The Syrian will to live
Thursday, April 26, 2012, 10:07My last oped, "The Syrian will to live" (title and conclusion borrowed from Tunisian poet Abou Kassem Al Shabi) reflects on the adjusted expectations of revolutionaries, one year on. Today, we know what not to expect.
The Syrian will to live
When Tahrir Square resonated with the roar of Egyptians chanting for the fall of the regime, certain in their anticipation that Hosni Mubarak like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali before him would be ousted imminently, many Syrians watched with admiration and solidarity, but with little illusion that such exhilarating scenes could magically resurface in Damascus.
There seemed to be little appetite yet--at least in the open--for protests after decades of silent acquiescence to the regime's petty and ruthless authority. There also was no doubt in anyone's mind that should the people rise up, the regime would not hesitate to silence dissent in any way it could.
Fifteen school children's jailing and torturing later, these hesitations were swept aside as the Syrian uprising's spark spread like wildfire through the country. As expected, it was met with the Assad regime's full brutality, a repression that will go down in history as one of the most horrific against a population braving live fire with bare chests and daring slogans.
As the revolution gained traction, Syrians seemed convinced that everyone was on their side; not only were they just as worthy of dignity and freedom as their fellow Arabs, but most of the world's powers could not stand the Syrian regime, having spent years threatening and isolating it. If ever there was a popular revolution the free world was sure to embrace and applaud, it would be this one.
Not Israel, though, which for years had enjoyed secure borders through a de facto understanding with the Assad regime. Highlighting this fact, President Bashar Assad sent a clear message through the New York Times: Rami Makhlouf, the Assads' financial portfolio manager, guaranteed Israel's safety as long as Assad was in power, but warned there would be massive chaos should he fall.
For the rest of the world, predictably, Syrian media concocted a tale of Zionist, imperialist, Gulf, Ottoman, neocon conspiracy with a narrative of self-defense against armed terrorist gangs. To the regime's delight, many Syrian loyalists were only too happy to believe this and to openly support the regime's violent repression on a massive scale.
Caught by surprise (like everyone else) by the speed and magnitude of these events, the United States not only refrained from criticizing the regime but even maintained silence for a few weeks before declaring, to the dismay of most Syrians, that Bashar Assad, lo and behold, was a "reformer". It took months for the assessment to escalate slightly in tone, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deeming that Assad was "not indispensable" and had "lost legitimacy." By then, the Syrian revolutionaries had lost their innocence, and the Syrian regime had lost its reticence. Full scale military repression was unleashed, and the ghosts of Hama were awakened.
For months on end, powers that could have made a difference simply uttered vague declarations and issued ineffective sanctions on the regime. Turkey warned, repeatedly but emptily, of dire consequences should Assad not stop the killing. Unheeding, the Syrian regime continued to pound the population, convinced that only brute force and a real war of terror would subdue the revolt and bring the country back under its control.
It gradually became clear to many Syrians that the world's powers also secretly wished for just that, and were using the opposition's disunity as a pretext to do nothing as they waited for the uprising to die down. While a toothless Arab League proposed a solution involving an increasingly organized, albeit not united Syrian opposition, Russia shone in the leading rogue role of regime supporter, conveniently vetoing any reluctant attempt to condemn Assad or to protect the population.
For now, Syria has become to Russia what Israel has been to the US: the protege that can do no wrong as long as it protects the interests of its sponsor, which is bullying the neighbors should they even think of intervening.
As it openly helps the Syrian regime survive, Russia is also allowing the US to pretend outrage as it monitors events, patiently waiting for the uprising and the sanctions to weaken the state, a la Iraq pre-2003. This is the exact opposite of every Syrian revolutionary and opposition group's wishes, which strive to save the state while discarding its violent regime.
Syrians always expected theirs to be the hardest of all liberation struggles, knowing the barbaric treatment that awaited them from the regime's thugs, but they still tried to keep their protests peaceful even as the death toll mounted. It took months for an armed resistance to form, and it took even longer for Syrians to start requesting, reluctantly, foreign intervention. But it took a whole year for them to realize that nobody was likely to come to their aid, that their right to self-defense was to be dismissed in a cavalier manner, and that they would be fighting alone.
As they adjust to this new reality and revise their expectations, Syrians are watching the latest half-hearted attempt to end the violence and engage the regime diplomatically. Indeed, the six-point plan devised by United Nations Special Envoy Kofi Annan begins with a ceasefire that the regime has completely ignored, shelling and killing with impunity while a handful of blue helmets parade around the country. What should have been an urgent action to protect civilians has become an ugly, violent version of the Emperor's New Clothes, with everyone pretending to be concerned about the "fragile ceasefire" that never was in the first place.
Syrians may take symbolic comfort in the exposure of Assad's pretense of being a benign, reluctant dictator who would modernize the country and state system, but they take real strength from the certitude that poet Abou Kassem Al Shabi bequeathed the Arab people: If the people summon the will to live, destiny is bound to answer their call.
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My latest on Syria, in the New York Times
Wednesday, February 8, 2012, 01:03It has been a year since I remembered to post my articles on the blog; blame Facebook, Twitter and a lot of news consumption online and off!
There is no denying that the Syrian revolution has overtaken much of my life, professionally and personally, as it has done for so many of my friends all over the world; I embrace it fully. Until this vicious and violent regime is stopped, as long as Syrians are suffering in such horrific conditions, we will continue to bear witness to this savagery and to do everything in our power to help end it.
This Time, Assad Has Overreached
Rime Allaf - February 7, 2012
New York Times
Syrians are approaching the first anniversary of one of the most unexpected implosions of people power and psychological liberations the region has seen. But they have yet to experience the exhilaration of watching a dictator flee the country or be forced to resign.
One year ago, as Syrians saw the fast pace of the Tunisian and the Egyptian popular uprisings, most knew that if they ever were to face the same situation, they would pay a much heavier price and that the regime would not hesitate to mow them down in order to keep the Assad dynasty in place. Having already lived through one of the most vicious massacres in modern history, the Syrian populace knew that the ruling clique would just as easily do another Hama, possibly more, to keep its grasp on the country.
Save for a few die-hard civil society activists and intellectuals who kept banging on the drums of freedom, continuously paying with their own freedom for this lèse-majesté, most Syrians became realists by necessity. By seemingly letting bygones become bygones, and by humoring the regime with odes to its empty rhetoric about the Assad du jour’s eternal leadership, they thought they were buying themselves a slow but sure upgrade to a less stifling life, at the discretion of a corrupt and power-mad clique.
This was, in many ways, a reverse Faustian bargain, with the regime getting the power and the people getting the scraps – socially, economically and politically. As incredible as it may sound in this revolutionary era, Syrians felt they had no choice but to coax the regime into complacence in order so that they could breathe.
This de facto pact could have survived beyond the revolutionary era, had it not been for the arrest and torture of 15 schoolchildren in Daraa, triggering an uprising that spread through Syria. As their indignation finally manifested itself, the deal fell through as people’s demands for justice and dignity were met with live fire, and as brute force once again erased all pretense of civility.
What few people expected in the midst of this unprecedented situation was that the traditional pillars of regime support would extend beyond the security and party forces; surprisingly, a portion of the population declared its allegiance to the regime even as it went on a rampage, parroting age-old dire premonitions of civil strife and national disintegration should the regime fall. In the grips of a previously undetected Stockholm syndrome, the regime faithful are now chanting “after Bashar, the deluge!”
The regime accomplices’ cheering as it unleashed unequalled brute force against a mostly defenseless population have certainly bought it some time, as have powerful allies who blocked an Arab League proposal with humanitarian and political lifelines. Likewise, the disarray of opposition forces unable to find a way out of the maze after 40 years of dictatorship only adds to the indecisiveness of the powers who could made a difference. But all these factors are stumbling blocks that merely slow down the liberation of a determined population.
It doesn’t matter how much support Bashar al-Assad’s regime still commands, nor does it ultimately matter why his fans still cling on to the illusion of his ability to remain in power. The regime has gone on a killing, torturing and jailing spree for nearly a year, and is still unable to crush the resistance that has now begun to arm itself and to exercise self-defense. It is a matter of time, and it is unclear how the transition will be achieved, but the majority of Syrians are sure of one thing: we have reached the end of an era.
Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer, is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She is on Twitter as @rallaf.
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011, 16:47My opinion piece for CNN written just before Egyptian regime thugs attacked the peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square today. I used the term neo-Orientalist before, and I think it's going to be increasingly descriptive of the US's so-called vision for our region.
Egypt unrest reveals real U.S. policy on Arab world
By Rime Allaf
After decades of experience, there is hardly anyone left in the Arab world who is surprised by the double standards of U.S. foreign policy. Everyone knows that the proverbial "moderate" regimes (even when they terrorize their citizens with F16s as they peacefully demonstrate) will always be supported at the expense of their people, while "rogue" regimes will be punished for failing to toe the line at the expense of their people too.
But it's still novel to observe the U.S. reneging on its declared principles under a president who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and who claimed to be seeking a new beginning based on mutual respect with the Muslim world less than two years ago, from the very heart of Cairo.
While many of President Obama's statements were not expected to become a religious mantra for U.S. officials, many Arabs wanted to believe that a new page had really been turned and that past American practices were to be subdued, especially after the disastrous Bush years and the horrors of the invasion of Iraq.
It was quickly obvious that the Obama administration differed very little from predecessors; if anything even remotely touched on Israel, the U.S. remained more royal than the king regardless of its own long-term interests. Thus, the Arab world watched as President Obama publicly backtracked on his own position regarding a freeze on illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, accepting Israel's intransigence and pretending to continue with the farcical peace process.
There were low expectations with regards to American preaching about democracy, given past U.S. reactions to democratic elections in Algeria or, more recently, in Palestine. The Arab world already knew that when people dared to freely choose a majority which Washington found unpalatable, the U.S. would either punish the people or punish the elected government --- or both.
Nevertheless, the U.S. had a recent history of backing popular movements in a wide range of countries, in a rainbow of colors, and in an eclectic mix of monikers and symbols. From Georgia to Iran, the will of the people was supported, marketed and managed by Washington as it berated authoritarian regimes and glorified the democratic aspirations of the secular masses.
This noble approach came to a screeching halt on January 25, when like the Tunisians before them, Egyptians took massively to the streets with no banners, no colored wristbands and no slogans other than "the people want the fall of the regime."
