Monday, January 30, 2006

The Breakthrough!

My “comrades in arms” and I have just concluded our first conference for the Syrian opposition groups in the US. The conference was organized by the Syrian National Council in the US, in cooperation with the Ahrar Movement and the Syrian National Council in Canada. It featured an amazing assortment of representatives of political currents and views, including representatives of the Syrian internal opposition groups, who have taken a tremendous risk by accepting to take part in such an event.

The last day, Sunday, also featured a a most wonderful and inspiring phone conference with the recently freed Damascus Spring dissidents: Riad Seif, Walid al Bunni, Fawaz Tillo and Habeeb Issa, as well as the sublime spark behind the Atassy Forum Mrs. Suheir Atassy.

Despite the fact that discussion tended to veer into the usual old polemics and diatribe against the regime, a sense of focus and purpose prevailed throughout the two-day conference, and the concluding statement did a pretty decent job in summarizing the main points of agreements between the various groups, which seem quite capable of paving pave the way for the eventual establishment of an actual opposition platform or current in the very near future.

These points included for the very first time a clear and an unequivocal legitimization by the internal opposition groups of the activities of their external counterparts, as well as a clear cut call for more coordination between all opposition movements wherever they happen to be. Considering the importance of the people taking place in the conference and the fact that they did represent all strands of the Syrian political spectrum, reaching such an agreement is by no means a small feat. Indeed, the chasm of the inside/outside dichotomy seems to have finally been traversed - A development that could indeed set the grounds for the adoption of more practical and dynamic measures in the work of the Syria national opposition in the future.

Indeed, the few proposals I have made in my paper, Managing Transition, were well-received, and I expect some serious developments along these lines in the next few months.

Meanwhile, the Day of February 1 is upon us. No, I don’t expect much in terms of positive response at this stage, but my friends and contacts in Syria assure me that at least 300-400 hundred people have so far pledged to abide by the proposed work-stoppage.

Whatever the case may be, next time, and there will definitely be a next time and soon, such a call is bound to receive greater support, attention and endorsement. Or so, I have reasons to hope.

On the final day of the conference, we also had a chance to a listen to a plea for the release of Dr. Kamal Labwani, made by his brave wife, Samar. Dr. Labwani was the first well-known figure in the Syrian internal opposition to have braved the waters of extending his hands to the country's external opposition as well as to the international community appealing for the freedom of his people.

Despite all the personal differences that some participants had with the views, if not the sharp mannerisms of Dr. Labwani, they were all willing to concede the importance of the role he played in arranging for this breakthrough in communication between the inside and the outside.

On this occasion, pleas were also made for the freedom of the other Damascus Spring prisoners, including the renowned economist, Dr. Aref Dalila, as well as all other prisoners of conscience. This naturally resonates with our recent discussion on this site regarding the lauching of a letter writing campaign, or something along these lines, demanding the freedom of Dr. Dalila. Well, on Sunday, we made a certain modest effort in this regard. But this is only the beginning, I promise.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Hamas Factor!

Hamas’ electoral victory, although billed as a “surprise” or a “shock” by many newspapers, did not really come as a major surprise to most observers of Palestinian politics. In fact, the whole reason why Abu Mazin seemed to have entertained postponing the elections for a while was directly related to his firm conviction that holding the elections at this point in time will result in a surrounding victory by Hamas.

Still, we have to realize that Hamas’s victory does not come as mandate for holy war against Israel. Rather, the holy war that the majority of the Palestinians want is one against corruption and inefficient rule and for improving the quality of life and the living standards of the average Palestinian.

As such, should Hamas attempts to use this victory to increase its hostile activities against Israel, it will in fact be shooting itself in the foot, though this is indeed the kind of course that many Hamas leaders seem disposed to advocate at this stage, especially those currently living outside the territories (who do have quite a few backers inside as well).

So, what are the possible scenarios here, and what are the implications for the Syrian regime?

Scenario One: “Moderate” Hamas leaders could manage to have the upper hand, meaning that while negotiations with Israel are not likely at this stage (the Israeli authorities, too, seem not too interested in that, also at this stage), economic ties will continue, and focus will be put on living up to campaign promises of cleaning up the administrative hierarchy in the territories and improving the living conditions of the Palestinians. This situation could go one for months, if not years, provided Hamas moderates continue to keep their radical factions in check, and provided that Israel refrains from any unilateral action that can strengthen the hands of Hamas radicals. We can call this the Palestinians First Scenario, which is, of course, the ideal and quite unlikely scenario at this stage, where a certain stalemate is created paving the way for eventual talk, should Hamas prove successful in their economic policies. Hamas could not succeed here, and give the Palestinians something real that they can lose, then go ahead and nullify all that in a future policy of confrontation. At least, one hopes, and provided the radicals are kept in check throughout all this, of course. In this scenario, the Syrian regime does not benefit, and will likely try to play the radical card, with the support of the Iranians and Hezbollah, and failing that, it will seek to heat up the Lebanese-Israeli borders.

Scenario Two: Hamas radicals take over and begin implementing a policy of confrontation with Israel. Israel responds. The territories are quickly brought to a boil. Here we have several variations depending on both Israel’s and Syria’s response:

1) Should Israel show restraint here in the face of Hamas radicals, a serious schism could develop within Hamas, with the moderates opting to join Fatah in a new coalition, perhaps forcing a new election, one which the radicals are bound to lose. Why? Because, the real mandate that the majority of the Palestinians want to give to Hamas at this stage seems to relate, as I noted above, to internal reform issues not to confrontation with Israel. If Israel did not show restraint, an all out war could develop very easily.

2) For its part, the Syrian regime could do the rare smart thing and watch developments in the Territories from the sidelines, with Bashar & Co. focusing on internal issues and keeping a low regional and international profile in the hope of riding out their own crisis. In case of an all out war, Bashar could wax anti-Zionist, even anti-Semitic, to his heart's content, no one will pay attention to him, and soon everybody will forget about Hariri, and he might be given his desired deal one day. Meanwhile, Lebanon could also fall to mayhem, and Syria will be back squarely to where it was in the 80s, with the US and France rediscovering the fine art of lion-ass likcking, so that the Lion, in his new incranation, should wade in the mess on their behalf, just like the good old days.

