syria and Israel have got current obligations. Syria has got a current obligation to get out of Lebanon. And again I'll repeat this, because I want it very clear what I mean by "get out of Lebanon." I mean not only troops, but intelligence services, as well. And we expect that to happen. Syria has also got to stop inciting or providing -- allowing people in their country to incite violence against Iraqi citizens and our coalition troops.

Israel has got obligations under the current road map to help the Palestinians. Israel is getting ready to withdraw from Gaza, and we expect the government of Israel -- and want to work with the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make this withdraw successful. And so there's a lot of obligations that these two countries have right now in order to affect world peace.

'Elections on Schedule, Hizbullah Disarmed, Syria out Completely'
President Bush has insisted anew that Syria should "get out completely" from Lebanon and let the Lebanese people decide their own future in internationally monitored elections on schedule and free from external influence or intimidation.

Bush pledged, then, to drum up global monetary assistance to help "this country back on its feet."

In a rare direct address to the Arab world, Bush also said in an interview broadcast by Beirut's LBCI television network from the White House he wanted the Assad regime to shut down Hizbullah's office in Syria, asserting the Party of God should disarm in Lebanon.

"The United States can join with the rest of the world, like we've done, and say to
Syria, get out -- not only get out with your military forces, but get out with your intelligence services, too; get completely out of Lebanon, so Lebanon can be free and the people can be free," Bush said in the 10-minute interview.

The Syrian withdrawal should include people who "have been embedded in parts of government" to allow Lebanese -- "not another government, not agents of another government" --to decide the country's fate, he said.

Bush's interview, with Arabic subtitles, was aired late Tuesday. A transcript was provided by the White House press office. It grabbed page-one banner-lines in the Beirut.
Naharnet also has an article explaining that:

Jumblat has expressed disenchantment over the small share of the opposition in Mikati's cabinet, saying it should have taken one half, or even more, of the 14 portfolios and complaining that President Lahoud took the lion's portion of the new government.

"The loyalists have won a round," Jumblat said, lamenting the opposition's rejection of his campaign to take part in Mikati's government.
Michael Young of the Daily Star lays out some very sensible suggestions for how Lebanon can move forward in his article "What's next?".

He argues that Lebanon must "arrive at a political system that can simultaneously satisfy demographically majoritarian communities while reassuring communal minorities."
In this context, one can readily dismiss the scheme that proposes imposing simple majority democracy on Lebanon, on the grounds that this is the "fairest" system. It may be, but in a sectarian society like Lebanon's it also tends to be a source of deep divisions, particularly as there are no clear-cut majorities or minorities. That is precisely why most of the sects are willing to pursue the consociational system existing today, where Christians and Muslims are represented evenly in Parliament despite their demographic differences. But it is also worth questioning whether such a system can provide long-term political stability if demographics shift further, whether in favor of Muslims or Christians.

One idea that might be discussed is to have Parliament better reflect communal demographics (which would involve a new census, though on what grounds should be agreed to), but only after setting up a new body where the religious communities are represented evenly. Taif, for example, outlines the election of a Parliament on a nonconfessional basis in parallel to the setting up of a Senate "in which all the religious communities shall be represented," with the task of deciding on "major national issues." A Senate would provide continuity where Parliament could be set up in such a way as to adapt to the social transformations in the society...

Critics will complain that sectarianism and a weak state are what is wrong with Lebanon; in fact they are the only things making it democratic in a region awash with despotism, though a more supple system would allow the Lebanese to move beyond sectarianism if they so desire. With Syria gone, the country must move ahead of the wave of change if it wants to avert the wipeout that will come in the event political rigidity and dogmatism again become the order of the day.
A number of Syrians have also suggested that a bicameral legislative body would work for Syria as well. They argue that having a senate or upper body that would protect minority rights through sectarian apportionment and a lower body elected by Muhafaza or districts with no regard to sectarian representation would be a way to maintain a clear national agenda while still guaranteeing a voice for the different religious communities.

As Young argues for Lebanon, such a solution would also shift power away from the capital city and allow the provinces to look after their own interests in a more equitable fashion.

The Oxford Business Group reports on the Lebanese economy claiming that "there has been a bullish financial response to both the announcement of Mikati's cabinet and to the central bank's issuing of dollar certificates of deposit (CDs)."

The long-term prognosis for the economy is more uncertain, however. Without wanting to come to any rash conclusions, many economists are still in a wait and see mood. The Economist Intelligence Union (EIU) has recently revised its real GDP growth prediction for 2005 from 4.5 to 2%, but has also noted that with the establishment of prolonged political stability there would be a strong potential for growth in 2006.

On a more local level, several sectors that depend on Syrian workers for cheap labour have begun to feel a pinching effect, as there has been an exodus of Syrian nationals over the past two months.

Loss of revenue in Lebanon's growing tourism industry, which brought in around $700m last year, is obviously a continuing concern as the summer season draws nearer. There was only an 18.5% drop in tourists to Lebanon in February, year-on-year, with this figure still above 2003 levels, according to ITP Business Magazine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

News Round Up

Up Date (April 21): A well informed Washington-based Syria-analyst wrote me the following about the "Assad has been Written Off" article quoted below.

About your column of today, I can tell you, privately, that the view of Syria expressed in the news article you cite is not widely shared among US analysts of the ME. It may reflect a political decision by the administration to marginalize Bashar, but the idea that he is viewed as living on borrowed time is not held at the level of working analysts.

Ma'ariv by Ben Caspit
(Thanks to Timur Goksel of AUB for sending this to me. Anyone who thinks the Syrian regime is on the verge of collapse hasn't been in Syria for some time. Interesting for the spin though. There is no organized opposition in Syria. Notions that President Asad is not in the loop seem silly to me. Certainly, he is not the only power in Syria, to which he alludes when he claims not to be a dictator, but that is far from suggesting that he is not the principal power.)

The US administration believes that the Alawite regime in Syria is on the verge of collapse, and that SyrianPresident Bashar Assad will not survive for long after the pullout of Syrian forces from Lebanon is completed-this was indicated by talks held by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington this week.

This assessment, which was originally reached by the CIA, is sharedby all leading government officials, ranging from President George Bushand Vice President Dick Cheney, to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials.

The talks indicate that the Americans have written off President Assad; as far as they are concerned he does not exist, and they are already looking ahead and planning the day after the fall of the Syrian regime and the end of the Alawite minority rule in Damascus.

