Sunday, April 30, 2006

Of Lions and Termites!

The debate in the comments section below perhaps got unnecessarily heated, but Alex did make some “sober” points that I simply need to respond to equally as soberly I hope.

Indeed, demanding anything like “simultaneous goodwill gestures between the Syrian government and its Lebanese opponents,” and advising that “[i]f the Americans wanted peace in the Middle East, they should make a deal with Bashar,” seem based on the erroneous assumption that Bashar and his henchmen are indeed capable of behaving like true statesmen and not like the sectarian thugs that they are. People who insist on looking at the Assads of Syria as statesmen are in an unfortunate state of denial. Bashar has been out of his depth from the moment he stepped into office, Maher is an unreliable hothead, and Assef is a man obsessed with his sectarian identity and with the necessity of keeping Alawites in control of Syria at all costs.

How do I know this? Because I was involved as an advisor (to the American side to be specific) in a number of initiatives meant to help jumpstart the Syrian-Israeli peace track and establish effective conduits for dialogue and communications between the Syrian regime and the Bush Administration. All these initiatives met with rejection the moment they landed in Bashar’s lap, regardless of the public gestures and declarations he was making at the time, such as shaking the hand of the Israeli President during Pope John Paul II funeral and asserting that his regime was ready to negotiate with the Israelis without on the basis of the Madrid Conference alone.

The most important such initiative was the one proposed by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in mid 2004 (that is just at the time when I was doing my first fellowship at Saban). And Martin took the matter to the Syrian President directly in October of 2004 in order to avoid any miscommunication or misunderstanding, and to avoid having to continuously assume that someone, such as the perennial fall guy in these matters, our country’s official court jester and Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Charaa, prevailed upon the President and turned him against the initiative. We also wanted to make sure to get some of the Syrian advisors who had taken part in previous negotiations with Israel, because had an interest in really starting from scratch. But these people understandably needed to have some green light from Bashar before they could commit.

Martin explained to Bashar at the time that serious interest exist in all relevant circles in Washington and Tel Aviv to convene a series of quiet meetings in Washington, DC involving Syrian, Israeli and American policy-advisors in the hope of preparing a roadmap of sorts for Syrian-Israeli peace and for improving Syrian-American relations. The people involved on the Israeli and American side, Martin assured Bashar (and I can, of course, vouch for that, as I knew all and met most of them), will be high level advisors close to both Bush and Sharon and, as such, will be able to accurately reflect the viewpoints of their respective administrations, ensuring that the end product that will come out of the meetings is indeed salable to both. If Bashar can, therefore, nominate equally credible people on the Syria side, the end product is bound to be appropriate from the Syrian perspective as well. In all cases, there was really little to lose and much to gain for all sides.

Well, Bashar didn’t think so, and he shut down the entire idea without giving any explanation, except to say that he doesn’t think any good can come out of secret negotiations! The assertion would have been more believable had previous efforts in which I was involved not being shut down on the pretense that Syrians prefer a more quiet diplomacy while Israelis insist on going public from day one.

In other words, on the issue of the Syrian-Israeli peace and Syrian-American relations Bashar was all talk and no action. Actually, this was Bashar’s story all along on almost everything including the issue of economic reform and the fight against corruption. The only exception in this regard is the issue of crackdown on democracy and human rights activists. Here indeed, Bashar was all action.

So, all these people who still look at Bashar as a statesman frankly surprise me. It seems more wishful thinking on their part, because it helps them avoid dealing with the implications of his inadequacy, not to mention his thuggish and authoritarian predilections.

Maher, too, suffer from these shortcomings and predilections, multiplied by a factor of ten and with added bonus of hotheadedness.

As for Assef, whom I believe is the key player behind most of the policies currently adopted by the Assads, well, my knowledge of his character are first hand and all too recent, and not just based on indirect contacts or remembrances of brief interactions that took place way back in high school (for yes, Bashar, Maher, the lesser known Majd, and yours truly attended the same high school in Damascus).

