Monday, July 31, 2006

The Pawns of War!

If even the generations that have witnessed firsthand and lived through the dark days of the 70s and 80s in Syria, and that have vivid memories of how oppressive things were at the time and how hypocritical and tiring all that patriotic song-and-dance about Israel and America and our intervention in Lebanon was, if even these generations who should be eyeing the current developments in the region through the disquieting prism of déjà vu, déjà entendu, déjà everything, can still disagree on everything that has taken place in their lifetime, can still offer a variety of interpretations and explanations thereof, and can still carry on with their ideological and personal differences to this very moment in time, how would the 75% of Syria’s inhabitants, who are below the age of 25, who have no memories to guide them in this regard and who have been brainwashed at home, at school and in the streets, and rendered absolutely apathetic, fearful and compliant with regard to the existing authority, be it political, social, economic and/or religious, how would they feel and think about the current going-ons in Lebanon, in Syria, in Palestine? Who should they blame? Who would they support? How would they show it? And what would they make of the heretical dissenting writings of someone like me?

The answers are all too obvious, of course, and all too unfortunate. Unless we can make some real breakthroughs that can help us deliver a different message to this particular segment of the populace, demography in our part of the world will continue to be on the side of tyranny, and our children will continue to be the fodder thereof and the pawns of its wars. We have to carve a space for dissent and heresy, no matter how unpopular they may seem at first, no matter how sanguine. We have to plant seeds of doubt now, so they may flourish later. For, the real battle ahead of us has always been generational, and our point of view is not likely to become popular anytime soon. But persistence does occasionally pay off, even in the Middle East.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Islamic Reformation!

While Graham Fuller, former top Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, is quoted in this article as saying that "Resistance rises above sectarianism" in the region at the moment, is reporting on rising sectarian tensions among Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon at this stage, in particular on rising Sunni resentment and suspicions with regard to the increasing role of the Shiites in Lebanon, and the role of Hezbollah in instigating the current round of conflict. So, what’s really going on here?

I think that people really have to differentiate here between how the Arab Street is reacting to the conflict, and how the conflict is perceived in Lebanon itself. People who bear the brunt of conflict and pay the ultimate price have a slightly more nuanced view of it. And when there is history of sectarianism involved, the difference in perception is bound to straddle sectarian fault-lines as well.

But there is something even deeper at work here. The region is being rocked to its foundation through a variety of forces and agents, including US intervention. This is definitely bound to produce some sectarian manifestations. But, then, the region has been exposed and bombarded by modern values, culture, ideologies and trappings for a period ranging 1-2 centuries depending on where you are in the region and what part of the country involved you happen to belong to. This has served to complicate things immensely, leading to the emergence of moderates and radicals of all shapes and sizes and across the political spectrum. All the while, the interests of the different players and entities involved are in constant flux. Indeed, an organization might simultaneously be conservative and radical in its stances depending on the issue involved, whether it is political, social or economic, and whether it is purely domestic or involves certain regional and international actors.

For instance, the Assads of Syria are conservatives with regard to political and economic reform, as this might upset their power base and erode their control over the country, but they are, for a variety of reason, including the desire to divert their people’s attention from the internal situation, quite radical in their stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict and US regional interventionism. Indeed, they don’t seem capable of compromising here for fear of internal repercussions. For this reason, the Assads are willing to support a host of actors on the basis of their degree of adventurism and opposition to Israel and US policies, regardless of their actual ideologies and sectarian backgrounds. Alliances of conveniences are the name of the game these days and will be for a long time to come. For the entire region is in flux.

Indeed, the most hoped for Islamic Reformation could not have assumed any other guise than the current confusion taking place at this stage. New loyalties, identities, patterns of belonging will continue to emerge and interact with older ones in the variety of ways, ranging from the most accommodative and pragmatic to the most puritan and rejectionist, in a desperate attempt to root themselves in this rough terrain. (Was the situation really that different in Europe during the heydays of its reformation?)

In this, issues such as the Arab-Israeli Conflict, US intervention, globalization, energy politics, developmental issues, etc., and concepts such as resistance, integration, modernization, democratization, human rights, civil society, transparency, accountability, good governance and of course, Islam, will play both the role of catalysts and of measuring sticks for how much advance or retreat is made.
Uncertainty with regard to the final outcome will color our lives for the next few decades, albeit we are already moving as though on a hyper-drive.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Historic Opportunity!

What is this historic opportunity that Nasrallah is speaking of? Is it the ability to “free our people and every inch of our land?” Or is it that lingering dream/desire to see Israel destroyed and brought to its knees? For once “the Israeli people lose their confidence in their weak and decrepit army, the foundation of the Israeli state will collapse.”

Whatever the case may be, a better and united Lebanon will not be the thing that will emerge at the end of it all. Sectarian schisms and communal identities ion the New Lebanon will be stronger than they have ever been, and some form of accounting for what has taken place will be sought and mandated by all actors. Meanwhile the Assads of Syria with their misplaced preoccupation with Lebanon rather than the Golan will be on the look-out for a new inroad back into the lost dominion. Indeed, for now and forever, to the vultures belong the spoils.

But while everybody is preoccupied with spoils, the fabric of our countries is deteriorating. The New Middle East will most surely be a more violent and fractious one than the Old Middle East, and much more profane.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Hezbollah’s “Resilience” Fuels Israeli Determination!

The tougher things get for the Israelis at this stage, the more determined they will be to destroy Hezbollah. This is indeed developing into an existential war for Israel.

After all, what is Hezbollah from an Israeli perspective? Well, it is clearly an Islamist organization that, by the very nature of its ideology, still refuses to acknowledge Israeli’s right to exist, and still subscribes to the most vile of anti-Semitic myths around, including the blood libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In fact, Manar TV aired a TV series it itself had produced dealing with these issues very (unfortunately most of the actors were Syrians).

Moreover, even after the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon, Hezbollah raised the issues of the Shebaa Farm, despite the fact that they are not covered by UN Resolutions dealing with Lebanon, and the fact that they actually represent a disputed territory between Syria and Lebanon. This gave an excuse for Hezbollah to keep its weapons and go on living up to its ideology by attacking Israel. The fact that Hezbollah’s leadership might have ulterior motivations in this regard, related to their desire to strengthen the organization’s position vis-à-vis other communities in Lebanon, by adding a military dimension to the existing demographic one, and the fact that by adhering to claims of Shebaa’s Lebanese character, Hezbollah is serving the interests of one of its chief supporters and arms suppliers in the region, Syria, make the situation even worse, as it brings in considerations not related to the Arab-Israeli conflict per se to weigh in heavily on Israel and its security. Factor in Hezbollah's link to Iran, its supreme backer and financier, and the current domestic and foreign entanglements of the Mullas regime, and the situation becomes even more urgent.

As such, it is not just Hezbollah’s ideological predilections that makes it dangerous from an Israeli perspective, its geopolitical alliances and its internal calculations and ambitions within the region and within Lebanon itself makes it a source of danger and concern as well.

And now it has shown that it has plenty of missiles, the know-how and the will to use them, and the ability to resist a ground attack like no other Arab army has done before. So, what could Hezbollah do, many Israeli strategists must be wondering by now, if it were given even more time to develop its potential? Can Israel really feel secure with such an organization along its borders?

Indeed, now that Hezbollah has amply demonstrated its strength, Israelis have more reasons to want to fight and destroy it now, before it is too late. Indeed, this was the goal from the very beginning, judging by the kind of rhetoric employed at the time by Israeli officials. Still, for some unfathomable reason, Israeli leaders seemed to have anticipated an easier time of it. Just as Hezbollah seems to have miscalculated the size and nature of Israeli reaction to its operation, so did Israeli military leaders misjudge the amount of initial and long-term investments they need to make to achieve their stated goals in Lebanon.

But the events of the last few days seem to have jolted many of these leaders and they now seem to be more aware of the complicated and arduous nature of the challenges ahead, and more determined.

