Friday, June 30, 2006
Hardly a day goes by in Syria these days without new arrests taking place or activists getting banned from traveling or sentenced to long prison terms on some idiotic trumped up charges that only diseased minds can conjure. This is what happened when the Assads regime is in a defiant mode, and this is what will keep on happening when the world remains silent.
But the problem is the world is not just being silent, the world is cooperating. By continuing to grant access and visas to Syrian officials to go to other countries and continue to intimidate the expatriate communities who live there, vilify the opposition, and criticize the unfair policies of the international community, as if policies of the Arab states vis-à-vis each other and their own people is fair, is nothing less than an act of duplicity in the ongoing suppression of liberty in the Arab World.
But recently, the Arab expatriate communities in the US demonstrated how duplicitous they, too, could be. I am referring here to the recent conference organized by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) which was attended by the Syrian Ambassador, Imad Moustapha, and the Syria Minister of Expatriate Affairs, Bouthaina Shaaban.
During her presentation, the Minister had the audacity to criticize the current US administration policies while simultaneously justifying the crackdown against all dissidents and activists in Syria. She even responded angrily to one local journalist of Syrian descentwho pointed out the contradictions in her stand, and went on to accuse Michel Kilo of all different sorts of crimes, including stamping on the Syrian flag!!
Now considering the fact that the basic mission of the ADC is to seek to protect the basic rights of Arab Americans by reporting instances of abuse and lobbying against the passing of any anti-Arab legislation or to work to revoke those that have already been passed, is it by any means reasonable and/or consistent of them to invite such characters to speak at their functions? Is it reasonable for a rights organization to commiserate and empower some of the worst abusers of human rights in the world?
Arab Americans are completely free to disagree with the policies of the Bush Administration in the region, but does rejecting Bush necessarily entail embracing Bashar? Is there something wrong with the Arab gene that makes our imagination so limited? Or is someone just being an idiot or, worse, a hypocrite?
Indeed, where does the ADC get its funding from? Is the Syrian government contributing anything to it? Is any Arab government contributing anything to it? Is that what’s it all about: money? Or is it just plain stupidity? Or, have the political calculations of the ADC got so intricate and complex that its administrators can no longer determine the proper balance that they need to strike between their focus on Arab American rights and the occasional need to maintain some form of contact with the states of origin?
Indeed, this is a bad time for the Arab activists wherever they happen to, I am definitely aware of that, and we all have to make some rather tough decisions and engage in the kind of politics that very few of us really like or appreciate. But, since the greatest abusers of Arab people’s rights are Arab governments, there should a limit on how “pragmatic” we can be vis-à-vis Arab regimes and officials, especially when we work in the field of human rights. Otherwise, we’ll end up discriminating against our own people by advocating the cause of their abusers. Arab national interests are not served in such a brazenly idiotic manner.
Inviting representatives of an Arab regime right at a time when it is actively cracking down on dissent in the country, and allowing its representatives to veto any active participation by opposition groups and independent dissidents, which they did, represent a very questionable call on part of ADC. Frankly, the people responsible for this decision should be ashamed of themselves, as I am indeed ashamed of them.
Someone could argue here that a guy like me who joins an institution like the NSF headed by someone like Khaddam should not be casting stones here. But, the two situations are not exactly alike: Khaddam has clearly broken with the regime and, this aside, the fate of an entire country is clearly at stake here. Can the ADC people make a similar argument to back their decision? Are Arab-Americans under such an existential threat, one that I am not aware of, that the ADC is forced into making such pragmatic alliances with Arab regimes, their human rights records notwithstanding?
The reality is Arab Americans have been quite lucky, relatively speaking. For despite all the stereotypes that exist about them in popular imagination and in the media and despite the acts of terror being perpetuated in their name, no matter how partially, they were never subjected to the kind of practical discrimination that other minority groups in this country have had to deal with, so far. We might indeed be able to make a good argument that this situation is rather tenuous, but that does not excuse or justify getting in bed with Arab regimes.
ME Transparent site is emerging as a source of some hardcore intelligence information with regard to the current situation in Syria. I am not sure who the sources are, but they seem pretty informed and pretty close to the regime. Transparent’s latest reports on Syria inform us that: one, the empty building near the national TV station that reportedly “came under attack” by a terrorist Islamist cell a few weeks ago, was actually a secret prison, known among the Syrian intelligence officers as the Tahouneh or the Mill, but it quite possible that the people who got killed were no attackers, but inmates, and that the attack was staged.
Second, sources inform us that the Syrian authorities are holding over 1,600 Saudi nationals and using them as a pressure card against the Saudi government with regard to the situation in Lebanon and to the growing pressures on the regime. The Saudis are reportedly affiliated with al-Qaeda, and they seem to have been arrested while on their way to Iraq. This might explain indeed Saudi recalcitrance with regard to applying pressures on Syria and to shutting their media outlets in the face of Syrian opposition figures. The sheer number of detainees here means that there are simply too many families involved that the Saudi monarchs don’t want to anger at this stage. This is a pretty effective technique indeed, if the report is true.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, my dear colleague and good friend and one of the main figures behind the Damascus Declaration and the more recent Damascus-Beirut Declaration has recently been slapped with a travel ban on account of his continuous involvement in civil society activities around the region and the world.
Indeed, and over the lat two months alone, Radwan came to the US twice to take part in various meetings and seminars. He also gave a few of lectures in Washington D.C., Chicago, and elsewhere.
The move comes as part of the Assads regime’s ongoing crackdown against activists and opposition figures in the country, a development destined to witness further escalations in the days and weeks ahead, as the regime continues its reversion to old-style totalitarian rule.
