Saturday, February 24, 2007

Towards a democratic Syria!

In 1998, only 219 Syrians voted against Hafez Assad's government. One of them was Ammar Abdulhamid. Now exiled and awaiting political asylum in US, Syrian opposition leader talks to Ynet in exclusive interview.

Yitzhak Benhorin

WASHINGTON – In a national referendum held by late Syrian President Hafez Assad in 1998, only 219 people voted against the government. One of them was Ammar Abdulhamid, 40, a Syrian opposition activist, exiled from Damascus in 2005 and currently awaiting political asylum in the United States.

"The security agents give you a paper with a circle saying 'yes' and a circle saying 'no.' I voted 'no', and the person in front of me was shocked. He said, 'Look, you made a mistake. You said 'no' to the president.' He thought I had made a mistake. We expected for some time that somebody would come and say, 'Come with me', but it didn't happen. For 219 people, they didn't give a damn."

In his first interview with an Israeli news agency, Abdulhamid tells Ynet how he frequently took risks, wrote articles against the president and generally pissed off the Syrian administration, until they got tired of him and showed him the door.

In Washington he serves as representative of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a Syrian reform group operating abroad against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

So why didn’t they show him to a prison cell instead of deporting him? Abdulhamid believes it is because his mother was superstar actress Muna Wassef, one of Syrian’s most famous TV celebrities.

“It wasn’t easy to arrest the son of such a famous and popular actress,” he says.

Enemy of the regime

With long brown hair tied back in a ponytail and an easygoing demeanor, Abdulhamid isn’t exactly how one might imagine a Syrian reformist. His English is refined and he demonstrates impressive knowledge. He declares that he doesn’t believe in God and he has no qualms about talking with Israelis.

The first time he left Syria’s borders was in 1986, when he came to the United States to study at the University of Wisconsin. He returned to Damascus in 1994, but after a decade relocated to the US again, this time on a research fellowship at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC. At the end of the fellowship, he returned to Syria – a rather surprising move considering the vehemently anti-Syrian articles he published while in Washington.

How did you become an enemy of the Syrian regime?

"They told me to leave, over a variety of issues. Apparently the project I was doing was a main issue. It was on majority-minority relations. So I am basically trying to create grassroots dialogue between different sects. I started in 2001, but officially in 2003."

So what did you do that was so wrong that they told you to leave?

"We were accused of fomenting the very thing we were trying to combat, which is sensitivities between the majority and minority. But I think what they are afraid of is these issues being raised at the popular level and being resolved at the popular level because our regime survives by exploiting the fears between the sects."

In 2004 he left for Washington, where he wrote for the English-language Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star. He wrote a joint article with Israeli professor Moshe Maoz on the need to renew the Israeli-Syrian peace process. It was the first time a Syrian and an Israel had written something together which appeared publicly.

Hariri murder was last straw

Despite his severely critical writings, Abdulhamid returned to Syria. He said he didn’t want to make trouble, and even made a commitment to hold his pen and stop writing against the regime. The quiet lasted until the regime arrested a group of Syrian intellectuals, followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and Abdulhamid could no longer keep quiet.

“I was a loud-mouth, I couldn't control my tongue. When Hariri was assassinated a lot of people started pouring into Syria and asking questions, 'Who did it?' and whatever, I was very clear that I thought the the president was behind it. And I was very clear in calling him a moron in a number of interviews, and I think that was always not a good move. I was in Damascus calling the president of my country, which is a dictatorship basically, a moron.

Why didn't they arrest you?

“Arresting me would have really been problematic, I think. The person who made the decision not to arrest me was Assef Shawkat, head of the Syrian intelligence. You have two problems. One, you are arresting the son of a very famous actress who is very respected in Syria, and who said very clearly at one point, 'I may not necessarily agree politically with what he's saying the whole time, but if anything happens to him, you know, he's my son.'”

After that meeting, Abdulhamid was invited to meet Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law, who is suspected to have been thickly involved in Hariri’s murder.

“I had a meeting with Shawkat - my wife insisted on coming with me, so instead of having an interrogation you have a social event, and he tries to sort of contain the situation. I was under a travel ban at the time, so they lifted the travel ban and I promised to stop writing and simply to work quietly.”

But Abdulhamid didn’t keep his mouth shut for long, and the regime started getting tired of him. Soon he found himself on a plane from Damascus with a one-way ticket.

