Defend the peaceful thinkers in Syria
Monday, July 4, 2005, 00:53"The Atassi forum calls on all democratic and cultural powers and figures to express their solidarity by denouncing the pressure placed on us." I certainly do.
This is after Syrian security forces ordered the Atassi forum to close its doors, forbidding dozens of citizens from entering the premises, dispersing people and blocking access to roads leading to it.
The Atassi forum is the only political discussion group the Syrian regime has allowed to function until now, after the crackdown on all civil society forums and activists in the infamous Damascus Winter. In May, the members of the Atassi Forum had been dragged out of their homes at dawn, without even being allowed to get dressed, and arrested for several days for having read out a statement from the Muslim Brotherhood. One member is still under arrest, probably waiting to be charged and tried. He will join other brave, patriotic Syrians who have tried to peacefully improve conditions for their fellow Syrians. They include Aref Dalila, Riad Seif and Mamoun Homsi.
Everyone is terribly pessimistic these days, and that was even before the closure of this forum. How scared can a regime be of a few intellectuals calmly discussing the future in an orderly way? The real threat is outside, from all sides! When will they realize who their true enemies are?
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Soul food update
Monday, July 4, 2005, 00:36So what do you get when you mix real olive oil from Syria, chick peas from Turkey, and tehina from Palestine? "The best Israeli hummus in New York," that's what. It really takes the biscuit!
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Iraq – 9/11 – Iraq – 9/11 – Iraq – 9/11 - Iraq …
Friday, July 1, 2005, 00:54You get the drift; this was more or less the abstract of Bush's address to the American nation on Tuesday night (including a mention - finally - of Osama Bin Laden, believe it or not), one year after the so-called sovereignty handover. According to Nielsen Media Research, 82 million Americans (his highest audience) had watched George Bush address the nation from Congress after 9/11. But only 23 million watched Bush on Tuesday as he desperately tried again to link Iraq with 9/11. That was the smallest TV audience of his tenure. Not only he was completely unconvincing (Karl Rove really seems to be slipping), but it seems that American people are on to him and don't even want to hear his feeble excuses.
Even more interesting with this speech is the stubborn silence with which Bush was met, being interrupted only once by applause (and that, apparently, prompted by a White House employee). Bush supporters have tried to imply that soldiers at Fort Bragg were asked to stand to attention as he walked in and not to applaud, in order to dismiss any notion that this was a pep rally.
At least this is what White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan says. But a lot of other commentators have hinted that the soldiers were perhaps bored, unconvinced or simply fed up. As Timothy Garton Ash puts it in The Guardian, describing the sobering of America, "you can fool some of the Americans all of the time, and all of the Americans some of the time, but you can't fool most Americans most of the time - even with the help of Fox News."
The soldiers did applaud at the end, of course, but I think it's just because they were relieved Bush had finally finished his unexciting, repetitive, and totally unpersuasive speech.
Good thing they've got a clear idea of how long this is going to last, at least. Indeed, the Bush administration has narrowed down the extent of the insurgency - and the extent of American troops' presence - in Iraq to "soon" (according to Cheney, who says the insurgency is in its last throes) or to within a decade or so, give or take a couple of years (according to Rumsfeld). Bush says he sees a clear path to victory, but he may be the only one.
Drew Sheneman, Newark Star Ledger
"Unconfirmed Sources," a satirical site, sees one bright point in this whole story: namely, "that in the United States, truly anyone can get to be President, regardless of intellect, a grasp of reality or real vision." This offered hope, the writer contines, for mothers throughout the nation that even their dopey little kids can make it in politics, given a few million dollars and close ties with the ruling House of Saud.
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A bloody mess, or Iraqi sovereignty?
Tuesday, June 28, 2005, 19:09"What does sovereignty mean to me if I can be shot at by any soldier on the street for any traffic violation without any responsibility on the American soldier?"
Ali Nejam, 37, Baghdad merchant
Iraq is today "celebrating" one year of "sovereignty." George Bush will be addressing the nation (and the world) tonight to tell us all how great things are going and how he sees a path to victory. Yesterday, Ibrahim Jaafari (at a meeting I attended in Chatham House) was very vague about prospects in Iraq.
You be the judge:
Paul Bremer signing Iraq's "sovereignty" on June 28, 2004
... and now:
Average daily attacks by insurgents
Pre-war March 2003: 0
Handover June 2004: 45
Analysis: Figures should be viewed with caution because US military often does not record attacks if there are no American casualties.
Total number of coalition troops killed
Pre-war March 2003: 0
Handover June 2004: 982
Analysis: Number of US troops killed increased sharply during Fallujah fighting in April and November 2004.
Iraqi civilians killed
Pre-war March 2003: n/a
Handover June 2004: 10,000
Now: 60,800 (includes 23,000 crime-related deaths)
Analysis: Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths have varied widely because the US military does not count them.
Electricity supply (megawatts generated)
Pre-war March 2003: 3,958
Handover June 2004: 4,293
Analysis: Coalition is way behind its goal of providing 6,000 megawatts by July 2004. Most Iraqis do not have a reliable electricity supply.
Pre-war March 2003: n/a
Handover June 2004: 40%
Analysis: More than a third of young people are unemployed, a cause for social unrest. Many security men stay home, except on payday.