Indeed, and in a related development, and far from the spotlight, thousands of non-Baathist employees in public enterprises and institutions, their apolitical tendencies notwithstanding, are reportedly being laid off or being reassigned to marginal positions, so that these institutions remain under Baathist control, in an attempt to reinstitute the old patronage system and bolster regime support across the board.
If this tendency should continue over the next few weeks, there will soon be much fresh popular anger and resentments to tap into. In true Saddamite fashion, and in the process of bunkering down, the Assads are cutting themselves off completely from the Street and from any nonsectarian grassroots support. From a tactical perspective, this might be good news for the opposition, but it is also a bad omen for the future stability of the country. For the removal of the Assads, whenever the time for that comes, will not be a bloodless affair.
To all those who thought I am raving mad when I told them that the adventurist streak of the Assads runs so deep inside of them that we will be hard pressed to distinguish it from a serious death-wish, I say: do you believe me now? You still don’t? Well say hello to the Popular Committee for the Liberation of the Golan, an organization whose official presence has just been announced and whose founders, made up of lawyers, activists and former MPs of Golanese descent, describe it as “political military organization” that will deploy "whatever means necessary" to get back the Golan.
Whether the announcement came as an immediate response to Israeli warplanes flying earlier today over Bashar’s palace in Lattakia, while he was there, or whether it is the other way around, the announcement did not come out of thin air, there has been signs and rumors to this effect for a few of years now.
Indeed, the whole incident seems a like reenactment of the situation in 2003. Then, too, Israel was retaliating for a suicide bombing that killed many civilians, while Bashar was busy supporting radical Palestinian groups. But at the time, and instead of announcing the formation of some liberation movement, someone ran an article in the Syrian daily al-Thawra in which he admonished that Syria should learn from the “victory” achieved by Hezbollah in South Lebanon and establish paramilitary groups along Islamist lines that can operate in the Golan to “force” Israel troops and settlers out.
Now, lest I be misunderstood here, let me rush to assert that of course I want to see the Golan Heights return to Syrian sovereignty, and I want to see the thousands of broken up families unite again, and of course, I do not doubt the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, but I always believed that overplaying our hands and involvement in radical politics will put the entire country in an untenable position and will only benefit the extremists, especially those of Islamist persuasions.
As such, I have always argued against the armed intifadah, and I have always argued against policies of confrontation with the international community. We should learn how work for our national interests while avoiding such unnecessary confrontations. I am not interested who won in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or South Lebanon, all I know is that the price in all these situations have been too high and, for this reason, we’d better not take the issue of confrontation with powers that are politically, economically and military far superior to us too lightly and callously.
The Vietnamese won their war against the Americans, but they are still saddled with a dictatorial and corrupt regime to this day. The Afghans won their war against the Soviets, but they inherited a broken up state and society in which only Islamists, of the most extreme and enlightened could flourish. If the situation appears to be slightly better in Lebanon, it’s because of the fact that there are other players on the scene and that the entire situation is till unfolding as we speak. Whatever the case may be here, I don’t want that fate for Syria. But the course being charted by the Assads and their Islamist and ultra-nationalist allies can only lead to this.
This is indeed another argument in favor of regime change in Syria, and like all our previous arguments, this one, too, is made on our behalf by the Assads themselves, may they live long and prosper, in hell.
Monday, June 26, 2006
The recent article by Shaaban Abboud on Islamic Movements in Syria highlights the fact that, in the final analysis and after all is said and done, these movements are formed along provincial rather than ideological lines, with personalities playing a huge role in this regard. Different sheikhs have different followers, disciples and devotees. They will compete with each other, and vilify each other, now somewhat quietly but tomorrow quite overtly, but they will eventually agree on one thing: the Shariah.
The only Islamic movement in Syria that no longer preaches the necessity of declaring the Sharia as the law of the land is the Muslim Brotherhood. They might still crave it in their heart, lust after it in their minds and masturbate at night while thinking of the moment of the ultimate consummation in this regard, but they know that such a call, at this stage, can only lead to all sorts of mayhem on account of the country’s diversity and the internal balances of power. So, for now, for the MB, the Sharia is out.
This state of affairs, that is, the internal divisions of the country’s Islamists movements, coupled with the more pragmatic character of the Brotherhood, will afford the secular forces, currents and movements in Syria a certain critical period of time in which they have to work studiously to consolidate their position on the grounds and make the whole issue of Sharia law rather academic, a mere wet-dream to nourish, no matter how vicariously, the famished, tormented and disfigured souls of the country’s Islamists.
In this regard, the recent move to form an NGO meant to advance secular concerns in the country is an idea that is long overdue. Let’s just hope that it’s not too little too late.
Our unloved, undesired, unintelligible, yet completely unrepentant nincompoop of a president has just opened his mouth and vomited a load of nonsensical utterances that will challenge the finessing capabilities of even the most rabid regime supporters out there. Still, I am sure that many, each for his/her reasons, will attempt to read something noteworthy into them, after all, the man is a goddamn president, so he must know what the hell he is talking about.
But then, at least he helped the cause of the NSF by deigning to speak of it in a direct manner. That’s really good publicity for the NSF and for Khaddam. He even acknowledged that the NSF is receiving some international political support, but not necessarily financial support. The man-cub is well-informed, well, to an extant of course. For anyone who thinks that the street on his side is an idiot. The street is in disarray, and when the time should come, it will have a billion other sides that will appeal more effectively to its diverse tastes and its insatiable appetite for revenge and accounting.
