Little, late, but better than nothing
Thursday, February 1, 2007, 12:25
According to The Economist, I’m rich, and so are most Syrians, hurray; it claims the Central Bank of Syria's managed float started at a dollar rate of US$51.8:S£1. Count your Syrian pounds, folks, and see how many dollars that makes.

On a more serious note (but honestly, what are the editors doing?), I agree with the general tone of the article; Syria is slowly opening up, but not fast enough, and not comprehensively enough. I leave you to read the article, which is basically a summary of recent developments that all Syria followers will have already seen. I still remain sceptical, as always, about the efficiency of new laws; with the archaic procedures of the Syrian legal system, it remains to be seen exactly how new laws are to cancel out earlier laws. Remember Decree 408 and Article 8 of the Syrian constitution? I still haven't read the details of the new decree, but I can already foresee application problems with the differences between Law N. 10 and the new Decree 8, sending investors into a black hole of bureaucracy hell.

The regime has made it clear there would be no political reform, but it’s time the economic reforms it promised and pledged repeatedly started coming. It’s not yet too little too late, but it is little and it is late. We need more.

Going under in Syria
Wednesday, January 31, 2007, 12:09
After the intensity of discussing the notorious PPP (the Peace Park Plan) in my last post, with a slight detour to cover some of our national culinary delicacies in the comments section (falafel, mostly, if you missed it), I was surprised to find myself enjoying this piece by Guy Taylor covering Syrians’ search for freedom online in the aftermath of the Damascus Spring. It’s chatty and - unlike many articles on Syria - it is also mostly correct; but there are a few slips in Taylor’s piece, notions that have been repeated often in the past few years, and with which I’ve disagreed equally often.

For instance, Taylor repeats the tale that the Damascus Spring started with the death of Hafez Assad; that is not true. Not to be finicky, but it’s a very important point; the relative relaxation of the regime, the so-called Damascus Spring, began earlier, while he was still alive in the late 90s, comfortable in the knowledge that nothing could shake his regime anymore – comfortable enough to allow for more criticism of the government (remember, there’s a difference between the state and the regime). While things certainly continued to flourish after his death, in the period dubbed the Damascus Spring, it was actually only because civil society activists were openly encouraged to speak … only so they could fall harder, as we all witnessed. In my opinion, this distinction is essential in understanding the current regime’s actions and attitude.

Taylor’s claim that the new freedoms were crushed when it became clear the US would be invading Iraq is obviously wrong. The first wave of arrests of our brave civil society activists, including the removal of parliamentary immunity and arrest of Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi, started over the summer of 2001, with Dr. Aref Dalila being arrested in August 2001, before 9/11, and way before the "war on terror" and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq became a sorry part of our reality.

I smiled at Taylor’s analysis as to why a night club would play a pop song that was “pro-Syria, pro-Assad” (aren't the two terms redundant in this context, given there couldn't possibly be a variation with "anti" no matter where you put it?) at 3 AM; one of the possibilities, in his opinion, was that “the song may also have been a way for the nightclub’s owner to stay open late while avoiding trouble with the authorities.” Very cute, and in line with the school of thought followed by every little shop prominently displaying the inevitable official and unofficial photos.

The description of his first meeting with the founder of Champress was also funny: ”I was taken aback when he suddenly swerved up to the curb in a black Mercedes 600 with tinted windows, the sort of car that seemed more likely to be driven by a secret security agent than by a man who spends his time breaking down barriers to free speech.” Well, most secret security agents actually drive other types of cars (remember the countless white Peugeots?) but Taylor clearly wasn't buying the idea that Syrians could make it big in the media sector - at least not exclusively. (Not just in Syria, by the way: few journalists could afford similar cars.)

His revelation of Mohsen Bilal’s daily phone calls to Champress reminded me of Ali Ferzat and his ill-fated Ad-Domari, when he was hounded by the-then Minister of “Information” Adnan Omran. On the subject of freedom, I maintain that the best material written so far on the Damascus Spring is "Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom” by Alan George. When I passed it on to my husband after I finished it, I remember he would interrupt his reading every few pages, rather worryingly asking me: “Are you sure you didn’t write this yourself? Does Alan George really exist?” But I digress (what a surprise).

So, when you’re done reading about online media in Syria, make sure you get the latest on key indicators of Syrian character and socio-political attitudes: the manufacture of lingerie! Really, journalists must be running out of subject ideas (go figure) because this is all the rage. Yossi Sarid explains in Haaretz that “The future is in underwear,” basing his entire article on another article in Time Magazine by a Lydia Wilson called “Undercover in Damascus.”

Zenobia's Secret?

But besides being apparently out of ideas, Haaretz is way too late and Time is not quite timely, the former in particular speaking volumes about the supposed expertise of Israelis on Syria. That’s because the subject, about which a book has now been written, believe it or not (“The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie”) was already covered last year in a rather weird article by the author of that same book, who at the time was still researching, in a British weekly called The New Statesman.

Being a more attentive follower of Syrian society, if not lingerie, than Haaretz and Time, I had already covered that coverage in my blog at the time, reporting amongst other things the basic, essential “fact” that Gulf money made Syrian bras possible in 1973. Intrigued? Then do please read it to understand the significance of Syrian underwear, and its impact on politics - or was it the other way around? I know there’s so much to say about home, but I really didn't expect we would be discussing underwear twice in this blog!

A white paper for a picnic in the park
Monday, January 22, 2007, 23:58
”Israel has said that the Arabs have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. And it seems this time that it is Israel which is missing the opportunity. Here you have all Arab parties involved in the Israeli conflict negotiating for seven rounds, for hundreds of hours, during the mandate of two Israeli governments, and yet not being able to agree on any of the core issues, or the essential issues necessary to establish peace, a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace between them.”

Ambassador Mowaffak Allaf, Chief Syrian Negotiator,

National Press Club, Washington DC, October 29, 1992

At the State Department, 1992, AFP

My father said these words during a press conference 14 years ago, on the first anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference. He felt that Arabs had already given enough (more than enough) commitment to warrant better responses from Israel (even the so-called Rabin Deposit, never honored, was a mere statement of the obvious in a process based on the equation of land for peace), and he never really believed Israel was interested in peace.

I can only imagine how my father would react to the news, over the past few years and more recently this month, of repeated Syrian offers for unconditional resumptions of negotiations – unconditional to the extent of scratching all these hard years of negotiating and starting again from square one, thus renouncing previous agreements. And I’m sure he would not be the only one horrified by the extents to which Syria seems to be bowing to Israel (even as the latter wages war) as it continues to practically beg for them to pay attention to its overtures. Be it a secret track two attempt, a repeated open call for talking without restrictions, or a rash handshake, such actions do nothing to keep Syria in a strong – and legally rightful – position.

There was nothing “informal,” as wrongly explained by a number of analysts, about Syria’s participation in the Madrid +15 Conference which took place a fortnight ago. Do not be fooled by the relatively low level of representation allowed there, in the persons of Riad Daoudi and Bushra Kanafani – both of whom pretended to be there in a personal capacity, with the approval of the authorities. In fact, the Syrians were most eager not only to attend this conference, but also to make sure they could influence the agenda and even choose some participants – at least in the Syrian and Lebanese camps. Although the initial invitation to the conference came from an NGO, the Toledo International Center for Peace, which had wanted to keep it out of governmental channels, staying amongst academic circles to keep the discussion open, the Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, took over contacts with Syria and was only too happy to get a more official participation – one which dictated who was acceptable to the Syrians, and who wouldn’t, say, bring up things that were inconvenient (like, for instance, the fact that there is no need to negotiate unconditionally).

This is why my name (along with that of another Syrian, a friend to whom I leave the freedom to declare himself should he wish to do so) * Update: see Addendum below was stricken off the invitation list as one of the requests made by the Syrian government. A few journalists had already seen my name on the participants’ list and asked me to talk to them about Madrid +15 before it convened, but I stalled, knowing what was happening behind the scenes and not wanting to reveal much before the actual event took place.

That the Syrian regime is not a great fan of mine is not much of a revelation – our feelings seem to be mutual on at least one issue. But it amuses me to know (and this is not the first time it happens) that they feel threatened by my presence, even as an observer or a normal participant, worried I might actually say something that makes sense to others, with all my intransigence on the status of negotiations that doesn’t agree with their particular agenda. (Someone very close to me told me I should take this as a compliment, because people like me make people like them look bad. I choose to believe him.)

In any case, given that the current regime seems willing to start from scratch again just for the sake of talking, it seems I am way too much of a hardliner as far as they are concerned, with regards to the Golan and to Syria’s negotiating stances. So was my father, of course, with an “intransigence” described by the despicable Yossi Ben Aharon. Ben Aharon’s ugly antics are well known to diplomats and journalists, and Sami Moubayed remembers one of the many incidents my father had to endure with this Likudnik (see the last paragraph, which explains the title of Sami’s article, “Too busy dancing”). While my father always believed there was little difference in substance between Likud and Labor, I am sure he was happy to see the back of such a nasty character when Shamir’s ousting as prime minister brought Itmar Rabinovitch to the head of the Israeli delegation’s as Rabin’s man.

It’s normal to assume that my father’s position simply followed the orders at the time, but that is only partially correct. In fact, my father accepted to head the negotiations with Israel only reluctantly, to put it mildly, and only after having asked Hafez Assad, face to face, to give him his word that the June 4 1967 border was the minimum acceptable, and that no secret track two talks would be allowed – to which Assad replied: you know, if you hadn’t said this, I might have doubted you were really Mowaffak Allaf! This is a story that has been recounted to my brothers and I over the years by various Arab diplomats, for whom it confirmed that my father’s ultimate concern was always defending his cause, and for whom daring to face Hafez Assad with a provocative and loaded question few others would have the courage to pose as a condition was not a problem. Assad had chosen my father personally to head the talks, and word was that a number of regime cronies who wanted to push their own people were upset that Assad couldn’t find a single person inside the regime to become this “responsible,” or inside the Baath, or even inside Syria (we were living in Vienna at the time)!

This long digression went through my mind as I read last week about the secret talks between Syria and Israel that have been making headlines. One might think my reactionary position is inherited, but with a hundred reasons to denounce the attitude of the Syrian government, I hope it is a natural reaction which is typical of my compatriots.

We’ve already seen it repeatedly: the more Arabs (Syrians and Palestinians included) concede needlessly on major issues, the more Israel finds itself in a strong position, whining that it is making “painful concessions” and trying to dictate the parameters of a strange kind of peace. Like the “peace” peddled in this strange, dangerous non-paper (which reeks of really being a white paper to me) divulged by Akiva Eldar last week in Haaretz.

A non-paper “based” on the June 4, 1967 border, but a border which remains to be agreed. In other words, it completely ignores the pledge of Ehud Barak, who numerous observers (including “honest broker” Americans) agreed got cold feet at the eleventh hour and went back on the agreement which would have brought real peace between Syria and Israel, fairly and squarely.

A non-paper giving Israel unprecedented, unwarranted water rights. Syria’s rights, in contrast, are limited to residential and fishing rights.

A non-paper which doesn’t even mention Israeli settlements (as it speaks of “areas that Israeli forces will vacate”), but implies that Syrians will not have the right of return to their own land (a specialty of Israeli policy) so that the area can remain “free of permanent residents” (so much for residential Syrian water rights). No right of return, and no right of compensation, although both are guaranteed by international law.

A non-paper that would see Syria dropping its support of Palestinian groups in a second, in blatant contravention to every pledge ever made by successive Syrian governments, let alone by Syrian Baathists. The Palestinian cause becomes a tangent, an afterthought, as if we hadn’t spent the last 60 years living through its impact, all of us.

