Across the Bay

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Syria and the Arab Peace Initiative

Since there's much talk now about the revived Arab peace initiative, I thought I'd dig up Gary Gambill's excellent analysis of the history and development of this initiative, and the history of Syria's sabotage of it, as a follow-up on my piece in The Daily Star.

Some key graphs:

Assad relentlessly worked to sabotage the proposal through the most intensive flurry of Syrian diplomatic activity in recent memory. Syrian officials fanned out across the Middle East in advance of the March 27-28 Arab League summit in Beirut, pressing other Arab states to water down the promise of normalization, add explicit conditions to it that virtually no Israelis are willing to contemplate and simultaneously declare their support for the suicide bombings taking place in the Jewish state.
The proposal outraged the Syrians for several reasons. First, although Syrian relations with the kingdom have been close over the last decade, Abdullah did not consult or even inform Damascus about the proposal beforehand. Indeed, the Saudis may have chosen the unusual, indirect manner in which the proposal was released so as to avoid prior coordination with Syria. Second, Abdullah did not specifically mention the Golan Heights. The fact that Jerusalem was mentioned, while Syrian territorial claims were not, implicitly gave priority to the Palestinian track of the peace process.

So what were the amendments that the Syrians sought to introduce to the then-Crown Prince Abdullah initiative?

Although the Syrians made no official comment on Abdullah's proposal for over two weeks, efforts to undermine it were soon evident. On March 3, Assad made the first official visit to Beirut by a Syrian head of state in over fifty years [see Assad in Beirut in the current issue of MEIB] in an apparent effort to solidify Lebanon's continued deference to Syria on foreign policy. During his visit, Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud released a joint statement which, while not mentioning the proposal, emphasized that a comprehensive settlement with Israel must allow the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel and require the removal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (neither of which was mentioned by Abdullah).
The Syrians quickly realized that weakening the reference to normalization could doom the initiative and began openly lobbying for it. In a series of interviews, Syrian Information Minister Adnan Omran repeatedly declared that the Saudi peace plan does not offer Israel "normalization" of relations, a term he called "an Israeli invention" designed to "gain advantages and privileges meant to make the Arab side feel beaten and defeated." He added that, when Assad flew to Saudi Arabia to seek clarification on this matter, the Crown Prince "assured our leader . . . that the plan stipulates a total Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories in return for peaceful relations, not normalization." Omran even went so far as to deny that Abdullah ever mentioned the phrase "normalization of relations" in his discussion with Friedman. "The plan or, let me call it ideas, were twisted by the newspaper."
However, Syria's pre-summit efforts to convince Arab governments to officially reject the concept of normalization generated mixed results. Not surprisingly, Iraq and Libya backed Syria's position, but the Jordanians were insistent that the Arab League officially endorse the term, arguing that this "magic phrase" would moderate Israeli public opinion - a view shared by the Saudis. The Egyptians, whose diplomatic clout derives largely from the absence of a broader Arab-Israeli settlement, felt upstaged by the Saudi peace initiative and were more ambivalent.

Just three days before the summit, the Syrians orchestrated a massive demonstration against normalization with Israel, apparently designed to signal to other Arab leaders the depth of popular opposition to the vision of peace proposed by the Saudis. The demonstration, which drew hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets of Damascus, was a rather unusual spectacle in the Syrian capital, where even state-sponsored rallies have been relatively modest in size since the ascension of President Bashar Assad, for fear that they will morph into anti-regime protests. On this occasion, however, the regime shut down all government offices in Damascus so that employees in the bloated civil service could attend en masse and closed all schools to encourage student participation. Thousands of riot police were stationed around Umayyad Square to ensure that the crowds remained focused on officially-sanctioned targets of indignation.

The result of the Beirut summit, which as Gary points out, was a Syrian (and indeed Syrian-orchestrated) summit (which is why not too many leaders showed up), was the following:

The Arab League summit transformed Abdullah's simple declaration of principles into a more convoluted resolution that is less likely to achieve a breakthrough with Israel. Although Syrian efforts to replace the term "full normalization" with "complete peace" were unsuccessful, they were able to reduce it to the watered-down phrase "normal relations" (alaqat tab'iyya), which carries a very different connotation in Arabic - meaning the establishment of relations that are not unusual, rather than a process of improving political, economic, and cultural ties.

A far more critical amendment to the Saudi proposal concerns the status of Palestinian refugees from within Israel's pre-1967 borders. The resolution added the demand for a "just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194" and, at the insistence of Syrian and Lebanese delegates, a phrase affirming "the rejection of all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries." The reason for this added amendment was that Resolution 194 refers to compensation for refugees "choosing not to return," implying that they should be given a choice. The phrase "special circumstances" refers to the Lebanese constitution, which bans the patriation of refugees. Thus, with respect to the 350,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the Arab League resolution calls not for their "right of return" (as the Palestinian delegation lobbied for), but mandates that they must be settled in Israel.

So, Syria sought to kill the initiative by watering down the clause on normalization and by trying to insert maximalist conditions on the refugees.

It only partially succeeded (enough to kill any Israeli interest at the time). Gary's last sentence about the initiative saying the Palestinian refugees have to be settled in Israel is not entirely accurate.

Here's what the text actually said:

2. b. Reaching a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed to according to UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

As you may know, this (non-binding) resolution has been notoriously interpreted in different ways, as its language is ambiguous enough to allow it. So in theory, there is room for maneuverability. Even on the Syrian-added clause about patriation (specifically in Lebanon, where it's in the constitution), there's enough wiggle room.

The Syrians realized this at the current summit, and once again sought to introduce hard-line maximalist language on both these issues to sabotage it yet again, and make sure to finish the job they tried to do in 2002!

On Thursday, the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat leaked the following story (emphasis mine):

According to Arab sources, during the preparatory ministerial meeting, Syria sought to introduce certain amendments to the draft resolution on the Arab peace initiative, which was adopted in the Beirut summit of 2002, in order to clarify the articles of the initiative regarding the right of return, the refugees, patriation, and Jerusalem.

The Arab foreign ministers rejected the Syrian proposal, according to the same sources, and one of the Arab ministers said: the initiative is clear and there's no ambiguity requiring specifying or hardening the language regarding the refugees, Jerusalem, and patriation.

These leaks come despite the assurances made by Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem, upon his arrival in Riyadh to participate in the preparatory meetings with his Arab counterparts, that his country is against amending the Arab peace initiative, and that it supported it in its current format.

So it was clear that there was Arab fear of a Syrian attempt to once again do what it did in 2002. In fact, it was leaked before the summit that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia sent a message to Bashar that they will not tolerate him using the summit as a podium to deliver one of his typically long and rambling ideological screeds to lecture the Arab leaders.

Why was Moallem worried about amendments? Because there was chatter that there might be "updates" to the initiative that would make it more appealing. The Syrians wanted none of that. In fact, the Syrians told the regime's man in al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, that Syria rejected any "normalizing movement" or visits to Israel (aimed at marketing the initiative) by any Arab state that hasn't signed a peace with Israel. They insisted that any communication with Israel be done exclusively through Jordan, Egypt and Mahmoud Abbas.

So once again, the Syrians sought to kill normalization and to introduce maximalist amendments on the refugees, both designed to ensure an Israeli rejection. Once again, their success is mixed.

No additional clauses on the refugees were introduced in the final statement. The Syrians had to make do with flooding the media (for example the Syrian-Iranian tool Azmi Bishara was all over the Arabic satellites bashing the initiative) and with rhetorical bluster at the summit, through their allies and proxies. So while Assad was apparently instructed to put a cork in it (indeed, the multiple leaks said that his meeting with King Abdullah was "heated" and "confrontational"), he delegated obstructionist and rhetorical duties to his puppet, Emile Lahoud, who indeed made bombastic statements on the refugees issue. Also, the hard-line interpretation of the refugees issue was handed out by Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh (who stressed to the press that he was pleased the right of return was asserted, even when the text made no reference to it).

