Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Hungry Lion / Lounging Heretic!

While the arrests continue apace in Syria, in an attempt to satisfy the insatiable the appetite of certain hungry lions, a heretic is lounging with his wife around a pool in their apartment community in Silver Spring, Maryland. At the end of the day, we all end pissing on holy grounds, I guess (But not in the pool, I assure you). The sacrosanct nature of human rights and individual liberties will continue to be violated while certain heretics will remain torn apart between the longing to be involved and the need to take some time out lest they lose their grip on sanity and become completely useless. So, the heretic took sometimes to relax today despite of it all, and he is not going to feel guilty about it, damn it!

But the conditions back home continue to sour by the hour, deteriorating from bad to ludicrous, while hopes are pinned on something that is not yet tangible.

We have our work cut out for us, I guess, and we have to be in it for the long haul. There are no quick fixes to our situation, even if the regime should fall tomorrow.

Fuck! I just realized that I am going to be doing this, whatever the hell it is, for the rest of my life. Man, I need to go to the pool more often otherwise I am not going to have the energy. Yes. Indeed. I am going to be the activist working and trying to change the world from the poolside. Why not? The poolside is as good a place as any.

Archimedes, my Mediterranean brother, here I come. Your footsteps are a perfect fit for me. I’ll be following them for the rest of my life.

To be honest though, I have been sort of following in Archemedes’ footsteps ever since my return to Syrian in September of 1994. Indeed, when I was a teacher, I used to prepare my students’ exams and then grade them while lounging by the poolside, and the inspiration of many of my literary works came to me while there.

It’s only in the last 2-3 years that I seem to have strayed from this most blessed of all paths. I am glad I might be finally returning to the straight and narrow. I can more be much more inspired this way, and this might make me a little inspiring as well. Indeed, if the next few years are to have any positive meaning, we all need to find ways to be both inspired and inspiring.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Family Affairs!

I never knew my father-in-law, for he disappeared long before I even met Khawla. This happened way back in the 1981, less than a year after his arrest on March 31, 1980. That was the second time that my father-in-law, one Abdulwadood Yusuf, was arrested.

The first time was back in 1964, shortly after the arrival of the Baath party to power in Syria and the onset of its troubles with the Islamists, represented mostly by the Muslims Brotherhood and its outer circles of sympathizers, and it is indeed to one of these circles that Abdulwadood belonged. For he was never at peace, so to speak, with the ideology of the Brotherhood.

Although this first arrest lasted for a few months only, it was still enough time for much torture to take place. But he was released at the end, with a broken rib. He was not so lucky the second time around, as news from him ceased to reach his family soon after his transfer to the Citadel Prison in Old Damascus (which has since been returned to being just another local tourist attraction and is occasionally used to host cultural events). Ever since, Abdulwadood was reported to have died under torture on numerous occasions, but, and in the absence of any official confirmation, his immediate family members still have doubts, hopes and even fears in this regard to this very day.

Indeed, his brother, who left Syria aroud the same time, continues to raise awareness with regard to Abdulwadood's fate every so often, as he does in the following recent article. For Abdulwadood was also a mentor to many young people at the time, including his brothers and sisters, being an Islamist scholar and activist who wrote many important books and novels in which he tried to flesh out his own particular brand of Islamism.

From my own particular point of view, and having read some of Abdulwadood’s works, his Islamism was not the kind that I would feel comfortable with or consider enlightened. Still, and despite his commitment to the concept of Jihad as an incumbent duty on every young male Muslims, he did, nonetheless, oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of violent rebellion at the time.

As such, his arrest, despite his efforts to dissuade the local leadership of the Brotherhood in Damascus, Homs and elsewhere to come out and take a firm stand against the breakaway Talee’ah faction that espoused violence, made absolutely no sense at the time, and justified the belief that many activists, Islamists, Nasserists and communists, had at the time that the Assad regime was intentionally targeting the moderates in an orchestrated effort to bring about the kind of showdown that we eventually witnessed in Hama, knowing fully well that, at the end of the day, it can win it, seeing that the number of the radicals was limited to a mere few hundreds.

Well, the strategy, which many believes to have been the brainchild of Hafiz al-Assad himself, worked well, but at what price? The wounds of it all are still bleeding. And the Islamists are coming back with a vengeance onto the Syrian scene, and here it is the very regime that had, at one point, tried to stamp them out, now trying to strike a Faustian deal with the worst of them, for the sole reason that they don’t seem to be politically ambitious at this stage.

What the Assads don’t know, however, what they don’t want to know perhaps, or, what they think they can control again when the time comes, is that these groups of politically quietist Islamists are a very calculating bunch, and have far more political ambitions that any would give them credit.

How can I be sure of that? Well, in my heydays as a fundamentalist preacher, I happened to come very close to some of these groups, and I knew what sort of Machiavellianism lies at the heart of their religious ethos.

People like Abdulwadood were much more straightforward and honest, as they told the entire world who they were and what they wanted to achieve. But they were willing, nonetheless, to commit to an approach that relied mostly on preaching rather than violence. Their commitment to jihadism was of that traditional variety aimed at imperialist occupiers, not at their neighbors and countrymen. For this reason, some kind of a modus operandi can indeed be struck with them, or their remnants, unless, of course, one wants them on board for mere decorative purposes, without any real commitment to power sharing, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.

Striking workable partnerships with these Islamists will not be easy by any means, but it is not all together impossible, as we all need to temper down our expectations. Moreover, these partnerships may just serve to counterbalance the rising influence of the more Machiavellian and radical varieties out there.

In the final analysis, we really have to ask ourselves: do we really think that we can just go on living and progressing while avoiding this issue? Personally, I doubt it, because, for most of us, Islamists are family, and often they are right there in our face, not rotting away in some jail, or buried in some anonymous mass grave. Indeed, my father-in-law may no longer be with us, but my cousins are.

But then, for me the whole issue of ideological, national and religious diversity is a family affair. After all, the immediate family includes:

  1. Ideologically: liberals, Nasserists, Baathists, Communists and Islamists.
  2. Religiously: Sunnis, Shia, Druzes, Alawites, Maronites, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and, surprise, Jews, and,
  3. Nationally: Arabs, Kurds, Cherkessians and Berber.

Now that’s the quintessence of being Syrian, don’t you think?

Will He or Won’t He?

The air is rife with all sorts of rumors these days regarding the upcoming report by Brammertz. So, will he drop the other shoe and seal the fate of the Syrian regime? Or will he present another technical report and ask for another extension? Or will there be some room to maneuver between the two “extremes,” which will allow him to satisfy some gnawing expectations and appease some worries, but without necessarily providing a finalized list of suspects at this stage?

Well, the “problem” with Brammertz is his continuing preoccupation with silence, which albeit amply justified from a tactical perspective, is, nonetheless too unnerving for most people and parties concerned at this stage, and tend to ignore the important political ramifications of the whole affair. Brammertz should not forget that the fate of two countries and their ruling regimes is at stake here. But then, this is precisely why Brammertz might seem so overcautious to some. The stakes are just too high to allow for any mistakes, a reality with which the Syrian opposition will have to contend as well.

For this reason, and regardless of what the upcoming report might end up saying, we, the dignified and outraged, or the dignifiedly outraged, members of the opposition, should be ready with a vision, a plan and a strategy. Indeed, the upcoming meeting of the National Salvation Front will take place on June 4-5 in London, a few days before the release of Brammertz new report, and should we fail to come with something more concrete at the end of it, I doubt if we will ever be taken seriously, regardless of Brammertz’ wills and won’ts.

Monday, May 29, 2006

A Surprise Party!

I began suspecting that something was up during the short Metro-ride that separates us from the Dupont Circle. The “surprise” birthday was scheduled to take place at the Front Page, one of our most favorite places in DC and where my daughter works as a hostess, on May 30, my very day of birth of dubious auspiciousness. But then, Khawla told me that we need to go to take to the management at the Front Page and finalize the arrangements, and of course, Oula was already there, but that was one of her work days, then Mouhannad decides to join us at the last minutes, because he doesn’t want to stay alone at home (!!!), and so the three of us ended up going together, and Oula will be there, of course.

