Solidarity Lessons from 1973
Sunday, October 5, 2008, 23:20I have often brought up the example of October 1973 in meetings and conferences, as a response to declarations (mostly from Americans and Israelis) about the sorry state of the Arab world, and the "fact" that its unity died in 1967 when "Arabs attacked Israel" and paid the price. I wish we could commemorate better things than the start of war, but until that happens we should not forget the significance of the events of 1973.
It's a pity that it takes the anniversary of a war, and not of something constructive, to bring out memories of solidarity, as ephemeral as it might be. My father was ambassador in Geneva at the time, and my parents have told us in detail about those incredible days, about the unprecedented outpour of solidarity and the countless offers of help -- not only from Syrian expats of all backgrounds, but also from Arabs wishing to declare their support of the joint Arab stance against Israel. That's what I chose to write about for this month's issue of Syria Today.
Solidarity lessons from 1973
Memories of pan-Arab unity during the 1973 October War remain strong even 35 years after the event.
In any discussion about politics in the Arab world, a majority of people will concur on the common maxim that Arabs can only agree to disagree. True to its clichés, the region has not only witnessed intense wars and dubious peace in the last half century, but also frequent disputes and reconciliations between “brotherly” countries over the most mundane of issues, while the notion of Arab unity, and even that of pan-Arabism, has begun to fade into oblivion as a mere footnote of history.
Whether this practical assessment of the potential of inter-Arab agreement was reached reluctantly or with conviction, it reassures some observers of the region who have maintained an enduring contrived effort to destroy this fragile notion of unity, even claiming that it never actually existed in the first place. For a variety of reasons, the negationists now openly ridicule the few remaining places where Arabist actions and discourse are still used, portraying them as mere dreams reflecting immature ideological aspirations that are inconsistent with the real Arab world.
There is regrettably some truth to such appraisals, but it does not help the critics’ credibility that their own plans for a disjointed Arabia has been a major element in the projected demise of Arab unity, and that their long-term vested interests have rendered any attempt to conduct a common Arabist policy into mission impossible. Even if some Arab states were to try joining forces politically, the “divide and rule” default reaction (still highly effective, years after Anglo-French agreements partitioned the region) would come into force and doom the effort to failure.
Indeed, the mere notion of a movement that is both secular and nationalist in nature (especially one encompassing the entire Arab nation) stands in the way of many a scheme to control the region’s resources, and various governments have gone to extremes to counter this inconvenient trend supported by the masses throughout the past century. Irresponsibly, colonial powers even promoted the rise of Islamism to counter the undesirable secular national movements seeking independence. Just as the British fought nationalist fervour in Egypt by encouraging the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and just as Israel tried to deter popular secular liberation groups in Palestine by facilitating the establishment of religious groups like Hamas, attempts at inter-Arab unity were offset with persistent measures that ensured breakdown and kept main actors segregated. Segregated and increasingly opposed to one another.
The Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, for instance, was to launch a multilateral peace process aiming at a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. Instead, at Israel’s insistence and with American acquiescence, the process was broken into multiple bilateral negotiations, allowing Israel to navigate between different tracks while never having to commit to a global solution or actually making the “painful concessions” it pretends offering for peace.
There is a reason why the supposedly impossible inter-Arab harmony, à la EU, continues to attract so much attention. For all the disparaging and sarcastic references to Arab unity, and for all the denials about its current or previous existence, regional players know full well what Arab unity could achieve, especially when directed against the hegemony of Israel. And even within the “neo-nationalist” and the “neo-moderate” Arab groups in the region, who seem to find the Arab-Israeli conflict passé and the concept of resistance (in its many forms) to Israel distasteful, the lingering memory of Arabism’s power is enough to warrant concern: this old-fashioned zeal remains entrenched in their societies, appealing to a considerable segment of the population which would rather not see allegations about fake unity – and especially about a fake common cause – develop into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even in states which have established ties with Israel, public opinion remains overwhelmingly reluctant, if not categorically opposed, to normalising diplomatic and economic ties with Israel, still considered a common enemy for the vast majority of people concerned with the Palestinian cause. In such circles, pan-Arab unity is not considered to be an abstract concept, but rather a proven strategic success that could turn the region’s fortunes around.
That is why even 35 years after its occurrence, the October War (known worldwide as the Yom Kippur War, courtesy of the Israeli-dictated perspective) continues to provoke nostalgia in the collective Arab memory of unity, a memory formed by accounts of Arab achievements and not on the failure to regain occupied territory (especially after the urgent intervention of the US), a memory engrained even in the minds of those not yet born during those events.
On October 6, 1973, the tenth day of Ramadan, Syria and Egypt launched the joint military action that would trigger the most unexpected sequence of events and shatter a number of myths, including that of Arab powerlessness and of Israeli invincibility, demonstrating that Arabs could unite, and in doing so achieve great successes.
Although Israel had been warned by King Hussein of Jordan – in person – about the imminent attack, its arrogant refusal to believe that its Arab enemies could even attempt this feat made the attack easier and ironically maintained the element of “surprise”. The Bar Lev line, a barrier of Israeli fortifications in the occupied Sinai which Israel had bragged was insurmountable and impenetrable, simply crumbled in a couple of hours under the force of Egyptian pressurised water guns. Prompt military advances were made on the Golan as well, as Syrian commandos swiftly took the most important Israeli stronghold on Jabal al-Sheikh.
Syria and Egypt were actively helped by a number of Arab states, which contributed troops, pilots, military equipment and logistics, not to mention moral and political support. When news of the war’s breakout became known, tens of thousands of Arab men the world over rushed to Syrian and Egyptian embassies, putting themselves at the disposal of the relevant commands and offering financial contributions. Syrians and Egyptians of all ages cheered their armies, high on an adrenaline that the new Arab solidarity and “can do” attitude was spreading.
Most significantly, pan-Arab unity reached a new threshold with the unprecedented oil embargo: for the first time, Arab oil-producing states cut back production and refused to sell oil to the countries supporting Israel. While the actual effects of the embargo were minimal on the American economy and greatly exaggerated by media, the symbolic gesture was indeed enormous and retained a long-lasting shock effect, both on the intended embargo target and on the Arab people.
The patriotic euphoria which overtook the Arab world during those fateful days of October 1973 has mostly been forgotten, and the brutality of successive wars, invasions, and systematic Israeli attacks have rendered most Arabs emotionally exhausted and younger generations preoccupied with other priorities. Nobody is pining for war, especially when the reckless belligerence of the United States and its allies has created even more catastrophes and tragedies. And yet, perhaps because of these factors, spreading all across the Arab world is a distinctive nostalgia for a sense of solidarity in the face of injustice, and for unity in the face of aggression. While undoubtedly aspiring to a modern and increasingly Western lifestyle, many young people simultaneously find themselves drawn to the new rebels challenging imperialist superpowers and continuing to wave the flag of resistance.
The October War of 1973 is as significant to the Arab nation today as it was 35 years ago, and the enemy’s obsession with breaking Arab aspirations to unify, in name or in deed, only serves to corroborate the importance of a common cause, and common goals. Like Nasser’s daring nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July 1956, the October War has left an imprint on the collective Arab conscience and memory, an eternal reminder that solidarity in the defence of the nation, however that nation may be defined, remains a universal value that crosses time lines, borders and generations.
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
[ 5 comments ]
As Syria watches, Lebanon changes
Friday, September 19, 2008, 12:51Apologies or explanations are probably needed for the long absence from the blog, and for not even posting various articles I've published elsewhere.
Until I have the time to start blogging again and to comment on so many things, here's a piece published yesterday which many of my Lebanese friends will not like, and which some of my Syrian friends (and regime fans) who don't know any better will claim defends the Syrian regime. Not that I need to present my credentials on this subject to anyone of course, and it's about time they realize that it's entirely possible to have contempt for two or more sides, and that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
In any case, there will be time to comment about the unbelievable nonsense being written about Syria by people who don't live there, who fly in and out and "report" on the great strides, the lack of begging, the visionary policies and the other wonderful things supposedly happening there. Some of them haven't even visited in decades, but apparently that is not an impediment for being an expert on Syria - a bit like the neocons who never went to Ayraq but still make the decisions about its fate. But I digress, don't I?
As Syria watches, Lebanon changes
The passion seems to have gone out of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and the intermittent sparks that flare every now and then hardly cause a ripple. Moreover, for the moment neither side seems to care about rekindling the flame. Or so it seems.
On the Syrian side, no matter which way one looks at it, there is a definite sense of "Lebanon fatigue" overtaking official and popular circles, rendered lethargic by the avalanche of accusations coming their way courtesy of the March 14 movement and their allies. For several years every single crime, assassination, strike, parliamentarian deadlock, economic slump or political stalemate was blamed solely on "Syria". No Lebanese politician or leader, apparently, might have had any role to play in any such bad, negative or destructive incidents--no Lebanese party, that is, apart from Hizballah and other "pro-Syrian" parties, of course.
Even events in Syria itself, such as the assassination of Hizballah official Imad Mughniyeh in the middle of Damascus were seen by several Lebanese experts (who don't seem to read self-congratulatory pieces in Israeli newspapers) as being the work of a Syrian regime that apparently had a long list of reasons for wanting to commit such an action.
According to this simplistic discourse, Lebanon had become a simple case of us versus them, of pro-democracy versus pro-Syria, of life-loving versus death-glorifying. In other words, it translated into March 14 versus all those who opposed it, including Syria and its allies. These, consequently, had to be shunned and punished for their long list of alleged crimes, their flouting of Security Council resolutions (a point on which Israel always agrees without a hint of irony) and their ultimate agenda to come back to Lebanon by hook or by crook.
However, an increasing number of observers, analysts and governments around the world were not convinced that this was true--or, at least, that this was the only truth--and began to communicate with Damascus again over Lebanon and over issues bigger than Lebanon. With this, they earned themselves the ire of the March 14 movement and their Saudi-owned media supporters, and became the new target of incredible contempt.
Thus, the presidents of France and Russia and the foreign minister of Spain, to name but a few recent recipients of indignant reprimands, have been unwisely criticized, to the point of ridicule, for basically not conducting their respective countries' affairs around the agenda of the March 14 movement. They are being lectured as if they were adolescents who embarked on a stormy affair without having considered the consequences, harassed for daring to make high profile official visits and being seen in public together and scolded for not understanding that Syria's only interest is escaping isolation.
Most of these critics have not noticed that the so-called isolation had never been a serious hindrance, that Syria was never really entirely "out" of Lebanon (although it borders on the pathetic to imagine that Syrian commandos this week "invaded" and "occupied" Lebanon through Tripoli), and that the likelihood of UNSC Resolution 1559 being implemented (or of the UN's international tribunal being invested) was small and depended on a lot more than meets the eye.
The agitation of the last few years, and especially the last few months following the showdown with Hizballah in Beirut, seems to have come full circle with the apparent crisis within March 14 itself. In recent days and weeks, key figures of the majority are sending out signals, presumably to Damascus, about potential changes in their position, and making open overtures to parties they had hitherto blamed for most of Lebanon's ills. Walid Jumblatt's recent statements, for instance, are indicators of serious problems within March 14 and of a possible timid nod toward Damascus (even when accounting for his legendary habit to effect a swift volte-face whenever his position becomes untenable).
No matter how its media supporters spin it, there is no escaping the fact that March 14 is nowhere near achieving its goals (declared or undeclared), and that a variety of issues and troublemakers (not least of which the sectarian clashes in Tripoli, a fire on which Hariri's media continues to throw fuel) will continue to immobilize the reconciliation process that was imposed on all factions last May in Doha. The adjournment of the dialogue for seven weeks--until November 5, one day after the Americans will have elected their next president--speaks volumes about the involvement, for good or bad, of players other than Syria. Even the visit of the Lebanese president to Washington D.C., just before Tehran, is failing to excite most people as they wait for things to heat up again, probably before the May election circus begins in earnest.
It is perhaps a sign of the maturity of the Syrian regime that its schadenfreude is not being paraded (indeed, Syrian official reactions have practically reached a point of indifference) and that official statements have so far remained civil, indicating that all Lebanese leaders were welcome in Damascus. Perhaps it is easy to play the dignified, more mature partner in this relationship while moving in more prestigious circles and mixing with leaders who have real political weight around the world. Indeed, with an increasing number of friends in high places, there are no longer any signs of Syria's obsession with maintaining an ostentatious presence in Lebanon or even of continuing to micro-manage the affairs of its allies. For the time being, the Syrian leadership seems confident that Lebanese factions are more than capable by themselves of ruining any chance for real independence, while the bigger issues on the table (including the status of Hizballah) are left simmering on the back burner.
Unfortunately for March 14, there is no escaping the fact that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Published 18/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Britain's Chatham House.
[ 9 comments ]
Diversions on the road to Paris
Sunday, July 6, 2008, 23:47As always, there are dozens of Syria-related subjects worth discussing; some are old records being played over and over again (about which I currently have little new to add), others are sad and outrageous news about provocations and mutinies in God-forsaken cells (about which I, and most of us, don't know enough).
That's one of the reasons why I've been banging on the Franco-Syrian relations drum again, already mentioned in April (in French) in my article which considered that Syria was both "hostage and jailor of Lebanon." Since then, various sides in France have been ranting about the presence of the Syrian president in Paris on the 14th of July - along with over 40 other heads of state, including those of the southern Mediterranean shores whose own record on numerous issues is less than rosy, and including mass murderers who are responsible for more killings than all the others combined.
The Olmerts and Browns of this world, to name but two on opposing sides of the geographical divide, are worthy of French honors, as are all the Arab leaders from one end to the other of the deep blue sea. Syria, in contrast, would be better shunned, if one were to heed the advice of assorted non-experts, political lobbyists and scandal-hungry journalists.
As usual, not only has the subject been totally ignored by Syrian media, government and embassies (what a shock, I know), but most of them aren't even apparently aware that an anti-Syrian campaign is taking place in France. Isn't it time to put a stop to this, and to give Syria equal rights and equal duties to the others? And isn't it time Syria's position was explained by Syrians, and its image drawn by something other than Lebanese, Israeli or American paintbrushes?
It may be time to stop thinking purely in terms of the historical and emblematic "road to Damascus" and start looking for highways, or at the very least for byways, to lead us to Paris. And that's the case I'm making in this piece for Syria Today; not just because I'm a Francophile, not just because it's in the news (well, in French and European news that is), but because it's the logical thing to do, as any beginner student in international relations would gladly explain.
Diversions on the road to Paris
Rime Allaf, Syria Today
French influence in the Levant has certainly seen better days. Many regional observers – even in Lebanon – see little point in cultivating ties with the “tender mother” now decisions regarding their fate are made in Washington, rather than in Paris. Clinging to cultural and linguistic reminders embedded throughout geographical Syria, friends and foes alike feel France has itself conceded defeat, retreated from the centre of power and watched as the current masters set their agenda and played kingmaker.
This reading of France’s uselessness is deceptive, however, as it fails to consider the influence it still carries (independently or as a complement to other powers), as well as its importance within an increasingly potent European force now grouping 27 countries. The economic, financial and industrial strength of France continues to be felt in numerous areas, even if its political influence has declined outside previous colonies and protectorates.
In the Levant and the region, French influence can still change the course of events. Had it not been for France’s opposition, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq might have been blessed by the Security Council, or at least by a greater number of traditional allies. And had it not been for France’s initiative, recent political events in Lebanon would not have resonated so far, nor triggered successive Security Council resolutions (some under Chapter VII) on thorny Lebanese issues, including the presence of foreign troops and the armed group Hezbollah.
The demise of French influence having therefore been greatly exaggerated, Syria should adapt its foreign policy to consider the potential of Paris to sway matters, along with the significant bearing the personal predispositions of a French president can have on policy.
Under the Fifth Republic, presidents have remained committed to the region through different actors. While François Mitterrand rekindled warm relations with Israel, Jacques Chirac refused to visit Jerusalem in the company of then-mayor Ehud Olmert, honoured the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat with military salutes before his coffin was flown out, and was the first French president to set foot in Algeria after its independence.
Chirac’s attention was initially constructive for Syria, showing understanding of its foreign concerns and support for its domestic challenges. While observers of recurring Franco-Syrian disagreements expected some changes, Chirac’s increasingly negative attitude turned into a proactive damaging stance in a brief time, as his personal ties in Lebanon became blurred with those of his nation.
As Syria hoped, things did change with President Nicolas Sarkozy; however, his marked pro-Israeli stance, and the precedents he set as Interior Minister, should have been ample warning that his personal style would make communication tricky. With a vacant ambassadorial post in Paris (since the departure of Siba Nasser), there was nobody to advise Damascus on the Sarkozy government’s novel ways, and Syria remained a spectator led by events rather than an active interlocutor. No Syrian has been lobbying politicians and officials, engaging with a distinctively vibrant media (where talk shows typically host actors, intellectuals and ambassadors on a same table), or arguing Syria’s case, which has been freely distorted by detractors with various agendas.
Even minor Lebanese politicians used French media to vent their numerous woes and to recount fabulous tales of malicious Syrian meddling in every single aspect of their life, without the burden of proof or a convincing Syrian version of events to contradict them. In the past three years, Syria’s portrayal has thus been reduced to simplistic labels, in a style reminiscent of France’s own depiction in mainstream American media after its opposition to the war on Iraq.
Indeed, considering the protests over Syria’s participation in the Union for the Mediterranean Summit of July 13, and in the July 14 parade, one might assume all other guests were paragons of democracy advocating non-interference in neighbouring (and troubled) countries, and that solid evidence had proved Syrian crimes in the region. Such postures mostly reflect deteriorating journalistic values and blatant political double standards, but they also harm Syria and snub its perfectly valid regional concerns and legal rights.
Such public discourse should not be allowed to continue unchallenged, and Syria must convey its national positions in a clear, convincing and consistent message – in French. The Syrian embassy in Paris is a perfect starting point for this diplomatic and media campaign, to be led by a fluent and erudite Francophile ambassador for whom French media, politics and culture hold no secrets and who can effortlessly respond to baseless accusations and restore an image which American and Israeli governments, and more recently Lebanese opponents, have exaggeratedly smeared.
This essential operation is all the more pertinent after President Sarkozy’s latest overture to Syria, rescinding the pointless suspension to ties with Damascus, and recognising the latter’s role in having ended the presidential stalemate in Lebanon following a vain French mediation. The Quai d’Orsay continues to be sidelined, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s personal intervention is overshadowed by top Elysée advisers Claude Guéant and David Levitte’s own diplomatic manoeuvres; there is every reason to believe that Sarkozy will continue to lead relations with the region, and that he is determined to regain some of France’s squandered prestige in the Levant, and in Israel.