No. This battle is not winding down. It is, in fact, just beginning, human costs for all sides notwithstanding. And should it drag out for long, its regionalization will become all but inevitable, the original intentions of the instigators notwithstanding as well.

Please Do Talk to the Moron!

David Lesch, Thomas Friedman, Warren Christopher and Edward Luttwak (who had enough dignity to actually beg), all want the US to talk to the Assads of Syria in order to help contain Hezbollah and the threat a conflagration in Lebanon poses to regional stability.

On the other hand, French President, Jacques Chirac, and head of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Martin Indyk, are advising against this course of action, arguing that this will come as a reward to the very people responsible for the current mayhem.

So, what should the current US administration do? And how should we in the Syrian opposition feel about it?

Well, I say that the US should indeed talk to the Assads, just to get this thing out of their system, and I think that we, members of the opposition, should feel quite safe in this regard, because the possibility of the two sides actually reaching any agreement, and the possibility that these talks could actually last more than a few hours to begin with are as realistic as Ralph Nader’s chances of becoming the next President of the United States.

So, Condy, please do talk to the Morons in Damascus. You only risk developing a greater sympathy for our plight as a people.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blogging and the Future of Democracy in the Arab World!

The following is a summary of a talk I recently gave at a State Department conference on Blogging and Democracy. I thought it would e of some interest here.

Many people across the world are still dubious of the possible avenues and channels for communications and expression that blogging can pave. But that is not surprising really. People have given a similar lukewarm response to the Internet itself at one point, not too long ago. But who can dispute the power and impact of the internet now?

In reality, and as the various talks and presentations made at the Conference on Blogging and Democracy have amply demonstrated, people just need time to get used to the possibilities that can be are afforded them by blogging. No one is the wiser in this regard than the current generation of teens and 20-somethings, with many of whom already getting hooked on such blogging varieties as MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and many such similar sites that have already been integrated into teen and youth cultures. Now, these may not be “hardcore” blogs, that is, they may not necessarily tackle significant political and social issues in a journalistic or analytical manner. Still, it is only natural to expect that those who will get used to these media as means for self-expression, communicating and networking are more likely, in due course of time, to develop a greater affinity and respect for the more socially and politically pertinent blogs.

As such, and for all the aura that seems to surround the medium today, we are, in fact, only witnessing the birth of blogging. Its real impact on our lives is something that we will not really see or appreciate for a few more years to come.

And if blogging is still in its infancy on the international arena, it is indeed still in the embryonic phase in the Arab World, where bloggers number in the thousands only in comparison to the few hundred thousands of bloggers in Iran, for instance. Still, Arab bloggers have already generated some noise and news.

In Egypt, they took active part in organizing the Kefaya movement and its various anti-regime activities and protests. In Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf, they already managed to break certain religious taboos and have managed to empower a number of female voices, enough of them, in fact, to show that many women have indeed established their own socially dissident subculture in that conservative part of the Middle East. Some bloggers, especially in Bahrain and Egypt, have already been imprisoned for the views they expressed on their blogs, with some still waiting to be released.

All this shows that the internet and blogging in particular is destined to play an important role in the social and political transformations currently taking place in the region. The democratic forces are bound to continue on using it for intercommunicating and for organization, but so will the radical forces a well including the Islamists and the ultranationalists.

By itself, then, blogging is merely a tool, and unless a consistent effort is applied to transform it into a too of democratization, other actors on the scene are liable to use it for exactly the opposite purpose, namely to advance a more militant and reactionary agenda. Regime ideologues might also be able to use it as another medium for propaganda, but unless the regimes set on reinventing their worn-out political discourse and stratagems, the medium is unlikely to be of any help. By its nature, blogging is a dynamic medium, creatures of a stultified culture are not exactly the kind that can make adequate use of it. The real competition, therefore, is likely to take place, and is indeed taking place, between independent individuals and groups of various political and social stripes.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Betting on the Assads

Can the Assads still deliver any goods in Lebanon? Can they help reign in Hezbollah? Can they really afford to turn against it, to betray it, and Iran, at this stage seeing that they played a very active role in all but canonizing Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasarllah, and Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Will there be no consequences to suffer on their behalf should they switch off the nationalist rhetoric and begin sounding a more US-friendly tone having taken such an active part in whipping up anti-US sentiments in their country and across the region in the first place? Can they afford to join the ranks of those Arab regimes, deemed cowardly and traitorous by the Arab Street, especially the Syrian Street, at a time when their sole claim to legitimacy in the country seems to rest on the adhering to certain “national constants” that will make settling for anything less than the Perfect Deal akin to suicide?

For indeed, the search for the Perfect Deal, one that includes the return of the Golan in its entirety and lays no conditions on Syria’s involvement in Lebanon or its internal developments and conditions, was the object of obsession for the Assads for all their years in power. Indeed, they almost got that deal with Rabin, and again Barak, but almost is the watch word here. For almost is not enough, and almost was also something that could only be given to the likes of Hafiz al-Assad. His pale avatar, Bashar, does not qualify. But then, don’t ask me, ask President Chirac who, up until recently, was on speaking terms with Bashar until the latter turned his back on him. This is how Chirac puts it:

"Referring to the Syrian president, Chirac said: "There was a time when I spoke to Bashar al-Assad. I spoke to his father. To hide nothing from you, this dialogue came to an end. It was he who wanted it.”
President Chirac also added that the kind of regime embodied by Assad cannot be interested in peace and security in the region.

And yet, there are indeed those who are still willing to bet on Bashar, including some Israeli figures, most recently Edward Luttwak, who want him to get them out of a potential mess in Lebanon. But, those who bet on morons are even greater morons. And those who think Syrian troops will be able to set the Lebanese house in order again or that they will be welcomed back by anyone, are beyond any hope.

For having an extensive experience in destroying and pillaging a country does not necessarily give you any insight on how to put it back together again. Moreover, there will be enough opposition across the sectarian and social spectrum in Lebanon to any direct dabbling by Syria in Lebanese affairs to render the whole new venture short and disastrous for the Syrians.

Hell, even Hezbollah would not want to go back under anyone’s mantle again. Freedom is too sweet, and being your own man, for Nasrallah, is much more prestigious and profitable.

As for the Assads, even the Perfect Deal at this stage will not be able to protect them from the consequences of betrayal.

Let's face it. The die has been cast. All actors have already made their choices. All other bets are off for now. The Israelis will have to muddle through whatever quagmire they are creating for themelves in Lebanon for a few more weeks, if not months. The Assads will have to stick to their choice of allies, or find themselves hopelessly alone and perhaps, six feet under. The time for negotiations have long passed. The Assads have long become hostage to their own allies, their own policies, their own tactics and their own avarice. They are hardly in a position to help themselves now not to mention anyone else.

Meanwhile, the Americans and the French will have to muster enough will to put together a little package that can save Israel from itself, and Lebanon from everybody else keeping it as a viable entity. They will also have to keep the Assads, for all their dabbling and penchant for trouble-making, under lock and key, or risk having another country in the Middle East blow up in their face, which might just happen no matter what anyone does anyway, as the die might have been cast in this regard as well, the smuggness of Syrian officials and analysts notwithstanding.

Taunting Lions!

The repeated calls on the Assads of Syria to allow for cross-border operations to take place in the Golan may not be as “innocent” and naïve as they might seem at first. Indeed, when they are issued by an opposition figure like Mamoun al-Homsi, such calls are actually meant to taunt and gaud the Assads into taking a course of action that better fits their very nationalistic rhetoric, but one, nonetheless, that will bring about a confrontation that the Assads know very well that they cannot handle and that will only serve to expose them for the national frauds that they are. As such, calling for the liberation of the Golan is “smart” politics at this stage.

