Lonely post-summit blog entry
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 01:30
As I've already explained to many of you who kindly asked by email, I apologize for Mosaics' recent disappearing act and for my prolonged silence. Until the gods of technology allow us full access to all the archives, however, I am faced with a blank canvas and feel rather lonely here without the many entries (and corresponding comments) which have been filling up this space since 2004.

Nevertheless, I hope to get back to blogging soon, and I thank each and every one of you for your concern. In the meantime, and although it comes too late now, here is something I wrote a week before the Arab League Summit in Damascus.


Success Measured by Attendance

By Rime Allaf

Despite their proven futility, Arab League summits have always managed to create a modicum of expectation over the last couple of decades as several big events shook the Arab world to its core. But apart from exceptions when actionable resolutions were adopted, like the expulsion of Egypt in the Baghdad Summit of 1979 (following its lone peace settlement with Israel) or the emergency Cairo Summit of 1990 in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (where a recording leaked subsequently showed Arab leaders disgracefully shouting insults across the table), they have mostly been opportunities to prove the cliché that "Arabs agree to disagree."

With such low expectations and no likely achievements, the region now mostly plays a different summit game: how good will turnout be, which of the big names will skip, and which will strive to steal the headlines with a late arrival? The scrutiny continues during the summit: who will be merely civil to whom, who will show effusive appreciation to whom, and whose brotherly kisses and hugs will provide the best photo-op?

The upcoming Damascus Summit suffers from these usual afflictions, but there are additional issues raising the stakes. For one, past thorny summits were held on relatively neutral grounds, either in countries not directly implicated in the crisis du jour, or in Arab League headquarters. In contrast, the Damascus Summit will convene in the country most at odds with its co-members, under the auspices of a rather controversial regime whose relations with most Arab states have deteriorated over one of the trickiest problems facing the region in recent years. Unlike other summits, this one is hosted by the party accused of causing the rift in Lebanon, whose presidential crisis is blamed on Damascus alone.

One other novelty is the extent of pre-conditions other regimes have imposed, or tried to impose, on their host -- conditions which reveal the lack of faith of summit participants themselves in the potential value of such gatherings. Instead of proposing to use the summit to resolve the Lebanese problem, amongst others, countries with rival positions have hinted that their participation depended precisely on the election of a president after 16 attempts; a seventeenth failure, they warn, would break the summit and doom it to low-level (if any) representation, rather than being graced with the presence of influential leaders.

Syria is anxious to avoid a humiliating no-show from the big names. Repeatedly trying, and repeatedly failing, to secure Saudi approval for a visit by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to deliver the official summit invitation, Syria finally resigned itself to send it at a much lower level, illustrating the depth of the gulf between Riyadh and Damascus. It will not have helped, of course, that Lebanon was the last of 22 countries to be invited to the summit, in a manner defying protocol and typical of Syrian "diplomacy": handed to a resigned minister of the Lebanese cabinet by an official of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, it wasn't even signed by the host of the event, but by the Syrian Prime Minister.

Such moves do nothing to endear the Syrian regime to its critics, and Muallem's claim that this summit would have the highest level of attendance of any summit remains to be proven. It is not clear whether he counts one of the confirmed attendants, the Iranian Foreign Minister, in his tally, but unless other friendly neighbors (such as Turkey) also make an appearance, the representative of Iran may find himself the sole non-Arab at the table amongst irate participants finding one more point of contention with the host.

But Damascus is also subject to unprecedented third party interference, a phenomenon not experienced by other summit organizers. With the American president arrogantly preaching to Arabs about attendance, and with even the usually diplomatic head of EU diplomacy, Javier Solana, opining that key Arab leaders would not come if a Lebanese counterpart is not amongst them, Syria's own meddling begins to appear pertinent.

A summit would be a perfect setting to reach regional solutions, but pan-Arab politics have rarely abided by such logic and we are left measuring success through attendance rather than achievement. Thus, even the 2002 Beirut Summit's major accomplishment (the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative) was overshadowed by the absence of half the heads of state, and by the deliberate blocking of besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's televised address to his fellow leaders, as the host, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, cut his broadcast as it began from Ramallah and declared it was time for lunch.

The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will be unenthusiastic about making a personal appearance in the capital where his biggest enemy (Hamas) holds political court, but unable to skip the summit given the tragic situation in Gaza. Likewise, the Lebanese will be damned if they come (which some would consider a show of weakness in front of Syria) and damned if they don't (which could be interpreted as unwillingness to trust pan-Arab diplomacy). Current heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia will also be torn between attending to impose their presence, and defaulting to register their opposition to Syrian actions, and to cause summit failure. But Syrian-Saudi relations, currently at an all-time low, have overcome greater challenges; while many believe that King Abdullah has not forgiven, or forgotten, Syrian slights he felt were directed at his person after the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006, this didn't stop him from embracing and meeting with the Syrian president during the last summit in Riyadh. This shows that summits do little to change political situations, and the Damascus Summit will be just as inconsequential as its precursors.

Still, the Syrian regime is hoping that the regional situation, recently inflamed even more with the help of Israel, the United States and various other incendiary meddlers, will sway them towards participation, and that their presence in the self-proclaimed "beating heart of Arabism" will allow for a whirlwind persuasive exposé on its leadership in the sacrosanct Arab struggle – a task made more difficult, if not moot, by the presence of Iran.

To paraphrase Fontenelle, a great obstacle to success is the expectation of too much success. Despite Syrian hype about the summit, success measured by attendance merely increases the possibility of failure in such unfavourable circumstances.

Rime Allaf is Associate Fellow at Chatham House

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The capital of culture, and its lost cultured capital
Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 07:40
Today, the Arab capital of culture glistened under the snow. Shining beneath a white sky which enveloped the city with tenderness and lent it an awe-inspiring aura, Damascus seemed to settle comfortably into a role it always knew it deserved. At the start of this Damascene year of culture, as I read the names of various prominent cultured people who will visit the world’s oldest city, I could only think about those who will not be part of the celebrations.

Indeed, my appreciation of Milan Kundera and Noam Chomsky, for example, would have only been even greater had they been invited to impart their art alongside their Syrian peers, our very own “muthaquafin.” But this Arabic word, often used here to refer to our civil society activists, has been robbed of its most worthy personification: regrettably, too many of our truly cultured Syrians are behind bars, in forced exile, or in forced silence. At best, our best have been ignored and cast aside.

Our intellectuals have been stifled for too many years, and the only permissible manifestation of “culture” has been one of conformity with an encoded agenda, lapped up by pedants, yes-men and women, and uncouth would-be ideologues.

I hope that everyone will spare a thought for the true cultured Syrians who continue to languish in terribly harsh conditions in jail, emprisoned for no other reason than practicing their own culture of honesty and compassion for their country, for which they had the greatest and most sincere of ambitions. I have mentioned many of their names in the past (including Michel Kilo, Anwar Bunni, Kamal Labwani), in this blog and elsewhere, in solidarity with the brave civil society activists who dared to speak and to write about what was needed to make Syria a better place.

Today, in particular, I hope you will have a prayer in your hearts for our respected Dr. Aref Dalila, one of this capital’s greatest minds and kindest souls, who is suffering a very grave deterioration in his health, and whose spirit is in great need of our support as he continues to endure solitary confinement in brutal conditions for a seventh consecutive year. May he and all our prisoners of conscience soon recover the physical, spiritual and intellectual freedoms which are our God-given rights. Without them, Damascus is poorer, more sad, and more lonely.

“As the soil, however rich it may be, cannot be productive without culture, so the mind, without cultivation, can never produce good fruit.” (Seneca)


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Powerless in Gaza
Tuesday, January 22, 2008, 06:45
In 1990, as the United States and its Gulf allies prepared public opinion for the impending liberation of Kuwait from its Iraqi invaders, the public relations firm Kill & Knowlton concocted a perfect tale to illustrate the enemy’s barbarity. The Kuwaiti ambassador to the US did not hesitate to use his own daughter to help spin one of the biggest lies of the war; the young girl, posing as a nurse, testified tearfully to a congressional hearing that she had seen with her own eyes how Iraqi soldiers had thrown Kuwaiti babies out of incubators, leaving them to die.

That story sold the war to the American people then, just as Colin Powell's WMD vial sold it again 13 years later. Without evidence, depending only on the testimony of a young woman, people's outrage pushed their governments to deal with the barbarians. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, an actual photo of a baby in an incubator, facing a terrible tragedy unless something is done to help him, will surely move the world to provide a solution. Could this tiny baby, lying helpless in his incubator, help convince Americans that turning off the electricity is akin to throwing him out of his cosy incubator?

Baby in Gaza - from a series of photos in The Guardian

Apparently not. Nobody really seems to care if Palestinians live or die, or why. From this New York Times headline, in fact, you’d think that the fuel shortage which shut Gaza’s Power Plant, leaving the city in the dark was due to a mere unfortunate accident, freak weather, or a technical problem.

Don’t bother checking the BBC either, which believes that there is some kind of equivalence between the two sides, and which shamelessly uses Israeli terminology (like “targeted killings”) to explain that there is a propaganda battle over Gaza. In order to help baffled readers understand why Israel acts the way it does, the BBC explains that after Israel’s “withdrawal” from Gaza, “physical casualties have been few, but the psychological pressure of living under the daily threat of attack has made ordinary life in the south very difficult.” Oh my, psychological pressure – let’s hope the so-called international community reacts quickly to end this trauma.

You really do have to read other media or to watch other news to know that once again, Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians will stop at nothing, and that after the systematic murder of dozens of Palestinians over the past few weeks, the barbaric siege of the world’s biggest, most desperate ghetto goes on. Sadly, some babies are still more equal than others.

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Going nuclear about Syria
Tuesday, December 4, 2007, 23:02
OK, so I've had a busy month, hectic travels, lots to do in London, and I haven't blogged for longer than I care to admit. I'll be back soon, not with excuses (don't you think blogging should mean never having to say you're sorry?) but with my usual grumbles about the state of this world. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts on the terribly important "nucular" problem in Syria, which Bitter Lemons International discussed this week.

The media has gone nuclear about Syria
Rime Allaf


The most striking element of Israel's September 6 raid on Syrian territory was the aggressor's most unusual behavior, namely a reticence to brag about yet another illegal assault, to the point of imposing military censorship on media coverage. This after an equally unusual and totally spontaneous Syrian disclosure that a raid had in fact taken place, making the event even more peculiar. The normal, vague Syrian response to Israeli assaults had until then stopped, meekly and indefinitely, at reserving the right to retaliate. By the time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, some ten days later, declared having "a good deal of respect for the Syrian leader and for Syrian policy"--an unexpected sentiment not echoed by Israel's actions--there had been mysterious American leaks about alleged Syrian nuclear facilities or nuclear shipments and a growing array of theories about what had happened, adding much speculation but little actual information.

When Syria suddenly cleaned up the site of the raid, a month later, most reports in the media and in the blogosphere triumphantly took this as an indication of Syria's "guilt." Clearly, the latter's action did not significantly improve odds that the benefit of the doubt would be granted--even to the actual victim of aggression--especially as other Syrian sites attacked by Israel (such as the Golan town of Quneitra, systematically destroyed before Israel was forced to withdraw following the disengagement agreement in 1974) have been left intact in their desolation for decades, forced witnesses testifying about the violence of the enemy.

But no serious analyst or nuclear expert, not even hysterical fear mongers, can actually back up claims that Syria in its present condition could truly pose a threat to the security of Israel. As things stand, it is difficult to believe that Syria could develop into even a significant opponent to Israel, and as repeated reports by respected professionals in the field have stated, Syria's nuclear ambitions, if any, are modest, its capacities are non-existent and its potential for development in such matters is practically nil. No matter how it is presented, the nuclear linkage between Syria and North Korea or Iran has no basis.

Unfortunately, mainstream media's Pavlovian conditioning has ensured that the Bush administration's bait about supposed weapons of mass destruction, yet again, was taken unconditionally. Reliable villains don't come easy, and Syria has not done itself any favors in its clumsy handling of the affair. As usual, the official response was completely inadequate in comparison to the media-savvy exposes of both the attackers and the accusers; Syrian ministers with clearly unrelated portfolios and limited persuasive talents led the battle, while other officials gave contradicting information. This in no way excuses the sloppy reporting and the rumors disguised as truth that covered the pages of newspapers and websites. In fact, most reports only exercised the necessary journalistic caution when covering Syria's initial announcement that it had been attacked, and that its air defense had challenged the Israeli planes and chased them out; until Israel actually confirmed the raid, making headline news, Syrian statements were described as alleged, claimed, supposed--anything but believable.

But even while doubting Syria's declarations, many reports, probably inadvertently, gave credibility to the argument of a nuclear Syria. Indeed, analysis seemed to accept the "normalcy" of the rumor that a nuclear facility had been hit, not only because it served the purpose of portraying Syria as a problem-maker in cahoots with even more undesirable regimes in the most dangerous of activities, but also because it elaborated on the reasons why Syria would want, or need, such capacities. As a deterrent against an occupying enemy whose own 200 plus nuclear warheads loom menacingly near, the only adequate measure is some of the same.

But while these well-presented arguments about Syrian needs by foreign (and generally anti-Syrian) media made perfect sense, they neglected to dig into the mountain of facts already covered by numerous proliferation reports, including details about the countries (mostly Western powers) that have assisted Syria and in which Syrian scientists have trained, and the description of the kind of research and production of which Syria is capable (mainly isotopes for medical and agricultural applications). Such details, and the fact that unlike Israel, Syria is a signatory to the Non Nuclear Proliferation Treaty since 1969, do not support the scaremongering and the political agenda behind it.

The events and the uncharacteristic behavior following the attack seem to suggest that both Syria and Israel have something to hide, and that they were surprised by each other's game as it was being divulged. For some analysts, repercussions of this raid are still being felt, from Annapolis to Beirut; for others still, the raid gave a new perspective on the preposterous plans for Tehran. But unless--or rather, given Baghdad's recent experience, even if--the current American secretary of state can produce a vial of evidence to hold up during a session of the Security Council, it is incumbent on the media to exercise responsibility and to simply report the fact that the Israeli raid on Syria remains a mystery. - Published 29/11/2007 Š bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House in London.


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Life is an onion
Saturday, October 20, 2007, 08:03
With all the hype about Syria, its alleged hidden weapons programs, and the flying white knights in shining armor who are daringly saving the world from the evils of nuclear technology in rogue hands (I leave you to digest the irony of this notion), and somewhat tired of all the silly "analysis" I am reading about this whole affair, I thought it was time for a laugh by reminding you of what The Onion published on Syria just after the invasion of Iraq.

What the media automatically parrotted back then, subsequent mea culpas notwithstanding, still applies today. With the burden of proof a forgotten concept, all we now need is for Thelma or Louise (aka Rice or Livni) to brandish a small vial in the Security Council.

Those unfamiliar with The Onion should also read "Middle East Conflict Intensifies As Blah Blah Blah, Etc. Etc.", which includes "quotes" from Bush speeches, or perhaps also find out about that"Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die", to get an idea of the media parodies it specializes in, and the strangely momentary cathartic effect of reading about our tragic events in this way.

CIA: Syria Harboring More Than 15 Million Known Arabs April 30, 2003 : Issue 39•16

LANGLEY, VA—In an alarming report released Monday by the Central Intelligence Agency, Syria may be harboring upwards of 15 million known Arabs within its borders. Suspected Arabs move freely through a Damascus marketplace. "Reliable intelligence collected by our agency indicates that Syria has conspired to lend physical and economic support to a massive number of people belonging to this group," CIA director George J. Tenet said. "The shocking truth is, there are nearly as many Arabs in Syria as there are people in New York and Los Angeles combined. In fact, Syrians openly refer to their nation as the Syrian Arab Republic, despite knowing full well America's opinion on these matters."

Explaining the CIA's methods of gathering data on the rogue ethnicity's presence in Syria, Tenet said it relied on a combination of satellite imagery, computer-system infiltration, reports from Syrian covert operatives, intercepted radio and television transmissions, and The World Almanac And Book Of Facts 2003. "It's practically an open secret these days," Tenet said. "Syrian television brazenly shows Arabs in military uniforms carrying guns, or delivering political speeches to other members of the group. Walk into any house of worship in the country, and you'll see people reading the Koran and bowing their heads in prayer toward Mecca. It's almost like they're daring the United States to get involved."

"Disturbingly, more than 90 percent of these Arabs have been linked to the practice of 'Islam'—a defiantly non-Western system of faith whose core principles are embraced by none other than Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein," Tenet added. "If this is true, and we do consider this information to be correct in all particulars, then this is troubling at best."

President Bush, Tenet said, has been aware of Syria's ties to known Arab political and religious figures since the earliest planning stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tenet assured reporters that all possible diplomatic avenues of resolving the situation were being aggressively pursued.

In a chilling scene, thousands of Arabs bow toward Mecca in praise of Allah.

"We have informed [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad of the presence of Arabs in his country and have offered any aid necessary to bring this situation under control," Tenet said. "I am confident that a resolution to this crisis can be achieved without resorting to military action."

