Saturday, April 29, 2006

Syria Eagerly Seeking to Improve Relations with Iraqi Leaders

The Council on Foreign Relation's Bernard Gwertzman published this interview with me two days ago. We know a bit more about the new Iraqi PM than we did two days ago, thanks to Sami Moubayed. (See quote at bottom)The Council also has other interesting articles on Syria by Council Staff Writer Esther Pan.

Landis: Syria Eagerly Seeking to Improve Relations with Iraqi Leaders
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Joshua Landis

April 26, 2006

Joshua M. Landis, a Syria expert who recently returned to the United States after spending a year in Damascus, says that Syrian leaders are seeking to establish good relations with all segments of Iraqi political life, including the Shiite leaders. He says the newly chosen prime minister of Iraq, Jawad al-Maliki, lived in exile in Syria for twenty-one years, but the current Syrian leadership, which had little direct contact with him then, is trying hard to curry favor now.

"The leadership doesn't know much about him, because most of the people he had been friendly with have retired," Landis says. "He was friendly with [former Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad's generation, not with the generation that has come into power under the son, Bashar. They don't really know who he is. So they're scrambling right now to figure out who has good relations with him, and obviously they're going to try to make that connection."

Landis, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma's School of International and Area Studies, says Syria and Iran are trying to take advantage of anti-Americanism in the Middle East to enhance their influence in the region.

In your most recent blog entry, you said that Syrian officials are striving to have good relations with all sectors of Iraqi society. Now this surprises me, because I always assumed the Syrians were very anti-Iraqi Shiite, and since the Shiites are the predominant force in the Iraqi government, there would be rather cool relations between Syria and Iraq. What explains this change?

Well, Syria did not traditionally have good relations with the Shiites in Iraq, largely because the Shiites were anti-Baathist [Saddam Hussein headed the Baath Party in Iraq]. And because Syria was also Baathist, [the Iraqi Shiites] distrusted Syria. That has changed a lot. What's happened is, as the Shiite [political figures] in Iraq have become more and more distrustful of the United States, and have divided amongst themselves, and so find themselves in competition with each other, they have been going to Syria to look for better relations. Also, the government in Syria is, in fact, Shiite. Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite. They are offshoots of Shiites. They claim to be "Twelver" Shiites, the largest of the Shiite factions.

But Syria, traditionally, had had almost no relations with people inside Iraq, because of the terrible relations between the two Baathist regimes. And when Hafez al-Assad and the Alawites took over in Syria, they kicked out the founding members of the Baathist Party -- many of whom fled to Iraq in the sixties and were given a home by the Baathist Party there, and later by Saddam Hussein. And so Saddam promoted the idea that these exiled Syrian Baathists might be used to undermine Syria. Saddam was the major funder and helper of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria [a Sunni Muslim group]. He helped sneak car bombs and weapons across that border, into places like Hama where they were used against the Syrian regime, provoking the slaughter of 1982 in that city by Assad's forces.

At this time, Saddam Hussein attacked the [Shiite] Dawa party in Iraq. [Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-]Jaafari and [incoming Prime Minister Jawad al-]Maliki are both members of that party. And the Dawa people claim that Saddam over the years killed 70,000 of their members. In 1982, Maliki fled Iraq during this crackdown, at the same time that Saddam was funding the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. So he fled, first to Iran, where he was unhappy because he felt he didn't have enough independence, and then to Syria. And Syria helped these Shiite members of the Dawa party.

And he stayed in Syria a long time?

The whole time. In fact, until 2003. So he spent, essentially, two decades in Syria.

So he obviously is fairly well clued in to the leadership in Damascus, yes?

No, he's not. And this is the odd thing. In preparation for our interview I got in touch with some people in Damascus, and they said that, in fact, the leadership doesn't know much about him because most of the people he had been friendly with have retired. He was friendly with Hafez al-Assad's generation, not with the generation that has come into power under the son, Bashar. They don't really know who he is. So they're scrambling, right now, to figure out who has good relations with him, and obviously they're going to try to make that connection.

Now, the importance of having been in Syria, for Maliki, seems to be that he's quite a staunchly Arab nationalist, as opposed to being influenced by Iran. He has made it clear -- or at least he says -- that he wants to put aside any sectarian interests, and that he's interested in preserving a non-sectarian, Arab identity for Iraq. This is going to get him in trouble with the Kurds, but it's the kind of language that Sunnis in Iraq will like to hear. And it's the kind of language that Syria will like to hear.

Have the border incursions of insurgents from Syria into Iraq been stopped, more or less? Or is that still an issue?

It's not much of an issue. The head of American forces in Iraq has said the Syrians are doing a much better job and they're working together. The big change is the Iraqi and American troops have finally arrived at the border. For the first two and a half years, there were no Iraqi troops guarding that nearly 500-kilometer border. There were just Syrians on one side. But now, Americans and Iraqis have managed to put up a fairly effective border guard system. Right down the whole border there are outposts and guard houses. In this way they are managing to have some communication with the Syrians, and they seem quite satisfied. The commanders along the line say they have been able to stop whatever it is that's going on, and they've been able to stop smuggling, even. Now there are still some issues, but it doesn't seem to be infiltrators.

Now the other issue, of course, that was big news a year and a half ago, was the UN investigation into the assassination last year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The latest news is that the chief U.N. investigator Serge Brammertz met with Bashar today. Where does that issue stand?

Well, Syria took some satisfaction in the collapse of the so-called "national dialogue" in Lebanon earlier this year. The Hariri and pro-American forces in Lebanon put all their money behind getting rid of the president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud, who has been a major link between Syria and the Lebanese state. They believed that through this national dialogue, with all these national leaders coming together in March, they were going to be able to get progress on impeaching the president. His importance is that he sits over the whole security apparatus in Lebanon, and he's chief of staff of the military in Lebanon. He, of course, was the president who had his term extended, constitutionally, under great pressure from the Syrians. So he became the focal point for the anti-Syrian movement, which led eventually to Rafik Hariri's assassination. And Hariri's people put all their effort into getting rid of him, and they failed.

What was the reason for the failure, that Hezbollah was able to block it?

Yes. And the Christians. Michel Aoun, who is the most popular Christian for the next presidential seat [which has to be held by a Christian according to the Lebanese constitution] -- opinion polls put him at about 30 percent, and his closest competitor had about 10 percent -- has made an alliance with Hezbollah. So there's a Maronite-Shiite alliance that really frustrated the Sunnis. In a sense, America has thrown its money behind the Sunnis in Lebanon, who are one of the smaller groups, and this has caused the other groups to gang up against them. The Christians are divided, but the most popular presidential candidate, Aoun, wanted the Future Movement, the party of Hariri's people, to say that it would endorse his becoming president to replace Lahoud, before he would agree to sway his people behind the removal of Lahoud. But they refused to back Aoun.

So that took the whole steam out of the U.S. effort to bring about change in Lebanon?

It did, it took the wind out of the Lebanese anti-Syrian drive, and Washington had to feel as if it got some mud on its face, because Bush had been very dedicated to supporting Hariri's people in trying to get rid of Lahoud and put a dent in Syrian influence. So I have the feeling Syria won on that.

Now in your blog, you said that the Syrian leadership has more or less decided just to wait for a new president in the United States. There is more than two years to go. Is that really the policy?

The Syrians don't really have any choice. They would have preferred to create some dialogue with Washington, but they've failed at every turn to do so. They used to have intelligence-sharing on al-Qaeda matters. What happened, as we know, is that Syria came out vociferously against the American occupation of Iraq. It took a major stand against it. That was a big turning point, and it soured the relations that still existed. Then Syria realized that it had made a mistake and tried to calm relations with America by taking away the Iraq portfolio from Farouk al-Shara, the foreign minister and giving it to Abdul Halim Khaddam, who was vice president at the time. This was around November of 2003.

Khaddam began to organize all the tribal leaders, all the Sunnis, who were being pushed out of the Iraqi government at the time, and he brought them for a series of about ten meetings in Syria. What he was trying to do was unify the Sunni voice in Iraq, so he could trot over to the Americans in Iraq and say, "Look, I can help you, I can bring these people together to a negotiating table, and I can push them -- if you basically go soft on us in Lebanon and stop criticizing us." This is just what Washington did not want to hear at the time, because L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III was in the process of moving the Shiites into power in Iraq, and disciplining the Sunnis, getting them out of the army, getting rid of the Baath Party. All these Sunnis who were circling around, trying to get a bargaining position, were cut out of the picture. And that meant Syria was cut out of the picture as well. Washington felt it didn't need to have dialogue with Syria because that would give Syria more leeway in Lebanon and other places.