The French president reportedly meets with intellectuals, experts and opinion leaders to discuss a wide spectrum of subjects over regular animated luncheons, an admirable exercise which should be replicated by every leader who sincerely seeks a better grasp of complex issues from objective and frank contributors. A meeting with Levantine experts could improve his overview and contribute to a more effective French role in the region.
While Sarkozy’s “Club Med” may be a diluted version of more ambitious plans to put France back on top of Europe – and to engage the southern shores of the Mediterranean – it will be backed by the full weight of France’s EU presidency beginning in July. This sets the perfect context for Syrian diplomacy to regain its own foothold with France and with Europe, resolve the deadlock with the Association Agreement, and repair bilateral ties that should have improved with the departure of Chirac.
Damascus should reclaim its logical position as a partner of France and make an effort to fix its communication weaknesses, while Paris should consider strong ties with Damascus as imperative because of its regional importance, and not merely because talks with Israel make it an acceptable partner.
France and Syria are looking for common ground and for a regional recognition of their respective interests in the Levant; neither the fact that they currently have opposing allies in Lebanon, nor that France now gives Israel unprecedented support, should dictate the bilateral agenda or divert them from forming a mutually beneficial strategic cooperation.
Rime Allaf is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
[ 11 comments ]
Passporting and touric information in Aleppo
Sunday, June 1, 2008, 00:07You’ve all seen websites, emails or miscellaneous articles showing the "funny English" noticed around the world. For the most part, these humorous sightings come courtesy of small businesses or independent writers, but not from official entities related to the state.
Thanks to an alert reader who was kind enough to send me a link to the website of Aleppo International Airport, I find myself able to offer you yet another example of Syrian exceptions to the above rule. I promptly add a caveat and beseech you all to once more prepare tissues in the event of hysterical laughter provoked by this reading, noting that the tissues will also help those in the “don’t know whether to laugh or cry” category.
As for the officials and the “responsibles” from various Syrian entities, they are welcome to continue sending me direct emails and/or messages through third parties, trying hard to find fault with my previous post but managing little other than frustrated irrelevant responses, and promising to add information on the Golan (as if doing this only to shut me up). Since they don’t even seem aware that their performance may be lacking (and we shall continue to be kind by sticking to the subject of communications), clearly surprised that someone actually took the time to investigate various Syrian offerings, I hereby invite them to copy the following text and paste it on the website for Damascus Airport, which I am sure will be ready just before the capital of culture year comes to an end. Likewise, our embassies should not waste a moment before doing the same, adding a wealth of information for the lost foreigners 'arrivaling" in Syria and trying to get better aquainted with Syrian cities ... or at least "town-down."
Important instructions for Passengers through Aleppo INTL airport form arrivaling to terminal until heading towards Aleppo city :
* We hope the passenger to get ready thier passport before get out the plane to get quick, also it is preferable to have syrain cash (to rent trolley and taxi) .
* Get in the terminal after get-off the plane by aerobridge or one of the ground gates , we hope the passengers to verify of them hand bags.
* Leave transit hall “if the passengers get off the plane through aerobridge” towards through electrical stairs toward passporting check area in arrival area ,or directly towards the passporting check area after get off the bus “if the passengers get off the plane through one of the ground gates”.
* The passengers can get touric information through toursim office within passporting check area.
* After pass the passporting check, Head towards the paggage reclaim at movable straps zone , at any lost please ask Lost office to release reclaim lost.
* Rent trolley to carry the package at package recovering area .
* After passing passporting area, the passengers pass security check,all baggages are checked by X-Ray have to be customed.
* In case accompanied by animals or plants, passenges have to consult the veterinary quarantine or the planting quarantine office.
* After passing security check the passengers can go out through arrival gate to reception area.
* Get out the terminal, the passengers can get a taxi to head towards town-down.
We hope the passengers don't carry these goods within passenger package :
* Weapons, Sharp tools, pistols and all kind of explosive materials .
* Toys weapons shaped.
* All kind of oils and flammable liquids .
* The banned customs goods.
We wish a restful and comfortable travel through Aleppo INTL airport ."
Alas, comfort may not be the first consequence of arrivaling in Aleppo Airport, even with such helpful instructions, quoted in full above. But remaining on the subject of communication, I considered continuing the comparison between Syrian and Israeli communication efforts; however, I can only admit that this is clearly of no direct relevance to the Syrian government which must be aware of its enemy's superior PR skills, since it constantly complains of the Zionist lobby's influence.
Therefore, I decided on a different route and brought the comparison much closer, to the performance of brotherly countries. Indeed, perhaps the reminder that the legible, comprehensible and functional website of the modernized Cairo International Airport, not to mention that of the even closer brotherly Beirut International Airport, actually serve a purpose may trigger some reaction from the responsibles who are responsible for their equivalent (in the widest sense of the word) in Syria. We'll be waiting.
[ 23 comments ]
O Golan, where art thou?
Tuesday, May 6, 2008, 23:02
Remember the big PR campaign run by the Syrian government on the sad 40th anniversary of the illegal Israeli occupation of the Golan? Neither do I. To be fair, they only had 40 years to prepare and are probably saving their best efforts for an eventual 50th anniversary, so why rush them before that milestone? Besides, the Syrian government, with an infinite wisdom which I do not possess, is calmly confident in the knowledge that Golan facts are common knowledge needing no introduction.
In the meantime, after having illegally occupied it in 1967 and illegally annexed it in 1981, the sneaky Israelis have gone and run their own PR campaign to remind (and not to convince) the world that the Golan is Israeli. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism (note the clever URL) has outdone itself with the biggest campaign it ever ran, concocting advertisements with dreamy images and brand new slogans which ask, even when showing the Golan: "This is Israel. Who knew?"
Good question. I didn’t, but I might be in a minority because others already knew, or are finding out quickly by reading articles such as the following two, which should only be read with tissues on standby as the inspirational “human interest” slant will make even the most detached of you empathize with the plight of these poor lonesome cowboys who are definitely far away from home.
In the National Post this week, Karen Burshtein romanticizes about the life of "an old cowhand from the Holy Land," describing the Golan as “the wild mountainous region in northeast Israel,” and as “the finger of land between Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.” It takes 640 words to discover that “Israel captured the Golan from Syria in the 1967 war”, a capture which most readers will assume is legal and final, given that “the Israel Land Authority owns the land” which happens to be “one of the most beautiful regions in Israel.”
It is odd (or is it?) that the word “capture” has become the norm for describing what would be called an invasion and an occupation when other states are involved. At least Joel Greenberg, in the Chicago Tribune, acknowledges that the cowboy of his story (also this week, as chance would have it) “lives not in Israel proper but in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.” Greenberg professionally elaborates that “the area is generally viewed abroad as occupied territory,” even though the terrific cowboys call it home, "home on the Heights.” Still, for the sake of a true peace (cue for tissues), this cowboy is willing to give up his home, after which he says “they’ll write that I died of a broken heart.”
Israeli settler on occupied Syrian land … aka “Golan Cowboy”
Israeli embassies the world over thoroughly scour media in their respective countries, monitoring publications, airwaves, and cyberspace, and firing off indignant but eloquent and effective letters to the editors responsible for digressions from their agenda and their “facts.” Their Syrian counterparts, unfortunately, do not believe this is worth their time, which is one reason why articles like these continue to form opinions and strengthen perceptions in Israel’s favor, including the myth of the “Israeli Golan.”
Cowboys and journalists are not the only ones to be smitten by the wonderful territory: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his wife just spent Passover vacation in the Golan, already familiar with its charms which Israel markets as if the Golan were really its own, enticing visitors to see the “wonderful scenic treasures alongside lovely nature reserves, historic and archeological sites and attractions, for the whole family.” Indeed, continues the ministry, the beauty of the Golan is so captivating that some visitors return again and again (Olmerts included, and apparently not to say goodbye).
This is nothing that Syrians didn’t already know of course, and it could only mean that Israel not only stole the Golan, but probably also stole the entire marketing literature which Syria presents. Burden of proof calling, I decided to cast a cursory glance at the relevant Syrian sites and deliver the confirmation.
Logically, I visited the website of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism to report on the evidence. Using the search engine, since the Golan was nowhere to be found on the front page, I learned that “old historical texts refer to the Golan as the extension of the slopes of Mt. Hernon,” and that “during the Canaanite period Banias was known as Laish, and most probably, it was the capital of an Aramaic kingdom / Beit Rahoub.” The two paragraphs on the Golan (the third one being a repetition) go all the way up to Greek and Arab geographers.
After reading this fascinating description, don’t you just want to jump on a plane and go visit with your family? And doesn’t it give you the distinct conviction that the Golan is an integral part of Syria? If not, you must be one of those difficult, hard to please people; thankfully, the Ministry of Tourism was ready for this eventuality and posted on its main page, in capital letters you can’t miss, a link to the ultimate tourism pitch:
“THE AXIS OF EAVIL IS AFTER ALL NOT SO BAD.” [sic]
I don’t mean to be picky, but I think this marketing approach needs a rethink if the Syrians are going to begin marketing what is theirs. But maybe it is not the Ministry of Tourism’s job to mention and describe the Golan, especially when it uses the website’s front page to advertise investment conferences, rather than actual tourism. There are a few countries in the world where ministries of information still exist, I remembered, which is surely where such details will be found by the few determined inquisitive minds which haven’t yet absorbed the Israeli campaign.
So I visited the website of the Ministry of Information, following a crazy hunch that its default purpose was to inform, and to initiate campaigns dispersing actual information, if not merely respond to the Israeli ones. I had been under the strange impression that the Ministry of Information’s job mostly consisted of informing non-Syrians (and non-Arabic speakers) about Syria. It turns out there isn’t even a page in English on the website of the ministry dealing with foreign media.
Still clinging to a wild belief that government ministries couldn’t possibly be guilty of such massive incompetence (or, even worse, of such negligence), I concluded I was simply looking in the wrong places, not finding where journalists, travel agents, tourists, writers, students, or anyone remotely interested in the region would automatically look.
I suddenly remembered an obvious place I had overlooked: the website of the Ministry of Culture. Eureka! Obviously, since Damascus is the Culture Capital of the Arab World in 2008, all relevant information and facts about capital and country would be on its website, even though a first look indicated its English was inherited from SANA. Eagerly, I clicked on the “About Syria” page: it was blank. (Blank, that is, except for the "Print this document" indicator.)
Time to concentrate, I thought, not to panic. If the Ministry of Culture is unable to come up with a single sentence about the country, which government entity should one turn to in a desperate search for information on the Golan, and, just as importantly, for a campaign to counter Israel’s “Who knew?” ads? Which government entity would have the linguistic capacity and the marketing communication expertise to tell the world about the Golan, or about anything related to Syria?
The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs doesn’t even have a website, a sign of self-assurance that unlike all other countries in the world, Syria’s foreign policy is consistently crystal clear and needs no explanation. However, I dared hope, the few Syrian embassies which actually have websites would have understood the importance of clear communication, relevant information, simple clear design, coherence and compatibility; a discouraging search demonstrated that they didn’t. Each embassy has a different domain name system, a different style, and different contents, with no concerted effort to project a unified image, a consistent template or a common message. On the issue of the Golan, however, they are unanimous: they ignore it.
Thus, to mention only a few examples, the website of the Syrian Embassy in London manages a few links on the wrong page but serves for little other than ridiculously expensive visa applications. The website of the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. has a busy, hard to read (bold white on dark blue) erratic text and an awkward collage of photos on a long rambling page. The website of the Syrian Embassy in Paris is a disappointing, inelegant, rudimentary site listing all the information in an unorganized sequence on one page. The website of the Syrian Embassy in Ottawa is so clumsy that it looks as if it was typed on a typewriter, so outdated that the front page still links to the Presidential Election dates, and boasts a “photo gelery.” It also links to a certain website called Occupied Golan, a name not conducive to great excitement but which at least addresses the issue. If interested, do click on the link: the domain name is for sale.
Uninspiring, maddening and totally inadequate, so far. Clutching at straws, I turned to a website which I have frequently ridiculed and which makes a mockery of the concept of news agency (and which actually shows the BBC logo when it is bookmarked!). But at least, I consoled myself as I waited for the page to load its mediocre drivel not even fit for classic propaganda, at least good old bad SANA would go on and on about the Golan, tirelessly “underlining” the fact that it is Syrian, that it is occupied, that international law says it has to be given back, and that it also happens to be a lovely area with delicious apples, wonderful water, and all the other things that the Israelis have stolen from us, but for which we will wait forever if we have to, knowing that one day it will come back to the Syrian homeland, like its liberated city Quneitra, and that we will again smell the fresh air of the Golan and swim in its lake, thank you very much. Or something to that effect.
Alas, good old bad SANA did not underline any of that. It didn’t have a page, a link, or a paragraph stating the official Syrian position on the Golan, or on anything else. Of course, this could be because the Golan isn't actual news, but that never stopped SANA before. Nevertheless, it did have a page titled “Other Useful web sites” [sic] (implying that SANA considered itself to be useful, but I digress) which I hoped would finally lead me to the holy grail: I should not have been surprised to find a blank page, yet again. Mea culpa.
My search has ended. For the time being, information about the Golan - and about all other issues relating to the regional conflict - will continue to star in official Israeli websites and to shine by its absence on official Syrian websites. Syria has decided to not even fire a shot in the media war (not necessarily a bad thing given the "quality" of the material generated so far), ceding the information highway to the pros.
This obviously doesn’t mean we are going to remain passive as Israel continues to blatantly claim ownership of our land, sixty years after the Nakba, and 41 years since it “captured” the Golan, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. As SANA proudly announced, this year will not only be “a year of marches and protests in Arab countries” – yeah, that will show them – but it will also be, right in the beating heart of Arabism, the year that the biggest Palestinian flag ever made will fly in the Damascus sky in a quest to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. I wanted you to know that, before resting my case.
[ 35 comments ]
Faking an interest in Syrian-Israeli peace prospects
Thursday, May 1, 2008, 22:46Many people have been hopeful that negotiations could resume between Syria and Israel, but those who know me will not be surprised by my cynicism. Olmert just promised Syria the entire Golan, my oh my, and suddenly we're all excited, as if this was supposed to be a fringe benefit.
I don't buy Israel's sudden peaceful disposition; I think they're faking it.
Facts have rarely gotten in the Bush administration's way when demonizing a political opponent, even when that opponent has actually tried to accommodate multiple American demands. Accused of enemy complicity in most places where the US or its allies are involved, Syria has nevertheless regularly offered concrete help in the "war on terror" (including in the infamous extraordinary renditions) and in policing and sealing the Iraqi border.
A last minute invitation to Annapolis, in November 2007, was merely a reluctant move by US President George W. Bush to pretend he was serious about reaching a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Under no circumstance should Syria have imagined this meant American pressure would stabilize, or even decrease, especially after the Israeli raid on a mysterious Syrian target in September 2007, which was clearly blessed by Bush.
Seven months after that raid, the US suddenly divulged that Israel had destroyed a nuclear reactor, built with North Korean help, which would have produced enough plutonium for one or two weapons within a year of becoming operational. The allegations were supported by "proof" presented in a series of graphs and photographs of "North Korean faces", nuclear equipment and satellite images of buildings, which were promptly discredited by some experts while used as evidence by others.
The IAEA was understandably outraged that this information was not produced for its inspection, before the Israeli raid and in the months following it. While some have chosen to believe that the current disclosure was meant to pressure North Korea, Bush offered several reasons for this delay. In particular, he explained, the US wanted to prevent confrontation and conflict in the region (raid notwithstanding, apparently) and was concerned that Syria would feel pressured to retaliate against Israel if the nuclear intelligence was made public, a reasoning that is difficult to take seriously. Clearly, the US is somehow convinced that Syria's urge to defend itself has now passed.
Even by the low standards of the Bush administration and its record of manufactured intelligence and fabricated liberations, the allegations about the timing are implausible and have other aims: since his arrival at the White House, Bush has done everything to thwart a potential peace deal between Syria and Israel, regardless of the fluctuating positions of the latter.
Indeed, even when taking into account the invitation to Annapolis, US behavior toward Syria has at least been consistent throughout the tenure of the Bush administration, with political pressure steadily increasing over the years and sanctions imposed. In contrast, Israel's demeanor vis-a-vis Syria has been erratic, sending mixed messages and failing to adopt a solid position.
It is odd that a prime minister raiding a site on enemy ground, supposedly knowing it is a nuclear facility, should praise that same enemy leader ten days later, declaring his respect. It is also strange that a massive war drill should subsequently be choreographed, groundlessly fueling war speculations. At the same time, Israeli officials have repeatedly confirmed that Syria poses no military threat, an acknowledgement that not only lays to rest looming war fears from its side, but also annuls the security factor in the Golan withdrawal equation.
The sudden emergence of peace talk rumors is confusing in the midst of such conflicting messages. Divulged by Syria, uncharacteristically, an initiative by Turkey has put negotiations back on the agenda. Most importantly, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, confirmed to his Turkish mediators that Israel would return the entire Golan in exchange for peace with Syria. Normally, such statements are unnecessary, given that UNSC Resolution 242 already obliges Israel to return to its June 4, 1967 position. Furthermore, the Rabin Deposit, since the early 1990s, had already pledged Israel's full withdrawal from occupied Syrian land. In the current regional balance, however, Olmert's unexpected statement would have been music to Syrian ears.
Lest there be too much enthusiasm that an immediate deal is imminent, however, the Syrian president was quick to clarify that this would not be possible before 2009, when a more reasonable US administration, one assumes, is in place. Syria seems to be discounting the possibility of a McCain presidency, or else ignorant of the latter's own visions, and it seems to expect that whoever Bush's successor is, he or she will be a more willing and honest broker. Even if Syria and Israel warm to each other under the matchmaking talents of their common friend Turkey, all parties know that an eventual wedding can only be officiated by an American minister. It would thus be premature to interpret the current messages as signs of seriousness or of a breakthrough.
Damascus has often been accused of wanting to engage for engagement's sake, but its position has not changed over the years as it called repeatedly for a return to negotiations. In contrast, Israel continuously found excuses to procrastinate while claiming it doubted Syria's intentions. Obviously, Israel knows a peace deal means a complete withdrawal from the Golan, to which Israelis seem to have gotten rather attached over the years, and whose return to Syria will cost the latter a lot more than just "peace" according to the blueprints developed in track two talks. Israel is clearly in no hurry to reach this stage, making the timing of Olmert's declaration suspect as well, especially when considering his domestic political struggles and his attempt to avoid "painful concessions" on the Palestinian track.
It seems rather unfortunate that the public acknowledgement of Israel's full withdrawal from the Golan should coincide with the "revelation" of Syria's amazing nuclear capacities. What remains to be determined is whether Bush was helping Olmert retract, whether Olmert was helping Bush attack, or whether both were simply, as usual, simultaneously scratching each other's backs.