A non-paper demanding cooperation on “local and international terrorism” without defining it, implying both countries have equal understanding of the term.

A non-paper demanding, for once, Syria’s interference in Palestinian, Lebanese and even Iraqi affairs ... but according to Israeli and American interests.

A non-paper giving Israel the luxury of “withdrawal” over 15 years (and certainly not less than 5) while the demilitarized area (on the Syrian side mostly) becomes controlled by American checkpoints – and possibly the unmentioned armed Israeli settlers.

A non-paper, finally, pretending to seriously present the idea of a park on the Golan Heights, allowing Israelis free access without a visa. A park, for picnics with Israeli neighbors we happen to meet. The person who takes credit for this ridiculous notion of a park, an insult to our collective intelligence, should really stay out of politics – especially if he thinks Dennis Ross deserves the Nobel Prize (although given some of the recipients, the Nobel for Peace has certainly gone downhill).

After 40 years of hardship, of young Syrian men spending up to 3 useless years in the army, of army officers’ children driving around recklessly in their big Mercs, and of the regime justifying every excess on the state of war, we get a peace park. It’s a wonder this non-paper didn’t propose, as a “confidence-building step,” a Syrian commitment to acknowledge our beloved falafel as the national dish of Israel, and to throw in our hummus too for good measure (an “Israelization phenomenon” which I once complained about as it smacked of “having your hummus and eating it too”). But not to worry. So far, the Israelis are officially being all high and mighty, pretending they are worried about real Syrian intentions, and insisting they can’t talk for now. So if the Israeli government is refusing even this pittance of a deal publicly, after so much bowing from the Syrian regime, imagine what an actual “peace” treaty would actually look like. Unlike the Syrians, the Israelis have held on to every point yielded by the opposite party as if it was manna from heaven. It is not the Israelis who will ever say they will negotiate without preconditions (on the contrary, of course). Some “humat addiyari” our current negotiators are!

In desperate situations, capitulation is understandable (this agreement being a glorified version thereof) if it is to save lives and eradicate war and all the related suffering. Nobody wants to play hero over the misery of their people. But in that case, it should be called capitulation, and not peddled as a peace deal to be applauded. I am certainly not a fan of “creative solutions” to clear problems, whether in the case of Syria or of Palestine. As far as I’m concerned, and until I see some humane, decent, or even simply lawful action from Israel, I think it’s time to call for a new version of the 3 Nos:

- No to unconditional re-negotiations
- No to undignified track two supplications
- No to unnecessary capitulations

For all its solemnity, this post is light-heartedly dedicated to my Syrian cyberfriends, who will rue the day they ever nagged me to write and ended up with 2000 words!

Addendum: I wrote above that “another Syrian, a friend to whom I leave the freedom to declare himself should he wish to do so” was also taken off the invitation list to Madrid +15. He has gracefully revealed his identity himself in the comments section, and you can read for yourself what he has to say. It is Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, our well-known Syrian scholar and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at The George Washington University, whose career is summarized here. On a personal note, I would like to add that Murhaf is also the son of one of our most eminent and respected diplomats, my father’s friend and colleague who was equally involved in the peace talks - the late, regretted Ambassador Rafik Jouejati.

Holiday greetings
Sunday, December 31, 2006, 23:35

Despite everything, these couple of weeks are also the time to celebrate a variety of holidays (still running into January for our Orthodox friends). May they bring us all some peace of mind, if not peace.

The significance of Saddam's execution on Eid Al Adha
Saturday, December 30, 2006, 01:20
While Palestine is slipping from many people's immediate concerns, given the sad repetitiveness of the news (except when it is to gleefully announce the advent of civil war), and while Iraq descends further into hell, with enough tragic events to warrant continuous news broadcasts for days on end (something you wouldn't know from following Anglo-Saxon media, although American and British media should be duty-bound to report on the catastrophic consequences of the crimes against humanity committed by their elected governments – whose justifications they have so often parrotted idiotically), most media have decided that Somalia is actually the most breaking of all breaking news. Of course, it has the easiest, most convenient attention-grabbing headlines; after all, you can't go wrong with screaming titles like "Islamic Courts ..."

I have much to say about events in Palestine in particular, and the situation in the region as a whole, having recently attended a couple of conferences on the subject in the past fortnight. As they were held under Chatham House Rule, it means I can't tell you the details of where I was or who was there, but I can certainly report that I'm feeling even more disheartened than usual about the prospects for our region. The positions that were expressed by American, British and European officials were, to put it mildly, appalling. More than usual. More than you can imagine. More than is reported in the media. More than you would think possible, or smart. Totally lacking in long-term strategic vision, or intelligence.

Which brings me to the urging subject of Saddam Hussein's imminent execution, which kept me unexpectedly busy today as journalists called to inform me about its reported timing, and to ask about its possible effect. Some seemed to think that it might help control the violence in Iraq; this might have been funny, but nothing about Iraq is funny. I wonder where they get ideas like that, and who is trying to market them as "solutions." If Saddam is to be punished (or in this case executed), it should be because a lawful court found him guilty of crimes - and not because someone in Washington or London thinks it might help the situation!

I am against the death penalty, although I admit am often tempted to make exceptions to my own principles. But I do not dispute – quite on the contrary, in fact – the need to have criminals like Saddam Hussein pay for their blatant abuses of power and their crimes against their people. I hope other "leaders" in similar positions, and other people in the cliques surrounding these leaders, will meet a similar humiliating, if not fatal, fate (preferably à la Romania, by the people, and not à la Iraq, by the invaders), and not just in the Middle East, but let us not digress.

The occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain renders the whole trial of Saddam Hussein illegal and worthless (in addition to having been a farcical pretense at justice). Paul Bremer's damned pen, busily signing illegal, immoral decrees up until the last hours of his miserable reign (during which he disbanded the Iraqi army and fired all the Baathists, amongst other brilliant strategies) was only a precursor to the ridiculous American-imposed process of writing a new constitution for Iraq, a document as worthless as the paper on which it was written. Worthless, and extremely dangerous.

These points are not new, and they've been discussed before in this blog. What is new is the crazy – or is it crazy? – notion of executing Saddam Hussein, who is technically a prisoner of war and whose case technically falls under the Geneva Conventions, sometime around dawn on Saturday December 30, in a few hours from now. This will be the dawn of Eid Al Adha, the most important Muslim holiday of the year, following the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Since the Anglo-American invasion, we've had "experts" and media repeat ad nauseam the idea that Saddam's regime was a Sunni regime persecuting the Shia population. Now, with a Shia government ruling under the umbrella of Anglo-American supremacy (in a political sense only of course, since they only really rule the Green Zone), this Sunni leader is going to be executed by a Shia-led government (under a Kurdish president, one might add) on the most important Muslim day, on the same day Muslims believe that God Himself stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son.

Can you only imagine all the potential symbolism that can come out of this execution on that particular date? Can the decision-makers really be that stupid? Can they really not even think that there is room for turning Saddam into a national AND a religious martyr, for turning the issue into a national one first, and a sectarian one second? Or, even worse, vice versa? Is it possible that nobody is thinking of the possibilities?

Or are we the naïve ones, wondering about their lack of foresight when they have possibly already considered all the possibilities and are purposely planning to cause even greater chaos and violence? This execution plan calls for people who are either mighty brave, or mighty stupid. Given recent Anglo-American behavior, it's more likely the latter, and the consequences are going to be devastating. If Saddam is to be executed, he should not go to the hangman alone; his foreign executioners are guilty of even bigger crimes.

I will shed no tears over Saddam Hussein, but I will probably be crying more in despair over Iraq in the near future.

If the Virgin Mary came today ...
Monday, December 25, 2006, 02:37
As millions of people around the world gather to celebrate the wonder of Mary giving birth to baby Jesus, an event revered by Christians and Muslims alike, please think of pregnant Palestinian women who are suffering needlessly and whose babies are dying simply because of Israeli cruelty.

As reported in The Independent, Palestinian women "have been giving birth in startlingly similar conditions to those suffered by Mary 2,000 years ago. They have delivered their babies with no doctors, no sterilised equipment, no back-up if there are complications." In fact, they have been boycotted back into the Stone Age, explains the shocking article.

This is all because Israel, the country on whose behalf the "international community" is starving the Palestinian people and making them live in archaic conditions, refuses to recognize the Palestinians' right to exist.

Once more, therefore, Palestinians will not be having a Merry Christmas, or a Happy Eid for that matter. No wonder their cards aren't so jolly!

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Murder victim and media victim
Monday, December 4, 2006, 21:02
Al Jazeera English, in its 17:00 GMT news today, has just described the first victim of violence during the Beirut sit-in as "a pro-Syrian Muslim." I'm sure his family will be honored, in its grief, to know that his whole life has been reduced to this characteristic, his entire being summarized as "pro-Syrian."

This tragic killing has generally been relegated to the "in other news" sections of newspapers and websites, failing to make "breaking news" status even on television news, in most cases. At first, one might be tempted to admire the "self-restraint" of this responsible media, not wanting to pour gasoline on the spreading fire, but we all know better. Can you imagine the screaming headlines, the front page photos, and the urgent alerts if Ahmad Ali Mahmoud had been a Hariri/March 14/anti-Syrian supporter? Can you imagine the indignation, the threats and the denunciations had he been under the wing of the "government elected by the people of Lebanon" which the British Foreign Secretary is so keen to protect (in sharp contrast to the government elected by the people of Palestine, which doesn't happen to meet with her cabinet's approval)?

But since the young victim is none of the above, mentioned in most reports as a mere "Shia," and a "pro-Syrian" one at that, (the opposite of the victim media loves), the news is not deemed important enough. No investigation will be called into his killing by irate and "civilized" officials. No condemnation will be issued by the "international community." No tears will be shed by Fouad Siniora.

The latter's supporters, like most of the mainstream media which has been reporting on these events with even more superficiality and bias than usual, are busy spreading the notion that Hizbullah is basically causing civil war. I never fail to be amazed by the supposed powers of this party, which is apparently capable of putting fire – on its own – to the whole of Lebanon. Pity the nation indeed, which always falls victim to one malevolent group after another, while the ex-warlords are innocently dragged into the violence kicking and screaming. It's always someone else who is trying to hurt Lebanon (the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Iranians … and a couple of March 14 people have even deigned to mention the Israelis), but somehow it is never the Lebanese themselves – or at least never those allied with the powers that be. (Only the LA Times, from what I've seen, has noticed the Israeli soldiers who remained on Lebanese soil until now - but it's basically only to praise them for being so "diplomatic.")

Al Jazeera English, which I've been forcing myself to watch in order to prepare a fair appraisal, did not fail to add its voice to those warning of sectarian violence, as if there was no other reason for the crisis. Now that everyone has become an expert on "Sunnis versus Shias," there suddenly seems to be no other way to explain why things are going wrong in the region. First it was all about the Hariri tribunal, and now it's all about sectarian violence, you see. Yesterday, on Al Jazeera English, Clayton Swisher (who I see for the first time, and who was described as the channel's Middle East analyst) explained the situation in Lebanon as such: there is a "spillover effect from Iraq" ("a series of dominoes," added the presenter helpfully) which can be dangerous, especially if with 100,000 people in downtown Beirut (yes, he said 100,000) someone comes with an explosives belt and blows himself up. This was Al Jazeera English's contribution to our understanding of the Lebanon crisis: on top of being because of the pro-Syrians, it's also because of Iraq and possible suicide bombers! (Well, at least he's not limiting himself to the usual and only "it's the Syrians" line.)