From the American viewpoint, Bashar Assad has in fact taken over the dubious position left open by Yasser Arafat, and is now disqualified andwritten off in precisely the manner that the Americans wrote off Arafat before him. The reasons for this are varied: the Syrian double game with regard to terrorism, the role that the Syrians are playing in Iraq, the Syrian conduct in Lebanon and the general Syrian functioning vis-a-vis the US administration.

In closed conversations, the Americans, including President Bush, say that Assad is a "peculiar fellow" who cannot be counted on, hopes cannot be pinned on him, and [the US] should wait until he disappears from the political scene. The administration believes that the Syrian people are ripe to begin a democratic process. "In Syria too, people are aware of what is happening around the world and in the region," say the Americans. On the other hand, officials in Washington express grave concern with regard to what is expected in Lebanon. It is feared that
following the Syrian pullout and the beginning of the democratic process, Lebanon will undergo an internal collapse due to the high level of internal ethnic tension in the country.

"The EU adds to Syria's international woes: Brussels links Euro-med accord with damascus' politics in lebanon," writes Will Rasmussen of the Daily Star, April 08, 2005.

The EU finally broke cover this week in announcing it will not sign a billion-dollar trade pact with Syria until key European demands on Lebanon are met. The EU has insisted on a full withdrawal from Lebanon and parliamentary elections without interference from Syria.

Without the deal, the Syrian economy will lose an important lifeline, but more importantly, the EU's decision signals that the international isolation of the Syrian government will increase.

Syria had hoped that signing the agreement, which gives Damascus greater access to EU markets, would drive a wedge between Europe and America.

Demanding that Syria tighten its borders with Iraq and stop supporting anti-Israel groups such as Hizbullah, the U.S. has imposed a raft of sanctions on Damascus, which does not mean much economically, but puts a political squeeze on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Europe, though, continued to pursue a different strategy of engagement with Syria, even initialing the trade pact last October - a month after Resolution 1559 was passed. The association agreement involves billions of dollars of aid to Damascus as well as the creation of an EU-Syrian free trade zone.

But finally, the EU seems to have lost patience, as The Daily Star first predicted last month.

Frank Hesske, EU ambassador to Syria, said this week: "I don't see how we could consider a signature earlier than ... fulfillment of these two conditions: full, verifiable withdrawal of troops and intelligence services and the issue of what we really see on the ground, free, transparent elections or not."

The deal is still in administrative limbo, awaiting translation of its 1,500 pages into EU languages. It must be unanimously passed by all 25 EU members and could be signed at the earliest by June. Syria has a positive trade balance with the EU of about $1 billion, largely due to its petroleum exports, but its economy is suffering from a negative growth rate and high unemployment.

When The Daily Star first queried European officials last month, they hinted that signing the agreement would be contingent on whether Syria withdraws its troops from Lebanon.

But the Europeans are expanding their scope and toughening their line against Damascus. Now, they're insisting on a second condition: that Syria respects free and transparent elections in Lebanon, which the Lebanese opposition is already accusing the Syrian-backed Karami government of delaying.

Last week, the EU enraged Damascus by inviting Syrian opposition leader Farid Ghadry, who recently met top U.S. State Department officials in Washington, to Brussels to argue his case for why the agreement should be delayed.

Ghadry, who heads the Reform Party of Syria, said the treaty shouldn't be ratified until Syria improves its human rights record and introduces democratic reforms.

According to Ghadry, the trade agreement is a key opportunity to pressure Damascus, which is the only country in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership - which brings together 25 EU countries and their 12 Mediterranean neighbors - not to sign an agreement.

"The regime of Assad is desperate to sign the agreement because it shows that it can isolate the Europeans from the Americans," Ghadry told The Daily Star.

Ghadry said: "Not only will it give Syria an economic boost that we think will again only benefit the elite but it will also give the regime a political boost, something the Reform Party of Syria does not want at this time.

"The EU trade with Syria represents approximately 40 percent of Syria's GDP, so it's very important for them."

Ghadry urged the EU to leverage the trade agreement not just to free Lebanon from Assad's grip but to improve its human rights record.

"The only reform possible is the lifting of the emergency laws, release of all prisoners, changing the Constitution to accept all political parties and dismantling the intelligence services," said Ghadry.

"If these are done, then we can start a meaningful dialogue to transition the country into a full-fledged democracy."

Ghadry's demands are further than the EU has signaled it is willing to push. It doesn't seem likely, though, that the agreement will be signed before June, when the EU presidency changes hands and new political priorities could come into play.

Until then, Syria's pariah status will continue, unless, of course, it shows a willingness to cooperate fully in Lebanon.

Daily Press Briefing
Tom Casey, Director, Office of Press Relations
Washington, DC
April 15, 2005

* * *
QUESTION: Asharq al-Awsat newspaper said today that President Bush will not
deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. is not pleased at
all from the Syria's policies. How do you characterize the relations between
the U.S. and Syria?

MR. CASEY: Well, I think our relations with Syria right now are very much
focused on ensuring that Syria complies with all the terms and obligations
of Resolution 1559. Beyond that, we have made clear, very clear, some of our
other concerns about Syria, including its support for terrorism, including
its housing of those involved or associated with terrorist groups in
Damascus, including our concerns about what Syria is doing or, more
importantly, isn't doing to shut off the flow of potential insurgents across
the border with Iraq.

So, obviously, we have many, many concerns with Syria right now. The Syrians
certainly know what they are. We've spoken to them about it on a regular
basis and we're certainly looking for action not only on 1559 but on all
those other issues.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Setting off on More Travels

I am leaving tomorrow for Beirut for several days and then will be heading to the Jabal Druze and later Dayr ez-Zor with my father who has just arrived for a visit, so I may not be reporting much for the next week. I have written up a long essay on Alawites -- who they are and what they believe.

My wife things I shouldn't publish it because Alawite authorities will be upset, religion being such a touchy subject here and Alawite beliefs so different from Sunni beliefs. Karfan at Syria Exposed had a number of respondents to his last post on Alawites, all of whom were wondering what an Alawite believes. One commenter writes that I should be kicked out of the country because I have an agenda to divide Syrians along religious lines! Oh dear. This is what happens every time religion is raised, someone things you are being a splitter. Better not to talk about it at all and remain in ignorance of each other. No knowledge, no real acceptance of the other, no real freedom.

SYRIA: EUROPEAN COUNTRIES EYE RAILWAY UPGRADEAdnkronos International, Italy - 5 hours ago... 6 April (AKI) - Two European countries - Germany and Romania - are ready to invest in a major strategic project to upgrade and expand Syria's rail network ...