Neither Hamas nor Syria has any interest in seeing this initiative succeed, of course. Furthermore, Syria wants to ensure that it gives absolutely nothing, but gain the dividends anyway. This was, after all, the Syrian modus operandi throughout the "peace talks" in the 90's. Moreover, Syria wants to make sure that the Palestinian (and Saudi) track is as unattractive as possible for Israel, in the hope that Israel might decide that it would be easier to try Assad instead, thereby throwing him the life rope he so desperately needs and has been trying to snatch in order to lock himself in a process, break his isolation, and work to re-establish control over Lebanon and terminate the Hariri tribunal. After all, Assad is not after the Golan. He's after Lebanon. The Golan is a bonus at best.

Unfortunately for Assad, the Israelis see his ploy for what it is and have no interest to start talks. Witness this interview with Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland:

"Does Israel need to reach an agreement with Syria now? The answer is no. Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for partial normalization and insufficient security arrangements is not in Israel's national interest.... Israel has serious reasons why it should not make a deal with Syria today: an Israel-Syria agreement does not solve the problem of a nuclear Iran...and unlike in the past, such an agreement would not solve the problem of Hizbullah, which today takes direction from Iran. In addition, the U.S., Israel's major ally, cares little for the idea."
Eiland also believes that an agreement with Israel would lead the Sunni majority in Syria to challenge the current regime led by the Alawite minority, so the duration of any agreement with Assad would not be assured. "Beyond all future considerations, the bottom line is that there are no security arrangements that would compensate for giving up the Golan Heights. And I say this as someone with deep knowledge of the security arrangements discussion with the Syrians seven years ago." (Source: Makor Rishon-Hebrew, 3/23/07)

What Saudi Arabia is interested in is to cut off the road for Iran on the Palestinian issue, by taking control of that file and by shutting down Hezbollah in Lebanon so as not to repeat this past summer's misadventure. In other words, Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Jordan) cannot afford to allow Iran (and its sidekick Syria, and their proxies) to control the decision of war with Israel. The move is to neutralize that option. And since Israel shares that same interest, the thinking is that perhaps they might go along (and indeed, the various, if uncomfortable, murmurs in Israel indicate that the Israelis realize this. Which is probably why Egypt's Abul Gheit made sure to state that the Arabs don't view Israel's rejection as final.)

This is not to say that the Arab initiative will succeed. It's unlikely to, and it probably will end up being theater, as Martin Kramer noted. (Hamas is already shooting it down and upping the maximalist rhetoric. So there's little to talk about. And there won't be talks with Syria either, which shares and encourages Hamas's maximalism and rejectionism.) So in the end, Syria et al. will do their best to use it, but also make sure it fails, just like they did in 2002.

Addendum: It turns out Mamoun Fandy had made a similar remark on the eve of the summit, in an article in Asharq al-Awsat. Memri translated excerpts from it. Here's the relevant graph:

"It was King 'Abdullah Bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz alone who proposed [this] earnest initiative at the Beirut summit in 2002, and it was the start of an earnest dialogue to resolve the issue of Palestine. But the 'rock crowd' added to it the issue of the return of the Palestinian refugees, in order to change it from an earnest initiative suitable for a comprehensive solution, that made the most of the existing realities, into an initiative that was impossible to implement, [and] not much different than the unimplemented Security Council resolutions. In so doing, they emptied the Saudi initiative of its content, and left the Palestine issue as a rock, so that they can carry the lanterns that light up the sign hung on the rock, and so they can shout at us, 'Careful of the rock!'

"[When] the initiative is proposed again now in Riyadh, it must be a courageous proposal that does not bow to the 'rock lobby.'

Friday, March 30, 2007

Iran's Shadow Hovered Over Riyadh

Here's my latest in The Daily Star on the Arab summit:

At the Riyadh summit earlier this week, appropriately dubbed the summit of "Arab solidarity," Saudi Arabia again sought to impose a certain order by avoiding highlighting the various fissures among the Arab states. However, the Saudis also went beyond that by seeking to regain the initiative and cement their newfound leadership role in the region. The driving force behind such efforts was to block Iranian encroachment in the Middle East, especially Iran's drive to capture the Palestinian card.

At stake was the mainstream Arab states' desire to ensure that they alone control the final decision to wage war or make peace with Israel, particularly after the war in Lebanon last summer, when the actions of Hizbullah led to the possibility of a wider conflagration. The Saudis interpreted that conflict as an Iranian and Syrian gambit played through the Lebanese window, and have been just as worried about Iranian support for Hamas. The Saudis were, therefore, eager to shut both these windows in Riyadh.
As for Lebanon, though Assad met with King Abdullah, the final statement of the summit showed that the Saudis were sticking to their guns on the Hariri tribunal and the need for Syria to respect Lebanese sovereignty. Riyadh still views Lebanon as a crucial battleground which Iran and Syria must not be allowed to profit from. Moreover, the Saudis' continued support for the tribunal suggests that Assad's options are narrowing on that front if he intends to rely on Arab solidarity.

Press Briefings on Syria

Two press briefings ahead of the ill-advised Pelosi trip to the ME which will include a stop in Syria.

The first is by Sean McCormack:

MR. MCCORMACK: Thank you, it's good to be back. I have one short opening statement for you and then we can get right into your questions.

This is -- this concerns the release of political prisoners and open political discourse in Syria. We deplore arbitrary arrests and detention of political prisoners by the Syrian Government. We are concerned about the cases of Syrian political prisoners Anwar Al-Bunni and Kamal Labwani, who are being tried in criminal court for expressing their opinions. We join others in calling on the Syrian Government to immediately and unconditionally release them and other prisoners of conscience, including Mahmoud Issa and Michel Kilo. The continued use of arbitrary arrests and detentions of its opponents demonstrates the Syrian regime's contempt for accepted international human rights standards.

Open political discourse, where people do not fear imprisonment simply for expressing their views, is an essential element of democracy. The United States stands with the Syrian people in their struggle for universal freedoms and calls on the Syrian Government to end its abusive practices.

QUESTION: Are you stopping (inaudible) in Damascus?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't know. We have raised this with them in Damascus, although we have in the past made public statements about these individuals. The reason why this comes up again right now, is the sentencing phase for the two individuals, Mr. Labwani and Mr. Al-Bunni, is coming up. We don't know exactly when that may occur, but prior to that occurring we wanted to make sure that we made another statement highlighting their continued detention. Also you are going to have elections -- parliamentary elections in Syria at the end of April and we want to do everything that we could to highlight the importance of free and open political discourse within the Syrian political system. Obviously, that's not something that is the case at the moment and we still hold out hope that at some future date that will, in fact, be the case.

The second is by Dana Perino (White House), dealing specifically with Pelosi's visit:

Q Dana, the Speaker of the House is traveling to Syria next week. Wondering what the White House's view on that is.

MS. PERINO: Well, as you know, we do not encourage -- in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria. This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the Siniora government in Lebanon, and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow into Iraq from its borders. And so we don't think it's productive to go to Syria and try to -- well, I don't know what she's trying to accomplish. I don't believe that anyone in the administration has spoken to her about it. But in general we do discourage such trips.

Q So specifically on this one -- this will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to go to Syria since the Hariri assassination, even before that, and apparently she's going to meet with President Assad. Would you have a specific message to the Speaker of the House about meeting with President Assad at a time when the administration has even withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus?