This is not the first time Syria has been linked to Arabs. Israel found the Golan Heights heavily populated by Arabs when it annexed the region from Syria during 1967's Arab-Israeli War. Arabs have historically held many influential posts in the Syrian government, and the CIA claims to have data indicating that wealthy Arab businessmen control the greater part of Syria's economy. The CIA report prompted concern from many Americans. "I'm not surprised," said Wayne Early, an Atlanta-area mortgage broker. "I suspect they're all over that part of the world. First, the government linked them to Sept. 11, then Afghanistan, and then Iraq. It makes you wonder who's next."

"The more I learn about Arabs, the less I like them," said Carol Schecter of Norfolk, VA. "Beirut, Teheran, Baghdad... everyplace there's trouble, they're there, and now we've found them in Syria. I just hope they don't hurt the regular Syrians."

Tenet assured citizens that he is committed to resolving the crisis. "We don't want to cause any undue panic, but now that the Arabs are there, we're going to have to deal with them," Tenet said. "Unfortunately, they're not just going to go away by themselves."


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Which is worse: getting perfected or getting killed?
Tuesday, October 16, 2007, 14:45
Either way, it’s the notion of a forced conversion to Christianity that’s shaking mainstream American media to its core. Lo and behold, people have suddenly discovered that Ann Coulter is – gasp – a bigot. How could she proclaim, out of the blue moon, that non-Christians should convert? What a scandal.

Except that it wasn’t a scandal when the intended “converts” were Muslims (all of them), and when she wrote that “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Contrary to what many people think, she did not get fired for writing this, as is explained here by the National Review Online itself. Nor was she attacked for going too far; after all, this was right after September 11, when emotions ran high and every “raghead” deserved to be scorned because of his “car-burning religion,” because Muslims have a “predilection for violence” and their “default mode is rioting and setting things on fire.” (Coulter’s quotes are easy to find on numerous websites, I will not link to any of her writing; I did my bit with Oriana Fallaci and that was enough.)

Muslims were not allowed to complain, for they had to bear the collective guilt for the actions of a few men, mostly nationals of America’s strongest Arab ally. So nobody minded when Coulter wanted to convert Muslims at gunpoint. (Nor did Syrian officials flinch or bother protesting when she suggested ”bombing Syrians back to the stone age;” who could blame her – they had after all rioted because of some really tasteful cartoons.)

Of course, it’s an entirely different story when Coulter wants to convert Jews. That makes her a racist, you see, and a racist of the most forbidden kind: an anti-Semite. Not that she wants to force Jews to convert (compulsion is purely for Muslims), but she thinks they should be “perfected” by becoming Christians (a notion that some of her coreligionists are actually defending as a correct Christian dogma).

Even Coulter knows that what is acceptable discourse with regards to Muslims becomes a huge red line with regards to Jews; therefore, she insisted that her offended host give her more airtime to explain herself, which doesn’t seem to have helped, judging from the outraged or exasperated comments in the US. But this same media shouldn’t pretend to be shocked. Since her eruption into American media, several years ago, Ann Coulter has been banking (royally, literally) on her shock factor, her rudeness, her insensitivity, her slandering, her lying, her bigotry, all of which became fuel for bestselling books (an incomprehensible phenomenon) and which became her trademark. It says a lot about American media and politicians that such an essentially stupid, ignorant, vulgar, offensive and prejudiced person should be given a platform in the first place.

It is pointless to waste more time stooping to Coulter’s level to attack her. But maybe the so-called independent media should begin to deliberate on the monsters they helped create, and on the deplorable standards, and the double standards, they have accepted as the norm. As for all the indignation about the issue of conversion, I still think the Jews got away with a lot less grief than the Muslims: after all, if these were your only choices, would you rather be perfected or killed?


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The Sy Empire
Sunday, October 14, 2007, 07:26
So where in New York can you find people who refer to a customer as the “zboon” and to the sale as “be’aah”? Not just at Crazy Eddie’s either. Read this fabulous article about The Sy Empire in the New York Times Magazine and find out all about Syrian Jews and their community in New York. If you thought Bab Al Hara showed a close-knit society, wait until you read about the Syrian Jews who fall within the Edict.

About 7 or 8 years ago, on a trip to New York, I remember shopping for electronics in downtown Manhattan when a salesman (wearing a kippa) noticed a necklace I was wearing, with Islamic calligraphy. He asked where I was from, I told him, and he excitedly replied: “Me too, my family is from Syria.” We had a great chat, and he was waxing poetic about the good old days (as lived by his parents and grandparents) in the home country. I think it's a pity they’re not part of it anymore.


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Damascene wonders: Bab Al Hara
Wednesday, October 10, 2007, 10:58
Time for the annual phenomenon of Ramadan television drama series, and for the phenomenon of reporting on them, as has been the fashion in the past few years. If you recall, I certainly wasn't going to be outdone and shared my thoughts on the subject last year. Alas, only a few articles have made it to print or online this year, given that we uninteresting and ungrateful Arabs have not even bothered to make series dealing with terrorism and with real Muslims’ denunciation of it. Shame on us really: what on earth is mainstream media going to write, patronizingly, about our collective souls, to show it is in touch with our hearts and is familiar with our minds?

Syrian-Egyptian rivalry, that’s what. Not that the Syrians are better, mind you; just before Ramadan started, rumor here had it that there would only be a few Syrian serials this year, because the Egyptians were back with a vengeance and because fewer television channels had agreed to buy Syrian serials; apparently, this was for political reasons, because of the anti-Syrian attitude. Nonsense, of course: Syrian drama and comedy has filled the Arabic-language satellite sphere (including all Saudi and Lebanese channels) for the past few years, regardless of the accusations against the country. We Syrians really take the biscuit, always using the “they’re against us” political excuse to rationalize anything.

Digressing every so slightly, speaking of politics, of alleged regime isolation and of International Tribunal fear (neither of which seem to be evident, as I’ve been arguing), there is a series this year called “The first night after the thousand;” I’ve only seen bits and pieces, but it is a perfect example of actual Syrian confidence, showing a fictitious state of Shahrayaristan welcoming an international commission sent by a certain Condoleezza, made up of members of the “international community” to investigate all sorts of misdemeanours (including a missing apple which made Newton miss discovering gravity). In other words, absurd accusations by people with an agenda.

But back to the alleged Syrian-Egyptian rivalry, about which Bassam Koussa, as usual, has the best response. It turns out that Syrians are all over the airwaves again -- and even more so, in fact, by sneakily taking the lead in several Egyptian series. Imagine the nerve! Like it or not, ”King Farouk “ - the most expensive Arabic drama ever made - is directed by one of my favorite Syrian directors, Hatem Ali, and, ultimate insult, it casts Taim Hassan, one of Syria’s rising stars, in the leading role. Frankly, if I were Egyptian, I would be wondering why a Syrian was chosen for this role. (I only was able to swallow his accent as an Egyptian when I heard him speak English- after that, the Egyptian seemed natural. I don’t know why even directors like Hatem Ali don’t give importance to things like foreign languages. Then again, neither do the biggest Hollywood producers.)

Syrian actor Jamal Suleiman, following a successful attempt to play a man from Upper Egypt in last year’s “Hada’ek Al Shaytan” has continued his conquest of Egyptian drama and stars in a new series whose name escapes me. You see, apart from a seemingly well-made drama starring famous Egyptian actress Yusra, dealing with rape (by the son of a minister), the Arab world seems to be mostly glued to drama with a distinctive Syrian accent – and in particular a strong Damascene accent.

Without any doubt, the “Bab Al Hara” phenomenon has swept over the Arabic-speaking world, taking us all by surprise; while the successful first part left everyone wanting more, having paused on a cliff-hanger (some people even thought it had ended badly, unaware that there was a sequel), part two has become even more popular, becoming must-see-TV for people of all ages, sexes, occupations, classes and lifestyles. First, everyone wanted to know what would happen after Abu Issam so shockingly and suddenly divorced his wife, Souad, and whether Steif, the pretend-blind beggar, would be uncovered as a murderous spy by the Za’im after so many men of the anti-French occupation resistance (sorry, I mean the terrorism) are killed.

As we finally reach the last few days of Ramadan, so much more has happened leaving us asking for more. What will it take to rehabilitate Abu Issam and restore his reputation, after an entire month of amazing events that have snowballed into one huge mess? Can it be done in the remaining couple of days? Apparently not, because Bab Al Hara - part three - is coming up!

I can report from the Syrian capital that apart from fasting and feasting, the other activity that is uniting Syrians during this holy month of Ramadan is Bab Al Hara! Every night, in every café, in every posh air-conditioned boutique, in every small shop trying to keep cool with a fan, televisions are tuned to whichever channel is broadcasting Bab Al Hara; at 9 PM local time, it’s MBC. A quick glance through the window of most “hip” cafés (including unlikely places like In House) will show table after table of young, trendy people all turned towards the large, flat screen television on the wall, taking in every word and even imitating what they hear. It is simply incredible.

Two days ago, as I waited for the elevator in the underground parking of Cham City Center (the new posh mall), I could hear the opening song of Bab Al Hara coming from the stairs. Heading to the supermarket next to the food mall, I noticed that every single table was turned towards one of the flat screen TVs mounted from the ceiling, and that every guest looking up, taking in every scene and every word. There were a good couple of hundred people there. Apparently, it’s like this everywhere; I am told Al Arabiya television announced recently that Bab Al Hara, so far at least, is the most watched television serial over the entire Arab world. Clearly, director Bassam Al Malla knows what he’s doing, responding to our collective subconscious wish for a return to a world with values, a world with honor, a world with community belonging, strong neighborly bonds and unbreakable family ties, a world when a word was the only guarantee needed. (Describing Bab al Hara merely in terms of sexism, as I’ve heard it being done, misses the entire point, and would make most international literature before the late twentieth century unreadable as well.)

Indeed, for the third year in a row (and hold on because Bab Al Hara’s Part Three is coming next Ramadan), the most popular serials have been Layali Al Salhieh, and Bab Al Hara’s two parts; we are clearly undergoing a mass longing for lost values. Apart from that, the genius of the series is that politically, and in certain ways socially, it shows that nothing changes, and that plus ça change, plus ça reste le meme.

I have even managed to find a favorite character (in contrast to a favorite actor) in this series, a choice which reveals my own sense of longing for those ‘good old days” which I never experienced; I am quite partial to Mo’taz, the fiery younger son of Abu Issam, who manages to provide humor and lightness in the midst of the most complicated of times, and who is also clearly destined to become a real “man” even before his time, never hesitating to use his fists to right wrongs, to defend injustices, and to stand by those who need him. I wonder that this says about me, and I also wonder which characters have left the biggest mark on other followers of the series. From the continued mentions of his name in numerous conversations I've heard, it is clear that the character of Ida'chari (who died in part one) played by Bassam Koussa (seen here on the left, with Samer Masri playing Abu Chehab), has left a mark.

Syrian drama (and comedy) is one of the best and getting better. Let us pray that the government, the regime, the Baath, the clergy, and all those whose interference usually complicate our lives, never get to mess it up, and that independent directors and producers find a way to market their wonderful works, with proper subtitles, outside the current boundaries. This is one project I would happily push and help get started, and my mind continually buzzes with ideas about how to do proper marketing communication for the best of our drama kings – and hopefully, some real drama queens.

I leave you with the catchy Bab Al Hara song, the intro that resonates through the streets of Arab cities everywhere at least twice a day (at the beginning and at the end of each episode), depending on how many channels one chooses to watch. On Syrian television, it is on at midday, and even my 14-month old daughter will stop whatever she is doing when she hears the first bars, remaining mesmerized by the unfolding events, until the song comes again to signal the end of another episode, and the beginning of a sweet afternoon nap.


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Mourning with Yazan
Sunday, October 7, 2007, 14:51
Most people in the vibrant Syrian blogosphere are feeling somber these days, after having heard the devastating news of the car crash that killed the parents of Yazan Badran, one of our most appreciated bloggers, a young man whose comments have often graced various blogs and whose humane, civilized and intelligent contributions endeared him even to those who have never met him.

Yazan has suffered the greatest tragedy a person his age can possibly experience. Like all those who can only imagine the pain he must be feeling, I mourn the passing of the people who have inculcated such wonderful qualities, values and ideas into our friend, and who were, without doubt, and rightly so, the proudest of parents.

Yazan’s mother and father died on their way to Syria, as they travelled to spend time with their only son on leave from Japan. Their last days will hopefully have been warm, exciting ones, full with the joyful anticipation of seeing their cherished son. I pray that Yazan will find his peace in the many beautiful memories he has of his loving parents, and that he will have the strength to continue on the road they opened for him, fulfilling his aspirations, and realizing their dreams.

My heartfelt condolences and warm thoughts also go to Dr. Aref Dalila, Yazan’s uncle, who will have received the terrible news of his sister and his brother-in-law’s untimely death in the most terrible of conditions, and who will mourn in solitary confinement. Dear friends, you are not alone. Our prayers are with you, and may God rest their souls in peace.


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Selected news with nerve
Monday, October 1, 2007, 22:32
In the ”Do as I say, not as I do” news category:

Israel urges Myanmar government to refrain from harming protesters. Such compassion for people under brutal military rule is so touching. In the ”The last straw” news category: Syria is morally responsible for Iraqi refugees. Not just morally, in fact, since the Iraqi government (not familiar with the beggars/choosers equation) declares that "Syria must guarantee their full rights as far as security, residency if possible, education, health and minimum living standards." None of which are offered by the Iraqis. Or the Americans.

In the ”Look who’s talking again about WMDs” news category: Syria Joins the Axis of Evil, explains John Bolton, who thinks bombing Iran will make the world an even safer place, after the huge success of the invasion of Iraq and its effect on regional peace.

In the ”International law and geography-challenged media” news category: Bees Without Borders stray into Syria, informs us the Associated Press which is not aware that the occupied Golan Heights is already Syrian airspace and territory! Unless AP is the first entity in the world to recognize Israel’s illegal annexation, that is.

In the “Syrian government efficiency” news category: It turns out that the question "Have you ever been to Israel?" in the visa application form may not be the perfect method for Syrian embassies to avoid “undesirable” journalists. What a shock. And finally, in the ”It’s about time!” news category: ACSAD speaks, therefore it is, as a somewhat official response finally comes out from Syria. Before the president clarified further, that is. Now we all know what happened.


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Damascene grumble, part two
Wednesday, September 19, 2007, 20:16
Believe it or not, I am still mentally adding anecdotes and insulting examples to my first list of grumbles about driving, and about smoking. It turns out I didn’t even skim the surface of how bad things are, (remember, we are in week 1 of Ramadan, and the ramifications on driving are immense, especially just before iftar) but you’ll be happy to know that other issues are competing for my ire.

The other day, at Costa (the coffee shop chain), I gave my order to the barrista, in Arabic naturally, and paused as I tried to remember a word, giving up and adding “to go” in English. He smiled, so I asked him: “How do you say that in Arabic anyway?” He replied, literally: “Take away.” We actually both laughed and realized there was no accepted Arabic yet for this most global of phenomena, and that the actual translation of "take away" didn’t quite sound correct. I still find it very amusing, and sometimes even endearing, that Syrians (and other Arabs) have developed certain terminology to suit their needs.

In technology, they will say things like “sayyavet” (meaning “I saved” on the computer), or “m’farmmat” (meaning “it is formatted”). An air-conditioned space is “m’kandash” while an interior-decorated place is “m’dokar,” and the list of such linguistic innovations is long. It is when Syrians try to use “straight” English, as versus its Arabized version, that things go astray, and that my grumbling takes a life of its own.

First, there are the annoying miscellaneous people who claim they know something and have to convince you of it, even though you’ve never heard of it. My husband, who has lived in the UK for nearly 25 years, tried hard to persuade some of his extended family members that no matter where they’d heard it, the supposed saying “He who sucks seeds shall not succeed” was not exactly a common saying, to put it mildly. He tried to elaborate on the fact that the whole concept of eating seeds (you know, cracking them open with your teeth, then by some extremely able and unappealing manoeuvring pushing the seed out, and eating it while spitting the seed shell out – one of the things I love to hate) was not common in the Anglo-Saxon world, let alone the strange notion of sucking them. To no avail. “You just don’t know” they protested, “that’s what the English say.” Faced with such erudition, who are we to argue?

Then you’ve got those who know they don’t speak it, but who try to be helpful by “translating” for you. I remember a colleague going out of his mind because a merchant in the old souk had tried to convince a foreign gentleman accompanying him to buy some merchandise, saying repeatedly: “Zis, advice!” (“Hay nassiha!”) But they all pale in comparison to the professional language-bashers, spread equally between the private sector (which should know better) and the public sector (which should be held accountable).

I still fantasize about tracking down and insulting (I’m restraining myself here) the idiot who first came up with the idea of splashing the English word “Sale” across his shop windows; not because that was wrong, but because he thought he should also add the French equivalent, or so I assume went his thought process, and ended up writing “Sold.” No, I won’t pardon your French. So which is it, is it on sale, or has it already been sold? Of course, every single shop in Damascus now announces price reductions in these two or three languages; I’m not sure they’re aware that it’s “Soldes” in French, or that they’re even aware that it’s another language altogether. They now go together: Sale, Sold. Quick business, when you look at it that way. Even on the über-posh Damascus Boulevard and its designer clothes boutiques (seen below in this shot taken by night), the “multilingual” sales pitch falls for the “proven” message. “But the owner is Lebanese!” exclaimed a friend. Sigh. When are Syrians going to snap out of this notion that Lebanese=better?