This was a great miscalculation on Syria's part, believing that the Iraq card was a way to improve bilateral relations with the United States. It failed because America didn't want to hear about the Sunnis in Iraq, and it didn't want to hear about Syria. Secretary of State Colin Powell made some efforts in 2004, but by the end of 2004 you have the extension of Lahoud's government. Syria obviously realized this was not going to work, and decided to move against the United States and extend the presidency of Lahoud against America's and France's wishes. And then in February 2005, Hariri was killed. This was just a further step in Syria's crackdown on the Lebanese situation.

Is there any doubt in your mind that Bashar was instrumental in [the Hariri assassination]?

I have no reason to doubt the Lebanese and international investigations, which have all pointed their fingers at him. I don't see anyone else whom I could blame for it.

Washington is obviously looking for a political settlement in Iraq, and today we have the defense secretary and the secretary of state in Iraq at the same time, urging this on. Is there anything the Syrians can do? Is Washington considering anything with Syria to help this along?

They are not. The problem is that Washington has gotten itself into this terrible situation with Iran and Syria. Iran and Syria, sensing that Washington is floundering now in the Middle East, and wanting to profit from the widespread anger at the United States that spans from one end of the Islamic world to the next, are playing to the street. They're playing an anti-American policy by supporting Hamas and supporting other anti-American forces in the Middle East. And this has helped them a great deal. Bashar has never been more popular on the streets of Syria than he is today, even though he has not helped the economy, he has not reformed, he has failed to fulfill on a number of other important criteria. By playing this anti-American card, he is winning support.

Has Syria always been close to Iran?

Syria has been close to Iran since 1980, the year that Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. Saddam Hussein was the big enemy of Syria, and he invaded Iran. He was also supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, so immediately Hafez al-Assad reached out to Iran. They made what was clearly a strategic alliance that was based on the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

And then, of course, Syria sent troops to the first Gulf War.

Yes, and again it was an anti-Saddam move.

So why were they so angry at the United States for knocking off Saddam?

Because the United States was coming to the Middle East to change the whole balance of power, to occupy an Arab country, which of course is against the ideology, but also to possibly take Syria. The Syrians believed that if the Americans had a really easy time in Iraq that they might charge right down the Euphrates and overthrow the Baathist power in Syria. And that this would be part of the strategy of getting rid of dictators, of overthrowing the anti-Israel forces in the Middle East, and of getting rid of the Baath Party. So they believed that America was on an anti-Arab, as they called it, campaign.

Here is a bit more information on Maliki provided by Sami Moubayed's recent article:

The only contradictory statement, which shatters much of the flattering talk revolving around Maliki, was made by Khudayr Taher, a US-based Shi'ite writer who has known Maliki since their days in exile in Syria in the 1980s.

Taher wrote an editorial in Arabic saying that he used to meet Maliki at the local library in Syria, where he would be doing research for his master's degree in Arabic literature, pointing out: "I do not claim that we were friends." Taher said Maliki had "modest general knowledge ... he will be a puppet in the hands of Jaafari, Hakim, the Kurds and Sunnis". He added that Maliki "does not believe in democracy because of his ideological commitments" in al-Da'wa Party, claiming that political Islam and democracy do not meet for someone like Maliki.

In a private discussion held when both men were in Syria, Maliki told Taher: "We declare our acceptance of democracy, but in reality, we are tricking them [the Americans] in order to topple Saddam and come to power." Taher writes: "I swear to God that this is exactly what he said!"

Taher adds that Maliki does not believe in the equality of women and will refuse to give any cabinet posts to Iraqi women, unless those imposed by the Kurds. He wraps up by saying that Maliki is anti-American, and has expressed his anti-American views to friends and in private discourse. He predicts that if Maliki succeeds in creating a cabinet, "it will not last long and will collapse after a few months".

The Iraqi prime minister will have a difficult time indeed warding off the accusations of someone like Khudayr Taher, pleasing the Americans while courting the Iranians, and winning the confidence of the Sunnis.

For now, he is on good terms with Washington, but if he is unable to break with Muqtada, the Americans will quickly abandon him. His remarks about disarming the militias, which unless specified also include Sadr's Mehdi Army, mean that he is not too keen about maintaining his friendship with Muqtada. If he loses it, however, how strong will his influence remain within the leading Shi'ite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA)?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Spreading Democracy? Why the U.S. must tell the truth, By EHSANI2

Spreading Democracy in the Middle East? Why the U.S. must tell the truth.
April 27, 2006

One of my major disappointments with the U.S. is its failure to articulate clearly the rationale behind their Middle East foreign policy. They should borrow a chapter from Usama Bin Laden’s book when it comes to transparency and open communication of intent and strategy. Mr. Bin Laden, as we all know, has made it very clear that he wants to lead the Islamic “umma” in taking full control of the region’s energy resources and then proceed to deal with the west from the position of strength that these energy reserves can guarantee. He effectively wants to rid the area of the tyrants and apostates that currently enjoy the west’s tender support. The dream of controlling the region’s vast energy resources is not restricted to Bin Laden’s Jihadists of course. Saddam Hussein had a similar itch. Iran’s Mullahs would surely not mind being in charge either.

As transparent as the struggle to control these priceless resources, the West and the U.S. in particular, have been ambiguous and not forthright with its people or with the Arab world when it comes to its strategic interests in the region. The U.S. has an enormous thirst for energy. Its economy and society will be crippled were its energy supplies to suffer a major disruption. Any U.S. President that allows this to happen may very well get thrown from office and be impeached. Successive U.S. administrations have tried to rely on the so-called tyrants and kings to help them ensure that the above group of players or others does not succeed in making this happen.

The other pillar of the U.S Middle East foreign policy of course concerns the state of Israel. As opaque as the U.S. has been when it comes to the issue of energy, its strategy when it comes to Israel has been extremely transparent. Successive U.S. administrations have made it very clear that Israel has and will continue to receive an unwavering level of their support. When it comes to issues relating to Israel, therefore, no U.S. President has dared to veer off this long held commitment. The Presidency of W. Bush has taken this support to another new level. If the blatant bias towards Israel was not enough, September 11th made the situation from the Arab world standpoint even worse. Security of the homeland has become the unparalleled top objective of this Administration and the American public at large.

The easiest decision to make was to go into Afghanistan, topple the Taliban and hunt their famous guest. The decision to go in Iraq may have been a little less straightforward but with the benefit of hindsight also seemed inevitable. Saddam was a proven interested party in the energy supplies that we discussed above. He was a long-term danger in that regard. The Gulf monarchs did not mind to see him go. Israel undoubtedly wanted the same. Its supporters in the U.S. administration helped nudge and convince the President that the removal of Saddam was key to the U.S. national security. What if he teamed up with Bin Laden and created a common front that would attack both Israel and America? In the end, no one wanted Saddam around (Syria and Iran included).

Rather than articulate the need to secure the long term security of the region’s oil fields, the need to cut off any possible future state-sponsoring of Jihadist movements and to ensure the security of the state of Israel when it comes to explaining the rationale behind America’s Middle East policy, this administration decided to use the “spread of democracy” as the stated objective. In my opinion, President Bush made the strategic error of failing to explain how the spread of democracy is the “means” and not the “end” when it came to conducting his Middle East policy. Bush may believe that promoting democracy is critical for international security. But I believe that he does not understand how difficult it is to promote and market in our region which lacks free institutions that can promote the ideas of freedom of speech, press, religion, conscience, etc. This audacious democracy objective is likely to take not years but decades to accomplish. Standing on that navy ship and proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” was not exactly smart. Bush should have stood on that ship and made the following speech:

We have an enormous strategic interest in the Middle East. We must make sure that the region’s critical energy resources do not fall into the wrong hands. Like it or not, our society and economy needs the free flow of these supplies in order for it to survive. We will therefore use all of our resources to make sure our economic security is never threatened. This will mean that we may need to have a physical military presence in the region for years to come. Our support for the state of Israel will not dissipate. This admitted policy bias towards Israel will mean that we will always have a credibility problem in the Arab world.