MS. PERINO: Well, again, I don't know if anyone has spoken to the Speaker. I do think that, as a general rule -- and this would go for Speaker of the House Pelosi and this apparent trip that she is going to be taking -- that we don't think it's a good idea. We think that someone should take a step back and think about the message that it sends, and the message that it sends to our allies. I'm not sure what the hopes are to -- what she's hoping to accomplish there. I know that Assad probably really wants people to come and have a photo opportunity and have tea with him, and have discussions about where they're coming from, but we do think that's a really bad idea.

Update: There was yet another briefing by McCormack today that touched on the Pelosi visit:

QUESTION: Nancy Pelosi is visiting Syria. The White House criticized her decision to go. I was wondering what you think of this. And it's my understanding that the Bush Administration tried to dissuade her from visiting Syria at this time, didn't think it would be appropriate.


QUESTION: Can you speak to that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we've -- you know, our message both to Republicans and Democrats alike who either have visited Syria in this recent period or intend to, as Speaker Pelosi does, has been consistent, it's been the same. In our view, it's not the right time to have those sort of high-profile visitors to Syria mostly for the simple fact that the Syrians, despite a number of different pleas and approaches from the United States as well as other countries, have refused to change their behavior vis-à-vis support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, for their support for -- their unhelpful stance with respect to Lebanon. And we don't think it would be appropriate for high-level visitors, even those from the Congress, to pay a visit to Syria right now.

A typical Syrian MO on this is to use these visits to tell the rest of the world and say, "Look, there's nothing wrong. We're having all these visitors come to Syria, coming to Damascus, there's no problem with our behavior," and they point to the visits as proof that there is no problem with their behavior and that they are not, in fact, isolated. So that's the simple reason why we have encouraged others as well as Speaker Pelosi not to travel.

That said, congressmen and representatives are going to make their own decisions about where they travel. And in this case, they made the decision to go forward. We are going to provide all the support that might normally be expected to be provided to a member of Congress traveling to a foreign country. We provided a briefing for Speaker Pelosi's staff and those traveling with her. So that's about -- that's really where we stand right now.

Unfortunately, as McCormack noted, the Syrians will spin this to declare "victory," a "deal," "end of isolation," and so on. All nonsense of course.

Here's where the al-Hayat article that I recently translated becomes once again relevant: "Damascus, however, sees these contacts as proof of its ability to maintain its positions and to force others to change their policy towards it."

Damascus (whose misreading of these things is notorious), in other words, presents "Western engagement" as "Western surrender." And since it's a totalitarian state, it conditions public opinion to see it that way; to view any visit, in and of itself, regardless of the message delivered during the visit, as a vindication and legitimization of the regime and its policies! Witness this example.

It should be kept in mind, as you read the inevitable Syrian spin, that Rep. Tom Lantos is going with Pelosi. Lantos is a known hardliner on Syria, and an advocate of deploying UNIFIL troops on the border with Syria.

David Schenker recently recalled Lantos's record with Syria:

The notable exception to the stream of highly damaging congressional visits has been Lantos, incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee. In 2003, when he was in the minority, Lantos met with Asad, but unlike his Democratic and Republican colleagues, Lantos towed a hard line both in the meeting and out. In fact, immediately after his audience with Asad in 2003, Lantos returned to the Damascus Sheraton hotel and gave an unprecedented press conference, reviewing the full litany of U.S. grievances with Syrian policy, from human-rights abuses, to active undermining or stability in Iraq, to Syrian support for Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah.

Although the Bush administration was likely not pleased with the Lantos trip at the time, his courageous public message countered the potentially negative implications of the visit. Not surprisingly, when Lantos returned to Syria in 2004, he was not granted a meeting with Asad, but instead had to settle for then Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa.

Hisham Melhem reported on the visit, quoting official sources as saying that the administration, which opposed the visit but couldn't stop it, ended up urging the delegation to at least carry "a strong message" to the Syrian government on human rights and interference in Lebanon, and convinced the delegation to meet with representatives of civil society and human rights organizations.

Melhem also noted Lantos's inclusion in the delegation:

The [official] sources expressed their satisfaction at the fact that the delegation includes Lantos who is known for his hardline positions on Syria and its leadership, and who has met in the past more than once with President Bashar Assad, and directed harsh and public criticisms at him, even when he was in Damascus.

They [the official sources] hoped that Lantos will play that role once again during the trip.

In all likelihood, the delegation will get the same result as the one Bill Nelson (and every other Western delegate) got: absolutely nothing.

Girl I Don't Know, I Don't Know Why...

Tony Blair, commenting on Iran's parading of the British sailors on Iranian TV, said today: "I really don't know why the Iranian regime keep doing this."

Really!? You don't?! Let me help you out. You can start by asking Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, one the regime's most rabid hardliners, who took distinct pleasure trashing Britain as a spent power who's a mere puppy of the US and who's acting as though it's an empire when it's no longer the 19th c.

This was broadcast on TV of course (where I saw it).

Perhaps Blair can then move closer to understanding by reading how one of the British sailors was made to "confess" that they were indeed in Iranian waters and then "apologized" to the Iranian nation. Because, you see, Britain, according to Ali Larijani, has been copping an "incorrect attitude"!

I'll spell it out for Tony Blair: it's called "humiliation" and the Iranians are reveling in it just like they did with Madeleine Albright when she "apologized" for "past American errors" (the Mossadegh affair).

It's called "humiliation." And, you know, as the pundits and MESA experts tell us, when we do it to the Arabs, it's natural for them to respond with suicide bombers. When Iran does it to Britain, Tony Blair wonders why they're being so mean.

Addendum: Barry Rubin nails it: "It is no accident that Tehran is doing everything possible to humiliate Britain. The two countries' political cultures are not only out of sync; they are operating with different timelines altogether."

Addendum 2: David Rifkin and Lee Casey commented on the affair:

The international community's failure to show immediate outrage at Iran's action is deafening. Ancient legal principles governing how states make war are on the line. Compliance with the laws of war is most important at the time of actual conflict. These principles are already, unfortunately, under assault by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. Permitting a United Nations member state that is also a regional power like Iran to violate these norms repeatedly and with impunity would have grave humanitarian consequences for the future.

Addendum 3: David Ignatius also wrote on the issue and put it in context. However, he may have missed the point, perhaps as a result of being caught up in his intellectual premise. I don't know if it's about the IRGC not wanting negotiations with the US, or trying to sabotage them. It's probably about making it seem that the US and Britain are begging them from a position of weakness; that they managed to bring the Brits to their knees; that they made them realize that they can be hurt (there was a report in an IRGC paper in Iran warning of future kidnappings of "blond and blue-eyed" Europeans and Americans, and a threat to retaliate in Beirut -- keeping in mind Hezbollah's long history of hostage taking), as opposed to going in to the negotiations with many IRGC people either defecting or being picked up all over the place.

Addendum 4: An interesting comment in the Daily Telegraph:

I start to wonder whether it might not be time for us to get as nasty with other countries as they do with us.

As we wait anxiously to see what will happen to our 15 hostages - for that is what they are - in Teheran, we should feel undiluted rage at the behaviour of other countries and institutions towards us.

Doublespeak at its Finest

An astute reader alerted me to the following comment that was left in the Oklahoma-based academic Joshua Landis's comments section. I think it says it all, and is a testament to this man's breathtaking lack of integrity:

Behold the Landis doublespeak:

I suspect that the Syrian visions of future Iraq are closer to Saudi Arabia’s than they are to Iran’s.

