Across the Bay

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New Issue of Mideast Monitor

The latest issue of Mideast Monitor is out.

I have two articles in this issue. One is a long article on the Syrian opposition. The first of its kind as far as I'm aware.

The other is a shorter article on Bashar Assad's media attacks against the Saudis -- a throwback to the radical Salah Jadid's days -- and other Sunni Arab states (aka "the Arab fold"!). The article samples some of the Syrian propaganda through Bashar's outlets, Cham Press and Syria News.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The US, the Saudis, and the Syrian Opposition

Since the report came out about the plans of the Syrian opposition party, the National Salvation Front (NSF), to open an office in DC, there have been a number of interesting developments and statements.

First was a meeting in Saudi Arabia between King Abdullah (and Crown Prince Sultan) and the NSF's Abdel Halim Khaddam.

Khaddam confirmed the meeting took place. He reiterated that the regime is "not reformable or viable."

That it was King Abdullah -- as opposed to, say, Prince Bandar, Saud al-Faysal, or a lowly official -- who met with Khaddam is itself meant as a message.

But back to the US. An unnamed state department official told UPI that the US administration does not mind the NSF opening an office in DC and that the US "is ready for dialogue with any Syrian gorup or party that respects the rule of law and the principles of democracy and the principles of peaceful and legal opposition."

Moreover, a source from the NSF revealed that White House officials, including Michael Doran, Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs at the NSC, met yesterday (10/26) with two NSF representatives, Husam al-Dairi and Ammar Abdulhamid. According to an NSF source, they discussed mechanisms of democratic change in Syria.

The source claimed that the US officials said that the US did not shut the door on negotiating with the regime but only if it accepts to enact democratic change. But "any dialogue with the Syrian regime will not be at the expense of the opposition or democratic change." However, the US officials reportedly said that their experience with the Syrian regime is not positive when it came to behavior change.

It was also reported that the officials said that the White House welcomes the opening of the NSF office in DC. The NSF representatives reportedly told the officials that the NSF does not plan to form a government in exile, but a transitional government when the time is right in order to prevent a vacuum in Syria.

Finally, there were rumors that the Saudis also met with Rifaat Assad. The diplomatic source who first leaked to UPI the news of Khaddam's meeting with King Abdullah had said that the King and the Crown Prince would also be meeting with Rifaat.

However, a source close to Rifaat denied the meeting took place and said that Rifaat was indeed invited but "refused" to go because of the presence of Khaddam in Saudi Arabia. He also denied that Saudi Arabia was trying to get Khaddam and Rifaat together, and added that any cooperation with him is rejected and impossible.

The source added that Rifaat does not have any contacts with the US, but claimed that he had received three invitations from the State Department under Colin Powell. The state department official quoted above denied the authenticity of the claim of the state department inviting Rifaat, adding that he never heard of such an invitation.

The Syrian regime has been trying to woo Rifaat back into the fold, and according to the source, a regime delegation was recently dispatched to meet with him but no agreement has been reached between them.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Selling Nothing, at a Price

Never mind the regime's flaks. Anyone who keeps coming up with the bright idea that Assad wants "peace," and would solve it in "six months" and all that jazz should read this piece (make sure to read page 2):

[T]hey trade with vague promises and are sure to receive generous down payments from eager buyers. Yet in the bazaar only the stupid buyer pays for something he has yet to see.

This is something I've talked about before, but it's worth repeating, cause "processing" is a chronic disease. It never really goes away. It's worse than jock itch.

I will conclude with two lines from that post that fit this argument:

"[Assad] will try to induce Washington to pay him for allowing himself to be helped." That is because Assad wants a price for selling nothing. Remember, Assad's "cards" are his policy.

As for "exploring ideas," or as the regime's caricaturish ambassador put it, "brainstorming," ummm, let's not. For "Syria would gain 90 per cent of what it wants, just by being engaged." In fact, if you listen to the flaks, esp. the US-based ones, you'd quickly realize that this is the case and this is precisely what's being sought. The process is the end goal; selling nothing, at an ever increasing price (we went from "land for peace" and "Assad is obsessed with the Golan" [no better example of "utter bull"], to "acknowledging Syria's 'special role' in Lebanon." Wait, why just Lebanon, "Syria's role in the Middle East" [why not give him a slice of Iraq too, and the Palestinians while we're at it!]. If you, like the ridiculous Fred Kaplan, didn't immediately realize that you were being taken for a ride by dishonest flaks, then let Assad himself clarify it for you: "Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability." But of course... We always knew it was never about the Golan, as Former French Defense Minister Alain Richard put it: "[O]ne of Syria's main assets is its domination over Lebanon. Consequentially, any settlement that would call into question its domination over Lebanon, even if it means regaining Syrian territory (from Israel), does not suit it.").

"[T]he bane of diplomacy is to substitute process for purpose. Diplomacy should not be confused with glibness."

Update: Ammar Abdulhamid discusses a related issue.