3) But, Bashar & Co. are more likely to do the usual dumb thing rather than the rare smart thing, especially should Israeli leaders continue to show restraint in the face of provocations by Palestinian radicals, and should they show the same retraint vis-à-vis provocations from Syria-supported Palestinian radicals, and Hezbollah, for a long enough period to allow for the formation of the moderate alliance noted above. Such restraint will facilitate the further isolation of Bashar & Co., and their radical front at more rapid pace. Moreover, and sooner rather than later, occasional strikes by Israel against Syrian and Lebanese targets could probably take place without receiving strong international condemnation, just like the good old days. In fact, the US might even get an opportunity to chip in mounting some strikes of its own.

4) But, should Israel fail to show the necessary restraint, which is the more likely and perhaps even logical alternative at this stage with the elections and all that, then, the radicals will more likely succeed in dragging us into a regional quagmire similar to the early 80s, if not worse.

For the next few weeks, I’d say scenario one might unfold, but then Palestinian radicals are more likely to make a move, and everything after that depends on how Israel in particular behaves. Israelis will have every reason to want to retaliate against actions by militant groups, but should they go too far in this, they will be playing straight into the hands of Palestinian radicals (and, behind them, the Syrian and Iranian regimes), as they will embark on another period of protracted violence with the Palestinians.

But the real victor in all this will be Iran. For unless the US and the EU are willing to mount a full-scale military invasion to topple the Iranian regime, Iran will become a nuclear power within a year, if not less, and the world has to learn how to live with that and how to negotiate with a nuclear Iran. If agreement with Iran is reached now, and before Iran becomes a nuclear power, there is a possibility that peace in the territories and Lebanon will be preserved (as Iran could be convinced to decrease its level of support for the radcial elements there, and the Syrian regime could be left to dry, having outlived its usefulness for the Iranian pragmatists, no matter how conservative they happen to be in their socio-cultural views.

The plot has thickened to such suffocating levels that muddling through is simply not a viable option on the long run, as it will only help make the eventual explosion/implosion even bigger. Yet, muddling through is the exact course that everybody is going to advocate on grounds of real politick. Indeed, and on the ground of real politick, we shall start killing each other soon, and we shall continue to do so for a long time to come.

Our region is going to hell, again. Some people will blame Bush and Zionism for that. I blame our lingering stupidity. That is what makes me a heretic, I guess, not to mention a traitor.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Return of France!

First Syria and now Iran, French President Jacques Chirac is acting pretty tough in what seems like a French return to the international policy-making scene. The lessons that have been learned from the US-led invasion of Iraq seem to be counterintuitive somehow. Rather than championing the cause of non-interventionism and real politick, Chirac’s future policies towards the region promise to be far more interventionist than they have ever been.

Why is this so? Is Chirac becoming another Blair and France another Great Britain? That is, is Chirac leading France into becoming just another European satellite for the US? Or is Chirac simply losing his cool in his old age?

Or, is there something else at work here?

While I am not an expert on French affairs by any means, but, and as a casual observer of developments over the last couple of years, let’s just say that I am more in favor of the latter alternative. Indeed, cool calculations regarding what constitutes France’s interest in the region, rather than some alleged spate of rashness and subservience, seem to be the driving force behind Chirac’s recent assertiveness vis-à-vis Iran, Lebanon and Syria.

France has too many interests in the region to leave it to the Americans to do with it as they will. By not joining in the US-led alliance to topple e Saddam Hussein, the French ended up losing many lucrative oil and natural gas contracts, and all their previous agreements with the Saddam regime came to naught. All the suave realist politics of so many years produced nada.

To make things worse, and in his efforts to appease the Americans, Bashar reportedly ignored the French President’s polite plea for an exploration contract to be granted to a French company, and gave the contract to a US company instead, believing this will be a nice bribe to the Administration.

Whatever the truth in this regard may be, ever since his rise to power, with French support and endorsement as we all know, Bashar’s performance turned up to be consistently disappointing, and on all fronts. This was especially felt with regard to Syria’s relations with Lebanon, and to Bashar’s phantom economic reforms and his inability to commit within a reasonable timeframe to signing the Association Agreement with Europe.

The Lahoud extension fiasco, the assassination of Hariri, the rise of Ahmadinejad in Iran and the current nuclear stand-off with her seems to have increased the stakes. France cannot remain on the sidelines while things like these unfold.

So, Chirac’s recent aggressiveness comes as a reflection of an actual strategic decision on part of the French President and his advisors, and does signal the return of France to the international arena. This is not a completely surprising development really, for France has always been aggressive whenever its interests were at stake. Remember France’s intervention in the Côte d’Ivoire in 2003?

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Lion’s Wall!

I actually subscribe to the “Pushed to the Wall” theory. But, naturally, my interpretation of it is less regime-friendly than that of others. My version of the theory stipulates that Bashar & Co. simply lacked the necessary leadership skills and vision to be able to chart a new set of policies for the country vis-à-vis Lebanon, the peace process, and internal reforms, and that it was this mediocrity of theirs that pushed them to the Wall.

Had Bashar introduced a limited package of political reforms upon his arrival to power, and had pulled the Syrian troops out of Lebanon earlier on and on his own initiative, he would have been hailed as a hero by now, both by the Syrian people, most opposition groups included, and the by the international community. The EU would have rewarded him with the signing of the Association Agreement in addition to a generous aid package, and the Bush Administration would have found it virtually impossible to isolate him.

The only reason why Bashar does not find himself in this situation right now is his own lack of imagination, his own inability to be a real statesman. If he was pushed to the wall, this happened on account of his own mediocrity, and the parallel mediocrity of all his supporters and advisors in that narrow decision-making circle he set up for himself. When push came to shove, none had a clue as to what could be done other than falling back on old habits, which naturally, included crackdowns and assassinations. By enabling this process, Bashar was trying to posit himself as a credible leader to the people in his own little circle, as well as to some figures in the Old Guard as well.

Indeed, ever since Bashar’s rise to power, he was hard pressed to prove himself to those that enabled his accession. Satisfying them was his primary concern, the demands of the opposition or the expectations of the Syrian people were not very high on his agenda. Concern for the well-being of people is never high on a dictator’s agenda anyway.

This is why he was so willing to turn his back on the opposition mere months after his (s)election. This is why he was always unwilling to even consider dabbling with the existing system of decision-making in the country, be it on the political, economic or security level.

