Across the Bay

Monday, January 30, 2006

All the Nonsense that's Fit to Print

I spotted this piece of utter nonsense this morning, and I just had to post it. Listen to this. A Syrian official is spreading the news: Damascus is about to... you know it, cut a deal with the US!! Yes, and when it does, it'll be the millionth deal they've cut this year alone! Hilarious!

Now I understand the neurotic Lebanese media going crazy with this kind of useless garbage, but to see an Israeli paper printing it, as an "exclusive," was doubly funny. (The thought that the Syrians are now floating their "offers" through Israeli media is too funny for words!)

I guess it doesn't matter what the US says and does to dispell this rubbish, some "official" in Damascus will still be churning this crap for consumption. Who knows, maybe this "Syrian official" is the one feeding Josh Landis the same stupid nonsense!

The "details" of this supposed "deal" are really precious. I mean if this accurately reflects regime think, at this stage of the game, then I must tip my cap to the brilliance of the Baathist mind (and to Flynt's counsel)! Ahh, Syrian officials!

Enjoy folks, it's better than reading the funnies.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Your Patience, Please!

I apologize to my readers for the long absence and the spotty posting. I've been incredibly busy doing a few things, which has prevented me from posting on a number of interesting items. But once the dust settles, I'll be back, so please bear with me. For those of you who continue to come back, I thank you!

Also, do keep checking the Quick Links, as those are updated fairly regularly. Thanks again for your understanding.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Assef's Frozen

The US Treasury Department has decided to freeze the assets of Bashar's brother-in-law and head of Syrian military intelligence Assef Shawkat who was named in the Mehlis report as a suspect in the assassination of PM Hariri. He was named "for directly furthering the Government of Syria's support for terrorism and interference in the sovereignty of Lebanon."

The timing is interesting, as it comes amidst mainly Egyptian activity (with a role for Saud al-Faysal) to find a compromise over the interrogation of Assad by the UNIIIC. Rumors were flying that Bashar has again floated the idea to the Egyptians and Saudis that he would be willing to cooperate as long as he and his inner circle, including Shawkat, were off limits.

However, it seems that VP Cheney's visit with the Egyptians and Saudis has demolished any such ideas. At any rate, it was all futile posturing, as there's very little Egypt can do anyway. But just to be sure, Adam Ereli was quoted in an-Nahar as telling al-Hurra that Cheney carried a clear message that Damascus "cannot escape paying the price of its responsibility in assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri." He added, "VP Dick Cheney related to the officials in Egypt and Saudi Arabia the seriousness of the US and the international community in holding accountable those responsible for the crime of the assassination of Hariri from President Asad down to the bottom of the pyramid."

At the same time, Amr Moussa comes out with this statement: "the closing of the investigation and not knowing the truth will harm the normal and healthy progress of matters in Lebanon and the Arab region," stressing "the importance of Lebanon's security and stability, and the need to continue with the investigation into the assassination of Hariri until the truth is found."

As far as actually causing pain to Shawkat, this move by the Treasury Dept. is not that effective, because he has no money in the US, but it does put banks across the world on notice, and they get skittish about dealing with him and other members of the Syrian elite. As a message, however, it speaks more loudly. Forget all this nonsense about a compromise deal. The "family" is not off limits.

Ammar's "Day for Syria"

My Syrian readers would want to read and consider this post by Ammar Abdulhamid.

Ammar is calling for "a one day work stoppage as a demonstration of popular discontent with regard to the spread of corruption and the inefficacy of government efforts to combat it." He's proposing February 1, 2006 as the date.

It would send a message from the Syrian people themselves, who have so far been manipulated, sidelined, bullied and intimidated, as they sit and watch corrupt, murderous thugs dragging them to the edge and willing to pull them down with them.

So click, read, and consider it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Mehlis Interview

There are several things I'd like to comment on, but I haven't been able to due to other commitments. However, I thought this interview with Detlev Mehlis was worth highlighting. It was conducted by the German magazine Stern and was translated to Arabic by As-Safir. I haven't been able to find the original German (if someone does, please send it to me), so I'll translate some excerpts from the Arabic translation. An English summary was published by Naharnet.