The only problem with it, of course, is that they, the Assads, are so addict on brinkmanship that they may find it necessary, if such calls were reiterated widely and frequently enough in the country, and are adopted by no lesser figures than the likes of Salahuddin Kiftaro, the son of the country’s late Grand Mufti, who had been first to issue such a call anyway, to take the gamble and allow for some operations to indeed take place across the border regardless of the consequences, which are bound to be quite dire, as we can all imagine.
Or, the entire issue might simply be taken out of their hand all together and be forced upon the scene by some hapless nationalist or Islamist group acting on its own initiative. For the Assads have been playing with this fire for quite a while now that the contagion could easily spread and blow up in all our faces. In both cases, the country will end up paying a terrible price.

As such, taunting the lions could have as serious repercussions for the future of the country as leaving them be. All politics in the region today is dirty and costly politics and all possibilities ahead of us seem to be bad. The search for the lesser evil should begin at earnest, before we are forced to indeed “settle” for Armageddon.

The Lord of Desolation!

What will you do for your fifteen minutes of fame?

Well, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah fame is busy celebrating the destruction of his country on various Arab TV channels, a development that is currently affording him the opportunity to prove his worth in the Arab Street as a hero of the national resistance.

Indeed, and as the Israelis continue to bombard Lebanon back to the Stone Age, killing more than 400 civilians so far (not counting the bodies still buried under the rubble) and causing more than 10 billion USD in damages, and counting, the turbaned symbol of our forever impending national salvation continues to promise us victory, a feat that will likely assume the form of personal survival, namely: his.

For the main difference between Islam and Christianity seems to lie in the nature of our messianic figures. The Christian Messiah goes to the cross to redeem the sins of the flock. Islamic Messiahs (plural is both necessary and factual), on the other hand, have always sent the flock to the cross for their sins. But, having had a long history of behaving in a manner similar to Islamic messiahs, Jewish leaders, seems to have come up with an ingenious compromise here, namely: sending other people, messiahs and all, to the cross for their sins, for these people’s particular sins, and for the sins of whoever happened to be in the neighborhood at the time. You can even bid to have your sins redeemed in the process.

So, as Nasrallah’s rockets poke occasional holes in Israeli buildings, and Israeli bombs often bringing down whole buildings on top of occasional Hezbollah fighters, the promised victory is threatening to assume the guise of a series of little defeats, adding up to a catastrophe of major proportions, that only the survival of our Lord of Desolation can help mask. But if our recent history has taught us anything is that much can indeed be swept under the turbans of our leaders, be they real or purely figurative, the turbans that is.

Monday, July 24, 2006

War Math!

Amidst the current chaos in Lebanon, an interesting episode occurs and brings back to mind some of the things that are at stake in this entire tragedy – a foiled prison break involving the four security officers imprisoned on suspicion of involvement in orchestrating the Hariri assassination. While we have no reason to believe the speculations in the report that the entire episode was orchestrated by Syrian intelligence, but, it does indeed stand to reason to believe that Syria would have been at least the preliminary destination of these figures. Their failure must have saved the Syrian regime some undesired attention at this stage. Still, we cannot but wonder as to the sort of other clandestine activities that are currently taken place in Lebanon, benefiting from the current state of affairs. War crimes come in different guises.

On a related note, and as reminder of the kind of mayhem that the continuing erosion of central authority in the country can produce, we have a report here that highlights the relevance of complicated social and sectarian cleavages in this matter. It speaks of growing poor Shia encroachments onto plush Sunni suburbs and of the growing fears of the chadorization of the local mores, or, of a clash of mores. In other words, this is a story of the Shia and the poor coming home to roost.

Indeed, should the current offensive last longer and conditions continue to deteriorate, there are enough contradictions lingering and growing within the Lebanese society to plunge it into another round of civil mayhem. Perhaps, there are those in the region who are betting on this, for the more bright the Lebanese implosion is the more relevant and central their role would be.

Indeed, War has its own rather hard and disquieting calculations. In this, dissidents like me are easily outgunned, out-sleazed, and all but completely out-done. As we sink deeper and deeper into the quagmire of war and mayhem, liberal dissidents simultaneously take an even deeper plunge into irrelevance. Hell, we are bound to become objects of disdain and hatred. We have always been preaching against the national and the social mores, so how could we not be fifth columnists and agents of the Zionists and the West?

But this developments does not come as a compelte surprise for me. I have always suspected that the best that we can achieve at this stage is to simply survive, though I had dared wish and work for more just in case my cynicism was not as amply justified as I thought. Anyway, the odds are just too high for inaction. So, and while surviving, we also have to keep an eye on the future. Indeed, some vision and some planning will go along way in this regard, for very few actors on the scene tend to have any vision at all, or any real long-term plans. We, the dissidents, the democrats, the heretics of our modern day and age, should strive to fill that void.


Tharwa Topic of the Week: Should the United States negotiate with Islamist groups?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Who Is Violating Our Sense of Security?

Growing up in Syria in the heydays of the late 70s and early 80s, fears of an Israeli attack were not exactly the thing that was keeping me and my friends up all night, or making us refuse to return certain people’s gaze in the streets. But, then, all talk of resistance and the “national struggle” aside, the Israelis were not exactly the bogeymen which we were raised to fear and dread. Indeed, if there were any bogeymen in our lives, and, of course, there were, they were the dreaded mukhabarat, the country’s security apparatuses, and certain government officials and their children, who indeed had the ability to make you disappear from the living face of earth.

Indeed, our sense of security as a people was being violated on a daily basis by our very protectors.

Israeli threats against us and the real violation of our society and sovereignty that Israel did indeed pose were always episodic. They came and they went, and were often quickly forgotten by the great majority of us who did not lose a home or a family member to the fight. Regime violations, on the other hand, were constant and omnipresent and touched more lives, directly and indirectly, than Israel could ever accomplish.

The oppression from which we suffer in our societies has always been multilayered, but the first layer of oppression is represented by what we encouner in our families and in our societies on a daily basis – the traditional patriarchal values upon which we were all raised, including, naturally, political patriarchy, which is what our regimes are all about in one sense. This is why rebelling against these norms is the first real step in the struggle for our liberation. As long as we refuse to acknowledge this simple truth we will remain slaves.

For, in essence, the main source of our insecurity and fears is embedded deep within us. We are the main (but not only) source of our insecurity. The ruling regimes are simple manifestations in this regard, mere demons conjured by our collective Id and, then, transmogrified into reality, a reality that needs to feed upon us to thrive. For this reason, the regimes seek to amplify our mutual fears and suspicions and play on our existing sectarian and ethnic cleavages and divides and, when worst comes to worst, they are more than willing to trudge in an external enemy onto the scene, who might as well be quite eager to come in for its own interests and because it might just be suffering from the same type handicaps back home.

As such, if Israel is the best thing that ever happened to Arab regimes, Arab regimes might just be the best thing that happened to the Israeli military complex, which plays a role in Israel that is not too dissimilar to the role that the Turkish army is playing in Turkey – to protect the country against its lingering deep identity crisis (despite the different way in which it is manifested in the two countries). And that complex would be quickly running out of a raison d’êter, had it not been for the favors that Arab regimes are so eager to render onto it every now and then. For the Complex, facing the Israeli identity crisis is something that is better deferred at this stage through involvement in external conflicts. As such, a main source of Israel’s insecurity, for all the talk about deterrence, Arab intransigence, terrorism and all that, must to be seen as inborn as well, that is, as related to a great extant to the Israelis themselves.

We and the Israelis are each other’s mirrors and we tend to denude ourselves, even with regard to some of our basic insecurities. Consideration of democracy and authoritarianism notwithstanding, neither in Israel nor anywhere in the Arab World are these issues being seriously debated.

And lest one think that the above analysis does not pertain to the Palestinians, whose basic sense of insecurity might seem more closely related to their "relationship" with the Israelis, let me rush to point here to the growing rift between Hamas and the PLO, and within Hamas itself, a rift that seems to have been exploited by external actors, namely Syria and Iran, to dictate an extenral agenda and udnermine the voices of mdoeration within Hamas and the Palestinian society in general.