Sometimes, while driving, I turn on the radio to get to know what’s the happening thing, and I channel surf between several popular private stations, mostly ending up on Madina. Every few minutes, when advertising time comes, I start to grumble again: for some strange reason, Syrian marketing people (wait ‘til I show them) are advising their gullible clients that an ad for a product or a service in Syria would be better with the Lebanese accent, and with the annoying Lebanese style which I don’t quite know how to describe (basically, a rather effeminate male voice, practically singing the words and stressing the last syllable of the brand name). This unfortunate ploy also applies to television, I’m afraid. I will simply have to link to one so that you know what I mean. Are any of my fellow Syrians with me on this? Yes, we digress, but come on! (As a marketing communications consultant, I owe it to my profession to write a post about Syrian advertising one day, if I can bear it.)

Damascene restaurants, even little tiny ones with two plastic tables on a street corner, also oblige foreign visitors to Syria with a custom-made translation of their dishes; frankly, it’s cute. Annoying, but somehow cute. It becomes unacceptable when the more expensive ones do it. My mother was once looking at a dessert menu, wondering what “Grape” meant: was it the fresh fruit alone, or some concoction built around grapes? No no, answers the waiter: “It’s grape. Grape with sugar, grape with chocolate, grape Suzette, grape with whatever you like.” It took a while, but she finally understood it was a crepe. You see, neither English nor French are her first language, and I’m sure the waiter in question would never believe she speaks both fluently, since she had to ask what a grape was. I wouldn’t dream of taking up a whole post to denounce the errors and the horrors of mistranslations in restaurant menus, you’ve all probably seen numerous examples. Nor will I waste time on the job announcements in weekly newspapers which demand “excellant” English, or on the advertisements (even billboard ads) which can’t be bothered to check that words are spelled correctly. After all, we barely have time for tackling the public sector, and part of the reason for my blogging delays is that I’ve been trying to document the numerous examples of things gone terribly wrong at government level, and which I deem totally unacceptable.

All I’ve seen so far is that the Syrian authorities are steadfast in their opposition to linguistic perfection, or even normalcy. As many of you know, the Baathist regime has always made a point of keeping the level of Arabic at its highest. (Actually, this is true even of previous, more prosperous and enlightened eras in Syria.) Apparently, this obsession with the respect of the Arabic language (which I’m told still manages to get massacred by robotic “journalists”) does not apply to foreign tongues, even though all city signs are now written in two languages at least: one being Arabic, and the other … well, it’s difficult to say. Lest we get lost in a labyrinth of examples from the lingua franca of Syrian officialdom (or rather officialdoom), let us simply tackle, ever so superficially for now, the subject of street signs - you know, like everywhere else in the world, the official signs that indicate where roads will lead you, eventually, maniacs and moronic drivers notwithstanding.

I truly do not know where to begin grumbling, nor how to rate which signs got me the most infuriated, nor which of the many photos I have been taking to post on this blog. It would be impossible to put them all, so I will create my little album and save it for later. Mind you, so far, I’ve mostly been clicking while driving whenever I see a chance, so I clearly need a different approach. Official direction signs in Syria seem to be made by a foreign spy, or an agitator who hates Syrians so much he wants to humiliate them and cause even more chaos. This person is clearly secure in the knowledge that no Syrian official alive, and even less Syrian civil servants, will be bothered to check his work, even assuming that somebody in those damn ministries, governorates and directorates (which all do very little ministering, governing or directing) actually would know how to translate, write, spell, punctuate, capitalize, or even stick to one font.

These are the signs from hell, the signs which make me reconsider my desire for Syrians to add other languages to their education. The diversification in these signs is amazing: a single Arabic name will be translated in several different ways, with several different spellings, with several different fonts, with the most confusing and illogical random layout leaving you unsure of which word belongs to which arrow, in different signs posted around the city.

Sometimes, I feel the signs have been put together in the same way blackmailers send ransom notes, with letters cut out from different newspaper articles in a scary way. We are being held to ransom, and we’re ignoring it to our own peril. Sometimes, various letters are capitalized in the name, in the middle of the word, and not even necessarily the first letter. Often, a period will come at the end of a full name (or word of some sort) for no reason. Sometimes, there are letters (one letter, like “C,” or several letters, like “sq”) following a name, leaving English speakers the task of guessing that “Umawyeen.Sq” does not really mean Omayad multiplied by itself (oh horror of horrors). Sometimes, I see the words “C Center” to “translate” the “markaz al madina” notion; how difficult would it be to write City Center, and exactly who decides what can be abbreviated, and how? And the problem is, this is not some isolated mistake or a few experiments gone wrong: the damn signs are everywhere, you can't miss them! Even worse than all that is the detachment with which most people are reacting when they see my wrath; I am talking about family and friends who speak English and/or French, who are well-travelled, who are critics of the general situation, but who have completely given up on such “minor” problems.

True, in the hierarchy of what Syria needs, it may not really belong to Maslow’s bottom pyramid level, nor even to the first two or three, but Syria’s image needs all the help it can get, and it costs nothing to be correct. I’ve seen our famous square written as Omayad, Umayad, Umawyeen, and several other undecipherable atrocities, with no specific translation or transliteration system, or, come to think of it, actual language being used. Often, there is a period after the main name, instead of after the word which is actually abbreviated. Thus, instead of “Omayad Squ.” (as if they couldn’t fit the letters “are”) you usually get “Omayad. Sq” (in a less clear spelling of course).

I’ve seen signs showing how to get to “Beirnt” or, closer to home, to “Salhia.Soqe.” I’ve seen signs leading to a “Governoraite” office or to “New Sham” (the old shams are already all full, they’re building loads more on the outskirts of Damascus). And I’ve seen signs less than a few hundred meters apart using different spellings for an area of Damascus. For example, the spelling of “kafar suseh” (capitalization be damned) is just impulsive as that of our most famous square. But there is a lot worse … a lot, lot worse. Sometimes, things are not only translated or transliterated liberally, but they are transliterated by someone who has only HEARD the real translation of a given name, and who subsequently spells it accordingly. The "playing it by ear" school of translation. Looking for Customs? Who do you hold accountable for this kastom-made catastrophy of a language? (Note also the different spelling, and the liberal capitalization, of the same area shown in the photo above.) How can this be allowed in a major capital like Damascus? How can the numerous ministers, or "responsibles" above, driving by the C streets not feel shame at this most obvious of disgraces amongst many disgraces? How can these signs of incompetence be allowed to remain, and to increase?

Then again, what should we expect from a government which considers SANA to be an acceptable, nay, convincing official agency to represent its steadfast stances, and which dares to publish a rag called Syria Times (which is basically a mistranslation of other official rags) and charge money for it (5 pounds is still money)? What should we expect from a government which establishes a "Syria Media Centre" with great fanfare (and even greater cost, said to be in the millions of pounds - Sterling, that is) in the capital of media, only to close it down a couple of years later, after a publicized change of director, with absolutely no explanation or consideration for its credibility?

Again, I digress. I leave you with a sign which perhaps shocked me even more than most (because I have driven many times past it without noticing it), so much so that I drove back there to take a photograph, looking very suspicious as it was already night. It was taken in front of the headquarters of the supposedly most technologically-savvy and internationally-oriented Syrian gathering of officials and the pedantic wannabes who swarm around them. And with that, obviously, I rest my case.

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Destroying the paradise of Old Damascus
Friday, September 14, 2007, 20:12
This powerful piece by my friend Rana Kabbani covers an issue that most Damascenes, and indeed most Syrians, feel quite strongly about: the criminal destruction of Old Damascus.

I first mentioned it back in March, in a post titled "Damascus and Sham’s heritage are under attack." Rana mentions some quarters of the old city, from where both my parents’ families also originate (‘Amara in our case, all these quarters being in the same area); for the anecdote, my father and Rana’s father were childhood friends, ending up as colleagues much later, and spent many afternoons at each other’s old Damascene houses. My mother’s family still owns property in the areas scheduled for destruction, and the risible compensation to be paid is in fact courtesy of Iran.

See also the BBC's report on this travesty the Syrian regime calls modernization. Old Damascus: A Plan to Destroy Paradise Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO more than thirty years ago, Damascus now faces a dangerous hour as construction projects set their sights on replacing the unique with the vulgar and debased by RANA KABBANI The city of Old Damascus is presently threatened by an obtuse and cynical plan that would destroy great chunks of it.

The Syrian regime is trying to push through a "modernization" and "re-development" scheme, which would raze areas dating back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, including Syria's second oldest mosque, Jami' al-Tawba, of great beauty and historical significance. The company that aims to do this is a regime protégé. The boorish mayor of Damascus, Bishr Sabban, recently described the buildings to be razed as "garbage", not heritage. Like most regime officials, he has been ordered to say (and may, to his shame, actually believe) that the ripping out of the world's oldest city's heart, to replace it with banal and vulgar multi-story hotels, tower blocks, American-style shopping malls and motorways, is a laudable thing.

As a Damascene, with a passionate love for this gem of a city, and with family links to two of the quarters that are presently threatened with demolition, I read this plan as indicative of all that has gone wrong with Syria. The regime's desire to deface or obliterate major aspects of the Damascus past-which it may have little sympathy for, for complicated historical, political and social reasons-is reflective of the impulses of dictatorships everywhere, which deplore anything with patina, with complexity or depth, that harks back to a more sophisticated time than their own. Kitsch is their preferred vernacular.

Syria has been a dictatorship for forty years now. In that time, the country has seen a colossal brain drain of its educated elites and productive middle classes. A growing number of its people are living below the poverty line, as economic surveys sadly confirm. At the same time, there never was so much wealth in the country. It is concentrated, however, in the hands of people with strong links to the regime, some of whom are relatives of the President. These abuse their unchecked power to profiteer from monopolies, inflated commissions on government imports and construction projects, and appropriation of state land and assets. With sinister security services to act as their "business" enforcers, with a compromised judiciary and a corrupt bureaucracy, this new parasitical class has decimated private industry. By forging links to the readily-corruptible remnants of the old mercantile class, they have created a network of front men, middle men and yes-men, who help do their bidding, getting rich on the gravy train as well.

Anyone who challenges these sharks ends up in the regime's dungeons. Riad Seif, a rigorous self-made industrialist turned parliamentarian, was imprisoned for four years on trumped-up charges, for his lone and highly-courageous denunciation in Parliament of brazen corruption at the top. Ever since the Syrian army withdrew-under duress-from Lebanon two years ago, a huge source of illegal enrichment for the regime dried up. New sources needed to be found quickly.

Construction projects-often in joint-ventures with Gulf money or Iranian money-are now in vogue, setting their sights on "tourist" areas all over the country. The projects presently being planned for Old Damascus are an example of this trend, but they may have far graver implications than the already grave ones of destroying Mameluk and Ayyubid heritage sites, which belong to the world and to future generations. One part consists of a political and financial "joint-venture" with Iran, to clear an ancient residential area around the tomb of Ruqiyya, Ali's granddaughter and the daughter of Hussein, to further expand the mosque there, to create a parking-lot, as well as an intrusive motorway for bus-loads of Iranian pilgrims to come directly from the airport to the site by car.

At present, one can reach the tomb only by foot, as one reaches everything in old Damascus-thank goodness-including the Umayyad Mosque itself. The area consists of charming warrens of alleyways, courtyard houses, khans and mosques. These are apparently being bought up by Iran, in order to go under the bulldozer. This would change the ethnicity of the place, which is Arab Sunni Muslim and Christian. Syrians are beginning to be concerned that the "strategic relationship" with the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Assads-pcre and fils-have worked so tirelessly to promote, is beginning to denature their country.

Syria, and Damascus in particular, is a mosaic of cultures, religions, sects and ethnicities, which have managed to muddle along, more or less reasonably, for centuries. The populist militarism of present-day Iran, and its aggressive, born-again proselytizing-religion on the march-leaves the majority Sunni population cold. The regime needs to be made aware of this, if it is to avoid future tensions and tragedies.

Historical factors come into play, too, especially in the ancient and neglected quarters of Old Damascus. The original and now largely-impoverished Damascene residents grumble that the plan to change the area around Ruqiyya's tomb is a belated revenge against Umayyad Damascus-Mu'awiya's court city. Although this can hardly be the case, it shows that passions are running high, especially with the influx of close to a million Shi'a refugees from South Lebanon and Iraq, escaping war, into a city already struggling with poverty, escalating inflation and housing shortages.

The plans would destroy areas, which are living embodiments of Syria's history. Souk Saruja (where my maternal family came from) used to be called "little Istanbul", because that is where the city's Ottoman-serving aristocracy had their houses. It was home to important judges and law-makers. Fawzi Ghazzi penned Syria's first Constitution there-a far more enlightened document than anything to be had in today's Arab world-which the ruling Ba'ath has since traduced and travestied. Qaimariyya (home to my father's family) was traditionally the quarter of the city's scholars and theologians, being a small distance from both the Umayyad Mosque and the Zahiriyya library.

It played a significant role in the fight against the French, organizing strikes, demonstrations and civil disobedience, hosting in its leafy courtyard houses the impassioned meetings of the Syrian movement for independence, and helping its members hide from or escape the wrath of the French army. Shukri al-Quwatli, the country's first democratically elected President, was a son of the area, from neighboring Shaghur.

Al-Manakhliyya, which dates back to the eleventh century, takes its name from a souk for sieves in its midst, which has been trading as a market since Ayyubid times, and is a fascinating example of a traditional Islamic quarter, where work and worship go hand in hand. Old Damascus was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO more than thirty years ago, and ranks alongside places such as Venice, Fez, and Cordoba as a vital example of layered civilization.

A museum city, it has diverse and dazzling relics, buildings and artworks. The Aramaens, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, Ayyubids, Mameluks, Franks, Ottomans and French all left their mark here. It continues to have a rare and poignant charm, despite the many indignities and aggressions it has suffered.

The Mongol Hulegu destroyed its citadel and butchered many of its citizens. Tamurlaine sacked it. The Abbasids desecrated its Bab al-Saghir cemetery, revenging themselves on the skeletons they unearthed and scattered. French colonialists burned its entire Western residential section to the ground, leaving thousands of women and children in homeless penury, in punishment for an uprising against their Mandatory presence.

Now the Syrian regime is gearing up to fail it bitterly too, if these foolhardy plans are not torn up at once. Indicative of little educated taste, no specialist expertise, historical or cultural sensitivity, and with an eye on profit and political expediency only, such plans would produce inappropriate monstrosities, replacing what is unique and timeless with what is merely debased. They would create even more pressure on an old city that is already choking from pollution and parched from lack of water, which has been unloved and uncared for far too long. Each street, each alleyway, each house, each courtyard needs thoughtful and tasteful preservation and repair-not demolition!

The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have chosen not to visit Damascus, as he said a man had no hope of entering Paradise twice. This tradition has particular resonance for me now, as the city he spoke of-my city-faces one of its hardest hours.

RANA KABBANI is a leading author and broadcaster.