Pre-war March 2003: 833,000 (landlines only)
Handover June 2004: 1.2m (includes mobiles)
Analysis: Landlines are extremely unreliable and mobile phone system could be improved.
Primary school access
Pre-war March 2003: 3.6m
Handover June 2004: 4.3m
Analysis: 83 per cent of boys and 79 per cent of girls in primary schools. But figures mask declining literacy and failure rate.
Oil production (barrels a day)
Pre-war March 2003: 2.5m
Handover June 2004: 2.29m
Analysis: Sustainability of Iraqi oilfields has been jeopardised to boost output. Oil facilities regularly targeted by insurgents.
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Palestinians finally allowed to be Lebanon's manual labor
Tuesday, June 28, 2005, 18:02The Daily Star says that the Lebanese government is ending 20 years of discrimination by finally allowing Palestinians refugees to work in jobs previously unavailable to them (only those born in Lebanon, mind you, although they're now the vast majority).
End of discrimination? I don't think so. The Palestinians have only been upgraded to the level of the Syrian laborers who fled Lebanon following Hariri's assassination, after suffering abuse of all sorts and physical assault – at last count, over 30 had been killed, but since then, nobody has bothered counting.
400,000 Palestinian refugees under the age of 57 will now have the privilege of doing only manual or clerical work. No doctors, engineers, accountants, architects, scientists, teachers, or any other profession. They will still be refused the right to build permanent homes (assuming they could ever get enough money), remaining in 12 refugee camps which are without any doubt the worst in the Arab world. The Daily Star quotes Ghassan Khatib (Palestinian Labor Minister): "I was stunned by the refugee camps in Lebanon. Even in camps in Gaza and Nablus in the Occupied Territories, the situation is better than that of the camps in Lebanon."
Wafa Elyassir, who works with Norwegian People's Aid, responds to the rationale behind Lebanon's refusal to alleviate Palestinians' suffering (which Syria and Jordan have already done): "The fear that Palestinians will now give up their right of return and overwhelm Lebanon are unfounded, given how Palestinians living abroad, with far more opportunities and leisure, are still holding on to their right of return to Palestine."
Palestinian refugees' situation all over the world is disgraceful; in Lebanon, it is catastrophic.
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Who is spying on whom? Everyone, apparently
Tuesday, June 28, 2005, 17:10Most of us already knew that of course, but very few journalists have dared to point out the absurdity of the situation. Susan Taylor Martin, who recently spent some time in Syria and Lebanon, has written the obvious: that "it's a little disingenuous, if not hypocritical, for the United States to complain so loudly about the presence of Syrian intelligence agents in neighboring Lebanon."
After pointing out to various occasions when spying affairs went awry, such as the arrest of 13 CIA operatives in Italy last week or the Mossad's poisoning of Khaled Meshal in Jordan, she reminds that "it was the CIA itself that contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in Afghanistan."
She concludes that "the United States and the United Nations were right to demand Syria withdraw its troops this spring and stop trying to deprive the Lebanese of the honest, democratic government they deserve. But does the State Department really think Syria is not going to keep a close eye on a neighbor of such economic and strategic importance - just as the CIA, the Mossad and other intelligence services are right now operating in places they consider important to their national interests?"
That's why complaints of Syria's spying on Lebanon ring hollow. And that's clear, even if we forget to mention the American embassy officials seen lurking by polling stations during Lebanon's elections, or the multitude of FBI operatives getting to the scene of explosions before anyone else.
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The prophecies of Nostradumbus
Saturday, June 25, 2005, 02:14"Any who say that we've lost this war, or that we're losing this war, are wrong. We are not."
That's what Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday, insisting that despite the perception, the war in Iraq is going well.
John Abizaid didn't quite agree with his boss, but Bush vowed to defeat Iraqi rebels. (He did say bring 'em on, remember?)
Looks like they're still under the spell of Nostradumbus.
(Drew Sheneman, The Newark Star Ledger)
In the meantime, here is the real state of the nation, according to UNDP and the Iraqi planning ministry (meaning they're probably conservative figures).
* 78 per cent of households in the country have an unreliable electricity supply; in Baghdad, the figure rises to 92 per cent.
* 37 per cent of urban households and only 4 per cent of rural ones have a sewage connection.
* 61 per cent of Iraqi households have access to a safe and stable drinking water supply, but 28 per cent of these experience daily problems with that supply.
* 5 per cent of households have been damaged by military activity; the figure rises to 8 per cent in the north of the country.
* Only 52 per cent of urban households are accessible by paved road; the figure drops to one in 10 in rural areas.
* 31 per cent of males over 15 are unemployed.
* Almost a quarter of children between the ages of six months and five years suffer from malnutrition.
* More young people today are illiterate in Iraq than in previous generations.
* Just 83 per cent of boys and 79 per cent of girls of school age are enrolled in primary school.
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Agents of change - not agents!
Friday, June 24, 2005, 02:03I recently mentioned the accusations liberally thrown by a Baathist dinosaur on Al Jazeera, claiming Syrian civil society activists were worse than Americans and Israelis. Well, this must now be the official communication strategy (not that it's really new), because Al Thawra newspaper this week had pretty much the same to say.
Rather shaken by prominent Syrian human rights activist Anwar Bunni's request that the EU not sign a billion-dollar trade deal with Damascus until it improves its human rights records, Al Thawra wrote that by doing this, Bunni and other activists "are adopting the same stand of the forces of external pressure on Syria, that are represented by Zionism and the United States."