As such, the layers of oppression and insecurity might admittedly be more complex here, but they still definitely include a major internal factor. Indeed, the struggle to establish a national homeland notwithstanding, inter-Palestinian dynamics are a mjor source of insecurity and instability for the Palestinians, and a major handicap that needs to be overcome.

The Decaying Idols!

An informal poll at Al-Arabiyyah website showed that a little over 23% of the voters, totaling around 50,000, believe that Hezbollah’s activities have had a negative impact on the region. This is a very significant, if not too scientific, indicator. There is indeed a rising current in our midst that is becoming more and more willing to challenge the traditional nationalistic jingoistic consensus. For all their lingering appeal, and despite the emotionally charged moment we are going through, the nationalists and the Islamists are being challenged on their very holy grounds. The idols may not be falling yet, but they are getting chipped and cracked and are beginning to sway and tatter. There might be some for us yet.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

What should the United States Do?

(I have also posted the article below at my space at Newsvine).

The topic for debate this week on the Creative Syria Think Tank is, so far, only Murhaf Joueijati and I have sent contributions, but there should be more to come soon. My contribution is posted below, and can also be accessed here, for those interested in voting.

What should the United States and the other relevant regional powers do to stop the bloodshed in Lebanon.

Before we answer this question, I think it is relevant to ask ourselves how we got to where we are in the first place. So,...

While Israeli actions in Lebanon are outrageous, and while, for the sake of national unity, many Lebanese are tempted to avoid assigning blame, in reality, it is in no one’s best interest, neither Lebanon’s nor Syria’s nor the Arab world’s, to forget or ignore how we got embroiled into this conflict in the first place, and what the hallmarks of the overall geopolitical context in which the war is taking place are.

In other words, we cannot afford to forget about Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ provocation, although and in the latter case, the Israelis have done their fair share of provocation as well. Still, clearly, the popular mandate that Hamas had received, judging by the various polls conducted at the time, was not meant to help it conduct war again Israel but one that focused on improving the living conditions of the Palestinian people. Radical elements within Hamas, led by Khaled Meshaal from his headquarter in Damascus and in direct coordination with the Assads regime, worked diligently over the last few weeks to push a more confrontational agenda, and managed to score a major “hit” when their supporters managed to nap an Israeli soldier a couple of weeks ago, setting the scene for Hezbollah’s own operation and the current crisis.

We should also bear in mind here not only the ongoing probe into the assassination of former Lebanese PM, Rafic Hariri, but the alliance that was formed not too long ago, in Damascus during the visit of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, between Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups. Each of these regimes and movements has a group of internal and external problems that it seeks to evade through generating a crisis that can allow it to appeal to national sentiments and mobilize the people behind it.

In Iran, there is an ongoing conflict between the reformers and the conservatives, and a dispute with the international community over the nuclear issue, with the international community, for all its internecine disagreements, being deadest against allowing Iran to develop its nuclear potential.

In Syria, there seems to be a power struggle within the ranks of the ruling family, as well as a growing pressure for internal reforms. But the more serious threat to the regime is posed by the ongoing probe into the Hariri assassination, among other assassinations in Lebanon, and where Syrian duplicity is all but assured. Investigators are only trying to determine how high up the ladder does Syrian involvement go.

For Hezbollah, the issue seems to relate to Shia concerns and Nasrallah’s personal ambitions and the struggle for imposing a new political arrangement on the other communities in the country.

As for Hamas, and we have noted, there is an ongoing battle within Hamas between those who want to focus on internal issues, and those who are pushing for a more direct confrontation with Israel. Moreover, the competition with Fatah is also something that needs to be factored into our calculations.

Each side, then, had its own reasons and had its own agitators for picking a fight with Israel. The only problem is that they seem to have gotten more than they have bargained for.

For countries like the United States and Israel plan for all possibilities and have all different sorts of contingency plans, both diplomatic and militaristic. Having to implement your policies with an eye on your approval ratings, and with an ear to the various debates taking place in the parliament, in the various think tanks and in the media, creates much pressure on the politicians on these countries. This state of affairs serves primarily as a check on the ability of these countries’ leaders to just do what they want and what they think is right. But it also affords them a certain amount of flexibility, as they always tend to have contingency plans, or such plans can quickly be prepared by a new administration.

Because they are not democratic institutions, and because they are not operating in a democratic setting, and because of the private interests and corruption schemes of many of the figures involved, policies envisioned by the leaders of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are anything but flexible and anything but representative of the wider interests of the peoples involved. Only the interests of the ruling elite and their narrow interpretations of the situation tend to figure here. This limits their ability to act and all but drive them into lapsing back on confrontational policies. Their leadership style is more about gambling than planning, and when their gambles fail, the people lose.

The quartet made up of Ahmadinejad, Assad, Nasrallah and Meshaal are leading us into another defeat at the hands of Israel, by enacting a very old scenario. Israeli losses might be greater than they used to, but our losses, both in human and material senses, will be much higher. Faced with these realities, we cannot but wonder, is it all worth it? And what are we exactly fighting for?

So, what should the US do about all this?

No one in the Arab Street is going to think straight about any of the issues raised above, which, I believe, are quite critical to the future of the region, to the tunes of Israeli bomb strikes on Lebanese soil, hopes, sovereignty and children. So, stopping the violence is something that needs to be done and soon. Had the US combined a strong condemnation of the current Israeli action with a condemnation of Hezbollah’s provocation, Syrian facilitation and Iranian encouragement, the Arab Street, not to mention the Iranian one, might have been in somewhat more receptive to the need of containing the rogues actors and players in the region.

Still, it is not too late for that. The US can still assume such a tone now. The very expensive Israel message has been delivered. Considering the nature of Lebanese society, Hezbollah’s appeal, all talk of resistance aside for now, will be drastically reduced, as people begin to face the awesome task of having to rebuild everything again, with no figure like Hariri insight. Saad simply lacks the experience and the aura, and Nasarllah has always been too much of a sectarian character to have the necessary cross-sectarian appeal, and now, his credentials have been severely undermined and his reputation tarnished forever. The justification for this act of mayhem has, therefore, been nullified. The violence can and should stop.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Death of Hope!

When you look at the numbers, which inform us that only 300 Lebanese civilians have been killed so far, the current crisis in Lebanon doesn’t look so serious. But when you look at the pictures of the devastation in Beirut, in the South, and elsewhere, a different story emerges, that of the death of hope, a reality that represents enough victory for those whose basic industry is to prey on despair.

Indeed, the Nasrallahs, Assads, Ahmadinejads and Meshaals of our world seem to have won. So did the Israeli leaders who just demonstrated to us how destructive their wrath can be.

Wrath! Everybody is preoccupied with wrath over here, everybody likes to play God. Give people a little power and they would immediately seek to give it divine proportions. Give them a lot, and you have a Battle of the Titans on your hand, with us, mere mortals, serving as food and fodder to the divine appetites and lechery involved.

Over 200,000 people died in Darfur, as Muslims killed fellow Muslims, Arabs massacring Africans, but the world, especially our world did not shudder as much. Is it racism that was involved here? Or is it hypocrisy? And didn’t Arab media seek to undermine that entire episode just like western media is trying to do now with this particular one? Yes, yes and yes. We never really accepted the Arabness of “these people,” in our heart of heart, and their blackness has always outweighed the importance of their Islamness in popular imagination, so the possibility of generating popular sympathy for them in their plight on the basis of Islam was and is severely undermined.

Is this shameful? Without a doubt. But it is also the reality with which we have to contend. For most peoples in the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa, Beirut will have a far greater significance and relevance than al-Fashir.

But the trend that we are monitoring here is not restricted to our part of the world, it is universal. International media might have paid more attention to developments in Darfur and Somalia than Arab media have done, but coverage still fell far short both in terms of its scope and duration and in terms of its consistency in comparison to the attention that the situation in the Middle East continues to receive.

