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. Olι!

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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Statements, understandings and reassurances
Sunday, July 30, 2006, 01:16
While crimes against humanity are being committed with the full approval of the "international community" in both Palestine (PLEASE don't forget about Palestine!!!) and Lebanon, it seems somewhat futile to blog, especially as feelings of outrage and anguish overtake everything else. The entire subject is obscene. The crimes are obscene. The media's reporting is obscene, patronizing, and superficial, especially in its "breaking news" coverage of the evacuation of foreigners from Lebanon last week – an evacuation that was in itself obscene (and I say this with the relief of having several friends come back to safety on these boats), with the obscene sight of couples and families being split as only the foreign passport holders were allowed to leave, and to live. The biggest obscenity, of course, was that mere Lebanese who have no dual citizenship, apparently, are fair targets for Israel's ire.

That's why I'm trying to find something to smirk about. Thankfully, some officials always oblige - at least the following do.

My first reaction to Condoleezza Rice's comments that bad relations with Syria were overstated was "methinks the lady doth protest too much." Honestly. Here's what she said: "The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted. I think this is simply just a kind of false hobby horse that somehow it's because we don't talk to the Syrians."

Aha. But more interestingly, she adds: "It's not as if we don't have diplomatic relations. We do." Indeed, they do. But why was Condi suddenly so eager to see the glass half full? Only one explanation, as far as I see it; the Bush administration (or some members in it) realizes that there is no way that Syria can be totally ignored, and that it will eventually have no choice but to acknowledge its presence in the region, whether with regards to Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq. Therefore, the last thing the US wants to do is have a public reconciliation – no wish for kiss and make up, clearly – and so it needs to stress the existing relationship. If you're already "talking" to someone, then there's no need to reconcile. So don't get any ideas, you Syrians you. We'll just pick up where we left, sooner or later. And just because the Syrian ambassador is incapable of getting a word in with any American official doesn't mean we won't eventually allow him to speak to us. So there.

Syrians are being equally careful with their declarations, apparently. Or not careful enough, given the repeated need to "clarify" various positions. Take Mohsen Bilal, the Syrian Minister of Information. Last time he stated that Syria would defend itself if attacked again by Israel (in October 2003, when he was Ambassador to Spain), he nearly lost his job as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs distanced itself from the statement, claiming that the ambassador was speaking in a personal capacity, and declaring that it merely reserved the right to retaliate. I'm still waiting for that, but I digress.

Anyway, now Bilal seems to have decided that as Minister, he could perhaps speak for Syria. So he said again that if the Israelis invaded Lebanon, Syria would defend it. No, actually, he said that if Israel approached Syria, it would defend itself. But he then said … actually, to make life easier, let me quote Angry Arab who explained it better than anyone (thanks to Hashem for pointing it out):

"The Syrian regime and the conflict. The Syrian regime has not been silent during this crisis. The Syrian regime donated tons of papers containing vapid Ba`thist speeches going all the way to the 1940s. Today, Muhsin Bilal--the Minister of Information--spoke. He said that Syrian troops would join the war, if Israeli troops get into Lebanon. He then revised the statement: no, the Syrian troops would join if the invading Israeli troops advance into Lebanon. No, he then added. The Syrian troops would join if the Israeli occupation troops get close to Syria. No, he further amended. They would not really join but if the Israeli occupation troops enter Syria, all bets are off. Not really, he then added. Syria would not join the war but if Israeli occupation troops surround Damascus, the Syrian regime may take action. But on the other hand, added Bilal, Syria may not interfere after all. But if the Israeli occupation troops reach the presidential palace, the Syrian troops will not interfere but the Ba`th Party will meet and produce a tough statement. Beware."

Come to think of it, As'ad Abukhalil is the only blog you should be reading now! Still on the Syrian regime, he had this to say a couple of days ago: "The Syrian Minister of Information said that if Israeli troops get close to Syria, they would not "sit with crossed hand." Crossed legs, maybe, but not crossed-hands."

Not to be outdone, the Israelis are also being very careful about their statements and their propaganda. Recently, showing how highly they think of the Syrian regime's intelligence (in both senses of the word), they've been refining the prose. Indeed, it seems the Israelis aren't sure that the Syrians have understood all the messages being sent from Tel Aviv, namely: we will not attack you, we are very happy to have you in power as long as you continue to do the things you do. But Amir Peretz (the "dove" of the government, how depressing) spelled it out in the plainest language he could: "We are doing all so that the situation on the front with Syria remains unchanged, and we are sending the message with the hope that it will be heard." In other words, what Peretz is saying is: please Syrian regime, don't worry, despite our savagery elsewhere, we are not even thinking of dragging you into this, so please don't misunderstand us and think you have to act all tough. We would never hurt you, because we know we'll never find others like you.

Or something to that effect.

I hope you're all cheered up now!

Judge and jury?
Sunday, July 30, 2006, 00:16
In retrospect, maybe the Syrian regime wasn't as paranoid as many thought with regards to Detlev Mehlis. His comments to Yediot Ahronot about the current "crisis" (isn't that word insulting?) begs the question: is he a judge or an analyst? What exactly qualifies him to opine on whether Syria was involved in Hezbollah's decision to capture the Israeli soldiers? Well, the Israeli paper describes him as an "expert on the dynamics and power politics of the region," so who am I to argue?

In any case, given that Mehlis has been rather discredited as a neutral judge in the last case for which he was responsible, maybe it's understandable that he's chosen to diversify and expand his portfolio, which enables him to give interviews stating things like: “Syria stands by Hizbullah and vice versa. Hizbullah would certainly not risk taking the kind of action it did without Syria's approval.” Now how would you have known that if Mehlis had remained an independent judge?

As Lebanon burns, Syria finds supporters again
Sunday, July 23, 2006, 19:22
This was published on Thursday, for Bitter Lemons. In the meantime, there have been more refugees fleeing to Syria, and more help for them within the country (which is the least we can do).

As Lebanon burns, Syria finds supporters again

By the time the atrocities of Israel's latest aggression on Lebanon have been digested, the victims counted and buried, and the astronomical physical damage estimated, the region will be adjusting to a new status quo probably not intended by Israel and its allies. Neither the elimination or disarmament of Hizballah nor the sidelining of Iran or Syria is likely to happen in this manner, and the latter even stands to gain much political ground. While reports of Syrian influence on Hizballah's decisions are certainly exaggerated, it is highly likely that Syrian advice regarding the capture of Israeli soldiers would have been encouragement, rather than dissuasion, and facilitation rather than impediment.

At its simplest level, the outcome of the violent Israeli attack is the demonstration, once and for all--as the Syrian regime has been claiming all along--that the international support for Lebanon's freedom and independence is nothing more than a defunct slogan from a mock Cedar Revolution, applying only to Syria in the context of dangerous plans for the region. By refusing to condemn Israel or to demand a halt to its aggression (implying the acceptance of a buffer zone in Lebanon after the country has been brought to its knees), accepting the de facto "collateral damage" that comes with it, the G8 has hammered the nail into the coffin of Lebanese sovereignty and simultaneously proven Syria right on many fronts, especially as the G8 countries continue to blame Damascus (and Tehran) for the savage destruction wrought by Israel. With this attitude, these powers have made the Syrian regime's position seem more credible and consistent, and its complaints about UNSC Resolution 1559 rational.

Notwithstanding the tiring official Syrian rhetoric and the self- congratulatory tone of reports of Syrian help on state television, which has been in "breaking news" mode since Israel attacked, it is difficult to dispute the conclusions drawn by the regime as it watches developments, probably with some glee. The first batch of escapees from Lebanon, many of them from the Gulf, automatically turned to Damascus, filling its hotels and crowding its airport, conveniently proving Syria's Arabist credentials, especially in times of need.