But so far, I still suspected nothing, and how can I? I could be the very definition and embodiment of the absent-minded professor at times, albeit I am an activist. Indeed, the absent-minded activist, that’s exactly what Syria really needs.

Be that as it may, it finally dawned upon me, not the certainty of it all, just the possibility that something might indeed be in the works. It’s only when I entered that restaurant that the certainty of it all hit me. But I have to say, some certainties can be very pleasant, and some hits can very soft and assume the form of a barrage of hugs and kisses. The entire evening was like a breath of fresh air, until we started “sweating to the oldies” of course. Well, not exactly, there was plenty of off-the-charts hits as well, and a few songs by Haifa Wahbeh and Nancy Ajram, courtesy of a CD burnt that morning by Oula, as I later learned.

Yes, we did get a bunch of bar-hopping American students and marines and to actually dance to the somewhat oriental rhythms of Haifa’s and Nancy’s songs. Now, I wouldn’t have thought this would be possible within the setting of a regular American bar/restaurant. But DC is cosmopolitan enough to make such a fusion possible, I guess. This is one of the many things I like about it.

So here I was celebrating the highpoint of my midlife crisis with my family and friends. Duh, sometimes, I think I am just too bloody dependable. But that’s me, folks, Mr. DependableI’ll never give you up, I’ll never let you down. It also helps to have a wife that features those selfsame qualities of course, and a couple of wonderful kids that, for all their teenage rebelliousness, are only gently severing that umbilical cord.

But, of course, I have to rush to say, before Miss Pouty-Head here kills me, that Oula is well-nigh 20 year old folks, and Mouhannad, that Montgomery Blair High School’s Top Male Model (and I am not joking here, folks, that’s how his friends at the school’s Fashion Club refer to him) is well-nigh 16.

Will I and Khawla still be around when he and Oula celebrate their 40th birthdays, I wonder? Perhaps. But, for now, I look forward to the 18th and 21st birthdays. Next year’s birthdays will also do. I want to live my life one day at a time, one year at time, I am tired of all that angst and longing.

But I do also need to shed a few pounds. I moved with well-nigh bovine grace on the dance-floor.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Six Years Later!

The following is my new contribution to the Creative Syria Think Tank. Hope you find this week's discussions interesting:

Rather than trying to list the series of phantom reforms and promises of reforms that Bashar has introduced into our lives over the last six years, or embark on another debunking of the whole concept of voodoo economics, I will simply mention the following impressions:

  • Every time I call home these days, people the worsening human rights situation in the country, and about worsening living conditions and rising prices of basic foodstuffs and commodities. The haphazard salary hikes have been more than offset by the runaway inflation.
  • No bank in the country offers housing loans that actually covers the entire value of the property under consideration. As such, owning property is still a dream for most young men. Rent is also unaffordable. The popular housing project that the President announced at one point was quickly taken over by his own cronies.
  • Most of my friends still avoid dealing with the private banks that have recently been established. They opened only small accounts for trial purposes, but they still rely on the banks in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere for the more “serious” transactions. This is not only premised on the inefficiency of the new institutions which, at this stage, operate more like glorified piggy banks than real banks, but it is also related to the lack of trust, on part of many, of the regime’s willingness to respect banking secrecy laws, and of regime members not to get involved in any corrupt schemes involving these banks leading to their bankruptcy.
  • Popular tales concerning the "Ramification" of Syria, that is, of it continuing transformation into a private property for the Assad-Makhlouf clan are abundant and serve to underlie the failure of any attempt at combating corruption.
  • Despite all fanfare surrounding the launch of the government campaign against unemployment, unemployment rates continue to hover around 30%, according to most estimates.
  • Parents have long lost faith in the existing educational system, but they still have little alternatives. The proliferating private schools and colleges these days are unaffordable, and, in most case, they tend to be as badly run and mismanaged as their public sector counterparts.
  • Despite the fact that Syria does boast of a proportionately high number of well-qualified doctors who received their training and higher education abroad, the public healthcare system in the country, due to rampant corruption, mismanagement, lack of transparency and accountability, and practices of cronyism and nepotism, is virtually imploding and is quite untrustworthy. Even private healthcare system, which is unaffordable by most Syrians, of course, is in a state of decay, because, for all the expensive and modern equipment out there, the lack of accountability on all levels and the lack of qualified support cadres, especially lab technicians and nurses, are simply undermining the system. And not a single effort has so far being made, not in all these six years, not in the ten years preceding them, to address these issues.

I go on and on, of course, but I will stop here, because if the above does not make the point clear, nothing will.

So, are we better off today than we were six years ago? Well, Rami Makhlouf definitely is, and so are many members of the Assad-Makhlouf clan and their cronies, but the rest of the country, with very few exceptions, is definitely not.

The Activists as Pariahs!

Yes, we, human rights and democracy activists, are nothing but pariahs. If there is anybody that is going to deliver mayhem it is indeed us. Not the Assads. Not the Baathists. Not the Islamists. But us, US, for all our pacifist liberal tendencies.

For we are the ones who are upsetting the natural order of things in our world, where rulers rule unencumbered by any strict laws regulating their behavior, regardless of what the law books might say of course, and where the ruled accept to live according to the whimsy of their rulers, for the consequences of rebelliousness, of rocking the boat no matter how gently, or so they are always told, can often be far worse than putting up with the dictates of the rulers, no matter how unfair, unjust and downright wrong. The generosity of the rulers will always have to suffice. For who is man to tempt fate?

But that has always been my job, I thought. I still think - tempting fate, even at the risk of tragedy for all around me.

After all, have I not caused my family much angst and distress all through my life, from back when I was still an extremist Muslim until the day when I turned liberal? Haven’t my utterances and stances just led to the forced dislocation of my family with all the difficulties involved with that? Have I not left a worried and lonely mother back home, with a lot of team members who put their confidence me, who still put their confidence in me?

Indeed I have. And I can no longer feel guilty about it. I cannot live by somebody else’s inherited values and principles. So, I will rock the boat. I will be the outcast, the heretic and the pariah, if need be. If that’s who I am then, that’s who I am. I am going to turn 40 next week, and if I can’t accept who I am at this age, then I am in serious trouble.

And so, I am not going to deliver democracy and reform to “my” people. That is not really my job. I am just going to give them a chance to take a real hard look at themselves then suffer the consequences of that. And if they don’t like it, that is, if they ended up not liking what they see, or the entire process of forced introspection, then they are quite free and more than welcome to hate me for it. But I am going to do it even if it felt like rape, for both of us.

Yes, I am indeed willing to do my part, no matter how small, in setting a certain people free, even if their first free act is to lynch me and the likes of me while shouting God Protect Syria and Allahu Akbar.

But I am not a martyr by nature by any means, so, I don’t necessarily intend to make the particular job easy for those concerned. I just concede the possibility of having to deal with a situation like that one of those days, not to far in the future perhaps.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Brave Bounni!

Anwar al-Bounni, brave Syrian lawyer and human rights activist, is now entering into his second week of being on a hunger strike. His tenacity seems to have inspired the remaining 10 activists, who were all arrested as part of the recent wave of crackdown in the country, to decide to undertake a similar strike themselves this coming Monday. Meanwhile, Anwar will reportedly be taken to the Ibn al-Nafees Hospital soon, as his condition continues to worsen and his morale continues to sag. Anwar was kidnapped as he was about to enter his car a week ago, and was repeatedly beaten for a few days, in spite of his age and ill health (he is in his 60s). This heretic can only pray for Brave Anwar at this stage, and can only bemoan the fate of a country who insists on devouring her best and most devout children.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Free Syria!

