Strange summits by the sea
Sunday, January 8, 2006, 22:50
You'll forgive me for breaking the vigil over Sharon's health status and for diverting from thinking about the frantic media's panicked questions – namely, what could possibly happen to the "peace process" after Saint Ariel's departure from politics. Oddly enough, Syrian politics keep catching my attention.

Am I the only one who found today's events very strange? I haven't yet heard any comments on the unannounced travels today. First the unexpected visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal to Damascus; that in itself wasn't so strange, even if it was sudden, but what followed certainly was. It is certainly not usual diplomacy for a foreign minister to go to another country just to announce a sudden summit and to bring back the president of his host country to his own. Farouk Sharaa's fake smile was even more fake today, and there was a certain je ne sais quoi in the air, perhaps a sense of reality hitting him like a ton of bricks.

Why did Saud go all the way to Damascus just to announce the summit? (Notice how every little meeting is now a "summit.") Why didn't Bashar just go to Jeddah? Was Saudi Arabia putting him in a fait accompli situation because he had claimed he was too "busy" to go? Had he not answered the summons in a satisfactory way? In any case, he wasn't too busy to stop off in Sharm El Sheikh on his way back to meet Hosni Mubarak – unescorted this time.

I still think the Saudis are not keen on going all the way, if only because they are not quite convinced of the feasibility of a Khaddam & Co scenario (or of any other). I'm sure that could change when a workable alternative has been found, one which suits the interested powers of course, not necessarily the Syrian people. In the meantime, they seem to prefer the idea of a weakened Syrian regime – but one which starts to do as it is told, once and for all. It is only a matter of time, and we will see whether the very vague Saudi (and Egyptian, but they are less important now) wish that Lebanese and Syrian media should stop escalating matters will be carried out. More importantly, is Sharaa really going to be interviewed by the UN commission? I just don't see it happening with Assad and will be the first surprised if it happens. The time when this could have been presented as a courtesy call has come and gone; meeting the UN means Bashar has capitulated.

As for Khaddam, he seems to still have a lot of things up his sleeve. My initial feeling about his coup de force last week has been strengthened; this is a lot bigger than just Hariri, although it is of course Hariri's assassination that triggered the sequence of events (or, as I've repeatedly maintained, it is the extension of Lahoud's term and the complete mismanagement of foreign affairs that started it all). I don't see a coup d'état (nor do I hope for one, as it would change nothing), nor a popular uprising – in fact, even the opposition in Syria couldn't wait to distance itself from Khaddam, obviously. But I do feel that something has shaken the regime and weakened it considerably, for the first time. It remains to be seen what will be the coup de grace.

Without wasting time on it, I should mention that the usual non-Syrian "Syria experts" have continued to say the most ludicrous things over the past week. To respond to but one thing, Syrians will actually still be talking about Khaddam for years (they still talk about Ali Douba and Hikmat Chehabi, amongst others, for crying out loud!). This is a story that concerns everyone, and it is an unprecedented turn of affairs. True, there were defections in Syria's political past, but none after a ruthless regime had been in power for over 35 years. Not even after Rifaat Assad's exile did people dare to talk about cracks in the regime – perhaps because there weren't really any.

And to mention another thing, while we're at it, Khaddam certainly did not try to impose Baathists in the last major reshuffle, only to be surprised by Bashar's "liberals"; on the contrary, and I know this for a fact without being able to talk openly about the people involved, Khaddam thought his choice for Minister of Economy – an independent liberal who worked for years in the US and Europe – was a done deal. Jamal Khaddam called the man in question ten minutes before the new government was going to be announced, asked him where he was (he was driving home), and told him to turn on the radio to hear his name. Ten minutes later, the government was announced – and he wasn't in it.

That doesn't mean Khaddam was the democratizing force he claims he was. As long as it served his purpose, he was more than happy to participate in the crackdown on the Damascus Spring, and on any attempt to spread civil society's word. But where Khaddam differs from the rest of the thugs abusing the country is that he did understand the international scene better, and he did benefit Syria more during his time. Small consolation.

The best comment on this whole Khaddam-Assad duel of sorts has come from Angry Arab, who wrote a few days ago that in this affair, he feels like Henry Kissinger observing the Iraq-Iran war … he wants neither to win! Touché As'ad!

By the way, the English text of Khaddam's interview with Asharq Al Awsat on Friday is here (as I've noticed a lot of less than faithful translations). The Newsweek interview, where Christopher Dickey couldn't help but start with the subject of Sharon (and of "Hezbollah's relentless campaign of terror and attrition" – against the occupier in their own country, but I digress) is here.

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Defection and high treason in Damascus
Saturday, December 31, 2005, 23:52
So here we were, minding our own business, thinking the excitement had gone out of the whole Syria-Lebanon affair and that the year had seen every possible development there was. Thanks to Abdel Halim Khaddam who decided to make a few waves and keep us entertained, we had the farcical session of parliament in Damascus today to send off 2005 with a big bang.

I noticed that most Lebanese observers (bloggers included) only focused on Khaddam's statements regarding Hariri, considering the interview a sound indictment of the Syrian president, and a clever move by the Hariri clan. I think they're missing a lot, given that this is an unprecedented turn of events in internal Syrian affairs, and Lebanon is only a part of it. That said, I think it’s a pity that Khaddam should have chosen Al Arabiya to make these revelations; undoubtedly, the Saudi connection (and of course consequently the Hariri connection) takes away from the independence of the endeavour. Also, it's a pity the interview was not done by a more capable (and less robotic) journalist, who could have probed when needed and directed and organized the conversation.

Khaddam should have also thought twice about sitting in the very obvious luxury of his Avenue Foch residence as he bemoaned the poverty of Syrian people forced to look for food in garbage cans, or as he wondered about the origin of the riches – in the billions of dollars – of other Syrian officials.

This interview was very long, and the full version has just been broadcast. I think most people have already reacted to the shorter, hour and a half version shown yesterday. I also need to go back to listen to the details, there were many interesting revelations (most of which seem credible). Several Syrians with whom I spoke today highly enjoyed Khaddam's criticism of Farouk Sharaa, agreeing with his assessment of Syrian foreign policy (or lack thereof). For me, the most important parts (and the reason why the Syrian leadership must have gone crazy) were those dealing with the inner workings of the regime, and the influences on (and the temper of) the president. It is not simply because Khaddam spoke of threats made against Hariri that the regime staged the incredible (even by Syrian standards) session of parliament today.

If you thought Syrian presidential "elections" are incredibly close to unanimity, with landslide victories in the high 90 percents, then you will find them practically democratic when compared with today's parliamentary session where 100% of the parliamentarians, by some strange coincidence, instinctively knew what to say in total agreement with one another.

One after the other, these sycophants (they aren't really worthy of the name "parliamentarians") used their most poetic tones to condemn Khaddam and demand that he be tried for high treason. High treason? If Khaddam's crimes indeed qualify him for high treason, then doesn't that put the whole regime – and many many of their accomplices – in the same accusation chair? Does the regime really believe this is something the people can swallow?

Suddenly, these MPs have all noticed how many properties Khaddam accumulated in Syria, how much money his children made, and even how nuclear waste was buried on Syrian soil by the Khaddams. Now they notice. That's a lot of information, a lot of corruption, and a lot of treason in one go. So much, in fact, that some MPs took some very questionable liberties with verses from the Quran, changing them to fit their descriptions of Khaddam. This was a very unremarkable day in the history of unremarkable days in Syrian internal affairs.

Strangely, the same MPs hadn't noticed all these seemingly evident crimes during Khaddam's tenure in various official positions. As far as I can remember, certainly since I've been a child, people would give anything to get near Abu Jamal and Um Jamal, or their children for that matter, as they do with most high "responsibles" in Syria. But without any doubt, apart from the immediate presidential family, the Khaddams were in a special category.

Just as strangely, or even more strangely now that their eyesight has been suddenly restored, none of these MPs happened to notice any other Syrian official having big houses or taking money from the Syrian people. Nope. It was just Khaddam. And it was just Khaddam who stood in the way of reform, apparently – which is the only good news to come out of this parliamentary session, since it now means real reform can immediately start at galloping speed now that the impediment has been removed.

I was sorry to see Lebanese politicians and commentators today give effusive thanks for Khaddam's position and declarations, neglecting to take all the above considerations into account. If they only care about their own affairs, they make a mockery of their calls for democracy and freedom, of which the Syrian people are just as worthy as they are. In the long run, it does not serve Lebanon to hail any person simply because he or she publicly dissents from the official Syrian line.

There will be a lot of time in 2006 to talk about the repercussions of Khaddam's defection. May it be a good year for everyone.

[ 14 comments ]
Tis the season to be jolly worried?
Sunday, December 25, 2005, 15:12
A Lebanese friend sent me this cartoon of Santa visiting Lebanon, so that we could all be jolly on top of being worried. That's the spirit!




Santa Claus visits Lebanon

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In defense of the word
Wednesday, December 14, 2005, 23:59
"Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire."

Voltaire


(I do not agree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it.)