I mention the number he used to point to the clear deficiencies in reporting. I myself am getting tired of this game of "my demonstration is bigger than your demonstration" and I think I've seen enough flags for a long time - especially when they're all the same! However, it looks like we're going to be watching this confrontation for the foreseeable future, and while both sides have genuine grievances, it appears that some, frankly, are more existential than others.

Update: Some media reports are still, reliably, assuring us that it's all Syria's fault, even when "pro-Syrians" are being killed. You see, "Al-Mustaqbal television, which is owned by the Future Movement of anti-Syrian parliament majority leader Saad Hariri, said the army detained three Syrians who had allegedly provoked the incident by throwing stones from an overhead bridge at the passing Hizbullah cars." That explains it then. Thank you Annahar.

Will we (the people) become like them (the revolution)?
Friday, December 1, 2006, 02:20
I've tried to ignore the Lebanese political scene this past week or so (it was getting a bit repetitive), but it's impossible to ignore Fouad Siniora's announcement that tomorrow's demonstration in Beirut by the Lebanese opposition amounts to a coup. Siniora did not feel that the previous mass demonstrations by the previous opposition (to which he belonged) had been a coup; in fact, the so-called March 14 movement calls it a revolution. I wonder what makes it different from the March 8 movement. And let me state loud and clear that I am not taking side with either movement (and that includes, obviously, the "corrective" one); if I did, it would be neither with the side Israel prefers, nor with the side that brings theology into political life. I guess I need more choices.

I am also tired of this obsession with the Hariri tribunal, as if it were the only issue of importance today; call me naïve, but I believe there are other reasons as well for the political impasse in Lebanon today, and it's certainly not all about Hariri, regardless of how much March 14 try to hammer it in. Granted, these assassinations should all be investigated, but what about all the other events in the country? Like it or not, Hizbullah does have some other issues, to put it mildly, following last July's "events" (to put it even more mildly).

In any case, after observing the Lebanese political scene, in particular over the last 18 months or so, I think the March 14 movement has the dubious honor of having caused the loss of all the sympathy it had first gained after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. In my opinion, this is mainly because of the way it failed to differentiate between Syrian regime and Syrian people (becoming outright racist at times), and because of its silence during the barbaric Israeli aggression of Lebanon (its official silence that is, as it appears there was lot of wishful thinking for Hizbullah's defeat).

This loss of regional sympathy on the popular level is pretty much what the Bush administration achieved with its actions after 9/11. True, it's on a much smaller scale in Lebanon's case, but that's still quite an accomplishment.

This led me to have some worrying thoughts about the possible behavior of Syrians in similar situations. What if when we Syrians finally get "democracy" we end up bickering like idiots and not solving anything, letting the country run to waste? What if we let form take precedence over content? What if we get so stupid that we start blaming every single thing going wrong in the country on those who ruled it shortly before we took over? What if the remaining warlords (slash businessmen slash politicians slash parliamentarians) start getting rid of one another ("fakhar" like, as we say in Arabic), taking advantage of the fact that everyone will automatically blame the previous rulers for these crimes, whether or not they did it?

What if we go into mass hysteria when one of our leaders is killed, forgetting all our past criticism of him, living in denial about the state of our economy and foreign debt, and only remembering his multi-billionaire's vision of our capital's downtown? What if we lose sight of the values we fought for all these years when the unjust rulers ruled? What if our intellectuals, writers and activists all suddenly decide to ignore those who for years defended their cause and wrote about it at great risk to their personal freedom? What if we ignore a joint declaration they have taken great risks to publish in support of our cause, and look the other way when they are punished for it?

What if we begin to mix between people and rulers, and what if we start taking it out on poor workers, beating them, killing them, burning their tents? What if we start speaking of the rulers' compatriots, or co-religionists, as if they were to blame for our years of hardship? What if we start treating them all in one way (a bad way), forgetting that they suffered as much as we did from these rulers, even if they came from the same background?

What if we start doing what they are doing? I've always thought Syrians had learned from their neighbors (in Lebanon and now in Iraq) never to fall into the temptation to take revenge or to fight on sectarian or other God-forsaken terms. I'm not so sure, however, that the temptation to bicker stupidly and endlessly has gone; in fact, if there's anything our sycophants know how to do, it's waxing poetic about leaders and repeating useless slogans ad nauseam while the important issues are ignored. Imagine if they start using these "skills" to reinvent today's "responsibles" as tomorrow's visionaries, and if they start to fight one another and paralyze the nation ... now that really would be the end of us yet.

Welcome to Britain ... apparently
Thursday, November 30, 2006, 15:43
Time for a massive digression from the usual topics in this blog. There are certain aspects of living in Britain that have become simply insufferable, especially when coming back from the warmth and friendliness of people in my country of birth. That's when the culture shock hits you, even when you've lived abroad forever, even when you're used to such attitudes.

To begin with, the fiasco imposed by the British government on travellers after the supposed terrorist threat last summer was the biggest waste of time. Our small piece of cabin luggage, bought especially because of the restrictions and because its measurements, on paper, obeyed requirements, was refused because the wheels would not fit in the test frame; how was that a threat to the security of everyone? How was forcing us to remove two laptops from it, carrying them by hand (in addition to the baby's car seat, the baby's pram … and of course the baby!), supposed to make us feel safer? How was safety improved by letting two women (my Mom and I) and a baby run to the gate after the delay caused by the "threatening" wheels of our tiny new luggage? Of course there must have been thousands of stories like this one, so I hope everyone felt a lot safer knowing women's makeup was safely out of reach from the cabin.

This made seeing the mukhabarat at Damascus airport a joke; in fact, they even seemed pleasantly welcoming, but I may be exaggerating slightly here. (OK, I'm definitely exaggerating, but you get my drift.)

Flying back to Heathrow was just as disagreeable. At Damascus airport already, for the first time in the life of this frequent traveller, I was asked to make two photocopies of my passport and of my daughter's, both European, because the British government had demanded that all "foreign citizens of Arab origin" be thus treated and our details filed and passed on to them. People at the check-in counter were clearly shocked, but I think I was the only one who made a comment out loud. I'll leave you to guess, as it's pretty untranslatable anyway.

When we got to London, 6 policemen waited at the end of the finger, checking our passports (and actually making a point of comparing my baby with the photo on her passport!) before allowing us the honor of treading on Heathrow's ground, as we made our way to the official passport control and customs. We don't get this personalized welcome coming from other countries, although I'm sure this special treatment applies to countries other than Syria as well.

To top it off, in spite of my frustrating experience with the fallacy of British helpfulness, I had made the mistake of assuming someone at Heathrow would actually help a woman with a baby (and pram and car seat) and the luggage cart. Of course, it was a Syrian man who first helped me with my suitcases, without my asking. But as I took time to settle the baby and the other small bags, and after having been informed that nobody from the airport would be helping me, I found myself pushing both along to get through customs and to my waiting husband outside. The British customs officers stood there, arms folded, observing me as I struggled to push one item after another, holding on tightly to my baby. You guessed it: it was two foreign gentlemen, an American and a German, who swept to my rescue, each taking an item (on top of their own luggage) and insisting I just follow them.

I've been to many places around the world, but I have never ever experienced the rudeness – or, even worse, the indifference – I see in London. As I don't drive in London, and having gotten to use the public transport system frequently, I was shocked to realize that even a heavily pregnant woman got no help. Men would turn their faces when they would see me get on a bus, worried they would look guilty sitting down. Standing in line to get on buses, I even got pushed a couple of times, and several men and women overtook me several times to rush to the remaining free seats before I even dreamt of sitting down myself. In fact, I will always remember the ONE time a man offered me his seat – and that's because he was French! As for women, 3 of them offered their seats during the entire length of my pregnancy. And here I am honestly not exaggerating. Welcome to Britain.

The pariah who came in from the cold
Thursday, November 23, 2006, 23:56
John Le Carré fans will recognize the liberties I took with one of his most famous novels, even if I could find nothing suitable that sounded like "spy." I have the feeling we're going to be talking (and getting tired of talking) about Lebanon for a long time, so following on my last post, here is my article for Bitter Lemons published today.

The pariah who came in from the cold
Rime Allaf

The last couple of months have been good, or at least better than before, for the Syrian regime. After getting a cold shoulder from the US over its opposition to the invasion of Iraq and even more so after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Syrian regime was finally being acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with, and a regional partner to be considered, even valued.

This is mostly because of the quagmire in Iraq, but also because of the Israeli aggression against Lebanon this past summer that, as far as the Syrian regime is concerned served to demonstrate to doubters that there exists a bigger and much more violent meddler in Lebanon. Israel's spectacular belligerence enabled Syria to say "I told you so" to scores of Lebanese, many of whom agreed.

In addition, Hizballah's unexpected defeat of Israel, in all possible senses of the word, boosted the standing of the group even among Lebanese previously skeptical of the group's intentions but wary of rumors that other Lebanese parties had actually encouraged Israel's aggression. With Hizballah's sudden increased popularity, Syria influence in Lebanon was once again out in the open.

Since then, Hizballah has made no secret of its agenda: having enjoyed renewed power enhanced by its initial restraint after the Israeli aggression, it recently demanded more significant participation in the country's government, commensurate with its estimated size, and sought to oblige Fouad Siniora to install a more inclusive government. To this end, following rather blunt references to Siniora's government as that of Jeffrey Feltman (the American ambassador to Lebanon), Hizballah was to have called its followers to take to the streets on November 23, a day after Lebanon's National Day, to demand a national unity government.

This was certainly an event to which the Syrians were looking forward, and the irony of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's complaint about the illegality of the present government (having himself been imposed by the Syrians in violation of the Lebanese constitution) seemed to pass unnoticed in the midst of so much tension.

All of this could only benefit Syria, especially as interesting developments were taking place on other fronts. British PM Tony Blair officiated over the first step in the rehabilitation of Syria by sending Nigel Scheinwald, his special envoy to the region, to test the waters in Damascus. While the Bush administration pretended not to be agreeable to this initiative, it is likely that Blair's overture had in fact been made at Washington's behest. Indeed, help on Iraq is desperately needed by the Anglo-American coalition and the time seems ripe for reconciliation with Syria and a reevaluation of the stakes.

The need to include Syria (and Iran) was also underlined by the Iraq Study Group, which is set to recommend engaging the two countries in order to help stabilize Iraq. Simultaneously, the European Union took the Association Agreement out of the closet, paving the way for more cooperation with Syria. Once again, Damascus airport was welcoming a string of foreign dignitaries.

Within this context, it would seem idiotic for the Syrians to provoke a new outburst of anti-Syrian sentiments in Lebanon -- which seems to be the default initial reaction to the sadly frequent assassinations of political figures there. Indeed, whether as a deliberate aim or as an unintended consequence, depending on who actually committed this crime, the assassination of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel will initially hurt Syria's position in Lebanon.

For one, instead of Hizballah's demonstration aiming at bringing down the government, a mass funeral with a strong anti-Syrian tenor filled the streets of Beirut. Instead of the March 8 forces thanking Syria for its support, the March 14 forces are back to accusing it of deadly meddling. To all intents and purposes, Syria was coming in from the cold, until a sudden mafia-style assassination in broad daylight stole its thunder.

If only because of its timing, Gemayel's assassination will at the very least postpone Syria's plans for a friendlier -- or at least more comprehensive -- Lebanese government. Furthermore, it will empower the UN-led international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri to also include the assassination of Gemayel.