But I’ll leave it to you, and to Khaddam, to decipher Bashar’s other utterances
Meanwhile, and despite all the idiotic criticism, Bayanouni’s announcement regarding his willingness to get back the Golan Heights through negotiations make good political sense. This is exactly the kind of message that needs to be sent at this stage, knowing how influential the Israelis are in shaping the US and international policies vis-à-vis the Assads regime. It is indeed important here to point out to the Israelis that a government in which the MB will take part will still be committed to the language of dialogue as the best way for getting back the Golan.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
The reason I tread lightly in the political field is because it is, in essence, only a manifestation of the real problems in our part of the world, most of which tend to be not simply social but psychological in nature. And since such problems, due to their very intricate nature and the fact that we have to work on both the individual and collective levels simultaneously, cannot be dealt with in matter of days or months and tend to require years, if not decades, to be handled effectively, seeking political fixes to these problems is nothing short of idiotic.
For how can politics fix a broken young woman, torn apart by the tug of war inside of her between the influences of her Islamist milieu and her desire to follow the dictates of her heart, her mind and her conscience? And how can politics fix a distraught 40-something woman who still cannot shake off enduring parental dabbling in her life, and who does not feel empowered enough to relinquish the benefits that come along with that?
Indeed, I am referring to actual cases here and indeed they are ongoing and concern friends of ours. This situation has served to put my entire activities over the last few months into a rather different perspective and reminded me of my actual activist passions. It also coincided with the headway we are currently making with regards to the re-launching of the Tharwa Project. Indeed, the original site has already been reactivated, albeit some snags regarding the design still need to be fixed. The Arabic site should be coming out by month-end. The Tharwa Community has also been revamped and some of the blogs have already been launched, including Sawt, Virtual Syria, Tharwalizations and Taqaseem. The rest will follow in the next few days.
So, and while my private energies have always tended to focus more on Tharwa than any other thing, soon my public activities will once again shift back in this direction as well. Now, this might sound strange considering the public commitment I have recently made to the Front. But frankly, the only way I can continue with my involvement in oppositional politics is for me to create this kind of necessary private and public balance. I am not a politician, and the only reason I got invovled in politics is to help create the necessary space that we would allow us to takcle the issues I most care about.
Had the Assads not been so control-freaks, I'd still be in Syria doing just that, joined by so many others. But the problem with our rulers is that they cannot imagine the world without them being in control of it, even if this situation is not destined to be a reality for decades to come. They simply cannot reconcile themselves to the eventuality of passing away from the scene, no matter how gracefully. This is probably why they have to be made to pass away literally.
At their heart of heart, the people of Syria realize the necessity of this, but they are not ready to own up to it. But they will get there eventually, and when they do, someone should be ready to manage the consequences of their outburst.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
To many observers of Syrian affairs, especially in the aftermath of the vaguely-worded report by Brammertz and in view of the growing alliance with Iran, the Assads regime must seem more secure than it has been in many months now, international criticism of its policies notwithstanding. Whether it is the Assads strategy that is working here or whether it is their luck that is holding, it doesn't really matter, the end result is the same, the Assads seem practically untouchable.
Or are they?
Well, there are certain other considerations which, though they continue to receive scant attention in mainstream media, tend to paint a less rosy picture of the situation. Indeed, the whole story regarding the quiet crisis between Syria and Qatar, and the continuing intelligence reports signifying a seemingly growing rift between Bashar/Maher/Makhlouf axis and that presented by their sister, Bushra, and her husband, Assef, and their considerable support within the intelligence services, the army, and the Alawite community, tend to suggest that the selfsame forces and currents that threatened to undermine the security of the Assads regime over the last six years are still very much with us ad still gnawing at the heart of the regime.
The first instance, and Qatar’s recent affirmation that it stands squarely in the American-French camp with regard to their policy vis-à-vis the Assads, means that yet another country in the region has just made its “peace” with the idea of regime change in Syria (for, as we all should now by now, the mouth might say behavior change, but the heart and mind cry out regime change). Considering the fact that the Qatari prince has recently a secret visit to Syria during which he reportedly met with Bashar indicates that the famous presidential charms of our eternal leader wannbe continue to fail him when it comes to his dealing with fellow Arab potentates. Obviously, the Qatari decision to join the anti-Assad camp was not made without forethought.
This new and far less nuanced position by the Qatari rulers is bound to strengthen the hand of the indigenous regional camp that seeks the further isolation of the Assads regime at this stage. This may not have any adverse effects over the tourist season, but then, the Assad regime seems one where all normal appearances will likely be maintained until the whole things comes crashing down.
Which brings us to the second point and to the story of the growing rift between Bashar and his brother-in-law, sometimes rumored to be his right-hand man, and others his main Alawite rival. Here, and while we may not be able to know the exact details with any certainty, we can, nonetheless, be assured by now that the rivalry between the two camps is all too real, and that it is bound to heat up even more in the coming few weeks and months, seeing that the regime is in a confident mode these days.
What is really interesting here is the fact that Assef is able to continue to be a main player in this game despite the fact that, other than Bushra, almost everyone in the Assad and Makhlouf clans seem to be against him. How could he do it? What is the nature of his power base?
Well, Assef seems to have inherited the mantle of the dear old Uncle Rif’at within the Alawite community, that is, the position of the tough leader that people can look up to. Considering the nature of the regime and the times, this is not a bad reputation to have. Hell, even his old reputation as an opportunist, which he earned when he eloped and married his benefactor’s daughter seem to be serving him well now. After all, the man, in a sense, defied death. He is fearless. More importantly though, he is a "commoner," he did not come from the ruling family, he is an outsider, and, in times like these, it is always good to have such an image.