Kudos to the Syrians in Paris for organizing this important sit-in support of Syria’s dissidents and activists in these difficult times. For indeed our colleagues in Syria need every little help we can give them, seeing the difficult conditions of their imprisonment, and seeing that Anwar al-Bunni continues to refuse to end his hunger strike, which he started both in protest of his unlawful imprisonment and the ludicrous charges which were brought against him, including that of taking part in a secret society that seeks to overthrow the regime.

The Assads do not like moderate opponents anymore that they do radical ones. For the end result is the same: the end of their reign of terror and corruption. Indeed, the house that the Assads have built is so fragile that even moderate reforms can cause it to topple. The Assads know and understand so well this little fact about mafia states. Just continue to read the various files laid open for us by administrators of the Free Syria site to see what is really at stake here for the Assads.

A Carefully Worded Message!

The State Department has just followed the EU leads and issued its own condemnation of the ongoing crackdown against dissidents and activists in Syria. Yet, and albeit the language in both cases was pretty stern, it does not appear that there exist any plans for going beyond rhetoric at this stage. Indeed, everybody seems to be waiting for the upcoming UN report into the Hariri assassination, which means that if any action is going to take place, it won’t happen until mid June or thereafter. But, and while this attitude might make some sense politically speaking, it, nonetheless, gives the Assads a free hand to keep on doing what they are doing for a few more weeks, because it has become very obvious now that the Assads do not respond well to rhetoric. They, too, can wax poetic on us.

Meanwhile, the well-known Syrian commentator, Hassan M. Yousef, has taken a rather brave and quite revealing stand by criticizing the arrest of Michel Kilo in the official newspaper Tishreen, albeit the last part of his article in which he clearly comes out denouncing the arrest as “wrong” was printed only in the electronic version. Still, publishing such an article at this stage by an official newspaper is rather significant, as it indicates the existence of a certain critical amount of discontent on part of many key figures even within official institutions. The very calculations that seem to have been involved here, that is, publishing the column while reserving the most critical part to the electronic version, indicates that people on the editorial level knew that they were taking a major risk here. Still, they were willing to take it.

The thinking that seems to lie behind this move is interesting as well. Hassan writes that arrest of Kilo and others has encouraged the development of "an anti-Syria media blitz," which the country can do without. In other words, the move, we are told, is harming the country. This means that policies enacted by the people who were behind this decision are harming the country. Knowing, however, that the people involved here are the heads country’s major security apparatuses, who seem to be implementing a policy set by Assef Chawkat, a view shared by many activists inside Syria, then, publishing this seemingly simple criticism is a really big deal. Indeed, it is a major sign that figures within the official establishment are now more than willing to voice their discontent with the policies of the Assads, because, they can now see where these policies are leading.

People are beginning to differentiate between the Assads and the country as a whole, and the loyalty to the country is emerging as the stronger motive. This is major development indeed, and even though it may for remain for a while as an isolated percolation, it is, in fact, far from being isolated, and is manifestation of a major underlying current out there, waiting for us to tap into.

Can we all see now the wisdom behind repeated pleas for isolating the Assads? For criticizing the Assads regime in particular rather than the Syrian or even the Baath regime?

Indeed, a policy that focuses on isolating the Assads and making them the ultimate fall guys at this stage would convert even the most ardent conspiracy theorists to the cause of regime change. For when you show these people that the parochial interests of the Assads are leading to the adoption of certain policies that can facilitate the implementation of perceived anti-Syria designs, and when these people end up buying into this logic, - and they are, because it does have a rather huge kernel of truth in it: the Assads’ policies are indeed mostly to blame for Syria’s difficult situation these days, - then this leaves them little choice but to challenge the regime. For these people are, in the final analysis, true patriots.

The people at the State Department, the White House, the European Union and elsewhere, should indeed understand that, if phrased carefully to take under account the necessity of internally isolating the Assads and cutting them off even from their traditional bases of power, their verbal condemnations can go a long way in supporting the cause for change in Syria.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Was it Worth it?

Having followed the arguments on Joshua’s blog over the lat few days, I find myself finally temped to attempt my own debunking of the thesis he expounded on Creative Syria and which assigns an A to the Assads on matters of security. But I shall brief.

First, it should be clear by now, and we have indeed debated this matter on this blog on numerous occasions (for instance here, here and here), that the minoritarian character of the Assad regime has served to erode the very practical inter-communal arrangements and institutions, not to mention the overall spirit of tolerance, that made this part of the Middle East, that was haphazardly amalgamated into the modern state of Syria, a bit less prone to communal violence. Meanwhile, the Assads have so far failed to propose any alternative arrangement for inter-communal relations other than their illegitimate, authoritarian, cliquish and corrupt rule. Indeed, the Assads are not even remotely interested in providing a framework for the emergence of such an alternative, exactly because they know very well that it will add another layer of illegitimacy to their rule and will eventually spell their doom.

As such, the security that the Assads have provided for us had a very heavy price and came at the expense of everything else.

The most visible and heart-wrenching price is, of course, the more than 30,000 that were reported dead and the 17,000 that were reported missing in the “events” of the mid 70s and early 80s, and the more than 50,000 who paid a little unscheduled “visit to their aunt’s place” as they say (that is, to prison for those who are not too familiar with Syrian slang), with all the trimmings (i.e. torture) and with some of them staying for as long as 30 years.

But the list also includes: civil rights, the economy, development, hell, even sovereignty (for the Assads have to take some, if not a lot, of blame for the Golan Heights, after all, Assad Sr. was Defense Minister when it was lost and he never managed to get it back when he was President. Indeed, as I noted I my own post on Creative Syria, the “late Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, for all his alleged foresight, has sought and failed throughout the 90s to get a deal that he could have had way back in 1978.”)

So, I guess, it is only fair to ask whether the kind of “security” delivered by the Assads was indeed worth the price that was paid for it. I, for one, don’t think so. I, for one, think that we could have found other ways to maintain our security and ensure stability of our country without having had to put up with an authoritarian regime and to sacrifice our basic right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Assads had the choice not to deprive us of this right, but they did not take it. The security they delivered pertained mostly to their survival and the advancement of their interests, not to ours. But they do get an A on that indeed.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Identity, Integration & Introspection!

A few days ago I posted a few lines on the concept of Immigration, Integration and Identity, the subject of a conference on Capitol Hill that I took part in. The few lines I posted, which represented my initial take on the matter, generated quite an interesting debate, I thought. So much so I promised to return to the topic again after the end of the conference. For I seldom read prepared statements in conferences as I prefer to extemporize, this allows me the flexibility to study my audience a little, not to mention, in some cases, the other participants as well, before I embark on my “mission.”

So, here is what cam to mind on that glorious day:

I think the issue of integrating Muslim immigrants into western society is only one manifestation of the issue, which to me is the integration of traditional faith-systems and traditional cultures into the fabric of modern civilization whose values are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other related conventions. As such, fundamentalists from all faiths, and certain “modern” trends, such racism, white supremacism and such, all pose a problem for integration, because they represent a “natural” reaction of traditional faiths and cultures to the challenges posed by modern living and modern values.

Another useful context to have is that of globalization, which is imposing a certain sense of unity on us all at this stage. Indeed, we are a unity now, but one that is not yet aware of itself, not are its various members aware of the significance and implications of the newfound unity of theirs.

We are not even debating the issues at this stage in any real manner. Rather, we tend to engage in various apologetics or preach at each other and declare our already formed conclusions in each other’s faces, rather than attempt to come around and pose the necessary questions together and see if we can work out some common answers, and this some will have to suffice when it comes as the product of a joint venture.

But for now, and in the absence of any debate on the issues, frustration and anger end up filling the void, encouraging various radical stands on all sides of the equation. Hence the strange marriage of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Ghogh (although, I, too, tend to believe in the necessity of shocking the system sometimes), of Arab liberals and American neo-cons (and here some would like to look at me as an example I guess), and of fundamentalists of all faiths in their opposition to many modern values, especially with regard to sexuality and gender issues, among many other things.

In order to break out of this mold, much introspection and real dialogue is needed. But, while some such processes seem to be taken place among western intellectuals and policymakers, Muslims communities everywhere still lack behind, albeit the last couple of year might have witnessed some debate among second generation Muslim immigrants in the western countries.

