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 © bitterlemons-international.org

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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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 à la Iraq, à la Venezuela, or à 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 clichéd, 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 régime, 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.

[ 1 comment ]
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-à-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 prêt-à-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 à la Syrian regime. I hope its supporters enjoy it as much as they enjoy its fake Arabism. The rest of us can always dream.


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