Taken yet again by surprise, Washington pretended to look the other way until the protesters swelled to millions in mere days, while Egypt was cut off from the Internet and mobile calls. Unenthusiastically, US officials mumbled generalities about basic rights to non-violent demonstrations and to communication. And when President Obama addressed his nation personally last night, all he could muster was a patronizing compliment to the Egyptian army and a vague call for an "orderly transition." Orderly for whom, however, was not specified.
Indeed, as Mubarak remains oblivious to the demands of the Egyptian people, the U.S. government is scrambling to save what it can of his regime. Like Israel which has openly called on the West to ignore public opinion and to safeguard its interests with Mubarak, the U.S. has backed a coup of sorts on its age-old ally, by imposing Omar Suleiman on Egypt to ensure the continuity of the regime under a different unelected strongman despised by most Egyptians. No emergency Security Council meetings, no withdrawal of ambassadors, and no condemnation of the unprecedented suppression of people's rights.
It is obvious that the sudden dismissal of the Jordanian government by King Abdullah, and the sudden pledge by President Saleh of Yemen not to seek re-election or bequeath power to his son, were made under pressure from the U.S. as it seeks to contain the revolutionary fervor in the region.
In Jordan, Yemen and beyond, more people are crossing the fear barrier and daring to demand full rights, hoping to emulate the positive example which Tunisia has awarded the Arab world. They know now not to expect much support from the self-styled leader of the free world, increasingly anxious at the thought of losing more pliant allies in the region.
The lesson is clear: even when they embrace secular democracy, Arabs may be allowed liberation only if it comes on top of American tanks or when it suits Israel.
For this neo-Orientalist hypocrisy, and for continuing to sacrifice the self-determination of entire peoples just for the sake of Israel, Obama has just inspired a whole new generation of Arabs to resent the U.S.'s selective values.
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House
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Protests in Egypt: a sign of maturity
Friday, January 28, 2011, 09:05This is my piece on Egypt (New York Times online), full of admiration for the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and full of hope for us all.
A sign of maturity
January 27, 2011.
Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer, is an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She blogs at Mosaics.
A series of unprecedented demonstrations has fired up the Arab world. With a warped interest in the region, governments and news media were surprised by the Tunisian dictator’s sudden fall, the rapid spread of demonstrations in Egypt and the serious manifestations in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen.
With the futile habit of categorizing countries according to official U.S. criteria, the Arab world was watched with labels for moderates and radicals, allies and problem makers. Those differences came to a screeching halt when it came to internal affairs: from the Atlantic to the Gulf, Arab authoritarian regimes have been practically identical in their harsh rule, corruption, cronyism, stifling of freedom of speech and suppression of human rights. In every country, they imposed surreal personality cults with life-sized photos and statues galore while enjoying the fawning support of a profiteering elite and the defense of vast armies.
Washington pretended not to notice and separated the “good” dictators from the “bad," as they did the oppositions. The good regimes were needed, we were told, because the alternative would be chaos or -- even worse – Islamism! Oddly, the bad regimes justified their excesses and emergency laws with the exact same refrain.
The Tunisian people wiped out years of ominous predictions in a matter of days, with an amalgam of young, disgruntled, educated, unemployed, urban and rural people from middle classes, whose secular rallying cry related in no way to Islamist agendas. Lost for words, the news media tried to issue a label with a catchy name, but most Tunisians are not thrilled to have their revolution tagged under Jasmine or Facebook: they just call it the Tunisian Revolution.
Likewise, the current Egyptian revolt is not waiting for a special moniker to demonstrate it is not Islamist, not led by a specific party, and not following a particular ideology. Maturely, without resorting to violence, protesters began to shed their fear and to fight for their bread and their freedom, without American troops or coalition bombs, supported by an immense wave of Arab solidarity and a shared anger at all the regimes. Today, there is a common belief that nothing will change if that change is not forced, reform having become a dirty word for the minor cosmetic adjustments regimes have pretended to make.
Unfortunately for Washington, for the time being, it’s the wrong Arabs who are revolting, endangering the longevity of the regimes which are stalwart U.S. allies. At the very least, we may predict that Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal will not be president, but other developments in Egypt will influence the rest of the Arab world: the Mubarak regime’s closeness to Israel and participation in the siege on Gaza were never popular, and if Egyptians manage to go the Tunisian way, there may be a softening of this embrace. It’s too early to tell which way Egypt’s army will go, and whether President Mubarak can survive this wave, but Arabs are rooting for Egyptians to have their peaceful revolution, and for Egypt to become once more a leader in the Arab world.
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Remarks on US "engagement" and the Lebanon tribunal
Thursday, January 20, 2011, 16:18As I mentioned to a few friends, I have just written an article which a lot of people will hate. Judge for yourself and feel free to opine. It was difficult to include a lot of points with a limited word count, but those who know me are familiar with where I stand and wouldn't expect me to mince words. "Radicalism" is here to stay as long as this farce goes on.
Breaking, not engaging, the region
It is said that repeating an action and still expecting a different result every time, despite proof of the contrary, is a sure sign of insanity. With its strange attitude towards Cuba's regime, the US has for decades demonstrated that adage while seemingly making Cuba the exception to the rules of diplomatic engagement. In particular, in the Middle East, American influence was for long directly proportional to its direct involvement, be it positive or negative.
Since the Bush administration, however, the Castro approach--or lack thereof--has been applied to what should be one of the most crucial centers of open communication for Washington. After over 12 years of serious and consistent US engagement with the Middle East peace process, with full recognition of Syrian territorial rights on the Golan, George W. Bush decided to alienate Syria even while banging on the drums of war for Iraq. Instead of cajoling the neighbors when invading and occupying Iraq turned nasty, Bush and his neocons directed every possible accusation at Damascus and piled on the demands.
The big freeze came on Lebanese turf: following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Bush promptly withdrew his ambassador from Damascus, pushed for Syrian troops' exit from Lebanon, and actively sought to isolate Syria.
Six years later, a new US ambassador, Robert Ford, has landed in Syria a year after his nomination. There is no cause for celebration, however, because US-Syrian relations are neither being upgraded nor being restored to the point they were at six years ago. Instead of getting back to square one, things are now much worse, elegant letters of accreditation notwithstanding. The more the US has connived to redraw the political map of the region, looking to sideline its opponents and to punish them for insubordination, the more it has created imbroglios from which it can't extract itself.
Instead of seeking stability at all costs, the US has steadily lessened the potential of compromise between all parties and increased the likelihood of a major clash, all under the guise of protecting Lebanon's sovereignty from Syria.
The premise that Lebanon could function, politically, without the benign acquiescence of the major powers in the region was always false. The premise that the Lebanese would unite under one "majority" in cultural or political terms was always false as well, and all efforts aimed at coaxing one half of Lebanon to abide by the terms of the other half were never going to bear fruit. Yet, the US has had a burning obsession: the eradication of Hizballah, which would end all resistance to Israel, remove Syria's proverbial cards from Lebanon, and weaken Iran in the region. To that end, with other tricks having failed, the US needed the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; one could argue, in fact, that it needed the assassination of Hariri.
But while motives abound whenever Syria is blamed, speculation with regards to Israel shines in its absence, as if nobody but Hizballah could think of a single reason why Israel would want to wreak havoc in Lebanon. Indeed, the investigation into Hariri's murder has not even bothered to pretend to explore all options--including the one country with a steadfast history of assassinations in the Arab world.
After Israel's unprecedented violence failed to bring down Hizballah in 2006, giving Syria the upper hand when Lebanon's political stalemate reached its explosive status in 2008, the Hariri commission got busy again after a period of low activity (always in direct proportion to the needs of the US and its allies). When all else fails, bring on the indictments--if not for Syria, then for Hizballah. And throw in Iran.
But with such unwise open meddling in Lebanon, and with the exposure of the investigation as a flawed and incompetent political tool, the US has shot itself in the foot. Now that the indictments have been made, with a line-up of Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian big shots on the list, the US has merely limped into a political corner, even as it pretends to be on the noble quest for justice.
Ambassador Ford's sudden presence in Damascus is not a coincidence. After the cold shoulder treatment, Washington may have reasoned that pressure on Syria would be more significant while the American embassy was at full occupancy. This selective engagement certainly doesn't make the Obama administration more reasonable, and the lack of engagement was not the core of the insanity.
This political madness is not in the form but rather the matter: the US (with, or on behalf of its allies) has been fixated on a reckless "clean break" stratagem formulated by the plotters of the Iraq invasion and the loudest cheerleaders of Israel's repeated belligerent actions. It means weakening Syria, in all its ramifications, without offering a single benefit for Lebanon, in order to secure Israel at all costs.
This madness may be curable, but the treatment just became more costly, because Washington is unprepared for the morning after. -Published 20/01/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House in London.
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In support of WikiLeaks
Friday, December 10, 2010, 01:58Actions speak louder than words, and my support for Wikileaks and Julian Assange is more than a mere declaration. I am proud that WikiLeaks is now mirrored on my personal website and hope to have the time to write about the many dimensions of this huge story. In the meantime, please do continue to follow Cablegate, on my site and on others, and do continue to support the struggle for our freedom of information and of speech.
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Syria, or the loneliness of the long distance runner
Wednesday, November 10, 2010, 13:00If I were to summarize my article, it would be with this sentence: “It is not France, or Qatar, or Turkey which saved Syria from isolation. It is Hezbollah.”
A full perspective of the ten years in power of the Syrian president was not the intention of this paper, "Syria, or the loneliness of the long distance runner", but I was asked, as I usually am, to run through the foreign affairs which made those ten years so eventful for the Syrian leadership. This is the English original, written in July, but the paper was published in Spanish in the September-October edition of Tres Culturas (PDF to be attached shortly).
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The unbearable lightness of tweeting
Thursday, July 1, 2010, 02:24To tweet or not to tweet, that is not the question. What to tweet, and what not to tweet, was not supposed to be the question either, but nobody in Washington thought that Alec Ross or Jared Cohen would commit the undiplomatic faux pas of not only liking something about a country they’re just supposed to disdain, but also of tweeting about it.
The irony borders on the comical; US officials, sent to preach about Internet freedom and to plead for the unblocking of numerous social networking sites, used the one site which isn’t banned to sing like birds about the place, putting Foggy Bottom in a cloud of ambiguous Twitterplomacy, and presenting it with a completely imaginary problem.