Nevertheless, while these developments have forced Syria to retreat to its usual defensive mode, even publicly refusing to cooperate with the international tribunal, there is every reason to believe that this is only a momentary lapse in its standing and that the only way is up with regards to regional influence.

The US is looking for a way out of Iraq and it needs all the help in can get; any talk about the "independence" and "sovereignty" of Lebanon, already forgotten during America's support of Israel's aggression, will again be put on the back burner while Syria is coaxed back to the axis of inevitable partners. The restoration of diplomatic ties between Syria and Iraq, mere hours before Gemayel's assassination, was a pivotal element both in Syria's rehabilitation and for America's hopes in Iraq, the latter having become even more of an issue after the Democrats took control of Congress in the US.

And even within Lebanon, as long as politicians' positions are stated purely in relation to Syria (as "pro-Syrian" or "anti-Syrian"), the Lebanese themselves are inflating Syria's influence instead of shaking it off, especially as the impact of Israel's war will continue to be felt and as Hizballah continues to consolidate its gains.

Because of these factors on both sides of Syria's borders, and because of the low likelihood of solving the mystery of Gemayel's killing, like that of Hariri, there seems little doubt that Syria's role in Lebanon is bound to regain some of its previous luster. Syria's plans may have been delayed, but they remain on track as it comes in from the cold. - Published 23/11/03 © bitterlemons-

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House.

Assassinations and demonstrations
Wednesday, November 22, 2006, 23:56
On the day of the assassination of Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel, New TV was playing patriotic songs praising Syria and Hezbollah, the kind you usually find on Syrian television only. I hadn’t noticed them before, but I guess this pretty much settles where New TV stands on the assassination of Pierre Gemayel, on who is really responsible, and on who benefits from it according to them. Most other Lebanese channels are in a very different mood (and so is CNN, by the way). I naturally deplore any assassination, I deplore the cold-blooded killing of a young man, I deplore this violence, but let's not lose track of the stakes here.

Gemayel's assassination is quite different from Hariri's, and not only because of the latter's stature. After Hariri, there was shock but also defiance in Lebanon. After the other murders (Hawi, Kassir, Tueni), there was sadness but continued and resolute boldness. After Gemayel, however, I feel there is mostly apprehension, because the 24 gun shots fired in broad daylight may have different consequences on the situation in Lebanon. But what? The Syrians are already out, Hezbollah will be damned if it disarms or steps aside after Israel's attack last summer, and the investigation into the first murder is rather tepid up to this point. So what's going to happen? I think that Syria is going to be temporarily slighted by this event, but that there is no long-term possibility that it will relinquish its influence for the benefit of the US and Israel.

The promised or threatened (depending on which side of the fence you stand) mass demonstrations of Thursday, under the leadership of the March 8 forces (aka Hezbollah and co), will now be replaced by a mass demonstration (funeral) under the leadership of the March 14 forces (aka Hariri and co). The slogans will be drastically different, and the support for the crumbling government of Fouad Siniora (who at least didn't cry yesterday) will dominate the event. Not music to Syria's ears, but it will survive.

Some Lebanese parties are acting and speaking as if the International Tribunal for Hariri will actually accuse, prosecute and condemn the entire Syrian regime for the assassination, and that everyone will then live happily ever after. I have my doubts about this version of events, but in any case, the assassination of Pierre Gemayel basically sets in stone the foundation of the tribunal, rather than the contrary – in other words, he could not have been killed merely because of this. The tribunal was going to happen with or without Syria's agreement, with or without Siniora's governance, and with or without Gemayel's assassination. Still not in Syria's interests, but again the regime will survive.

And Syria's actual role in the assassination? Frankly, who really knows? It's not like there is a lack of suspects, but you wouldn't know that from following comments on the situation.

It's nearly funny to note that most Lebanese bloggers are, as usual, passionately ridiculing the notion of "Syria doesn't gain by this" as even a possible rationale for their non-involvement. These days, it doesn't matter whether something makes sense or not as long as Syria can be blamed; you see, that rationale is that even if it doesn't benefit Syria, the Syrians are so stupid that they capable of doing things that hurt them.

I certainly think this applies to a number of events in the past couple of years, but not to this one, as too many good things were happening to Syria recently (more on that in an article I am supposed to be writing instead of blogging). I think the "certitude" of certain Lebanese (like Samir Geagea) that ministers were about to be eliminated qualifies at least as a possible lead, don't you think? And there are certainly other suspects amongst the Lebanese themselves, and amongst other neighbors!

I'd also add a few miscellaneous comments on the whole situation. Why are the Lebanese Phalanges, inspired by Hitler's Nazi party and a fascist party by default since its creation by Pierre Gemayel senior, now considered a beacon of democratic values while the Baath (of which I hope you all know I am certainly no fan) is considered an evil fascist party although it is actually socialist in inclination?

Why is Emile Lahoud "unconstitutional" (a statement with which I agree entirely) while Fouad Siniora's government, now missing ministers from an entire sect, not unconstitutional?

Why were the demonstrations last year which aimed at removing the pro-Syrian government "democratic," while Hezbollah's planned demonstrations are considered a "coup d'état"? Why are Nasrallah's calls for his followers to take to the streets "threats" while March 14 calls are freedom of expression?

Why is Syria necessarily the culprit "because it is weak," and why is it equally necessarily the culprit "because it is strong"?

Why is the American ambassador's blindingly obvious interference in Lebanese affairs not considered "meddling," while every one of Syria's comments are?

Why is Robert Fisk so boring, so predictable, and so superficial when he writes about Lebanon?

I am on neither side, but I hate double standards! Speaking of which, I leave you with this hilarious (not really) statement by the Israeli foreign minister, who said of Gemayel's assassination that "this is the kind of step that can only increase tension in the region rather than lead to greater peace, and it is something to be deplored." Clearly, she feels that indiscriminate bombings of Lebanese civilians and infrastructure was, on the contrary, leading to peace.

Gaza babies' silent suffering
Tuesday, November 21, 2006, 00:41
While the "war on terror" gets all the headlines, and all the taxpayers' money, the actual war of terror imposed on the Palestinian people remains totally ignored by the free world whose values are supposedly so awesome. So here is another small taste of what it's like to be a Palestinian. Remember to thank your lucky stars that you do not live in Gaza, for these could be your children.

This is what Israeli missiles do to little children.

This is what Israeli missiles do to 9-month old babies.

This is how frantic parents bring their children for emergency treatment. No stretchers. No ambulances. No immediate first aid.

Imagine what £7 billion could do for Gaza. But warmongers do not care about the suffering of little children. At least not these children.

Life and death in Gaza
Monday, November 20, 2006, 01:58
Médecins du Monde has just published an extremely depressing report detailing the inhuman conditions of life for people in Gaza, made much worse than their usual miserable conditions since the international embargo began (after they dared democratically elect the "wrong" party) and after the Israeli army attacks increased (after the "liberation" of Gaza).

The tremendous physical and mental damage from which Palestinians are suffering due to this continued multiple assault is detailed in the full report, downloadable in English and in French from this link. The summary mentions that "70% of the Palestinian population currently live below the poverty line, the recorded unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip stands at 40%, and it is harder to access food and drinking water than before 2000. In addition, the destruction of infrastructure and main transport routes during operation “Summer Rain” launched on 28 June, greatly hinder electricity, drinking water and fuel distribution and restrict travel in the Gaza Strip."

It is thanks to French media that this devastating report is getting some recognition; as usual, Anglo-Saxon media is probably waiting for a press release from some Israeli ministry or American department before it considers the item to be news (and trust) worthy. And yet, they could even quote Israeli sources to realize how drastic the situation has become; B'Tselem has itself just issued a report about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which makes for more depressing and sobering reading – especially for those still living under the illusion that there has been an actual Israeli "withdrawal" (or "disengagement" if you insist on using Israeli terminology) and that it has made any difference. Read it and weep.

In these circumstances, how is such a life worth fighting for? And when it comes to Gaza, a tiny territory under constant threat from Israel, does the term "human shield" necessarily provide a reassuringly safe form of protection? After all, Israel has never really shown any concern for civilians of any age, whether they were "collateral damage" or deliberate targets, like the regretted Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, amongst other brave souls, who both died while trying to protect their fellow human beings.

Some Palestinians dare to confront Israeli soldiers who mistreat their compatriots, but they end up paying a heavy price.

But if you knew that an Israeli air strike was imminent, as it so regularly happens in Gaza, would you have the courage to become one of those human shields? I'm not sure I would, as I have little faith in Israel's respect for human life, and the Israeli army does not shy from targetting even children (most recently, sadly, a 7-year old boy shot in the head as he sat at his desk) and women. Therefore, I continue to be amazed by the courage of these heroic Palestinians risking their lives to protect one of their own, just as they always risk their lives under Israeli fire to run and pick up their fallen compatriots, as we have seen them do countless times.

These women had the courage to defy Israel, so soon after other Palestinian women were killed in cold blood by Israeli soldiers. Undeterred, they gathered on the rooftop of the building chosen for destruction.

And these men also had the courage to defy Israel, filling the building and the streets surrounding it, trying to prevent Israel from striking - and for once succeeding.

When will the rest of the world do likewise and stand up to Israel?

Correctioning SANA's English
Thursday, November 16, 2006, 23:00
According to SANA, Syria today "celebrated" the 36th anniversary of the "Correctionist Movement." Hurray.

As my fellow Syrians blew out their virtual candles with sheer delight, I couldn't help thinking that what we really need is a "correctionist movement" within SANA itself, at least within its English section. Somebody simply must take some corrective (sorry, correctionist) measures to reach, at the very least, basic language correctness (sorry, correctionism). Clearly, as things stand, I'll never be able to get a job there, and if I did, I'd get fired immediately for writing things like "corrective movement." Sigh.

Blair's bizarre overture to Syria
Thursday, November 16, 2006, 11:05
While channel surfing to check news headlines yesterday, I saw a few minutes of the Queen's speech to parliament on BBC, having forgotten it was opening on that date (when you're away from London, British politics seem so unimportant). In all seriousness, Queen Elizabeth mentioned peace in the Middle East between Israel and "the Palestinians" (the Brits just can't bring themselves to call it Palestine again; is that on account of their guilt?), supporting the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, bla bla bla. I saw Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Gordon Brown and John Prescott nodding gravely, their expressions just dripping with "concern" for the region. Since there was nothing new, I thought it was old footage from one of the earlier speeches. But then I saw Margaret Beckett and I realized this was today, and I thought to myself: plus ça change … (I also thought other things not suitable for this blog).

As it happens, I had just sent my article on Blair's Syria "initiative" to The Guardian's CIF (published this morning) making it perfectly clear what I thought of his diplomacy. In addition to ridiculing Tony Blair's self-perception as an influence on the US, I have a couple of other points to make about this whole business of engaging Syria.

a) Since when did Syria become an "adversary" of the US (or of Britain for that matter), on par with Iran? True, there certainly has been a gradual deterioration in American-Syrian and British-Syrian relations, but it pales in comparison with the Iranian revolution's impact. Putting Syria and Iran on the same level, with regards to relations with the US, is a gross exaggeration and ignores the history of the past 30 years.

b) Who is really more to blame for this deterioration? The Bush administration and its unparalleled incompetence and arrogance, the Blair government's propensity to blindly and irrationally follow where Bush goes, or the Syrian regime and its immaturity and stubbornness? All played a role of course, but the invasion of Iraq was undoubtedly the greatest offense, and the greatest factor.

c) I am astonished (or am I really?!) at the eagerness of the Syrian regime to jump so obviously and indicate its immediate willingness to "discuss" matters with the US. Whatever happened to playing your cards and maintaining a poker face? Of course, the regime has now allowed the US to openly rule out talks with Syria … while considering talking to Iran! What is wrong with this picture? Of course, given the US's despair to solve Iraq, David Satterfield is merely playing tough, and that is exactly the point I was making. (Yes, in most foreign policy issues, I advocate strong positions by Syria.)