Compare with Landis from the summer:

I think we are seeing a restructuring. This has to do with Iraq changing from a Sunni to a Shi’ite power - from a power that was aligned against Iran and promoted itself as a defender of the Gulf to a power that is looking towards Iran. Shi’ite success looks like it is going to realign Iraq with Iran and possibly Syria against the Gulf. This will fundamentally change the balance of power in the region.

America is resisting this change that it set in motion because it means oil and gas pipeslines will be running from Iran through Iraq and Syria up to Turkey and on through to the EU. Just as importantly, they will be running in the other direction to China, India and Russia. This will reorient world power towards the East. It’s going to pull Europe away from its dependence on the US security umbrella, which is under-girded by US domination of oil markets and oil producers. Europe will become more dependent on powers like Russia and Iran. The stakes are high for American as it loses control of oil. It will not be able to retain its status as the single great superpower; rather, it will become one among equals, which is precisely what Cheney and Rumsfeld are determined to prevent.

Iraqi technical committees have already been meeting with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts plan for these pipelines. This will allow them to challenge Saudi Arabian dominance in OPEC. It’s what you might call an axis of oil – or access of oil - and the Russians and Chinese are eager to connect to it. As I see it, this is the big battle. My hunch is that within five or six years, when Iraq beings to consolidate under a Shi’ite dictatorship, it will not ask American oil companies to run the show, but rather, Russian and Chinese oil companies. For political and economic reasons, Iraqis will want to move away from American domination. Economic imperatives make linking up to Iran and the East logical. Such a combination will be powerful.

Then Landis had placed Syria (and Iraq) in the Iran-Shi’a axis, against Saudi Arabia and the gulf!

It was made clear in a following post:

How the break-out of Shiite Islam, started by the Iranian revolution but unleashed in the Arab World by the US invasion of Iraq, is changing the balance of power in the region and will force the US to engage Iran and, by extension, Syria and the Shiites of Lebanon.

Back then, Syria was an extension of Iran and the Shi’a!

This guy will say anything the regime says. You can’t take him seriously. He’ll say anything as long as it’s the official line in Damascus.

I became curious and checked those earlier posts by Landis, and found the disingenuity rather phenomenal.

You might recall how Landis started championing "Shiite rights" [read Hezbollah predominance] in Lebanon during the summer (because that is the official policy in Damascus: supporting Hezbollah against everyone else in Lebanon). Landis was talking about how Taef must be trashed and how the Sunnis are dumping Hariri in favor of Aoun and Hezbollah (!!!) and other hilarious stupidities that show how this guy either understands nothing and/or only regurgitates Syrian propaganda.

One telling thing he said back then was the following (emphasis mine):

For this reason, Damascus will join the demand for new elections in Lebanon as soon as the dust settles. It will claim to be on the side of democracy, knowing that pro-Syrian politicians, who were pushed from power last year, may well be swept back into office.

Landis read the script from Damascus to the letter, and went on to make that false "claim" on behalf of Damascus.

He recently did so in his hatchet job against Michael Young. So I found his recent post rather funny, especially where he said this:

But when the US withdraws from Iraq this calculus will change. The alliance between Iran and Syria will face serious strains. It is in Syria's interest to team up with Saudi Arabia in order to tip the scales of power in Iraq toward its Sunni community. This will divide Syria from Iran, which will be pushing down on the Shiite side of the scale.

What happened to championing Shiite rights and all the fantasies about the axis that would challenge Saudi Arabia?! Oh well... It's not that the Sunnis fair any better in Landis's regime-centered universe (where an Alawite family clique rules over an entire country of which 70% are Sunnis, and over 200,000 Kurds are denied citizenship and whose lands are expropriated through a systematic policy à la Saddam). After all, this is the same person who in a 2005 NYT op-ed called on the the US to help Bashar crack down on Syria's Sunnis (not Islamists, Sunnis).

Like his reader said, this guy will say anything and its opposite.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Syrian Strings of Hope

I had wanted to share this article with you after Solana's visit to Damascus (which was erroneously spun as a victory by the Syrian propaganda machine), but never got a chance. Better late than never, though. Here's my translation of the piece which appeared in al-Hayat on March 16, and which captures the Syrian delusion and its problematic interpretation of events, namely how it views "Western engagement" as "Western surrender."

The Syrian Strings of Hope

Elias Harfoush

Al-Hayat, 3/16/07

It's become clear from following the statements of Syrian officials or the commentaries in the Syrian media, that there is a clear inclination in Syria to consider the latest Western contacts with it as a retreat from previous Western positions, which were aimed at isolating Syria and cutting any contacts with it, and waiting until its behavior changed, or until its dealings with regional crises improved.

Damascus, however, sees these contacts as proof of its ability to maintain its positions and to force others to change their policy towards it. And so, Damascus didn't hide its glee at the visit of Asst. Sec. of State for Refugees, Ellen Sauerbrey, despite its lone orphaned meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, or at the visit of EU foreign policy coordinator, Javier Solana, despite that his meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad didn't last more than 15 mins., which cannot be considered by any diplomatic standard as an indication of warm relations or even an acceptable exchange of views, despite the long list of differences that separate the two sides.

From this perspective, it would be correct to consider, e.g., the commentary published by the Syrian paper al-Thawra, that these contacts proved that "Syria cannot be isolated," is more a kind of latching on to strings of hope than a correct reading to what is happening in the Syrian-Western meetings.

Syria hopes that its ability to sabotage solutions or obstruct the Western project in the region, as it sees it, to be enough to push the outside parties to crawl in its direction seeking help.

There may in fact be such a desire in the West. The Europeans and the Americans certainly prefer a positive Syrian role in the region, because it would be lest costly for them. However, this is not an unconditional Western desire. More importantly, it does not drop the preconditions that are expected to precede or accompany any improvement in Damascus's relations with the Western world.

This reading is confirmed by what Javier Solana said yesterday after his visit to Syria, that the European desire to break the ice between them and Damascus is contingent on Syria's desire to see stability in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Iraq.

Solana specified the European "list of conditions" given to Damascus in three points: helping to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; stopping support to Hezbollah and its movement aimed at toppling the Seniora government; helping in stopping the violence in Iraq.

The three areas of conflict show the extent of the contradiction between the Western view for a solution and the Syrian role, which would dictate that Syria offer basic concessions at the expense of its policy and positions, should it wish to accept these conditions in order to have a successful dialog that would lead to its aim of restoring its role and regional influence.

Add to this what is common knowledge about the [Baghdad] conference to discuss the situation in Iraq, in which Syria and Iran participated, that there was no bilateral meeting between the American ambassadors Khalilzad and Satterfield, and the Syrian representative at the conference, ambassador Ahmad Arnous. Meanwhile, there was a parallel meeting between Khalilzad and the Iranian representative at the conference.

It becomes clear then that the Syrian optimism regarding the future of the contacts and what they might result in must be met with caution, especially since it's not accompanied to this moment by any Syrian steps towards positive contribution to the proposed solutions to the region's problems.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Note from Michael Young

I just received the following note from Michael Young. Those interested could also see my own remarks earlier today.

I tried posting this in the comments section of Josh Landis' site several hours ago, but evidently he didn't let it through. It's no big deal. I'm sure he's as tired of this exchange as I am. For the sake of the bored readers, I will refrain from responding to most of Landis' remarks, as they only indirectly confirm what I complained of: nowhere did he convincingly prove that his false statements made about me were correct.

However, where I will respond is on Michel Kilo, because this is a serious issue. Landis' statements on the Kilo affair were irrelevant. I never accused him of being responsible for Michel Kilo's imprisonment, as Landis claimed. Anyone can reread what I wrote and dismiss just about everything he wrote in his response.