The real problem, of course, is that the US State Department has apparently begun to believe its own hype. After spinning the entire Iranian election protests into a gigantic Twitter-planned, Twitter-led and Twitter-reported revolution, it was horrified to read tweets of an entirely different nature from one of those other problematic countries … tweets which were not protesting an election or planning an uprising, but, horror of horrors, praising fancy beverages and passing on nice vibes about Syria, of all places.
The bosses of Starbucks and Star Wars were not amused and probably wished that Twitter would take down the network for immediate maintenance; come hell or high water, the road to Damascus would not pass through Silicon Valley, no siree, regardless of the mission's declared goals.
Alas, it was too late; dangerous tweets about Syrian refreshments had already surfaced on the twittersphere, and the damage to American interests was incalculable. With their tweets, US diplomats had already confirmed that Syrians consumed the same beverages and ate the same cakes as Americans did – and they even had a university! Hell, a few more days and the frappuccinos would have gotten to their heads and made them tweet that Americans and Syrians may even share similar values, perish the thought!
Clearly, these envoys had not been properly briefed about the nature of current US "engagement" with Syria, and rather than merely following their official goal of discussing Internet freedom and related developments, they embarrassed their own government by actually enjoying Syrian hospitality and taking engagement at face value.
Of course, a foreign policy (assuming there currently is something approximating an actual policy, let alone a coherent one, in Washington) which includes a Twitter doctrine can do little more than inspire musings on selective American Twitterplomacy and on the unbearable lightness of tweeting.
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Palestinians in Lebanon
Thursday, June 24, 2010, 13:58"Today, Lebanon is the most hostile country to Palestinian refugees after Israel."
Why Palestinians are second-class citizens in Lebanon, by Ahmed Moor
Not much to add to this good piece which goes straight to the point from a personal perspective, except perhaps to say that the so-called vibrant democracies in the region have a lot of skeletons in their bursting closets.
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On Helen Thomas and selective freedom of the press
Tuesday, June 8, 2010, 16:30Every Tom, Dick and Harry in American government and media found the time to denounce a veteran journalist for saying something she is completely free to say, even though they couldn’t manage the strength to denounce Israel for illegally raiding a NATO member's ship, kidnapping, jailing and abusing 700 people, and murdering at least nine.
Even taking into account mainstream media’s default bias, hypocrisy and mediocrity, that’s pathetic. Had the same people peeped a word when Avigdor Lieberman (who definitely should go the hell back to where he came from!) and his vicious likes bark about deporting natives from Palestine, or when other journalists, writers, commentators and reporters unashamedly do Israel's dirty slandering of an entire nation and lying on a daily basis, then maybe they would not look so stupid pouncing on Thomas like that.
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The next Rachel Corrie to sail ...
Sunday, June 6, 2010, 15:08The next 9 aid ships to Gaza should be named after each of the martyrs of the Mavi Marmara, and be escorted by the Turkish navy. Intercept that, Israel.
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Inside the mind of Mark Regev
Sunday, June 6, 2010, 13:42Unmissable clip to be watched, read and spread widely. Probably the first time you're able to laugh while watching the creep speaking!
Inside the mind of Mark Regev
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The Turkish martyrs of Mavi Marmara
Saturday, June 5, 2010, 13:20These brave men were executed by Israel, with 30 bullets at close range, most of them in the head.
Rest in peace, you died heroes and will never be forgotten.
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The US Must Rein In Israel
Friday, June 4, 2010, 21:35It's been hard to follow all the commentary on the latest Israeli massacre, and to know where to start responding. When asked to contribute to the New York Times' Room For Debate (always managing to get away with double the suggested word count), I chose to focus on the fact that the siege didn't begin with Hamas, and that Israel wouldn't even hesitate to hurt its closest allies when it wants to.
The US Must Rein In Israel
Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer, is an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She blogs at Mosaics.
It usually takes a high number of Palestinian deaths for the news media to deem the tragedy worth reporting. Unfortunately, regular killings of Palestinians by the Israeli army — or by Israeli settlers — are unnoticed and unmourned.
Likewise, the fate of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza (and 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank) has been all but ignored by governments too. Had it not been for the deadly Israeli raid on the Freedom Flotilla, it too would have been lost in a sea of forgotten humanitarian initiatives whose declared mission is not only to deliver aid to a desperate population besieged for the past three years, but also to break the inhuman Israeli (and Egyptian-assisted) blockade that no other government has supported as legal, let alone justified.
The killing of non-Palestinian civilians is not even close to being the worst atrocity committed by Israel; the resulting global outrage, however, is the clearest message yet that Israel’s actions have gone beyond the debatable, the justifiable, or the so-called disproportionate.
We all know that the time has come to hold Israel accountable for its deeds, that only the United States can do it and that most nations would cheer the end of Israel’s growing impunity. Forcing Israel to adhere to international law is not an option but an imperative: either Israel complies with international conventions and a regional modus vivendi, or it bears the consequences and endures sanctions like any other country.
The mantra about security and laments that Israel has no partners with whom to make peace have lost their punch. Long before Hamas even dreamed of electoral victory, Israel had already besieged the first Palestinian president. Yasser Arafat, who delivered the Oslo Accord to Israel, was under house arrest for years in humiliating and dangerous conditions, until his death, in a compound ruined by Israeli bombings. During Arafat’s tenure, Israel destroyed most of the Palestinian infrastructure (including the Gaza airport) financed by the international community and rejected a unanimous peace initiative from 22 Arab nations while continuing settlements on occupied land.
The problem, therefore, is not just Gaza, and it’s not just Hamas. Nor is it, for all its transgressions, the current Likud government, as Israel has a history of impunity even with its greatest supporters. It has often embarrassed allies when carrying out assassinations around the world (recently killing Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai by agents holding fake British and other European passports). Moreover, Israel attacks its allies directly when it suits its purposes; perhaps because Congress never even asked for an inquiry, Americans seem to have forgotten Israel’s bombing of the USS Liberty in June 1967, killing 34 and wounding 171 U.S. navy servicemen.
The point is that there is a pattern to Israeli behavior that transcends governmental leanings or ideologies: for decades, Israel has been allowed to flout U.N. resolutions demanding its withdrawal from Arab territories, to violate other nations’ sovereignty and to commit war crimes — without consequences. The raid on the ships heading to Gaza was just another transgression, but the solution is not in Gaza itself.
Removing the Gaza blockade from the greater context of the Palestinian question is ludicrous and self-defeating. If Israel lived by international law, the security for the entire Levant would not be an issue anymore, nor would civilized nations be forced to renege on their own laws and principles in permitting the collective suffering of an entire nation to continue. The first step, undoubtedly, is to free Gaza unconditionally. The second, undoubtedly, is to enforce U.N. resolutions, thereby freeing Arab lands from occupation and setting the scene for a peaceful settlement.
For this to happen, the U.S. must rein in Israel.
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Time to blog again
Thursday, June 3, 2010, 02:42It's been nearly a year since I've posted on my blog, and there are reasons for that absence. Although this blog's archives only go back to September 2004, I've been blogging since 2003 (I think I'm even the first Syrian blogger, as far as I know), practically uninterrupted save for several breaks not exceeding a few weeks.
There is no denying that the ease of tweeting and of linking on social networks has increased the frequency of my Twitter and especially Facebook comments; in comparison, my blogging has mostly been composed of longer and more studied entries, which got longer over time, especially when I became a mother and had less time in between posts. In fact, a number of posts on this blog were full fledged articles which I would have normally published outside my website.
But Facebook and Twitter are not the cause for my sudden departure. The truth is that the repercussions of my last post were much greater than I imagined, on myself and on my relations with a number of people, so deep was my involvement and my commitment to the safety of the little girl for whom I wrote and widely spread the appeal.
I received countless emails, messages, questions and offers of help, for which I am grateful. I owe many answers to many people, but above all I owe apologies for having been overwhelmed by events, and for having allowed the pettiness and nastiness of quite a few individuals to affect me.
I couldn’t start blogging again without mentioning the major post-appeal developments; after that, it’s back to normal.
Suffice it to say that the behavior of some acquaintances shocked me, in their sudden quest to lead an imagined "Project Khawla" now that the story – through my appeal - had gotten the attention of the highest authorities, when in fact what was needed was speedy action. Suffice it to say that the behavior of self-described selfless activists on social networks went beyond the ridiculous as they strived to show that only they were doing anything worthy, pushing aside with contempt any other endeavor, especially one which actually got results.
Never mind all that. What matters is that the little girl is now much better, and that she has received the medical attention her situation warranted. Her convalescence was steady, and she has a very high chance of full recovery, God willing.
Five days after my appeal, the President and the First Lady of Syria paid a personal visit to the little girl and her family, in their house in Aleppo, and committed publicly to her care. This would not have happened in another country, not so quickly, not so warmly, and the presidential couple showed ultimate grace and compassion in their unique embrace of this little girl, and of the tragedy which befell her.
For this amazing development, I am indebted to Dr. Fawaz Akhras for having acted upon my appeal within hours, and for having graciously informed me of what would be done to save the little girl. Thank you, for everything!
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URGENT APPEAL FOR HELP
Thursday, July 16, 2009, 06:084-year old Syrian girl, gang-raped and left for dead, in desperate need of critical operations
This is an urgent appeal for help following a horrific crime committed on a little girl in Syria, whose survival and future lies in our collective hands. I implore you all to read carefully, to spread as widely as possible, and to help in any way possible with donations, suggestions for immediate help, medical and psychological support, and long-term treatment.
Khawla, a little girl in urgent need of our help
On June 28, 2009, 4-year old Khawla went to a wedding with her parents, near the industrial city in Aleppo, Syria. As is often the case in conservative circles, women were in one hall and men in another. Khawla asked her mother if she could go buy a fizzy drink (“kazoz”); not carrying any money, Khawla’s mother told her to go ask her father for some. As she made her way to the men’s hall on the second floor, a young man stopped Khawla to ask where she was going. When she explained, he told her to follow him and he would buy her the drink himself.
Having lured Khawla to a dirt mound meters away from the wedding hall, the man (whose father owned the building) and three of his friends threw Khawla to the ground, on her back, and savagely proceeded to rape her, beating her and slapping her in an attempt to silence her screams. As the blood ran down her legs after two of the men had already raped her, they turned her over, throwing her face down to let the other two men rape her from behind. When they were done, they threw mounds of earth, dirt and garbage on the little girl, attempting to cover her fully. They then went back to the wedding hall, attempting to mislead the search party that would later be looking for the little girl.
Khawla was found a few hours later, after a long search which began when her parents realized she was missing and gave the alert, calling the police. She had been nearly completely buried, with only her head still showing; she was bleeding profusely, in terrible pain and in an indescribable state of shock.