EU Trade Pact with Syria Stalled Over LebanonSwissinfo, Switzerland - Apr 4, 2005DAMASCUS (Reuters) - The European Union will not sign amuch-delayed trade and aid pact with Syria unless Damascuspulls all forces out of Lebanon and does not ...

Study: economic relations between Syria, GCC states of vital ...Middle East North Africa Financial Network, Middle East - 5 hours agoDAMSCUS, April 6 (KUNA) -- The economic relations between Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are considered of great importance as Syria's ...

Gadhafi and Gorbachev are lessons for AssadDaily Star - Lebanon, Lebanon - 19 hours agoBy Rami G. Khouri. Syria is being driven, and is driving itself, into a very difficult corner, with fewer and fewer realistic policy options as time passes. ...

Syria's Assad lauds Turkey for resisting US pressureArab Times, Middle East - 4 hours agoTurkey's President Ahmet Necdet Sezer plans a state visit to Syria on April 13-14 in spite of US fears it could send the wrong signal at a time when Syria is ...

Publication: Washington Post; Date: Apr 5, 2005; Section: The Editorial Page (I thank Ray Close for sending this article.)

"Listen To Arab Voices"
by Marina Ottaway

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The third Arab Human Development Report, finally released by the U.N. Development Program after a lengthy controversy, should be required reading for Bush administration officials and for anyone interested in promoting Middle East democracy. The report reveals a complete acceptance of democratic principles and a complete mistrust of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy. This mixed message is at the heart of the conundrum the United States faces in pursuing a policy of political change in the Mideast.

The report, authored by a group of prominent Arab intellectuals (many of whom embraced Arab nationalism and Arab socialism in the past), represents an unambiguous embrace of liberal democratic ideals. There are no “buts” and “ifs” in the report, no claim that Arab countries need to develop their own form of democracy in keeping with the cultural specificity and conditions of the region. There is no claim that each country must be allowed to proceed toward democracy at its own pace and in its own time, or that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be settled first. On the contrary, the report addresses and rebuts all such claims, concluding instead that liberal democratic values are not Western but universal, and that change must come now.

This part of the report will be music to the Bush administration’s ears, but it will be soured by the strident anti-Americanism of other sections. The report is critical of U.S. policies, denouncing the occupation of Iraq and the unstinting support for Israel as setbacks for Arab human development. Furthermore, the report exudes mistrust and hostility toward the Bush administration, doubting the sincerity of its commitment to democratization in the Arab world.

The strong criticism of the United States and Israel delayed the publication of the report for more than six months. Arab governments also come in for pointed criticism in the report, but concern about their reaction was not the cause of the delay. Rather, fearful of adding more fuel to the fire of U.S. criticism of the United Nations, the U.N. Development Program wavered and even considered having the report released not under the U.N. imprint but under that of a nongovernmental organization, or of its authors.

The report will undoubtedly be criticized by some U.S. officials, who will focus on its negative assessment of American policies. But, like the 2002 and 2003 reports, the new document will also be seized on by the Bush administration as proof that Arabs are embracing democracy and that U.S. policy in the region is helping further the will of the people, not imposing an alien system on the Arab world. It is a foregone conclusion that President Bush and administration officials will quote freely from the report in their speeches. And, as they have done in the past, the report’s authors and many liberal intellectuals will denounce such references as a cynical exploitation of Arab aspirations by a government that, in their eyes, has shown no regard for Arab interests.

Despite its hostility to U.S. policy, the report admits that pressure from the outside, particularly from Washington, may help the cause of political change in the Middle East. The authors do not believe that the United States shares the Arab goal of a true political, cultural and economic renaissance leading to human development in its fullest meaning - epanouissement is the curious term used in the report. They believe that the Bush administration has narrow goals: getting rid of particularly offensive and hostile regimes and cajoling old authoritarian allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to introduce some reforms to make themselves more presentable. But even such limited goals, the authors grudgingly admit, could help the process of change in the Middle East.

It is important that the Bush administration recognize this reluctant admission that something good could come from U.S. policy as a real change on the part of Arab reformers, and that it not jeopardize chances for cooperation by attacking the report and punishing the U.N. Development Program for allowing its publication. The United States has been able to get rid of Saddam Hussein on its own, and it may be able to intimidate Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. But to build democracy, it must work with Arab reformers, even if they remain hostile and suspicious. Political reform pushed by Washington is second best for these Arab reformers; working with Arab reformers who criticize the United States as harshly as their own government is second best for the Bush administration. It is probably as good as it is going to get for both sides in the foreseeable future.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Promising Developments - Kurds to get Citizenship

A number of new and promising developments have taken place in the last several days.

Syria has promised to withdraw all its forces from Lebanon by 30 April and will let a United Nations team verify the pullout.

UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen said Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara had told him "all Syrian troops, military assets and the intelligence apparatus will have been withdrawn fully and completely ... by 30 April 2005".

Speaking to Aljazeera by phone from Beirut, Lebanese opposition member of parliament Faris Buwayz said: "This step was expected and it has been heartily received in Lebanon.

"It will speed up the withdrawal and the measures required to transform Lebanon into an independent, sovereign and democratic state."
The president announced that the Regional Baath Party Congress would be held at the end of May or in early June. Many of the reformers here have gotten their hopes up again and believe that he will be introducing some important changes to the Baath constitution. Of course, we don’t yet know what they will be. Everyone is talking about it though. Here is what one of my Syrian readers wrote from Canada about what he is hearing:
In the last 4-5 days, we have gotten literally a flood of articles, quoting very high level sources about the VERY BIG changes that are coming in the next baath party conference. It has been practically confirmed that they are going to:

Empty all the prisons,

Allow private and free political daily newspapers and private tv stations,

Form the new political parties law,

They have also confirmed return of all syrian exiles (numbered in tens of thousands),

The return of passports to the kurds in the next few days....

Now you can say it's all talk, but it can't be because I have read confirmations of these things by literally about 30 different articles in the arab press from very high level sources top official said it was gonna be the biggest change syria has seen in last 50 years, and another said Bashar is going to lead a "jasmine revolution" (you know that's what damascus is known for).

It's almost impossible to contain the excitement I feel, especially as i'm about to graduate next year from university (i'm in canada) and i'm dreaming of coming back to syria to work one day.....and thus can't wait to see you post all the discussions you had with your contacts on the syrian coast as that would tell if i am getting 2 happy for nothing, or if there is substance behind what I am reading.