The reasons behind this state of affairs are too complex to analyze here and it is not my intention to discuss them, my point is to stress the relevance of what is currently taking place in Lebanon to Arab imagination and the impact of the destruction of Beirut on Arab psyche. Social, political, economic and psychological realities in our part of the world are such that the destruction of Lebanon is sufficient to destroy hope for change in the entire Arab World. Whether this was Israel’s objective or not, this is what Israel ended up accomplishing nonetheless, a feat that the combined efforts of all our corrupt regimes, for all their authoritarianism, have not been able to achieve in decades.

But I still put the greater burden of blame on us in this regard. Why? Because all of us, both peoples and ruling elites alike, are always so cavalier in our willingness to confront Israel and the international community and to supply them with all the necessary excuses and justifications for their acts of aggressions against us. Yes, we do have occupied lands that we need to get back and prisoners that we need to free and families that we need to unite, but no, military confrontation is not the only way to do it. The price of military confrontations in both human and material terms is simply too enormous and cannot be born by our failing economies and increasingly fragile states. Lebanon’s debts are in the tens of billions of dollars, and they are about to increase ten folds.

Are the Shebaa farms worth it in pure material terms? Are they worth it even as far as the principle of sovereignty is concerned? Before you answer that, just bear in mind as well that Israel is still in control of the Shebaa Farms, for all of Hezbollah’s “daring” raids and operations, and might end up controlling even more of Lebanon soon, and Lebanon’s prisoners of war are still in Israeli prisons. So, once again, let me ask, was it all worth it?

But then, is this really what is at stake here? Or is Nasrallah simply trying to fill the power vacuum that Hariri left behind and trying to improve his own position in the emergence regional alliance of the radicals? We should never dismiss the role that such personal ambitions tend to play in these matters. After all, ours is an authoritarian culture, in both the political and socio-religious sense, and the personal ambitions, avarice and temperaments of the leaders and rulers involved tend to be the final and most decisive factors in setting the main guidelines for the state’s policies, both domestic and foreign.

So long as authoritarianism and wishful thinking remain basic facts of our lives, so will disappointment and defeat. But our states will soon collapse under the strain of it all, and the hopes of the many generations in both Lebanon and across the region have just been dashed. Unless we can work out a miracle soon, we are looking at 30-50 years of mayhem in the region.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Reasons for Our Enslavement!

People who seek military glories and who see dignity and honor in militaristic terms only are not going to bother about the humanitarian costs of their adventures. Hence, the fate of the civilians in Lebanon, the hundreds of thousands of displaced Shia in particular, is left to other civilians to worry about. Neither the Lebanese government nor Hezbollah, currently all too preoccupied in its quest for glory, are providing any assistance.

Meanwhile the devastation continues ad absurdum, ad nauseam, ad nihilum, following the usual dictate that calls for creating desolation, and then calling it peace.

Peace has never been on anyone’s mind in the region. We are all too narcissistic and messianic to really give a damn about peace, not to mention the human cost of war. Our real preoccupation is with glory, vengeance and domination, a matter that applies to both peoples and leaders.

For, while it is tempting to think that the people will be more preoccupied with security, in one sense or another, even if at the expense of other people’s security and sense of it, in reality, the desire for glory, vengeance and domination is the real thing that runs so deep inside the souls of so many of us as to transform us into willing tools in the hands of the ruling elite, be they democratic or not.

As such, the regimes do not enslave us, our unreasonable desires and expectations do. We speak of justice when we want revenge, we speak of security, when we desire domination, and we speak of oppression, when our real motivation is to simply become the oppressors.

The more conflict we generate, inside of us and in our midst, as a result of these contradictions, the more intricately enmeshed they will become in our psychological fiber, we become the contradictions, the contradictions become us in a self-perpetuating cycle of mayhem and bloodshed that will go on and on, indefinitely perhaps, or until something completely new, miraculous even, intervenes changing the entire dynamics of the situation.

For we can never outgrow this thing in some automatic manner, nor can we be exhausted or totally consumed by it, as there are always new generations that have absorbed all our justifications of it. Nor can an external player, in the geographic sense, bring a closure to it, because the world has grown too small and interlocking for any player to be truly external. Somehow, somewhen new ideas need to emerge in order to change and revolutionize everything, else we are doomed to repeat and rewitness this the most dumb and uninspiring of tragicomedies that any imagination has ever mustered or can ever muster.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A New Tharwa Blog!

We have just launched a new blog at the Tharwa Community meant to serve as a way to allow people to share their views with us regarding various developments in the region and for us to be able to measure popular perception through a simple poll. The current topic for discussion is: What constitutes the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East?

Please bear in mind while you are surfing the various blogs that the Community is still under construction ad that we are still adding blogs and revising the overall purpose and design of some of the existing ones. In other words, we are still in the experimental phase. But the new blog is more or less ready for use, as you shall find out.

If you have any comments on the blog, please do so here. The Arabic site can be accessed here.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Standing Up to the Bullies!

When I was a kid, I outwitted one of our neighborhood’s many bullies in a verbal tit-for-tat, and for weeks after that, all what the neighborhood kids could talk about was the beating I got at the hand of that bully and how stupid I was to have tried to stand up to him.

Indeed, violence is the first and last resort of all bullies, that’s how they get in the game, that’s how they preserve their stake in it. Whenever they stray into trying some different tactics and avenues for self-expression, they often get put back in their place. But, then, they immediately relapse into their old tactics with vengeance. Smart bullies have always been a few, and most bullies’ smarts are restricted to the area of their preferred activity: the science of bullying. So, when push comes to shove, bullies will resort to their fists, and the idealists’ to their wits, and the bullies will always win.

When I left Syria with my family last September, I knew I had won the battle of wits again, this time, against the country’s top bullies. I got them to where little old me was actually a major source of worry for them, so much so they needed to deliver a clear message to me via one of the main pillars of the regime. I got their attention all right and I got them scared. Little old me.

But what did I really gain, beyond some immediate narcissistic satisfaction? I was alone facing a clear and very credible death-threat and there was nothing I can do about it but bow out, or sell out. I picked the wrong battle perhaps, or the wrong time for it, I am not really sure. But in the battle against bullies, we should devote part of our wits as well to out-bully the bullies when the right time comes, because if we are not ready, or, at very least, seriously planning to be ready for the final showdown, there is nothing to be gained by outwitting the bullies but “martyrdom.”

But I don’t like martyrdom anymore, those days when I used to dream of it and wish for it are long gone. There is no nobility in death and no honor in it when one has a real choice and a real reason to live and make a difference. I left Syria because I was lucky enough to be given that choice to live and hope to make a difference at some later date. Not everybody I know had the choice, hell, I think I was one very few people in our little group who ever had it really. I never hid my mixed feeling about that.

Be that as it may, what I am trying to say here is that this round might indeed go to the bullies, because, once again, we, the dwindling liberals in this region, were not ready to stand up to them, for whatever reason. So, we really need to begin organizing ourselves more effectively starting now in order to prevent a similar recurrence in the future. Every round we lose is a round that brings us closer and closer to extinction in the region, and there will be nothing to prevent the final implosion of it in due course of time, or, at least, pick the pieces and put them back in an order that can somehow and no matter how retroactively justify the sacrifices that were made, or to be more specific, forced upon us. The bullies don't mind lording over ruins, so long as they can lord. But we cannot live, not to mention thrive, in a world where mere survival is the name of the game, a world that does not allow us to be free to create and explore and infuse our soul in it.