That was probably Syria’s biggest mistake: Back in the US, Abdulhamid became the opposition’s intermediary between the Syrian opposition and the American administration.

“There are about a 100 active dissidents in Syria. The ones who are well known are 15-20 maybe. And I was never one of them… My strategy was, 'Look, I can get you the funding and support your activity so you wouldn't have to deal with the Americans directly or the Europeans or whoever.'”

Together with his colleagues from the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdulhamid founded the National Salvation Front, an umbrella organization of opposition groups working for the democratization of Syria. Former Syrian vice president Abd Al-Halim Khaddam is apparently closely associated with the Front.

What relation do you have with Khaddam, who was part of the corrupt dictatorship?

"He knows a lot of secrets and they are afraid of him. He meets with King Abdullah, he has access to people in the region. He has contacts with people inside the regime as well. Khaddam’s joining is also meant to signal to the regime that we aren’t here for revenge. We aren’t involved in vengeance or in the past. We want to operate like (Nelson) Mandela: We’ll forgive, but we won’t forget. Our faces are to the future.”

What is your stance on Israel?

"The Muslim Brotherhood, by the way, said they prefer a negotiated settlement with Israel. They are not calling for Jihad to return the Golan (Heights). They went public on it, and I was very surprised nobody in the media picked up on it. And the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sadr Al-Din al-Banouni, said it very clearly in an interview on al-Jazeera. This is exactly why we decided we can talk to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We simply cannot ignore the Islamists. We are talking about change, about democracy, about elections at one point in time. So it's really good to sit down to realize with whom we can talk and how much they can moderate their language, and what sort of deals we can arrive at. Because either we do this or we have two other options: Either we talk to the Islamists and find moderates and work together for change at the risk of being betrayed. The other options are to stick to the status quo but then the status quo cannot hold a lot with the Assads.

"The final analysis is that they are a minority regime, they are dictators, and they are not addressing any of the country's problems … and had they been good, slightly enlightened, I would never be in the opposition. It is much better to work with a slightly enlightened regime than to risk the chaos that comes with change. So we either continue to cooperate with a regime that will continue to abuse the system or we resort to violence ... All we want is support were do not want someone to do the work for us … As long as we are building networks, and we know we are creating realities on the ground, I don't care if it takes ten years.

Why did you agree to do an interview for the Israeli media?

"Many Israelis are wondering whether they should talk to Assad or not. I said at one point they cannot deliver what he wants because sooner or later this regime is going to fall. Because it represents a very small group of people, because it is corrupt, because the economy in Syria is imploding, poverty is rising, the Kurdish-Arab divide is widening, the Sunni-Alawit divide is widening. So sooner or later it is going to pass either peacefully or violently.

"I hope for peace and if it is going to be violent I don't want to have anything to do with it. I really want Bashar to become a genius overnight, I really do. Even if he killed Hariri, I believe that, I am willing to forgive so many things, just to save us a violent solution for the country and to have some sense of reform. We do need to begin tackling the Sunni-Alawit divide because the more they postpone it the more it is going to get violent."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Rosy Scenarios & Regional Realities!

The Saudis, led by prince Bandar, seems to be doing a really great job trying to break up the HISH Alliance. They are doing this by engaging both the weakest and strongest links in the Alliance. Indeed, and rather than trying to wean the proven hopeless Assads off of their dependence on Iran and Hezbollah, as the pro-engagement crowd in the US was want to do, the Saudis went straight to the source, to the puppet-masters themselves, and showed them the wisdom of divesting themselves from the pesky and troublemaking Assads. In the meantime, they managed to sponsor an important summit in Mecca in which they sponsored a deal between the warring factions in Gaza, and reestablished their patronage over the weakest link in the Alliance – Hamas. Net results, the Assads are once again isolated, and the region might have taken the first real steps towards a compromise that can help most parties involved avert a disastrous and unnecessary showdown.

This is at least the scenario that seems to be unfolding these days, according to the reading of some observers.

In truth, however, it is indeed still too early in the day to celebrate and uncork those champagne bottles. This is not a done deal by far, and there are still plenty of opportunities to sabotage the whole thing. Moreover, the scenario itself does seem to call for some kind of a showdown with the Assads, who seem to be the ultimate losers here. Such a showdown, even if limited, is not going to be a rosy affair.