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Damascene grumble, part one
Tuesday, September 4, 2007, 20:22
To all my readers, friends, critics, and everyone who’s asked, complained, or rejoiced at the scarcity of my blogging recently (including the cyber stalkers who have a rather unhealthy obsession with my Middle East writings), I’m going to disappoint the latter and announce that I’m back by popular demand, and I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. The English like to say “mustn’t grumble.” Like hell I mustn’t: I personally must, and I will. And not just about politics and economics. Maybe it’s the heat, but lately everything in Damascus has taken gargantuan proportions, which means that while the positive is pleasantly overbearing, the negative has become unbearable. Take the jasmine plant teasing us from my mother’s living room window, making a worn cliché even more so: in the evenings especially, as night falls and the heat subsides, the scent of jasmine whiffing in with the breeze is so intoxicating it’s ridiculous. You can’t get more Damascene and more sensual than that. But the less aromatic aspects are also there in full force, making molehills seem like mountains. I’ve been in Syria for 3 weeks, and I still haven’t gotten over the speed with which changes have taken place in the 8 months that I’ve been away. Many things had been improving slowly over the past few years, but the current situation is simply unreal in its dimensions and time frames. My friend Syrian Brit wrote a very pertinent post about his visit to Damascus, a post with which I mostly agreed, and which I wished I could have written had I been as energetic and timely as he is. As I slowly come out of my blogging lethargy, I will try to write more about a number of these issues and more, including many which I had mentioned in my briefing paper, and which need elaboration and vivid examples since they pertain to real life experiences, and aren’t just analysis. But hold your horses. In the meantime, I must write about the driving. The maddening driving. So maddening in fact that I have begun to reconsider my position on capital punishment. As self-appointed plaintiff, judge, jury and executioner of the road, I find myself this close to sentencing to death (naturally commuted to a long sentence at the last moment) the numerous jerks cutting me off for absolutely no reason other than to gain seven and a half meters in rush hour - or rush hours, rather, as everyone seems to be constantly rushing off somewhere, probably to go smoke some arguileh (about which I will grumble below), endangering everyone’s life in the process, treating these Damascene roads as the training circuit of Evel Knievil … without the driving skills. That’s the worst part: most Syrians think they’re the best drivers in the world, and that they invented the word “shattara.” The better (or bigger, or more expensive) the car, the worse the driver, the more pompous the attitude, the more adamant the “I own the road” behavior, the more unjustifiable the incompetence. Like the guy in the monstrous black thing with mirror windows today in Sheikh Saad, bullying mere pedestrians and intimidating every other car while his inferiority complex and compensation fixation (in Vienna, we all get to Freudian symbolism sooner or later) were being soothed by the roar of his vulgar Hummer. Most Syrian drivers not only drive like jerks, but they terrorize everyone around them forcing them to adhere to their road rules, or to get the hell out of their way. A couple of days ago, standing still at a red traffic light in Youssef Azmeh square, I saw a man in a van honking regularly like a maniac (a bit like the typing of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, only louder), advancing slowly behind the car stopped right next to me - so much so that the harried driver of the car started driving off even though the light was still red, as the madman continued his pursuit. That’s a real war on terror we need to fight. I get flashed and honked and stared at (and probably cursed) for driving within the speed limit (especially with a baby on board), on roads like Autostrade Mezzeh. What makes it even worse is that I can imagine the thought process in all these maniacs’ little speed-possessed brains: “it’s a woman driving, with the seatbelt on, in her actual lane, “slowly” – typical, she should stay at home and leave cars to us.” Sometimes, I relish my short-lived power and their impotence, as they are stuck behind me as I drive 60 kph … but all too often they overtake me from the right and roar off to the urgent business of smoking an arguileh (did I mention I would be discussing this below?) or of liberating the Golan (with so many army licenses out there) or of solving the latest foreign affairs gaffe (a lot of diplomatic plates behaving irresponsibly out there … and that’s because they’re being driven by actual “responsibles” and their spouses and kids. Fact. Don’t ask me for more details.) In the meantime, most real diplomats seem to be left cowering in the relative safety of their homes. In Yafour. But I digress. Syrians are driving worse and worse every day, and mind you, I haven’t even been out of greater Damascus since I got here. Most roads, especially outside the city, potholes and other surprises included, are quite simply a death trap. Except, of course, for the road leading up to the People’s Palace, a road which wouldn’t look out of place in Switzerland. Tree lined, gorgeous curves, smooth asphalt, every street light working, lanes clearly delineated, wide enough for six lanes but reserved for four generous ones. Yes, it’s an actual Damascene road now open to the mere public (who, may I remind you, technically own the above mentioned palace) since a major throughway to Dummar has been closed temporarily. As we drive through the perfect example of what is achievable when the will is there, we are basically eating biscuits. Back to bread soon. But lest this post begins to sound like a rant against male Syrian drivers, which admittedly it does so far, I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to be stuck behind, near, or opposite a woman driver wearing the strictest of hijabs (and sometimes more), under huge sunglasses, and with gloves that probably aren’t doing much for manoeuvrability (given they’re not leather driving gloves and actually serve an entirely different purpose), as she tries to steer her car somewhere. Imagine the view when the car is filled with miscellaneous people advising her. Imagine the thoughts crossing her mind when she sees you staring in resigned disbelief, probably summoning curses you’ve never even heard of to punish the infidel women driving practically naked (you call a t-shirt proper covering?) and who are clearly bimbos (just ask most men). You’ll tell me it’s always been like that. Indeed. But there’s also recently been a huge increase in cars on Damascene roads (refugees, summer visitors, new Syrian registrations) without the necessary counter-balance of infrastructure improvement, road widening and repairing, parking, or even proper traffic light management. There is a roundabout in front of Shami hospital, with one major road coming down from Dummar, through the roundabout, continuing to Nehru road or to Mezzeh, or turning left to Malki. It is simply one of the most dangerous roads in Damascus, and I now prefer to face Omayad Square rather than risk the nerve-wrecking dash (or worse, the wait … as the others honk and flash helpfully behind you), because coming from Dummar, you’ve been going downhill from some time, having picked up even more speed than should be legal, and you’ll be damned if you’re going to stop or even slow down to allow some measly fellow drivers to cross in front of you. Every day, there are horrifying accidents there. And all they need – ALL THEY NEED! – is to put in a traffic light a few hundred meters up, so the Dummar road maniacs slow down, and so the traffic is regulated and the people coming from Malki or Muhajerin can drive 20 meters without risking their life. But who has time for planning or improving infrastructure? We’re busy being steadfast in the face of aggression. And if you only knew how in love most people were these days. But let’s not digress again. If I were in charge, and boy do I have plans for if I were in charge (and don’t listen to my husband who calls me the ultimate dictator, for there will eventually be place for freedom after I’ve whipped them all into shape), I would strip the driving licenses off everyone, put them all through a new test (those who didn’t face the firing squad), install the points system, arm traffic policemen with whips and electric stun guns to use liberally when they get no respect … and they never do. Case in point: yours truly. A couple of weeks ago, I took the baby to one of the numerous Damascene gardens in my area. I parked, got out of the car, opened the trunk, got the pram out, and as I was opening it and getting my daughter out of her car seat, this policeman comes and says: “Where are you going?” To which I answer furiously: “And you waited until now to tell me I can’t park?” He answers calmly, nicely: “I didn’t say you can’t park, I just asked where you’re going.” Me, my tone of voice increasingly defiant, angry: “It’s none of your business where I’m going. Either I can park or I can’t. And either you start putting proper signs or …” He tries again: “It’s not permitted to park.” So I start packing the pram again, really annoyed. He says, to ease my frustration: “Do you know who lives here? The xxx ambassador!” I look at him, unimpressed, and with my utmost restraint respond sarcastically: “Tsharrafna.” Now frankly, would I have this conversation with any other cop in the world? Not where I live, at least. But while they get no respect, they’re often nice people, just trying to get by. A few days ago, I parked downtown in front of a bus stop (come on, when was the last bus you saw stopping at the stop?), barely squeezing in between two other cars. Just as I had settled the baby in her sling carrier, a nice policeman asks: “Are you going to be long, Madame?” See, it’s all in the tone. “Just 10 minutes please, I need to pick up something.” Which was true, although technically it was a lie since I was picking up something which I had yet to find and buy. A DVD for my daughter, if you must know, and a few other movies. (For 50 Syrian pounds each. Is it my fault? How else am I going to watch The Yacoubian Building and the brand new Simpsons movie which I missed in London? Give me a break.) Being the nice, mostly honest person I am, returning to the car less than 20 minutes later (the people in Bahsa are so nice, it simply takes longer to buy things), I thanked the policeman and smiled at him. He smiled backed. How many people do that to him? Smiles are certainly in short supply on the roads of Damascus these days. Every guy thinks he’s been sent by God to rule these roads, and he’s not about to grant right of passage to desperate and frankly suicidal pedestrians (who are even crazier and more irresponsible than drivers, believing the burden of care lies on everyone else but them) or to other drivers who have the misfortune of needing to change lanes. In fact, hardly anyone in Damascus seems to change lanes purposely; indicators being for wimps, and honks being for real men, superior drivers clearly feel it is not necessary to signal intentions to turn or move, even when leaving a parking space and engaging into traffic, and harassed drivers are eventually chased into a different lane. Even in two or three-lane streets, there is always at least a fourth line, and inevitably, a fifth column. How are the cops ever going to tame these rebels without a cause, these self-baptized Maradonas who can only reach their goal with the gracious hand of God? In a country where the regime focused on a different kind of security, citizens were left with a strong fear of badly dressed mukhabarat, but not of uniformed officers. Most drivers know how to escape a reprimand or a fine. Except for the poor Micro drivers who are the easiest prey, and who end up driving like even bigger maniacs to make up for the humiliation they endure at the hands of traffic police, who have no other way to boost the measly salaries that hardly get them past the 15th of the month. The other victims are the equally unruly taxi drivers who, since they drive all day, really do think they drive better than everyone else, and that we’ve had an easy ride for too long, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to refuse your compatriots as you park in front of malls, cafés, restaurants, waiting for the Iraqi and the Gulf ladies to come out, and charging them 300 and 400 Syrian pounds for a trip that normally costs 30. Alas, Syrian hospitality is not what it used to be, but then these are the strangest of times. In fact, Syrian hospitality has taken a serious turn for the worse, in my opinion, with the instant barrages being set up in every corner of town. Now I must grumble about smoking. (Feel free to stop reading in despair.) The smoking has reached the point of the absurd. Young and old, modern and conservative, secular and religious, male and female, morning and night, hot and cold, work and play, everyone is smoking the arguileh (water pipe). In every café I enter, I scan the sometimes huge rooms, in a desperate hope that someone, somewhere, has not succumbed to this disgusting habit, in vain. A wall of heavily scented smoke hits you when you enter – or rather as you turn around, because I will be damned if I put my 13-month daughter through this suffocating hell. I am not even asking for non-smoking cafés, or not even for non-smoking sections in cafés (although that would be a marked improvement). Please, just a sign that says: “Smoking optional.” (And since we’re fantasizing, another sign that says “Photos optional.”) I am told there are now companies which deliver ready-to-smoke arguilehs! Dial-a-smoke. One call, and lit arguilehs with spare “naras” (lit coals) will be at your door faster than a pizza. In my mind, even though I recognize that I might be unfair, I have come to identify things like arguileh smoking with superficiality and emptiness, and I hypocritically forget my “live and let live” motto as I turn increasingly intolerant of such meaningless, vain, empty fads, which roam equally vain places. Rotana Café is now “the best“ café with the best terrace and the best view in Damascus, I’m told. Excellent; everyone knows I love a nice cup of coffee in a nice environment with a nice view. See for yourself here. Except nobody told me I would be greeted by some 73 persons in “cool” uniforms at strategic places the moment I entered the Rotana building. Or is it just me who finds it incredibly annoying, and incredibly unnecessary? Ahlein Madame, I am welcomed. Ahlein, I manage to answer the first few times. Ahlein Madame. Uh-huh, I respond the next 7 times. And so on until we reach purgatory on the first floor: on one side, a lounge with music blaring out from huge screens, and on the other, the damn wall of smoke, with table after table of people clearly thinking they’re incredibly cool, turning towards the door to see who else is cool. We left, and I was so annoyed by the superficiality of Rotana that I complained about that café for about 3 days. Art House was somewhat superficial too (valet parking was really unnecessary given the place was right in front of the entrance), but it was refreshing and its style was subdued (even with its contrived art-déco look mixed with the huge pieces of the old mill now serving as furniture) so I forgave it immediately. The old mill has become a boutique hotel with a great terrace for having coffee, and an even better roof terrace for having dinner upstairs. The only problem, of course, is that it’s become the hangout of the pompous people who think they own the roads. And they probably do. In fact, it’s probably now easier than ever to spot the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Since the "infitah" (which I'll be discussing soon), the gap has never been bigger, and never been more clear. You can’t miss the haves through their sheer vulgarity, aggressivity and selfishness, and you can’t miss the have-nots through their sheer numbers and impotence. But that will be the subject of another post. After this initial rant, we will need to get back into the specifics of our unique social market economy.


[ add comment ]
Syria and Nahr Al Bared
Thursday, July 19, 2007, 22:55
It seems impossible to escape Syrian affairs these days. Here's a piece I wrote for Bitter Lemons International, published today, discussing the unending (and rather worrying, frankly) violent incidents in the Palestinian camp of Nahr Al Bared, in Tripoli.

Just like with my briefing paper on Syria, which continues to provoke interesting reactions (and you can guess which parties said what), the mere mention of Syria seems to trigger the most extreme of responses from everyone (including, of course, the Syrians), ranging from the mildly annoyed to the basically irrational. Has everyone noticed that, or is it just my articles?


Fundamentalism brings no benefits to Syria

The “blame Syria” game is in full swing again as the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al Bared succumbs slowly and painfully to a battle begun a couple of months ago. Under shelling by an increasingly desperate Lebanese army, overwhelmed by the loss of over 100 soldiers as it tries to defeat the obscure militant group of Fatah Al Islam, taking untold Palestinian civilian casualties in the process, the crumbling camp continues to harbor militants of various nationalities as different theories about their origins, and their sponsors, have been offered.

Pan-Arab, Saudi and Lebanese media backing the government of Fouad Siniora have been adamant about the Syrian connection, reporting the alleged confessions of captured militants who spilled the beans about their close ties to the highest echelons of the Syrian regime, in astonishingly detailed accounts reminiscent of the first Mehlis report. In order to destabilize Lebanon even further, according to sources unbothered with the burden of proof, the Syrians have planned and executed the entire succession of events in Tripoli, after having financed and armed the group. Syria, already implicated in the financial, logistical and political support of a rather wide range of actors in the region, ranging from all the constituents of the so-called Shia crescent (including Hezbollah) to the strictest Sunni radicals (including Hamas) – all of which denounced Fatah Al Islam – is thus supposedly directly behind every anti-Siniora/Hariri/Saudi/American incident (in Lebanon, in Iraq, and elsewhere).

In fact, the attempted “Syrianization” of all regional trouble-making elements is experiencing such a surge of its own that known journalists, writing in Saudi media, are now even trying to re-brand international enemy number one, Osama Bin Laden, as “not really Saudi since his mother is Syrian.”

Even though some would argue that Lebanon was unstable enough for Syria’s taste as it is, unverified hypotheses implicating Syria in the Nahr Al Bared standoff are by no means impossible. After all, there is no reason why the Syrian regime can’t be as miscalculating, and as unwise, as the British (initial sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterforce to undesirable Arabism), the Israelis (crucial backers of the creation of Hamas, which was supposed to counterbalance inconveniently popular secular Palestinian militants) or the Americans (trainers, cheer leaders and chief financiers of the Mujahideen, of future Al Qaeda fame, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). Indeed, promoters of religious fundamentalism as a tool against the villain of the day have acted at their own peril, subsequently paying the price for such selfish folly; the various supporters of Siniora are no exception, especially as the pillars on which the Lebanese government leans (especially Saudi Arabia) have been directly involved in such gambles.

Some observers have presented theories conflicting with the anti-Syrian narrative; whether to gather support during election time, or to challenge Shia groups, the Hariri movement – with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and the US - has allegedly courted Sunni Islamists in northern Lebanon and directly financed groups in Tripoli and Akkar. If true, it is not clear why the whole scheme backfired, but financing problems have been mentioned as issues of contention, in addition to the unforeseen radicalization of the groups.

Competing speculations notwithstanding, the Lebanese state, and the Lebanese army, have proven themselves to be impotent in the face of adversity resulting from foreign meddling and assault, or from internal disturbance and insurgence. From a strategic point of view, regardless of its own involvement or lack thereof, this initially favors the Syrian regime as it attempts to re-impose its weight on the Lebanese arena. Seen from Damascus, the freeze in the political process (a freeze to which Syria was a major contributor) and the incapacity of the Lebanese state to defend itself during successive confrontations (first with Israel in 2006, and now with Al-Qaeda inspired groups) have reinforced the official Syrian argument for a strong affiliation between the two countries. However, a weak Lebanese state, without Syria’s “protection,” is counter-productive for Damascus and creates risky challenges.

While any incident weakening the hand of Hariri’s movement can only be good news for the Syrians at the moment, there are clear dangers to the trend of fundamentalist groups starting to take matters into their own hands. This is an issue that the Syrian regime should find worrying, especially as religion-based extremist ideologies are spreading on either side of the Syrian borders. Syria has so far been spared such unrest and the often resulting carnage, but there is no guarantee that the borders, even closed, will protect it from a flood of eager fundamentalists for whom the Syrian regime is ultimately an ideological foe. Whether or not they are involved (and a number of credible sources say they are not), the Syrians would be foolish to take comfort in the unfolding events, lest similar attempts spread on home turf. True, the Syrian army and the state’s infrastructure are much better prepared to deal with potential turmoil, but reaching such a state of affairs would undoubtedly shake the country, especially after one and a half million Iraqis have taken refuge in Syria, creating tensions that could eventually transcend the economic and social realm and enter the even more dangerous whirlwind of sectarianism and communalism.

The déjà vu scenario of lighting extremist fires to score points against opponents creates only losers; this is a maxim which all regimes meddling in Lebanon should remember. - Published 19/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.



[ 20 comments ]
Briefing paper on Syria
Wednesday, July 11, 2007, 23:34
It's been quiet on this blog, and I should have known I'd be too busy to update in the last few weeks. Apologies for this.

In the meantime, one of the things that kept me busy is a briefing paper on Syria, published this morning by Chatham House, and which covers, according to the press office, "the reawakening of Syria." Do see for yourself and feel free to leave comments here. The paper, "Open for business: Syria's quest for a political deal" is available for download in PDF, on the Chatham House website (currently on the home page). The press release is here.


ADDENDUM: Today, I had a sudden nagging feeling that a vital piece of information got left out of my briefing paper, having been lost somewhere in the several drafts I went through while trying to keep it under 10,000 words. A quick check left me very upset, truly, because I only now realize that the following sentence is not in the published paper:

For merely meeting with American officials, Kamal Labwani was shockingly sentenced to life in prison, commuted to 12 years, a verdict that effectively dealt the coup de grâce to the current wave of civil society activism.

