Across the Bay

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Blather Dispatch

Djerejian Jr. pulls the old "ignorance" routine to bash Sen. Lieberman's recent op-ed on Damascus Airport and Jihadists.

So naturally, as is always the case with such people trying to pontificate on something they know absolutely nothing about, we're treated to the usual set of idiotic cliches, and, well, "ignorance." Witness the following third-hand, overused conventional wisdom (and the name Djerejian is synonymous with conventional wisdom):

But what is most fascinating about Lieberman's zealotry is its sheer ignorance, how devoid of any historical context it is. Does he remember Tom Friedman's "Hama Rules", born of the Hama Massacre? Hafez Assad brutally put down a domestic rebellion of the Muslim Brotherhood back in 1982, as the Alawite ruling elite feared the growth of Sunni extremism in their midst. Indeed, the Alawites in Damascus are not fans of Islamic extremists, because said extremists view the Alawites as heretics. So the notion that Bashar Assad plays "travel agent" to al-Qaeda is just laughable.

Fascinating! Now, let's break this pile of nonsense down a little.

The first key point is in the magical words "domestic enemies." Assad Sr. and now Jr. (that's Assad Jr. not Djerejian Jr.) have no problem crushing "domestic" Islamists. But, as any look at the plain facts can demonstrate, they have had no problem supporting Islamists abroad. This is why, you know, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist groups, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, both have headquarters in Damascus. I mean, we could also mention a little Islamist group called Hezbollah, but I digress.

And since I know it's a tremendous crime to call this brilliance into question, I will go ahead and quote a Syria expert, Eyal Zisser, who, pace the infinite wisdom of Djerejian Jr., knows quite a bit more about this topic (see also Barry Rubin's treatment of this very issue in his recent The Truth About Syria):

Damascus started to see the Islamists as perhaps the only possible means by which to enhance its regional standing, gain influence in neighboring countries and bring domestic tranquility to Syria itself. ... Close relations since 1980 between Damascus and Tehran, it bears noting, helped strengthen these ties.

Zisser goes on to explain the benefits reaped by Damascus and why this has developed into an understanding between Islamists and Syria:


For Damascus. The rulers in Syria practice a policy of pan-Islam to maintain domestic stability and strengthen their external influence. They appear to attach great importance to the nascent alliance with the Islamist movements, and for four main reasons. First, it has caused the Syrian Muslim Brethren to moderate its old anti-Ba‘th broadsides. In February 1997, its Shura Council published a manifesto that opened by calling the 1982 massacre in Hama the "tragedy of the century," but then refrained from any direct attacks on the Syrian regime. The manifesto went on to declare that the Muslim Brethren was prepared to take steps to "Restore Syrian national unity on behalf of the interests of the [Syrian] homeland and the [Islamic] nation, in view of threats facing it and in order to withstand the Zionist attack."17 A Jordanian Islamist in July 1998 called on his Syrian counterparts to stop their attacks on the Syrian regime, arguing that "Syria is the only Arab country that opposes Israel and supports resistance to the Zionist occupation. Therefore it is forbidden for a Muslim or an Arab to attack it or its leadership."18

Second, Damascus uses the Islamists to influence the policies of Arab governments. To prevent the normalization of relations with Israel, it made considerable use of the Islamist organizations in Jordan and among the Palestinians. For example, the Syrians encouraged the Palestinian Islamic movements to oppose the Wye Plantation agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority19 and approved Jordanian Islamic Front demonstrations against Israel and the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement.20 Remembering that Damascus looks at Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as part of its own sphere of influence, and that it seeks to dominate them as it does Lebanon, it is quite clear that ties with these movements also allow the Asad regime to gain a foothold in the Jordanian and Palestinian political arenas.

Third, these ties enhance Syria's regional importance as well as its bargaining position vis-à-vis the United States and Israel by giving Syria tools of pressure to be applied against Israel and cards to be used in future negotiations. Syrian backing for Hizbullah in southern Lebanon is an example of this Syrian practice.

Fourth, warm relation with the Islamists have clear implications for Syria's domestic front, where they have encouraged the process of rapprochement between the regime and its Syrian Muslim opposition. Some of the leaders of this opposition who remain outside Syria are engaged in dialogue with the Asad regime. These include ‘Isam al-‘Attar (who has lived in Aachen, Germany, since the 1960s), Sadr ad-Din al-Bayanuni (the inspector general of the movement who is now in Amman), and other leaders in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Under the aegis of dialogue, other Muslim Brethren leaders are gradually returning to Syria and renewing their activities, mainly in the sphere of education, with the regime's tacit approval. ‘Abd al-Fatah Abu Ghudda returned in December 1995; he had long been, from his place of exile in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brethren's inspector general. In return for a commitment to refrain from engaging in politics, Abu Ghudda was permitted to resume his religious activities in Aleppo. He went back to Saudi Arabia in early 1996 because of his failing health, and in February 1997 he died there. When his death became public, President Asad sent condolences to the deceased's family in Aleppo, and even offered to put his private airplane at its disposal to bring his body back for burial in Syria. Though Abu Ghudda was buried in Medina, near the grave of the Prophet Muhammad, Asad received his family's thanks and appreciation.21

For the Islamists. Syrian backing brings real benefits to the Islamist movements throughout the region. After the Syrian rulers established ties with the (Islamist) Refah Party of Turkey, unconfirmed reports indicated that the mayor of Istanbul, a leading Refah Party activist, visited Damascus at the head of a Party delegation.22 Following the early 1998 dissolution of the Refah Party, Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Talas attacked the Turkish authorities for this "anti-democratic" move and called on them "to treat the Islamic movement with greater sensitivity [because] it faithfully represents the Turkish public."23 Talas even warned the Turkish military authorities that the Turkish people would take revenge on them and that Turkey would become another Algeria unless they changed their attitude towards Islam.24