But even when this debate does take place among these immigrants, the charged atmosphere in which it is taking place creates much room for many to fall back upon radical positions in response to some atavistic longings, hence the murder of van Ghogh on the hands of a second generation and reportedly well-integrated Moroccan immigrant.

The reasons for this seeming high resistance or inertia might include:

  1. The fact that modernity did not emerge in Muslim countries as part of the exiting social, political and economic dynamism and was rather exported to them from the West.
  2. The fact the exportation process assumed the form of invasion and colonialism.
  3. The “fixing” or “ghettoization” of communal identities, using various mechanism and devices, under Ottoman rule, Safavid rule, Mughal rule and the various sultanates in Central and Southeast Asia.
  4. The fact that modernity was introduced into the Muslim neighborhood as a very complex and dynamic package, much of which principles had already been worked out, while others continue to be worked out.

These four elements of exogeneity, imposition, xenophobia (resulting from the strong sense of belonging to a particular community) and complex dynamism gave rise to the important and always relevant these days Question of Authenticity. Modernity in western societies does not suffer from this handicap.

Moreover, the enduring legacy of colonialism, including the haphazard nature of the states and borders that emerged as part of the drive for independence, the complications emanating from the ensuing various border conflicts and inter-community relations, the onset of the Arab-Israeli Conflict with all of its own quirks and complications, ad the growing social pressures for change have combined to create sense of weakness and victimhood within the souls of most Muslims (and many non-Muslims as well of course), laying them open and susceptible to all sorts of conspiratorial thinking.

All this creates a very averse climate for serious introspection, and tends to influence the outcome of any public debate in a very negative manner.

Muslim immigrants bring these attitudes with them to their Europe, the US and their other destination countries. In a sense, first generation immigrants usually come with the intention of getting ghettoized if they can help it. Now, this is not a unique phenomenon by any means, all immigrants bring such an attitude along with them.

Integration really begins with the second generation, that is, with the people who had an ample opportunity to absorb more of the “local” values, which might conflict with some of what they learned at home. It is indeed the identity crisis associated with the coming of age experiences in a society that, in some case, still ill at east with its growing diversity that creates some room for introspection.

The difficulties emanating from the integration of Muslims, therefore, and while having certain peculiarities of their own, do fit, nonetheless, with the already established patters affiliated with other communities. Meanwhile, most of the particularities affiliated with the integration of Muslim immigrants relate more to the whole issue of conflict with modernity. But even in this case, Muslim particularities might have certain parallels with other religious communities as well. Still, it is also here that the uniqueness of the Islamic experience in the modern world can be found.

The process of Muslim integration into the modern world is, naturally, a very complex one and is bound to be time-consuming. Indeed, there are no magical solutions to speed up this process. It’s going to take a long as it needs to take. But we can help facilitate the process through a variety of ways:

  1. Battle existing stereotypes about Muslims prevalent in western societies.
  2. Encourage a more open debate on the issues of identity that continue to be raised in cooperation with Muslim figures from all stripes.
  3. Support the emerging new class of Muslim intellectuals, academics and professionals wherever they happen to be, but especially in western societies, as their influence might prove overarching in time and could influence developments in the wider world of Islam.

More than Words!

The ongoing crackdown in Syria is not the result of some haphazard uncalculated move by the Assads. Rather it reflects a deliberate policy on their part and a definite decision that seems to have been made in the immediate aftermath of the Baath Congress in May 2005. The delay in implementation seems to reflect the desire to wait for the “right” circumstances and conditions, and from the regime’s standpoint, there could be no better time than now, seeing that the alliance with Iran seems to have been crystallized more clearly and that the US and the EU seem to be more preoccupied now with the ongoing nuclear stand-off with the Iranian regime.

For this reason, nothing less than drastic measures can lead the Assads to review their current policies. A simply condemnation by the European Parliament of the current developments in Syria will only beget the kind of petulant defiance that regime officials have recently shown, as they proceeded to patronize the Ambassadors of the EU and Austria (which currently leads the Union) and criticize the European record on human rights and the double standards with which European governments continue to weigh developments in the Occupied Territories.

Mere condemnations will not do then. More drastic measures are required, as I have suggested earlier. A lowering of the diplomatic representation with Syria, even if for a few short weeks, could send a more cogent and stern message in this regard. Enough with the words of indignation people, do something for crying out loud!

Few New Thoughts on an Old Divide!

Ibn Taymiyyah be damned. Not that the Alawite of his time were saints though. Indeed, they, as many mountain peoples have done throughout ancient history and the world, were busy wrecking havoc on the inhabitants of cities and villages, pillaging, looting and killing. Hence this infamous fatwa against them by Ibn Taymiyyah, which was briefly revived in the mid 70s. But even then, its revival was premised on injustice perpetrated in the name of Alawite concerns and rights.

Indeed, in the struggle between Sunnis and Alawites no one has been a saint. Still, the Ottomans did not oppress the Alawites (and we are not talking here about the Alevi-Bectachis who formed the cornerstone of the Janissary regiments of the Ottoman army) and failed to recognize them as a separate millet on account of their “unorthodox” faith, but because of their ways as mountain peoples who jealously guarded their independence and their ways refusing to come under the strict and clear arrangements proposed by their self-imposed Ottoman rulers. Their struggle, therefore, is akin to the struggle mounted by many mountain peoples all over the world, including the famed Scottish Highlanders. – Albeit Hafiz al-Assad as a Braveheart figure is a bit too much for me. But then, I am not an Alawite.

Indeed, let’s not forget here that the Ottomans were quite willing to recognize the Druze faith. But then, the Druzes, for a variety of reasons, posited a radically different brand of highlanders. Still, they, too, gave the Ottomans a run for their money in their attempt to protect of their ways and procure a certain measure of autonomy, administrative (on and off) as well as religious. Indeed, the Druzes had often resorted to open rebellion to snatch that recognition for their faith as an official protected millet, despite its glaring “unorthodoxy,” from the Ottoman Sunni Hanafi point of view.

This success of the Druzes might be, in part at least, premised on the existence of a centralized decision-making religious hierarchy that might have been responsible, in times of crises at least, for uniting most of the Druzes feudal lord in the face of Ottoman designs. The Alawites have always lacked such a hierarchy. There was nothing to unite them, not even temporarily. Their rebellions have, therefore, tended to be rather sporadic and fractious. Certain tribes and/or clans rebelled, but not the entire “community.” There was no Alawite community in any practical sense. It was only with the emergence of the military elite among their ranks that gave the Alawite a certain sense of strong communal belonging, for the first time in their history, and moved the Alawite towards establishing some form of unity, but on the basis of a secular national belonging rather than a religious one. (Albeit, this fact is currently being challenged as the Alawite villages seem to be undergoing a revival of traditional faith.)

For this reason, and due to the “elitist” nature of Alawite faith itself, the Sunnis, and other religious groups in the country, will always appear simply too attached to their religious values for the average Alawite tastes. This seems to be one of the main reasons why the current Alawite leadership seems too preoccupied with making overtures to religious Sunni currents than they are interested in making a deal with secular-minded Sunnis.

The foolishness of this venture is that traditional Sunni currents on which they are betting are not progressive enough, if at all, to actually challenge the fatwas issued by the likes of Ibn Taymiyyah or to provide an alternative interpretation of the Sunni faith that can create some room for recognizing unorthodox interpretation, unorthodox from their point of view of course. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot, again and again and again.

But then, aren’t we secular Sunnis making the same mistake?

Tyranny and fear are giving us no choice but to bet on tried and true devils. Yes, I believe that Islamic current need to be given the chance to participate in the political game, demography is giving us no choice here either. And the commitment of some of us to democratic principles is also at play here. Still, I don’t think very highly of the Islamists (and I know it is a mutual feeling of course) and I don't want them to be my allies – the situation is too simply unnatural to last for long.