How tiring this is getting. The minute we open our mouth, we are accused of being agents and collaborators – something which would make Americans laugh out loud. (And like the US really cares about human rights issues in Syria.) The Syrian regime, and the Americans, for that matter, only hear what they want to hear. Criticize the Syrians and they brand you an agent. In fact, prominent Syrian actor and intellectual Bassam Koussa recently said even more: calling someone an intellectual seems to be an insult these days. At the other extreme, criticize the Americans and they call you a Baathist! It's not even funny.
Al Thawra writes that "Syria asserts the need for everybody to adhere to the interests of the homeland" and funnily adds that there is a need "to draw a distinction between national political opposition and opposition to the homeland for political reasons." Analyze this!
As Anwar Bunni replied, however, the interests of the nation lie in respect for civil society's rights, an independent judiciary, the release of political detainees and the battle against corruption, adding that "the association agreement contains a key clause on human rights that everyone has the right to discuss."
This is all as we await the "trial" before the Supreme State Security Court of human rights activist Aktham Naisse in a few days, under the charges of "opposing the objectives of the revolution and disseminating false information aiming at weakening the state," risking a sentence of 15 years. How depressing.
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Don't cry for me Mukhtara
Friday, June 24, 2005, 00:54But if cry you must, then make sure the funeral is like the million-strong farewell given to Rafik Hariri, pleaded the prima donna (Walid Jumblat, if you hadn't followed) who apparently believes he is a lot like his much regretted father, Kamal, judging from requests to above all "remain sensible and calm" and not repeat what happened in March 1977, when Kamal Jumblat was assassinated.
Thus read (verbally, at least) Jumblat's last will and testament, as told to NBN TV on Wednesday night. So don't cry for him Mukhtara (the truth is he has not left you).
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More carrots or more sticks for Syria?
Friday, June 17, 2005, 04:11US intentions in the Middle East must have a lot of people worried these days, and not just Syrians. Op-eds on Syria (in addition to a book) are popping up regularly now, describing Syrian politics with varying degrees of accuracy, and advocating one of two approaches. Some blame Syria for everything happening around its borders, and want to see it punished. (In fact, soon there will also be a consensus on Syria's malevolent hand in unfavorable weather conditions in the Middle East.) The others, who also blame Syria for everything, urge the Bush administration to change its policy; more carrots and less sticks, please, seems to be the rallying cry. Nothing the Syrians can't applaud.
Ian Bremmer's appeal in the International Herald Tribune today follows the lines of Flynt Leverett's message to Washington. "Why should the Bush administration cut Bashar Assad's government a little slack?", he asks. Well, that's "because, in the long run, Assad's presidency is Syria's best hope for reform, and because a nuanced approach to U.S.-Syrian relations gives Washington its best chance at achieving the outcomes it wants in the region."
That's certainly true for the second reason, assuming you know exactly the outcomes the US wants to achieve in the region. After all, this "reform" the Americans are talking about is really only related to what happens outside Syrian borders. If the border with Iraq (which is really not much more porous than the Saudi or Jordanian or Iranian ones) is sealed, if support to the Iraqi insurgency mellows down, if Hezbollah is left alone (as if that would really make a difference in Lebanese politics, where Michel Aoun is now practically branded "pro-Syrian"!), and if the Syrian regime suddenly stops mentioning the little matter of the Palestinian situation (and "aiding" those who resist Israel), won't the Syrian regime suddenly be branded a moderate one?
Who here really thinks the US will really give a damn about what happens within Syria? Spare us the pretense. Moreover, the carrots are probably not going to include the equitable application of international law (even though the Golan Heights remain annexed to Israel) or to pressure Israel to resume negotiations. UN resolutions are so conveniently selective, as always.
I know few Syrians who believe for a minute that Bush and his fellow "democracy-spreaders" are interested in seeing reform on the internal front. After all, it's difficult not to notice their very lame "condemnation" of the Egyptian regime's shameful crackdown on Kifaya protesters (most of them women), their indifference to the Saudi regime's jailing of poets and intellectuals, or the absence of any criticism on the lack of reform being undertaken in countries like "progressive" Jordan or newly-moderate Libya. I have yet the see an uproar about Daif Al Ghazal, the poor Libyan journalist whose brutal murder (which I mentioned last week) failed to arouse the anger and disgust of even most bloggers, let alone the US or the UN.
As for the big issues most Syrians would like to be discussed, hope springs eternal.
On the bright side, our youngsters are doing great on the big field: the Syrian football team has beaten Italy 2-1 in the Youth World Cup. Go boys!
Syria’s Abd Alhousain (second from right) celebrates with his teammates after scoring against Italy during their Youth World Cup Group E game in Holland on Wednesday. Syria won 2-1. AFP
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Quote of the day: Syrian media is free
Friday, June 17, 2005, 01:54"There has never been and will never be any censorship on public and private newspapers publications, and there are even journalists and opinion columnists whose articles do not even get the agreement of the editor-in-chief of the paper they write for it."
Nizar Mayhoob, Syrian Information Ministry Spokesperson
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Unsettling the Wild West Bank
Friday, June 17, 2005, 00:46An Israeli anti-settler group has launched an online game called "Wild West Bank." This is an interesting tool to add to a campaign by the group called "Back to Israel."