Indeed, he did seem to have sincerely believed that the country’s economy can be reformed by decrees, another testament of his naivety to say the least. But the failure of this amateurish and wishful attempt of his put him face-to-face with his real dilemma: the regime is the major impediment to reform, yet reform is a regime-ender.

Ever since then, that is ever since Damascus Spring came to an end, Bashar could do nothing but run in circles, circles with a continuously shrinking diameter, transforming himself into a wall-hugging dictator. Bashar’s story with the Wall began long before Hariri and Jumblatt’s rebelliousness. It might have begun ever since he was born really, after all he was a dictator’s son, and his second choice.

The only thing that kept Bashar in power all this time, and that still keep him in power today, is the fact that others in regime were no less mediocre than he is. They are even too mediocre to organize a coup for crying out loud, albeit a well-packaged coup has a good change of receiving both internal and international approval.


Regarding developments in Iran, Hoder has a very intersting post today that supoprts what I have been saying about Ahmadinejad.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Déjà Vu All Over Again, and Again, and Again!

“Less hostile” and “downbeat” don’t cut it. Assad’s speech was plain dumb. But what else did we expect? He is a hopeless case. A really hopeless case. There is nothing more that can be said about that, except to remind that when such people are in charge of anything, they are bound to fuck it up. Start counting the days towards disaster. We have a leader who courts them, many people who support him, and a whole population that stands idly by as if the whole thing does not concern them.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Rhetorical Axis!

And so it happened just like we knew it would. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has just announced the formation of new alliance including Syria, Iran, rejectionist Palestinian groups, and Shia factions in Lebanon (in other words: Hezbollah).

The die seems to have finally been cast. The Shia Crescent has just been formalized and reconfigured into a living and breathing entity, with its own network of supports from among the secular nationalist movements and extremist Sunni groups, which simply have no other means of support at this stage.

Or has it?

The reality is Ahmadinejad is full of so much hot air that one should not jump to conclusions solely on the basis of his statements. He is no Khomeini. He is no Khamenei for that matter either. He does not seem to command enough loyalty among the ruling elite in Iran to be taking too seriously. His announcements and statements tend to be always provocative, but his provocation might be simply aimed at cutting the right deal for Iran, a deal which could come at the expense of both Syria and Hezbollah, not to mention the Palestinians, and regardless of what Ahmadinejad himself might think. After all, he is not his own man, and should he develop ideas along these lines, he will probably be removed from the scene, one way or another.

Indeed, the days of revolutionary zeal are over, despite what Ahmadinejad might think, and despite what his backers want us to think. There is a measure of cold calculation involved in the phenomenon represented by the rise of Ahmadinejad. Khamenei and his group of ultra-conservative yet pragmatic scholars and general are sending a message to the world: accept us and deal with us, or deal with the likes of Ahmadinejad, who do represent an important faction in the ruling elite, but one that is not as powerful as we are led to believe at times. The Ayatollah’s of Iran and their allies in the army have developed too many business interests to allow for the revolutionary zeal of someone like Ahmadinejad to ruin everything for them by provoking an un-winnable confrontation with the international community. Iran simply wants to end its isolation in a formal manner and wants to become a major regional player. Playing the card of radicalism is one way for them to negotiate their way into legitimacy.

Whether the world is willing to play along is something quite different. China and Russia might be willing to accept a powerful even nuclear Iran, but the United States, Germany, France and Great Britain seem completely unwilling to accept anything along these lines. Indeed, their entire regional policies will need to be reassessed with the introduction of such a new powerful player into the scene. They are unlikely to be willing to undertake such a reassessment.

And so, the ball is now squarely in Bush’s, Chirac’s Merkel’s and Blair’s court. Let’s see how they will respond to Iran’s hardball diplomacy.

If they took it too seriously, that is, if they believe that the above alliance is real, and/or if their intelligence paints a different picture of the Iranian scene than the one outlined above, a picture in which Ahmadinejad appears as the man in charge of charting Iran’s policy at this stage, then they have no choice but to come up with a joint strategy for confrontation with Iran, one that has to involve military action and prolonged presence in the region that will be increasingly unstable for the years to come.

Alternatively, they have to find ways for dealing with each country involved in this alleged alliance separately.

What does this mean? What does this alliance really represents?

A lot of hot air more likely. Bashar & Co. might be the only ones who are desperate enough to take this alliance seriously, and they probably will, which will only increase their problems with the international community. Moreover, Iran will not rush to the rescue of the Syrian regime should it collapse, even if this collapse came as a result of military action. But the Iranians will hope and will try to generate enough instability in the aftermath of such a collapse to keep international attention focused on Syria and Lebanon for a long enough time for them to produce their first nuke, a development which will change the rules of the game for them. Or so goes their basic assumption.

In all cases, if the US et al are unwilling to live with a nuclear Iran, then military strikes, if not a full-scale invasion, will be forthcoming sooner or later, even should Iran develop its first nukes in the next few months. In fact, such a development might act as a catalyst for military action rather than a preventive or a preemptive mechanism, as it is intended to be. Developing a nuke is one thing, mounting it on a missile and delivering it is quite another. Should Iran show any signs of having succeeded in meeting the first challenge, it is unlikely to survive long enough to meet the second challenge, even if it is only days away, that is, so long as the US et al are unwilling to live with a nuclear Iran.

So, let Ahmadinejad say what he wants, let Bashar believe what he wants, the net result of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Syria is a further increase in isolation for both regimes. The speech that Bashar is scheduled to give tomorrow will not alter this fact for his regime regardless of what he has to say. Indeed, the only startling thing that could come out of tomorrow’s speech is for it to contain, for once, some iota of real common sense and perception.

Meanwhile, promises of political and structural reforms are unlikely to be heeded or believed by the Syrian opposition, especially the signatories of the Damascus Declaration. And there is simply nothing that Bashar can say at this stage that can appease the international community, especially the United States and France. In fact, he is more likely to attempt to challenge them rather than appease them at this stage, being the brilliant guy that he is. (As I said, he will likely be the only one who will take Ahmadinejad’s declarations seriously).