In despair, Khawla’s parents attempted to get their wounded and traumatized daughter to hospital, but several hospitals refused to admit the girl in spite of the emergency, and even to administer urgent basic first aid. In her grave state, Khawla was shockingly turned away from Razi Hospital, University Hospital, Kindi Hospital, and Bassel Hospital. As yet, none of these have been reprimanded for their irresponsible behavior in refusing assistance to an emergency case. In the Maternity Hospital, the fifth one Khawla’s parents tried, basic first aid was finally given to the girl, but she was again sent away to the Children’s Hospital, which she reached 9 hours after the crime, and where she was promptly taken into the operating room for an initial procedure.
Khawla’s medical condition is very worrying; the savagery of the rape has left her with significant perineal injuries, and extreme damage to her digestive and reproductive systems. Already, Khawla has been fitted with a colostomy bag. Khawla will need major colostomy and reconstructive surgery later, amongst other procedures which doctors have described as being delicate and dangerous. So far, the first emergency procedure has not even succeeded in preventing urine or stools from leaking internally, putting Khawla’s life in danger. Reports have indicated that the hospital currently treating Khawla is ill equipped to deal with such dangerous conditions, with the doctors struggling to deal with the severe internal damage done to Khawla, and to prepare for the long term physical consequences.
Khawla’s psychological state is just as desperate, leaving no doubt that she will need treatment and counselling for many years. Until now, she has screamed every time someone tried to approach her, necessitating general anaesthesia even for simple check-ups by the doctors. She is still in a state of shock, unable to speak except to repeat the words “his mother sells kazoz” in reference to the man who led her to the rape. While they are struggling to respond to Khawla’s physical needs, there is no reason to even hope that any of the local doctors or nurses are trained to handle such violent cases of child gang-rape. For the time being, Khawla has received no treatment to ease her trauma.
In spite of the gravity of her condition which continues to get worse, Khawla has been taken home to rest in preparation for a further dangerous operation. The family’s very modest situation and poor financial means, added to a complete disregard of the case by concerned authorities and by most Syrian media outlets which could have led a fund raising campaign, are ill omens for her physical, social and psychological rehabilitation.
In the absence of an established, transparent society or NGO able to adopt Khawla’s case and to take over her treatment, Khawla’s father has been asked to open a bank account in his own name, so that donors who wish to can contribute to her long road to recovery. I will post the details as soon as I receive them. In the meantime, any help or advice regarding Khawla’s case will be most gratefully accepted and directed to her family, as will suggestions and offers for her repatriation to countries where relevant and experienced medical centers would be willing to welcome her.
Thank you for your kind attention, and for acting promptly on this urgent appeal for help.
The site where Khawla was raped
Sources: I have written the above from all the information made available to me from various sources, and from the following articles.
Cham Press report on Khawla
Syria-Event report on Khawla
Facebook Support Group for Khawla, created and maintained by Faten Ali and Hassein Ma, both very active in spreading awareness in the Arabic online community
Orient TV interview with Khawla's father
Online Petition demanding punishment for Khawla's persecutors, who were immediately caught (3 on the same night, the 4th on the next day) and who confessed to their unspeakable crime.
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Rest in peace, Michael Jackson
Wednesday, July 1, 2009, 22:02
He tried to Heal The World. Now he is gone, but His Music Will Live Forever
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The dilemma of Arab nationalists
Thursday, June 25, 2009, 23:15A lot remains unsaid in this piece, but people who know my writings and comments will already know where I stand on the regimes I don't mention here. The "moderates" are even worse than the "radicals" and I cannot respect those who claim they stand for freedom or revolution when their main backer is a regime like Saudi Arabia.
This is about Iran and Arab nationalists who praise the Iranian regime (and other "radicals") simply because it supports their main cause. From this week's Bitterlemons International, published today.
The dilemma of Arab nationalists
While the entire word is gripped with the political turmoil in Iran, its closest neighbors have been collectively pretending not to notice there really is a problem at all. At first unable to contain their enthusiasm with the opposition to a regime they've collectively hated for 30 years, various official media outlets have mellowed their tone and practically reverted to the "domestic Iranian matter" line.
And yet Iran's problem is everyone's problem in so many ways. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in a revolution that swept the Shah from power, most Arab countries have at best been uneasy neighbors to Iran, and at worst aggressors. The Iranians had barely begun to come to terms with the fact of having dismissed the Shah when the proxy wars against them began in earnest.
Fighting the dirty war of the bloc of superpowers arming him, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and bled both countries dry for eight years, especially once the full impact of the US's dual containment policy was felt. No wonder the Iranians didn't warm to their neighborhood. Apart from Syria, which particularly enjoyed the fall of one of Israel's greatest allies and was united with Iran in a common hatred of Saddam Hussein, Arab countries were predominantly hostile.
Arab wariness stemmed less from the fact of the Iranian revolution than the banner under which it was fought. That the powerful, well-armed and internationally supported Shah could fall so easily was one thing: that the revolutionaries did it in the name of Islam was another. For the first time in centuries, two rival blocs faced off to claim leadership of a huge global Muslim community. Both also sat on large oil resources that helped finance their new activism, supporting numerous groups with political and religious agendas. These confronting alignments have now endured for decades, creating a complex set of relations, that it is crucial to understand as an introduction to the way forward, when some Arabs are now more pro-Iranian regime than before, in direct opposition to the critics siding with the "moderate" group.
The mutual animosity between the competing Iranian and Arab regimes, seeping through their respective media outlets, has been evident for years, especially since the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, the animosity has filtered down to the popular level, fuelled by inflammatory rhetoric (mostly from the anti-Iranian side) and turning anti-Iranian positions into anti-Shi'ite ones, exacerbated by Iraq and Lebanon and the ongoing Arab-Israel conflict or, more correctly, the Palestinian cause.
There is no doubt that Israel plays a role in this divide, being in fact the lowest common denominator. With the Iranian regime (alongside Syria) openly supporting the so-called radical elements of the Palestinian resistance, and with Saudi Arabia having sided with the so-called moderate Palestinian Authority, Arabs actively opposing Israel have made their choice. The situation is even more pronounced in Lebanon, where the resistance to Israel is the sole domain of Hizballah, a militant group whose umbilical tie to Iran seems to trump most other considerations.
Today, tens of thousands of Iranians are protesting against their regime, officially because of a dubious election which even authorities admit had irregularities, and unofficially because many of them are vying for a relaxation of the strict rules that govern their lives. Importantly, many have expressed their specific distaste for Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's needlessly confrontational stances, his foreign policy and his absurd habit of putting into doubt the history of the Holocaust--all of which has only made their isolation more pronounced.
For many Iranians, popular Arab support for Ahmadinezhad remains unpalatable and unforgivable. It makes little sense to them that people who support freedom and self-determination for one people (the Palestinians, for instance) would also support a leader whose domestic rule has been controversial to say the least. Increasingly, young Iranians are expressing anti-Arab sentiments based mostly on their regime's support of Hizballah (and to a lesser extent Hamas).
Arab nationalists, and Arab liberals to a certain extent, have a serious problem. With the noble causes they espouse, they should technically be equally critical of such regimes. And yet, because of the Iranian regime's staunch support for Palestinian groups and for the Palestinian cause in general, many Arabs have spared Ahmadinezhad and his regime from the stinging reproaches they extend to other rulers.
Is the enemy of our enemy necessarily our friend, regardless of other factors? Have we become so desperate for support for the Palestinian cause that we would become bedfellows with the least savory of characters? This is not the first time this would have happened. Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who oppressed his own people for decades, acted so magnanimously with Palestinians that Yasser Arafat chose to side with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, with disastrous consequences for Palestinians. Likewise, the farcical Muammar Qadhafi remained a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause while his own people suffered. Many critics of Arab regimes also fall silent on Syria, precisely because of its vocal support for the various militant groups.
Arab nationalists have often explained themselves on this thorny issue, arguing that the choice of allies was dictated by the magnitude of the Palestinian problem and all the issues still touching on Israel. Unfortunately, this position has created huge resentment from the people ruled by the likes of Saddam Hussein, and anti-Palestinian sentiment was common for a long time. Similarly, the antics of Ahmadinezhad have been completely counterproductive, detrimental to the Palestinian cause and resented by many Iranians.
There must come a point when supporters of freedom for Palestinians, under a brutal military occupation and living in much worse conditions than most people, must take the same stand for others, even if the latter live in relatively milder conditions. Until then, we must not be surprised when Iranians, like Iraqis before them, stop caring about fundamental causes, no matter how righteous.- Published 25/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House, London.
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Conflicting Arab reactions to Iranians' turmoil
Tuesday, June 23, 2009, 22:33
My op-ed today for the New York Times online, Room for Debate, for the current edition titled The Arab World Reacts (or Doesn't). The NYT chose to call my piece "Insult to Injury," my own title being as in the blog title above.
Insult to Injury
It has practically become the norm for Arab people and the regimes that rule over them to have different reactions to big events happening in the region. This is also the case with Iran, but in very different ways.
For the most part, unelected regimes first watched, with unmistakable satisfaction, the self-claimed righteousness of their hated rival disintegrate in full view of their people and the world. Having always branded itself as being more democratic, popular and especially more legitimate than any Arab regime could ever be, the founders of the Islamic Republic were now openly challenged and exposed as frauds.
This schadenfreude comes to a tentative halt, however, with the regimes’ collective allergy to popular movements demanding freedom, especially peaceful ones in which every move and every cry is instantly transmitted in this era of digital communication. In each Arab country, people and regimes are surely wondering: Could this happen here? Is the courage of these young Iranians an incentive to follow, or does the Islamic regime’s repression curb enthusiasm for freedom?
Images like the distressing video immortalizing Neda Agha-Soltan as she lay dying in Tehran, inexplicably murdered, have also triggered conflicting emotions and sad questions on whether she died in vain. With so many people not actively espousing the position of any side, reluctant to shake a status quo, which, for all its problems, remains safer than the alternatives seen from Iraq to Afghanistan, the burden of experience is heavy. Dissent of any kind — even mild civil disobedience — has been brutally repressed throughout the Arab world replete with its own religious rulings, kangaroo courts and sham elections.
To add insult to injury, not only has people’s self-determination never received the backing of the international community, it has also been suppressed with the blessing of the world’s superpowers, eager to keep friendly regimes in power.