The people of this region have suffered from decades of a “realist” policy, which was based on coddling “friendly” dictators and refusing to support the aspirations of oppressed peoples to be free. In reality, these dictators have ignored the plight of their people for too long. By allowing their economies to decline and by suppressing freedom and democracy, they have turned the region into a breeding ground for terrorism. A new political course has to be charted. As usual, this is easier said than done. As democracy and freedom spreads, Islamists will most likely fill the void. Without the institutions needed to practice democracy, the transition from tyranny to democracy is not going to be an easy task. Hamas’s latest victory in the Palestinian territories is a case in point. But this is no reason to change course. In three years, the speed of the change in the Middle East has been breathtaking. Our foreign policy doctrine is now based on recognition of the dangers posed by non-democratic regimes. Regrettably, the region continues to be dominated by friendly and unfriendly tyrants. Going forward the U.S. must make sure that the democratic earthquake that US policy has helped to unleash prevails. There will be set-backs; there will be alliances that form against us; and jihadists wil insist that we are crusaders and nonbelievers. We must not let such criticism and impediements deter us. In the long run, only democracy and freedom offer the promise of a more prosperous and peaceful region.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Syrian Relations with Iraq - Better than Ever

I'm back. Sorry for the absence. Travels to Washington last week and bit of flue slowed me down. In D.C., I had the occasion to hobnob with Syrians of many stripes, opposition, pro-government and in between. This is what I learnt.

Syrian Relations with Iraq: Better than Ever

Joshua Landis
April 22, 2006

A little over a month ago, President Asad said that Syria's relations with Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum were better than anyone could have imagined even three months previously. Syria is quite upbeat about future relations with Iraq. This is not hard to believe as Syrian-Iraqi relations have traditionally been burdened by mistrust and suspicion. Ever since King Faisal took the Iraqi throne in the early 1920s, Iraqi leaders have dreamed of unifying the two countries. Unity dreams only led to bad relations between Arab countries. (This seems to be a lesson of 20th century Arab politics.)

Even during the thaw in Iraqi-Syrian relations during the last years of Saddam, relations between the two countries were not good. Distrust between the rival Bathist regimes, built up over three decades, could not be dispelled in a few short years. With an entirely new leadership in Iraq, the situation is now promising. New possibilities are opening up.

Syria is developing good relations with almost every segment and political faction in Iraq. Syria never had relations with the Shiites, who by and large, hated Syria for being Baathist. This February, Muqtada al-Sadr visited and fell in love with Syria. "He didn't want to leave Damascus," one leading official said with a laugh. Most recently, Jaafari has reached out to Damascus. Few Syrians are deceived that these friendships are anything more than tactical for the moment. It is quite clear that America’s sudden shift toward the Sunnis and its anti-Jaafari policy has motivated Shiites to look to Syria.

If Syria’s good relations with Shiite groups are new, its good relations with Sunni, Kurdish, and Christian Iraqis are not. Barzani, the Kurdish leader, has always been nice with Syria, because Syria extended him protection and refuge for decades when Saddam was persecuting his Kurds and other regional countries were doing the same.

Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq have been making their way to Syria from the outset of the war in 2003. Many came in search of safety; others sent their kids to school in Syria or send their families to hospital there. Many bought houses just in case. There are over 500,000 Iraqis in Syria.

Christian Iraqis have been the most inclined to look to Syria as a friendly country, offering protection and holding out the welcome mat when others would not. As many Iraqi Christians may now be living in Syria as in Iraq. Syria is the one country in the region that is not hemorrhaging Christians, because it has been solicitous of its minorities. But Iraqi Christians will never have any weight in Iraq again. Those that have yet to leave are undoubtedly thinking about decamping. Recently, Syria has announced that it will take in the Palestinian Iraqis who have been trapped along the border areas for lack of passports. Iraq can no longer offer them refuge either.

So long as Washington thrashes around in Iraq, making enemies of one group after another and remains incapable of offering protection to the weak, Syria can count on better relations with Iraqis.

Syria is usually depicted as a spoiler by the US and West. Certainly it played this role during the first months of the War. The description of Syria’s evolving Iraq policy that Abdulla Ta’i elaborated some months ago for Syria Comment, has been confirmed for me by Syrian officials intimately involved in aspects of the country’s Iraq policy.

Furthermore, it has been admitted to me that Syria “miscalculated at every step of the way.” First, it didn't believe that Saddam would fall so quickly, hence Syria encouraged the Jihad that Baghdad sought. Second, Syria reversed its policy of actively assisting the Jihadists over the border once Saddam had fallen and US pressure on Syria became intense. This is because Syria never guessed that Iraqi resistance to US occupation would pick up so swiftly or effectively. Third, Khaddam in 2004 began organizing the Iraqi tribal elements and Sunni Bathists in an attempt to use them to improve bilateral relations with the US. Syria looked at Iraq as a card that could be played to improve relations with the US, not as an end in itself. This was another mistake. Bremer was uninterested in bringing in the Sunnis into Iraqi politics; he disbanded the Army and Baath Party. The US had cut Syria off and was convinced it could solve the terrible sectarian and resistance problems without Syrian help. Rumsfeld and Cheney were adamant about this. The extension of Lahoud’s presidency in September 2004 and the Hariri murder on February 14, 2005 ended whatever efforts Foreign Secretary Powell could still make in trying to bring Syria in from the cold.

“Syria no longer sees Iraq as a means of improving bilateral relations with the US,” I was told. Syria has given up on relations with the US until there is a change of administration. No longer does it see Iraq as a means to improve relations with the US or as a card it can use. Rather, Syria is trying to convert its new relations in Iraq from tactical relationships into something more permanent. It has been working out broader economic plans with its neighbors, which could appeal to Iraqis. Syria is not content to be merely a US spoiler. Instead it is developing a vision of a future Iraq tying Syria together with Iran. It wants stability in Iraq so that new oil and gas pipelines can be built linking the Kirkuk fields to Banyas. In February, Iran and Syria concluded wide-ranging economic and trade agreements, including one to establish energy and transportation links between the two countries via Iraq. Iran is hoping to link up to these lines so it can build both West and East, making it less dependent on the Persian Gulf egress for its production. Egypt is building its gas line into Jordan, which will eventually extend up to Turkey and Europe. If the Iraq line joins this North-South route, Iraq and Iran can play a bigger role in selling to both Egypt and Turkey. This would build a seamless Middle East network of energy lines, giving Iran a greater role as producer, and Syria a greater role as transit nexus.

Turkey has recently become Syria’s biggest trading partner. This week, the Turko-Syrian free-trade pact, initialed two years ago, has been signed and passed through parliament. The relationship will grow quickly. More Turkish investors announced commitments to build in Syria than those of any other country. Iran is also starting up a car assembly plant in Syrian and has announced other investments.

None of this is good for US efforts to isolate Syria and impose a pax-Americana on the region. Both a Christian Science Monitor editorial and quoted me this week suggesting that US interests will be in worse shape in the Middle East by the time it withdraws from Iraq, than when the War on Terror began after 9-11.

This is an anti-America alliance," says Joshua Landis, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of, who spent 2005 living in Damascus. "My guess is that the US will end up in a weaker position than it started. The war on terror has alienated the Muslim countries who now believe that America is the big bad ogre and specter of imperialism.
Today, President Hu Jintao of China arrives in Saudi Arabia, where he is looking for wide ranging oil and gas deals, as well. China is the leading customer of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter. On the military front, the kingdom reportedly is interested buying modern Chinese-designed missiles, perhaps armed with Pakistani nuclear warheads, to counter-balance Iran. China, Russia, and India are throwing their weight behind the new anti-American alliances in the Middle East in the hope that they can wrest control over much of the region's oil from the US. They believe Iraq’s oil development rights, which are slipping from the grasp of the US, is up for grabs. Even, Saudi Arabia, Washington’s closest Arab ally, is seeking to diversify its friendships by looking East. None of this is good for Washington. It could prefigure a major shift in the balance of power in the Middle East.

Friday, April 07, 2006

"Illegal but Working: Civil society in Syria," by Glada Lahn

Middle East analyst in London Glada Lahn just returned from Damascus, where she spoke to many civil society leaders. She wrote this assessment for "The World Today".

Illegal but Working: Civil society in Syria
By Glada Lahn
A version of this article was published in The World Today, Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), London April 2006 Vol 62, No. 4

The opposition crop up a lot in conversations with Syrians. This would have been unthinkable six years ago. But in a state that has remained under Ba'ath party rule and in the grip of one of the most pervasive intelligence services in the world for over 40 years, it is not opposition in the way that we know it. Rather, the term is applied to a disparate group of government critics and nascent NGOs who are making the best of the breathing space that opened up and then contracted following the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000. There is a big question mark over how this movement - loosely termed 'civil society' - can best progress in an unpredictable poliscape. There is a pattern in the region: regimes have been efficient in disabling liberal and secular opposition, while the Islamic parties gained ground quietly through the mosques. All eyes are on the electoral success of Hamas in Palestine and the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. Is it too late for Syria to shape up?

Former member of parliament and businessman turned opposition leader, Riad Seif, was released from a 5-year prison term in mid-January. He was at the heart of what became known as 'the Damascus Spring' - a watershed moment in the early days of Bashar Al-Assad's reign which briefly bloomed with political debates, publications and petitions amongst urban liberals. The regime soon clamped down on critics who 'went too far' and the back-tracking has generated cynicism.

