Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Economy - Jihad Yazigi Weighs in

Jihad Yazigi weighs in on the economy debate. Jihad is the editor of "The Syria Report," the best Syrian economic digest. He gives some historical perspective to the debate. He writes:

Hi Josh,

Syria Comment has recently posted a few contradictory essays on the economic situation in Syria. I will try to give my own appraisal of the situation.

In the last few months there has been a strange feeling that things are improving in the economic front among many policy analysts in Syria. There are several reasons for that.
One of these is that the Syrian economy grew by 4.5 percent last year. This is its highest rate over the last decade. At the same time the number of investments that were announced in the last 3 months alone is higher than the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product, which is around US$ 22 billion ! In the real estate sector alone you had three large projects from Gulf investment houses worth a combined US$ 21 billion. UAE’s Emaar is committing US$ 2 billion, the Kuwaiti Aref US 4$ billion and another Emirati group, Bunyan, close to US$ 15 billion for an investment in Mount Hermon. Then you had 2 large cement projects, 2 other sugar refineries, hotel resorts, etc. Syria never witnessed anything close to that maybe in its entire contemporary history. What is obviously striking is the fact that all this is taking place while the country is under very strong international pressure and the Syrian pound lost almost 10 percent of its value late last year, before recovering since.

What you have to do to understand this is to look at what is behind these data. Let’s start with GDP growth.

True, GDP grew by 4.5 percent last year. But, according to the official Central Bureau of Statistics itself, the two factors behind GDP growth in 2005 are (1) the rise in the price of crude oil (crude oil represents 70% of exports and 40% of budget income in Syria) and the excellent rainy season which helped agricultural production grow (agriculture makes up around 25% of GDP). So last year’s growth had not much to do with any significant capital inflow in the country but rather with two factors on which Syrian policy makers have no leverage. All other things remaining equal, GDP will be stagnant this year should the price of oil return more or less to normal and the rainy season be less wet.

As to private investment one has to be very careful. None of the very large real estate investments announced lately is anywhere close to materializing. Either the developers have only purchased the land on which they plan to build their estates or in some cases these announcements were only….announcements! and nothing else. Actually, there has been almost no single major construction site anywhere in or around Damascus in the last 3 or 4 years, except for the Four Seasons hotel. These investments won’t probably see the light of day before the overall political situation of the country stabilizes.

Then you have other projects that are taking place, in particular in the industrial sector. In terms of overall volume these investments are not insignificant and are a partial reflection of the country’s huge potential but also of the regulatory environment that has slightly improved in the last 2 to 3 years. Abdallah Dardari, Vice PM for Economic Affairs, and the strong man in the government, as well as Mohammad Hussein, Minister of Finance, have to take credit for that.

That’s for the good data regularly released by the government. Now if you dig in more and look at the business community and the people at large, I just have to refer to the post of your Aleppine friend, K, who best expresses what is taking place on the ground. The latest rise in the price of fuel (25%) and cement (50%) has raised the heat. The next move that everyone expects the government to take is to raise the price of diesel. Diesel is heavily subsidized and is costing the Government hundreds of millions of dollars every year. But should its price go up, every other item in the country will see its price go up, because of the increased cost of transport, the increased energy costs for industrialists, etc. The purchasing power of people will fall once more as it has been falling for the last two decades.

I would like to insist on that last aspect. While most analysts in Syria mention the rise of Islamism as the most significant change in Syrian society, in my view it is the rise in poverty that I have found most striking. I have been visiting Syria very regularly in the last 15 years and I have seen how at a very rapid pace purchasing power has been falling. The weakening and public avoidance of state institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) is most worrying because it is a major reason behind the gradual reduction in the role of the state as a major integration tool for society. While, for instance, all my Syrian friends who are my age have studied in public schools none of their children is schooled there, but rather in private schools. Obviously not everyone can afford private schooling. State schools have classes of 50 children on average, the salaries of the teachers are so low that their motivation is also very low. (As they used to say in the USSR, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work..”) Roads and public gardens are dirty, pavements are full of holes, etc. One should actually go to the suburbs of Damascus to see the conditions in which the struggling remains of the Syrian "middle class" live. Unemployment has been growing without interruption in the last 25 years in Syria, except for a 3-year respite in the early nineties.

What is upsetting and frustrating in this situation is that there is no excuse for it. Syria is neither heavily indebted nor is it scarce in resources. Ironically, the overall deterioration in the social conditions of average Syrians started in the early to mid-eighties at a time when the country started to pump high levels of crude oil (1987), when investment and production in the agricultural sector was on the rise (early nineties) and when the liberalization of the economy also started (1986).

Maybe the picture of the Syrian economy I am giving is bleaker that what I intended it to be. One, indeed, should not forget that this is a country of huge potential. Syria has the opportunity to become the most diversified economy in the region with a strong agricultural output, a very cost-competitive industrial sector, an amazing tourism industry, and an ideal geographic location. Unfortunately it has remained an unfulfilled potential and it will probably remain so as long as you don’t get to the core of the problem: the fight against corruption, the introduction of transparency and accountability, and the protection of a real independent judiciary that can provide guarantees for investors - in short, before the rule of law is enforced.

Jihad Yazigi
The Syria Report

Monday, February 27, 2006

"The Economy is Worse Today" by an Aleppine Businessman

I recently wrote a dear friend - a businessman in Aleppo - to find out how the economy is fairing in Syria. I had recently written a short post about government efforts to liberalize economic regulations, relying heavily on government news announcements. It was an optimistic appraisal. A number of friends wrote to warn me not to be optimistic. "Government plans do not translate into action," they reminded me. "The economy is in the dumps." So I wrote my Aleppine friend to get a bird's eye view. Here is his response. (I hope others doing business in Syria will give their appraisals of the situation.)I have one reservation about some of these observations (see end of post).

K., writing from Aleppo
February 27, 2006
for "Syria Comment"

The economy is worst than it was a few months ago. Prices have gone up due to the falling price of the Syrian pound and do not come down when the price of the dollar moderates. The increase in fuel and cement costs have hit people hard and increased the sense of pessimism among the residents of Aleppo. The paltry rise in government employee salaries came as a real blow. Everyone expected more. Private sector employees cannot ask for an equivalent 5% rise in their salaries due to the high unemployment rate, which always seems to be increasing.

The government is never short of plans and declarations about the improving economy. But they never seem to materialize. People are, as always, distrustful of the government. To give you one example, the chamber of industry finally managed, after years of lobbying, to cancel import permits for good necessary to local industries. As soon as this law was implemented, however, goods arriving at the ports were denied entry on the pretext that they were banned from import (at least the import permit listed the conditions for such imports). Bribes became more substantial because goods sat at port with increasing demurrage charges and holding costs. In recognition of the increased damage to industrialists and businessmen, the same chamber of Industry recently succeeded in re-installing the old system of import permits, which it had so assiduously struggled to abolish. Ultimately, well-intentioned reform only succeeded in opening up new and unexpected avenues for bribery and graft. The wolves are many and shepherds few and unarmed.

In short, the intricate details are never dealt with on the ministerial level. Technocrats are frequently brought from the outside to reform a system of governance that, ultimately, can only be repaired by determined leadership from the inside and by fixing the judicial system, which is broken. The results so far are very discouraging. The general attitude is that the government is so confused and does not know what it is doing.

Another example is the story of a UNDP program praised by the UN as the most successful program in the world (and being implemented as a model in other countries) to develop rural areas in Jabal el-Hoss south of Aleppo. The director, who was appointed by both the government and the UN, was an honest man who constructed the program from scratch. He organized the community and gave its leaders responsibility to issue micro loans to small farmers. It became a real success because the director of the program was a very honest man. (I know the director because he has been a consultant at my farms for 10 years.) Recently, he was fired because he would not give out concessions to people higher up at the Minister's level. Outraged by his temerity and refusal to honor them, they accused him of corruption and impugned his professional integrity even though an independent auditing commission from the UN had reviewed his program only 2 months prior to his being fired. The Saudis are now courting him to implement a similar program for them. The UNDP was furious; it threatened to pull out of Syria because the minister acted on his own initiative in firing the project director without consulting the UNDP representative, as he was required to do. Despite this lamentable travesty of justice, the Minister of Agriculture was renamed to the new government. Things are not changing.

Food Items are 20% higher than last year. Real Estate prices are taking a hike due to the 150% rise in cement prices. Imported raw materials are much higher due to global inflation and rising fuel costs. Salaries are stagnant. Unemployment is growing. As for this "5 year plan," how can we be optimistic. We have never heard how much of the previous 5 year plan was implemented, and presume the worst. Once more, a plan from the top does not deal with the obstacles at the bottom. You ask anyone about the 5-year plan and his first reaction will be a smile bitterly.

As for corruption, I have not heard or seen any effective steps taken from the government to fight corruption. Business goes on as usual. Work on the road junctions from Aleppo airport to town has halted. The money allocated for the project and contractors ran out, and the project is incomplete. The budget allocated did not cover much. No one seems interested or courageous enough to demand an accounting of how the money was spent.

Aleppo was recently chosen as the Capital of Islamic Culture. A committee was appointed by the government in early 2005 to organize and oversee the cultural events. The committee consisted of two priests, two communists and a bunch of artists from the actors union. No one from the religious community was even informed that the committee was being formed. For the whole year, this committee did nothing. They did not even advertise their existence to the public. At the end of 2005, the news broke and banners were raised throughout the city, declaring its new status as the capital of Islamic culture. At this time, a few Muslim scholars started to organize and joined the committee. They are now rushing to organizing some events. According to SyriaNews, the budget allocated by the government is a mere 35 Million SP or 650,000 USD. The governor of the city decides where to spend this insignificant amount and he is spending most of it to repave the streets and clean the building. The scholars are trying to raise additional funds. It is a mess. Last year’s work is being hastily done now. This cultural event has turned into a mockery of the people, but only a very few can find humor in it.

People continue to ask why Abdul Halim Khaddam was left to steal and steal and now is being condemned while many others like him today continue to steal without being stopped by anyone. Why is Miro not investigated for corruption when his dealings are common knowledge among the masses?

The Minister of Finance is very active at reforming the tax system so taxes are on the rise. What is certain is that last year we paid less tax than this year. This is further complicating the stagnant economic conditions of the country.

The Government has now been busy for three years, organizing committees to assess and repay landowners who had their lands confiscated in the land reform acts of 1958, 1963, 1965, 1971 ..etc. The act stipulates that full payment should actualize within 40 years (can you believe the injustice). Even though it has been now 48 years and still no payments have been made. It does not look like these committees are doing anything. Courts are refusing to hear cases in this regard pending the results of these committees. We don't even know if they are going to appraise the lands at 1958 prices when 1 USD equaled 3 SP or if prices will be assessed according to the worth of the land today.

Most important is the Justice system. It is as corrupt as ever, and verdicts are handed to the highest bidder. The system is very slow. If you have all the necessary proof that someone owes you money, the case will take no less than 3 to 4 years before you get your money returned, and only then so long as you are prepared to devote up to 50% of the total for buying your rights.

You asked me for some observations about the economy, so here they are – just a few of in a never-ending list. Use what you see is fit on “Syria Comment” without using my name since it is not yet the time to air dirty laundry. Let me know if you need more details. I don't want to use the government server, so please use this new email address in talking about "sensitive issues."

Very best, K
Addendum: My sister-in-law, who worked for the UN's World Food Program until recently, is visiting. She read K.'s remarks about the UNDP project at Jabal al-Hoss and doubted that his account captures the full story. She said that there have been a number of UNDP and WFP programs in Jabal al-Hoss over the years and "there has always been a question mark over them. The region is very poor. A great deal of money has been spent on Jabal al-Hoss over the past decade, but the results are ambiguous," she insisted. "There have been very poor follow up studies so we really don't know how effective the projects have been." She doesn't know about the particular program described by K. however.

She also doubted K's assessment of the Agriculture Minister. She said he had a good reputation and suggested there may have been other complications K. may be unaware of. On the whole, she said, the top officials at the wazara al-ziraa have been responsive to UN demands, cooperative, and genuinely interested in local development. She said that usually issues of corruption involve government project managers who are directors of a nahiyya or Qada, not the top administrators in the ministry.

News Round UP (February 27, 2006)

Al-seyassah just reported that Qatar is leading an effort by the Gulf countries to enlist Syria's support for sending an Arab army into Iraq to restore law and order. For that, Syria would get paid close to $ 1.5 billion a year which will exceed the help Iran is offering it, hence giving Syria the incentive to support the effort.

Ehsani2 sent me the above news. But Muqtada al-Sadr said only a week ago, during his visit to Lebanon that he would consider any Muslim troops sent to Iraq as occupiers and would fight against them. He asked Muslims not to send troops and force such a dilemma on Iraqis. It is too late for Syria to consider such an option, even if the US were willing to consider it, which is hard to imagine.

The extent of US and regional anxiety about the state of Iraq is made clear in this article by Megan Stack and Borzou Daragahi of the LA Times, "Analysts See Lebanon-ization of Iraq in Crystal Ball."

Gunmen hold sway over streets lined with concrete bomb-blast barriers and razor wire. Entire neighborhoods are too dangerous for police to enter. ...

The surge of sectarian fighting after a Shiite Muslim shrine was bombed last week has dealt a hard blow to hopes for creating a functioning Iraqi state.

Instead of laboring to create a well-run economy or a democracy, Iraqi and American resources are being diverted to stave off a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, who are suspected in the bombing. And the formation of a new government appears likely to devolve into a series of capitulations to the various constituencies that have the power to plunge the nation, and the region, into chaos, officials and experts say.

"We are dedicating all our time to ward off what might be dire consequences," said Hussein Ali Kamal, the Interior minister's intelligence chief. "If the crimes and attacks increase, I do not think anyone in this country will survive."

The outlines of a future Iraq are emerging: a nation where power is scattered among clerics turned warlords; control over schools, hospitals, railroads and roads is divided along sectarian lines; graft and corruption subvert good governance; and foreign powers exert influence only over a weak central government.

The bleak prospects have serious implications for the U.S. Washington wants to tone down its overt political influence in Baghdad and decrease the number of U.S. troops precisely at a time when the fledgling Iraqi government has shown itself incapable of maintaining political or military control.

"This is something that's been leaning in this direction for some time, and the mosque incident has accelerated the process," said Edward S. Walker, a former assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs. "What we're talking about is people looking out for their own. I don't think it can be turned around."

Doomsayers long have warned that Iraq was turning into a failed state like Somalia or Taliban-run Afghanistan, a regional black hole. It's far too early to write Iraq off as a quagmire, analysts say, but the threat of contagious and continuous instability — like in Lebanon — looms. >>
Ziad Haydar explains that the Syrian government is planning to compensate landowners that lost their property in the 1958 agricultural reforms and has established a committee to oversee it. Ayman Abdulnour's "Kulina Shuraka" published the proposed bill. It is high time. The land confiscations soured relations between Syria and many Syrians now living abroad. It will help to end many old animosities.

Riad al-Saif, the recently released Damascus Spring leader, has reiterated his support for the Damascus Declaration leadership, who condemn external interference in Syrian affairs. He says that the West should confine itself to supporting human rights in Syria, which he does not see as interference. He expressed his concern about the situation in Iraq, which he indicated should be a warning to the Syrian opposition not to invite too much foreign intervention in Syrian affairs. He said that Bashar al-Asad could participate in peaceful democratic change.
* رياض سيف يميز بين "دعم المجتمع الدولي" والتدخل في الشؤون الداخلية .. ويرى أن بشار الأسد قادر على المساهمة في التغيير السلمي

The Kurdish Front for Promoting Democracy & Freedom in Syria is holding a conference on Democracy and Freedom for All Syrian and Kurdish Human & National Rights in Washington D. C. on March 13, 2006 in the Russell Senate Office Building. Representatives of Farid Ghadry's Reform Party will attend, I am told, as well as others.
The purpose of the conference is to explore the opportunities to unite the Syrian Opposition Front to establish through peaceful means a true democratic system in Syria where the human and the national rights of all components and minorities in Syria including the Kurdish nation are recognized. The conference highlights the suffering of the Syrian citizens in general and the horrendous suffering of the Kurdish people in Syria in particular.
Amaar Abdulhamid explains that "The Temporary Committee for the Damascus Declaration has announced plans to form a Permanent Committee that will include opposition figures from inside and outside the country. The new Committee will be made up of 23 members, eight of them will be chosen from the Syrian opposition abroad."

Omayma Abdel-Latif of al-Ahram, interviews a number of Syrians in his article, "What now for Syria? (Al-Ahram) She examines prospects for political reform in the wake of 12 unprecedented months.

Ibrahim Daraji, a law professor at the University of Damascus, nonetheless firmly believes that the process of democratic opening in Syria will have to come from the top, namely the president. "There should be a commitment from all parties to expand the existing space for democratic evolution." The problem, he added, is that "there is a deep crisis of confidence between the regime and the opposition." In this context, strained relations with Lebanon can only bear negatively on the process of politically opening in the country, Daraji believes. "If the regime's survival is at stake, the issue of political reform will definitely not be one of its top priorities," he said.

France refuses to extradite Syrian over Hariri murder

Mufti of the Syrian Republic Condemned the attack that targeted a shrine in Iraq saying destruction of holy sites and dirtying them is aimed at religious and ethical values.

Alawite authorities in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon have also condemned the criminal attack on the shrine of Imams Hadi and Askari in Samarra. The Alawites trace their origins to the eleventh Shia Imam, Hasan al Askari (d.873), who is buried in the destroyed mosque, and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). Ibn Nusayr proclaimed himself the Bāb "Door" (representative) of the 11th Imam. The sect seems to have been organised by a follower of Ibn Nusayr's known as al-Khasibi who died in Aleppo in about 969. Al-Khasibi's grandson al-Tabarani moved to Latakia on the Syrian coast. There he refined the Nusayrī religion and, with his pupils, converted much of the local population.

"A Bomb-Builder, 'Out of the Shadows',"By Karl Vick, Washington Post (February 20, 2006)
Syrian Linked to Al Qaeda Plots Describes Plan to Attack Cruise Ship in Turkey.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

"Khaled Taha, Ahmed Abu Adas, al-Qa'ida - a summary" by t_desco

The Lebanese daily as-Safir reported on January 13 that Lebanese authorities arrested 11 members of a terrorist cell, among them Khaled Midhat Taha. Later reports said that 13 suspects were arrested, but that Taha and another member of the group, Bilal Zaaroura, managed to escape.

Quoting "informed sources", Addiyar, an-Nahar, the Daily Star, L'Orient-Le Jour, al-Hayat, al-Rai al-Aam and the Lebanese TV channel LBC all confirmed that Khaled Taha was linked to the group. A source quoted by as-Safir even called him the "head of the Lebanese al-Qaeda cell", but to my knowledge no official statement has been made regarding Taha, and Ahmad Fatfat, the acting Interior Minister, avoided mentioning his name in the press conference on the arrests.

According to the first Mehlis report, Khaled Midhat Taha was a "religious associate" of Ahmed Tayseer Abu Adas, who claimed responsibility for the assassination of Hariri in a video broadcast by al-Jazeera. They were both students at the Arab University and "used to meet in the University’s mosque". Later they seem to have kept in contact by e-mail. The report further suggests that Taha may have had a hand in the disappearance of Abu Adas. Taha made a short trip to Lebanon on the same day that Adas left his home accompanied by a man who identified himself as "Mohammed".

Strangely, the Mehlis report contains no information on Khaled Taha's background. The Daily Star reported on January 21 that one of Taha's relatives is among the 13 arrested suspects: Amer Abdullah Hallaq, the son of Sheikh Abdullah Hallaq, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars in Beirut.

An article by A. Nizar Hamzeh (MERIA, Issue #3/September 1997) mentions Sheikh Abdullah Hallaq as the founder of al-Haraka al-Islamiya al-Mujahid, a movement that aimed "to recruit Sunni and Palestinian fighters in the Sidon area".

A Country Information Bulletin issued by the UNHCR in January 2004 confirms the presence of the Islamic Mujahed Movement in the Palestinian refugee camp Ain al-Hilweh on the outskirts of Sidon. It's current leader seems to be Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the imam of al-Nour mosque (Ain al-Hilweh: Lebanon's "Zone of Unlaw", MEIB, June 2003).

According to Bernard Rougier (author of "Le Jihad au quotidien", a study on the rise of Islamism in Ain al-Hilweh) Khattab is ideologically close to bin Laden:

Le cheikh Jamal Khattab (imam de l'importante mosquée al-Nour à Aïn el-Héloué) par exemple, considère que la lutte est mondiale, qu'il faut couper la tête du serpent et frapper les Etats-Unis; l'ennemi n'est plus seulement israélien. Finalement, ne s'agit-il pas de la même dialectique que Ben Laden ? Il existe probablement des liens organisationnels entre eux, mais ils ne peuvent être à ce jour prouvés.
Réfugiés palestiniens du Liban: Nouvelles dynamiques religieuses

The Ain Hilweh camp, and in particular the al-Nour mosque, is home to several Sunni extremist groups:

Usbat al-Ansar, which is believed to have received funding from bin Laden and al-Zarqawi and was among the first eleven international terror groups listed in President Bush's executive order of September 23, 2001; its even more radical splinter groups Usbat al-Nour and Jund al-Sham, which has claimed at least four bombings following the assassination of Hariri (three explosions in Christian neighborhoods and an attack on Iqlim al-Kharub); and the Dinniyeh group, formerly known as Takfir wa al-Hijra, founded by Bassam Ahmad Kanj, who had fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan and was killed in an uprising against the Lebanese army in the mountains of Dinniyeh in January 2000. Some of the rebels escaped to Ain Al-Hilweh and found shelter in al-Nour mosque, among them Ahmed Salim Mikati, who was detained in September 2004 when a car bomb attack on the Italian embassy in Beirut was foiled. Together with another al-Qa'ida operative, Ismail Mohammed al-Khatib, Mikati had also planned to attack the Ukrainian Consulate General and Lebanese Government offices in central Beirut.

According to the first Mehlis report, Abu Adas, the suspected suicide bomber, "had been employed at a computer shop in the summer of 2004, which was owned in part by Sheikh Ahmed Al-Sani, who was a member of the Ahmed Mikati and Ismaíl Al-Khatib network". The report also quotes al-Ahbash sources saying that Adas had visited Abu Obeida (who, in an apparent contradiction, is described as "deputy to the leader of Jund al Sham" and as "deputy leader of the terrorist group Asbat al Ansar") in Ain al-Hilweh.

Some reports suggest that Khaled Taha is currently hiding in Ain al-Hilweh.

Other members of the suspected terrorist cell also have links to the Jihadi groups: Hassan Muhammad Nab'a took part in the Dinniyeh uprising. His brothers Khader and Malek Nab'a were also arrested. According to Murad Al-Shishani, Khader Nab'a "is associated with the appearance of the Salafi-Jihadist movement in Lebanon, when the leader of the al-Ahbash religious sect, Nizar Halabi, was assassinated in 1995." Halabi was killed by Usbat al-Ansar.
Other members of the terrorist cell have reportedly claimed to belong to "Jund al-Sham".