Still, and as is usual in such cases, the speech will likely generate some sensation in certain quarters and it will surely receive all the popular support and approval that it is designed to get. The outpouring of emotion will be genuine – the people simply want to believe. So, the speech will help shore up Bashar’s image for a while. But he lack of real action, and the cold reaction of the international community vis-à-vis all this will serve to deflate, if not completely burst, the expectations' bubble within a few short weeks, if not days.

Then it will be back to square one: the investigation, the isolation, the constant anticipation, the frustration, the whimpering, whimpering, whimpering, whimpering, all the way to oblivion.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Canticle for the Masochists!

Another witness changing his testimony, political prisoners freed, some reform measures about to be announced, the Syrian regime’s strategy is clear: get the people to rally behind it. And they surely will. For the Syrian people desperately want to be fooled. And they surely will.

But the Syrian regime’s real problems is with the US, France and the EU at large, and the people there seem less willing to be fooled. So all this show at reform, and all this bluster, and all these witnesses voluntarily changing their erstwhile testimonies, all these things simply don’t matter anymore.

How long will it take before the situation reaches a head? Perhaps not too long. Should the visit of Ahmadinejad to Syria culminates in some dramatic declarations, such as the formation of a military pact, or something, anything along these lines, the Syrian regime will be going down first.

And the Syrian people will be the biggest losers of course. Rallying behind one’s oppressor is like walking in one’s own funeral. But we have been doing that for such a long time now, we are used to it. Some of us might even find pleasure in it. Indeed, we are more likely a nation of masochists.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dashing Gets a Lashing!

My former chief interrogator, Assef Shawkat , to whom I have referred as General Dashing in my earlier blog posts, has gotten his assets in the US frozen, in a symbolic move meant to demonstrate that the "family" is indeed “not off limits,” as far as this administration is concerned.

What does this mean at a time when the Syrian President is attempting to rally people to his side by
freeing some political prisoners (while his agents are busy making more), and preparing to announce some important internal reforms, more likely in his upcoming speech this Saturday?

It means that the President will be delivering too little too late as far as the US is concerned. It also means that many people in Syria are going to be suckered into rallying behind their jailer and executioner.

My call for civil disobedience in such a frenzied climate is going to look more and more pitiful, and less and less likely to be heeded by anyone. We are all too set on a course towards disaster.

Caught between the cruelty of our ruling regime, the inflating cynicism and wishfulness of our all too cowed populations, the corruption of so many segments of our society, and the conflicting interests of the powers-that-be in this world, what chance does rational action has? What chance do dreamers like me have to influence anything?

But we are going to get ourselves dismissed as traitors and opportunists, nonetheless. Oh for joy, for joy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Chances Are!

For Khaddam, chances are he is simply too corrupt for other people in the opposition to approach. But, this also depends on how chooses to present himself to the opposition. Should he drastically temper and revise his expectations, he might have a chance of appealing to some. One thing is clear though: he will not be allowed to become the leader of the external opposition, no matter how highly he happens to think of himself.

For Bashar, chances are he will stay in power for longer than I would have anticipated, or liked. But that only means that his eventual exit into the darkest corners and recesses of history and human memory will be more bloody and humiliating than I would have liked as well. He still represents Syria, one way or another, and the longer he stays in power, the more catastrophic his eventual downfall will be for the country, that is, not unless it was brought about by that one-in-a-billion development that is a velvet revolution…

which brings us to me, the one who would like to help orchestrate such an unlikely development.

Indeed, for me, chances are I’ll fail in achieving most of the goals that I have set for myself professionally, including that thing about managing velvet transitions and all that. As for Tharwa, which will be launched again soon, it is, quite fortunately, no longer dependent solely on me, which means that Tharwa is likely to survive whatever happens to me.

Be that as it may, one thing is quite clear to me: when I eventually die, and regardless of the exact manner and timing of this all too inevitable development, chances are I’ll die a happy man. For there is one thing I know I’ll always have: the love, respect and understanding of my family. Why do I know I’ll always have that? Because this is the one thing I will never take for granted, and will never give up on.

And, you guess it, chances are I am quiet happy right now, albeit a bit stressed. After all, today marks my and Khawla’s fourth wedding anniversary as well as the second anniversary of my father’s passing.

Such is life. I’ll take it for what it is, and with a smile on my face.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Heretic & the Genie!

As difficult as it is to imagine, not to mention actually conjure, there is really no reasonable course left for the Syrian people if they do want to get out from under the yoke of this endless night of lies, corruption and oppression, but civil disobedience.

If we don’t get the Street moving and along the right lines soon, the Street will eventually be moved along our infamous sectarian fault-lines. Indeed, those who continue to think that there is no real alternative to the Syrian regime miss the point completely. For the alternative is a catastrophic collapse of the last vestiges of our social order and our civil society. This alternative is already working itself onto the scene. Iraq fell long before Saddam, and so will Syria.

Calls such as One Day that Could Change Syria needs to be reiterated as often as possible, until people eventually heed them, or the whole thing comes crash in down upon us. People need to be mobilized, and corruption is the one issue that can unite most, if not all social groups. Once people fall into the habit of practicing people power, the move to a more direct opposition to the regime will follow. If time at this stage does not seem to be on our side, or if some are arguing that it is still too early or has already become too late for such moves, we should pay no kind to that, and continue to forge ahead. Because, if history has proven anything, it is that time is always on the side of those who plan and organize and forge ahead to the implementation phase, no matter what appearances tend to suggest.

The only people who might be doing something along these lines in Syria these days seem to be the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist groups – not a very unifying force to say the least, and the regime might be using this fact, or over-blowing it, in order to shore itself up.

But the fear that secularists have vis-à-vis the Street and the “Masses” needs to stop. In order to undercut the influence of both the regime and the Islamists on the Street the secular opposition needs to take the initiative in appealing to it. The genie may not be easily controllable once it is out the lamp, but inside the lamp it is absolutely useless. And the genie is the only hope we have left.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Syriana or Syriosis?

They see him here
They see him there
Those bloody idiots see him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Or is he in hell? –
the Khaddam Pimpernel.

Ah rumor-mongering, the appetizer de jour in desperate times, the favorite pastime of the cowards and wishful thinkers of the world, the quintessential salt of a long parched earth, like our “earth” happens to be these days. Ah, the thrill of it all. I can watch this while eating buttered popcorn, belying all my claims to dieting, reneging, so early, on all my New Year’s resolutions, that is, had I not been part of this whole thing, had I not been right here smack in the midst of it all, having a clear stake in the outcome, like freedom, and all that.