So, Assef is both in and out, he is tough, yet, in the public eye, his name was never mentioned in connection to any act of violence or torture, or, more importantly perhaps, any overt act of corruption. There are no businesses out there that are being run in his name.
All in all then, Assef appear to be the “ideal” Alawite figure out there, and now more than ever. Indeed, Syria’s isolation seems to have strengthened his hands at one point, as it put him virtually in charge of drawing up the regime's new policies, including the alliance with Iran, continuing defiance of the international community, and continuing dabbling in Lebanese affairs.
But he remains a rival to Bashar. So, and now that the regime seems to be emerging from its isolation, or so its leaders would like to think, including perhaps Assef himself, times seem to be quite favorable to attempt some necessary wing-clipping.
Will it work? How would anyone know really? All we can tell that Assef is bound to fight back, and so the firework is bound to be quite interesting, though not necessarily enjoyable.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Let me take some time to clarify this issue of alleged schisms within the NSF:
There were, in fact, two participants in the foundational conference who opted at the last minute not to join the Front. That’s about it really. Now, I leave it up to you to decide whether the two figures opted out because they were not selected as members of the 11-member General Secretariat, or whether they had some lofty moral principle that was somehow violated in the process. Albeit, I have to admit that the other guy who opted out, Abdulhamid Haj Khodr, is actually a very decent fellow armed with an explosive temperament.
Now as for the whole idea of elections that many have already griped about, frankly, they were not even on the table at this stage: we are still in the preparatory phase, we are still developing our programs, our vision and our message that we want to take to the Syrian people and the international community, and the very ideological diversity within the Front means that we cannot agree on these issues within a day or two. We have a lot of work ahead of us yet, and we are now working to form the various committees that will be in charge of addressing all contentious issues. This might sound too dull and boring, but hey, there is no way we can sidestep these intermediary phases, they are part and parcel of the political process, especially when coalitions are involved. The best we can do is to try to speed things up and we are.
Let’s not forget here that we are achieving all this on our own. We have not been endorsed or supported by any external power or agency, or state or government, neither in the region nor elsewhere.
Moreover, and no matter what we do, we cannot be all-inclusive. There will always be people who will be left out, because either they think too highly of themselves in comparison to what others think of them, or because they have nothing to offer, or because they expect too much out of the process at this stage.
But we, as liberals, have joined the NSF to struggle for democracy and transparency within it, not because it is going to be democratic and transparent by itself. We did so, because Khaddam and Bayanouni had a certain clout and certain “credibility” as a potential organized threat to the regime and have, therefore, managed with their coalition to attract the attention of governments everywhere and most other opposition forces and figures out there. We deemed it unwise to be left out of something that might indeed produce Syria’s new leaders in the not-so-distant future.
For what sort of leaders are those going to be if they are all going to come from Baathist and Islamist backgrounds? And what sort of programs and constitution will these people produce if left to their own devices? No, we need to be there in the thick of it, pushing a different line of thought and challenging people from within. We may not have as much popular backing in Syria, but we do have some desperately needed skills and experiences and we can use them to leverage ourselves in and to implant some of our ideas into the fabric of the NSF programs and vision. Elections at the Front today won’t get us in, but smart backdoor politics will.
We need time to prepare for elections, as they are indeed a must. But the Front is fast becoming a sort of microcosm or Syria, the real liberal and democratic forces will not be the ultimate winners at this stage, but, we might, might mind you, be able to exert a greater influence on things here than is the case with our colleagues who opted to join the Assads regime in the hope of achieving the same goal.
Because they are not in power yet, and because they need us to get there, we seem to be better positioned to get a better deal for the liberal current in the country if we worked from within the NSF.
Indeed, this is not about democracy at this stage, it’s about survival – the survival of a liberal flame through the rough times that lie ahead. Because without this flame, democracy does not stand a chance.
On the other hand, and back to this idea of dissent within the ranks. What can I say? You should really hear some of my Polish friends speak about the internal wrangling and mutual vilifications that used to take place within the Polish Solidarity Movement even as they struggled to challenge the Soviet regime in their country. Listening to them you wouldn’t have thought the Movement would last two days, not to mention actually triumph at the end. For internal wrangling is part and parcel of coalition politics and, because the NSF is admittedly comprised of a higher proportion of shady characters who are much less democratically inclined, we are going to get more than our fair share of such wrangling. Alea Jacta Est and all that.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Why did you choose, so I was recently asked, to join the National Salvation Front, while some of your best friends back home seem to have joined the regime and are trying to help polish its image as diplomats and advisors?
We are all united in our belief that the main challenge today is about crisis management and damage control. We all believe that our current choices are between bad and worse. And we are all attempting to prevent the worst.
But some of us believe, and this where we surely disagree, that the worst will come should the Assads regime fall, as such a fall is bound to bring to a boil all suppressed internal contradictions of our society, and which are currently being kept in check by the authoritarian nature of the Assads rule. Moreover, and as well know, the Assads will simply not go gently into that good night, so some of the mayhem we fear will indeed be instigated by them, just as the Baathists are doing today in Iraq.
Others, on the other hand, myself included, believe that the worst will come on the hands of the Assads themselves. They are simply too greedy, too corrupt, too foolhardy, and sometimes downright stupid, and too bigoted at their heart of heart (despite all this show and tell about marrying Sunni women) to lead us out of this quagmire that we fell into as a result of their foolish policies and their continuous focus on their own particularistic interests and agendas.
Moreover, and since we all know that the Assads are more than willing to start killing their own people in order to stay in power, and since we all know that corruption plays a major role in this attitude of theirs, what makes us think that they are going to change their minds tomorrow?