Although, I have heard some of these suggestions and there does seem to be a recent wave of excitement due to the announcement that the Party Congress is going to be held soon, there is still much skepticism among some reformers who are close to the situation. They say there are no signs that it will amount to much. Tonight all4syria will publish an editorial throwing cold water on the notion that much can be accomplished at the Congress because only 10% of the candidates can be new according to the voting regulations and everything is being rushed along. Others suggest that the President has some fairly aggressive reports already sitting on his desk and can push them though if he decides to. Perhaps the biggest news that seems verifiable is that:

300,000 Kurds are to get Syrian Citizenship
Ibrahim Hamidi wrote in al-Hayat (3 April 2005, p. 7) that Damascus is putting the “last touches on a law that will give citizenship to roughly 300,000 Kurds. Two days prior President Bashar announced a general pardon for the 312 Kurds who were taken into custody as a result of the “Qamishli events” of last April. Abdul Hamid Darwish, the head of the unlicensed Progressive Democratic Party, told al-Hayat that he was informed by an “important security official” that a decree announcing the restoration of citizenship to 300,000 Kurds was in its final stages. Although there are no exact statistics for the number of Kurds living in Syria without citizenship, it is believed that there are now 225,000 who had their citizenship revoked due to a 1962 law passed by President Nazim al-Qudsi the year before the Baath took power. Another 75,000 Kurds are believed to be resident in Syria with no official status at all. Most of these 300,000 are believed to be decedents of Turkish Kurds who fled into Syria following the brutal suppression of the Shaykh Said Naqashbandi revolt of 1925, the Shaykh Rida movement of 1933 and that of General Ihsan Basha in 1936.

The plan to finally give citizenship to all the Kurds follows announcements by President Bashar al-Asad to the effect that the “Kurdish nation is an elemental part of the Syrian fabric and history.” Bashar was also the first Syrian president to visit the Kurdish areas of Syria in the Jazira in many decades. I believe that President Husni Zaim, a Kurd, may have been the last Syrian president to visit in 1949, though I am not sure of this.

This move is part of a broader Syrian development plan for the Jazira, which is home to many of Syria’s poorest citizens. Al-Hayat states that two million Syrians or %12 of the country of 17 million are believed to live below the poverty line according to a new study, the highest concentration of whom are in the East. A recent report by the Ministry of Statistics put the level of poverty in Syria at less than 9%, but a courageous reporter writing in al-Tishriin created a national scandal out of these statistics, when she did the math and wrote that there was no way that such figures could be accurate. She asked the director of the office of statistics if she could see the data on which the 9% figure was based, and he told her that it was “none of her business.” She created a big fuss about this and about the office’s estimation that the average Syrian income is $220 a month, which everyone here knows is far above the reality. The average government employee doesn’t earn more than $170 a month.

The development plan for the Jazira will be announced officially during the Turkish President’s visit to Syria on the 13th and 14th of April this month. The Turks have agreed to release an additional 90 square meters of water a second from the Tigris River for Syrian and Iraqi use in irrigation. Turkey, Syria and Iraq are planning to pump some 60 million dollars a year into the Kurdish region where their three countries meet, according to Hamidi’s article. This new plan is an attempt to stabilize the region, raise the average income level, and comes in response to the anxieties Syria and Turkey share about eventual Kurdish independence in Iraq.

Many Syrians, particularly ethnic minorities are hoping that this new development signals that the Baath party Congress will move toward weakening the Pan-Arab identity of Syria, which is the official stand of both the Party and national constitutions. The hope is that a new Syrian identity will be allowed to emerge that better reflects the interests of the country and the sentiments of many of its citizens. It may also help Syria adopt a "Syrian for Syrians," or Syrian first strategy of focusing on internal development.

Asad also stated in his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Kharazi that they both supported Lebanon having its elections help on time in May, according to Ibrahim Hamidi in al-Hayat (3 April 2005, p.2.)

The Syrian ambassador in Washington, Imad Moustapha, recently said all Lebanese political prisoners in Syrian jails will be released. It was a surprising announcement: since December of 2000 both Syria and the Syrian-backed Lebanese government have denied there are any Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails. The ambassador's announcement gave renewed hope to hundreds of Lebanese families who have tried for as long as 15 years to secure the release of their loved ones.

Meanwhile, in Washington government officials and neocons are speaking tougher than ever about change in Syria.

Liz Cheney, the US Vice President's daughter(thanks to Rami Khoury for correcting an earlier mistake in claiming she is the VP's wife.), said that Washington was looking for ways to broadly encourage freedom and democracy in Syria. She met with Farid al-Ghadry of the Syrian Reform Party last week.

Charles Krauthammer's recent opinion piece in the Washington Post takes the cake though:
Syria and the New Axis of Evil

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page A27

Say what you will about Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria and perhaps the dimmest eye doctor ever produced by British medical schools, but subtle he is not....

Syria made its intentions unmistakable when Assad sent his prime minister to Tehran to declare an alliance with Iran when world pressure began to build on Damascus after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

All this regional mischief-making is critical because we are at the dawn of an Arab Spring -- the first bloom of democracy in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and throughout the greater Middle East -- and its emerging mortal enemy is a new axis of evil whose fulcrum is Syria. The axis stretches from Iran, the other remaining terror state in the region, to Syria to the local terror groups -- Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- that are bent on destabilizing Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and destroying both Lebanese independence and the current Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.

Iran is the senior partner of this axis of evil. Syria is the crucial middle party allowing a non-Arab state to reach into the heart of the Middle East. For example, Hezbollah receives its weapons from Iran, shipped through Syria. And Iranian Revolutionary Guards are stationed today in the Bekaa Valley, under Syrian protection....

Today the immediate objective of this Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas-Islamic Jihad axis is to destabilize Syria's neighbors (Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority) and sabotage any Arab-Israeli peace. Its strategic aim is to quash the Arab Spring, which, if not stopped, will isolate, surround and seriously imperil these remaining centers of terrorism and radicalism.

How, then, to defeat it? Iran is too large, oil-rich and entrenched to be confronted directly. The terror groups are too shadowy. But Syria is different. Being a state, it has an address. The identity and location of its leadership, military installations and other fixed assets are known. Unlike Iran, however, it has no oil of any significance. It is poor. And the regime is weak, despised not only for its corruption and incompetence but also because of its extremely narrow ethnic base. Assad and his gang are almost exclusively from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot considered heretical by many Muslims and representing about 10 percent of the Syrian population.

Syria is the prize. It is vulnerable and critical, the geographic center of the axis, the transshipment point for weapons, and the territorial haven for Iranian and regional terrorists.

If Syria can be flipped, the axis is broken. Iran will not be able to communicate directly with the local terrorists. They will be further weakened by the loss of their Syrian sponsor and protector. Prospects for true Lebanese independence and Arab-Israeli peace will improve dramatically.