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15 - Love
Friday, November 4, 2005, 15:40
It's not clear why anyone in Syria should be relieved that UNSC Resolution 1636 was "watered-down" with the help of a number of countries. Firstly, it doesn't need to be any tougher or threaten to eventually impose sanctions: since it already falls under Chapter VII, the "or else" implication is there by default. Secondly, removing the explicit threat of sanctions merely ensured that the vote would be unanimous. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, of course, as an adopted resolution is legally binding no matter how high the majority (such as, for instance, UNSC Resolution 242), whether or not it falls under Chapter VII. Thirdly, it makes it easier to dictate sanctions in the following resolution, sanctions stronger than the threatened ones which might have been included in 1636.

I'm sure I'm not the only Syrian despairing at the performance of the Foreign Minister at the Security Council. Perhaps he and his bosses still have not figured out that it may have been better to start addressing world opinion and to avoid wasting time with ridiculous analogies whose only impact was to demonstrate they had nothing else to say. The British Foreign Secretary was equally pathetic, but clearly in a better position to try – and fail - to sound interesting and intelligent; if anything was medieval, it was their pointless spat.

Was Sharaa going for sincerity, credibility or mercy when he reminded Straw that he telephoned him after the July bombings in London? Why did he suggest a closed meeting with the members of the Council so that evidence of Syrian cooperation with the Mehlis team could be presented? If there is such evidence, it should be made public (rather than the bizarre story on members of the commission's eventual return to Syria as tourists and the discussion on who would pay for the hotels). There is so much to say about this pathetic performance, and much to say about what Syria should be doing right now. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that this is unacceptable behaviour which doesn't even fall under the category of diplomacy.

Syrians used to be angry because of the regime's brutality and injustice; now, they are also angry because of its incompetence. It has, rather literally, added even more insult to injury.

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Selective amnesty
Thursday, November 3, 2005, 23:48
Are we supposed to be grateful for the sudden "rectification" of issues that shouldn't have happened in the first place? I'm sure the 190 Syrian prisoners of conscience whose release was announced on Wednesday are relieved to be out of jail, but it's hard to accept the explanation for their release, just as it was to accept the explanation (if any) for their incarceration. Apparently, it has absolutely nothing to do with internal and external pressures, no Siree. The timing is purely coincidental.

SANA, with its usual clarity, explained that this amnesty was "in line with the comprehensive reform policy that aims at strengthening national cohesion which constitutes the basis of our society texture and serves our national interests." This is reform? And this is what SANA says comes "within a series of similar steps that Syria has taken so far in recent years with aim of strengthening the internal front and consolidating the national dialogue"? What steps? Wouldn't national dialogue be more consolidated if people speaking their minds weren't thrown into jail?

In a journalistic scoop which SANA shares with us, there are apparently "more steps and measures to come in that connection on the basis that the homeland embraces all." At the risk of raining on their parade, this sounds an awful lot like the promise that a big step would be taken at the Baath Party Congress.

The three Syrians whose illegal arrest and imprisonment continues to symbolize the regime's response to the Damascus Spring – Riad Seif, Mamoun Homsi and Aref Dalila – remain in jail, along with many others.

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Is Syria at the 11th or the 25th hour?
Monday, October 31, 2005, 02:24
I may have been too confident when I spoke last week of Syria's desperate 11th hour attempts to gather sympathy and support around the world; "11th hour" presupposes a window of opportunity, no matter how small. But as I watch, with increasing disgust, the amateurish performance of Syrian officials on numerous television channels, and observe the hasty shuttle on which some "diplomats" have embarked (notably to the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, beginning with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia), it's clear the 11th hour has already come and gone.

There is a daily news program on Syrian television called The 25th Hour. For a long time, my husband and I attempted, admittedly rather childishly and never with a straight face, to make sense of the term; not surprisingly, we never managed but ended up using the term, to our amusement, to describe a number of Syrian "initiatives." It occurs to me today that The 25th Hour in fact accurately describes the Syrian regime's conduct; indeed, it only seems to react when it is already too late, beyond the 11th hour. And it's not funny anymore. While Syrian officials continue to argue that the Mehlis report is full of contradictions, inaccuracies and faults, most others have moved on to discuss the implications of the Security Council meeting on Monday (where it is assumed a resolution of warning will be passed) and the choices facing the Syrian regime.

I find it incredible that Walid Muallem, whose words of warning to Hariri are partly transcribed in the Mehlis report, should have been chosen to embody the Syrian charm offensive (really a supplication round) with the Gulf leaders, who of course were on excellent terms with Hariri. But again, how typical of Syrian regime behaviour to use its tried and tested loyal men, how typical that it remains completely oblivious to the situation. At least Muallem may get a slightly warmer welcome (or, better put, a less cold one) than Farouk Shara can expect in New York. Syrian diplomacy is really not worthy of the name anymore – and yes, it used to be, many years ago.

In the meantime, the opposition is making very reasonable (some would say too reasonable) demands in an attempt to defend the country while calling the regime to account. Nobody is under the illusion that the Syrian people can escape unscathed from the confrontation between an erratic American regime and an erratic Syrian regime.

As for the inquiry set up by Syria to investigate the assassination of Rafik Hariri (it's a wonder they didn't think of that back in February), there is already a strong lead: yesterday, on Al Jazeera, the Syrian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates declared that the Mossad had assassinated Rafik Hariri. There you go.

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Talkin' about a resolution
Saturday, October 29, 2005, 15:35
When UNSC Resolution 1559 was passed, the Syrian regime had gloated that it was a victory because it didn't mention Syria by name; it's fair to say that there is little possibility of that on Monday, when the vote on the post-Mehlis report resolution is expected. But the Syrian regime is still hoping that Russia and China will veto, and that the only Arab state currently in the Security Council, Algeria, will vote against it. One might wonder why Syria would be counting on Algeria, when it had itself voted for UNSC Resolution 1441 to the dismay of many observers. At the time, most people were still not convinced that Iraq had WMDs; today, however, many more people are convinced that Syria has something to hide.

There's been mostly the same old stories we've known for years, and which fail to add much to understanding the current picture. Often, there is a complete misreading of the situation, even by relatively qualified journalists; for instance, The Washington Post, trying to illustrate what it believes is "the adage in the Middle East" that "if the government survives a crisis, it can claim victory," chooses Saddam's "crisis" of the 1991 Gulf War and compares it to Hafez Assad's "crisis" of the 1973 war! Clearly, the writers have absolutely no clue about what the October War meant for Syria, and about the initial legitimacy it brought to Assad's regime.

Some of you may be surprised to hear that there are some Americans writing from Syria who are not mere apologists for the regime (really), and who try (not too successfully, but at least they try) to paint a more realistic picture of the mood in the country. In the Los Angeles Times, Matthew Longo's "Hating the regime, fearing Uncle Sam" at least acknowledges that hating one party doesn't translate into outright support of the other (and vice versa) – no matter what you've heard. But it seems the generalizations can't be helped: you will still read that people in Syria (and in the entire Middle East, in fact) really like their leaders and only blame the people around them for the corruption, oppression, blunders, etc. Sounds familiar? In the same Washington Post article, the writers claim that "people often make a distinction between him and the unpopular government" and that "he has shorn his rule of the iconography so familiar to his father." Really? Are the reporters actually in Syria and are they using their eyes? I think it still hasn't occurred to non-Syrians offering us their analysis and reports that they still might not be getting the full story from the "natives" and that the vast majority of people will still not dare criticize the president to someone outside their closest circle.

In the meantime, upholding its noble goals of freedom of expression and freedom of information, American media (and I don't mean 'big" media) is trying to educate its readers on all things Syrian in self-righteous editorials and op-eds expressing shock at foreign interference in other countries, and the criminality of assassinations. (When it's done by Syria, that is.) Thus, you can now read about the Syrian predicament in numerous newspapers, including such renowned sources of international political analysis as Louisvile, Kentucky, or State College, Pennsylvania, or Denver, Colorado, or Columbus, Ohio or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, amongst others; alternatively, you can stick to souces inside Syria who will tell you how much Syrians support the regime and how they will all kill each other if it crumbles. But if you only stick to these two extremes, you will not be aware that there is a middle ground, and that more Syrians stand in it.

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A lot of attention but little news
Wednesday, October 26, 2005, 00:58
I was at the BBC World studios during the Security Council meeting with Detlev Mehlis today, spending my time off the air switching between numerous channels on the desk, first following the Reuters feed, and then surfing between the main news channels to see what they found worth captioning. Someone who assumed (wrongly) I was interested advised me to regularly check the live feed from the Foreign Office, where a press conference with Jack Straw and Saad Hariri was expected.

It would have never occurred to me that one of the TV channels, namely Al Arabiya, would actually find Hariri's appearance to be more newsworthy than the session at the UN, cutting to live coverage from London! That it happened exactly when the Syrian ambassador, Faisal Meqdad, was delivering his statement will add to Syrian paranoia; is that justified, or was it purely a coincidence? Al Arabiya also saw it fit to bring a commentator right after Hariri's appearance, before turning its attention once more to New York. You may be pleased to know that Hariri is eventually going back home: ("I think I am going back to the Lebanon because I have to go back to the Lebanon. It is a risk we take and as we work in politics in Lebanon there is a risk to take and I am willing to take it. So I will go back to be among the people who voted for me." Wow. (Does anyone know, by the way, why Rafik Hariri's son speaks English and French relatively badly?)