- Published 1/5/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
[ 10 comments ]
Last breakfast in Gaza
Tuesday, April 29, 2008, 03:19
All day long, all night long, I have thought about their last breakfast, about the words they might have said to each other, about the thoughts they might have had, about the day they might have planned after having that breakfast, that last breakfast.
All day long, all night long, I have wondered how mothers across the world might have reacted to news and images of such gratuitous savagery, had they seen it, certain they would have subconsciously hugged their children a little tighter, as I did mine.
All day long, all night long, I have deliberated whether to publish a photo of angelic little faces as a scream in the face of indifference, or whether to let them rest peacefully, finally sure that no more harm could ever come to them.
But since most Western media is too civilized to publish photos that might harm the sensibilities of delicate people,
Since most Western media is too busy to report on minor collateral damage which the killers even refuse to acknowledge, mentioning the massacre as an afterthought, as “in other news,” too busy preparing an emotional coverage of the 60th anniversary of its favorite “democracy,”
Since most Saudi media has excelled in being more royal than the king, pretending professionalism by matter-of-factly mentioning the butchery before moving on to more important news,
Since the “international community” and the “free world” insist we must stop criticizing the aggressor, prove our peaceful intentions, and denounce those who refuse to be oppressed,
Since we are asked to provide land, peace parks, water rights, and preferential treatment while voluntarily relinquishing any claim of return, compensation or justice, whether legal or moral,
Since we must swear by their right to exist while forsaking ours,
Then at the very least, we must show you these photos and hope that your humanity will be offended by the crimes they show, that the “values” you claim we don’t share will make you see what “facts on the ground” actually look like, and that your conscience will be haunted by the knowledge that with your help, these children and their mother, like countless innocent victims before them, are condemned to become a mere statistic in the unending tragedy of the Palestinian people.
Israel’s sacred “right to self-defense”:
May God rest their souls in peace:
Miyasar Abu Meatak , 40 years old
Rudina, 6 years old
Saleh, 4 years old
Hana, 3 years old
Mousad, 15 months old
[ 14 comments ]
Helping Annie solve the mystery of her Syria ban
Sunday, April 27, 2008, 01:35Annie and I had a coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus last October, just a couple of days before my departure to London, on the eve of her trip to Brussels. We were simply catching up, knowing we’d see each other again in January, when we were both supposed to be back in Damascus, a city which she made her own, in a country she adopted with open arms.
But throughout the next months, I learned via email about the inexplicable ban; as far as I was concerned, it was surely a mistake, the fault of an overzealous, or mediocre employee following a new rule to the letter, without bothering to look at the details. We knew that the authorities had suddenly put a stop to foreigners sitting in Syrian universities as listeners, and we understood this as being a precaution against young revolutionaries with dangerous ideas.
Anyone who knows Annie or who has met her in cyberspace knows she does not quite fit the profile of a trouble-maker. Yet, she has been banned from Syria. And not because of the university’s new rules, but for a reason which has yet to be explained to Annie. Does this make any sense to anyone?
I recall the sad phone call I received from her on January 9, when Annie tried, and failed, to come home. Held at the airport, she called to say she was being sent back, not knowing what would happen next. Still, I reassured her that it was a mistake that would be resolved. I was wrong.
I asked Annie to summarize the story, a frustrating, and for Annie devastating, epilogue to five years of happiness in Damascus. All Syrian bloggers are more than welcome to cut/copy and paste the story and spread it further, and to help us solve this mystery. Annie is reachable on her new blog as well as on her original one, which I linked above. I am sure she would appreciate any words of advice, and of comfort.
Six months ago, on October 27, 2007, in the bleak hours of the morning I was about to board a flight to Brussels at the Damascus international airport. I was leaving for a holiday, or so I thought.
I had cleared the emigration service and was about to proceed to the boarding area, when a policeman caught up with me, asked me the name of my father, and shortly thereafter came back and announced in a very neutral voice : you may leave but you’ll NEVER come back. “ABADAN ? What did I do? I’ll die !”
I phoned a friend thinking that my poor Arabic was responsible for misunderstanding this horrible news and the friend confirmed the sentence.
Upon arrival in Brussels, I went straight to the Syrian embassy and they told me they had no file about me, that my visa was valid and that it had not even been cancelled in Damascus. So, as far as they were concerned, I could go back. I wrote them a report about what happened and it was translated and sent to Damascus.
Back I went on January 9 after a friend with “wasta” had assured me that there was no obstacle to my return. I spent 20 hours in Damascus in the transit area of the airport before being shipped out. I was not allowed to see my friends or to leave them the presents I had brought with me.
A new Syrian consul arrived in Brussels and I went to see him. He asked me to write a letter. I wrote it in Arabic and he forwarded it to Damascus. He never got an answer. So, I applied for a new visa and I obtained it; nevertheless, according to other sources in Damascus, I am still blacklisted and not because I was part of an expelled shipment of University students who were mere listeners as I had thought so far. Where is the hitch?
Usually, when people are expelled, they are given time to pack. Not in my case. Fortunately, I had just paid 8 months of rent and my possessions were safe. My wonderful Syrian friends did all the sorting, disposing, packing and shipping of what I had accumulated during five years in books, records, clothes.
So, now I am in exile, pining for Damascus trying to rebuild a life elsewhere, but where? I cannot complain: I have a country and a house, things which most refugees are without.
[ 14 comments ]
Mainstream media and "Nouveau Orientalism"
Wednesday, April 23, 2008, 16:20I may be in a minority here, but I’m tired of reading “Nouveau Orientalist” articles beginning with sentiments like “I thought Syrians were evil people but they turned out to be welcoming and nice” and ending with deep statements like “things are much more complicated than they look on the surface.” You don’t say.
If this weren’t cause enough for complaint, what annoys me even more than the actual articles are the reactions by some Syrians, Syria lovers and ubiquitous regime apologists (the Neobaathists, who would credit their idols for any “positive” news from Syria), who go on quoting endlessly, excitedly what this American journalist said or what that foreign reporter wrote, often in the most superficial and generalist of manners.
I can only imagine the elation caused by yesterday’s Los Angeles Times piece on Al Madina FM and its English-speaking presenter. My husband and I had been in the car one day, and we both looked at each other, raising our eyebrows (see below for an explanation of what this means) and laughing (not in a good way) when we heard “Good Morning Syria” as we scanned the stations. Likewise, we had not understood why Al Madina FM was advertising on billboards in English. I’ve already got a project for an expat-targeted radio show (one in about 10 other such “projects” which languish on my to-do list, which should really be called “wishful thinking”), which would definitely advertise in English, but most expats don’t speak Arabic and would struggle to make sense of “Good Morning Syria”, so it can’t be for them - and Al Madina FM does not claim this on its website (which you can check if you can bear the “SANAesque” spelling and syntax).
Could it be that we were not impressed because we didn’t understand the potential target audience (?) for such shows? Thankfully for clueless people like my husband and I, the LA Times’ Borzou Daragahi explains that “despite the political and military tensions, the rhythms and textures of daily life here are increasingly meshing with those of Western nations.”
Hence "Good Morning Syria," one assumes, which he describes as the nation’s hottest radio show. In fact, the article continues: “On the streets of Damascus, people breezily draw in American sounds, sights and icons, making them part of their own cultural DNA.” Good thing all those Syrians are compensating for their other backward cultural habits; but even for someone who is quite partial to Americana and to many such sights and sounds, I find the premise rather simplistic. Daragahi, however, argues that “transforming a nation’s culture can shift it toward the Western orbit” – a one-way “globalization” of which he clearly approves.
In addition to making sweeping generalizations about the Arab “state of mind” (a term which I am certainly not trying to borrow from Raphael Patai’s pathetic prejudiced discourse), Nouveau Orientalism also plants ideas which are skewed: the description of the Syrian government as being “the most hostile to the West in the Arab world” is a loaded statement, and it is false. In fact, this government would love nothing more than to be on good terms with “the West” and would rather invite “Westerners” (rather than qualified expats more knowledgeable about the country) to carry out consultancy on every aspect of “reform.” I can assure you that the love affair with Britain, to name but one country in “the West,” is being facilitated at the highest levels. Anti-American policies, certainly (especially as many of these are anti-Syrian themselves), but anti-West certainly not.
Other Nouveau Orientalism types of articles simply rehash Classic Orientalism, such as this recent article alluding that Syrian men – or at least the frustrated, obnoxious jerks who stalk the streets and harass women – are apparently only interested in foreign women, who are “having a hard time adjusting to the attention of Syrian men.” Too bad no Syrian women were asked about how they suffer the indignity of groping, touching, pushing and other physical assaults, without even mentioning the looks, the whispers and the obscenities imposed on them, especially in crowded places. This unfortunate fact of life eludes NPR reporter Peter Kenyon and his interviewees, who clearly believe that they are considered to be somewhat special, as explains a young student of Arabic; "Every time I tell a Syrian that I'm American, they just get really excited and happy." How lovely. And how strange. For my part, I don’t know when was the last time I was really excited and happy when introduced to an American, but that must be because I haven’t met George Clooney yet. And it won’t be because of his nationality, but I digress.
Other Nouveau Orientalists helpfully explain the quirks of this country with statements that made me raise my eyebrows (go figure, I must have been in denial): according to Haley Edwards of the Seattle Times, ”In Syria, raising your eyebrows does not connote "surprise." It means "no."
Apart from this anomaly, however, Edwards sets the reader’s mind to rest about Syrians' normalcy by describing that “in certain neighborhoods, you'll even see Syrian women wearing jeans, heeled boots and flipping the bright-blond highlights in their hair.” Wow. Now if that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will.
But since writers in mainstream media pride themselves on being balanced, this glorious account does not fail to acknowledge the fact that Islam and its oppressive laws are ever present; for example, she explains (with what she thinks is a lot of humour, surely unwarranted for the subject), that ”the punishment for, say, stoning your flirtatious wife to death in the cul-de-sac outside your uncle's house on a sunny afternoon is pretty light.”
Yes, indeed, the public stoning of women is a rather unfortunate practice in Syria around every street corner. As if women didn’t have enough real legal and social issues to deal with.
Edwards goes completely Orientalist with her description of Syrian generosity: ”You can't walk a block in Damascus, or in Palmyra or Homs, for that matter, without a stranger (a fig merchant, a goat herder, a hair stylist) inviting you into his home, thrusting an infant into your arms and offering you a spread of baba ghanouj and hummus and black tea so sweet it would make even the most ardent disciple of Southern hospitality flush with competition.” How many clichés did you count in that sentence?
The Telegraph’s Peter Hughes, while not as exaggerated, agrees about the hospitality in a country “he had expected to find difficult” and about which he clearly had very little information, given that he describes Syrian food as ”Lebanese-style mezes, salads and grills.” Some Syrians might protest on the thorny issue of what’s Lebanese and what’s Syrian; perhaps a perfectly neutral (and classically orientalist) word like “Levantine” would have been better in this case.
The above are mere examples of an increasing trend of Nouveau Orientalist reporting which too many Syrians, to my irritation, find positive. While it’s certainly better than the usual fare, it is still far from reasonable, especially when it merely encourages Neobaathists to wax poetic about the wonder that is New Syria.
Not that it matters much these days, because frankly, Syrians have other things on their mind lately, especially the cut in fuel subsidies and the realization that for a lot of people, life has suddenly gotten a lot tougher. But that will be the subject of another post.
Before: Classic Orientalism
After: Nouveau Orientalism
[ 20 comments ]
La Syrie, otage et geôlière du Liban
Tuesday, April 22, 2008, 15:52
With apologies for not posting in the usual English, this is a piece I wrote in French back in February, and which was published recently in the review of the European Institute of the Mediterranean based in Barcelona. There is a Spanish translation online as well, which I approved, but I will not have time to translate into English.
As per the title, I argue that Syria is both hostage and jailer of Lebanon, and that it allowed for a Franco-American reconciliation at its own expense with the extension of Lahoud's presidency three years ago. Nothing I haven't already said here many times. I also argue that Syria has lost new opportunities with the new French president, by neglecting to even appoint an ambassador to Paris following Siba Nasser's retirement, and by failing to take initiative. Instead of doing everything to improve relations with Paris, Syria, as usual, waited to react instead of acting, and allowed Lebanese politicians to lead the game.
However, given Sarkozy's very personal approach to foreign affairs, and given France's upcoming presidency of the European Union (when he plans to launch the new "Club Med"), it would be advisable for Syria to review its attitude towards France, and to consider it a gateway to improved relations with the European Union, and to the eventual signing of the Association Agreement.
La Syrie, otage et geôlière du Liban
Par Rime Allaf
Depuis plusieurs années, médias et politiciens confondus ne décrivent la Syrie plus que par ses mauvaises relations avec le reste du monde ; on parle de dégradation (lorsqu’il s’agit de la plupart des pays européens) ou de quasi rupture (quand ce sont les Etats-Unis). Les accusations pleuvent sur la prétendue manie syrienne de se mêler de ce qui ne la regarde pas, et de semer le chaos et la pagaille dans le Moyen-Orient, en particulier en Irak et au Liban. En effet, les dirigeants syriens sont souvent coupables de se mêler des affaires d’autrui, et les actions et déclarations du régime le rendent lui-même responsable à un large degré pour son isolation diplomatique. Cependant, ce dernier se considère contraint par la géographie et par les événements de se préoccuper de se qui se passe dans son quartier, ne cachant point son besoin stratégique de maintenir une influence dans les pays frontaliers, où beaucoup de pouvoirs se bousculent à cette fin sans avoir de justification géographique.
Le rôle corrupteur supposé de la Syrie dans la violence en Irak, tel que décrit en termes très simplistes par les USA, a été la raison principale de la détérioration des rapports entre Washington et Damas. Pourtant, mis à part les plus proches alliés du Président George W. Bush qui participèrent à l’invasion de l’Irak, la plupart des pays européens n’ont pas considéré la position syrienne comme étant particulièrement condamnable. D’ailleurs, comme le poids politique de l’Europe ne joue pas le rôle déterminatif dans les relations avec les pays arabes, avec qui le rapport est davantage économique (bien que le processus de Barcelone, pour ne citer qu’un exemple de coopération euroméditerranéenne, a des fins socio-politiques), ce n’est que l’Europe de Tony Blair, de Silvio Berlusconi ou de José Maria Aznar qui s’est mise à l’heure américaine, tandis que l’Europe de Jacques Chirac et de ses proches (comme l’Allemagne de Gerhard Schröder) ne trouvait pas encore que la Syrie avait tout à fait tort – tout au moins par rapport à l’Irak.
Le départ de Berlusconi et Aznar de leurs postes respectifs, laissant la place à des gouvernements de gauche (Romano Prodi en Italie, et José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero en Espagne), et l’arrivée de Angela Merkel au pouvoir en Allemagne, amenant au contraire un gouvernement plutôt conservateur, inversa la position de ces pays, surtout en ce qui concerne l’Irak ; dans tous ces cas, il était clair que les alliances personnelles et la politique interne avaient pris le devant sur les intérêts nationaux, un comportement plus digne de dictatures orientales que de démocraties occidentales. Avec la plupart des gouvernements de gauche, plus disposés à dialoguer qu’à imposer, un échange d’idées et de positions redevenait possible.
Le régime syrien n’avait pas encore connu l’apogée de ses troubles avec l’Irak, puisque c’est la France qui accélérera le processus d’isolation de ce pays considéré jusqu'à là comme potentiel allié. Après que la Grande Bretagne de Tony Blair eu mené le combat médiatique et politique relatif a l’Irak, c’est la France de Jacques Chirac qui décide de diriger une toute nouvelle politique anti-syrienne en se concentrant sur le Liban. Quelques années après avoir déclaré, à Beyrouth, que la présence syrienne était nécessaire au Liban (se référant à l’armée syrienne) et après avoir été le seul chef d’état occidental à assister aux obsèques du président Hafez al Assad pour souligner son soutien à son successeur, Chirac fait volte-face et dénonce cette présence avec une résolution onusienne co-parrainée avec les Etats-Unis (signalant un rapprochement visible des deux pouvoirs) visant à contraindre la Syrie à sortir du Liban.
Ce changement ne prit pas lieu du jour au lendemain, et il y a plusieurs éléments qui ont contribué à la détérioration des relations franco-syriennes.Une des rumeurs les plus persistantes se réfère à une affaire louche de concession pétrolière, censée avoir été promise à une grande compagnie française, mais offerte à la dernière heure à un concurrent canadien, les français s’étant surpris du montant de la « commission » qu’un proche du régime syrien considérait comme son dû. Cet incident, dit-on, provoqua la colère du Président Chirac qui commençait déjà à manifester son impatience à cause de la lenteur des réformes (sous gérance française) que lui promettait le nouveau régime à Damas.
Mais c’est dans cet autre ancien protectorat français, au Liban, que les relations franco-syriennes atteignent leur plus bas niveau. Depuis la mort de Hafez al Assad, et l’installation d’un nouveau proconsul syrien n’ayant aucune finesse diplomatique ni appréciation politique envers ce fragile consensus qu’est le système libanais, les différentes factions du Liban commençaient à s’agiter. Au lieu de les rassurer, Damas ne fit qu’aggraver le cas avec ses impositions, perdant ainsi la loyauté de plusieurs de ses alliés, en commençant par le dénommé Monsieur Liban, Rafic Hariri.
Ami intime de longue date du Président Chirac, le premier ministre libanais (à plusieurs reprises) se sentait frustré par l’insistance syrienne d’imposer illégalement une extension de trois ans au Président Emile Lahoud. Ayant été forcé de l’approuver, en septembre 2004, Hariri démissionna tout de suite de son poste et s’occupa des détails de la grande rupture, une rupture dont le premier acte venait de passer avec l’adoption de la Résolution 1559 du Conseil de Sécurité, imposant (entre autres) le retrait de toutes les troupes étrangères du Liban. Avec l’affaire Lahoud, la Syrie venait de faciliter la réconciliation franco-américaine à ses propres dépends, et de perdre soudainement le support de l’Arabie Saoudite (ainsi que celui de l’Egypte) dont Hariri était un des citoyens les plus connus.
L’assassinat spectaculaire de Hariri en février 2005, attribué (sans preuves) au régime syrien par beaucoup de partis, eu des répercussions immenses, menant à une isolation diplomatique du régime sans précédent, et au retrait humiliant des soldats syriens deux mois plus tard, sous la huée de centaines de milliers de manifestants libanais se croyant finalement libres de l’étouffante domination syrienne. Cependant, ces derniers se trompaient : avec ou sans armée, le Syrie continuait d’exercer une influence considérable au Liban, à tel point que le tribunal international (unique en son genre, crée par une résolution du Conseil de Sécurité pour juger les accusés de ce crime) n’a toujours pas commencé son travail.
