Across the Bay

Sunday, June 12, 2005

What's the Deal?

What exactly is behind this most recent clash in Damascus between the authorities and an Islamist group?

Excuse me for being skeptical, but when I'm told by the Syrians that the name of the group is the same as the one that claimed to have killed Hariri, my eyes begin to roll. In fact, if you read the readers' comments at the bottom of the Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat (linked right above) you'll see that I'm not alone in my skepticism.

It wouldn't be the first time the Syrians had a perfectly timed theatrical "Islamist episode." This was without a doubt the most dramatic, but readers might remember the rockets fired in Mazze not too long ago. I'm not claiming anything, I'm just saying.

There's more. Ibrahim Hamidi reports in Al-Hayatthat now Islamist MP Muhammad Habash is claiming to have received threats from a Salafist group on his cell "right before the kidnapping of Sheikh Muhammad Maashouq al-Khaznawi." Habash also tied that group with other incidents in Syria, such as the killing of a police officer in Homs, at the beginning of the year. Hamidi also runs through the various names of this group.

An-Nahar has more details. The film of the operation that ran on Syrian TV showed that one of the killed Islamists, both of whom were Syrian, held a Saudi driver's license. They also showed a document with the hierarchical structure of the group, with the various functions of each one laid out.

One document had that the Jihad of the group has to follow priorities. Topping the list is deposing the "authoritarian regimes" of Syria, and "Christian Maronite Lebanon," and "Hashemite Jordan." The document added that attention should be turned to the "dictators" in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and Iraq, "whose people have been plagued with Crusaders."

Soon thereafter, three people in Hama "disappeared" and a fourth was arrested, all were suspected of conducting "Salafist Islamist activities."

So what is going on? All this comes against the background of a "fight over Islamists" in Syria between the opposition and the regime. Nick Blanford, in a piece in the DS, explains:

Although there is widespread suspicion of the Muslim Brotherhood because of its past association with violence, analysts say it would be a mistake to write off the strength of the Islamists.

"The regime needs to acknowledge the Islamists," Moubayed said. "Unless they are given an outlet to voice their frustrations they will move underground and present a challenge in Syria. This is a very strong danger."

The authorities have been holding their own dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, issuing them with passports and allowing some to return home.

"The government believes that the Americans and the opposition are courting the Muslim Brotherhood and they won't allow that. They want the Muslim Brotherhood to themselves," said Joshua Landis.

Against such a background, as well as the rumoured Saudi interest in deposing the Alawite regime, one can speculate endlessly on the meaning of this latest drama. One doesn't need to even deny the reality of the incident to do so either. Are there armed Islamists in Syria, some of whom might be getting ideas? Sure. Could this be a sign of turmoil inside Syria? Definitely. But could all this be spun by the regime to send out domestic (to the people in general, and the opposition specifically), regional (Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan), and international messages, perhaps in the range of "without us, you get this, all of you, Syrians, Lebanese (wink wink), Saudis and Jordanians, and Americans (especially if you're getting ideas)"? Without a doubt.

Amidst growing talk about incorporating Islamists who have renounced violence, comes this episode in Syria. Staged? Perhaps, though not necessarily unreal. Well timed? Certainly. Spin material? Well, naturally. But who knows what's really going on. I'm eager to hear what Josh and Ammar have to say about it.

Addendum: i forgot to add this report by Hamidi a couple of days ago. In it, he reported that one of the recommendations of the Baath congress was to "strip" the Muslim Brotherhood along with the "unpatriotic opposition that has foreign ties," i.e., Farid Ghadry's people.

Update: You thought Mustapha was bad? You thought Bashar's speech was bad? You ain't seen nothing yet. Bouthaina Shaaban is the prom queen. Those who read Arabic should (if they feel like heartburn) check out this totally insane (not to mention incredibly stupid) op-ed in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat. This is pure foaming at the mouth nuttiness. If this is the new face of Syria's government, then I say to my dear neighbors, Congrats! You've hit the jackpot! If you thought it couldn't get worse, you were wrong! Welcome to the "new guard" era! It's ten times shittier than the old and ten times more ideological and hardcore Arabist! So not only is Bouth-Bouth accusing the CIA and the Mossad of killing Hariri (yawn), and Kassir, but of preparing more assassinations in Lebanon! Wait, there's more. The Bouth also said that the US is behind the Jund al-Sham group that just had a showdown with the Syrian authorities, and which was the subject of this post. Bouthi accused the US of funding and arming them! Now, if you're not totally convinced that the whole thing was staged, you at least get an idea about what I said about "spin material."

Bouthaina Shaaban: the evolutionary peak of the Baath.

Update 2: Josh Landis thinks the episode is real. I must add here that despite my dismissive tone, I did say that I thought this could very well have been real. All the elements exist for it to be real. But was the timing excellent for the Syrians to spin it out of control? Absolutely. And they did.