It's not only a matter of principle for me to mention our brave activists whenever I can, but it was also a most significant fact to add to this briefing paper in the section on domestic affairs, which I chose to cover. To whom does one apologize for such an important lapse?

[ 27 comments ]
Realizing Sharon's dream
Tuesday, June 19, 2007, 03:45
I don't know if it's lack of time only, or extreme sadness as well, but I haven't been able to comment on the events of the past few days, especially as those in Palestine go from drastic to tragic to tragi-comic ... to tragic again. Every time we think things can't get worse, they get worse. Not that this wasn't expected this time, given the physical strangulation of Palestinians in Gaza.

Until I find the time myself, I leave you with Akiva Eldar's honest piece in Haaretz today, Sharon's dream. A partial explanation dedicated to those who still harbor illusions that the Israeli government is worried about events in Gaza, or that it didn't do everything in its power to lead Palestinians to this senseless, fanatical, self-destructive violence.


Sharon's dream
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz

If Ariel Sharon were able to hear the news from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, he would call his loyal aide, Dov Weissglas, and say with a big laugh: "We did it, Dubi." Sharon is in a coma, but his plan is alive and kicking. Everyone is now talking about the state of Hamastan. In his house, they called it a bantustan, after the South African protectorates designed to perpetuate apartheid.

Just as in the Palestinian territories, blacks and colored people in South Africa were given limited autonomy in the country's least fertile areas. Those who remained outside these isolated enclaves, which were disconnected from each other, received the status of foreign workers, without civil rights. A few years ago, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told Israeli friends that shortly before he was elected prime minister, Sharon told him that the bantustan plan was the most suitable solution to our conflict.

The right and the settlers feared that the disengagement from the entire Gaza Strip was no more than a down payment on a withdrawal from most of the West Bank. The left and the international community similarly believed that if the evacuation of Israeli soldiers and civilians from Gaza went well, the way would be paved for a two-state solution; but there were also some who feared that Sharon did not intend merely to sever Gaza from Israel, thereby erasing 1.4 million Arabs from the demographic balance, but also to drive a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank.

Exactly two years ago, in June 2005, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Shimon Peres during a visit to Israel that if the disengagement were not accompanied by progress toward a solution in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip "would explode," in his words. The then vice premier told his guest that he agreed with every word, but took care to point out that his statements did not necessarily reflect the views of prime minister Sharon.

Israel's violation of the Agreement on Movement and Access, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, strengthened suspicions that Sharon was plotting to sever Gaza from the West Bank. The order that the dogs could bark, but the caravans would not move between the Palestinian Authority's two sections had already been quietly issued by the end of 2005. That was a few months before Hamas' victory in the PA parliamentary elections provided the winning excuse for sealing off Gaza. Following the political upset in the territories, the severance policy became official. Israel imposed a sweeping ban on Gaza residents entering the West Bank, which even applied to students with no record of security offenses. Even as it was protesting the Hamas government's refusal to commit itself to previous agreements, Israel was disavowing the interim agreement (Oslo II) that it signed in Washington in September 1995, under which the West Bank and Gaza constitute a "single territorial unit."

Alongside the severance of Gaza from the West Bank, a policy now called "isolation," the Sharon-Peres government and the Olmert-Peres government that succeeded it carried out the bantustan program in the West Bank. The Jordan Valley was separated from the rest of the West Bank; the south was severed from the north; and all three areas were severed from East Jerusalem. The "two states for two peoples" plan gave way to a "five states for two peoples" plan: one contiguous state, surrounded by settlement blocs, for Israel, and four isolated enclaves for the Palestinians. This plan was implemented on the ground via the intrusive route of the separation fence, a network of roadblocks deep inside the West Bank, settlement expansion and arbitrary orders by military commanders. The cantonized map that these dictated left no chance for the road map or the "gestures" that Israel promised to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the Americans.

But the hope that Hamas' thugs and Fatah's good-for-nothings will finish the work of that well-known righteous man, Sharon, and his flunkies in the government and army is no more than a warped delusion. Eight years of rioting and terror ended in the liquidation of South Africa's bantustans and their inclusion in a unified state governed by the black majority. This dream of Palestinian protectorates - Hamastan in Gaza and the Fatahland enclaves in the West Bank - is similarly the end of any solution based on dividing the land: Israel in agreed-upon borders based on the Green Line and Palestine on the other side. If we do not quickly wake up from this dream and rescue what remains of the two-state vision, we will truly be left with a choice between the plague - an apartheid regime - and the cholera: the Jewish state's replacement with a binational state between the Jordan River and the sea. Including the Gaza Strip.


[ 7 comments ]
Is London's future Islamic?
Wednesday, June 13, 2007, 00:45
Not that British media is trying to spread panic or anything ...



Cover of Time Out's current edition.


[ 42 comments ]
1967, 40 years later
Friday, June 8, 2007, 23:59
A few posts ago, in the comments section of this blog, the idea of a forum for Syrian bloggers to debate the 40th anniversary of 1967 war (and hopefully other things) was born. It is because of the incredible work done by the incomparable Camille-Alexandre (our own Alex) that we have a wonderful site, part of the bigger, superb Creative Syria and sister subsite of Creative Syria Think Tank where I’ve written before.

The current edition is about the sad 40th anniversary of the 1967 war. The main Syrian Bloggers Forum page lists all the writers, in the order in which they wrote. I am not copying my entire entry here, just the first two paragraphs. Please read my article on the original site so that any comments you may wish to make (always welcome, whatever your opinion) can be added to the overall debate. You can also give a rating to each article you read, should you wish to do so. Here’s a taste of my take:

“The time has come to rain on the love parade. Observing a 40th anniversary not of peace, but of war, reminds us that there is clearly one party which is a big winner and another a big loser, a victor and a victim, an aggressor and an aggressed. A wrong, and a right. A strong warmonger, and a weak prey. Israel, and Arabs.

But judging from the commemorations, it would be easy for a newly landed Martian to think it was actually the other way around, given the unbelievable propensity, spreading like a virus, to convince, reassure, persuade, sweet-talk and beseech Israel to give back some land so that we could please have some peace. In fact, with every so-called peace initiative, Israel’s victims are left asking for less and less.”


Continue reading about the Golan Heights ...


What I will post here, in a different take, is what Bitter Lemons International published yesterday.

The new Syrian syndrome
Rime Allaf

Syrian-Israeli negotiations once enjoyed high visibility, spreading over a decade and passing through several Israeli governments, from the toughest Likudnik to the supposedly softest leftist dove. Thus, judging from the continuing state of belligerence between the two countries, one might assume the difficulties in reaching a peace agreement were insurmountable.

It is true that relations between Syrians and Israelis have been at their most hostile in recent years. Having developed a "Syria syndrome", Israel pretends to believe its own fabrications and ironically turns all things Syrian into obstacles to conviviality and dangers to the stability of the region, ignoring its own history of aggression. Syrian propaganda, meanwhile, has been only too happy to play along, inflating Syrian capacity to defend itself and the Palestinian cause, if not to attack.

The war of 1973 played a big role in these mind games. For the first time, Israel's neighbors neither felt afraid to fight nor necessarily victims at the end. The contrast with the catastrophic black days of June 1967 couldn't have been greater: in October 1973, Syria felt capable of leading the region and of standing up to Israel. Had Anwar Sadat not stopped so abruptly in mid-fight, or had Gamal Abdul Nasser still been in charge, things would probably have been different.

But the limited victory in 1973 could not erase the defeat of 1967 and the loss of the Golan Heights, especially after Sadat went his separate way. Often accused of not caring about the Golan and paying it only lip service, the Syrian regime has nevertheless been keen, at least officially, to argue that peace was its foremost goal and that the return of the entire Golan Heights was the only option.

In fact, if the situation were to be "analyzed" and the return of the Golan "rationalized" (a redundant exercise since Israel should not have to be proffered reasons to return stolen land but should rather be forced to do so), of all the problems in the region the Syrian-Israeli track is certainly the easiest to solve. This is true even 40 years after the occupation of the Golan and 26 years after its illegal annexation by the Israeli Knesset was rejected by UN Security Council Resolution 497.

Even if seen from a purely Israeli perspective--assuming that such factors really matter when international legality is to be enforced--there are no settlers of the religious kind (as in Hebron) to evacuate from the Golan, and it is not land the Jewish people claim as part of their history (unlike, say, most of Palestine). Peace with Syria would probably solve a number of other problems for Israel, including curbing current support for militant Palestinian groups and the Lebanon file and the thorny issue of Hizballah.

From a legal and political perspective--apart from UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338 on which the peace process launched in Madrid in 1991 was based and the principle of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"--reassurances to Israel even came with the Arab peace initiative of 2002, re-launched this year as if it were a regular marketing campaign waiting for the customer to bite.

The current Syrian regime has made repeated overtures about resuming peace talks, not where they last left off but from scratch. With recurring media statements, handshakes initiated in the most unlikely of settings, dubious non-papers offering unprecedented concessions and frequent messages sent via third parties, the Syrian regime has left no doubt as to its aspirations. If there ever was a Syrian syndrome, this is it.

And yet, Israel still refuses to return to negotiations, blowing hot and cold about peace prospects, claiming doubts about Syria's real intentions (e.g., that Damascus is supposedly attempting to escape an isolation that exists only in the fantasy of its opponents) and refusing to give it the "benefit" of engagement while the US is isolating it. What a strange turn of affairs and questionable attitude for a country pretending to be desperate for peace. And how astonishing that it has somehow become acceptable for Israel to publicly discuss the ifs, the hows and the whens of a return of the Golan Heights. In full defiance of the so-called will of the international community--which is deemed sacrosanct only when it suits pro-American agendas--Israel is not only allowed but actively encouraged to flout dozens of resolutions, a behavior that would have been costly for other countries. After 40 years of occupation, absurdly, the onus is on the victim to reassure its aggressor about its peaceful intentions.

This current political seesaw is quite symbolic of the Israeli-American attachment to the glorification of 1967, as they continue to romanticize the fabulous David and Goliath tale they have woven, alleging Israel was the aggressed party fighting for its survival, even concocting an excuse for Israel's violent attack on USS Liberty, and continuously justifying Israel's violent greed for its neighbors' lands. But Israel and America are acting as if 40 years of occupation and confrontation, after 20 years of dispossession since 1948, had not been catastrophic for the Palestinian people and had not triggered a wave of dire consequences that have affected much more than the Middle East. As long as they maintain this unilateralist, victorious and remorseless attitude, 1967 cannot be forgotten, let alone forgiven.- Published 7/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.


[ 13 comments ]
Cui bono? And is that relevant now?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 14:09
I have just heard the correspondent of Al Jazeera International again refer to the “violence” in Tripoli as the worst seen in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. You could have fooled me. Not to take away from the brutality of the past couple of days, but I seem to recall a certain Israeli aggression of particular savagery last July which killed over a thousand civilians, injured many more and destroyed a great deal of Lebanon's infrastructure, during which the Lebanese army (serving tea to the enemy notwithstanding) did very little to defend its compatriots. Perhaps it had reserved the right to retaliate, like the Syrian army does whenever attacked by Israel? In any case, like the Syrian army since 1973 (apart from a brief brutal battle with Israel in 1982), it only seems to hit on weaker people, especially innocent civilians caught in the trap. The Lebanese army now has the honor of “fighting the war on terror” and receiving the admiration of the Bush administration.

As usual, while Gaza continues to burn under Israeli fire, something comes to draw the world’s already limited attention to another, bigger story. Palestinians starved, strangled, infiltrated by extremists and left to struggle amongst themselves in Gaza (with a little help from certain friends arming them) while the civilized world professes horror, that’s already old news. Palestinians, starved, strangled, infiltrated by extremists and left to struggle amongst themselves in a Lebanese camp, now that we haven’t seen for a long time. Add shelling from outside the camp and it’s déjà vu, all over again, and again – but it’s big news. And now it’s under siege with no water, electricity, and the resulting problems (notice, by the way, how The Guardian filed the story: look at the country indicated in the link).

For the Palestinians, it doesn’t really matter anymore whether the attack comes from Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Israeli shells and bombs. Nor does it matter anymore where it happens. Once more, those wretched Palestinians are under attack, 40 years after the catastrophic Israeli attack and invasion of June 1967, and six decades after the initial dispossession which the world continues to allow and even encourage. With its treatment of Palestinians, the so-called free world has lost all pretense of moral high ground and is no better than the so-called sponsors of terrorism in the world.



Tal El Zatar? Hama? Sabra and Chatila? Fallujah? No, it’s Nahr Al Bared.


But is anyone really interested in the fate of the desperate Palestinians? I am outraged by the hardships imposed on the Palestinian people, refugees in the most miserable conditions one could imagine, held hostage in camps not fit for animals for decades, and now casually considered as understandable collateral damage. Local residents, the “I love life crowd” and the “civilized cedar revolutionaries” who could do no wrong, have apparently been cheering the army as it shelled the camp. Unlike the life-worthy Westerners (or Lebanese with dual citizenship) who were evacuated to escape Israel’s savagery last summer, these Palestinians will not be helped by anyone.




How many more times will Palestinians be terrorized into escape?

Ban Ki-moon has stated he was “deeply saddened by the civilian casualties” but, even more importantly and higher up in the statement, “deplores the criminal attacks carried out over the past several days against the Lebanese army and security forces.”

If that’s the concern of the Secretary General of the UN, what do you expect from the rest? They’re all busy blaming the culprit for this chaos (Syria) and reiterating (or underlining, as the Syrians would say) the inevitability of the international tribunal. Because that’s what matters now: not stopping the bloodshed and saving poor innocent destitute Palestinians, no no, it's punishing whoever killed Hariri.

In fact, the whole story has been enveloped in the usual expert analysis (Syria dun it) revolving around who supposedly benefits from this chaos (Syria dun it) and who is afraid of the coming tribunal (Syria dun it) and who wants to destroy Lebanon (Syria dun it) and who created Fateh al Islam (Syria dun it). How very deep and proven.

It’s amazing how regime critics like myself are expected to jump at the opportunity to attack the regime and forget about the other ruthless players. However, there is more to solving a question than deciding who benefits. In fact, had cui bono been the only acceptable factor of analysis, then one could conclude that Iran must have been behind the invasion of Iraq. That's the problem with cui bono analysis: the intended outcome of an act can backfire and starts benefitting others who weren't necessarily involved (does that mean they did it?), and the culprit can miscalculate and get the opposite reaction.

Three men robbed a bank. They were pursued by the Lebanese army. They started fighting. After heavy losses, the Lebanese army decides to start shelling the refugee camp where the men’s group, Fateh al Islam, holds court.

So if Syria dun it (which I am not saying it didn’t), did it ask the men to rob the bank, and to lead the army to them, and to make sure it would cause so many casualties in the army, and to then get shelled by the army, and for general chaos to ensue, so that the tribunal wouldn’t come? The analysis goes like this: the Syrian regime is trying to make sure that the tribunal does not happen, so it pushes some buttons and sets the area on fire. Not an unreasonable analysis. It’s also a logic that has the culprit assuming that the Lebanese would go running to the UN to retract the demand for an international tribunal under Chapter VII. Well, that’s what Murdoch’s increasingly trashy publication, The Times, says in yesterday’s editorial: it’s simply Syrian blackmail.

If this indeed is the story so far, the Syrians should really rethink their relationship with their Lebanese allies, given that Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah have taken side with the army.

Now here’s an equally unreasonable possibility, marketed by the Syrians themselves: opponents of the Syrian regime are trying to make sure that the tribunal does come, and thus are setting the area on fire to show that the Syrians are spreading violence in order to avoid the tribunal. Are you with me so far? As conspiracy analysis goes, it’s as good a guess as the first one.

Here’s yet another possibility, which is even more likely but which Hariri-martyr-tribunal centric ideology cannot begin to comprehend: Fateh Al Islam is in fact a little splinter group that emerged out of nowhere rather recently, grouping militants from a variety of Arab nations, hell bent on joining the global war on terror (with different targets of course) and spreading a very unique and rigid version of Islam.

Except that it didn’t emerge out of nowhere, and it seems to have surprisingly effective and modern weapons at its disposal. And it seems to fit in the "us versus them" fad, the "organizing of a counterbalance to the Shia crescent which nobody seems to be able to control" obsession. So who could be arming them? Surely there must be more interested parties than just the Syrians.

In a frenzy to blame the Syrian regime for every mishap in the region, most people are forgetting that the other actors aren’t as angelic as they seem, and that the US and Saudi Arabia (to mention just two) have as much, if not more influence in Lebanon, and that they have been known to conduct the most ridiculous and counter effective policies to counter this Shia crescent of mythological proportions after having more or less delivered Iraq on a silver platter to Iran. It is simply stupid to ignore declared neocon agendas (just because it hasn't been a "clean break" doesn't mean the breaking isn't still the plan), and to ridicule respected investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh because they don’t automatically repeat the slogan that Syria did it.

People are so busy trying to rationalize the “fact” that this group, which even extreme militants like Hamas have disowned, is a tool of the Syrian regime that they can’t see the forest for the trees. It very well could be a tool of the regime, but nobody really knows that, and it very well could be a tool of the Saudis gone wrong, but nobody really knows that.