This is perhaps why Arab reactions to Iranians’ turmoil have been somewhat subdued. If the Iranians are so strongly supported in their quest for freedom, they wonder, why have Arabs’ own struggles been ignored, their own suffering been dismissed and their own Nedas been nameless? Why were Arabs’ own cries invoking God incessantly reported, in English, as calls to “Allah” in a perceived attempt to further alienate them, as if they believed in a different god, while Iranian cries of “Allahu akbar” have been correctly translated as “God is great” and repeated in unison by twitterers around the world?
With the wounds of Israel’s war on Gaza still open, many Arabs are particularly stunned that the indifference with which Palestinians deaths were received has turned into an international solidarity campaign for Iranians throwing rocks at their oppressors and shouting “we have become Palestine.”
For all the similarities joining the fate of Arab and Iranian people, the general occidental approach, including by mainstream news media and now by social media outlets, has been to differentiate between them. But if anyone can empathize with Iran’s frustrated youth, it is those who continue to live nearby with broken dreams, stifled by oppressive regimes that, with minor exceptions, need not worry about international condemnation. While the Arab and Iranian people continue to share aspirations, some regimes remain more equal than others.
Rime Allaf is a Syrian writer, an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She blogs at Mosaics.
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Israel torturing jailed Palestinian children
Saturday, June 13, 2009, 15:53Israel is abusing and torturing hundreds of jailed Palestinian children, some as young as 12! Many were jailed simply for throwing stones at the occupier.
Where is the international community's outcry?
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Collaborate or die!
Thursday, June 11, 2009, 16:04Please watch, distribute, and pray for all the innocent babies, children, women and men left to die a slow death in their Gaza ghetto, held prisoner by Israel and Egypt as the world ignores them.
"Collaborate or die!": Gaza: No Right to Life
“I put these curtains up to decorate the tent and to give my kids a sense of home”: Gaza: The Destitute and the Forgotten
Thank you to The Guardian for allowing the truth to be shown on its site.
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My piece on Obama, for New York Times online
Thursday, June 4, 2009, 20:12
A short, and quick reaction to Barack Obama's speech in Cairo today. (The title is the choice of the New York Times.)
For Syria, a Disappointing Speech
The chorus of self-congratulatory and mutually satisfied remarks is already growing loud across the Atlantic, but the essence of Barack Obama’s promised truth-telling speech has been less than historic and rather selective.
Even if we were able to contain “the Muslim world” into specific cultural, social or geographical parameters, it is unlikely that President Obama’s intended audience was swept off its feet. Charismatic and eloquent on his own merit, and certainly in comparison to his predecessor, President Obama has yet to veer very far from the policy path taken by the Bush administration.
Granted, President Obama had a delicate task in trying to satisfy contrasting audiences: friendly regimes, including his hosts, were reassured that democracy would not be imposed, but the masses were given small consolations with reminders on human rights. Presidents of superpowers, however, should not expect praise for stating the obvious, for recounting historical anecdotes or for paying respect to the world’s big religions; Islam’s tremendous contributions to Western thought and development are not a matter of opinion, and quotations from its holy book, the Quran, are unimpressive.
Unfortunately, the double standards of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, have remained at the crux of official rhetoric. Many will have heard a patronizing address, with an American president preaching, again, about what they must do and about the facts they must accept. The reference to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, would have resonated more strongly had President Obama dared to speak of Israel’s extensive nuclear arsenal. Remorse about Iraq, instead of dubious claims of achievement there, would have earned him some credibility.
In the Arab world, there was much hope that the carte blanche the Bush administration had given Israel would be withdrawn. While President Obama does speak of the generic suffering of Palestinians, he does it without committing to anything not already approved by his predecessor and merely reiterated his demand that Palestinians alone (and not Israel) renounce violence. He speaks of a Palestinian state, but not of U.N. resolutions defining its basic formation, nor of the central issue of Palestinian refugees and their right of return, granted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In effect, the only real problem Barack Obama seems to have with Israel is that of “continued settlements” and not actual occupation or disposession. Even the Arab Peace Initiative was deemed insufficient, and he admonished Arabs for their “self-defeating focus on the past” without offering a comprehensive solution.
It is especially from Damascus that disappointment will be felt by those who expected differently. The long-awaited outreach to Syria would have been a perfect component of the speech, and a lucid demonstration of the U.S. president’s promised change. As a key party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, its Golan still occupied by Israel, the half a million Palestinian refugees and two million Iraqi refugees crowded within its borders, Syria surely should have been part of President Obama’s new beginning.
It’s a pity Barack Obama didn’t truly make a historical break with past American foreign policy while the entire Arab and Muslim world was listening, and willing to reciprocate.
Rime Allaf is a Syrian writer, an international consultant and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. She has her own blog.
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Think tanks, blogs and social networks
Friday, May 29, 2009, 03:15There has been mounting dissent, by email and in person, about my relative silence on the blog after so many years of active writing, and I even get complaints about only posting articles and not real blog entries! Tough crowd. In my defense, apart from the delights of mothering a very active toddler and the other things that make days fly, I have also been busy on other forums: if you roam on Facebook or chat on Twitter, for instance, your posting propensity tends to decrease after a while. I didn’t want to succumb to the multiple posting tools, but I may just do that – and then my gems on the evil Facebook would be readable even in banned places. Now that I like.
Speaking of bans, one of the paragraphs in the following article did not meet the approval of the censors in Syria, even though it merely mentions a reality which itself has been ridiculed in numerous televised comedies, from Maraya to Spotlight. Feel free to check the link to compare, it’s not really worth it.
The point I was trying to make is an important one, and I’ve been making it privately for years. There should be more Syrians in reputable think tanks, and they should be encouraged to speak independently, because toeing the line actually does Syria no favors. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have found myself facing not Israelis, but Arabs attacking anything having to do with Syria. It is often my regional peers (well, from Lebanon mostly, and from Egypt as well) who expend the most energy on the subject, trying to explain that the only problems in the region are Syria and Iran. It sometimes shocks me to discover they have come prepared, using some of my articles as ammunition against me, turning statements about a given Syrian situation into "proofs" of my seemingly misguided opinions.
They simply cannot fathom the novel idea that someone in a prestigious think tank (like me) who is an ardent critic of regimes in the region (like me) and a supporter of numerous civil society positions (like me) and a passionate defender of the Palestinian cause (like me) can also calmly argue about the position of a state like Syria, its interests, its rights, and its concerns. Imagine that.
Thinking inside the tank: Syria should join the club
Rime Allaf - May 2009
“Peut-on désirer sans souffrir?” was not a mere lament about the possibility (or not) of desiring without suffering, but an important illustration of the phenomenal tradition of logic, or perfecting the art of thinking, in France.
Every year, for that most distinguishable of French institutions, the Baccalaureate, thousands of students start their set of written exams with a good dose of philosophy, a compulsory subject for all branches. For four hours, choosing one of three questions, they attempt to respond in the manner they hope will merit a high passing grade – not by giving a correct answer, but by presenting correct reasoning and logical argumentation.
The selection of questions is announced on televised news and published on front pages, provoking nationwide debates over the next days and reinforcing the strength of France’s Cartesian tradition. Last year, choices included the questions “Does art transform our conscience of reality?” for scientific students, “Is it easier to know another than to know oneself?” for economic and social studies students, “Can one love a work of art without understanding it?” for technology students and, for literary students, “Is a scientific knowledge of the living possible?” Regardless of their opinion on the various matters, or even of the degree of their interest, many students easily write dissertations of more than 10 pages, explaining their thought process and why they arrived at a particular answer.
I think, therefore I am
Years of studying how to think have armed these students with tools supposed to take them through their academic, professional, social and personal life. Having learned how to think independently, exposed to a multitude of sources and given the opportunity to make educated arguments, they become better able to detect, diagnose and deal with issues facing them. They also become better communicators.
What the French take for granted, however, remains the realm of the unknown for most of their peers elsewhere, especially in our region. Following an educational regimen that favours memorising over understanding, that rewards conformity over initiative and that penalises independent thinking and deviations from the straight path, they will never be as well-equipped to think about situations or to solve problems.
This is exacerbated by an even worse phenomenon: the exaggerated praise of superiors, or of would-be superiors, and the practice of simply saying what they think (often rightly) the latter want to hear. With so much time and effort spent on preparing to say what others want to hear, there is hardly any time or desire left for thinking and acting on these thoughts. This is bad enough when considering the personal dimension of this sorry habit, but it takes the magnitude of a plague when taken on the social and national level.
Filling the tanks
Actions speak louder than words, goes the proverbial saying, but the word, and the thought behind it, have been receiving prime-time attention in recent years. Never since Plato’s Academy – thought to have been the world’s first think tank – has there been such interest in the institutions that gladly label themselves as such. Flourishing over the world, with preponderance in Europe and the United States, they cover the spectrum of political positions from left to right, with varying degrees of independence and varying degrees of influence over coveted circles.
Whether they were thinkers in the time of Plato and Aristotle, trying to influence the workings of society and therefore of the state’s politicians, or whether they are actual political activists driving for tangible change, they and their think tanks aim to make a difference. To this end, they follow, analyse, write about and discuss the ideas and events they want, through publications, meetings, conferences, lectures and media coverage.
Respected institutions have no fast track to respectability, and influential fellows no quick way to influence; positions of authority come with patience and ideologues have spent much time, effort and money over the past decades to seep through the mainstream political arena and overtake their opponents’ argumentation. It’s not necessarily a labour of love, but it is labour and it is necessary. It’s uncertain, however, that the Arab world has understood this.
Arabs in search of influence
On the bright side, many Arab countries have joined the think tank club, managing to spread some papers, market some conferences and present some researchers. On a less bright side, most of these tanks are mere spokespersons for the people or for the entities sponsoring them and paying their salaries. This would be problematic enough in a domestic context, but it becomes much more serious on a worldwide scale if credibility is tainted by association to various authorities or institutions. In order to make a difference where it matters, the Arab world has a lot of work to do.
Firstly, there is a distance that it is nearly impossible to bridge while established institutions spread a general anti-Arab (and pro-Israeli) rhetoric. This is especially difficult in the aftermath of 9/11, where the Arab-Islamic world has been thrown into a contrived civilisation clash. Secondly, there are too few Arabs in the think tanks strong enough to make a difference. For the time being, even with the scarcity of think tanks in the region, there are more think tanks in the Arab world than there are Arabs in the think tank world.