Around the beginning of 2005, opposition figures stopped using the word 'islah' - indicating reform under the present government, opting instead for 'taghyeer' - change of the system. Seif and his colleagues have adopted this rhetoric and set about challenging the one-party system. Political parties are banned, except for the Ba'ath and a coalition it dominates, in spite of repeated promises to legalise them. The Liberal Party they want to establish is ambitious. It calls for a multi-party democratic system and seeks a membership with over 50% under the age of 40. When asked how they plan to publicise their manifesto, they admit it won’t be easy. "We will use modern technology …and hope the international media will pay us more attention" said Seif.

Considering that groups with a political orientation cannot advertise, publish articles in the domestic press, speak to students or the army and face arrest for holding a meeting of more than five people, they are from attracting a mass following. The men and women of the Damascus Spring are referred to as ‘musaqqifiin’ (intellectuals) with high ideals but no connection to the common people. Commenting on Seif and friends, the director of the government-aligned Centre for Strategic Studies said "they speak only for themselves". The question is, can they speak to anyone but themselves? Seif and his fellow ex-prisoners told me they had tried to arrange a small press conference upon their release but 200 policemen turned up to stop it, one of whom knocked Seif to the ground.

Even economist Ayman Abdelnour, a prominent Ba'ath Party member who runs the Kullanaa Shurakaa - All4Syria - project to lobby for change in a less provocative way, has had his website blocked. “You could hold an election tomorrow with all the free and fair monitoring you like,” said Abdelnour “and the opposition would not [stand a fair chance] because they would not have been able to run a campaign”. Nevertheless, he believes a 'silent majority' may simply vote for any party that is not the regime.

Meanwhile, fearing a second clampdown, a small raft of rights and governance initiatives is navigating a less conspicuous route.

Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, a softly-spoken young man, is director of one of the unauthorised human rights organisations. He used to work for the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS) but decided to set up his own centre for human rights research - avoiding the political overtones that he believes disadvantage others. I met Ziadeh in the Havana Café, a renowned meeting place for coup plotters in the 1940s and 50s and where the Ba'ath Party was allegedly founded. The faded smokey décor still lends a conspiratorial air but there are no young revolutionaries here. As we leave, Ziadeh greets three middle-aged men at a window table, two of whom were imprisoned for over 20 years for their opinions.Ziadeh published a collection of essays on civil society in Syria last October. This is banned in Syria but he has been able to travel abroad to promote it. At the time, Ziadeh was both excited and nervous about the forthcoming visit of Arab regional representative to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Faraj Fneish. He had written a report on human rights in Syria to be presented at a meeting in which government officials would be present. It covered three topics: the relationship between home-grown and international organisations, the position of human rights organisations and the case of political prisoners. All are sensitive, particularly the last. But, in the end - and with some editing - it went ahead.

There is more freedom than there was six years ago but no one quite knows where the new boundaries lie. The lighter government image, satellite television and the alternatives available in a more open market encourage civil society to grow. At the same time, it is restricted - sometimes to the point of strangulation - by emergency laws and the difficulty of obtaining funding. If, like most, an organisation is illegal, nationals will not want to jeopardise their reputations by donating money. On the other hand, if a group accepts money from abroad, the charge of treachery will smear both the organisers and their cause. To Ziadeh, creating links with similar NGOs globally is key to empowering Syrian civil society. He was cautiously optimistic about the significance of January's visit of an Amnesty delegation - the first in nine years - and believes that capacity building and networking are the way forward for organisations such as his own.

Bashar's apologists say that, compromised by the nature of the regime he inherited and his own inexperience, the president has found it impossible to carry out the reforms originally hoped for. He continues to emphasise liberalising economy rather than polity. This is not without impact. The influx of new money is striking. Syria now has two mobile phone networks, internet cafes have sprung up even in the narrow alleyways of the old city and there are foreign banks with ATMs. However, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Ask about the newfound wealth and people are quick to point out that it is concentrated in the hands of the few – the big new companies are mainly owned by relatives and associates of the president – and there are no visible means of redistribution such as publicly traded shares.

Opposition parties like Seif's and monitoring NGOs like Ziadeh's, face the difficult task of bridging the gap between elites and the masses, of speaking to and on behalf of those without a voice under a government that claims more freedom of speech and association will lead to an Islamist revolt. Episodes such as the recent torching of the Danish Embassy over the cartoon controversy are held up as glimpses of the landmine beneath the regime’s feet. The new iconography unites the Ba'athist government with Islam. In place of the communist-style portraits of the old patriarch are photographs of his son with slogans such as “Suriat Allah haamiihaa” (Syria, God is protecting her) or juxtaposed with Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. This symbolism, like similar revisions in the secular regimes of Egypt and Libya and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, aims to neutralise the appeal of religious forces ready to enfranchise those at bottom of the social scale.

The popularity of the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) and the tolerated Al-Qubbaysiya, an estimated 50,000-strong secretive Islamic women’s movement, is growing. As one taxi driver said, rolling up his windows anxiously, "The Ikhwan? I love them, they are sincere and uncorrupt. And they don't use violent means like the ones in Egypt". According to journalist, Ibrahim Hamidi, who has been studying the phenomenon, "Al-Ikhwan are patient. They depoliticised their movement after Hama and worked quietly through social work in the poorer communities, they know this government won't last forever and they are waiting". Islamist movements are of particular concern to the Allawi community, many of whom were targets of a violent campaign against the regime before the army’s 1982 massacre in Hama. “For the last 40 years the people have [lived with] far from democratic practises,” said writer Ghada Al-Yousuf “if you give them in one push, the secularists will be the losers”.

However, the example of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in neighbouring Turkey has persuaded many secularists that including Islamists’ in a democratic system would not be a disaster.

Free speech and an independent judiciary might not be a priority for the average Syrian. But in their absence, one problem is common to all: corruption.

Corruption is not so much endemic in Syria as it is the system itself, and it works. Such a system runs in favour of those wanting to keep the status quo as it stifles ambition and facilitates the cooption or blackmail of anyone who might challenge it. On the other hand, corruption breeds cynicism and makes a mockery of success. Another taxi driver complained of being regularly stopped by traffic police for bribes in order to avoid losing his license. He knew that he wouldn’t have a hope in court if he couldn’t afford to pay yet more bribes and feared for the future of his children in a climate where opportunities came only through wasta or large backhanders. His solution? “Democratic elections monitored by the UN”. But he did not believe his own dream. The next moment he was explaining that in any case people would be bribed to vote for regime candidates, boxes checked and punishments meted out to those who ticked the wrong box.

During my visit, a national transparency society – the first of its kind in Syria - was founded by a small group of lawyers, led by 84-year old Mazhar Shurbaji. Shurbaji served as Minister of Justice during the 1940s and 60s and as a member of the Majlis al-Umma in Cairo in the days of the United Arab Republic. “In developed countries, corruption only takes place amongst the elites“, he said “the need for strong [transparency] initiatives is greater in developing countries because here corruption touches every aspect of life and every class”.

While elements of government are blamed for fostering a corrupt system, it is by its very nature beyond their control. “The problem is, everyone is involved,” said lawyer Anwar Al-Bunni, “we would need to have a kind of ‘corruption amnesty’ where everyone’s slate could be wiped clean so long as they were committed in earnest to reforming the system”. Al-Bunni has drafted a new constitution in which he recommends this type of approach.

It appears that Bashar's ambition is to make Syria a global economic competitor. Ironically, civil society - one of his greatest assets in achieving this - is treated as criminal. In the wake of the negative attention that has dogged Syria over the last three years, there is some recognition of the trade-off that might be made to improve the country's democratic credentials. But fear of losing control has lead to a bizarrely paradoxical stance. As the president said in a recent interview, "we have human rights organisations in Syria - they are illegal, but they can work".

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Is the Syrian Regime turning to Religion?

A friend in Washington wrote to ask me about the recent NY Times Slackman article on the Syrian regime's flirtation with Islamists. Here is his question:

I read with interest today’s NY Times piece on Syria and was wondering what you thought of it. Was it an accurate account of what is going on, or did it exaggerate the regime’s turning to religion?
Here is my response:
It is accurate, but one shouldn't read too much into Bashar's blowing kisses at clerics. The regime has long sought to bolster and fund “soft” Islam as a counter-weight to the Muslim Brothers and Salafists. The Syrian government has sought a supine compliance from its sheikhs; it has promoted mushy interfaith dialogue married with a “can’t-we-just-get-along” brand of Islam. It has permitted the Shaykhs fairly broad latitude in cultural affairs so long as they stay out of politics.