What I did say is two things: that Landis named Kilo as meeting Bayanouni in Syria, when Kilo has always privately denied going to Morocco. I notice that in Landis' long explanation, he failed to mention one key thing: whether Kilo confirmed to him or anyone Landis cited that he had traveled to Morocco. Kilo did indeed take pride in drafting the Damascus Declaration, but never confirmed his trip to Morocco. Landis' throwaway comment that Kilo could not have hidden his travel to Morocco because the Syrian authorities could "have looked in [opposition members'] passports to ascertain which of them had" traveled to the country only indirectly confirms that Landis has no independent confirmation that Kilo went to Morocco. Usually, when one hides a specific fact behind a general statement like this one, it means there is no proof.

And if Landis is so keen to send me information clarifying the issue, let me suggest an alternative: to post it on his website. I know it would hold quite a few surprises.

Secondly, Landis didn't deny, or address, the gist of my argument: that he erroneously cited Andrew Tabler's article as his source for the information on Kilo's trip, because Andrew's article did not mention Kilo. The fact is that Landis only deepened the mystery by his answer. If he was able to confirm Kilo's trip through "several members of the opposition", "reporters", and "a friend", then why didn't he use them as sources, instead of citing an article by Tabler that did not contain that information at all? He could have cited "unnamed sources in Damascus" or something to that effect. C'mon Josh, fix that mistaken footnote. Should we expect an erratum in The Washington Quarterly's pages?

The fact that Landis mentioned Kilo when he needn't have done so; when Kilo apparently did not confirm his trip to Morocco to anybody; and when Landis' cited source, Andrew Tabler, did not confirm the Morocco trip either, because he actually could not confirm the trip, was particularly careless on Landis' part. It was all the more so as Michel Kilo was in prison at the time. Should Landis not have erred on the side of caution for Kilo's sake? Andrew Tabler did. Why not Landis?

Justice for Lebanon

A terrific and timely piece by Bill Harris in today's WSJ on the latest Brammertz report, which all but names the Syrian regime and their Lebanese cronies as the only suspects in the Hariri assassination, and the Syrian regime's efforts to scuttle the international tribunal that would try them for this crime.

Almost unnoticed by the global media, a crucial turning point has arrived in the U.N investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. It is also a turning point for the credibility of the international community.

A report by the chief of the investigation, Belgian Serge Brammertz, presented to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 15, establishes that the specific motives for the assassination were strictly political. They involved reactions to U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which demanded Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon; Hariri's opposition to the Syrian-driven extension of the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud; and Hariri's bid to end pro-Syrian domination of the Lebanese regime in the May 2005 Lebanese parliamentary elections.

After many months of painstaking assembly and analysis of physical, interview and communications evidence, Mr. Brammertz has essentially confirmed the findings of his predecessor, Detlev Mehlis: The Syrian/Lebanese security apparatus that commanded Beirut up to 2005 -- whose overlords are Presidents Bashar Assad of Syria and Emile Lahoud of Lebanon -- is the prime and only suspect for the Hariri murder. His report emphasizes the elaborate character of the murder conspiracy, effectively dismissing the "aerial delivery hypothesis" for the bombing, and brushing aside the Islamic fundamentalist and science fiction scenarios floated by the Syrian regime and its apologists.


After five unanimous Security Council resolutions on the U.N. murder inquiry and the proposed special tribunal, the credibility of international justice is at stake in the Hariri case.

I will return later with some remarks on this piece and more.

Red Herring Alert

The Oklahoma-based academic, Joshua Landis, tries to respond to the devastating take-down by Michael Young.

It's clear that Young hit a nerve, as Landis' defensiveness and inability to properly respond shows. In fact, Landis' entire post, from top to bottom, can be described as one giant red herring or straw man.

The part where Landis' guilt is transparent -- and the part that very clearly constituted the most damaging charge by Michael -- is the part on Michel Kilo. Landis was exposed, and all he did was to dig himself deeper, vindicating Young's claim that Landis is a slapdash scholar.

But before we address that, let us once again review the actual charge leveled by Young.

Michael said that Landis puts "harmful words into the mouths of others" and that the most serious example is his article on the opposition. This is Michael's key charge, one that Landis completely evades, only highlighting its truthfulness and accuracy:

Where did Landis get this information? In reading the article you see that the authors have footnoted an article by Andrew Tabler, which I happen to have read. But as an astute reader reminded me, Tabler only wrote that "two unnamed members" of the Syrian civil society movement had met with Bayanouni. There is no mention of Kilo at all in the piece, because Tabler could not confirm his presence in Morocco. One of two things happened: Either Landis read Tabler as carelessly as he reads everything else he quotes, which still doesn't explain how Kilo's name slipped in; or, knowing the impact of what he was saying, Landis mentioned Kilo intentionally, effectively justifying his arrest, then dishonestly attributed this to Tabler.

In other words, Landis put words into another person's article. He made a deliberate false reference. It's both unacademic and, in this case, unethical. That's the issue.

Now, let's see how Landis tried to wiggle around that charge (Landis is in italics):

Why was Michel Kilo arrested and what is he charged with?

Kilo's arrested and the charges brought against him by the Syrian government have nothing to do with the Damascus Declaration or the trip to Morocco that prepared the way for the Damascus Declaration of 16 October 2005, about which I wrote. My article, entitled "The Syrian Opposition," which I coauthored with Joe Pace, a Harvard researcher, was published in the December 2007 issue of the Washington Quarterly. Kilo was arrested with other opposition members following the publication of the "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which they signed in May 2006, more than half a year after he helped prepare the Damascus Declaration. The charges brought against him have nothing to do with the Damascus Declaration. On March 6, 2007, the last time he was brought before the military prosecutor in Damascus, Kilo was accused, according to Reporters Without Borders, "of inciting fellow inmates in Adra prison, near Damascus, to sign the 'Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut' joint statement, which he himself signed in May 2006 and for which he is being prosecuted by a criminal court."

This is beside the point. Young never says that the article was the cause of the arrest, and didn't touch on any of this. This is a meaningless straw man, which is the method used throughout the post.

The notion that Joe Pace's and my article had anything to do with his arrest or persecution is nonsense. Young writes that my article "was quite damaging to Kilo." He invents this. It is not true.

This is typical Landis. Young didn't say the article had anything to do with his arrest. What he did say is that, in retrospect, the claim Landis made ends up "effectively justifying" the arrest. And by claiming that an imprisoned dissident met with Bayanouni, Landis did jeopardize Kilo. Young isn't inventing this. What Landis says is not true.

Did I tell the Syrian government something it did not already know?

The Syrian authorities knew whether Michel Kilo was one of the two opposition members who traveled to Morocco long before I wrote my article.

First of all, the question itself is as much dishonest as it is irrelevant. Young never said that Landis told the government anything. But this begs the question. How does Landis know that the regime knows what he says they know? Who told him this? What is the evidence? Or is this more of his typical slipshod practice?

If it was so well-known, how come Kilo never made this claim to anyone? If the regime knew, why didn't they charge him with this very serious crime, as they had done with others? Bashar (and the regime's hit-men, including Maria Maalouf) had already falsely accused Kilo of meeting and taking money from "Syria's enemies." What better charge than meeting with Bayanouni to add to this?

Andrew Tabler, an excellent reporter and good friend, wrote in March 2006 that two unnamed opposition members traveled to Morocco, where they met counterparts in the Muslim Brotherhood to hammer out the rudiments of the Damascus Declaration.

Finally we come to the real issue, the one that Landis never addresses because he knows it is the principle and most damaging charge. Tabler, as Young noted, never wrote that Kilo went to Morocco. Yet Landis quotes Tabler's article implying that he did. This is the point Michael raised, that Landis is a slapdash academic who puts words in people's mouths (and articles). This is bad scholarship. This is a false, and unethical, reference.