Trois ans après le meurtre de Hariri, et suivant une douzaine d’autres attentats tout aussi meurtriers visant des personnalités libanaises (encore attribués, sans preuves, au régime syrien) et une agression israélienne violente en 2006, le Liban se trouve toujours dans une impasse, coincé entre les différentes puissances régionales et mondiales essayant d’imposer leurs influences, et paralysé économiquement et politiquement par l’intransigeance des factions libanaises figées sur des positions opposées et des visions contradictoires.
D’un côté, supporté par les pays occidentaux et l’Arabie Saoudite, se trouve le Mouvement du 14 Mars, sous la direction de Saad Hariri, fils du défunt premier ministre ; de l’autre côté, soutenu par la Syrie et l’Iran, se trouve la coalition entre le Hezbollah et ses alliés chrétiens, dont le plus notable est l’ancien Général Michel Aoun. Les factions ayant un support plus ou moins égal, le Liban étant divisé en deux, une solution satisfaisant tout le monde semble improbable, et si l’élection jusqu’ici bloquée d’un président de la république ne se produit pas par consensus, l’imposition du parti le plus fort ne serait qu’une solution temporaire et potentiellement explosive.
Pendant que le Liban suffoque, les supporters de ces factions se rendent mutuellement responsables du status quo, sans proposer d’alternative faisable, et sans penser aux initiatives possibles.
Ayant souffert de son approche personnelle avec le Liban, Damas avait calmement attendu le départ de Chirac (simple tactique de persévérance qu’elle semble suivre avec tous ses détracteurs), espérant sûrement prendre cette opportunité pour renouer avec la France et pour établir, dès le début, une relation avec le nouveau président. Mais, incroyablement, Damas ne pensa même pas à envoyer un nouvel ambassadeur à Paris pour amadouer ses nouveaux interlocuteurs français (le poste étant resté vacant depuis le départ de l’ambassadeur Siba Nasser). Au lieu de faire le premier pas, le régime syrien semblait attendre que le Président Sarkozy le fasse : ce dernier ne déçoit pas et entame une diplomatie éclair et plutôt light au Liban, envoyant tantôt son Ministre des Affaires Etrangères, Bernard Kouchner, tantôt son Conseiller, Claude Guéant, et multipliant les démarches auprès de Damas pour obtenir des concessions syriennes pour lesquelles il est prêt à offrir un rapprochement et une visite éventuelle du président français, ainsi qu’un éventuel soulagement de la pression du tribunal international. Le cas échéant, Sarkozy insinue qu’il serait prêt à débloquer les fonds nécessaire pour l’établissement du dit tribunal.
Mais si le régime syrien continuait de pratiquer ses mauvaises habitudes de politique inefficace et de vision stratégique myope, le gouvernement français s’en faisait de nouvelles, s’engageant sur la voie périlleuse des affaires levantines sans en connaître les paramètres.
En effet, bien que très différent de son prédécesseur dans son style autant que dans sa forme, le Président Sarkozy n’avait aucune intention de redonner la parole au Quai d’Orsay, même avec (ou peut-être à cause de) son choix certainement inhabituel de ministre des affaires étrangères. Tout comme avec Chirac, tout au moins en ce qui concernait la Syrie, le chef d’état français s’était aussi désigné chef de la diplomatie française. Malheureusement, ni Sarkozy, ni son ministre, ne bénéficient de l’étendue expérience diplomatique de leurs prédécesseurs ou de leur connaissance de la région, et l’initiative française était donc condamnée à l’échec sans l’apport professionnel du Quai d’Orsay.
Au lieu de s’améliorer, les relations franco-syriennes continuent donc leur détérioration, surtout sous l’influence libanaise. Plus la France (et l’Arabie Saoudite) exercent de la pression sur Damas, plus les dirigeants syriens s’en prennent à leurs opposants libanais, et vice versa, avec aucune sortie de secours de ce cercle vicieux.
Le problème ne se limite pas aux relations de la Syrie avec ses confrères arabes, ou même avec la France. Cette dernière prendra la présidence de l’Union Européenne en juillet 2008, et tout laisse à prévoir que Nicolas Sarkozy compte en faire une présidence active et initiatrice, espérant commencer par son projet « Club Med » (une Union Méditerranéenne créant une communauté économique et traitant aussi de sécurité et d'immigration). Pour l’instant, la Syrie reste le seul pays concerné à ne pas avoir pas signé l’Accord d’Association avec l’Union Européenne, et Sarkozy peut donc jouer un rôle important pour elle, surtout en considérant son support enthousiaste déclaré pour l’état d’Israël. A travers Sarkozy, la Syrie a autant d’opportunités que de risques, et il faudrait que Damas redonne aux affaires d’état l’attention qu’elles méritent et s’occupe moins de détails purement cérémonieux comme le Sommet Arabe. Pour l’instant, il semble que la communication ne fonctionne toujours pas entre Damas et Paris, mais il est très possible que cela soit à travers le Liban que le message passe enfin.
Rime Allaf, associate fellow, programme pour le Moyen-Orient, Chatham House, Londres.
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Never forget Deir Yassin - even 60 years on
Thursday, April 10, 2008, 00:30As Israel prepares to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary, and as Palestinians reach sixty years of disposession, we must honor the memory of those who perished in the savage butchery that was the Deir Yasin massacre of April 9, 1948.
Ten years ago already, James Zogby was lamenting the revisionist efforts of the Zionist Organization of America, trying to rewrite Palestinian history when Israel's founders themselves boasted about their methods on the record. He quotes arch-terrorist Menachem Begin as he describes the effect of real and implied threats on Palestinians:
"Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of 'Irgun butchery' were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrolled stampede. Of the almost 800,000 who lived on the present territory of the State of Israel, only some 165,000 are still there. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated."
Anyone can Google photos (and accounts) of what happened in Deir Yassin, even according to the terrorist perpetrators themselves. Rather than post photos of bloodied corpses which were widely circulated at the time of the massacre, helping to provoke the mass panic, I prefer to show survivors - already refugees - fleeing the village, never to return to their homes. Their right of return, and that of their descendents, however, is guaranteed by every law the "international community" has adopted, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and United Nations Resolution 194. Remember this as sixtieth birthdays are celebrated and "facts on the ground" are created.
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Lonely post-summit blog entry
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 01:30As I've already explained to many of you who kindly asked by email, I apologize for Mosaics' recent disappearing act and for my prolonged silence. Until the gods of technology allow us full access to all the archives, however, I am faced with a blank canvas and feel rather lonely here without the many entries (and corresponding comments) which have been filling up this space since 2004.
Nevertheless, I hope to get back to blogging soon, and I thank each and every one of you for your concern. In the meantime, and although it comes too late now, here is something I wrote a week before the Arab League Summit in Damascus.
Success Measured by Attendance
By Rime Allaf
Despite their proven futility, Arab League summits have always managed to create a modicum of expectation over the last couple of decades as several big events shook the Arab world to its core. But apart from exceptions when actionable resolutions were adopted, like the expulsion of Egypt in the Baghdad Summit of 1979 (following its lone peace settlement with Israel) or the emergency Cairo Summit of 1990 in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (where a recording leaked subsequently showed Arab leaders disgracefully shouting insults across the table), they have mostly been opportunities to prove the cliché that "Arabs agree to disagree."
With such low expectations and no likely achievements, the region now mostly plays a different summit game: how good will turnout be, which of the big names will skip, and which will strive to steal the headlines with a late arrival? The scrutiny continues during the summit: who will be merely civil to whom, who will show effusive appreciation to whom, and whose brotherly kisses and hugs will provide the best photo-op?
The upcoming Damascus Summit suffers from these usual afflictions, but there are additional issues raising the stakes. For one, past thorny summits were held on relatively neutral grounds, either in countries not directly implicated in the crisis du jour, or in Arab League headquarters. In contrast, the Damascus Summit will convene in the country most at odds with its co-members, under the auspices of a rather controversial regime whose relations with most Arab states have deteriorated over one of the trickiest problems facing the region in recent years. Unlike other summits, this one is hosted by the party accused of causing the rift in Lebanon, whose presidential crisis is blamed on Damascus alone.
One other novelty is the extent of pre-conditions other regimes have imposed, or tried to impose, on their host -- conditions which reveal the lack of faith of summit participants themselves in the potential value of such gatherings. Instead of proposing to use the summit to resolve the Lebanese problem, amongst others, countries with rival positions have hinted that their participation depended precisely on the election of a president after 16 attempts; a seventeenth failure, they warn, would break the summit and doom it to low-level (if any) representation, rather than being graced with the presence of influential leaders.
Syria is anxious to avoid a humiliating no-show from the big names. Repeatedly trying, and repeatedly failing, to secure Saudi approval for a visit by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to deliver the official summit invitation, Syria finally resigned itself to send it at a much lower level, illustrating the depth of the gulf between Riyadh and Damascus. It will not have helped, of course, that Lebanon was the last of 22 countries to be invited to the summit, in a manner defying protocol and typical of Syrian "diplomacy": handed to a resigned minister of the Lebanese cabinet by an official of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, it wasn't even signed by the host of the event, but by the Syrian Prime Minister.
Such moves do nothing to endear the Syrian regime to its critics, and Muallem's claim that this summit would have the highest level of attendance of any summit remains to be proven. It is not clear whether he counts one of the confirmed attendants, the Iranian Foreign Minister, in his tally, but unless other friendly neighbors (such as Turkey) also make an appearance, the representative of Iran may find himself the sole non-Arab at the table amongst irate participants finding one more point of contention with the host.
But Damascus is also subject to unprecedented third party interference, a phenomenon not experienced by other summit organizers. With the American president arrogantly preaching to Arabs about attendance, and with even the usually diplomatic head of EU diplomacy, Javier Solana, opining that key Arab leaders would not come if a Lebanese counterpart is not amongst them, Syria's own meddling begins to appear pertinent.
A summit would be a perfect setting to reach regional solutions, but pan-Arab politics have rarely abided by such logic and we are left measuring success through attendance rather than achievement. Thus, even the 2002 Beirut Summit's major accomplishment (the adoption of the Arab Peace Initiative) was overshadowed by the absence of half the heads of state, and by the deliberate blocking of besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's televised address to his fellow leaders, as the host, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, cut his broadcast as it began from Ramallah and declared it was time for lunch.
The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will be unenthusiastic about making a personal appearance in the capital where his biggest enemy (Hamas) holds political court, but unable to skip the summit given the tragic situation in Gaza. Likewise, the Lebanese will be damned if they come (which some would consider a show of weakness in front of Syria) and damned if they don't (which could be interpreted as unwillingness to trust pan-Arab diplomacy). Current heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia will also be torn between attending to impose their presence, and defaulting to register their opposition to Syrian actions, and to cause summit failure. But Syrian-Saudi relations, currently at an all-time low, have overcome greater challenges; while many believe that King Abdullah has not forgiven, or forgotten, Syrian slights he felt were directed at his person after the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006, this didn't stop him from embracing and meeting with the Syrian president during the last summit in Riyadh. This shows that summits do little to change political situations, and the Damascus Summit will be just as inconsequential as its precursors.
Still, the Syrian regime is hoping that the regional situation, recently inflamed even more with the help of Israel, the United States and various other incendiary meddlers, will sway them towards participation, and that their presence in the self-proclaimed "beating heart of Arabism" will allow for a whirlwind persuasive exposé on its leadership in the sacrosanct Arab struggle – a task made more difficult, if not moot, by the presence of Iran.
To paraphrase Fontenelle, a great obstacle to success is the expectation of too much success. Despite Syrian hype about the summit, success measured by attendance merely increases the possibility of failure in such unfavourable circumstances.
Rime Allaf is Associate Fellow at Chatham House
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The capital of culture, and its lost cultured capital
Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 07:40Today, the Arab capital of culture glistened under the snow. Shining beneath a white sky which enveloped the city with tenderness and lent it an awe-inspiring aura, Damascus seemed to settle comfortably into a role it always knew it deserved. At the start of this Damascene year of culture, as I read the names of various prominent cultured people who will visit the world’s oldest city, I could only think about those who will not be part of the celebrations.
Indeed, my appreciation of Milan Kundera and Noam Chomsky, for example, would have only been even greater had they been invited to impart their art alongside their Syrian peers, our very own “muthaquafin.” But this Arabic word, often used here to refer to our civil society activists, has been robbed of its most worthy personification: regrettably, too many of our truly cultured Syrians are behind bars, in forced exile, or in forced silence. At best, our best have been ignored and cast aside.
Our intellectuals have been stifled for too many years, and the only permissible manifestation of “culture” has been one of conformity with an encoded agenda, lapped up by pedants, yes-men and women, and uncouth would-be ideologues.
I hope that everyone will spare a thought for the true cultured Syrians who continue to languish in terribly harsh conditions in jail, emprisoned for no other reason than practicing their own culture of honesty and compassion for their country, for which they had the greatest and most sincere of ambitions. I have mentioned many of their names in the past (including Michel Kilo, Anwar Bunni, Kamal Labwani), in this blog and elsewhere, in solidarity with the brave civil society activists who dared to speak and to write about what was needed to make Syria a better place.
Today, in particular, I hope you will have a prayer in your hearts for our respected Dr. Aref Dalila, one of this capital’s greatest minds and kindest souls, who is suffering a very grave deterioration in his health, and whose spirit is in great need of our support as he continues to endure solitary confinement in brutal conditions for a seventh consecutive year. May he and all our prisoners of conscience soon recover the physical, spiritual and intellectual freedoms which are our God-given rights. Without them, Damascus is poorer, more sad, and more lonely.
“As the soil, however rich it may be, cannot be productive without culture, so the mind, without cultivation, can never produce good fruit.” (Seneca)
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Powerless in Gaza
Tuesday, January 22, 2008, 06:45In 1990, as the United States and its Gulf allies prepared public opinion for the impending liberation of Kuwait from its Iraqi invaders, the public relations firm Kill & Knowlton concocted a perfect tale to illustrate the enemy’s barbarity. The Kuwaiti ambassador to the US did not hesitate to use his own daughter to help spin one of the biggest lies of the war; the young girl, posing as a nurse, testified tearfully to a congressional hearing that she had seen with her own eyes how Iraqi soldiers had thrown Kuwaiti babies out of incubators, leaving them to die.
That story sold the war to the American people then, just as Colin Powell's WMD vial sold it again 13 years later. Without evidence, depending only on the testimony of a young woman, people's outrage pushed their governments to deal with the barbarians. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, an actual photo of a baby in an incubator, facing a terrible tragedy unless something is done to help him, will surely move the world to provide a solution. Could this tiny baby, lying helpless in his incubator, help convince Americans that turning off the electricity is akin to throwing him out of his cosy incubator?
Baby in Gaza - from a series of photos in The Guardian
Apparently not. Nobody really seems to care if Palestinians live or die, or why. From this New York Times headline, in fact, you’d think that the fuel shortage which shut Gaza’s Power Plant, leaving the city in the dark was due to a mere unfortunate accident, freak weather, or a technical problem.
Don’t bother checking the BBC either, which believes that there is some kind of equivalence between the two sides, and which shamelessly uses Israeli terminology (like “targeted killings”) to explain that there is a propaganda battle over Gaza. In order to help baffled readers understand why Israel acts the way it does, the BBC explains that after Israel’s “withdrawal” from Gaza, “physical casualties have been few, but the psychological pressure of living under the daily threat of attack has made ordinary life in the south very difficult.” Oh my, psychological pressure – let’s hope the so-called international community reacts quickly to end this trauma.
You really do have to read other media or to watch other news to know that once again, Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians will stop at nothing, and that after the systematic murder of dozens of Palestinians over the past few weeks, the barbaric siege of the world’s biggest, most desperate ghetto goes on. Sadly, some babies are still more equal than others.
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Going nuclear about Syria
Tuesday, December 4, 2007, 23:02OK, so I've had a busy month, hectic travels, lots to do in London, and I haven't blogged for longer than I care to admit. I'll be back soon, not with excuses (don't you think blogging should mean never having to say you're sorry?) but with my usual grumbles about the state of this world. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts on the terribly important "nucular" problem in Syria, which Bitter Lemons International discussed this week.
The media has gone nuclear about Syria
The most striking element of Israel's September 6 raid on Syrian territory was the aggressor's most unusual behavior, namely a reticence to brag about yet another illegal assault, to the point of imposing military censorship on media coverage. This after an equally unusual and totally spontaneous Syrian disclosure that a raid had in fact taken place, making the event even more peculiar. The normal, vague Syrian response to Israeli assaults had until then stopped, meekly and indefinitely, at reserving the right to retaliate. By the time Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, some ten days later, declared having "a good deal of respect for the Syrian leader and for Syrian policy"--an unexpected sentiment not echoed by Israel's actions--there had been mysterious American leaks about alleged Syrian nuclear facilities or nuclear shipments and a growing array of theories about what had happened, adding much speculation but little actual information.
When Syria suddenly cleaned up the site of the raid, a month later, most reports in the media and in the blogosphere triumphantly took this as an indication of Syria's "guilt." Clearly, the latter's action did not significantly improve odds that the benefit of the doubt would be granted--even to the actual victim of aggression--especially as other Syrian sites attacked by Israel (such as the Golan town of Quneitra, systematically destroyed before Israel was forced to withdraw following the disengagement agreement in 1974) have been left intact in their desolation for decades, forced witnesses testifying about the violence of the enemy.
But no serious analyst or nuclear expert, not even hysterical fear mongers, can actually back up claims that Syria in its present condition could truly pose a threat to the security of Israel. As things stand, it is difficult to believe that Syria could develop into even a significant opponent to Israel, and as repeated reports by respected professionals in the field have stated, Syria's nuclear ambitions, if any, are modest, its capacities are non-existent and its potential for development in such matters is practically nil. No matter how it is presented, the nuclear linkage between Syria and North Korea or Iran has no basis.
Unfortunately, mainstream media's Pavlovian conditioning has ensured that the Bush administration's bait about supposed weapons of mass destruction, yet again, was taken unconditionally. Reliable villains don't come easy, and Syria has not done itself any favors in its clumsy handling of the affair. As usual, the official response was completely inadequate in comparison to the media-savvy exposes of both the attackers and the accusers; Syrian ministers with clearly unrelated portfolios and limited persuasive talents led the battle, while other officials gave contradicting information. This in no way excuses the sloppy reporting and the rumors disguised as truth that covered the pages of newspapers and websites. In fact, most reports only exercised the necessary journalistic caution when covering Syria's initial announcement that it had been attacked, and that its air defense had challenged the Israeli planes and chased them out; until Israel actually confirmed the raid, making headline news, Syrian statements were described as alleged, claimed, supposed--anything but believable.