Shaykhs have been given some access to the education ministry. The late Grand Mufti Kaftaru was able to build up a large patronage network that got people into government jobs. The government also allowed a mosque building boom to go on during the 1980s and 1990s funded by Gulf money. TV coverage of Shaykhs and Islam has been limited compared to Egypt or Arabia. There is no government funded Islamic newspaper.

The mosque building boom scared the regime, however.

The fundamental problem is that Alawites are not considered Muslims by most Sunni clerics. Having an Alawite president for Syrians is a bit as if a Mormon became president of the States. Mormons are fine so long as they are just doing their thing in Utah, but if a Mormon became president, it would not take long before the Christian right began to sing that the country had passed into the hands of Satan and antichrist. Islamic literalism is more widespread in Syria than its Christian variant in the US. More importantly, in Syria, there is no robust class of liberals that could defend the notion of equality or separation of church and state. The Islamic right chafes under the Alawite dominated regime. This was articulated during Hama. Alawites were accused by the Brotherhood of being both unbelievers and non-Arabs.

Bayanouni has tried to put this chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood behind him by calling for democracy and pluralism, but when he was recently asked if Alawites are Muslims, he was evasive and dissembled. Here is a bit of a Jamestown interview with the leader of the Muslim Brothers:
Question: Do you still regard the Alawis as a heretical sect?

Ali Bayanouni: We do not discriminate against Alawis and as they say they are Muslims, we do not contest that. The problem of Syria remains political, a minority elite has seized a state and is oppressing the majority.
Bayanouni says that he does not contest it when Alawites say that they are Muslims, nevertheless, he refuses to openly agree with them or say that they are Muslims himself. His followers and most Shaykhs would eat him alive if he did. This is the problem.

No Alawite will allow the Muslim Brothers to take power so long as they can avoid it for fear of returning to the nightmare days of discrimination, when they were second-class citizens. This fear may be exaggerated. Syria and Muslims have changed a great deal since Ottoman days, when Alawites were officially considered a "lost nation" or Millet-i dalla" and were forbidden from giving testimony in court. All the same, the extent of anti-Baathist revenge and sectarian fighting that has taken place in Iraq, can only be disquieting, and serves to diminish the Alawites’ willingness to take risks in this direction.

The Alawites are not stupid. They know that they must try to conform to the common outlines of Muslim orthodoxy to rule. It is in the constitution that the President must be a Muslim. Hafiz tried to eliminate this article in the 1973 constitution, but there were big demonstrations and violence; he relented, leaving it in. Realizing that he could not convert Syrians to liberalism, he spent considerable energy trying to convert Alawites into mainstream Muslims.

Now that Sunni ex-vice president Khaddam has joined the Muslim Brothers to form an opposition alliance, the State Department has said openly that it is willing to listen to what this new front has to say. Bashar is concerned; he should be. Washington used to reject the notion of “negotiating with Islamists” on principle.

So Bashar is toying with ideas of how to give the Syrian muftis more authority in order to buy them more firmly onto his side and keep them from preaching anything nice about Khaddam and Bayanouni.

All the same, Bashar will never give religion too much latitude. The rise of Islamism threatens him and the regime too much. He will get support on this from most of Syria’s religious minority communities and from moderate Sunnis. His flirtation with Islam is tactical. All the same, the only thing he has on his side in opposing US policy is populism. He must play to his street, which he has done fairly skillfully so far. He has used nationalism and anti-Americanism to divide the Jihadists, who, so far, have decided they hate America and the invasion of Iraq more than they do Alawites in power. The old nationalist slogans only go so far, however. He must bring religion into the mix. This is a real problem for him. He has made alliances with Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, and most other like-minded Islamists in order to bolster his foreign policy and use the anti-American forces available to him to shore up his position in the region. But these alliances are all with Islamists groups outside of Syria. Inside, he hasn’t given away the store; he is just doing some rope-a-dope with the muftis to play for time and keep moderate Muslims from joining the opposition.

Whether Bashar can survive the rising force of Islamism in the long run will be the true test of his presidency. The West is now giving tacit support to the Muslim Brothers to see what they have and if they can really put pressure on Bashar. All the same, President Bush has never said about Syria what he said about Iraq: that the country should be ruled by the majority. The furthest Bush has pressed the democracy issue in Syria is to say that Bashar should "begin importing democracy," and to allocate $5 million to support democracy activities in Syria.

Washington was willing to throw its cards in with Iraq’s Shiite clerics because it hated Saddam with such passion. It was the only way to bring him down. Of course in Iraq the majority was Shiite, in Syria it is Sunni. Bashar has to fear that the West will eventually give Bayanouni and the Islamists their head in trying to take power in Syria. Washington seems to be weighing this option and holding it up in front of Bashar to scare him. Should Washington go down that road, the real war is on in Syria. Bashar is counting on the fact that Washington is bluffing. He believes that it is now so horrified by the clerical Frankenstein it has created in Iraq that it will swerve first in the game of chicken that has been established. Bashar is counting on the fact that Washington will eventually decide that acquiescing to rule by authoritarian Bashar, no matter how distasteful, is wiser than going for some form of Islamist rule in Syria.

Perhaps the Jewish funded think tanks in Washington are the best bellwether for this policy. So far, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to take one example, has expounded the view that Syria must be isolated and punished, but that the US must never, on any condition, compromise or carry on a serious dialogue with Islamists, even those like Bayanouni who claim to be moderate and pluralistic. WINEP takes the stand that there is no such thing as a moderate Islamist. So long as this is the case, Bashar is probably safe and Washington’s professed flirtation with the Syrian opposition will remain just blown kisses and not a full embrace. So long as Bashar can retain Israel’s reluctant support and the Iraqi example heads south, he can continue his present foreign policy and merely bat his eye lashes at moderate Muslims within Syria. He does not have to do more. He will refuse to do more.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Arab Mukhabarat Confab: Syria Wallflower

Arab intelligence agencies are trying to come up with a plan to salvage the remains of Iraq when it plunges into civil war. Syria was not invited. Why? Because Syria is part of the problem - Syria and Iran that is - according to an AP article. Al-Manar TV, Hizbullah's channel, has announced that Syria is undeterred. "Syria is offering a new initiative to contain the Iraqi crisis."

The first goal is to set a timetable for the withdrawal of occupation forces in Iraq, the 2nd to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran along with Syria in helping stop the violence, and 3rd support the political process and help it succeed.
The Sunni - Shi'a divide finds its way into the broader Arab mukhabarat. Iran has also spoken out. Writing in the Turkish press, the Iranian ambassador to Ankara urged Turkey, Iran and Syria to form a joint policy on the Kurdish issue, saying that if they did not, “the US will carve pieces from us for a Kurdish state.” Turkey, it seems, will be the star to both the Shiite and Sunni crescents - lucky Turks.

Arab diplomats: Mideast nations holding secret talks on Iraq
By The Associated Press

Top intelligence officers from several Arab countries and Turkey have been meeting secretly to coordinate their governments' strategies in case civil war erupts in Iraq and in an attempt to block Iran's interference in the war-torn nation, Arab diplomats said Tuesday.

The four diplomats said intelligence chiefs from Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and non-Arab Turkey held a series of meetings over the last few weeks to assess the situation in Iraq and work out plans to avoid any regional backlash that may result from sectarian conflict in Iraq.

The diplomats in several Middle Eastern capitals, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Iran and Syria have been excluded from the talks.

"They are part of the problem, not of the solution," said one diplomat whose country is involved in the talks.

He said the officials are focusing on the proposed U.S.-Iranian dialogue and the implications on Arabs and Turkey of any "American-Iranian deal."

Reports in the Arab press have suggested that any agreement between Washington and Tehran will be at the expense of Arabs.

On Monday, an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad said the U.S.-Iranian contacts will be initiated in the Iraqi capital but he did not say when.

Arab nations, mostly Sunni and traditionally suspicious of Iran, are deeply concerned about what they see as Iran's growing influence in Iraq. Turkey, also a key Sunni Muslim nation, is worried about Iraq's split into sectarian and ethnic entities that will give rise to Kurdish ambitions for independence.

Several Arab leaders have voiced concerns about possible Shiite domination of Iraq and their alliance with Iran.

Last year, Jordan's King Abdullah II accused Shiite-dominated Iran of trying to influence events in Iraq. He warned that Iran was seeking to create "a Shiite crescent" that would disrupt the balance of power in the region.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made similar warnings.

Before Iraqis voted on their new constitution last year, both Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Abdul Rahman al-Attiya, head of the Gulf Cooperation Council, lobbied to include a clear reference about Iraq's "Arab identity" in the document.