As Iraq, in fits and starts, begins finding its way to self-rule, the center of gravity of the Bush Doctrine and the American democratization project shifts to Lebanon/Syria. The rapid evacuation and collapse of the Syrian position in Lebanon is crucial not just because of what it will do for Lebanon but because of the weakening effect it will have on the Assad dictatorship.

We need, therefore, to be relentless in insisting on a full (and as humiliating as possible) evacuation of Syria from Lebanon, followed by a campaign of economic, political and military pressure on the Assad regime. We must push now and push hard.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Travel to the Syrian Coast

I traveled up north over the past four days to Latakia and the Coastal Mountains, or Alawite Mountains as they used to be called, which kept me from posting. One of the main purposes of the visit was to slaughter a sheep in the name of my little son, Sha`baan (1 year and 3 months). He was sick for a bit and my mother-in-law, Umm Firas, promised to sacrifice a sheep in his name if he got better. He did get better, and this Wednesday we offered up a 57 kilo sheep in my father-in-law's village of Bayt al-Murj, or bayt al-Qash`aur as it is also called (only Qash`aur's live there - about 15 houses – just below Qadmous). We ate mishwi until we collapsed and distributed lamb meat far and wide. The gods and little Sha`baan are now at one.

Traveling along the coast and in the mountain region reminds one how vibrant and beautiful Syria is during the spring. Everything was in full bloom and beautifully green. The Acacia trees were bright yellow all along the roads. Red poppies speckled the fields, which were full of young wheat, lentils and cucumber. Everywhere there were plastic greenhouses filled with tomato, cucumber, green pepper and eggplants. It is truly something to see the number “plastic houses” that farmers have constructed to supply the bounty of fresh vegetables that is available during the winter months here.

In the mountains, agriculture is also thriving. Driving along the breathtaking gorges and mountain peeks from Misyaf to Qadmous one sees not only the older generation of terraces filled with olive orchards and wheat, but many new terraces being built. The introduction of tractors and bulldozers makes it much easier to terrace the hillsides today, and much new terracing is being added. Fortunately, the beautiful stonework is still being maintained and added in most places. Surprisingly, at this time of year many of the mountain farms are planted with wheat. It wouldn’t seem to be an economical crop in the mountains, but the state pays $250 a ton for wheat, even though the going price of Italian wheat is $140 a ton. Young tobacco plants are also being cultivated in preparation for transplanting them in the terraces. Tobacco is another subsidized crop that provides a stable income to the farms of the coastal mountains.

Aside from intensive farming, there is a building boom. Everywhere one goes, new apartment blocs are being constructed. Driving along the seacoast, one can’t avoid noticing the explosion of new villas, chalets, and apartments. In the cities, large cranes dot the landscape, but on most of the 4 and 5 story apartment buildings all the materials are still hoisted up by electric or hand powered pullies. New wealth is clearly visible in the growing number of apartments that are covered with the white and tan stone quarried around Aleppo. It is beautifully cut, and in the more wealthy neighborhoods, this new clothing is completely replacing the older drab concrete of the normal apartment blocks. Many finely milled, decorative embellishments, balcony balustrades, and window and door casements add character and luxury to the new architecture. A fine example of this sort of fancy architecture is the house of Wahib Mira`i in Latakia. He is the chief iron importer of Syria and has decorated his magnificent house with elaborate ironwork as well as Aleppo-style stonework.

Perhaps the most beautiful examples of this new architecture and use of highly skilled artisanry can be seen in the houses of the Joud brothers, the most well-known of whom is Subhi Joud. The Joud family made their initial money importing bananas, when they were first introduced in Syria. Now the Joud factories include food products of many kinds; most famous is the soft drink factory. Their houses on Cornich al-Janoubi and in Mashrou`a al-Slaybi, constructed from white Aleppo stone and decorated with Italian marble and fine mettle work, are the most beautiful of Latakia. What is more, their money is believed to be “halal” or made honestly through hard work and enterprise.

Other standout houses of the coast belong to titans of the regime, past and present. Going north from Tartus, the first of these houses one sees, perched on top of the mountain ridge overlooking the sea, is that of Ali Douba, who was the leading intelligence chief under Hafiz al-Asad. His was one of the first grand houses built along the coast some 20 years ago. It dominates his home town of Qirfays between Tartous and Banyas.

Abdul Halim Khaddam, the Vice President, has build a complex of three houses on a point jutting out into the Mediterranean that overlooks the port of Banyas. Two of the handsome buildings belong to his sons who also made fortunes in Lebanon.

Another house belonging to regime grandees is that shared by Fawaz and Munzir al-Asad. They are sons of Hafiz al-Asad’s brother, Jamil, who for a time in the 1980s presented himself as the Mahdi al-Muntazir. (Among Shiites, the Mahdi is supposed to return to earth at some future date, bringing justice and light. Many Iranians believed that Ayatollah Khomeini would turn out to be the Mahdi al-Muntazir during the 1980s.) Hafiz had to send Jamil to France for a cooling-off period to dampen his religious pretenses. The fact that the Asad brothers keep a black and yellow pair of Hummers parked in front of their apartment building, in which they each have a duplex, is the cause of considerable eyebrow raising and humor among Latakians. For a while in the 1990s they closed off the street in front of their building in order to join their front yard with the park across the street, causing havoc to local traffic patterns and sensibilities. Before he became president, Bashar put an end to this display of power and disorder by errant family members. In fact Bashar and his late brother Basil are largely responsible for introducing law-and-order to Latakia during the 1990s. Before their personal intervention on the side of the local governor, the notorious “Shabiha,” or regime toughs, ran roughshod over the town, extorting money from local merchants and frightening town beauties from the streets. (See my article on “Reform in Syria” for further details on this.)

Despite the wealth evident along the coast and new architectural styles established by the rich, poverty is still plenty evident, although not nearly as widespread or dire as it is in the East or “badia,” the semi-arid regions of the interior. Amidst the prosperous farming regions, one still sees the tents of Bedouin and migrant farm laborers that are stitched out of burlap bags and plastic sheeting. One of the lingering side affects of poverty and the bad civic habits that stems from it is the garbage. Refuse is everywhere along the roads and fills unused patches of land both in the countryside and particularly near the towns. Plastic bags are the real blight of Syria. Blown by the wind, they cling to every cactus plant and bush. In the desert areas to the east of the Damascus-Aleppo road, the landscape is blighted by the plastic bag. The greenery of the coast, particularly during the spring months, hides the refuse behind its rich and happy display of natural prosperity.