Over 45,000 people downloaded the game in the first four days, according to the BBC. The player acts as an Israeli sheriff taking down settlements, but just as the player drags the settler homes into Israel, settlers set up more mobile homes on the same spot. Meanwhile, Palestinians wander about their territory aimlessly.
At the end of the game, a message tells players they may have lost the game, but cannot lose the country: "Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have lost their lives as a result of the occupation. The occupation is not a game."
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A Vietnam veteran's thoughts on Iraq
Tuesday, June 14, 2005, 21:42Ron Kovic was Born on the Fourth of July. Kovic served in Vietnam and was paralyzed from the chest down in 1968, having been in a wheelchair ever since. Remember the movie (where Tom Cruise played the role), if not the memoirs of the same name? These are now republished, and the following paragraphs are short extracts from the new introduction, which speaks volumes about his dismay with what he calls the tragic and senseless war in Iraq.
"I have watched in horror the mirror image of another Vietnam unfolding. So many similarities, so many things said that remind me of that war thirty years ago which left me paralyzed for the rest of my life. Refusing to learn from our experiences in Vietnam, our government continues to pursue a policy of deception, distortion, manipulation, and denial, doing everything it can to hide from the American people their true intentions and agenda in Iraq. The flag-draped caskets of our dead begin their long and sorrowful journeys home hidden from public view, while the Iraqi casualties are not even considered worth counting--some estimate as many as 100,000 have been killed so far."
"The Bush administration seems to have learned some very different lessons than we did from Vietnam. Where we learned of the deep immorality and obscenity of that war, they learned to be even more brutal, more violent and ruthless, i.e., "shock and awe." Sadly, the war on terror has become a war of terror. Where we learned to be more open and honest, to be more truthful, to expose, to express, to shatter the myths of the past, they seem to have learned the exact opposite--to hide, to censor, to fabricate, to mislead and deceive--to perpetuate those myths."
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Sunday, June 12, 2005, 20:22I've been reading "Mémoires d'otages," the account of Christian Chesnot (of Radio France) and Georges Malbrunot (of Le Figaro) on their captivity in Iraq, so Florence Aubenas and Hussein Hanoun have been very much on my mind. Today, finally some good news: Florence and Hussein are free after 157 days and back with their respective families and colleagues.
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Saturday, June 11, 2005, 16:58Strange times, and strange timings. In the midst of renewed accusations by the US that Syrian "intelligence" officers remain in Lebanon (along with many more American, French, British, and the list is long), and – surprise - a renewed UN inquiry to determine the facts, Syrian television last night announced that the hideout of an Islamist group by the name of "Sham Organization for Jihad and Tawhid" was raided after a "meticulous security pursuit" which lasted for months. We had just happened to switch to the Syrian satellite channel, and the pictures of the two killed men weren't pretty.
I am reluctant to link to the execrably bad wires from SANA, but it is the only official Syrian explanation I have found so far in English. However, you might find that Al Jazeera and AFP do a better job.
On the subject of SANA, I recently asked Mehdi Dakhlallah (Minister of Information), in my professional capacity and as a frustrated Syrian citizen, to please please please take it offline until they employ people who can write properly and a little more convincingly. He told me he couldn't do anything about it! (He also advised me not to read Israeli newspapers, after I had mentioned an interesting piece in Haaretz, but that's another story I might write about one day.)
On the much more serious subject of the supposed hit list, reports are that "Terje Roed-Larsen will issue an ultimatum to Damascus, the deadline of which is any new political assassination in Lebanon," according to a diplomat at the UN. If you're cynical about everyone involved in this criminal mess, you would probably think that this is the best weapon for anyone wanting to badly hurt Syria. Well, isn't it? Then again, of course, the Syrians of late have been hurting themselves the most.
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Welcome to a different face of Syria
Saturday, June 11, 2005, 16:29With so much general Syria-bashing and a lot of criticism of the regime (the latter especially by us Syrians, I have to say), it is always a pleasure to find the odd piece talking about the nicer things. And as a Damascene, I'm delighted when my native city is discovered, even if only through the tourist trail and with a slight, but completely inoffensive, orientalist approach.
Read this light piece by Lee Smith in The New York Times, as he explains why "the allure of Damascus shouldn't be hard to comprehend."
In April, Robert Mighall, in his much nicer piece in The Independent, also rising above the politics, had followed the road to Damascus and was converted, writing that "Damascus seems almost designed to stimulate the sense." Indeed.
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Thus leapt the Baath
Friday, June 10, 2005, 00:06It's all over and done with, but was it really worth waiting for? Are the disappointed ones raining on anyone's parade in Syria? In the end, no big decisions were taken, but a lot of "recommendations" were thoughtfully drafted by the over 1,200 party delegates to help run the government run the country. How considerate of them.
Calling this "reform," however, would be stretching things a bit.
The emergency law in place since 1963 will be "modified" (it remains to be clarified how) and some parties will be allowed, as long as they are not based on religious, sectarian or regional basis. (But isn't the Baath party a regional one?) No "Christian Democrats" or their Muslim equivalent, in other words.
There is a brand new, reduced regional command with nine new comrades, including a woman (apparently one area where there are no glass ceiling issues). As for the proposals regarding media laws (including a "higher council" whose bearing I am simply dreading), it remains to be seen how exactly that will help Syria's communication problems. What was needed was a completely new approach, not more of the same.