Mehlis's disclosure that credible threats had been received by the commission, and the way his eyebrows shot up when Syrian Ambassador Faisal Meqdad complained about the report's allegations of misleading statements from the Syrian Foreign Ministry were the only points of real interest today, in addition to Mehlis's suggestion that Syria should conduct its own investigation to fill the gaps. (I can't see much good coming out of this, and I'm cringing in advance at the OJ-style jokes and cartoons that may be coming.) When you recall how the media argued with Mehlis (in fact even attacked him, rather than questioned him) during his press conference on Friday, you can only imagine what the Syrian investigator will face.

If you haven't seen it yet, go to The Guardian and read Brian Whitaker's well written answer to his own question: Could Syria have been so stupid?

On a lighter side, while I take it no Syrians will be naming their newborn sons Detlev any time soon, a Lebanese friend informed me today that this may become quite the rage – at least in Sidon (Hariri's hometown), where he's heard it has already happened. I still don't know whether to believe him.

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Some implications of the Mehlis report
Tuesday, October 25, 2005, 20:13
I hate long posts, but in order to make up for this long absence, I've included here some of the comments I made this afternoon during a general meeting at Chatham House, where I was part of a panel with my colleagues Nadim Shehadi (Middle East Program) and Elizabeth Wilmshurst (International Law Program), and the Syrian ambassador to London. Since I don't generally read from texts, this is not a verbatim, but rather an indication of some of the points I made before the general debate. This meeting was held just before the UN Security Council session on the Mehlis report.


No observer of Syrian politics could have been surprised by the regime's reaction to the Mehlis report; a strong denial of the accusations was to be expected, as were the claims that this was purely a politicized report. Sadly, the more Syria cries it is innocent, the more people are willing to believe the contrary.

There is a problem with official Syrian reactions to the report. Even though we have become accustomed to its frequent incoherence and indecisiveness, it is still intriguing to note that the Syrian regime has promised to cooperate fully with the continuing investigation under Detlev Mehlis, while simultaneously calling him every name in the book; how exactly is this going to proceed, and how much cooperation can be expected from a party that has already questioned (if not rejected) the integrity and the independence of the inquisitor?

There is no doubt that the Syrian regime has good reason to feel paranoid about the case being a political one. As far as Washington and its allies are concerned, it's a matter of when – and not if – some proof of Syria's guilt will be found, which explains US Ambassador John Bolton's announcement that "it's time for confessions." Even in the absence of confessions or of actual proof, it is unlikely that the US will be held back by this minor detail. After the infamous evidence presented by Colin Powell to the Security Council less than 3 years ago, it seems that the burden of proof is not one that concerns the US. Moreover, this time, America has more willing partners.

Public opinion matters, however, and the efforts to demonize the Syrian regime (often helped by the regime itself) are reaching a climax. There has been a gradual and rapid change in the media's tone, with most reports taking Syria's guilt in a number of issues as a given, with little analysis to counter it. With Iraq, the build-up to action took 12 years, and there remained a significant amount of people who weren't convinced that Saddam could deploy his WMDs in 45 minutes. In Syria's case, it is much easier to convince people that every possible mishap in Lebanon is Syria's fault (especially since it's often been the case). With Syria, the metamorphosis will be much quicker – even though the subsequent action will be different from that taken in Iraq.

The Bush administration has been more than eager to find the excuse that would allow it to put Syria in a corner and rain demands upon it, knowing Syria cannot possibly acquiesce to all; conveniently, much can be blamed on Syria. This is assuming that Bush's itch for regime change has been calmed for the moment and that he will take the advice of several allies (foremost of which the Israelis) preferring the status quo with a weakened regime. (It is ironic, really, that the US is punishing Syria - for having tried to impose its choice of leader on another people – by trying to impose its own choice of leader.)

Of course, this is all the more reason the Syrian regime should have known what was coming. But as always, the regime doesn't take initiatives and only reacts (and much too late, to boot) in desperate 11th hour attempts to gather sympathy and support. The letter sent to the members of the UN Security Council yesterday has not been made public, but it is doubtful that a convincing argument will have been made, or that it will make any difference whatsoever at this stage. It is typical of Syrian regime behavior, and maddening that two years on the Security Council did not even serve to improve relations with key countries.

It is very telling that not a single official Arab voice has been heard since the Mehlis report was distributed. Perhaps that is best, for soon after Resolution 1559 was passed, several Arab countries were quick to advise Syria to comply. Of course, 1559 was technically easier for the regime to comply with, as it didn't touch its innermost circles. In fact, it was then easy for the regime to seek sympathy from the Syrian people, turning this into a nationalist issue in the face of increasingly vocal Lebanese opposition; even after Hariri's assassination, the Syrian people seemed to react in unison, feeling insulted and betrayed by the open displays of hostility from Lebanon. At the time, the regime had little to fear from its own people.

But Resolution 1595 is an entirely different matter, and the Syrian people are not as willing to demonstrate total support for the regime. Nobody is fooled by the makeshift demonstrations that took place yesterday in Damascus and Aleppo (as if Syria needed more economic paralysis); as usual, they were mostly composed of students and civil servants who had no choice in the matter. And as usual, it was a completely inappropriate – and completely useless – attempt to demonstrate popular support for the regime. I pass on the slogans repeated ad nauseam, when all pretense that this could have been a heartfelt outcry was dropped. Clearly, the regime has learned nothing, but it should think about the fact that the demonstrators fell far short of the advertised million.

On Sunday, hundreds of lawyers and judges marched to the UN's headquarters in Damascus to decry the report's partiality; again, the regime must have thought this would show the world that even legal professionals were on its side. All of this would have been a lot more meaningful had they all dared – or had they been allowed - to make a similar trek to the Ministry of Interior when Riad Seif, Mamoun Homsi and Aref Dalila were illegally arrested, "tried" and thrown into jail.

Be that as it may, the behavior of Syrian officials and Syrian media in the past few days has been rather indicative of the regime's mood. The press conference organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday illustrates the defensive mode in which the Syrian regime finds itself. Additionally, since Friday, panel after panel of commentators and experts of all sorts have filled Syrian television screens, taking the place of the popular Ramadan series, to discuss the Mehlis report. Famous actors are shown in short interviews, mocking the report and showing no doubt that the US is out to get Syria no matter what it does. Although they've got a point, it is demoralizing to see talented Syrians forced to stoop to that level.

It seems uncharacteristic of Syria to talk openly about such a damning, or at least such an accusatory report; indeed, we are more accustomed to total silence from the Syrian regime. In my opinion, and for the first time in years, this merely shows just how much the regime is worried about the people's reactions, and it shows just how dispensable it fears it has become in their minds.

With the limited internet access in Syria, it is probable that few Syrians have had the chance to read the report and form their own opinions, which is why Syrian media has been having a field day ridiculing the findings and insisting on the political envelope. The Mehlis report couldn't even have been a crime novel, viewers were led to believe, for it fails to make the simplest links and suffers from numerous contradictions. Unfortunately, the sycophants that have filled Syrian airwaves do make a few good points and have occasionally made a reasonable case.

But that would be forgetting that most Syrians do have access to satellite television, and that the story told on other channels differs slightly. While Syrian commentators mentioned the suspect existence of more than one copy of the official report, they didn't volunteer the significance of the differences in the various versions, and kept mum about the names. By now, most Syrians will know who they are and how Detlev Mehlis's penultimate draft presents them, and they have understood the potential impact of their potential guilt.

The matter of Farouk Shara's alleged misleading statement takes the challenge a step further; not only does the Mehlis report potentially implicate the Syrian president's closest people, but it also pretends to send a message regarding the government (and not just the regime), and regarding Syria's general foreign policy in specific: the message, clearly, is that head hunting is now on at the Foreign Ministry - by whom remains to be seen - but contenders for the positions of Minister and Assistant Minister should apply, because this is one of the easier concessions the regime can make. This change should have been made ages ago, under no duress.

[Interestingly, Ghazi Kanan's name does not figure amongst those suspects, and this puts his death into a new perspective. Few tears were shed over his death; in fact, many people wondered whether more officials would become "suicidal," trying to redraw the map of internal Syrian politics and speculating on the coming changes. Kanan's sudden demise probably elicited quite a few sighs of relief from a number of Lebanese, who can only be hopeful that his in-depth knowledge about their dodgy backgrounds will have gone to the grave.]

It is likely that these names were "leaked" to signal to the Syrian regime the extent to which the UN (or the US really) is willing to go. This current report has synergy: its impact is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken apart, it holds little water legally. Taken as a whole, it is an ultimatum.

Come December 15, when the extension to the inquiry will end, the position of these figures will have depended on the cooperation Syria would have extended, and the promises it would have made. The Syrian regime should think very carefully about dismissing the current report's deficiencies as an indication of its own invulnerability. On the contrary, the weak report proves that the stakes are higher and the confrontation inevitable.

Technically, the present report's weaknesses should allow the Syrians to prove their innocence by cooperating fully. In a just court, if Syrian officials are truly innocent, they will have nothing to fear. If some should be found guilty, they must be handed to the court that will try the accused (as Bashar Assad's comment on CNN implied, and although it remains to be determined whether the eventual court will truly be just). The final report is not expected to be weaker than the present one; moreover, few people really believe that guilt or innocence is a real factor anymore.