Kilo and other leading opposition members were arrested in May. If the Syrian authorities did not already know who had travelled to Morocco, they would simply have looked in their passports to ascertain which of them had. Opposition members can not hide where they travel. Any effort to do so would be useless and self-destructive. Young knows this. He also knows that Syrian military courts act pretty much as they wish. Blaming me for Kilo's predicament is petty and wrong.

It is one thing for anyone to travel somewhere, and quite another to do so in order to meet with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. Once again, a dishonest point. And again, if hiding the meeting was so "useless and self-destructive," was it then common knowledge that it was Kilo who went to Morocco? Hardly, and Landis knows this full well. He's just trying to cover his back side. More dishonesty is on the way, however. Young never blames Landis for Kilo's predicament. But, since Landis knows that military courts in Syria (which he gave an "A for security") are brutal, his academic shoddiness takes on an ethical dimension too when he peddles that Kilo (who was never charged with meeting Bayanouni) met with the head of the MB. Landis knows full well what he did, and that's why he's evading the issue with such defensiveness.

Did I make up the claim that Kilo travelled to Morocco?

No, I did not. Several members of the opposition said he was one of the two members who went in February 2005. I checked this as thoroughly as I could. I communicated with reporters. I asked a friend to confirm what I had been told. I will send the record of what I learned about this to Michael Young. He did not ask for it before making his allegations even though we were in communication by email.

Again, red herring after red herring. Let's go back to the issue. The point made by Young is that the article by Tabler that Landis quotes did not make that claim, because Tabler couldn't confirm it. Yet somehow, Landis wants to also portray it as rather obvious and that everyone knew, only highlighting his poor scholarship, and only then to say that he checked it "thoroughly."

However, he inserted that claim into Tabler's article when it was not there. That's the issue, not Landis' red herrings.

But let's entertain his disingenuous acrobatics. Did Landis or any of his "reporter" friends get a confirmation from Kilo himself? The answer is no (and that certainly never appeared in his article). The people who made the claim (and only two people made it, not "several") are both questionable, given the nature of their relationship to Kilo, the Damascus Declaration, and the MB. That's precisely why Tabler couldn't confirm it, and (because he's more responsible than Landis) why he left it out of his article. This is precisely why what Landis did was so unacademic and unethical, in that he inserted a pernicious, unsubstantiated claim into someone else's article, and attributed a very dangerous and malicious thing to the author of that article, absolving himself of responsibility (so he thought), just as he lamely tries to absolve himself in this post with red herring after red herring.

Before his arrest Kilo told an excellent reporter that "he wrote the first draft of the Damascus Declaration," which then went through several permutations as it was worked over by the various opposition parties who were asked to sign it. Michel Kilo did not try to hide his role as one of the central architects of the Damascus Declaration.

Is anyone counting the red herrings and the straw men?! This is totally beside the point. No one disputed Kilo's role in drafting the Damascus Declaration. This has nothing to do with anything. Landis' defensiveness and incoherence, and his continuous resort to infinite red herrings only highlights his guilt, and that he knows he's guilty.

On the contrary, like most other brave and daring reformers, he was proud of his role and tried to get as much coverage for the opposition as he could. Talking to foreign reporters and researchers was part of that campaign. As a reporter, Kilo knew that getting his and the opposition's story out was as important as signing agreements, maybe even more important. That was how I could help him.

But Kilo never claimed to anyone that he went to meet Bayanouni. Landis alone made that claim. Indeed, this is how he "helped" Kilo. Almost like how Maria Maalouf "helped" him in al-Thawra.

This pathetic post (and I am deliberately leaving the other laughable, dishonest parts aside), with its lameness and defensiveness and disingenuity, only confirms Michael's charge that Landis is a slapdash academic who has abandoned any academic, or, in this case, even moral integrity.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The NYT's Discovery of Fateh al-Islam

The NYT has dedicated considerable space to a rather superficial piece on Fateh al-Islam.

The authors were so focused on painting it as an al-Qaeda phenomenon that they completely failed to properly examine a crucial angle: Syria.

There is a series of astonishing statements in this article. Here's one example, on Fateh al-Islam's Shakir al-Abssi:

At the time of Mr. Foley’s death, Mr. Abssi had been in jail for two months, having been arrested on charges of plotting attacks inside Syria. He ultimately served three years in prison, says Mounir Ali, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information.

Mr. Ali denied recent reports in Lebanon that Syria sent Mr. Abssi to that country to stir trouble there. “This accusation is baseless,” Mr. Ali said. “After he was set free he restarted his terrorist activities by training elements in favor of Al Qaeda.”

He said Syria sought his arrest in late January, but discovered Mr. Abssi had “disappeared, and no one knew where he went.”

This is simply amazing for a number of reasons. First, the NYT doesn't actually take any time whatsoever to spell out what these "reports" from Lebanon are, which include confessions to plots to assassinate 36 anti-Syrian figures and planned attacks against UNIFIL on orders from the Syrian intelligence services. Nothing about how about 200 fighters were smuggled in from Syria. The only thing the Times includes, at length, is the statement of a Syrian official!

At best, we get this lame short caveat, in brackets no less:

[This week, Lebanese law enforcement officials said they arrested four men from Fatah al Islam in Beirut and other Lebanese cities and were charging them with the February bombing of two commuter buses carrying Lebanese Christians. Mr. Abssi denies any involvement and says he has no plans to strike within Lebanon.]

Second, and perhaps most jaw-dropping, is the complete absence of all critical faculties in the face of the official's statement that Abssi served three years in jail on charges of plotting attacks inside Syria as a Jihadist, and then was simply released and the Syrians somehow lost track of him!

Let me put it in perspective for you. In Syria, practically every day the authorities arrest people, often students or young professionals, on suspicion of belonging to "a religious organization" (code for the Muslim Brotherhood). These people get, consistently, a standard 12-year prison term, which is actually the commuted sentence from the death penalty, which is the official penalty for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Mind you, these people aren't accused of "plotting attacks inside Syria" and they get the standard 12 years.

Besides, when was the last time you heard that anyone plotting attacks in Syria was "arrested" to begin with!? They are almost invariably all killed. The latest one that was arrested, in the attack against the US embassy there, conveniently "died in custody" before anyone other than the Syrian authorities could interrogate him.

Somehow we are now asked to believe, as the NYT did, that a Jihadist, with supposed ties to networks in other countries, who was charged with plotting attacks inside Syria, was handed a mere 3-year sentence (less than the sentences handed down to the poor civil society activists) and was simply released, to go back to his al-Qaeda activities, as the official put it, but somehow the Syrians "lost track" of him!

Which leads us to the third point. After this "inconvenient" disappearance, Abssi surfaces in a camp in northern Lebanon, among Fateh al-Intifada no less. Now of course, you shouldn't rely on the NYT to tell you anything about that group, probably because the NYT has no clue in hell who they are, and that they are, and are openly known to be, a Syrian creation.

It also tells you nothing about the highly suspicious circumstances of the supposed "split" and the declaration of the birth of Fateh al-Islam. There's no mention either of the statements of Fateh's (the original one) representative, Sultan Abul Aynayn, who called Fateh al-Islam, "a phenomenon that's not of Palestinian birth, but perhaps a Cesarian birth from regional forces." No, the NYT is totally satisfied with the Syrian official's narrative.