Stern: 24 hours before you presented your report before the Security Council at the UN in NY on the case of the assassination of PM Hariri, the publisher of a newspaper in Beirut, MP Gebran Tueni, was assassinated with a car bomb. Is there any link?

Mehlis: Of course. The killer wanted to silence a voice of opposition to Syria through the assassination of Gebran Tueni. Through this act, the goal was to threaten politicians and journalists and to scare the population in general. The goal was certainly to create chaos and to demoralize the country. That is what the killer sought, and they have succeeded in pushing Lebanon back a few months. Since I began with my cases, I've investigated many murder crimes, but I had never had a personal acquaintance with the victim. In Tueni's case, it's different. I knew him personally and found him very pleasant. He was one of more than 500 witnesses in the assassination that I had personally interviewed.

Stern: Were there indications that Tueni's life was in danger?

Mehlis: He was one of three people facing danger in Lebanon, and I wondered about the nonchalance with which he dealt with the threatening situation. We knew about a hit list prepared by the Syrians, and Tueni's name was at the top of the list. When I saw the names, I asked the Lebanese liaison officer to inform Tueni immediately and warn him. Tueni did seek safety and went to Paris, like Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq Hariri, and other Lebanese political personalities whose names were on the hit list. After being away for several months, Tueni returned for 12 hours to Lebanon, during which time he was assassinated. I learned of Tueni's assassination in the morning at my hotel in NY where a Lebanese security officer approached me and whispered in my ear: "did you hear about Gebran Tueni?!" At first I was shocked, then I went back to preparing my report before submitting it to the UN. I asked myself, "how could this have taken place?" and "why would someone do something like this?" The answer to my question was simple: the assassination of Tueni was a personal message for me and the members of the Investigative Commission. They wanted to tell us the following: you can do whatever you like, it won't make a difference. You can write however many reports you like, we will continue despite everything.

Stern: Did you receive direct threats?

Mehlis: Yes. I was surrounded by bodyguards as much as possible, but the bad feeling was still there of course. When I used to pass by a truck in Beirut, I used to ask myself: why didn't it blow up?!

Stern: Syria tried to belittle your popularity, did that affect you?

Mehlis: I found somethings rather amusing and funny. People read and hear things but nobody takes it seriously. I heard about being invited on a yacht and sipping $1200 wine, or about my father being a member of the CIA, or that my mother was Jewish and buried in the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. All this is rubbish, my mother is a Protestant Christians and is alive and well in Berlin.

Stern: How did you arrive at accusing the Syrians?

Mehlis: Just like with the "La Belle" case, where we got information from the archives of the East German intelligence services. But the investigation in Lebanon was exciting, especially after the testimony of Abdel Halim Khaddam. It was really a surprise. Khaddam is no ordinary person. He was Vice President for 20 years. Someone in his position possesses a lot of information, which he revealed to an Arab station with credibility. That confirms what the international investigators have been able to reach, and it was really a surprise!

Stern: You have heard the testimony of a number of Syrian officials, and have asked to hear the testimony of President Bashar Asad. Have the Syrians cooperated with your request?

Mehlis: We're waiting. We have asked to hear the Syrian President's testimony in Damascus, as the Syrians have said. It remains for the Syrian government to make that decision. Its position would indicate whether it's willing to cooperate positively or not.

Stern: You mentioned in your report in NY that the investigation into the Hariri case might take years, and the Belgian prosecutor who's succeeding you only has 6 months. Do you expect to return later to follow up on this case?

Mehlis: First my colleague will continue his assignment, and after that we should wait and see when he decides the investigation is over. He may reach quick conclusions in this case, far quicker than I expected.

Mehlis' interpretation of the Tueni murder as a message to the UNIIIC fits with Michael Young's and my interpretation. Not too long ago, the Syrians, through a fake pro-Syrian group, have also threatened Brammertz. It was in this context, with the Syrians feeling emboldened that the Khaddam bombshell came to deflate them and reinvigorate the investigation.