With less affluent refugees flocking across the borders, and with its main allies in Lebanon still managing to maintain their stride despite (or perhaps because of) the horrific pounding by Israel, Syrian officials are now enjoying the opportunity to look and act magnanimous--especially in comparison with other Arab regimes that have shocked many in the Arab world with their unprecedented condemnation of Hizballah. In such circumstances, the cold shoulder influential Arab countries are giving Syria bears little weight, even giving the Syrian regime an unexpected popularity on the street level.

Indeed, the more Israel pounds Lebanon and Palestine and the more its "right to defend itself" is asserted by its supporters, the more a new arrangement of pictures of anti-American figures appear in demonstrations around the Arab world: pictures of political clerics (such as Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, or the Iraqi Mahdi Army's Moqtada Sadr) are more common these days, but so are combinations with secular, nationalist leaders. In Cairo, photos of Nasrallah were brandished side-by-side with those of Gamal Abdel Nasser this week, while in Syria, the peculiar sight of a brand new trinity consisting of Nasrallah and Sadr flanking Bashar Assad is being paraded. The intended message is clear: these are the ones who are steadfastly defending national rights in the Arab world.

Clearly, there are some blemishes in this picture of selfless patriotism. Most importantly, Syria did not come rushing to the aid of Lebanon, regardless of defense treaties and "brotherly ties" so strong that diplomatic relations are deemed unnecessary by the Syrian regime. Syria's declarations of support have come from the safety of its own borders and actual assistance has been minimal. For all its perceived self-importance, the Syrian regime has done very little to aid Lebanon economically (and nothing at all militarily), and continues to focus its efforts on strengthening only its allies.

Just before Israel began its assault, Syrian activists calling for the sovereignty of Lebanon and for relations based on mutual respect were being dragged from their homes and thrown into jail where they remain, and the regime was demanding public apologies from the Lebanese who had dared do likewise. Support for Lebanon will remain limited to support for the Lebanese who acknowledge Syria's position as a leader in this relationship, not as an equal partner.

But whatever the flaws in this self-perception, Syria--with a great deal of Israeli and "international" help--has managed to reverse an isolation it did not like. Although Saudi Arabia and Egypt have decried Hizballah's actions and tried to avoid Syria, the latter has regained significance on the Lebanese front. President Bush's belief that perhaps Assad could end it all was, in itself, an admission of Syria's importance to the US and its allies in the region, and surely the cause of much satisfaction in Damascus, especially given American and Israeli reluctance to take the fight to Syria's own turf as 1559 comes on the agenda again.

Other matters such as the demarcation of borders, or assassination investigations, will be put on the back burner for the time being. So far, as Lebanon's systematic destruction continues, Syria's supporters are daring to speak out again; undoubtedly, the Syrian regime has been the biggest beneficiary of Israeli brutality and American incompetence.

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House.

Apologies, and thanks
Sunday, July 23, 2006, 17:01
First the thanks, for the comments on my last post of June, for the comments about my father (thanks Hashem and Syrian Brit – I hope to write about him one day), and for keeping the discussion going. I'm sorry I wasn't able to participate in the debate (for the record, like my father, I am for all of the Golan, no compromise - it's a matter of principle).

Thanks also to everyone who left me messages enquiring about my health, and my silence – and apologies for the latter, to everyone whose emails I rudely ignored despite the best intentions. In fact, it was a planned break from work, writing, consulting, commenting, media and blogging, and I should have found the time to post a quick warning that I'd be absent for a while. Instead, I spent the last weeks finishing other work and getting ready for my end-of-June planned break ... to have a baby. There you go, that's the reason for my temporary disappearance and my previous erratic schedule. (Not that things will necessarily get organized quickly now, mind you.)

I am now technically still on leave, and very happy of course, but the barbaric Israeli aggression on Lebanon mere days after I became a mommy, following the barbaric Israeli aggression on Gaza, has meant that my short maternity leave has been interrupted repeatedly with calls and requests from media. I am still unable to do the vast majority, but it is impossible not to react, of course. I will thus post the one comment I wrote this week, and there will be more, gradually, if only to vent our collective outrage.

So what about the Golan?
Thursday, June 15, 2006, 23:57
A big discussion is still raging in my post of June 6 (two posts down, in response to the last piece I wrote for Creative Syria), but in the meantime there's a new edition. This week, it's just Murhaf Joueijati and myself discussing the Golan Heights issue. As usual, please visit Creative Syria to rate the various articles and leave comments.

Here's the link to my piece, and the text below.

In June 2007, it will have been forty years since Israel invaded the Golan Heights, and over a quarter of a century since it blatantly annexed the Syrian territory, in complete disdain of global condemnation and of United Nations Security Council resolutions (such as 242, 338 and 497) which have repeatedly declared Israel's actions illegal.

Sadly, it is necessary today to remind the world – including the Syrian people – of this fact, as in the last six years, somehow, the issue of the Golan Heights has been wiped off the international agenda, being overtaken by Syria's interference in Lebanon (now itself dubbed an occupation by mainstream media) and ridiculous questions of Syrian "seriousness" about peace.

The Golan Heights played a starring role during the 1990s, when the equation of "land for peace" was first presented by then-president George H. Bush in his address to Congress of March 1991, following a significant Syrian participation to the liberation of Kuwait. Indeed, Hafez Assad had understood the stakes and had acted accordingly, which enabled him to witness a tremendous change in the American approach towards Syrian affairs. Then, there was no question whatsoever that the onus was on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights; the only question was how much leeway either side would accept on the Lake Tiberias shoreline. The so-called Rabin Declaration, which had confirmed Israel's withdrawal intentions to the Clinton administration, had ensured the endurance of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, which were to eventually falter when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak cowardly withdrew his government's commitment during the Wye River summit of 2000, much to the stupefaction of Syria.

Months later, the situation changed drastically in Syria, Israel and the US, with new administrations (which mainly did not inherit their predecessors' diplomatic flair or experience) unwilling (in the case of the US and Israel) or unable (in the case of Syria) to push for a breakthrough. While no one in Damascus was watching, Ariel Sharon (in his position as George W. Bush's "man of peace," no less) was able to repeatedly negate Syrian claims to the Golan and to arrogantly announce the expansion of Israeli settlements there. Sharon was also able to hit Syria directly for the first time in years – in Lebanon in 2001, and more importantly in Syria itself, mere miles from Damascus, in 2003. All the Syrian regime could do was "reserve the right to retaliate" and try (but fail) to get a Security Council resolution to denounce the Israeli aggression.

How things had changed - from having Washington as a sponsor of the Syrian-Israeli peace track, to having Washington as a sponsor of the Syria Accountability Act!

In response to Israel's renewed intransigence, and to America's unjustified indifference to the issue of the Golan and its shameless selectiveness in applying international law, Syria's brilliant new strategy was to offer the resumption of peace talks – unconditionally! The tougher Israel acted, the more desperately Syria responded, amateurishly and inexplicably erasing ten years of hard work and of clear advances (or what Israel loves to call "painful concessions") by accepting the unacceptable ever more publicly.

The regime even managed to get Israeli media quite excited about its surrender of claims to Alexandretta, as journalists wondered whether the agreement with Turkey could be a precursor to one on the Golan, and whether they would be able to calmly drink its wine and ski on its slopes for eternity under an Israeli flag. They might have been forgiven for thinking that, had it not been for some Israeli officers' taboo-breaking declarations that security was a non-issue for retaining the Golan, given Israel's immense military and technological superiority. But Syria did not even manage to exploit that.

Given Syria's current relative weakness (especially since its humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon), any Israeli government – be it a so-called "dove" or a "hawk" – should logically be eager to push for an agreement when its enemy is down and has indicated it was willing to start over from scratch, no questions asked. Clearly, Israel's snubs in these conditions indicate it will continue to self-assuredly claim that the Golan will always be Israeli, and that Israeli leaders are not willing to shake hands – at least not on a peace agreement.