In the meantime, Syria and Iran are supplying arms to Somali Islamists, apparently. My oh my, the poor Americans can hardly keep track of these two regimes' evil misdemeanours. Of course, we all know that interfering in other countries, arming one side against the other (or both at the same time, as has often been the case) is a purely American prerogative.

But let's get back to Blair and his bizarre overture! I really must remember to tell The Guardian to fix my photo ... some commentators keep calling me Mr. Allaf! Here's my full article from The Guardian's website:

Patching things up with the neighbours
Tony Blair's sudden drive to reconcile the US with Syria and Iran is not as spontaneous as he would like us to believe

Tony Blair would have us believe he can solve the Iraq fiasco, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the entire Middle East problem (all of which Britain so negligently helped create) by first "convincing" the US to speak with Syria and Iran. He also claims to have come up with a brilliant Middle East strategy, whereby solving the Palestinian question would - surprise, surprise - make Muslims hate the west less and cooperate with it more. Given Blair's repeated false promises on the subject, one shouldn't expect Palestinians to be ecstatic by this sudden revelation for a lame duck prime minister with Clintonian aspirations. As for Syria and Iran, they should beware desperate men bearing no gifts, and - even worse - liberally making accusations.

Indeed, while Blair pretends that his persuasive efforts will soften the White House, he is clearly not concerned with "convincing" Syria and Iran to accept the same proposal, as if the latter should be grateful for the mere Anglo-American recognition of their importance in the region. Blair, as usual, is being badly advised and should have been more tactful in his approach, as it's not good manners to speak of reconciliation while dubbing the projected helpers an "arc of extremism" (the speech writers must be running out of metaphors). Nor is it sensible to speak threateningly and condescendingly to countries whose support Iraq's occupiers urgently need. Having endured years of insults and accusations, Syria and Iran probably imagined a more civil and less aggressive approach; Blair, however, was patronising, reciting that they must help the Middle East peace process rather than hinder it, stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon and Iraq, and, most ironic of all, abide by and not flout their international obligations ... or else.

Even if they're not willing to rejoin the world of diplomacy, London and Washington should at least become more level-headed and factually think of Syria and Iran as the "axis of inevitable partners". They should also acknowledge that these two countries have their own interests to protect, and that tangible help in Iraq - if and when it comes - will fall within parameters suited to Damascus and Tehran first. Regardless of America and Britain's notions of superiority, they will get nowhere if they don't respect the rights of the neighbours (or, in this case, of the occupied Iraq's neighbours).

James Baker's Iraq Study Group is wisely advocating talking to these "enemies", having realised that blaming every problem in Iraq on these two "rogues" was neither accurate nor helpful. How is it then that most media credit Blair with an admission that has clearly taken root in the US? Sooner or later, all British media will have to face the fact that Blair has little clout in Washington (and little more elsewhere), as we've all recently had the occasion to confirm for ourselves during the "Yo, Blair" conversation.

It seems that no matter how many sweaters he knits, the British prime minister's travel plans must first be approved in Washington (or Texas), and his foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) requires the endorsement of the White House before that of the Foreign Office. In fact, the last time Blair tried to take an initiative for the region, he was publicly humiliated by both the US and Israel as they openly ignored the peace conference he was planning for January 2005 in London.

Even assuming that Blair had the slightest bit of influence, his dismal performance and limited accomplishments in the Middle East so far would render the whole persuasion exercise futile, resulting with the blind leading the blind. In fact, if Blair were truly concerned about peace in the Middle East, Britain would not have abstained in the security council resolution condemning last week's Israeli massacre of 19 civilians in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, nor would have Blair adamantly refused to even call for a ceasefire in July as Israeli bombs ravaged Lebanon, killing and maiming indiscriminately.

So with no influence and no record of peacemaking, why this feigned air of initiative, and why this particular pretence that Blair is pushing the Syria line on the US? Last week's trip to Damascus by Nigel Scheinwald, Blair's (and not the FO's) envoy, was marketed as being an independent Blairite endeavour to find out whether Syria would play a constructive or a destructive role , which is rather rich coming from a government which has done so much damage to the region already.

Here's a more plausible reading of Blair's behaviour: the US has finally recognised (partly through the persuasive skills of James Baker who is fed up with the stupidity of the present administration) that it needs Syria and Iran's help in order to come out of Iraq with even a tiny speck of dignity. But the Bush administration will be damned if it ever admits it's been wrong about something; therefore, it needs to show that it is being brought back to engagement kicking and screaming, only agreeing reluctantly because of the good offices of a trusted ally. Enter Tony Blair, who obligingly plays the part of the friend (shoulder-to-shoulder, let's not forget) who "convinces" the US to patch up with the neighbours in Iraq for the greater good of all.

Blair's matchmaking serves several purposes. It allows the US to grudgingly "overlook" its enemies' real or supposed offences, for the sake of the region. It allows, or so the administration probably hopes, a friend (Blair) to request a comprehensive dialogue (specifically with Syria) so that the varying Anglo-American goals in Iraq (stopping WMDs, or bringing democracy, or fighting the global war on terror, etc.) can be approached more realistically. It also allows Blair to appear important and buys him (or so he hopes) some much needed credibility and esteem. It makes him appear diplomatic, as if his efforts were the reason why the US refrained from more aggression in Iraq or elsewhere.

Blair the pacifier would be a good moniker if it weren't so ridiculous; indeed, if anything, Blair has been a recruiter of force rather than a persuader of peace. It is Blair who made the rounds as Bush's roving ambassador in the weeks preceding the invasion of Afghanistan. And it is Blair's connivance with the dodgy Iraq dossier, and his ad nauseam repetition that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, that facilitated the invasion of Iraq, an invasion which Bush had been more than willing to conduct without Britain's support. While he pretends to be a calming influence on the war-mongering Bush, all Blair has ever done was follow his American ally's instructions. Therefore, the idea of Blair as the peace broker is just an illusion, and the thought of his Syria-Iran initiative is highly suspicious.

Of course, there is always the slight possibility that Blair did, for once, try to break out of the neocon hold and have an independent thought or action. He may have decided to throw caution to the wind, putting his mentor in front of a fait accompli and risking his ire to be broadcast worldwide. If this is the case, and given that altruistic deeds aren't really his forte, worrying questions arise: why does Blair need such an entry on his CV, and what position is he eyeing exactly? Whatever it is, it can't be good news for the Middle East.

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Axis of inevitable partners
Wednesday, November 15, 2006, 00:02
I have a lot to say about this (coming soon to this channel) but in the meantime, here's the front page of The Independent on Tuesday.

The text is short, the wording debatable (no Syrian official has actually been accused of Hariri's murder yet), and it seems to remember the Golan Heights as a mere afterthought. But clearly, we're "in" again for the time being, as I was saying in this blog a couple of weeks ago.

Does Syria need reforms?
Friday, November 10, 2006, 20:56
Judging by this sign, which I caught while driving a few days ago, yes it does. I mean what have we come to if we can't even spell March 8 properly? Where is our spirit of revolution?

In any case, my good friend, respected economist and businessman Dr. Samir Aita, who also is the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in Arabic, clearly meant this to be a rhetorical question when he spoke at the Banking Conference organized by the British Syrian Society last week in Damascus. The Syrian media, which reported on every little thing happening there, completely ignored him and didn't even acknowledge his presence; only Ayman Abdel Nour's All4Syria dared to recognize his right to exist. Here is a summary of his keynote presentation for your perusing pleasure and information. Honestly, who needs Syrian media?

Does Syria need reforms?
by Dr. Samir Aita

A year ago, an analytical and recommendation effort, sponsored by the ERF and the EU, was presented to the Syrian Government: The Country Profile Syria, a collective work of Syrian experts that I had the honor to coordinate. In this presentation, I stated that "there is a time window of opportunities to make reforms. This window allows doing courageous steps, the necessary "leapfrog reforms," giving clear strong signs to cut with old practices. This window also allows acting with proper management, with margins minimizing negative social or economic impacts. This window should not be lost. Otherwise, the cost and difficulties could be much higher."

This recommendation still stands today. And one may add that the so-called "smooth and slow" reforms advocated by the authorities still in many aspects don’t give clear signs about the future to allow the necessary predictability, and even in some cases give bad signs. Practical examples can be easily seen on the ground. To explain, allow me to get on some of the six major subjects, dealt with in the Country Profile, starting with the main subject of this conference: banking.


As early as the year 2000, a clear reform sign was given that private banks shall open in this country, maybe the only such clear sign. The results are here today with the rapid growth of the private banks and the introduction of a new competitive environment in this field. This growth shall continue, and also in insurance as the market is eager for such services.

However, in order to insure healthy development in this sector, two clear signs are still missing; the first on the reform of the State-owned banks, and the second on the Central Bank. To summarize, I will say that there is a need for a lot of political courage to "clean the dusty things hidden, with proper solutions," and there is still a need to understand how to act as a regulator, and not as the commander or only owner. Just an example, to illustrate, the balance sheet of the Central Bank has not been approved by the state auditing, or other, since the 1970's.


Here several clear strong signs are still lacking, even though that the slogan has changed towards "social market economy." Two major signs are still missing here: the first is on the enforcement of property right and the rule of law, on old and new issues. And the second is on the role of the State, enforcing again its role as a regulator and not as an owner, being an engine for development, and insuring equality of chance in business and social justice. The current practices encourage rent seeking and not the production of value.

One good news however, because of the large size of the informal sector, is that even the IMF acknowledges today that Syria GDP is underestimated. The reason? The State has no precise idea about the activities of the private sector.

Budget and Fiscality

One should acknowledge serious efforts made on the difficult ground of fiscal revenues, to move them from oil rent based towards citizens and companies based revenues.

However, the signs lacks on two major issues: the efficiency of the public service (salaries, know-how, legitimacy and power to implement) and on the spending side (How to spend? Where to spend?).

The good news is the low debts of the Government, both Foreign and local, and its large foreign assets (higher than the GDP). How to do that is a crucial issue, to move the Syrian economy to be based jointly on local demand drive and fostering non-oil exports. The question is that of a mindset: "better state, defending public money, instead of defending losing public sector, legitimacy and accountability on spending."

Foreign Trade & Investment Environment

Despite the recent free trade agreements, many signs are still lacking here to move out of the present situation: with deteriorated infrastructure (including for example in IT, even comparatively to the region), biased investment environment based on short term view and on deals.

The question is to answer where Syria will stand in the global rapidly moving environment? We are missing opportunities one after the other. I acknowledge that there is a lot of regional and international politics behind this issue, but good investment environment and good infrastructures are always good answers to contrary winds.

Labor and Employment

A major challenge. Unemployment (27%) is hardly hitting young people and women. You cannot deal with that with old rigid laws, which in addition are selectively enforced. For example, only 14% of the employees of the formal sector are registered effectively in the mandatory social security.

Changing these laws cannot be without a constructive dialogue with social partners, recognizing that they are partners (the business community, unions, social organizations). I am not talking about welfare. I am talking on how to avoid that all the young, especially the skilled, dream only about leaving the country. I am talking about my old professor here, who taught me everything, having a decent life. I am talking on that insuring social fairness will increase local demand, which will boost the economy.

