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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pariah who came in from the cold
Rime Allaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what Israeli missiles do to little children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Syria need reforms?
by Dr. Samir Aita

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

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


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

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


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

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

Budget and Fiscality

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

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

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

Foreign Trade & Investment Environment

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

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

Labor and Employment

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

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

Governance & the Rule of Law

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

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

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

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

Palestinian victim or terrorist?

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

Palestinian victim or terrorist?

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

Palestinian victim or terrorist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I rest my case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damascus should beware delusions of grandeur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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