But even while doubting Syria's declarations, many reports, probably inadvertently, gave credibility to the argument of a nuclear Syria. Indeed, analysis seemed to accept the "normalcy" of the rumor that a nuclear facility had been hit, not only because it served the purpose of portraying Syria as a problem-maker in cahoots with even more undesirable regimes in the most dangerous of activities, but also because it elaborated on the reasons why Syria would want, or need, such capacities. As a deterrent against an occupying enemy whose own 200 plus nuclear warheads loom menacingly near, the only adequate measure is some of the same.
But while these well-presented arguments about Syrian needs by foreign (and generally anti-Syrian) media made perfect sense, they neglected to dig into the mountain of facts already covered by numerous proliferation reports, including details about the countries (mostly Western powers) that have assisted Syria and in which Syrian scientists have trained, and the description of the kind of research and production of which Syria is capable (mainly isotopes for medical and agricultural applications). Such details, and the fact that unlike Israel, Syria is a signatory to the Non Nuclear Proliferation Treaty since 1969, do not support the scaremongering and the political agenda behind it.
The events and the uncharacteristic behavior following the attack seem to suggest that both Syria and Israel have something to hide, and that they were surprised by each other's game as it was being divulged. For some analysts, repercussions of this raid are still being felt, from Annapolis to Beirut; for others still, the raid gave a new perspective on the preposterous plans for Tehran. But unless--or rather, given Baghdad's recent experience, even if--the current American secretary of state can produce a vial of evidence to hold up during a session of the Security Council, it is incumbent on the media to exercise responsibility and to simply report the fact that the Israeli raid on Syria remains a mystery. - Published 29/11/2007 Š bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at Chatham House in London.
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Life is an onion
Saturday, October 20, 2007, 08:03With all the hype about Syria, its alleged hidden weapons programs, and the flying white knights in shining armor who are daringly saving the world from the evils of nuclear technology in rogue hands (I leave you to digest the irony of this notion), and somewhat tired of all the silly "analysis" I am reading about this whole affair, I thought it was time for a laugh by reminding you of what The Onion published on Syria just after the invasion of Iraq.
What the media automatically parrotted back then, subsequent mea culpas notwithstanding, still applies today. With the burden of proof a forgotten concept, all we now need is for Thelma or Louise (aka Rice or Livni) to brandish a small vial in the Security Council.
Those unfamiliar with The Onion should also read "Middle East Conflict Intensifies As Blah Blah Blah, Etc. Etc.", which includes "quotes" from Bush speeches, or perhaps also find out about that"Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die", to get an idea of the media parodies it specializes in, and the strangely momentary cathartic effect of reading about our tragic events in this way.
CIA: Syria Harboring More Than 15 Million Known Arabs April 30, 2003 : Issue 39•16
LANGLEY, VA—In an alarming report released Monday by the Central Intelligence Agency, Syria may be harboring upwards of 15 million known Arabs within its borders. Suspected Arabs move freely through a Damascus marketplace. "Reliable intelligence collected by our agency indicates that Syria has conspired to lend physical and economic support to a massive number of people belonging to this group," CIA director George J. Tenet said. "The shocking truth is, there are nearly as many Arabs in Syria as there are people in New York and Los Angeles combined. In fact, Syrians openly refer to their nation as the Syrian Arab Republic, despite knowing full well America's opinion on these matters."
Explaining the CIA's methods of gathering data on the rogue ethnicity's presence in Syria, Tenet said it relied on a combination of satellite imagery, computer-system infiltration, reports from Syrian covert operatives, intercepted radio and television transmissions, and The World Almanac And Book Of Facts 2003. "It's practically an open secret these days," Tenet said. "Syrian television brazenly shows Arabs in military uniforms carrying guns, or delivering political speeches to other members of the group. Walk into any house of worship in the country, and you'll see people reading the Koran and bowing their heads in prayer toward Mecca. It's almost like they're daring the United States to get involved."
"Disturbingly, more than 90 percent of these Arabs have been linked to the practice of 'Islam'—a defiantly non-Western system of faith whose core principles are embraced by none other than Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein," Tenet added. "If this is true, and we do consider this information to be correct in all particulars, then this is troubling at best."
President Bush, Tenet said, has been aware of Syria's ties to known Arab political and religious figures since the earliest planning stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Tenet assured reporters that all possible diplomatic avenues of resolving the situation were being aggressively pursued.
In a chilling scene, thousands of Arabs bow toward Mecca in praise of Allah.
"We have informed [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad of the presence of Arabs in his country and have offered any aid necessary to bring this situation under control," Tenet said. "I am confident that a resolution to this crisis can be achieved without resorting to military action."
This is not the first time Syria has been linked to Arabs. Israel found the Golan Heights heavily populated by Arabs when it annexed the region from Syria during 1967's Arab-Israeli War. Arabs have historically held many influential posts in the Syrian government, and the CIA claims to have data indicating that wealthy Arab businessmen control the greater part of Syria's economy. The CIA report prompted concern from many Americans. "I'm not surprised," said Wayne Early, an Atlanta-area mortgage broker. "I suspect they're all over that part of the world. First, the government linked them to Sept. 11, then Afghanistan, and then Iraq. It makes you wonder who's next."
"The more I learn about Arabs, the less I like them," said Carol Schecter of Norfolk, VA. "Beirut, Teheran, Baghdad... everyplace there's trouble, they're there, and now we've found them in Syria. I just hope they don't hurt the regular Syrians."
Tenet assured citizens that he is committed to resolving the crisis. "We don't want to cause any undue panic, but now that the Arabs are there, we're going to have to deal with them," Tenet said. "Unfortunately, they're not just going to go away by themselves."
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Which is worse: getting perfected or getting killed?
Tuesday, October 16, 2007, 14:45Either way, it’s the notion of a forced conversion to Christianity that’s shaking mainstream American media to its core. Lo and behold, people have suddenly discovered that Ann Coulter is – gasp – a bigot. How could she proclaim, out of the blue moon, that non-Christians should convert? What a scandal.
Except that it wasn’t a scandal when the intended “converts” were Muslims (all of them), and when she wrote that “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Contrary to what many people think, she did not get fired for writing this, as is explained here by the National Review Online itself. Nor was she attacked for going too far; after all, this was right after September 11, when emotions ran high and every “raghead” deserved to be scorned because of his “car-burning religion,” because Muslims have a “predilection for violence” and their “default mode is rioting and setting things on fire.” (Coulter’s quotes are easy to find on numerous websites, I will not link to any of her writing; I did my bit with Oriana Fallaci and that was enough.)
Muslims were not allowed to complain, for they had to bear the collective guilt for the actions of a few men, mostly nationals of America’s strongest Arab ally. So nobody minded when Coulter wanted to convert Muslims at gunpoint. (Nor did Syrian officials flinch or bother protesting when she suggested ”bombing Syrians back to the stone age;” who could blame her – they had after all rioted because of some really tasteful cartoons.)
Of course, it’s an entirely different story when Coulter wants to convert Jews. That makes her a racist, you see, and a racist of the most forbidden kind: an anti-Semite. Not that she wants to force Jews to convert (compulsion is purely for Muslims), but she thinks they should be “perfected” by becoming Christians (a notion that some of her coreligionists are actually defending as a correct Christian dogma).
Even Coulter knows that what is acceptable discourse with regards to Muslims becomes a huge red line with regards to Jews; therefore, she insisted that her offended host give her more airtime to explain herself, which doesn’t seem to have helped, judging from the outraged or exasperated comments in the US. But this same media shouldn’t pretend to be shocked. Since her eruption into American media, several years ago, Ann Coulter has been banking (royally, literally) on her shock factor, her rudeness, her insensitivity, her slandering, her lying, her bigotry, all of which became fuel for bestselling books (an incomprehensible phenomenon) and which became her trademark. It says a lot about American media and politicians that such an essentially stupid, ignorant, vulgar, offensive and prejudiced person should be given a platform in the first place.
It is pointless to waste more time stooping to Coulter’s level to attack her. But maybe the so-called independent media should begin to deliberate on the monsters they helped create, and on the deplorable standards, and the double standards, they have accepted as the norm. As for all the indignation about the issue of conversion, I still think the Jews got away with a lot less grief than the Muslims: after all, if these were your only choices, would you rather be perfected or killed?
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The Sy Empire
Sunday, October 14, 2007, 07:26So where in New York can you find people who refer to a customer as the “zboon” and to the sale as “be’aah”? Not just at Crazy Eddie’s either. Read this fabulous article about The Sy Empire in the New York Times Magazine and find out all about Syrian Jews and their community in New York. If you thought Bab Al Hara showed a close-knit society, wait until you read about the Syrian Jews who fall within the Edict.
About 7 or 8 years ago, on a trip to New York, I remember shopping for electronics in downtown Manhattan when a salesman (wearing a kippa) noticed a necklace I was wearing, with Islamic calligraphy. He asked where I was from, I told him, and he excitedly replied: “Me too, my family is from Syria.” We had a great chat, and he was waxing poetic about the good old days (as lived by his parents and grandparents) in the home country. I think it's a pity they’re not part of it anymore.
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Damascene wonders: Bab Al Hara
Wednesday, October 10, 2007, 10:58Time for the annual phenomenon of Ramadan television drama series, and for the phenomenon of reporting on them, as has been the fashion in the past few years. If you recall, I certainly wasn't going to be outdone and shared my thoughts on the subject last year. Alas, only a few articles have made it to print or online this year, given that we uninteresting and ungrateful Arabs have not even bothered to make series dealing with terrorism and with real Muslims’ denunciation of it. Shame on us really: what on earth is mainstream media going to write, patronizingly, about our collective souls, to show it is in touch with our hearts and is familiar with our minds?
Syrian-Egyptian rivalry, that’s what. Not that the Syrians are better, mind you; just before Ramadan started, rumor here had it that there would only be a few Syrian serials this year, because the Egyptians were back with a vengeance and because fewer television channels had agreed to buy Syrian serials; apparently, this was for political reasons, because of the anti-Syrian attitude. Nonsense, of course: Syrian drama and comedy has filled the Arabic-language satellite sphere (including all Saudi and Lebanese channels) for the past few years, regardless of the accusations against the country. We Syrians really take the biscuit, always using the “they’re against us” political excuse to rationalize anything.
Digressing every so slightly, speaking of politics, of alleged regime isolation and of International Tribunal fear (neither of which seem to be evident, as I’ve been arguing), there is a series this year called “The first night after the thousand;” I’ve only seen bits and pieces, but it is a perfect example of actual Syrian confidence, showing a fictitious state of Shahrayaristan welcoming an international commission sent by a certain Condoleezza, made up of members of the “international community” to investigate all sorts of misdemeanours (including a missing apple which made Newton miss discovering gravity). In other words, absurd accusations by people with an agenda.
But back to the alleged Syrian-Egyptian rivalry, about which Bassam Koussa, as usual, has the best response. It turns out that Syrians are all over the airwaves again -- and even more so, in fact, by sneakily taking the lead in several Egyptian series. Imagine the nerve! Like it or not, ”King Farouk “ - the most expensive Arabic drama ever made - is directed by one of my favorite Syrian directors, Hatem Ali, and, ultimate insult, it casts Taim Hassan, one of Syria’s rising stars, in the leading role. Frankly, if I were Egyptian, I would be wondering why a Syrian was chosen for this role. (I only was able to swallow his accent as an Egyptian when I heard him speak English- after that, the Egyptian seemed natural. I don’t know why even directors like Hatem Ali don’t give importance to things like foreign languages. Then again, neither do the biggest Hollywood producers.)
Syrian actor Jamal Suleiman, following a successful attempt to play a man from Upper Egypt in last year’s “Hada’ek Al Shaytan” has continued his conquest of Egyptian drama and stars in a new series whose name escapes me. You see, apart from a seemingly well-made drama starring famous Egyptian actress Yusra, dealing with rape (by the son of a minister), the Arab world seems to be mostly glued to drama with a distinctive Syrian accent – and in particular a strong Damascene accent.
Without any doubt, the “Bab Al Hara” phenomenon has swept over the Arabic-speaking world, taking us all by surprise; while the successful first part left everyone wanting more, having paused on a cliff-hanger (some people even thought it had ended badly, unaware that there was a sequel), part two has become even more popular, becoming must-see-TV for people of all ages, sexes, occupations, classes and lifestyles. First, everyone wanted to know what would happen after Abu Issam so shockingly and suddenly divorced his wife, Souad, and whether Steif, the pretend-blind beggar, would be uncovered as a murderous spy by the Za’im after so many men of the anti-French occupation resistance (sorry, I mean the terrorism) are killed.
As we finally reach the last few days of Ramadan, so much more has happened leaving us asking for more. What will it take to rehabilitate Abu Issam and restore his reputation, after an entire month of amazing events that have snowballed into one huge mess? Can it be done in the remaining couple of days? Apparently not, because Bab Al Hara - part three - is coming up!
I can report from the Syrian capital that apart from fasting and feasting, the other activity that is uniting Syrians during this holy month of Ramadan is Bab Al Hara! Every night, in every café, in every posh air-conditioned boutique, in every small shop trying to keep cool with a fan, televisions are tuned to whichever channel is broadcasting Bab Al Hara; at 9 PM local time, it’s MBC. A quick glance through the window of most “hip” cafés (including unlikely places like In House) will show table after table of young, trendy people all turned towards the large, flat screen television on the wall, taking in every word and even imitating what they hear. It is simply incredible.
Two days ago, as I waited for the elevator in the underground parking of Cham City Center (the new posh mall), I could hear the opening song of Bab Al Hara coming from the stairs. Heading to the supermarket next to the food mall, I noticed that every single table was turned towards one of the flat screen TVs mounted from the ceiling, and that every guest looking up, taking in every scene and every word. There were a good couple of hundred people there. Apparently, it’s like this everywhere; I am told Al Arabiya television announced recently that Bab Al Hara, so far at least, is the most watched television serial over the entire Arab world. Clearly, director Bassam Al Malla knows what he’s doing, responding to our collective subconscious wish for a return to a world with values, a world with honor, a world with community belonging, strong neighborly bonds and unbreakable family ties, a world when a word was the only guarantee needed. (Describing Bab al Hara merely in terms of sexism, as I’ve heard it being done, misses the entire point, and would make most international literature before the late twentieth century unreadable as well.)
Indeed, for the third year in a row (and hold on because Bab Al Hara’s Part Three is coming next Ramadan), the most popular serials have been Layali Al Salhieh, and Bab Al Hara’s two parts; we are clearly undergoing a mass longing for lost values. Apart from that, the genius of the series is that politically, and in certain ways socially, it shows that nothing changes, and that plus ça change, plus ça reste le meme.
I have even managed to find a favorite character (in contrast to a favorite actor) in this series, a choice which reveals my own sense of longing for those ‘good old days” which I never experienced; I am quite partial to Mo’taz, the fiery younger son of Abu Issam, who manages to provide humor and lightness in the midst of the most complicated of times, and who is also clearly destined to become a real “man” even before his time, never hesitating to use his fists to right wrongs, to defend injustices, and to stand by those who need him. I wonder that this says about me, and I also wonder which characters have left the biggest mark on other followers of the series. From the continued mentions of his name in numerous conversations I've heard, it is clear that the character of Ida'chari (who died in part one) played by Bassam Koussa (seen here on the left, with Samer Masri playing Abu Chehab), has left a mark.
Syrian drama (and comedy) is one of the best and getting better. Let us pray that the government, the regime, the Baath, the clergy, and all those whose interference usually complicate our lives, never get to mess it up, and that independent directors and producers find a way to market their wonderful works, with proper subtitles, outside the current boundaries. This is one project I would happily push and help get started, and my mind continually buzzes with ideas about how to do proper marketing communication for the best of our drama kings – and hopefully, some real drama queens.
I leave you with the catchy Bab Al Hara song, the intro that resonates through the streets of Arab cities everywhere at least twice a day (at the beginning and at the end of each episode), depending on how many channels one chooses to watch. On Syrian television, it is on at midday, and even my 14-month old daughter will stop whatever she is doing when she hears the first bars, remaining mesmerized by the unfolding events, until the song comes again to signal the end of another episode, and the beginning of a sweet afternoon nap.
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Mourning with Yazan
Sunday, October 7, 2007, 14:51Most people in the vibrant Syrian blogosphere are feeling somber these days, after having heard the devastating news of the car crash that killed the parents of Yazan Badran, one of our most appreciated bloggers, a young man whose comments have often graced various blogs and whose humane, civilized and intelligent contributions endeared him even to those who have never met him.
Yazan has suffered the greatest tragedy a person his age can possibly experience. Like all those who can only imagine the pain he must be feeling, I mourn the passing of the people who have inculcated such wonderful qualities, values and ideas into our friend, and who were, without doubt, and rightly so, the proudest of parents.
Yazan’s mother and father died on their way to Syria, as they travelled to spend time with their only son on leave from Japan. Their last days will hopefully have been warm, exciting ones, full with the joyful anticipation of seeing their cherished son. I pray that Yazan will find his peace in the many beautiful memories he has of his loving parents, and that he will have the strength to continue on the road they opened for him, fulfilling his aspirations, and realizing their dreams.
My heartfelt condolences and warm thoughts also go to Dr. Aref Dalila, Yazan’s uncle, who will have received the terrible news of his sister and his brother-in-law’s untimely death in the most terrible of conditions, and who will mourn in solitary confinement. Dear friends, you are not alone. Our prayers are with you, and may God rest their souls in peace.
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Selected news with nerve
Monday, October 1, 2007, 22:32In the ”Do as I say, not as I do” news category:
Israel urges Myanmar government to refrain from harming protesters. Such compassion for people under brutal military rule is so touching. In the ”The last straw” news category: Syria is morally responsible for Iraqi refugees. Not just morally, in fact, since the Iraqi government (not familiar with the beggars/choosers equation) declares that "Syria must guarantee their full rights as far as security, residency if possible, education, health and minimum living standards." None of which are offered by the Iraqis. Or the Americans.
In the ”Look who’s talking again about WMDs” news category: Syria Joins the Axis of Evil, explains John Bolton, who thinks bombing Iran will make the world an even safer place, after the huge success of the invasion of Iraq and its effect on regional peace.
In the ”International law and geography-challenged media” news category: Bees Without Borders stray into Syria, informs us the Associated Press which is not aware that the occupied Golan Heights is already Syrian airspace and territory! Unless AP is the first entity in the world to recognize Israel’s illegal annexation, that is.