To me, this unfolding melodrama feels more like Syriosis than Syriana. It’s a disease, a full blown disease, with no cure yet in sight.

Or, to be more specific, the cure might be well-known really, but it is bitter, too bitter for our all too refined taste. After so many thousands of years of civilization, we tend to expect things to work themselves out in our favor somehow, no need to suffer the bitterness of the potential cures. You wait a long enough period, and all diseases can prove ephemeral.

But we… we are here to stay, or so we’d like to think. Because the alternative is just too damn… empty, as far as we are concerned.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Unless he can indeed manage to recruit some new figures to join his government in exile, Khaddam’s moment, his fifteen minutes of fame, seem to be over (his eternity of shame, on the other hand, is just beginning).

Indeed, it is about time for a new actor to venture onto the stage, and for a new twist to take place in the ever convoluting plot that represents the endgame for a certain decrepit regime. It is indeed time for another fuckup by our timid yet angry lion-cub.

What will it be this time, I wonder? Another convenient car-bombing? Another stupid interview? A meaningless and empty gesture to try to appeal to the internal opposition? Or will he surprise us with something really creative this time around, fucking up being the real essence of his creative genius?

I can't wait. I am actually holding my breaths.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Elephant that Is Not in the Room, but Should Be!


Where Are All the Entrepreneurs?

Very few entrepreneurs in the Arab World seem to be seriously interested in reform. Indeed, they can be heard every now and then in countries such as Syria, Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, criticizing cumbersome government procedures, import/export regulations and the endemically corrupt bureaucracies, and calling for effective reforms of the country’s financial institutions. But that has been the extant of their “activism” so far. Politically speaking they continue to be missing in action, although they could probably generate more popular sympathy and endorsement, despite their known part in ongoing corruption schemes, than any of the existing opposition groups. Or, by joining or allying with some of the existing opposition groups they can probably bestow upon them a greater sense of legitimacy and credibility.

For people are not that really stupid, and they do realize at a certain level that their consumerist desires and expectations represent, in one form or another, an actual endorsement of not purely capitalist ideals, than at least certain mercantilist ones.

Now the entrepreneur class, or to be more specific, the businesses community, is not in any way, shape or form some homogenous groups of individuals. In addition to their religious, ethnic and provincial diversity, they are also divided by, if not ideology per se, than at least, conception of the role in society and their relationship to it.

The traditional aristocratic families, aka the Bazaaris as they are called in Iran, are quite different from the surviving feudal overlords in certain parts of the region, and both are quite different from the Nouveau Riche, that fractious group of individual shady entrepreneurs who emerged under existing regimes and who owe much of their wealth to the shady deals and scheme made possible by the corruption and corruptibility of these regimes.

The Nouveau Riche might seem like opportunist bastards at first, but some of them have been around for a while now, let’s not forget that some of the regimes go back a few decades, that is, enough time to allow some of the Nouveau Riche to make the crossover into Old Money, at least from the point of view of the increasingly young population. Some might have, in fact, managed to establish family ties with some of the old aristocratic families out there, benefiting from certain rough times that many of these families have gone through during the heydays of the 60s, 70s and in some cases even the 80s and 90s.

Some Nouveau Riche elements, however, might have grown less opportunistic and as such more willing to be critical of some of the policies of existing regimes. But so far, and even for them, the politics is still out of the question.

For representatives of Old Money, on the other hand, early involvement in politics have arguably backfired on them, at least in their own minds, and was simply too costly. But this is a rather dubious take on things. The reason for the failure of Old Money’s dabbling in politics is related to their insistence on the pursuing their own narrow interests firsts and at the expense of everything else. They did not show any real commitment to improving the living conditions in the countryside, in poorer communities, or any kind of serious developmental activities. Their narrow mindedness, lack of vision and petty squabbles spelled their doom, and that of their respective countries to some extant. It is their failure that facilitated the rise of the Baath in countries such as Syria, Iraq and Algeria, and brought about the Nasserist experiment in Egypt, with its influence elsewhere in the region.

The fact that this same mentality continues to plague the minds of the old entrepreneurial class, who now prefer to play it safe, and prefer to take part in the various corruption schemes in order to maintain their quiet, luxurious yet quite marginal subsistence in their countries and societies, will continue to have a very debilitating effect on their societies.

Why is the role of entrepreneurs so important? Because, in the absence of serious intellectual leaders and political leaders from the scene, the added absence of entrepreneurial leaders might just doom the region to a long period of atavistic mayhem.

Ours, the proliferation of pretenders notwithstanding, are in fact leaderless societies, which is just another aspect of our continuing plight.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Falafel Republic – 2!

Despite the advice that President Jacques Chirac seems to have gotten from his Egyptian counterparts and Saudi counterparts, statements made by the French President during his recent address laying out French foreign policy for the year ahead reflect a certain unwillingness to compromise with the Syrian regime at this stage. President Chirac affirmed that the time for dabbling in Lebanese affairs and attempting to destabilize it is over, he then called on the Syrian authorities to cooperate fully with the UN commission and asserted that Syria's "return to the heart of the community of nations is contingent on a change in behavior."

Coming so soon on the heel of the visits by the Egyptian President and the Saudi Monarch, these are pretty uncompromising stands adopted by the French President. As such, the likelihood of a deal with France seems highly unlikely at this stage.

Meanwhile, the former Syrian PM, Muhammad Mustafa Miro, has just been stopped with his family at the Aleppo airport and prevented from traveling to Poland. His passport was confiscated and his name and that of other officials is said to be on a recently circulated travel ban list.

Moreover, the Syrian Minister of Justice (and what an oxymoron that is these days: Syrian justice) has just announced that Khaddam will be tired for high treason on account of this recent stands and statements.

The Syrian people couldn’t care less about any of this seeing that their Feast of Sacrifice is currently including them a well. Prices are so high, they couldn’t afford the traditional lamb meal, and fears of the Bird Flue drove them away from chicken.

Falafel anyone?

The Falafel Republic!

This is indeed how many Syrians refer to the country as least when viewed from the perspective of the great majority of the people who cannot afford to eat anything but Falafel these days, thanks to 40 years of Baath rule and corruption.