What are we betting on here? Why are we buying them time?
Fear is one part of the answer of course. But no, not fear only vis-à-vis the idea of change itself, but fear of assuming the moral responsibility for the consequences of that change. The old question of the moral burden is at stake here, and it is gnawing at all our hearts and minds. We are united in this ethos as well, and there are no easy answers. The moral burden is immense.
That is why, and for all my argumentation and lobbying, when it comes to person to person contact, I don’t like to push people beyond a certain limit, I just make my arguments listen to theirs, debate the matter briefly, then leave it at that. Aggressiveness has its limits here, at least for me. I am not some messianic fool on some holy mission. I am not a proselytizer and I often doubt the veracity of the very message I am delivering. I am not armed with certainty to my teeth and doubts are killing me. Still, I’d much rather suffer the pains of their feeding-frenzy upon the last remnants of my soul than put up with the deadweight of certainty upon it.
But, of course, I believe, there is a baser instinct at work here as well. Indeed, working for regimes, especially when they seem all powerful and stable, provides both the coveted recognition and the comforting safety. While working for the opposition, especially in such feverish times and in countries such as ours where fear and suspicion rule the day, will subject one to all sorts of nasty accusations, not exactly the kind of recognition one craves, and open one and one’s family to all sorts of unattractive and downright dangerous possibilities. Indeed, to appear while wrapping oneself in the flag is always much more preferable and alluring than wrapping oneself in doubts and question marks. Most people wait until they are pushed to this position rather than adopt freely and willingly. Not everybody is a self-flagellating fool.
Ah yes, I have just found these two links below to the audio recording of the panel discussions that I participated in as part of involvement in the New York Festival of International Literature in April. For those of you interested in listening to them, just click on the links below, and do bear in mind that each panel lasted for around an hour (the files are in mp3 format):
Exiles in America.
Just the Facts (Internet & Censorship).
No, believe it or not, I haven’t watched a single match from the World Cup so far. Indeed, I just had enough time to keep up with the scores at the end of a long day. But I do hope to get a chance to follow the finals when the time comes (because I really feel like I am living in Mogadishu at this stage).
So, my short two-day absence from the blogosphere was not soccer-related in anyway, as some might have predicted. Indeed, I am not that predictable yet all due thanks and praise to my heretical stars. Let’s just say that the official explanation for my absence is that I was otherwise preoccupied. This will have to do for now.
But, and in order to cover some of the developments that took place during my absence, for heavens forbid that I should avoid tackling such thorny issues, albeit rather courtly and retroactively. So, let me make the following points:
- The credibility of the National Salvation Front does not rest upon anyone’s views and opinions at this stage, regardless of who he/she happens to be, but on the actions of its leaders over the next few weeks and months. We all know who Khaddam is and we all know who Bayanouni is and we all know who the current critics are and we all know the background of each one of the people involved in this matter on all sides of the multi-dimensional equation and we all have some reasonable assessment of their main motives, but politics in the final analysis is about actions and context and the ability of the main players to tailor their actions to the context and /or influence the context through their actions. The NSF has just been born and its particular interaction with the geopolitical context is something that people have to be patient enough to observe. Indeed, it will be as equally foolish to expect the NSF to be the ideal and final solution to all our problems as it is to dismiss it off-hand, considering the clout and diversity of the people taking part in it.
- The Brammertz Report came as most of us have expected, but not necessarily hoped, bland, short and technical. And though it did not blame anyone directly it also failed to exonerate anyone. In fact, insisting on highlighting the potential connection between the Hariri assassination and the Madinah Bank scandal is a very telling sign that the main line of inquiry does still assume a certain high-level Syrian involvement in the matter, all this talk elsewhere in the report about other potential scenarios for the assassination notwithstanding. Be that as it may, we now have another year of waiting ahead of us. For most of this year, the Assads regime will likely act in a very confident manner and, to me, that has always been a rather welcome attitude on their part, albeit internal dissidents will pay a heavy price for that. The important thing here is for the opposition not to behave in a similar manner or to relapse into its former apathetic tendencies and desperate ethos.
- There was a story that received very little attention over the last few days, but one that could have major consequences on the longer run. The story of the little ambiguous crisis between the Assads regime and the rulers of Qatar. The sensationalistic Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siayssah reports that the arrest of over 100 Syrian workers in Doha in the last couple of weeks came as a preventive measure designed to foil a plot hatched by Assef Chawkat himself to blow up Qatari interests in order to punish the Qatari rulers for voting for UNSC Resolution 1680. The matter, the reports goes, seems to have been contained for now following an unscheduled brief visit by the Qatari prince to Damascus, which was in itself followed by an equally brief and low-key visit by the Bahraini Monarch. As I noted above, Al-Siyassah is notorious for sensationalist style, but its stories are usually not all together fabrications. Indeed, my Qatari contacts do tell me that Doha is indeed rife with rumors to this effect, and that this has been the case even before the appearance of Al-Siyassah’s report. I am not sure what to make of that though, but if there is any kernel of truth here, then there is only one conclusion to make: the Assads seem to have completely relapsed in their thinking to the 80s, they are reliving that period with all its machinations and all its angst, and are more than wiling to adopt the selfsame methods. Syria may not be able to withstand the consequences of this foolishness again.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
There are probably many things that I should write about at this stage, that I am, in fact, expected to write about. But I won't. I am just too drained and I need to recharge myself over the next few hours/days, whatever. I promise to come back soon though.