Bashar is still pathetically trying to figure out how to present his being interrogated to his people, after promising them that he would "not bow down" to anyone, and how this was a matter of national sovereignty and dignity. So, as Feris Khishen noted, we are likely to see an escalation in Lebanon aimed at covering this latest humiliation. The attempts in Jeddah and Sharm el-Sheikh only highlighted the limits of any Arab face-saving compromise, especially in light of the brutal response it received from France, the US, and Britain, which pushed the Saudis and the Egyptians to reassert that they had no intention to interfere with the investigations. Yesterday, Saud al-Faysal said Saudi Arabia had urged Syria to co-operate with the UN probe "without reservations."

So now, having seen that no one is willing (or able, anyway) to lift a finger on his behalf, Bashar is selling it as giving the UNIIIC audience, but not really being interrogated!

Supposedly, according to the Elaph article linked above, he's floating hints that he may be willing to "cooperate" if he and his inner circle (Asef and Maher) are spared. Hence, he allowed Ghazaleh and the junior officers to be interrogated. So he's trying to sell that as a "ceiling." (L'Orient-Le Jour reported a couple of days ago that the Egyptians and the Saudis reportedly told him that they couldn't move to protect him personally without him at least admitting guilt and coughing up some guilty parties.) However, the international reaction has been to let the investigation reach its "ultimate conclusions," and thus Mubarak finds himeslf cornered, with very little he can do for Bashar, because he cannot appear to be meddling with the investigation, nor can he tell Bashar not to cooperate. In fact, he has told him that he had to cooperate. The problem is, Bashar knows that if he does, there are no guarantees he won't hang. (Even Seniora after meeting with Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh came out saying that "we don't interfere in the work of the investigation.") I.e., no go. But this is a situation of his own making, so there's little that can be done for him even if Mubarak wanted to. Moreover, especially after the Khaddam revelations, it's very difficult to sell this kind of cover-up. It's way too late for this kind of charade. Besides, as Mehlis said, wrapping this thing up may now come much sooner than we thought.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Man of the Mountain

Michael Young conducts a very interesting interview with Druze leader Walid Jumblat. The interview touches on the recent Saudi-Egyptian activity, as well as the security cooperation Asad will sign with Iran's Ahmadinejad, who will be visiting Damascus soon. Jumblat is rightly worried about the involuntary annexation of Lebanon to a diastrous Syrian-Iranian axis.

As Jumblat himself had said recently, Bashar may have threatened the Egyptians and the Saudis, which may have caused them to take a step back (Mubarak, at any rate, prefers not to see Bashar fall, not just because of the MB issue, but also because of the Gamal Mubarak project he is cooking for Egypt). Also, Jumblat takes into consideration the internal divisions in Saudi Arabia:

"Bashar seems to have blackmailed the Saudis and Egyptians. He seems to have said 'It's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood' to the Egyptians; and he may have scared the Saudis by threatening them with Al-Qaeda, which he happens to be backing in Iraq."

Were there other explanations for the sudden Saudi shift in direction? "There may be divisions in the royal family," Jumblatt answered. He speculated that the foreign minister, Saud Al-Faysal, for decades the avatar of status-quo Arab politics, may be keener to sustain the Assad regime than another Saudi mediator with Damascus, Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the U.S. who now heads the kingdom's National Security Council.

Jumblatt affirmed that the Saudi-Egyptian plan—which seeks to impose vaguely-defined "coordination" between Lebanon and Syria on a variety of bilateral issues, and to muzzle Lebanese media when it comes to matters Syrian—had "failed." For Jumblatt, "implementation of such a plan would take us back to where we were with the Syrians before they left."

Why had the plan failed? "Because both [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and [French President Jacques] Chirac have rejected any plan that might weaken Lebanon's sovereignty." Indeed, Rice released a statement on Wednesday saying: "The United States stands firmly with the people of Lebanon in rejecting any deals or compromises that would undermine the [Hariri] investigation, or relieve Syria of its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions… As Resolution 1559 demands, Syria must once and for all end its interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon."

Though Jumblatt helped torpedo the Saudi-Egyptian initiative, he seemed little reassured that the Arab states would not again seek to save Assad's bacon. For him, however, one way to undermine such efforts is to create an international tribunal "that alone would have the power to call in suspects involved in Hariri's assassination, like Bashar Assad." Jumblatt makes no bones about the fact that the Syrians ordered the murder. "The only problem with such a tribunal," he conceded, "is that it takes time." Plenty of time for assassinations in Lebanon to continue.