Bernard Rougier reported in 2004 that four out of six mosques in Ain al-Hilweh were controlled by Salafi-Jihadist groups, which received support from "hommes d’affaires du Golfe". The other two mosques were controlled by Hamas and the Ahbash movement, both supported by Syria (al-Ahbash was also a tool of Syrian intelligence, as the Mehlis report clearly shows).

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Is the Syrian Economy Looking Up?

It is sometimes fun to look back at old reports on Syria to see if they get it right. This Sept. 2005 report by INEGMA (the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis) "Syria's Dilemma: Has Countdown for Regime Change Started?" was written only six months ago. It demonstrates the excitement in Washington about imminent changes in Syria in the wake of its withdrawal from Lebanon. Washington analysts were off the mark. The author of this report writes: "Developments in Lebanon this year have had a tremendous effect on the Syrian regime... The Syrian regime [is] under unbearable pressure that would force it to radically change from within or, alternatively, be forcefully changed by either outside or domestic forces.... One thing is for sure, Bashar will have to make a move soon."

This heavy breathing about the unbearable pressure placed on Syria by the US has proven just that, heavy breathing. So far, Bashar is in no perceptible trouble, nor has he changed his system of government. He has made no important concessions to the US, and his regime is certainly not about to collapse, as President Chirac enthused last year.

The one US-friendly move Syria has taken is to largely shut down the Iraqi border. This has been aided by the rapid buildup of US and Iraqi troops on the Iraqi side, who are finally developing effective surveillance capacities. But on Lebanon, Asad has been less than helpful. On booting out the Palestinian groups, he has also been stubborn. In fact, his unwillingness to dispose of Hamas under US and Israeli pressure, in the belief that loyalty to the group would pay dividends, turned out to be more far sighted than US calculations about Hamas.

The major Western trump card has always been the economy. Western analysts invariably devote a healthy section of their Syria reports to the impending economic crisis which looms some 5-7 years off in the future when oil runs out.

For Secretary Rice, taking Asad down, or, at least, forcing meaningful concessions from him, will be done through economic sanctions and isolation. She hardly talks about the Hariri investigation and threat of an international court any more. Perhaps that will resurface in her talks on Syria, but for the time being, it is moribund as the new investigation committee tries to find its feet. As of yet, nothing has been done to define or establish the international court that everyone speaks of. Its threat remains completely hypothetical. More immediate are economic sanctions. This week, the EU finally acceded to Washington's demands that it step up to the plate and impose sanctions. It agreed to impose personal sanctions on any official named by the Hariri investigators to be directly responsible for his murder. Not exactly a biggie, but if it is the beginning of a trend toward European sanctions, as Rice insists it should be, it could become a biggie.

On the economic front, Syria seems to be doing well. This is where President Bashar is reacting to US pressure. His moves to protect Syria from further US interference by switching to the Euro have been dwarfed by new measures to liberalize trade and stimulate investment, particularly in property and real-estate. Syria's land prices are seriously undervalued because of silly socialist laws and restrictions. Recent simplifications of land transfers, the announcement of several new mega-hotel and tourist projects, and the ratification of the ICSID Convention which will reassure investors, may cause a real-estate boom that could seriously increase the net worth of Syria's property owners and its overall national wealth. If Bashar continues along these lines, he will buy his regime considerable time and wiggle-room on the economic front.

Economy minister Amer Lotfi says "laws are being finalised to overhaul the commercial code, ease the establishment of new business and outlaw monopolies." He insists that Syria is in a "transition stage" to a freer economy and "will be able to avoid economic shocks." Trade with Iraq is expected to almost double this year from its 2005 figure of $800 million. Syria already functions as the main gateway for merchandise going to Iraq. Trade with Turkey is also expected to take a big jump. So is trade with China and other Eastern countries which are eager to replace the Europeans if and when they withdraw. If Syria expects to raise its growth rate from 4.5% to the 7% that Deputy Prime Minister Dardari promises in his new 5-year plan for the economy, Bashar will have to keep economic reforms coming at a rapid pace. This growth figure, which seemed laughably high last year, no longer looks beyond the realm of possibility.
By Joshua Landis, "Syria Comment" February 23, 2006

News Stories translated from the Arab Press
Accounts from the arrest of Syrians after the Tabaris protest

In the February 21 edition of An Nahar, an independent Lebanese newspaper, Mohamed Abi Samra told the story of Jamil Abdo Youssef. Abi Samra wrote: “This account conveys scenes from the lives of Syrian workers in Beirut who were apprehended after the Tabaris protest, or ‘crusade,’ that occurred on the February 5. It is not enough to simply lay blame on ‘planted people’ so as to prove other Lebanese sides innocent -- though they took part in planning the act and influencing people. This account reveals that the Lebanese security apparatuses are corrupt and unqualified and shows how primitive its investigations are. It also shows the illegal and inhumane methods used during apprehensions, and while interrogating witnesses and possible culprits. It also proves how unknowledgeable and uneducated the security apparatuses are, which influences primitive racism in the way investigations are carried out and security information is collected. (Continued...)
Damascus: After the poultry demonstration, the judges’ demonstration (mideast.wire.com)

In its February 19 edition, Elaph, a web based pan-Arab newspaper, reported that: “In a second initiative this week, a new remarkable popular demonstration went out to the streets of the Syrian capital, to stand up against the regime in protest for all the mistakes that were allegedly committed against certain factions of the people, namely the judges. After the unprecedented demonstration of those who work in the poultry sector in Syria, in front of the Ministers’ Council, a significant number of judges who were discharged, came from all the Syrian constituencies and gathered today in front of the Syrian President’s office, Bashar Al Assad, to protest against what they referred to as an unconstitutional decision that put them all out in the street.

“Over 40 judges demanded to meet Al Assad to explain the dimensions of the discharge decision and let him know about all the suffering they endured following what they considered to be a liquidation by people in power. President Al Assad had issued a decree dated 4-10-2005, that stated the discharge of 81 judges... the decree gave the Cabinet the necessary prerogatives for 24 hours and ‘for reasons left to its own discretion’ […]. During the last few years, the Syrian judicial system had witnessed many cases of corruption, bribery, and many legal and human violations.

“Observers in Damascus told Elaph that they were following with much interest, the considerable shift in the Syrian street, that had, for over a quarter of a century, kept from raising its voice and demanding its rights, since security ghosts were always on the lookout and were present within each and every Syrian family. Nonetheless, the new openness that was brought on by the international and Arab changes, in addition to the emergence of civil society and human rights organizations in Syria, have all led to breaking the silence.

“Many judges spoke with reporters and voiced the suffering they endured since they were discharged. They considered that the presidential decree had given the executive authority a lethal power, which reveals the beginning of the downfall of the Syrian regime. Some judges even accused the Syrian Prime Minister Naji Atri of being behind the President’s decision. They said that he had personal reasons and purposes, and that he wanted to help certain people who work in Aleppo, ‘Al Atri’s hometown’, in coordination with drug dealers […].

“An official at the presidency promised the judges that President Al Assad would meet the demonstrators on Monday to hear their complaints and learn about their suffering, since many of these judges are now working for wealthy people to support their families, which is [humiliating] for persons in their position.” - Elaph, United Kingdom
International confirmation of weapons crossing between Syria, Lebanon (mideastwire.com)

Raghida Dragham reported in Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper, on February 22 that: “Stephen Dujarik, spokesman of UN secretary of State, confirmed that there are weapons transfers from Syria to Lebanon, in the interests of the Lebanese militias. He said ‘this is a violation of resolution 1559 that calls for the disarmament of the militia’s weapons.’

“Dujarik revealed to Al Hayat that following negotiations that were held with Terje Roed-Larsen, special Envoy for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1559, and other Lebanese officials, it was clear that ‘the transfer of weapons happened across the Lebanese borders for the interest of the armed militias, and that is a violation of the 1559 resolution that calls for disarmament ... .’ He added ‘Lebanese officials confirmed to the United Nations that they will take the necessary measures to stop the flow’ of weapons to the militias' … .” - Al Hayat, United Kingdom
London seeking to open dialogue with Egyptian MB
In its February 22 edition, Asharq Al Awsat, an independent pan-Arab newspaper reported that: It received a copy of the leaked document in which the ‘Arab, North Africa and Israel group’ at the British Ministry of Exterior urges the government to ‘increase its contacts on a practical level, with parliamentarians from the Muslim Brotherhood (those against violence), namely the members in parliamentary commissions’. The document, dated last January 17, stressed on the necessity of ‘changing the content of the dialogue to focus more on information regarding our policy and on our willingness to listen’ to MB members of parliament.

“Even though the British Ministry of Exterior refused to comment on the leaked information, the Ministry’s spokesperson told Asharq Al Awsat that the cooperation with independent MPs is part of the British policy and added that: 'Britain has always enjoyed ongoing relations with members of the Egyptian parliament. They have been elected by the Egyptian people and there is no reason why we should not deal with them.’” - Asharq Al Awsat, United Kingdom

"Protecting Civil Society in Syria" by Joe Pace

A Better Way to Protect Civil Society in Syria
By Joe Pace
February 22 2006

While the international media busies itself (if at all) with the politicking and statements of prominent septuagenarians within the Syrian opposition, the future of Syrian civil society is being blotted out. The Syrian Committee for Human rights revealed yesterday that the secret police arrested two college students (Ali Nadir Ali and Husam Mulhem) on 24 December 2005 and another (Tariq Ghurani) last Sunday. Others are being summoned to security branches for daily interrogations and the security agencies have reportedly launched a manhunt to arrest their colleagues.

Their crime, a human rights activist within Syria informed me today, was trying to establish a political movement. Named "the son," it was apparently intended to be a liberal, secular trend.

One of the biggest problems afflicting the Syrian opposition is its inability to attract the youth. With the bulk of activists, party leaders, and association heads somewhere in the 60-80 range, a forty year old activist is considered a youth. While in Syria, I frequently saw students and young professionals scout out demonstrations in search of some movement to latch onto—rarely did I witness one see a demonstration to its conclusion. All of them would leave after trading a few words with the demonstrators. Some said that they were disappointed by the piddling size of the demonstration; others said that they left because they didn't encounter a platform that resonated with them. A recurring complaint was that the existing political parties were stuck in the 1960s, bogged down in the mire of petty ideological debates over the fine points of Leninism, socialism, or Nasserism.

As a result, many students have chosen to bypass the established parties all together and form their own groups. Frequently, these are not parties or hierarchically organized committees; they have no charter or official platform. They are more often discussion groups attended by clusters of oppositional-minded friends who have been disheartened by the existing options. The dialogue that happens in these groups has a vitality that is absent from many of the typical meetings held between opposition leaders. They are not battlegrounds for unwieldy egos, nor are they cluttered by the recycling of platitudes about free elections, annulling the emergency law, and releasing political prisoners—everyone agrees with these demands, yet these three alone are not enough to get anyone onto the streets. People will not risk beatings and imprisonment for free elections when there is no contender to demonstrate for; few Syrians support the emergency law, but to most it is an abstraction; most political prisoners are, unfortunately, a faceless bunch who enjoy virtually no name recognition among regular Syrians (as one college student who I dragged to a protest in front of the High Security Court remarked from the periphery, "Why should I take a beating for a writer who might be an agent of Israel or the US?")

The discussion groups are invaluable because they focus on the problems that afflict regular Syrians on a daily basis—in other words, the afflictions that can bring Syrians onto the streets. They are forums whose vibrancy makes gatherings by oppositional leaders appear stale and barren by comparison.

In the past few months, the US administration has finally begun making meaningful gestures toward reform in Syria. Its repeated calls for the release of Kamal al-Labwani and the Damascus Springs prisoners as well as the recent decision to earmark $5 million for the opposition are commendable. But the utility of these moves will be limited as long as the West confines its material and moral protection to the symbols of the opposition. Opposition leaders are aware that their status protects them against the most heinous abuses—the same cannot be said for less known activists, including students. Riad Seif and Haythem al-Maleh know that if they are imprisoned tomorrow an international uproar will ensue. Student activists can expect a few toothless press releases from Syrian human rights organizations—most of which will never be translated or read outside of the Syria's tiny human rights community—or at best a passing mention by Amnesty or Human Rights Watch.

Most of the opposition leaders today have faced imprisonment; they have built up social and financial support systems that sustain them through the harassment by the security agencies; they have files with the secret police that aren't going to get thinner. The foot soldiers of the opposition—the students, the young professionals, and those who have not been paid countless visits by foreign media correspondents—often have none of the above. They are the most vulnerable parts of the opposition: a student who runs afoul of the secret police is usually expelled from university or denied the opportunity to specialize, destroying his or her career prospects. These are the ones who are most often subject to capricious arrests and torture simply because they are easy targets for the regime and it sends the message that while the international community will protest the detention of a symbol, no one is going to utter a word of concern for the fate of the lesser activist.

Obviously, it's not reasonable to expect that State Department officials somberly recite a list of all the newly detained and demand their release in its daily press conference. Battles must be picked—political capital must be spent efficiently. But surely it is within the administration's capacity to broaden its condemnation of human rights violations in Syria beyond the harassment and imprisonment of icons. And there is more at stake than the wellbeing of these activists—it's also a matter of US credibility. A prominent opposition figure remarked to me that he would rather stay in prison than have Bush utter his name and be freed. That's because when the administration suddenly decides to come to the defense of a particular Syrian dissident after years of silence, that dissident becomes sullied and suspect. If the US were to more vocally condemn a greater proportion of human rights violations, its diplomatic interventions would appear less arbitrary and self-serving. The more uniformly human rights violations are publicly condemned, the less the individualized such attention from the US will appear. In other words, if it’s standard operating protocol for the US to denounce human rights violations, no activist's credibility will be tarnished when the US intervenes on his or her behalf.

"Hugo Chavez Economics For Syria?" By EHSANI2

By Ehsani2

In the comments to the previous post, an Anonymous writer expressed his frustration at Mr. Ajjan’s pole cards because their economic variable was focused on “attracting foreign investment.” The author objected to the notion of foreign investment. To be fair, I also do not like to define an economic policy purely as “attracting foreign investments”; nevertheless, I believe investment is important, both domestic and foreign.

Foreign investors decide to invest when they sense that a country has a friendly business environment that will protect capital and offer higher rates of return than elsewhere. Capital is unlikely to head to countries that have a poor legal system, heavy-handed state intervention, corruption, and cronyism. Capital migrates to vibrant market based economies, where property is protected. In sum, there is no economic system of “foreign investments.” Instead, a country needs to establish economic policies that attract investment, domestic and foreign. As I will argue later, business creation and competition creates jobs. For these businesses to continue to grow, they need to make a profit. When they make a profit, they decide to invest further in the business. This results in more hiring. The higher employment brings with it higher wages, income, and hence consumption. Businesses meet the increased demand with increased production and jobs. This is the virtuous circle that market economies have been able to deliver. The father of this simple economic approach is Adam Smith. But before I try to convince you about the powerful positive forces of capitalism, let us go back to what our Anonymous person wrote.

The suggestion was made that Syria should strive for economic development that would involve “very strong labor laws, mass participation in labor unions and syndicates, developing local industry and maintaining food self-sufficiency.” The Syrian people should in effect tell foreign investors to “go to hell” we were told. Syria is urged to follow a model of “democratization of capital” where “democratic and popular organizations” take more direct popular control over resources (as opposed to state or private sectors taking over such control). It was concluded that Syrians should work hard on rejecting foreign investments by adopting domestic economic policies that “will most definitely hurt foreign investors.”
What is this Anonymous person talking about? What does he mean by democratic and popular organizations taking direct control of resources? Why would he reject foreign investors and ask them to “go to hell”? Let us enter the world of Hugo Chavez, the economic hero of our Anonymous poster. I will start by explaining what the Venezuelan President’s record has been and whether Syria should embrace that country’s economic platform as it was suggested.

A primer on the Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela:

To be sure, the entire continent of Latin America is currently experiencing a resurgence of populist leaders who are pushing for a heavy government hand in the economy. This grew out of opposition to U.S.-backed free trade proposals. Chavez and these leaders are trying to promote a world that is anti free trade and anti laissez-faire. In its place, they want to convince us that there is a new alternative, which Chavez dubbed “socialism of the 21st century.” His new brand of socialism works like this:

The central Government imposes strict price controls to protect the poor majority from “greedy capitalists” and “speculators.”

Any businesses that refuse to abide by these price controls and decide to shut down their plants (most can no longer make any money selling at such capped prices) will have their plants expropriated. These expropriated companies will be turned into government-financed operations, jointly by the state and worker cooperatives. The program was named “democratizing capital” which is the same expression our Anonymous Syrian poster used above. What this program involves is a backdoor attempt to lead the country down the path followed by Castro's Cuba, Mr. Chavez’s mentor. Once the companies have been taken over, the government will sell its stake to the workers of these companies.

Where does the money come from? In the case of oil rich Venezuela, the state simply embarks on a large-scale subsidy framework for weak companies financed with oil revenue. Whatever privately owned companies remain will be asked to share profits with employee cooperatives and give them seats on their boards, in exchange for working capital from the government. Where does the money come from? Oil revenues of course.

So let us recap again. The government will turn all cash strapped private sector companies into co-managed concerns in exchange for government funds. Private firms that decide to idle their land and plants will have them expropriated and confiscated. The government will also have the right to seize the assets of healthy private companies if it so chooses. Companies, which have been taken over, will be converted into co-managed entities. For the record, most private companies that have adopted co-management have yet to begin production. The first Company that was confiscated and that received government subsidy has already filed for bankruptcy.

Mr. Chavez continues to defend his “socialism of the 21st century” program of course. The self-declared socialist also continues to argue that the state has to play a larger role in the economy to protect the poor. His populist leftist political agenda has already wrecked havoc on his nation. As the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, Venezuela has used hoards of its new oil money to fund a philosophy that has resulted in product shortages and a thriving black market in this rich nation of 26 million people, where poverty is widespread.

Is this what we want for Syria?

Once everyone reads the above economic prescription, I hope that it will become obvious that Syria does not need more State intervention, but less. I also hope that people will agree that Syria does not need more price controls and subsidies but less. The Baath party brand of socialism has already damaged this country enough. The last thing that we need now is a new brand of socialism even when it has sexy titles such as “socialism for the 21st century”, “co-managed economy,” or “democratization of capital.” Such fancy titles do not obscure the fact that every country that flirted with socialism and Marxism has seen lower standards of living for the very same people that these philosophies were created to protect.

Let us now go back to my world of Adam Smith.

“The wealth of nations derives from the uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition.” The basic principles of Adam Smith’s stress the importance of free trade, putting consumers before producers, allowing and encouraging competition, rolling back state regulation, and preventing politicians from trying to shape economic life in their own image. These are clearly the type of policies that Syria ought to embrace after years of flirting with the failures of socialism. People on this forum have asked for import and investment controls as well as a “self-sufficient Syria.” Allow me to quote the 36-year-old Scottish Adam Smith once again:
Very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine can be made of them-at about thirty times the expense for which at least equally good wine can be brought from foreign countries. Would it be a reasonable law to prohibit the importation of all foreign wines, merely to encourage the making of Claret and Burgundy in Scotland?
Every country that has embraced the above principles has succeeded in increasing wealth for its people. Take Britain as an example. Before 1979, it was the ideas of Karl Marx and Keynes, which were influential; after 1979 it was the ideas of Adam Smith. Anyone that knows anything about Britain can tell you the difference. Prior to 1979, the state was taking over industries, union power was rising, and government was growing larger while the individual smaller. The country was in a steady decline. After 1979, free enterprise, individual choice, competition, less regulation, freer trade, and open markets all came together to reinvigorate that ailing economy.

Syria needs to follow in Britain's footsteps. Its future economic system needs to let its ordinary people be set free from the heavy hand of the government. It needs to introduce competition by giving people room to create and innovate. It needs to remove much of the protection of government. It needs to end subsidies and supports by placing industries under the competitive pressures of the private sector. One poster on this forum wanted economic reform and investments in Syria to provide Syrians with:
a “protected” living wage; National Health Care; K-12+4 free education; x number of weeks of vacation; a retirement plan and free rights to unionize and strike.
How about free coffee and breakfast to all employees in the morning? What is interesting about proponents of these programs is how they conveniently ignore how and who is going to pay for all of this?

Chavez of Venezuela has decided to squander his country’s oil revenues on his crazy philosophy. Can Syria afford such an experiment? Has the country not spent enough on subsidies and so–called free education, and haven’t the results been disastrous? Our anonymous writer wants to tell foreign investors to “go to hell.” Well, Syria has done that for the last 43 years with devastating effect. Foreign investors and owners of capital scour the world searching for a return on their investments. They look for places that would legally protect their investments and allow them to earn a healthy return.

No government entity can or should tell them which sector to choose. Governments can certainly have tax incentives to direct these investments if they so wish. Note that global competition for such capital is very intense. Wrong policies and ill-advised economic programs are quick to scare investors away. Rather than saying to foreign investors “go to hell,” Syria should craft policies that attract them to its industries. This would help create jobs and reduce its large pool of unemployed. Only when Syria embraces market economics will investors - whether foreign or Syrian - feel confident enough to invest in Syria rather than doing so in neighboring economies. Let us please stop this nonsense about copying the crazy policies of Chavez or the old tired socialist system of the Baath.

In conclusion, the heavy hand of government regulation has never proved to be a good agent when it comes to raising living standards. Programs that are designed with the noble purpose of helping the poor inevitably end up creating wasteful government bureaucracies; shrinking economies, lower productivity, high unemployment and lower standards of living. When you hear about a government program, always ask yourself the question of who is going to pay for it and where is the money going to come from. Syria’s Baath gave us their brand of Socialism and the results are for all to see. We do not need a new brand of socialism. Chavez can have his and leave our already damaged economy alone. There is no such thing as a “foreign investor’s policy.” What Syria needs is a dose of free market capitalism that unleashes the potential of this great nation. If we ever succeed at this, foreign investment will be the by-product of successful policies. What sectors they will invest in will be sorted out by the markets not by a government or party officials.