Indeed, and if real stability, real security as well as progress and modernization are what's really on our mind, then, there is no substitute for a rapprochement between the secular minded people in all sects and communities, that is, if we desire to remain relevant on the political, social and economic scene. We need to build bridges of trust between us to take this game away from the hands of the radicals and the extremists.

Things would have been much simpler of course had the Assads themselves been on board, but logic says that the Assads will be the first and ultimate losers of any inter-community rapprochement, they are the status quo beneficiaries par excellence, and they know it. Assef indeed did.

Why I am Not Surprised! Or, the Cowardly Heretic!

During my second and final encounter with Assef Chawkat, the one that sealed my fate, as it were, the desk of the Illustrious General was covered with black and yellow files and old law books with small white cardboard bookmarks sticking from their sides. The General has done his homework it seems. He has researched all the old law books in search of legal ways for intimidating activists while avoiding recourse to the discredited emergency laws and security courts.

As such, I am not surprised today to see that all dissidents are being tried in civil courts. Our old pre-Baath laws do provide enough ammunition for crackdown. No, not everything can be blamed on the Baath, I have to admit, albeit it is always tempting to do so.

But much of this current crackdown can indeed be blamed on Assef – he is either orchestrating the entire show, or he, perhaps unintentionally even, has set a trend that others, such as Ali Mamluke of the General Security Apparatus and Fouad Naseef Kheir Bek of the Internal Security Apparatus are now following. Whatever the case maybe, it is clear to me at least that whenever the Lions of Syria seem to really mean business and do busy themselves planning for it, something sinister is always involved: a series of assassinations, arrests, heists, what have you. This is the nature of the family business after all.

Good governance you say? Good God, what has that got to do with anything? God did not put these lions on this bedlam earth to be good governors and messiahs, but to be thieves and dark avengers for some unfathomable crime that none of us was born when it was committed so long long ago. See my next post.

But, to go back to my meeting with the Lion-in-law, the initial threat of “throwing the book” at me, and seeing that I was not really impressed by it, soon gave way to a more somber promise: “don’t count too much on your international links to help you, Ammar, we have no intention of making a hero out of you.”

I was not slotted for an arrest then, I thought. So, when I went back home that day, I told Khawla and the kids to start packing, while I proceeded to avail myself of my international liaisons, before it was too late.

Was this a cowardly thing to do? Well, I think so. But, sometimes, it makes more sense to be a coward than a hero. Or so I keep telling myself these days, as I watch the unfolding foolishness.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Developing the East!

In my post at Creative Syria, I highlighted the huge gap in development between the eastern and western parts of Syria. For, despite the fact that most of the wealth of the country tends to be derived from the eastern parts, both in terms of agricultural goods and the petroleum industry, the western parts, where Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia are located, continues to be far more developed and rich, relatively speaking of course, than the eastern parts.

But don't you worry, for here is our illustrious Prime Minister, Naji Otri, your usual run-of-the-mill Baathist moron, announcing that he has now formed a special team to help develop the eastern parts. After three years of hard work on part of so many well-intentioned people, and not so-well intentioned people of course, we now have a team that will be charged with actually working on the issue at hand.

How much time will this team need to actually come up with a plan of action in this regard I wonder? And how fast will it take for this plan to get to the point where it is assiduously mismanaged? Methinks mismanagement will begin long before an actual plan is formed.

But then that’s just old cynical me speaking, you may prefer to pay more attention to those rational moderate realistic voices out there, who continue to seek promises of reform in a pile of lion-manure.

The Lionators of Syria!

No, this is not some fancy conspiracy theory that I am about to outline here, it is the reality we have been facing for many years now under the rule of this reform-minded president and his clique of brothers, cousins and in-laws. The Damascus Community School (DCS), popularly referred to as the American School, is currently being squeezed out of existence, or at least, its Syrian students are, so as to fill the empty seats in the Shoeifat School owned by, who else?, the President cousin, Rami Makhlouf, AKA, the Raminator of Modern Syria.

Recent developments in this regard include: refusal to renew the work permits of the American teachers at school, challenging the license under which the school has been operated for decades now, and using the case of an unfortunate accident that took life of a 12 year old student from the well-known al-Samman family, who have my sincere condolences on this tragic loss.

In this latter case, the attitude of regime officials is hypocritical to a nauseating degree, because if you want count the number of students who die or get hurt as a result of poorly planned excursions in the Syrian public school system, or as a result of their participation in various Baath camps, including the infamous Tala’eh and Shabibah, the number will be in the hundreds, you heard it, hundreds, every goddamn year.

To be more specific though, and so as not to create a wrong impression, the cases of death run between 10-20 per year, the remaining aces are of those who get seriously injured even maimed. The figures are based upon estimates of a colleague of mine who works for the Ministry of Education and who has, for years, tried to raise awareness in this regard to no avail.

The link to the Shoeifat School is also based upon contacts with people who are familiar with its inner workings. The reason I have all these contacts is because I used to teach at various diplomatic schools in the mid to late 90s (including a short spate at DCS itself), and I know many of the people who continue to work in this field. Indeed, my contacts tell me that the high fees charged by Shoeifat are discouraging people from applying, and that, often, people with means, like the Sammans, still prefer the already established and reputable DCS to this new project that continues to be mismanaged by Rami’s people. So, here is Rami now working, as he usually does, to shut down the competition in a continuation and furtherance of the project to transform Syria and everything Syrian into the private estate of the Assad-Makhlouf clan.

And do the voices of reason out there want to do? They want to give these people more time to prove to us that they are indeed reformers.

Every development out there, small or big, seems to inform us in every conceivable way that these people are thieves of the pettiest variety there is, and still, we continue to be told to look at them as reformers, and to give them more time to work out their magic.

Well, they are working out their magic all right, and just look where this is getting us.

Now Nour, the girl who died in that tragic accident, will become a symbol around which regime officials will attempt to rally angry Syrians against the American imperialist pigs, using the grieving father as an involuntary spokesman, in a heinous act of necrophagia for which we have long become accustomed. Our transmogrification into virtual Eaters of the Dead continues apace. This is the essence of the Assad magic. Abracadabra everyone!

Our mice are lions, and our thieves are Robin Hoods, and our killers are but saviors of all that is good. But do tell me please, are you any good? ‘Cause, you know, you can’t be saved if you are not good.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Show Must Go On!

The Assads continue to send defiant messages to the international community showing complete disregard for its will and its resolutions. Indeed, and just as the crackdown against democracy activists is continuing so is arms smuggling to radical Palestinian groups in Lebanon. The Assads are bent on exacting revenge for their humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon and for the continued defiance of the March 14th Movement.

Where will all this lead?

For now, it can only lead to the further isolation of the regime in the international arena. The world may not have the will to swat the Assads down at this stage, but it can put them on the backburner until such time that such will is indeed there, or until such time that opposition groups are able to mount a serious challenge to the regime.

Indeed, it appears that the only way out of this dark corner into which the Assads have maneuvered themselves will most surely be paved with their carcasses. Until then, the show of folly and madness will go on.

Tank It Up!

Well, here is to the beginning of a new endeavor. Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, who regularly features as Alex in the Comments Section, adding a bit of spice and much humanity to the discussion, has just launched a new initiative, an electronic think tank to be specific, for discussing Syria-related issues.

The Creative Syria Think Tank will feature regular contributions by fellow blogger and favorite sparring partner Joshua Landis, my good friend and perceptive political analyst Murhaf Jouejati of George Washington University, current Syrian Ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha, the Baath reformer and commentator, Ayman Abdel Nour, charismatic Chatham House expert, Rime Allaf, the rising analyst and historian, Sami Moubayed, the provocative and equally brave journalist, Ibrahim Hmeidi, the world renowned historian and Assad Sr. biographer, Patrick Seale, and last, and indeed least in terms of academic abilities, yours sincerely.

The Think Tank can be accessed here. And here is my contribution for this round, which could also be read on site. Readers can vote for their favorite commentary. This week’s question deals with Syria’s achievement over the pat 40 years in comparison to those of its neighbors.