In my second meeting with Assef, he held in his hand translations of a number of articles and interviews in which I referred to Bashar as a “Fredo Corleone” and an “idiot.” Yet Assef never mentioned or seemed interested in this matter. What ticked him off were my calls for a civil disobedience campaign and my predictions that under Bashar’s rule the country was headed for a civil war. The Tharwa Project, my work on minority-majority relations and my refusal to accept his proposal that Islamists of all stands are the common enemy and we should all unite against them in the name of secular virtues were the main problems.

The underlying topic of all our “talks” has consistently been the Sunni-Alawite divide. Assef referred to it variously as the rural-urban divide, a dichotomy along socioeconomic conditions, the secular-Islamist divides, but in the heat of the debate and as I refused to take his arguments at face value and continued to refute them, a certain “we-and-you” emerged that betrayed the whole thing: he is an Alawite and I am a Sunni, he has control, I have none, and my only way into the game (assuming, of course, that I wanted to be in the game) is on his own terms.

And his terms were/are: the Alawite will continue to rule from behind the existing facades, which will never altered in any significant manner so that people like me could never any idea that the existing situation cold ever be changed.

Indeed, it is Assef (and Bushra) who is the true ideological heirs of Hafez al-Assad. He is a committed Baathist and a committed believer in the necessity of continued Alawite rule, at ALL costs. This is why he is opposed to any attempt at playing around with the political structure of the current regime. He will not risk having the system that has been elaborated by Assad Sr. and, at such great cost, come tumbling down. Their “reform” agenda, which Bashar also subscribes to, is to give the Syrian people handouts in the form of occasional pay-hikes and “subsidized” housing projects, continue to co-opt reformers and opposition figures, and to centralize all powers more and more under the control of the Assad-Makhlouf clan who, in their eyes, have earned the right to that by adhering to the plans set by Assad Sr. people like Ali Haydar, Ali Duba, the late Ghazi Kanaan, and all other disgruntled Alawite officers, have lost this privilege because they showed more willingness to compromise with the Sunnis.

This willingness seems to have been spurred on by the belief that maintaining the status quo is simply untenable and that the best time to reach a compromise is NOW, a time when Alawite are still in control of the military and that Sunni radicalism, while having made many serious inroads into the Sunni communities, is still incapable of uniting the majority of Sunnis under its flag.

The struggle between the Assads and their opponents has always revolved around this issue, this is the real struggle that has been and still is taking place in the country, and this struggle takes primacy over all others and constitutes the prism through which everything else is examined by the Assads, and against which all other considerations are weighed and measured.

Throw in the economic considerations into the mix, and the related turf wars that usually take place in such circumstances, then, pray tell me, where is the capable and “honest” statesman that can sit down with “the Lebanese opponents” and the representatives of the American administration?

Bashar was tried numerous times and was found lacking, and Assef is, by his very ideological predilections, as anti-American and anti-reform as you can get. Assef’s willingness to contemplate dealing with the American at one point was simply an extension of Hafiz’own – more a reflection of momentary necessity than an ability to understand the inner workings of American politics and execute an ideological shift in one’s worldview.

In short, the Assads are not statesmen and can never be. If we really want what is good for our country, we have to deal with this glaring and unfortunate reality, with all its implications: the Assads need to go. We need to shake the system and break the stalemate. No, democracy will not be the immediate outcome here, let’s not deceive ourselves. But under the Assads, we have no hope of ever working for democracy, or anything for that matter. The Assads need to go so we can have a real start at something. And, no there are no guarantees. Those who want guarantees might as well stick with Bashar & Co. They can guarantee the persistence of a veneer of stability, though at the expense of our
dignity, until such time when the whole thing comes crashing down on all our heads.

For the Assads are like termites, they tend to destroy their own home and seal their own fate. And ours as well of course, otherwise, why should any of us care?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One More Reason?

I am not sure what to make of the recent accusations streaming out of Amman against Hamas leaders in Damascus. Are they part of the Jordanian King’s attempt at cornering the Syrian regime as part of some containment plan against the Shia Crescent? Could be, I guess. But if there is any truth to the allegations being made, then the Syrian regime has just given the world one more reason for why regime change in Syria is necessary.