The real political and economic reforms which have been promised and talked about ad nauseam since the last party conference will have to wait. Or so the Baath thinks.
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The dark secrets behind Israel's attack on USS Liberty
Wednesday, June 8, 2005, 22:5638 years ago today, on June 8 1967, day 4 of the brutal attack launched by Israel simultaneously on Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Israeli jets bombed the USS Liberty for 75 minutes, killing 34 Americans and wounding 173.
Miraculously, the ship didn't sink and managed to send out an SOS. American planes flying to its rescue (and said to be carrying nuclear bombs meant for Cairo) were recalled when it turned out that Israel, and not Egypt, was the aggressor.
Many Americans, including survivors of the attack on USS Liberty, still want to know why this affair was covered up; some have wondered whether it wasn't really the US and Israel conspiring to sink the ship and blame it on Egypt, thus enabling America to enter the war on Israel's side. An acclaimed BBC documentary, Dead in the Water, brought the usual Israeli accusations when it was first broadcast, but the questions it asks remain there.
Daniel Wood, one of USS Liberty's surviving sailors, recalls how Israeli reconnaissance planes had buzzed overhead for hours before the attack. He still doesn't understand why the Navy recalled its fighters and left the Liberty defenseless, when the United States Sixth Fleet was nearby with two aircraft carriers, and American jets were 15 minutes away.
On Friday June 10, a Report of War Crimes brief will be filed on behalf of the USS Liberty Veterans' Association,to push for the official inquiry that should have been carried out 38 years ago, hoping the mystery will finally be revealed.
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Grandpa's inalienable right of return
Tuesday, June 7, 2005, 21:41Ramzy Baroud's grandfather told him that being a Palestinian was a blessing.
“You cannot be entrusted to defend a more virtuous cause than the cause of Palestine, unless Allah has blessed you greatly.“
These amazing words are even more meaningful when you learn that they stem from a Palestinian refugee who was forced at gunpoint to haul his family away and flee Beit Daras, spending the rest of his life in a refugee camp – first in a tent for many years, and then in a mud house provided by the UN, where he died. Until his last breath, Grandpa listened to his battered radio, waiting for the day he would hear the announcement that Palestinian refugees were allowed to go home.
A quick description cannot possibly do justice to this wonderful piece. Please read it in full and share the dreams of millions of homeless, destitute Palestinian refugees all over the world.
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After Lebanon, Libya
Tuesday, June 7, 2005, 19:30Our shock at Samir Kassir's murder hasn't abated yet, but we are already mourning the brutal murder of yet another Arab journalist. The body of 32-year old Daif Al Ghazal, a critic of the Libyan regime who was kidnapped on May 21st, was found, barely recognizable, in Benghazi a few days ago. Reporters Sans Frontières note that "the autopsy report referred to many signs of torture. Most of his fingers had been severed, and the body had multiple bruises and stab wounds. He had been finished off by a shot to the head."
Is the FBI also going to send investigators to determine who Al Ghazal's assassins were and how they planned and executed his horrific death? Will the UN demand an inquiry? Or does Libya's newly-found status as "Western-friendly" – if not quite democratic – absolve it from scrutiny on human rights issues?
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Reserving the right to retaliate – even verbally
Tuesday, June 7, 2005, 17:32While we wait for another memorable quote from the Baath party conference, and given the non-events so far (Khaddam's resignation has been known for weeks), here are some other hot issues.
Flashback to October 5, 2003, when Israel violated Syrian sovereignty and bombed a site mere miles from Damascus, claiming it was a training camp for Palestinian groups. The official Syrian response to this shocking aggression had echoed the one given in April 2001, when Israel had bombed a Syrian radar in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, killing 3 Syrian soldiers. In short, Syria reserved the right to retaliate, as foreign ministry spokesperson Bushra Kanafani told a news conference. How reassuring for Syrians.
As if that wasn't meek enough, the Syrian government had publicly dissociated itself from the statement of Ambassador Mohsen Bilal, Syria's representative to Spain, who was man enough to say what every Syrian was thinking: namely, that if Israel attacks, "of course the people of Syria and the government of Syria and the army will react to defend ourselves."
Normal reaction, right? Not for the Syrian government, which apparently gave Bilal a real dressing down for this completely adequate response, and which immediately stated that this had merely been the ambassador's "personal understanding." Syrian official rhetoric is lately unbelievably challenging when it serves absolutely no purpose or is counterproductive (such as with the invasion of Iraq) and astonishingly weak when everyone expects it to be strong (like with this incident with Israel).
Fast forward to last week, when Israel accused Syria of test-firing three Scud missiles, one of which broke over southern Turkey – a fact confirmed by Turkish officials. So what's the big deal? Is Syria working on its reserved right of retaliation? Nothing of the sort. Is it simply making some noise to be noticed? Why else do military exercises so close to the Turkish border? Whatever the cause, is there any reason for Syria to have to justify having an army which (technically) is there to defend the country?
While vaguely stating that it’s normal for a state to possess defense potential, Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah devoted a lot of energy to denounce Israeli claims his country is developing new weapons and had test-fired Scud missiles, calling the accusations "an expression of Israel's hostile intentions."