Syria’s particular case is worthy of study, and of improvement. While a number of Arab countries have managed to produce research centres, think tanks and various other societies and centres, Syria remains practically invisible on the think tank map. More importantly, while neighbours are found abundantly in institutions around the world, the number of Syrians there could be counted on one hand – with fingers to spare.
As a fellow in one of the world’s most reputed think tanks, I have often met peers from Arab countries, but rarely from my own. In fact, it has been easy for a discourse antagonistic to Syria to spread in think tank circles, with papers and meetings expanding on a general Neocon/pro-Israeli approach, disregarding the big picture of Syria’s regional interests.
Such a limited presence is not conducive to much influence and it calls for decisive action by Damascus to promote various nationals who could also compete in the world. There are times when differences of opinion on internal affairs are best left aside in order to confront a bigger problem coming from outside; consequently, various Syrian thinkers, academics, intellectuals, researchers and other national assets should be getting greater exposure on the think tank circuit, joining the outnumbered Syrians there and offering a considered, cogent and coherent perspective.
Don’t think of an elephant
In his seminal pamphlet on the power of framing (fantastically titled Don’t Think of an Elephant) and numerous writings on cognitive linguistics and metaphors, George Lakoff has explained how conservatives in the US worked for decades on spreading their ideas, having framed the debate with careful language, and even invested in building the infrastructure (the think tanks) and filling it with people picked from graduate schools. With time, funds and consistency, they reached the pinnacle of political influence as their opponents struggled to gain traction with more liberal agendas.
This is the kind of serious discipline needed for a country like Syria, which needs a long-term approach to alter fundamental opposition to its interests, and which needs to accept and embrace the voices already doing this independently. Added to changes in educational practices, instilling a French-style thinking process in new generations, there is no reason why Syrians themselves cannot frame the debate, or at least be trained to ignore the elephant while convincingly arguing their case. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an Associate Fellow at London's Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php
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Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox
Friday, May 15, 2009, 14:45
Our Nakba, 61 today.
Everyone's been talking about tracks: Syrian track, Palestinian track, which track first, track this, track that. Suddenly, we're supposed to be hopeful about Obama's plan, which he will apparently bestow on us in a few weeks from Cairo, and which Abdullah of Jordan has begun marketing. 57 state solution? 57 minus one, of course.
Obama's alleged plan is a disaster. The only solution is to Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox. That's the UN, and that's where the only international community that counts has repeatedly supported the Palestinian cause.
Get off the beaten tracks and back into the matchbox
By Rime Allaf
Only a few decades ago, it would have been relatively simple to explain the Arab-Israel conflict to the most uninformed visitor: Arab land had been invaded, occupied and even annexed by Israel (the latter claiming ever more loudly to be acting in self-defense with every act of aggression), even though UN resolutions clearly defined the legal parameters of the admissible and set the date of June 4, 1967 as the starting point of redemption. It was obvious that land had to be returned in exchange for peace, an idea put to practice in the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Today, it is difficult to know where to begin explaining how things went wrong and why the alliances of yesteryear have morphed into the strangest partnerships of "moderate" Arab states (notwithstanding extremist clerics laying down the law) opposing "radical" ones (that happen to remain vocally anti-Israel) supporting different Palestinian parties. The equation of land for peace, as inadequate as it may have been for implying a concession from Israel, has given way to peace for peace, with a growing list of prerequisites and guarantees demanded from Israel's victims who now wait on separate tracks.
Before Israel and its allies started linking all regional events to Iran, they had marketed their obsession with Iraq, making it the lowest common denominator in these equations. Working up from the war of 1991 (the liberation of Kuwait), the men who would be kings planned the steady process meant to provoke a clean break for securing the realm, a model presented to the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, during his time in office in 1996.
Today, with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the attempted isolation of Syria and two destructive wars unleashed by the Israeli war machine on Lebanon and Gaza, it seems that securing the realm has been the one on track, at the expense of all the peace tracks that were supposed to be explored, mostly at Israel's convenience. Having nearly reached the declared destination on the Syrian track in 2000, Israel quickly retraced its steps and jumped with wild abandon onto the Palestinian track, navigating the perilous stages of due "painful concessions" through emergency exits, thoughtfully provided in the American roadmap bestowed after a vision by Bush.
Years of a peace process with no due process have taken their toll on the most wretched of victims, standing by the tracks and watching the stationary peace train gathering dust. The very fact that the word track has become an integral part of "peace talk" should alert us to the absurdity of the situation. It doesn't take an expert to realize that the concept of tracks is at odds with that of a comprehensive peace settlement; nor does it take an expert to conclude that the partition of interlocutors into more manageable teams--in the true spirit of divide and conquer--speaks volumes about intentions.
Israel has spent the last decades, alas mostly successfully, dividing Arabs. In its defiance of every legal and moral restriction imposed by man or God, Israel enforced separate tracks to foil a comprehensive peace agreement, lest it be cornered into actually ceding Arab land it acquired unlawfully, into accepting Palestinians' right of return and compensation that it has negated despite every universal declaration or binding resolution, and into recognizing Jerusalem's position as Palestinian also.
There is nothing Israel has disdained more than international agreements, or, even worse, reconciliation proposals. In 2002, in response to the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by all Arab League members during their summit in Beirut, Israel unleashed its fiercest assault yet on Palestinians in the West Bank, killing hundreds, destroying millions worth of infrastructure and brazenly putting the Palestinian president under a siege from which he would only emerge on his deathbed. Having delivered the Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat had outlived his usefulness and Israel needed a constant enemy.
This is why one should only feel suspicion and alarm at the sudden re-emergence of a comprehensive peace plan about which Israel seems receptive, regardless of the official declarations of a government that refuses to recognize Palestine's right to exist, or of the racist aspirations of a foreign minister wined and dined in Europe's capitals.
In a second address inside a Muslim world he seems eager to convince, but to which he has not yet delivered a coherent message, President Obama is to announce a new Middle East initiative, one even worse than all its predecessors. From Cairo, Obama will peddle a peace proposal offering Israel normalization with the Arab and Muslim worlds (an idea that the Jordanian king has dutifully marketed as the 57-state solution, whose alternative is war, presumably by Israel, in the next 18 months), but more importantly a normalization that would not depend on negotiations on the Palestinian issue. In other words, as Palestinians continue to despair, alone, and as Gaza struggles under an Israeli blockade, Israel would be offered a ticket for a smooth ride with current foes.
This would be a disaster for the Palestinian cause, which has continued to decline with each peace agreement Israel has deigned accept. Sixty-one years after the catastrophe of Palestinian dispossession, it beggars belief that the world's only superpower still needs to cajole the country in breach of the most United Nations resolutions and in contravention of every law on weapons of mass destruction. Likewise, it beggars belief that the UN itself daren't even publish a full report about Israel's attacks on its own sites and personnel, let alone on the civilians it is supposed to feed, shelter and protect. If there is one place that should have retained credibility, and that should be regarded as the most honest of brokers, it is the United Nations.
Until now, discussions hovered between two main tracks: the Palestinian and the Syrian. With Obama's entrance into the peace game, for it seems to be nothing but a game to Israel and its friends, these tracks will merely give way to one superhighway, and one miserable side road that Israel will be free to continue ignoring, thereby pushing dispossessed Palestinians into a point of no return. Bringing the added injustice of total desertion of the Palestinian cause, the Obama doctrine seems destined to failure.
The Arab-Israel conflict will not be solved in the Oval Office, but in the matchbox, under the protection of the real international community, the General Assembly. For now, however, despite the guiding principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some states at the UN remain more equal than others.- Published 14/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, London.
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When Avi met Mili
Thursday, May 14, 2009, 17:50Aren't they adorable together? You have to wonder why they're being so shy about it.
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They have hasbara, we have maskhara
Thursday, April 23, 2009, 02:30They have hasbara, of varying quality, and we have maskhara, in more than one way, including (but not limited to):
Egypt invites Lieberman to visit, despite threats boycott threats
Jumblatt seeks to appease Christians After 'Insulting' and 'Unintentional' Remarks on Maronites
A million Arab journalists
The list is long and can be updated on a daily basis, especially with certain official "news" agencies and holier-than-thou ministries. I couldn't be bothered to go beyond the million Arab journalists, but please do not feel restrained in ridiculing Saudi media yourself (as long as you also ridicule media in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, etc.).
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Born Palestinian, deported from Egypt
Tuesday, April 14, 2009, 23:14Having followed her plight, towards its last stages, and read Laila El-Haddad's "I was born Palestinian" post, this is what I wanted to say:
As a mother who was pained to read about your children’s situation, as an Arab who never imagined such disgraceful conduct could be possible in “oum el dounia” until the Egyptian regime’s behavior during Israel’s savagery in Gaza, as a compatriot in spirit who was never subjected to such shameful treatment, as a human being distraught by your experience and by the silence of the free world paying lip service to human rights, I express my solidarity with Palestine and Palestinians, and my admiration at your dignified behaviour.
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Look who's talking in the Arab world
Monday, April 13, 2009, 00:50Here's my monthly column in Syria Today, where I criticize pretty much every media left and right for not having the upper hand on credibility or professionalism. I didn't even bother getting into the details of Syrian media, not even with my legendary subtlety which ruffles absolutely no feathers on any official or responsible in any way, no siree. I thought Syrian media already underlined itself quite efficiently and needed no additional highlighting at all, as evidenced by the marvellous official and diplomatic communication, online and off, on offer to the world today.
Anyway, it seems that when I criticize the others I'm good, but when I criticize Syria I'm simply bashing, in times of crisis no less. Go figure.
Not to digress, but has anyone tried the link http://www.sana.org/ lately? To which it had been changed from sana.sy ages ago, and which bookmarked with the letters BBC? Where today's main headline (on the old URL) actually (and, as luck would have it, rightly) says that Bouteflika re-elected himself? Just saying.
Look who's talking in the Arab world
By Rime Allaf
It is often in times of severe crisis, or of war, that the vast gulf separating media on either side of the Atlantic, and on either shore of the Mediterranean, becomes most visible, audible and practically touchable. Indeed, it becomes obvious to the degree of ridicule that the same event or incident can be presented in manners that are not only different, but opposing. Israel’s assault on Gaza, for example, was a typical case highlighting the fact that regardless of their political orientations or sympathies, Arabs and Americans were watching different wars. Such a statement would have been largely sufficient only a few years ago to summarise the main problem of us versus them: we supported one side, they the other.