In the “Syrian government efficiency” news category: It turns out that the question "Have you ever been to Israel?" in the visa application form may not be the perfect method for Syrian embassies to avoid “undesirable” journalists. What a shock. And finally, in the ”It’s about time!” news category: ACSAD speaks, therefore it is, as a somewhat official response finally comes out from Syria. Before the president clarified further, that is. Now we all know what happened.
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Damascene grumble, part two
Wednesday, September 19, 2007, 20:16Believe it or not, I am still mentally adding anecdotes and insulting examples to my first list of grumbles about driving, and about smoking. It turns out I didn’t even skim the surface of how bad things are, (remember, we are in week 1 of Ramadan, and the ramifications on driving are immense, especially just before iftar) but you’ll be happy to know that other issues are competing for my ire.
The other day, at Costa (the coffee shop chain), I gave my order to the barrista, in Arabic naturally, and paused as I tried to remember a word, giving up and adding “to go” in English. He smiled, so I asked him: “How do you say that in Arabic anyway?” He replied, literally: “Take away.” We actually both laughed and realized there was no accepted Arabic yet for this most global of phenomena, and that the actual translation of "take away" didn’t quite sound correct. I still find it very amusing, and sometimes even endearing, that Syrians (and other Arabs) have developed certain terminology to suit their needs.
In technology, they will say things like “sayyavet” (meaning “I saved” on the computer), or “m’farmmat” (meaning “it is formatted”). An air-conditioned space is “m’kandash” while an interior-decorated place is “m’dokar,” and the list of such linguistic innovations is long. It is when Syrians try to use “straight” English, as versus its Arabized version, that things go astray, and that my grumbling takes a life of its own.
First, there are the annoying miscellaneous people who claim they know something and have to convince you of it, even though you’ve never heard of it. My husband, who has lived in the UK for nearly 25 years, tried hard to persuade some of his extended family members that no matter where they’d heard it, the supposed saying “He who sucks seeds shall not succeed” was not exactly a common saying, to put it mildly. He tried to elaborate on the fact that the whole concept of eating seeds (you know, cracking them open with your teeth, then by some extremely able and unappealing manoeuvring pushing the seed out, and eating it while spitting the seed shell out – one of the things I love to hate) was not common in the Anglo-Saxon world, let alone the strange notion of sucking them. To no avail. “You just don’t know” they protested, “that’s what the English say.” Faced with such erudition, who are we to argue?
Then you’ve got those who know they don’t speak it, but who try to be helpful by “translating” for you. I remember a colleague going out of his mind because a merchant in the old souk had tried to convince a foreign gentleman accompanying him to buy some merchandise, saying repeatedly: “Zis, advice!” (“Hay nassiha!”) But they all pale in comparison to the professional language-bashers, spread equally between the private sector (which should know better) and the public sector (which should be held accountable).
I still fantasize about tracking down and insulting (I’m restraining myself here) the idiot who first came up with the idea of splashing the English word “Sale” across his shop windows; not because that was wrong, but because he thought he should also add the French equivalent, or so I assume went his thought process, and ended up writing “Sold.” No, I won’t pardon your French. So which is it, is it on sale, or has it already been sold? Of course, every single shop in Damascus now announces price reductions in these two or three languages; I’m not sure they’re aware that it’s “Soldes” in French, or that they’re even aware that it’s another language altogether. They now go together: Sale, Sold. Quick business, when you look at it that way. Even on the über-posh Damascus Boulevard and its designer clothes boutiques (seen below in this shot taken by night), the “multilingual” sales pitch falls for the “proven” message. “But the owner is Lebanese!” exclaimed a friend. Sigh. When are Syrians going to snap out of this notion that Lebanese=better?
Sometimes, while driving, I turn on the radio to get to know what’s the happening thing, and I channel surf between several popular private stations, mostly ending up on Madina. Every few minutes, when advertising time comes, I start to grumble again: for some strange reason, Syrian marketing people (wait ‘til I show them) are advising their gullible clients that an ad for a product or a service in Syria would be better with the Lebanese accent, and with the annoying Lebanese style which I don’t quite know how to describe (basically, a rather effeminate male voice, practically singing the words and stressing the last syllable of the brand name). This unfortunate ploy also applies to television, I’m afraid. I will simply have to link to one so that you know what I mean. Are any of my fellow Syrians with me on this? Yes, we digress, but come on! (As a marketing communications consultant, I owe it to my profession to write a post about Syrian advertising one day, if I can bear it.)
Damascene restaurants, even little tiny ones with two plastic tables on a street corner, also oblige foreign visitors to Syria with a custom-made translation of their dishes; frankly, it’s cute. Annoying, but somehow cute. It becomes unacceptable when the more expensive ones do it. My mother was once looking at a dessert menu, wondering what “Grape” meant: was it the fresh fruit alone, or some concoction built around grapes? No no, answers the waiter: “It’s grape. Grape with sugar, grape with chocolate, grape Suzette, grape with whatever you like.” It took a while, but she finally understood it was a crepe. You see, neither English nor French are her first language, and I’m sure the waiter in question would never believe she speaks both fluently, since she had to ask what a grape was. I wouldn’t dream of taking up a whole post to denounce the errors and the horrors of mistranslations in restaurant menus, you’ve all probably seen numerous examples. Nor will I waste time on the job announcements in weekly newspapers which demand “excellant” English, or on the advertisements (even billboard ads) which can’t be bothered to check that words are spelled correctly. After all, we barely have time for tackling the public sector, and part of the reason for my blogging delays is that I’ve been trying to document the numerous examples of things gone terribly wrong at government level, and which I deem totally unacceptable.
All I’ve seen so far is that the Syrian authorities are steadfast in their opposition to linguistic perfection, or even normalcy. As many of you know, the Baathist regime has always made a point of keeping the level of Arabic at its highest. (Actually, this is true even of previous, more prosperous and enlightened eras in Syria.) Apparently, this obsession with the respect of the Arabic language (which I’m told still manages to get massacred by robotic “journalists”) does not apply to foreign tongues, even though all city signs are now written in two languages at least: one being Arabic, and the other … well, it’s difficult to say. Lest we get lost in a labyrinth of examples from the lingua franca of Syrian officialdom (or rather officialdoom), let us simply tackle, ever so superficially for now, the subject of street signs - you know, like everywhere else in the world, the official signs that indicate where roads will lead you, eventually, maniacs and moronic drivers notwithstanding.
I truly do not know where to begin grumbling, nor how to rate which signs got me the most infuriated, nor which of the many photos I have been taking to post on this blog. It would be impossible to put them all, so I will create my little album and save it for later. Mind you, so far, I’ve mostly been clicking while driving whenever I see a chance, so I clearly need a different approach. Official direction signs in Syria seem to be made by a foreign spy, or an agitator who hates Syrians so much he wants to humiliate them and cause even more chaos. This person is clearly secure in the knowledge that no Syrian official alive, and even less Syrian civil servants, will be bothered to check his work, even assuming that somebody in those damn ministries, governorates and directorates (which all do very little ministering, governing or directing) actually would know how to translate, write, spell, punctuate, capitalize, or even stick to one font.
These are the signs from hell, the signs which make me reconsider my desire for Syrians to add other languages to their education. The diversification in these signs is amazing: a single Arabic name will be translated in several different ways, with several different spellings, with several different fonts, with the most confusing and illogical random layout leaving you unsure of which word belongs to which arrow, in different signs posted around the city.
Sometimes, I feel the signs have been put together in the same way blackmailers send ransom notes, with letters cut out from different newspaper articles in a scary way. We are being held to ransom, and we’re ignoring it to our own peril. Sometimes, various letters are capitalized in the name, in the middle of the word, and not even necessarily the first letter. Often, a period will come at the end of a full name (or word of some sort) for no reason. Sometimes, there are letters (one letter, like “C,” or several letters, like “sq”) following a name, leaving English speakers the task of guessing that “Umawyeen.Sq” does not really mean Omayad multiplied by itself (oh horror of horrors). Sometimes, I see the words “C Center” to “translate” the “markaz al madina” notion; how difficult would it be to write City Center, and exactly who decides what can be abbreviated, and how? And the problem is, this is not some isolated mistake or a few experiments gone wrong: the damn signs are everywhere, you can't miss them! Even worse than all that is the detachment with which most people are reacting when they see my wrath; I am talking about family and friends who speak English and/or French, who are well-travelled, who are critics of the general situation, but who have completely given up on such “minor” problems.
True, in the hierarchy of what Syria needs, it may not really belong to Maslow’s bottom pyramid level, nor even to the first two or three, but Syria’s image needs all the help it can get, and it costs nothing to be correct. I’ve seen our famous square written as Omayad, Umayad, Umawyeen, and several other undecipherable atrocities, with no specific translation or transliteration system, or, come to think of it, actual language being used. Often, there is a period after the main name, instead of after the word which is actually abbreviated. Thus, instead of “Omayad Squ.” (as if they couldn’t fit the letters “are”) you usually get “Omayad. Sq” (in a less clear spelling of course).
I’ve seen signs showing how to get to “Beirnt” or, closer to home, to “Salhia.Soqe.” I’ve seen signs leading to a “Governoraite” office or to “New Sham” (the old shams are already all full, they’re building loads more on the outskirts of Damascus). And I’ve seen signs less than a few hundred meters apart using different spellings for an area of Damascus. For example, the spelling of “kafar suseh” (capitalization be damned) is just impulsive as that of our most famous square. But there is a lot worse … a lot, lot worse. Sometimes, things are not only translated or transliterated liberally, but they are transliterated by someone who has only HEARD the real translation of a given name, and who subsequently spells it accordingly. The "playing it by ear" school of translation. Looking for Customs? Who do you hold accountable for this kastom-made catastrophy of a language? (Note also the different spelling, and the liberal capitalization, of the same area shown in the photo above.) How can this be allowed in a major capital like Damascus? How can the numerous ministers, or "responsibles" above, driving by the C streets not feel shame at this most obvious of disgraces amongst many disgraces? How can these signs of incompetence be allowed to remain, and to increase?
Then again, what should we expect from a government which considers SANA to be an acceptable, nay, convincing official agency to represent its steadfast stances, and which dares to publish a rag called Syria Times (which is basically a mistranslation of other official rags) and charge money for it (5 pounds is still money)? What should we expect from a government which establishes a "Syria Media Centre" with great fanfare (and even greater cost, said to be in the millions of pounds - Sterling, that is) in the capital of media, only to close it down a couple of years later, after a publicized change of director, with absolutely no explanation or consideration for its credibility?
Again, I digress. I leave you with a sign which perhaps shocked me even more than most (because I have driven many times past it without noticing it), so much so that I drove back there to take a photograph, looking very suspicious as it was already night. It was taken in front of the headquarters of the supposedly most technologically-savvy and internationally-oriented Syrian gathering of officials and the pedantic wannabes who swarm around them. And with that, obviously, I rest my case.
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Destroying the paradise of Old Damascus
Friday, September 14, 2007, 20:12This powerful piece by my friend Rana Kabbani covers an issue that most Damascenes, and indeed most Syrians, feel quite strongly about: the criminal destruction of Old Damascus.
I first mentioned it back in March, in a post titled "Damascus and Sham’s heritage are under attack." Rana mentions some quarters of the old city, from where both my parents’ families also originate (‘Amara in our case, all these quarters being in the same area); for the anecdote, my father and Rana’s father were childhood friends, ending up as colleagues much later, and spent many afternoons at each other’s old Damascene houses. My mother’s family still owns property in the areas scheduled for destruction, and the risible compensation to be paid is in fact courtesy of Iran.
See also the BBC's report on this travesty the Syrian regime calls modernization. Old Damascus: A Plan to Destroy Paradise Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO more than thirty years ago, Damascus now faces a dangerous hour as construction projects set their sights on replacing the unique with the vulgar and debased by RANA KABBANI The city of Old Damascus is presently threatened by an obtuse and cynical plan that would destroy great chunks of it.
The Syrian regime is trying to push through a "modernization" and "re-development" scheme, which would raze areas dating back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, including Syria's second oldest mosque, Jami' al-Tawba, of great beauty and historical significance. The company that aims to do this is a regime protégé. The boorish mayor of Damascus, Bishr Sabban, recently described the buildings to be razed as "garbage", not heritage. Like most regime officials, he has been ordered to say (and may, to his shame, actually believe) that the ripping out of the world's oldest city's heart, to replace it with banal and vulgar multi-story hotels, tower blocks, American-style shopping malls and motorways, is a laudable thing.
As a Damascene, with a passionate love for this gem of a city, and with family links to two of the quarters that are presently threatened with demolition, I read this plan as indicative of all that has gone wrong with Syria. The regime's desire to deface or obliterate major aspects of the Damascus past-which it may have little sympathy for, for complicated historical, political and social reasons-is reflective of the impulses of dictatorships everywhere, which deplore anything with patina, with complexity or depth, that harks back to a more sophisticated time than their own. Kitsch is their preferred vernacular.
Syria has been a dictatorship for forty years now. In that time, the country has seen a colossal brain drain of its educated elites and productive middle classes. A growing number of its people are living below the poverty line, as economic surveys sadly confirm. At the same time, there never was so much wealth in the country. It is concentrated, however, in the hands of people with strong links to the regime, some of whom are relatives of the President. These abuse their unchecked power to profiteer from monopolies, inflated commissions on government imports and construction projects, and appropriation of state land and assets. With sinister security services to act as their "business" enforcers, with a compromised judiciary and a corrupt bureaucracy, this new parasitical class has decimated private industry. By forging links to the readily-corruptible remnants of the old mercantile class, they have created a network of front men, middle men and yes-men, who help do their bidding, getting rich on the gravy train as well.
Anyone who challenges these sharks ends up in the regime's dungeons. Riad Seif, a rigorous self-made industrialist turned parliamentarian, was imprisoned for four years on trumped-up charges, for his lone and highly-courageous denunciation in Parliament of brazen corruption at the top. Ever since the Syrian army withdrew-under duress-from Lebanon two years ago, a huge source of illegal enrichment for the regime dried up. New sources needed to be found quickly.
Construction projects-often in joint-ventures with Gulf money or Iranian money-are now in vogue, setting their sights on "tourist" areas all over the country. The projects presently being planned for Old Damascus are an example of this trend, but they may have far graver implications than the already grave ones of destroying Mameluk and Ayyubid heritage sites, which belong to the world and to future generations. One part consists of a political and financial "joint-venture" with Iran, to clear an ancient residential area around the tomb of Ruqiyya, Ali's granddaughter and the daughter of Hussein, to further expand the mosque there, to create a parking-lot, as well as an intrusive motorway for bus-loads of Iranian pilgrims to come directly from the airport to the site by car.
At present, one can reach the tomb only by foot, as one reaches everything in old Damascus-thank goodness-including the Umayyad Mosque itself. The area consists of charming warrens of alleyways, courtyard houses, khans and mosques. These are apparently being bought up by Iran, in order to go under the bulldozer. This would change the ethnicity of the place, which is Arab Sunni Muslim and Christian. Syrians are beginning to be concerned that the "strategic relationship" with the Islamic Republic of Iran that the Assads-pcre and fils-have worked so tirelessly to promote, is beginning to denature their country.
Syria, and Damascus in particular, is a mosaic of cultures, religions, sects and ethnicities, which have managed to muddle along, more or less reasonably, for centuries. The populist militarism of present-day Iran, and its aggressive, born-again proselytizing-religion on the march-leaves the majority Sunni population cold. The regime needs to be made aware of this, if it is to avoid future tensions and tragedies.
Historical factors come into play, too, especially in the ancient and neglected quarters of Old Damascus. The original and now largely-impoverished Damascene residents grumble that the plan to change the area around Ruqiyya's tomb is a belated revenge against Umayyad Damascus-Mu'awiya's court city. Although this can hardly be the case, it shows that passions are running high, especially with the influx of close to a million Shi'a refugees from South Lebanon and Iraq, escaping war, into a city already struggling with poverty, escalating inflation and housing shortages.
The plans would destroy areas, which are living embodiments of Syria's history. Souk Saruja (where my maternal family came from) used to be called "little Istanbul", because that is where the city's Ottoman-serving aristocracy had their houses. It was home to important judges and law-makers. Fawzi Ghazzi penned Syria's first Constitution there-a far more enlightened document than anything to be had in today's Arab world-which the ruling Ba'ath has since traduced and travestied. Qaimariyya (home to my father's family) was traditionally the quarter of the city's scholars and theologians, being a small distance from both the Umayyad Mosque and the Zahiriyya library.
It played a significant role in the fight against the French, organizing strikes, demonstrations and civil disobedience, hosting in its leafy courtyard houses the impassioned meetings of the Syrian movement for independence, and helping its members hide from or escape the wrath of the French army. Shukri al-Quwatli, the country's first democratically elected President, was a son of the area, from neighboring Shaghur.
Al-Manakhliyya, which dates back to the eleventh century, takes its name from a souk for sieves in its midst, which has been trading as a market since Ayyubid times, and is a fascinating example of a traditional Islamic quarter, where work and worship go hand in hand. Old Damascus was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO more than thirty years ago, and ranks alongside places such as Venice, Fez, and Cordoba as a vital example of layered civilization.
A museum city, it has diverse and dazzling relics, buildings and artworks. The Aramaens, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks, Ayyubids, Mameluks, Franks, Ottomans and French all left their mark here. It continues to have a rare and poignant charm, despite the many indignities and aggressions it has suffered.
The Mongol Hulegu destroyed its citadel and butchered many of its citizens. Tamurlaine sacked it. The Abbasids desecrated its Bab al-Saghir cemetery, revenging themselves on the skeletons they unearthed and scattered. French colonialists burned its entire Western residential section to the ground, leaving thousands of women and children in homeless penury, in punishment for an uprising against their Mandatory presence.
Now the Syrian regime is gearing up to fail it bitterly too, if these foolhardy plans are not torn up at once. Indicative of little educated taste, no specialist expertise, historical or cultural sensitivity, and with an eye on profit and political expediency only, such plans would produce inappropriate monstrosities, replacing what is unique and timeless with what is merely debased. They would create even more pressure on an old city that is already choking from pollution and parched from lack of water, which has been unloved and uncared for far too long. Each street, each alleyway, each house, each courtyard needs thoughtful and tasteful preservation and repair-not demolition!
The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have chosen not to visit Damascus, as he said a man had no hope of entering Paradise twice. This tradition has particular resonance for me now, as the city he spoke of-my city-faces one of its hardest hours.
RANA KABBANI is a leading author and broadcaster.