I would imagine that most Syrians would have two things to say to this. With regard to Israel's intentions, well, duh. But with regard to the missiles (and probably surprised to learn that these Scuds actually still - sort of - work), well, be a man, Minister! Be man enough to state loud and clear what any country in this situation would say, with its land, the Golan Heights, illegally occupied for 38 years this very week, (and from which UNSC Resolution 242 demands Israel's withdrawal) and furthermore illegally annexed by Israel in 1981, which the Security Council condemns in Resolution 497.
Syrians would probably say: be man enough to say that being under constant fear of attack, you are obliged to have a few measly weapons with which to try to defend yourself against the nuclear powers that threaten you, and that the right to self-defense does not apply only to Israel.
But maybe Syrians need to wait for Ambassador Bilal to say this. When it comes to defending itself from Israeli aggression, alas, even verbally, the rest of the Syrian government mostly seems to be walking on egg shells.
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Fisk and "the Muslims of Beirut" go to the movies
Tuesday, June 7, 2005, 09:18Has anyone noticed that Robert Fisk is writing stranger and stranger things every day? After a number of questionable recent pieces on Lebanon, he seems to tread on thin ice with his account of the movie Kingdom of Heaven, which he watched with "the Muslims of Beirut."
Fisk describes the reactions to the scene where Salaheddin Al Ayoubi (I just hate the "Saladin" version of the name) enters Jerusalem and picks up a crucifix from the floor to place it on an altar. Relating how people in the theater rose to their feet and clapped, he writes: "They wanted Islam to be merciful as well as strong."
I thought Islam was merciful regardless of whether they wanted it to be or not. But I digress.
As I read the article and the repeated references to the "Muslims" (and not the Lebanese, or the Beirutis), I wondered where he could have possibly seen the movie. It wasn't until the last paragraph that Fisk obliges, mentioning Dunes. If it's the Dunes in Verdun, the only Dunes I know in Beirut, I have to wonder how he reached the conclusion that the audience was entirely Muslim. And even if it wasn't the Dunes I know, it's a strange and rather confident assertion. Did Fisk ask every single person in the audience his or her religion? Did they show ostentatious signs (to borrow from the French) of their religiosity? Were all the girls wearing head scarves? Or did they all just "look" Muslim? Or is it possible that Christians in Beirut might have also clapped at scenes of magnanimity from a great commander, and at signs of respect for their religion?
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Quote of the day
Monday, June 6, 2005, 14:25
"If the Baath party wasn't there, we would have to invent it."
Dr. Buthaina Shaaban
Spokesperson for the Baath Party conference and Syrian Minister for Expatriates
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The real voice of Syrian reformers
Monday, June 6, 2005, 01:19For once, all praise to The New York Times (une fois n'est pas coutume!) for having finally published a true representative of Syria's civil society, a respected, courageous man who was imprisoned for 16 years and who is still active in his struggle to bring reform to Syria.
(And what a change from the lousy Washington Times' constant peddling of the completely unconvincing and unrepresentative Farid Ghadry.)
Reprinted in Monday's edition of the International Herald Tribune, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, in his op-ed "Don't rush the revolution," advocates a gradual change in Syria, even though he believes (as I have stated in my own article mentioned below) that the regime is stronger than many feel.
"Since it completed its Lebanon withdrawal, the Assad government has partly regained its composure. And the stronger it feels, the fewer concessions it will make to its own people and the less willing it will be to engage in much needed political and economic reform."
Therefore, little change is to be expected from the Regional Command's big meeting this week.
"The president will probably use this congress to remove many of his father's associates, but he cannot do so without entering into a Faustian bargain - namely committing himself to Syria's archaic one-party system, to the omnipotent and omnipresent security services, to a continued state monopoly over all news media and, most important, to a ruling political elite that continues to hoard Syria's national wealth. These interests, not the members of the "old guard," are the most unyielding obstacles to reform."
But al-Haj Saleh stresses that the last thing Syrians want is outside intervention, especially after the catastrophic outcome of Iraq's invasion. Therefore, he suggests other ways to gently push Syria towards change:
"Rather, when it comes to outside pressure, an approach based on multilateral efforts by the global powers and international organizations is preferable: financial penalties directed against the businesses and foreign assets of the Syrian elites who have helped themselves to public money; constant moral demands from the international community for domestic political and economic change; and, most important, progress in negotiations with Israel."
The author concludes that while it is not known how long the present situation will prevail, he does know that "in the end, the regime will have to answer to 18 million Syrians, most of whom want to see freedom, justice and the rule of law." Hear hear.
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Monday, June 6, 2005, 01:06Those familiar with Arabic movies or plays understand the knowing chuckles at the appearance of signs claiming "Al shurta fi khidmet al sha'ab" (the police is at the service of the people). It doesn't always quite work out that way, including in Syria, but it is the expression that came to mind as I watched a Syrian official defend his government's aptitude for crime solving.
Had the situation not been so tragic, I would have probably laughed when I heard Elias Murad, the editor of the riveting Syrian newspaper and mouthpiece of the regime, Al Baath, wonder why people didn't trust the Syrian police and judiciary. On Dubai television to answer the questions of veteran journalist Hamdi Kandil on Friday, Murad pretended to be surprised at respected Syrian human rights activist Haytham Manna's request for an independent investigation on the affair of Sheikh Khaznawi.