We need to be part of the global economy. It is going to be hard because we are late. Our education system is woefully inadequate. Our infrastructure is not up to the task. Our labor force does not have the needed skills. But start we must. It is not too late. Syria is on the cusp of being next door to an EU country in the next ten years. This will present enormous opportunities for increased revenues from transit, trade, and tourism. But the competition for capital is going to be intense. If foreign investors agree to invest in Syria, we should thank and receive them with open arms. Chavez may ask them to "go to hell.” Hopefully, the Syrian people are too smart to emulate him.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Syrian Political Attitudes Poll by George Ajjan

Dear readers,
George Ajjan, a friend and Syrian American, has come up with this interesting poll. I hope many readers will be willing to take take the poll. It is anonymous. George has put a lot of work into this. He has made it himself and will publish the results of the poll on "Syria Comment" for all of us to consider and discuss. The poll is quite powerful and will allow us to determine percentages for how Syrians feel about stability, the present government, democracy, economic growth, the Golan Heights, the peace process, etc. Nothing has been done like this before. The more people who take it, the more representative it will be. His effort has not been sponsored, paid for, encouraged, shaped, or influenced by any government or intelligence agency - CIA, Mossad, Mukhabarat, MI6, French Foreign Legion, Danish Muhammad loving league, KGB, or al-Qa’ida cell. I urge you all to take it. It was created in the best tradition of providing open knowledge and will be 15 minutes well spent. Readers can take it in either English or Arabic. Very best, Joshua

Here is George's description of it.

A new web-based polling portal for Syrians, named syriapol, has been
launched – http://www.syriapol.com/.
Feedback can be sent to me directly: george@ajjan.com, or through my personal
website http://www.ajjan.com/.

The aim
is two-fold:

1) To offer Syrians of all viewpoints a place
to express, in quantitative terms, their attitudes toward the status quo, or
changes to it

2) To provide that information, gathered through an
unbiased mechanism, to anyone who will make decisions, set policy, or advocate a
course of action, whether inside or outside the Syrian Arab Republic, and from any political viewpoint, whether pro-regime or anti-regime

syriapol’s goal is merely to collect valuable information, and
encourage its exchange. The project is actively neutral – it does
not seek to advocate any particular point of view, only to collect information
from Syrians regarding their views, whether they are pro-regime,
pro-opposition, or anywhere in between.

Syria cannot move forward without the engagement of Syrian citizens. Accordingly, this poll seeks to offer Syrians a space in which to apply complex and multi-faceted thought to their country's future. And it will provide those who make decisions, set policies, or promote courses of action with quality public opinion data from the Syrian people themselves.

The Syrian people will continue to feel the effects of positions advocated by various parties on the political, democratic, economic, and diplomatic fronts. A better an understanding of what the Syrian people desire in any of these areas, what they prefer to see change or remain the same, and strongly they feel about it – will play a crucial role in determining the success of any group, party, or regime seeking to move Syria forward.

The poll itself does not pose direct questions. Instead, it asks participants to evaluate a series of hypothetical scenarios concerning government, politics, economy, democracy, and the peace process. It then uses complex regression analysis techniques to quantitatively determine preferences of the respondents. Finally, by correlating the results to a series of demographic questions that accompany the poll, we can analyze Syrian society segmented by geography, sect, age, education level, etc.

Individual replies will remain confidential. If the respondent so chooses, syriapol
will share by email an analysis of that individual’s replies to the poll. Additionally, a summary of composite results and abstract findings will be published publicly and widely distributed.

syriapol is absolutely independent. It is not funded by, affiliated with, or otherwise
connected in any way whatsoever to any government, political party, movement, or
organization, in any country.

I invite all Syrians, and indeed anyone interested in Syrian attitudes toward government, politics, economy, democracy, and the peace process, to visit http://syria.ajjan.com/.

Feedback can be sent to me directly:

george@ajjan.com, or through my personal website http://www.ajjan.com/.

Recent Articles of Interest (Feb. 20, 2006)

Sami Moubayed has written two excellent articles this week. In "Strengthening the line," he covers the the cabinet changes better than anyone else. In Men should unveil in Syria, he adds to the wonderful work he has been doing on the History of the Feminist Movement in Syria.

Andrew Tabler, a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA) and consulting editor for Syria Today Magazine (see side bar under “useful links”), has written an excelent analysis of the protests outside the Danish embassy on February 4. The piece, “Blowing off steam”, argues that the protests should not just be viewed as “Muslims on a rampage”, but instead as “an excellent case study in how authoritarian states under external stress can use certain ‘safety-valves’ to let off very real internal pressures in ways that strengthen the regime’s hand.” It is full of interesting pictures of the protests, burnings, and sleepy policy officers watching the blaze. He gets some excellent interviews with Islamists, Imams, and protesters to give you the feel that you were at the scene.

Andrew outlines increased Islamic sentiments in Syria over the last few years (especially following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003), and the Syrian state’s increased tolerance of this trend as it struggles to carry out economic reforms in an era of decreased state capacity (due to falling oil exports) and heightened international pressure. He ends by asking the question “Are the West’s pressures on Syria really weakening the regime and spurring the country toward liberal democracy, or simply pushing Syrians with growing Islamic sentiments toward the Syrian state and strengthening its grip on power?”

The report is in pdf, so unfortunately I can’t post it. But if you are interested in the full story, write him at andrewjtabler@yahoo.co.uk. He will send copies to those interested. It is great stuff. I could kill him for not letting me steal it for my site.

Francis Fukuyama has an important article criticising the Neoconservatives and suggesting policy changes for the US. He accuses the neoconservatives of being "Leninists" because of their faith in US military power and utopian belief that the Washington vanguard can reshape societies and governments by military means, without regard for the actual wishes of the people and without doing the hard work of inculcating liberal culture, nurturing the rule of law and institutions which can protect it.

After Neoconservatism
Published: February 19, 2006

We need in the first instance to understand that promoting democracy and modernization in the Middle East is not a solution to the problem of jihadist terrorism; in all likelihood it will make the short-term problem worse, as we have seen in the case of the Palestinian election bringing Hamas to power. Radical Islamism is a byproduct of modernization itself, arising from the loss of identity that accompanies the transition to a modern, pluralist society. It is no accident that so many recent terrorists, from Sept. 11's Mohamed Atta to the murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to the London subway bombers, were radicalized in democratic Europe and intimately familiar with all of democracy's blessings. More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalization and — yes, unfortunately — terrorism....

But greater political participation by Islamist groups is very likely to occur whatever we do, and it will be the only way that the poison of radical Islamism can ultimately work its way through the body politic of Muslim communities around the world. The age is long since gone when friendly authoritarians could rule over passive populations and produce stability indefinitely. New social actors are mobilizing everywhere, from Bolivia and Venezuela to South Africa and the Persian Gulf. A durable Israeli-Palestinian peace could not be built upon a corrupt, illegitimate Fatah that constantly had to worry about Hamas challenging its authority. Peace might emerge, sometime down the road, from a Palestine run by a formerly radical terrorist group that had been forced to deal with the realities of governing.

If we are serious about the good governance agenda, we have to shift our focus to the reform, reorganization and proper financing of those institutions of the United States government that actually promote democracy, development and the rule of law around the world, organizations like the State Department, U.S.A.I.D., the National Endowment for Democracy and the like.

Neoconservatism, whatever its complex roots, has become indelibly associated with concepts like coercive regime change, unilateralism and American hegemony. What is needed now are new ideas, neither neoconservative nor realist, for how America is to relate to the rest of the world — ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights, but without its illusions about the efficacy of American power and hegemony to bring these ends about.

My main criticism with Fukiyama's assumption here is his belief that terrorism is a natural reaction to modernization. Yes, modernization is tough, confusing, and creats a backlash, but it is not the only, or perhaps even main, engine of terrorism. If that were the case, we would all be terrorists because we are all suffering from modernization, all the time. I hate figuring out my new cell phone, satalite TV, etc., and would like to shoot the salesman. I don't.

Robert A. Pape, in "Dying to Win: Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” Random House, 2005, has another explanation, which is compelling.

As the head of the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism at the Univ of Chicago, … Pape is deeply skeptical about the notion that suicide bombers are the warriors in a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Papes’s survey reveals that there is nothing intrinsically “Islamic” about the suicide bomber. By his estimate, Islamist groups account for no more than 34.6 percent of the suicide terrorist attacks staged in the past twenty years. The real common denominator of the suicide terrorism campaigns, he argues, is that they are all, in one form or another, responses to occupation or foreign control of a national homeland. Religion, in his view, functions merely as an aggravating factor. The leaders who run the terror organizations are trying, above all, to drive out invaders. And terrorist leaders use the strategy because it is so often successful. Once they have attained their goals, the campaigns cease. It’s that simple.

From all this, Pape draws a conclusion that many will challenge. The best way to counter the threat of suicide terrorism, he says, is to eliminate the conditions of occupation that give rise to the phenomenon in the first place. … Recent suicide bombers, he stresses, tend to come overwhelmingly from countries that are either occupied or affected by the strong military presence of a foreign power. .. If the United States and its allies want to neutralize the threat of al-Qaeda, Pape argues, they should disengage from the Middle East – completely removing their forces from Iraq and other countries of the Persian Gulf that have disproportionately contributed cadres to the cause of suicide terror in recent years. (This quote is taken from Christian Caryl's review article in the New York Review of Books, "Why they do It,”
Of course there are many reasons for terrorism and no one explanation can hope to cover the waterfront. But Pape's explanation is important and has been ignored because it flys in the face of US policy and would be hard to impliment.

Secretary Condoleezza Rice: "Roundtable With Arab Print Journalists" (February 17, 2006) is well worth the read. Rice covers all the thorny problems raised by Hamas' win, Egyptian delay of elections, Iran going to the security council, and Syria's relationship with Hizbullah. She gives thoughtful answers to difficult questions. What she has to say about Hamas, the Palestinians and democracy is particularly revealing and well done, considering all the anxiety that the US might take vengence on the Palestinians.

"iraq's Jordanian Jihadis" By Nir Rosen

Iraq's Jordanian Jihadis
By NIR ROSEN in the New York Times Magazine
February 19, 2006

Jordan has long been thought of as the quiet country of the Middle East. People called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom and went there for a rest. King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II, who assumed the throne in February 1999, were friendly enough with the United States, respectful toward Israel and measured advocates of modernization. As for the Islamist stirrings that have roiled the region since the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was widely believed that the king's domestic security service, the Mukhabarat, had infiltrated every group that might think to stir unrest. But in truth Jordan had not been insulated from the radicalism that has engulfed the Mideast in our time: in 1970 and '71, Jordan's Palestinians, who then, as now, made up a majority of the country's population (today, 5.6 million), erupted, and their insurrection was brutally put down. And in the course of finding ways to sustain its political dominance, the Hashemite monarchy gave the Muslim Brotherhood — the local variant of an Islamist movement that began in Egypt in the 1920's — control of educational policy, which would hold dark implications.

Now we know that the quiet kingdom was producing the man thought to be spearheading the deadliest aspects of the Iraqi insurgency — and who brought the fight back to Jordan in three hotel bombings last December: Ahmed Fadeel Nazal al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after his hometown of Zarqa, a poor city an hour's drive north of Amman. How the quiet kingdom of Jordan could produce a man who has become known as the Sheik of the Slaughterers is a question at the heart of contemporary jihad. Zarqawi is exceptionally cruel, but he is otherwise not such an exception. Jordan is home to many jihadis, young men from much the same milieu that produced Zarqawi, and especially since the United States invaded Iraq nearly three years ago, Jordan has increasingly become a not-so-quiet place, a place where local Islamists cross easily into Iraq and back, a place where a jihadist underground can seem almost a normal part of a nation's life. And if such an underground can become normal in quiet Jordan, what is to keep it from becoming normal in any Muslim country?

'He sat there, where you are," Muhammad Wasfi said, pointing to the pillow I was resting on. Wasfi is a 42-year-old former jihadi who says he now devotes himself to teaching. We were talking in his chilly living room — it gets cold in Jordan in winter — in the town of Rusaifa, just south of Amman, as his older sons brought in sweet tea. Wasfi stroked a cat that wandered in. His small children screamed and fought in the next room. His youngest boy, Mudhafer, came in to ask him for some money. "Abu Musab had heard of me," Wasfi eventually continued, recalling his first meeting with Zarqawi in the summer of 1993. "He was a simple Muslim who wanted to serve Islam. He didn't stay long here, and the next day he came with another guy. We sat, and we spoke about our hopes and dreams and ambitions to establish the caliphate and raise the flag of jihad against the enemies of Islam everywhere. I disagreed with him on some strategic issues, like his view of Israel and Palestine. He didn't have an idea of making jihad against Jews and Israel. Abu Musab wanted to change Arab regimes."

In the 90's, Zarqawi's desire to wage jihad against the "near enemy" of so-called infidel Muslims was becoming more common in the Arab world. There were, by that point, many men like him in Amman and, even more so, in Jordan's heavily Palestinian cities of Zarqa and Irbid. Some had made it back from Afghanistan, where they successfully fought the Soviets, and were awaiting a next jihad; others had come up from Kuwait, part of a massive exodus of Palestinians from that country during the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and following the withdrawal of Iraqi forces in 1991. (Support among some Palestinians for Saddam Hussein's invasion had led Kuwait to throw out its Palestinians en masse once his forces had withdrawn.) Within this latter group were some committed radicals who had been deeply influenced by Egyptian clerics — firebrands of the Islamic Group, a radicalized, prison-based offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, who had themselves been expelled by Egypt to Kuwait.

Many of these rootless and unwanted believers found a spiritual and political home in a type of Islam called Salafism. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Salafism emphasizes the rootlessness of faith. It despises local saints and mystical practices (like those of Sufism) and any other departures from the most rigid Sunnism. It despises Shiites. It commonly despises all other sects or practices that Salafis might consider "bida," or "innovation." Given this intense preoccupation with purity, Salafis are constantly trying to identify and expel the impure. This is called "takfir," often translated as "excommunication": an old, disused term that has found new life in Salafism, which permits, even encourages, the killing of Muslims whom Salafis have expelled through takfir. Perhaps the most ferocious embodiment of takfiri Salafism today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Most western visitors to Jordan's capital don't stray far from the opulent neighborhood of west Amman. Once you leave there and head east or south, the homes tend to be of unpainted cinder block, rebar protrudes from unfinished rooftops, and the square houses seem scattered haphazardly across the hillsides, with steep alleyways shaded by hanging laundry. Empty lots become trash lots. Thin metal towers, topped with speakers for the call to prayer, jut up from the unadorned mosques — plain, cement-block squares, just like the homes. Through a maze of narrow treeless streets in Rusaifa, shopkeepers cover the heads of their female mannequins in the windows, and on the streets some women go completely veiled. The yellow and red hills and dunes of the desert appear stark against the gray winter sky. It was on one such hill that Muhammad Wasfi built his home, which is where I met with him in December. The house appeared unfinished yet already old, the yard strewn with garbage and children's toys, including a toy gun.

I met Wasfi through a Palestinian named Abu Saad, who is well acquainted with Jordan's jihadi Salafis. Abu Saad is a worried man with a nervous smile and a high-pitched voice; he dreams of becoming a journalist. He is also a Salafi. When Abu Saad was driving me around Amman and its poor suburbs, he liked to play Al Qaeda songs in his tape deck. These were a cappella chants, because Salafis don't believe in music; they told of jihadi adventures against infidels. In his personal computer, he has a collection of videos of jihadi attacks on Americans that he regularly and proudly watches.

While Wasfi and I spoke — in Arabic — Abu Saad left us to go work on his car, which had dropped some parts along the way to Rusaifa. Wasfi wore sweat pants and a matching blue sweatshirt. He has a strong thick body, with a belly that showed he was not as active as he used to be. His thick beard was unkempt, but his mustache was groomed short, Salafist style, and his hair was close-cropped.

He was born, he told me, on the West Bank in 1963. "I still remember the day I left Palestine," he said, "with all the pieces of the Palestinian people." His family moved first to Amman and then to Zarqa, north of the capital, where many military families were based. His father joined the Jordanian Army. Wasfi himself served two years before earning a degree in business management and working as a civil servant. "At that time, I generally began learning Islamic thought," he told me. He came to admire the radical Islamic Group of Egypt and hoped to establish a similar Jordanian movement. "As Palestinian people, we want to find a solution for our question," he told me. "Although I was young, I saw no solution for our problems other than Islam. So I wasn't affected by secular Palestinian movements. I wanted to do something for Islam and Muslims and help establish the Muslim state and make Palestine the capital of our new caliphate."

I asked him if he still thought this was possible.

"I believe it without any doubt," he said. "This has been proven by the prophet Muhammad in his words."

Like many Salafis, Wasfi is an autodidact, reading the works of Abdullah Azzam (a key figure in modern jihad and once a mentor to Osama bin Laden) and the Egyptian Omar Abdel Rahman (the blind cleric currently imprisoned in the United States for his role in a failed plot to bomb New York City landmarks). He read their books and listened to tapes of their sermons. He admired them for going to Afghanistan, and in 1989 he went himself, "to see the reality of Muslims and their movements, of the Islamic nation and jihad." He dreamed of starting a jihad in Sham — the lands of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine — and liberating his homeland.

Zarqawi, Wasfi and another jihadi — the cerebral, self-taught Palestinian cleric Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, who was among those who left Kuwait in 1991 — founded and led a group together in Jordan called Bayaat al Imam ("Allegiance to the Imam"). "We had no ability to make jihad," Wasfi admitted to me. "But despite the lack of ability, it didn't mean we should stop." According to Wasfi, Maqdisi brought seven grenades with him from Kuwait. "Maqdisi gave grenades to some brothers to make operations in Palestine to kill Israelis," Wasfi told me. His story was consistent with Jordanian media accounts I had read. "The brothers were arrested, and the Jordanians uncovered the organization and arrested the leaders, but before that we were fugitives for four months. We were arrested and tortured." Wasfi claims to have suffered "sleep deprivation, beatings, tearing off beards." As a result, he says, he has rheumatism and his knees often hurt.

But Jordan's prisons were not so much a barrier to jihad as a hothouse. Jihadi prisoners developed the hierarchies and loyalties typical of any prison gang. At the same time, according to those Jordanian journalists who report regularly on jihadis in newspapers like Al Ghad, the prisoners exerted an attraction on the less pious. Criminals converted to a strict Islam and brought to their new comrades skills that would be valuable in waging war. "Jail was very good for the movement," Wasfi told me. "Jail enhanced the personalities of prisoners and let them know how large was the cause they believed in. Inside jail is a good environment to get supporters and proselytize." Wasfi admitted that he and his comrades recruited from criminal ranks. "When you talk to them with Islam," he told me, "they see the difference between a system of punishment made by humans and a system made by God. This made them supporters of dawa" — the "call" to Islam — "and enemies of oppression."

Zarqawi was a criminal before he was a jihadi. He was a wild young man, according to all who knew him and have recounted his story in the Arab media. He had no interest in religion. A high-school dropout, he had a reputation for getting tattoos, drinking alcohol and getting into fights, and he ended up in jail in the 1980's. After being released, he went to Afghanistan, in 1989, where the successful jihad against the Soviets had turned into a war of one Afghan faction against another.

"Abu Musab was my friend," a former jihadist named Sheik Jawad al Faqih told me, recalling Zarqawi. I met Jawad in Abu Saad's home. He is a fearsome man with a thick beard and a clipped mustache, immense hands and a raspy voice. "He used to come to my house. We went to Afghanistan together." A Palestinian, Jawad said that his uncles had fought the British occupation of Palestine and that he had initially been influenced by secular nationalism. In 1982, though, he found "the correct way," abandoning his nationalist sentiments. "Abu Musab was a normal man, afraid of God, a very natural man," Jawad said pensively. "He didn't have a lot of religious knowledge." Jawad told me that Zarqawi gave two of his sisters as wives to Afghans in order to strengthen his relationship with his hosts. "Afghans took care of him, and he gained experience," he said.+

Jawad returned to Jordan and, like Zarqawi and many others back from Afghanistan, involved himself in minor actions in Jordan. He admitted to carrying out operations against "infidels" in Jordan: attacking a British target, trying to attack American marines. He said that he "killed a priest" and "exploded a Jew." He told me he established cells of fighters he called "families." Each family consisted of five fighters who did not know the identities of members of other families. Jawad claimed that in its few years of existence, his Army of Muhammad grew to include cells around the Arab world. Most were veterans of the Afghan jihad. But in 1991, he says, a disgruntled member of Jawad's army confessed the names of the organization's leaders to Jordanian intelligence. This kind of thing was not unusual and still isn't. Jawad claimed that of his 13 arrests, 9 could be attributed to Jordanians informing on him, which led him to dislike Jordanians.

Jawad got out of the jihad life. Today he is a car salesman in Zarqa. He remembers the Afghanistan jihad as being the best experience he ever had.

Zarqawi was not back in Jordan from Afghanistan for long before he was arrested, and he stayed in prison from 1993 until a general amnesty in 1999. His comrade from those years, Wasfi, told me that even while in prison, Zarqawi and the ideologue of their group, Maqdisi, reached outside audiences, influencing people in the various cities where they were imprisoned. Before entering prison in 1994, Maqdisi crisscrossed Jordan teaching from his book "The Creed of Abraham,² the most important single source of teachings for Jordanian Salafist jihadis. In it he speaks of infidels and tyrants, using the expansive definitions favored by Salafis. "Tyrants," on my reading of the book, could include idols made from stone, the sun, the moon, trees. They could also include graves, a reference to the Sufi and Shiite practice of visiting the graves of saints and imams. And "tyrants" could also include the laws made by men. It was the duty of the faithful to expose the infidelity of all these forms of worship and idolatry and manifest their hatred of them.

According to Maqdisi, democracy is a heretical religion and constitutes the rejection of Allah, monotheism and Islam. (He mounted a full-scale attack in his book "Democracy Is a Religion.") Democracy is an innovation, placing something above the word of God and ignoring the laws of Islam. It places the people (or the tyrant) above Islam, but in the Salafist view only God can make laws. Maqdisi held that the regimes that ruled Muslims were un-Islamic. Therefore, Muslims did not owe them obedience and should fight them to establish a true Islamic state.

Initially, Zarqawi was subordinate to Maqdisi. But in prison the awkward and solemn Zarqawi began to bloom — and to eclipse Maqdisi. "Zarqawi was charismatic," Wasfi recalled when we spoke, whereas "Maqdisi was calm and passive. We were dealing with prison authorities in a very aggressive way, and Zarqawi was tribal" a member of the prominent Bani Hassan tribe and, unlike Maqdisi and Wasfi, not a Palestinian — "so his tribal position gave him more power than a Palestinian. If your roots are pure Jordanian and you have a big tribe, then you have more power. Prisoners liked a strong representative like Zarqawi, and he fought with the guards. He was very harsh and strong when dealing with members of the organization. He prevented them from mixing with other organizations so they would not be influenced by other ideas, and he prevented them from moving around freely in the prison, even me. But I rebelled against him."

Zarqawi organized what amounted to a coup, forcing Maqdisi to hand over control of their group, Bayaat al Imam, and accept a more advisory, theological position. Zarqawi's aggressive personality attracted the tough young men imprisoned with him. Like Salafis outside of prison, the Salafist jihadis in jail were embroiled in declaring one another infidels. "In prison a disagreement of ideas led to problems," Wasfi told me, refusing to get into the details but adding that "Abu Musab had many wrong decisions that I did not accept, like enmity with other groups." Five months before his release, Wasfi abandoned the movement to focus on "personal dawa." (Officially forbidden to teach, he still does in secret.) "After Zarqawi was released, he asked me to work together with him, but I refused," Wasfi said.