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Damascene grumble, part one
Tuesday, September 4, 2007, 20:22To all my readers, friends, critics, and everyone whos asked, complained, or rejoiced at the scarcity of my blogging recently (including the cyber stalkers who have a rather unhealthy obsession with my Middle East writings), Im going to disappoint the latter and announce that Im back by popular demand, and Im sorry to have kept you waiting. The English like to say mustnt grumble. Like hell I mustnt: I personally must, and I will. And not just about politics and economics. Maybe its the heat, but lately everything in Damascus has taken gargantuan proportions, which means that while the positive is pleasantly overbearing, the negative has become unbearable. Take the jasmine plant teasing us from my mothers living room window, making a worn cliché even more so: in the evenings especially, as night falls and the heat subsides, the scent of jasmine whiffing in with the breeze is so intoxicating its ridiculous. You cant get more Damascene and more sensual than that. But the less aromatic aspects are also there in full force, making molehills seem like mountains. Ive been in Syria for 3 weeks, and I still havent gotten over the speed with which changes have taken place in the 8 months that Ive been away. Many things had been improving slowly over the past few years, but the current situation is simply unreal in its dimensions and time frames. My friend Syrian Brit wrote a very pertinent post about his visit to Damascus, a post with which I mostly agreed, and which I wished I could have written had I been as energetic and timely as he is. As I slowly come out of my blogging lethargy, I will try to write more about a number of these issues and more, including many which I had mentioned in my briefing paper, and which need elaboration and vivid examples since they pertain to real life experiences, and arent just analysis. But hold your horses. In the meantime, I must write about the driving. The maddening driving. So maddening in fact that I have begun to reconsider my position on capital punishment. As self-appointed plaintiff, judge, jury and executioner of the road, I find myself this close to sentencing to death (naturally commuted to a long sentence at the last moment) the numerous jerks cutting me off for absolutely no reason other than to gain seven and a half meters in rush hour - or rush hours, rather, as everyone seems to be constantly rushing off somewhere, probably to go smoke some arguileh (about which I will grumble below), endangering everyones life in the process, treating these Damascene roads as the training circuit of Evel Knievil without the driving skills. Thats the worst part: most Syrians think theyre the best drivers in the world, and that they invented the word shattara. The better (or bigger, or more expensive) the car, the worse the driver, the more pompous the attitude, the more adamant the I own the road behavior, the more unjustifiable the incompetence. Like the guy in the monstrous black thing with mirror windows today in Sheikh Saad, bullying mere pedestrians and intimidating every other car while his inferiority complex and compensation fixation (in Vienna, we all get to Freudian symbolism sooner or later) were being soothed by the roar of his vulgar Hummer. Most Syrian drivers not only drive like jerks, but they terrorize everyone around them forcing them to adhere to their road rules, or to get the hell out of their way. A couple of days ago, standing still at a red traffic light in Youssef Azmeh square, I saw a man in a van honking regularly like a maniac (a bit like the typing of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, only louder), advancing slowly behind the car stopped right next to me - so much so that the harried driver of the car started driving off even though the light was still red, as the madman continued his pursuit. Thats a real war on terror we need to fight. I get flashed and honked and stared at (and probably cursed) for driving within the speed limit (especially with a baby on board), on roads like Autostrade Mezzeh. What makes it even worse is that I can imagine the thought process in all these maniacs little speed-possessed brains: its a woman driving, with the seatbelt on, in her actual lane, slowly typical, she should stay at home and leave cars to us. Sometimes, I relish my short-lived power and their impotence, as they are stuck behind me as I drive 60 kph but all too often they overtake me from the right and roar off to the urgent business of smoking an arguileh (did I mention I would be discussing this below?) or of liberating the Golan (with so many army licenses out there) or of solving the latest foreign affairs gaffe (a lot of diplomatic plates behaving irresponsibly out there and thats because theyre being driven by actual responsibles and their spouses and kids. Fact. Dont ask me for more details.) In the meantime, most real diplomats seem to be left cowering in the relative safety of their homes. In Yafour. But I digress. Syrians are driving worse and worse every day, and mind you, I havent even been out of greater Damascus since I got here. Most roads, especially outside the city, potholes and other surprises included, are quite simply a death trap. Except, of course, for the road leading up to the Peoples Palace, a road which wouldnt look out of place in Switzerland. Tree lined, gorgeous curves, smooth asphalt, every street light working, lanes clearly delineated, wide enough for six lanes but reserved for four generous ones. Yes, its an actual Damascene road now open to the mere public (who, may I remind you, technically own the above mentioned palace) since a major throughway to Dummar has been closed temporarily. As we drive through the perfect example of what is achievable when the will is there, we are basically eating biscuits. Back to bread soon. But lest this post begins to sound like a rant against male Syrian drivers, which admittedly it does so far, I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to be stuck behind, near, or opposite a woman driver wearing the strictest of hijabs (and sometimes more), under huge sunglasses, and with gloves that probably arent doing much for manoeuvrability (given theyre not leather driving gloves and actually serve an entirely different purpose), as she tries to steer her car somewhere. Imagine the view when the car is filled with miscellaneous people advising her. Imagine the thoughts crossing her mind when she sees you staring in resigned disbelief, probably summoning curses youve never even heard of to punish the infidel women driving practically naked (you call a t-shirt proper covering?) and who are clearly bimbos (just ask most men). Youll tell me its always been like that. Indeed. But theres also recently been a huge increase in cars on Damascene roads (refugees, summer visitors, new Syrian registrations) without the necessary counter-balance of infrastructure improvement, road widening and repairing, parking, or even proper traffic light management. There is a roundabout in front of Shami hospital, with one major road coming down from Dummar, through the roundabout, continuing to Nehru road or to Mezzeh, or turning left to Malki. It is simply one of the most dangerous roads in Damascus, and I now prefer to face Omayad Square rather than risk the nerve-wrecking dash (or worse, the wait as the others honk and flash helpfully behind you), because coming from Dummar, youve been going downhill from some time, having picked up even more speed than should be legal, and youll be damned if youre going to stop or even slow down to allow some measly fellow drivers to cross in front of you. Every day, there are horrifying accidents there. And all they need ALL THEY NEED! is to put in a traffic light a few hundred meters up, so the Dummar road maniacs slow down, and so the traffic is regulated and the people coming from Malki or Muhajerin can drive 20 meters without risking their life. But who has time for planning or improving infrastructure? Were busy being steadfast in the face of aggression. And if you only knew how in love most people were these days. But lets not digress again. If I were in charge, and boy do I have plans for if I were in charge (and dont listen to my husband who calls me the ultimate dictator, for there will eventually be place for freedom after Ive whipped them all into shape), I would strip the driving licenses off everyone, put them all through a new test (those who didnt face the firing squad), install the points system, arm traffic policemen with whips and electric stun guns to use liberally when they get no respect and they never do. Case in point: yours truly. A couple of weeks ago, I took the baby to one of the numerous Damascene gardens in my area. I parked, got out of the car, opened the trunk, got the pram out, and as I was opening it and getting my daughter out of her car seat, this policeman comes and says: Where are you going? To which I answer furiously: And you waited until now to tell me I cant park? He answers calmly, nicely: I didnt say you cant park, I just asked where youre going. Me, my tone of voice increasingly defiant, angry: Its none of your business where Im going. Either I can park or I cant. And either you start putting proper signs or He tries again: Its not permitted to park. So I start packing the pram again, really annoyed. He says, to ease my frustration: Do you know who lives here? The xxx ambassador! I look at him, unimpressed, and with my utmost restraint respond sarcastically: Tsharrafna. Now frankly, would I have this conversation with any other cop in the world? Not where I live, at least. But while they get no respect, theyre often nice people, just trying to get by. A few days ago, I parked downtown in front of a bus stop (come on, when was the last bus you saw stopping at the stop?), barely squeezing in between two other cars. Just as I had settled the baby in her sling carrier, a nice policeman asks: Are you going to be long, Madame? See, its all in the tone. Just 10 minutes please, I need to pick up something. Which was true, although technically it was a lie since I was picking up something which I had yet to find and buy. A DVD for my daughter, if you must know, and a few other movies. (For 50 Syrian pounds each. Is it my fault? How else am I going to watch The Yacoubian Building and the brand new Simpsons movie which I missed in London? Give me a break.) Being the nice, mostly honest person I am, returning to the car less than 20 minutes later (the people in Bahsa are so nice, it simply takes longer to buy things), I thanked the policeman and smiled at him. He smiled backed. How many people do that to him? Smiles are certainly in short supply on the roads of Damascus these days. Every guy thinks hes been sent by God to rule these roads, and hes not about to grant right of passage to desperate and frankly suicidal pedestrians (who are even crazier and more irresponsible than drivers, believing the burden of care lies on everyone else but them) or to other drivers who have the misfortune of needing to change lanes. In fact, hardly anyone in Damascus seems to change lanes purposely; indicators being for wimps, and honks being for real men, superior drivers clearly feel it is not necessary to signal intentions to turn or move, even when leaving a parking space and engaging into traffic, and harassed drivers are eventually chased into a different lane. Even in two or three-lane streets, there is always at least a fourth line, and inevitably, a fifth column. How are the cops ever going to tame these rebels without a cause, these self-baptized Maradonas who can only reach their goal with the gracious hand of God? In a country where the regime focused on a different kind of security, citizens were left with a strong fear of badly dressed mukhabarat, but not of uniformed officers. Most drivers know how to escape a reprimand or a fine. Except for the poor Micro drivers who are the easiest prey, and who end up driving like even bigger maniacs to make up for the humiliation they endure at the hands of traffic police, who have no other way to boost the measly salaries that hardly get them past the 15th of the month. The other victims are the equally unruly taxi drivers who, since they drive all day, really do think they drive better than everyone else, and that weve had an easy ride for too long, and that its perfectly acceptable to refuse your compatriots as you park in front of malls, cafés, restaurants, waiting for the Iraqi and the Gulf ladies to come out, and charging them 300 and 400 Syrian pounds for a trip that normally costs 30. Alas, Syrian hospitality is not what it used to be, but then these are the strangest of times. In fact, Syrian hospitality has taken a serious turn for the worse, in my opinion, with the instant barrages being set up in every corner of town. Now I must grumble about smoking. (Feel free to stop reading in despair.) The smoking has reached the point of the absurd. Young and old, modern and conservative, secular and religious, male and female, morning and night, hot and cold, work and play, everyone is smoking the arguileh (water pipe). In every café I enter, I scan the sometimes huge rooms, in a desperate hope that someone, somewhere, has not succumbed to this disgusting habit, in vain. A wall of heavily scented smoke hits you when you enter or rather as you turn around, because I will be damned if I put my 13-month daughter through this suffocating hell. I am not even asking for non-smoking cafés, or not even for non-smoking sections in cafés (although that would be a marked improvement). Please, just a sign that says: Smoking optional. (And since were fantasizing, another sign that says Photos optional.) I am told there are now companies which deliver ready-to-smoke arguilehs! Dial-a-smoke. One call, and lit arguilehs with spare naras (lit coals) will be at your door faster than a pizza. In my mind, even though I recognize that I might be unfair, I have come to identify things like arguileh smoking with superficiality and emptiness, and I hypocritically forget my live and let live motto as I turn increasingly intolerant of such meaningless, vain, empty fads, which roam equally vain places. Rotana Café is now the best café with the best terrace and the best view in Damascus, Im told. Excellent; everyone knows I love a nice cup of coffee in a nice environment with a nice view. See for yourself here. Except nobody told me I would be greeted by some 73 persons in cool uniforms at strategic places the moment I entered the Rotana building. Or is it just me who finds it incredibly annoying, and incredibly unnecessary? Ahlein Madame, I am welcomed. Ahlein, I manage to answer the first few times. Ahlein Madame. Uh-huh, I respond the next 7 times. And so on until we reach purgatory on the first floor: on one side, a lounge with music blaring out from huge screens, and on the other, the damn wall of smoke, with table after table of people clearly thinking theyre incredibly cool, turning towards the door to see who else is cool. We left, and I was so annoyed by the superficiality of Rotana that I complained about that café for about 3 days. Art House was somewhat superficial too (valet parking was really unnecessary given the place was right in front of the entrance), but it was refreshing and its style was subdued (even with its contrived art-déco look mixed with the huge pieces of the old mill now serving as furniture) so I forgave it immediately. The old mill has become a boutique hotel with a great terrace for having coffee, and an even better roof terrace for having dinner upstairs. The only problem, of course, is that its become the hangout of the pompous people who think they own the roads. And they probably do. In fact, its probably now easier than ever to spot the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Since the "infitah" (which I'll be discussing soon), the gap has never been bigger, and never been more clear. You cant miss the haves through their sheer vulgarity, aggressivity and selfishness, and you cant miss the have-nots through their sheer numbers and impotence. But that will be the subject of another post. After this initial rant, we will need to get back into the specifics of our unique social market economy.
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Syria and Nahr Al Bared
Thursday, July 19, 2007, 22:55It seems impossible to escape Syrian affairs these days. Here's a piece I wrote for Bitter Lemons International, published today, discussing the unending (and rather worrying, frankly) violent incidents in the Palestinian camp of Nahr Al Bared, in Tripoli.
Just like with my briefing paper on Syria, which continues to provoke interesting reactions (and you can guess which parties said what), the mere mention of Syria seems to trigger the most extreme of responses from everyone (including, of course, the Syrians), ranging from the mildly annoyed to the basically irrational. Has everyone noticed that, or is it just my articles?
Fundamentalism brings no benefits to Syria
The “blame Syria” game is in full swing again as the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al Bared succumbs slowly and painfully to a battle begun a couple of months ago. Under shelling by an increasingly desperate Lebanese army, overwhelmed by the loss of over 100 soldiers as it tries to defeat the obscure militant group of Fatah Al Islam, taking untold Palestinian civilian casualties in the process, the crumbling camp continues to harbor militants of various nationalities as different theories about their origins, and their sponsors, have been offered.
Pan-Arab, Saudi and Lebanese media backing the government of Fouad Siniora have been adamant about the Syrian connection, reporting the alleged confessions of captured militants who spilled the beans about their close ties to the highest echelons of the Syrian regime, in astonishingly detailed accounts reminiscent of the first Mehlis report. In order to destabilize Lebanon even further, according to sources unbothered with the burden of proof, the Syrians have planned and executed the entire succession of events in Tripoli, after having financed and armed the group. Syria, already implicated in the financial, logistical and political support of a rather wide range of actors in the region, ranging from all the constituents of the so-called Shia crescent (including Hezbollah) to the strictest Sunni radicals (including Hamas) – all of which denounced Fatah Al Islam – is thus supposedly directly behind every anti-Siniora/Hariri/Saudi/American incident (in Lebanon, in Iraq, and elsewhere).
In fact, the attempted “Syrianization” of all regional trouble-making elements is experiencing such a surge of its own that known journalists, writing in Saudi media, are now even trying to re-brand international enemy number one, Osama Bin Laden, as “not really Saudi since his mother is Syrian.”
Even though some would argue that Lebanon was unstable enough for Syria’s taste as it is, unverified hypotheses implicating Syria in the Nahr Al Bared standoff are by no means impossible. After all, there is no reason why the Syrian regime can’t be as miscalculating, and as unwise, as the British (initial sponsors of the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterforce to undesirable Arabism), the Israelis (crucial backers of the creation of Hamas, which was supposed to counterbalance inconveniently popular secular Palestinian militants) or the Americans (trainers, cheer leaders and chief financiers of the Mujahideen, of future Al Qaeda fame, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). Indeed, promoters of religious fundamentalism as a tool against the villain of the day have acted at their own peril, subsequently paying the price for such selfish folly; the various supporters of Siniora are no exception, especially as the pillars on which the Lebanese government leans (especially Saudi Arabia) have been directly involved in such gambles.
Some observers have presented theories conflicting with the anti-Syrian narrative; whether to gather support during election time, or to challenge Shia groups, the Hariri movement – with the blessing of Saudi Arabia and the US - has allegedly courted Sunni Islamists in northern Lebanon and directly financed groups in Tripoli and Akkar. If true, it is not clear why the whole scheme backfired, but financing problems have been mentioned as issues of contention, in addition to the unforeseen radicalization of the groups.
Competing speculations notwithstanding, the Lebanese state, and the Lebanese army, have proven themselves to be impotent in the face of adversity resulting from foreign meddling and assault, or from internal disturbance and insurgence. From a strategic point of view, regardless of its own involvement or lack thereof, this initially favors the Syrian regime as it attempts to re-impose its weight on the Lebanese arena. Seen from Damascus, the freeze in the political process (a freeze to which Syria was a major contributor) and the incapacity of the Lebanese state to defend itself during successive confrontations (first with Israel in 2006, and now with Al-Qaeda inspired groups) have reinforced the official Syrian argument for a strong affiliation between the two countries. However, a weak Lebanese state, without Syria’s “protection,” is counter-productive for Damascus and creates risky challenges.
While any incident weakening the hand of Hariri’s movement can only be good news for the Syrians at the moment, there are clear dangers to the trend of fundamentalist groups starting to take matters into their own hands. This is an issue that the Syrian regime should find worrying, especially as religion-based extremist ideologies are spreading on either side of the Syrian borders. Syria has so far been spared such unrest and the often resulting carnage, but there is no guarantee that the borders, even closed, will protect it from a flood of eager fundamentalists for whom the Syrian regime is ultimately an ideological foe. Whether or not they are involved (and a number of credible sources say they are not), the Syrians would be foolish to take comfort in the unfolding events, lest similar attempts spread on home turf. True, the Syrian army and the state’s infrastructure are much better prepared to deal with potential turmoil, but reaching such a state of affairs would undoubtedly shake the country, especially after one and a half million Iraqis have taken refuge in Syria, creating tensions that could eventually transcend the economic and social realm and enter the even more dangerous whirlwind of sectarianism and communalism.
The déjà vu scenario of lighting extremist fires to score points against opponents creates only losers; this is a maxim which all regimes meddling in Lebanon should remember. - Published 19/7/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
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Briefing paper on Syria
Wednesday, July 11, 2007, 23:34It's been quiet on this blog, and I should have known I'd be too busy to update in the last few weeks. Apologies for this.
In the meantime, one of the things that kept me busy is a briefing paper on Syria, published this morning by Chatham House, and which covers, according to the press office, "the reawakening of Syria." Do see for yourself and feel free to leave comments here. The paper, "Open for business: Syria's quest for a political deal" is available for download in PDF, on the Chatham House website (currently on the home page). The press release is here.
ADDENDUM: Today, I had a sudden nagging feeling that a vital piece of information got left out of my briefing paper, having been lost somewhere in the several drafts I went through while trying to keep it under 10,000 words. A quick check left me very upset, truly, because I only now realize that the following sentence is not in the published paper:
For merely meeting with American officials, Kamal Labwani was shockingly sentenced to life in prison, commuted to 12 years, a verdict that effectively dealt the coup de grâce to the current wave of civil society activism.