What I strongly object to is the oversimplification that has taken over discussion of Middle East affairs, and the parroting of the fanatic George Bush and the despicable Tony Blair in their "good versus evil" self-righteousness. I am simply tired of superficial analysis that makes assertions without a shred of evidence, and, even worse, without a shred of logic as it ignores the regional dimensions.

There are no good people amongst the involved regimes here: they have all contributed to making the region chaotic and violent, and to making its people increasingly desperate, just so that they could pursue fanatical and greedy agendas as they fight for power over the misery of people struggling to live, and over the corpses of innocent victims.


As for the bombs in Ashrafieh and Verdun, I think they are unrelated and much more likely to be good old fashioned intimidation. But my guess is as good as yours.


UPDATE:

Newsflash, breaking news, exclusive ... Walid Jumblatt, speaking on Al Jazeera tonight (just before 10 PM London time), has just accused the television channel and its owner, the government of Qatar (he wasn't sure which Emir it was), of complicity in the bombings in Ashrafieh, Verdun and Aley. Syria and Qatar. Someone call the UN.


UPDATE 2:

Much more interesting than Jumblatt's idiocies (which Al Arabiya was happy to mention in subsequent bulletins as big news) is the following article by Charles Harb in today's Guardian, which gives a good summary of how the region is being played, and how some groups are nurturing various militants in order to counter the so-called Shia crescent, which I mentioned above in my entry. In short, he says: "The Islamists at the centre of the fighting were built up by pro-government forces for sectarian reasons."

Blowback in Lebanon, by Charles Harb, The Guardian


UPDATE 3:

Meet The Welch Club in an interesting account of the situation in Palestinian camps, and of who's behind the fighting in North Lebanon, as described by Franklin Lamb in "Inside Narh al-Bared and Bedawi Refugee Camps."
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[ 25 comments ]
Seale on our prisoners of conscience
Friday, May 18, 2007, 10:50
There is a reason I haven't yet written on the latest open abuses of human rights in Syria, but I hope to be able to publish it next week. Actually there are several reasons, including not wanting to repeat the obvious while extremely angry, and waiting to read other responses for a change (mostly in vain, as usual).

In the meantime, Patrick Seale has published an open letter to Bashar Assad, writing under the assumption (I suppose) that he is not really aware about our prisoners of conscience and their jail conditions, and calling for an "early amnesty." I would have written "immediate release" of course. Still, he asks: "Is this not the moment, Mr. President, to show the world a humane and generous face, and win international support, by turning your attention to the plight of prisoners of conscience, unfairly and cruelly punished by your courts?"

Most of those who have followed the cases are familiar with the succession of events, but I will quote the most relevant parts from the article for those who don't. (Unfortunately, he does not mention previously jailed prisoners or conscience, whereas my article actually begins with Dr. Aref Dalila, but more next week.)


From Patrick Seale's article in Al Hayat:

Anwar al-Bunni is Syria’s leading defender of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. In March 2006, with funding and encouragement from the European Union, he created a Syrian human rights centre. Your security services closed it down almost immediately.

On 17 May 2006, Bunni was arrested and detained with common criminals at ‘Adra prison near Damascus where, according to Amnesty International, he suffered beatings and degrading treatment. He was not allowed to meet privately with his lawyers. I understand that he has written to you drawing your attention to the fact that some six thousand prisoners in ‘Adra are routinely subjected to beatings, insults and terror, and prevented from leaving their cells, watching TV, or listening to the radio. He has asked you to investigate prison conditions. I very much hope you will respond positively to this request.

On 31 December, Bunni was assaulted by a criminal detainee who pushed him down some stairs and then beat him on the head in the presence of prison guards, who failed to intervene. On 25 January 2007, he was severely beaten by prison guards who made him crawl on all fours and forcibly shaved his head. I feel sure that you are aware that he is a prisoner of conscience detained solely for the expression of non-violent ideas.

On 24 April, he was sentenced by the Damascus Criminal Court to five years’ imprisonment on the charge of "spreading false information harmful to the state" (Article 286 of the Penal Code). Foreign diplomats present in court were disturbed by this harsh sentence and considered the trial unfair. Such political trials before Syria’s Criminal, Military and State Security Courts have come under severe international criticism for the blatant influence of the security services on the proceedings.

I would suggest that prisoners like Anwar al-Bunni, a respected lawyer, are more damaging to you inside prison than at liberty.

According to Amnesty International, his ‘crime’ was to have raised the case of the death in custody of 26-year-old Muhammad Shaher Haysa, as a result of inhumane treatment, possibly amounting to torture. When Haysa’s body was returned to his family, it was said to have shown signs of torture. Amnesty says that torture and ill treatment are still widespread in Syrian prisons and that there has been no independent investigation into any of the cases of torture and suspicious deaths reported over the years.

I feel sure you will agree that it is of the utmost importance that Syrian prison guards comply strictly with the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment -- to which Syria is a party.

Other recent cases are those of the prominent writer and journalist Michel Kilo and the English language teacher Mahmoud ‘Issa who, after long months of detention at ‘Adra, were each given three-year prison sentences on 4 May by the Damascus Criminal Court.

They were charged with "weakening nationalist sentiments" (Article 285 of the Penal Code), with "inciting sectarian strife" (Article 307), and with "publishing a political article or giving a political speech with the aim of making propaganda for a political party, society or a banned political association" (Article 150 of the Code of Military Procedures.). ‘Issa was also charged with "exposing Syria to hostile acts" (Article 278 of the Penal Code).

Their ‘crime’ was involvement in the so-called Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a petition, signed by some 300 Syrians and Lebanese and released on 12 May 2006, which called for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon by exchanging ambassadors and defining their common border.

Another opposition figure, Kamal Labwani, founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, has suffered an even worse fate. He was arrested at Damascus airport in 2005 on his return from the United States, where he had attended a conference and met White House officials. This month he was given a shocking sentence of 12 years in jail on a charge of contacting a foreign country and "encouraging attack against Syria."

[ 38 comments ]
Judging Blair on Iraq and more
Tuesday, May 15, 2007, 01:46
Commentary on Syrian affairs has been predominant on this blog for some time, in spite of the tragic incidents taking place in my other areas of interest. While Iraq continues to grab the media’s attention (although not enough, and not for the right reasons), Palestine’s descent into even greater misery is mostly unnoticed. A few days ago, the Israeli army killed an unborn baby in his mother's womb, shooting him in the head. Where's the international shock, the sympathy, or am I one in a minority who have been shaken by this tragedy? Reports about ever greater poverty in Gaza forcing children to work, beg or worse continue to pile up. Where’s the outrage, where are the pledges of support from humanitarians worldwide?

Meanwhile, the mediocre Tony Blair has finally announced his “resignation” and we can at least rejoice in the expectation that we won’t be seeing this war criminal’s face every day any longer. I feel particular disdain for Blair, and have done since practically the beginning of his term in office, because I believe he has carried out most of his God-forsaken actions in the world not out of conviction or for his country's interests, but because of egotistical concerns and a delusional self-perception as an international leader.

I haven’t had the time to cover Blair’s long awaited departure and can only say good riddance, but I am happy to see that the excellent Avi Shlaim has written a strong op-ed in The Guardian, titled "It is not only God that will be Blair’s judge over Iraq". It's a great read and I agree with most of Shlaim’s positions, especially when he writes that “Blair’s entire record in the Middle East is one of catastrophic failure.” I would add that there are many more reasons why Blair deserves nothing but contempt, and wish that Shlaim had been even tougher on him. With Blair gone, it's one down ...

[ 23 comments ]
Peace talks: means to an end or end in itself?
Friday, May 4, 2007, 13:00
What a difference a few days can make! I was asked ages ago to write a piece on Syria for the leading Swiss newspaper (German speaking part, based in Zürich), Tages Anzeiger; I finally sent it last week, and it was published this morning.

Of course, as luck would have it, the American Secretary of State and the Syrian Foreign Minister couldn’t wait a few days more to meet, they simply had to do it yesterday. (More on that soon, of course.) Nevertheless, the meeting will not change much, and my essential argument is about whether the regime wants just to talk, or wants a peace treaty. I think it can live with both, but would actually gain a lot with the latter.

In any case, here is the English version; anyone interested in the German version should request it and I’ll gladly sent it (no lin as it’s on a subscriber-only part online).


Basking in the limelight

Syrians are accustomed to seeing negative portrayals of their country in Western media, but the unprecedented levels of criticism following the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime managed to worry even the regime for some time. Would Syria’s strong denouncement of the Iraq fiasco encourage the Bush administration to seek a new confrontation and change two regimes for the price of one?

No sooner had the ensuing quagmire in Iraq begun to reassure the Syrians of their relative safety than a new, even harder situation arose with the spectacular assassination of Rafik Hariri in Beirut, at a time when some 14,000 Syrian troops and unknown numbers of Syrian intelligence officers still controlled Lebanon. Anti-Syrian sentiment was so high amongst Western leaders that it even reunited the US and France (which had been at drastically opposing poles on Iraq) into a joint foreign Levant policy, beginning with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 when Syria enforced an unconstitutional extension to its Lebanese ally’s presidential term.

Thus, when Syrian troops withdrew humiliatingly from Lebanon in April 2005, caving under the force of international condemnation and Lebanese demonstrations, many analysts once more imagined the impending demise of the Syrian regime, which was assumed by most to be at least implicated in the murder of Hariri, and which was expected to be fingered in the UN inquiry set up to investigate it.

Yet, two years later, and after numerous statements of disapproval from practically every European government, in addition to suddenly frosty relations with influential Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Syrian regime finds itself, once more, being courted by most of its critics. While the Bush administration stubbornly remains entrenched in its attempts to isolate Syria, immaturely refusing to even conduct a dialogue, other countries have recognized that it is impossible to deal with the region’s three foremost problems without Syria’s cooperation. Indeed, in each of Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, Syria has history, influence and long-term interests, and any development in these three countries will involve Syria, one way or another, especially while the Syrian Golan Heights remain occupied by Israel.

Ironically, the US and Israel, Syria’s staunchest opponents, can take the credit for giving back to the Syrian regime the self-confidence it had nearly lost, and the rapprochement with the EU. The Israeli assault on Lebanon in July 2006, which Hezbollah surprisingly managed to counter in what many considered a true victory of Arab resistance against Western aggression and occupation, reaped many benefits for Syria; the regime’s support of Hezbollah (and groups like Hamas) simultaneously vindicated it in the eyes of an Arab street frustrated with Arab and foreign leaders alike, and proved to foreign governments that Syria was an indispensable partner. For the Syrian regime, which had argued this all along, the time had come to settle accounts and demand the leading role it warranted, if only because of geography.

This is why the recent conference on Iraq included Syria, why the upcoming Arab summit will be held in Damascus, why the EU has restarted progress on the Association Agreement, and why Syrian officials are welcoming droves of foreign dignitaries again. This is also why Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led a delegation of members of Congress to Damascus, in a public rejection of official government policy, to the delight of the Syrians. The only ones still balking are the American and Israeli governments, and Syria’s messages of engagement are falling on deaf ears.

Some analysts have since argued that the Syrian regime is only interested in its own survival (a point which certainly holds merit) and that it would use negotiations with Israel and engagement with others merely as a means to an end – the end being its longevity and security. As long as the Syrian regime is engaged and negotiating, goes the logic, it escapes the pressure of the Hariri investigation and tribunal, amongst others.

There are some flaws in these arguments. For one, it is simplistic to imagine that the Syrian regime would only prefer the status quo to peace with Israel; on the contrary, there is merit to the case that the retrieval of the Golan Heights would give the regime renewed legitimacy, and a popularity which would allow it to ride a wave of acceptance for many years. In fact, this seems to be validated by the very generous concessions the regime seems willing to give just to rekindle the peace process. While this could be purely tactical, given Israel’s public refusal to give back the land it occupied in 1967, the regime is clearly prepared for a scenario of peaceful relations.

It is also simplistic to imagine that the regime is after close ties with the US, when its saving grace, and the source of its credibility in some areas, has actually been its opposition to American designs on the region and its support of Arab causes and resistance movements. Given that Arab populations have mostly been cured of the desire for regime change, thanks to the catastrophic consequences of the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq, the Syrian regime is in no doubt that its forceful removal (by foreign troops or by popular uprising) is not an option - if it ever was.

As for the Hariri investigation and the issue of the tribunal, following an initial period of self-defense, the regime has managed to show it was a victim of unreasonable political persecution after the main witnesses in Detlev Mehlis’s first report were discredited. With subsequent reports being mostly technical and lacking the necessary “smoking gun” to indict Syria, the Syrian regime currently seems out of the fire and in no fear of the investigation anymore.

It is therefore important to make a distinction between the regime’s real intentions and the claims of the US and its allies (for instance, that Syria wants to avoid any fallback from an eventual Hariri tribunal, and that it wants peace talks for the sake of talks rather than for the sake of peace). While it certainly doesn’t like being isolated, it is not really looking to become a US ally; had this been a goal, Syria would need to get a divorce from Iran, abandon the support of resistance groups in the region, and give up its pole position as the beating heart of Arabism. In other words, the Syrian regime would have to renege on most of its Baathist aims (relations with Iran being the least Arabist of all) and acknowledge that the sacrifices imposed on the Syrian people in the name of the conflict with Israel were not, after all, necessary. For the time being, this doesn’t seem to be on the tables. Furthermore, the carrots offered in return for so many concessions are simply not appetizing enough, especially as the regime is not really looking to become one more in a string of “moderate” Arab states bound to the US by treaties.

What the Syrian regime wants is much more simple: it wants to be acknowledged as a force in the region, and as an interested party whose cooperation must be sought. In return for this recognition, and for concerned parties to concede that Syria’s involvement in Lebanese and Palestinian affairs is a given, the regime claims it will help the US make an honorable exit out of Iraq, and continue helping in the “war on terror.”

The isolation strategy has clearly not worked, and the Syrian regime is proving to its many critics that it is the only option in town. Internal opposition in Syria has been completely stifled, and foreign critics have mostly come back bearing gifts. Those who remain reluctant to engage the regime (such as French president Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and of course American President George Bush) will all be long gone, and the Syrian regime will have shown, once more, its propensity for patience. For the time being, it is basking in the limelight it feels it deserves and considering the next possible scenarios when regime change finally happens on its critics' turf.


[ 97 comments ]
Message from Syrian Prisoners of Conscience
Sunday, April 29, 2007, 23:32

Update: Please see the blog of Syrian Brit for the original Arabic version of this letter.


I received the Arabic version of the following appeal from our brave Syrian prisoners of conscience. This is the English version as posted by Fares.

Note that Dr. Aref Dalila, whose case we discussed in some detail in the comments section of the last entry, is still in solitary confinement, 6 years on. For an idea of the terrible crime he committed to merit such barbaric treatment, read the last intervention Dr. Dalila made before he was silenced in September 2001. (I am working on a translation which I will post soon.)


From the Prisoners of Conscience in Damascus Central Prison Al Adra

We are prisoners of conscience and opinion in Damascus Central Prison, lawyer Anwar Al Bunni, writer Michel Kilo, Dr. Kamal Labwani, activists Mahmoud Issa, and Faek Al Mir, and Professor Aref Dalila who could not be reached as he spends his sixth year in solitary confinement. After the sentencing of lawyer Anwar Al Bunni on 24 April 2007, we would like to say thank you and greet our families, friends, and all the people, groups, committees, organizations, associations, parties and political assemblies of Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians in Syria and the Arab world. We thank and greet the official representatives, countries, media and websites that support us by protesting our trials and arrests, and denying the accusations against our colleague Anwar Al Bunni.

We would like to send our heartfelt greetings and thanks to all of you and hope that your noble and brave attitude will not stop only with denying these accusations and supporting our cause. Our case as prisoners of conscience is part of the continuing crisis of basic freedoms and human rights in Syria that began with the Emergency Law 44 years ago. This crisis reached its height in the 1980s and again today by an increase in tyranny, arrests and the suppression of fundamental freedoms.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have paid a horrible price, some with their lives, others with the loss of years and youth from inhumane prison conditions and cruel torture. Still more have suffered by being forced to escape the tyranny or enter into voluntary exile, another difficult experience. Other Syrians stayed, throwing salt on their wounds and binding their tongues to save themselves pain. Those that couldn’t live with their tongues tied faced a future in prison, homeless and alone. For the few people that climbed to the top of the tyranny and darkened Syrian society, they have contributed to the corruption, theft and poverty that have strangled the necks of the people.

The denial of fundamental human rights in Syria is the main case that we work for and your support for prisoners of conscience is part of this fight. Fighting for the release of these prisoners is a duty, not only to decrease their suffering and their families’ pain, but also to encourage others by knowing they are not alone. We must give society hope, making sure its doors and streets are not closed. With the power of hope it is possible to fight the crisis of freedom and human rights in Syria in a peaceful way.