Elections held in January produced a parliament dominated by Shiites and Kurds, and a ruling coalition by both groups is bound to have close ties to Persian and Shiite Iran.

There is little doubt that sidelining the Sunnis would vastly increase Iran's influence in Iraq and the whole region - anathema for Sunni Arabs and a nightmare for many Washington policy-makers.

At least one meeting of the intelligence chiefs was held in Cairo in late March, shortly after the U.S. administration said it wanted to open contacts with Tehran about Iraq, the diplomats said.

They said further meetings are planned, including at least one in Cairo this month to finalize the strategy.

Government officials in Egypt and Jordan declined to answer questions on the meetings.

On Tuesday, the pro-Damascus Lebanese paper As-Safir reported that Syria is launching its own initiative to "contain the crisis in Iraq."

"The initiative is aimed at containing the Iraqi deadlock in a way that will allow both Arabs and Iran to meet on common interests," according to As-Safir, which also reported that Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa was taking charge of the initiative.

Since the ousting of Saddam Hussein three years ago, officials from Iraq's neighbors have held scores of meetings on Iraq but the discussions have not yielded concrete efforts to help restoring stability to the beleaguered nation.

The Arab League is planning a conference in Baghdad in June to try to reconcile the Iraqi factions. In a similar conference in Cairo last November, Iraqi Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders failed to end the rift in a meeting marred by differences between participants.

Last week, at an Arab summit in Sudan, interim Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari accused Arab nations of hoping for the failure of Iraq's new government. He said Arab nations only had themselves to blame for Iran's influence in Iraq because they had failed to play a role in Iraq.

Later the summit issued a final statement saying that Arabs should be party in any talks about Iraq's future.

On Tuesday, Prince Saud said the League is planning a meeting on Iraq. He did not say when the meeting would be held nor who is participating.

Baathists Find Religion

Michael Slackman has written an excellent article with the help of the indomitable Katherine Zoepf in Damascus on the present crackdown on opposition members. Ayman Abdalnour confesses that:

he has become so disillusioned he planned to move his business - a pro-reform Web site - from Damascus to the United Arab Emirates. He said he had been told that the party planned to expel many members under the pretext of failing to pay dues or failing to participate. In so doing, he said, the party would purge all those with reform agendas. "They say they have a fixed time period to crack down and finish off the opposition.”
Hussein al-Odat, an opposition leader in Damascus who said he was detained last week for two hours, explains that there are new red lines: "This time they wanted to relay a message or a warning: the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaddam and street protests are prohibited. They said it is clear and we will not be merciful."

On the other hand religious authorities in Syria are finding they have new power and influence as the regime courts them to counter-balance the Muslim Brother's enhanced popularity and fame now that it has hooked up with Khaddam. As the Muslim Brothers swoon over ex-Baathists, the Baathists will have to make bedroom eyes at the Islamists. It's springtime. Amore is in the air.

As Abdul Qader al-Kittani, a professor of Islamic studies at Fattah Islamic University, said: "Before, religion for the regime was like a ball of fire. Now they deal with it like it could be a ball of light."

Syria's ruling party solidifies its power
By Michael Slackman The New York Times


DAMASCUS Just months ago, under intense international pressure to ease its stranglehold on neighboring Lebanon, the Syrian government was talking about diluting the ruling Baath party's grip on power at home and opening the way for a multiparty system.

Things have moved in the opposite direction.

Syrian officials are aggressively silencing domestic political opposition while accommodating religious conservatives to shore up support across the country.

The security forces have detained human rights workers and opposition leaders, and in some cases their families.

They have barred travel abroad for political conferences and shut down a human rights center financed by the European Union.

And the government has delivered a stern message to the national media, demanding that it promote - not challenge - the official agenda.

The leadership's aggressive actions reflect a sense of confidence spawned by seismic shifts in the region in recent months, especially the Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, political paralysis in Lebanon and the intense difficulties facing the United States in trying to stabilize Iraq and derail Iran's drive toward nuclear power.

The detentions, press crackdowns, restrictions on travel and the overall effort to crush dissent also are a response to a fragile domestic political climate and concern over a growing opposition movement abroad.

"I may not be keen on early morning arrests, but this regime was being threatened," Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, a London-educated technocrat charged with steering Syria's economic overhaul, said in an interview. "The survival of this regime and the stability of this country were threatened out loud and openly. There were invitations for foreign armies to come and invade Syria. So you could expect sometimes an overreaction, or a reaction, to something that is really happening."

On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a statement that condemned the Syrian crackdown and called on Damascus to release "all of those arrested due to their beliefs."

The government has also sought to fortify its position with a nod to a reality sweeping many nations: A surge in people's religious identification and a growing desire to empower religious political movements, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood recently won 88 seats in the Egyptian Parliament, despite often- violent government efforts to block its supporters from voting.

The Syrian government has gone further to accommodate religious conservatives than in the past, officials and religious scholars said. It has appointed a sheik - not a secular Baathist - to head the Ministry of Religious Affairs; has allowed, for the first time, religious activities to take place in the stadium at Damascus University; and has permitted a speech emphasizing religious practices and identity to be given to a military audience.

President Bashar al-Assad also has inserted references to religious identity and culture into his recent speeches.

Most striking was the government's decision to reverse itself a month after trying to limit activities at mosques. The Ministry of Religious Affairs had effectively closed mosques to all activities but prayer.

"Before, religion for the regime was like a ball of fire. Now they deal with it like it could be a ball of light," said Abdul Qader al-Kittani, a professor of Islamic studies at Fattah Islamic University here.

He added: "Two factors pushed the regime toward this direction. The first is the beat of the street. The second is external pressures on the regime."

The United Nation's Security Council suggested in a report a few months ago that the state security apparatus was behind the February 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, and that the Syrians had defied the Security Council by refusing to cooperate with its investigation.

But the pressure on Syria has eased and detentions have been stacking up since January, asserted human rights organizations and people who said they were arrested.

Ammar Qurabi, former spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria, was held in Damascus for four days after returning from political conferences in Washington and Paris. Samir Nashar, a businessman and opposition leader, was detained in Aleppo for three days after returning from conferences abroad.

The security forces' aim was to deliver a message, some of those arrested said: The government will not tolerate any contact between internal opposition figures and a growing opposition movement abroad, a movement that is being encouraged by a former vice president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who recently forged an alliance with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Hussein al-Odat, an opposition leader in Damascus who said he was detained last week for two hours, said: "This time they wanted to relay a message or a warning: the Muslim Brotherhood, Khaddam and street protests are prohibited. They said it is clear and we will not be merciful."

Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief for the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, said the government was cracking down because of the changing regional situation. "Now they believe they can get away with it," he said.

Ayman Abdul Nour, a Baath Party member who has promoted changing the party from the inside, said he has become so disillusioned he planned to move his business - a pro-reform Web site - from Damascus to the United Arab Emirates.

He said he had been told that the party planned to expel many members under the pretext of failing to pay dues or failing to participate. In so doing, he said, the party would purge all those with reform agendas.

"They say they have a fixed time period to crack down and finish off the opposition," Abdel Nour said.

Analysts at Human Rights Watch and several Syrian-based rights groups said that at least 30 people involved in politics or human rights work had been arrested since January, and that several of them have not been heard from since.

Human rights leaders in Damascus asserted that the numbers were probably higher because most families were too afraid to report the arrests to their organizations.

The novelist Sami al-Abbas and the poet Farouk Hamad were arrested on Monday for meeting with opposition leaders, said Razan Zaytouneh of the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, a local organization.

"In these last couple of months, people are much more afraid than before," Zaytouneh said. "The court officials are telling the families of the prisoners to be silent and not talk to activists because that will have very bad consequences for the prisoner."

But Muhammad al-Habash, a member of Parliament and general manager of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, said that despite the restrictions, Syria is a far more relaxed place than it was five years ago, when, he said, he would not even have been allowed to meet with a foreign reporter.

He praised the government's recent accommodations to religion saying, "They realize we need Islamic power, especially at this time," and endorsed the ban on travel to political conferences abroad.

"It is not a suitable time to allow people to travel abroad to participate in opposition conferences," he said. "We have to be real."

Katherine Zoepf and Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Damascus.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Economic News (April 4 2006)

On the economic front, the new issue of The Syria Report has come out. As usual it is excellent and well worth the small price. Here are a few small nuggets from the rich mother load that is Syrian Report. We have to thank Jihad Yaziji for this effort.

The Report explains that the Turkish Parliament has finally ratified the Free Trade Agreement with Syria which was initialed by the two states a year ago. The agreement will not enter into force until it is signed by the Turkish President. The ratification is, however, a significant step as it had been blocked for over a year, allegedly because of American pressure.