I have not mentioned politics in this short piece. I will hopefully get a chance soon to review the political views of people I met during my trip.

Here are a few articles of interest. The following article, which was kindly sent to me by the author, fills in some of the blanks about the most powerful people that surround the President. It asks who really governs Syria.

Mais qui gouverne à Damas ?
Subhi Hadidi
Afrique Asie - N° 187 - AVRIL 2005

Le retrait des troupes syriennes du Liban aura-t-elle des répercussions directes sur la cohésion ou la survie du régime à Damas ? Près de cinq ans après la disparition du machiavélique Hafez al-Assad, ses héritiers semblent incapables de gérer la succession. De quels héritiers s'agit-il ? Bachar al-Assad est-il le vrai détenteur du pouvoir ?

Joe Klein rapporte qu'avant de réaliser son entretien avec le président syrien Bachar al-Assad, paru dans l’hebdomadaire américain Time, en janvier 2005, il avait rencontré quelques opposants syriens pour se faire une idée du paysage politique dans le pays. Parmi ces opposants, il y avait le médecin Kamal Labouani, l’un des onze animateurs de la société civile qui furent condamnés à des peines de prison pour leur engagement politique lors de ce qui fut appelé alors le "printemps de Damas". Le docteur Labouani saisit l'occasion pour demander à M. Klein d’interroger le président Bachar sur les raisons qui l’avaient amené à ordonner son incarcération. Une demande que le journaliste transmettra à son tour au président lors de son interview. "Ce n’est pas moi qui l’ai mis en prison. Ce n’est pas moi qui fais tout dans ce pays !" lui répondra le président sans broncher!

Dernièrement, l’agence Associated Press, citant des responsables saoudiens qui ont tenu à garder l’anonymat, rapporta que le président syrien Assad avait confié au prince héritier saoudien Abdallah Bin Abdelaziz, qui le sommait de retirer ses forces du Liban au plus vite : "Je ne décide pas tout tout seul". Dans la semaine qui a suivi l’assassinat de Rafic Hariri, plusieurs sources officielles syriennes, dont le ministre de l’Information en personne, ont démenti les propos que le président avait tenu lors de sa rencontre avec le secrétaire général de la Ligue des Etats arabes, M. Amr Moussa, et au cours d’interviews accordés au quotidien italien La Republica et l’hebdomadaire américain Time.

Mais qui a donc jeté le Dr. Labouani en prison? A qui donc le président syrien doit-il en référer avant de prendre ses décisions? Et qui se permet de rectifier les déclarations du président et qui, il y a près de deux ans, a censuré la moitié de son interview au quotidien américain New York Times? Une seule question les résume toutes et n’a cessé d’être posée depuis que Bachar avait hérité de la présidence à la mort de son père en juin 2000 : gouverne-t-il réellement la Syrie? Et s’il n’est pas le détenteur réel du pouvoir – ou comme il le dit lui-même, il ne décide pas de tout tout seul –, qui sont ceux qui décident avec lui ou à sa place? Plus précisément, qui sont les vrais décideurs syriens? Comment les décisions sont-elles préparées, prises et mises à exécution? De quel côté le rapport de forces penche-t-il?

Pour répondre à cette question, prenons le dernier cas de figure, à savoir l’élimination de l’ancien Premier ministre libanais Rafic Hariri. Si l’hypothèse selon laquelle le régime syrien a commandité cet assassinat se confirme, quels sont les décideurs syriens qui ont pris une telle décision ? Les rumeurs en provenance de Damas laissent penser que cette question a été discutée et tranchée au sein du cercle des "six décideurs", qui comprend, outre le président Bachar lui-même, les cinq personnalités les plus influentes du pouvoir.

D'abord, Maher al-Assad (37 ans). Le frère cadet de Bachar est le véritable commandant des brigades de la garde républicaine, un corps d’armée bien entraîné et bien équipé, dont la mission ne se limite pas à assurer la protection du palais présidentiel, mais se déploie aussi autour de la capitale et l’encercle pratiquement tout en surveillant de près tout mouvement sécuritaire et militaire dans ce périmètre. Si la plupart des analyses mettent en évidence la nervosité et les sautes d’humeur du personnage – en octobre 2000, par exemple, des informations avaient couru qu’il aurait tiré sur son beau-frère Assef Shawkat car il n’avait pas supporté que ce dernier parle de son oncle Rifa’at, exilé en Europe, d’une façon insultante –, d’autres analyses fiables révèlent qu’il assume des missions spéciales et sensibles, comme la rencontre secrète que, selon le quotidien israélien Maariv, il aurait eue à Amman avec un émissaire israélien, Eytan Bentsour, quelques semaines avant l’invasion américaine de l’Irak.

Ensuite, le général Ghazi Kana’an (63 ans). Actuel ministre de l’Intérieur, il a occupé sans discontinuer durant dix-neuf ans le poste de chef des renseignements militaires au Liban. Il passe probablement aujourd’hui pour l’homme le plus puissant en Syrie au niveau des services de sécurité. Ayant gagné la confiance de l’ancien président Hafez al-Assad, il a étroitement travaillé avec lui, ce qu’il lui a donné une expérience politique qui fait défaut aux autres officiers du renseignement actuellement en poste. C’est ce qui explique sans doute le fait que le président Bachar lui ait confié la mission de regrouper les divers centres de décision dans le domaine de la sécurité et du renseignement afin d’améliorer la coordination entre des services autonomes. En 2001, après son rappel du Liban, le général Kana’an est nommé chef de la sécurité politique, où son emprise s’étendait progressivement sur les autres services, avant qu'il ne quitte ce poste pour être nommé ministre de l’Intérieur (sur, dit-on, des recommandations américaines). S’il est vrai que le général Kana’an s’est imposé dans la période passée comme l’un des plus puissants chefs des services de sécurité syriens, il est peu probable qu'il le reste après la nomination à la tête de la sécurité militaire d’une forte personnalité comme le général Assef Chawkat, d’autant que ce dernier, outre le fait de son alliance avec la famille Assad, est peu enclin à se soumettre aux ordres du général Kana’an.