Terrorism is the enemy of mankind and civilization itself. It flourishes in societies that lack freedom and close doors to peaceful expression, leaving violence as a way of expressing oneself. Inside these societies suffering from poverty, where they find no well being on earth they will turn to the heavens and the answers that it may provide them. The lack of basic freedoms and human rights coupled with poverty are two faces of the same coin in the Third World. Syria is at the forefront of totalitarian countries, ruled from an isolated point of view with its citizens either idle passengers or doomed to be labeled traitors

The lack of freedom, means of expression, political participation and accountability leads to the growth of corruption, despotism, looting of public funds, rampant poverty and the collapse of moral values. The real fight against terrorism must not only be about combating extremist ideas. These ideas have existed throughout history, though they will always remain on the periphery, isolated and shunned, unless they find fertile soil to take root and grow. If they are allowed to develop in the soil of society, they will spread like toxic plants, poisoning communities and innocent people.

Addressing the root causes of terrorism requires opening up pathways to free expression and the peaceful exchange of ideas. By giving people unfettered freedom we can blunt the sword of injustice, oppression and domination to grant full political participation, a hand in future decision-making, accountability, the preservation of equality and a life of dignity. This would make the world a safer place and improve international security.

Syrians have paid a high price for their rights and freedom and we hope to be the last group forced to pay this price to help the great Syrian people. To do this we need more than your solidarity and denunciations. We need constant and tireless efforts to compel Syrian authorities to respect human rights, international law and the treaties and agreements it has signed which demand freedom of expression and opinion. The release of political prisoners is a necessary first step, including the abolition of the State Emergency Law and other such laws like Decree 49 signed in 1980 or the Hasakah Accountability Decree of 1962. Syria must abolish the State Security Court, compensate those that have suffered, create an independent judiciary, end torture and hold perpetrators responsible. They must stop political arrests and ensure the freedom of the press, allowing political participation and the formation of parties, organizations and civil society.

They must stop the looting of public funds and policies of impoverishment and domination. However, these steps are just the beginning necessary to put Syria on the path to security and move towards development, progress and the protection of national unity that now suffers from division and tension. These rifts and divisions are now impossible to conceal, despite the dancing and celebrations and empty rhetoric about a healthy society that in reality is sick and suffering. As prisoners of conscience and opinion we are apprehensive about the future of our homeland, our children and our very decision to shape Syria’s future. However, we will not be deterred by threats, intimidation, and the repression of long years of imprisonment that we face to save our country and ourselves

Adra Prison. 28-4-2007


[ 87 comments ]
The heavy price of civility
Thursday, April 26, 2007, 13:00
“Amnesty International considers Anwar al-Bunni to be a prisoner of conscience who has been tried on a charge that is politically-motivated and was brought against him because of his activities to defend human rights in Syria.”

That goes without saying. Amnesty has summarized it perfectly, and yet, nobody can pretend to have been surprised by this harsh sentence; it was, sadly, expected (not that this lessens the shock of hearing the verdict, as Yazan mentioned in the comments section), although I was told by some sources that he would be jailed for three years, not five.

It is an unmerited and unjustifiable sentence after an unconvincing sham of a trial and a crude campaign of psychological and physical abuse. In this day and age, such behavior that employs detainment, mistreatment and torture for an opinion, not an action, is simply uncivilized. In contrast, when we refer to our brave civil society activists, we should salute the civil even before the activist; so far, they have shown nothing but civility in opposition.

Nobody really expects the Syrian regime to act according to democratic, moralistic or enlightened standards; spare us the refrain that Syria is not Spain, Sweden or Switzerland – we know. Nor does anyone really believe the timing of this punishment for no crime is coincidental; we know that the regime can be obsessively timely when it wants to be.

It is no accident that this sentence should come so soon after the conclusion of the farce which the regime calls “elections” (wrongly “analyzed” by some as an attempt to consolidate power, because the regime’s full sovereignty on all things Syrian hardly needs consolidation), and which the Ministry of Information even more pathetically named “a democratic and patriotic wedding” (the latter, in my opinion, is infinitely more damaging to Syria than anything Anwar Bunni could have ever said). When even your closest ally’s media refers to it so disparagingly, any other ministry in any other country would have been shamed into dropping this ridiculous pomposity and sticking with real events.

But the regime has reached such a comfort level that it can scream ludicrous analogies over the rooftops, and, more importantly, add insult to injury to its citizens at numerous opportunities. How typical to announce draconian sentences just as an assembly convenes, squeezing puppets, profiteers and fools into 250 seats where rubber stamps, lists of slogans and instructions await, and from where new governments, decrees and decisions will be obediently applauded and embarrassingly praised.

Indeed, it is a mistake to conclude that the regime acts more harshly when it is under pressure; on the contrary, it is never so severe as when it has the time to "take care" of its citizens.

During the so-called Damascus Spring and the ensuing Damascus Winter, pre-9/11, before Afghanistan, before Iraq, when today’s March 14 leaders were singing the praises of Syria’s entire ruling class and bowing to representatives big and small, when the nouveau régime was thought to be full of promise and Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and other EU leaders couldn’t wait to take Bashar Assad under their wing, when George W. Bush was mostly concentrating on his own turf, this was the period when Syrian civil society activists were harrassed and arrested, including two prominent MPs who had their parliamentary immunity revoked. Syria was not under pressure then, but this did not save Riad Seif, Mamoun Homsi and Aref Dalila.

Western “observers” who attended their “trials” didn’t really bother themselves with the fate of these brave men. Apart from the obligatory mild statements, the life of a few Syrians really mattered as much as “a zero to the left” when compared to all the possibilities of doing business with the regime.

Five years later, when Michel Kilo, Anwar Bunni and Mahmoud Issa were thrown into jail, the regime was also not under pressure. On the contrary, it was coming out of a bind, feeling stronger than before, having survived the most amazing developments at its doorsteps, from every direction, and realizing that there was going to be no regime change, come hell or high water. By the time Anwar Bunni was “tried” and sentenced, the regime had enjoyed an unexpected proxy victory over Israel, watched the Iraq Study Group demand its engagement, approved several technical reports by the Hariri inquiry, kissed and made up with the Saudi regime, and welcomed numerous senior EU officials and American politicians including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was even waiting for Ban Ki Moon to arrive.

The regime is under no pressure, internally or externally, and these are the times when its sting is most painful. Whether they come as payback or as warnings, the regime’s selected punishments serve their purpose and intimidate most others into a frustrated silence, reminding them that having an opinion can be very expensive, and very damaging.

Anwar Bunni has just found out he will linger in jail for a total of five years. Soon, Michel Kilo will hear the same accusation, and in all likelihood the same sentence. This is no time for regime apologists to resort to moot rationalizations (“they knew what they were doing since this is not Sweden”), mindless repetitions (“long term pressure on Syria’s Arabist stance has not ended”) or, even worse, defamation of the opposition (“they are disorganized and offer no real plan or alternative”) - the latter, in particular, being the most ridiculous and the most insultingly immature reaction of them all. Many people have heavy hearts when such news emerge, and many will have no patience for this kind of false naïveté which gives the regime great satisfaction.

Unfortunately, such apologists are forgetting that “divide and rule” is not purely a concept used by foreign imperialists. If only to protect and defend our Syria, let alone respect human rights and uphold civil liberties, the absolute minimum civility we can all show is not idiotically waving flags and slogans, but showing solidarity with our compatriots.

[ 76 comments ]
Media exercises for aspiring Middle East hacks
Saturday, April 21, 2007, 02:08
Some events this week would serve as good homework material for aspiring media students, especially those with fleeting interest in the Middle East. Here’s a sample lesson.


Case 1: John McCain, Republican senator, aspiring presidential candidate (and stand-up comedian and Beach Boy wannabe in his spare time), answered a question about whether the US would send an “airmail message” to Tehran (how subtle) by singing the Beach Boys’ classic song Barbara Ann with the lyrics “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” The audience (not knowing the "joke" was actually already done before) thought it was hilarious and erupted into laughter. Asked if his “joke” was insensitive, McCain answered by asking: "Insensitive to what? The Iranians?"God forbid. Following outrage by a few people, including the liberal group MoveOn.org, the McCain campaign told critics to “get a life” and remembered to reiterate his belief that “we cannot allow Iran to destroy Israel.”

Question for the class: If another presidential candidate (or anyone else, for that matter) had attempted a similar feat with a song rhyming with Israel, would the “get a life” response be acceptable?


Case 2: Cho Seung-Hui, the maniac who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech this week, sent NBC News some documents before the massacre. In the mad diatribe were the following words: “Thanks to you, I die, like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.” He has not been branded a Christian fundamentalist, nor has his religion even been a factor in reporting the event.

Question for the class: Replace the name “Jesus Christ” with “Muhammad” in a similar sentence to discuss the impact on mainstream media, and whether religion would have then found its way to the coverage.


Case 3: On the madman’s arm was a tattoo with the words “Ismail Ax,” two words which have triggered a frenzy of “analysis” in blogs and mainstream media alike. One repeated theory is that it is meant to refer to the Quran’s story of Ibrahim (Abraham in the Bible) when he smashed idols with an ax. Unfortunately, this theory does not explain why the tattoo reads Ismail and not Ibrahim.

Question for the class: Given that no Islamic link seems to have been found yet for a number of disappointed bloggers who don’t believe this tragedy can be explained by madness alone, propose a research method to establish appropriate linkage with the “war on terror.”


Case 4: Also this week, the following events took place in the Middle East, but were hardly covered by mainstream media. Discuss why for extra credit.

Mass killings in Iraq.

Lawlessness in Gaza.

The new separation wall in Baghdad.

Israeli dispossession of Palestinian homes.

Catastrophe in Mogadishu.

Plastic surgery loans in Lebanon.


[ 41 comments ]
Liz who? Ibrahim what???
Friday, April 13, 2007, 02:17
I’ll cut to the chase: who the hell are Liz Cheney and Ibrahim Suleiman to opine on Syria, on who should talk to Syria, on what should be done to Syria, and on what Syria should be doing? What exactly are their credentials? Apart from family ties, that is?

Like it wasn’t bad enough having one Cheney messing up our lives, there’s now another trying to impose a very one-sided reading of just about everything going on in the Middle East – without mentioning the evil planners who caused so much suffering there (obviously, because that would mean washing the family’s dirty laundry in public). Ms. Cheney wants to tell freedom-loving readers “The truth about Syria,” which ends up being mostly a list of the assassinations of the various Lebanese who were all anti-Syria (get it?) through 6 paragraphs. That in itself is supposed to explain why “Syria” (as a whole) is guilty of these murders – who needs investigations, when you think about it?

While this summary would probably be refused by the publishers of “Middle East Politics for Idiots” (a book that I think is really needed), this is clearly not an impediment for the Washington Post and its sinking standards (including the failure to identify the author as the daughter of the Vice President), which allow for embarrassingly kitschy descriptions such as “Lebanon’s freedom forces” (March 14 for you and I) and weird analysis explaining that “the risks to you of ending Syria’s occupation will be high” when the Syrian troops had in fact already withdrawn and the "risk" had already been taken (after which it becomes "consequences"). Unfortunately, Cheney doesn’t explain who exactly in Lebanon was supposed to represent Jefferson, Adams and Madison, so knock yourselves out.

Two particular sentences cracked me up in this so-called opinion piece which doesn’t burden itself with trivial matters like facts. The first funny sentence is “Arab leaders should stop receiving Bashar al-Assad.” Because …? Because they’re not as “outlaw” as the Syrian regime? Because they themselves don't interfere or have interests in the region? Because they are beacons of democracy and freedom? Because they were actually elected to their positions? Because they are big on feminism, freedom of speech and freedom of worship? Because they apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The second really hilarious sentence is “The Security Council should also hold Syria accountable for its ongoing violations of existing resolutions.” Can’t argue with that … if only it read “every country” instead. Of course, the country currently in violation of the highest number of resolutions is Israel (which I believe is flouting 68 resolutions at last count).

Here’s a thought. As you read Cheney’s article, especially towards the last couple of paragraphs, replace the words Syria and Syrian with Israel and Israeli, the word Damascus with Tel Aviv, and the words Lebanon and Lebanese with Palestine and Palestinian. At least it would be a lot more factual, and proven; for example, the last sentence of Cheney’s piece would read that “Conducting diplomacy with the regime in Tel Aviv while they kill Palestinian democrats is not only irresponsible, it is shameful.” But then, of course, the freedom forces bloggers wouldn’t be able to quote it ad nauseam as proof of America’s concern for Lebanon.


As for this Ibrahim Suleiman fellow who is really getting more suspicious, and whose only saving grace seems to be the fact that he is not listening to the Cheneys and their gang, my initial opinion of his bright ideas has merely been confirmed, or rather strengthened, after seeing him give a press conference in the King David Hotel, of all places.

The man who, may I remind you if you forgot my entry on the “picnic in the park white paper,” actually believes Dennis Ross should be given the Nobel Peace Prize, has now become the official Peace Park Plan Peddler, regardless of the ridiculous indignant denials from the Syrian regime. He clearly has the confidence to state that peace is possible withing 6 months, and to divulge that Syria refused to open a second front during Israel's barbaric assault on Lebanon last summer, a loaded declaration on which I will not comment for the moment, pending more information.

While Suleiman doesn’t mention who exactly are his contacts in the Syrian regime, it isn’t very difficult to guess; as with Cheney, the family name does ring a bell, doesn’t it? This “independent” endeavor stinks to high heaven and I don’t like it.

[ 84 comments ]
The Pelosi pandemonium
Wednesday, April 11, 2007, 14:00
There are good news and bad news to report after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Damascus. The good news is that it seems to prove that there is no such thing as bad publicity (mostly for Syria), that more Americans are now vaguely aware of a place called Syria, and that some have even understood the meaning of “the road to Damascus” in its original and current political sense. The bad news is that many now think we actually killed John The Baptist, decapitated him and burried his head in the Omayyad Mosque.

Against my better judgement, I browsed some popular right wing blogs discussing the issue; the comments alone about Pelosi wearing a scarf as she visited Omayyad Mosque would scare the living daylights out of any normal person. When several level-headed and knowledgeable people mentioned that it was only a sign of respect, just as women wear a head cover to meet with the Pope, or as one would wear appropriate attire to enter a church or a synagogue, they would be chastised with the admonition that there is no moral equivalence between those and a mosque! To read these disparaging comments and the sheer ignorance, hatred and aggressiveness about all things Islamic, Arab and female was truly an eye opener, even for someone who follows media as closely as I do.

Still, most Republicans and neocons (including those in Lebanon) and the usual array of "independent" journalists (especially those from Lebanon) were simply infuriated by the visit. In other words, it was a highly successful PR coup for Syria, regime and country alike!

In the short term, this visit changes absolutely nothing (this is obviously not the first time members of Congress or government officials visit Syria recently), but holds many benefits for all involved, summarized herewith very superficially. The AIPAC-fearing/loving/abiding Pelosi and her cohort of Democrats show a reasonable approach to international relations (while safegarding Israel’s interests) and a willingness to reconsider America’s position, following the advice of experts (like those of the Iraq Study Group), hoping this diplomatic evidence can put Democrats back in the game as wiser strategists for Iraq. The Bush administration and its foreign policy “gurus” show that they are adamant about dealing with “rogue states” and score points against unruly Democrats, while reaping, behind the scenes, the benefits of actually engaging with Syria.

And last but not least, the Syrian regime, in all innocence, shows how indispensable it is, how right it was to be “steadfast” and how well this reflects its wisdom on all other issues. Hey, the Syrian regime can even claim to have caused ripples on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and in practically every major and semi-major publication in the US, getting Republicans and Democrats to actually debate (or at least lecture each other) on a new subject that touches on most Middle East problems. Not bad!

All of the above are milking this visit to suit their particular agenda, and it seems that all are succeeding on their own respective turfs, judging by the amount of column inches and blog entries dedicated to the affair. Fellow blogger George Ajjan, an American Republican of Syrian extraction, as he describes himself (and to whom I should clarify that I am NOT British-Syrian … and if I were, I would be Syrian-British) has a nice entry on the subject, simultaneously showing extreme distaste of Pelosi while seemingly approving the ultimate benefit of talking to Syria, if only for America’s sake.

There are numerous articles on the subject in mainstream media which I haven’t bothered to read, but I found the language of this Washington Post editorial, certainly not its usual fare, overly indignant and undiplomatic, demonstrating the significance of this whole Syriagate affair which seems to be just beginning.


For the Lebanese, of course, at least the “life loving” ones, things don’t look so rosy, regardless of their predictions of impending doom for Syria, and especially after the Arab summit which was a success for Syria no matter which way you look at it. The collective reaction of March 14 (aka they who love life, unlike the rest of us apparently) seems to have been to warn the Syrians: don’t be so smug, this just proves that you are very weak, or something to that effect. How logical.

In fact, the Daily Star insists that Syria had better not believe this fantasy, but the livid tone of the editorial seems to show that the paper itself believes the contrary, and that Syria’s isolation is effectively “caduque” (to quote the quintessential “irrelevant” and isolated leader). Still, they tell us that politicians visiting Lebanon come to “support Lebanon” and prove its importance, but politicians visiting Syria come to “send a strong message” and prove its weakness. Clutching at straws, they pick and choose the statements that will “prove” that the Hariri investigation is neither forgiven nor forgotten, that the tribunal is coming come hell or high water, and that the end is nigh. These are the people probably praying that Président Sarkozy, knowing his transatlantic political leanings and hoping the Chirac legacy will include Lebanon’s care, will conduct a smooth transition with the next American administration. (I think Sarko – and Ségo, for that matter – have more urging matters in mind, but who am I to break an illusion.) They are also the people probably hoping for “4 more years” of the same team (give or take a Bush) given the Democrats’ scandalous propensity to talk to Syrians.