In some ways, those were the good old days of the pan-Arab message, in all its simplicity and homogeneity. The stations sounded nearly identical, the newspapers carried similar variations of headlines, and the television channels could hardly bother to compete. To each his own, and ours was simply a fact of life, a droning, yawn-inducing necessary interlude to endure while waiting for the weather projection and the main movie. Little comfort came from knowing that their freedom of the press vanished when reporting Israel-related news and it took the advent of satellite television, followed by digital and virtual communication, to take things to another level.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Al Jazeera, a revolutionary medium which shook the Arab world and made the West sit up and take notice. People (and officials) either loved it or loved to hate it, but were not indifferent. Even so, many years after the birth of the mother of all Arabic news channels, serious disagreements remain about its achievements. One by one, Arab countries found fault with its journalists or took offense with its programmes, while commentators who neither watched it nor understood Arabic accused it of being inflammatory, spectacular and biased.
But what defines the parameters of the acceptable, or the ideal? And while all media are expected to apply full impartiality, objectivity and neutrality, can even a single media outlet pretend to lead by example? It takes a lot more than a declaration of ethics to qualify, and it would seem that for all its shortcomings, Al Jazeera has lessons to take from no peer.
Debunking the myths of Western media
Before satellite and the internet allowed proper evaluation and comparison, textbooks remained unchallenged in their descriptions of journalism. Western media was presented as a bastion of ethics following a stringent code of conduct, letting investigative journalism uncover the massacre of My Lai, the scandal of Watergate or the abuses in Abu Ghraib. There was supposed to be a clear cut between fact-checked news and opinion; the latter was clearly distinguished as being either the view of the media itself (editorial) or that of other commentators, opposite the editorial (op-ed). Broadcast journalism followed the same strict divisions between fact and opinion, between reporting and editorialising, and prizes such as Columbia University’s Pulitzer Prize were honours for which all strived, celebrating the sacredness of free, objective and impartial media.
If it could be found, this media would certainly be worth defending in full. In reality, most self-proclaimed fair and balanced media are deficient in more than one factor, usually revolving around the notion of freedom from bias, from censorship, or from giving a complete picture.
Unlike Al Jazeera, which can confidently support its claim that it airs a spectrum of opinions in its coverage, most other media only really have the one basic opinion and not much, if any, of the other opinion. Like the most austere official media of old, they automatically invite guest opinions which are more royal than the king, sometimes admitting opposing views by quoting them, making them sound ridiculous or dangerous, or by giving harried guests mere seconds to respond to a barrage of accusatory questions.
Giving only part of the story is bad; peddling lies, propaganda and knowingly falsifying the facts is even worse. Unfortunately, the media institutions which should have been the solid rock of reliability have proved as flimsy as common tabloids and as untrustworthy as communist era agencies.
The New York Times’ mea culpa one year after the invasion of Iraq, admitting some guilt in publishing the Bush administration’s stories without checking them, proved that not all the news was actually fit to print. Its very incomplete apology only skims the surface of the damage done by free media ‘reporting’ big lies and passing them off as facts, including the scourge of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or Israel’s self-defence in disputed rather than occupied territories.
Integrity has waned in the media we were supposed to uphold as examples, with language degenerating into convenient ambiguity at best and outright deception at worst. Israel’s hasbara is one of the oldest propaganda machines serving as a thesaurus to media accomplices who continue to demonstrate that there is no such thing as media without an agenda. The recent refusal of the BBC to broadcast the Gaza emergency charity appeal, on the preposterous claim that it would compromise its impartiality, merely confirmed its submission to powerful agenda setters, a feat already demonstrated with its disgraceful backtracking after the British government’s fury over the infamous “sexed-up Iraq dossier”.
The good, the bad and the pretty
Such shortcomings should be of no comfort to today’s Arab media, a generic term joining public and private media whose own deficiencies are legendary and hardly worth rehashing. Sadly, the ‘free’ Arab media cited as example amounts to nothing more than channels and papers belonging to competing Lebanese warlords and politicians, although a surge in various Arab networks (such as in Egypt) has added businessmen to the lucky club of agenda setters which was previously limited to governmental channels.
The fact remains that red lines are difficult to cross in the region, especially after the Arab League’s adoption of a media charter which can stifle the most resilient professionals. While Western media could eventually take risks and venture into principled independence, Arab media will never rise to the challenge under such rigid laws, even though it has made great strides in the recent past, thanks mostly to Al Jazeera which paved the way.
Many Arab channels can be considered professional and manage relative degrees of objectivity – as long as the subject does not touch red lines – and sleek, modern and technically advanced studios have multiplied across the region, manned by polished presenters and efficient reporters. But for all these good broadcasters and publishers, bad examples continue to roam the airwaves, stuck in a time warp and disinclined to even change form or content, guaranteeing job continuity to stiff newsreaders in the most rudimentary of facilities.
There is also, alas, the category of the pretty faces, the attractive designs, the cool graphics and the fashionable gear, pleasing to the eye if not the ear, and with no effort to camouflage the unbearable lightness of their being. Sadly, with varying degrees of penetration in public and private media, they make absolutely no contribution to the development of media in their respective location and are copycats of the ignorant kind.
The missing frame
Despite being regularly dismissed as impotent and uninfluential, Arabs are being courted by an impressive array of foreign media networks, eager to follow on the footsteps of Al Jazeera, and Al Arabiya to a lesser extent, and to reach the proverbial hearts and minds in the region.
After the US’s useless attempts with Al Hurra, France’s France 24, Britain’s BBC Arabic, Iran’s Al Alam, Germany’s Deutsche Welle Arabia and Russia’s Rusiya Al Youm have joined the race to conquer Arabic speakers, with negligible results. For the time being, Arabs seem settled with their local providers, but an interesting development could see more ventures into foreign lands. With the slow but steady progress of Al Jazeera English, there is clearly room and indeed urgent need for Arab perspectives to cross borders and to be communicated directly without the selective and destructive translations of MEMRI-style Zionist outlets.
Arab media has a high hill to climb and many tricks of the trade to learn. In particular, it must impose coverage of Arab affairs, in all their abundance and diversity, to be made within an Arab-designed frame, rather than the frames (including “Israel’s right to exist” and “anti-Semitism”) which enemies have successfully set as default for the last decades. Unlike the easing of the Arab media charter, this is not mission impossible.
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Shifting sands and Arab unity
Monday, March 30, 2009, 15:35Posted a bit late with the summit already under way, this was commissioned for and supposed to be published on Thursday, but only made it online on Sunday (because of AJ's backlog). The central premise remains that I think all this Saudi fuss about unity and reconciliation is really about pretending to be the Arab/Muslim leader again after its pathetic position during Israel's savagery in Gaza, and about not letting other countries which think they actually may matter take credit for anything.
I am very interested by Qatar's approach on things and by their rather impressive success in punching above their weight. I think it has been the only country in the region taking a real (and actually constructive) proactive role, rather than the reactive and contradictory positions of others. Let's hope nothing ruins Al Jazeera in the process.
Shifting sands and Arab unity
By Rime Allaf
Following reports that six heads of Arab states - including Egypt - will not attend the Arab League summit in Doha this week, it appears the proverbial saying about Arabs' agreement on disagreement, and more specifically that of their leaders, still holds.
If Arabs finally do agree on certain questions this week, however, even with the increasingly low expectations that these summits now generate, dreams of Arab unity on the major issues are unattainable under the present circumstances.
Deteriorating relations between several regional powers have been dubbed the Cold War, but with so much hot air, fiery speeches and proxy fights, it has been everything but cold. On most thorny files, two main camps faced each other, with several undecided fluttering in-between, trying not to alienate any of the countries on either side.
It is not yet clear whether the demise of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian axis was for the better or for the worse, but its repercussions have demonstrated that Arab states are interdependent in spite of (or perhaps because of) differences of opinion. Since attempted isolation and communication freezes simply made matters worse, the new modus operandi has evolved into an admission that consultations and agreements got better results, and, in Sun-tzu terms, that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
The official mood of reconciliation follows the mini summit organized by Saudi Arabia earlier this month, ostensibly to bury the hatchet but in a puzzling manner. If Saudi Arabia and Egypt are now considered to be the “moderate front” while Syria has been paired with Qatar as the “rejectionist front,” shouldn’t the latter have been invited as well? Instead, the Saudi ruler hosted his Egyptian, Syrian and Kuwaiti peers, unable or unwilling to suppress his displeasure with the emergence of unexpected new forces in the Arab world.
Indeed, Qatar’s position has been a source of considerable irritation for Saudi Arabia, as it watches a country many times smaller play pan-Arab counsellor and broker successful pacts, such as the Doha Agreement last May between opposing Lebanese factions. Qatar’s initiative in hosting an emergency Arab summit as Israel smashed Gaza gave the most distressing testimony of regional power plays and the damage they brought on the Palestinian cause, assuming one can still speak of this cause on an Arab level. With the “moderates” boycotting the meeting and pressuring the Palestinian president to stay away, the platform was left for Khaled Mishal, political head of Hamas, to show a leading role at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas.
The Israeli war on Gaza was lived with anguish and rage in most of the Arab and the Muslim world, irrespective of the positions of the rulers. It is apparent that Saudi Arabia, with hindsight, feels the need to regain control of a role it had allowed to slip, and appear to speak in the name of a somewhat cohesive Arab world, and an Arab cause beginning with Palestine. As popular grief turned to anger while footage from Gaza filled television screens, Saudi media was eventually pushed into a more extensive coverage of the war, and a more public response. Regaining the cloak of Palestinian defense is the next logical step for the Saudis, hoping they can seal the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas which Egypt has repeatedly promised, but failed to achieve. Obviously, such a deal also needs the collaboration of Syria; while hopes of weakening its relations with Iran may also be on the distant agenda, no serious observer believes it’s feasible in the short term.
With Gaza possibly having served as a political wake-up call, especially after Hamas remained unbroken, the Riyadh meeting was set up for several purposes, one of them being to insure that Qatar could not take credit for this rapprochement, and that it be made on its own turf. Saudi Arabia also wishes to reach a collective position on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, declared dead by the Syrian president during the mini-summit in Doha. If, however, there are plans to affirm that rumors of its death have been exaggerated but that a time limit will come into effect, Saudi Arabia needs the consensus of all Arab leaders, and the Riyadh reconciliation is also a step in that way.
Saudi Arabia and Syria still see Lebanon from very different perspectives, and the appointment of a Syrian ambassador to Beirut this week should be seen as a public gesture of goodwill or cooperation, even though both Damascus and Riyadh know that this will change next to nothing in dealings with Lebanon. With elections scheduled for June, there is a declared wish to keep things as civil and orderly as possible.