But, and according to a recent article published in the Arabic news site Elaph, the Falafelites, despite the Khaddam offensive, are still holding hope that President Bashar will finally begin to crackdown on corruption and take serious steps to improve their living standards, transforming the state back into the Shawerma, Kufta & Kebab Republic.

Unfortunately tough, the only the Shawerma, Kufta & Kebab that this President seems wiling and capable of delivering are the ones made of our won decaying carcasses, which does not seem like a very appetizing prospect to me. Thanks to this regime, cannibalism could soon be making a comeback in this land of endless civilization.

But whom am I kidding? Cannibalism has always been the spice of our lives hereabouts. This is what our long spate of civilization has been all about. We live on because we can cannibalize ourselves. We have been feeding of each other for thousands of years now, and there is nothing anyone can do to make us stop. We have long developed a taste for our own flesh, not to mention God’s of course. Autophagia, Theophagia, Omniphagia. This is what human progress is all about, a steady progression towards hell led in the name of everything sacred.

Monday, January 09, 2006

My Big Heretical Heart!


How I Can Love Hariri, Tweini & Syria all at the same Time!

I thought this dialogue is too important and needs to be given more visibility. For it gives me the chance to clarify further my position on why I oppose the Syrian regime.

The Comment

I just don't understand how you could ever think of Syria's involvement in Hariri's assasssination and how by any chance I saw you on TV mourning Tuieni as if he was your role model. I just want you to have more insight into the politics of the region and suspect others like Junblat and Mossad and not preclude the high probability of their committing this heinous crime. Regarding Tuieni's assassination, I surely denounce it but let's not forget how his spiteful stir-up of the Lebanese hatred caused the killing of many Syrian workers and other individuals and led to growing enmity between the two blood-related peoples.

--Posted by I love my country to Amarji - A Heretic's Blog at 1/09/2006 02:05:54 PM

My Reply

I love my country too, which is why I hate this regime. It sucks our blood like a vampire and preys upon us like a vulture. Had the President and his ilk not being totally caught up in their power games and struggles, had they not been so blind as to the changing world around them, had they not been so incompetent and foolish, we would not have been in the position we are in today, with our country on the verge of another series of potentially disastrous developments.

I say, potentially, because if we are willing to break the barrier of fear for once and confront the real reason for our misery at this stage, we might still be in a position to prevent the implosion of the country and bring about regime change ourselves, and save our country from an unnecessary face-off with the powers-that-be in this world.

Still, let's play it dumb for a while and let's assume that it is indeed the Mossad, or Jumblat, or anybody but our idiotic leaders, that was behind Hariri assassination, even then, the Syrian regime is still to blame for the problems we are now facing today. You know why? Because they failed to read the very obvious signs that have been gathering around for many years now, signs to the effect that it was time to pull out of Lebanon, to focus on internal matters, to reinvent the regime and its basic structure, to go along with the necessity of loosening one's grip on power and allow for more participation in the decision-making process, to focus on fighting corruption and dealing with the serious developmental challenges that this country is facing. The signs were obvious, the warnings were being issued by all and sundry, to no avail. To no avail.

To Bashar & Co., this is was never about patriotism and national interest. This was always about their particularistic interests, their grip on power. They tell us about patriotism, reform and conspiracies, but all they really care about is staying in power and fleecing the flock.

Well, I don't know about you, but I am tired of being fleeced, bled-dry and devoured, no matter how piecemeal. I think I deserve better than this. I think the country I love deserves better than this.

My opposition to this regime has always been premised on this idealistic love for freedom and country, believe it or not, and not the Hariri assassination, and I have been doing most of my opposition while back in Syria, armed with nothing but my Syrian citizenship and my own talents and skills. So, my current daring is not related to my being in the US at this point in time. I have been saying very much the same things when I was back in Syria.

For at least fifteen years now, countries in Eastern Europe and some in Latin America and Southeast Asia have been working hard at developing and modernizing themselves. But under our regimes, most of them anyway, our region has been doing none of that, because our leaders are more interested in power than reform on the one hand, and because they are unequal to the task of reform on the other. Since those who are equal to the task will constitute a serious threat to the regimes' hold on power, even if they appear uninterested in power, then, these people cannot be allowed to function freely, they cannot be allowed to run their NGOs and companies and achieve what the state is failing to achieve.

For this reason, regimes such as the Syrian regime can only pave the way to disaster and implosion. This is the essence of my opposition to it.

As for my reading of the Hariri situation, you don’t have to agree with it, in order to agree with me on the necessity of regime change from the inside. All you have to do here is love your country, as you say you do, and seek what is best for her, which is not necessarily what is best for the regime.

On the other hand, I do admit that I have always respected Hariri and Tweini. They both worked as hard as they can for their country. Hariri may not have been Mr. Squeaky Clean to some people, and being in the position he was in having to deal with the kind of people he had to deal with all the time in both Syria and Lebanon, I don’t think he could have afford it really. Still, his love for Lebanon was manifested in his support for the tens of thousands of students who were sent to study abroad at a time when few others were paying attention to the importance of such moves, and in what he did in downtown Beirut, Sidon and other Lebanese cities. He might have taken from Lebanon somehow, but he clearly gave as well. The taking in Syria is too blatant to be denied, but where is the giving?

The case for Tweini is even more easily justified. By opening the pages of an-Nahar to liberal intellectuals from all over the Arab World, and not just Syria and Lebanon, to discuss issues that no other newspaper would have touched, Mr. Tweini, demonstrated his deep appreciation for freedom and for liberal and liberating values. Yes, I didn’t know him personally and I did miss the chance to meet him on a number of occasions, but I do consider him a soulmate, nonetheless.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Simple Truth!

Khaddam’s call for popular resistance against the Assad regime, reiterated in several interviews he gave over the last few days, are serving to make some people question the wisdom behind calling for work stoppage at this stage. For most people at this stage might think that such a call came in response to Khaddam’s own.

Indeed, the situation is getting murkier and murkier. But clarity has never been a fact of our life in Syria, and the region as a whole. So like it or not, we simply had to keep our focus on what is really at stake here, namely: our freedom and the quality of our life.