Israel has no leg to stand on, obviously, but it has managed to flout international law and renege on its commitments (amazingly calling for Syria's adherence to binding Security Council resolutions from its own glass house), while Syria was transformed from a partner in peace to a pariah in a few short years. Surely the Syrian regime has seen this coming and could have reacted appropriately, or was that beyond its capacity? More and more, Syrians are beginning, reluctantly perhaps, to pine for the "good old days" of Syrian foreign policy, for the momentum which started in Madrid, and for the celebrated years when powerful countries vouched for Syria's rights and nudged Israel to comply with the consensus. Today, with their silence, these old friends seem to be agreeing to Israel's agenda.

Syrians who partly justify their patience with the regime's excesses by saying "at least they're steadfast on the issue of the Golan" are completely wrong, of course. The only steadfastness of the current regime lies in its persistence, ad nauseam, to preach what Syrians call "selling patriotisms" and to liberally distribute treason accusations to any critic. Somewhat like Quneitra's freezing in time after its savage and systematic destruction, the entire Golan Heights are slowly becoming a mere showcase for the Syrian regime when it needs to push for popular sacrifices and support.

Perhaps what is needed is something that Syria's current leaders and diplomats are not qualified to achieve, but at least should be attempting. Calling on the United Nations to push for all countries' compliance with international law would be a logical start. Re-establishing credentials with the European powers which once supported Syria's rightful demands is another prerequisite. Engaging mainstream media with a coherent, reasonable discourse - void of empty slogans and lip service to the leadership - is another necessity. And last but certainly not least, lobbying the powers that be in the halls of Capitol Hill, the meeting rooms of lobbyists and the lecture halls of Washington – given the current administration's refusal to conduct an official dialogue – is the very least the Syrian regime can do as it hopes – in vain – that the next administration will be more friendly.

Instead, the Syrian regime has chosen to do nothing and the Golan is less and less of an issue. Soon, future generations of Syrians will be asking: "The Golan Heights? What about them?"

Who's watching what happens in the Golan Heights?
Friday, June 9, 2006, 15:39
I'll give you a hint, it's a country beginning with S.

Yes, that's right, it's Sweden, that's who!

Some people at the Swedish state alcohol retail monopoly, bless them, realized that "Made in Israel" could not really apply to wine from the Golan Heights and approached the Swedish Foreign Ministry to consult on how to define the wine's origin. Obviously, the Israelis complained that "someone in Sweden is looking to damage the sale of Israeli wines." I'm sure there were a few stronger accusations as well, which we can imagine.

We all know that UNSC Resolution 497 considers Israel's occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights as null and void, and without international legal effect. But when was the last time you heard the Syrian regime mention that resolution? Or has anybody in Damascus even noticed this wine dispute, even though others have?

It seems the regime is too busy dealing with "traitors" and "reforming the economy." Which is too bad, because they would have realized that the Swedes ended up choosing a poor alternative, now labeling the Golan Heights wine as made in "Syrian occupied territory." The correct label should have been "occupied Syrian territory."

US assistance and political change in Syria - right or wrong?
Tuesday, June 6, 2006, 16:29
Creative Syria's question this week was: "Do you think it is right to seek US assistance to push for political change in Syria?" You will find my own answer here (and below), where you can rate the article and those of the other contributors and leave comments.

The first American "assistance" for political change in Syria (actually the first in the whole region, way before Mossadegh's removal in 1953 Iran) dates back to 1949, when the first democratically-elected president of Syria, Shukri Al Quwatli, was overthrown by a CIA-backed military coup installing Husni Al Zaim. To the great misfortune of Syria and its people, that same military is still in power nearly six decades later, having been sidelined for brief periods only.

As it welcomed this American assistance, which brought it power in the first place, it would be fair to assume that the current military/Baathist regime does not object in principle to foreign assistance – as long as it is assistance to increase its hold on power (a notion advocated in a recent op-ed by my fellow Creative Syria contributor, Joshua Landis, when he stressed that the Syrian president "must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority").

Indeed, outside help is only forbidden to "dissidents" who have been conveniently branded as "traitors" for even suggesting some types of reform, let alone for holding meetings in "hostile" territory (such as the US or Europe). And yet, none had requested or even accepted American assistance, having publicly refused the peanuts thrown to them by the Bush administration last March ($5 million to support democratic governance and reform in Syria).

In the past month alone, respected Syrian citizens such as Michel Kilo and Anwar Bunni have been slandered and vilified by pathetic propaganda rags such as Tishreen, which gloated about the arrest of "17 traitors." Every regime sycophant has tried – and failed – to rationalize the accusations of treason by implying this was not the time for criticism or for pushing such agendas. Even veteran writers like Colette Khoury have now sunk to unnecessarily low levels by penning arrogant denunciations of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration signatories in other rags like Al Baath.

Yet, none of the accused even considered the possibility of US assistance. Nor did they socialize with hostile powers. Nor have they shaken the hands of Israeli leaders.

Why, then, have they been wrongly accused of something of which only the regime – thus far – is guilty? Is the regime trying to pre-empt a situation whereby some Syrians feel so suffocated that there is nowhere else left to turn? Is the regime perhaps convinced that its downfall could come only with foreign assistance (be it ΰ la Iraq, ΰ la Venezuela, or ΰ la Ukraine, just to name a few), knowing full well how effective (but possibly destructive) active American interference can be?

And if the regime is so worried about outside interference, why isn't it easing this suffocation of a people that ask nothing more than to keep things in the family? After all, most Syrians are more patriotic, nationalistic and ethical than the regime, and most would cringe at being reduced to beg the help of an America whose founding ideals have been all but forgotten over the years, whose recent "assistance" to the region has brought untold injustices to the people, and whose moral high ground has been torn down by support for brutal, undemocratic regimes in the Middle East. As long as they satisfied American regional aims, Arab regimes have been free to rule as they pleased internally. This is not the America of the "American Dream" that people can aspire to; the Libyan "opposition" (amongst others) can testify about Washington's remarkably short devotion to democratization, justice and human rights, and the Palestinian and Iraqi people could wax poetic about double standards.

In truth, American visions of a democratic Middle East are as believable as Syrian (and Arab) reform agendas. The Syrian regime knows that.

Therefore, the whole question of US assistance in political change is badly posed – assuming such aid could be forthcoming. Perhaps we should ask whether any foreign assistance is justifiable if it comes from a neutral, uninterested, non-aligned side (such as Finland? Switzerland?), and whether the end would then justify the means. Unfortunately, realpolitik eliminates such parties from the equation, and leaves only the powerful (and far from neutral) countries as an option. This is an option the Syrian opposition is reluctant to take, but for which it's being punished anyway.

Obviously, such regimes have no legs to stand on when they flippantly distribute accusations of treason to those who dare question their excesses; even school children today understand they are partly in power in their capacity as Washington's "devils we know."

But if things remain as they are, it might soon not matter anymore whether the call for help is right or wrong; if people are pushed to the point of no return, they might stop wondering about moral considerations and end up selling their souls to that other devil promising everything under the sky.

Fear of something worse
Monday, June 5, 2006, 23:53
As mentioned in my last post, here is the piece Yassin Al Haj Saleh wrote for The New Statesman, titled Fear of something worse.

Last November the Damascus Declaration, a statement issued by a broad coalition of political groups and organisations – secular and religious, Arab and Kurdish – demanded "the adoption of democracy based on liberty and free and regular elections"; a clear call for regime change.

More bad news for the Ba'athist government came in March this year, when exiled Syrian leaders, including the former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, announced that they were forming a coalition – in exile – the National Salvation Front – to bring about regime change.

The new party claimed to complement the Damascus Declaration, but there are enough differences between the two to show the opposition is far from united, something the regime will exploit.