More on this in Tony’s post.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I Fear for Ali!

The fate of the Syrian political prisoner, Muhammad Sha’er Haysah, who died yesterday as a result of the “inhuman conditions of his incarceration” makes me quite worried about the fate of ‘Ali al-‘Abdallah and his two sons who remain missing to this day. We need an international figure to make an appeal on their behalf so that their fate can be ascertained. Their family deserves to know whether they are alive or dead. The international silence in this regard is incomprehensible and inexcusable. Ali & Sons could be undergoing some inhuman torture as we speak. They could also be dead.

What would happen, I wonder, should we find out that one or more of them is indeed dead? What sort of pressures could be brought against the Syrian regime to account for that?

The Case for Regime Change in Syria (2) & (3)

The Syrian regime holds no cards of its own anymore, in fact, it itself has become a card in the hands of the Iranian mullahs. Indeed the mullahs now hold the Syrian card, the Iraqi card, the Hezbollah card and the Hamas card in addition to the nuclear card, making it impossible for the US and the international community to ignore them. Throw in Iran’s size and demography into the mix, and you have a rather formidable opponent.

Therefore, sooner or later, one way or another, the US will have to negotiate with Iran, almost regardless of who is in charge there and almost regardless of consideration of human rights and democratization (yeah, I can’t believe I am saying that either). Recourse to real politick in its traditional formulation here is amply justified.

Iran may not be China or India, but, taking under consideration its demography, the size of its economy, the sophistication of its political class and the extant of its regional influence, it does fall somewhere on the periphery of that category of countries. That is, it may not be an actual super power, but it is an important enough regional power and cannot be simply treated as some kind of a rogue state, even when some of its leaders do tend to behave like rogues.

The mullahs have grown too corrupt to be as mad as Ahmadinejad makes them appear. Ahmadinejad can crawl all the way to Mecca on his hands and knees and pray at the Ka’abah, with all the sincerity in the world, for the destruction of the US and Israel and for the “return” of the Mahdi for as long a he wants, but all that his fellow mullahs, his comrades in beards, really want at this stage is to keep the worldly possessions that they have so studiously amassed over the years. The corrupt are too worldly to be mad. Ahmadinejad’s statements notwithstanding, the mullahs will negotiate when they see the need for that.

Admittedly though, and at this stage, the mullahs are just too cocky to see this need. After all, everything seems to be going their way, In Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and the UN Security Council. They, therefore, need to be brought down to earth once again in order for the negotiations to take place. This is why their “hot” regional cards need to be burnt.

For the Iranian mullahs have to eventually choose between their own survival and that of their imperial project. They cannot be allowed to keep all of their cards, they cannot be allowed to move from the periphery of that category of states mentioned earlier to its center without paying some kind of price, otherwise, they are bound to grow more ambitious and troublesome or all concerned.

Indeed, the only card that the mullahs could be allowed to keep is the one that seems to ensure and guarantees their survival: the nuclear card. If they want it so bad, they can have it. But the price is Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas and Iraq. If the Iranians want to move to the center, they have to be an India, not a China.

So, the Case for Regime Change in Syria (2) is: in order to knock some sense back into the heads of Iran’s mullahs, you need to take Syria’s Assads out of the equation. For, at this stage, they are the hottest card in the mullahs’ hands, without them the mullahs’ links to Hezbollah and Hamas will be sufficiently weakened and the mullahs might be more willing to reconsider their current regional strategy. This could open the doors for negotiations.

But what if the current administration should continue to be uncomfortable with the idea of negotiating with Iranian mullahs, what then?

Well, then, the Case for Regime Change in Syria (3) says that you still need to take Syria’s Assads out of the equation. For the Assads have clearly become the spoilers that the mullahs will use to make trouble for the US, especially in the aftermath of a bombing campaign against the Iranian nuclear sites.

After all is said and done then, the Assads of Syria have clearly transformed themselves into perennial spoilers with regard to US interests in the region, and that is enough reason for them to be singled for extinction.