It should be mentioned that no one really knows what actual influence the Saudis and Egyptians actually have, and what guarantees they can actually give, given the strong Western response (Chirac, Rice, Straw), and their rejection of any compromise or undermining of the investigation, which should be "pursued to its end" (with an anonymous American official telling an-Nahar, "if the investigation reaches president Asad personally, then so be it."). The strong rejection from the March 14 alliance and the Aounists in Lebanon also benefitted from this US-EU response, and seems to have killed this particular initiative, just as it did with the Amr Moussa initiative earlier (in essence, it's the same initiative, only this time, for some reason, it was tolerated by the Saudis, unlike the first time around). This dual response has caused the Saudis and Egyptians to qualify their efforts, and to stress that they do not concern in anyway the UN inquiry, stressing that Syria should cooperate with it fully, which takes us back to square one, as cooperation means Assad will be implicated.

As for Iran and Hizbullah:

The Iranian relationship with Hezbollah is also of great concern to Jumblatt, because Hezbollah is closely allied with Syria, is heavily armed, and because the Druze leader doesn't believe the Lebanese government can persuade the party to disarm. According to Resolution 1559—the September 2004 Security Council decision demanding a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon—Hezbollah and other militias in the country must surrender their weapons. However, Hezbollah's arms are there partly to help Iran. The group reportedly has thousands of rockets in southern Lebanon targeted at Israel, to deter an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. "According to what I have heard [from within the Shiite community], the Iranian side in Hezbollah has gained ascendancy over the Syrian side," Jumblatt says. An Iranian-Syrian defense treaty would only bolster the group, making it more intransigent.
For Jumblatt, Hezbollah is, dangerously, a "state within a state."

Left unmentioned is how the Saudis and Egyptians (let alone the West) will react to the Syrian-Iranian treaty. Anyway, read the whole thing.

Update: For more on the possible splits inside HA, see this post by Caveman. Al-Siyassah had made similar claims about the role of Hashem Safieddine inside the party a little while back.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Bashar's Worst Nightmare

The leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has told the Financial Times that the MB is willing to "work for political transition in Syria with former regime officials who are ready to commit themselves to democratic change."

Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni told FT: "For us, getting rid of the dictatorial regime could come in many ways. During the transition it could happen through people within the regime," adding that this transitional period would have to be followed by democratic elections.

Bayanouni is thinking along with most analysts, following Khaddam's remarks, that perhaps other officials might also break with the regime. "I think Khaddam will encourage others. We hope that whether they are Alawite or Sunni, others should leave. The future of this regime is disastrous," he said.

In his interview on Al-Arabiya, Khaddam winked at the MB, calling them a nationalist force, and that the Syrian government should open up to all political forces in the country, including the opposition and the MB. The MB just winked back. The secular opposition, however, is denying any contact with Khaddam. Although, I just heard on the news that Yassin Hajj Saleh also said that he believes that Khaddam's move is backed by international and regional powers, and even local players. It should also be noted that Riad al-Turk did welcome Khaddam's move, only he expressed his concern over whether Khaddam is actually presenting himself as a presidential alternative to Bashar.

The MB always was Bashar's main concern, which is why he bumped off the Kurdish Sheikh Khaznawi, who was building bridges with the MB. It is also why he lashed out against the Damascus Declaration, which was signed on to by the MB. The official media attacked the opposition as "Sunni."

Anyway, this is quite a significant development, and it remains to be seen how it will play out. One wonders if one of the purposes of the Khaddam story was to take away the "après moi le deluge" card from Bashar. It's likely that now internal pressure will grow alongside the relentless external pressure of the international investigation.

How high's the water, papa? Five feet high and risin'.

Update: Caveman comments further.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Khaddam and the Saudi Warning

Michael Young has written what I think is the best commentary on the Khaddam story and its sectarian undertones. Michael also shares my reading regarding the Saudis and their Syria policy. Read the whole thing.

I'm in the process of writing an extensive commentary on the matter myself that'll be out soon.