Ensuite, le général Assef Chawkat (55 ans), époux de Bouchra Assad, sœur de Bachar et fille unique de Hafez al-Assad. L’irruption de ce militaire dans le cercle familial est la suite d'une banale histoire d’amour : Bouchra tomba amoureuse de lui et accepta, malgré l’opposition du père, de devenir sa seconde épouse. Elle s’exclut de la famille pour un certain temps avant que son père ne passe l’éponge et accepte de la rappeler, avec son mari, à ses côtés. Cet arrangement n’était cependant pas du goût de ses deux frères, Maher et Bachar. Pendant cinq ans, le successeur de Hafez al-Assad refusa de lui confier le poste de chef des renseignements militaires qu’il réclamait, préférant le nommer à la tête des renseignements de l’armée de l’air, poste qu’il refusa avec dédain, soutenu en cela par Bouchra. Il y a quelques mois, et alors que des responsables de l’administration Bush haussaient le ton face à la prétendue impuissance du régime syrien à contrôler les frontières avec l’Irak, Washington aurait souhaité voir Damas confier ce dossier à Assef Chawkat. C’est à la lumière de ces informations que certains analystes ont vu dans la nomination de ce général à la tête des renseignements militaires la réponse à un souhait américain.

Ensuite, le général Bahjat Soulaymane (61 ans). Chef de la section 251 des services de renseignements généraux et personnalité la plus puissante dans cet appareil, il jouit de prérogatives et de pouvoirs qui dépassent de loin ceux du chef de cet appareil, le général Hicham Bakhtiar. La place privilégiée qu’occupe le général Soulaymane dans le cercle étroit qui entoure Bachar est due à trois raisons. Il est le parrain et le théoricien du nouveau régime de république héréditaire actuellement en place. Il fut en effet le premier à réclamer publiquement à ce que Bassel al-Assad, le fils aîné de l’ancien président succède, le moment venu, à son père alors malade. Mais quand Bassel trouva la mort subitement dans un accident de voiture en 1994, il revient alors à la charge et propose Bachar comme héritier. Ce qui fut fait à la mort du père. La deuxième raison est le rôle que joue ce général dans l’embrigadement des intellectuels, des artistes et des écrivains au service du régime. A ce titre, il a réussi à apprivoiser certains d’entre eux, à noyauter les associations de la société civile avant de les casser, n’hésitant pas à alterner le bâton et la carotte pour les mettre au pas et mettre en échec toute véritable velléité démocratique. La troisième raison est le culot avec lequel ce militaire exprime, parfois par des articles parus dans la presse libanaise, signés de son nom ou avec des pseudonymes, la vraie position du régime sur des questions décisives, mais non dites. Ainsi, en 2003, il signe un article dans le quotidien libanais As-Safir, dans lequel il met en garde contre un "tremblement de terre démographique" au Liban, au cas où les forces syriennes s’en retireraient.

Enfin, Abdelhalim Khaddam (73 ans), vice-président et l’un des principaux compagnons de route de Hafez al-Assad encore au pouvoir. Son importance réside d’une part dans le fait qu’il est la seule personnalité sunnite dans le "cercle des six", et d’autre part dans sa grande expérience en politique étrangère. C’est enfin grâce à lui qu’une véritable crise a pu être évitée entre la majorité sunnite du pays et la minorité alaouite, quand, à la mort de Hafez al-Assad, il a accepté de ne plus revendiquer son droit constitutionnel d’être le président intérimaire et de s’effacer devant Bachar. A ce propos, s’il s’avère que le régime est divisé entre nouvelle et vieille garde, il ne fait pas de doute que c’est Khaddam qui dirige la vieille garde, politiquement, idéologiquement et au sein du parti Baas. C’est lui qui a poussé le plus pour faire avorter le "printemps de Damas", notamment avec le discours incendiaire qu’il avait prononcé à l’université de Damas et dans lequel il mettait en garde contre l’"algérianisation" de la Syrie.

La liste des décideurs ne se limite pas, loin s’en faut, aux seuls membres du cercle des six. Nombreuses sont en effet les personnalités qui jouent un rôle important dans le système sans occuper des postes de responsabilité. C’est le cas de Mohammad Makhlouf, l’oncle du président, le "sage" du clan au pouvoir, qui exerce une influence morale considérable sur les membres de la famille Assad. Mais son rôle n’est pas que moral. Il est en effet l’incarnation de l’affairisme de haut niveau, qui dispose de surcroît d'un talent réel à fédérer les intérêts des hauts gradés de l’armée et des services et ceux des grands barons du pillage, de la corruption et des affaires louches. Son fils légendaire, Rami, est son bras droit dans la finance et les affaires. A la tête d’une pléthore de sociétés d’investissement, ce dernier est l’un des hommes d’affaires les plus connus en Syrie aujourd’hui.

Dans le même registre, il convient d’ajouter le nom du général Zoul Himma Chaliche, cousin du président et escorteur personnel. Le Los Angeles Times avait écrit à son propos, le 30 décembre 2003, qu’il possédait avec son neveu Assef Issa Chaliche une société qui a exporté illégalement vers l’Irak de Saddam Hussein des dizaines de millions de dollars d’équipement militaire. La sœur de Bachar, Bochra, joue également, à travers son mari, Assef Chawkat, sa forte personnalité et ses vastes réseaux de relations, un rôle important dans la vie politique. Une autre femme, Asma al-Akhras, l’épouse de Bachar, jouit également d’une certaine influence dans le cercle des décideurs. Diplômée en économie de King’s College à Londres, elle avait rencontré Bachar alors que ce dernier poursuivait des études d’ophtalmologie en Grande-Bretagne. La particularité d’Asma est qu’elle est issue d’une famille sunnite de Homs qui a donné à la Syrie de nombreux chefs d’Etat au cours du XXe siècle. Influencée par les idées libérales en économie, elle s’est employée à convertir son mari à une certaine forme de libéralisme, surtout après sa visite d’Etat en Grande-Bretagne en 2003. Elle a cependant vite baissé les bras, estimant d’une part que son influence au sein de la famille Assad ne lui permet pas de peser lourd dans les décisions et d’autre part parce que son père s’est joint, à son tour, au club des affairistes.

En dehors du cercle familial étroit ou élargi, un nouveau nom commence à monter dans le ciel du pouvoir, celui du général Mohammad Mansoura (55 ans), à qui le président Bachar vient de confier le commandement de la sécurité politique, poste détenu jusqu’ici par le général Ghazi Kana’an. Ayant été le principal responsable des questions du renseignement et de la police politique dans la région ultrasensible d’Al-Jaziré, frontalière de l’Irak et de la Turquie, il a acquis une longue expérience dans ce domaine. Il avait aussi gagné la confiance de l’ancien président Hafez al-Assad, qui l'avait chargé des dossiers explosifs visant à armer les Kurdes antiturcs et anti-irakiens, à organiser des opérations spéciales contre le régime de Saddam Hussein et à établir des relations avec Abdallah Ocalan, le chef kurde antiturc du PKK.