The Saudi king seems keen on keeping the big files under control, and under a general consensus, especially as the region adjusts to a new American administration and a forthcoming Israeli government whose agenda leaves little to the imagination regarding its plans for Palestinians. Without influence on all Palestinian parties, Saudi Arabia cannot pretend to play a leading role, a situation not suited for its credentials as Arab and Muslim power.
It is important to try to interpret Saudi (and Egyptian) behavior outside the narrow parameters of relations with Iran, on which the vast majority of media have been focusing even in their analysis of the Palestinian problem. Iraq, of course, remains the biggest problem to hit the area since the dispossession of Palestine, and its impact on neighboring countries has yet to be properly felt. Talk of the limited American withdrawal has done little to improve even the political situation; the US and the UK had hoped recent municipal elections would bring a secular group to share the power, but they have merely confirmed the force of religious (and Iran-friendly) parties
While the Bush administration simplistically blamed all the violence, chaos and discord on Syria and Iran, the Saudis know full well that it has been impossible to control the outpouring of anger, and the increase of radicalization, within their own borders. Iraq is nowhere near a peaceful epilogue, no matter what is being said (or rather not said) on most mainstream media. On the contrary, having added fuel to the fire with sectarian discourse in its own media for some time (relating to Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and beyond), the “moderates” are now facing the inevitable backlash.
With explosive situations in Palestine and Iraq, unresolved issues in Lebanon, uncertain futures in the political leaderships of countries preparing for a change, a hint of worsening conflict in nearby Afghanistan, and a global recession hitting the financial stability of even successful oil states, Saudi Arabia has a lot of catching up to do if it is to regain a perception of leadership, and the power to influence multiple regional parties, even when counting for the damage that can’t be undone, and for the personal animosity that has developed between certain leaders.
The fact remains that new alignments will undoubtedly continue to change the shape of regional politics, and that the days of the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian axis are definitely over. Qatar’s apparition as a power broker, benefitting from a multitude of good connections regionally and internationally, is not going to be an easy act to follow, even assuming that it were about to relinquish its post. Just like Turkey, which has emerged on the scene extending a hand of partnership in its own neighborhood while simultaneously cultivating its ties outside the Arab world (including with Iran), Qatar has found itself on a political pedestal, using its ties wisely and truly developing a new vision for the region after setting the pace in the media sphere. No matter how little real progress happens in the upcoming Arab summit, and with the expected vague statements assuring unity, it seems that this vision is here to stay.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php.
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Syria first needs positioning, then branding
Tuesday, March 24, 2009, 02:09I think most people enjoy a specific part of their profession, or their expertise, to a greater degree than the remaining aspects of the discipline in question. In my case, it's positioning, a marketing communications concept which fascinates and engages me to incredible points, and which I find myself applying frequently in various projects.
Nation branding (or place branding) is a logical and hugely beneficial endeavour when done well, because it inevitably centers the communication and the messages emanating from very different quarters in the nation being branded. However, there are countless examples of sloppy branding and marketing which have barely made a difference in the country's image. Contrasted to the impact of campaigns of exceptional quality for certain countries (such as Spain's immaculate "Passion for Life"), and for certain cities (including my beloved Vienna's "Vienna Waits for You"), third rate marketing, including branding, will never be better than no marketing at all.
In my opinion, Syria is not ready for nation branding, not only because it first needs to work hard to get to a "neutral" position from which branding can begin, but also because I dread to think of the qualifications of the branders and communicators who will be designing the campaign, the slogan, or the brand. God help us if they stick with the ubiquitous "road to Damascus" or "cradle of civilization" lines without bothering to undo years of negative imaging. Hence the need for re-positioning before branding, hoping it results in an image more evocative than ruins. All covered in my monthly column for Syria Today.
Syria on their minds: the re-positioning battle
In a world where nation branding has become the order of the day for most governments, Syria has a lot of catching up to do and faces challenges on several dimensions. It would normally be reassuring to hear the terms “marketing”, “public relations” and “image” being mentioned hesitantly in official Syrian circles, but there is a real danger that this sudden awakening may result in a sloppy and simplistic campaign of no strategic depth, supported by non-expert contributors with no background in these disciplines. This would be a sure recipe for spectacular failure at the most sensitive of times, when Syria needs to attain an image commensurate to its reflection and ambition.
Communication, as an umbrella of all these marketing branches, is too serious a matter to leave to amateurs. It’s a subject about which I have been preaching for years, in the hope that Syria, and Syrians, would recognise its impact in the age of technology driven information. Alas, the understanding of marketing has come to include every retail or communication activity under the sun, while people with dubious degrees of qualification claim professional positions in that field. A cursory glance at numerous ads in the private sector would reveal that Syria is full of marketeers, in the modern sense of the word, working in a business environment that utilises the full scope of the principles of marketing communications. In reality, the discipline is still in its infancy, and it needs to be developed to allow Syria a competitive chance with even the simplest of product ranges, let alone the intangible business of image.
On a national level, in the public domain, marketing communication is even more of a sensitive issue, as it puts Syria at a disadvantage in contrast to opponents (and even allies) whose discourse, spin and self-marketing is more sophisticated, reaching more influential parties and the all-important opinion makers. Of all of Syria’s shortcomings in this domain, the following are the most significant, and have been the most detrimental to its perception in the world.
First, positive connotations with Syria, if at all known, are mostly historical or socio-cultural, and therefore rather irrelevant to an improvement of its current image and perception. This includes allusions to the country’s richness in historical relics, the language of Christ still being spoken in Syria, Syrian hospitality and cuisine, and similar nice notions of little import on the overall perception.
Second, negative connotations are mostly political, having managed to grab headlines and become spontaneously associated with Syria over time. This includes the usual accusations of radicalism, rejectionism, support for terrorism and even pan-Arabism (currently considered confrontational by some sources), and a long list of complaints constantly re-edited by American and Israeli scribes.
Third, a lethargic ‘laissez-faire’ attitude in all media communication matters has allowed Syria’s critics and enemies to spin freely and to paint the country in the worst possible light. Being secure in the self-knowledge that our critics are lying or giving half-truths does not safeguard us from the sting of their active discrediting of all things Syrian.
Fourth, a sporadic and mediocre approach to public diplomacy by various Syrian institutions, inside and outside the country, has possibly done more harm than good, considering that it was the only outlet communicating a Syrian position. This includes exaggerated and outdated communication efforts (in style and in content) by official media and by some embassies which neglected even the most basic of tools, such as the official website.
Fifth, actual infrastructure supporting Syria’s tourism, exports, and foreign direct investment (FDI) are severely lacking, a fact that is not a secret to those considering any of these activities, or to those advising against them. For all our claims that we are ready to welcome more tourists, to export more goods, and to provide FDI opportunities, there is much to improve before that can be done.
With such examples setting the parameters of the challenges awaiting Syria, which has remained impassive for too long, it is clear that action is urgently required if only to keep up with a majority of countries attempting to refine their own image, and embarking on nation branding in a crowded planet.
Positioning before branding
The urgency facing Syria’s communication needs is itself dangerous, as it opens the door to careless haste when the contrary is needed. Indeed, it will take serious deliberations and strategic planning to go through the necessary process: before we get to nation branding, we need to undo the damage done by years of detrimental coverage and self-exposure. Syria must first and foremost undertake an expert exercise of positioning, or re-positioning.
There are problems with this approach. For one, branding is much easier, and technically more adapted to a situation where time is of the essence, and where a relatively quicker branding exercise may yield results sooner, assuming it is done professionally. One can only imagine how tempting it must be for Syrian marketing enthusiasts to mould a nation brand, rework the slogan and start advertising it through various channels; at this stage of its 'product life', however, it is inadvisable to brand before damage control is undertaken.
Indeed, the comfortable clichés, repeated ad nauseam over the years, must be slowly reworked and not simply pasted as slogans over the same old photos. This has been the modus operandi until today, and it doesn’t work. Syria’s multifaceted identity has been lost in a sea of tired slogans and needs redefining: cradle of civilisation, land of diversity, conversion on the road to Damascus, oldest capital in the world and beating heart of Arabism are all still applicable, but they mean nothing to recipients of negative propaganda, or to seekers of less grandiose thrills. Syria needs to stop trying to be everything to everybody and to overextend the range it presents; instead, it must focus on more tactile perceptions and credible associations.
Nation branding is hard enough in a saturated world where most governments have now set up task forces to construct their brand, making differentiation challenging. It becomes much more difficult when branding does not begin on a clean, neutral plate, but rather on a mostly negative footing. This is why positioning is the first exercise needed for Syria, to attempt correcting its image independently, and in comparison to countries considered similar in their culture and history, but without the drag factor that years of negative publicity have created. It will be a long process.
Whereas branding concerns itself with the attributes of the product (or object, service, nation, etc.) as presented, positioning is truly a battle for a place inside the mind of the consumer, the critic or the future supporter. With positioning, one can aim to manipulate perceptions, in the mind of the recipient, through various means, vis-à-vis several reference points. For example, what makes Syria “radical” in the mind of given respondents who find some of its neighbours “moderate”? What makes it “closed” while others are “open”? Or what makes it “rigid” while others are “flexible”? These questions may have an obvious answer to those who already know Syria, but the picture is not so clear for the uninitiated, or the indoctrinated.
Syria needs to choose its message and its messengers carefully as it manoeuvres into a new global positioning; simplicity, subtlety and sincerity are essential. The battle for the mind must be fought on many fronts, and it entails a change of attitude on Syria’s part: we must become proactive in addition to reactive, convincing in addition to self-assured, enticing in addition to picturesque.
A positioning endeavour would be the first serious public diplomacy, international media or communication campaign undertaken by Syria. Many of the required steps may sound like basic textbook tasks, but it would be a grave mistake to underestimate their sensitivity. As we begin to tackle the challenges ahead, it is imperative that we take it one step at a time, perhaps beginning by setting up a Syria Image Management Unit (SIMU), a Syria Positioning Taskforce (SPOT) or simply Syria Marcom Support (SMS). Whatever the acronym, it needs to have the means and the freedom to research, to debate, and to create, and to allow the respective professionalism and dedication of the team members to be committed to an ideal: Syria, the country, as it deserves to be seen.
Rime Allaf is an international consultant and an Associate Fellow at London’s Chatham House. She blogs at www.rimeallaf.com/mosaics/index.php.
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