This was in response to the incredible story, as told by Syrian officials and subsequently recounted on television by the "culprits," of the kidnapping, murder and burial of Sheikh Khaznawi. Get this: they lured him into a flat in broad daylight in the middle of Damascus, then drugged him, then took him by car all the way up to Aleppo, then murdered him there, and THEN drove all the way to Deir-Ezzor to bury him. For all their planning, however, they were "caught," confessed, and proceeded to very calmly (a bit too calmly for my taste) explain to the Public Attorney and to TV audiences how this all happened. A "simple" criminal act, apparently.
For some reason, Manna and many people are not convinced, especially when they say there are clear signs of torture on the victim. Inevitably, his family and followers protested and clashes erupted during Sheikh Khaznawi's funeral.
As usual, this makes the Syrian regime very edgy and more arrests of human rights activists have been made.
Is it any wonder that Syrians have low expectations for the party conference?
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Dust in the wind
Monday, June 6, 2005, 00:09Be still my beating heart: tomorrow, on June 6, the 10th conference of the Regional Command of the Baath Party will meet in Damascus, for the first time in five years. There's been a lot of buzz about this meeting, mostly by the party itself and the regime; I for one fail to see what all the fuss is about.
In the past few days, Syrian media has lectured us incessantly, dutifully explaining to the doubters the strong democratic foundations of the Baath Party and the National Progressive Front. (Seriously.) Amongst others, we are to be granted municipal elections in 2007; do they expect us to say thank you and shout hurrah? This is just scraping the surface of what needs to be done.
As for the supposed "resignations" of a few key figures in the regime, let's not get too excited either. It is rumoured that we may get a new foreign affairs minister, but the main candidate is a lot less masterly than required. How all these translate into "change" is beyond me.
My own take on the situation in Syria can be found in my last article, published in The World Today; to put it mildly, I am not optimistic.
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May they always dare to speak out
Sunday, June 5, 2005, 22:33Many tributes have been paid to Samir Kassir, expressing indignation and fury after his cowardly assassination. I can only add my own outrage to these voices, and my concern for the future of my region.
Just last week, I wrote how sad it was that regimes fear intellectuals more than they fear those who mean the country real harm. Journalists, thinkers and writers are often a casualty of war and of oppression, and their silencing in various degrees of brutality (by stopping their voice from being heard or read, through bans, harassment, jailing, torture, and all too often murder) has not been condemned strongly enough by democracies – especially when the latter are the culprits. The freedom of expression supposedly enjoyed in the US and in Israel comes to a screeching halt when facing various aspects of occupation, and many courageous journalists have died from – amongst others - Israeli and American bombs and bullets. I have already mentioned several in this blog, victims from all nationalities of occupation in Palestine and in Iraq.
In the Arab world, such violent measures are sadly the rule rather than the exception. With frustratingly little means available to fight these flagrant abuses of human rights, the least we can all do is continue to condemn them, and continue to encourage those who dare to speak out. The more cowards resort to violence, the more they prove their fear of our words, and the mightier the power of our pens.
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The great leap to more of the same
Wednesday, May 25, 2005, 04:01My latest article on Syria was delivered a couple of weeks ago but will only come out next week; that's the problem with magazines - a lot of things can happen before publication. In my case, however, there's nothing that I need to take back or amend, fortunately for the timeliness of the piece, and unfortunately for Syria.
As I've often said elsewhere, the so-called reforms promised by the Syrian regime (which speaks of a "great leap" forward with the 10th conference of the regional command of the Baath party, due to take place from June 6 to 9) are going to be minimal and mostly cosmetic - anything to maintain the status quo. The ridiculously limited economic "reforms" being considered are made not out of concern for the dire straits in which many Syrians find themselves, but in order to comply with the demands of the EU Association Agreement.
The real issues are not even on the table. Even if they were, where would one start? Removing the state of emergency law, in place since 1963? The reform of the judiciary (for no justice can ever arise when the integrity of most judges is for sale, whether they like it or not)? The fate of thousands of prisoners of conscience (some missing since decades)? The return of the freedom of expression and of the press that Syrians saw flourish before the military coups and countercoups that preceded the arrival of the Baath on March 8 1963? The punishment of corruption, especially by those closest to the regime?
It is easier to choose where to start than to know where it will end, and more useful to define the issues before setting on the course. For one thing, there is no such thing as an old guard and a new guard; there is only the guard. And the guard is guarding the assets it has acquired over the past decades from all those who would rather spread Syria's riches amongst the people. The "new" elements people talk about are mostly those who work in state institutions (not to be confused with the regime) where they can pretend to be making a difference.
Tonight, on Al Jazeera's "The Opposite Direction" program dealing with the current situation in Syria, a typical spokesman for the regime made a complete fool of himself, as most of these Baathist dinosaurs usually do. What is more amusing, or rather more worrying, is that he seemed to think he was doing very well, accusing Syrian civil society activists of being worse than Americans and Israelis, and keeping a straight face while talking about the reforms. Yet it is not funny anymore. Especially when today, the only formal survivor of the Damascus Winter was silenced when 8 members from the only civil society forum still allowed to meet, that of Jamal Atassi, were arrested at dawn.
How sad it is when a regime fears its intellectuals more than those who mean the whole country real harm. I used to regularly attend numerous civil society gatherings in Damascus when I lived there, even before the Damascus Spring (including Economic Tuesdays and the Atassi forums), and can vouch for their value and for the participants' sincerity and patriotism.