Bilateral trade between Turkey and Syria reached USD 820 million. Syrian exports represented USD 270 million of this total figure and Turkish exports USD 550 million. He added that total Turkish direct investment in Syria had reached a cumulative amount of USD 800 million.

Interestingly enough, Turks were the most numerous foreign investors in Syria. 36 percent of all investment projects licensed by the Investment Bureau (IB) in 2005 were proposed by foreign investors, according to a report published in Teshreen. Turkish investors topped the list with 33 investment projects licensed, followed by Saudi Arabia (26 projects), Kuwait (16), Jordan (13) and Lebanon (11).

Investments of USD 7.25 billion were licensed in 2005The total capital amount of all direct investment now stands at SYP 377 billion (USD 7.25 billion), which is an 88 percent surge from the 2004 figure (SYP 203.6 billion). The value of the projects approved by the IB has shown a continuous growth in the last 4 years. The Syria Report is careful to point out that many have not been implemented yet. Some analysts are skeptical that the bulk of these promises will materialize unless major economic changes take place in Syria.

Inflation: Although official estimates have put inflation at 3-5 percent in the last three years, it is clear that prices have been rising much more rapidly recently. The government has been discussing ways to intervene in the market to suppress prices. One measure has been to ban exporting livestock to keep meat prices depressed.

Another measure has been to draft a new Real Estate Law, designed to make it much easier to invest in office space and to reduce taxes on office space so it can be declared officially, rather than hidden as it presently is. "Real estate prices have sharply risen in the last three years due to a combination of factors. Boosting supply has been one of the priorities of the Government and a new Real Estate Investment Law to attract domestic and foreign capital into the market is being drafted."

Banks: A recent survey reported in al-thawra claims that there has been a "remarkable surge in the role of private sector banks as 40 percent of all credits to the 650 large and medium-sized Syrian corporations surveyed have been lent by these institutions, only two years after the first of them began operating."

A little over half of Syrian businessmen say they don't borrow money from banks for religious reasons, which is a good harbinger for the new Islamic banks being established in Syria. Perhaps they can profit from piety.

"New Year, Old Problems for Kurds in Syria," by Denselow and Taa'i

James Denselow and Abdallah Taa'i have written an article for "Syria Comment" about the recent Nawruz demonstration of the Kurds in Syria and its suppression. BBC writes about the ongoing violence in Turkey which has cost 12 Kurds their lives in recent days. The government is blaming it on the PKK. Both Iran and Syria have promised Istanbul to crack down on the PKK, which has begun to reorganize in Syria, as reported earlier by "Syria Comment." Turkey says that three of those killed were Syrian nationals. Razzan Zaytouneh's "SHRIL" notice this week gives the names of many Syria Kurds who have been given jail terms for being separatists. Robert Lowe of Chatham House in London has just published an excellent overview of the Kurdish Problem in Syria.

New Year, Old Problems for Kurds in Syria
Students Demonstrate in Damascus
By James Denselow and Abdallah Taa’i
For Syria Comment: 28/3/06

On Tuesday the 21st of March Kurds across the Middle East celebrated the ‘Nowruz’ or Kurdish New Year. In Northern parts of Iraq huge processions of people carrying burning torches danced the day away following the symbolic raising of the Kurdish flag and singing of national anthems. As the Baghdad burns the Kurdish North is increasingly standing out as a zone of comparative stability, with development plans able to go ahead under the watchful security provided by the Kurdish peshmerga-turned Iraqi army.

At the Northern Yaroubiyeh border crossing point with Syria over 600 Lorries were recently backed up on the Syrian side, most carrying construction materials to help the building boom in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the Syrian sides dynamics are starkly different. The NE ‘Jazira’ corner of the Country is characterized by the worst incidence of national poverty. A UNDP report identified that 58.1% of the poor in Syria live in the NE Region (which in their survey included Idleb, Aleppo, Al Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh), with 21% of the rural population living on less than $2 a day. Such poverty is visible in terms of poor quality housing, service provision, high unemployment, and poor quality water sanitation supply systems.

The Syrian government has recognized the need to address the socio-economic situation in the Jazira region and has prioritized investment and development programs as part of its most recently released ‘5 year plan’. Yet while economic plans are an obvious necessity there seems little political will in the higher echelons of the Syrian regime to address the situation of the Kurds in the region. It is worth remembering that the Syrian-Kurdish population comprises an estimated 1.75m or 10% of the population, yet the decision in 1962 to strip many of a potential ‘5th column’ of their citizenship meant that today over 300,000 Kurds are denied full Syrian citizenship and the benefits that come with it.

In the lead up to this year's celebrations a number of incidents highlighted the continued restiveness of the Kurdish population. On March 12 a number of demonstrations took place in memory of the deaths of at least 25 Kurds in clashes following a football match in Qamishli. At the University of Damascus demonstrator’s were surrounded by security forces and had placards ripped from their hands, meanwhile a procession on its way to the parliament building was intercepted by security forces and in the ensuing scuffle, Kurdish opposition leader Riyad Sa’if was arrested.

On Nowruz itself the Kurdish towns in the NE were quiet as celebrations took place in the nearby countryside. Near Hassake (a predominantly Kurdish town in which a 2004 census identified a 24% rate of unemployment) huge swathes of land were covered in tents set up that morning under the watchful eyes of the government riot police. In Damascus a number of demonstrations went peacefully but in Aleppo events spiraled somewhat out of control after a fire truck that’s water cannon was turned on the crowd was subsequently set on fire, there has been no confirmation on the numbers of subsequent arrests made.

As diplomatic officials in Damascus have commented on, the current climate for Kurdish activists in Syria is an uncertainty as to the location of ‘red lines’ that they can push their protests to.

In discussions with a group of student activists the New Year expectations of the Kurds was outlined. The group made it clear that they are not seeking a violent confrontation with the state. The very geography and population distribution of the Kurds in Syria scattered between the indefensible plains of the NE and large populations in Damascus and Aleppo means that an armed insurrection, such as took place in Iraq is both unlikely and undesirable. The group rejected accusations that Kurdish political parties in Iraq are supplying Kurdish political parties in Syria with weapons and emphasized that they do not need American interference in what should be an internal issue.

Indeed the key demand of the Kurds is for Kurdish recognition within a Syrian national framework. They want the government to grant citizenship to the ‘ajanib’ (foreigners) – those Kurds who have been denied Syrian nationality. They also ask that Syria’s name be changed from the “Syrian Arab Republic” to the simpler and more ethnically neutral “Syrian Republic.” The Students insisted on the importance of Kurdish language rights and the incorporation of Kurdish history into the Syrian curriculum. As one student complained, “our school books describe the great Islamic warrior Salahaddin as an Arab and not a Kurd.”

Many Kurds feel that their room to maneuver and ability to express their demands have been severely constrained by the present political environment in Syria. Because of the authoritarian nature of the regime and its present policy of suppressing all forms of decent in the face of international pressure, Kurdish rights have gotten little but lip service from the government. Yet in the Northeast of the country widespread poverty and political dissatisfaction combine to ensure future trouble. As the situation in Iraq deteriorates pushing the country toward outright civil war and ever-greater political fragmentation, it will be difficult for the Syrian government to contain the unrest. The Kurdish issue may be forced to move beyond its present national constraints.


Kurdish unrest has spread throughout much of southern Turkey.
Officials said Kurdish insurgents have helped foment riots throughout southeastern Turkey over the last week. They said some of the organizers came from such neighbors as Iran, Iraq and Syria.

On Saturday, about 1,000 Kurds rampaged through the town of Kiziltepe near the Syrian border. Officials said the Kurds, many of them youngsters, torched two banks, a building used by the ruling Justice and Development Party and battled Turkish security forces.

One person was killed and another 10 were injured in Kiziltepe, officials said. So far, eight people have been killed in what officials termed the worst civil unrest in Turkey since the late 1970s. ANKARA [MENL] --

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Secularists and Islamists demand that Khaddam Apologize

The formation of the National Liberation Front between Khaddam and Bayanouni continues to send shock waves through both the secular and Islamist camps. Both are angry that Khaddam has not apologized for his years of serving the state under Hafiz. This first story from al-Quds al-Arabi is translated by

“…Committee for Democratic Change does not recognize Brussels conference”

In its March 30 edition, Al Quds Al Arabi, an independent daily, reported that: “The opposition Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria, stated it did not recognize the National Liberation Front, the establishment of which was proclaimed in Brussels during a meeting chaired by Mr. Abdel Halim Khaddam, the former-vice-president, and the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadreddine Al Bayanouni, between Syrian opposition parties, and considered it to be contributing to creating sedition within the Syrian opposition.