The Assad Baathist Legacy

Continued commitment to Arab nationalism on part of Syria’s leaders over the last forty years, and while not necessarily fake, served more often to divert people’s attention from the serious lack of internal development and the increasing authoritarian predilections of the regime and its minoritarian character.

Moreover, and this commitment notwithstanding, Syria’s Baathist leaders have consistently failed to establish normal economic and diplomatic relations with their immediate neighbors, including the “brotherly” states of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, with the brunt of the blame in the latter two cases to be born by the Syria leaders and their seeming inability to accept the independence of these two states.

As for Israel, one should never forget that it was specifically under Baath rule that the Golan Heights were lost. We should also bear in mind that late Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, for all his alleged foresight, has sought and failed throughout the 90s to get a deal that he could have had way back in 1978.

The Baath regime was also unable to maintain normal ties with most West European countries as well as the United States, with dire economic consequences for the country. Assad’s regional ambitions at the time and his ego as he sought to become an heir to Nasser seemed to have played a major role in this.

On the internal front, the socialist policies of the regime and its nationalization program served to discourage the country’s commercial elite from investing in the country, with investments and funds getting diverted to Lebanon and Europe. The corruption of the regime and its minoritarian character has also served to set the scene for the various confrontations that took place with the Muslim Brotherhood. The massacre of 20,000 civilians that took place in Hama in 1982 was unforgivable, especially given the limited number of MB fighters involved (200-500, depending on the account, but no more).

Despite early progress with regard to building more schools, hospitals, roads and factories throughout the country, as well as developing the country’s rural areas, the ensuing neglect of the internal scene since the early 80s, as a result of Assad Sr.’s preoccupation with foreign policy at the expense of everything else, served to offset this early progress.

As a result, Syria, the socialist claims of its leaders notwithstanding, can now boast of:

  1. An unemployment rate well above 25%.
  2. A population where more than 40% live below poverty line.
  3. An inefficient healthcare system.
  4. An imploding educational system.
  5. A decaying national infrastructure.
  6. An increasing gap in development between the Eastern parts (especially areas with Kurdish concentration) and the western parts, despite the fact that Syria’s breadbasket and oil and gas reserves happen to located in the East.
  7. Growing sectarian divides, especially with regard to the Sunnis and Alawites.
So, how does Syria’s situation compare to its neighbors? Well, Syria may not have witnessed a long civil war as was the case in Lebanon, was not invaded as a whole, as was the case with Iraq, and it does not have a massive foreign debt as is the case with Jordan and Lebanon. But, on the other hand, Syria does not have a peace deal with Israel, as is the case with Jordan and Egypt, which means that there are a lot of Syrian families still waiting to go back to their homes in the Golan and be reunited with their families there. Moreover, Syria is now more isolated than ever, does not receive much foreign aid or direct investments, and its regime is the most corrupt and cruel of all existing Arab regimes.

This is the legacy of the Baath and the Assad regime.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Our Way or the Lions' Way?

As the serious charges leveled against Michel Kilo indicate, and as the crackdown against democracy activists continues, culminating in the arrest of Anwar al-Bunni a few hours ago, one thing is becoming clear: the Assad regime is throwing the glove in the face of the international community and all its resolutions.

Yet, and while people continue to look for an explanation of this escalatory move by the Assads, with some reviving the old rivalry between the various security apparatuses theory, and others contending that the move denotes the existence of a centralized decision-making process, the important question before us is this: what can we do? What can the international community do in the face of the Assads’ defiance, bearing in mind that there is more involved here than the ongoing crackdown, there is as well the question of the various Security Council Resolutions with regard to Lebanon, which continue to be ridiculed by the Assads?

Well, these are my two heretical bits in this regard: the international community, or to be more specific, the US and the EU need to send a very strong and stern message to the Syrian regime, and to the Syrian people. For this, it is clear that one cannot rely on the UN, seeing that Russia and China will continue to be spoilers. Action outside the purview of the UN is, therefore, required. I suggest two measures with important symbolisms: issuing a strong high level condemnation by American and European officials, lowering down the level of diplomatic representation by recalling existing ambassadors, and canceling all previously scheduled visits by Syrian officials on all levels.

While these measures might seem too drastic to some, they will likely appear superfluous to others. But, frankly, unless an explicit message is sent to the Assads to the effect that such confrontational policies will only serve to increase their international isolation, the crackdown against activists will continue and could easily escalate to include all notable opposition figures in the country. On the other hand, and for those who think that the prescribed moves will prove too symbolic and ineffective, well, they might indeed be right, still, there exists a strong reason for not taking on the Assads at this stage. Now this might sound strange coming out of a regime change advocate, but please bear with me. Mine is not intended as a change in my announced "ideological" position vis-à-vis the Assads, but as a tactical move meant to help us select the "right" rules for the eventual well-nigh inevitable engagement-cum-showdown.

For there is a distinct possibility that the Assads might be trying to force such a showdown with the international community at this stage, that is, before the issuance of the next Brammertz report or reports, in an attempt to set the “right” geopolitical context that can allow them to continue to claim more vociferously and for the sake of internal consumption that the reports were politically motivated and that they are indeed fabricated.

As such, a premature showdown can do more good than harm to the Assads. What the US and the EU need to do, therefore, is wait for at least two things to materialize before they take more serious action against the Assads:

1) They need to wait for the final outcome of the UN investigation into the Hariri assassination, or at least for a strong report that clearly implicates specific high level personalities within the regime, which could then open the door for a justified intervention within Syria along the lines of the Assads on Probation scenario which I elaborated earlier.
2) They also need to wait for some in the Syrian external opposition at least to present themselves as a credible enough alternative worthy of international recognition and support, so that fears of state failure in the aftermath of regime change are alleviated.

The good news here is that both things might materialize by no longer than mid-June when Brammertz is scheduled to present his new report, and when the National Salvation Front will have finalized its overall constituency, structure and vision. Alternatively, and should Brammertz opt to issue another technical report at this state, and/or should the NSF require more time to present itself as the awaited viable alternative, then, we and the world might have to “wait” until yearend (wait yes, but not in the passive sense of doing nothing and watching what happens, as we need to use this time to prepare for the eventual showdown).

Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear now: the Assads have just written themselves off as viable players on the scene. True, they have just demonstrated that they can annihilate all internal opposition if they want to, but then, no one really had any doubts about their ability to do that, the Assads did not need to demonstrate that. What they desperately needed to demonstrate was that they are people with whom world leaders can speak and reach agreements, that they can be trusted and relied upon to fulfill their end of whatever bargains, and that they can understand that there indeed exist redlines for them as well, and not only for the opposition, that they need to respect in order to maintain cordial relations with the international community and continue to receive its stamp of approval, its investments and its aid. The Assads have clearly failed and continue to fail miserably in this regard.

Indeed, Syria is important for regional stability and security, and has always been, but it is rapidly becoming clear that the Assads themselves are not, and that they are, in fact, a threat to these needs. Which is why they eventually have to go.

The Zoology of Crackdowns!

First, I promise to return to the issue of Identity, Integration & Introspection and my talk on Capitol Hill very soon. But for now, I would like to address the current situation in Syria.

Indeed, the arrest of Michel Kilo did not come as a unique occurrence, but was immediately followed by a series of summonses to other activists who, not too long ago, had signed a petition calling on the Syrian regime to normalize its relations with Lebanon, including demarcating borders, establishing diplomatic relations and freeing all Lebanese political prisoners in Syria jails, and accounting for the missing. These summonses could, of course, easily turn into arrests seeing that this is indeed what happened to Michel.

So, what is the significance of these moves?

Well, as I have noted in an earlier post, this is region-wide pattern closely related to the troubles of the US in Iraq and the ongoing crisis with Iranian regime. Clamping down on dissidents, especially moderate ones as is the case with Michel Kilo, in times of increased international pressures and security is meant as a sign of defiance and inflexibility.