The Case for Regime Change in Syria (1)

The Syrian regime and its sympathizers continue to build our case for why it should be changed, no matter what. Indeed this article in the Christian Science Monitor featuring quotes from Syrian analyst Sami Moubayed and fellow blogger and sparring partner Joshua Landis reveals much in this regard. The case is clearly laid out here.

By falling back on the Iranian option again (for let’s not forget here that this regime had sided once already with Iranian mullas during their long confrontation with the Saddam regime), and embracing the confrontational policies of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the Assads of Syria have chosen a path that leaves no room for diplomatic maneuvers. The die has indeed been cast, and compromise is no longer possible. It’s all about victory or defeat now, and the US cannot afford to be defeated by the likes of Bashar, regardless of considerations of guilt and innocence, regardless of who should be assigned a greater share in the blame for bringing this situation about.

This regime’s days are numbered. We need to plan for the day after.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Endgame Looming!

The last few days seems to have witnessed an expected resuscitation of the international campaign to isolate the Syrian regime. The move comes in the heels of the report issued by Terje Rod Larsen with regard to UN Resolution 1559, and is not really unexpected. For as most observers realize by now, a lull in pressures against the Syrian regime does not mean a reversal of policy on part of the international actors involved. Frankly, the anti-regime policies seem to be set in stone now, for the regime is defunct and the fact of it has become all too visible.

As such, lull-times seem to come more as a reflection of the fact that the international community has plenty of other fish to fry and cannot solely remain preoccupied with the Syrian regime. But they could also be seen, at times, as necessary preludes for new campaigns. Meanwhile, some process by which costs and benefits are being weighed seems to be involved as well – the world is simply not ready yet to bring down the end of another defunct regime in the Middle East, especially when the alternative is still unclear.

But, and if the Iraqi example reveals that the costs of chaotic change could far outweigh those of ugly stability, the Syrian example has clearly demonstrated that stability at any cost is no longer that sexy and desirable, not to mention useful. For a consistently threatened and threatening stability, stability on knife-edge and continuously fraying nerves for all concerned is very hard to live with.

But and with formation of the National Salvation Front, the days of frayed nerves might be coming to an end, as a long-awaited endgame seems to be nearing completion and will be ready for play-mode soon. But two things need to be taking into consideration here: the proposed endgame could still fail, and this particular endgame still requires several months before it is set in motion, and the showdown itself could drag on for many more months after that.

Still, things are going to heat up in the world’s most infamous kitchen, and despite the good reputation that Middle Eastern cuisine has, I am not sure how this particular dish is going to turn out. Let’s hope our endgame will not be a recipe for another disaster. After all how many disasters can one region endure, no matter how voracious the appetite of its citizens happens to be?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ali & His Sons!

The case of Ali Abdallah and his two sons Muhammad and Omar is probably the only case of a missing family of activists to emerge in Syria since the early eighties. The trio has gone missing for over two weeks and still there is no words as to their whereabouts or what security branch was responsible for their “napping.”

Activists are getting arrested left and right these days, but the silence surrounding the disappearance of these fellows is quite inexplicable. I have a very bad feeling about this.

There are calls now for an international campaign to ascertain the fate of Ali and his two sons, and though the Syrian regime may not be exactly very responsive to international pressures at this stage, I see no other way to proceed. We need to know where Ali and his sons are and we need to send a clear message to the Syrian President that the international community will hold him personally responsible should anything untoward befall them.

The international silence surrounding the continuing crackdown against political activists in the country should come to an end now. Crackdown is no longer a matter of internal policy, a regime that seeks to be internationally recognized should be expected to abide by the international norms regarding basic human rights, else it should be stripped of this recognition.

All those officials and experts in Europe and the US who believe that the Assads of Syria still deserve another chance should show us that they have some backbone by at least demanding that the Assads respect the basic rights of dissidents in exchange for the support that these officials and experts are offering the Assads in the international scene. But to let the Assads crackdown at will against all dissidents while demanding international support for their position vis-à-vis pressures emanating from their disastrous involvement in Lebanon is simply reprehensible.