This leaves the Syrian people – about whom nobody seems to care – in the most unenviable position of feeling forced to support a regime that does not deserve to be supported (not that they're necessarily united in opinion). While the regime wouldn't mind promising America the moon (having already supported in numerous fields, starting with intelligence and ending with torture), it has not demonstrated an ounce of goodwill towards its own people, in spite of their patience. It still tramples on civil liberties, it refuses to free the multitude of prisoners of conscience, it has failed even in its vague promises of economic reform, and it continues to openly abuse its position of power to rake in every possible financial benefit the country has to offer. Rather than delivering some breathing space to its people, rather than trying to make a deal with the only people that matter long term, rather than responding positively to the united opposition's Damascus Declaration, the regime has continued to favor the Mafiosi approach. It is only interested in its own survival, its untold riches and its abusive powers.

The Syrian people feel let down, but they expect – and want - nothing from the powers that claim they're spreading democracy in the region; at the time of the Damascus winter, not a peep had been heard from them, because they preferred to support a regime on which they thought they could count to push their interests.

So why would Syrians now defend this regime? Because American pressure and the fears of a scenario à la Iraq are even worse. In fact, the Bush administration's idiotic approach and the UN's poor case for the moment have only convinced Syrians that the issue is much larger, and have scared them into preferring the devil they know. If you forgive the old pun, in fact, they are afraid that the US plans to throw out the baby with the Baath water.

The threat of looming sanctions only reinforces the despair of the Syrian people, who fear the possibility of cooperation (or the lack thereof) from a regime that only thinks of itself, and of its own endurance. The threat of sanctions also confirms America's complete disregard for the population, and its obsession with getting what it wants at any cost.

Detlev Mehlis's performance today at the Security Council will serve to both qualify and quantify the nature of the warnings to be made to Syria, and it will also define the parameters by which the Syrian regime must abide. Frankly, it doesn't matter anymore whether the Syrian regime eliminated Hariri: the world will be made to believe that it did, and it will support a suitable punishment. In fact, whether or not Syria killed Hariri (and Hariri's assassination was not the biggest crime of all), it will be paying for other misdemeanours (somewhat like Al Capone who was eventually cornered on tax evasion charges). Washington may turn Hariri's assassination for Syria what WMDs became for Iraq.

Syria has mostly itself to blame for much of this predicament. Now, it has absolutely no choice but to cooperate on Mehlis's terms, regardless of the demands: the regime is not in a position to argue over details and time is not on its side. It's therefore is rather futile to speak of "Syrian sovereignty" with regards to the interviews of senior figures of the regime outside of Syria. But the regime should think carefully about how many concessions it can make on other fronts in order to save the skin of a couple of figures: even a deal will be more of a diktat now that all roads seem blocked. The leak of a deal offer nearly two weeks ago, in retrospect, was another opportunity for the US to define the expectations, but not the compensation – which is getting more and more limited. Cooperation, at this late stage, is not only the sole option, but an unprofitable one at that; it will not have the lucrative elements of the Libya deal.

Deal or regime shake (if not change)? What if suspect Syrian officials are handed over, will the US have gotten what it wants? I strongly doubt it.

[ add comment ]
Rabin did too little, too late
Monday, October 3, 2005, 01:54
For many Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin is not remembered as a man of peace, but as the breaker of children's bones, amongst other equally correct terms. (Syrians, of course, also remember the "Rabin deposit," withdrawn soon after it had been "conceded.") As Israel prepares to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of his assassination next month (including giving a Jordanian child named Yitzhak Rabin – go figure – temporary resident status), Gideon Levy asks in Haaretz if Israelis haven't exaggerated his legacy, and, asks, above all: Was Rabin in real life indeed similar to the mythological figure that has been constructed around his memory? I quote from Levy's article at length for the benefit of readers in some Arab countries who are denied access to Israeli sites (following a rationale which I have yet to understand).

"It is not by chance that Israel loves so much to commemorate Rabin. For Israel, the living Rabin embodied the best of its secret longings. He was the man who proved that you could have your cake and eat it too - waging war and making peace; issuing commands to break the bones of Palestinians and sitting with them at the negotiating table; building settlements and condemning the settlers in scathing terms; signing an accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization and refraining from evacuating even a single settlement; deliberating with Yasser Arafat and expressing physical repugnance for him; ready to travel to Gush Etzion with a visa but not doing a thing to advance this issue; shocked by the massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein and afraid to evacuate the Hebron settlers.

Perhaps truly on that night, when he refrained from evacuating the Hebron settlers, an important characteristic of his was expressed, a characteristic that is not mentioned when speaking about "Rabin's legacy" (a vague term than no one knows how to define): On that night, Rabin was revealed to be a cowardly statesman. If he had evacuated the Hebron settlers then, when an excellent opportunity for doing this arose, he would have prevented the development of the monster that grew in the city and has already succeeded in driving tens of thousands of terrified residents from their homes."


Levy partly puts the blame for the failure of Oslo on Rabin's lack of courage, as he did not dare to put the evacuation of settlements on the agenda: "Even if the Palestinians themselves, for some unclear reason, were wary of being too adamant in demanding the evacuation of settlements, a statesman like Rabin could have been expected to recognize the Israeli interest in such a move. He should have initiated an evacuation in order to strengthen the agreement."

While acknowledging Rabin's courage in recognizing the PLO, Levy blames him for having wasted so many years, and for not having prevented the bloodshed of the first intifada, recalling that "the first intifada did break out, and the violent and brutal way then defense minister Yitzhak Rabin dealt with it cannot be erased from his "legacy" or the way his portrait is depicted. It is impossible to just remember the statesman who signed a peace treaty with King Hussein, an agreement that did not demand a price from Israel and only provided captivating photo opportunities with a king who had European manners and great personal charm."

Rabin did want peace, writes Levy, but "like most Israelis, did not agree to pay the price." He concludes that pupils in Israel should be told "the full truth about the prime minister who became beloved and revered after his death: He was assassinated on the "altar of peace," but what he did for peace was too little and too late."

[ 1 comment ]
The only certainty in Syria is more uncertainty
Friday, September 30, 2005, 15:53
This is the only conclusion with which The Economist could come up this week, as many wait breathlessly for the Mehlis report to emerge on October 25 (assuming there are no surprises or delays). Indeed, after months of speculation, every possible alternative has probably already been debated by most concerned papers and parties, and today The Economist summarizes the plot so far, coming up with three scenarios.

The first (the "dance of the seven veils" scenario) entails the regime reaching a deal with the US, sacrificing a few figureheads while complying fully with American demands and "grudgingly relinquishing positions long declared sacrosanct." In addition to controls on the Iraqi border and restraining Palestinian groups, Hezbollah would be the next "offering" (although I think it may eventually go the whole nine yards, with concessions on the Golan Heights and a peace treaty with Israel). This is the scenario that works best for the regime, according to The Economist (and the one I feel has the most chances of happening - à la Lockerbie - should Syria be declared guilty).

The second (the "cornered cat" scenario) sees the regime lashing out at its tormentors, leading potentially to its demise. The Economist ventures that "It is hard to tell whether various Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted by Assad senior, are growing in strength. Some close watchers think its potential exaggerated; others reckon it more likely that military types may already be gaining ground inside Syria's institutions and may make a lunge for power."

The third (the "cornered scorpion" scenario) is the one which The Economist believes is the most plausible, whereby a regime surrounded by fire stings itself, falling to an internal coup (not by the military, as in the cornered cat scenario, but by the innermost family and in-law circles). But the possibility of a military coup (as in the cornered cat scenario) is again suggested by the magazine here, specifically by "young Sunni officers," if Assad's closest advisers are to be sacked following a Mehlis indictment.

Notwithstanding incredibly detailed "reports" about all sorts of events from Al Seyassah, we're still none the wiser. But all this waiting and speculation is not satisfying enough for Max Boot, from the Council on Foreign Relations, who worries about Syria's influence on Iraq (and about Pakistan's influence on Afghanistan, even though he is of the opinion that "the U.S. is making considerable progress" in both countries). While Boot wishes the US would cut Musharraf's "allowance" (to fight Islamists and bring back democracy), he wonders why the Bush administration hasn't attacked Syria yet and recommends, amongst others, bombing strikes and commando raids.

Boot is clearly quite fed up with diplomacy (if that's what we can really call what the Bush administration does in general), and wants actions, not words: "How has Syria been held accountable? Has Damascus been bombed? Have U.S. and Iraqi troops crossed the border to destroy terrorist safe houses?" Boot's great frustration only aggravates at the thought of America's toothless economic sanctions on Syria. Worried about US credibility, he concludes: "Either Bush needs to order some of those steps, or he and his aides need to stop threatening Assad in public."

[ 16 comments ]
Final remarks on Syria Comment's "defense"
Friday, September 23, 2005, 03:16
I thought I'd heard it all, but was astonished to read in Joshua Landis' latest comments an implication that I support an abrupt removal of the regime (and an American-backed removal to boot)! Being an outspoken opponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, I wouldn't wish that on anyone, let alone on my own country. Josh's claim that I follow a "faith-based scenario" (or any other scenario, for that matter) that entails a trust of America is therefore very rich. It is possible, believe it or not, to criticize the regime and demand "reform" while opposing US policy; in fact, most civil society activists do just that, and do not fall into one extreme or the other, as Josh has done.