Meanwhile, I just need to note here that the freedom rally that was initially scheduled for the 22nd will be postponed for a few weeks, in accordance with the wishes of most of the interested individuals and parties that we contacted – the 22nd was simply too short of a notice for them. So, we will figure out some new date soon, and I will announce it on the blog of course in due course of time.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
If sectarianism is not a problem in our country, why does the charge of “instigating sectarian hatreds” continue to figure so prominently in almost every “legal” case brought against dissidents these days?
In truth, the issue of sectarianism goes to the heart of our dilemma in Syria, and everybody knows it. This is why Khaddam and Bayanouni made a point of directly addressing this issue during their recent press conference. They, in particular, tried to assure the Alawites that the National Salvation Front is not aimed against them, and that, in fact, the Front does have Alawite supporters whose identity will remain concealed to protect them from the ire of the Assad regime. More importantly, Bayanouni assured that the Muslim Brotherhood does not apostasize the Alawites and that its members consider the Alawites as their brethren.
Still, to me, this is still a rather lacking discourse, and much still needs to be said and done in order to bridge the sectarian divide. But, and if as some argue, it is still too early in the game to adopt a step like the bicameral assembly that I have been proposing for a while now, on account that such measures cannot be effectively considered until the other sides of the equation are willing to sit down and talk about them, which may not take place until the transitional government is indeed in place, then, the least we can do at this stage is make our discourse a bit more encompassing than the above rhetoric.
Rather, what we need to say is this: so long as we are citizens of the same country, we should all have equal rights therein regardless of the one’s particular religious and political beliefs and convictions. For these rights, in the final analysis, stem from our common humanity, and it is indeed this fact that what we need to stress as often as we can. Because the Alawites, the Christians and the Druses out there, hell even the Sunnis, will not be filtering our words only through their sectarian backgrounds, but also through their political modes of discourse, be it Baathist, Communist, or liberal, which, by their very nature, require appeals to ideals of citizenship and civil rights rather than relying sectarianism. We should be proposing to find ways to resolve and deal effectively with this sensitive issue, not perpetuate it.
The credibility of the NSF will be measured by the ability to tackle sensitive issues more effectively than the regime is doing. For this reason, it is quite important for the NSF to develop a more effective media strategy over the next few months, one that aims to move the debate over the NSF and its struggle against the regime into the realm of ideas and far from the issue of personalities. It is about time we put an end to personality politics, and moved into the modern realm of political discourse and political competition.
PS. For more information about the recent NSF conference, check this site.
Monday, June 05, 2006
Well, here it is this week’s installment of our Creative Syria debates. This week’s round features: Rime Allaf, Sami Moubayed, Imad Moustapha and yours truly. The debates will revolve around the very loaded question of “Do you think it is right to seek US assistance to push for political change in Syria? Here is my answer:
I remember a line from a play called Ghourba by the late Syrian poet and playwright Muhammad al-Maghout, which was very popular back in the mid to late 70s, the line went as follows: “Woe to the nation that wears of what it does not manufacture and eats of what it does not plant.” People always applauded here of course. After all, this was the quintessence of the socialist message that we were all asked to believe in now that the Baath was in charge of running the national show.
The line in the play was pronounced by a young actress playing the role of a rural and idealist girl who, like all the other girls in her village, was left to fend for themselves and take care of the farms as all the young me opted to go to the US in search of a better life far from the oppression and avarice of the local feudal lord. The young men ended up being treated likes slaves, of course, and they decided to return back home where they were first berated by their womenfolk before being accepted back and taught how socialism in their absence changed things to the better for everyone.
Time has already debunked this laughable and disingenuous line of thought, so I won’t bother repeat this here. But what I am trying to say here is this: to minds that have been raised on the ultranationalist ideology of the Baath party, with its well-nigh xenophobic condemnation of the “outside world,” the above question is far from innocent and is actually meant to suggest the “right” answer, which is, naturally, a resounding NEVER. It is also meant to bring about the condemnation of all those opposition members inside and outside who continue to call on the international community, including the US, to apply more pressures on the Assad regime in the hope of bringing about some measure of political change, because not all these people want to see regime change necessarily. Indeed, some measure of political openness coupled with a greater respect for the basic rights of citizens and an end to corrupt practices on part of the country’s officialdom and their extended families will suffice for most.
But this scenario remains unlikely so long as the Assads seek to monopolize all initiative in the country, be it economic or political, and so long as they would use whatever ideological weapon at their disposal to serve this end. So, when they tell people not to wear and eat of other country’s products, the call is, in fact, designed to help them establish greater monopolies both on legal trade and illegal smuggling activities. And when they tell people not seek outside support to push for political change, it is because they don’t want to change, and they know very well that without external support the opposition will not be able to defy them. Why? Because the Assads have managed, as a result of many years of cruel and bloody crackdowns, to virtually decimate the internal opposition by killing and jailing its leaders, by depriving it from access to the media and forbidding it to establish its own, thus cutting it of from its grassroots support, and by preventing it from taking part in any civil, social or developmental activities that could endear it to the people. Meanwhile, all the media in the country, and all the textbooks, official institutions, and semi-official institutions continue to propagate, justify and defend the ideas and policies of the Assads as if they are holy dicta.
Moreover, we have to bear in mind here how this entire episode of growing American pressures on the Syrian regime really started. For these pressures did not materialize, as the regime wants us to believe, as a result of its nationalist stands, nor did they come as a result of opposition activities. They were, in fact, the result of the confrontational policies that the Assads adopted vis-à-vis the US-led invasion of Iraq. The regime could have opted for more neutral stands here, but it did not. Instead they smuggled weapons, recruited and bussed volunteers and called for national resistance against the Americans.