The opposition also faces external pressures. Events in Iraq, instability in Lebanon, tensions between Iran and the west and Hamas's rise in the Palestinian territories all contribute to regional uncertainty and increase fears that Syria could slide into sectarian chaos. The Syrian government is supported by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two authoritarian regimes perennially anxious about the possibility of violent Islamist uprisings. These anxieties are shared by much of the democratic opposition, who are cautious about putting pressure on the regime. They know that, if threatened, the Ba'athists would not hesitate to make civil war the only alternative to their own rule.

The regime has taken advantage of the uncertain climate to tighten its grip – President Bashar al-Assad emphasised in a recent CBS interview that internal security was his priority. According to the dissident Riyad al-Turk, "Syria – the opposition as much as the regime itself – is now submerged in crisis." He thinks that "uniting the opposition with the sole aim of boycotting the regime and achieving democratic change is the only hope for Syria."

This may be impossible without foreign assistance, but most opposition figures are instinctively mistrustful of western – and particularly American – democratisation initiatives. No Syrian dissident ignores the importance of what is known as the "foreign factor", but this will help to create a stable, democratic state only if the opposition can manage to unify and strengthen itself.

As Iraq has shown, the more divided the opposition, the worse the effect of the "foreign factor" will be.

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The New Statesman on Syria
Thursday, June 1, 2006, 03:50
I really, really hate it when the Syrian regime is given credit for religious tolerance in Syria. As if different sects were busy massacring each other before the Baath or the Assads came to put a stop to it – and as if the massacres would automatically start "again" should the latter depart. I know that William Dalrymple means well in his article for The New Statesman, but he is usually a better observer than this.

There are some points he makes I actually don’t understand at all: "Bashar kept himself in power by forming what was in effect a coalition of Syria's religious minorities through which he was able to counterbalance the weight of the Sunni majority." Anyone?

I also can't help but wonder about the following statement: … "while political freedoms have always been severely and often brutally restricted, both the current and the previous president, Hafez al-Assad, have allowed the Syrian people widespread cultural and religious freedoms." I think Kurds might beg to differ.

The British weekly has a special issue devoted to Syria and includes a number of pieces in addition to Dalrymple's. Patrick Seale, in an interesting, comprehensive analysis, seems less and less impressed with the current Syrian leadership, writing that "while the father was a master of realpolitik, the son's record has so far been marred by diplomatic blundering, painfully slow domestic reforms and human-rights abuses …"

We also get a clichιd, ridiculous piece about the lingerie business in Syria which includes gems such as "wives, according to the Koran, must dance for their husbands." Now I bet you that most Muslim women were not aware of this special religious duty! The article also authoritatively informs this baffled reader that while "lingerie is considered a luxury item in Syria," women who are "brides-to-be collect up to 30 different outfits for their wedding night. The tradition started after the 1973 Yom Kippur war when Syria, as a front-line state against Israel, received heavy investment from Gulf states, and bras were manufactured in the country for the first time." Apparently, before that, Syrian women went au naturel! And Gulf money makes bras. Right.

Another "exclusive" in this edition is a section naming the top ten power-brokers in Syria, a list that includes Ghazi Kanan (I swear). If you can't get to the article (because of the annoying 1 article a day rule), here are the other nine: Bashar Assad, Abdul Halim Khaddam, Riad Seif, Riad Turk, Asma Assad, Omar Amiralay, Rami Makhlouf, Ali Saddredine Al Bayanouni, and Michel Kilo.

Can you tell that the writers aren't exactly Syria specialists? At least they have an excuse, which can't be said for Hazem Saghieh, a supposed Middle East specialist, who writes the following ignorant statement about Syrians: "After Hafez al-Assad came to power, Syrians began referring to their country as "the Syria of al-Assad." Even then, their sense of nationhood was defined in terms of their leader rather than the people, or even their territory." Talk about not differentiating between regime and people!

Overall, although I am always pleased to see Syria getting more coverage, I did not find this to be an impressive issue of the magazine. Thankfully, we have a good piece by Yassin Al Haj Saleh to which I didn't find a link, but which I will try to post tomorrow.

Six years and counting ...
Sunday, May 28, 2006, 01:33
This week, Creative Syria Think Tank asked us to respond to the following question: Six years into his administration, how significant are the reforms Bashar Assad put in place?

You can go straight to the site to read the different responses (5 this week), and to give them a rating. My response was the following.

Does one treat a gaping wound as one would a life-threatening disease? The former may need immediate surgery and a number of quick steps to stop the bleeding, save limbs in risk of amputation, and minimize permanent effects. For the latter, a more gradual but harsh and focused therapy may be the best solution to cure the patient. Obviously, diagnosis will make all the difference in the effectiveness of the treatment.

Imagine prescribing physio- or chemo-therapy to someone bleeding profusely, or treating an exhausting, severe cancer with a colorful bandage. Imagine then bragging about it, and expecting the patients to be, well, patient.

This is more or less what the Syrian regime has been doing for the last few years: boasting about supposed reforms it has undertaken and having nothing but a few, scattered, colored Band-Aids (which don't even stick very well) to show for it while Syrians get worse. Actually, given the regime's aversion to the word reform, it has mostly claimed to be effecting "modernization" and "development;" perhaps we can agree that some sense of alteration, if not genuine improvement, has indeed taken place, but with what results?

After all, the Syrian people have been promised on every possible occasion that things were going to change. Far from naively expecting a complete metamorphosis, many Syrians nevertheless chose to bestow the benefit of the doubt on the nouveau rιgime, which has dithered between political, economic and administrative reform and ended up with a pot-pourri of decisions that have little positive impact on anyone.

In its most benign manifestation, I call this type of reform the "Omayad Square Effect:" it pre-assumes a sincere willingness to improve a given situation, but ends up making it much worse with no end in sight. Unfortunately, it is more often the true "Axe Effect."

There is no great divergence amongst experts on the nature of Syria's needs. In different degrees, the urgent reform needed can be addressed by revocating the state of emergency law (in place since 1963!), releasing prisoners of conscience (a matter where "reform" is going backward), establishing political pluralism, enacting freedom of expression and press laws, creating an independent judiciary, and restraining corrupt individuals and institutions openly abusing and draining the country. That's just the tip of the iceberg, and we haven't begun to tackle the economy, but it's technically feasible.

Political reform was always going to be taboo for a one-party authoritarian regime, and yet the latter continuously claims to be making progress when in fact it only creates confusion and contradictions. In July 2003, for instance, Decree 408 proclaimed that the Baath would be limited to "supervising" governmental affairs; this in no way shook Article 8 of the Syrian constitution appointing the Baath as the leading party. So which is it?

The buzz around the Baath Party Congress of June 2005 reached feverish heights after the Syrian president's promise in parliament on March 5 that a great leap forward would then be made. The result, months later, was a very strange (and yet to be enacted) "pluralism." Belonging to a party (except the Baath) would disqualify Syrians from working for the public sector. Parties (except the Baath) would not be able to market their views to expatriate Syrians. Even less pluralistic is the caveat that parties existing before 1963, or which have ever criticized the Baath, cannot see the light.

Lately, the Syrian regime's political reform has even diversified, bringing ever more subjects (like relations with Lebanon) under prohibition for mere mortals like the Syrian people, under threat of treason charges. Like the supposed media reform which apparently gave more freedom of expression, allowing private publications to appear (but which in fact posed greater restrictions than before), it in fact seems to be telling Syrians: "you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you."

Granted, on the financial front, some international institutions seem pleased that the taxation system has been slightly reformed. Indeed, the government claims that tax revenues for 2005 were in increase of 55 perrcent compared to the previous year (a good result as long as this extra revenue doesn't drown in Omayad Square). A good economy needs strong, functioning state institutions, and this is positive in the long run, but not if it is merely another way to milk funds not already taken another way.