Under this regime no improvement is possible. Indeed our conditions have been getting steadily worth. We have clearly reached a dead-end here and we do need to start over. The new beginning, however, could easily lead us to more of the same, with only changes in key state positions and nothing more. But unless new dynamics are introduced at street level, and by the right actors, which I take to mean the secular opposition groups and liberal activist figures, more of the same is exactly what we are going to get.

More on the unfolding situation in the recent article by Massoud Derhally.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Khaddam Speaks! Bashar Squeaks!

Well, according to Reuters, an Egyptian journal will be running an interview with Bashar on Monday in which he denounces Khaddam’s stands and refutes his accusations.

In the interview Bashar asserts that he never threatened Hariri and he says that no one attended the last meeting between them. But it should be noted here that the meeting to which Khaddam had referred was not the last meeting between the two men but an earlier one. Khaddam made this very clear in his interview with al-Arabiya.

As such, Bashar does not come off very convincing. Moreover, his own accusations against Khaddam as having become part of “designs” against Syria even before his resignation in June is quite reminiscent of Khaddam’s denunciation by members of the People’s Assembly.

Indeed, if the President knew about or had reasons to believe that indeed Khaddam was planning such a move, why did he allow it to take place? What was stopping him? If he was only informed afterwards, what doesn’t anyone get sacked for these kind of errors?

Be that as it may, it is clear by now that, whenever Bashar opens his mouth to speak, he comes off as a complete moron. I don’t know why there are still so many people around who refuse to see this.

As for Khaddam, if he truly desires to reinvent himself, here is one little piece of advise.

So far, there is not a single admission of wrong doing on is part, not a single apology for past misdeeds. True, we cannot expect the man to come out and says that he was corrupt himself, still, since his corruption has long become the stuff that modern fairytales are made off in the country, trying to muddle through without admitting past mistakes will only serve to undermine the credibility of his current stands and will prove counter-productive. He needs to admit to certain mistakes, at least on part of certain family members, and he needs to make a gesture towards redemption. Let’s say, the establishment of a certain endowment to support various developmental projects in the country to the tune of something like 200 million USD.

That should do it. Let’s see if Khaddam’s advisors are reading this blog.

Meanwhile, let the battle rage on, our shoulders still have some meat left, and the lions and the hyenas of our miserable part of the world are forever hungry.

No Holds Barred!

Khaddam has come out clearly for the removal of his former boss. In his interview with al-Asharq al-Awsat (summarized here by the BBC), he left no room for speculation as to his intention and desire to see a regimefall in Damascus. No. He does not support an Iraqi-style change, nor is he calling for a military coup, Khaddam wants the street to move against the President. Has he been, or anyone of his advisors been reading my blog I wonder?

Be that as it may, I doubt that the Street will listen to Khaddam, not to mention my heretical self.

But, as the dogs go at each other’s throats, and as they proceed to strip each other of every fig leaf they have in front of our disbelieving eyes, sooner or later the reality of their inherent ugliness is bound to dawn upon us all.

The opposition will be well advised not to take sides and to simply point at ugly scene in front to of us and address the Syrian people and say:

“Didn’t we tell you? They are all alike, they are all corrupt. So, even if you are afraid of change, can’t you see now that we have no choice but to change? Don’t we deserve better rulers than these? Don’t we need at this point in time, better rulers than these? Isn’t it the corruption of this ruling class that is gnawing at the foundation of our state and undermining its stability?”

Exposing the endemic corruption of the regime and explaining its role in getting us where we are today is key to getting popular endorsement and sympathy. The House of Khaddam and the House of Assad are doing us all a big favor because exposing each other.

The Real Heresy that is Freedom!

If Khaddam can bring enough pressure on the Assad regime to break it, this will not constitute a move towards democracy in itself. But such a development will have broken the status quo, the stalemate that has been plaguing us for years. A popular uprising against Khaddam and his new government might easier to organize in such conditions, considering that his claim to legitimacy will be even less than that of Bashar.

For, in the final analysis, ours remains a struggle for freedom, not for the change in the name of the tyrant or in the nature of the tyranny. As such, this is going to be a long struggle, because we will be fighting to learn for ourselves what the meaning of freedom really is, and all along the way, we will have to pay the prices of this learning. We might be born with the inherent and inalienable right to be free, but freedom is seldom granted and it does not come cheap.

So, to summarize, if a move by Khaddam will serve to weaken this regime, or break it, this will be a good thing, but this will only represent a small opening of a window of opportunity through which we need to slip, if not barge in.

Meanwhile, the internal opposition in Syria needs to prepare itself for all eventualities. It should not be overly concerned with might or might not happen with Khaddam. The street needs to be politicized in all cases. It needs to begin to agitate for freedom, regardless of what particular tyrant is in charge.

The call for a national work stoppage on February 1st as a sign of protest against the endemic government corruption is meant as a tactic that can get people and opposition groups on the same side fighting for a cause that concerns one and all. Since, this stand does not constitute a direct and overt challenge to regime’s legitimacy and does not require any direct act of confrontation with it, it has the potential of well-publicized to appeal to a certain critical segment of the population. People need to develop a habit for civic action, and there is no better time for it than now.

Still, by issuing such a call, I am more likely going to demonstrate to one and all my complete irrelevance within the Syrian civil society scene, as my call is not likely to be heeded. Or is it the irrelevance of the various civil society organizations and opposition movements themselves that will be shown here?

Be that as it may, I stand by my call, of course, and I will continue to lobby for it while keeping my fingers crossed. Not for me, mind you, I can easily survive with a bruised ego, I have been doing that all my life, but for the Syrian people, yes the Syrian people, no matter how "tacky" this might sound these days. They simply need to wake up, before it’s too late.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

One Day That Could Change Syria!

With all the discontent we are currently witnessing in Syria vis-à-vis official corruption, and seeing that the entire message of fighting corruption has now being hijacked by the likes of Khaddam, wouldn’t it be possible for the Syrian opposition to try to tap into that by calling for a one day work stoppage as a demonstration of popular discontent with regard to the spread of corruption and the inefficacy of government efforts to combat it?

This idea should be pretty marketable seeing that it does not constitute a direct challenge to the regime, and that it does not involve demonstrations or sit-ins, and that the basic idea for it is for people, be they state employees, small business owners, doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, grocers, whatever, to simply not show for work on a certain agreed day.