The Assad regime is simply upping the ante, then, and demonstrating its continued internal strength, while underscoring the failure of the international community, for all its criticisms, complaints, condemnations and resolutions, to produce any serious outcome on the ground. At the end of the day, the Assads are signaling, there is no one in Syria but them with whom the international community can deal. So, and unless the international community is willing to undertake or sanction another military intervention in the region, it has no choice but to seek a deal with the Assads, its reservations, misgiving and revulsion aside.

The problem here is that there is really nothing that the Assads can really give. They can promise not to interfere in Lebanon, but they will continue to interfere in Lebanon – they simply have too many vested interests there to really behave, – and they can promise to help in Iraq, but they are more likely to end up helping themselves to Iraq, or portions of it. Why? Well, the very complexities of the Iraqi situation, the direct interest that the regime has in ongoing arrangements in the Kurdish region, the alliance with Iran and the relations with Turkey are bound to:

1) Compel the Assads to seek to weaken the Kurds, America’s only real allies in Iraq.
2) Exploit the Sunni/Shiite Divide and factionalism to recreate a similar role for themselves in Iraq, just as they had done in Lebanon, with all the side-benefits that can be derived from that.

On the surface of it, this might actually seem good for the sake of regional stability. After all, weakened Kurds cannot seek independence, and the Assads might actually be able, at some point in the future, to broker some kind of a Taif accord between the various Iraqi factions and confessions.

Of course, one needs to be a complete moron to see things in this light. For, none of the existing Assads is capable enough to manage such a state of affairs. So, in fact it will be the Iranian mullahs who will be actually running the show, which means that the more probable scenario for Iraq will involve the emergence of some kind of new Shiastan in at least parts of Iraq, and in which the Sunnis will most surely be subjugated. Meanwhile, the Kurds and the Turcomen, with Turkish duplicity and blessings, will be “encouraged” to engage in a prolonged civil war centering on Kirkuk, thus serving to postpone indefinitely the Kurdish drive for independence.

Other scenarios are possible, of course, but I doubt any of them will be conducive to the kind of regional stability that we can actually live with.

So, if the Assads cannot deliver any of the desired fruits, why should the world deal with them? Because they will make trouble? Well, yes, they probably will make trouble should this isolation of theirs continue, the Assads simply don’t know how to bide their time. But, with a deal in hand, and as I have just argued, the Assads will make even more trouble. The Assads are trouble.

So, and until such time that the world is more ready to deal with the Assads at large, it might as well keep them under lock and key for the time being. This may not exactly keep them on the straight and narrow, but whatever trouble the Assads can make in these conditions is nothing in comparison to what they can make when they are “free.” The Assads have lived up to their name a slight too many times for comfort sake, but if we cannot go on a lion-hunting safari for the time being, the least we can do is to keep them caged. Let them roar their asses off. The Assads are challenging us to become lion-hunters, but if we opt not to play their game, we are better off learning how to be good zoo-keepers.

This arrangement may not do anything to save the Kilos, Labwanis and Jamouses of Syria from paying a rather heavy price, but neither will the world’s willingness to let the Assads loose. In fact, they were the loose Assads who jailed Kilo, Labwani and Jamous the first time around, and they were the loose Assads who continued to harass and terrorize them and their comrades when they were “free.”

The Assads has transformed all of Syria into a large zoo-prison. They were not alone in this, I know, and they are not alone now, I am sure, but they are the leaders, they are the ones to have insisted on branding Syria and everything Syrian with their name. Indeed, they are the "builders of modern Syria," as they continuously remind us, so they are the ones who ultimately responsible for all that is wrong with it.

Still, and the geopolitical context of the current going-ons aside, as an activist, one who was inspired by none other than Michel Kilo himself to shake down his bohemian lethargy and seek to become more involved in pubic concerns, I have to say that the least we can do at this stage is to protest loud enough so that Kilo et al are not left forgotten.

For this reason, I hereby renew my call for a large public rally in Washington, DC to protest the dismal state of civil rights in our region. It’s time we did something other than blogging for this. I am already in touch with several colleagues around the country to see what can be done to this end, and I will speak about our plans in due course of time.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Capitol Heresies!

I will be appearing in Capitol Hill tomorrow to speak at a conference on Immigration, Integration and Identity. My little intervention will focus on the issue of Integration & Introspection. My main point can be summarized as follows:

To facilitate the integration of Muslim communities in the traditional redoubts of western culture and civilization, namely Europe and the US, each side needs to be self-critical and not just critical of the other. But in truth, and while some criticism along these lines seems to be taking place among western intellectuals and policymakers, we are seeing little serious introspection on part of the Muslim communities involved. This seems to be one of the main driving forces behind the growing frustration of certain figures and groups in the West, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The result: many have begun to vent their frustration in ways that are simply too confrontational and sensational to allow for viable dialogue.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Quandary!

Ahmadinejad of Iran is with us because a certain large percentage of the Iranian population thought he can create jobs ad improve their livelihood.

The Syrian people had hopes in Bashar, because they, too, believed he can improve their living conditions. Rights were not the main thing on their minds.

Indeed, and in such desperate economic times, people across our haggard region seem willing to err again and again by backing existing regimes, for all their dismal human rights records and all their corrupt practices and authoritarian predilections, so long as these regimes seem to represent the more viable promise of a better future in the economic sense.

Besides, people are always afraid of change, but their fears are amplified even more when the heralded change purports to affect just about every aspect of their lives, and at a time when everything around seems to inform them to expect disaster whenever the status quo is challenged. The examples of Yugoslavia and Iraq are the oft quoted ones in this regard of course.

Moreover, the peoples of our region are diverse, and they have long learned to suspect each other and have ample historical justification for that, their historical memories in this regard being rather vast and expansive. As such, they are indeed quite aware of the implication of a collapse of law and order, no matter how momentary.

For all these reasons, most of the peoples of this region would rather support the status quo and endorse the ruling regimes, even at the expense of having to “tough it out,” every now and then, by undergoing a period of economic hardships and international isolation. People would rather blame the rest of the world for such developments and would still hold out hopes that their rulers will eventually "see the light" and be willing and able to deliver on economic reforms.

Reformers and advocates of change, therefore, have to contend with a very grim reality and have to overcome a huge amount of inertia in order to get where they want to go and drag their societies and polities along with them. Neither the regimes, nor the peoples of the region will endorse reform and change (for indeed, change will also challenge quite a few ingrained social and cultural attitudes as well, there are no such things as purely economic or political change).

But, if the Arab Human Development Reports produced by the United Nation Development Program in cooperation with Arab intellectuals, reformers, technocrats and activists underscore anything it is the need for change, drastic change. Studies and reports with regard to Iran paint no less a grim image.

So, what can reformers and activists do other than issuing such periodic warnings?

Not much really. In fact, the best they could do under these circumstances is to survive and try to keep a certain secular liberal and liberating torch alive in the midst of a seemingly inevitable mayhem when all different sorts of primordial forces and atavistic identities are bound to emerge and clash in a process complicated by the needs and interests of external actors.

But then, and in order not to come out as too resigned and fatalistic, a quality that tends to offend the liberal tendencies of those of us who are truly liberal in mind and spirit, some of us to watch for possible “windows of opportunity,” no matter how unlikely they appear to be, and try to push something through them, a reform or two, which could be used as the basis for future reforms.

But regional realities are frankly much harsher than to allow even for this kind of “opportunism.” The incestuous cliquish nature of some regimes often makes them so inflexible and oppressive that, sooner or later, a reformer or an activist ends up finding himself a marginalized and disgusted figure in an equally marginalized and disgusted (and, occasionally, disgusting) opposition.

In this new role, the activist-turned-opposition figure can call more loudly for reforms now, and might have the luxury of even sounding “unreasonable” in his demands. Then, and at a certain point, he might even advocate regime change, through a popular revolution of all things, albeit on the more flowery side – a Jasmine Revolution.

But this is a tough sell to the people, and the resources are little. The small team he puts together is itself unready and is as diverse and, hence, fractions, as the population that it represents. And the times, the times are unforgiving. And his tongue, oh, his damned tongue, is well-nigh beyond control.