Their time in prison was as important for the movement as their experiences in Afghanistan were, bonding the men who suffered together and giving them time to formulate their ideas. For some, it was educational as well. One experienced jihadi who knew Zarqawi in Afghanistan told me: "When I heard Zarqawi speak, I didn't believe this is the same Zarqawi. But six years in jail gave him a good chance to educate himself."

After his release in 1999, Zarqawi left for Pakistan, where he was arrested and detained briefly before making his way to Afghanistan along with his key followers. He found both Al Qaeda and the Taliban insufficiently extreme, according to Mohammed Abu Rumman, a journalist for Al Ghad. A critical dispute was over whom to attack: Zarqawi criticized Osama bin Laden for not calling Arab governments infidels and attacking them.

For Zarqawi, the "near enemy" was the priority, while for bin Laden the "far enemy" was. This has been perhaps the most critical dispute within violent, extremist Sunni Islam. Al Qaeda, at least in relative terms, has always been concerned with making connections among groups that might otherwise expend themselves fighting one another. By focusing on the far enemy — the United States, Israel, European states and Russia; whether on their own territories or against their citizens, embassies or interests in Muslim lands — Al Qaeda could assert some charismatic leadership over an otherwise quite diverse and fractious "movement." And by leaving the many near enemies alone (or forming alliances with them), Al Qaeda could acquire a little breathing space.

The zeal for purity has led Zarqawi and Salafis more generally to focus on their close surroundings. This urge might, of course, lead to withdrawal; in the 1970's, one Egyptian Salafi group tried physically and psychologically to remove itself from society altogether, forming something like a commune. But an impatience for changing the world and perhaps, in some, an appetite for violence has led many Salafis into vigorous engagement with the nearest enemies they could find, even when those enemies were extremists with ideas little different from theirs.

Zarqawi was such a strict Salafi that he criticized the Taliban — for insufficiently imposing Shariah, for one thing, and also for recognizing the United Nations, an infidel organization. And thus he criticized Al Qaeda as well for associating with the Taliban. Zarqawi established his own camp near the western Afghan city of Herat, close to the border with Iran. When the United States attacked Afghanistan, American intelligence officials have said Zarqawi made his way through Iran to autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where he may have linked up with the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in a region outside of Saddam Hussein's reach. With Hussein removed from power in April 2003, Zarqawi had a new failed state to operate in. And the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent American occupation presented the perfect opportunity to heal the rift within Muslim extremism: the far enemy had made itself the near enemy as well.

Few people are in a better position to understand how the jihadist aspect of the Iraqi insurgency took shape than Huthaifa Azzam, because he, a Jordanian, helped start it. He is the son of Abdullah Azzam, who was born near Jenin, Palestine, in 1941, left for Jordan following the 1967 Six-Day War and became something like the father of jihad in Jordan. Abdullah Azzam ran that wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood that was most influenced by the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb — the central figure in 20th-century jihadi thought.

Following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam moved to Pakistan, where he founded the Office of Mujahedeen Services, the main clearinghouse for arriving Arabs. Abdullah Azzam's books and sermons presented his thoughts on jihad, and he was to mentor bin Laden until 1987, when, according to Huthaifa Azzam, bin Laden decided to form his own camp for Arabs. Abdullah Azzam was not radical enough for him — he considered jihad purely defensive — and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who was to become bin Laden's key deputy and ideologue, edged him aside.

Two years later, in November 1989, a car bomb killed Abdullah Azzam and two of his sons in Peshawar, Pakistan. In the car that followed sat Huthaifa, then 18, who had been waging jihad for five years and who had begun his training at 12. I met him in a cafe at the Royal Hotel in west Amman. Dressed in light blue jeans, a leather jacket and red polo shirt, fit and engaging with an easy smile and speaking excellent English, he did not look like a jihadi. Azzam was light-skinned like his father; his beard was clipped close. He ordered a hot chocolate and recounted his tale.

Azzam said that he had first trained in the Sada camp outside Peshawar and then, in 1984, in the Khaldan and Yaqubi camps in Afghanistan. He fought his first battle alongside his father and brothers in Jaji that year. It was an all-Arab unit, including Saudis, Moroccans and Algerians. When he was not fighting, Azzam studied at a school his father had established for the children of Arab mujahedeen. He got to know Ahmed Shah Massoud in 1985 and fought alongside the famed Afghan hero, taking Kabul with him in 1992. Azzam then followed a course of study at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, but for the next six years he also joined some Arab colleagues in trying to bring the warring parties in Afghanistan together, shuttling between Massoud's Northern Alliance and the Taliban's Mullah Omar. "We were the Arab mujahedeen respected by everyone," he told me and blamed the failure to reach an accord on the intervention of Pakistani intelligence.

In 1994 and 1995, Azzam says, he was in Bosnia, working to funnel money and supplies to the nascent country's beleaguered Muslims. He then tried to enter Chechnya but was forced to turn back. In 1996, on returning to Jordan, Azzam was arrested at the airport and held briefly. In 2000 Jordan returned his passport to him, and he was allowed to live freely, selling cars and nuts, importing and exporting and receiving a license to distribute mobile phones. (On his own phone that day at the cafe he showed me videos he had downloaded of Iraqi resistance attacks against the American military.) He has completed a master's degree in Islamic studies and Arabic and is now working on a doctorate, examining Arabic literature from classical Muslim Spain.

According to Azzam, his studies did not keep him from the occasional forays into jihadist activity. Three days after America's invasion of Iraq began, Azzam and other followers of his late father crossed over from Jordan into Iraq and established a base for themselves in Falluja. The only source for this is Azzam himself, but his telling the story at all involved some risk to him, and his command of the detail and of the personalities involved lent him credibility; it also matched up well with information I had gathered on earlier reporting trips to Falluja and Baghdad. "We were trying to convince Muslim scholars to begin the resistance," he said. "They had no plan. They were sleeping. For one month they did not agree. They said, 'Go back to your country."'

For Azzam, leaving Iraq alone to work out its own fate was not an option. He said he believed that resistance would start, and he wanted to shape the process as well as hurry it. "We were more than 30 or 40 Arabs, without weapons," he said. "We went from mosque to mosque, from school to school. People said, 'The U.S. brought us democracy!' They believed the lies of Bush that he will bring democracy and freedom."

Everything changed, he said, on April 28, 2003, when American soldiers killed 15 demonstrators in Falluja, then killed 2 more in a subsequent demonstration. (Iraqis said that the first demonstration had been to protest the Americans' using an elementary school as a military base.) After that, rumors spread of four American soldiers raping a 17-year-old girl, with pictures distributed on the Internet. (Those pictures may well have been fabricated.) "This story was the main cause of starting the resistance in Falluja," Azzam said. It "made them reconsider, but there was still no action. I was watching from afar — with a smile. In the beginning they had said, 'Go make jihad in your own country.' After the rape story, they said, 'O.K., we want to start now, or tomorrow we will find our mothers or daughters or sisters raped.' This story exploded the resistance in Falluja. They called us for a meeting and said, 'You were right.' We had told them from the first day that the Iraqi Army abandoned weapons that they should take, but they said this is stealing, haram, looting. You could buy an R.P.G. for three U.S. dollars in those days."

Azzam says he spent four months in Iraq imparting his knowledge of guerrilla warfare to the indigenous resistance. His background, he told me, gave him immediate currency. "I am the son of Abdullah Azzam," he said, "so everybody wanted to listen. And I have experience in three or four jihads in different countries, and a lot of the Iraqi resistance had no plan. We gave them our experience so they could start from where we stopped, so they don't start from zero. Jihad is an obligation as a Muslim. If you can't support jihad with fighting, you can support with ideas or teaching. So we tried, and we still do. Followers of Abdullah Azzam helped plan the resistance in all of Iraq, and we had hoped for a united resistance with Shias. We were aiming to bring unity between Sunnis and Shias with resistance on both sides, but the Shia leadership was against us, and Zarqawi spoiled it, making it fail."

Azzam was fiercely opposed to Zarqawi and his kind, who, he says, gave jihad a bad name: "We say to people who give funds: Don't give to Zarqawi. Give to Iraqis, give to the Association of Muslim Scholars. They are the right way; our school supports them." The association was founded in the summer of 2003 in Baghdad to unite Iraq's Sunnis and to increase their political leverage. It was led by Sheik Harith al-Dari, whose grandfather had been a leader of the rebellion against the British and whose son, according to insurgents I spoke with, organizes armed resistance. The association, according to members I interviewed, is affiliated with several Iraqi national resistance units, the most important being the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Iraqi Islamic Army. It also, on occasion, aided Shiites who were opposing the American and allied forces.

Azzam viewed his support for Iraqi resistance as consistent with his support of other indigenous Muslim movements fighting in what the jihadis consider self-defense. "Iraq is a defensive jihad," Azzam insisted. "Troops from abroad came to a Muslim country." He said that the Iraqi jihad was going very well. "Praise God, we were successful," he told me. "Everything is going much better. Much better than we were planning. It won't take like Afghanistan, nine years, to kick the U.S. out. It will be much faster. But we must know our aims and goals. Just exploding cars is not enough. We need a plan for the future. When the Americans leave, we will look for the next place."

When they find that next place, will the Americans be there? The specifically Salafist form of jihad doesn't require a "far enemy" like the United States. Given the rigidity of Salafism, it will always have a range of near enemies to choose from. Al Qaeda is different: the kind of force-projection missions it has favored, taking the fight to the far enemy, will presumably occur as long as there is an Al Qaeda. But what of the "defensive jihad" fought by people like Huthaifa Azzam?

Azzam and others along the spectrum of jihadi thought seem to expect the United States to continue, to some degree, as a "near enemy," now that it has become deeply involved in Iraq. Americans in the region will be subject to the chronic low-level violence carried out by men who, for years now, have done a bit of bombing here, a cross-border incursion there, all while spending the rest of their time selling cars or mobile phones.

The reason for a continuing defensive jihad may be Iraq, or the Palestinian struggle with Israel, or even Syria, or a combination of these. In some radical Jordanian circles, there is an expectation that the aim of Islam's enemies is to take control of all of Sham: Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. U.S. pressures being applied to Syria are sometimes seen by the Islamists as part of a larger "infidel" plan to attack Sham, the kind of paranoid prediction that can almost make itself come true. Muhammad Wasfi, the friend and former colleague of Zarqawi, expects the United States to continue to make itself an ever-nearer enemy. "What I am concerned with now is continuing the Islamic call and establishing an Islamic way of life and waiting for the correct jihad," he told me. "The next battlefield is Sham, and we must prepare the people of Sham for this. What happened in Iraq and before in Afghanistan will be extended. The U.S. wants to get inside the capital of Islam, which is Sham. This entrance will be through Syria. Syria will be the slaughterhouse of Americans and their supporters, so they are welcome to get inside Syria and be butchered."

What seems clear is that radical Islamism has not been vanquished by the U.S. military and that American policy in Iraq has had the unintended consequence of strengthening it. For many younger, radical Jordanians, and the Jordanians are not alone, the notion of jihad has come to seem like a natural part of things, a simmering struggle not about to be vanquished by more democracy, say, or a greater U.S. military presence.

The Marka military court is in a squat white building atop a hill in east Amman and across the road from a military air base. Apart from dealing with wayward soldiers, the court handles security and terrorism cases. Relatives of prisoners gather on the curb outside, most dressed in traditional gowns, waiting to be searched and allowed in. The winter winds blow hard on Amman's hilltops and muffle the sirens of an approaching police sedan, followed by a dark blue van, windowless except for some bars on the back. The van is always followed by a pickup truck, with two masked counterterrorist agents manning a heavy mounted gun on the bed.

On a Wednesday at the end of December, the van entered Marka through the main gate and then circled around the back of the courthouse. Ten shackled prisoners were taken out and led into a cage in the courtroom. Their lawyers, jovially chatting in a smoke-filled waiting room, made their way past the numerous police officers, security officers and soldiers — all bustling about in search of something to do — and entered the small courtroom, with its bright fluorescent lights and old wooden benches full of blue-uniformed General Security officers.

The prisoners ranged in age from 21 to 35. They were chatting spiritedly, smiling and waving at the few relatives sitting in the back of the room. All 10 prisoners wore dark blue denim prison suits, wool caps and slippers. Their beards were shaggy, as was their hair, which curled out of their caps over their ears and the backs of their necks. Some had a dark stain sunk in above their brows in the center of the forehead. It was a sign of intense piety, acquired by kneeling and bowing forward, placing the forehead on the floor in prayer.

The month before, Zarqawi had sent Iraqi suicide bombers to Amman, three of whom succeeded in detonating their vests in three different hotels, killing more than 60 and injuring more than 100, including many who were attending a wedding. It was Zarqawi's third successful attack in Jordan. Each time, he had used non-Jordanians to avoid infiltration by the Mukhabarat. In 2005 the Mukhabarat said it had captured the members of 13 terrorist cells; the year before, the number was 11, one of them in direct contact with Zarqawi.

All of the prisoners were from Irbid, up by the Syrian border. Six were of Palestinian origin, their parents or grandparents having fled from or been expelled from their homes west of the border in 1948, when Israel was founded, or as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. In court papers, the charges against all 10 (plus 5 more who had so far evaded arrest) described how they had met in the Qaqa mosque in Irbid's Hnina neighborhood. They wanted to fight the Americans in Iraq and planned to recruit others and raise money to go to Iraq via Syria. In late July last year, the court papers said, they pooled money to purchase a Kalashnikov rifle and some bullets. At different times, they sneaked into Syria, sometimes driven there by a friend who owned a school bus. In Syria, one of them met with a Tunisian who took him to an apartment where a Libyan and a Saudi were staying. They discussed what operations he could execute and urged him to drive a car bomb, but the court papers stated that he had refused to become "a suicidal." He tired of waiting in Syria and returned to Jordan, where his friends gave him a hard time for turning back.

Others later sneaked into Syria and discussed joining the fighters in Iraq. The papers mentioned that they also engaged in theological discussions about when and how to apply the label "infidel" to common people, rulers and scholars. (Their plans included warring with Shiite Iraqis and probably others, like Iraqi policemen and soldiers who might well be Sunni. So the question of whom to excommunicate was an immediately practical one.) Another of the defendants was also invited to be a "suicidal," but he refused and returned to Jordan. Still others sneaked into Syria with a Kalashnikov and four magazines full of bullets only to fall into an argument, after which two returned to Jordan, where they were arrested.

In the Marka courtroom, three military judges in olive uniform sat behind a long wooden bench. Behind them were framed pictures of the late King Hussein and King Abdullah. As the chief judge prepared to read the charges, one of the prisoners shouted to him, "Say Allahu Akbar!" ("God is Great.") The prisoners erupted in unison, yelling fiercely, "Allahu Akbar, the way of God is jihad!" The chief judge waited for them to finish and read the four charges, which were possession of an automatic weapon with intention to use it in illegal activity, initiation of illegal activities that could harm Jordan's relations with a foreign country, illicit travel from and to Jordan with an automatic weapon and aiding illicit travel into Jordan.

When the judge got to the part about "a foreign country," he was interrupted by a prisoner who shouted, "Infidel countries, not foreign countries!" The judge looked bored and tapped his pen on the table for silence, asking the man to stop interrupting. The judge read each of the prisoners' names, asking if he pleaded guilty or not.

He was interrupted again, by the same prisoner, who shouted: "This is a play — when is it going to end? We know that the verdicts have been decided and written in the files!" The judge tapped his pencil impatiently. "I am not guilty — you are guilty!" snapped a prisoner. "Jihad is not guilt," shouted another. "Is jihad in the way of Allah guilt? Fighting the Americans and Jews and infidels is now guilt? We are protecting the honor of our sisters in Iraq. Is that guilt? God is our master, and you have no master. Your regime is rotten, and it stinks. You and your regime and your ranks, you are all guilty!"

The judge tapped his pen and told the prisoners to answer without comments. "He who opens alcoholic bars is guilty!" one prisoner yelled. The judge lost his temper and angrily told the guards to take the loudest prisoner out of the cage and back to the van — and the prisoner quieted down. The judge ordered the families to leave the court, as a punishment for the prisoners' recalcitrance. The military prosecutor, also in uniform, informed the judge that he had no witnesses, and the trial was postponed for one week. "Allah is our master, and you have no master!" the prisoners shouted in unison. "He is the best master and the best supporter. America is your master, and you have the worst master."

The following Friday, I drove up to Irbid's Hnina neighborhood and to the Qaqa mosque, hoping to learn more about what might have motivated the young prisoners in their failed attempt to join the jihad in Iraq. My taxi driver recounted how his own cousin had suddenly picked up and left for Iraq in March 2003. Many young men from his own town of Zarqa, he said, including some who were not even religious, had poured over the border to fight the Americans.

Irbid sprawls over rolling hills, the elevation making the air cleaner than in Amman. Since it was a Friday, the streets were nearly empty. In the Hnina neighborhood, two boys sat on a curb sharing a bag of potato chips. A short line of men and women lined up in front of the Jowharat al Zein bakery to purchase piles of large flat bread for Friday lunch. Children played in the street, and the few women walking by were not conservatively dressed.

Upstairs at the mosque were about 600 men. Small children played by the door or prayed by their fathers. The mosque was unfinished, and unpainted cinder blocks and plaster were visible on the walls. The sun came in from a skylight around the dome. As the men completed their prayers in a low murmur, Sheik Jihad Mahdi stood up and began with a short prayer. "Thanks to Allah, supporter of Islam," he intoned, "for his victory and his humiliation of infidelity with his power and managing all the matters with his orders and deceiving the infidels with his cleverness, the one who estimates the days going over and over by his justice. Prayer and peace on the one who raises the flag of Islam with his sword." This was no ordinary prayer; it was the same prayer used by Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in every message they put out.

After a sermon on the theme of making the pilgrimage to Mecca (it was pilgrimage season), Jihad offered another prayer. "God support the Muslims and give them victory everywhere," he said, as the crowd responded, "Amen."

"God support the mujahedeen and give them victory everywhere, in Iraq, in Palestine."


"God give us the power to break the thorns of the Jews and the Americans and the Crusaders."


"God give us the opportunity to face them."


"Bless us and show us the way to jihad in the path of God."


Jihad repeated this last prayer for jihad three times. He left out the customary prayer for the good health of the king.

Where will this quiet but constant low-grade jihadi mobilization lead? If the American invasion of Iraq called forth a jihadi response, American withdrawal might likewise lead many men to put their rifles away and go back to selling cars, nuts and mobile phones. At the same time, the withdrawal of the far enemy may leave jihadis with the feeling that they should return to battling the near enemies: their own governments and the multitude of other infidels, including Shiite infidels. It might also be that some governments in the region would prefer that their jihadis find something to do other than overthrow them — like wage jihad against Shiites. Zarqawi's intensely anti-Shiite comrade Abu Anas al-Shami — another Palestinian who moved to Jordan from Kuwait following the 1991 gulf war and the spiritual leader of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia until his death in 2004 — was disappointed when the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq called for cooperation with Iraqi nationalists and moderate Shiites. As a Salafi, Abu Anas considered Shiites "vicious" and against Islam. Anti-Shiite feeling runs very high among jihadis in Iraq, and the murder of Shiite civilians by Sunni militants has increased.

The prospect of Shiite power in Iraq also worries Iraq's Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia (which has a discontented Shiite minority) and Jordan. These countries are often said to be the main sources, along with Syria, of foreign insurgents in Iraq. Iraq's Shiites have demonstrated against Jordan in the past for just this reason. King Abdullah warned in December 2004 of an emerging "Shiite crescent" from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran that could destabilize the region. In September of last year, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, warned of a possible civil war in Iraq because of the dominance of Shiites.

Again, the politics of Shiite-Sunni friction are nothing new (and many Sunni jihadis, including Huthaifa Azzam, as well as the Association of Muslim Scholars, have condemned attacks on Shiites, and even Maqdisi broke with Zarqawi's policy of killing Shiite civilians). What is new is a population of experienced jihadis and willing recruits who are ready to travel from country to country in search of battle. Radical jihad may never appeal to a majority of Muslims, but for enough young Sunni men, their order galvanized by Iraq, it seems to be becoming a way of life.

Abu Saad called me one night and picked me up in his car. In the front passenger seat sat Abu Muhammed, a giant of a man, 37 years old, who spoke rough Arabic. Soon after the fall of Baghdad, Abu Muhammed made his way to Baquba, a town east of Baghdad near the Iranian border. "I was thirsty for jihad," he said. "I felt I had a duty to go to Iraq. It's a duty of any Muslim if he can." He had previously lived in Iraq for five years and so had established relationships, he told me, with "good people on the right side." He and his friends soon met fighters from western Iraq and became more involved in the insurgency.

Abu Muhammed supported attacks against Iraq's Shiite civilians: "The infidel sects are one, if they are Jews or Shias." Citing Ibn Taimiya, a 13th-century scholar loved by Salafis, he said that Shiites "were worse than Jews or Christians." Abu Muhammed longed to return to Iraq. "I am addicted to Iraq, addicted to jihad," he said. "Iraq has a different taste, the water, the dates, the yogurt. It is the country of the caliphate."

Nir Rosen, a contributing writer for the magazine, is the author of "In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq," due out in May.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Why Invest in Syria? A Debate between Idaf and Ehsani

The following debate between Idaf and Ehsani2 over why people are investing in Syria despite its political problems was posted in the comment section two posts ago. It is well worth reading and copying on the main page.

In the interests of the many "Syria Comment" readers who write to me praising their well-reasoned analysis, we would be grateful to Ehsani2 and Idaf if they would both contribute regular short essays about the Syrian economy to be posted to "Syria Comment." Their commentary has been superb and their different perspectives complimentary and provocative.

I am planning a new format and look for "Syria Comment" that will allow for more powerful searching and archiving according to subject and category. I hope t-desco will consider doing the same for his "fundamentalism" beat. It would be a shame not to have his scattered comments and research collected periodically and synthesized in short articles. If these authors are interested and would write to me, I would love to discuss how this might be done. You guys are carrying a lot of water for "Syria Comment”; why not splash it on the front page? Here is the debate.

Idaf said...
Al-Kifah el-Arabi has a good round up of FDIs in Syria during 2005. Ehsani, I appreciate your comments on the fact that foreign investments in Syria were at its best since 35 years while Syria had it worst political situation possible for the country during the same era! It seems to me that global investors are seeing real opportunities and are not bothered by Mehlis, Bush, Condi and Jumblat. It looks that they are seeing something that the pessimists among us are not seeing!

EHSANI2 said...
Idaf. You ask an important question. My answer is going to be long as I think this is a very important issue.