Let’s briefly explore some of the potential problems that might still lie ahead.

First, just like Ali Khamenei said in his recent meeting with Bashar, the alliance between Syria and Iran is well-nigh three decades old and will prove enduring. As such, the two sides might be staling for time while quietly writing an alternate scenario more suitable to their needs, interests and desires. So, we should just wait and see how things might progress over the next few weeks.

Even should Hezbollah and the March 14 Movement come to an understanding that ends up increasing Shia representation in the government and approving the establishment of the Hariri Tribunal, the adventurous Assads might still have enough wiggling room here to survive. For instance, considering the possibility that the Tribunal might fail to name people like Assef and Maher, the Assads might have the option to stage a failed coup against their villainous selves in which all the chief suspects, other than themselves, end up getting killed (seeing that having these people commit suicide would prove quite the hard sell at this stage).

The Assads will find themselves in a bit of a pickle, however, should the Tribunal end up casting any doubts or aspersions on any one of them. Rather than risking this, the Assads might be willing to risk it all in Lebanon before the Tribunal is approved by continuing to try to inflame the situation, the will and wishes of the Iranians and even Hezbollah notwithstanding. After all, they still have other willing allies and clients in Lebanon, ones which they seem able to mobilize at will (the Syrian Social National Party, radical Palestinian groups, small Islamist movements and cells, notto mention some Shia groups as well, perhaps even factions within Hezbollah). If this should happen, the Saudi-Iranian deal could falter, that is, unless it get reworked somehow in order to allow for some jointly-sanctioned action to take place against the Assads – a pretty complicated feat to accomplish even for the likes of Bandar. But it could happen.

In all cases, don’t expect the Assads to go down without a fight, and the "rosy" scenario with which we are presented is not likely to unfold as smoothly as some might think or wish.

A final problem is the fact that the Israelis, as one can detect from Jackson Diehl’s op-ed in the Washington Post,* may not be happy with the Mecca Accord and might attempt to rally US support to their position, which would, as usual, create enough complications to allow for the entire Saudi-Iranian deal to fall apart with all the disastrous consequences that this could bring.

* “Bush administration policy has been to strengthen Abbas at Hamas's expense; the accord undercut that approach and all but ruined Rice's plan to begin developing a "political horizon" at a meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today.

Washington tried to set a couple of red lines for the Mecca talks: Hamas, it said, should be forced to accept international demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel; and its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, should not lead the new Palestinian cabinet. Bandar disregarded both.”


Meanwhile, a friend has just been arrested, and a colleague could soon be stripped of his citizenship as a new form of punishment concocted by the sick minds of the Assads and their lackeys.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Unreasonable Heretic!

A friend told me not too long ago that some people tend to find my position on the Assads to be somewhat unreasonable. After all, some of their stands and policies, especially with regard to the peace process and the Arab-Israeli Conflict seem to reflect how the majority of people in Syria and elsewhere in the region and the world feel and think. So why we not support them on these matters? Wouldn't this be the patriotic thing to do, regardless of how we feel about their internal policies?

Not from my perspective. If democracy and development are the things that we care most about, then we simply cannot let the fact that the Assads are robbing the country blind, squandering its scarce resources, mismanaging its affairs and depriving its youths of any real chance at making a decent living and of hope in a better future slip out of our mind, no matter how momentarily. Otherwise, we will continue to fall into that all too familiar trap wherein the national cause is given primacy over all other consideration.

For long we have been told that the national cause comes first, I say democracy and development come first. No, I believe that democracy and development are the real national cause.

So, it does not matter in the least to me if the Assads tend to say or adopt the right rhetoric sometimes, so long as they hold on to power through sham elections, laws and constitutions and the sheer might of their military, there is nothing right or legitimate about them or about anything they do or represent. For all practical purposes we have to consider them as evil, even at the risk of sounding too corny or unreasonable sometimes. That’s the way it should be. People who hold on to power in an absolutist manner do not merit our understanding, our nuanced perspectives and our reasonableness, only our contempt and enmity.

The national interest does not benefit in the least from postponing the struggle for our freedom from oppression, for any reason whatsoever. Freedom comes first.

This emphatic stand of mine, however, should not be misconstrued as signifying some kind of appeal to violence or a willingness to resort to it. No. The Assads are not going to drag me to their depraved level. My personal approach will remain nonviolent in nature, albeit somewhat revolutionary.