And that’s the shocking truth: it’s not just about the Syrian regime … it’s about the Syrian people as well, which is definitely less amusing. Indeed, the reactions to Pelosi’s little tour of Old Damascus were often offensive, and not only in the barrage of insults she received for merely wearing a headscarf. Most commentators were beside themselves with fury at the fact that Pelosi actually talked to Syrians and was received so well by them – as visitors usually are. Obviously, such images do nothing for the continued portrayal of backward Syrians (especially as compared to their “life-loving” neighbors) and seem to show a human side they would rather leave undiscovered. In a way, it was even amusing to see how incensed they were by the warm, jovial, generous reception she got; how dare Damascus compete with more “worldly” and “sophisticated” capitals, heh? Who the hell do these Damascenes think they are, talking to Nancy Pelosi?

Nancy Pelosi’s stopover in Damascus managed to get most of America’s political and media circles to discuss Syria’s delicate situation, and to rehash the basic gripes with the country. Frankly, I was surprised to see surprise at Pelosi’s disregard for the appalling human rights situation in Syria (and only in Syria – the other countries she visited seem to be paragons of humanity). Regardless of whether or not the Speaker of the House is entitled to an opinion on the matter, what exactly did we expect from a Congress that has for the past few years fearfully acquiesced every one of Bush’s evil plans (from invasion to invasion), freedom-curtailing legislation (Patriot Act, anyone?) and liberal interpretations of law to suit specific American whims (Guantanamo to name but one)? Given their record on Israel alone, it is simply naïve to ask someone like Pelosi or Lantos to show concern for our brave prisoners of conscience, whose fate tragically continues to slip slowly from the public’s attention as the regime toys around with their lives.


As for Israel and the “message” sent or not sent via Pelosi to Syria, this is clearly an evolving story with fresh messengers popping up every now and then, but we should not underestimate the ties that bind Pelosi’s group to Israel’s advocates back home. If she had a message, it first came from Washington’s lobby, via Tel Aviv, and the bargaining over a certain price to pay probably didn’t just take place in Souq Al Hamidieh! I am sure we will have the opportunity to discuss this at a later stage.

In any case, I don’t know by what strange coincidence the ICG’s latest report deals with the subject of Syrian-Israeli talks You can see for yourself, and I may or may not have the time to dissect in detail, but the short of it is that I find it ridiculous. As usual, the onus is on the other, never on Israel, to provide every single reassurance. This is not how you resolve conflicts. I had already written my objections to ICG’s Arab-Israeli conflict solution in The Guardian’s CIF; let me tell you, I am even less impressed with how they plan to treat the specific Syrian case! More soon, if I get around to it.



[ 16 comments ]
Getting away with nonsense
Tuesday, April 10, 2007, 01:22
SANA has a rather strange “quote” which I’d like to share with you, quoting it verbatim: “British Magazine of "The ECONOMIST" said that Syria, by cleverness and patience of President Bashar al-Assad overcame circumstances and pressures put on her.” For once, I’m not going to comment on syntax or grammar (I give up) given that the content is actually interesting in itself. Now call me finicky, but I had already read the piece in the actual Economist to which SANA “writers” refer, and which they only discovered on Monday (somebody better tell them that it actually comes out on Fridays), titled “Has he got away with it?”

In fact, I have this week’s issue next to me on the desk, and I can assure you that the closest - and this is really stretching it – part of the article one could consider as their “source” is the following sentence: “He owes his new lease on political life to the incompetence or fatigue of his enemies, to clever diplomatic footwork and to lucky circumstances.” Not quite the same, is it? Talk about paraphrasing.

Someone at the Ministry of “Information” should do something about this; it may seem like peanuts when looking at the big picture, but media is such a vital element of politics these days. Syria gets enough flak as it is for real events and real statements: is it really necessary to go to these extremes about something anyone can check? Honestly, Syrian officials who allow this to happen deserve the ridicule they receive, but Syrian people inevitably get dumped with the lot and it's getting tiring.

I can’t remember if I mentioned it in this blog, but I once literally asked the previous Minister of Information, Mehdi Dakhlallah, to shut down the online English section of SANA until they got their act together. He told me he couldn’t fire a single person, and that there was really nothing he could do about it. (He also told me not to read Israeli papers, and I really should write more about that meeting we had! Or have I already?) I wonder if Muhsin Bilal has the same power, or lack thereof; if so, what’s the point of the ministry anyway? Circulating miscellaneous statements about visiting dignitaries (I'll eventually get to Pelosi's visit, because there are actually a couple of interesting things about it) is not much of a remit, and misquoting respected publications is just so absurd. So, Mr. Minister, what are you going to do about it?

[ 8 comments ]
Damascus and Sham’s heritage are under attack
Sunday, March 25, 2007, 19:19

There is a common denominator between the name of the new Syrian car and the continuing “modernization” in Old Damascus; the first is an incult insult, the other an irreversible injury, and both illustrate how Syrian authorities are simultaneously misappropriating the name of Sham and abusing its heritage.


I cringed when I read the name of the latest Iranian-Syrian venture: is this car assembled in Syria so magnificent that it is worthy of the name Sham, or has this historical name been so degraded, whether out of ignorance or by design, to allow its association with an ordinary, mechanical object?

It is obviously high time my country produced something other than chewing gum and paper tissues, in addition to some successful manufacturing outside the field of fast moving consumer goods (pharmaceuticals and cotton goods are such cases). It is also high time that some Syrians, at last, may begin to at least dream about owning a car one day, even though Mohamed Imadi (at the time Minister of Economy, and now in charge of setting up a Stock Exchange) once explained that cars, like houses, were a luxury.

But when the makers brainstormed (as if) to list possible names for this car, this one should not have been an option. Sham, a name bursting with significance and connotations, history and memories, passion, glory and even melancholy, is to become synonymous with a vulgar vehicle whose specifications can’t possibly do justice to the weight of meanings it carries. If this is the name chosen for a car that is merely assembled in Syria, what would they have baptized something like the TGV or Airbus? Not that we need to pose this hypothetical question, given that 40 years of Baathist education have ensured that graduates of this system are mostly concerned with faithfully parroting the slogans that will give them a passing grade, a promotion, or a lucrative connection. Pity the nation indeed …

The Syrian authorities should get over this unfortunate obsession with such pomposity that tries to hide, unsuccessfully, an inferiority complex (teamed with a highly dubious reading – and appropriation - of history) and start taking lessons from the communication professionals. Even if they don’t care about the Syrian people’s wishes, for the time being, they could at least aspire to become image-savvy, if only for the reputation of the country as a whole. When producing El Nasr, Egyptians didn’t think of calling it the Alexandria, the Ramses or the Cheops, for example. Nor did the Iranians call their original product Persepolis. Syria’s Cham Palace Hotels (with the more elegant and less awkward French spelling) can at least pretend they are offering a five star service, which I assume is not the case of this particular sham. Just think: if this is the name of the basic model, what will the top of the line, full option version be called?

All this complaining because of a mere car? Yes, because it’s emblematic of many aspects of current Syrian officialdom. The Syrian authorities keep sticking totally inappropriate, grandiose labels to undeserving things and issues. Even worse, they do not realize that this has the opposite effect, and that they are in fact over-promoting mediocrity.

Historical names like Sham, or Cham, are more suited to public libraries, opera houses or concert halls, it at all. Often, however, these don’t need such endorsements to be special: Vienna’s Staatsoper, surely one of the world’s most magnificent opera houses (or indeed buildings of any kind) or its Konzerthaus, from where the New Year’s Day concert is broadcast to tens of millions of homes every year, didn’t need to burden themselves with names from the Austro-Hungarian empire’s riches to be exceptional. More recently, in Paris, the library that François Mitterrand bequeathed to his country was simply la Très Grande Bibliothèque. None of these man-made structures or things borrowed a name laden with historical perspective, or even simply a name; perhaps the regime should rethink its naming strategy with regards to a number of items, and above all leave the historic names, and historic sites, to history. Which brings us to the injury.



The liberties taken with our historical Sham would have been upsetting and insulting enough had they been limited to the name. But both Bilad Al Sham and our present day Sham, as we fondly call our beloved Damascus, have fallen prey to questionable schemes that will cause the greatest, irreparable harm. Native Damascenes are surely not the only ones to be horrified by the flagrant abuses, in every sense of the word, that are turning this ancient oasis of conviviality into a monstrous agglomeration with no respect for the massive responsibility that history places on all civilizations and all rulers, be they chosen or self-imposed.

The so-called modernization plans for the city are the real sham here. There are no philanthropists in this story, and there are no well-meaning but misguided millionaires accidentally damaging historic quarters in order to donate a school, a hospital or modern homes for the countless needy. There are only ruthless people who keep digging deeper into the rich layers of Syria’s past, having already skimmed off the cream of Syrians’ present and future. No amount of investment and vague promises of job creations can disguise the ultimate motives, or can justify the regime’s cavalier approach with our heritage, damaging the core and the soul of our old city.

Damascus already has the dubious attribute of having one of the world’s most expensive real estate, with house prices rivaling Paris and London in certain areas of the city which are certainly out of the league of most Damascenes. Shouldn’t the government begin to concern itself with that problem first, before pretending to “improve” things elsewhere?

But the issue of Old Damascus goes beyond the rights of the people who live and work there, and who are to be uprooted and sent packing to the ever more distant, and ever more depressing, suburbs of Damascus. Indeed, this is about the rights of all Damascenes, all Syrians, and all the heirs to this fantastic heritage. This is about the intense emotions cities like Old Damascus have provoked in compatriots and Damascus lovers like Nizar Qabbani or Ulfat Idilbi, amongst numerous others, who in turn immortalized their infatuations to make us yearn even more for things we took for granted, like countless writers did before them, decades and centuries ago.

Syria’s “responsibles” are acting with complete impunity … and complete irresponsibility. They have allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry to deposit piles of money for the right to “modernize” or “beautify” places that need neither modernization nor beautification. As I already mentioned in this blog last year, high fashion already found its way to The Street Called Straight and there is clearly no heads or tails to the so-called “plans” of Damascus Municipality in its blind ignorance and uncivilized attempt to appear enlightened.

Nobody has the right to treat one of the world’s oldest, if not the oldest, cities with such disrespect, greed and ignorance. No building complex or structure of any kind can justify the continued tearing down of walls that have stood the test of time, only to fall victim to a vulgar demolition crew. I have seen with my own eyes, guided by a friend who happens to be an internationally-known authority on Islamic architecture, the permanent damage done to the great Omayad Mosque, which has been disfigured by ignorant “repairs” that have not been faithful to the original. Are we going to allow such rash behavior to continue all over the old city? All our region’s heritage is priceless and should be safeguarded for future generations, but as a native Damascene I can’t hide the special place in my heart reserved for my Sham.

This online petition to save Damascus is an honest attempt to draw international attention to this problem. While I will gladly add my name to any such initiatives, hoping that UNESCO will put immense pressure on the Syrian government to prevent the destruction of a World Heritage Site, I also believe this is a battle we must fight within our borders, and this is a petition that must be taken to the highest authorities within Syria, who are now tearing down the wrong walls!

Legend has it that Prophet Mohammad refused to enter Damascus after admiring it from Mount Qassioun, as one only enters paradise once; today, tragically, he would have numerous different reasons for refusing to enter it.


Addendum: Fellow blogger Gottfried was kind enough to send a couple of links regarding the demolitions in Old Damascus, which I only saw after posting the above. Please visit his blog here for more information.


[ 67 comments ]
Syrian-Israeli peace? Not if the US has a say, and it does!
Saturday, February 24, 2007, 09:54
My latest article on the Syrian-Israeli conflict came out on Thursday, before the news of Condoleezza Rice’s insistence on her government’s position. It has been revealed that the United States demanded that Israel desist from even exploratory contacts with Syria, as detailed in this Haaretz article. While this will undoubtedly make a lot of people happy, I was asking, rather, whether America’s actions were not really counter-productive; you be the judge.

Interestingly, on the issue of timing, this report from UPI (which for some reason mentions my father) seems to imply I wrote my article in response to the revelation.

Unless there are huge news, there will probably be very light posting, if any, until mid-March because I am travelling. But commenting is always on.


America's veto on Syrian- Israeli talks is counter-productive

Rime Allaf

For years, unlike the other thorny issues that form the Arab-Israel conflict, the status of the Golan Heights hasn't triggered a sense of urgency in any party. Strangely, this apparent nonchalance also applies to Syria.

Apart from a brief joint Syrian-Egyptian effort in 1973 to retrieve territories invaded by Israel in 1967, the important battles in the Syrian-Israeli conflict have not been fought on the Golan Heights, but in other arenas and even through proxies. This doesn't mean that its importance has not been recognized or that resolving the issue has not been attempted; numerous interventions by successive American administrations have come and gone, but breakthroughs were always prevented by the changing agendas of the people who could make them happen.

Forty years on, and 15 years after an unprecedented peace process was launched with the Madrid Peace Conference, we seem to have reached an inexplicable impasse again. While Syria has repeatedly indicated it was willing to restart negotiations unconditionally (implying the progress made with the so-called Rabin deposit and the near-agreement with Barak at Wye River could be scratched), Israel has time and again rejected these advances, fully supported by the US, in an erratic and ambiguous attitude serving no long-term purpose.

More recently, any chance of Israeli dedication to the matter has been completely put to rest by the intransigence of the Bush administration, which instructed all its allies to turn a cold shoulder toward Syria, hoping to impose a new isolation. The present administration, in fact, has engineered the most significant change in American policy toward Syria since the 1980s, a change that predates both the Lebanon file beginning with UNSC Resolution 1559 and the invasion of Iraq, the two main current points of contention between the US and Syria. After 9/11, and after having accepted Syrian intelligence cooperation, Washington was transformed from a sponsor of the Syrian-Israeli peace track into a promoter of the Syria Accountability Act.

America's unjustified indifference to the issue of the Golan Heights and its shameless selectiveness in applying international law are neither new nor surprising, given its life-long blind support of Israel. In the circumstances surrounding the Middle East today, however, such behavior is foolish and counter-productive, for a peace settlement with Syria is a prerequisite to comprehensive calm.

The Bush administration has accused the Syrian regime of every possible crime and misdemeanor in the region, blaming Damascus for problems in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, to mention only the most pressing issues. If Washington is simply looking for a scapegoat, one can only wonder about the benefits of such conduct. But if it really believes that Syrian actions are that powerful, then that is all the more reason to "force" Syria to behave according to American parameters. This could be done in one of two ways: threats, pressure and sanctions (the current modus operandi of the Bush administration), or engagement and promises of mutual benefits. In other words, for the US, Syria can either be beaten into submission, which hasn't been effective until now, or it can be enticed somewhat into the American sphere of influence.

It has been suggested that "offering" negotiations on the Golan Heights in return for Syrian assistance on other problematic fronts could help achieve several American goals in the region, including a divorce between Syria and Iran, a distancing from Palestinian radical factions, a relaxation of open interference in Lebanon and, most importantly, a pro-active role in the pacification of Iraq. But simultaneously, there are allegations that the Syrian regime is not serious about peace and only wants to escape isolation by negotiating, which is the line that Washington has chosen as its premise.

Such reasoning, such polarization into "us or them", only serves to perpetuate the deadlock. Syria is being accused of wanting to negotiate for negotiations' sake, but Israel and the US themselves are only talking peace to achieve other goals.

Furthermore, the long-awaited return of the Golan Heights to Syria should not be marketed as a reward offered to Syria for "good behavior" in other arenas. Unless this conflict is resolved to the letter of the international law that clearly defines its ownership and its borders, the US will only be playing with fire. Turning a national right into a potential fringe benefit is bad politics, especially when the peddler has repeatedly proven its bias in the case.

There never was a bad time to rekindle a peace process, especially in a region where lack of peace doesn't merely entail frosty relations, but rather ongoing hostilities. Every possible scenario has already passed: active war, quiet non-belligerence and non-peace, rightist and leftist governments in Israel, on and off American involvement, bilateral and multilateral negotiations, resolutions and peace initiatives. The only thing that hasn't been tried yet is compelling Israel to commit to international law and United Nations resolutions; in the case of Syria, this means UNSC Resolutions 242, 338 and 497, among others.

Sooner or later, Israel must give back the land it has illegally invaded and annexed, an inevitability that the Israeli political class understands full well. Creative solutions to circumvent the obligatory full return of the Golan Heights (such as the dubious non-paper revealed recently by Haaretz) cannot work, and yet Washington seems to object even to that. By needlessly perpetuating the status quo, and by rejecting the sound advice offered by the Iraq Study Group to engage with Syria, isn't Washington foolishly shooting itself in the foot? - Published 22/2/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.


[ 25 comments ]

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