My critique of Josh's article was just that: a brief comment on its preposterous suggestions, the most outrageous one being that "Washington must back greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority." It didn't occur to me that such shameful recommendations needed to be dignified with alternatives, in an age when we are supposed to be fighting tyranny! With his appeal for more oppression, Josh really has no leg to stand on: his "defense" is indefensible. I wonder how many Syrians, regardless of their religious denomination (I myself am not obsessed with sectarian classification) would approve of his proposal. I would add that it would have been equally outrageous to propose more restrictions and pressure on a minority.

Josh's account of my "ethnic wounded pride" actually amused me; I had always been under the impression that being Syrian was a matter of nationality, rather than ethnicity, but I digress. It wasn't a pride wounded, but an intellect affronted by the ludicrous claim that "because there is an authoritarian culture extending into the deepest corners of Syrian life," enemies of the regime want it to stay. I still fail to see the relation between the two, let alone the evidence of authoritarianism being an intrinsic component of "Syrian ethnicity." The "proofs" Josh takes from Syria's current educational system, known to all Syrians, only serve to illustrate the tremendous damage done by 42 years of a Baathist regime – which Josh would like to preserve by all means, preferably with the help of Washington.

Of course, I have never implied (anywhere) that civil strife is impossible in Syria, although Iraq's example would have hopefully dampened many fighting spirits. However, I will continue to dispute allegations that it is the only possible, or the most likely, outcome of sudden change, and that it would necessarily result in Islamist rule - both being options constantly touted by advocates of the status quo. In fact, Josh conveniently quotes Yassin Haj Saleh (for whom I have nothing but respect) as he lays the primary responsibility for any accrued mistrust between different religious or ethnic groups on the regime.

In any case, I'm glad Josh found the time to read the "anodyne blah blah" which I "would have you all consume" (and which he claims is what really "stands in the way of real progress and the development of democratic institutions"); unfortunately, after a long day, I myself didn't have time to read all of his. I had to scan over his long defense, stopping where I saw my name and chose the points which seemed to merit a response. At least he eventually got the spelling of my name right. (Chatham House, by the way, is still the Royal Institute of International Affairs.)

[ 17 comments ]
Fulla
Thursday, September 22, 2005, 15:44
Meet Fulla, the very popular (and apparently physically quite Barbiesque) doll manufactured in Syria and sold in the Middle East. She wears a black abaya or a white head scarf and long coat, but has "fashionable dresses" under it all.


Jeroen Kramer/Getty Images, for The New York Times

The tone of the article surprised me a bit when the writer implies that an advertisement is cautioning little girls to cover up Fulla: "When you take Fulla out of the house, don't forget her new spring abaya!" admonishes one commercial introducing a new line of doll clothes. Isn't the word "admonish" a bit loaded? And how else could you sell the "new spring abaya," come to think of it?

Mattel apparently markets a group of collectors' dolls that includes a doll called Leila, designed to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court! Very topical indeed.

[ 1 comment ]
Guess who's coming to the table
Thursday, September 22, 2005, 15:25
That's the Security Council table, where Israel now wants a rotating seat. Seriously.

Yes, there have been countries with a rather torrid background taking their seat at the Security Council. Yes, there have been countries with appalling records of human rights. With two big bullies having controlled it until the end of the Cold War, and with one remaining super-bully (with its sidekick) now making sure it bows their way (and if it doesn’t they still wage war anyway), the Security Council has never been the haven of diplomacy and law enforcement it was supposed to be.

But surely, a country seeking a seat on the Security Council must at the very least have complied with the resolutions passed against it by that same Security Council (in spite of all the vetoes thrown in its favor by the US), never mind all the others resolutions passed by the General Assembly?

[ 4 comments ]
Who really knows what will happen to Syria?
Wednesday, September 21, 2005, 22:23
There are obviously some (Syrians included) who can't help feeling a bit of Schadenfreude at Assad's eleventh hour retreat from New York. At the same time, many Syrians feel insulted that their country's president should be practically the only one missing from the UN summit, where numerous leaders (including liars, thugs, thieves and murderers – and not necessarily from "rogue" states) congregated. Why should Syria be the only country amongst 190 not to address the delegates? Regardless of what rather agitated commentators are saying, Syria has national interests and legitimate concerns, like every other state; it has diplomatic and economic ties with most countries of the world, and it is an intrinsic part of the problems - and of the solution - in the Middle East, no matter who's the head of state.

It has gotten tiring to read "reports" stemming from nothing more than wild imagination and wishful thinking. (Al Seyassah may be entertaining for some, but only in small doses for me.) It was hard to ignore the glee dripping from some commentators, whose venom often blinded them from making a distinction between the regime and the people, and – just as importantly – the regime and the state as they debated the Syrian predicament.

So few really know what is going on, and I'm sure we all wish we had a hidden camera in Monte Rosa this week, where Detlev Mehlis is interviewing a number of Syrian officials; those who are privy to American or French plans, or to the findings Mehlis has already made in his investigation on Hariri's assassination, will not know what is transcending within the innermost circles of the Syrian regime. Likewise, those slightly more familiar with what (surely now?) has become a panic in Damascus will not know just how far the US and France (and consequently the EU and the UN) are willing to go, or how much dirt they've dished out.

Summarizing the mixture of feelings of many Syrians from various backgrounds, denominations or political persuasions would probably give us the following paradox: they are equally worried about two alternatives – both of which still seem equally plausible – namely, that the regime will fall suddenly, and that the regime will not fall. I still don't think that the former could happen as rapidly as has been hinted, if only because the US itself doesn’t seem to know how to proceed in the region (neocon agendas and international legality issues notwithstanding), perhaps fearing the "fundamentalist takeover" or the "civil strife" theories (regardless of how distant a possibility). A fleeting penchant for a Rifaat Assad comeback or for the Washington-based Syrian "opposition" (both equally ridiculous) is are options which have no legs to stand on. In spite of the rumors, the US and France may decide that Bashar, and most of what comes with him, is an inescapable part of the solution. Of course, none of these possibilities take into account the wishes of the Syrian people – whatever these may be.

If the final Mehlis report (whose potential impact the Syrian regime had ignored until now to its own peril) directly accuses high figures of the regime, Bashar Assad will have two choices: surrender the accused (to whom remains to be established, given the doubts expressed by various international officials about the capacity of current Lebanese courts to carry out a proper trial, and given the Syrian regime's obvious reluctance to bow to authorities over which it used to rule), or resist. The former may result in an initial sigh of relief in Syria, even if it won't all end there. The latter would be an open invitation for actions against Syria, à la Libya, or, even worse, à la Iraq – basically, the "or else" scenario: drastic sanctions, possible strikes, and certain suffocation of the Syrian people – then again, those might happen anyway on other "grounds."

If the final Mehlis report does not accuse the highest figures of the regime, it could be because Assad has managed to clinch a deal with the US and France, sacrificing a token figure or two (Rustom Ghazaleh being an obvious first candidate, and perhaps his predecessor as well – anyone not related, that is). The primary elements of such a deal seem clear: on both the Lebanese and the Iraqi files, the Syrian regime will pledge to desist from any malevolent designs and will extend every possible help, even sealing the borders with Iraq (as if Iraq could be pacified by this). So far so good; most Syrians would want peace and cooperation on theses frontiers anyway, and wish the regime hadn't put them and itself in this position in the first place.

But I would be surprised if such a deal, should that be the chosen alternative, would stop there; France and the US didn't come this far to achieve only this, and there is a lot more to milk from the Mehlis report, the sword of Damocles over Assad. Imagining that UNSC Resolution 1595 is purely about a criminal case would be terribly naïve; if there was ever a politicized case, this one is it.

Enter the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian question, and of course the Golan Heights (now that Alexandretta is already spoken for). How far will the US push? How far will the Syrian regime bend? How much of either will the people be able or willing to swallow? It's of course very trendy to trash "Arabism" or "pan-Arabism" (not to be confused with today's Baathism) and to pretend nobody cares about silly things like territory, unity or the Palestinian issue; trendy perhaps, but rather nonsensical on a popular level. There are still millions of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (not to mention in Palestine) and there are still millions of people who don't think it's OK to accept diktats on certain issues while others are openly rebuffed.

And, just as importantly, enter (or rather exit) the issue of "reform" – a word which has become so generic and self-serving that it can now be used to describe Saudi municipal or Egyptian presidential elections, and decrees legalizing currency exchange in Syria (as was announced yesterday). How much, or how little reform will now be "encouraged" in Syria? When MPs, intellectuals and civil society activists were being "tried" unjustly and thrown into jail, not a peep was heard from the powers who claim they're out to spread democracy in the region – and we've all seen what a fine job they've done in Iraq (in fact, don't call us, we'll call you). I still have fresh memories of the international community's silence when the Damascus Spring was unceremoniously brought to an end, as the US was too busy sending its victims to be tortured in Syria, amongst others, and studying the gift basket of information on "extremists" (read regime opponents). The pliability of the regime is only required for American needs - not Syrian ones.