Other financial changes were the lower tax rate on car imports, reduced from 255 percent to sixty percent – not forgetting an additional 40 percent "luxury" tax. Is this enough? Or is it enough that "private banks" can function, as long as the state owns at least 51 percent? And is financial and economic reform really credible when the cart is put before the horse in many cases? The decision to create a stock exchange comes to mind.

"Economic Tuesdays" (often starring economists and reformists like Dr. Aref Dalila) were attended by many people (myself included) during Hafez Assad's last years, and the criticism - and the solutions - for economic reform date at least back to that period. It is today even more urgent than it has ever been, and various Syrian officials have not denied it. In fact, the government admits unemployment (though not in its true horrific dimensions) and poverty, and recognizes the challenges posed by declining oil production, amongst other factors. In its most recent five-year plan, the government speaks of establishing a "social market economy" (one of the baffling "reforms" of the Baath Party Congress) in a period of 20 years, without explaining how this will happen. Subsidies, in the meantime, are regularly rumored to become a disappearing act – without the mechanism that will enable the economy (and indeed the people) to survive. In other words, the regime can't possibly be serious about true economic reform as long as it refuses to address the basics.

The reform needed to save Syria must be proactive, not reactive. So far, it's been too little, sometimes too late, but it is not hopeless if the regime decides to allow it. And all of that, of course, is completely unrelated to external events.

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Walls of fear facing bastions of courage
Friday, May 26, 2006, 20:51
How do you imagine a normal person would live between the ages of 19 and 35? Getting a higher education, working, travelling a bit perhaps, marrying, maybe having children? That's a pretty average destiny that most people would follow.

Yassin Al Haj Saleh was robbed of the right to be an ordinary human being. As he was studying medicine at 19, he was arrested with a number of other "dissidents" in his university in Aleppo. His sin (apparently being a communist) was not revealed to him for 11 years, when he was finally charged en masse with 600 other prisoners "before the State Supreme Security Court with no lawyers and no witnesses. Their crime: Challenging the aims of the ruling Baath Party and joining a group that wanted to overthrow the political system."

A "crime" worthy of 16 years in jail, according to the Syrian regime, and worthy of the torture he only partly describes: "Islamists were flogged up to 500 times. People like us, Communists, whoever, only got 100. Me, it was less, I think," he said with a tiny smile. "I lost consciousness after 72."

Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who recently signed the Beirut-Damascus declaration, is a brave man, and one of our most respected and eloquent civil society activists. These are the Syrians we should be talking about, and whose values are much more representative than regime apologists would have you believe.

The Syrian regime's achievements over 40 years?
Friday, May 19, 2006, 01:03
That's what Creative Syria Think Tank, the creation of Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, asked a number of us to discuss for the first online weekly debate (with Imad Moustapha, Ammar Abdulhamid and Joshua Landis). In particular, we were asked to consider the Syrian regime's achievements compared to its neighbors', and specifically consider economics, international relations, security, national pride, and human rights. Registered visitors can rate the various opinion pieces on Creative Syria.

This is what my piece argues:

Comparing the Syrian regime's accomplishments to those of its neighbors does not give us a realistic picture; given the poor performance around the region, it would be like grading on a curve and the score might not be accurate on certain parameters.

But even if Syria's overall comparative record were rated favorably, it would be a poor consolation to its people. While there are certainly nuances in the region, mainly on the economic front, there is little to celebrate on the human and civil rights record all over the region (and in that we must include the Turkish and Israeli democracies, which have been rather selective).

Comparing Syria with Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq also brings out discrepancies; the latter's double curse of inhuman sanctions and inhuman regime, and Lebanon's double tragedy of civil war and full scale invasion and occupation, are catastrophes not experienced by Syria, which doesn't even have to deal with a Jordan-style refugee population that actually dwarfs its indigenous one.

Does the Syrian regime get brownie points for inflating national pride? Such intangibles, now vastly over-rated by the ruling Baath party, did matter during Hafez Assad's early reign; proud of the war effort of October 1973, Syrians felt a surge of true patriotism. Alas, it wasn't to last: domestic matters quickly deteriorated in the late 70s, and Syria was punished for several actions in the 80s (including the Hindawi affair, support for Iran, and incidents in the Lebanese civil war).

In spite of these mishaps, Hafez Assad turned Syria into an inescapable player on the regional map, his contribution to Kuwait's liberation in 1991 being rewarded with the Madrid Peace Conference, an open channel with Washington, a carte blanche in Lebanon, and renewed flows of Gulf funding. For once, the regime's foreign policy created the potential of real benefits to the Syrian people, who dared to hope for improved living conditions and less hardship. Indeed, Syrians fondly remember the 90s for the sudden optimistic mood and the illusion that things could only get better, especially when increased oil production was included in the national budget.

But Hafez Assad's relative achievements on the foreign and security fronts have vanished under the current regime, which managed in a few years to undo everything - from rapprochement with the US to stability in Lebanon. The astute response and strategic management needed to tackle 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq shone by their absence, while ill-advised meddling in Lebanon lost Syria even its most patient supporters, who now openly agree with Israel's intransigent refusal to continue (or even restart from scratch) negotiations on the Golan Heights, perhaps encouraged by this regime's inexplicable surrender of claims to Alexandretta.

The ephemeral quality of even these main achievements over 40 years might lead analysts to conclude that the Syrian regime has achieved nothing. That would not be a fair statement: first, Syria remains central to the region's issues regardless of its regime; second, numerous achievements must still be attributed to this regime, including the downgrading of education, the destruction of a liberal economy, the decline in productivity, the suppression of civil society and the suffocation of free speech.

Neutral observers and Baathist apologists alike point to the Syrian regime's advances in education; while correct quantitatively, the opposite is true qualitatively, and generations of non-thinking, slogan-parroting, militarily-clad students faced life with no real academic preparation.

Syrians still earn a ridiculous annual per capita income (a rough, unjustifiable $1,000 considering the country's abundant natural and human resources) as they continue to watch regime cronies rob the country and obscenely flaunt incredible wealth, having modernized an archaic droit de seigneur in making business a privilege, rather than a right. So-called reform schemes for the erratic economic and financial system (socialist in name, crony capitalist in reality) are not conducive to reassurance, especially when an abrupt elimination of subsidies seems to be the only "plan" to tackle massive unemployment and limited prospects for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians entering the work force yearly.

Regrettably, the regime's achievements with prisoners of conscience continue unabated. Civil society activists calling for change, and daring to explain the inseparable nature of economics and politics (and that of foreign and domestic affairs) are paying dearly for their audacity. But like Aref Dalila and Michel Kilo, most Syrians are unsatisfied with the regime's achievements, and their patience is not eternal.

Who's next after Michel Kilo?
Monday, May 15, 2006, 22:29
I'm sure no self-respecting blogger would allow a month or more to pass between posts, very legitimate excuses notwithstanding. Mea culpa. In spite of a very busy schedule on both the professional and the personal fronts, and while I've wanted to comment on dozens of events in the last few weeks (and it's been busy in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt … you name it), I couldn't let this one pass.

Yesterday, Michel Kilo was arrested by the Syrian regime, apparently for having dared to sign the Damascus-Beirut/Beirut Damascus Declaration, published in Assafir a few days ago (I've unfortunately lost the link but will try to find it). Many of the signatories on the Syrian side are people I know and respect, and Michel is one of them. I would have certainly signed it too as I agree with the declaration (although I may have suggested a different ranking of the points).

This is not the first time Michel Kilo (who, like many Syrian activists, has done his share of time in jail … get this, for being associated with the Muslim Brothers, of all the pathetic charges!) has been included in the regime's latest harassment campaign, but he had usually been set free after a few hours. It looks different this time, as they seemed to be waiting for an excuse.

Our civil society activists are being increasingly persecuted, but few people seem to be paying attention. It may be little consolation, but I was glad to see that MESA last month at least still remembered to petition Bashar Assad for the release of Professor Aref Dalila, who is thought to be in a very poor physical condition.