Addendum: Read this too, from Barry Rubin a few weeks ago. What it takes to hoodwink people and what the Syrians are really thinking when they talk about "peace."

I should continue to remind people that it was the Syrians who lobbied hard to make sure that any mention of "normalization" with Israel was removed from the Saudi plan in 2002.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

One More Time

Although I and others have pointed out this fact numerous times, it's always worth repeating: Syria is the "nexus of regional instability" in the Levant. It's inherent to the regime's nature, make-up, and edifice. Its interests and its survival are inextricably tied to the instability of its neighbors. Its so-called "cards" are its policy.

Michael Young says it one more time in his latest op-ed:

Syrian President Hafez Assad allowed Shiite Islamists to kill American soldiers and civilians in Lebanon in the 1980s, but was nonetheless rewarded by Baker and President George H.W. Bush with a blank check for total hegemony over Lebanon in 1990. What Baker can't understand, or won't, is that the Syrian regime survives thanks to the instability of its neighbors. A peaceful Iraq threatens to make Syria, its intelligence services, and the artificial state of insecurity the regime has created to sustain itself, superfluous. Bashar Assad won't feel any compulsion to do the US favors as it prepares to exit from Iraq.

It bears repeating now that the regime flaks are out in full throttle trying to spin this fact and this terror-sponsoring regime into "reasonableness" and "normalcy." So, one more time, Assad's Syria always was and always will be an exporter of instability in the region. It could not be anything else.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Nothing Left But Repression

Bashar Assad has been a dismal failure in co-opting the opposition. The reason is simple: he's the head of a narrow Alawite family regime presiding over a frozen edifice that's incapable of an iota of change. His task was in fact to preserve it, never to change it, as Ammar Abdulhamid rightly observed.

His failure to co-opt the opposition has led to more reliance on repression to keep the opposition from coalescing any further. The latest example took place today. Kurdish groups (Yekiti, Azadi, and the Kurdish Future Current) had called for a rally to mark the anniversary of the 1962 census which has resulted in over 200,000 Kurds being denied citizenship.

Khaddam and Bayanouni's National Salvation Front was first to call for the Syrian Arabs to join their Kurdish compatriots. Salah Badreddine, the Kurdish representative in the NSF, wrote about this event presenting it as a day of national solidarity. The Damascus Declaration groups soon issued the same call (even when Yekiti, Azadi, and Future Current are not signatories to the Damascus Declaration), so did other groups in exile (RPS, etc.), and indeed today they gathered to hold the sit-in.

True to form, Bashar dispatched (English version here) the security thugs to violently and forcefully disperse the protestors, beating and arresting an unknown number of them despite the peaceful nature of the rally. Many were beaten and arrested based on their IDs: if they came from Hasake or Qamishli (Kurdish regions), they were beaten up and/or arrested. Streets were blocked off to prevent them from reaching their meeting point.

The last time there was a similar display of Arab-Kurdish solidarity in Syria, the regime -- surprise! -- did the same thing. Not only did they beat up and arrest the participants, they also made sure to segregate the Arabs from the Kurds. Riad Seif for instance, was arrested on that day for participating. One participant, Najati Tayyara, was "lifted" off the streets of Homs in following days and held incommunicado for two days. Ali Abdallah, who also participated, was also kidnapped, with his son, and held incommunicado for over a month. Only after a massive campaign to find out his fate did the regime disclose his and his son's whereabouts. They quickly invented trumped-up charges about them "insulting" the President and the head of the state security court. Their trial was therefore delayed for months, and they were prevented from presenting their case on ridiculous grounds (not having proper IDs!). Finally, their sentences were handed down: six months in jail. Of course, they were kidnapped in March, so they ended up serving longer than their sentence. They were let go... for now.

Knowing Abdallah's past, he won't give up, and Bashar, having no other tool than repression, will put him back in jail again. Other Arabs who dared sympathize with the Kurds, like Riad Darar or Muhammad Ghanem, were also imprisoned and harrassed. Muhammad Ghanem, who has a history of pro-Kurdish activism (and thus, arrest), was recently released after serving his six months on trumped-up charges -- the same as Abdallah: insulting the President. Not the "old guard" mind you. The spanking new guard Prez! In fact, none of the Damascus Spring detainees were arrested for insulting the "old guard." It was only when the criticized Bashar and his cousin Rami Makhlouf, that they were thrown in jail. Another indication of the failure to co-opt.

Ghanem recently disclosed how he was abused and mistreated. Ghanem has been writing about Kurdish issues for a long time on his website, which, naturally, was shut down by the "internet wunderkind" of Syria. A recent report by a human rights group notes the kind of abuses against the Kurds that is not only sanctioned by the regime, but openly encouraged. That includes land and property confiscation, deforestation, etc. For bringing attention to these practices, Ghanem was charged with "inciting sectarian strife."

Assad is a murderous thug, and is as much a reformer as I am an astronaut. But one thing he does not lack is a sick sense of humor. But I'm sure his flaks can polish that up and present it as an indicator of his "reformist impulses."

Update: More on the story from IRIN News.