Governance & the Rule of Law

There is a lot to be said on this, where Syria is badly ranked in all world indexes. But let's summarize the recommendations of the country profile as follows: "Syria suffers from a strong pressures, especially from Western countries. Can the good answer to that not be more opening, more democratic behavior inside, better rule of law?" I believe yes. It could be an excellent strong sign for those who love Syria. And I know that they are many.

Summary of midterm elections
Thursday, November 9, 2006, 18:15
Or rather, it's the wars, stupid. All of them. Too bad the Democrats aren't really much better with regards to the Middle East, but still: Thank You America!

Mourning with Palestine after latest Israeli massacre
Wednesday, November 8, 2006, 16:07
Ehud Olmert and his equally violent, racist cabinet members are clearly worried. They fear that the Palestinians will really come up with a national unity government which the "international community" would not obligingly boycott (which would put an inconvenient end to the strangulation of the Palestinian people) and with which Israel would have no excuse not to "negotiate" – an empty word, because human rights, including those of Palestinians, are not negotiable.

The Israeli massacre in Beit Hanoun last night is so opportunely timed not only to be eclipsed by American elections, but also to paralyze any dangerous talks of national unity. Israel will never learn! Successive Israeli governments, with their ever increasing amounts of brutality and barbarism, seem to think Palestinians are eventually going to give up trying to live like human beings, but no matter how many die, more will keep on demanding their rights.

Palestinian victim or terrorist?

The international media is reporting what it can, but even papers like The Independent need to put the words numbering Palestinian victims and casualties in quotation marks, as if Palestinians were not even trustworthy enough to give the basic facts, and as if there weren't enough visual proofs on television and on the Internet. In contrast, the word "terrorist" is hardly ever flanked by such quotes. I have always been for free and open media, but I must admit that I am sick and tired of hearing Israeli spin doctors explain in a hurt voice how they have no choice but to fight terrorists … on Al Jazeera and other Arab channels. When Western media returns the favor and allows the Palestinian point of view sufficient air time, I might change my mind.

Palestinian victim or terrorist?

As for the pretense of "concern" from governments which have done everything to facilitate Israel's brutality, it is sickening and insulting to the memory of Palestinian martyrs - especially during the week of the sad anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. The cowardly EU doesn't even dare be "shocked" at this massacre without making sure it mentions Israel's right to defend itself. I think I would prefer it if they came out and frankly said they don't give a damn about Palestinian victims. The truth might be refreshing for a change.

Palestinian victim or terrorist?

Nothing but heart-wrenching pictures and news are coming from our corner of the world, and the continued assault on Palestine is unbearable. The director of Beit Hanoun hospital explained today that Israel had cut off the water and the electricity since it began its latest wave of aggression. Who will help these brave Palestinians? And who can blame them for resorting to desperate measures to fight back the brutal Israeli war machine? Nobody should be surprised by Palestinian reactions, and everyone should spare us the sanctimonious speeches about how peace and democracy go together. If you really want to help, tell Israelis to start acting civilized - and human.

Loose canon Olmert, techy Bush, dead man walking Saddam
Sunday, November 5, 2006, 23:11
I was out driving when I received the first phone call from journalists today, informing me about Saddam's guilty verdict and asking me about my reaction. Apart from "who cares" or "he got what he deserved" or even "here's to the next one," I had several reactions.

The first is more of a conclusion I've reached, namely that it must be a slow international news day for Western media given that it continues to ignore, as usual, the systematic mass killings of Palestinian people by the violent Israeli aggressor. Yet, journalists only need to check The Google (and even The Google Maps to witness buildings destroyed by Israeli raids) to realize that for Israel, the notion of "women and children first" applies in the most brutal way possible. Indeed, it's been both women and children first, as in the past few days alone Israel has killed some 50 Palestinians (only Israelis are counted exactly by the media, while a mere approximation is enough for their victims) in a massive assault arrogantly termed Operation Autumn Clouds (having already treated God as a real estate agent, it is no surprise to find that Israel also steals Mother Nature's prerogative to control the seasons, as it does its dirty business). But who will put Olmert on trial, for killing 50, 100 or 1,000 Palestinians or Lebanese?

Palestinian suffering is never breaking news, but patience: all their problems will be solved the minute they become more "democratic" (but really less democratic as they ignore the last elections) and choose a national unity government. Oh yeah, that will solve the Palestinians' problems and bring Israel security. So enough digression ourselves, right? The Anglo-American liberation of Iraq and Saddam's bringing to justice are so much more topical anyway, right?

Without any doubt, the killer of 148 people deserves to be punished, and no other verdict could have been reached by any court, let alone a court set up by the occupying power which removed the dictator with such bloody hands in the first place. But why did the "Iraqi justice system" start with this crime in Dujail?

a) Given that there were other (and bigger) crimes which would have been easier to document, the choice of Dujail shows that the Bush administration and the Blair government (or the "Iraqi justice") were not quite certain what to do with Saddam at first, and needed a trump card just in case. In a trial for Halabja, for example, it would have been impossible to argue that an insurgency was being quelled and that security needed to be maintained – both defenses which were used against the prosecution, and which could have been accepted here had it suited the occupiers.

b) As luck would have it, wouldn't you know it, the fantastic news of Saddam's verdict comes a couple of days before the congressional elections in the US (which you simply must follow on The Google), just when neocons needed some good news to ram down people's throats through the willing media.

c) Nevertheless, someone will have to break the other news to Messrs Bush and Blair, namely that the life or death of Saddam Hussein will have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the security or lack thereof in Iraq, and most probably no impact on the elections, no matter which media is reporting. Somehow, today's news just don't have the same ring as "we've got him." Good thing Saddam can still appeal and technically live until spring, by which time God knows what other victory Bush will need.

d) Speaking of sentencing to death for crimes against humanity in Iraq, who is going to try and sentence Bush, Blair, and the legions of advisers and "experts" who surround them?

e) Finally, I don't think I can bear the idiotic commentaries I've been hearing on television so far, including the "expert" opinion that Sunnis will be upset by this verdict while Shias will be happy! And this was even on BBC television and Reuters, among others! For crying out loud, lest this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, let us stop already with these idiotic, wrong, simplistic and dangerous generalizations.

I rest my case.

Is the "international community" falling back in love with Syria?
Saturday, October 28, 2006, 22:54
I actually laughed a few days ago when I read the title of this piece on Naharnet, "Syria Panics as Tribunal for Hariri's Assassins Takes Shape."

Panic? You don't even need to be in Syria, as I am now, to realize that this is at most wishful thinking on the part of Annahar and some Lebanese factions. First of all, following very mild Brammertz commission reports, the Syrian regime feels it is more than ready for an eventual legal showdown having engaged experienced international lawyers to argue its case. (I already know who the British QC is, but maybe it is still a secret? Here's a hint: he's a prominent lawyer of Arab origin.) Secondly, regardless of what is going on internally (or perhaps what is not going on), it seems that Syria's political isolation is beginning to dissipate, even for the "arrogant and stupid" Bush administration which will soon be told it needs to get help for Iraq.

An American journalist asked me yesterday what I thought of the forthcoming report from James Baker's Iraq Study Group, recommending that the US talk with Syria and Iran; I replied that it was the most sensible thing I'd heard for ages, whether for the sake of Iraq, the region, or even simply the US's. The current administration's behavior will probably be influenced by the upcoming congressional elections, but in the meantime, Syria has more than enough "talking" to do with Europe.

In January 2005, when I was still on the Board of Directors of the British Syrian Society (from which I resigned, after having been a founding board member when I had expected the Society to have a different agenda, but that's a whole other story), four of us went to Brussels to meet with the EU delegation in charge of Syria. That was shortly before the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and already then it was difficult to make a case for maintaining, let alone improving, the EU's relations with Syria.

We were two Syrians and two Britons, including this Board colleague of mine whose op-ed yesterday left a lot to be desired in my opinion, as I don't think the reason to engage with Syria should be because it's not Iran. In any case, Syria became "bracketed" with Iran way before Hizbullah was even created, but that's also the subject of another post. (Or, if you're interested, read this Chatham House report on Iran to which I contributed, and which came out as I was already on maternity leave.)

At the EU Parliament, my colleagues and I took turns in trying our best smooth talk with the various European parliamentarians, and I distinctly remember spending some time speaking with Veronique De Keyser, who (just like her colleagues) seemed reluctant to even consider getting the EU Association Agreement back on track.

Incidentally, I know many of you think all I do is criticize the regime – which I undoubtedly do a lot – but I've also done and continue to do my fair share, in both formal and informal capacities, to try to present a case for the country as a whole (with all its potential in human, economic, social terms) and as a part of the region (as an inevitable part of any problem, and of any solution), regardless of the regime in place. Most of what I do happens to be in closed meetings and behind the scenes, but I thought I should mention that I am not of the same opinion as many critics of the regime who confuse regime and country. As far as I'm concerned, Syria has legitimate demands and rights, and I will always argue and fight for them when necessary. But, as usual, I digress.

Our lunch in Brussels was spent discussing human rights, internal reform, and cooperation on the regional front … or lack thereof on all accounts. The EU pretended not to be happy with Syria's performance (then why had they applauded the pretend-steps taken by the regime, and why had they ignored the squashing of the Damascus spring?), and wanted to get something in return for additional engagement. The situation in Iraq, at that point, was the one most urgently in need of help, but the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1559 was on everyone's lips. Little did we know then, all of us, how quickly things would change, how Hariri would overtake all other issues, and how hastily Syria would be made to leave Lebanon … in a way ending the relevance of 1559, but opening the way for other equally ambiguous resolutions.

Since Syria's withdrawal, I've had a number of meetings with European officials who were adamant about the "disarming Hezbollah" part of Resolution 1559, and who insisted this was Syria's responsibility. I argued that they had no legal leg to stand on, and I couldn't see how they could possibly "make" Syria disarm the most efficient of all Lebanese (and Palestinian, come to think of it) party. I recall forcefully making this particular point (i.e. Syria is done with 1559, whether you like it or not) to a couple of French officials (highly involved in the resolution) who tried hard to convince me otherwise, but couldn't actually come up with the supporting evidence.

Fast forward to the Israeli aggression on Lebanon in July 2006. Suddenly, by simply watching Israel destroy Lebanon and Hizbullah fight back, Damascus has once more become the unavoidable stopover. By doing nothing, Syria actually demonstrated not only that it had been right on a number of points (regarding American positions), but also that it was needed. And suddenly, Syria is not alone anymore, and everyone has noticed that it has not served anyone's interests to ignore it.

Indeed, the European Union (and in particular the team dealing with Syria mentioned above) seems to have gone back on its own decisions, in spite of the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed on any of the issues they initially pretended to adopt. In fact, with regards to human rights in particular, Bashar Assad made it perfectly clear in his interview with Hamdi Kandil, on Dubai Television, that he had warned Europeans not to interfere with internal Syrian affairs, and that any foreign embassy's intervention on behalf of a Syrian prisoner of conscience (not the term he used, of course) would be considered as treason on part of the detainee. In other words, Europe was warned on that front, and Europe seems to have bowed.

Lo and behold, the same Madame de Keyser with whom I had lunch and who we all tried to convince of the importance of Syria's engagement with the Association Agreement (which the commission was reluctant to accept) has prepared a resolution, adopted by the European parliament's foreign affairs committee, to deepen cooperation with Syria and ultimately sign an association agreement.

Suddenly, Europe decides it's time to speak with Syria, even though the latter changed absolutely nothing in its behavior and even after the unsolved Hariri killing. It may not be love yet, but they are certainly dating again.