Speaking of revolutions, the latest edition of BitterLemons-International has a special on the Arab Blogosphere that features an article by yours heretically, two wonderful fellow bloggers from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and a regional correspondent that I absolutely respect and admire.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

So, What’s on My Zune?

In the second part to the interview with Assads (video, text) Diane Sawyer managed to redeem herself slightly at least by raising the issues of the Hariri investigation and human rights. But hers was still a light approach that allowed our very own spineless version of Mr. Bean, with all the awkwardness and none of the charm, to escape unchallenged with such ludicrous assertion as “We don't have such political prisoners” and “So it's going to be democracy, but according to our standards.” Yeah. But, I wonder what sort of standards would a man whose entire family is mired in blood, oppression and corruption have? Any ideas anyone? I guess they are the kind of standards that allow for a dimwitted eye-doctor-in-waiting to be brought in to replace his late artifacts-smuggling brothels-frequenting brother as the heir apparant (or more likely in this case the heir absolument) of the Presidential throne. Nothing to challenge here, ipparently.

On the other hand, with regard to one of those other unchallenged yet equally ludicrous assertions, namely that Syria is “the main player” in stabilizing Iraq, well, if Syria is indeed such a player in Iraq, and if the Top Lion of Syria indeed fears the domino effect of “the chaos” and “the instability,” as he put it, why aren’t the Assads already doing something about stabilizing the situation in Iraq? Why are they waiting to be approached by the US for talks over Iraq? Are they really afraid of “the chaos” or are they afraid of the American troops? Or they simply unable to do anything about the situation in Iraq, but would like very much for the US to believe that they could, so they could carve a deal for themselves? Tony Badran elaborates this point further in his recent post.

On a different, though definitely related note, Seth Wikas of the Washington Institute, points out in his recent article in the Daily Star, to an often forgotten reality with regard to the Golan: the ambivalent feelings of its indigenous Syrian Druze population with regard to the whole issue of the necessity of return to Syrian sovereignty one hapless day. Indeed, the corruption and authoritarianism of the Assads have created the sort of state that no one in his right mind would like to go back to, which is why I am a fool, and which is why the Assads must go. Before, that is, our best and brightest end p living in Purdue, Indiana, as Mrs. Sawyer so eloquently put it, or, more likely, end up being buried in desperate attempts at trying to eke out some meager yet dignified subsistence in increasingly undignified and undignifying conditions.

And with regard to the Golan, let me point out to some other neglected facts and soon-to-be facts, namely: that much of the land on the Syrian side of the Golan has either already been purchased, at the cheapest possible prices of course, by the sons of bitches of the Syrian regime, who also happen to be the sons of high-ranking government officials, with other choice real estate morsels and tidbits being declared public land, meaning that the state will eventually sell them to the selfsame SOBs and their lackeys when the right time comes. The Syrians of the Golan have the prospect of poverty and fleecing to look forward to when peace finally prevails, that is, if the Assads are the ones to be rewarded with it.

Biladi, biladi, biladi, laki hubbi wa fou'adi. Oh my country, you have my love and my heart.

And I will have nothing to show for it. Ever.

PS. This whole episode has given iPod a bad name, I think, if I were an iPod executive I’d sue. iPersonally, I am switching to Zune, and will stick to classical music, classic rock and New Age, with all due respect to Faith Hill and Shania Twain. Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World! Yeah.

Monday, February 05, 2007

So, What Do You Have On Your iPod?

Imagine this: you are a well-known TV correspondent and you now have a rare occasion to interview one of the main troublemakers in one of the world’s most turbulent and troubled regions, so, what would you do? What would you ask him about?

Well, I don’t know about you, but Diane Sawyer of ABC News (Video, Text) thought it will be a rather wonderful and congenial idea to give this man a platform from which to attack her country’s democratically elected administration, while ignoring the man’s and his regime’s record in oppressing his own population, dabbling in neighboring countries, and exporting chaos and terror, that is, in being one of the region’s the main domino players for decades.