As if that weren't bad enough, the NYT feels compelled to essentially echo more Syrian propaganda:

Lebanon has increasingly become a source of terror suspects. One of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from Lebanon, as did six men charged with planting bombs on German trains last summer. Two other Lebanese men and a Palestinian were among those accused last spring of plotting to blow up the PATH train tunnels beneath the Hudson River.

By indirectly linking the Fateh al-Islam story to 9/11 and other terror attacks/plots in the West, the NYT completely alters the context within which the group came to the spotlight (besides, Ziad Jarrah's "conversion" happened in Germany, not in Lebanon, and in an entirely different context). There is not a single word about how the Syrians themselves (from Bashar to Walid Moallem, to Mohsen Bilal, to Amr Salem, etc.) have been obliquely threatening that they will unleash al-Qaeda in Lebanon, and specifically against UNIFIL. Yeah, it's like Bashar said, he's "concerned" about al-Qaeda in Lebanon. Or as his minister Amr Salem put it, Syria can offer "real, hard knowledge" about al-Qaeda's whereabouts in Lebanon. But apparently they couldn't track down Abssi when they released him after serving three years and then he resurfaced amidst their proxies in a camp in Lebanon.

This is where you get echoes of Hersh. Hersh had spelled it out, using two old CIA hands who have been loudly calling for the same thing: let's just invite the Syrians to "help us" on al-Qaeda, after all, as Baer and Leverett said, Syria offered direct assistance after 9/11.

And like Hersh, the NYT completely sets aside the murky relationship between Syria and these groups, and how Syria often uses them (specifically Jund al-Sham), and how one of the principle recruiters of Jihadists to fight in Iraq, the so-called Abu Qaaqaa, was operating in broad daylight, and was said to be working with the regime.

Instead, all we get is the official Syrian line, completely unquestioned.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Willing Agent of Influence

Michael Young responds to the hatchet job done on him by the Oklahoma-based academic, Joshua Landis.

It's pretty brutal and comprehensive, doing away with whatever pretense of credibility or integrity Landis may still be trying to sell.

Read it all.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

"The End of the Arab Bismarckian Era"

An-Nahar columnist Ali Hamade wrote a somewhat interesting piece today that I thought I would translate and share with non-Arabic readers.

Its assessment of Bashar Assad echoes that of Gary Gambill ("the most acute diplomatic reversal of fortune in modern history") and Abdel Rahman al-Rashed in his piece today on the almost unprecedented level of deterioration in Saudi-Syrian relations, incredibly achieved by Assad in just two years ("[Syria] has lost almost everything ... The [Riyadh] summit cannot save Damascus from a dark future, for it has besieged itself with its own hands."), which I have loosely compared to the Salah Jadid era.

Here is Hamade's article in full.

"The End of the Arab Bismarckian Era"
An-Nahar, 2/4/2007

Regardless of the results of the Saudi-Iranian summit, there is an essential constant that will not change anytime soon: the era of the Arab Bismarck is over. The Arab Bismarck is of course a reference to the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, who was dubbed by some in the press as the would-be Bismarck of the Arabs, in reference to the Prussian statesman who unified the three hundred feuding German principalities, and led a unified Germany to victory over France under Napoleon III in the war of 1870, stripping it of the Alsace and Lorraine.

Hafez Assad got the title the Bismarck of the Arabs in a decisive and final manner after his total takeover of Lebanon in 1990, and after getting exclusive mandate to implement the Taef Accord.

At the time, some extremists went as far as considering that Assad managed after 75 years to shred the Sykes-Picot agreement and avenge for Greater Syria, which was stripped of the four districts and Mount Lebanon itself. And in the fits of extremism in those days, it was said that the train of Arab unity had taken off starting with Syria's de facto annexation of Lebanon and from Assad's success in gathering several regional cards in his hands to cement the "imperial" basis of Assadist Syria. In other words, he managed to launch his imperial stage beginning with his "crown jewel," Lebanon.

When president Bashar Assad inherited Syria and Lebanon from his father in 2000, after the Israeli withdrawal, he did not inherit a "unified Germany," à la Bismarck, as it seemed. Rather, he inherited from his father a dominion similar to the Austrian empire of the early 20th century, which was comprised of Austria and Hungary, and whose separation was a matter of time. The first World War came to hasten that separation and mark the end of the empire.

The political blindness -- in Lebanon and regionally -- which hit the leadership, is the primary hastening element in the disintegration of Bashar Assad's dominion. And so, the leadership resorted to excessive strangulation of the "crown jewel," considered an open land without constrictions.

It's important to note here that the decision to extend the term of president Emile Lahoud*, which by itself does not encapsulate the string of mistakes, was built on the basis that Lebanon was on its way to becoming even more fused with Syria, perhaps to the degree of declaring a confederation between the two countries, paving the way to the declaration of final unification down the road. (Several articles written in Bashar's first years by a Syrian security official but published in the Lebanese press under the name of a former [Lebanese] MP, revealed the confederation project.)

As political blindness was the essential mark of that stage, UN Resolution 1559 came to declare a unanimous international will to end the empire of Hafez Assad, and as a signal that the inheritor-president must now lead a normalizing country, not allowed to expand.

Assad and the leadership didn't read the message, and he dived deeper into adventurism all the way to launching the stage of blood, the peak of which was the assassination of PM Rafik Hariri. And in record speed, Hafez Assad's imperial project collapsed in the streets of Beirut. The Syrian army withdrew in the manner which we know, and the stage of the regime fighting for its survival began, and -- even if the scenes of the current crisis in Lebanon might appear to say the opposite -- continues in force.

For the actual presence of the Syrian regime in the Lebanese social equation is on the wane, and increasingly so with every passing day. The actual hoist for the regime is the Iranian military and political arm, with its Lebanese public, enshrined in a principal community. And the observer does not need much effort to realize the extent of the marginality of the forces totally appended to the Syrian regime.

Meanwhile, it is Iran that holds the card of Syria's legal inheritor in Lebanon, the "party of the velayat-i faqih." Of course, there's one essential difference, that for the said party, the doors of infiltrating the nooks and crannies of the Lebanese construct, with all its particularities, are closed. Therefore, it is impossible for it to dominate it, regardless of its military might.

Why this talk of the end of Arab Bismarckianism? Quite simply, to shed light on the picture in Riyadh since yesterday: Bashar is not in the picture.

He can blow things up and sabotage in Lebanon as much as he wants, but in the end, he has lost actual primacy in regional events.

The era of Arab Bismarckianism has ended.

* [Ed.'s note: the Syrians forced the Lebanese to extend Lahoud's term since he was their agent and this--they thought--ensured their hold on Lebanon.]

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Cuteness of Walid Moallem

Charlottesville's favorite resident conducted an interview with Syrian FM Walid Moallem.

One part in particular caught my eye, both for its transparency, and for Cobban's nodding in agreement and added emphasis, that shows how these people act as water carriers for dictators and thugs (which is precisely what Hersh's latest piece boils down to) simply because of their hatred of the US and its administration.

Listen to this by Moallem:

We are working closely with the investigation, because reaching the truth on this matter is in our vital interest.

The prospect of having a court to try those named as suspects is a purely Lebanese issue, and it a point of contention among the Lebanese themselves.

The demand of the Lebanese opposition is simple. It wants a larger government there, and to be allotted eleven of the government's 30 members. And the issue of the court would then be on that government's agenda.

The court itself is not an issue for us. The issue for us is to prevent others from using the court issue in a politicized way.

This is so transparent, it's laughable. Of course, being a mere functionary, Moallem is only channeling the position laid out by Bashar Assad himself.

We are asked to believe now that it's not the Syrians who are trying to kill the tribunal, it's, as Assad told the hapless Salim Hoss, the "Lebanese themselves" who are in disagreement about it. It's "purely a Lebanese issue." (Nods of agreement from Cobban!) Please, Moallem, give us another one, that shows how this is a "purely Lebanese issue" that has nothing to do with Syria.