This is both an existentialist and an ideological battle, then. And in our attempt to win back the street, if we ever had it, we should able to expose the fraudulent nature of all these conflicts that are being imposed upon us by our bullies. This is not an easy feat to accomplish I know, especially when we are already being denounced as traitors and agents of the West. Still, we have to marshal the relevant facts with a certain tenacity and consistency and we have to create whatever teams and networks all the while in order to deliver this message far and wide, all while hoping that, one day soon, the people will soon get tired of dying and will begin listening to what we have to say. We need to turn the tide against the bullies. We need to undercut their support, remove their aura and expose them as the frauds that they are. This might be easier to achieve with certain figures than others, but we still need to find ways to do it. We are running out of time and, more importantly perhaps, time is running out of us.

The Price of Arab Optimism! Or, Wagging Israel!

What would you do if you an embattled Arab leader and suffering from major crises at home and wit the international community and you know you simply cannot own up to your mismanagement and your corruption, not to mention the mismanagement and corruption of those around you? You stir up trouble with Israel of course, knowing that your people are either stupid enough and/or cowardly enough to play along. As such, Israel is really the best thing that has ever happened to Arab dictators. Well, that and oil, in some instances.

Confrontation with Israel is actually a win-win development as far as Arab regimes are concerned. For, not only will it serve to divert attention from the country’s internal problems and the illegitimacy of the ruling regimes, their authoritarianism and their corruption, but the inevitable military defeat, which could always be justified as having taken place due to the international support of Israel vis-à-vis its hapless Arab victim, and which always provides an opportunity for the Arab leaders involved to take a swipe at their counterparts for failing to support them, will provide the ruling elite with a golden opportunity to fill up their coffers with the inevitable reconstruction expenditures and contracts.

The confrontation will also afford regime lackeys and ideologues, and some “patriotic” opposition members the chance to rally behind the flag and take consultation fees for their expert advice and for their help in mobilizing the ever so fickle public. Pray, what deal could be sweeter? What dividend can peace deliver? What sort of rewards can reform ever harness for its champions?

As such, the climate of jubilation, and the downright giddiness, that we can currently detect among Syria’s official and unofficial spokesman for the regime is not surprising. This is the time when credentials are built, niches are staked and futures are made. Only idiots like me who would rebuff offers of high office to join such an amorphous, nebulous, meaningless institution as the opposition actually risks losing. In fact, they, we, might just be doomed to lose. What idiots!

No, smart people know how to create win-win solutions for themselves, all at the expense of the people of course, but then smart people really know how to fool even themselves into actually believing that they are defending the interests of their people. So, it’s really a win-win-win solution.

It’s just that those damn people, being so damn ignorant and all that, don’t always appreciate what their leaders, and their lackeys, are really doing for them, all the sacrifices that they are making for them. This is why they cannot be trusted to take a more active part in the decision-making process, this is why they need to be told constantly what to do what not to do and when to do it or not do it. This is the role of the people.

Knowing these “facts” about the people make all democracy activists look stupid. The people are not ready for democracy. The only thing the people are ready for is fighting against Israel and dying in great numbers, which has the added advantage of compensating for the failure of the national birth-control campaign. So war with Israel is really a win-win-win-win solution.

Yes, indeed, armed with such mentality, the Arabs will keep on winning until the very end, and beyond. Do you really think Saddam feels defeated?
Sitting in his little cell, Saddam Hussein is the embodiment of Arab victory and optimism. And so will, one day, Bashar and Nasrallah be.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Whirling Dervish of the Apocalypse!

There are many young people starving for hope in Lebanon, Syria and across the region, and Hassan Nasrallah’s latest speech was aimed squarely at them. No. it did not offer them hope in the real sense for which they are aspiring, jobs and such, but it did promise them victory, and in their desperate and empty lives, the promise of victory and the call of battle can indeed excite, especially when the leader involved seems to have a certain hard-won credibility in this regard.

For people do indeed believe that it was Hezbollah that was mainly responsible for driving Israelis forces out of South Lebanon, the role that the geopolitical context played at the time is entirely forgotten. Hell, people are willing to forget the current geopolitical context in which Hezbollah’s current adventurism is taking place. Or, to be more specific, they subscribe to a reading of it that is more based on fantasies and conspiracy theories, rather than the obvious hard facts. The curse of defeated messianic peoples is that they always want to believe, no matter how blindly.

But blind belief seldom leads to salvation, if ever. So here it is, our war hero, our romantic dervish, whirling his way and ours, believes and heretics alike, to a fiery damnation.

Not everyone is happy of course, or oblivious to the cost of it all.

A call from the Tharwa Team in Lebanon

Dear Friends,

I am sure you all well aware of the tragic situation Lebanon and its people are in. Some of you are in the country, others are abroad while their families are still here, and some of you spent some time here, and I am sure you have come to love Lebanon and consider it a second home.

I write this message to ask for your help… for all of us to try and do something to stop this atrocity against Lebanon and its people, regardless of who is to blame and who started it all. Let us put the politics aside for now.

I urge you all to do whatever you can to lobby, demonstrate, petition, contact your MP or congressman, run stories, whatever thing to try and push for some sort of action against this violence.

There are no guarantees, we are aware of this, and this is not going to pose a solution to the problem. But we need to stop the violence now. So please do your part. For the sake of this innocent country and its people that have already been through hell.

It is truly heartbreaking what is happening. To see your country rise from the rubble after a long bloody war, to see it overcome its infamous violent reputation, to see a buzzing social and nightlife reemerging, its wonderful people and tourists returning, democracy slowly but surely taking its course… to see all of this and more, destroyed.

It is not fair.

Please do what you can. Lebanon and its people need your help. So do what you can and pass the message on.

Thank you.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Rocket Rattling!

“You wanted open warfare, so we are going for open warfare and we are ready for it, a war on all levels, that will reach Haifa and, believe me, beyond Haifda and beyond beyond Haifa. We will not be the only ones that will pay the price, nor will our homes be the only ones that will get destroyed, nor our children the only ones that will get killed, nor our people the only ones that will get expelled. That time is over. That time was before 1982 and before 2000. That time is over. I promise you that that time is over. Consequently, you, too, should bear the responsibility for what your government has done and it has accomplished. From now on, [and since] you wanted open warfare, let it be an open warfare then.”

Well, Nasrallah is definitely far more charismatic and eloquent than Saddam has ever been, but no less foolish. He will get the entire Arab street on his side, just like Saddam had done before, but most Arab governments will stand against it. True, Syria and Iran and Hamas will try to support it, that and its arsenal of missile and rockets, is its trump card, but one that can be rendered useless, if the Israelis decide that it is all worth it, and if they act in coordination with the US, which is more likely than people think.

No one shies from war anymore, so long as the only real existentialist threat they could pose is a pospect that, in the final analysis, only “lesser players” would have to deal with. We are those players. When will our glorious leaders ever understand that? Not until they make us even less, I guess. Which won’t be long now.

Our romantic adventurers will take us there with their dreams of past glory and messianic visions of the future. Our corrupt shepherds will guide us there as they continue to follow their baser instincts and remain willing slaves to their insatiable appetite. The powers-that-be in this world will get us there with their single-minded pursuit of their perceived interests. We will get there, because we are helpless, silent, foolish, cowardly, ignorant, sheepish, downtrodden naves. We will be smaller than we are now, much smaller, and our challenges far more gargantuan.

But, and on a more optimistic note, there is a slight chance that the emerging consensus in Arab World against such “adventurism” might still amount to something that is slightly less than total bullshit and might, therefore, be able to stem the rising tide of violence and provide a diplomatic solution for the current crisis. Right! And something sensible might actually come out of Bashar’s mouth within the next one hundred years.

Prelude to War!

I have long come to believe that the cause of national liberation and independence, upon which we were raised and never weaned, has served more as an instrument for our continued enslavement by the ruling regimes than anything else. Indeed, the national discourse and the constant calls for mobilization against a declared enemy were at best a diversionary measure meant to postpone any serious consideration of our developmental problems and our ruling regimes’ corruption and inherent authoritarian predilections.