For the time being, it's clear the regime is obsessively susceptible to any mention of Lebanon, especially when it comes to calling for relations based on respect of mutual sovereignty and for establishing diplomatic relations. A few days ago, the Syrian Prime Minister criticized Fouad Siniora for not being a "statesman" ... look who's talking, really. Last week, we had the Lebanese Prime Minister at Chatham House, and I must say I was favorably impressed by Siniora's position. He was firm in conveying his country's position vis-ΰ-vis Syria, without being confrontational, and he also managed to cover other issues (such as Palestine) quite convincingly. I'd love to hear Otri in similar circumstances, or any of the other ministers; they're really in no position to criticize others when all they can do is bully people in their own population. Not quite the behavior of real men, let alone statesmen!

Levantine family feuds and designer prκt-ΰ-porter
Saturday, April 8, 2006, 15:16
I went to Lebanon a couple of weeks ago, using the normal route from Damascus – the Jdeideh post. We finished the formalities in minutes because so few people were there, and proceeded to drive through one ghost town after another; Lebanon seemed eerily empty so close to the Syrian border, and things had sure changed since Anjar's most notorious resident had departed. We stopped at a couple of places, and everyone complained about this big freeze, missing the heavy traffic and the ensuing healthy business that accompanied the Syrian presence. Indeed, the livelihood of people on the Damascus-Beirut road (on the Lebanese side) has been badly hit by the Syrian withdrawal, and by subsequent Syrian actions to complicate transit.

On the Syrian side, there is absolutely no doubt about the regime's message to Syrians: don't go to Lebanon until we tell you it's OK. The unjustifiable increase of the exit fee (from 200 to 800 Syrian pounds per person) was apparently not considered harsh enough, even though it has made visits not viable anymore for many people who have family on both sides; the regime has decided to make sure trips to Lebanon are as difficult and as useless as possible.

For instance, in the good old days of brotherly relations (not so long ago), you could fill your car with items bought in the Duty Free shop at the border (a Ramak enterprise, of course) and nobody would even cast a second glance at your purchases, waving you through automatically. That alone was well worth the expense and the time of a quick hop to Lebanon for many people. Now, they search cars returning to Syria, practically with a magnifying glass; God forbid you should think of benefitting from your trip to Lebanon, even when it also benefits Ramak. We went into the Duty Free on the way back (which stocks every type of product and brand you can imagine), just to see, and the ratio of salespeople to clients was about 10 to 1.

What's the logic? Isn't poor Ramak suffering? They don't care; Ramak's business is not exactly limited to the Jdeideh border, there are other Ramaks all around the Syrian borders, and you are free to shop there til you drop. As long as you don't go to Lebanon and inadvertently benefit the Lebanese as well.

Believe it or not, passenger cars can now cross the border with a maximum of 20 liters only. I saw with my own eyes how the few cars in front of ours (followed by ours) were being treated, with border officials opening the gas tank and dipping a measuring stick inside to determine the contents. It's not that they remove the extra gasoline … but you are fined in the hundreds of dollars should you have the misfortune of filling up one day and deciding to go to Lebanon the next. With only about 20 liters, you are obliged to fill up in Lebanon where gasoline is more expensive – another deterrent.

Some shops in Beirut which catered mostly to an exclusive Damascene clientele, are still feeling the cold. Aishti, amongst others, is trying to woo back customers by offering to send selections of designer clothes to the clients' own houses (managing to get them through somehow), where they can choose at leisure. But wouldn't you just know it, the regime (which can get very very obsessed by petty details when it puts its mind to it) suddenly decided to allow the import of foreign labels, lo and behold.

Enter Villa Moda, the converted old khan in the middle of Medhat Basha (or the Street Called Straight) which has been transformed into a dream for wealthy shopaholics. In a street where old tiny shops adjacent to the souks have been trading for years, and just a stone's throw from the famous Beirakdar (where you can buy delicious pistachio nuts and other salty treats), a surreal addition has opened. Open until late, this is where you will find your Prada, Dior, Gucci and countless other designer labels, where jeans cost hundreds of dollars and handbags thousands. Now you can spend obscene amounts on clothes without leaving the city, how convenient. One less reason to go to Beirut, for some people.

I had an argument with a good Syrian friend (a highly educated, cosmopolitan, well-travelled lady), who has been living in Beirut for the past few years. As she poured her heart out about how she felt frustrated and insulted by the general anti-Syrian attitude that has overtaken many Lebanese people, she ended up, apparently unconsciously, defending the Syrian regime and its recent actions. I confronted her, arguing that while I had no doubt she has been subjected to a Lebanese form of racism, this didn't justify becoming a regime apologist. Alas, she was too hurt to retreat to a neutral position, and I encountered this exact attitude amongst many Syrians who have simply become fed up with what they perceive is their neighbors' sense of superiority and self-righteousness. The huge wave of sympathy that had initially blown westward has now been replaced by exasperation and indifference.

Truly, the attitude of many Lebanese has served the Syrian regime's interests very well!

Evidently, the Syrian regime is not ready to restore relations with Lebanon or even bring things to a more convivial level, especially as things in Lebanon seem to be going pretty much the Syrian way lately. While Fouad Siniora is eager to come to Damascus (with a heavy heart I'm sure), the Syrian leadership has made no secret of its gleeful reluctance to welcome him - for the moment. Nothing surprising when you know how this regime functions. But you've got to laugh when it is the new foreign minister who declares that some things are more important than diplomatic relations! According to Walid Muallem, "What Syria and Lebanon have is far more important than embassies." Brotherly relations and all that, you know – it's all in the family of course.

On that note, one of the latest jokes in Damascus has it that Syria finally agrees to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, and the Lebanese excitedly prepare themselves with all the red carpet formalities to receive the brand new Syrian ambassador … only to find out the ambassador is Rustom Ghazaleh.

Kasak ya Muhammad Al Maghout
Thursday, April 6, 2006, 22:55
Even Syrians and Arabs who didn't know his name or didn't grow up when his plays were being produced will remember scenes from Ghurbeh, Day'et Tishreen, or Kasak Ya Watan, still shown regularly on a number of television channels. Until today, people repeat lines from these plays, including the one Doureid Laham's character spat out under torture, laughing that electricity had reached his backside before it had reached his village.

Muhammad Al Maghout, one of Syria's most respected playwrights and poets, passed away on Monday, and as we remember the pained laughs we shared at his depictions of life under tyrannical regimes, I can't help but think of how I hate the fact that the Syrian regime (who was obviously the first "inspiration" for much of his work) should feel entitled to eulogize him – as if it had ever done anything for him, or for artists of his stature, insignificant medal of 2005 aside. (Even "funnier" is the Bush administration's discovery of Maghout, a discovery which apparently doesn't include an understanding of his stance; "anti-regime" must mean "pro-American," they must have thought.) As with their last-minute, rushed and fake embrace of our great Nizar Kabbani as he lay on his deathbed, Syrian officials have hastily sung Maghout's praises now that he is no longer a nuisance to their self-perceived importance (as they try to hide their inferiority complexes).

I join those who left comments on previous threads in expressing my sadness that yet another of our great, irreplaceable Syrian artists is gone. A mere two days later, our prominent writer Abdul Salam Ojeili also left us.

Et tu, Abdallah?
Wednesday, April 5, 2006, 16:25
We may be accustomed to the phenomenon that turns seemingly neutral people into regime apologists when they accept a governmental position, but I admit I was unpleasantly surprised by the following quote, not having expected such an exaggerated degree of compliance from a so-called reformist:

"I may not be keen on early morning arrests, but this regime was being threatened."
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Abdallah Dardari

I've given enough interviews to know that words can sometimes be taken out of context and that only live television or radio interviews (or signed articles) can truly reflect a position, but in this case there is more to substantiate the initial statement, and he can't have been misquoted in every sentence. Indeed, Dardari continued by saying: "The survival of this regime and the stability of this country was threatened out loud and openly. There were invitations for foreign armies to come and invade Syria. So you could expect sometimes an overreaction, or a reaction, to something that is really happening."