"The demand of the Lebanese opposition is simple. It wants a larger government there, and to be allotted eleven of the government's 30 members. And the issue of the court would then be on that government's agenda."

Did you get that one, folks?! It's very "simple." The opposition (i.e. Hezbollah and Syria's pitbulls) ought to get the blocking veto in government, that allows it to block any decision and/or totally topple the government by resigning.

Furthermore, the tribunal ought to be on the agenda of that government, not on the agenda of Parliament! I.e., the fact that the government has already passed the tribunal, which has been accepted by the UN, and is only waiting ratification in Parliament, ought to be completely scratched, and the tribunal must be once again put on the agenda of the cabinet in which Hezbollah has a blocking veto power, and in which the parliamentary majority would not have the two-thirds majority to pass it by a vote.

So Walid Moallem just repeated the (already well-known) instruction to Assad's agents and allies in Lebanon that the tribunal should be completely killed by Hezbollah in a new cabinet! (Nods of agreement from Cobban!) But hey, Syria has nothing to do with this! (Nods of agreement from Cobban!)

Then the coup de grace, repeating the line set by Assad and articulated earlier by Faysal "Gebran Tueni is a dog" Mekdad: Syria is not concerned with the tribunal! We have nothing to do with it! (Just like Farouq Sharaa said UNR 1559 "doesn't concern Syria," and Walid Moallem said UNR 1680 is "meaningless," etc.)

This time, however, Cobban can't really help herself. So she goes beyond nodding to adding emphasis! She has to stress on behalf of Moallem the nefarious plots against the poor innocent regime. The tribunal is only meant to be used "in a politicized way" against Syria! Of course! Cobban has gleaned the truth from the lips of Walid Moallem, and she highlighted it for you, in case you missed it.

This is beyond credulous; beyond ideological agreement with thugs due to shared hatred of the US. This is being a willful tool for dictators.

Addendum: Moallem's official line is repeated by Sharaa to Le Monde. After a really amusing trashing of Chirac (as "tribal." Look who's talking!) and an even more laughable diagnosis of Syrian-French relations (equal in genius to Sharaa's assessment of UNR 1559. Apparently, he didn't hear Sarkozy's latest statement), Sharaa lays this on us:

Quant au tribunal international sur l'assassinat de Rafic Hariri, "tout ce qui représente un facteur de division au Liban nous trouble", esquive-t-il.

"Nous avons dit que nous coopérerons totalement avec la commission d'enquête internationale des Nations unies. Mais la question du tribunal est hors sujet, parce que l'enquête n'est pas terminée et que les Nations unies ne nous ont pas communiqué le projet de tribunal, ni ne nous ont consultés. Il s'agit d'un sujet purement libanais", ajoute M. Al-Chareh.

He adds an additional point that further explains what Assad and Moallem mean when they say it's a "purely Lebanese" issue. "Anything that's a divisive factor in Lebanon troubles us." Yes, the Syrians are "troubled" by the tribunal because it's a "divisive factor" in Lebanon! Absolutely classic!

And then Sharaa once again uncovers the regime's genius that they are really not concerned by this tribunal of which we speak! The UN hasn't even contacted or consulted Syria about it, therefore, it doesn't exist (just like UNR 1559)! It's "purely Lebanese." It's "hors sujet"!

Who said murderous thugs lack a sense of humor?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Young on the Hersh Piece

Michael Young joins the party and takes apart Seymour Hersh's ridiculous New Yorker piece.

I would like to highlight one angle touched on by Michael that I think is spot on, and one that slipped my mind when I wrote my post:

The Fatah al-Islam story is instructive, because it shows a recurring flaw in Hersh's reporting, namely his investigative paralysis when it comes to Syria. In articles past, Hersh has acted as a conduit for those defending the post-9/11 intelligence collaboration between the U.S. and Syria, and lamenting the Bush administration's subsequent isolation of Damascus in the run-up to and aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

The "defenders" in question are none other than the two old CIA hands, Flynt Leverett and Robert Baer, quoted in both pieces.

Flynt's shilling on behalf of Bashar Assad needs no introduction. This has been his line all along. However, I think the quote by Robert Baer in the latest Hersh piece also fits into this angle.

The emphasis on the "cataclysmic" Sunnis, and presenting a simplified scheme, whereby the complicity of the Syrians with al-Qaeda is completely covered, is in fact intended to revive that argument noted by Michael. Syria is thus placed in the anti-jihadist camp, and all its ties to, and overt use of, jihadist groups (admitted, as I noted in my post, by their most ardent supporters) is willfully, and disingenuously, ignored.

So these guys are pushing for that same narrow agenda, one that is seriously problematic in light of Syria's obvious sponsorship of al-Qaeda-type groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

This only confirms the point of my earlier post that Hersh is merely acting as a water carrier. That's all that piece really amounts to.

Did Assad Threaten Khoja?

I came upon this story today in the Kuwaiti al-Ra'i al-'Aam about the terrible state of Saudi-Syrian relations.

Assad has been leaking that it was him who "convinced" Hamas's Meshaal to go to Mecca and reach an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas. Anyone who observes Syrian media, Syrian leaks (through Hamidi in al-Hayat), and other Syrian apparatchiks, knows that the Syrians have saturated the press with this pathetic claim, that somehow they were instrumental in making the Mecca Accord succeed (which is understandable, given the laughable embarrassment they suffered in their own attempt at playing that role in Damascus).

As with everything Assad does, it's a painfully transparent scam. More to the point, however, is that it was totally dismissed by the Saudis for the scam that it is. Here's the Saudi King talking about the Mecca Accord. At one point, discussing the run-up to the meeting in Mecca, he noted that "Egypt was mediating between the parties, so too was Jordan." Where is Syria?! Nowhere to be found. In fact, it could be that the King jabbed at Syria when he went into Palestinian internecine killing. If you recall, after the failure of the Damascus fiasco meeting, the Palestinians continued to kill each other for a few weeks before the Mecca meeting was arranged.

If this was the Syrian attempt to claim credit for a (Saudi) diplomatic success, the regime's ineptness is matched by its effort to scare its self-made enemies. The regime apparently has threatened the Saudi Ambassador in Beirut Abdel Rahman Khoja could be assassinated. The warning was coupled with a Syrian intelligence report sent to the Saudis pointing to two fundamentalist organizations targeting Khoja, one of which was (naturally!) "Jund al-Sham."

Such is the transparency of the Syrian regime. Presented as a "goodwill message," it is in fact a direct threat to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador using the Syrian regime's favorite tool (whenever they are in need for a "fundamentalist organization" -- like, say, to attack the US embassy in Damascus, etc.) Jund al-Sham! It's really priceless, and a testament to the Syrian regime's ingenuity.

In fact, well-placed sources in Lebanon had told me, quoting high-ranked officials, that Khoja "was threatened" and had restricted his movements (especially since he was trying to get Berri and Hariri to meet, something the Syrians were keen to obstruct). This report may then be a confirmation of that information.

This is all Assad's clumsy effort to coerce the Saudis into acquiescence. I had argued that the Ain Alaq terrorist bombing was possibly one such bloody extortion ahead of the Arab summit in Riyadh due in late March. The daily discovery of explosive devices in Lebanon is also likely the same, er, "goodwill message."

I repeat: the Assad regime only has -- and only knows -- terrorism. That's it. That's all they have. These are not -- and can never be -- "constructive players." Take away terrorism, and they're left with nothing. That's why they are going all out to torpedo the international tribunal.