Many tried to retroactively justify these policies by insisting that there were those in the US who were encouraging the Bush Administration to include Syria in its invasion. Still, the administration could not just attack the Syrian regime without a casus belli. Therefore, had the Assads chosen to remain neutral they could have averted this entire situation, and had the Americans really wanted to invade Syria, they could have used the Assads' open defiance as the necessary justification for mounting an operation against them, especially since their troubles in Iraq had not yet begun. But, the Americans never really had their eyes on Syria, as then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, tried to explain to Bashar, to no avail. The Assads continued to maintain relatively open borders with Iraq until they were distracted by developments in Lebanon, and they ended up adopting more wrong policies bringing more international pressures on them.
So, it was the Assads who brought American pressures upon themselves, the opposition had nothing to do with it. Indeed, opposition groups are merely trying to steer the US and international pressures in the right direction, by calling for multilateral diplomatic pressures, while opposing military invasion, and for targeted sanctions against members of the regime, while opposing the concept of wholesale economic sanctions against the entire country. Indeed, this is a difficult balancing act, but one that was necessitated by the corruption and the authoritarian predilections of the Assads and by their continuing refusal to contemplate any kind of reform that will loosen their grip on power and allow for a greater public participation in the decision-making process in the country.
Furthermore, Syria’s various regimes always had to rely on the support of regional and international powers to shore themselves up. Indeed, the whole episode for unity with Egypt was premised on this need. And after Egypt, and under the rule of the Baath and the Assads, came the Soviet Union, China and now Iran. Yet, since these powers are willing to give the regime some support regardless of its internal politics, its corruption, and its oppression, what choice does the opposition have but to rely on support from the EU and the US?
Some people might question the commitment of the US to the whole concept of human rights and democratization, and, indeed, we in the opposition feel the same way, we are always afraid that the US might end up striking some sort of a deal with the regime at the expense of the Syrian people and their basic freedoms. But again, seeing that we have no direct way to communicate with the Syrian people at this stage, on account of our continued problem with access to the media, what choice do we have but to rely on the potentially wavering and unsure support of international actors, including the US? More importantly, if we are not involved in advising the US on the nature of the pressures that can be applied, what guarantees do we have that the US will not end up adopting the same policies that wrought disaster on the Iraqi society? Our continued involvement in applying pressures is the surest way to avoid the kind of mayhem we are witnessing now in Iraq.
So, while the Assads are pushing themselves and the entire country into the dark corner of international isolation, the opposition is trying to dig the country out from the other side. It is too late now to bemoan and decry international and US involvement, the Assads brought this crisis upon us all, and we now have to wiggle our way out while ridding ourselves from these toxic relics of a bygone era. It is about time. We deserve better.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
What’s really happening with Islamist groups in Syria? Are they finally turning against the very regime that for long sponsored them, in the belief that a chaotic situation in Syria will better serve their interests at this stage? Is the Faustian deal that has for years united the two radically opposed camps, the Alawite regime and the Sunni extremists, and according to the which the latter camp was granted safe haven in Syria in exchange for reserving their violence to other people and countries and in accordance with some of the regime's most notorious policies, finally falling apart? Or, have the Assads of Syria decided that turning against their unlikely allies at this stage will bolster their image both with regard to the domestic scene and the international one?
Well, considering the unexplainable knack of these terrorists to attack empty buildings along the Mazzeh Boulevard, the latter alternative might appear to be the more likely and convincing one. On the other hand, the Assads have never actually shied away from shedding the blood of their innocent countrymen when they though this could serve their vile purposes. As such, the very murderous nature of the regime makes it very difficult for observers to make up their mind here.
But, and whatever the case may be, we, the people, are the ones who are going to pay the ultimate price. We are the damned ones in this macabre game. We are the ones who will have to suffer the consequences of both the failure and success of the regime’s policies, because everything will come at our expense, as it has always had. We are not factored into any equation except as fodder. Proletariat, citizens, the faithful, the epithets vary, but the meaning remains the same: fodder for other peoples’ wars. Perhaps it is about time we waged our own.
But, if there is any scenario that I fear most it is exactly this one, the one that we need most. For this is the scenario that changes the nature of the game, this is the scenario that allows us to become self-aware as a people. But I haven’t heard of a people who have become self-aware without going through hell first.
Indeed, we are not self-aware yet, we are still but cattle. And our leaders are but shepherds who, like all other shepherds, have to fleece and feed upon the flock.
Friday, June 02, 2006
As the Assads try frantically to maneuver public opinion back into an 80s frame of mind, with some degree of success one has to admit (albeit the knack of Islamists terrorist cells allegedly working in the country to attack empty buildings is stretching the boundaries of credulity of even the most naïve observer), they are also helping create an environment where all sorts of sensationalist and cockamamie rumors tend to flourish, both in Syria and beyond. Just check out his latest piece of stupidity pointed out by Joshua (please note the two telling “maybes” in the above paragraph):
"Russia is dredging the Syrian port of Tartus, where a maintenance station for the Russian Navy is located. That station has been there since Soviet times. Kommersant learned of this work from Vladimir Zimin, senior economic advisor at the Russian embassy in Syria. Russia is also widening the port at Latakia. That may be evidence that Russia is considering Syria as a base from which to expand its influence in the Middle East. In that case, the maintenance station at Tartus may be converted into a naval base in the future for Black Sea Fleet warships when they are withdrawn from Sevastopol." Oh yeah, this is so true. Russia is really going to risk confrontation with the US and France over anything related to Syria at this stage. The best that the Assads can get out of Russians, and even the Chinese, these days is their vote at the UNSC, and even this will depend on the strength of the upcoming report by Brammertz. Marwan Kabalan was right in this regard, and Joshua was right in highlighting his article immediately after referring to the above ludicrous report. Marwan is definitely one of the best analysts of the Syrian situation out there.