No, Abdallah, none of the people arrested in Syria were inviting foreign armies to come and invade Syria, and you know it.

Real fears or crocodile tears?
Monday, March 27, 2006, 22:20
This is the question I ask (and answer) in my last article considering the Syrian regime's attitude towards the potential fragmentation of Iraq.

Musings from Syria
Monday, March 27, 2006, 22:15
When I travel in the Middle East, especially in Syria, I get inspired to write dozens of pieces about seemingly banal events, but I always get too busy and decide to save it for "later" – and the same goes for blogging, unfortunately. So in lieu of real news, here's a short update from Damascus.

People here are fed up; prices are high, business is slow, and all other things are remaining equal or getting worse. Yes, you can find almost anything in the shops, but disposable income has become more limited than ever for most Syrian families. This has been the real subject of conversation: the price of things, particularly basic commodities like oil. Even people of comfortable means can't help but notice the burden on others of lesser means, and can't help but notice that for all the talk of improving conditions, things are sluggish.

The public sphere is as frustrating as ever. Omayad Square is even more messed up than I had described it here last year. It really should be officially renamed Regime Square (or possibly Baath Square), because nothing of the Omayads' competence and magnificence is represented in this central Damascene spot. I must remember to take a photo of its current, indescribable status; not a single traffic light coming into the square works, and it's a huge mess.

Interestingly, other traffic lights around the city work fine, and many have sprung rather useless attachments: a seconds counter, so that Damascene drivers (always in an incredible hurry) may be persuaded to hold off the honking, in the illusion that the government is concerned about the general public well-being.

Still, we’re supposed to get all excited because of the opening of a new hotel - a hotel, for crying out loud, which took nearly 5 years to complete! Quite an ugly, bulky structure which has become the most expensive place in the city and the talk of official media. In what other country in the world is the inauguration of a hotel, even a 5-star one, such an event? Where else would such an unexciting affair be taken as a barometer of development in a given economy? The Syrian regime would have us believe that this is a sign that investments are flowing into the country and the people are swimming in bullish expectation, but nothing is further from the truth. Clearly, the regime is chuffed that a Saudi investor of that magnitude, who has made SANA even more excited - and thus even more mediocre - than usual should be inviting others to take advantage of opportunities, whatever these are.

The regime would also like us to believe we're awfully cool because we now have a female vice president in Syria. Like that's really going to change things for women, or for anyone else. I have yet to hear one person here describe this as a positive development – or even a development, come to think of it. Are we supposed to feel happy because she's not a Baath party member (at least not officially)? The regime will have to do a bit better than that to even remotely convince anyone that something is changing – and you should hear the sarcastic comments people are making about this.

Like all the other moves the regime pretends to make, Attar's appointment is nothing to write home about. All Syrians are familiar with her "credentials" as regime crony for years on end, during which time culture (technically her portfolio) all but disappeared from the national agenda, and films and books were banned for no comprehensible reason. Remember that culture ("thaqafa") has become a dirty word for the regime, which often calls activists "muthaqafin" (literally, people with culture).

Nor are the repeated arrests of human rights activists like Ali Abdullah or Samir Nashar news or a development either, as it is something that has unfortunately become quite common here. I can confirm that the harassment of every civil society activist, newly-released Damascus Springers included, has gone even beyond our expectations. The regime continues to intimidate family (even relatively elderly parents and younger children of the activists), neighbors and friends, in the hope that any surviving spirit will be broken and that people will simply give up, sooner or later. A couple of the people I know have sadly succumbed to harassment fatigue, but most aren't giving up.

Practically every Syrian I have met is tired of the regime, weary of new alliances (namely that of Khaddam with the Muslim Brothers) and conscious that the "acceptable" opposition has practically no chance of doing anything worthwhile. But when the latter are accused of not having an agenda or plans (should they ever come to power), most people readily reply that this actually applies to the regime. Indeed.

In Baath ... who trusts?
Wednesday, March 8, 2006, 01:16
I don't know how people manage to travel, work and blog at the same time, when there's so much of the same going on - especially when following Syrian affairs, which mostly make you fall asleep lately.

Apparently, the Syrian people do not need human rights (even though this was an approved EU initiative). They do not need freedom of expression either (but such treatment and intimidation of journalists is old news). Apparently, what Syrians really, desperately need (and the entire Arab world with them) is Arabism. More Arabism. True Arabism. New and improved Arabism. That will solve all their problems. Jealous of the Islamists who have a ready answer to everything ("it's all in the Holy Quran"), the Baathists (not even pretending anymore that "reform" is on the way) are now saying the answers are all in Arabism. Get it?

Those pearls of wisdom were offered on the occasion of the conference of Arab Political Parties held in Damascus, which shows you that the Syrian regime has really got some nerve. The one-party-rule government hosting meetings on political parties? Imagine all the possible metaphors!

The glorious March 8 revolution, celebrated especially by numerous pedantic men sporting March 8 mustaches (and other men trying but failing to grow them), celebrates its 43rd anniversary today. In other words, commiserations are in order for the Syrian people, and for the sad state of the Syrian state. Instead of making way for the new political parties everyone's so excited about, the Baath is digging its heels and waving Article 8 of the constitution in our faces.

Even before the last Baath party congress took place, I had written as a reminder of the Syrian regime's intransigence that "Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which maintains that the Baath must be the state’s leading party, was in no way affected by Decree 408 of July 2003, supposed to end the Baath’s entrenchment on all levers of control, and limit it to “supervising” governmental affairs."

Indeed, in a real "read 'em and weep" piece, Sami Moubayed confirms that the regime's promises were not quite what they seemed. No surprises there for me whatsoever, except for my amazement at just how ridiculous the parameters are for these new parties.

For instance, if you are aged 34, you can now become president of Syria (since June 10, 2000) … but you cannot apply for a party license (let alone if you have a "criminal" record – which applies to all activists).

Should a political party be miraculously created in spite of all the hurdles it faces (a minimum of 500 members before the founding conference can take place), be aware that belonging to one will disqualify you from working for the government – Baath excepted, again. In fact, you are much more likely to get a job in the public sector if you are a Baathist.

Parties will be prohibited from even marketing their views to Syrians living abroad. How hypocritical. Syrians expats, after all, are eagerly courted when "election" time comes every 7 years, and when Syrian embassies across the world (which will be celebrating the revolution on March 8, so don't bother going for any business) turn into chaotic voting points where your passport is not even needed as long as you've come to pay allegiance. (Or so I'm told by countless people I trust in several countries, as I've obviously never done it myself, and never will under these circumstances.)

Sami concludes by stressing the fact that founding members of political parties (all ten of them) must not have "written, preached or acted in the opposition since 1963," as they won't have preserved the objectives of the revolution of March 8. This also takes care of any parties existing before 1963. And of any activist, person, or entity which has ever uttered a word of criticism towards the Syrian regime and its glorious Baath.

There's more depressing stuff, and more to come out soon I'm sure. There you have it, political reform ΰ la Syrian regime. I hope its supporters enjoy it as much as they enjoy its fake Arabism. The rest of us can always dream.

Opposition declarations
Monday, February 27, 2006, 23:22
As was expected. the Syrian opposition has officially declined to apply for America's financial subsidies. Written by the signatories of the Damascus Declaration, a statement released today refuses foreign funding, including the $5 million from the US State Department. That certainly doesn't mean, however, that the group has given up on change fuelled from within; it has only given up on "reform."