You are absolutely right. Let me start by including myself amongst the group of people who have participated in this FDI number. Why did I decide to invest in Syria this year in spite of the worst political situation in 35 years?

1- Since 09/11, Gulf investors and Arabs in general do not feel comfortable investing their funds in the U.S. or the western banking sector in general. This has resulted in increased investments in the local economies. As a result, local equity markets booms and so did real estate prices. First it was the GCC countries, and then it was Jordan (due mainly to Iraqi capital). Contrary to conventional opinion, Iraq itself has experienced a massive boom in its real estate prices since the U.S. invasion. There are reports of house prices that have risen by seven-fold since Saddam’s downfall. The other critical factor is demographics of course. The region has 50% of its population under the age of 18. This is a massive wave of future growth that needs to be tapped. In effect, therefore, the “macro” situation is extremely favorable in the region surrounding Syria. Lebanon itself has seen continued investments since the death of Hariri. As the U.S. has become more involved in the country (a new $100 mm embassy is being built), gulf investors in particular, feel that it has become even more attractive to build and invest there. Lebanon’s real estate prices have risen dramatically as a result and are presently at multiples of what they are in Syria. This brings us to Syria.

2- Most investors have shunned Syria for years, and for very good reasons. Capital has a strong nose for profits and return. It correctly did not get attracted to Syria’s Baath. Given the regional boom discussed above, the discrepancy between real estate prices in Syria and that of its neighbors has grown dramatically. In the mean time, the Baath party’s hold on power has been shaken. Either the party has to reform itself dramatically or it is going to fall. In my opinion, there is no third probability. What capital has sensed therefore is that things have hit bottom and that given the low prices of real estate relative to neighboring countries, it is better not to miss the opportunity of buying assets on the cheap. As one Saudi investor told me a week after the Hariri murder: “This is the best time to buy in Syria. If you don’t pick up assets on the cheap, you are going to look back and regret not having done so”. Syria is a country with massive potential. When and if the Baath party is removed from power, this country will experience a massive boom. Even though prices have indeed risen nicely over the past one-year, they still pale in comparison with our neighbors. I predict significant further increases. All you have to do is go down to the Syrian coast and compare property prices there with their equivalents in Lebanon and Turkey. Please note that Syria only has 800 so-called 5-star beds in Lattakia and the coast. This is for a population of 20 million people. It is shockingly inadequate. There is no question that there are massive opportunities for growth in this area. Gulf investors have done just that by snapping up land on the coast and many other places for that matter. They are doing this helped by Mr. Makhlouf and others who are encouraging them to buy at seemingly crazy prices. Few laws have to be changed in the interim before their investments yield super returns. My suspicion is that these laws will indeed be coming out soon. Mr. Makhlouf has a particularly good nose and track record in this area.

In sum, capital is coming into Syria for multiples of reasons. I, personally, have participated in investing in the country after having refrained from doing so for years. Did I do so because I believe in Bashar or the Baath? The answer is a resounding NO. I invested because I think the prices are very cheap relative to others in the region. The regime, in my calculation, will either have to change or fall from power. The old crazy ways of the Baath party will have to go. Capital smells “better” days. Every investment has risks. At these prices, the risks of losing in a lot in Syria are relatively small. Should the country change dramatically, the returns are huge on the other hand. A simple risk-reward calculation is what many investors are doing before concluding that this is the right time to invest. This is by no means an endorsement of Bashar or the Baath party. Indeed, it is an endorsement of the fact that things are at or close to hitting bottom. Few countries on earth have performed so much below their potential as has been the case in Syria for the past 43 years. Thanks to the Americans next door, the international pressure and the related calls for reform from the inside, capital has correctly concluded that the old status quo can longer survive for long. Let is say Amen to that.

Innocent_Criminal said...
i just received the Syria-Report newsletter and here is an interesting note

Syrian industry fares bad in UNIDO index
The latest release by UNIDO of the Comparative Industrial Performance (CIP) index for the year 2004, shows that the Syrian economy ranks 121 out of 155 countries

you can read more here.

Vox Populi said...
"Syria is a country with massive potential. When and if the Baath party is removed from power, this country will experience a massive boom. "

I agree with that.

Idaf said...
Thank you for your well-rounded answer. I have few comments though:

1-You mainly based your thorough answer on the view of real estate investors. The report in Al-Kifah Al-Arabi clearly mentions that the investments in the real estate sector in Syria were only 4 projects from the 558 investment projects (of around 7+ billions$) announced in 2005. Almost half of the projects (237 projects) are industrial ones. One of them is building the largest sugar manufacturing plant in the middle east.

Correct me if I'm wrong Ehsani, but I understand that industrial investments are more hesitate to come to unstable markets. For example if you're going to invest in real estate, the risk of war or regime change is no where as risky as building a regional manufacturing/industrial plant with a turnover that would require years.

2-The 9/11 atrocities happened almost 5 years ago and the prices of oil has been increasing dramatically since 2003, but the gulf investments just decided to come to Syria mainly during the last 6-8 months (plus Chinese and German ones). Shunning the US demands to "isolate" Syria.

3-If I understood your comments correctly, you're trying to say that the regime was mainly lucky to receive these investments during the current turmoil in the Syrian political arena. I in the other hand think that the investors are seeing an opportunity as you rightly mentioned, but I also think that they are seeing a genuine reform processes being implemented that would make their investments even more compelling and less risky in the long run. Note that most of the major real estate FDIs are planned to span 8-10 years (they were not included in the figures above), such as Emaar, and the other 15 B$ being discussed in the parliament.

My main conclusion is, basically, if the global investors are seeing that things are getting better in Syria, my argument that Syrians inside Syria are seeing relative improvements in their daily lives is very well founded and that this is translated into support for the regime inside Syria (an argument many Syrians abroad don't agree with).

Allow me to make the following observation too: The overwhelming majority of the investments that came to Syria last year were in the second part of 2005, just after the withdrawal out of Lebanon, Bashar's visit to Russia and the Syria becoming one of the few debtless states, the Baath party congress and the ousting of Khaddam. Coincidence? Might be.. but a very interesting one! Mehlis reports and the US accusations and pressures for "isolation" did not have any considerable effect.

Baath or no Baath, American or no Americans, it seems that investors are sensing improvements and a potentially huge returns regardless of whose in charge and how democratic he is.. it would be all nicer of course without a Baath in Damascus or Americans next door!

Innocent Criminal,
It might be that the Israelis are sending a friendly message to Bashar, but then again they might be too overwhelmed by the service that Jumblat is providing them, by throwing his gauntlet against Hizballah and his flux of curses against Syria. They are after all humans! This also came from a political party not the Israeli government mind you, so it's not state policy.

If I was an Israeli, I would be soaked with tears of joy listening to Jumblat's curses to Syria during the rally few days ago.. and more importantly, by his relentless hunt after Hizballah!

Also, don't forget that historically, the Israeli politicians and parties committed lots of such mistakes earlier. The latest was their campaign of accusations to Syria of killing Hariri just after he was killed. The Israeli government back then ordered the officials (and "begged" the Israeli media) to refrain from the campaign against Syria as it would have a counter effect on the "cedar revolution" which was very well going in line with their 15-years-old demands of getting Syria out of Lebanon and dismantling of Hizballah.

On the other hand, one should also consider the surge of blind hatred to Syria/Syrians that a large part of the Lebanese public have been manipulated to exercise by their sectarian Zai'ms for a year now. It's apparent that it's so blinding that they don't care anymore if their actions are serving Israel, hurting the ordinary Palestinians or even hurting the Lebanese national interests as long as it would hurt Syria.

I bet though that you won't hear more of such public offers to Jumblat after this moment (they would be made behind closed doors instead) as Israeli analysts would recommend them to end. I can imagine though the feelings of Israelis listening to Jumblat cursing Hizballah and Syria with the sheers of thousands of revenge-thirsty Lebanese. if I was an Israeli I would not be able to control myself from joy.

It's interesting though that Jumblat did not comment on that offer of "protection" in any of his "let's-curse-Syria" daily show on Future TV news.

EHSANI2 said...
1- There is no question that there are industrial plants that are being built as well investments destined to the real estate sector. You have to understand thought that all the numbers you cite are just “plans” at this stage. They are yet to start. Again, they are based on potential reward, which is indeed very attractive. This is true for industrial as well as real estate.

2- Ironically, it was the killing of Hariri, and the increased pressure on the regime, that has triggered the wave of potential investors. Why? Because they sense that the pressure on the regime will force it to either change or reform.

3- The regime was not lucky. The regime is changing slowly. It has realized that it needs to reform. But the improvement is relative. When you are at rock bottom, any change can look good. In absolute terms, however, the reforms are woefully inadequate when compared to where the country ought to be relative to its potential.

4- Contrary to what you suggest, were the Baath to fall from power, the country will boom economically. The standards of living pale in comparison to others around, and certainly relative to where they should be. Market based economics is a prerequisite for economic prosperity. The Baath does not want to admit this, though they know it. They are hence incapable of unleashing the potential for this country. None of all of this would have taken place without the American next door. Saddam and his sons would still be there. Syria would still occupy Lebanon. Bashar would have seen zero reason to reform. Now the genie is out of the bottle. Changes are taking place at breathtaking speed. Thankfully, this wave seems to have reached Syria as well.

The Syria or Lebanon Model for Iraq?

Will Iraq adopt a Lebanese or Syrian model of governance? That is what is at stake in efforts to form a new government in Baghdad.

David Ignatius has written a good primer on what is at stake in the negotiations over forming a new government in Iraq: "Playing raw, hardball politics in Baghdad."

The US and Kurdish parties are trying to support a "national coalition government" and have produced a set of principles for the formation of a new government that they are calling the Salaheddin principles.

It's basically a road map for creating the kind of broad coalition that might stabilize Iraq and, at the same time, justify the vast amount of money and lives the Bush administration has expended on Iraq.

The Salaheddin document calls for a government made up of the four biggest parties - the Shiite alliance, the Kurdish alliance, a Sunni bloc known as the National Iraqi List, and Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord.

The insistence on including Allawi is a direct assault on Sadr's faction, which believes (correctly) that Allawi tried to destroy Sadr and his militia when he was interim prime minister.

To enforce consensus, the Salaheddin document calls for a National Security Council that would include leaders of all the main political factions in the country and, according to the document, "outline policies ,that reflect national unity and reach decisions based on the principle of accord.'' The document also echoes the Bush administration's insistence that the leaders of the two key security ministries - defense and interior - "must be neutral or accepted by all the parties participating in the government.’’
Such a coalition would keep Muqtada al-Sadr from becoming the "king-maker" of the new government. It would also prevent the Shiite militias from consolidating their hold over the government security forces. In theory this is a laudable effort. If the militias consolidate their hold over the police and military, the Iraqi state will become another repressive instrument high jacked by security forces, much as Saddam's state was, only this time with Shiites at the top.

The problem with getting America's broad coalition to work is that it is likely to be extremely weak, much as the Lebanese government is. This would lead to government paralysis because each community, governed by its distrust and fear of the others, will seek to block reform and passage of new laws advanced by competitors. If this happens, the militias will continue to grow in power. The only difference will be that they will expand outside the structures of the state, rather than within the interior and defense ministries, increasing the probability of open civil war. It would seem that Iraq is stuck between the Syrian and Lebanese models of government. The Syrian model produces stability and unity at the expense of freedom and federalism. The Lebanese model produces liberty and communal protections at the expense of stability or effective central institutions.

The likelihood of establishing a successful Lebanese model in Iraq is small. Success requires that the various communities agree on the basic outlines of national identity and power sharing, issues which have yet to be settled in Iraq and which are unlikely to be resolved through dialogue. One need only point to the resettlement of the Kurds in Kirkuk, not to mention the underlying question of whether the city should be claimed as Kurdish or Arab, as an example of the tough decisions which will likely sink the Lebanon model. The level of distrust, fear, and anger separating Iraq's communities will, in all probability, doom bargaining. One need only read today's NY Times article by Tavernise about how sectarianism is destroying any sense of a common destiny in Iraq.
"Since the state was dismantled in Iraq, institutions have disappeared and people have withdrawn into their clans and tribes," Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, said in a recent interview. An analysis provided by one family court in central Baghdad showed that mixed marriages were rare to begin with, making up 3 to 5 percent of all unions in late 2002. But by late 2005 they had virtually stopped: the court did not record any in December, and last month registered only 2 out of 742 marriages.
My hunch is that the US will not be able to prevent the Shiite militias from consolidating their grip over the security apparatus. This trend is already well established and the major Shiite parties seem convinced that the only method to stop Sunni resistance is to crush it. The threat of withholding foreign financing will also not deter the Shiite militia leaders from their intended path of consolidation. They will figure that if only a strong central government can be established, Iraq will rebuild its oil business and finance its own future, unencumbered by US management or directives. Iraq is not Palestine, where the population, without the hope of producing a self-sustaining local economy, is truly hostage to Israel and external largesse.

US Establishes Democracy Funds for Syria

The United States will hand out about $5 million in grants to democratic reformers in Syria, the State Department announced on Friday.

It did not indicate which Syrian groups would get the funds but said they were aimed at "accelerating the work of reformers".

To support freedom and democracy in Syria, the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) announced today it will award $5 million in grants to accelerate the work of reformers in Syria.

The grants, which are expected to range from $100,000 to $1,000,000, will build up Syrian civil society and support organizations promoting democratic practices such as the rule of law; government accountability; access to independent sources of information; freedom of association and speech; and free, fair and competitive elections.

"The United States stands firmly with courageous men and women struggling for their freedom across the Middle East, including in Syria," said Elizabeth Cheney, principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. "The people of Syria deserve the opportunity to build a better future and to live in freedom."

President George W. Bush launched MEPI in 2002 to promote positive reform in the Middle East and North Africa. The initiative has received more than $293 million to support more than 350 programs in 14 countries and the Palestinian territories.

To see the request for grant applications for Syria, go to www.mepi.state.gov and click on Current Opportunities and Syria Democracy Program Announcement. The deadline for concept papers is March 30.

"The United States stands firmly with courageous men and women struggling for their freedom across the Middle East, including in Syria," said senior State Department official Elizabeth Cheney, who announced the grants. The grants "will build up Syrian civil society and support organizations promoting democratic practices such as the rule of law; government accountability; access to independent sources of information; freedom of association and speech; and free, fair and competitive elections," the statement said.

This is a long overdue program. To think that the US has been talking about democracy in the region for years and never allocated proper funds for it in Syria. This is a good start. Now Syrians will have to figure out how they can apply for the funds without getting bashed by their government.

Ironically, American legislators are trying to have the embassy staff reduced even further, which will undermine the effectiveness of democracy promotion. Only by supporting effective representatives on the ground in Syria can America be expected to evaluate and judge how best to promote democracy. Building links to courageous and imaginative people working in Syria who are trying to expand the scope of local civic institutions should be key.

"Congressman Eliot Engel told the "Daily Star" that he found it "surprising" that, despite the fact Syria has been on the U.S. list of countries believed to be supporting terrorism since 1979, the U.S. administration continued to have normal diplomatic ties with Damascus." Evidently Russia is seen as a stumbling block standing in the way of gaining UN support for further sanctions against Syria. Engel called on Russia "to act responsibly" should the U.S. present a proposal to level sanctions on Syria through the UN Security Council, saying: "Fighting terrorism is everyone's responsibility, not only America's responsibility."

Another reason for the delay in UN action is that the new Hariri prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, is having some trouble "putting together his team."
A spokeswoman for the investigation told The Daily Star on Friday that those who had worked on the investigation previously had been forced to leave after their contracts ran out. "They had a limited time contract, and after the contract was over they went back to permanent jobs in their institutions," the spokeswoman said, adding that new members of the team are arriving each week and that staff are still being recruited. The spokeswoman said "recruitment takes time" because "Brammertz is also looking for people with certain expertise, who are not always immediately available or not willing to come for short and temporary assignments.”

Friday, February 17, 2006

News Round UP (February 17, 2006)

Rice wants the UN Security Council to sanction Syria for non-compliance with the Hariri investigation.

Rice told lawmakers she did not think Syria had cooperated with the U.N. investigation into Last February's murder of Rafik al-Hariri and something must be done about this.

"We will need, I really do believe, to go back to the Security Council at some time in the not-too-distant future to get a report on what is happening with Syrian cooperation," Rice told the House of Representatives International Relations Committee.
Khalid Mashaal visited Ankara this week on the invitation of the Turkish government. This will damage Turkey's relationship with Israel and destroy its reputation as an "honest broker," many analysts say. The fall out for the Turkish-Israeli relationship is analysed by WINEP's Soner Cagaptay, who explains that the Turkish invitation to a terror chief is "yet another foreign policy breech between Turkey and the West." By trying to develop “strategic depth” in its relations with Syria, Iran and the Palestinians, Turkey will sacrifice its hard won reputation in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Russia is also hosting Mashaal, much to the astonishment of the West. Jordan intends to follow suit. Marouf Bakheet, the prime minister of Jordan, which expelled Mashaal and other Hamas leaders in 1999, now says Jordan would welcome a visit by "a delegation of our brothers the leaders of Hamas."

Saudi ambassador: Assad 'basically agrees' with Lebanese demands

Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Prince Turki al-Faisal said that ongoing pressure on Assad will not cause the collapse of his regime; on the contrary, he said "the regime will survive despite the pressure."

Given this assessment, Prince Turki al-Faisal explained that Lebanon's refusal to come to terms with Syria threatened to return the country to "the bad old days." He criticized the Siniora government for being divided and incompetent in dealing with recent Saudi mediation efforts between Syria and Lebanon. According to al-Faisal, Siniora requested the Saudi mediation two months ago when the Hizbollah ministers walked out of the cabinet, but then was unable to prevent members of his own government from scuttling Saudi efforts when they accused the Kingdom of "bowing to the Syrians' wishes." Al-Faisal stressed that Saudi Arabia relinquished efforts after the kingdom was accused by some of "betraying Lebanon."

He insists that Syrian President Bashar Assad informed Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak that he "basically agrees" to Lebanon's demands for "demarcating the Lebanese-Syrian border, promoting diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria and barring Syrian security interference in Lebanon."

Many of the Syrians detained during the Danish Embassy protest in Beirut were not at the demonstration, Amnesty International claims, explaining the high number of Syrian arrests mentioned in news reports.(Thanks to t_desco for this)
Lebanon: Detainees reportedly beaten and denied access to legal counsel

On 7 February, Lebanese media reports quoted the acting Interior Minister as stating that more than 400 people - 223 Lebanese, 138 Syrians, 47 Palestinians, seven Bedouins and one Sudanese - had been arrested in connection with the violence. Those detained included some 42 Syrian nationals who, according to information received by Amnesty International, were arrested by Lebanese police at an apartment building in Tariq Jdeide, four kilometers away from the Danish Embassy, some of them while the protests were still in progress. They were arrested, apparently, after another Syrian who resides at the same building, was arrested at the demonstration.

Upon arrest, the 42 Syrians are reported to have been taken first to the local police station and then to the Barbar Khazen prison in west Beirut, which the Internal Security Forces (ISF) control. They were held there for five days, during which they were denied access to legal counsel. Some were beaten by ISF interrogators in an apparent attempt to force "confessions" about their involvement in the protests. On 10 February, they were taken before a military court in Beirut, which ordered their release. More than 200 other people arrested in connection with the 5 February protests are also reported to have been brought before the Military Court in Beirut whose procedures fall short of international standards for fair trials - on 11 and 12 February, but the outcome is not known to Amnesty International.
Amnesty International

Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper reports that the assets of the son of former Syrian Prime Minister Mustapha Miro had been seized in part of an anti-corruption campaign that could also be targeting the former premier himself. The Daily Star suggests Miro's prosecution is part of an ugly vendetta. Miro was know for his honesty and may be being punished because he was supported by Khaddam. Khaddam outflanked President Bashar in forming the Miro government in 2003. Is this payback?

President Asad lectured his new government yesterday about ways to thwart corruption. It should join the fight in cutting back on "routine," the catchall phrase in Syria for needless bureaucracy, form filling, and permission and signature gathering. "Routine" is the bane of every Syrian's existence. It allows underpaid government employees to salary boost by collecting "takramiyyas" for each useless and redundant signature. For example, several months ago I went to the main post office to pick up an innocuous academic journal. To assure its release, I had to get six signatures from three offices on two different floors of the building. It took me 45 minutes and cost me $2.50 for the permission slips and required stamps. The original price of the journal was $1.50.

The US and Israel Should Engage Syria" by Alon Ben-Meir

Alon Ben-Meir has written a compelling argument for why Israel and the US should engage Syria rather than continue in its failing policy of isolation and possible regime-change. We all know that this will not happen under the present administration. As Rice has explained Washington wants to boost sanctions against Syria and "convince other nations to follow suit." "We intend to use the Syrian Accountability Act and use it to its fullest," she told Congress, yesterday.

Washington will continue to hack away at Syria, Hamas, Iran, Hizbullah and all the rest of its enemies in its losing attempt to break them and sweep the question of occupied territories under the rug. It would be better for the US to solve these problems, while it retains a powerful presence in the region. Only by addressing some of the complaints of local governments, can the US hope to defuse the anti-Americanism of the region and promote democracy.

Alon Ben-Meir - UPI - February 6, 2006

Hamas’ rise to power provides the United States and Israel with a strategic opportunity to shift their attention to Israel’s northern front with Syria. Damascus’ interest in recovering the Golan Heights remains on the top of its national agenda. Syria is also in dire need of economic assistance and development, which will be possible only through normalized relations with Washington. The Syrian government is therefore ready for a dialogue. Thus, the Bush administration and Israel need to look afresh at Syria and examine what new policy options they can explore in dealing with it. Although this may seem to defy conventional wisdom, a new U.S. policy toward Syria can dramatically change the political landscape throughout the region.

The opposition to pursuing a more conciliatory policy rests on numerous serious charges against Syria. Among these are providing refuges to several militant groups, especially Palestinian organizations, which often even operate at the behest of the Syrian government. Syria also fully supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and maintains cozy and mischievous relations with Iran, now in defiance of the international community. Syria is further accused of being behind the assassination of the Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Harriri, of actively promoting anti-American and anti-western sentiments throughout the Arab world, and of aiding the insurgency in Iraq. The issue is not whether these charges are true; rather, the prevailing perception that they are makes it necessary for Syria to address them. But, while it is up to Syria to do this, should not the United States try, at the same time, to compel Damascus to change direction by appealing to its national interests? Until now, Mr. Bush’s Middle East policies have been driven by the single idea of regime change, regardless of the current turmoil in the region and the potentially explosive consequences of such policies. It is time for the administration to consider instead a policy of engagement consistent with the existing environment in the region. In suggesting this, I recognize that there are three cogent arguments against this that deserve plausible counterarguments: Continue

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Making a Mockery of Democracy

The US is setting off down the road to confrontation in Palestine. This will lead to nothing positive. To destroy Hamas, which Israel and the US can probably do, and turn it into another useless and corrupt organization such as the PLO, will not be in the long-term interests of either state. The anti-Semitism and sacrilization of resistance, which is already rooted in Hamas doctrine, will only intensify in Palestine and throughout the region if the Palestinians are further starved, their remaining state institutions further destroyed, and their leaders further humiliated. Spreading hopelessness is not a solution.