Speaking of Algeria, Ahmad Kaftaru, the mufti of Syria and the country's top religious official (and a regime loyalist), called on the (secular) Algerian authorities to enter into a dialogue with Islamist opposition instead of fighting them. (In contrast, it bears noting, Kaftaru—already then in his present position—supported the oppressive measures the Asad regime took against the Islamists of Syria in 1976-82.)25

Damascus also appears to support Islamist operations, including terrorism. Syrian-Saudi relations went through a tense patch in mid-1996 when it came out that the perpetrators who attacked American soldiers in Khobar in June 1996, killing 19 soldiers, had gone from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia via Syria. That one suspect had died under doubtful circumstances in a Syrian prison after the attack only increased Saudi suspicion of Syrian involvement in this attack. (It was thought that the Syrians did not want this suspect to tell the Saudis what he knew about possible Syrian involvement; the Syrians were quick to extradite another suspect26 but doubts remained. At the same time, no one accused the Syrians of direct involvement in the attack, but rather of ignoring the activity that led to it.)

Relations with Jordan also plummeted in mid-1996, when Amman accused Damascus of sending groups of Islamist terrorists to carry out attacks to undermine the kingdom's internal stability and harm its relations with the United States and Israel.27 A group of Hizbullah activists were arrested in the Jordanian capitol in February 1998; this group was responsible for several bombs that had exploded in Amman. Jordanian sources pointed to Syrian complicity.28 Despite Syrian denials, the issue remains on the Syrian-Jordanian agenda.29 The Syrians had problems with Egypt and Algeria after it transpired that "Arab Afghans" (that is, Arabs who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet forces) had found refuge in Syria and used that country as a base from which they carried out terrorist activities. Again, the Syrians reacted vigorously and arrested the suspects fingered by the Egyptian and Algerian authorities.30 Syria has become, in effect, a breeding ground for violent Islamists.

Yes, funny thing that, how all of Syria's neighbors (Iraq, Israel, Jordan --see my recent post-- and Lebanon, as well as Saudi Arabia) have complained about Syrian sponsorship of Islamist terrorism. Apparently, they all, including Syria's Islamist friends in Lebanon, haven't had a chat with Djerejian Jr. here.

Djerejian goes on to call Sen. Lieberman an "American embarrassment." You'd think that people who know very little to nothing about the topic at hand would think twice before opening their mouths, given how their own statements are completely mortifying. But then again, some things are genetic.

Addendum: Djerejian Jr. adds this bit in a postscript to cover his previous remarks:

My aim in writing the post was to provide historical context and suggest that the Syrian regime would face real security risks of its own if it were truly acting as al-Qaeda's main travel agent in the region (the main thesis of Lieberman's embarrassingly asinine op-ed in the WSJ).

The basis of this graph is the so-called "blowback" theory. Here's what the regime's official flack Landis wrote about this in a post on June 15, 2007, where he directly admitted Syria's responsibility for the attacks against UNIFIL in Lebanon as well as for the assassinations of March 14 figures:

Many Western diplomats here are of the opinion that this Syrian policy of tit for tat is short sighted because any increase of extremism in the region will eventually bleed back into Syria. The West is far away, they observe. This is probably true in the long run. Extremism is good for no one. However, Syria seems willing to play this game of chicken. It believes it can survive it. The fact that there have been no successful acts of terrorism in Syria for 20 years has produced a sense of invulnerability - perhaps a false one, as foreign diplomats like to point out. (Emphasis mine)

And here's a couple others passages I often quote from Landis' fellow official regime flack, Sami Moubayed, writing about the Syrian Islamist preacher and jihadist recruiter Abu Qa'qa' (who now is appointed by the regime to teach at a religious school in Syria, and in sermons are regularly filled with praise and support for Bashar Assad and the regime):

He insists that anger of the religious youth should never be unleashed on their fellow Syrians or their government. This explains why the Syrian government has tolerated him since 2003. Many speculated that he was an agent of the Syrian regime, being used by the government to appease the rising Islamic street that was boiling with anti-Americanism. As long as he was not preaching against the state, it was believed, Abu al-Qaqa could be free to say what he wished in Aleppo. In conversations with friends and supporters, Abu al-Qaqa stresses that he is not against the state, emphasizing: "The state and I are against what is wrong" (author interview with Syrian source, June 22). He always calls for "Unification of the security and religious apparatus in Syria." He explains this bizarre argument: "Every believer must see that security is a positive action. The objective of a believer's religion is to prevent harm to human beings. This is done by the security services" (al-Rai al-Aam, June 14).
What kind of a jihadist dabbles with a secular regime like the Baathists? What kind of a jihadist drives around in broad daylight in a Mercedes Benz?


After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu al-Qaqa helped organize the infiltration of militant jihadists from Syria into Iraq. He publicly boasted about his role, which has been confirmed by jihadists captured in Iraq, including Muayed al-Nasseri, former commander of "the Army of Muhammad."[11] Abu al-Qaqa's high public profile led many observers to assume that he was operating under the protection of the authorities. In an October 2003 interview with the Christian Science Monitor, he flatly declared, "I would like to see an Islamic state in Syria,"[12] a statement that would normally be unthinkable in Syria. (Emphasis mine)

Historical context indeed. See also my recent post above, including Gen. Petraeus' comments about Damascus Airport, which fully support Sen. Liberman's comments, as well as the part at the end about the arrest of a man working for the Syrian mukhabarat in a raid on al-Qaeda hideouts in northwestern Iraq. (See also in this video on Syria the part filmed in Al Bu Kamal on the Iraq border, specifically the statement by the fighter about how "Dr. Bashar Assad opened to us the way for Jihad.")