I don’t know how much more pressure Syrians can take, and what their alternatives are; a Jasmine Revolution sounds great, but I hope it flourishes from Syrian courtyards and gardens, with its namesake's identical intoxicating purity. Hope springs eternal? Perhaps. The internal intelligence networks are slightly too stifling for spontaneous demonstrations, and with most Syrians opposed to orchestrations with foreign "inspiration," who is the director/producer who will recreate the scenes from Martyrs' Square and recast them in Omayad Square?

No answers, just speculation. That said, however, there still is a possibility that in spite of the overwhelming evidence of Syrian domination over Lebanon, there is no clear proof of direct culpability of the regime's higher echelons in Hariri's assassination. Not likely, but possible. Beirut is not Berlin, but Mehlis has been wrong about Syria before; vielleicht ist alles noch nicht klar, Herr Kommissar.

[ 1 comment ]
Banquet of shame
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 21:35
There's lots to say about Syria, Iraq, and the region, but I keep running into American pieces today. The poet Sharon Olds has declined to attend the National Book Festival in Washington, which, coincidentally or not, takes place September 24, the day of an antiwar mobilization in the capital. She follows Jules Feiffer who boycotted a White House breakfast in protest against the Iraq war. (How I wish Arab intellectuals, writers and artists would dare write such open letters to their leaders in protest about numerous issues; I don't blame them for not trying though, because unlike in Western democracies, they might face jail or torture for such statements.) The Nation, which is encouraging others to follow their example, published Olds' letter to Laura Bush, the host of a special event at the White House. Olds explains why she considered accepting her invitation:

"I thought that I could try to find a way, even as your guest, with respect, to speak about my deep feeling that we should not have invaded Iraq, and to declare my belief that the wish to invade another culture and another country--with the resultant loss of life and limb for our brave soldiers, and for the noncombatants in their home terrain--did not come out of our democracy but was instead a decision made "at the top" and forced on the people by distorted language, and by untruths. I hoped to express the fear that we have begun to live in the shadows of tyranny and religious chauvinism--the opposites of the liberty, tolerance and diversity our nation aspires to.

I tried to see my way clear to attend the festival in order to bear witness--as an American who loves her country and its principles and its writing--against this undeclared and devastating war."


She concludes:

"But I could not face the idea of breaking bread with you. I knew that if I sat down to eat with you, it would feel to me as if I were condoning what I see to be the wild, highhanded actions of the Bush Administration.

What kept coming to the fore of my mind was that I would be taking food from the hand of the First Lady who represents the Administration that unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting "extraordinary rendition": flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us.

So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame, for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."


[ 1 comment ]
Liar, Liar
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 18:19
This is how one writer from Kansas imagined Bush would really speak if he had no choice but to say the truth (like in the Jim Carrey movie). I include a few extracts here from the full piece by Jason Miller, as he concentrates on the aftermath of Katrina. It's satire of course, but much more sad than funny.

"I am still an obscenely wealthy and powerful autocratic leader of a nation of sheeple who falsely believe they are free. While I am surrounded by misery and suffering, I make this presentation of shameless propaganda from a comfortable, beautiful stage set while surrounded by an entourage of thugs who assure my safety."

"As the victims search for loved ones and grieve for the dead, America’s attention is diverted from my nomination of a Supreme Court Justice who will strengthen the tyranny I have created, Karl Rove’s criminal behavior, and my administration’s numerous war crimes related to Iraq. The lies and exaggerations of my media lap-dogs have persuaded many Americans that blacks are undisciplined animals who live off of government hand-outs, feeding my agenda to end social welfare programs and perpetuating the lucrative prison-industrial complex. With their persistent cries for civil rights, blacks have been a thorn in the side of the American aristocracy long enough."

"While I realize that Americans expect a more effective response from the federal government when a disaster of this magnitude happens, they need to realize that under my New American Century, domestic programs like FEMA have been rendered impotent. The military is the essence of our government. The US military budget, including money for its ancillary departments, is over $600 billion per year. This siphons money away from domestic, humanitarian programs like emergency response, education, and health care. But the good news is that the rich who have high stakes in entities like the Carlyle Group get richer as a result. Besides, my delayed and feeble response in New Orleans enabled the Gulf Region to rid itself of many of its criminal, useless inhabitants."

"Congress is preparing an investigation of the situation in New Orleans. However, the results will be similar to the probes into 9/11 and Abu Gharib. My administration will see to it that no evidence of our culpability comes to light, and if perpetrators are punished, they will be lower echelon scapegoats."

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Syria: with friends like this ...
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 00:59
I already disagree with much of what Joshua Landis says about Syria, and have told him so, amicably, in person; I was nevertheless shocked to read his op-ed in The New York Times on Saturday morning, a piece in which wild generalizations, most of which were misleading and offensive, are made about Syria.

Clearly, I've always thought that the US would have served its own interests better by talking with Syria, rather than talking to it, by encouraging rather than intimidating, and by taking Syria's national interests seriously. But Syria is not the only irrational aspect in US foreign policy, and the Syrian regime should have been wiser: when dealing with a super-bully, reckless provocation is obviously not the most advisable strategy. Josh Landis's rather futile point that US-Syrian relations could have benefitted from Bashar Assad's visit to New York is therefore of minor importance; had there been an American wish to improve the situation, it would have happened a lot earlier, and certainly not after the debacle following the Lebanese president's term extension.

I will limit my comments to the article's most ridiculous and insulting assertions. Josh is under the impression that the regime's "most hard-bitten enemies" do not want to see it collapse. That will be news to them, and it will be news to all Syrians to hear Josh's shocking explanation for this: "because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques." What a ridiculous, insulting, and completely wrong statement on its own, let alone when used to explain why enemies of the regime want it to stay! Do Syrians, enemies of the regime included, have an inherently authoritarian culture (and consequently don't want to see the regime collapse)?

He continues with another fantastic proposition: "Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern." That will be news to them, as it is to me. I don't recall critics of the regime claiming they had no other alternatives; on the contrary, numerous members of the opposition have readily discussed their plans for the new phase that would come when "reform" of some sort happens. But Josh thinks that "like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls." In other words, this regime is keeping the peace amongst a savage population that can't wait to attack people of other ethnicities or religious denominations? What an insult. And what a complete disregard for the thousands of years of tolerance in Syria, where people didn't need to wait for the Baathist regime to live peacefully. But Josh insists on this imaginary point a bit further by claiming that the government has enforced religious tolerance.

Josh chooses to tread the dangerous path of sectarian politics by stating that "the Syrian Sunnis" (on whom Josh thinks Bush wishes Assad would crack down) "are giving comfort and assistance to mostly Arab fighters traveling through Syria." Syrian Sunnis … not militants, not radicals, not extremists … Syrian Sunnis! Another piece of news for this Syrian.

I pass on Josh's laughable claims that the regime has "worked hard to repair sectarian relations in Syria", or that it has "freed most political prisoners" (apparently Josh is not aware of the many Syrians currently languishing in jail, such as the brave Aref Dalila, Riad Seif or Mamoun Homsi just to name a few), or that there are "those in Washington who insist on fighting Mr. Assad because he is not democratic" (as if that was even a remote American concern). More disturbing is Josh's obsession with sectarian rationale: that if the regime collapsed, "chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq." Again, Josh sees only one alternative to the present state of affairs – ethnic turmoil leading to a fundamentalist state – and apparently still believes (much like Flynt Leverett, whose book – which I found quite superficial - I reviewed for Chatham House in July) that women who wear headscarves and men who go to the mosque want fundamentalists to rule them.

It's difficult to decide whether his grand finale is the most shocking, or whether it is as pathetic as the rest of the piece: Josh concludes that for Assad to help the US, "he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority." Is he actually openly calling for American support so that the majority of Syrians can be even more repressed? Who's really calling for religious turmoil here?

When Josh agreed to titling his piece "Don't push Syria away," he was apparently referring to the Syrian regime only, which seems to be his only concern as of late. As this last quote reveals above, he clearly not only wants most Syrians to be "pushed" away, but he's also asking for American help to do that. This is one occasion when I wish that Syria Comment had simply been No Comment.

[ 16 comments ]
Back again
Tuesday, September 20, 2005, 00:37
Apologies for the hiatus, caused by vacation, travel and finally a few server problems (which is why the last few posts were lost). Because of this, I have informed my Webmaster that he has been demoted to Webservant. He laughed, but we'll know who to blame when things go wrong again.

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Still on Saudi
Wednesday, August 3, 2005, 00:19
If you're tired of the praise heaped on King Fahd by Arab and non-Arab kings, dictators, princes, and presidents, and of the Arab and non-Arab media which has mostly toed the line, you might want to read a few less flattering, but much more authoritative pieces about Saudi Arabia. My colleague Dr. Mai Yamani writes in The Independent today that "like its moribund king, Saudi Arabia has remained trapped in a state of suspended animation, its body politic sick and infirm. Now it is caught between two choices: progressive reform or continuing paralysis and decay."

She doesn't believe that "an authoritative ruler can reunite the country in the progressive tradition of the late King Faisal," and concludes that "like the geriatric successions that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union, the accession of Abdullah seems to be only another step in Saudi Arabia's inexorable march toward political decay."