So, there were no questions about the Hariri Investigation, or the situation in Lebanon, or connection to Iran, the sham referendum that brought him to power, the shame referendum that is designed to keep him in power, and about the fact that many insurgency leaders in Iraq are roaming around free in Damascus and talking to foreign journalists and operating their insurgency TV from Syria, not to mention the continuing crackdown against democracy and human rights advocated in the country. After all who cares about these issues, right? Because what inquiring minds really want to know is what’s on this fucking murderous moron’s iPod. For if it is by any chance Shania Twain and Faith Hill, well then, gee whiz, the man must really be good and wholesome like the milk from grandma’s farm ya all. And we can just to talk to him. After all, he is “the son of the legendary Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who negotiated with five American presidents” you know, which is offered as a sign of prestige somehow, rather than a mark of eternal shame.

But then, we Syrians, although we look more modern and secular than most other Arabs (except the Lebanese and Tunisians), are still products of the East to Diane Sawyer, it seems, and, as such, we do somehow expect our leaders to lord over us for a long time, and we just looove it when we they do. The fact that we have a Republican system rather than a monarchical one is not seen as an indication of our desire for a responsible government and a peaceful and regular transition of power. Naah, it’s just an accident of history, a little curiosity, like having Faith Hill on you ipod, or riding a bus in London when you are the son of a Middle Eastern dic-fucking-tator. iPleaaaase.

If the interview was intentionally designed to make this “Basher” of our democratic aspirations look good it would not have done a better job. This was not simply a nice performance by our national thug, who had obviously rehearsed every response this time around and paid more deference to why his hired media goons had told him, this was a seriously poor, unprofessional and moronic performance by the ABC team who set this up, or should we just put sole blame on ABC’s own Dame Edna for this?

And so our village idiot ended up sounding like a statesman, did he? Well, how else should a man sound when he is allowed to make such claims as “We are the main player,” in reference to helping stabilize the situation in Iraq without being challenged on it, and “What good is democracy if you are dead?” without actually being reminded that he had done his best from the very beginning to ensure that death rather than democracy should prevail in Iraq, and he is on the fucking public record on this.

Sure his regime’s survival was at stake. But, you know what?, he is a fucking maniacal dictator, his fears in this regard, albeit natural, are not legitimate. People often confuse the natural and legitimate in this case. The Assads’ reactions are often natural, but always illegitimate. The way they took over and (mis)managed the affairs of the state should stigmatize them for life. And the least that representatives of the democratic media can do when they get the occasion to interview such figures is to bear this simple imperative in mind and to press them on it. You don’t get to interview a dictator only to give him a free pass on all the criminal things that he habitually commits. You don’t give him an easy time of it, just because you happen to hate your own democratically elected president, one who is about to be democratically replaced soon, unlike the dictator you are interviewing, or because you find the opposition unconvincing perhaps. Because as a representative of the free media, it is indeed freedom that should be on your mind, and freedom is the agenda that you should be ultimately serving here, and no other consideration should be allowed to weigh in and dilute the issue. Because when representatives of the free media allow for the dilution of critical issues, what chance does freedom, truth and justice have?

But then again, who cares about all this? What do you have on your iPod? iPray do tell.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Heretical Nuances!

This is a link to some very interesting interview in Damascus with one of the leaders of the Iraqi Sunni insurgents. It shows very clearly how openly the Assads support the insurgents. Still, I seriously doubt whether this revelation will have much influence over the ongoing debate over engaging the Assads, seeing that pro-engagement groups will point to it as an additional reason for why the US should engage the Assads, while those who stand against engagement will see in it a further evidence of why the Assads should be punished rather than engaged. Meanwhile, the death-toll in Iraq mount and Syria’s economic woes, public denials to this effect notwithstanding, will continue to increase.

Another very telling development is this little statement made by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in an interview with Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim:

“We do not hesitate to sacrifice our children in the name of our righteous struggle." The Illustrious Mullah said.

Methinks this has always been the problem with our national and religious heroes – they tend to sacrifice their children rather than themselves for the sake of the cause. I, on the other hand, tend to think that the well-being of my children and their generation is the cause.

Yes, I know, the insistence on fighting on against invaders and oppressors and all sort of injustice does carry an element of real risk for the lives of those who believe in the cause, as well as their family members, their friends, and often even, innocent bystanders who just don’t want to be involved (regardless of whether this attitude is right or wrong moral or immoral), but for ideologues like Nasrallah the risk involved needs often to be made a reality, a reality which they can wield to increase their power. Hence the way his statement was phrased: “We do not hesitate to sacrifice our children in the name of our righteous struggle," instead of saying something like: “We will fight on against injustice and occupation even if there is a risk for ourselves and our families.”