It's not only a matter of principle for me to mention our brave activists whenever I can, but it was also a most significant fact to add to this briefing paper in the section on domestic affairs, which I chose to cover. To whom does one apologize for such an important lapse?
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Realizing Sharon's dream
Tuesday, June 19, 2007, 03:45I don't know if it's lack of time only, or extreme sadness as well, but I haven't been able to comment on the events of the past few days, especially as those in Palestine go from drastic to tragic to tragi-comic ... to tragic again. Every time we think things can't get worse, they get worse. Not that this wasn't expected this time, given the physical strangulation of Palestinians in Gaza.
Until I find the time myself, I leave you with Akiva Eldar's honest piece in Haaretz today, Sharon's dream. A partial explanation dedicated to those who still harbor illusions that the Israeli government is worried about events in Gaza, or that it didn't do everything in its power to lead Palestinians to this senseless, fanatical, self-destructive violence.
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz
If Ariel Sharon were able to hear the news from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, he would call his loyal aide, Dov Weissglas, and say with a big laugh: "We did it, Dubi." Sharon is in a coma, but his plan is alive and kicking. Everyone is now talking about the state of Hamastan. In his house, they called it a bantustan, after the South African protectorates designed to perpetuate apartheid.
Just as in the Palestinian territories, blacks and colored people in South Africa were given limited autonomy in the country's least fertile areas. Those who remained outside these isolated enclaves, which were disconnected from each other, received the status of foreign workers, without civil rights. A few years ago, Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema told Israeli friends that shortly before he was elected prime minister, Sharon told him that the bantustan plan was the most suitable solution to our conflict.
The right and the settlers feared that the disengagement from the entire Gaza Strip was no more than a down payment on a withdrawal from most of the West Bank. The left and the international community similarly believed that if the evacuation of Israeli soldiers and civilians from Gaza went well, the way would be paved for a two-state solution; but there were also some who feared that Sharon did not intend merely to sever Gaza from Israel, thereby erasing 1.4 million Arabs from the demographic balance, but also to drive a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank.
Exactly two years ago, in June 2005, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Shimon Peres during a visit to Israel that if the disengagement were not accompanied by progress toward a solution in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip "would explode," in his words. The then vice premier told his guest that he agreed with every word, but took care to point out that his statements did not necessarily reflect the views of prime minister Sharon.
Israel's violation of the Agreement on Movement and Access, which was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, strengthened suspicions that Sharon was plotting to sever Gaza from the West Bank. The order that the dogs could bark, but the caravans would not move between the Palestinian Authority's two sections had already been quietly issued by the end of 2005. That was a few months before Hamas' victory in the PA parliamentary elections provided the winning excuse for sealing off Gaza. Following the political upset in the territories, the severance policy became official. Israel imposed a sweeping ban on Gaza residents entering the West Bank, which even applied to students with no record of security offenses. Even as it was protesting the Hamas government's refusal to commit itself to previous agreements, Israel was disavowing the interim agreement (Oslo II) that it signed in Washington in September 1995, under which the West Bank and Gaza constitute a "single territorial unit."
Alongside the severance of Gaza from the West Bank, a policy now called "isolation," the Sharon-Peres government and the Olmert-Peres government that succeeded it carried out the bantustan program in the West Bank. The Jordan Valley was separated from the rest of the West Bank; the south was severed from the north; and all three areas were severed from East Jerusalem. The "two states for two peoples" plan gave way to a "five states for two peoples" plan: one contiguous state, surrounded by settlement blocs, for Israel, and four isolated enclaves for the Palestinians. This plan was implemented on the ground via the intrusive route of the separation fence, a network of roadblocks deep inside the West Bank, settlement expansion and arbitrary orders by military commanders. The cantonized map that these dictated left no chance for the road map or the "gestures" that Israel promised to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the Americans.
But the hope that Hamas' thugs and Fatah's good-for-nothings will finish the work of that well-known righteous man, Sharon, and his flunkies in the government and army is no more than a warped delusion. Eight years of rioting and terror ended in the liquidation of South Africa's bantustans and their inclusion in a unified state governed by the black majority. This dream of Palestinian protectorates - Hamastan in Gaza and the Fatahland enclaves in the West Bank - is similarly the end of any solution based on dividing the land: Israel in agreed-upon borders based on the Green Line and Palestine on the other side. If we do not quickly wake up from this dream and rescue what remains of the two-state vision, we will truly be left with a choice between the plague - an apartheid regime - and the cholera: the Jewish state's replacement with a binational state between the Jordan River and the sea. Including the Gaza Strip.
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Is London's future Islamic?
Wednesday, June 13, 2007, 00:45Not that British media is trying to spread panic or anything ...
Cover of Time Out's current edition.
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1967, 40 years later
Friday, June 8, 2007, 23:59A few posts ago, in the comments section of this blog, the idea of a forum for Syrian bloggers to debate the 40th anniversary of 1967 war (and hopefully other things) was born. It is because of the incredible work done by the incomparable Camille-Alexandre (our own Alex) that we have a wonderful site, part of the bigger, superb Creative Syria and sister subsite of Creative Syria Think Tank where I’ve written before.
The current edition is about the sad 40th anniversary of the 1967 war. The main Syrian Bloggers Forum page lists all the writers, in the order in which they wrote. I am not copying my entire entry here, just the first two paragraphs. Please read my article on the original site so that any comments you may wish to make (always welcome, whatever your opinion) can be added to the overall debate. You can also give a rating to each article you read, should you wish to do so. Here’s a taste of my take:
“The time has come to rain on the love parade. Observing a 40th anniversary not of peace, but of war, reminds us that there is clearly one party which is a big winner and another a big loser, a victor and a victim, an aggressor and an aggressed. A wrong, and a right. A strong warmonger, and a weak prey. Israel, and Arabs.
But judging from the commemorations, it would be easy for a newly landed Martian to think it was actually the other way around, given the unbelievable propensity, spreading like a virus, to convince, reassure, persuade, sweet-talk and beseech Israel to give back some land so that we could please have some peace. In fact, with every so-called peace initiative, Israel’s victims are left asking for less and less.”
Continue reading about the Golan Heights ...
What I will post here, in a different take, is what Bitter Lemons International published yesterday.
The new Syrian syndrome
Syrian-Israeli negotiations once enjoyed high visibility, spreading over a decade and passing through several Israeli governments, from the toughest Likudnik to the supposedly softest leftist dove. Thus, judging from the continuing state of belligerence between the two countries, one might assume the difficulties in reaching a peace agreement were insurmountable.
It is true that relations between Syrians and Israelis have been at their most hostile in recent years. Having developed a "Syria syndrome", Israel pretends to believe its own fabrications and ironically turns all things Syrian into obstacles to conviviality and dangers to the stability of the region, ignoring its own history of aggression. Syrian propaganda, meanwhile, has been only too happy to play along, inflating Syrian capacity to defend itself and the Palestinian cause, if not to attack.
The war of 1973 played a big role in these mind games. For the first time, Israel's neighbors neither felt afraid to fight nor necessarily victims at the end. The contrast with the catastrophic black days of June 1967 couldn't have been greater: in October 1973, Syria felt capable of leading the region and of standing up to Israel. Had Anwar Sadat not stopped so abruptly in mid-fight, or had Gamal Abdul Nasser still been in charge, things would probably have been different.
But the limited victory in 1973 could not erase the defeat of 1967 and the loss of the Golan Heights, especially after Sadat went his separate way. Often accused of not caring about the Golan and paying it only lip service, the Syrian regime has nevertheless been keen, at least officially, to argue that peace was its foremost goal and that the return of the entire Golan Heights was the only option.
In fact, if the situation were to be "analyzed" and the return of the Golan "rationalized" (a redundant exercise since Israel should not have to be proffered reasons to return stolen land but should rather be forced to do so), of all the problems in the region the Syrian-Israeli track is certainly the easiest to solve. This is true even 40 years after the occupation of the Golan and 26 years after its illegal annexation by the Israeli Knesset was rejected by UN Security Council Resolution 497.
Even if seen from a purely Israeli perspective--assuming that such factors really matter when international legality is to be enforced--there are no settlers of the religious kind (as in Hebron) to evacuate from the Golan, and it is not land the Jewish people claim as part of their history (unlike, say, most of Palestine). Peace with Syria would probably solve a number of other problems for Israel, including curbing current support for militant Palestinian groups and the Lebanon file and the thorny issue of Hizballah.
From a legal and political perspective--apart from UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338 on which the peace process launched in Madrid in 1991 was based and the principle of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"--reassurances to Israel even came with the Arab peace initiative of 2002, re-launched this year as if it were a regular marketing campaign waiting for the customer to bite.
The current Syrian regime has made repeated overtures about resuming peace talks, not where they last left off but from scratch. With recurring media statements, handshakes initiated in the most unlikely of settings, dubious non-papers offering unprecedented concessions and frequent messages sent via third parties, the Syrian regime has left no doubt as to its aspirations. If there ever was a Syrian syndrome, this is it.
And yet, Israel still refuses to return to negotiations, blowing hot and cold about peace prospects, claiming doubts about Syria's real intentions (e.g., that Damascus is supposedly attempting to escape an isolation that exists only in the fantasy of its opponents) and refusing to give it the "benefit" of engagement while the US is isolating it. What a strange turn of affairs and questionable attitude for a country pretending to be desperate for peace. And how astonishing that it has somehow become acceptable for Israel to publicly discuss the ifs, the hows and the whens of a return of the Golan Heights. In full defiance of the so-called will of the international community--which is deemed sacrosanct only when it suits pro-American agendas--Israel is not only allowed but actively encouraged to flout dozens of resolutions, a behavior that would have been costly for other countries. After 40 years of occupation, absurdly, the onus is on the victim to reassure its aggressor about its peaceful intentions.
This current political seesaw is quite symbolic of the Israeli-American attachment to the glorification of 1967, as they continue to romanticize the fabulous David and Goliath tale they have woven, alleging Israel was the aggressed party fighting for its survival, even concocting an excuse for Israel's violent attack on USS Liberty, and continuously justifying Israel's violent greed for its neighbors' lands. But Israel and America are acting as if 40 years of occupation and confrontation, after 20 years of dispossession since 1948, had not been catastrophic for the Palestinian people and had not triggered a wave of dire consequences that have affected much more than the Middle East. As long as they maintain this unilateralist, victorious and remorseless attitude, 1967 cannot be forgotten, let alone forgiven.- Published 7/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is associate fellow at London's Chatham House.
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Cui bono? And is that relevant now?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, 14:09I have just heard the correspondent of Al Jazeera International again refer to the “violence” in Tripoli as the worst seen in Lebanon since the end of the civil war. You could have fooled me. Not to take away from the brutality of the past couple of days, but I seem to recall a certain Israeli aggression of particular savagery last July which killed over a thousand civilians, injured many more and destroyed a great deal of Lebanon's infrastructure, during which the Lebanese army (serving tea to the enemy notwithstanding) did very little to defend its compatriots. Perhaps it had reserved the right to retaliate, like the Syrian army does whenever attacked by Israel? In any case, like the Syrian army since 1973 (apart from a brief brutal battle with Israel in 1982), it only seems to hit on weaker people, especially innocent civilians caught in the trap. The Lebanese army now has the honor of “fighting the war on terror” and receiving the admiration of the Bush administration.
As usual, while Gaza continues to burn under Israeli fire, something comes to draw the world’s already limited attention to another, bigger story. Palestinians starved, strangled, infiltrated by extremists and left to struggle amongst themselves in Gaza (with a little help from certain friends arming them) while the civilized world professes horror, that’s already old news. Palestinians, starved, strangled, infiltrated by extremists and left to struggle amongst themselves in a Lebanese camp, now that we haven’t seen for a long time. Add shelling from outside the camp and it’s déjà vu, all over again, and again – but it’s big news. And now it’s under siege with no water, electricity, and the resulting problems (notice, by the way, how The Guardian filed the story: look at the country indicated in the link).
For the Palestinians, it doesn’t really matter anymore whether the attack comes from Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Israeli shells and bombs. Nor does it matter anymore where it happens. Once more, those wretched Palestinians are under attack, 40 years after the catastrophic Israeli attack and invasion of June 1967, and six decades after the initial dispossession which the world continues to allow and even encourage. With its treatment of Palestinians, the so-called free world has lost all pretense of moral high ground and is no better than the so-called sponsors of terrorism in the world.
Tal El Zatar? Hama? Sabra and Chatila? Fallujah? No, it’s Nahr Al Bared.
But is anyone really interested in the fate of the desperate Palestinians? I am outraged by the hardships imposed on the Palestinian people, refugees in the most miserable conditions one could imagine, held hostage in camps not fit for animals for decades, and now casually considered as understandable collateral damage. Local residents, the “I love life crowd” and the “civilized cedar revolutionaries” who could do no wrong, have apparently been cheering the army as it shelled the camp. Unlike the life-worthy Westerners (or Lebanese with dual citizenship) who were evacuated to escape Israel’s savagery last summer, these Palestinians will not be helped by anyone.
How many more times will Palestinians be terrorized into escape?
Ban Ki-moon has stated he was “deeply saddened by the civilian casualties” but, even more importantly and higher up in the statement, “deplores the criminal attacks carried out over the past several days against the Lebanese army and security forces.”
If that’s the concern of the Secretary General of the UN, what do you expect from the rest? They’re all busy blaming the culprit for this chaos (Syria) and reiterating (or underlining, as the Syrians would say) the inevitability of the international tribunal. Because that’s what matters now: not stopping the bloodshed and saving poor innocent destitute Palestinians, no no, it's punishing whoever killed Hariri.
In fact, the whole story has been enveloped in the usual expert analysis (Syria dun it) revolving around who supposedly benefits from this chaos (Syria dun it) and who is afraid of the coming tribunal (Syria dun it) and who wants to destroy Lebanon (Syria dun it) and who created Fateh al Islam (Syria dun it). How very deep and proven.
It’s amazing how regime critics like myself are expected to jump at the opportunity to attack the regime and forget about the other ruthless players. However, there is more to solving a question than deciding who benefits. In fact, had cui bono been the only acceptable factor of analysis, then one could conclude that Iran must have been behind the invasion of Iraq. That's the problem with cui bono analysis: the intended outcome of an act can backfire and starts benefitting others who weren't necessarily involved (does that mean they did it?), and the culprit can miscalculate and get the opposite reaction.
Three men robbed a bank. They were pursued by the Lebanese army. They started fighting. After heavy losses, the Lebanese army decides to start shelling the refugee camp where the men’s group, Fateh al Islam, holds court.
So if Syria dun it (which I am not saying it didn’t), did it ask the men to rob the bank, and to lead the army to them, and to make sure it would cause so many casualties in the army, and to then get shelled by the army, and for general chaos to ensue, so that the tribunal wouldn’t come? The analysis goes like this: the Syrian regime is trying to make sure that the tribunal does not happen, so it pushes some buttons and sets the area on fire. Not an unreasonable analysis. It’s also a logic that has the culprit assuming that the Lebanese would go running to the UN to retract the demand for an international tribunal under Chapter VII. Well, that’s what Murdoch’s increasingly trashy publication, The Times, says in yesterday’s editorial: it’s simply Syrian blackmail.
If this indeed is the story so far, the Syrians should really rethink their relationship with their Lebanese allies, given that Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah have taken side with the army.
Now here’s an equally unreasonable possibility, marketed by the Syrians themselves: opponents of the Syrian regime are trying to make sure that the tribunal does come, and thus are setting the area on fire to show that the Syrians are spreading violence in order to avoid the tribunal. Are you with me so far? As conspiracy analysis goes, it’s as good a guess as the first one.
Here’s yet another possibility, which is even more likely but which Hariri-martyr-tribunal centric ideology cannot begin to comprehend: Fateh Al Islam is in fact a little splinter group that emerged out of nowhere rather recently, grouping militants from a variety of Arab nations, hell bent on joining the global war on terror (with different targets of course) and spreading a very unique and rigid version of Islam.
Except that it didn’t emerge out of nowhere, and it seems to have surprisingly effective and modern weapons at its disposal. And it seems to fit in the "us versus them" fad, the "organizing of a counterbalance to the Shia crescent which nobody seems to be able to control" obsession. So who could be arming them? Surely there must be more interested parties than just the Syrians.
In a frenzy to blame the Syrian regime for every mishap in the region, most people are forgetting that the other actors aren’t as angelic as they seem, and that the US and Saudi Arabia (to mention just two) have as much, if not more influence in Lebanon, and that they have been known to conduct the most ridiculous and counter effective policies to counter this Shia crescent of mythological proportions after having more or less delivered Iraq on a silver platter to Iran. It is simply stupid to ignore declared neocon agendas (just because it hasn't been a "clean break" doesn't mean the breaking isn't still the plan), and to ridicule respected investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh because they don’t automatically repeat the slogan that Syria did it.
People are so busy trying to rationalize the “fact” that this group, which even extreme militants like Hamas have disowned, is a tool of the Syrian regime that they can’t see the forest for the trees. It very well could be a tool of the regime, but nobody really knows that, and it very well could be a tool of the Saudis gone wrong, but nobody really knows that.
What I strongly object to is the oversimplification that has taken over discussion of Middle East affairs, and the parroting of the fanatic George Bush and the despicable Tony Blair in their "good versus evil" self-righteousness. I am simply tired of superficial analysis that makes assertions without a shred of evidence, and, even worse, without a shred of logic as it ignores the regional dimensions.
There are no good people amongst the involved regimes here: they have all contributed to making the region chaotic and violent, and to making its people increasingly desperate, just so that they could pursue fanatical and greedy agendas as they fight for power over the misery of people struggling to live, and over the corpses of innocent victims.
As for the bombs in Ashrafieh and Verdun, I think they are unrelated and much more likely to be good old fashioned intimidation. But my guess is as good as yours.
Newsflash, breaking news, exclusive ... Walid Jumblatt, speaking on Al Jazeera tonight (just before 10 PM London time), has just accused the television channel and its owner, the government of Qatar (he wasn't sure which Emir it was), of complicity in the bombings in Ashrafieh, Verdun and Aley. Syria and Qatar. Someone call the UN.
Much more interesting than Jumblatt's idiocies (which Al Arabiya was happy to mention in subsequent bulletins as big news) is the following article by Charles Harb in today's Guardian, which gives a good summary of how the region is being played, and how some groups are nurturing various militants in order to counter the so-called Shia crescent, which I mentioned above in my entry. In short, he says: "The Islamists at the centre of the fighting were built up by pro-government forces for sectarian reasons."
Blowback in Lebanon, by Charles Harb, The Guardian
Meet The Welch Club in an interesting account of the situation in Palestinian camps, and of who's behind the fighting in North Lebanon, as described by Franklin Lamb in "Inside Narh al-Bared and Bedawi Refugee Camps."
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