That's not the only news coming from Syria today. Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, announced to The New York Times that
Syria had severed all links with American military and intelligence agencies, the reasoning being that the Bush administration was doing everything to escalate the situation with Syria, no matter what Syria does. The Bush administration reacted with surprise at this announcement, being more accustomed to dictate the level of the relationship with Syria.
On the one hand, Imad Moustapha is right, even though he somewhat softened his remarks in a later interview (following a pattern that has become the only foreign policy Syria seems to have adopted: speak now, retract and rephrase later). No matter what Syria does, the US will find something else to complain about. In fact, I have frequently argued that Syria has given too many concessions on the international front without proper consideration and without getting anything in return. Many Syrians are fed up by the double standards constantly exercised by the US and by the constant pressure applied unreasonably on Syria, when the regime has done practically everything it could (sometimes immediately, others eventually) to satisfy American demands. Official Syrian rhetoric is often a lot tougher than the regime's actual position, after all.
On the other hand, what could Syria possibly gain with such a statement? As Richard Boucher immediately reacted, making comments like this is probably a step in the wrong direction – at least as far as relations with the US are concerned. But relations were headed south anyway: sanctions (which only affect the people) had just been renewed, as had numerous accusations about Syrian involvement in everything that's going wrong in the Middle East.
Is this Syria's way of catching Bush's attention, and reminding him that he still needs Syrian help? Or will Syria really stop supplying the US with intelligence and assistance in its "war on terror" (including torture) as it has since September 11?
When the country is facing extreme foreign pressure, most Syrians (like most people) become even more patriotic than usual. But will current American pressure, which will no doubt be further fuelled by these recent Syrian statements, be enough to ward off internal demands, for the moment? It wouldn't be the first time the regime depended on it. Judging by the mood in Syria recently, however, most people are in no mood to be taught (or sold, to follow the Arabic expression) patriotism, and insist on seeing real change – for a change.
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Mr. Sharon goes to Washington
Tuesday, May 24, 2005, 22:02And what a lot of noise he makes while he's there. Seeing, or rather hearing Sharon addressing AIPAC today was like listening to a rock star serenading his groupies. Condoleezza Rice had a good reception at AIPAC yesterday, but it was no match for the one given to the Bulldozer, whose popularity somehow manages to increase with every trip to the US.
Sharon reminded his audience of the usual official Israeli positions, stressing again (for the benefit of those who still claim there is a "peace process") that Israeli settlements in the West Bank (illegal under international law, of course) will remain an integral part of Israel – with territorial contiguity to boost – and that no Palestinian refugees will ever be allowed entry into Israel.
It was mostly all said before, except for this pearl which Sharon shared in a previous meeting: "Without hurting the Arab world, it must be established that their agreements, declarations, and speeches are not worth the paper they were printed on.”
He didn't say Arab leaders, or presidents, or dictators, or kings … or even some in the Arab world – he said the Arab world. Just as Mahmoud Abbas was getting ready to cross the Atlantic. As confidence-building measures go, this says it all.
And now, Mr. Abbas goes to Washington, although a lot of people are beginning to wonder what good that will do him, or the Palestinian people. A few days ago, Ashraf Fahim openly asked in The Daily Star why the Palestinian Authority was continuing to negotiate with Israel, when the latter continues to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank to the point where it will be impossible to establish a truly sovereign Palestinian state, with the encouragement of the Bush administration.
I do not agree with Fahim's suggestion that the PA should consider reversing its recognition of Israel, just because Israel has effectively reneged on recognition of Palestinian rights. On the contrary, Palestinians should continue to demand their rights as given to them by international law, and by numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions – all of which recognize the rights of all the parties involved in the conflict.
Without hurting the present dealmakers, it must be established that these rights will really not be worth the paper they were printed on if the international community does not get seriously involved and stops the far from honest brokers from committing further injustices.
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Imperial villain-making, then and now
Tuesday, May 24, 2005, 17:11I always discover something new when I read William Dalrymple. Today I learned in The Guardian about Tipu Sultan of Mysore, a man whose story will sound very familiar to us all when explained and put into context by Dalrymple.
To believe British sources for long, Tipu was "a fanatical Muslim despot resisting the West". There were calls for regime change, and we have, of course, been here before, explains Dalrymple. Then, and now, it was best to simply remove any hostile Muslim regime that presumed to resist the West – or Britain, in those days.
When the British decided to remove Tipu Sultan in 1798, Henry Dundas (the minister overseeing the East India Company) and Richard Wellesley (governor general) first began a vilification campaign to justify to the British public a policy whose outcome had already been decided in secret. Tipu was portrayed as a monster, opening the way "for a lucrative conquest and the installation of a more pliable regime that would, in the words of Wellesley, allow the British to give the impression they were handing the country back to its rightful owners while in reality maintaining firm control."
Sounding more and more familiar? The author concludes the fascinating essay, which is well worth reading, with the following thought:
"The whole episode is a sobering reminder of the degree to which old-style imperialism has made a comeback under Bush and Blair. There is nothing new about the neocons. Not only are westerners again playing their old game of installing puppet regimes, propped up by western garrisons, for their own political and economic ends but, more alarmingly, the intellectual attitudes that buttressed and sustained such imperial adventures remain intact."
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