So one day, the hapless activist-turned-opposition figure comes out of a hurried a meeting realizing that he will soon need to add the little title of “exile” to his growing list of well-nigh useless titles (author, blogger, poet, analyst, advisor, consultant, team leader, coordinator, director, fellow, etc. ad absurdum, ad nauseam. Ah, and lest we forget: son, husband and father, well, stepfather anyway).

Now, sitting in his little 2-bedroom exile, in a rather quiet suburb, not too far from the center of all alleged conspiracies and the focus of most existing conspiracy theories, our hapless activist etc. has now to deal with the awesome task of figuring some new purpose to his to life, so he can be relevant again. This is just not the right time for a return to the erstwhile bohemian subsistence.

So, how can we change a world that does not want to be changed, that militates against even, albeit change is what it needs most? How can we save a world from itself? Or do we? Or are we just destined to manage a never ending crisis, to minimize the losses, pull something out of the ashes and breathe life back into it, so it can disintegrate again, sometimes as we watch?

These are some interesting questions, don’t you think?

The view is really nice from my balcony on the fifth floor. The bits of Rock Creek Park that I can glimpse are rather alluring. But the keyboard beckons, and its appeal is still powerful enough to drag me back inside. I am not that tapped out yet. I still have some answers to find and the will to keep on looking for them. There is still a role for me to play here, and I won’t accept anything less than positive.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Whose Syria Is It?

The Muslim Brotherhood was not making so much trouble before the arrival of Hafiz Assad to power, and Syrian society was not as religious 40 years ago as it is today. Oh yeah, leave it to a socialist nationalist secular regime to drive a rich country into poverty and knock a relatively open society back into the maze of sectarian belongings and traditional piety.

Yet, and while the growing religiosity of Syrian society tends to be part of a larger regional trend, we cannot just ignore the absurdity of it taking place in a country like Syria at the hands of the secular-cum-sectarian Assads. For here is a minoritarian regime playing with the fires of majoritarian extremism in the hope of actually prolonging its lifespan!!?? Come on!

What the Assads are actually doing, in spite of themselves it seems, is this: knowing, at a certain deep level, that their demise is indeed imminent, they are busy preparing the entire society, the entire country in fact, for taking the final leap with them over the edge and into the abyss that will mark the end of it all. As such, the Assads are doing two things simultaneously: working out their own demise and exacting their vendetta vis-à-vis the rest of the country, their own community included.

This is why we need something like the National Salvation Front, a pragmatic alliance of all major political currents on the scene in Syria: Baath elements who, for whatever reason, are ready to adopt a reform agenda, Islamists who can still talk to, leftist currents that can still represent the majority of the intellectual and artistic class in the country, and a few liberals to speak for the interests of the business class and the emerging new intellectual class.

This is why we need to accept the principle of cooperation with the likes of Khaddam and Bayanouni, among other controversial figures. For, on the short term, we really have no other viable alternative, seeing that we need to simultaneously kick the Assads out yet keep the country together. In fact, we need to prevent them from tearing the country apart in some act of stupidity and vindictiveness. This should be our short-term goal.

Indeed, we need the more pragmatic Islamists (and, no, I won’t necessarily use the term moderate here) to curb the more fanatical Islamists. We need Baathists to appeal to other Baathists. We need old regime figures to appease the fears of other old regime figures. We need secular Sunnis to appease the fears of the secular currents, including the country’s many minorities. And we most assuredly need Alawites to alley the fears of the other Alawites and convince them to keep their guns holstered.

Democratization is not the name of the game at this stage then, it is survival – the survival of a country. We need to save Syria from the Assads and their adventurist politics, we need to save it from those who’d rather err on the side of doom than caution, even as they play with the fate of an entire country.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The US & Armageddon Lite!

With the region on the verge of implosion, the US needs to learn the hard art of conflict management, because this is one conflict it can run away from, anymore. Indeed, there will be a huge price to pay for staying the distance, which includes staying in Iraq and not shying away from further involvement in other regional affairs, but the price for leaving will have negative ramifications for US interests far beyond the region.

US interests (yes, especially the dreaded oil interests) in Central Asia and the Caucasus will most surely be affected should US involvement in the region become less direct, thanks to the Iranian, Turkish and Saudi connections as well as Islamists activities. Moreover, and thanks to the likes of Hugo Chavez and other populist leaders in the world, the ramifications will not stop at the border of the so-called Muslim World.

Indeed, and finger-pointing aside for now, the US has no real choice but to stay the distance and manage the conflict. This is a necessary corollary of the War on Terror, I guess.

The good thing is, there are certain rules indeed to conflict management, even in an area known for breaking all rules such as the Middle East, or the Broader Middle East, or still the Broader Middle East and North Africa Region. Knowing these rules, in their local variety of course, is the key to successful management. And though I don’t pretend to be an expert on these rules or to know all of them, I can at least name one with relative certainty: identify the various players involved, and then proceed to assess their relative strength.

The application of this rule is not easy of course. For the number of players increases depending on that part of the puzzle one is examining. The Turcomen and Assyrians may not appear as major players within the overall picture, but in Kirkuk they are. And an implosion in Kirkuk will have wider ramification for the entire Kurdish areas in Iraq, which in turn will have major repercussions for the Kurdish areas in Iran, Turkey and Syria, not to mention the rest of Iraq. As such, the relevance of Turcomen and Assyrians far outstrip their actual size. As such, they are indeed important players. And so on. Identifying the players is, in effect, a continuous process, and not something that can be done at a specific point in time and then relegated to the back of one’s mind.

Yet, identifying the major players is still nothing in comparison to the necessary assessment of their relative strength. By one account, the Kurds might appear as the weakest of all players, after all, if they appear to have the upper hand in Iraq now, one concerted effort on part of the Turks and/or Iranians can effectively destroy all of their hopes.

And yet, one can make similar cases for Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah and/or the Assad regime, among other players, showing them to occupy that unenvied position of being the weakest link.

Be that as it may, what the US needs to do vis-à-vis the weakest link at this stage, once one is identified, is to try to take it out of the game by transferring it from a chip/card/pawn in somebody else’s hand to ally in his own camp.

If this should be the initial goal of the US, then, this by default excludes Hezbollah, who, judging by its current stands, not to mention its avowed ideology, cannot be expected to negotiate with the Americans. Hamas might conceivably be maneuvered into a negotiating stance, but, for this, the current administration needs to show a bit more gumption in its talks with its Israeli allies.

Meanwhile, the Mullahs of Iran, the recent offer of Ahmadinejad notwithstanding, are simply not ready for negotiating, because they tend to think too highly of themselves at the current juncture. Still, and in my humble opinion, the entire US strategy in the region at this stage, should be aimed at maneuvering the Iranian mullahs into a more reasonable negotiating stance, which means that Iran’s hand needs to be considerably weakened first.

This brings us back to the Assad regime, my favorite antagonists in the whole wide world. Theoretically speaking, the Assads of Syria would make ideal allies for the US at this stage. Indeed, such an alliance could have been worked out had Hafiz al-Assad still been alive. But, the passing of Assad Sr. brought out the inner contradictions of the regime, exposed the Sunni/Alawites divide and served to empower a group of “pure” thugs with poor statesmanship skills putting them in charge of the decision-making process in the country. The Assads of Syria are currently running the country as a personal fiefdom without any sense of strategy or vision, or the ability to develop one in due course of time. This is why previous efforts at communicating with them had failed, and this is why the current US administration seems to have washed its hands of them. And rightly so.

But this transfers the Assads into a legitimate near-future target for the US, something that I have elaborated about previously (more recently, here, here and here).

This is not a comprehensive review of the entire situation of course. But since, I cannot, by any means, claim to be an expert on US-Turkish relations, or on US involvement in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Latin American and elsewhere, I prefer to conclude my little survey with this unabashed, unashamed, unwavering and relentless Take the Assads Out argument.

Heretically Yours,