The House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a resolution opposing any new U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas revokes its call for the destruction of Israel. The resolution is symbolic, but House members have introduced separate legislation that would provide for strong sanctions against the Palestinian Authority.

"When Hamas looks at America, at the [Bush] administration, at the [U.S.] Congress, they must see nothing but fierce, unrelenting, and implacable rejection," said Congressman Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat. "There can be no political absolution for this pack of killers. And the very idea of giving our taxpayers money to these bloody-handed fanatics, people who have slaughtered our own citizens, is offensive."

Rice: 'Not one penny' for Hamas "Congress is still in the process of working on a binding bill that will oblige the administration to stop support to the PA, without giving the president any possibility to bypass the decision."

Robert Worth and Sabrina Tavernise explain how "Muqtada al-Sadr is Rising as a Kingmaker in Iraqi Politics. Sadr is responsible for getting Jaafari named as PM after Jaafari agreed on a 12-point program to set a timetable for pushing US troops out of Iraq. He also got Jaafari's consent to confront the Kurds on the issue of Kirkuk. Iraq's leadership, under the influence of Sadr, will adopt a more determined Arab nationalist stand, pitting it against SCIRI and greater Iranian influence, against the drift toward looser federalism, against Kurdish aims to make Kirkuk an integral part of Kurdistan, and against long-term American influence and bases. Muqtada is bent on bringing the Sunni tribal leaders back into the center of Iraqi politics as a counterweight to the Kurds, and, indeed, Iran. This also means bringing Syria into Iraq's circle of friendship as evidenced by Sadr's recent visit to Damascus and promise, not only to normalize Iraqi-Syrian relations, but also to defend Syria against American pressure and possible invasion.

Sadr's rise is good for Syria and bad for the Kurds. He has won the support of many Sunni Iraqis. His interests are not completely opposed to those of the US. Washington's stated goals of building an independent and united Iraq, which is not too tightly linked to Iran, are also those of Muqtada al-Sadr. Of course Sadr's anti-Americanism and opposition to Kurdish ambitions in Iraq are anathema to Washington. His rise within Iraq's leadership is also bad for secular Iraqis because he wants an Islamic government. His militia is not law-abiding. Although Sadr's instincts and methods are not democratic, it is possible that so long as his party is a minority party, he will be forced to act as a democrat, striking deals, and working, for the most part, within the confines of parliamentary politics. The fear, of course, is that the growing power of Iraq's various militias will not be contained by parliament. It seems quite likely that ethnic tensions and lawlessness will only grow with time, undoing parliament, and making a mockery of the constitution and rule of law.

The best hope is to allow groups like Sadr's and the Sunni tribal leaders to work their way into the center of Iraqi politics, where they may come to see their best interests fulfilled. Only if they taste the benefits that parliamentary order can provide, will they embrace republicanism. This is what political scientists call "democracy without democrats." Politicians don't have to believe in democracy; they do, however, have to discover that working within constitutional bounds satisfies their interests more than the use of force. So long as no faction believes it can win a civil war, they may accept the benefits of compromise.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hariri Commemorated: Syria Cracks Down

Joe Pace sent me this translation of an Akhbar al-Sharq article yesterday reporting the re-arrest of Mamoun al-Homsi, a Damascus Spring activist who was only recently released from Prison. Mr. Mohammad Nagati Tayyara was also arrested but was released today according to Razzan Zeitouneh at "Shril." There are also reports that Riad al-Saif was re-arrested and that Homsi was released shortly after his arrest. The situation remains confused and as one reader remarked, there may be a struggle within the secret services over how to deal with the Democracy advocates.

Former MP Mamun al-Homsi Re-Arrested... Arrest of Human Rights Activist on the Border
The Syrian authorities have re-arrested former MP Mamun al-Homsi, who was released from prison last month, in front of his house. Meanwhile, the authorities arrested human rights activist Najati Taharra as he tried to cross the Syrian border into Jordan. Faruq al-Homsi, the brother of the former MP said that "security elements began to harass me and my brother. Today (Tuesday) they arrested Mamun at 5pm and as of now we do not know his fate."

Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights activist and lawyer reaffirmed, "a patrol from the national security branch arrested former MP Mamun al-Homsi in front of his house at 5pm and his fate is unknown."

Al-Homsi was released on 18 January of this year after almost four years in prison. He is one of the Damascus Spring prisoners who were arrested in the summer of 2001. He and his colleague, MP Riad Seif were sentenced to five years in prison for trying to "illegitimately change the constitution." This came against the backdrop of their demands in the People's Assembly for reform and to uncover corruption.

Al-Bunni also mentioned that "security elements arrested Najati Tayara, a member of the Human Rights Association of Syria, on Jordanian-Syrian border as he attempted to leave for Jordan for a workshop on human rights."

The arrest of Mr. Tayara comes against the backdrop of his participation in a conference held in the United States and a human rights legation on Monday in the Sham hotel.
Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon two days ago after a long absence in order to lead the anniversary commemoration of his father's murder.

Nicholas Blanford describes the mass rally in Beirut to commemorate the death of Rafik Hariri a year ago. Many say near a million people assembled in downtown Beirut. Politicians took up the demand that President Lahoud resign. He remains adamant that he will not. Saad al-Hariri branded Lahoud an agent of Syria, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt all but called for a national revolt to oust him. Jumblatt denounced Mr Assad as the "tyrant of Damascus" and a "terrorist.” He insisted that Lebanon would never be rid of Syrian influence as long as Emile Lahoud, the president, remained in office.

The Monday morning quarterbacking has already begun as Lebanon's two major political blocks try to spin the meaning of the demonstrations. Who represents Lebanon? Is Jumblatt being needlessly provocative or will he lead the crucial breakthrough, ending Syrian influence in Lebanon? Hizbullah and Syria are trying to pooh pooh the demonstration. Aoun is standing on the margins. Hariri and Jumblatt are claiming that they are on the road to victory.

Sean McCormack, Secretary Rice's Spokesman gave a long press interview about Hizbullah and US attitudes towards the Lebanese Government which is interesting in light of increased US military aid to the Lebanese government. Hizbullah, a terrorist organization, participates in the government, making further US aid to it awkward. The obvious parallel is with the new Hamas led governemnt in Palestine. McCormack said he didn't know if the US is giving any aid to the Lebanese government on the day that the US announced it would tripple military assistance to the Lebanese army. This is the assistance Saad Hariri negotiated during his trip to Washington two weeks ago and which is being announced on the occasion of his return to Beirut for the anniversary of the murder of his father.

State Dept. wants to triple aid to post-Syria Lebanon government
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has requested a significant increase in U.S. military aid to Lebanon.

The State Department has proposed to increase U.S. military aid to Lebanon by more than 300 percent in 2007. Officials said the request reflected closer relations between Beirut and Washington as well as the withdrawal of Syria's military from Lebanon in 2005.

Under the Bush administration's request, Lebanon would receive $4.8 million in U.S. military aid in 2007. Beirut received less than $1 million in such aid for fiscal 2006, which ends in October, Middle East Newsline reported.
Officials said the increased U.S. security aid would enable Lebanon to increase procurement of weapons and spare parts. They said the State Department also planned to offer increased training to the Lebanese Army and security forces.

But the department's request would not enable Lebanon to purchase any major weapons system. Officials said the administration was examining Beirut's request for surplus U.S. platforms to revive Lebanon's military.

Under the department's request for fiscal 2007, Israel and Egypt would receive $2.34 billion and $1.3 billion in military aid, respectively. Jordan would receive $206 million.
US row leads Syria to snub dollar

Syria has switched all of its government foreign exchange dealings from dollars to euros as part of a political stand-off with the US.

"The step aims to avoid any future disturbances," said Dureid Dergham, head of the Commercial Bank of Syria.

He said the move was necessary "in light of the current US threats against Syria, and the ensuing complications in banking procedures and transfer operations to Syria from US and European banks.”
Syria to Return Diplomatic Relations With Iraq

Vice President Farouk al-Shara has informed Leader of Sadrist movement in Iraq Moqtadah al-Sadr Syria’s decision to return diplomatic relations with Iraq and exchanging diplomatic representation on level of ambassadors after forming the new Iraqi government. “Returning the bilateral relations was axis of the talks with Shara and this would enhance cooperation and integration between Syria and Iraq,” al-Sadr added, stressing necessity of ending the occupation of Iraq.

Claude Salhani, UPI's International Editor explains how "America's foes are circling their wagons."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The New Syrian Cabinet (Feb. 11, 2006)

The New Government Members
In all, the reshuffle brought in 15 new ministers to the 34-member Cabinet. Here are some of the changes. See the comments of Idaf, who claims the reshuffle brings experience and qualified people to the cabinet. Ihasani argues that the Regional Command of the Baath and presidential family are the real powers in the government so we cannot read anything positive into cabinet changes.

Mr. Farouk al-Shara the new vice-President:
-Mr. al-Shara was born in Dera’a Province 1938.
-He got a university degree – Faculty of English Literature – Damascus University in 1963.
-Studied the International Law at London University 1971-1972
-Worked at the Syrian Airlines from 1963-1972 as a senior official.
-Syria’s ambassador to Italy 1976-1980.
-In 1980 he was elected Member of the Central Committee of al-Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party.
-Minister of State for Foreign Affairs from 1980-1983.
-In 1983 he was appointed Foreign Minister.
-In 2000 he was elected as Member of the Regional Leadership of al-Baath Arab Socialist Party.
-In 24 Dec. 2001 he was appointed as Deputy prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
-Mr. Shara was assigned as personal envoy of the late President Hafez al-Assad to leaders of several Arab and foreign countries. He was also assigned to represent Syria in several Arab, Islamic and international conferences.
-He was appointed again as Foreign Minister on 18 Sep. 2003
-Married, with two sons.

Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Ottri:
-The prime Minister, Eng. Mohammad Naji Ottri, was born in Aleppo in 1944.
-Got University Degree in Architecture Engineering in 1967, and then Diploma in City Planning from the Netherlands. In 1972.
-Member of the Union of Syrian Engineers- Aleppo Branch from 1975-1979
-Member of Aleppo City Council 1976-1980
-Aleppo Mayor 1983-1987
-Head of Union of Syrian Engineers- Aleppo Branch 1989-1993
-Homs Governor 26 Dec. 1993
-Deputy Prime Minister for Services Affairs 2000-2003
-Speaker of the People's Assembly on 26 March 2003
-Prime Minister on 18 Sep. 2003
-An active member of al-Baath Arab Socialist Party since 1970
-Member of the Regional Leadership of al-Baath Arab Socialist Party
-Member of the Central leadership of the National Progressive Front.
-The Cabinet was first reshuffled under his chairmanship on 4 Nov. 2004
-Took part in many Arab, international state, engineering and trade union meetings in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Jordan, Libya, UAE, Tunisia, Lebanon, Spain, the Netherlands, Czech, Pakistan, Bulgaria and Chile.
-Married, four children.

Deputy PM for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari
-Appointed as Head of the State Planning Commission since Dec. 2003
-Elected as Assistant Resident Representative of the UNDP in Syria
-Married, with three children.

New Interior Minister Gen. Bassam Abdul Majid
-Born in Bir Ajam town, Quneitra Province in 1950
-Graduate of the Air Force Academy in 1970
-Occupied several military and security posts, the latest of which was Commander of the Military Police since 1 January 2003
-Married, with three children.

Political analyst Imad Sara said, "A new interior minister shows the intention of a continued control of the security branch in a bid to maintain internal stability and prevent disturbances and riots in a complex and sensitive situation."
New Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim-Born in Damascus in 1941.
-Studied in public schools from 1948-1960 where ho got the Secondary School Certificate
-Studied at al-Azhar University in Egypt, and graduated with a University Degree in Economics.
-In 1964 he worked at the Foreign Ministry and served in the Syrian missions in Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Spain and England.
-In 1975 he was appointed Ambassador in Romania until 1980.
-Director of Documentation, Translation Department at the Foreign Ministry from 1980-1984
-Director of the Special Offices Department at the Foreign Ministry from 1984-1990
-Appointed Ambassador to the USA from 1990-1999
-Appointed as Assistant Foreign Minister in early 2000
-Appointed as Deputy Foreign Minister according to the Decree number 8 for the year 2005
-Took part in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks from 1991-1999
-Married, with four sons.
- Wrote four books:
1- Palestine and Armed Struggle- 1970
2- Syria under mandate
3- Syria from Independence to Merger Unity
4- The World and the Middle East from American Perspective

New Information Minister Dr. Mohsen Bilal-Dr. Mohsen Bilal was born in the village of Burghalieh, Tartous Province in 1944.
-Received elementary, preparatory and secondary studies in the Province Schools.
-Studied Medicine at the Italian University of Padua, and graduated from it in 1970.
-Specialized in the field of surgery in Italy in 1976, and continued high studies in the USA where he got PH.D in medicine and surgery from Pennsylvania University, Liver Implant specialization.
-Head of Surgery Section at Damascus University and al-Assad University Hospital.
-Elected to the People's Assembly (Parliament) in 1977 and from 1981-1985 where he was named Chairman of the Arab and Foreign Affairs Committee.
-Elected Advisor to the federation FEARAB America and the Anti Discrimination Committee in America.
-He was accorded with the Medal of the Italian Republic by former Italian President Sandro Pertini.
-He was also accorded with the Medal of the French Republic from former French president François Mitterrand.
-Appointed as Syria's Ambassador to Spian in 2001 until he was appointed Minister of Information.
-Speaks English, Italian and Spanish fluently.

Six posts related to the economic sphere such as key posts of finance minister and economy and trade minister remained unchanged.
"The readjustment in the strategic ministries of oil, electricity, transport and telecommunication shows that the authorities was resolved to expedite the economic development to deal with severe challenges," said a diplomat here, who asked not to be named.

Syria's UN envoy Faisal Mekdad was named deputy foreign minister.

Majed Khaldoun writes: Zyad Ayoubi, Minister of Religious Affairs, "is the best choice; he is very powerful; he is behind the islamist rise in Syria, and has strong influence on T.V. and radio. He always has new ideas, very nice personality, and has strong connections with the wealthy Damascus people, his base is a mosque in western Abu Rummaneh, Anis bin Mali mosque.

Idaf writes: Raid Nissan Aghast - the new culture affairs minister (ex-ambassador to the UAE) is one of the few outspoken Syrian diplomats.. he's definitely one of the bravest. He often admits the many mistakes committed by the regime publicly in media outlets and propose really good solutions shaped as suggestions. He was definitely the first Syrian official to have a live debate on a talk show with a Syrian opposition figure (Al-Jazeera, 2003).

Amr Salem - the new ICT minister: He is a PhD and an ex-director in Microsoft in the US. He also established the Syrian Computer Society back in 1989. He came back from the US few months ago and became the ICT advisor to Bashar.. less than a week after that, internet video and voice chat was allowed in Syria for the first time and all the blocked internet protocols were permitted silently. The young and tech-savvy Syrians like him a lot. More technocrats and diplomats in the government and less Baathi fossils... I don't know about you guys but I can only see good in that!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

News Round Up: (Feb. 11, 2006)

Shara appointed Syria’s vice president:

President Asad has appointed Foreign Minister Farouq Al Shara Vice President of the Republic on Saturday. It is not yet clear whether the long expected government change is imminent.

“Mr Shara will be responsible for foreign and media policy under the directions of the president,” the SANA agency said. Shara, who has a degree in English literature from the University of Damascus, has been foreign minister since 1984. Syria has two vice president positions. Assad had left the two posts vacant since last year, when Abdel-Halim Khaddam resigned before defecting to Paris months later.

Even though this report claims that Sharaa will maintain authority over the Foreign Ministry, it is not clear yet how the Foreign Ministry will be re-arranged. It would surprise me, however, if Sharaa is being kicked upstairs to get him out of the Foreign Ministry. He and Asaf Shawkat were given responsibility for dealing with the UN investigation of the Hariri murder. So long as the investigation continues, I think Bashar will keep them in place to spearhead the resistance. He will not drop them in mid-stream. But he may make some re-arrangements in the foreign ministry to beef up his "good cop" forces. From the beginning, Asad has deployed a duel policy of "resistance" and "cooperation." He will keep both avenues open. Nevertheless, for the time being, the "resistance" policy is working from a Syrian perspective.

The sweeping victory of Hamas in Palestine vindicated Syria's loyalty to Hamas's leader, Khaled Meshaal. Asad's years of sticking by Meshaal, despite US pressure to have him evicted from Damascus, paid off. Undoubtedly there was hearty back-slapping in the presidential palace following Meshaal's electoral victory.

Anti US forces in the region are solidifying their ranks and taking courage from the Hamas victory. Muqtada al-Sadr is in Damascus and on his way to Lebanon. Hizbullah has just signed a deal with the main Christian force in Lebanon headed by Aoun. Hizbullah leader, Nasrallah claims that the new Shiite - Christian alliance gives his coalition the popular majority in Lebanon, despite the parliamentary majority of Hariri's Future Current. Iran is also on the warpath against Western pressure. None of this suggests that Bashar will be contemplating a change of course anytime soon. If anything, it will convince him and the confrontationalists in Damascus that public opinion is on their side and they should keep up the pressure and defiance. The cartoon affaire plays into their hands. Likewise, the Hamas success and Cartoon riots will cow pro-Western presidents and kings throughout the Middle East, who will not want to get on the wrong side of Islam.

Iraq Shiite cleric vows Syria support:

Muqtada Sadr will place his Shiite militia at Syria's disposal if Damascus was attacked by the West.

The head of Sadr's office in Syria, Sheikh Raed Kazimi, told United Press International that Syrian President Bashar Assad will confer with Sadr later in the day for the second time since the Shiite cleric started a visit to Syria earlier this week.

"The visit is a hundred percent successful and this is a victory for Syria because Sayyed Sadr defied U.S. and Israeli will by declaring that al-Mehdi Army will defend Syria in case it was attacked," Kazimi said, in reference to Sadr's militia.

He expressed appreciation for the warm and popular welcome that Sadr received in Syria. Kazimi said Sadr will visit Lebanon after Syria, but did not specify when.

Saad Hariri has accused Syria and

those who murdered his father of being behind Sunday's riots in Beirut's Christian neighborhoods of Ashrafiyeh and Gemmayzeh. "The rioters were instructed by the killers of Rafik Hariri to do what they've done," said the young Sunni leader. Hariri was referring to Syria.

Acting Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said that authorities had arrested 416 suspects including 223 Lebanese, 138 Syrians, 47 Palestinians, 7 Bedouins and one Sudanese. Fatfat said the large number of foreign nationals proved that there were political motives behind the attacks that took on a sectarian nature. Security sources were quoted in the Lebanese media as saying that many of the detainees belonged to radical Sunni Islamist groups.

The leader of the Future Movement urged the youth to gather in large numbers on Feb. 14 to mark the anniversary of Hariri's assassination and to pay tribute to the other martyrs who fell on the road of freedom. According to al Mustaqbal newspaper, Syria's allies in Lebanon are attempting to reinstate its dominance over the country.

The newspaper said Thursday that Wiam Wahab, a former minister and staunch Syrian ally, warned of a "coup" over the next few months that would bring the fall of the parliamentary majority and restore relations between Lebanon and Syria to their former state.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned Iran and Syria against interfering in Iraq's affairs. He said the United States has taken a series of initiatives to try to show Iran and Syria that their actions are harmful to the new Iraqi government and the region. U.S. officials have previously accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to travel into Iraq.

Nasrallah said Bush and Rice should 'shut up' : Nasrallah condemned Sunday's riots, and said everyone who took part in them "must be punished." Nasrallah also saluted residents of the Christian Achrafieh neighborhood, were the riots took place, "for restraining and not retaliating."

But he said that Sunday's riots should not be blamed on "outsiders."

"Not every time something like this happens do we blame someone from the outside," he said, referring to the March 14 forces' accusations against Syria. "Sunday's riots were demonstrations that went wrong, and those who did this wrong should be punished. No more, no less. Let the government take responsibility."

He also criticized March 14 Forces, and accused them of "placing the country on top of a volcano." "They are the ones in power, and still, they are the instigating panic in the country," he said. "They should be more accurate in their accusations and assumptions," Nasrallah added, in reference to a statement issued by the March 14 Forces last Monday in which they claimed Jordanian and Syrian extremists were infiltrating Lebanese borders to train in north Lebanon with the help of some pro-Syrian Lebanese figures. Investigations into the claims could not establish the presence of such radical groups, acting Interior Minister Ahmad Fatfat later declared.

The head of Hizbullah, which just signed a pact with MP Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement - forming the country's undeclared majority - also mocked the March 14 Forces, who form Parliament's majority, labeling it as "imaginary." "Lebanon is a country that cannot, and should not, be governed in the sense of majority and minority ... especially if its (parliamentary) majority is an imaginary and proportional one," Nasrallah said.

Danish Premier Faults Iran, Syria and pulls embassy staff from Syria while Norway and Syria try to mend fences.

Riad al-Turk retuned to Damascus this week. While in Paris, he was invited by Khaddam, who has recently signed an accord with the Muslim Brothers, to meet. Turk refused the meeting. Whether this was out of personal conviction or because he believed it would be impolitic on the eve of his return to Syria, is not clear. My hunch is that it was out of personal conviction. Turk, after all, has been meeting with the Muslim Brothers, which is reason enough for the authorities to put him back in jail. If that doesn't get him into trouble, it is hard to see how meeting with Khaddam would.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Where are the Jihadists Coming From?

I just received a note from an Oklahoman working in Iraq who doesn't buy my argument about the Syrians putting the breaks on the Jihadist flow over the Syrian border. I copy the note here and post my reply.


I’m an OU alum (’90) working in Iraq, and have recently begun reading your mailing list. Nice work.

Curious… if Jihadists are not coming through Syria, where are the major transit points?


Dear Steven, Nice to hear from you. I don’t doubt that there is leakage at Abu Kamal and other points along the Syrian border. I have published rather long articles trying to give a time line for how I think Syrian policy has changed on the border and Jihadist issues from full support to Jihadists during the first weeks of the war to a hands off attitude months later and eventually to taking active measures to limit the flow beginning in 2004 and pretty good coverage by mid 2005. The mukhabarat in Syria are notoriously corrupt and there are doubtlessly many independent actors who work for money and some who work with the opposition in Iraq out of ideological commitment.