Dr. As'ad AbuKhalil despairs of the hypocritical media coverage and speaks on Democracy Now about the "connection between this oppressive family in Saudi Arabia and successive U.S. administrations since the days of F.D.R." It is a relationship, he elaborates, "that covered not only coordination about the pricing and the production of oil, but we should also remember so many covert operations that now we realize were so foolish and so deadly and dangerous to world peace and security."

AbuKhalil puts the blame for the lack of progress and the lack of secularism squarely on Fahd's shoulders, who "since the 1970s who utilized all this vast wealth from his kingdom in order to buy off so much of the media, the publishing houses, the mosques, the research centers, universities, in much of the Middle East and, also, to use them in a more sinister way, by funding various covert operations that would target left-wing or Arab nationalist critics of the kingdom, and this was the case with a famous Saudi dissident, Nasir As-Sa’id who wrote a scathing book about the House of Saud, containing embarrassing pictures of the king in his famous, notorious youthful days."

[ 1 comment ]
Some events, little news
Tuesday, August 2, 2005, 00:53
As usual, whenever there's a "big" story, the phone started ringing as soon as news of King Fahd's death had reached the wires. Immediately, comments were requested (what was there to say, really?), interviews were booked, and the major issues were reiterated throughout the day, going from simple affirmations to more speculative matters. Yes, it had been expected that Crown Prince Adbullah would become king. No, major changes in policy are not foreseen (and oil will flow as normal, rest assured), as he has run the kingdom for the last ten years anyway. Yes, you might expect some jostling for the next succession, when the "younger" princes (some of them are grandfathers already) start getting a taste for even greater prerogatives and try to put King Abdul Aziz's sons on long overdue retirement. Yes, Prince Bandar is more visible than ever and may be in a better position than others now that his father, Prince Sultan, has become the crown prince. Yes, Prince Nayef and Prince Salman are still considerable powers to reckon with. And no, really, I certainly don't think there will be more "reform" (not that I thought there had been any to begin with).

It might be my imagination, but I get the feeling some media people are a bit disappointed that no big changes are occurring, and that the transition seems to be going rather smoothly; clearly, power struggles would make much better television. I'm sure many are hoping that tomorrow's funeral will present news-making opportunities, although I'm afraid they might be disappointed. The only interesting scene, for me, would be if the new king's brother-in-law, Rifat Assad, runs into his nephew, Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Most Arab regimes prefer to be on the Saudi royal family's good side; that's why all their television networks, and not only the numerous ones owned by the Saudis, have dutifully interrupted normal programming, ordered their presenters to don black clothes, announced official mourning periods ranging from 3 to 40 days, and are competing qualitatively and quantitatively in praising the two kings.

John Bolton's appointment as American ambassador to the UN wasn't the big news of the day either. It was as expected as events in Saudi were, and everyone knew Bush would jump on the opportunity of the congressional recess to impose his very undiplomatic choice of ambassador to the world. Here too, it's all been said before.

The resumption of Iran's nuclear program – or its announced intentions to resume – wasn't the big news of the day either, of course, no matter how "concerned" the "international community" seems to be, and no matter how threatening the US tries to be.

The big news of the day, of course, was the death of John Garang in very mysterious circumstances in Sudan. But nobody had time for that today. Only Al Jazeera has chosen to begin every newscast with news of unrest in Sudan, followed by coverage of Saudi affairs. And that in itself could be the most interesting news of the day.

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There goes the neighborhood!
Sunday, July 31, 2005, 03:10
Recent developments in Syrian-Lebanese relations have been very upsetting, but I haven't felt much like writing about them. For one, I keep hoping (quite unrealistically, obviously) that the troublemakers will come to their senses. For another, I have an article due on the subject in a few days anyway and keep postponing the inevitable. But in the past few days, things have just gone too far.

First, Syria has blocked the borders for weeks, effectively strangling Lebanon and leaving hundreds of Lebanese trucks stuck at the border, with their goods rotting in the sun. Several Lebanese fishermen were also apprehended by Syrian authorities.

Then the Syrians suddenly remembered the 37 poor workers killed in Lebanon in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri's assassination and just as abruptly demanded that the Lebanese government pay compensation to the victims' families. I found this sudden concern rather questionable; indeed, when these contemptible murders and other violent acts against innocent Syrians were committed, and while a number of Lebanese publications mentioned them, the Syrian government and its media, in contrast, didn't even deign to utter a word of condemnation, pretending all was well in Lebanon. As if Syrians weren't watching Lebanese and other channels via satellite!

Giving these wretched victims recognition is overdue, of course, but doesn't the Syrian regime think that it opens a huge can of worms? How many Lebanese (not to mention Syrians) would be in their full right to demand equal compensation for other offenses committed over the years?

Then, Syrian media - rather ridiculously - demanded from the Lebanese government an official apology for the 'insults" to Syria made by a relatively free press (the latter being a concept that is clearly alien to the Syrian authorities). Before apologies were made, no Lebanese prime minister should think of being welcomed in Damascus.

Finally, as if things weren't tense enough, Syria has upped the ante in a drastic manner. Without warning, the Syrian government has suddenly expelled hundreds of Lebanese employees from Syria, claiming their work permits had suddenly expired and demanding their immediate departure.

All these events have ensured that the few Lebanese who didn't yet resent the Syrian regime will now be livid, and the Lebanese who already managed to insult both the Syrian state and the people have become even more intransigent. On the Syrian side, people are despairing of the situation, sympathizing with the neighbors, but completely impotent, as always, to help anyone, least of all themselves.

Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's new prime minister, is due to visit Damascus on Sunday, having confidently predicted he would be able to solve these issues before returning to Beirut. For my part, I predict that the Syrian government-owned media will announce after his departure that Siniora duly apologized to Syria in the name of the Lebanese people (something the latter will surely not expect from him) and that brotherly relations with the sisterly country (or something like that) will now be restored because of Syria's magnanimity and good spirit (or something like that).

Even if we weren't to consider the interests of Lebanon, even if Syria were justified in feeling that this lèse-majesté may have gone too far, even if Lebanese media (those outside of Hariri's realm of influence, at least) could be controlled and restrained from criticizing the Syrian regime, I fail to see how any of the actions demanded and taken by Damascus can be in Syria's long-term interests. Unfortunately, Damascus seems to be cutting its nose to spite its face.

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The Sidewalk Newspaper
Sunday, July 31, 2005, 00:49
"Good news. The government is increasing the ration card. 100 kilos of sadness and pain for every family. 50 kilos of problems for every house. 250 kilos of garbage on every street. 5 random shots (one might shoot you in the head, depending on your luck)."

The country? Iraq. The city? British-controlled Basra, one of the safest areas in Iraq; car bombs are rare, but musicians have been beaten and killed in the streets (courtesy of the Shia militias which are allowed – or rather which nobody is capable of controlling?), and kidnappings and assassinations are common. Apart from this extremely relative security, even Basra doesn't have much going for it, with trash and sewage filling the city, rife corruption, and still no proper infrastructure.

These are the news stories you will read in the strangest newspaper you are likely to encounter, put together by Hussein Abdul Razak al Ayash, the man who decided to take freedom of speech to a new level – the real street level. "The editor in chief is the people of Basra, he said. The political leanings are the opinions of the masses. The purpose: to keep Iraqi voices loud."

These voices are complaining loudly to their editor, who faithfully passes on their messages with a big marker and a few sheets of paper spread out every day on the sidewalk. "I have no electricity." "There is no water." "Our government is corrupt." "Where is the security?"

Indeed. And if this is currently the best area in Iraq, what on earth is it like to live in the rest?

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Shoot-to-kill in Palestine, again
Thursday, July 28, 2005, 22:22
This is Yussef Tzadek. He was photographed yesterday throwing stones at Israeli tanks and jeeps in his hometown of Jenin, in Palestine. For this, he was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers. He died shortly afterwards. His murder will make no headlines. He was Palestinian. He was 18.



(Photo by Associated Press)

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Anti-terror fashion tips for Muslims
Wednesday, July 27, 2005, 16:18
There seems to be a sudden abundance of "experts" on Arab and Islamic affairs who feel qualified to discuss issues that your average specialists would usually leave to much more knowledgeable scholars. Amir Taheri has apparently crowned himself as such an expert, with an overconfident authority usually reserved for sheikhs, ayatollahs and ulema; unlike the latter, however, he is of the opinion that Muslim attire encourages terrorism: "Muslims could also help by stopping the use of their bodies as advertising space for al-Qaeda."

By "advertising space for Al Qaeda," he means beards and the hijab, which are apparently a cause of terror. He explains in The Times that "Muslim men should consider doing away with Taleban and al-Qaeda-style beards. Growing a beard has nothing to do with Islam; the Prophet himself never sported anything more than a vandyke." As for Muslim women, he claims they are doing something completely unrelated to Islam and should at the very least stop wearing black or white, which cause offense (if not outright terror):

"Muslim women should cast aside the so-called hijab, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with tribal wear on the Arabian peninsula. The hijab was reinvented in the 1970s as a symbol of militancy, and is now a visual prop of terrorism. If some women have been hoodwinked into believing that they cannot be Muslims without covering their hair, they could at least use headgears other than black (the colour of al-Qaeda) or white (the colour of the Taleban). Green headgear would be less offensive, if only because green is the colour of the House of Hashem, the family of the Prophet."