Say what you like about the Syrian regime, as I often do, there's obviously something to be said for staying the course, apparently. Syria has been consistent in its intransigence and hasn't budged an inch in its internal or even external affairs (apart from begging to talk to Israel, which annoys me to no end). Europe and the US, by constantly changing their parameters, haven't been consistent and have been back-pedalling furiously. In the long run, it's anyone's guess as to who's going to be the final beneficiary, but for the time being, the Syrian regime doesn't seem too bothered. And it's certainly not panicking.

Syrian serial babble
Monday, October 16, 2006, 13:52
I was just about to write a heartfelt post about my deepening crush on Syrian director Hatem Ali (more on him later), or rather on all the work he does, when I came across this piece from AFP. It's your typical "we need to write something but we don't know what" piece which supposedly covers social or cultural aspects of a given place. In the past few years, Ramadan television serials have been quite the rage as a topic in various media; read all about it, they say, this is what Arabs (and sometimes even the more generic Muslims) are watching. Serial babble, basically.

In general, I've found that reports and comments about Arab drama (or satire or comedy) have been pretentious and condescending. Last year, for instance, numerous writers praised the series "Hour al Ayn" because it tackled terrorism and showed its effect on Arabs. Well done, good boys, you Arabs are actually capable of real Western values – or so went the surprised refrain if you read between the lines. To name but a couple of such articles, The Guardian featured a front page article about this "phenomenon" calling it "Watching beautiful maidens" as did The Daily Telegraph, in "Anti-terror Ramadan TV drama stirs the Arab world" - which mentioned at the end of the piece that "the Koran makes no mention of 72 virgins and does not encourage suicide bombing or self-martyrdom." (Notice the choice of words: doesn't encourage. But let's not digress.)

This year is no exception to this new trend, and reporting on what Arabs are watching this Ramadan ("racy" Syrian soaps, apparently) is de rigueur. The AFP piece to which I link above is astounding in its invalid generalizations. First of all, I will quote you the most eye-catching sentence in the piece: "Corruption -- against which the Syrian authorities have struggled in vain for years -- is not the only focus of the country's new brand of soap operas." After you have finished laughing hysterically, you can move on to other statements on what is new this year, such as "Syrian directors have not shied away from crossing other previous red lines, such as portraying the love lives of women and showing liberated young females in nightclubs".

Obviously, the writer has never watched Syrian serials before. Previous red lines? Off hand, I can only think of homosexuality and child abuse as subjects that have not yet seen covered explicitly. For years, we've been watching (with increased national pride, I must admit) the quality of Syrian television series increase, as they make for more and more pleasant viewing, and tackle a multitude of subjects, racy or not, covering every aspect of modern life. "Taboo" subjects such as corruption, the abuses of people in power, life under dictatorships, absurd lose-lose regional situations, the intimidation of the "mukhabarat" (secret service), the practical enslavement of employees, soldiers and other "lesser" people by regime cronies? They've been covered for years in the satirical series "Mirrors" and more recently in "Spotlight" – not to mention the legendary theatre and television pieces by Dureid Laham and Muhammad Al Maghout. And they've been omnipresent in every serial, drama or comedy, to reflect their omnipresence in the life of Syrians.

Love, sex, adultery, treason, drugs, violence? It would be difficult to begin naming the serials in which they come up, and they include subjects like AIDS. Same with religion and the extremes to which some people go (not in terms of terrorism, but in terms of everyday life). The harsh realities of life in a country with a closed economy, when any potentially lucrative project remains the sole prerogative of regime members and friends, and when people are struggling to make ends meet while obscene wealth is flaunted in front of everyone's eyes? Been there, done that.

And then you've got the highly enjoyable serials depicting life in the "good old days," when men's honor related to their words and their mustaches (not to mention the women in their household), when neighbors lived like friends, and when social and religious norms were imposed by the neighborhood's leader and enforced by the strongman (the "abaday"). Last year's serial "Salhieh Nights" was one of the most beloved, and most rerun, serials in past years. It's unlikely that this year's offering (of what is sometimes called "touristic drama" as it advertises a country's culture and lifestyle) will achieve the same popularity, although the current "The Street's Gate" is on every television screen in shops I pass in the evening, as nobody wants to miss a single scene.

When even our Egyptian friends couldn't get enough of serials like "Salhieh Nights," it's a tribute to the remarkable quality of most Syrian serials, a fact reflected in the multiple sales of most serials to practically every Arab satellite channel there is. There have certainly been notable exceptions, including the execrable "Nizar Qabbani" last year which I think was practically insulting to our great poet's memory and legacy.

I've covered in detail Syria's excellent television production in conferences and have written papers about it, so this is a subject I have been following for some time. In my opinion, there are specific reasons why censors allow certain obvious allusions to pass unedited, which I can only summarize now as "power plays" (perhaps these papers deserve wider dissemination, for this subject is actually fascinating and very representative of the regime's hold on the country and its relation with the people). In short, it is not because the censors don't understand the allusions, or pretend that it's not about them. They know full well what it is, but they revel in the fact that they can allow this or that broadcast, resulting in a perverse pleasure in seeing this criticism. (I assure you it makes more sense when I give more details!!)

The AFP writer is partly correct to state that "Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves" refers to Mahmud Zohbi, the previous prime minister who "committed suicide" after having been stripped of his duties; in fact, this particular serial covers the abuses of his son Mufleh … and those are obviously reminiscent of the abuses of every single other son, daughter, wife, brother, sister, cousin or even cousin twice removed of a regime official or crony, past and present.

But back to Hatem Ali, about whom I initially wanted to say a few words. Of all the Syrian directors, he is my favorite at the moment, and I am mesmerized by his awesome filming, the stories and scripts he chooses (real art imitating real life), the actors he places perfectly, and the music that complements it all. This year's serial, "Throughout the Days," is even better that his last serial and it is a true social study and commentary on life in a big city like Damascus, with all its questions, passions, contradictions.

Hatem Ali is the crème de la crème of a very fecund circle of Syrian directors, producers, writers, and of course actors (Ali occasionally casts himself in his serials – last year, he played a judge) who have taken the Arab world by storm. Without any doubt, Syria's seventh art sector has overtaken Egypt's, by far (at least with regards to television). You only have to channel surf through the dozens and dozens of Arab satellite channels to realize that the Syrian accent is predominant, and that people can't get enough of our series.

I'd also like to salute the excellent Syrian actors gracing the screens of these satellite channels; while I admire several and they are too many to mention, I admit I am quite partial to Bassam Koussa, who (with others like Khaled Taja) has the additional quality of being one of the first 99 Syrians who launched the Damascus Spring with the first "Statement of the 99." Talented, principled and brave – now that's a combination to be proud of. Indeed, Syrian television serials have shown that when Syrians are given the chance to work and to speak, they shine.

Politkovskaya has been silenced forever!
Saturday, October 7, 2006, 22:45
I am truly, extremely upset by the news of Anna Politkovskaya's cowardly murder today. I had mentioned her bravery before, namely here and again here ending the latter by saying that her reporting on Russia's involvement in Chechnya is incomparable, and that I hoped she would still tell the world much more.

Two years later, those who feared her and couldn't dispute the honesty and integrity of her reporting have made sure she will never speak again. What a devastating loss. Her brutal murder saddens me and scares me, as it shows that these days, only too often, the sword is still mighter than the pen, no matter how defiant we remain in the face of injustice. May God rest her soul.

Walking on eggshells
Saturday, October 7, 2006, 12:48
135 "global leaders" signed the International Crisis Group's initiative for Middle East peace this week. As you can see from my article in the Guardian's Comment Is Free, I was not impressed.

Indeed, everyone is still Walking on Eggshells and not daring to state the obvious. (The link is finally working now, having been broken for hours after its publication.)

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Fallaci and the pope
Saturday, September 23, 2006, 13:53
I’ve been reading a variety of tributes and general articles on the subject of Oriana Fallaci’s death and I can’t help but feel some regret, despite the rabid racism she seemed to develop at a rather late age, a racism mostly limited to Islamophobia and Arabophobia – something which did wonders for the sale of her books after September 11. I had admired Fallaci since I was a teenager, as she seemed to embody all the fantastic traits of the journalist and writer I wanted to become, living a life of danger and adventure, meeting the main characters in world politics and daring to debate them, rather than simply interviewing them.

I read and felt every word of her “Letter to a child never born,” even though I had been (in retrospect) too young or inexperienced to really understand the notions she discussed in that marvellous book. This is why I became so disillusioned with her when her writings became so terribly bigoted. I followed the publication of her “La rabbia e l’orgoglio” (Rage and pride) article in Italian media, and then in Spanish media, wondering when the rage would pick up in English-language papers. It eventually did, but I had already written about it myself.

And the pope in all this? Well, it’s really a pity Fallaci died as the storm around her favorite pope’s recent speech started to gather. Indeed, even though she was a self-professed atheist, Fallaci was quite an admirer of the current pope, and apparently vice versa up to a certain point, which tells you a lot about both of them. As the world reacts to Benedict's speech pretending it was a “gaffe,” which deserves a separate post, he had welcomed Oriana Fallaci in spite of (or perhaps because of) her views and writings. Fallaci then spoke of her "soulmate" Ratzinger and said that if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. Indeed. As John Hooper says in The Guardian (and I agree), Benedict is just beginning to show his teeth.

There is a marked contrast with John Paul II, of course, who at least pretended to make an effort, as did his Muslim counterparts (Muslim clerics love to pretend all is well in interfaith dialogue). Fallaci did not forgive him for being "too weak with the Islamic world" (what exactly she wanted him to do is unclear). Speaking of John Paul II, and totally off topic, I was digging through some old photos of my father and found a stack of some with the pope. This was John Paul II's first official visit to Vienna (in the 80s), and he came to the UN where Dad welcomed him.

Beware delusions of grandeur
Sunday, September 17, 2006, 08:29
No real breaking news to report from Damascus - and that includes the attack on the American embassy. Well, actually, believe it or not, Omayad Square is finally finished and finally looks normal again, but for some unexplained reason the traffic lights still don’t work – or at least they didn’t when I passed by there yesterday. I guess everyone’s now so used to the chaos that binging order would make things worse – a phenomenon which is technically applicable to many aspects here!

People aren’t even talking much about the “terrorist attack.” I am personally amazed by how lucky we Syrians seem to be! We thankfully have the stupidest terrorists who always seem to go for targets that are either impossible (the embassy), strange (places near - but not in - the television center) or insignificant (empty UN building). The whole area around the American embassy is high security (and not really because of the embassy) but four guys with a few gas canisters (!) really thought they could blow it up, according to Syrian authorities. A day late, of course, because the attempted delivery of flowers on September 12 was supposedly meant for September 11. As luck would have it, Syrian anti-terrorist forces happened to be in the area and were able, yet again, to prevent an attack. Let it not be said that this regime does not know how to impose security.

Meanwhile, Bitter Lemons International has done another issue on the ramifications of the Lebanon ceasefire, and I have written about the Syrian perspective arguing that the Syrian regime should be careful about feeling too high and mighty. But do please read for yourself below.

Damascus should beware delusions of grandeur

Following an unexpected proxy victory in Lebanon, the Syrian regime currently seems intoxicated with power and confidence, reveling in its recovered status as an incontrovertible accomplice to any regional arrangement. For the time being, everything seems to be vindicating its stated positions and alliances in the ongoing war for regional domination, and the latest episode's various losers (from Washington through London to Lebanon) can't help but notice the schadenfreude glowing from Damascus.