Some of the people who still contend that Bashar is a reformer are friends of mine, and for this reason I think they should be in the forefront of any campaign critical of Bashar’s dismal record on human rights. Their support of his voodoo reform agenda should have a price, namely: a greater respect for the basic human rights of Syria’s citizens. If they can’t get that concession, then frankly either their support of Bashar or our existing friendship needs to be seriously reconsidered.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Leering Lions of Syria!

I hear the speeches commemorating Independence Day in Syria were filled with references to the Golan Heights, with some even advocating jihad as the only remaining alternative to get them back. Well, well, well. The Assad Clan seems well on their way to losing the only real international backer they have in the world – Israel.

Yes, it is not secret by now that Israel wants the Assad regime to stay in power: it is too weak to be a threat and strong enough (they think) to prevent the country from imploding into another sectarian mess. But if this regime is going to contemplate opening the Golan Heights for infiltration by Islamist terrorists, well then this regime has just outlived its usefulness.

But the Assads must be aware of this, some might argue. Surely they cannot be that stupid, not to mention suicidal. As such, the fiery statements we hear today must be mere saber-rattling, an attempt to send a message to new Israeli government to the effect that Syrian can’t be ignored.

Well, perhaps. But let’s not forget that saber-rattling by Middle Eastern leaders did lead to wars before – the 1967 War comes to mind in this regard. Let’s not forget as well that certain developments can be set in motion even when no one really has an interest in seeing them take place. At a time when there are so many groups and forces on the ground with so many private and competing agendas, saber-rattling can easily pave the way for the exchange of rocket fire, and the next thing you know you have a full-fledged war on your hand.

One thing is clear here: a confident Syrian regime is a dangerous Syrian regime, and this regime in Syria has just regained its composure and confidence, after all, its alliance with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran seems to be paying off, well, at least as far as the Assads’ and their western acolytes’ reading of the situation goes. And who am I to dispute their reading? I can only point out that the Lions of Syria are at their worst when they leer and act with confidence. In fact, almost all of their errors were made at times like these.

But it’s no skin off my back – after all, I am in the opposition.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Falling Apart!

No, I have not abandoned blogging in favor of politics, just as I had done with my literary ventures. No, I am not going to allow politics to take this part of my life as well. It has already taken too much.

Indeed, its latest victim seems to be my health. This is, at least, what the doctors seem to implying. Judge for yourself:

“Well, let see here, all your blood tests came back negative, and so did your urine tests. Your x-rays show nothing wrong with any of your vital organs, and you seem to have a pretty healthy heart. Still, you have a temperature of 105 and the blood pressure of a comatosed lizard (i.e., ridiculously low blood pressure, well-nigh zombiesque), so, are you under some kind of pressure????”

“Well, doc, let me put it this way, I have been here for less than 36 hours, and I have already missed 9 meetings and/or events, two of them at the White House, does that tell you anything?”

And I wasn’t even trying to impress.

The truth is, the last week of March was supposed to be one of the busiest weeks of my life, serving as a prelude to what was supposed to be one of the busiest month in my life. But, as fate would have it, I ended up spending the Glorious Week divided between home and hospital, and the Glorious Month is shaping up to be quite the ordinary month, albeit by my rather not too ordinary standards. For as soon as my temperature stabilized at the somewhat acceptable level of 100 degrees, I traveled to Chicago, and now that it is back to a normal 98, I feel comfortable enough to embark on a tour that will take me to South Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa, Chicago again, and finally New York. No, No pressure, no pressure at all.

I guess I’ll sleep in May.

So, between now and May, don’t think any less of me for failing to blog as regularly as I would like, my blogoholic soul is full of the same old yearning for the keypad, but my new workaholic, and pretty loathsome, self may not give me the time to appease this yearning.

So, I will continue to fall apart over the next few weeks, and hope to survive long enough to start picking up the pieces in May when, and in preparation for celebrating my 40th birthday on this bedlam earth, on May 30 to be specific, I will have to begin implementing the new work philosophy that I am gradually developing in the back of my mind even as I type these pearls of folly of mine.

Heretically yours,