But bassed on several accounts, the S.Gov has loaded up the region with extra security to oversee those normally assigned to the region. The people of the region are living under a very tight regime of security and secret police observation. That does not mean there doesn’t continue to be smuggling. I have spoken with quite a few Syrians from the region who explained to me that their families have lived off of smuggling for generations. This is a problem at all of the borders. We know that the Turks cannot keep PPK terrorists from infiltrating back and forth across their border with Iraq, where Kurds on both sides of the border sympathize with the PKK. I don’t know how successful the Jordanians and Saudis have been. We have heard nothing about these borders, but both countries are allies of the US. The United States would make any of their complaints about infiltration to the respective governments in private and not in the press.

Sunni Arab tribesmen on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border work together to smuggle. The only way to really stop this traffic will be if the US is successful in its present negotiations with the Sunni tribal leaders of Anbar. If they break from the Jihadist crowd, as they seem to be doing, and begin to work with the national government to suppress the Jihadists, they will be able to stop them because the smugglers will turn against them under pressure from their tribal leaders. This will not stop smuggling of sheep, cigarettes, etc., but it will stop the smuggling of Jihadists and foreigners.

I must confess, I do not know where Jihadists come from. I do not know how many Jihadists are working in Iraq, what their nationalities are or when they infiltrated into the country. Do you know if they have been adding to their numbers significantly over the last year or since Syria has made a concerted effort to stem the flow over the border? Are you sure most suicide bombers are foreign? These are all questions I cannot answer. Perhaps as someone serving in Iraq you can get some hard statistics on numbers of Syrians, Jihadists, and when they came to Iraq?

US forces must have statistics like this from the Jihadists they arrest, I would think. I have not read or seen any good statistics on any of these questions from Iraqi sources or US sources even though there must be considerable effort and money being spent to amass them. The operations this fall and winter along the Euphrates valley and up and down the Syrian border must have generated some good intelligence statistics on all these things. I would suspect that if there were hard evidence to condemn the Syrian government of complicity or to prove that significant numbers of Jihadists are making it across the border, US authorities would published them. They haven’t. In fact the anecdotal evidence from the recent campaigns seems to suggest that the foreign component in the region, killed or captured, was not great. I would be happy to change my tune on this. But all the anecdotal and statistical evidence I could gather in Syria last year, suggested that the government was working hard to arrest Jihadists, condemn al-Qaida types, Salafists, those who returned from fighting in Iraq and other Islamist-types, who are the vast majority of those being condemned by the State Security Courts.

My hunch is that the Jihadist force in Iraq has put down roots, many having married Iraqi women. Perhaps the numbers have stabilized over time. Perhaps they do get some reinforcements and fresh recruits. But I suspect they are not growing significantly. The fact seems to remain, that we don’t know much about the Jihadists, their numbers over time, or where they are coming from, if indeed, they are still coming into Iraq in large numbers.

In such a situation, it is very easy to repeat that Syria is running a Ho Chi Min trail for any number of political reasons. It just isn’t easy to prove or disprove it. Having tried to keep track of US claims about the Syrian border over the past few years, it has become clear that the US frequently comes up with accusations that are conjecture and then repeats them frequently, even when they have been disproved or brought into doubt. A few of these are – hiding Iraq’s WMD, hiding Saddam, providing night vision goggles to the Iraqis. Running training camps. Being part of the Pakistan nuclear network, revving up their nuclear program, etc.

Given this record, Washington’s claims about the Syrian border with Iraq need to be taken with a grain of salt and need to be measured against the available evidence. I will be happy to be disproved and will publish any good counter to this argument I have been harping on.

Very best, Joshua

Syria is Not a Transit Center for Jihadists in Iraq

Ferry Biedermann, who has recently been reporting from Iraq, has an excellent story explaining how US accusations that Syria is a major transit point for Jihadists coming into Iraq are not true. This is something that Syria Comment has been covering for some time. Congrats to Biedermann for finally nailing this story with quotes from US officers on the line and with some hard evidence. Seymour Hersh writing in the New Yorker a few months ago also reported that US officers in charge of Anbar Province had not found foreign Jihadists in large numbers, as they were told they would, during recent opperations there. Nevertheless, Washington maintains they did. Hersh quotes Representative John Murtha who:

said that American soldiers “haven’t captured any in this latest activity”—the
continuing battle in western Anbar province, near the border with Syria. “So
this idea that they’re coming in from outside, we still think there’s only seven
per cent.”
Even Abdul Halim Khaddam has denied that Syria encouraged Jihadists over the last two years and he has every reason to try to smear the Asad regime on this issue. Washington has been willfully deceptive on this story in order to target Syria for other reasons. Following the Biedermann article, I copy what Khaddam said about the border to Chris Dickey of "Newsweek."

Alleged transit of fighters from Syria to Iraq slows
By Ferry Biedermann on the Iraq-Syria border
Published: February 8 2006 18:21 Last updated: February 8 2006 18:21

Alleged infiltration of foreign militants into Iraq through Syria appears to have dramatically slowed down, according to US military officers on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

In spite of continued allegations from Washington, officials that Damascus is continuing to support the infiltration of jihadis into Iraq, the American commander in the northern border region says that in more than 130 detentions of smugglers by his troops along the border in the past 9 months, “we did not find one foreign fighter”.

Col. Greg Reilly of the 3rd squadron of the 3rd Armoured Cavalry, based at Sinjar, some 50km inside Iraq, also discounted the tales of massive financial or logistical support coming across the border. “If there was a strong relationship, we’d have found money caches or they would have tried to divert us from the border. That has not happened.” His troops control the northern 300km of the border.

Col. Reilly said he could not speak for the whole of the some 600km of the Iraqi-Syrian border. But in 2004 he served along the southern part of it, in the unruly Al-Anbar province where the cities Ramadi and Fallujah are located. He’s now liaising with the troops who are responsible for that part of the frontier and he said that it seems “to be going the right way” in the south as well.

His superior, Col. H.R. McMaster said he last caught a limited number of foreign fighters during last September’s major operation against the insurgents in Tel Afar. But he said he suspected Iraqis militants might be receiving training inside Syria, possibly without the knowledge of the Syrian government.

This is a far cry from Iraqi and American allegations of significant support for the militants coming from Syria. President George W. Bush said on January 11 that “there’s suiciders coming in from Syria into Iraq”, referring to the American assertion that most of the suicide bombers in Iraq are carried out by foreigners.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, echoing Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State, said also in January that Syria is “a transit point for foreign terrorists going into Iraq”.

Foreign fighters did indeed come across in large numbers in 2003. The border is also porous and smuggling, particularly of cigarettes, oil and sheep, is still going on almost exclusively from Iraq to Syria, where prices are much higher.

Col. Reilly must be one of the few senior officers who are knowledgeable about the price of sheep in the two countries, $85 to $90 in Iraq against $250 in Syria. “I’m not saying we can seal the border hermetically when there is such an incentive.”

But his men and the Iraqis patrolling the border intercept a large part of that.

Rabiyah used to be a real smugglers den. The Americans dismantled several places where forgers produced false Iraqi passports. At first, every bus crossing the border from Syria, used to harbour at least two or three people with such false passports.

Relations between the US and Syria have steadily deteriorated over the past two years, amid concerns in Washington that Damascus was helping fuel the Iraqi insurgency. Senior Iraqi officials also say that Syria provides a safe haven for insurgent leaders and have provided other Arab governments with files detailing Syrian interference.

Syrian officials have said the border can never be completely controlled, but that they have made efforts to step up surveillance. Analysts say the co-operation has improved as Syria has sought to ease international pressure over its role in Lebanon, where it is also accused by the US and European governments of meddling in another country’s internal affairs.

Abdel Halim Khaddam on Iraq
Khaddam was one of, if not the main architect of Syria's Iraq policy during much of 2003 and part of 2004. He is now an enemy of Bashar and the Asad regime so his testimony about what has been happening on the Syrian-Iraq border is of interest.

He readily admits that Jihadists were welcomed through Syria at the onset of the War in Iraq - placing their number in the thousands - but argues that when the war was over in 2003, Syria began closing the border. On the subject of border crossings, he told Chris Dickey of Newsweek that:

I can assure you no insurgent crossed the border from Syria to Iraq by the decision or with the knowledge of any [part of the] Syrian government. There were some border crossings for sure...
Is Khaddam bending the truth in Syria's favor. Perhaps a little, after all he had a great say over Syria's Iraq policy and doesn't want to make himself look anti-American. All the same, he has every interest in stirring the Americans up against Bashar. There is no better way to do this than to claim that Bashar is helping to kill Americans and not merely Lebanese. He doesn't do it. Most likely because Syria is not helping jihadists cross the border as I have often reported. In particular, see the article by Abdullah Ta'i published by Syria Comment.

Here is the extended quote from Khaddam's Newsweek interview on Iraq:

One of the dossiers you handled was Iraq. NEWSWEEK has reported from the ground that many insurgents have gone through Syria. We believe a lot of Iraqi Baathist money has come into Syria. How would you describe the relationship between Syria and the Iraqi insurgency, both Baathists and jihadis?

I followed the Iraqi file closely until 2004. The point of concern for us in Iraq was the partition of Iraq and the creation of religious friction in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites. Accordingly, our effort was to ease up the religious conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. And I personally met with many Iraqi delegations [after the U.S. invasion] and those delegations were diversified. There were some pro-American and some anti-American, some pro-Kurd and some anti-Kurd, Sunnis and Shiites. And our message was the same: Iraqi unity. I met with members of the governing council, and most of them were allies of Syria. We used to deal with them in order to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Second, as far as the Baath Party was concerned, there were no communications or contacts between the Baath Party of Iraq and the Baath Party in Damascus. There were open relations between the two governments for economic reasons, but not at the political or at the Baath level in any way.

The issue of border crossing? Look, I’m outside Syria now. I’m in conflict with the present regime. But I can assure you no insurgent crossed the border from Syria to Iraq by the decision or with the knowledge of any [part of the] Syrian government. There were some border crossings for sure. We have a Syrian law that any Arab passport holder can get into Syria without a visa. Maybe there were some Arab nationals who got into Syria and illegally crossed the border to Iraq. During the war, there were a lot of Syrians who went into Iraq for jihad. Some thousands. But what happened with them? They came back, and they said they were deceived by the very bad treatment they received from the people of Saddam Hussein.
Here is an article recently published in the Washington Times by Rep Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Terrorism subcommittee.

Syria's Haven for Terrorists
By Jim Saxton
Washington Times
Published January 15, 2006

The flow of terrorists, war materials and money across the Syrian border and into Iraq is proving an enormous issue for coalition forces and the Iraqi people. The Syrians are clearly unwilling to stop it. Indeed, many contend the Syrians support the insurgents.

Last October, I joined with Rep. Sue Kelly, New York Republican, in discussing border security issues with the Syrian ambassador to the United States. We wanted to investigate the role Syria could play in securing its border and helping bring about a more stable Iraq. Despite repeated requests and moving to provide a detailed plan to stem the flow of terrorists across the border, nothing has happened.

The lack of action by the Syrian ambassador prompted me to return to the region over the holiday period. During the visit to Pakistan, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, I spent the holidays with American troops and thanked them for their selfless efforts. The trip also let me to investigate firsthand the continued flow of terrorists, material and money through Syria into Iraq that has necessitated increased coalition operations on that border.

Syria, which opposed the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, has walked a fine line since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Syrian statements try to steer a course between condemning the U.S. and espousing their willingness to end the insurgency. Syrian President Bashar Assad is on record expressing hope the United States would fail in Iraq.

It was apparent during my visit that the 375-mile Syrian-Iraqi border is extremely porous and remote. This and tribal migrations contribute to extensive cross-border movement and smuggling. These factors complicate U.S. endeavors to impose, or pressure Syria into imposing, effective border controls.

I believe Syria significantly contributes to the insurgency by not exerting enough pressure to interdict movement of extremists into Iraq. In testimony before the House International Relations Committee, then-Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said, "Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war, and is still doing so."

Of particular concern to me and many of my colleagues has been the infiltration of foreign extremists into Iraq where they join terrorist groups including Islamists, jihadis, Ba'athists, and other supporters of Saddam.

Syria's lack of cooperation resulted in congressionally imposed economic sanctions against Syria and President Bush's proposal of the Syria Accountability Act. Mr. Bush noted at the time Syria remains "a preferred transit point for foreign fighters into Iraq." U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad strongly criticized Syria for allowing terrorists to operate training camps that have sent hundreds of recruits into Iraq and added, "Our patience is running out."

Syria permitted extensive two-way infiltration from and into Iraq during the major combat phase of the 2003 war. Recently, Mr. Assad has said Syria was no longer permitting "anti-American volunteers" to pass official crossings but said he was unable to control infiltration across the Syrian-Iraqi border.

There are other dimensions to Syria's alleged support for border crossings by terrorists destined for Iraq. U.S. officials charge Syria provides a sanctuary for former Iraqi Ba'athists coordinating insurgent activities in Iraq. Terrorists obtain passports in Damascus and money collected from donors in Saudi Arabia to facilitate their travel to Iraq.

Syrian officials reject these charges. However, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers, commented, "It's hard to believe Syria doesn't know it's going on.... Whether or not they're supporting it is another question. That said, you could say if Syria wanted to stop it they could stop it, or stop it partially."
For more than two years the U.S.-led coalition has tried to shut down infiltration routes from Syria into Iraq, with little or no help from the Syrians.

These measures may need to be enhanced by a range of options. The choice may depend partly on whether Syria acts as a partner or an adversary. Options include: enhanced border surveillance and patrols, military forays into Syria targeting areas of major cross-border activity, and working with local populations. Incentives could be offered to tribal leaders on both sides of the border, particularly in the Euphrates Valley, to identify foreign terrorists.

A number of coordination mechanisms could also be introduced. One approach would organize a tripartite commission of high-ranking U.S., Iraqi and Syrian military officials to deal with border control. The commission could meet periodically to draft guidelines, exchange information, organize inspection tours of border areas, and act to resolve issues involving infiltration and border clashes.

The "pre-emption of infiltrators" is also important as terrorists come through various entry points to Syria, where local contacts (official or nonofficial) arrange their travel to Iraq. Syrian leaders deny supporting al Qaeda, and there is no publicly available evidence proving Syria knowingly harbors members of that group. Anecdotal evidence from my recent trip to the region indicated quite clearly the Syrians do support and harbor al Qaeda and Saddamist operatives.

Syria's support of anti-Israeli Islamic groups like the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah, lends significant weight to the claim al Qaeda operates out of Syria with the support of the Assad government.

If Syria is serious about gaining acceptance in the global community it must stop providing a haven for terrorists and turn its hollow words into tangible actions. If it does not to so, coalition forces must consider every available option.

Rep Jim Saxton, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Terrorism Subcommittee. He recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, where he spent the holidays, including Christmas Day, with U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republicans Question their Syria Policy

Some republicans are beginning to question the present US campaign to focus Middle East policy on Syria. Here is what one reader said about Paul Roberts recent article lambasting Bolton and his party's policy.

I never thought I'd see "Human Events," one of the most well-known and respected conservative publications that is required reading for any die-hard Republican, publish a quasi pro-Syria piece. The below article, from January 27, was written by Paul Roberts, a former Wall Street Journal opinion editor and Reagan Administration official, and at times seems to quote Syrian Baathist propaganda, for example: "Syria was never in Lebanon as a conqueror or invader, as the United States is in Iraq and Israel is in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Syria was invited into Lebanon by the Lebanese government for peacekeeping purposes...

U.S Orders Syria to Do the Impossible
by Paul Craig Roberts
Posted Jan 27, 2006

Is there a person anywhere in the world who still thinks there is an ounce of sanity in the Bush administration? If so, let that person read John Bolton's orders to Syria in the Jan. 24 online edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Bolton is Bush's unconfirmed ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton, a neoconservative warmonger, has managed to get the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 23 to instruct Syria to disband and disarm the Lebanese militias. Bolton says, "I hope in Damascus they read it very carefully and then comply."

How is Syria to meet this demand?

Last year, Syria complied with U.S. demands to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. As Syria has no military presence in Lebanon, it could not disarm a local police force, much less the Shia militias that defeated the Israeli army and drove it out of Lebanon, and that have representatives in the Lebanese parliament.

After three years and unimaginable expense, the superpower American military has proved that it cannot disarm the recently formed Iraqi militias. Yet the idiot Bolton thinks puny Syria can disarm the Lebanese militias that defeated the brutal Israeli army!

Syria was never in Lebanon as a conqueror or invader, as the United States is in Iraq and Israel is in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Syria was invited into Lebanon by the Lebanese government for peacekeeping purposes, adding the weight of its military to indigenous militias in order to create stability where U.S., Palestinian and Israeli bungling had brought disorder and massive bloodshed.

Until they were withdrawn, the Syrian troops were a counterweight to the Shia militias. Now that the Shia crescent is spreading from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon, the stupid neoconservatives are confronted with the error of their ways. The Bush administration was trying to set Syria up for U.S. attack by demanding that it withdraw from Lebanon. The neocons thought Syria would refuse and thereby become a target for demonization and invasion.

Alas, the Syrians departed. And now the problem is how to turn back the Shia advance, which is increasing in power inside Lebanon as well through the Hizbullah and Amal movements. Bolton's solution is a ridiculous attempt to turn Syria into a neocon proxy and set it at war with the militias. Otherwise, Bolton intends to damn Syria for "noncompliance" and again threaten Syria with U.S. invasion.

It will be interesting to see whom Syria fears most, the militias that triumphed over Israeli military might or the U.S. forces that have been defeated in Iraq.

Mr. Roberts was associate editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page from 1978 to 1980, and from 1981 to 1982, he was assistant secretary of the treasury for economic policy.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Khaddam and Muslim Brothers Team UP

Massoud A. Derhally: writing in Arabian business, "Syria's Khaddam Bombshell" believes argues that the cracks opening up within Syria mean the ultimate demise of the regime.

Though the Syrian regime may not be on the verge collapse, what have become palpably clear are the cracks within the system, which increase the pressure on the leadership and concurrently cast doubts about its lifeline. The evidence pointing to Damascus’s complicity seems only to be mounting in the eyes of the UN commission and the international community. Undoubtedly the choices before the present regime are few. As Kilo, the prominent opposition figure, says from his home in Damascus: “The regime cannot surmount the present challenges, it has a choice of reconciliation with the outside and reform on the inside, meaning a different political system. There is no other choice or else.”
I am not sure this is true, especially if one is using Khaddam's defection as a measure. As Massoud quotes me: "Joshua Landis believes that Khaddam’s testimony must be put into context; that he no longer is part of the clique that rules Syria and has little following in the country. “Khaddam and family are washed up in Syria — that is why he must now turn to America and the opposition and the UN process,” says Landis." This does not mean the Asad is winning. He is not. The Syrian army has been pushed out of Lebanon and will never return. Asad is trying to consolidate his remaining influence in Lebanon and there are clearly many Lebanese who are not averse to this because they continue to see confrontation with Israel and the "West" as necessary values. So long as they do, Syria, as champion of this fight, will find a role in Lebanon and the region. To make this role obsolete, the West will have to stabilize Iraq and the US will have to withdraw its troops. Also, most important to Lebanonese and Syrians, the Arab-Israeli conflict will need to be resolved. Sovereignty is an impotant issue and cannot be swept under the rug. So long as substantial percentages of Arabs and Syrians believe that the sovereignty issue can only be resolved by force and confrontation, they will look to the Baath regime as an ally - as well as to Iran, fundamentalists, or whomever can help them confront.

Here is Imaad Mustafa's defense of the Syrian regime in the face of US accusations that Syria stirred up the demonstrations and violence in Damascus and Lebanon. Both the US and Damascus have some truth on their sides:
NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--The Syrian ambassador to the U.S. denied Wednesday that his country was inflaming sentiments over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as charged earlier in the day by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Imad Moustapha told Cable News Network that two major causes of anti-western sentiment are the occupation of Iraq and the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

CNN quoted the ambassador as saying "if somebody would tell Secretary Rice that Syria is not the party that occupies Iraq and is not the party that occupies the West Bank and Gaza then probably she would know" Syria wasn't responsible for "fueling anti-western sentiments."

At a news conference in Washington, Rice had charged that Iran and Syria had "gone out of their way to inflame sentiment" over cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September.

Protesters have attacked the Danish embassies in both countries, and Rice noted that both Iran and Syria are countries in which the government maintains tight control.
Khaddam has teamed up with the Muslim Brothers in order to strengthen his hand. This is something he has called for for a long time. For over a decade he has argued within the Baath Party that it must move away from a strict nationalist stand in order to embrace Islam. As he once said, "Nationalism has not liberated an inch of occupied territory. Only Islam can do that." He was impressed with the power of the Iranian example. See this story " Asad's Alawi Dilemma," on "Syria Comment" a year ago for the quote.

Here is Nadim Ladki's story at Reuters Feb. 8. on Khaddam's new alliance with the MB and plans.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and the exiled leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood agreed on Wednesday to join forces to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

A source at Khaddam's office said the former official held talks with Ali Bayanouni, head of the Sunni Islamist group, in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"There was agreement on a joint vision to save Syria from the crisis that the regime has placed it in," the source told Reuters in Beirut by telephone. "It was also agreed to contact other opposition leaders inside and outside Syria to come up with a joint plan of action."

The source said the two leaders also rejected any foreign intervention in Syria: "The responsibility of changing the corrupt regime in Syria lies only on the Syrian people."

Bayanouni confirmed the meetings in a telephone interview with the Arabic television station Al Jazeera.

"The most important aspect we agreed upon in our last meeting is the need to work with other national powers and hold meetings with them ... to agree a formula for cooperation amongst us," Bayanouni said.

Khaddam was for 30 years a political ally of Assad's late father, authoritarian president Hafez al-Assad.

Now he is promoting a detailed "national action program" that calls for a transitional government in Syria to take the country from the totalitarian regime to a democratically elected parliament that appoints a government.


It also calls for a separation between the powers of president and those of the legislative and executive bodies, the abolishing of a four-decade state of emergency and the release of all political prisoners.

The program also stipulates the democratic government would commit to the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, in any peace deal with the Jewish state and respect all U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Khaddam, a Sunni Muslim who quit in June and has since moved to Paris, broke away from Assad in December. He said last month that Assad was facing growing pressure from economic problems at home and the international investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Syria, led by Assad since his father died in 2000, faces international isolation and possible U.N. sanctions unless it cooperates fully with the inquiry into the murder of Hariri a year ago.

The inquiry has implicated Syrian officers in the killing and Khaddam has said Assad personally had threatened Hariri and that the assassination could not have taken place without direct orders from the president.

Damascus has denied any links to the murder and has not agreed to let investigators question Assad, though other security officials have been quizzed in Vienna.

The Brotherhood, founded in Syria in 1945, is widely seen as the most serious rival to the Baath Party which in 1980 made membership of the group punishable by death.