“The Committee that is based in Paris, considered that the Syrian opposition still lacks a strong political structure that represents democratic nationalism, and that building such a structure is still hindered until this day despite the efforts and sacrifices made by the Syrian people during the last three decades. In its statement, the Committee accused the Syrian authority that it referred to as a generic oppressive regime, of bargaining with the American policy, fighting against the forces of liberation and democracy, [and of] continuing to violate human rights and starving and impoverishing the Syrian people.

“The Committee also wondered how Khaddam, after having contributed to implementing the policy of oppression, theft and impoverishment that was led by General Hafez Al Assad in Syria and Lebanon, and after being one of the biggest figures of corruption, had turned to the opposition side. It also condemned the fact that, because it sought a political role, the Brotherhood allied with Khaddam who supported the policy of genocides and political assassinations, without even requesting that he present an apology, whether it is accepted or not by the Syrian people. This came as a shock to all those who counted on them [the MB] to play a positive political role…

“In its statement, the Committee declared that with this alliance, it was as though the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had withdrawn his signature from the Damascus Declaration and has placed himself as well as the MB outside of the Declaration’s democratic choices. It then reiterated its support of the Damascus Declaration, and stated it was one step further towards establishing a national and democratic opposition, that is free from the Western rules and circles of power, the first of which is the United States…” (Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom; MEW Mar 31)
The second story is from Levant News or Akhbar al-Sharq, which is published in London and has close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. Tarif al-Sayyid 'Iysa explains how the Islamist camp has been badly divided by the alliance with Khaddam. Many are outraged that he has only criticized Bashar. They believe that Hafiz's period was worse, especially during the time of Hama. They want Khaddam to explain his role during the period, to condemn what happened, and apologize.

رسالة مفتوحة الى السيد عبد الحليم خدام
طريف السيد عيسى

صدقت التحليلات التي كانت تقول أن بعض البعثيين سيعلنون أنشقاقهم عن نظام العصابة الأسدية، وكان في مقدمة هؤلاء السيد عبد الحليم خدام والذي كان يشغل منصب نائب رئيس الجمهورية اضافة الى مركزه الحزبي والسياسي في سورية.

وشكل أنشقاق السيد خدام حالة من الجدل بين تيارات المعارضة السورية، ويمكن تلخيص الجدال القائم ضمن المواقف التالية:

- قسم يقف ضد السيد خدام جملة وتفصيلا كونه كان جزء من نظام سام الشعب السوري سوء العذاب، ولن نقف طويلا عند أقوال بعض هؤلاء والذي كان مبتذلا ورخيصا ولايليق أن يخرج من أشخاص كنا نظن بهم توازنا في طرحهم ولكن ثبت أنهم متقلبين فهم ينتقدون السيد خدام كونه كان جزء من هذا النظام بينما نراهم يدافعون عن أشخاص مازالوا يقفون ويدعمون هذا النظام، وبعضا من هؤلاء ينتقد السيد خدام بينما يحاول التقرب من سفاح سورية رفعت الأسد ولا ندري كيف يتفق ذلك مع نقدهم لخدام وتزلفهم لرفعت الأسد، وقسم لانشك بوطنيته وحرصه فكان نقده موضوعيا نحترمه ونقدره لأنه نابع من أناس مؤهلين لأن يكونوا جزء من عملية التغيير في سورية.

- قسم متحفظ فلا هو مؤيد ولا هو معارض بل يطلب توضيح من قبل السيد خدام حول فترة حكم دكتاتور سورية حافظ الأسد، وبناء على هذا التوضيح يبنون موقفهم.

- قسم مؤيد لانشقاق السيد خدام ومستعد للتعاون معه طالما ذلك يساهم في تغيير نظام الظلم والقهر والأستبداد المتمثل بحكم العصابة الأسدية، وهؤلاء لايملكون صكوك الغفران ولا مفاتيح الجنة أو النار بل يتركون كل مانسب من تهم الى السيد خدام ليبت فيها قضاء نزيه وعندها يتحمل كل شخص ما أقترفت يداه بحق سورية بلدا وشعبا.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

International banks join boycott of Syria

A European friend writes to say that most international banks are joining the Swiss and US to cut off dealings with the Commercial Bank of Syria. This raises pressure on Syria considerably. We look forward to his follow up; he writes:

I just heard from a prominent crude trader in London that most international banks (incl. institutions in the Gulf) have decided last Thursday to deny lines of credit to Syria central bank for its purchase of gas oil. Swiss (and of course US) banks had taken this decision a while ago, but Syria has had many fall back plans. Now they have many, many less... Though I trust Assad’s regime “inventiveness” to get out of this trap, this could be a major social issue ahead. I will follow this up…

A solution for Syrian will be to barter Syrian crude vs foreign gas oil, but I am told that Syrian crude export office and gas oil import office could never work together in the past. They may have to change their habits going forward.
The US has miscalculated badly with its democracy campaign and its vigorous policy of using force in the region according to Perry and Crooke in the article copied below. Rather than cow Islamists and rejectionists in the region, it has emboldened them and given them greater legitimacy through polls. All the same, the US seems prepared to drive forward the confrontation, using the UN security council, international consensus, and economic strangulation as a substitute for military force. Starving Hamas, getting Iran referred to the Security Council and corralling international banks to boycott Syria shows that the US still has arrows in its quiver, despite the "thousands of tactical errors" committed in Iraq.

Talking with the 'terrorists'
By Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke, Asia Times, March 31, 2006

Seventy-two hours before the Iraqi people voted on a new parliament, on December 12, 2005, we were told by a senior US administration official that "detailed data received by the White House" pointed to a "decisive win" for Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National List. "Allawi's victory turns the tables on the insurgents," this official said gleefully. "Sectarianism will be the big loser."

Allawi's prospective triumph was trumpeted repeatedly over the next two days by US news networks quoting administration officials. Weeks later, after the results of the election became known, it was clear that the White House had overestimated Allawi's popularity: his party received just over 5% of the vote.

On the eve of the Palestinian parliamentary elections in late January, US-funded Palestinian polls suggested that while the mainstream Fatah movement had lost much of its popular support, Hamas was expected to win no more than "a third of the legislature's 132 seats". On January 27, when the results of the polling were complete, it was clear not only that Fatah had been defeated, but that Hamas had swept into office in a landslide. A prominent front-page article in the Washington Post stated that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was "stunned" by the results, as the Hamas victory contradicted everything the administration of President George W Bush believed about Palestinian society.

Just two weeks after the Hamas victory, on February 6, Lebanese Maronite leader Michel Aoun and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah appeared together in Beirut to sign a memorandum of understanding between the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah. The Aoun-Nasrallah agreement shook the State Department, which had worked for years to isolate Hezbollah.

The US had underscored its anti-Hezbollah strategy as recently as November 23, when Aoun met with State Department officials in Washington. The State Department blithely discounted the importance of the talks that Aoun's movement had been having with Hezbollah and reassured the press that Aoun would remain a staunch supporter of the United States' Lebanon policy. Certainly, it was believed, the leader of Lebanon's Maronite Christians would never tie the future of his own movement to that of a group allied with Damascus and Tehran.

In the aftermath of the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement, however, all of that changed: not only was Aoun's support for the US-led program against Syria in question, his agreement with Hezbollah meant that he was justifying Hezbollah's alleged kidnapping of Americans in Lebanon during the 1980s. Overnight, it seemed, Aoun had gone from being a friend of the US to a man allied with terrorists.

Allawi's failure, Hamas' success, the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement - and the inability of the West to predict, shape or even understand these seminal events - have been variously interpreted: as a signal that the US intelligence community needs increased resources, that the West has not been doing enough to sell its "program" in the region, that the US and its allies have not been harsh enough in their condemnation of "radicalism", that the West has underestimated the amount of support its secular allies need, and (in the case of the Palestinian elections) that Hamas didn't really win at all - "Fatah lost."

We have reached a much more fundamental and alarming conclusion: Western governments are frighteningly out of touch with the principal political currents in the Middle East. The US and its allies overestimated Ayad Allawi's strength, were "stunned" by Hamas' win, and were surprised by the Aoun-Nasrallah agreement because they don't have a clue about what's really going on in the region. [complete article]

U.S. bans meetings with Hamas
By Sharmila Devi, Financial Times, March 29, 2006

The US administration banned its officials on Wednesday night from meeting the Islamist group Hamas, as the new Palestinian government was sworn in and while Israel’s centrist Kadima party opened talks to form a coalition after winning the largest number of seats in Knesset elections.

US officials in the region were instructed by e-mail on Wednesday to have no contacts with Palestinian ministries from 6pm last night. [complete article]