For this reason, I never really believed in the conflict against Israel, except when it came to the Palestinians and their internal leadership. For the PLO and other Palestinian groups have, since the very beginning almost, been more an instrument wielded by various Arab governments to further their own agendas than true representatives of the Palestinian people. In time, the various leaders, too, ended up developing their own private agendas and interests, and corruption became the main rule of the game. Naturally, the Palestinian Diaspora paid heavily for this state of affairs. The First Intifadah could have paved the way for something much better than what Palestinians ended up getting, had the leadership of it remained in the hands of internal figures, and did not pass squarely and virtually unchallenged into the hands of Arafat. Arafat should not have become more than a figurehead.

Be that as it may, the issue ahead of us if that of Hezbollah and Hamas being wielded as instruments of provocation by Syria and Iran to stir up another national liberation conflict and mobilize us all for the march to hell, with many of us applauding all the way. In this regard, the Assads’ success in imposing this new round of conflict upon us all is going to doom us all. I have, up until this moment, entertained some hope that we can somehow save Syria the kind of mayhem we are witnessing in Iraq, I can now see that this may no longer possible.

The Assads are intent on having a replay of the 80s, the different geopolitical context notwithstanding and despite the fact that they survived that period only through a series of unfortunate miracles. Well, they will soon find out that they have learned nothing from those forgone lessons of that “miraculous epoch”, while the Israelis, I bet, have learned a lot, tactically at least.

All wishful thinking aside, I just don’t think that Israel is going to lose this round, and I think that the going-ons in Lebanon are only a prelude for the eventual and now inevitable confrontation with Syria, with all sorts of disastrous implications and consequences for our people.

Some people see this differently I know, they see that the Assads and Mullahs have emerged as serious contenders in the arena once again, and that they have embarrassed the US and Israel. I kindly disagree. But, be that as it may, the winner of this round notwithstanding, we, the people, are the ones who will get screwed.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

“Screw You!” Says the Lion!

Beyond the usual reaction of regime apologists and diehard Bush-baiters, who continue to dominate Arab and European media and continue to be busy finding excuses for the Syrian regime to work mischief in the region, one thing is clear: the Assads have just revealed to one and all that they are the main instrument that Iran will deploy to blackmail the world.

Indeed, the future of Unholy Alliance that was formed between the Assads, the Mullahs, Hezbollah and Hamas, among other radical Palestinian and Islamist groups, clearly rests on the Assads ability to deliver the goods, and when it comes to mischief the Assads can deliver. For, if the beating heart of the Alliance is Iran, its cerebral cortex is Syria. As such, if one wants to weaken the alliance, not to mention break it, the main focus of its activities should be the Assads regime.

The Israelis, who up until recently have been under the illusion that it is possible to weaken and isolate the Assads regime indefinitely and at no cost to themselves, are finally beginning to see, I think, that the Assads are born inherently starved for attention and cannot accept being isolated and asked to behave and be quiet. This could only mean that things are bound to heat up between the two countries.

But if this could initially serve the interests of the Assads by helping them to rally the people around them, and not only in Syria but across the region as well, on the long run, this confrontational policy is bound to backfire, especially if Israel insisted on targeting Syria and not Lebanon in retaliation for whatever provocation that takes place against it.
Why? Because such confrontation will only expose the inability of the Assads to defend the country and the sorry state of Syria’s army, despite the massive expenditures in this regard.

The country’s economy will also prove unequal to the task, and Syrians are not likely to get used once again to life without electrical power. In fact, most Syrians today don’t even remember those days, because they were either too young, or haven’t even been born yet. In the age of Satellite TV, the internet and high level unemployment, life without electricity is not something that people can tolerate for long. And there are already too many cracks and fissures in the regime and too much hidden discontent to allow this state of affairs to proceed for long.

The Assads are driving this country, if not the entire region, into dissolution. And they don’t care. They think they are smart. And they are betting the future of the entire country and the entire region on their ability to outsmart the whole world. But, as recent history has proven, they always end up outsmarting themselves.

Regimes like the Assads with their inability to comprehend the ever-changing global and regional dynamics in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the collapse of the peace process itself, are helping to facilitate the break up of the region and its ultimate dissolution into ethnic ghettoes whose only role in the global economy will be to fill some very small and particularistic niche both as producers and consumers, regardless of whether there are designs to this effect or not. For even if such designs exist, they simply cannot work, unless regimes like the Assads’ help them along. Which is why the Assads have to go.

Now, I don’t enjoy being or sounding like a prophet of doom, but one cannot stand at the sharp edge of a dark abyss and chant melodious incantations about love, can one?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Jolly Freak Show!

In 2001, and shortly after the outbreak of the Palestinian Aqsa Intifadah, the streets of Damascus got filled with real spontaneous demonstrations organized by student groups, artists and lawyers and professionals from all stripes announcing their support to the Palestinian people and their just demands.

Although, I wrote against the violent character of the Intifadah at the time, I couldn’t but sympathize with the demonstrations taking place in Syria, because they were in a way an expression of a genuine internal frustration with regard to the regime and its security and authoritarian predilections. Many young people in Syria were really itching to be relevant, to count for something, to be active, to take some initiative, to feel that they are participating in the making of their destiny somehow. At least, some seem to have thought, by supporting the Palestinians, they will be supporting a line already endorsed by Bashar and the ruling regime and they will be moving within the established framework of action and, as such, they will not give any reason for anyone to be worried and, therefore, oppressive.

But, what these young people, artists and professionals failed to understand is that, under authoritarian rule, any form of independent initiative is something to be feared and combated, even when it falls well within the established redlines. Why do you think the Baath Party insists on being represented in each and every union and society out there? Total control is only way to ensure obedience and compliance with the will of rulers bent on and addicted to oppression, while independent imitative can easily become uncontrollable and can turn against the authorities.

For this reason, let’s, please, fight any temptation to think that the recent demonstration that took place in Aleppo was anything but another regime-organized freak-show mean to shore up the regime’s sagging internal popularity. The regime is driving the country into a new period of international isolations and sanctions and, as usual in these instances, the regime needs to have popular endorsement of itself and its policies in this regard. But the more demonstrations the regime feels that it needs to field in the streets the higher the levels of its internal angst and uncertainty, and the more embattled it really is.

The Assads want to appear tough, and, in this, they will succeed. They will appear tough and untouchable right to the very end. Let’s just hope that this will be only their end, and not the country’s.

Meanwhile, another jailed author, namely Ghaleb Amir, is reportedly suffering from serious health problems.


Fares and Tony has already noted in their blogs, I have written an article a few days ago for the Daily Star dealing with the Assads’ inborn penchant for crisis and mayhem. I have also given a rather long interview to al-Hurra that will air on Wednesday. It seems fitting here as well to thank my friend, Egyptian Sandmonkey, for his kind words and his photo of me that he has recently posted on his blog.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Struggle for Syria’s Body & Soul!

According to Shaaban Abbod of An-Nahar, the struggle between Islamists and secularists in Syria is intensifying. The recent sign in this regard can be seen in the open Letter to the President sent by Syria’s foremost Islamic scholars and Imams proclaiming the existence of an official conspiracy against Islamic education in the country. The leaders of this conspiracy seem to the secular forces in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religious Endowment (?), where the new Minister has just issued an edict against admitting students into religious schools at the preparatory level.

But the existence of such a conspiracy is very dubious indeed, and the main reason for the edict seems to be the poor quality of education provided in preparatory religious schools with regard to math and science, which limits the choices of students when it comes to high school level education. Attending regular preparatory schools, on the other hand, affords more choices to students at a very critical time in their life. Moreover, the country definitely needs more scientists and technicians then they do religious scholars.

Of course, the educational system in the country needs to be revamped, and greater emphasis and respectability should be assigned to vocational training, but that’s a different issue really. In this regard, the desire of many of us (check the recent discussion on Syria Comment) to put greater emphasis on civil, democratic and liberal values will come in full confrontation with the desire of religious forces, of all stripes, to put greater stress on traditional values, be they Islamic, Christian, Druze, or what have you.