The idea itself could be advertised by lesser politicized civil society organizations and activists, rather than political opposition groups, in order to make it more acceptable and less risqué for the greatest possible segment of the population. But it should nonetheless receive the tacit support of these groups, which should also be organized in advertising it.

If such a movement should succeed, its impact is going to be much larger than we might think at first and future follow up events could then become balder and more overtly political.

I really think that the time has indeed come for such an idea. I really believe that the opposition needs to opt for such a stratagem at this stage.

Shall we make it February 1st, 2006 then? If you agree, let me know and spread the word.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Beyond the Mafia Regimes!

Corruption is the Number One obstacle in the face of development in our haggard part of the world. Entrenched regimes which act more like mafia conglomerates than actual governments can never produce the sort of reforms needed to help bridge the Development Gap separating us from the rest of the world.

Therefore, those of us who are seriously interested in seeing this region living up to its full potential in terms of being able to provide for the material wellbeing of its various peoples have the awesome responsibility of trying to build alternatives to existing regimes from the ground up. Nothing could be more daunting.

Not even the people who will benefit the most from such a development will stand by us at first, on account of the many social taboos that we will end up transgressing against.

Indeed, achieving a regimefall is only a minor hurdle in comparison to those represented by socio-cultural norms. This is as true in Syria as it is in most Arab countries. The struggle to build free and developed societies in our part of the word will take us the better part of this century. But then, and as we say in DarEmar, Small Steps Count.

In Search of the Good Alawites!

Regardless of what is happening today on the surface of things, and regardless of how much trouble Bashar & Co. have got themselves into, being able to maneuver the country into and through a peaceful democratic transition requires the aegis of a number of Good Sunnis and Good Alawites.

The Good Sunnis are defined as those who can prevent acts and steer their community in a direction that is more accommodating of difference not only across the sectarian barrier but also across the ideological divide separating Islamists and secularists.

The Good Alawites, on the other hand, are those who will be willing to stand up against the corruption and tyranny of the Assad clan and those who would acknowledge that a return to normalcy in the country means that certain psychological and structural adjustments need to be made in order to allow the Sunni community a more logical share in power and the decision-naming process, one that is more commensurate with demographic realities.

Certain structural checks and balances need to be adopted by one and all in order to prevent both the tyranny of the majority and that of the minority and, more importantly, the tyranny of all ideologies. Small states cannot afford to be ideological in this world. No state really can, but states such as the US can afford to make some mistakes, Syria cannot.

A Shameless Plug

Managing Transition is currently being debated on the Syria Forum website.

Meanwhile, my wife has recently launched her own blog. The blog is in Arabic and it is of a literary nature.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Word to the Mother!

Well, things are moving at a pretty rapid pace at this stage. The UN investigative committee did not waste any time and has just upped the ante way up than anyone would have expected a mere few days ago. Gone is all the foolish talk about a deal between the US and the regime, or… are the French (and the Saudis) forcing the hands of the Bush Administration on this? Let’s not forget here folks, the Syria regime’s real antagonists here have always been the French.

Be that as it may, the plot continues to thicken in Syria, and things are bound to heat up at the UN Security Council soon, for the Assad will never accept to be interviewed, especially under such circumstances.

The people are sure to rally behind Assad, for now. But one cannot count too much on people’s loyalties to authoritarian regimes – they tend to be skin deep, no matter how much nationalistic passion the regime tries to whip up. For under authoritarian systems, the people, very much like their ruling cliques, tend to put their own “narrow” interests first. They won’t go down for the regime. Their show of support is just that – a show put for the benefit of all those idiots who sincerely want and need to believe. More importantly, it comes as a much needed layer of protection. These are feverish times, and until someone learn to break through the barrier of fear and rally people to the real cause (which is freedom from oppression, in case anyone has forgotten), people will have more to fear from their regime, than they do from the international community with its vague threats of sanctions. Sanctions will not hurt you immediately, but the regime can. So, long live the regime, and down with the sanctions.

Unfortunately though, there are a lot of idealists out there, and they are usually young and educated - rather, semi-educated. Being idealists and all that, these unfortunate fools will undoubtedly rally behind the regime thinking that they are in fact rallying to save the homeland from the clutches of the Zionists and the neo-imperialists and their fifth columnists lackeys in the opposition. Since, these educated idiots, who have always represented the perennial fodder for all the stupid ideological wars in the world, do not usually come in too a small number, they can actually give this besieged regime enough of a boost at this stage to help weather the storm.

So, unless the opposition learns how to address these young well-intentioned brainwashed enthusiasts, and nullify the effects of so many years of brainwashing, the above developments may not as significant as we want them to be.

Transitions need to be managed well in order to succeed. Divine management of these matters tend to drag out and they are often too mysterious for my taste. I prefer the messiness of the human factor.

A less heretical take might assert that divine management can only succeed through the aegis of human actors. Take your pick, but act now.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Cautionary Note!

Despite its sensationalist nature, we really should not read too much into Khaddam’s recent "act of apostasy." His was a strong jab for his age, but it will not be a knockout blow by a long shot.

Indeed, the regime does not seem to completely unprepared for this move, as some analysts are suggesting, it is just that there strategy cannot be include an element of self-incrimination. They have to denounce Khaddam’s corruption, and soon others a well. But they will attempt to sue this momentum for the planned and long-expected launch of a Bashar-led “Corrective Movement” against the last vestiges of the Old Guard, as I have argued in my comment below.

Indeed, many people in the internal opposition, well, the incompetent and greedy bastards to be specific, will be banking on that. The old line that Bashar had his hands tied by the Old Guard will be reiterated at this stage to buy him more time.

But this is not such a bad development really, for by this Bashar will have committed himself to a serious reform program and he will have heightened up popular expectations in this regard. The more savvy members of the internal opposition should up the ante at this stage by demanding more and more and opening more and more corruption files, especially those that could implicate the New Guard as well, including the President’s own cousin. This, and the fact that the President leading cadre of reformers will never be allowed to deliver on realistic reforms, just like before, means that crackdowns and failure will be forthcoming within a few short months. This time the popular disappointment will be too hard to handle.

So, on the short run, those who will read too much into Khaddam’s defection will be disappointed. On the longer run, however, those who will read too much into the regime's new and hyped reform efforts will be more than just disappointed, they will be betrayed, again.