Indeed, Syrian activists are not quite rallying behind the regime, and it is important to keep this statement in the context of the Damascus Declaration, and of the repeated statements by numerous activists, including the recently released (and recently harassed) Damascus Springers Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi. They are still on the regime's case: as Seif reminds us, corruption has become the cancer of the regime. And since "with any non-democratic regime there is no accountability," no real parliament, no real court of law, and no free media, amongst others, only real change is acceptable.

Seif voices many Syrians' impatience with sorry excuses about delays, and he also puts a stop to the current anti-Syria conspiracy theory and the flogging of that dead horse regarding Rafik Hariri's assassination: in his opinion, Syria would not be in danger even if some individuals were found guilty of Hariri's murder, and the perpetrators punished. I would add that Syria might even become safer, in fact!

A good day for visionaries
Friday, February 24, 2006, 12:34
It is unusual for me to talk about personal matters in this blog, but today an exception is in order. I recently found out that my husband and Steve Jobs share more than I originally thought, albeit from afar. They have both, in different contexts and scales, contributed heavily to incredibly visionary and creative technology. Jobs obviously needs no introduction (even from this Apple fan), being a household name. As for my husband, he is one of the top software systems architects in this country, having developed engines that millions of people use to play certain games, or bespoke software for big oil companies to maximize the efficiency of oil and gas exploration, amongst others.

It turns out that not only they both have Syrian fathers, but they were both born on February 24. So Happy Birthday to our cool Syrian-born techies (and please keep on making the technology that makes us go Wow!).

The price of opposition
Tuesday, February 21, 2006, 20:09
After hearing that the US has earmarked $5 million to promote democratic governance and reform in Syria, the Syrian regime should really feel secure now, in spite of the obligatory noise it made. "It is interference in our internal affairs. We reject it totally,” said the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has perhaps not heard of the adage about stones and glass houses. Then again, he also said that Syria's stances are credible, so who are we to argue and wonder about his own government's interference in other people's internal affairs?

Be that as it may, it seems perfectly clear now that America is not bothered with regime change in Syria, for the moment at least (which has been my hunch); had it been even remotely interested, it would have disbursed more than those peanuts. This amount merely allows the Syrian regime to complain about it without worrying, and to demonstrate that American designs are less than honorable. European designs, however, seem perfectly acceptable to the regime, apparently. Or is it simply because some human rights for Syrians could eventually, one day, be tolerable as long as Syrians don't dream of democracy and reform?

When the US really wants to push for something, it does – not that it helped in any significant way. After all, Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress alone received at least $340,000 every month for years (some claim it actually received $8 million a year since 1998), as part of the $97 million reserved for Iraqi opposition groups (including the INC and SCIRI) by the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The INC was said to have received up to $100 million in covert funding from the CIA during the 90s, before the Iraq Liberation Act came into effect. In the end, the US invaded and was surprised to see a different reality from the one painted by the INC. I can save the US a lot of money by telling them they will certainly not be welcomed with flowers and open arms in Syria.

So far, the Syria Liberation Act is being held up at Congress and the American government feels the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (whose danger the Syrian regime totally ignored until it became law) largely suffices. But if it does pass, it will have a lot more provisions, and Syrians will have to worry.

In any case, even with the measly $5 million, few Syrians will be walking willingly into this trap; after all, the last time a Syrian activist – Kamal Labwani - merely met with American officials in Washington, he was welcomed at Damascus airport by the secret service and has been under arrest since then. (By the way, why do we still call them the "secret" service? There's nothing secret about them, especially in Syria. Same goes for "intelligence." But I digress again.) Obviously, the only Syrians allowed to take money from foreign sources (cutbacks, "development" aid, etc.) or allowed to hold talks with foreign parties (overtly or covertly, and there are a few of those) belong to the Syrian regime.

Dow Jones on the road to Damascus
Saturday, February 18, 2006, 02:20
Syrians will undoubtedly remember Mohamed Al Imadi, the man who was Minister of Economy for years on end. I distinctly remember watching Syrian television one evening in Damascus to follow an interview with Imadi and the Minister of Finance, whose name escapes me right now. I was astonished to hear Imadi explain to viewers that ownership of a house or a car was a luxury! In other words, they were nothing we average Syrians really needed; we could all simply enjoy watching regime and government officials parade their luxuries in front of us and imagine the feeling.

Well, this paragon of economic vision has now been put at the head of a "board" (we all know it's really a "commission" - damn the Baathists and their numerous useless commissions) to establish and oversee the formation of a Syrian stock exchange.

What's the rush? Surely a liberal economy is a mere luxury. By the time we get to the Executive Instructions (imposed by the Syrian regime to render the already pathetically incomprehensible laws even more confusing), maybe the commission will realize that it takes a lot more than getting premises and ringing a bell, and that they may need to rethink the position of the horse vis-ΰ-vis the cart.

Still, in anticipation of this giant leap, I herewith declare open and active the "Commission to Make Suggestions for the Name of the Damascus Stock Exchange Indicator" (hoping they will at least consider submissions that start with letters other than A).

Sanctimonious positions and oppositions
Friday, February 17, 2006, 18:13
I recently mentioned the Church of England's vote to divest from companies (like Caterpillar) profiting from the illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The ensuing uproar was to be expected, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had to issue an immediate apology for the timing of this decision, saying it had come at a time of rising anti-Semitism and when Israel faced "challenges." That was not enough for Britain's Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who today publicly admonished the Church of England, claiming "this is not the right time" (without mentioning when the right time would be) and adding that Israel had risked civil war to make unilateral territorial concessions in Gaza and needed support. Right.

The Dalai Lama, visiting Israel this week, seems to agree. He said it was too early to tell whether Israel should talk to Hamas, and called on Hamas to turn away from violence and approach the situation more realistically. Since he didn't even say that Israel should do the same, there was no uproar. Wondering if he had ever said anything on the subject, without much time to search, I only found only this rather lame statement from a couple of years ago, in which he says that he does not have an answer about how to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Thankfully, these answers are all to be found in international law.

Syrian media entertainment
Wednesday, February 15, 2006, 22:39
Syrian media is really a source of continual entertainment. After all, who would have imagined a year ago that the Syrian regime would need to quote Michel Aoun, of all people, to decry the speeches given on the first anniversary of Rafik Hariri's assassination? Of course, given the heated rhetoric heard in Beirut, it is no wonder that Aoun's prose is suddenly music to Syria's ears when compared to other Lebanese politicians.

You also learn from gems like Tishreen that "Syria is targetted for specific purposes," which is good to know for those who thought it was just a random thing.

Keep on reading and you'll discover that the Syrian authorities are also besides themselves with joy because an American "thinker " has supposedly described the president as a national leader. I have a great deal to say about David Lesch (notice that the Syrian media can't even spell the name of its greatest admirers) and his unbelievable book, which I have been literally struggling to read. More on that soon, but let's just say that there seems to be a sudden profusion of American academics who have the hots for the Syrian regime. The feeling is certainly mutual, but then again the regime will apparently welcome any praise with open arms, even when it came from the likes of David Duke a couple of months ago.

But unfortunately, most of the real news from Syria aren't that funny, which is why you don't usually find them in Syrian media. Two of the recently released leaders of the Damascus Spring, Mamoun Homsi and Riad Seif, were crudely detained yesterday. The regime seems determined to keep on using rough tactics and regular harassment to remind its citizens of its absolute power. This comes a week after a journalist, Adel Mahfouz, was arrested for daring to advocate peaceful dialogue following the Danish cartoons reaction folly – a call the Syrian regime interpreted as "insulting public religious sentiment." Now that would have been funny, had the regime's own insults not been so blatant - and not necessarily in the field of religion.

Pictures from a liberated Iraq
Tuesday, February 14, 2006, 01:07
This video showing British soldiers abusing Iraqi kids has been released on Monday by News of the World, a British tabloid where you normally wouldn't expect to see such coverage. There is also a detailed explanation of events, including some that aren't in the video. That behavior comes from a professional army which claims it is so much better than Americans at "reaching hearts and minds."


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