What is really offensive is not the presence of Muslim women's scarves, nor their color, nor any of the "Qaeda clothing" to which Taheri refers. What is offensive – on an intellectual, as well as on a religious level - is the patronizing, uncultured and completely incorrect statements that have emanated recently from a variety of commentators such as this one. Such provocative nonsense does not belong in serious newspapers, not even on their opinion pages.

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Don't run if you look foreign ...
Wednesday, July 27, 2005, 14:52
Even as a joke, this sign conveys the feelings and the fears of many people here.




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Adding insult to injury
Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 20:23
Expressing horror at the acts of terror overtaking the world seems to have become a habitual - and, for the time being, rather impotent – exercise. In Sharm El Sheikh's case, there is one more outrage: "About 18 foreign patients are also being treated at the same hospital, a hospital official said. But they were sequestered in private rooms on an air-conditioned upper floor, some guarded by European consular officials."

In contrast, around 80 Egyptian patients lay in searing summer heat on rows of metal beds at the main Sharm el-Sheikh hospital, and other wounded roamed the halls. Shame on those who decided that distinctions were to be made on national grounds, and that Egyptians were less worthy of proper care.

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Shoot-to-kill: Britain's new anti-terror weapon?
Tuesday, July 26, 2005, 00:30
I often walk around London listening to my iPod, not because I am necessarily in the mood for music, but so that I can block out the ear-piercing decibels of screeching buses, noisy cars, overly loud so-called music in shops, and all the other annoying racket that big cities produce. On occasion, I suddenly realize that I am running late for an appointment and decide to make a dash for a bus or take a short-cut, struggling with my purse and bulging briefcase or bag. If plain-clothed police officers observing my "nervous behavior" from afar should decide that I am a terrorist threat, I would neither hear them, nor see them, and would continue to run. Would that justify my being pursued, held to the ground, and shot dead at short range? (And would visa issues be relevant?)

Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year old Brazilian, may indeed have worried about his expired visa as he ran into Stockwell Tube station on Friday. For this, he was held to the floor and shot dead in front of fellow passengers. Not once, not twice, but with 7 shots to the head, and one to the shoulder, at extremely close range.

This is not just a tragedy, it is a perversion of power and justice that was exacerbated by the police changing its tale as the hours passed after this murder. First, we heard that the victim was potentially one of the terrorists (leading to screaming headlines in The Evening Standard about a suicide bomber shot dead). Then, the shooting was said to be directly linked to the anti-terrorist investigation. Finally, it turned out it was nothing of the sort; the police had run out of excuses, but helpfully explained today that the victim's visa had expired. Tourists, take notice.

I would imagine most people would find this whole episode despicable. One shot from afar may have been a mistake. One shot from close range would have been gross incompetence. 8 shots from close range was a public execution.

And yet, the guilty officer has not even been suspended, and many have been supportive of this shoot-to-kill measure, which police seem to think will make us all safer. Would it have made a difference had the victim been a native of another country/ethnicity? After all, some commentators have openly expressed relief that the innocent victim was Brazilian, and not Muslim (although I'm sure some people who are both), as it absolves them of accusations of Islamophobia. Do these people hear themselves speak?

Shoot-to-kill is not a good idea, and it has been the cause of many a tragedy around the world. Being as "desperately sorry" as Tony Blair was today is not good enough as we get dragged down the road taken by the US into the ramifications of the Patriot Act, leaving authorities free to tamper with our civil liberties, not to mention our lives.

It's going to take a lot more makeup for Blair to camouflage the abuses of power to which his government has helped itself in the last few years. Shoot-to-kill may be a relatively new catastrophe to Londoners and Britons, but it certainly isn't new to people in countries under occupation (like Palestine), or in countries which have been "liberated" by the Anglo-American forces but are now stumbling into the abyss of civil war (like Iraq). There, it's shoot-to-kill, bomb-to-kill, torture-to-kill, drown-to-kill, beat-to-kill. But who's really counting?

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Chatham House "shocks" Downing Street
Friday, July 22, 2005, 20:03
Our media office asked last week if I would respond to media enquiries about the Chatham House report which was to be published on Monday July 18, given that I mostly agreed with the main points; I therefore had it for several days (it was embargoed until Monday), and expected some reactions to arise from one or two of its main conclusions, but nobody could have imagined the uproar it caused, nor the furious response from the British government, especially Jack Straw's rather shrill reaction ("I'm astonished Chatham House is now saying that we should not have stood shoulder to shoulder with our long-standing allies") and John Reid's insistence that terror existed before Iraq (as if anyone disputed that). Both, of course, in no way directly answer the report.

The two experts who wrote the paper are not from Chatham House, although the paper is published by it under a joint effort with the New Security Challenges Programme which was launched by the Economic and Social Research Council. You can find the paper in PDF on the Chatham House website, and read for yourself - the Iraq related piece is only a couple of pages long.

The basic premises (grossly summarized) are the following: by the mid 90s, because of Britain's concentration on Northern Ireland and the IRA, and because of its decision to allow a number of radical Islamist groups to set up shop in London and promote terrorism (as long as they did not target British interests or threaten British security), the global terrorism threat had not been a concern.

When 9/11 happened, Britain swiftly changed course, and joined the US in its "war on terror." The report considers that the invasion of Afghanistan was a success in that war. (I do not quite agree with this particular point; on the contrary, I think that the destruction of Afghanistan, while it did oust the Taleban, in no way reduced the terror threat. Bin Laden and his accomplices still roam freely, and seem to have become even more of an "inspiration" for numerous radicals anxious to follow their agenda.)

The invasion of Iraq, the report continues, helped Al Qaeda and sidetracked the Anglo-American coalition from the war on terror. The experts write: "There is no doubt that the situation over Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK, and for the wider coalition against terrorism. It gave a boost to the Al-Qaeda network's propaganda, recruitment and fundraising, caused a major split in the coalition, provided an ideal targeting and training area for Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, and deflected resources and assistance that could have been deployed to assist the Karzai government and to bring bin Laden to justice."

This last point, linking the increase in terror with Iraq, was bad enough for Blair, Straw, Reid and the rest of the government, especially as Britain had dutifully parroted the Bush administration's ridiculous claim that the invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror … after having been, how could we forget, waged for invisible WMDs, and later for Iraq's "liberation" and "democratization."

I personally think that what most infuriated Blair was the following passage: "… the UK government has been conducting counter-terrorism policy 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US, not in the sense of being an equal decision maker, but rather as pillion passenger compelled to leave the steering to the ally in the driving seat." It concludes with the assessment that "riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure, and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign."

Indeed, Blair is extremely sensitive to claims that he is a junior, rather than an equal partner with Bush. Right after 9/11, as he shuttled across the world to explain why Afghanistan was to be invaded, claiming that he didn't leave home without his Koran, the media had mockingly called him America's ambassador at large. Other descriptions were much less respectful, and even the formidable Jeremy Paxman once asked Blair directly, on Newsnight, if he was Bush's poodle.

In any case, this is more or less what all the fuss was about, triggering livid responses from Blair ministers and from supporters of Iraq's invasion. The more they complained, the more talk of the Iraq link got discussed; I am actually quite surprised at the clumsy response of the government, they usually demonstrate a lot more calm. Several of my colleagues and I were left to explain to the media exactly why Downing Street had hit the roof.

Unfortunately for Blair, right after the publication of the Chatham House paper, a report was leaked about the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre's assessment of the situation, mostly concurring with our report. Amongst other things, the report states: "At present there is not a group with both the current intent and the capability to attack the UK." That report was written only 3 weeks before the July 7 bombs! It goes on to deliver the coup de grace: "Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist related activity in the UK."

Not surprisingly, the government refused to comment about a report from their own intelligence. To add to the mess, a poll conducted by The Guardian and ICM (before the publication of the reports from Chatham House and the JTAC) gave the verdict of Britons: two thirds believe the London bombings are linked to Iraq.

The Guardian's leader on Wednesday sums up the Chatham House report, the leaked JTAC paper, and its own poll.

I ended up giving over 20 interviews on Monday alone, including with all the major British television networks and several international ones. It's a pity the camera couldn't catch the approving nods of a number of journalists whose facial expressions spoke volumes about their agreement with my responses. At the other end of the spectrum, out of about 30 interviews clocked in so far on the subject, a minority pushed with questions whose aim was clearly to catch (or cause) a slip, or an implied justification of the terror. When that never came, some journalists asked point blank: but how can Chatham House justify the terrorist attacks on London, and are you saying that these attacks wouldn't have happened if the war on Iraq hadn't happened? As Dr. Paul Cornish (Head of the Security Programme at Chatham House) said, such suggestions would be insulting had they not been so ridiculous.

Explaining and providing a context so that we can better understand this global phenomenon is not justifying. I'm tempted to say "methinks Tony doth protest too much" – but we all know why he is beginning to worry. Britain didn't really care about the rest of the world and seems to have "bought" its own security by not stopping radical Islamist groups from propagating in London. Blair got nothing in return for its alliance with – or rather blind devotion to – the Bush administration, and clearly has very little clout in Washington. Is Blair's foreign policy really advancing his country's interests?

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