Après ce survol, la question qui s’impose aujourd’hui est de savoir si ce groupe de décideurs, ou plus précisément le cercle des six, est assez solide et compact pour faire face aux épreuves à venir. C’est en tout cas ce que les développements dans les mois qui viennent ne manqueront pas de mettre en évidence, avec l’aggravation de la crise du régime, la perte de la carte libanaise et l’exaspération des antagonismes au sommet de l’Etat. A ce propos, et selon les dernières rumeurs qui circulent à Damas, il semblerait que Ghazi Kana’an et Abdelhalim Khaddam avaient voté contre l’élimination de Hariri, alors que Assef Shawkat, Maher al-Assad et Bahjat Soulaymane avaient voté pour. Quant au président Bachar, les rumeurs l’ignorent complètement et ne daignent même pas signaler s’il s’était abstenu ou pas!…

Another good article with more than the usual banter about the Golan is:

Golan elephant and the Lebanese crisis
By Ashraf Fahim, Asia Times, March 31, 2005

At the center of the ongoing crisis surrounding the Syrian presence in Lebanon, a 38-year-old elephant has been loitering almost unnoticed. While the world scrutinizes Syria's promised withdrawal, gawks as the Lebanese opposition and Hezbollah flood the streets of Beirut in their war of demonstrations, and debates whether the Bush administration deserves credit for inspiring the "cedar revolution", little attention has been given to a principal factor binding this Levantine Gordian knot - the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan heights.

Though not as glamorous as the more polarizing Israeli occupations in the West Bank and Gaza, Golan is of immense importance because it is the last tangible redoubt of Syrian-Israeli enmity and the physical embodiment of their 57-year ideological and territorial conflict. With Golan quiet since the armistice agreement of 1974 (established after the 1973 "October" War), Lebanon has long been the proving ground for the Levant's principal antagonists. [complete article]

Syria moves to keep control of Lebanon
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, March 31, 2005
Syria is working covertly through a network of Lebanese operatives to ensure Damascus can still dominate its smaller neighbor even after it withdraws the last of 15,000 troops, in defiance of a U.N. resolution demanding an end to Syria's 29-year control over Lebanon, according to U.S., European and U.N. officials, and Lebanon's opposition.

Although Syria shut down its notorious intelligence headquarters in downtown Beirut, Damascus is establishing a new hidden presence in the capital's southern suburbs, bringing in officials who will not be recognized, say Lebanese opposition and Western sources. The move would contradict a pledge by President Bashar Assad to withdraw Syria's large intelligence operation from the Lebanese capital as of today...

"Syrian influence has permeated most facets of economic, political and social life here with even senior civil positions having to be cleared from Damascus. Of course topping them all is their intimate relationships with all Lebanese security agencies. Now that the Syrians are withdrawing, to expect that intimate relationship to wither away would be plain naivete," said Timur Goksel, a long-serving former U.N. adviser in Lebanon now teaching at American University of Beirut. [complete article]

In Beirut, chaos is building
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, March 30, 2005

No one is really laughing out loud, quite. The death count is already too high for that, and the clowns have still got guns and bombs, wiretaps and torture rooms. But there is, still, something grimly ludicrous about the disarray of Lebanon's secret police and security services right now. As one of my good friends in Beirut puts it, "We are seeing the collapse of this regime in a very embarrassing, very clumsy, almost comical way -- but it's scary. You're just sitting here watching the whole thing come apart."

The headlines of the last few days and hours are symptomatic of the chaos building beneath the surface. Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami, unable to form a new government, will resign again, maybe. Syria has notified the United Nations in a formal letter that after 29 years it will withdraw its troops from Lebanon "before the coming elections." But nobody's sure just when that is. Theoretically the elections will take place before the Lebanese parliament's term expires on May 31, but they could be stalled. Just four days ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told a bunch of Spanish journalists that even if a timetable is announced next week, the final troop withdrawal "requires several months." [complete article]

Syrian Strategy in Lebanon
By Robert G. Rabil, March 28, 2005

As Syrian troops continue to withdraw from parts of Lebanon, three bomb attacks have occurred within eight days in predominantly Christian areas: a March 19 car bomb wrecked the front of a building in New Jdeideh, wounding nine; a March 22 bomb ripped through an elite shopping center in Kaslik, killing three; and a March 26 car bomb in the industrial sector of Sadd el-Bouchrieh wounded five and destroyed several buildings. Many Lebanese see the bombings as an attempt by Syria and its loyalists to derail the growing movement for democracy and independence in Lebanon, while at the same time deepening fears of renewed sectarian conflict....

Damascus will most likely try to fragment the opposition by employing a combination of terror, appeasement, and Arab intercession. Its first objective will be to drive a wedge between the two historic Mount Lebanon political communities, the Druze and the Maronites, who form the core of the opposition and who are led respectively by Walid Jumblatt and Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Syria will play on the differences and concerns of these two communities, which revolve around Druze pan-Arab sentiments and Maronite pro-U.S. sentiments.

This article on "Following the old money trail" was brought to my attention by Ghassan, one of Syria Comment's readers. It is an interesting story about the collapse of al-Madina Bank in Lebanon two years ago. The article claims that "the Al-Madina bank scandal is a major embarrassment for both governments, providing a rare glimpse inside the corrupt profiteering long understood to be a by-product of Syria's 30-year occupation of Lebanon."

In all fairness to the intelligence and acuity of the Lebanese, it must be said that one thing they did not have to learn from their neighbors is sharp business practice or corruption. My father was the head of City Bank in Lebanon for much of the 1960s. Before that he opened the first branch of an American bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1958. When I once asked what the difference was between banking in Saudi and Lebanon, He explained that in Saudi he never had a bad lone. If the bank had trouble collecting from a client, he would just go visit the father, uncle or brother of the wayward borrower. Within weeks the family would move to preserve its reputation and make good on the loan.

Lebanon was a different story. It was a land of excitement as well as shady practice. Many loans turned out to be uncollectible. My father watched the Intra Bank, a Palestinian owned firm and one of the biggest in Lebanon, crash in the mid-1960s because of bad banking practices and faulty loans. In 1967, he quit the bank, in part because his career was damaged by one of his dearest friends and colleagues in Lebanon, who, it turned out, managed to siphon off several million dollars from under his nose over many years without anyone detecting it. Despite the unhappy ending, we all loved Lebanon and the Lebanese. In four days my father will come to visit and we will drive over the mountains to visit some of his old friends and have fun.

No doubt, Syria has kept Lebanon from correcting its corruption problems, perhaps it has even been a good student, but invent them? I shouldn't think so.