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Much has been taking place behind the scenes with regard to my call in a previous post for a rally designed to help support the cause of human rights and democracy activists in our unfortunate part of the world. Indeed, we are now ready to announce a tentative date for the rally, and to open the floodgate for any suggestions in this regard, suggestions that can help the organizers in making this event a success. The rally will focus in this initial phase on the situations in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, which are very serious indeed, as we all know. But the invitation for participation is open to people from all over the region.
The proposed date for the rally is Thursday June 22nd, the proposed time is 9:30 am, and the proposed place is the delegation of the Arab League in Washington, DC. The event, then, will take place a week after the issuance of the Brammertz report, allowing us some time to evaluate ensuing developments and finalize our message accordingly. The choice of place is meant to allow Arab expatriates and their supporters and sympathizers from other communities to vent their frustration regarding the worsening conditions of human rights in their countries to a delegation representing all Arab governments, while avoiding giving the impression of instigating “foreign” intervention in Arab affairs, hence the decision not to demonstrate in front of the Congress.
Be that as it may, and in order to move forward from the point on and seeing that we have limited time, we need help in the following matters:
- We need volunteers who would organize participation from their local communities.
- We need suggestions for speakers from the various Arab communities, and from the halls of academia.
- We need student activists who would help advertise and garner the support of students, Arab and Americans, from all over the US.
- We need people to advertise this event throughout the Internet, their schools and their communities.
The more people we can put in the street the louder our message will be. This event will be orchestrated with the help of the HAMSA Initiative.
Despite the attempt of regime sympathizers to deny it, the wife of jailed lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bounni has come out confirming the reality of her husband continuing hunger strike which is about to enter its third week. But the mere attempt at denial here is a sign that the Assad regime does indeed feel embarrassed by this development and is feeling the brunt of international pressures and condemnation in this regard.
There are even rumors now that the regime might issue a pardon in benefit of all democracy activists and opposition members who were arrested in connection with what became known as the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. I wouldn’t make much of these rumors, however, other than to note that they come as a sign of increasing strains within the regime.
But the Assads themselves are unlikely to yield at this stage, because, like everyone else these days, they, too, are in a wait-and-see mode with regard to the upcoming report by Brammertz. This means that just about everything in the country will be on hold until that critical date of June 15, a date which might just enter the annals of Syria’s modern history, albeit this may not necessarily be such a positive development. All will depend on the content of the report.
A weak, technical and/or vague report will serve to empower the regime, boost the confidence of its leaders and unleash the Assads on the helpless crowds of activists, dissidents and opposition members. But the Assads could also choose here to play it a bit smarter than their natural instincts and inclinations will suggest, as they could opt to behave more magnanimously towards the opposition and might just issue a new more pragmatic party law, one that could appeal to many of them. Naturally, this move will be designed to help consolidate the Assads’ grip on power, undercut the rising threat of the external opposition and offset increasing international pressures.
Considering the exemplary tenacity, if not downright foolhardiness, of the Assads, however, even a nod in this regard will likely remain devoid of any follow through, a fact that can only pave the way to another crackdown down the road.
Thus, and in all cases, a weak report by Brammertz can only lead to a crackdown in Syria, and, of course, a more overt dabbling in Lebanese affairs as well, either in the immediate aftermath of the repot, or in the following weeks.
A strong report, on the other hand, will come as a major shock to the regime and could throw the Assads off-guard for a while, seeing that they seem to be acting these days under the wishful assumption that Brammertz’s findings are not that conclusive, and/or that he is much more “reasonable” than Mehlis had been. Such a development, therefore, could create some confusion among the Assads and could result in the reappearance of certain fissures within the ruling establishment, which would create a brief window of opportunity (few days to few weeks) for some kind of internal challenge to take place.
Failure to take advantage to this opportunity, however, which is the most likely outcome giving the fact that the Assads seem to hold the most efficient and critical units in the army and security apparatuses under their direct contorl, will give the Assads enough time to catch their breath and reaffirm their control of the country's key institutions, and regions, thus thwarting any potential move against them.
But even should a challenge be launched against the Assads, one which could assume the guise of an attempted coup, or a regional mutiny, its chances for success, without immediate external backing, especially military, will be quite minimal.
Therefore, should the current US administration ever be interested in supporting such a scenario in Syria, its top military leaders should then carefully watch out for any telling developments in the aftermath of June 15th, and the administration should be ready to intervene directly from their bases in Iraq, even if the identity of the people involved in the anti-Assads camp is not clearly established in the early days of whatever move or rebellion.
The other likely scenario in this case is to isolate the regime, economically and politically, until such time that the Syrian opposition can coordinate some kind of a people-power movement to challenge the regime, or until the country simply collapses under the deadweight of the regime and the strain of increasing economic hardships. For Syria is not Iraq, it simply does not have the necessary resources (especially oil) to wear out a prolonged period of economic sanctions, even if neighboring countries ended up violating the sanction rules through smuggling activities. Moreover, the Assads are unlikely to tap into their famed food and cash reserves to help their people, not even to help maintain their grip on the country. Such is their greed.
In all cases, some degree of violence seems well-nigh inevitable, the criminal, cliquish and authoritarian nature of the Assads regime being the main determinant in this regard.
But, and while we wait to see which one of these scenarios is going to unfold, Mr. Anwar al-Bounni might need to contemplate the wisdom behind his continuing hunger strike, seeing that the authorities are unlikely to be responsive any time soon.