As such, the question regarding whether education is a key ingredient in the ongoing processes of democratization seems to beg the point that we are hardly going to agree on certain very critical details pertaining to freedom of conscience, academic freedom, gender equality, etc. etc. – issues that go to the heart of a democratic education and run in the face of existing traditional and religious norms. The reality is that both the regime and the society are against the sorely needed civic education that most liberal activist crave and advocate.

But, can we, alternatively, impose democratic values on our people? Can democratic values, considering their very nature, come as a result of imposition?

Some might say that Turkey did it. Indeed, but the price was enormous, and Turkey was helped by the fact that, having been the center of empire for a very long time, it still retained many of the needed and qualified technocrats and administrators to help Mustafa Kemal manage this necessary transitional period, and to take over the entire process after his passing. Turkey had also had quite the head-start over the periphery in terms of its efforts to modernize and, to an extant, secularize, their society, perhaps as long as two centuries worth. Evading a direct experience with colonialism must have helped as well, as the nationals struggle against the invaders was a very brief affair, relatively speaking, and, as such, it did not divert attention from the cause at hand and did not stain it by having associated so directly and manifestly with foreignness. The experiences of the past two centuries have afforded the Kemalist experience a certain historical background and context. Modernity and Secularism were not introduced as a completely new experiment, rather they were presented as a continuation of previous efforts in this regard.

Well, we, in Syria, do have a century of experimentation behind us now, albeit of the failed variety, but, then, one could argue, so were the Turkish experiments. Still, the nature of our recent history as well as that of the current ruling regime have served to alienate and decimate the traditional professional and technocratic classes on all levels, and have, more importantly, failed, for the most part, to produce any suitable and qualified alternatives.

So, who is going to champion the cause of change in our midst, and who is going to be responsible for the education, especially that much coveted, by some, and loathed and dreaded, by most, liberal education?

Our struggle as liberal reformers at this stage should be to simply create a niche for ourselves in the constantly shifting sands in our country and region in the hope of riding out the oncoming onslaught of illiberal mayhem in order to reemerge at some pointing the future, near or distant, and manage the mess that everybody else is bound to leave us.

But, in order to reemerge, we should never disappear, we should continue to make our presence felt and accepted in our environs, no matter how begrudgingly and no matter how dangerous things might become. This is easier said than done, of course.

Meanwhile, and while pragmatism is always needed, can we say that all is fair in the struggle for Syria’s body and soul? Well, I’d say there is one redline here: violence. We should never advocate violence no matter how tempting the situation might be, for once unleashed, violence tends to be uncontrollable. We should even avoid, as hard as we can, the temptation to respond to violence in kind, if not for reasons of principle, then for reasons of strategy, seeing that we, the liberals, are the weakest party out there, and, as such, are not in a good position to win a violent battle. Still, we can potentially “embarrass” the other side into ceasing its violent attacks when we opt for nonviolent tactics of confrontation. Otherwise, we’re fucked.

But while we survive, we need to work on everything at once. We cannot wait until we educate everybody in the proper manner, because we don’t even agree on what is proper. Furthermore, if I am willing to wait 40 years to see some of my values clearly implanted in our soil, will the world?

Multitasking is the key to success. We have to work on education and be involved in politics and work as technocrats and professionals of various sorts and stop trying to over-intellectualize the problem at hand. The real solutions to such problems in life as authoritarianism and oppression, both social and political, have always been stumbled upon as a result of trial and error rather than thought out and charted beforehand.

And so, we plod on, with no guarantees of anything, not even a good night’s sleep. The ravages of the struggle for our country’s and our world’s body and soul will have to be borne by our own bodies and souls, which are the only real currency that we have in this world.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Fire & the Works!

The 4th of July fireworks at the National Mall were an amazing display indeed, enough to satiate the personal egos of a thousand Chinese emperors, though there was nothing really egoistical about it. The patriotic songs that we heard in the background, all celebrated the beauty of the homeland or, as is the case with the national anthem, a certain captured moment of inspiration in the midst of a decisive battle.

Old glories did not seem to matter much, and the personalities of the Founding Fathers, and any existing past or present leader, historical or mythical, were not celebrated or sanctified. Indeed, this was a national occasion, yet no “hail to the leader” was heard anywhere, no “our blood and soul are yours, o [insert the name of your favorite political asshole], and no “I’ll sacrifice my mother and father for you, o [insert the name of whatever self-appointed spokesasshole of God]. I have lived for so many years in this country when I was a student, and I am still amazed by the lack of reverence for historical figures and events here, at least in comparison with our obsession with these things back home. And if I were amazed one fold, Khawla and Oula were amazed ten folds.

This country’s only mistake at this stage is that it can still fall prey, and ever so easily, to the imperial temptation that comes with great power. But no one has yet invented an antidote to hubris and unenlightened self-interest, so, there is enough blame to go around in this regard. It is for this reason mainly that I avoid criticizing America’s foreign policy on moral grounds, for, in principle, no nation or state can cast any real stones on moral grounds, albeit, in practice, each and every nation and state throughout history has always justified the pursuit of its very material interests on the basis of some moral principle. As such, even Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was done on very moral grounds, and most Syrians are still willing to buy into this line of reasoning, even when evidence of official corruption and avarice is so clearly visible. People just crave to believe they are on the right side.

This is what is so unique really about the Vietnam protests. This was probably the first time in recorded history that a sizeable and organized chunk of a certain population was willing to stand up against the national consensus on issues related to war and national interest and to doubt the wisdom of the leaders on such issues. And the official response to that was not exactly peaceful, and this was in a democracy, as one can tell from the hundreds of clashes with riots police. So, how about it when something like that takes place in an autocratic society, such as Syria?

This is indeed what was so brave and unique about the Damascus-Beirut Declaration. This is also the dilemma that opposition groups find themselves in: they are not only standing up against the corrupt regimes but, oftentimes, they stand up against the national consensus as well. Now, imagine what the public and popular reaction will be like if we ever opted to stand out equally as publicly against the national consensus on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as there are indeed some very good reasons why we should do something along these lines one day?

If the uproar against Bayanouni’s recent statements, which merely noted the willingness of a hypothetical MB-led government in Syria to put negotiations first on the table while not vetoing other possibilities, is anything to go by, we might just be over our heads at this stage. Luckily, we don’t have to chew on this particular bitter apple anytime soon. Bayanouni’s statements were necessary in order to showcase the growing pragmatism of the Brotherhood, but it is not important or relevant to reiterate this message at this stage.


Whenever we had fireworks during my childhood, there was always a rumor around that some people had a special rocket that can draw the President’s name in the sky for all the world to see, and there were always kids around claiming that this is indeed what happened in their neighborhood.

Three birds went on what seems to have been intended as a promethean flight right into the blazing firmament and got as high as the highest tree out there before disappearing into its glittering branches. Not all promethean ventures are destined to succeed I guess, nor are they all worth undertaken to begin with. But how can we know when really, that is, when to proceed, and when to call it quits?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Aref Dying?

Sources are reporting that Aref Dalilah’s health is failing quickly and that he is liable to collapse at any given moment. Prison doctors have reportedly recommended that he be subjected to a variety of tests and scans, but, so far, prison authorities have not responded to their demands. Judging from the recalcitrance and indifference of the international community with regard to cases of unlawful imprisonment, torture and crackdowns that are currently taking place in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the region, Aref Dalilah might as well die of some brain clot or heart attack, or even under torture, and no one will do anything about it, beyond issuing some worn out and meaningless condemnation.

I wonder how certain illustrious officials of ours will react in this regard? Who will go on some tirade against the man and accuse him of being a Zionist agent, I wonder? And who will paint a sad smile on his face and briefly dismiss the whole thing as an “unfortunate incident,” which, he hopes, will not be repeated in the future?