It became involved in violent opposition to Hafez al-Assad's military-backed government in which his fellow minority Alawites held many key posts, culminating in an uprising that was ferociously suppressed in the town of Hama in 1982, where many thousands died.

More than 70 percent of Syria's 18 million population are Sunni Muslims.
Ehsani writes in the comment senction that he likes Khaddam's plan:

I think that the well advertised meeting between Khaddam and the Moslem Brotherhood leadership today could be significant What Khaddam could be trying is two fold:

1- Increase his power base and his Sunni Islamic credentials
2- Attempt to show the west that he has the ability to include the Moslem Brothers under his umbrella and potentially be able to exert influence over it in the future.

It is interesting to note that Khaddam’s “national action program” calls for a transitional government in Syria to take the country from the totalitarian regime to a democratically elected parliament that appoints a government. It also calls for a separation between the powers of president and those of the legislative and executive bodies, the abolishing of a four-decade state of emergency and the release of all political prisoners. The program also calls for the return of the Golan Heights in any future peace deal with Israel.

I, for one, find the above goals very noteworthy. In spite of this man’s alleged corruption record, I find the above program extremely attractive. There is no doubt that he faces a significant hurdle in making his case to the Syrian people who may have problems embracing him. Having said this, the Syrian people may have to make the most of all the bad deals on the table. Between having the above implemented by an ex corrupt individual or continuing with the status quo, my choice is clear. At this moment in the country’s modern history, we have to set our priorities. We simply cannot expect a saint to drop from the sky to take the leadership of this country and rid us of all its ills. Note the word, transitional government. If Khaddam can spearhead this effort and if enough guarantees can be made that this would indeed be an actionable national program, I think that Syrian people ought to take this deal. This opinion is going to be controversial, and I understand that.

P.S. Thank you Active Listener for the kind words. It is indeed the case that there are so many smart and articulate Syrians out there. Thanks to Dr. Landis, he has provided to us this entire attractive forum to be able to communicate, discuss, agree and disagree.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Burning Embassies: an Eye Witness Account by Nate Abercrombie

On Saturday, February 4, demonstrators in Damascus burnt down the Danish embassy. As Nate Abercromie explains below, "the building was actually three embassies in one; 1st floor Chili, 2nd floor Denmark, and 3rd floor Sweden. Although the Danish floor was destroyed, the other two sustained much damage. It was done on the weekend so no one was in the building. The Norwegian embassy was also burnt and then demonstrators made their way to the American embassy, where they were driven off by police, and to the French embassy, were they were also driven off. One Western diplomat complained:

"It took a long time before they put in all their force; it took hours before they all came," a Western diplomat said by phone from Damascus. "It's strange that it could go so out of hand. You know what kind of state this is, so if something goes out of hand, it's strange."
Washington has condemned Syria for the violence. Sunday, mobs set fire to Beirut's Danish embassy. Some argue the rioting in Beirut was planned, as well. Michael Young has a thoughtful article, explaining how the situation may have gotten out of hand - permitted by Hariri's team, but lost to fundamentalist groups from the "north of Lebanon," who do not answer to Hariri. Something like this most likely happened in Syria. For a year now, Syrian authorities have been trying to organize and encourage anti-Western demonstrations to show outrage at the Hariri investigation and US sanctions. Along comes the Danish cartoon imbroglio which can be harnessed by the government to add some zip and zing to demos with no fizz, but oops - Muslims have a mind of their own. The Hamas situation only adds oil to the fire. People are genuinely angry over a host of perceived or actual Western slights.

raf* bey, the levantese, has two good articles: the first one is called Background story to the "Danish cartoons" issue - and commentary and the second one Why do the Syrians burn embassies but the Iranians don't?.

Following the Demonstrators in Damascus
The Danish Embassy and Beyond
by Nate Abercrombie in Damascus
February 4, 2006

Several friends were meeting at my house when one of us received a text message stating that the Danish Embassy had been set on fire. We immediately turned on the television to see what had transpired. After trying several channels, we finally found some brief footage of a small fire that had been made on embassy grounds which had ultimately resulted on the building catching fire. Wanting to see the damage first hand, we left my apartment for the district of Abu Rumani.

The streets on the way to the embassy were calm and there wasn’t any sign of disorder. The street in front of the Danish Embassy was a different story. It bore the marks of a peaceful demonstration gone awry. Trash was strewn all over the ground. A small group of men still lingered in front of the burnt embassy amongst the still standing water from the fire trucks. A line of about 30 riot police remained in place awaiting another emotional surge from the men yelling, “Allahu Akbar.” Some of the demonstrators would intermittently sit and pray while the rest walked in circles with green banners proclaiming God’s greatness.

My friends and I lingered for a few moments and were surprised to find a few Danish friends arrive with firsthand experience of the blaze. They told us that the street in front of the embassy building (the building was actually three embassies in one; 1st floor Chili, 2nd floor Denmark, and 3rd floor Sweden) was filled with thousands of demonstrators. They claimed that, even though the fire had already been started, the demonstration didn’t actually get out of hand until the news cameras arrived at which point people entered the building emptying it of papers and a few pieces of furniture.

After a quarter of an hour, I had decided that I had had my fair share of excitement for the evening and headed home. Half way to Rawda Square, I found another group of men followed by a small number of women all carrying posters and banners and walking towards the American Embassy. I ran to the front and took some pictures and was greeted by smiling fathers with children on their shoulders who wanted pictures taken of their children yelling, “Allahu Akbar” while carrying anti-Danish posters. What I didn’t realize was that this small group of demonstrators was only one of many that were coming from different from different streets from districts of Damascus intending on demonstrating in front of the American Embassy, for which reason I have no clue.

Rawda Square, one of the larger squares in Damascus, rests just below the American Embassy. The square was filled with fire trucks and at least a hundred riot police. It didn’t take long for the entire square to be filled with thousands of demonstrators all yelling the same phrase, “Allahu Akbar.” As soon as I began taking pictures, the crowd circled around me all wanting to be photographed with their various posters, banners, and burnt Danish flags that were repeatedly thrown to the ground and stomped.

What surprised me most were the men with hand-held radios directing the rioters. When a sizeable crowd had gathered in Rawda Square, these men ran around yelling, “Rooh a’ a-Safara Francieh.” I wasn’t sure if this was just an attempt to lessen the threat to the American Embassy or an attempt to increase the threat to the French Embassy. I followed the masses to the French Embassy to find a similar sight only to a lesser extent. There were a lot of fire trucks and several dozen riot police. The only difference was the attitudes of the people. Emotion and adrenaline running high, people began to push and shove. A small fire was set not but twenty meters away from the French Embassy, but was quickly extinguished by a fireman.

Riot police in civilian clothing were carrying wooden sticks and billy-clubs and swung at whoever raised their voice to cheer on the demonstrators. I observed three men being beaten before being carried of to some unknown location. A voice from the minaret from the mosque just below the French Embassy began pleading with the people. My only regret of the evening was not understand what was being said…was the voice was persuading the people to stop or inciting further discontent.

It was quite clear that as the night went on the authorities became more concerned with even the smallest crowds of people. But, I couldn’t help wondering if the authorities were working against each other. Why were the men with hand-held radios directing the demonstrators? Why weren’t greater precautionary measures taken before demonstrators arrived at embassies, especially in the case of the Danish Embassy? It was only later that I learned the Norwegian Embassy had been burned as well. But everyone on the street knew that a large group of demonstrators was headed towards Mezzeh long before they ever arrived.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Syria's Opposition Dilemma

Syria's Opposition Dilemma
by Joshua Landis
February 4, 2006

The opposition meeting in Washington DC last weekend was a success by all reports. Even though only 55 people gathered at the hotel conference center on Saturday and 65 on Sunday, several observers insisted that it wasn't the number of participants that made it important but the fact that for the first time the secular Syrian opposition met openly with the religious opposition. Perhaps more importantly, the internal Syrian opposition embraced the opposition in exile.

The door was opened last year for this combination by Riad al-Turk, the honorary leader of the internal secularists, when he left Syria to meet the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in London. Although the meeting, as televised on al-Mustaqilla channel, was a bit awkward, both called for a united front and democratic Syria. The long estrangement and bitter feud between secular and religious opponents of the regime seemed to be at an end.

Following this breakthrough, the "Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change" was issued by the internal and secular opposition in Syria on Oct. 16, 2005. It called for an end to Syria's emergency laws and other forms of political repression, and for a national conference on democratic change. Most importantly, the declaration was endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, based in London. As Anwar al-Bunni, the leading human rights lawyer in Damascus, said at the time:

"The declaration demonstrates that there is a democratic alternative to the Baathists that have ruled Syria for 40 years. The regime wants the world to believe that if they go, it is only Islamists and radicals who will come to replace them. It is high time to publish this statement. Syria really needs all the world to know that there is a replacement for Assad that is democratic and liberal."
The most controversial line of the declaration was one meant to cement the alliance with the MB. It read:

Islam -- which is the religion and ideology of the majority, with its lofty intentions, higher values, and tolerant canon law -- is the more prominent cultural component in the life of the nation and the people. Our Arab civilization has been formed within the framework of its ideas, values, and ethics and in interaction with the other national historic cultures in our society, through moderation, tolerance, and mutual interaction, free of fanaticism, violence, and exclusion, while having great concern for the respect of the beliefs, culture, and special characteristics of others, whatever their religious, confessional, and intellectual affiliations, and openness to new and contemporary cultures.
This statement privileging Islam, the religion and ideology of the majority, as the "most prominent cultural component in the life of the nation and the people" rankled with some, in particular Christians and the Islamic minorities in Syria, such as the Alawites, Ismailis and Druze, who together make up some 25% of the population of Syria.

Although the official Islamic curriculum taught in Syrian schools states that Christians will go to heaven -- unique in the Arab World -- this is a minority view among Muslim clerics in Syria, let alone the broader Islamic world. Likewise, although Alawites, Ismailis and Druze are officially named Muslims and treated as such by Syrian law and the Baath Party, Muslim clerics, both Shiite and Sunni, have not embraced the notion that they are Muslims. A minority tradition among clerics from both schools of Islam has developed during the past century suggesting that they are indeed Muslims, but it remains a distinctly minority tradition. Bayanouni and the new leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have never specifically stated that Syria's Muslim minority sects are full-fledged Muslims, nor have they stated that Christians will go to heaven. Most members of Syria's minority communities still remember the exclusionary and bigoted statements of the Muslim Brother leadership of the 1980s, which referred to them as kufar, or unbelievers. Although Bayanouni renounces the excesses and mistakes of the Muslim Brothers in the 1980s, he has not completely reassured minorities that they will be treated as equals. The religious question remains a major stumbling block in the way of true unity among the opposition, and, indeed, within Syrian society more generally.

Secularism and the separation of church and state form the obvious route around this theological impasse. The Muslim Brotherhood has gone a long way toward embracing secularism in its endorsement of political pluralism and democracy. The paragraph directly following the "Islam" statement in the Damascus Declaration reads:

No party or trend has the right to claim an exceptional role. No one has the right to shun the other, persecute him, and usurp his right to existence, free expression, and participation in the homeland. Democracy as a modern system that has universal values, is based on the principles of liberty and the sovereignty of the people and state institutions, enables the people through free and periodic elections to hold those in power accountable and to change them.
The gap between Islamists and secularists has finally been narrowed enough to permit a political alliance between the two. This is a real triumph. It is what made the Damascus Declaration such a groundbreaking document. Likewise, the gap between the internal opposition and the exile opposition has been overcome. This is the significance of the Washington conference held last week. At the heart of this second division was the role of the United States. Much of the exile community has sought to ally itself with Washington and with foreign capitals more generally, in order to strengthen its hand against the Baath Party. Syrian based opponents of the regime have resisted this strategy for decades. Their stated platform was that although the Syrian people stood against the Baath regime, they would close rank with it on nationalist grounds to oppose external threats to the fatherland, in particular those coming from Israel and the West.

The Washington conference promised to close this second gap. The telephone hook-up between members of the Damascus-based Atassi Forum and the participants of the Washington conference seemed to solidify a growing alliance between American based opponents of the Asad regime and those within Syria. On top of this, Riad al-Saif, the recently freed leader of the Damascus Spring Movement, gave his benediction to the formation of this united opposition front.

The opening of a new opposition rift
But just as unity seemed to be all but locked up, another split among opposition members has opened up, this time over the role of Israel. There are other reasons to do with clashing personalities, religion, and opposition strategy, which have opened up old wounds, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is at its heart.

Only days before the convening of the Washington conference, its organizers stated that they would exclude Farid Ghadry, the President of the Reform Party of Syria, as well as a secondary personality, Mohammed al-Jbaili, a friend of Ghadry's who has recently started a new party called Rally for Syria. Jbaili was a founding member of the Syrian National Council, which organized the Washington conference. Ghadry and Jbaili hailed the convening of the Washington conference as a watershed event only days before it was convened, writing:

As far as we are concerned, several steps are being planned one of which is an important strategy session in February that will bring back the opposition most likely to be part of the architecture groups of Syria's future (there will be many participants from a wide spectrum of the Syrian opposition). This group, in general, believes that Syria does not belong to the Ba`athists or their subordinate offshoot ideological political parties but rather to a new vision that embraces the market economy as the centerpiece of that vision. The meeting will host mostly young and determined Syrians who see eye-to-eye with today's generation of Syrians. RPS is sending several young people to this meeting.
When they heard about their exclusion, Ghadry and Jbaili lashed out against the organizers in an interview covered by the "New York Sun." Jbaili insisted that he was excluded because he had spoken out against an opposition alliance with Islamists, such as the Muslim Brothers, or Baathists. Ghadry explained that he had been excluded because "Baathism and Islamism are antithetical to the spirit of Syrian reform. We don't want to replace one dictatorship with another."

Although Ghadry claims he is for sharing power with all Syrian opponents of the regime, his criticism of Islamists, ex-Marxists, and Arab nationalists belies his commitment to them. This is the way Ghadry's party describes its pioneering efforts:

The RPS was the first dissident group that asked for regime change, and when we met in Washington DC in November of 2003 with other opposition organizations such as Jean Antar of the Assyrian Movement and Dr. Hussein Saado, a Kurdish nuclear scientist representing the Kurdish community in Germany, and Taufiq Hamdosch of the Kurdish Democratic Party, we issued the first anti-government communiqué. It was strongly worded in favor of regime change for Syria. We were the first to raise this flag and appropriately enough almost all the other opposition groups have followed suit since.
Moreover, Ghadry arranged meetings between the Washington officials whose confidence he gained and other opposition members. He is in part responsible for the meeting between Mr. al-Dairi, a leader of last week's conference, and the vice president's daughter and a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Elizabeth Cheney, last year.

The problem with Ghadry's approach is that by calling for a violent overthrow of the government with US assistance, shunning Islamists, socialists and ex-Baathist, as well as by allying himself with Syria's enemies, he has alienated himself from the mainstream of Syrian society. When organizing last week’s opposition meeting in Washington, the Syrian Nation Council was forced to choose between Ghadry's group and the Islamists. It chose to ally with the Islamists.

As Mr. Ghadbian, a professor of the University of Arkansas and founder of the National Council, explained, "he prefers for Baathists, Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood to be included in a post-Assad Syria." He also said that he felt it was important for a democratic Syria to preserve its Muslim identity and stressed the importance of the conference's goals of "seeing a pluralistic, liberal Syria replace the unacceptable tyranny of the Assad dictatorship." He explained the reason for Mr. Ghadry's not being invited was that he was perceived by dissidents who would be leaving Syria to attend the conference as "too close to the Bush administration," describing Mr. Ghadry as "the Chalabi of Syria."

Although Muslim Brothers and other Syrian opposition members were willing to reverse their longstanding opposition to the US, they were not willing to go so far as to embrace those they saw as neoconservatives or members who have gotten too close to the Lebanese and Israeli lobbies. Such a strategy would kill them at home, where anti-Israeli and anti-Lebanese sentiment runs high, and anyone seen to be in cahoots with the government of either country is quickly labeled a traitor.

So what is to be done? The squabble between Syria's many opposition groups and Ghadry threatens to return them to square one, just when it looked as if the Syrian opposition had discovered a foreign policy. Many opposition members have argued that Ghadry is unimportant, but that is not true. It is only true if the opposition does not expect Western aid. Ghadry has now begun to attack the entire Syria opposition as either witting or unwitting "acolytes, useful idiots, or minstrels" of the Asad regime, because they won't join him and his allies in Washington in calling for Asad's downfall. Ghadry has a point when he argues that without US aid, the opposition will have a long a difficult road ahead of it. But the Syrian opposition also has a point when they claim that Ghadry is out of touch with Syria. Here is how one anonymous commentator put it on the blog site of the Reform Party of Syria, curiously named, "Syriacommentplus:"

Dear Mr. Ghadry,

First, Let me clarify that despite my disagreement with how you are going about it, I greatly respect you commitment to something I am assuming you deeply believe in. I also want to clarify that I am a Syrian Citizen writing you from the US. I have no political affiliations with anyone in or out of Syria. I am very much a Democrat and a liberal.

When it comes to Syria, my position is governed by my love for that wonderful country and its people, care for the well-being of the people, hope for its future, and a deep understanding of the current status of its society, especially in regards to its ability to change without drifting into Iraqi style chaos.

Does there exist a Syrian who does not want to see change? The answer is NO. The key however is to think of this change and approach it with a deep understanding of what the situation on the ground is and the ability of the so called opposition, inside and outside, to handle the next step. Also whether it has any popular support to do that.

What I find interesting in your article is that you raise issues that ironically weaken your own argument and credibility. Let us think of the opposition groups for a moment; you listed the Assyrian Movement and various Kurdish groups, one being a very small fringe group and the other a group representing those who want to annex part of Syria to an independent Kurdistan. All are non-mainstream, minority ethnic groups, the last thing the country needs. You on the other hand made peace with Israel your priority. You made the neo-conservatives in the US your friends even though there is nothing they would love to do more than fly some cruise missiles to Damascus. With all due respect to all those people, there is no patriotic, clean, and credible opposition group in or out of Syria today that the main stream Syrians can trust.

We have serious problems in Syria today, the lack of education is a serious problem, and corruption is terrible. People, as much as they want to see change, they want to see it take place slowly and without the loss of security that represents really all they have. As stated in you article, in the footnote, there is no leadership in the country. It is all old, dead, or in jails. You answer is to cooperate with the Lebanese groups in the US, who have ignorantly offended your average “Abu Ahmad” in every thing he is proud of as a Syrian in their quest to accomplish something they can’t even agree on, to get some act passed through congress to put more pressure on a country where the same “Abu Ahmed” is already suffocating.

As I have stated in the past, true change in Syria has to happen through positive pressure on the country that include economic investments combined with political pressures to prevent it from going to the same officials who presently control the country. This will enhance people's lives and move them up in their needs pyramid so they can become more politically active and bring change from the inside, under the umbrella of the interest of the country and not that of one ethnic group or another.

Mr. Gharry, I encourage you to listen to those in the country, hear what they have to say and leave Washington out of it. You will then understand why your message or that of similar opposition groups is rejected.

To be fare to Ghadry, here is his response on supporting neocons:

On the issue of neo-conservatives, the best answer I can give you is the following: Who do you want us to get help from to pressure the US government against the Assad regime? The State Department that still is more likely to protect Assad than hurt him? Or the intelligence community that has turned a blind eye to the Arab dictators? Or the Europeans that most, until the Hariri killing, protected Assad and some to a certain extent still do? In politics, you choose your partners based on goals and not on ideology. My goals are to see Syria become democratic peacefully.
Ghadry has no faith that the Syrian opposition will be able to rid Syria of dictatorship, so he has allied with the neocons who he believes will overturn Asad, whether peacefully or not. Most of the Syrian opposition does not want the assistance of the neocons, having been frightened by the Iraq, and earlier, Palestinian examples. They prefer to do it on their own, even if it takes a long time. They are happy to have America squeeze Syria and pressure it on human rights issues, but on the whole, they don't want America to break the state as it did in Iraq.

The US dilemma

The US administration also faces a dilemma: should it cut connections with the newly united Syrian opposition because it opposes peace with Israel and supports Islamists, or should it support the Syrian opposition and court the ire of the Lebanese and Israeli lobbies, which are integral to American society and its own foreign policy planning?

Farid Ghadry has explained that the antagonists in this American struggle are the Defense Department, the President’s office, and “appointed politicians,” who are for regime change in Syria, on the one hand, and the State Department on the other. State, or as Ghadry puts it, the “cocktail party diplomats at Foggy Bottom,” are not interested in regime-change. They are soft on the Syrian opposition and only want to “weaken Bashar.” Their hope is to build up the opposition to encourage evolutionary change rather than to force a quick overthrow or sudden collapse of the regime, which they believe would most likely lead to political chaos. As Edward Walker, a former Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs and presently director of the Middle East Institute, said in 2003, "The only opposition I know of in Syria is the Muslim Brotherhood."

Following elections in which Islamists or anti-Americans have swept the poles in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and now Palestine, it is very hard to believe that either side in the US administration will be successful. Those who want the US to get behind the newly unified Syrian opposition, despite its strong Islamist wing, will be dissuaded from doing so by those who refuse to support further Islamist gains in the name of democracy. And those who want more forceful regime-change, such as the neocons, will also be dissuaded by the same fear. Despite claims by Ghadry, that people like him -- free traders and pro-American liberals -- are the real majority in Syria, and not Islamists or those who would follow the Muslim Brothers, few are likely to believe him. My hunch is that the Hamas victory has thrown the US for a loop. The recent riots in Damascus and burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies over the cartoon affaire will only deepen the confusion in the halls of Western capitals and once again arouse worries of the "Muslim mob," whether it was encouraged by the government or not.

Three years ago, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld "did not advocate seeking out Syrian exiles and dissidents for an opposition movement" because his department "decided that none of the options were more attractive than the incumbents." All that changed after the invasion of Iraq, when Asad made the decision to support the fundamentalists who wanted to kill US soldiers rather than support the US soldiers who wanted to kill fundamentalists. In a "with us or against us world," Asad was against us. Farid Ghadry was with us.

But if the US government was quick to support exile groups, such as Ghadry's, they were slow to support opponents of the regime living within Syria. Only in the Fall of 2005, when Labwani flew to Washington, did Washington come alive to the notion that supporting Syrians inside Syria could be fruitful. Days after the Labwani affaire, the embassy officials in Damascus began reaching out to Riad al-Turk and other Syrian opposition figures for the first time. The meeting in Washington last week was a product of this effort. What will happen to it now is anyone's guess. To stop supporting the liberals out of fear of the Muslim Brothers would be a mistake. State Department officials insist they will continue to reach out to as broad a coalition as they can. This kind of grass-roots work will take years to come to fruition. But there is no short cut to transforming Syria. It will take the hard work of many. Ultimately, it can only be done by Syrians for Syrians. But if Washington is smart, it will continue to build good relations with as many Syrians who support reform as possible.