Indeed, the Syrian regime is not even trying to be subtle about its mood. It had been on the defensive for a long period trying to deal with an isolation it partly brought upon itself after a series of strategic miscalculations and that was partly forced on it by a truly condescending American disposition. Blamed repeatedly for every problem in the region, the Syrian regime now seems to be reaping the rewards for its perseverance in sticking to its guns, as many in the proverbial Arab street begin to wonder why Hizballah has managed such successes, and why these shouldn't be repeated elsewhere--simultaneously--and as the perceived line between authentic Arabism and popular Islamism begins to fade.

While not necessarily oblivious to the fact that the Syrian regime is trying to take undeserved credit for Hizballah's performance, people know that Syria's was the only government supportive of resistance to Israel, in word if not in deed. The regime hopes that this wave of national fervor will cover its severe deficiencies elsewhere, especially regarding the economy and human rights. Meanwhile, another nail has been hammered into the coffin of the Syrian opposition.

For now, things are not only looking good from Damascus, but they are likely to stay just as good in terms of international issues, given that some elements of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 (which gives Syria enough reason to complain about foreign troops on its borders) are just as vague and as difficult to implement as they were in Resolution 1559.

Meek reminders about the ongoing Hariri investigation have not dampened the spirits of the regime. On the contrary, practically irrespective of what UN investigator Serge Brammertz's report will say this month, and although he can't conceivably retract everything Detlev Mehlis had claimed (assuming the smoking gun has not been found), Syria is now poised to regain significant influence in Lebanon more than a year after its humiliating retreat. As Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah made clear this week, the party's relations with Syria (and Iran) are open and appreciated. More importantly, Nasrallah promised a recalculation of the party's position within Lebanon; in other words, Hizballah will no longer accept a back row seat.

All of this is music to the ears of Syrian officials who are suddenly receiving positive signals from everywhere, including Israel. While the debate hosted by Israeli and American media about whether to engage Syria or isolate it further is ridiculous (international law should be applied universally), it nevertheless shows a development: before the war, voices advocating engagement were not given a platform, and, even worse, it had somehow even become acceptable to refuse discussing the Golan Heights.

Repercussions from the bizarre incident at the American embassy in Damascus this week show just how much Syria's position has changed for the better. Assuming it truly was an attack foiled by Syrian security forces, the latter were simply doing their duty in protecting foreign embassies and personnel. And yet, a muted but clear thanks came promptly from Washington, from an administration that isn't given to thanking when it should, and even less so when it doesn't need to. This American reaction was not necessary and is therefore interesting, signaling that the Bush administration is tentatively testing the waters with Syria--a Syria so confident that it responded to the thanks by criticizing the US for being responsible for extremism in the first place.

This comes just weeks after Condoleezza Rice had insisted that bad relations with Syria were overstated, given that the two countries have diplomatic relations. Rumored to have unsuccessfully pushed Israel to expand its attacks to include Syria, is the US now getting ready to acknowledge it needs to pursue diplomacy rather than force?

All of the above would have not seemed possible before the ceasefire that brought an end to Israel's aggression on Lebanon, and Syrian rhetoric proves this by having dramatically surfaced after weeks in hiding. Bashar Assad's triumphant speech of August 15, followed by his interview on Dubai Television the following week, show just how the end to hostilities in Lebanon can be (and is) milked.

Despite such unforeseen circumstances, caution should be exercised by the regime. First, the Bush administration is not exactly turning to the Syrian regime out of friendship or out of a real change in policy; rather, it is responding to strategic needs and can change tactics at any juncture. The current regime failed to understand this before and has often proved to be a poor analyst of trends.

Second, Syrian rhetoric can only go so far in convincing a growing population not only of nationalist credentials, but also that national interests lie above personal ones. This is not to mention the rather embarrassing fact that all has been quiet on Syria's southern front when it technically could have been used to help Hizballah in resisting Israel.

Third, important Arab leaders who felt slighted by Bashar Assad's post-war speech may not be in a forgiving mode and might hold a grudge for some time. It was one thing to accuse the Lebanese prime minister of being his master's slave, but it is quite another to accuse Arab leaders of being "half-men". Judging by the way various Syrian officials rushed to damage control subsequently, it is clear that the regime at least knows what the stakes are, which makes its attitude and actions even more incomprehensible.

This should convince the Syrian regime to resist the temptation to gloat disproportionately and begin to consider that today's advantages might not last, as it has often wasted opportunities to capitalize on events and positions. But so far, the sky is rosy in Damascus.
- Published 14/9/2006 ©

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House.

Our prisoners of conscience are not forgotten
Friday, September 15, 2006, 13:50
The following appeal was initiated by our fellow Syrian blogger Fares, who I of course join, with a number of others, in condemning the illegal detention and the treatment of our prisoners of conscience - the high profile ones, and all the others. The Syrian regime must know they are not forgotten by their compatriots.

The updated high profile Syrian prisoners list includes Mahmoud Issa, Michel Kilo, Khalil Hasan, Anwar el Bunni, Suleiman al-Shamar, Ali Abdallah, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, Kamal Labwani, Fateh Jamous, Habib Saleh and Aref Dalila.

It is easy to become complacent and resign oneself to the fact it all seems hopeless. But, at least, in honor of those few who believed that it is NOT hopeless, that this country has a better future beyond corruption and dogma.

We owe it to these prisoners of conscience and we owe it to the future of our country to keep pushing for their release.

We are all Free Syrians and We deserve a fair justice system, free speech and better policies.

Punishment ... but no crime
Tuesday, August 29, 2006, 14:22
Let us not forget to support those who are silenced by lesser people afraid of their truths, even when we know what to expect from their jailors. To Syrian regime apologists, I say: defend this!

Such harsh treatment should be reserved for hardened criminals and murderers; good, civilized, decent human beings - including civil society activists and their mothers - deserve better. Shame! Shame on every official who allows this to happen, and shame on every so-called spin doctor (who, thankfully, are ridiculously bad in Syria's case) who will try to put it "in context."

My thoughts are with Michel and his family, and, as always, with every prisoner of conscience held illegally and inhumanly, and languishing in jail in dire conditions.

More war crimes on Lebanon
Friday, August 18, 2006, 00:56
Professor Arne Jernelov, an eminent Swedish scientist (environmental biochemist) and a friend, has a most interesting and very worrying piece in The Guardian's Comment Is Free this week. He details the horrors that Lebanon has yet to discover; namely the serious environmental damage (not only oil spills) resulting from the destroyed infrastructure, the two being closely linked. Even the cedar trees are under threat.

He wonders about the reports of "despairing Lebanese doctors, who, not recognising the wounds patients have sustained after Israeli air strikes, have described what they see and asked colleagues around the world for help." These wounds resemble second-degree burns, and he warns that it might take a long time to understand their provenance, mentioning the mystery of the Gulf War Syndrome as an example.

Jernelov explains there will still be other victims of Israel's aggression on Lebanon. "The worst environmental effect on health is probably the one most directly associated with the destruction of infrastructure: the release of asbestos." When pulverized by bombs, he explains, their freed fibers can be inhaled with the rest of the dust and create a risk of pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer. As if the Lebanese hadn't suffered enough already.

Readings on the Israeli aggression on Lebanon
Thursday, August 17, 2006, 19:30
Having not had the opportunity to write about the Israeli aggression on Lebanon and Gaza (don't forget Palestine!) and the ensuing atrocities and absurdities in the region, I have only one thing to say: As'ad Abukhalil, aka Angry Arab, rules! Big time. In case you didn't know what is wrong with UNSC Resolution 1701, he explains it in detail, amongst other sharp commentaries.

He also wonders, as I do, why the Syrian regime seems to be taking credit for Hezbollah's achievements and has gotten practically drunk with the notion of victory. Maybe someone can explain. Did the Baath accomplish its promises in Palestine and the Arab world? Or did the Syrian regime, army or resistance liberate the Golan Heights in my absence?

Also of note is a strong article written by my colleague Nadim Shehadi for Haaretz, stating that "Israel should pack up and go." I include it in its entirety for the benefit of those living in countries whose idiotic governments stupidly prohibit access to Israeli sites. They seem to ignore the fact that their citizens are just as immune to Israeli propaganda and lies as they are to those of their own regimes! Except, of course, that the equivalent of Nadim's article, or those of Gideon Levy or Amira Hass to name but a couple, do not see the light of day in Arab media. But do not despair: in his opening statement at the conference of the Union of Journalists in Damascus, its president saluted the independence of Syrian media. Olé!

Israel should pack up and go
By Nadim Shehadi

What is the logic that will emerge from this war? If Israel can exist only by destroying the neighborhood, then it's time to declare it a failed state. The Zionist dream has turned into a nightmare and is not viable. If the future holds more of the same, then the time has come to reconsider the whole project. Every state has a duty to defend its citizens, but also it has a duty to provide them with security and the two are different. The prospects are for more destruction, fanaticism, violence and hatred. No unilateral separation can isolate Israel from this, nor can the region or the world live with the consequences. This seems to be the only choice, and Israel must do itself and others a favor and go away.

The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza shows a country deprived of all humanity. The West Bank is unliveable, the population strangled into three prison clusters. Concrete barriers, barbed wires, bypass roads, human beings emerging like rats from underground tunnels, daily humiliation from hundreds of checkpoints. Gaza has been under siege since the population dared to elect Hamas, its infrastructure has been obliterated and its population has been driven to despair in what now seems like a dress rehearsal for what was to come in Lebanon.

Lebanon woke up on July 12 to a reality that can destroy the very fabric of society. Divided between those who believe in a "riviera" with consensus politics, power sharing and a weak state, and those who, like Hezbollah, see the necessity of having a fortress to resist an evil and dangerous enemy. Israel's behavior will see the logic of the latter prevail.

Yet the Lebanese system is resilient. PM Fouad Siniora, under the bombs, was able to extract a consensus for a seven-point plan where the victorious fortress accepted to go back to the political process to resolve the crisis. Lebanon still managed to challenge the U.S. and Israel through sheer persistence, and in a diplomatic tour de force it was successful in steering the UN Security Council toward a political rather than military solution. For the first time, Arab foreign ministers have been mobilized and actively lobbied international legality.

There is deliberate targeting of civilians: Israel can deny it, but at the very least, those Israelis who are doing it know it is true. Over 17,000 people were killed in the invasion of 1982, and the net result was the creation of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. There is a doctrine that says Arabs need to be crushed, that they can be bombed into submission, that they will eventually fall on their knees. It is the doctrine, not its application, that is flawed. It says that by terrorizing the population, they will respect us and make peace; it says that those who dare resist need to be eradicated through targeted assassination and their supporters annihilated no matter what the cost. The only lessons Israel learned is that it should do it better next time.

Three Arab countries have peace treaties or diplomatic relations with Israel, most of the Gulf states have or had commercial bureaus, Saudi Arabia came up with the King Abdallah plan offering Israel normalization - something that was not achieved in nearly 30 years of peace with Egypt. Tunisia and Morocco have excellent relations with Israel. Even rogues like Syria and Libya give out positive vibes - the former desperate to resume peace talks unconditionally. The region has a history of tolerance and coexistence; minorities, including Jews, have survived and prospered for centuries. Israel is blind to any positive developments, and this will soon make these positions and those who hold them disappear, their stance untenable.

Lebanon can reconstruct airports, roads, bridges, and factories; bury and mourn the dead, rebuild shattered lives. Israel has barely been there for 60 years, a millisecond in history, but enough time to judge the results. If the fundamental moral logic is flawed, then it is time to give up, pack up and go.

The writer, a Lebanese economist, is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Program at Chatham House.

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